Beyond Allegory? 

 Reading Lumpérica’s “White” Theater of Linguistic Cruelty



Scott Weintraub

Emory University



The intellectual armature of the poem, conceals itself and – takes place – holds in the space that isolates the stanzas and among the blankness of the white paper; a significant silence that it is no less lovely to compose than verse.  

(from Stepháne Mallarmé’s Feuillets du ‘Livre’ sans rapport direct avec le Livre; quoted in “The Double Session;” Jacques Derrida 230)


Diamela Eltit’s Lumpérica, published in 1983 in Santiago de Chile at the height of Pinochet’s dictatorship, is a novel that has not been “read” much since its publication. To clarify: while Lumpérica is a work that has garnered valuable critical attention, there have been few explicit readings of the text itself, since a great deal of the academic work that engages it tends to conjecture thematically and/or allegorically about the textual elements and motifs with which Lumpérica is concerned, rather than approaching the text through a “close reading.”(1) Why has Eltit’s work, like much difficult literature sometimes labeled “hermetic” or “esoteric,” escaped a close reading; (2) or, why have readings of Lumpérica tended to read “around” the text? Is there a textual element that “resists” reading from within, or is this tendency indicative of the kind of extra-textual reading that is being done in contemporary literary criticism and cultural studies?  Put in a larger context, what happens to “reading” when the text engenders or demonstrates a resistance to reading, and how is one therefore to read a text such as Lumpérica that simultaneously affirms and denies its allegorical dimension, while at the same time exceeding hermeneutical or thematic readings?

One of the most suggestive treatments of Lumpérica to date may be found in Idelber Avelar’s book, The Untimely Present: Postdictatorial Latin American Fiction and the Task of Mourning, which reads current Latin American fiction in its traumatic relationship to the dictatorships that gave rise to a subsequent cathexis of literary mourning and allegory.  Avelar’s conception of allegory, elucidated from the work of Hegel, Goethe, Coleridge, Benjamin, and de Man, draws upon the Benjaminian and Demanian formulations of this trope, in terms of the belatedness of the temporal encounter with the event, giving rise to a cryptic representation founded on “[t]he impossibility of representing the totality…because allegory is a trope that thrives on breaks and discontinuities” (11). Linked with mourning, ruins, cryptography, and a kind of anamorphic gaze which is both a temporal disjunction as well as the possibility of representation, an allegorical reading permits the contextualization of Lumpérica in terms of radical generic and mimetic rupture during Pinochet’s regime, demonstrating how “[t]he fundamental work performed by Diamela Eltit has to do with recapturing, through a violent encounter with writing, experiences, and memories irreducible to informational records” (165).

But does Lumpérica in fact succeed in recapturing “the hope of providing an entrance into a traumatic experience that has seemingly been condemned to silence and oblivion” (10), or is the break with representation in this “experimental” novel so totalizing as to deny the possibility of legibility? For Avelar,

[t]he thrust of [Lumpérica] is…to highlight that residue of collective labor not containable by any literary mechanism. This intent explains Lumpérica’s resistance to being literature, most definitely expressed in its resistance to being a novel, and its insistence on a certain inscriptive, experiential dimension – let us call it poetic – that the texts sees as irreducible to literature’s representation machinery (178).


Given this reading of “representation,” Lumpérica’s resistance and “illegibility” – linked in The Untimely Present (173) to the concept of the Barthesian “writerly text” – can be seen to “stage” a genre- (and gender-) rupturing theatricality of this crisis of linguistic reference and representation, in terms of its writing, erasure, and rewriting of a continually originary cinematic and textual event.(3)  While Avelar´s argument clearly avoids more facile notions of literary reaction to censorship that are often invoked to explain a break with linguistic referentiality,(4) I would suggest that it is through an aesthetic of violent rupture with language’s capacity to transmit the events of empirical reality that Lumpérica may be read in/as the experience of illegibility.

The radicalization of representation and theatricality in Lumpérica enacts a filmic performance that evokes the theoretical formulations postulated by Antonin Artaud in his essay/manifesto “The Theater of Cruelty.”(5) Eltit’s text, read with respect to the conceptual framework of Artaud’s reflections on theater as a mass spectacle overturning the notion of “re-presentation,” presents cruelty as essential, extreme action that can be shown to effect a break with the possibility of a uniquely mimetic theater of reading in Lumpérica. Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” articulates the affirmation of cruelty in a theater-to-be, which is characterized by its collective spectacularity and non-theological nature, as well as a conception of language and speech that seeks to displace a metaphysical, logocentric imitation and representation that takes center stage, so to speak, in the “traditional” theater. This last assertion reveals the necessity of the transformation of speech and writing into spatialized “gestures” and glossopoeia that do not merely mimic prior actions or utterances, but rather bear witness to the revolutionary reconceptualization of life as a non-representative theater of cruelty: “I have therefore said ‘cruelty’ as I might have said ‘life’” (Artaud 114).(6)

