- Culture and Its Discontents
Book Culture, Humanities, Latin American Cultural Production, Argentina
As one peruses the Facebook feeds of concerned academics, it would appear that the Chronicle of Higher Education and the social networking site’s algorithm have conspired to announce the death of the humanities several times a day. While there is also a chance that Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk have decided to experiment on literature professors, the steady drumbeat of demise has become rather familiar to those of us dedicated to literary and cultural criticism. The anthology of scholarly essays Rethinking the Humanities, edited by Sofia Tavares and Ricardo Gil (2012), is one such collection of apocalyptic thinking, with various diagnostics of the humanities in “twilight” or “crisis.” The two very good books that form the focus of this review provide perspective on this situation, not only because of their impressive scholarship, but also because they contain an implicit, and perhaps unintended, invitation to think about how we package what we do. They challenge us to examine how we justify literary and cultural criticism in the face of the commodification of education and the administrators, legislators, and trustees who use criteria and indices of work grounded in the precepts of neoliberalism as they work toward that commodification.
As an introduction to the two books—Craig Epplin’s Late Book Culture in Argentina and Felipe Cala Buendía’s Cultural Producers and Social Change in Latin America—the preceding paragraph comes up rather short. These two works explore cultural expressions at points of social transition, with Epplin’s more focused study analyzing the ways in which “the book” has experienced transformations as both subject and object in contemporary Argentina and Cala Buendía’s examining cultural “products” in Bogotá, Perú, and Argentina and the strategies by which these acts of cultural production contributed to social [End Page 217] change. Both books examine the Eloísa Cartonera phenomenon, an excellent reason to read them together.
Epplin’s book consists of two sections titled “Genealogy” and “Morphology” with each section consisting of three chapters. In the first three chapters (“First Publish, Then Write,” “Flight Forward,” and “Cardboard and Cumbia”), Epplin begins with readings of Osvaldo Lamborghini and César Aira that range from particular texts and art installations to texts that examine the process of book production. Epplin does an admirable job balancing textual and extratextual analysis, considering, one might say, the book from the outside and the inside. In “Cardboard and Cumbia,” he provides a particularly impressive bit of analysis of the Eloisa Cartonera project, which began in Argentina in the wake of the 2001 economic crisis, and used recycled cardboard purchased from the “cartoneros” who had collected it from the streets of Buenos Aires. Epplin shows how Eloisa Cartonera works to reposition the book and book production within the economic and technological realities that have challenged literary culture and the very conceptualization of the book itself.
Epplin’s second section, “Morphology,” examines the various ways in which books are conceived of in contemporary Argentine culture in three more chapters: “The Book as Performance,” “The Book as Manuscript,” and “The Book as Database.” In this section, Epplin moves from the literary analysis he engaged in at the beginning of the book to a consideration of literary events and activities more in line with his discussion of Eloisa Cartonera. In the first part of the chapter, for example, he examines the literary community Estación Pringles in an engaging evaluation of the various ideas of the book as event. His analysis, in the second part, focuses on Sergio Chejfec’s engagement with the digital text: in blog form, as a theme of his writing, and in the use and display of various manuscripts digitized and employed online and in print text. “Morphology” (and the book) ends with an examination of the ways in which contemporary writers (specifically Pablo Katchadjian) have engaged in literary creation through the use of previously published work as raw material for their creative process. Katchadjian was in...