- This Product Made from Postconsumer Content:Narrative Recycling and New Novelistic Economies
If the Metropolis is already transforming its inhabitants, why not take the process into our own hands? Only in this way can we invent the “plots” for the disinherited, scriptless urban masses, the drifting castaways of the 20th century.—Rem Koolhaas, “The Future’s Past” (1979)1
There is nothing less natural than subjectivity.—Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (2002)2
It’s the age of posteverything and an era when consumerism, in the words of Susan Buck-Morss, has arguably become “the first global ideological form.”3 And yet can such a thing as a postconsumer really exist? No matter one’s outlook on late capitalism, this suggestion seems impossible. But there have always been resisters of consumerist capitalism, and the information age has enabled those of the twenty-first century to cooperate and coordinate their opposition like never before. One need not look any further than the dumpster-diving New York City Freegans, who exchange information about where to find discarded articles and useful trash on their website, Freegan.info, on a related MeetUp group page, and in online swap meets like Freecycle.org and CraigsList, which hosts a forum listing free items.4 Like other disobedient subjects of the consumerist regime, the Freegans’ interest in usable, discarded materials stems from their objections to global capitalism’s general disregard for the environmental costs of a perpetually expanding world market. Yet, while their twin goals—resistance to a consumerist lifestyle and the protection of environment—are two that logically go hand in hand, the combination [End Page 1] is still rare, and strict adherents are viewed as unruly, irrational radicals: the kind that get arrested in droves at world trade summits.5
Naturally, the situation is different when it comes to cultural production. Installation, collage, and sculpture have pillaged the junkyard for inspiration since the early days of modernism, and a growing cadre of other visual artists are stimulated by the refuse of global capitalism and the oversaturation of cultural circuits. Observing the rise of artworks since the 1990s that “interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use works made by others or available cultural products,”6 Nicolas Bourriaud interprets this “art of postproduction” as an attempt to grapple with “the proliferating chaos of global culture in the information age.”7 These artworks, he claims, are “characterized by the invention of paths through culture.”8
Indeed, experiments in recycling are also being undertaken in the literary field, especially by writers who hail from one of the great junkyards of global capitalism: Latin America.9 As neoliberal trade agreements proliferate, so does the volume of pollution, waste, and second-rate consumer products exported south. Likewise, the facade of democratization put up by increasingly connective cultural and data circuits only thinly veils that these networks are dominated by politics and protocols that concentrate power and wealth in the north. In Latin America, writers have responded to these interrelated trends by engaging in practices of literary recycling. Take, for example, MixLit, an online project developed by Brazilian writer Leonardo Villa-Forte, who creates texts by weaving together sentences lifted from other previously published works. Calling itself the “DJ of Literature,” Villa-Forte’s project is a “ludic experience in literary research” that seeks to give “bastard life” to the cribbed passages in its quest for a “creation without limits.”10
My concern in the following analysis, however, is the radical rethinking, refashioning, and recycling of a literary form that has often been accused as an accomplice of bourgeois capitalism: the novel. Two writers in particular interest me here: César Aira (Argentina) and Mario Bellatin (Mexico). By developing formal and aesthetic practices that strike at the heart of the ideologies that underwrite globalized capitalism, Aira and Bellatin describe new a novelistic economy—one based on obsessive self-referentiality and the persistent reuse of their own novelistic material. Neither Aira nor Bellatin is a committed writer in the old-school Marxist sense, but the consequences of their projects are unmistakably political: this is a new radical aesthetic that could be described as post-Marxist for its acknowledgment of...