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Jean Franco's Lifetime of Critical Passions

From: American Quarterly
Volume 53, Number 3, September 2001
pp. 511-517 | 10.1353/aq.2001.0028

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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 511-517


Wabash College

Critical Passions. By Jean Franco. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1999. 528 pages. $69.95 (cloth). $22.95 (paper).

If there is a single thread connecting the diverse compilation of essays anthologized in Jean Franco's monumental new book, Critical Passions, it is her unswerving commitment to autochthonous critical stances; whether studying Latin American political realities or cultural institutions, Franco consistently engages the particular and elides essentialism. Mary Louise Pratt, who edited Critical Passions with Kathleen Newman, pays tribute to Franco's inclusive scholarship and stresses that this "ability to tack effectively between the general and the particular is rare and powerful, both as an expository style and a methodological commitment." The essays in the collection stake out a position between radical critique and liberal imagination, all the while recognizing that an eponymous "Latin American" critical stance may be as problematic as any other effort to fix geographical, ethnic, and ideological boundaries. The collection, read as such, insists on an historical accounting, not only of Latin American literary criticism, but of notions of gender, politics, and culture as well.

Jean Franco began her career in London where she held positions at Queen Mary College, King's College of London University, and The University of Essex through the late 1960s, teaching and writing in the same milieu as Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, and Ernesto Laclau. She moved to Stanford University in 1972 and became a professor of Spanish at Columbia University in 1982. Franco won the 1996 PEN award for her lifetime contribution to disseminating Latin American literature in English and has been decorated by the governments of Chile and Venezuela, winning both the Gabriela Mistral and Andrés Bello medals in recognition of her scholarly accomplishments. She is currently professor emerita of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. With nine books and many articles, the works that have earned her widest readership to this point are: An Introduction to Spanish American Literature and Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico. The enormous success of the first of these, long considered a benchmark for scholars of Latin American literature with a commitment to cultural studies, has required two new editions of the book and several reprintings. Plotting Women is a reassessment of Mexican literature and culture ranging from the seventeenth century to the present that affirms gender as an ineluctable category in Latin American cultural and literary studies. As such, it has helped shape scholarly considerations of gendered articulations of public and private spaces. One brief measure of the influence that Plotting Women has had across the disciplines is the fact that it has been reviewed, not only in scholarly journals with a particular focus on Latin American literature and culture, but in journals with a broadly interdisciplinary audience like the Women's Studies International Forum (1989) and even The Times Literary Supplement (1992).

Critical Passions also brings Franco's work to non-specialists by finally pulling together in one volume many of her most important essays, available previously only in specialized journals. The anthology offers greater access to her scholarship, particularly for those who might have still mistakenly seen her in the narrower terms of literary criticism. The essays collected in Critical Passions range in original publication date from the early 1970s to the present and showcase the wide scope of her academic interests. Grouped thematically rather than chronologically, the first two sections, entitled "Feminism and the Critique of Authoritarianism" and "Mass and Popular Culture," demonstrate Franco's commitment to work beyond the usual disciplinary constraints. These articles document significant moments in her work, not just as a literary critic, but also as a theorist in the field of cultural studies.

Feminism as a critical praxis challenges monolithic discourses, but feminism as an analytical category describes only incompletely the wide variety of Latin American progressive movements that center on gender issues. In her extensive work on feminist literary, political, and cultural scholarship, Franco reads closely "canonical" continental and North American theorists, but she consistently foregrounds Latin American theorists. This attention to autochthonous feminist perspectives provides her the latitude for critiques of traditional leftist remedies. In a very recent...