Literature Before Literature: Posthegemonic Mediation, the Body of Language and the Affect

Adam Joseph Shellhorse
Temple University

Volume 6, 2014

Posthegemonic reflection on the Latin American literary today is contextualized by an exodus from historically over-determined interpretative frames regarding the emancipatory stakes of the literary. Indeed, since the subalternist turn in Latin American Studies in the early 1990s, the linkage between the literary and its social projection—tied to a conception of the national popular and a representational politics of “integrating the other”—has been marked as suspect. Prompted by the problem of such closed and representational modes of understanding the literary in a posthegemonic light, this special dossier of Política Común proposes to reassess modern and contemporary strategies of the literary as a multiple, immanent, non-compensatory politics of form. Far from the homogenous, empty time of the nation and its unified subject of discourse, the essays in this volume seek to interrogate, from an interdisciplinary perspective, the untimely matter of the literary as a “staging of a relation to language” and to the margins and borders that underpin the literary’s inscription within a space of radical exception and experimentation (Williams 2011, 15).[1]

Even as the matter of the untimely, following Nietzsche, announces resistance to the present, let me say upfront that the essays in this special issue do not represent a school within Latin American Studies. Nor do they represent an exhaustive treatment of literary analysis. Concerned with constructing new frameworks for assessing the problem of writing, there will be no outright celebration or apology for literary studies at a time when the philological is increasingly bracketed. If there is a common politics and approach that unites the critical work undertaken in this volume, this would concern the volume’s commitment to close, material readings of subversive literary texts from Brazil and Argentina.

The pulse that runs through the essays could be characterized as posthegemonic. Exhausted by literature’s capture and reduction through the categories of identity, culture, location and nation, posing the critique of what is meant by literature in the field as posthegemonic is well done to the extent that such a vantage willfully de-sutures literature from its historical project of representation. In its assessment of the affect, the minoritarian, the feminine, the subaltern and what I call the modal working of matters in the literary as critical process, posthegemonic reflection offers a new understanding of the constitution of the literary for the present. Posthegemonic reflection on the literary today affirms the freshness and power of a perceptual semiotics concerned with carefully assessing the text’s compositional procedure as operative and as a means of critical intervention. Against enclosure through fixity of principle, the literary text becomes a milieu of mediation and immanent, affective inner-life that bears on the social, political, aesthetic and affective configuration of the present. Simply put, how can we account for an analysis of literature as historical institution and immanent, subversive, minoritarian and feminine process without falling into a state-centered or regionalist order of representation? For the state-form that encodes the literary institution will always want to have done with immanence, with insurgency and with the affect.

But something always escapes. And that escape is a power and force of literature with which we have hardly finished. Let us wager this precaution. The writer or critic herself oft falls prey to abandoning the immanence of perceptual commonality and force of writing at play in literature by putting her writing at the service of judgment, mastery and command. It would be a mistake to read the term posthegemony as the new theoretical reference or as a blanket term that my colleagues may or may not endorse. We will not apologize for not proposing the suffocation of texts through theoretical application, nor offer a fixed unity to compensate for divergence and multiplicity of viewpoint. Just as I do not pretend to speak for my colleagues or integrate their diverse viewpoints in this introduction, the problem is not the creation of another model or horizon of interpretation. There are no straight lines in literary works, just as we could never announce with a straight face a project of hermeneutical closure. Haptic, material, close readings of the inner-life of works—to invoke William Rowe’s influential term— already liberate writing’s impersonal, affective powers.[2] Writing, when seen through the experimental detours of language at play in the works of Arlt, Macedonio, Lispector and Becerra, is better posed as an interruptive, intervening force, whose affair is not identity but the sensible. Literature merges with its manifestation. Form converges with critique. Literature before literature.