If in fact this kind of radicalized, rigorous theater of life/cruelty/originary writing mimes no-thing, then notions of mimesis are problematized in the possibility of reading Lumpérica as a non-“representative” entity. (7)  Given the complexities of linguistic “representation” in Lumpérica, the theater of reading enacted by Eltit’s text does not involve the re-presentation of an anterior referent that was once present-to-itself (8) – and it is this impossibility of presenting a transcendent present that leaves traces of meaning in the staging of Lumpérica, in terms of the extra-linguistic and filmic theatrical effects that shape and deform the text. Artaud’s theoretical writings on the theater therefore highlight the way in which Lumpérica’s spectacular literary and cinematic (de)construction elaborates a kind of allegorical substitution and distortion of Pinochet’s regimental “cruelty” and torture, which subsequently allows access into a dimension of the text that perhaps “exceeds” the type of thematism and direct correspondence with the empirical world that has often informed critical approaches to Eltit’s work.

Read in terms of its relationship to Pinochet´s military regime, Lumpérica becomes exemplary in its staging of a real-life theater of cruelty enacted by and through dictatorial “performance” – and in this way, Eltit’s text would present, as Nelly Richard suggests, a post-coup radicalization of representation in its resistance to the ideological repression and censorship that marked and threatened dictatorial literary output. (9) In Richard’s account of literature under Pinochet, Eltit’s work was a crucial part of the neo-avant garde movement known as the escena de avanzada “[que] desarticuló y reformuló – explosivamente – el sistema de codificación estética de la palabra y de la imagen,” (37) thereby revealing “la herida del Chile sacrificial” (45). In this way, the institutional control of the linguistic code gave rise to Lumpérica’s ambiguous narrative structure that denies “toda significación-Una” in its rejection of the possibility of universal truth (38), causing a break with the representation of cultural ideology that Julio Ortega discusses in the context of “una escritura de resistencia y de alegorización, que disputó al discurso autoritario no sólo el significado de los nombres sino la misma significación de nombrar” (Ortega 53).

However, given the way in which Lumpérica may be read as the collective staging of the non-transcendent play of non-representative signifiers – as a heterogeneous text that does not re-present or mime anything – Eltit’s work can be seen to exceed the kind of mimetic or specular correspondence between “text” and “empirical reality” that would necessarily characterize the temporal formulation of allegory. Paul De Man, in “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” describes allegory as “the repetition…of a previous sign with which it can never coincide, since it is of the essence of this previous sign to be pure anteriority” (207). But if the originary radicalization of representation in Lumpérica is such that it is not miming or re-presenting anything, then the theater of reading enacted by Eltit’s text includes a component that cannot be read as unequivocally allegorical. While the Benjaminian formulations of allegory in fact incorporate the discontinuous ruptures that characterize the trope, the degree to which Lumpérica’s cruelly (anti)foundational, theatrical language imitates no-thing, no script, no echo of phenomenality, suggests that Benjamin’s notion of allegory cannot completely account for all of the linguistic elements at play in Eltit’s text. This is not at all to say that the allegorical readings done by Avelar, Ortega, and Richard are “wrong” in their analysis of Eltit’s complex work, but it is crucial to recognize that there exists another aspect of Lumpérica that may be elaborated through a careful examination of the non-transcendent language of this text, in order to approach Lumpérica in its rigorous resistances to reading and interpretation.

The radicalization of traditional notions of reference in Lumpérica is indicative of a logic that is developed by Jacques Derrida in his reading of mimesis in Plato and its displacement in Mallarmé in the essay “The Double Session,” from his 1972 book Dissemination. (10) Taking as his point of departure the encounter of Plato’s Philebus and Mallarmé’s Mimique, Derrida postulates a reading of signifiers and para-linguistic elements that exceeds a thematic interpretation of literary texts, and discusses how the “quasi-transcendental signifier” in Mallarmé interrupts and threatens classical schemas of mimetic representation. Derrida describes the “re-mark” as written (re)inscription in “The Double Session,” in terms of an imitation or miming that does not imitate a prior referent, in a similar way to his reflections on Artaud – a gesture that also invokes writing’s simultaneously originary and referential nature by which the text’s mark, as Geoffrey Bennington suggests,

is remarked as itself (“ceci”) by a ghostly doubling whereby the mark marks itself as marking, refers to itself referring to itself, only by the fact of separating itself enough from itself to open the gap across which reference can function:  but the ‘end’ of that reference, the referent to which that reference is supposed to refer, is nothing other than the fact of reference or referring itself (51).


The structure of the mark and re-mark at play in “The Double Session” demonstrates how Mallarmé’s writing problematizes Platonic notions of mimesis, and provides a non-conceptual “strategy” of reading that is a way of theorizing about texts that effect representation in a way that cannot be described by uniquely thematic schemas.

