What is to Be Done? Latin American Cultural Studies and the Left

In a recent essay, Alberto Moreiras worries that the field of Latin American cultural studies has been adrift for the last decade. So worried, in fact, that he arrives to the field’s major conference, LASA, held earlier this year in San Francisco, wondering if he should quit his job as a professor and go into a more practical line of work. Luckily, he hasn’t lost all hope. If a new collective critical project can get hashed out at LASA, he suggests, Latin American cultural studies could perhaps recover its capacity for political intervention. As a model for such a project, Moreiras looks to the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, which was active from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, and which was made up almost entirely of academics working in the United States, including himself. In what follows, I call into doubt whether Moreiras’ proposal really follows the example of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group. My interest in doing so is not to defend a certain idea of subaltern studies but rather to point to the towering questions raised by Moreiras’s essay and to start a conversation about them here at Crítica Latinoamericana. The questions I have in mind are these: what would it take for Latin American cultural studies to engage with the left today? And what is “the left today,” anyway?

The Latin American Subaltern Studies Group established a strong dialogue between their theoretical work and the social movements of the 1990s in Latin America. On the one hand, they carried out a deconstructive critique of the nation-state, which theorized the failure of the nation-state to represent some of its subjects, especially indigenous groups. On the other hand, this critique responded to the left’s political project in those years, which could be described as the struggle for liberal multiculturalism. The left fought to reform the nation-state so that it would recognize its marginalized people, or subalterns, as citizens, but also to recognize their right to practice and preserve the non-hegemonic cultural values that had marginalized them. It’s thus fitting that the group is best known for its defense of the truth value of testimonio, a genre in which the oral testimony of  a subaltern subject is transcribed and edited by an intellectual in order to present the demands of the subaltern’s community to the state.

Moreiras, however, does not seem so interested in linking theory to social movements in his new proposal. The crucial thing, he argues, is to recover the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group’s capacity for critique. As he puts it, “a new framework from which to think collectively, with the necessary disputes, starting from a new will to articulate politics with the critique of knowledge.” At LASA, Moreiras finds this framework in Jon Beasley-Murray’s theory of posthegemony. Undoubtedly, Beasley-Murray’s theory opens up exciting possibilities for Latin American cultural studies. What calls my attention, though, is Moreiras’s desire to found a collective project on a theory that, in his words, “seeks to think the political based on critical procedures distanced from the postulation of, and the compromise with, a precise historical subject.” Why is Moreiras eager to distance criticism from a precise historical subject? It’s hard to square with his call to remake a critical project in the spirit of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group when, by his own admission, the dialogue between theory and the precise historical subject of the indigenous movements of the mid-’90s was at the heart of the Group’s project.

In 2001, Moreiras published The Exhaustion of Difference, in which he carries out an extended deconstructive critique of Latin American cultural studies. In retrospect, the book seems to anticipate that the conditions of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group’s intervention were coming to an end along with the age of the modern nation-state—the Group disbanded the same year the book was published—and that Latin American cultural studies would have to reorganize another collective project for a new order of globalized capital. It makes sense, then, that The Exhaustion of Difference would engage with a left that was yet to come; it wasn’t yet clear what shape the left was going to take in the new world order. As Moreiras writes, “my intention is not merely critical; it is also preparatory. If there is to be a politics of Latin American cultural studies that may have a chance of grasping what the political is, in other words, a politics that would not be merely administration, but one that could conceivably have some effect in preparing a transformation, I believe it must be articulated through as relentless and savage a practice of clearing as possible.”

In his recent essay, Moreiras seems to be prescribing the same plan for Latin American cultural studies that he did in The Exhaustion of Difference: the “relentless and savage” critique of structures of domination as preparation for the arrival of an emancipatory social movement. Now, more than a decade later, it’s no longer so clear why Moreiras would propose yet again a collective project based on deconstructive critique. Could it really be that a new left hasn’t emerged in the intervening decade? A left with which Latin American cultural studies could renew its critical and political project?

John Beverley, another veteran of the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, suggests that Moreiras is too attached to deconstruction as a critical method. In his recent book Latinamericanism after 9/11 (2011), Beverley, takes his former comrade to task for having failed to recognize this new left in the form of the wave of center-left governments that swept into power in Bolivia, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, among other countries in Latin America, in the mid-2000s. Beverley proposes that Latin American cultural studies could help the Pink Tide governments strengthen their national-popular institutions. But deconstruction can’t do this sort of, well, constructive work. By giving up his hermeneutic authority to a more “popular thinking,” Moreiras would have to betray deconstruction’s “ethics of knowledge.” Beverley’s observations suggest that Moreiras’s call to revive the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group is actually less grand in ambition—that his political project is restricted to the academy itself, to the reconquest of status for deconstructive critique within humanities departments, rather than an engagement with an emancipatory political project.