The Body of Language

The problem rather concerns rethinking writing as an intervening procedure of the sensible. When Deleuze writes that literary works constitute an event at the edge of language, he is proposing a posthegemonic mediation of literature.[3] Literature’s relation to life is affective and not representational. Let us not confuse Deleuze’s image for writing with the conception of an abstract event as model. Or what is more perverse, as a model of infinite “poststructuralist” textuality. Following the force of writing at play in the works under consideration, we reject such simplifications and point to the work’s operative, concrete working of matters, including its concrete experimental, historical, political and sociological dimensions.

According to Deleuze, one not only writes at the edge of language, but one also thinks at the limits of thought. We are immersed in a world of embodied, majoritarian logics. The logic of the state, for example, operates through a fixed order of majoritarian representation that permeates social life and standardizes language, perception and experience. Difference is subsumed under sameness. The state model provides an image of thought that is pervasive and habitual: an official, “royal science” that operates through the fixity and march of majoritarian representations.[4] Micro-politics, on the other hand, begins with sense perception and the order of habit. We persist in our everyday routines, everyday ideas and everyday self-representations, writes Jon Beasley-Murray, unaware that the unconscious habits and languages we speak end up affirming the status-quo.[5] The problem, accordingly, is learning to speak another language within one’s own language, to write such that one’s language becomes non-dominating. How to shun the primacy of identity that puts thought and creative relating to sleep? Writing, when self-aware of its limits and of the force of the affect it unleashes, has the capacity to become a relational field with the state’s other—the nomad, the feminine and the minoritarian. In this view, writing’s vexed “other” becomes not an object of domination, integration and discrimination, but a plural, expressive world of possibilities. That is, a world that has become minoritarian, affective, feminine and posthegemonic.

This is not an appeal to some abstract virtual mode of relating that defies “the popular”. Nor does it consist in positing some passive, narcissistic, “poststructuralist” order of textuality from whose folds one could decipher an imaginary community to come. The problem is one of undoing, decoding and exploding the order of order’s articulations. At stake is a subversion of the sensible such that the legitimatizing foundations that authorize language, speech and experience implode from a revolutionary work on language. Such foundations concern colonial, gendered and class-based exploitation and violence that have long been legitimized, specially in the context of Latin America. When Deleuze and Guattari write that politics precedes being, they are saying that politics begins not in a communist, colonial or liberal subject of discourse, or through a system of competing principles, but first unfolds in the concrete immanence of a struggle over experience, language and sense perception.

There is, then, a “primary aesthetics” to politics.[6] Just as politics frames specific spheres of experience in the normative organization of social reality, for Jacques Rancière it is first and foremost a partition of the sensible: politics permits what is visible, what is sayable, what is doable, and what is prohibited, including those who have the authority to speak on matters concerning the order of the community and those that cannot. Insofar as literature is caught up in the affair of the visible and the sayable in what binds the community, it intervenes in the political partition of the sensible. The question of the political does not concern the opinions and politics of writers. Nor does it hinge on extracting messages or morals from their works. Above all, it does not concern “speaking for” subaltern margins. But begins with a critique of the regime that establishes what is meant by “literature,” and by tracking the ways in which the literary wrests itself from literature and the state.

Like Spinoza’s powerful wager against the Cartesian subject, we do not yet know what a body can do, according to Luce Irigaray, we have forgotten the body of language. A feminine mode of writing, as I explore in my essay in this volume on Lispector, would refer to an affirmative language of affective connections. Against a phallocentric order of the same that standardizes women, perception, and relating through a rigid grid of objects, a feminine writing “finds the body’s language” because it finds the language of the affect.[7] The affect escapes closure, and is always the undecided. “It is the power of a body (individual or collective)”, writes Beasley-Murray, “to affect or be affected by other bodies” (x-xi). For this reason, according to Irigaray, one must not only find but invent a “self-touching,” “dynamogenic,” affective language that is powerfully creative yet reflexive of writing and thought’s limits. Such a language is not identitarian, and is not concerned with representing a generic figure of woman. A feminine language works against the very logic that is operative within hardened structures of representation so as to invent a non-judging, supple, affective mode of relating.