Moving towards the possibility of exceeding thematic readings, Derrida draws upon Jean-Pierre Richard’s emphasis on certain “themes” in Mallarmé to demonstrate how the inscription of the re-mark prevents escape or transcendence from the structure of metaphysics, since no “Great Transcendental Theme” can be drawn out from a text that refers to nothing other than itself as itself.  The text is therefore intricately folded and “grafted” upon itself as the physical spacing of signifiers on a blank page, some of which emerge to speak on the relationships between terms that are joined and separated by the whiteness of spacing. The signifier blanc becomes exemplary (11) in the rhythm of rising and falling back of terms in what Richard conceives of as themes, here reformulated by Derrida as “quasi-transcendental” in terms of their function as organizing the other terms in the series as well as their folding back into the series of whiteness to which they belong. (12)  The “undecidability” of blanc’s equivocality – as spacing, quasi-theme, signifier – thus demonstrates “conditions of both possibility (there can be no theme without a spacing or gapping of themes) and of impossibility (just that spacing disallows atomic thematic identity to any theme whatsoever)” (Bennington 56).  The rejection of thematics as a totalizing poetics of reading, here extended to all texts (Mallarmé’s being read as exemplary), calls out for a reading of textual elements that is as indicative of a crisis of representation as the literature itself, blurring the demarcations between literature, criticism, and philosophy.

Considered in light of Derrida’s scheme of quasi-transcendentality and “mimicry” in Mallarmé, Lumpérica, as a hybridized text of crisis, suggests its own theory of reading that evades thematics, allegory, and representation through the emergence and persistence of the signifier blanco in the textual field.  Blanco, as a term that “organizes” the textual “whitenesses” and spacing in Lumpérica, is offered up as quasi-transcendental in the semantic, syntactic, and filmic dimensions of the text as well as in the sub- and meta-lexical elements of spacing and cinematic cuts. While numerous semantic “interpretations” of this linguistic element are possible in the context of Pinochet’s “theater of cruelty” and torture under military rule, a reading of the signifier blanco as spacing and writing points to the play at transcendentality of this textual element that is both legible and illegible, in terms of the necessary undermining and “targeting” of reference, referentiality, and readability at the level of filmic visuality and textuality in Lumpérica. (13)

A detailed analysis of section 5.3 of Lumpérica as “exemplary” opens up the possibility of a close reading of the textual spaces and “whitenesses” that postulate themselves as marks and re-marks upon the uninhabitable, written (and writing-) space of the plaza, in order to speak on the impossibility of representing empirical reality linguistically. As we will see, reading, in the formulation of a non-hermeneutical or non-thematic frote that is only capable of examining the surface materiality of a non-transcendental language, becomes an act of collecting and losing signifiers that emerge from the text to convey traces of meaning conferred by the metonymic chains of signifiers that will make possible a reading of the illegible.

Section 5.3, like much of Eltit’s text, resists efforts to summarize its action in a cohesive “plot,” but its central concern may be, for the moment, reduced to a question of writing and performance in the public space in L. Iluminada’s rehearsal and inscription of “dónde vas” on the ground of the plaza. (14)  Her writing and subsequent erasure of these words, first traced in imaginary letters, is witnessed by the delighted, pale spectators:

Teñidas las mejillas se para bajo el farol y sobre el metal su dedo caligráficamente escribe en forma imaginaria – como los niños – ‘dónde vas’ con letras mayúsculas y con la mano completa borra lo escrito...Lo ensaya de nuevo en el centro de la plaza, curvada sobre el cemento ocupando para sus letras amplios espacios. Ensaya sus palabras. Los otros la observan desde sus lugares. Una y otra vez hasta que la mano enrojece y se despelleja de tanto borrado (122).


The play of color and whiteness is highlighted in these sections, in the simultaneous embracing of and resistance to whiteness as the lack of color – the frote producing the redness of her hand and cheeks presents a stark contrast to the physical or symbolic whiteness of other signifiers in this passage (teeth, sterility, or the pallid, white skin of the desharrapados and L. Iluminada, to name a few examples). In this way, the frote that attempts to remove the absence of color and bestow life (and erotic excitement) on the participants in the text will briefly emerge from the text to become an act of reading that merely rubs the textual (or sexual) surface of the written corpus – suggesting the way in which the text reads itself reading. (15) Evoking the frote of section 4.1’s “Para la formulación de una imagen en la literatura,” the rejection of textual penetration here reveals the possibility of a “feminist” body-writing that resists hermeneutical entry and therefore knowing/deciphering. The surface-rubbing of this act of reading/writing is described by Djelal Kadir as a type of identity-founding discourse indicative of “Eltit’s encounter with patriarchal specters…[in] a male-dominated canon of precursor images and a dictatorial patriarchy engaged in the fratricidal decimation of its own people” (189). (16)  The frote, however, may also be read as a witnessing of the type of hymeneal dialectics that Derrida describes in the hymen “INTER Platonem et Mallarmatum” in “The Double Session” (181). This “vicious and sacred” (216) barrier that “is to be read both as ‘membrane’ and ‘marriage’ (TN 10; p. 182)” is associated with textiles, in that “its threads should be interwoven with all the veils, gauzes, canvases, fabrics, moires, wings, feathers, all the curtains and fans that hold within their folds all – almost – of the Mallarméan corpus” (213). Reading the textual/textile inscription of this simultaneous preservation and destruction of virginity and whiteness is part and parcel of the ritual that makes, in section 5.1, “[c]ada uno de esos signos…decifrable para ella.  Podría así tejer innumerables historias tan sólo decantando la trama de su vestido de lana gris” (Lumpérica 110; my emphasis).

