Prospero’s Book

Jon Beasley-Murray
University of British Columbia

Volume 4, 2013

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

— William Shakespeare, The Tempest

John Beverley presents himself as the grand old man of Latin American cultural studies. And with reason. He was there at the outset in the early 1990s, and has figured in almost all of the significant discussions and debates—about testimonio, subalternity, representation, the politics of location—that have marked the field’s trajectory since. He has been equally instrumental in building the field’s infrastructure. At Pittsburgh, he helped organize conferences that brought together significant players associated with cultural studies in Latin America. And he has directed the dissertations of numerous graduate students who have gone on to become important voices themselves. Throughout, Beverley has often shown remarkable generosity of spirit: though his own intellectual and political positions have been clear and trenchant, he has seldom found the need to impose them on others. He has welcomed dialogue and disagreement. If there are no “Beverleyites” that is to his credit: he has never forced anyone into his own mold. But as time passes, he increasingly gives the impression that he feels himself to be part of a generation that is the last of its kind: the last that can remember the heady days of armed struggle and revolutionary enthusiasm; the last, he suggests, with a personal link to a politics that was truly a matter of life and death. As such, Beverley is perhaps understandably concerned for the future of the field once that link is finally broken. Even among his peers, he tells us, too many have given up the fight, have turned instead to reactionary neoconservatism; meanwhile, the young are tempted by ultra-leftism or other “infantile” disorders. In Latinamericanism after 9/11, then, we can imagine him as a “venerable old teacher,” who with “a firm voice—a masterful voice capable of seizing an idea and implanting it deep within the listener’s mind” (Rodó 31, 32) sits us down to listen.

Beverley might blanch at this image, taken from José Enrique Rodó’s classic essay on Latin American identity, Ariel. He would blanch because he takes issue with the “neo-Arielism” that champions elite culture (and the traditional intellectuals that are its guardians) as allegedly the only possible bulwark against neoliberalism and the philistinism of the market. And yet Beverley sympathizes with the Arielist denunciation of North American domination. He simply wants to say that there are good gringos as well as bad; and that he is surely a good one, not least because he is not fully gringo, because he is a “third (or trans-) culture kid,” much like Roberto Bolaño and Barack Obama. He is and is not part of the neo-imperial culture that imposes itself on the region. He is not exactly Caliban, not quite Ariel. He is a good guy really, and it is on that basis that he claims the right to speak, to reminisce, and to warn us of the uncharted dangers (but also unimaginable possibilities) that await us in the near future. And so he sits us down to listen to him. He is the good Prospero who is not even quite Prospero, but who perhaps cannot completely fend off our suspicion that he is secretly yet another “authoritarian” figure who wants to have it both ways, who (as he himself puts it) “seeks to profit from both Ariel and Caliban” alike (Latinamericanism 68).

Let us take him at his word: John Beverley is one of the good guys. At the very least, he certainly wants to be on the side of the angels: he will never be one of the angels, perhaps, but he could be on their side. For this is the central tenet of all his intellectual and political positions, indeed it is what brings together politics and scholarship in his eyes. Following Enrico Mario Santí, Beverley claims that “contemporary Latinamericanism takes the form of a project of ‘sympathy’” (3), and he immediately translates this sympathy into “solidarity.” Solidarity is what drives Beverley’s work: as he says, he is a “gringo bueno” who sees “his critical work as linked to solidarity politics” (71). The threat of neo-Arielism, with its “denial of the possibility of transnational solidarity,” is that at the same stroke it denies “the ability of the gringo or non-Latin American to understand and ‘represent’ Latin America” (90). It is solidarity (Beverley believes) that leads to understanding and enables representation. The problem, however, is not only that as a gringo (even a reluctant or transculturated one, a double agent working against the interests of his people), he is always going to arouse suspicion or hostility. The problem is that it is not easy to identify the angels. Who truly deserves Beverley’s sympathy or merits his solidarity? Or as he puts it in a discussion of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire, “the central question of our times might be: Who are the Christians today? That is, who in the world today, within Empire but not of it, like the early Christians, carries the possibility of a logic that is opposed to Empire and that will bring about its eventual downfall or transformation?” (26). If only Beverley could identify the (truly) good guys, then he could (almost) be a good guy, too, by allying his cause with theirs.

