Adam Joseph Shellhorse’s Anti-Literature: The Politics and Limits of Representation in Modern Brazil and Argentina (U Pitt Press, 2017) is a bold and timely intervention in a dire moment for “literary studies” in the field of Latin American Studies. What is the epistemological status of the ‘literary’ today, if not an ambiguous force driven by machinistic inertia? The institutional erosion of the discipline’s legitimacy cannot easily be ignored, as every scholar is confronted today with interrogative demands for ‘definition’. Ambitious in scope, theoretically sophisticated, and generous in its readings of a heterogeneous corpus, Shellhorse attempts to understand “what is meant by “literature in contemporary posthegemonic times” (Shellhorse 3). Whether such interrogation opens up a desirable future, is the very heart of this important book.
Anti-Literature departs from the wake of the exhaustion of a well known triad: the Boom as a last attempt to generate a strong allegorical machine; Ángel Rama’s culturalist thinking to come to grip with the uneven development through transculturation; and the political vanguard experiment of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The aftermath of these watershed moments has led to what is now a permanent state of crisis. The end of ‘hegemony’ in Shellhorse’s reflection demands the end of the centralized state form of the literary, but also the turning away from models of ideological Marxist critique, over that of affect, the multiple, and the experimental in writing. Compensatory to this insolvent condition, Shellhorse proposes ‘anti-literature’ as a new framework for literary studies. Although, more urgently, it offers the minimal condition for the task of reading in a present devoid of objective legitimacy, or what Shellhorse calls, perhaps more prudently, a ‘perilous present’ (Shellhorse 16).
The archive Shellhorse attends to is minimalist, functioning hyperbolically for a larger and more programmatic invitation to read in the anti-literature key. The works sketched throughout the book are the following: Lispector’s language of life and the specular feminism of immanence; David Viñas’ ‘half made literature’ as a de-spiritualized materialist gesture in his novel Dar la cara (1962); concrete poetry as a post-culturalist and post-conceptual artifact; Haroldo de Campos and Osman Lins’ poetics of the baroque; and last but not least, a mediation on historical redemption and the messianic in Salgado’s photography and De Campos’ poem “O anjo esquerdo da historia”. Irreducible in style and geopolitical demarcations, all these anti-literary projects negotiate language within the limits of its own materiality while assuming a writing of finitude. This is crucial, as it is what distinguishes Shellhorse’ anti-literature from John Beverley’s known ‘against literature’.
Whereas Beverley demanded an exception to literary hegemony in the name of a subalternist ‘subject’ formalized in the testimonio, Shellhorse’s following Moreiras’ predicament on exhaustion, does not seek to close off the promise and secret of literature, but only to interrupt its identitarian and representational pretensions (Shellhorse 42). Therefore, against the Boom as an ideological critique towards state building on one hand, and testimonio as exception to high literary sovereignty on the other, Shellhorse proposes anti-literature as posthegemonic experimentation through affect and the sensorium. Whereas testimonio demanded hegemonic filiation until the triumphant victory, anti-literature endorses the post-hegemonic in the face of defeat. Anti-literature is only anti-literary to the extent that it demands a relation to the secret of ‘what might come’. This is why Shellhorse’ Anti-Literature is untimely tied to literature as a singular procedure of writing, instead of organizing a counter-canon, in what could be taken as an effort to immunize itself through an alternate ‘aesthetic form’. This is why, it is important that Shellhorse tells us very late in the book:
“…it could be said that anti-literary writers hook up writing to literature’s outside, to nonwriting and egalitarian modes of imaging the community. What is at issue is precisely this: the concept of anti-literature need not restrict itself to an avant-garde, modernist paradigm of the arts. Rather an approach to the anti-literary entails reconceptualizing the problem of writing as a sensory procedure and perpetual force. The question of what is anti-literature can perhaps best be posed only in the wake of literature’s exhaustion, when the arrival of defeatist accounts demands the time for speaking concretely” (Shellhorse 164).