Similarly, the act of witnessing and approaching L. Iluminada’s white writing – rehearsed, woven, and traced upon the plaza floor in the whiteness of cal and tiza – culminates in the edification of “grandes letras que abarcan todo el centro de la plaza.  Atravesada y el – dónde vas – le permite una ordenación nueva” (122). This foundational writing provokes the spectators’ vertiginous compulsion to examine the spectacle from all possible points of view, exposing themselves to L. Iluminada’s reading of their acts of reading, culminating in the obliteration of the writing instrument: “Su mano aferra la cal y pedazos de ella se desintegran bajo los dedos. Las migajas caen sobre el cemento pero no lo percibe, atenta como está al aprobatorio movimiento del lumperío.” (122)

The cyclical movement of writing and erasure, both in terms of the writing itself and the destruction of the lime used to write with, awaits a reading, re-writing, and re-marking of the ritualistic act with the bodies of the spectators:

Ellos, a su vez, comienzan a detener sus movimientos.  Sus labios murmuran la frase acercándose cada vez más a las palabras, incluso algunos de ellos las pisan. Por fin las cubren totalmente con los pies.  Permanecen rígidos encima. Así nada está escrito sobre el suelo, siguen como protagonistas ocupando el cemento (123).


The displacement of the filmic gaze towards these new “protagonists” demonstrates the centrality of writing to Lumpérica’s formulation of reading, in that their destruction of the letters written in lime becomes yet another ritual, unscripted (“improvisado”) dance leading to the re-mark upon the dispersion of the remains left by L. Iluminada. (17) Her radical re-writing within/upon the ruins of the protagonists’ re-writing transforms and folds the whiteness of the cal into a writing in which “[ella] escribe su frase en proporciones aún mayores, dejando grandes blancos entre letras” (123). The play of the signifier blanco is revealed here in its duplicitous movement between unstable meanings, oscillating between the lack of color brought out by other signifiers in the signifying structure, as well as the meta-lexical element of textual spacing. L. Iluminada’s steps between letters effects the fixing of spatial blancos in the inscription of the words “dónde vas,” and mobilizes the physical space between the observers whose spacing mirrors the written words in their fixed place, in relation to L. Iluminada’s mental and cinematic conception of the scene (123-4).

Elevating the spatializing whiteness to a ritualistic form causes L. Iluminada to fall to her knees in the sacred act of erasing her written words with the hem of her dress, a gesture which is echoed by the crowd:

Ellos entonces afloran, salen múltiples y con sus pies confirman la borradura. Están una vez más ocupando su espacio en una nueva labor.

Se demoran para hacer un buen trabajo, aunque claro, la limpieza no será total hasta que muchas otras pisadas se lleven los minúsculos pedazos de cal entre los pies (124).


The introduction of a new cleanliness and whiteness into the scene – the sacred nature of the chalk emphasized by the sacral character of its delivery and reception by the pálidos – gives rise to another re-mark upon the ruins of the same white space that bears witness to this ritualistic and communal writing:

Se levanta y los mira: acercándose a cada uno le pasa un trozo de tiza que va rompiendo entre sus dedos. Con la cabeza baja lo hace y ellos de la misma manera la reciben, pero cuidando de no rozarla. Tan sólo la punta de sus dedos toca el trozo de tiza (124).


But L. Iluminada’s intent to decipher the remains of writing and/as destruction is echoed by another reinscription of the cycle of mark and re-mark, in terms of the constant folding of the text upon itself in the distribution of words and fragments of letters perfectly begun by one member of the lumperío and continued flawlessly by another:

Este lumperío escribe y borra imaginario, se reparte las palabras, los fragmentos de letras, borran sus supuestos errores, ensayan sus caligrafías, endilgan el pulso, acceden a la imprenta.

Se quedan quietos observando y como profesionales empiezan a tender su propio rayado en el centro. Es perfecto. Están enajenados en la pendiente de la letra, alfabetizados, corruptos por la impresión.  (124-5)


This linking permits L. Iluminada’s reading of the spectacle and theorizes about this type of reading as the act of spatially contextualizing the whiteness that both separates and continues letters and words. Her convulsive smile produced by the perception of traces of meaning (engendered by the linking of spaces and whitenesses) is a product of having seen “la frase completa” (the finished “dónde vas”; 125) which implies both a complete sentence as well as the notion of a totalizing, transcendental grammatical structure capable of transmitting a meaning that is fixed, stable, and present-to-itself.