Nonetheless, Moreiras’s question still stands: how could Latin American cultural studies recover its potential for political intervention? I agree with Beverley’s claim that deconstruction has lost its critical power due to a change in the political circumstances, and that an engagement with the left today would indeed require a more constructive criticism. But it’s not evident to me that this left is made up of the Pink Tide governments. Despite some left populist policies, the Pink Tide governments are, as Beverly notes,  “perhaps more accurately center-left governments.” Indeed, to make them into “governments of the Left,” Beverley is obliged to argue that “the shift in what the ‘Left’ means is itself a part of the dynamic of the marea rosada”—that is to say, the left now means center-left. Beverley thus offers a variation on the same justification that Moreiras does in The Exhaustion of Difference for proposing a path for Latin American cultural studies that does not engage with a radical left. Moreiras proposes working for a left that is yet to come; Beverley for what passes for a left these days but is actually a center-left. They both suggest, in different ways, that a viable radical left still hasn’t emerged in Latin America to respond to a regime of globalized capital.

Yet I wonder if the problem isn’t that the left is missing, but rather that we don’t know how to see it. Or rather what to do with it. Since the mid-1990s, Latin American social movements have inspired resistance to neoliberal capitalism around the world. The Zapatistas, the factory occupiers in Argentina, and other organizations have provided autonomist and anarchist strategies to struggles ranging from the WTO protests in Seattle, in 1999, to the recent M-15 mobilization in Madrid and the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. Yet where activists have found ways to engage with these social movements, critics have mostly seemed befuddled by them.

Perhaps the problem is that we don’t know how to deal with social movements that don’t try to win power through the state. Take the Zapatistas. Most critics, including the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, treated them as a sort of radical identity politics movement attempting to win certain rights and recognitions from the state. But the Zapatistas have been important for social movements around the world precisely because of their ability to find ways to re-image social life without the mediation of the state or capital. The challenge for critics, then, would be to see these social movements not as groups in dialogue with the state but rather with each other. How can we relate to a left that is working to delegitimize the neoliberal state by trying to build communities and institutions that do without it?

David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist who helped organize Occupy Wall Street, sees it as the problem of giving up a Leninist idea of the vanguard. The current social movements don’t really need a critical vanguard’s critiques of domination, he argues, because they aren’t trying to convince people that the state is anti-democratic or that capitalism corrupts us. Rather, they are working to build local alternatives to these systems, with the faith that the example of these democratic communities will serve as proof to others that neoliberalism is not the only option. So what would a non-vanguard radical intellectual do? Graeber proposes ethnography as a model in his essay Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology:

“When one carries out an ethnography, one observes what people do, and then tries to tease out the hidden symbolic, moral, or pragmatic logics that underlie their actions; one tries to get at the way people’s habits and actions makes sense in ways that they are not themselves completely aware of. One obvious role for a radical intellectual is to do precisely that: to look at those who are creating viable alternatives, try to figure out what might be the larger implications of what they are (already) doing, and then offer those ideas back, not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities—as gifts.”

Where, though, might critics find these viable alternatives? In social movements, of course, but not only there. Graeber points to indigenous groups and artists as two other sources of ideas. Indigenous groups, like the Mayans in Chiapas, have long traditions of resisting capitalist social relations, but art has also taken a major turn in the last two decades toward experimenting with alternative forms of community, as Reinaldo Laddaga discusses in his book The Aesthetics of Emergency (2006). Latin American cultural studies seems like it would be especially well situated to carry out this kind of ethnographic research into new modes of common life. But Graeber’s suggestion is of course just a start. It would take a large effort to figure out how to do criticism that didn’t rely so heavily on critique and that could find ways to help the left social movements today—in Latin America, the U.S., and beyond—to imagine social alternatives to neoliberalism. But it seems to me that this is just the sort of collective project that could revive the political potential of Latin American cultural studies.


Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson

(Columbus, Ohio) is a graduate student at Columbia University, where he is working on a dissertation about literary and political vanguards in Colombia. He also writes about contemporary Latin American film. He used to be a translator for Artecontexto, an art magazine in Madrid. At Crítica Latinoamericana he helps run the section Crítica del Presente.