Con pies de paloma y corazón de serpiente: Tercer espacio: Literatura y duelo en América Latina
In the work of mourning, it is not grief that works: grief keeps watch.
Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster.
Thought abandons itself to its own opening and thus reaches its decision, when it does justice to this singularity that exceeds it, exceeding it even in itself, even in its own existence and decision of thought. It is also in this way that it does justice to the community of existents. This means that thought has no practical, ethical, or political action to dictate. If it claims to do so, it forgets the very essence of the decision, and it forgets the essence of its own thinking decision. This does not mean that thought turns away from action and is hostile or indifferent toward it. On the contrary, it means that thought carries itself in advance of action’s own-most possibility.
Jean-Luc Nancy, “The Decision of Existence”.
Grief lies heavily at the heart of the decision for thinking. If grief uncovers the singularly passive and inoperative experience of staring death in the face, of keeping silent watch over that which nothing can be said, and therefore over that which is forever prior to and in excess of thinking’s abandonment to its own opening and decision, then grief is the originary and unspeakable other of language that carries itself, in its vigilance, not only in advance of thinking’s own-most opening and possibility as mourning, as the toil for a certain understanding, but also in advance of every action’s possibility. Grief is the originary other of language, the affective passivity that carries itself in advance of every responsible act of thinking and writing. As such, it is the infra-structural foundation of thinking and writing. But grief per se can never be political. Rather, it is only ever an infrapolitical caring for the depths of the abyss of being-towards-death, or for the painful assumption of a certain responsibility towards the limit and possibility of existence. For this reason the work of mourning, the laborious pursuit of an assignable place for death, or for the death of the other, traverses the pre-political passage from grief to an attunement in thinking and writing that strives to account for the possibility of freedom and existence. As Jacques Derrida put it in The Gift of Death: “Concern for death, this awakening that keeps vigil over death, this conscience that looks death in the face is another name for freedom” (15).
“Loss”, Maurice Blanchot observes, “goes with writing” (84). But a loss, he continues, “without any gift (a gift, that is, without reciprocation) is always liable to be a tranquilizing loss bringing security” (84). Alberto Moreiras’s Tercer espacio: Literatura y duelo en América Latina (1999)—a book that is dedicated to the memory and image of a dead mother and to a surviving father (that is, to the Nietzschean double inheritance), yet a book that is also a conscious meditation not on (for this is not a work of representation) but through the auto-graphic loss and memory of the ‘raya’ dividing Portugal and Galicia; of the Barcelona movida in the wake of the death of the dictator Franco; of an originary language lost and transformed by the experience of wandering and of academic re-institutionalization in the United States; of the identitarian drives of the Latin Americanist Left before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and all of this in the wake of the decision for thinking from within the closure of metaphysics announced persistently by Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and others—is anything but the writing of a tranquilizing loss bringing security.
Tercer espacio was conceived and written at the intersection of three simultaneous registers of mourning: “El registro de la literatura latinoamericana a ser estudiada, el registro teórico propiamente dicho, y el otro registro, más difícil de verbalizar o representar, registro afectivo del que depende al tiempo la singularidad de la inscripción autográfica y su forma específica de articulación trans-autográfica, es decir, su forma política” (14). In a disquieting gesture toward the reader located a hundred pages prior to the book’s end, Moreiras presents the variability and instability of the names of mourning through a kind of orgiastic over-abundance of designations striving to lend some form of consistency to the un-nameable and incommensurable language that no one speaks, that is, to the eternal recurrence of the non-occurrence of grief and the restless experience of loss that writing simultaneously uncovers and occludes: “La escritura del duelo va hasta aquí acumulando nombres: escritura del tercer espacio, escritura de la ruptura entre promesa y silencio, escritura lapsaria, escritura que repite lo indiferente, escritura de la anormalidad ontológica. Todos estos términos mentan un mismo fenómeno, cuyo carácter fundamental es el intento de sobrevivir a una experiencia radical de pérdida de objeto” (291-2). In addition to these attempts at survival in writing, the reader can also reference the question of ‘critical regionalism’, of the ‘punctum’, or the subalternist critique of postcolonialism, to name just a few more that come to mind in a reading of this work twenty years after its initial publication.
Tercer espacio’s consistent gesture toward a future reciprocation—toward the possible activation of a responsibility, of a decision, and therefore of an answer to the other in the face of the impossible—is repeated in the book’s final lines with a fitting farewell in reference to Tununa Mercado’s novel En estado de memoria. Here we encounter an invitation for the reader to stand vigil in the face of a destitution that is the only possibility for a future responsible act. Moreiras observes in the end that the “sorda demanda de restitución desde la destitución . . . es . . . el resto abierto de este libro expuesto a la demanda literaria que ahora llega a su fin” (397). An invitation and double demand for an intellectual conduct or future conceptual comportment, for a response, in the wake of literary destitution—of the emergent and on-going abandonment of literature as compensatory national allegory—that Tercer espacio itself has consummated and brought to completion.