Over the course of his career, a range of actors have attracted Beverley’s sympathy and solidarity. The main thrust of this book is to review these changing allegiances, to reflect on and justify them. At the outset, in the 1970s and 1980s, his commitment was to national liberation movements and the armed struggle, particularly in Central America, as it sought to destroy the dictatorial state and take the reins of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed. He no longer supports taking up arms, but even now he attacks the “paradigm of disillusion” that cloaks discussion of guerrilla movements, whether they were successful (as in Cuba and Nicaragua) or not (as in El Salvador and Argentina). Far from denying or reneging on this early affiliation, then, Beverley claims proudly that, “with all its flaws and sometimes lethal illusions, the armed struggle revealed Latin America in its most generous, creative, courageous, and diverse possibilities” (107-8). The “impulse of the armed struggle” inspired the cinema of Glauber Rocha and Fernando Solanas, and it even informed the Boom narratives of Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar. In poetry, the influence was yet more direct: from Ernesto Cardenal to Roque Dalton, political violence and literature went hand in hand. But then, as national liberation movements ran out of steam (or were defeated by a “stronger, more ruthless enemy” [108]), Beverley’s attention wandered.

In a second phase, the new object of his affections was the subaltern, and in 1993 (with Ileana Rodríguez) he established the Latin American Subaltern Studies group. This move was prompted (as the group’s Founding Statement makes clear) by “the end of communism and the consequent displacement of revolutionary projects”; we were now required “to represent subalternity in Latin America, in whatever form it takes wherever it appears [. . .] to find the blank space where it speaks as a sociopolitical subject, [. . .] to explore the margins of the state” (“Founding Statement” 110, 119). Turning from attempts to take state power also necessitated a shift in the kinds of cultural products that would demand the committed scholar’s attention. Beverley was now “against literature” and all the apparatus of the creole elite. Testimonio, whose exemplary incarnation came from “our Rigoberta” Menchú, took center stage. In place of “the Boom’s male-centered strategy of ‘metafictionality,” we had “a new emphasis on the concrete, the person, the ‘small history,’ writing (or video work) by women, political prisoners, lumpen, and gays” (115). These were the new objects of Beverley’s sympathy, even if he never really dwelled with these cultural objects. Indeed, Latinamericanism shares with Beverley’s previous work the somewhat strange characteristic that it has very little analysis of any specific Latin American texts at all.

Latinamericanism declares a new shift in attention as it announces itself to be a “postsubalternist” book (8). As Beverley makes clear, moving beyond the subaltern entails a reconsideration of the role of the state: if subalternism meant exploring the margins and the residues of official representation, to champion what did not or could not count in national-popular discourses, now with the arrival of the so-called “left turns” or marea rosada, Beverley is prepared to rethink his previous principled rejection of such hegemonic projects. If “in subaltern studies, the subaltern is conceptualized as that which is not only outside the state, but also constitutively opposed to the state in some sense or another” (111), he is ready to replace that opposition with something rather more like an embrace. Not without some anxiety and trepidation, he throws his lot in with the governments of Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, Cristina Kirchner and Rafael Correa. As he puts it, against the “neoconservative ‘turn’” among his own generation, and equally in contrast to the “discourse of the ‘multitude’ or ‘posthegemony’” of a younger generation, “I am aligning myself in some ways with those governments” (125). Neither Ariel nor Caliban: Prospero! Our solidarity is to be with these new projects of state governance, in the belief (or hope) that they incarnate “a different state [. . .] a people-state” or (in the words of Bolivian vice-president Alvaro García Linera) “a state that is not a state” (quoted in Beverley 125). If nothing else, this latest stance is a matter of pragmatics and the lesser evil: with an eye on Ralph Nader’s impact on the Gore/Bush electoral contest of 2000, or the Zapatistas’ refusal to support the Mexican PRD in 2006, Beverley warns against the threat of something even worse that can emerge from stubbornly sticking to principles. But the same reasoning has always been the standard line of US realpolitik: during the 1980s, it justified the decision to prop up the civilian president José Duarte rather than let the generals or the far-right ARENA take power in El Salvador; or more recently a similar logic led to support for, say, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak so as to ward off the Muslim Brotherhood. But without denying that there are grades of evil (and grades of good), at best this is playing with fire, at worst it is counter-productive. The one relief is that nobody much cares whether or not North American academics support Morales or Kirchner. We need not fear too much “blowback” in our Cathedrals of Learning.

