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Micrometanarratives and the Politics of the Possible

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 11, Number 3, Winter 2011
pp. 91-117 | 10.1353/ncr.2012.0021

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[N]arratives allow the society in which they are told, on the one hand, to define its criteria of competence and, on the other, to evaluate according to those criteria what is performed or can be performed within it.

—Jean-François Lyotard (1984, 20)

Postmodernism, postmodern consciousness, may then amount to not much more than theorizing its own condition of possibility.

—Fredric Jameson (1991, ix)

If world literature is, as Pascale Casanova (2004) suggests, a World Republic of Letters, then Mario Bellatin's literary domain lies somewhere down a rabbit hole in one of the more perverse of the Republic's enchanted forests. Nevertheless, and despite his rebellious approach to writing and teaching literature, Bellatin's writing has gained traction, most notably in France, where Casanova's "Greenwich Meridian" of world literature cleaves a gentle path through the arrondisements of that majestic capital of the written word. This is especially curious considering—as I propose you do—that Bellatin's writing refuses to inhabit the acres set aside for it in Casanova's World Republic. Determined to resist literary genealogies and to remain an anomaly, Bellatin is bent on literary provincialism, creating works that only interact with each other in an increasingly expanding—but hermetic—system.

This is not to say that Bellatin eschews all references to the literary world beyond his own: he knows it exists and knows his reader does, too. Explicit references to a broader literary tradition abound, particularly in Bellatin's "fragmentary" novels, such as Flores (2001), Lecciones para una liebre muerta (2005), and El gran vidrio (2007). Nevertheless, each work in Bellatin's corpus seems to build the walls around his hermetic domain just a little bit higher: a quarantined rogue state—or terrorist cell, or commune—within the World Republic.

The concept of Casanova's Republic, which attempts to suture the perceived rupture between text and world, reacts to a tendency that Fredric Jameson identifies as constitutive of postmodernist theory: the presupposition of some sort of radical "break" in aesthetics, politics, or some other aspect of "culture" (1991, 1). Jameson sees an explosion of culture to every sphere, such that politics and aesthetics (among other things) become knottily intertwined under the sign of "culture." Casanova counters by delineating a "literary space" that has always been and continues to be separate from these other spheres, thereby according this terrain the privileged role of mediation between politics and aesthetics. Jameson's observation is based as much on cultural artifacts in the plastic arts and literature as it is on "theoretical discourse," an art he claims is more symptomatic of postmodernism than descriptive of it. One of these presumed "breaks," central to Jameson's thesis on the inherent impurity of the concept of postmodernism, is the break with "metanarrative" identified by Jean-François Lyotard as the defining characteristic of the postmodern.

It is precisely from these postmodern lacunae—Jameson's "presupposed breaks" and Lyotard's absence of metanarrative—that writers like Mario Bellatin and César Aira enunciate their art. In response to the alienating detachment from some sort of trajectory and the correlated decentralization of the postmodern subject, these authors create their own metanarratives in bodies of work that are self-referential, creating symbolic systems that, although not wholly divorced from their literary heritage, refuse a genealogy. Furthermore, although Lyotard's pronouncements about the end of metanarrative remained themselves "couched in narrative form," as Jameson points out (1991, xi), writers like Aira and Bellatin enact the loss of narrative by replacing it—paradoxically—with a personal web of narratives that govern the closed textual network of their literary production.

Coordinating a larger corpus of works, these molecular textual networks articulate a micrometanarrative of the author's oeuvre. The micrometanarrative has contact points with the larger culture to which it belongs—references to other works that function like windows to the exterior literary field—but subsists as a slowly inflating bubble (or a tumor, metastasizing) within it. As the disease metaphor intimates, these vesicles are neither harmless nor empty: micrometanarratives, I argue, have a distinct and subversive political purpose. Focusing on the work of Mario Bellatin, I will contend that by refusing to go along...

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