This comes as a warning to careless readers who, perhaps too hazily, will try to inseminate periodical categories of sociology or history of literature to ensure the timelessness of the boundaries of literature’s autonomy. Indeed, Shellhorse immediately writes: “Indeed, bibliography on the nature of literature in the field is marginal” (Shellhorse 164). We can only guess that the very asymmetry between an understudied Argentine writer (Viñas), ranked among giants of modern Brazilian literature (Andrade, De Campos brothers, Lispector), functions as the affective corpus of Shellhorse’s own singular judgment. This is his secret posthegemonic cabinet, just like everyone has his or her own.
By taking distance from an overdetermination based on a ‘historical period’ or a particular ‘literary movement’, Shellhorse performs his own affective caesura against the hegemonic temptation that demands age-old historico-metaphysical entelechies; such as periodization, social context, base/superstructure dichotomy, form, or aesthetic framework. If the book’s starting point is the fall of the legitimacy of Latinamericanism or Hispanism at large, this means that there is no calculative arrangement that can sustain the alleged bona fide of ‘literature’. The polyphonic assemblage regime of tones and signs is also irreducible to a life, to any life, that belongs to the student and professor of literature in the exercise of the imagination. And as I see it, this is what the anti-literature tries to register so suitably to us.
Yet, at first sight there appears as a latent paradox in the book, and it is a problem that I would like to convey, since it remains of one the strong effects of its reading upon me. Of course, I can only hope to solve it in my own name and style, and I hope that others find their own ways to wrestle with the problem. Basically, the problem could be advanced in this way: if we are in a present condition of interregnum, of the total transitional epoch in the field within a larger transformation that Moreiras has called full machination through the principle of general equivalence, where anything is replaceable and interchangeable, why does the book offers yet another frame to re-invent literary studies? . What is the need of literature at a time in which it can no longer speak for itself (the ‘being’ of Literature)? Isn’t the literary today a mere defunct fossilized object, a repetition for commemorations, and museum-like artifact that only seeks the stimuli of social-media to imagine itself Eternal? Literature automatically wants to be part of the ‘museum’, but the trade-off is that the museification of the new demands its own concrete death. It is difficult to name anything interesting in contemporary literature (nothing that can compare with the Boom), and the fact that we keep reading Lezama Lima or Haroldo de Campos or Borges, bears witness to the aftereffect of being able to establish some livable relation with nihilism at the end of literature. Shellhorse does well to inscribe this important symptom in a crucial moment at the end of the book, which opens to an important discussion:
“If “literature” persists in crisis in our field, the task today is to reconstitute its critical force. Literature becomes anti-literature when it subverts itself. My contention is that it is only by bearing witness to this relation of non-essence, non-identify, and non-closure – literature is not literature – that we can begin to read anew” (Shellhorse 166).
I would like to advance the thesis that Anti-literature as a project comes to us in the form of what I would call a friendly katechon. While it is clear that Shellhorse is not proposing a new “turn” beyond literature, anti-literature is not just repetition of the same as the new. To do so would be “old”, since it would be integral to the register of High Modernity up to the readymade, that is, to the museum. Rather, anti-literature is something akin to a shadow that overlaps in what we call “literature”; a sort of dirty stain in the tradition and in the immemorial institutionality of texts. At same time, anti-literature has a reformist undertone, in the theological sense of celebration and transformation through transference.
But it is a katechon to the extent that Anti-literature retains and delays the temporal disappearance of the evermore so irrelevance of literature. As we know, the Pauline Greek word katechon (κατέχον) means restrainer (who or what), a mysterious force that helps avoiding the fall unto the anomia that imposes illegitimacy in any particular historical epoch. Although at times the katechon is understood in tandem with its own archaic regression, I do not think this is Shellhorse’s intention or effect in inviting us to partake in Anti-literature to “begin anew”. The reason is fairly simple: to the extent that we have literature, there is always already excess to every hegemonic phantasm, and that is enough to retain literature as a residual condition for thought, even when we move beyond textualism or politization.