Occasionally, Beverley has had the good fortune that the various categories that interest him coincide or overlap. Rigoberta Menchú, for instance, was both a subaltern and a partisan of the armed struggle in her role as spokesperson for the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, one of the factions that constituted the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) in the 1980s. And Dilma Roussef is a woman (albeit from the upper-middle class, but arguably subaltern enough for all that), a former revolutionary, and now President of Brazil. So there is a sort of consistency that can be fashioned post hoc from the various phases of Beverley’s career. Still, it is perhaps more accurate to say that Beverley’s trajectory merely mimics that of former combatants such as Roussef (or Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay). He shifts position as they do: they were once affiliated with guerrilla insurgency but then decided instead to pursue electoral politics and ultimately governed as more or less social democrats; their shadow in the North tracks their course as he moves from guerrilla sympathizer to center-left fellow-traveler. This is solidarity as mimesis (though is there any other kind?), and it is hardly “political” in any real sense of the term. Perhaps we might call it a politics “with the grain.” It would be hard to claim it has any impact, in Latin America at least.

Left and right often coincide in exaggerating the influence of intellectuals on politics. This is the first error of David Stoll, Beverley’s nemesis in the debate about testimonio: Stoll ascribes far too much weight to Rigoberta Menchú’s leftist sympathizers in the North, who he claims prolonged the Guatemalan civil war by championing a renowned guerrilla mouthpiece. But Stoll’s second error is equally significant, when he assumes that cultural studies had any real investment in the fortunes of the Guatemalan guerrillas. In fact, the URNG never drew a tenth (a hundredth?) of the solidarity and support garnered by their counterparts the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the FMLN in El Salvador. It was not Menchú as guerrillera that caught Beverley’s eye: he had already moved on from his former support of the armed struggle. His solidarity was premised instead on her subalternity. Indeed, by now Beverley had his own critiques of the guerrilla movement, precisely because (dominated by middle-class, male ladinos) it was not subaltern enough, not enough like Rigoberta Menchú. Hence Stoll and Beverley argued at cross-purposes: Stoll was never all that perturbed by any minor duplicity in Menchú’s account of repression in the highlands. He was more concerned to denounce leftist violence and its supposed adherents and facilitators in the North American academy. But Beverley, for his part, was uninterested in Menchú as warrior; indeed, acknowledging the extent to which her testimony was (as Stoll details) integral to a strategy designed within the guerrilla hierarchy would have been to tarnish his image of her autonomy and singularity. By contrast, the aspersions cast on her story’s truth claims not only grabbed all the headlines but also went to the heart of the status that subaltern studies had conferred upon her.

Solidarity and sympathy had been taken to mean a basic faith in the fundamental veracity of subaltern accounts of oppression. For how was the North American academic to question a lived reality that would always be beyond his (or her) knowledge and understanding? Or how was he to do so without simply repeating the age-old gestures of imperial inquisition? Menchú’s defenders tend to lambast Stoll for his mean-spiritedness. But the more unpalatable truth that his analysis inadvertently reveals is that the subaltern had shown more autonomy than Latin American subaltern studies had credited her with. She had indeed duped her supporters: ever so slightly, but just enough. In her independent-mindedness, in departing from the script that said testimony should be a quasi-natural outgrowth from experience, she had let the side down. Perhaps she, too, was not sufficiently subaltern.

