More thoughts on infrapolitics. (Steve Buttes)


I want to respond and reframe some of my initial questions given the ways in which the dialogue has approached them thus far. Moreiras notes that “there is a differend between us at the level of presuppositions, and that it is very difficult to look both for agreements or disagreements if the differend is not recognized as such.” Using the metaphor of the “pine trees” we discussed earlier, he goes on to say that “this is not the same as saying that you, for instance, insist on focusing on the pine trees whereas infrapolitics looks for everything else as well.

Rather, the very perception of the “everything else” already goes through the recognition of the differend. At that level, I would say that “your” pine trees, from this side of the divide, are not the same as the pine trees we can see and deal with.” And then this is compared with “lust [which] has different connotations for different ethical positions: a puritan sees lust where a libertine sees only desire, etc.”

What I understand as at stake here is the difference between translation and belief. In the former, we might think of the possibility of translating libertinism into a puritan language, of acknowledging the presuppositions of puritanism but nevertheless finding room to see from within those terms desire rather than lust. Approaching puritanism and libertinism as different languages, we might find points of conversation. But, then, if you are a puritan and encounter the translation of desire into your language, what do you do with the earlier form of puritanism in which you understood desire as lust? If it’s a good translation, you’d stop using the earlier version, or maybe you’d strategically (or cynically) use one or the other in given circumstances.

If it’s a bad translation, you might say, “nice try, but it makes no sense: I’m not buying it” or “that’s blasphemous.” But what marks the difference between good and bad here is whether or not you find it convincing and adopt it as your own. In other words, it’s not really a translation at all but rather an argument, one that you either believe to be correct or incorrect. The same goes for the pine trees. If I believe every kind of tree is a type of pine tree and you believe that all trees are individual and beyond categorization, we disagree rather than just differ. This takes the argument onto the ground others have already argued: Di Stefano, Sauri, Hatfield, Michaels and others. Indeed, as Michaels notes in The Shape of the Signifier critiquing the conversing “moral vocabularies” that Richard Rorty advocates and explaining the strangeness of the translation model, “Hebrew and German do not contradict each other, and insofar as Saint Paul’s and Freud’s moral vocabularies are like Hebrew and German, they don’t contradict each other either . . . . if Paul says that Jesus is God and Freud says he isn’t, they aren’t disagreeing, they’re just speaking different languages” (46).

While I believe these issues are important to discuss, I believe the scholars I mention can speak to their own arguments if they wish. I don’t want to move in that direction in my own comments because it takes us away from the intention of my initial post, which was not to interrogate the totality of systems of thought (e.g. infrapolitics as a whole) or make claims about entire philosophical traditions that are at odds with each other. Rather, my intervention emerged from my own plodding, piecemeal way of working, which is to mark concrete points of contact between my thinking and interests and those I see in others—in my case the Neobaroque, trompe l’oeil and the punctum—and to ask questions from there.

In this vein, let me reframe the initial reflection above in which I attempted to address the metaphors Moreiras evokes in his previous post. Rather than puritanism and libertinism, I want to imagine the strangeness of this demand for translation over argument in a Latin American context. More specifically, I want to draw attention to an episode from the colonial period that appears in Mariano Picón-Salas’ work and which I encountered in Marco Dorfsman’s recent Heterogeneity of Being (2015). Here Dorfsman discusses the “very Baroque example” (72) of the transliteration of the Pater Noster (Lord’s Prayer) into hieroglyphic Indian writing:

“The text begins with the word pantli (in Nahuatl a banner or flag of sorts) followed by the glyph for nochtli (in Nahuatl the cactus fruit or tuna) and so it continues on in this manner. The idea is that the Indian is supposed to read pantli nochtli phonetically, and not to see the images of the hieroglyph. A proper reading of the pictographic writing would, of course, produce pure gibberish, while the phonetic reading produces a distorted Latin. It is worth recalling that the majority of the Indians, even those who would have been able to ‘read’ and recite the Pantli Nochtli, would have not been able to understand Latin in any case. However, it is precisely the fact that this new hybrid is incomprehensible that gives it both its sacred and poetic power . . . . In the transliteration, Latin is being put to uses that are only ecclesiastical or scholastic on the surface. Within, ‘a beautiful harmony’ (or struggle) rages. What we have here is the true fusion of opposites [the coincidentia oppositorum of the Baroque]: the beginning of a literary production that leads, almost naturally, towards that other Latin American [Lautréamont] who in France joined together an umbrella and a sewing machine upon an operating table” (72-73).