L. Iluminada’s ecstasy at having witnessed this singular writing – which at the same time refers back to the marks and re-marks traced and mapped out in the public square – is the masturbational jouissance of the frote that simultaneously affirms and negates the possibility of a fixed meaning:  “…ha visto la frase completa y se arrastra sobre ella para frotarse” (125). As elaborated in sections 4.1 and 5.3, the poetics of the frote as a superficial body-writing attempts to preserve the purity, whiteness, and hymeneal membrane of the white textual space by negating the kind of hermeneutical “penetration” outlined through this presentation of metaphysical transcendentality in “la frase completa.” Therefore, the condition of possibility of this “frase completa” is in fact its condition of impossibility:  if L. Iluminada attempts to read this sentence as transcending its status as a grammatical linking of signifiers, she is therefore entertaining an interpretative reading that interrupts the rubbing of the non-invasive frote. Given that this scene offers itself up as an exemplary movement in the conception of reading and/as writing in Lumpérica, the frote is necessarily reduced to a perverted repetition compulsion of the penetration inherent in the “coqueteo ritual de las piernas abiertas” (113). This deconstruction of the frote as both an invasive and non-invasive instrument of reading demonstrates the contamination of what at first appeared to be a non-transcendental witnessing of a signifier’s self-postulation as example. Overrun by thematics and hermeneutics, the frote is no longer capable of reading “quasi-transcendentarily” as a hymeneal slippage that would preserve the emergence of the signifier blanco from the text to necessarily return to its non-transcendental status as one signifier among many. In this way, blanco is not to be privileged over any other signifier in Lumpérica, since its quasi-transcendentality is only to be read in reference and relation to the other signifiers in the text. Therefore, blanco becomes exemplary in its status as signifier in Eltit’s text, not at all unlike the Derrida’s positioning of blanc in Mallarmé, in terms of its reference to both the spacing that seems to create themes, as well as rejecting the possibility of their existence as transcendent entities.

The staging of sub-lexical elements in section 8 of Lumpérica permits further elaboration of the quasi-transcendentality of whitenesses and effects of spacing in this text, in their multifarious complicity on several allegorical and non-allegorical levels of signification.  One of the most prominent visual and semantic features of section 8 is the spatial corte effected by elements such as the slash, hyphen, equals sign, and numeric and alphabetical lists, which serve both to interrupt and link readings of this heterogeneous, experimental text.  Framed by the title “Ensayo General” – which may be read in terms of the play of written inscription on a blank page (as an “essay”), as well as a rehearsal or attempt – this “chapter” opens with a photograph of Diamela Eltit/L. Iluminada and her wounded arms.  The three short prose poems that follow the photograph, entitled E. G. 1, 2, and 3, are accentuated by the abundance of blank space at the bottom of each page. (18)  The mise-en-scène of Lumpérica’s filmic dimension, in terms of the explicit cinematic portrayal inherent in Eltit’s text, is mirrored at the level of these syntactical marks that may be read allegorically or symbolically as filmic and visual cuts, breaks with traditional literary conventions, or as ruptures with syntax, semantics, and reference.(19)  However, a reading of how these visual and spatial devices affect the possibilities of reading Lumpérica exposes a dimension of this text that exceeds and occasionally negates allegory as the dominant trope of reading.

The first of the three “E.G.’s” confronts the reader with the following two-line, non-grammatical “verse”:

Muge/r/apa y su mano se nutre final–mente el verde des–ata y maya se erige y vac/a–nal su forma (162).


The polysemic valences of each fragmented signifier – the “muge/r/apa,” for example, evoking the Spanish words muge, mugre, mujer, and rapa, among others – serve to destabilize and dirty the semantic field of “the signifier” (as structure) that is also governed by the spatializing recourse of the slash as hymeneal fold, simultaneously separating and joining signifiers and series of semantic groupings.  While it is possible to elaborate a thematic scheme concerning the confluence of human and animalistic imagery in these lines, an examination of the use of connectors that tie and untie (“des-ata[n]”) the syntactical order of the sentence demonstrates how they map onto Derrida’s formulation of textual folding. (20) The second E.G. inscription – “Anal’iza la trama=dura de la piel:  la mano prende y la [/] fobia d es / garra” (163) – offers similar sexual and animal “themes,” culminating in the phallic penetration of the textual by the sexual in the insistence of the linguistic and imagistic violence of the “d es / garra.” The use of the slash is thus indicative of the coupling of the incision made on the fragmented textual body with the clawing and tearing corte and linkage at which a textual “event” takes place.  In this way, the play of spacing and/as folding demonstrates how the accumulation of force along the lines of the slash and hyphen becomes the event of sexual orality and corporality suggested in E.G. 3:  “Muge/r’onda corp-oral Brahma su ma la mano que la [/] denuncia & brama” (164). The semantic association and grouping of signifiers –as the way in which the text appears to read this non-grammatical phrase – stages the enraged, animalistic sexuality outlined above, this time in the context of a juxtaposition of the sacred Hindu priestly caste with the notion of sexual relations with their holy animal, the cow. (21) The cow’s bellowing is folded upon itself in the text by the slash, simultaneously drawing together and separating woman from animal, a movement which demonstrates how the visual interrupters are mark and re-mark on the linguistic condition of non-transcendence that permeates the text.