Were my recourse here to what is often disparagingly called “poststructuralist textuality” a blind spot, it would fail to think its limits as well as its historical and political coordinates. In Latin America this would mean, of course, disavowing the evident but crucial fact that there are other forms of writing, other semiotic systems, other alphabets, and other modes of thinking and relating than those provided through the literary or “Western” philosophy. The affect is such a site, just as subaltern, feminine and minoritarian forms of insurgency. With José Rabasa, we do not deny that there are subaltern elsewheres, and that one can productively relativize the notions of writing and thinking.[8] On this point, David E. Johnson has convincingly shown that Latin America and Latin American Studies are always in theory.[9] Johnson’s bold deconstruction is important and not merely textual: when one writes, thinks and interrogates what is meant by literature in Latin America, one will not name it as fixed and speak for what it signifies, but will ask, rather, how it is organized, imagined, and with what set of discourses it operates.

In the examination of the problem of writing in the field, whether subalternist, decolonial, deconstructive or otherwise, the widespread deployment of the term epistemics has led to discovery but also to imprecision. Epistemology establishes, above all, an order of reasons. Michel Foucault’s radical historicism unearths the concept of the episteme to articulate the notion of an embodied, operative cultural logic which sutures historical experience. An embodied order of reasons is deployed to frame phenomena, discourse and experience. Different from the classical age that is structured through “the ideal of a perfect mathematization”, Foucault is careful to point out that the field of the modern episteme is not pure and based upon representation, but best imagined as a volume of space that is open in three dimensions (346-347). In a nutshell, in a culture that sees the birth of the human sciences, the figure of the human becomes ever problematical, a figure of finitude. Each human science practices an embodied logic that frames the central figure of the human. Epistemics constitutes an order of reasons that is embodied. Even if epistemics possesses the important virtue of interrogating cultural logics in Latin American Studies, it often disregards the inner-life and affective force of literary works through a logic of interpretation concerned with the extraction of meanings. While not denying the importance and complexity of the towering figures of Angel Rama and Antonio Candido that have helped shape the field, transculturation theory disregards literature’s inner-life.[10] At the end of The Order of Things, Foucault will speak of the subversive force of heterotopic works, such as those by Kafka, Artaud, Bataille and Blanchot. In such works, for Foucault, what is at stake is an interrogation and exploration of the being of language that will demarcate the human figure’s collapse. Language posits itself as experience. Just as Foucault underscores the inexorable limits of the epistemics that are operative in the human sciences, an epistemics of literature as hegemonic representation of “the people” is a frame that is ill-equipped to follow the subversions of language and the sensible that radical texts and artworks unleash. Let me pose that problem here as a means of introducing the dossier, even as I resist speaking in the name of my colleagues. Shifting from the framework presupposed by the term “literature” in the field, let us consider the anti-representational, affective and minoritarian character of works as posthegemonic and how they might throw light over the political stakes of what is meant by literature.

Finally, posthegemonic reflection on the literary breaks with the hegemony of transculturation theory by establishing that writing does not turn on the fixity of a subject or object. Location always counts, but is certainly not an essence. For history, it is the same. The force informing the problem of writing is not of the order of representation. If there is a politics of literature it concerns its concrete working of matters, its intricate compositional affair with the sensible. Such a politics does not name an order but actively rearranges order’s language to restore immanence to sensory perception. It opens a novel consideration of what is meant by literature, and from the text’s sabotage on the sensible, what is meant by literary politics.


There is a fundamental difference between writing about literature and producing theory with literature. In the first, we follow the discoveries and syntactical achievements of a formidable writer. Literary criticism is an art of the portrait. In the latter case, we endeavor to speak in our own name through the creation of concepts that bear on the force of writing. We endeavor to give life to our concepts such that they may adequately follow and shed light on this strange force and radical working of language.