Here, though I’m not certain that this is a main point of his argument, Dorfsman signals the strangeness of the translation model. As Dorfsman frames it, “Tuna Flag” either makes no sense at all (is “pure gibberish”) or is a way of joining the faith community in saying “Our Father” (in a “distorted Latin”). In the tension between these, Dorfsman sees a “poetic power,” but it is a power that emerges, of course, from a pedagogical power. The “Tuna Flag” scene is taken from the section of Picón-Salas’ book entitled “The Pedagogy of Proselyting:” “images and metaphors were sought in the circumscribed world of the native to bring religious ideas nearer to his mentality” (Picón Salas 56). While, as Dorfsman points out, this pedagogy is somewhat pointless in the sense that “a proper reading of the pictographic writing would, of course, produce pure gibberish,” rather than an understanding of the complexities of a belief system, it is possible to find in the gap between the saying (the distorted Pater Noster) and the said (the incomprehensible Pantli Nochtli)—in the failure to produce a successful translation—a proto-surrealist poetic form: the “true fusion of opposites” that is the “beginning of a [Neobaroque?] literary production” (73).

It is here that I see the task of the infrapolitical thinker manifesting itself as Moreiras describes: deciding what kind of object the failure that is the Pantli Nochtli is. Neither the Franciscans who instructed the indigenous artisans to create the images of the Pantli Nochtli nor the indigenous painters themselves would have recognized what Dorfsman does, which is to see what existing modes of calculation could not. In the gap between the utopian pedagogical practice of the Franciscans and the everyday intonation of gibberish in Nahuatl, the infrapolitical thinker sees the emergence of a nascent (Neobaroque?) literary form. But it is for this reason that I claim in my initial post that infrapolitics (in my partial, fragmented approach to it) “remain[s] squarely within Baroque modes of trompe l’oeil thought, requiring . . . unbelieving beholders.” Indeed, here we see a key example of trompe l’oeil literature: out of raw materials (“pure gibberish”) the appearance of the ecclesia emerges (“distorted Latin”).

But the infrapolitical thinker, as what I call a “miner of life’s raw material,” appeals to the potentiality of life itself by seeing the invisible qualities of that “gibberish.” That is, by seeing in the the incongruous encounter a potentiality that is not visible from the two poles mandated by the encounter, in demanding the failure of realizing the utopian promise (which is accompanied by the violent and creative modes Picón-Salas describes), we see the invisible emergence of the possibility of integrating the Pantli Nochtli into an absent whole by seeing it as the first in a series of variations that will produce an alternative tradition: a poetic form that begins with the Franciscans and develops into the incongruous images created by Lautréamont, the surrealists and Octavio Paz.

It matters little here that the Pantli Nochtli is meant as a mnemonic device to enter the ecclesia. What matters instead is the emergence in the everyday intonation of the Pantli Nochtli of the failure of utopia, which the infrapolitical thinker recognizes as poetic form, a form that is invisible to those who made the work. This infrapolitical account of poetic form escapes the belief systems of the colonial encounter, it does not escape a belief system outright but rather produces one of its own that displaces current understandings by integrating the Pantli Nochtli into the avant-garde tradition (if we agree with the reading) or doesn’t (if we disagree). Does the infrapolitical see a role for artistic visibilizations, or must these always be broken down for parts? Is the failed artwork central to infrapolitics? Are the terms “neobaroque” and “infrapolitical” synonyms for each other?

It is from here—in the infrapolitical approach’s ability to see what is not there when reading from existing modes of calculation—that I can return to the question of the punctum. In reading Moreiras’ work on poverty and infrapolitics in Línea de sombra, I saw parallels with his earlier work on Borges and Cortázar in Tercer espacio. I then heard the opening remarks made by Gerardo Muñoz and Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott at the ACLA seminar in which they marked a connection between Línea de sombra and Tercer espacio: “The drift to suspend the categorial structure of the Latinamericanist reflection was already underway in Tercer espacio and [The] Exhaustion [of Difference]” (“A Response”).

It is in this context that I felt justified in asking the question of whether there was continuity between the infrapolitical that motivates Moreiras’ work now (and underscores the work of the Collective) and his earlier claims about the punctum made in Tercer espacio. Moreiras hints at the possibility of this continuity: “The punctum is . . . a crucial concept for me, as precisely the site of desire, redefined by infrapolitics as the crossing of the ontological difference in every case. I should use this precise point in your paper to warn you that when I wrote Tercer espacio, or even Exhaustion of Difference, I was not yet thinking of infrapolitics. So for me the inferences are very interesting, but I am not ready to endorse them without going over them with a very fine comb” (“A Response”). But as he notes in the continuation of our discussion, where he explains that his account of infrapolitics as “always already a response to exploitation,” what is crucial is that the response occurs in “the gap between lives exploited and infrapolitical lives, the punctum in that gap–the site of Borges’ “ancient innocence”” (“More on responding”).