These spatial devices do not have any proper “meaning” in themselves, (22) as liminal re-marks constituting a fold “that is at once its own outside and its own inside; between the outside and the inside, making the outside enter the inside and turning back the antre or the other upon its surface, the hymen is never pure or proper, has no life of its own, no proper name” (Derrida, “The Double Session” 229). The slash (or hyphen) therefore  becomes a reading of an element “under erasure” that is exemplary in its disorganization and juxtaposition of heterogeneous signifiers folded into or onto each other, causing a radical break with the ghostly presence of a referent that is not really present, nor was ever present. The three E.G. “readings” thus do not trace out a scripted “rehearsal,” but instead are a written manifestation (not representation) of the graft or re-mark structure at play in Lumpérica, signaling a performance of the kind of reading embodied in the confrontation between and the deconstruction of the frote and hermeneutics.

Given our reading of Lumpérica as non-representative theater (that does not involve a previously scripted content), what do the ensayos generales of section 8 rehearse? With respect to the play of textual folding in Eltit’s “novel,” the mark of the title that frames this part of Lumpérica (“Ensayo General”) is complicated by its repetition as a re-mark in the final sentence: “Se va a iniciar el Ensayo General” (177). If the end of this section constitutes the inauguration of the “scripted rehearsal” suggested at the beginning of the chapter, what has actually “happened” in section 8, if anything? After reading this section, the reader (should he or she take seriously the title’s “promise” of an “Ensayo General”) is forced to return to the beginning of section 8 to (re)read the part of the text marked as the “Ensayo General.” Each successive reading therefore engenders the same cycle of reading and return as repetition and digression, since the “Ensayo General” remains suspended in a “text-to-be” that only refers to an earlier reference in the text and never “appears.” (23)  Where this curious textual closure points to the way in which narrative “can only turn in circles in an unarrestable, inenarrable and insatiably recurring manner” (Derrida, “The Law of Genre” 237), the fluidity and movement of the multiple borderlines and folds that inhabit Lumpérica highlight the way in which the radical linguistic composition of Eltit’s work carries out the erasure of representation and the very possibility of legibility. Lumpérica’s radical unreadability, however, is in fact what makes it readable: as Derrida remarks in “Living on:  Borderlines,” unreadability “does not arrest reading, does not leave it paralyzed in the face of an opaque surface:  rather, it starts reading and writing and translation moving again. The unreadable is not the opposite of the readable but rather the ridge [arête] that also gives it momentum, movement, sets it in motion (116).” (24)

This dynamic formulation of (il)legibility thus reopens the theater of reading in Lumpérica to the flow and exchange of non-representative language, across the folds that mark, but do not strictly delimit, readability and unreadability. As we have seen, contemporary criticism has often approached Lumpérica’s resistance to reading through the theoretical formulations of allegory; as a predominant trope of reading and writing in dictatorial literature, allegory points to the temporal and (non?)signifying ruptures that make impossible the “timely” coincidence of textual elements and empirical reality. But given Lumpérica’s radical deconstruction of “re-presentation” – conceived of in light of Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” and Derrida´s readings of thematics, mimesis, and folding – it is plausible and even necessary to read the linguistic disjunction carried out in the text’s “whitenesses” and spaces as something other than a distortion of “conventional” language as a reaction to censorship and oppression. While crises of representation and voice under military rule are a very real component of the empirical fact of the aesthetic production of literature, Lumpérica’s “illegibility” must also be read and re-written in the same tenor of radicalized linguistic rupture with which the text reads itself as illegible.  The play of textual folding in Lumpérica thus “targets” allegory in a way that exceeds the process of conceptualization and thematization, enforcing a theater of reading that simultaneously engenders and effaces (non-)sense and (il)legibility.



