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Reviewed by:
  • Against Literature
  • Evan Watkins
John Beverley. Against Literature. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993. xvii + 168 pp. $34.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.

John Beverley explains that testimonio like I Rigoberto Menchu —the text threaded throughout his argument—is a transitional practice, "located at the intersection of the cultural forms of bourgeois humanism—like literature, literary criticism, and theory—which are engendered by, and which sustain, practices of colonial and imperialist domination, and those subaltern cultural practices, both traditional and new, that often constitute testimonio's narrative-descriptive content." Thus testimonio is at once the continuation and embodiment of a revolutionary hope that literature can be wrenched from its imperial history to serve as an effective instrument of egalitarian social change, and a warning that a genuinely new and different social order might require, precisely, the abandonment of that hope as one condition for its emergence.

It would be convenient to claim that Against Literature then situates itself as something of a testimonio in this "double register" of interpellation. It's written by an academic who candidly admits in the "Preface" that "literature has been the main intellectual passion of his life," while the argument seems intent on turning that passion "against literature." It evidences a careful, educated and nuanced awareness of an immense range of recent critical debate, yet much of its "narrative-descriptive content" involves "the Spanish language and Hispanic tradition" that Fredric Jameson's cover blurb goes on to note as "always so underrepresented in the high theoretical debates of the time, and these materials inevitably bring with them a very healthy displacement and estrangement of the way debate is formed." It never pretends to be some radically new form of political criticism, yet in keeping with Menchu's own inaugural statement, there is the continual reminder that Beverley didn't learn all this from a book and he didn't learn it alone.

Transitions, however, notoriously make for tricky theorizing. The term does imply that you not only know where you've been but where you're going; that's how you can recognize a transition when you see one. With no stacked Marshall amp noise to valorize the antitotalizing correctness of the point, Beverley quite simply does not know where the book is going. In the "Preface," he in fact agrees with "several readers of the manuscript . . . that these essays as they stand do not quite make a book." And driven by the events surrounding the beating of Rodney King, he acknowledges "the rather uncritical enthusiasm for postmodernism," in especially the concluding chapter on recent music. Likewise, after a long and brilliant chapter on testimonio, the next chapter, "Second Thoughts on Testimonio," begins with "the fact of the defeat of the Sandinistas in the February 1990 [End Page 451] elections" which of necessity must occasion these "second thoughts," I would suggest that Against Literature be read as less a testimonio- transition that anticipates where academic critical practice should go, than as a superb job of reporting on the detailed ensembles of relations through which universities and their academic practices are intricated in the social formation. Thus rather than thinking to I Rigoberto Menchu as a context to help understand how Against Literature can also function as testimonio, one might more usefully turn to something like Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, which after all purports to be a reporter's "eyewitness account" of the attack on literature taking place in the academy.

"Perhaps better than the left, still mired in a habitual bad faith about university life and intellectuals," Beverley argues, "the cultural commissars of the New Right like D'Souza understood that the university is a crucial institution of contemporary society." Thus Kimball as a New Right "reporter" recognized immediately the tactical political importance of positioning himself like a war correspondent at the front, faithfully transmitting the gory details to the population at home. Very schematically, in response to Kimball "liberal" academics attempted to correct the distortions in his reporting and "radical" critique did what it does best, by revealing always more horrifying ideological momentums behind his position.

In contrast, Beverley's angle of entry is in these circumstances a highly original attempt...


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