Now what is to be done? Moreiras asks. While grief is the originary and singular gift that no one can receive as such, Tercer espacio is the solitary yet also trans-autographic exploration of the contours of mourning, and therefore the quest for a possible reciprocation, for a collective wake without which there can be no common politics fully attuned to the closure of metaphysics and the expiration of the historically assigned value of ‘the literary’.
Twenty years after its original publication in Santiago de Chile in perhaps the only publishing venue in the Spanish-speaking world at that time (Arcis/LOM Editores) that could lend a hospitable ear to such a work (but also a venue that sealed the book’s limited distribution), it is now clear that in the face of such a singular work the almost complete non-reciprocation of the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies both in the U.S. and Latin America confirmed a constitutive preference for the tranquilizing security of identity and difference, over and above any unsettling petition for thinking from a position other than that of the metaphysics of the subject (for the object of bereavement is ultimately that of metaphysics itself).
If Tercer espacio was an invitation in the late 1990s to a collective wake in light of the closure of metaphysics and the concomitant demise of literary Eurocentrism—indeed, in light of the exhaustion of the literary itself—the field has responded over the last two decades with a vociferous demand for more and more humanist metaphysics in the name of the “decolonial option” advanced by Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, Anibal Quijano and their innumerable acolytes, for the populist politics of solidarity with the Global South, for subjectivist militancy, and for the descriptivism of the myriad forms of historicism, cultural anthropology and sociology that have sequestered cultural studies in the name of institutional interdisciplinarity.
Rather than approaching the complex apostasy that this heretical, demonic book offered, the field embraced the vociferous veneration of the Creole cultural and political tradition along with the common sense protocols of its authority, orthodoxy, rule and doctrine. Postcolonial papalism (with all the faith in subjective conversion, redemption and sacrifice that this implies) actively displaced a mode of thinking that proposed the gift of death, a creative self-sacrifice or destitution, to the nihilist identitarian ground of the entire Creole inheritance and the tranquilizing security of its university knowledge. In that shallow success the possibility for a re-commencement of the ethico-political became increasingly obscured, and remains so.
Tercer espacio was a work of heresy that fell almost entirely on deaf ears in the years after its publication. There had been no prior clearing in the field of Latin Americanism for the existence of a book such as this, and when it was published in 1999 there was still no space for it. It is, in this sense, a singular work of destructive freedom, a welcomingly irresponsible call in the dark for an other intellectual responsibility.
In the late 1980s and 1990s the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies was still very much dominated by the formation and protocols of its national literary traditions; by the national allegories of Latin American literary modernism (the ‘Boom’) and all the other national allegories that came after it (the so-called ‘post-Boom’). But it was also characterized by occasional sociological discussions of the exclusions upon which such nomenclatures and aesthetic systems were forged, and by the techniques of narrative transculturation and ‘the Lettered City’ that had been mapped out by Ángel Rama in the 1980s. Latin Americanist Hispanism in the United States existed with its back firmly turned away from the theoretical renovations that had been occurring throughout the 1980s in the fields of Comparative Literature, English, Film Studies, Geography, French, etc. Anything that smacked of philosophy, psychoanalysis, deconstruction, postcolonialism or post-Marxism was considered a mere importation and was treated with the suspicion of inauthenticity (“Why read Foucault when we have Rama?” etc). Talk of postmodernity was reduced to less than a handful of young and particularly perceptive readers in the early to mid 1990s, but globalization was for the most part dismissed because, it was said, the nation-state still provided the historical impetus to national culture, despite the growing evidence to the contrary. There was almost no mention of neoliberalism in cultural circles and absolutely no talk of the financialization of capital. In the early 1990s Beatriz Sarlo strived to account for the shifting scenes of postmodernity but essentially lamented the end of metanarratives tout court. In the wake of the Central American wars of the 1980s the Latin Americanist Left in the United States embraced the genre of the testimonio as a supposedly “real-life” political counterweight to “elite” cultural forms such as Boom and post-Boom literature. Minor gestures toward deconstruction in the field emerged for the first time in the early 1990s as a small number of Yale trained Latin Americanists began to acknowledge the literary technique of the supplement, for example. But as long as the closure of the metaphysics of subjectivity itself remained firmly off limits, the archive of Creole humanism and its regional ontologies could persist unharmed in such a way that deconstruction could just be labeled an ivory tower for the vacuous exercise of elite word games and political undecidability, which is where both the Left and the Right of the field achieved consensus. In the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group pursued a populist politics of solidarity from the North, publishing its 1993 “Manifesto” in part as an intended corrective to the fact that the debates on postcoloniality in the English-speaking academy had ignored Latin America entirely. Meanwhile, after the 1992 Quincentenary of the Spanish colonization of the Indies a de-colonizing “darker side of the Renaissance” was detected, largely overlooking the fact, however, that the so-called darker side of the colonial history of Eurocentric territorial expansion was in fact the historical and conceptual accomplishment, the very anchor and metaphysical guarantee, of logos itself. It is from within this constitutive conceptual and political impasse first announced in the mid 1990s that the “decolonial option” reveals its central and still unresolved quandary; namely, that no critical discourse in the historical development of the field turns around, enjoys, and markets its structural dependency upon the perpetuation of Eurocentric metaphysics (identity and difference) quite like the “decolonial option”, which is the logocentrism of “Occidentalism” in action. To this day, such is the state of the field of postcolonialism in its Latin Americanist vein.