(1). Juan Carlos Lértora’s edited volume, Una poética de literatura menor:  la narrativa de Diamela Eltit,  including essays by Nelly Richard, Julio Ortega, and other noted critics, offers highly insightful interpretations of Eltit’s oeuvre, but as a whole tends not to directly engage the texts themselves.  Recent critical interest in Eltit’s work has produced a significant amount of theoretical reflection on Lumpérica, mainly in the form of historico-allegorical readings of writing, repression, memory, and corporality under dictatorship, especially in terms of Eltit’s experience as a woman writer.  Other important studies include Eltit’s reflections on her own text in Emergencias:  Escritos sobre literatura, arte y política and Conversaciones con Diamela Eltit, as well as Djelal Kadir’s comments in The Other Writing:  Postcolonial Essays in Latin America’s Writing Culture.  For an excellent framing of the escena de avanzada and CADA (the “Colectivo de acciones de arte,” of which Eltit was a founding member) as well as post-dictatorial Chilean artistic expression, see Nelly Richard’s Margins and Institutions. 
Art in Chile Since 1973 and Residuos y metáforas:  ensayos de crítica cultural sobre el Chile de la Transición.


(2). The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “hermetic” as “1.  (of a seal or closure) complete and airtight. 2.  insulated or protected from outside influences.  2.  (also Hermetic) of or denoting an ancient occult tradition encompassing alchemy, astrology, and theosophy. > esoteric, cryptic. (The Concise OED, New York:  Oxford UP, 2002.) “Esoteric” is defined as “1.  intended for or understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.”   My working definition of what constitutes a close reading at this point in literary studies hopes to avoid the New Critical resonances that necessarily haunt the term (calling for a valuation of the internal structure of the text at the expense of reference), while at the same time offering detailed textual analysis of selected fragments from Lumpérica.


(3). Several critics, including Avelar, have highlighted the prominence of visuality (and the phallic gaze) in Lumpérica, especially in terms of cinematic or filmic effects of lighting, staging, and gender/genre.  See Raquel Olea, Sara Castro-Klarén, and Guillermo García Corales’ essays in Una poética de literatura menor:  la narrativa de Diamela Eltit, as well as Robert Neustadt’s “Diamela Eltit:  Clearing Space for Critical Performance.”


(4). Avelar describes how many so-called allegorical readings tend to degenerate into what he calls a “specular reflexivism”:  “in times of censorship, writers are forced to resort to ‘indirect ways,’ ‘metaphors,’ and ‘allegories’ to ‘express’ what is invariably thought to be a self-identical content that could remain so inside another rhetorical cloak in times of ‘free expression’” (9).


(5). My reading of Artaud’s “Theater of Cruelty” draws upon Jacques Derrida’s writings on Artaud in Writing and Difference:  “The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” and “La parole souflée.”


(6). The integration of art into the praxis of life is a clear link between the experimental poetics of the historical avant-garde (following Peter Bürger’s analysis) that explicitly links CADA’s project to Artaud’s writings.  In fact, in Conversaciones con Diamela Eltit, Leonidas Morales and Eltit discuss Eltit’s theoretical work in seminars with Patricio Marchant and Ronald Kay on Artaud, post-structuralism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis at the Universidad de Chile, including representations of several of Artaud’s plays (89-90; 157).


(7). For an insightful discussion of Lumpérica’s aesthetics of rupture with respect to notions of Platonic mimesis, see Dianna Niebylski’s article “Against Mimesis: Lumpérica Revisited.”


(8). Derrida describes how Artaud’s formulation of theatrical language (spoken and gestural) does not involve “the repetition of a present, will no longer re-present a present that would exist elsewhere and prior to it, a present that would exist elsewhere and prior to it, a present whose plenitude would be older than it, absent from it, and rightfully capable of doing without it:  the being-present-to-itself of the absolute Logos, the living present of God (“The Theater of Cruelty and the Closure of Representation” 237).


(9). See Richard’s essay “Tres funciones de escritura: desconstrucción, simulación, hibridación,” in Lértora’s Una poética de literatura menor:  la narrativa de Diamela Eltit.


(10). Derrida´s writings in “The Double Session” are neatly “schematized” in an article by Geoffrey Bennington (“Derrida´s Mallarmé,” in Interrupting Derrida.  London:  Routledge, 2000.), in which Bennington discusses Derrida’s central arguments in terms of the following theoretical movements:

“…Derrida is concerned (1) to explicate a traditional, Platonic, schema of mimesis; (2) to establish the theoretical possibility of this schema’s being disrupted by a feature or process he calls the re-mark; (3) to posit Mallarmé as an exemplary instantiation of that theoretical possibility; (4) to show (a) that this cannot be accounted for by a thematic reading, and (b) that it entails a practice of reading which takes more seriously than a thematic one ever could the play of (i) syntax, and (ii) sub-lexical items in the text” (47).


(11). Bennington discusses the logic of Derrida´s designation of Mallarmé as “exemplary”:  “According to a duplicity which inhabits the very concept of example, Mallarmé will on the one hand be presented as exemplary in the sense that he would be the best example, or at least a shining example, to that extent more than just an example, but a sort of paragon and on the other as really no more than a sample, exemplifying the disruption of mimesis just as any text (including Plato´s) might be taken to exemplify it, an example more or less randomly picked from a whole range of possibilities” (45-6).