In this line from Borges’ poem “Alguien” [“Someone”], these confluences are clear: a sudden feeling of happiness that emerges not in hope for the future (an eschatology of change) or from the demands of daily life but rather from the pang of an “ancient innocence.” This “ancient innocence” enables one to see in the partial moments (“an unexpected etymology,” “the taste of water”) of a daily life controlled by structures that are not our own the forgotten joys of the past (which could presumably be the joys of the future). The “ancient innocence” that underscores the infrapolitical minor adjustment has a clear connection with the punctum: it cannot be planned but must rather occur “de pronto” [“all of a sudden”].

And this demand leads me to the follow up question of whether the infrapolitical account of the punctum—the hidden minor adjustment that could not come into being were it planned as part of an anti-exploitation or antipoverty project—has something to do with the antitheatrical reading of the punctum produced recently by Michael Fried. As Fried notes, Barthes demands that the punctum not be put there for us, not be part of the photograph’s studium (or mode of calculation), and it is this demand that marks the punctum as part of the antitheatrical tradition and secures for photography its aesthetic form.

If the punctum (what the photographer cannot put there for the viewer) is a radicalized form of absorption (the refusal to perform for the viewer), it is also what secures for Barthes a successful photograph, or at least one that he finds compelling. This creates a tension, then, between the failed translation above and the successful photo here. If every success is a potential failure (mode of exploitation) and every failure a potential success (mode of escape), these are often invisible to existing modes of calculation, that is, remain in the shadows until revealed by the minor adjustment that breaks down (deconstructs?) those modes.

Does the infrapolitical demand a failed (non-unified) work, or does the infrapolitical (with its emphasis on desires that remain in the shadows, on what is not there for us) dialogue with the antitheatrical reading of the punctum developed by Fried and Michaels? I will end for now but will continue to engage in the dialogue as it/if it continues to develop.




Works Cited
Borges, Jorge Luis. “Alguien.” El otro, el mismo. Obras completas. Emecé, 2007.

Di Stefano, Eugenio and Emilio Sauri. “Making it Visible: Latin Americanist Criticism, Literature, and the Question of Exploitation Today.”

Dorfsman, Marco Luis. Heterogeneity of Being: On Octavio Paz’s Poetics of Similitude. Lanham, MD: UP America, 2015.

Fried, Michael. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Yale UP, 2008.
Hatfield, Charles. The Limits of Identity: Politics and Poetics in Latin America. U Texas P, 2015.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History. Princeton UP, 2004.

___. The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Form. U Chicago P, 2015.

Muñoz, Gerardo and Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott. “Línea de sombra Ten Years Later: Introductory Remarks”.

Picón-Salas, Mariano. A Cultural History of Spanish America, from Conquest to Independence. Trans. Irving A. Leonard. U California P, 1962.

*Image: Mira Schendel. Untitled. 1973.

9 thoughts on “More thoughts on infrapolitics. (Steve Buttes)

  1. Marco’s book is not infrapolitics–he says so himself–even though he feels very close to the proyect. As someone who has been involved with infrapolitics I have to say that I simply do not recognize what you are discussing as touching on infrapolitics.

  2. Thank you, Steve. Sorry re delay in responding, and even now I can only mark an answer–the semester has come to a boiling point, and it will take a couple of weeks before I am able to afford some free time. So, in a nutshell, going to the core of your argument in order perhaps to clarify something important: the infrapolitical thinker will have no interest in the emergence of a nascent literary form, in the same way he or she will have no interest in understanding the antitheatrical punctum as essential for a proper determination of the aesthetic experience or, even less, of the aesthetic form. Yes, the punctum is important as precisely what cannot be mastered in advance, or indeed at all, and one could then say the punctum is always already infrapolitical, it is or organizes the infrapolitical dimension of any given work. But infrapolitics is not a means to the end of securing a more pertinent or accurate understanding of aesthetics, or of the history of culture, or of, indeed, rendering visible the desires that remain in the shadows. Infrapolitics cannot result into an heliopolitics, not even at the level of scholarship. It is a gesture or a style that generates writing on the basis of, not hidden, but the most manifest possibilities of experience, which however remain concealed, most ostensibly and terribly in academic discourse, out of the simple mechanism of denegation or disavowal. For instance, if a picture of me in the 1990s, when seen by me, unleashes all kinds of memories, most of them producing pain on the basis of the irretrievability of those years alone, and then of course some other more obscure thoughts as well in every case, my attempt in exposing myself to it, provided I sought the exposure as opposed to simply having encountered it (I opened the goddamn drawer, and look what I found, etc), is not to formulate a new theory of involuntary memory, a reformulation of autographic viewing, or a new concept of narcissism–it is only to open the fall of memory. For better or for worse, in a situation in which whether it is going to be better or worse is probably irrelevant–something prompted me, and I am simply following suit. Yes, the act of looking for that picture is not political, it does not mean to accomplish anything in the region of politics. But what results, the infrapolitical import it may have (or not: it is also always possible that nothing will happen, nothing will result), is not a thing to be captured at the service of a “political project,” say, an academic paper or a discussion regarding the aesthetics of aging. This latter thing is what infrapolitics refuses–the capture of its gleaning for the servicing of the common goods, as it were. I would say this is what takes infrapolitics into the uncanny, and what makes it a ceaselessly insurgent practice, or exercise, or experimentation. And what determines its always-already non-academic thrust.