Or perhaps the subaltern is destined always to disappoint even (or especially) the most well meaning of sympathizers. Ranajit Guha, founder of the original (South Asian) Subaltern Studies Group, is never so misty-eyed. He notes that “blinded by the glare of a perfect and immaculate consciousness the historian sees nothing, for instance, but solidarity in rebel behavior and fails to notice its Other, namely, betrayal” (84). The notion that solidarity is reciprocated by the subaltern is ultimately a self-serving fantasy. But it is also a necessary fantasy: solidarity depends on the illusion of reciprocity, on the fiction of a contract that would bind subaltern to elite. Any claim to hegemony needs the consent (better, the assumption of consent) on the part of the subaltern; otherwise its project is as empty as Prospero’s sails if the Tempest’s audience refuse to grant life to his narrative. In other words, in so far as the subaltern is an aspect of the multitude, everything depends upon its constituent power. But the multitude refuses all pacts. In fact, if there is any constancy to subaltern behavior as Guha describes it, it is the propensity to perfidy and rebellion, not least against those who set out to represent and champion its interests.

The subaltern is never there when you need her, never adequate to your representations of her. She never quite fits your molds; she vanishes on a line of flight. This is the “crisis of Latinamericanism” that Beverley acknowledges is “brilliantly” registered in Alberto Moreiras’s The Exhaustion of Difference (54). But we might add that the crisis is equally clear in Beverley’s own work. For it is not as though he is unaware of the manifold problems with solidarity or the pitfalls of his recent move to support the state-sanctioned social democracy of the Left Turns. Indeed, one of Beverley’s virtues is that he articulates his anxieties and doubts at the same time as he does everything he can to short circuit what he sees as a debilitating “melancholy” proper to deconstruction, “that cannot detach itself from its conditions of possibility” (55). Faced with the “embarrassment of speaking for others” he even toys with “tak[ing] a certain distance from Latinamericanism” (71), with what would be his own line of flight. But now that “an actual political Left” is back and in power in Latin America, Beverley prefers to leave subalternism behind (this is his own minor betrayal) and declare his allegiance instead to the so-called people-state. There is something almost subaltern in his vacillations and betrayals, except that it leads him to cozy up to the people in power.

Good luck to him. One deals with one’s anxieties the best one can. Moreover, though letting oneself be guided by the state with the hope of finally being recognized as a “good gringo” is hardly a politics as such (at best, it is merely politics “with the grain”), the initial decision to do so is arguably political in that it is not predestined; it never had to be this way. As his public agonizing in this book attests, Beverley’s position-taking is a matter of preference, a wager with destiny. He confronts other options—neoconservatism and “ultraleftism” (I would be happier just to call it leftism)—only to tell us, without much argument and with little further ado, that like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener he would “prefer not to” consider them further. And when he claims that “the apocalyptic ultraleftism of the ‘multitude’ and ‘posthegemony’ [. . .] involve in fact a renunciation of actual politics, which means that despite their claims to be ‘transformative,’ they remain complicit with the existing order of things” (59), this is surely a projection of his own anxieties. My book, Posthegemony (which Beverley generously mentions), eschews apocalypticism in favor of what, following Gareth Williams, I call the “perhaps.” If anything it hesitates between millenarianism and cynicism. There is nothing necessarily to celebrate in posthegemony; we are not believers. But there is no need either for any pangs of disappointment when others refuse or withdraw their consent.

Beverley is ultimately always looking to believe, looking for someone to believe in. He is searching for angels and wants to travel with them, or at least to cheer them on from behind. But there are no angels, and solidarity will always turn into disillusion when we find our heroes have feet of clay. (Look, for example, at Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas today!) By contrast, I suggest a politics of experimentation rather than solidarity, a politics ever open to the possibility of betrayal, even self-betrayal. This requires living with uncertainty. There is no politics written into or predetermined by posthegemony. It is not a matter of simply picking a side, and then letting everything else follow along the grain. But that is what makes it all the more political. For surely politics is about indeterminacy, possibility, and potential. It is about what is not written or predetermined. Politics is about strategy, surprise, critique, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with the present state of things. It is about the refusal to say that there is no “second stage,” a refusal to say that this is as good as it gets.

Works Cited

  • Beverley, John. Latinamericanism After 9/11. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.
  • Guha, Ranajit. “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency.” Selected Subaltern Studies. Eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Spivak. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. 45-86.
  • Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. “Founding Statement.” boundary 2 20.3 (Autumn 1993): 110-121.
  • Rodó, José Enrique. Ariel. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Austin: U of Texas P, 1988.