(12). Derrida’s specific formulation of the “quasi-transcendentality” of blanc in Mallarmé’s poetry is as follows:  “…the blank or the whiteness (is) the totality, however infinite, of the polysemic series, plus the carefully spaced-out splitting of the whole, the fanlike form of the text.  This plus is not just one extra valence, a meaning that might enrich the polysemic series.  And since it has no meaning, it is not The blank proper, the transcendental origin of the series.  This is why, while it cannot constitute a meaning that is signified or represented, one would say in classical discourse that it always has a delegate or representative in the series:  since the blank is the polysemic totality of everything white or blank plus the writing site (hymen, spacing, etc.) where such a totality is produced, this plus will, for example, find one of these representatives representing nothing in the blankness or margins of the page.  But for the reasons just enumerated, it is out of the question that we should erect such a representative – for example the whiteness of the page of writing – into the fundamental signified or signifier in the series” (“The Double Session,” 252).


(13). Blanco, conceived of as “target,” becomes the crosshairs of rifles and other firearms, as well as the crosses erected in memoriam of the countless victims of desapariciones and assassinations.  Similarly, in the context of the neo-avant garde movement of which Eltit was a founding member (CADA), the plus sign that framed their motto of resistance, “No +,” may be examined in terms of the textual gesture of the blanco as target, as well as a reference to Lotty Rosenfeld’s installation art exhibit “A Mile of Crosses on the Pavement.”  Blanco could also be read as the collective, traumatic space or gap that defines the failure of memory in the face of violence and repression under dictatorship, thereby constituting an amnesiac forgetting or situating of dictatorial inscription “under (psychological and physical) erasure.”


(14). The subversion of institutional and generic conventions in Lumpérica takes place in the space of the public plaza, which is not without its own significant social codifications and discourses.  For a discussion of power, public space, and gender, see the articles in Lértora´s volume (especially Guillermo García Corales and María Inés Lagos´ essays) and Djelal Kadir´s chapter on Eltit in The Other Writing:  Postcolonial Essays in Latin America’s Writing Culture.


(15). The vivid sexual poetics of reading that I describe here are especially resonant in the context of Latin American “neobaroque” writing, an aesthetic occasionally associated with Eltit’s writing (by Néstor Perlongher, for example, in his introduction to the anthology of neobaroque poetry Medusario).


(16). See Kadir´s chapter on Eltit in The Other Writing, which, along with Lértora’s Una poética de literatura menor, includes excellent readings of gender, visuality, and writing in Lumpérica.


(17). L. Iluminada´s spectacular inscription in the plaza is also significant in its choice of writing material:  lime, as the element scattered in mass graves to speed decomposition (evoking dictatorial desapariciones and executions), suggests a fundamental and sacral link between the theater, reading, writing and death in Lumpérica.

(18). The abbreviation “E.G.” may also be read in terms of the Latin exempli gratia, which more “explicitly” points to the exemplarity of this passage.


(19). A further dimension of violence and cruelty perhaps lurks in the prominence of the “slash” in Lumpérica, in that its semantic cutting action reflects the self-mutilation of the protagonist as well as the torture and inquisitorial nature of the Chilean military regime.  The slash – barra in Spanish – echoes and distorts the transformation of “barro, barrosa, barroca” that appears twice in this section of the text (perhaps another nod to the neobarroco and an anticipation of Perlongher’s muddied neobarroso), and also re-marks upon the bar separating signifier and signified in the Saussurian formulation of the sign (which may no longer be considered an adequate theoretical (re)mark in Lumpérica). Interestingly, María Moliner’s Diccionario de uso del español highlights the use of the word barra in Chile to represent “[el] público de un espectáculo al aire libre.”  Robert Neustadt’s writings on the filmic and performative dimensions of this scene provide further insight into the visual mutilatory gesture of the cut and its discursive implications in Eltit’s novel.


(20). Two possibilities that offer themselves up are the linguistic complicity between the bovine and the feminine, as well as a reading of the animalistic and maternal (milk-giving, recalling the leche of section 4.5 and CADA’s “Para no morir de hambre en el arte”) sexuality of the deconstruction of the word bacanal into vaca and anal.


(21). Eltit’s text offers up the signifiers Brahma – the Hindu priestly caste – and brama – the animalistic rutting season, which also evokes the verb bramar, meaning “to roar or bellow.”


(22). Nor do “signifiers” themselves in Derrida’s reading of Saussure in the Grammatology, in terms of the negative diacritical formulation of the signifier – but it is interesting to note that these para-linguistic elements cannot be read as “signifiers,” per se.


(23). Neustadt identifies this structure with the female reproductive cycle and other life rhythms, and correctly highlights the larger cyclical structure of Lumpérica, locating the movement of rereading in concentric circles throughout the novel.


(24). A formulation that appears often in Derrida’s work, in which conditions of impossibility are in fact conditions of possibility – see, for example, his discussion of the postal system in “Le facteur de la verité” (in The Post Card).


Works Cited


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