Like Carl Schmitt, who appears in Ex captivate salus, as the last conscious representative of Modern European Law of Nations, Shellhorse appears to us as the last existential witness of the literary in the form of the anti-literary. But like an Anti-Schmittian, he does not succumb in the myth of political theology and Empire. His katechon can only be one of friendship: in the love of the text, and for the friendship of an-other to come. Anyone, at any time. But isn’t this a mirror of the measureless principle of democracy? The friendly katechon does not seek what Nietzsche called the antiquarian relation to History, but rather a reflexive and disinterested democratic thinking. The katechon, in the platonic reading that I favor here, thoroughly deters disintegration of the authentic life of the mind, which is consistent with Lispector’s language of life . That is, literature is no longer revealed as accumulation and principle (archē of the archive), but as homecoming of Justice. Shellhorse explicitly sets foot on this trail this in his reading of De Campos at the very end of the book (which I would like also to de-center from the given messianism):
“Such a field no doubt defines the logic of domination. Justice as a continuous line of singularities: blurs, bends back, and breaks up the reified character of social relations as well as banal accounts of “progress” that fail to count the part that has no part in society. Citable in all their moments, as freed expressions that articulate the desire to be exception, to think the relationless relation, the affective dimension of Campos’ text inscribe the crisis of poetry in the wake of subaltern tragedy” (Shellhorse 196).
But can the Poem be a secondary substitute before the ruin, a safeguard against tripping into the abyss? It is useful to paraphrase Derrida here to remember that, neither the poem nor deus absconditus, neither decorative baroque nor the messianic community, neither the experimental sensorium nor philosophy of history, can exert as hyperbolic condition of any possible living democratic construction . This is only literature’s task. Anti-literature as friendly katechon, keeps this unavowable promise as its dearest secret that nourishes from the democratic expectancy in an incalculable waiting. A politics among friends? It could well be, but only with the caveat that like friends, literature also comes like a stranger late in the day. Will it come again? All of this to say that anti-literature resists succumbing in the nihilistic abyss of equivalence as the last avatar of the contemporary university’s death-drive. The friendly invitation of anti-literature confronts us, once more, as a lux acarna. We only hope that it is not too late, and that another path could open in the very place of what has always been.
1. Alberto Moreiras. “Universidad. Principio de Equivalencia”. Enero 17, 2017. https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/universidad-y-principio-de-equivalencia-hacia-el-fin-de-la-alta-alegoria-borrador-de-conferencia-para-17-instituto-de-estudios-criticos-mexico-df-22-de-enero-2017-por-alberto-moreiras/
2. For example, at one point the baroque/ neo-baroque appears as a trope for anti-literature. In my account, this will amount to the ‘catholic’ affirmation the katechon, raising its status in a complexio oppositorum between archaic and an-archy of the eschatology, which is always political theology. Consider this passage cited from Haroldo de Campos: “…Brazilian culture was born under the sign of the baroque…it cannot be understood from ontological, substantialist, metaphysical point of view. It should not be understood from an ontological, substantialist, metaphysical point of view. It should not be understood in the sense of an idealist quest for “identity” or “national” character. Baroque, paradoxically, means non-infancy. The concept of “origin” here will only fit if it does not imply the idea of “genesis”, of a generative process with a beginning, middle, and maturity…Baroque is, therefore, a non-origin. A non-infancy. Our literature, springing up from the baroque vortex, was never aphastic; it has never developed from a speechless, aphasic-infantile limbo in the fullness of discourse”. 115 pp. The baroque as literary form, even deprived of genesis, seems to lead stray into the “frame” whether in transcendental or immanentist planes of the modern metaphysics of the political.
3. Panagiotis Christias has recently offered a very interesting reading of the figure of the katechon in a platonic key, in which he suggests that the restrainer stands against potential rise of tyranny, thus making the Philosopher, the Greek antecedent of the katechon fearing the disintegration of the polis. To what extent philosophy can deter anomia today is a completely different question. I am interested in the figure of the Philosopher as metonymic for life as it converges with passion without sacrifice. See, Platon et Paul au bord de l’abîme. Pour une politique katéchontique (2014).