Irrespective of their evident differences, each critic must create their own language in speaking about the life of texts. The inner-life of the text is never “organic”, even in works that aspire to “represent the people”. Something always escapes. No doubt, with the consolidation of the practice of “theoretical application” and university discourse, creating a unique critical language with the singularities of expression in literary works is no easy task. What is decisive is that criticism not lose sight of the sensible in its drive for distinction and clarity. Criticism must respond to syntactic subversions and powers of texture that defy the order of representation.

In diverse ways, the essays contained in this volume place in question the traditional image of literature. There is a traditional image of literature in Latin America. It is a regime of representation that endeavors to speak for the marginal, the feminine and regional other. Literature becomes a vehicle to translate and integrate an intractable field of difference. Implicit in this image is a method for locating and thinking difference through representations. Affirming the primacy of identity, this image is typically national and identitarian, but has taken on a variety of avatars since the early nineteenth century whose analysis far outstrips the purposes of this essay.[11] Are there new images of literature at stake in the essays in this volume? That will be for the reader to assess.

Entitled, “In the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time: Roberto Arlt’s “El fabricante de fantasmas” as Minoritarian Cultural Production in 1930s América,” Claire Solomon’s essay provides a fresh reading of Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “minor literature” to interrogate the complexity of the 1930s cultural milieu in Buenos Aires, as well as to construct a new concept of the “minoritarian” in Latin American Studies. Oft disregarded in literary annals, the 1930s in Argentina witnesses the effervescence of Teatro del Pueblo, where beginning in 1932, all of Roberto Arlt’s plays were staged, save El fabricante de los fantasmas (1936). As the unique example of Arlt’s theater that takes place on the commercial stage, Solomon examines the play’s subversive, experimental and minoritarian dimensions. Against the grain of the play’s commercial failure and traditional readings, Solomon throws light over the inner-life of Arlt’s anti-didacticism which provokes an “unlearning” of all referentiality, all ontology. In showcasing the paradoxical yet powerful case of Arlt, Solomon ushers in a material, intervening conception of the minoritarian as movement and framework that defies a minority politics of representation that is stagnant and representational.

Robert Wells’ “Macedonio Fernández at the Front of the Rearguard,” investigates Macedonio Fernández’s so-called “twin novels”, Adriana Buenos Aires (Última novela mala) and Museo de la Novela de la Eterna (Primera novela buena), as untimely works that break with the order of representation. On one hand, Wells demonstrates how the deployment of mimesis in Adriana Buenos Aires operates as a means of immanent critique. Wells further elucidates the ways in which Macedonio’s outdated approach double-crosses the non-reflexive hegemon of “the new” that tends to dominate both vanguard aesthetics and its critical reception. On the other hand, Wells examines Museo de la Novela de la Eterna as an “anti-novel” structured through 56 prologues and periphrastic syntax. In so doing, he convincingly identifies the work’s formal achievement: that of undoing the reader’s identity through the affect. The two novels, accordingly, undo all foundations, even as they announce a novel project of critique as “life” through aesthetics. Through an engagement with Adorno, Baudrillard, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Alberto Moreiras and Gareth Williams, Wells suggests an untimely reassessment of vanguardism in Macedonio as “the front of a rearguard”, because only a rearguard with its recourse to the affect and the anachronistic possesses the capacity to denarrativize the reification of “the new” by the culture industry.

Julio Ariza’s “Cómo detener el tiempo: Abandono, tiempo y crisis en Miles de años” de Juan José Becerra” interrogates the interface that is staged between contemporary Argentine novels whose central theme is romantic crisis/abandonment with (neo-liberal) social crisis/abandonment by the state. Engaging the writings of Ricardo Piglia, Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben, Ariza begins by framing the idea of abandonment as an originary relation of life with the law and as the end of an ontology of universals. Abandonment, in Becerra, is the site of fragility, but also of a delirious fictive formation that undoes all identity even as it paradoxically seeks to congeal it through an everyday ritual of writing. Writing becomes an anti-time machine, and abandoned love the site of time’s illusory still point. And yet, in their investigation of lost love, the novels of post-crisis, for Ariza, configure the site of the post-allegorical fiction that undoes all foundations of national identity. They point to the living time of Bergson, for Ariza, the time of the durée, to an impersonal creative life beyond identity that does not immobilize perception.