  3. Thank you for this note, Steve. I am thinking out-loud here, but to what extent is a confrontation with Fried or Benn Michaels’ work necessary at this point? Except for his classic essay on objecthood I haven’t read his work. But this seems important, as it comes a again in Sauri and Hatfield’s work as well. My impression is that both Fried and WBM are noninfrapolitical takes on aesthetics, but I also wonder, thinking here with what Alberto is saying, to what extent is their discourse compromised with a university discourse and its partition of disciplines. I will read WBM’s latest book and I hope to come back to this. Now, Infrapolitical reflection cannot be cast off as a hermeneutical strategy.

  4. Very interesting discussion. I’m running out the door, but I’d like to say the reason that Steve raises these questions in part is in order to understand the similarities and difference between infrapolitical and noninfrapolitical thinkers (such as WBM and Fried). For example, for many of us who Steve mentions the question of aesthetic form (and exploitation) are central to understanding aesthetic-political projects today. And this centrality is not necessarily a crucial concern for some infrapolitical thinkers. I’d also like to say very quickly that the question of university discourse and the partition of disciplines are, indeed, relevant as they provide us, in part, a means and a space to critique university discourse and its partition of disciplines (if, of course, that is what we as scholars choose to critique). This last point is meant to be a theoretical claim, and not necessarily a political one. But if it is read by some as a political claim (whether that is reactionary, progressive, revolutionary or even infrapolitically), it is precisely because it accepts rather than rejects this theoretical claim.

    • Eugenio, I don’t quite get the last few lines. What is the theoretical-political claim? I wonder if you could elaborate a bit. Yes, it is quite fair to say infrapolitics does not thematize the issue of aesthetic form–it is simply not its register. But infrapolitics is at the same time a radical thinking of exploitation in the precise sense that it takes its departure from it and from its consequences. In a sense, it is an attempt to dwell on what remains after exploitation, where exploitation refers to the capture of life by historical structures of which capitalism is one but itself probably derivative. Another way of putting it: infrapolitics is an attempt to think real subsumption exodically, where real subsumption, beyond being the conceivably last stage of capital’s power over the human, uses capital as an instrument rather than being used by it. Posthegemony then refers to the awareness of the fact that the subsumption of life into labor is always already a matter of production, and that no productionism (including aesthetic productionism) can hamper that state of affairs. This is why, incidentally, no rectification of disciplinary partitions will help. The flight from university discourse (from the suffering university discourse imposes on life, from its truth troubles) has to go beyond the mere proposal of reforming adjustments.

      • Sorry for the delay, Alberto. I was responding directly to Gerardo’s statement above (and perhaps I wasn’t following him) that Fried’s and WBM’s claims are couched in a “discourse compromised with a university discourse and its partition of disciplines.” This idea seems strange to me since within our area or disciplines, all of our claims are pretty much always couched within a “university discourse.” That’s what we do… all of us who are interested in the discussions that we are having on this page. At the same time, it is from within this discourse that a critique of the university emerges (if, of course, we choose to critique it). It’s a simple point, and again perhaps motivated by a misunderstanding on my part of his statement. To say this differently, and perhaps Gerardo can answer this, what is the critique that is being made here when scholars are critiqued for employing (or working within a) university discourse? Is it a question of content specifically? Are there scholars that are somehow outside of this “university discourse”? What, for him, does a non-university discourse look like? Can it be defined and if it not, then how does he know he is critiquing it?

      • Very briefly, Eugenio, and not wishing to preempt Gerardo. If “tout pensee n’est pas savior,” could we not think of a modality of thought whose momentum would concern something other than knowledge? I am not sure such thought could or should be deemed to be “university discourse.”

  5. Pingback: “O friends …” | Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective

  6. Eugenio, this was more a rumination than a declaration that such X or Y accounts for university discourse. I do not think that there is a single form of university discourse, but a hetereomorphic multiplicity. I think policing of concepts as university discourse; but also the privilege of the concept over facticity. For me at least, the very disciplinary and technological enframing of thought is a modality of university discourse as knowledge reserve. I agree with Alberto that thought to the extent that is thought is not exhausted in university discourse or in any ‘disciplinary function’ (say art history). It has something to do with a certain relation to language, and perhaps with style…

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