And then, with resonances of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra (“con pies de paloma y corazón de serpiente”), came Tercer espacio: Literatura y duelo en América Latina, a book that coincides in its publication with the development and finalization of Moreiras’ The Exhaustion of Difference (2001), and in which the kernel of the later works Línea de sombra (2008) and Marranismo e inscripción (2016) can be clearly discerned.
As already suggested, no other book dealing with Latin America prior to Tercer espacio had as its point of departure the closure of metaphysics, thereby indicating that no other book had adopted finitude as the essential un-ground from which thinking can only ever be an infrapolitical labor of mourning, rather than a dialectical quest for the revelation of Spirit. No other book had displayed a sensitivity to the shifting grounds of its times in such a way as to position itself on the cusp of a globalized financial capital that now reigns supreme. No other book had grappled with the Cuban legacy not from the orthodox identitarian languages of Bolivarian anti-imperialism but from within the labyrinthine unorthodoxies of Lezama Lima, Sarduy and Piñera, thereby assuming the responsibility of destitution not only as a goal in itself but as a singular modus operandi for dismantling the conformist politics of the given. No other book had seen through and invalidated the conceptual and political foibles of the so-called “decolonial option” even before they rose to become the common sense of the field. No other book positioned itself so clearly at the beginning of the demise of the avant-gardes and of the on-going insolvency of the category and institutional destiny of “Literature” as both national Boom and post-Boom allegories, doing so, nevertheless, by opening up literature to new contours for the conceptual labor of mourning from within the closure of metaphysics itself (in this sense, the readings of Borges presented in Tercer espacio remain unsurpassed to this day). No other book had questioned so effectively the facile formulations of the Latin Americanist politics of solidarity that emerged in the wake of the Central American civil wars of the 1980s (in this sense, the reading of the Hegelian dialectic or of Cortázar’s involvement in Nicaragua presented herein remain unsurpassed). No other book in the field of the Latin Americanist humanities had shown the slightest interest in the question of virtual reality, techne and cyber-punk dystopia, and unfortunately nothing much has changed in that regard in the last twenty years. Finally, amid so much Latin Americanist talk of transculturation and cultural hybridity, no other book had amalgamated so creatively the field of Latin American literary and cultural studies with the fundamental theoretical renovations that had occurred during the 1980s and 1990s in the U.S. university. This meant that through Moreiras’ bibliographical de-territorialization of the field at that time, Finnegans Wake, Duchamp, Blanchot, Bataille, Kojève, or Allucquére Rosanne Stone (who is now widely recognized as one of the founders of transgender studies) could have as much room in the field as any sociologist or literary critic hailing from Arequipa, Montevideo, or Córdoba. Such things were unheard of . . . and for the most part still are.
“Ya todo es póstumo” Severo Sarduy had noted prior to his death (quoted in Moreiras, 311). In the wake of this welcome initiative to re-issue almost two decades after its publication the truly singular work titled Tercer espacio, hopefully the posthumousness that the book stands vigil over throughout——its care for letting being-towards-death come to the fore in the language of tradition—will no longer be greeted with the tranquilizing and immunizing silence of the metaphysics of oblivion, but with the sustained reciprocation that a work of this distinctiveness solicits and deserves. However, you might prefer to not hold your breath . . .
Blanchot, Maurice. The Writing of the Disaster. Translated by Ann Smock. Lincoln, U of Nebraska U, 1995.
Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Translated by David Wills. Chicago, U of Chicago Press, 1995.
Moreiras, Alberto. Tercer espacio: Literatura y duelo en América Latina. Santiago de Chile, LOM Editores, 1999.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. “The Decision of Existence”. In Birth to Presence. Palo Alto, Stanford UP, 1993: pp. 82-109.