In “Figurations of Immanence: Writing the Subaltern and the Feminine in Clarice Lispector,” I provide a new investigation of the problem of writing the feminine and the subaltern in Latin American Studies today through a reading of Clarice Lispector’s hitherto unexamined, anti-literary legacy. If “literature is a detestable word” and the task of the writer consists in “speaking as little as possible,” according to Lispector, I engage the recent proliferation of bibliographic research to foreground the difficulty Lispector had in assuming the problematic of politics, literary vanguardism and commitment during the 1960s and 70s. My counter-genealogical portrait highlights Lispector’s personal crisis that leads to the writing of A hora da estrela, her final work and testimony, on which much of her international fame rides. Just as Lispector’s final work articulates a critique of literature and a new vision of writing in regard to the subaltern and the feminine, I draw on the work of John Beverley, Gareth Williams, Alberto Moreiras, and Bruno Bosteels to situate the importance of a subalternist framework in rethinking literature and its crisis. Accordingly, I argue that the task of re-grounding literature in its specific concern with the sensible calls on a new framework that re-historicizes works such as Lispector’s through their singular, heterodox enunciative procedures. I then turn to the problem of writing the feminine in Lispector through juxtaposing her radical compositional procedure with the writings of Cixous, Peixoto and Luce Irigaray. If according to Irigaray, phallocentrism’s weak point is the passage between representation and difference, from standardization, law, exchange value and order to the feminine “body without organs,” I argue that Lispector’s compositional design guards the intermediate space and articulates a new, “fluid,” immanent relation to language and politics that defies a unitary, colonizing subject of writing. As an interrogative call to a feminine, reflexive, affective, creative mode of relationality and social dwelling, a new image of writing at stake in Lispector is ushered forward: not only concerning the politics of literature, vanguardism and subalternity in Brazil of the 1960s and 70s, but of subversive composition and the question of taking positions in the present.


01. We wish to wholeheartedly thank Gareth Williams for his careful readings of our papers and belief in this project. We are also grateful to Williams and Alberto Moreiras for their insightful interventions, as discussants, of two recent LASA panels that helped bring some of these ideas to light. 

02. See Rowe (2000), 1-28. 

03. See Deleuze (1997), v-vi; 1-6.

04. See Deleuze and Guattari (1987), 351-423.

05. See Beasley-Murray (2010). 

06. See Rancière (2004).

07. See Irigaray (1985), 205-218.

08. See Rabasa (2010), 1-16 and (2006), 71-94.

09. See Johnson (2007), 1-19.

10. See Rama (1982) and Candido (1971). 

11. See in particular Moreiras (2001), Ramos (2001) and Legrás (2008). 

Works Cited

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  • Candido, Antonio. “Literatura e subdesenvolvimento.” Argumento 1:1 (1971): 7-24. Print.
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  • Johnson, David E. “How (Not) to Do Latin American Studies.” South Atlantic Quarterly 106:1 (Winter 2007): 1-19. Print.
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  • —-. Without History: Subaltern Studies, The Zapatista Insurgency, and the Specter of History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. Print.
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  • Ramos, Julio. Divergent Modernities: Culture and Politics in Nineteenth Century Latin America. Trans. John D. Blanco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2001. Print.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics. Trans. Gabriel Rockhill. New York: Continuum, 2008. Print.
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  • Spinoza, Baruch. Spinoza’s Ethics and On the Correction of the Understanding. Trans. Andrew Boyle. Dutton, New York: Everyman’s Library, 1979. Print.
  • Williams, Gareth. The Mexican Exception: Sovereignty, Police, and Democracy. New York: Palgrave, 2011. Print.