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CR: The New Centennial Review 5.3 (2005) 207-232

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Two Proposals for an Aesthetic Intervention in Politics

University of California, Irvine
The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation and Poetics of the Crisis. Nelly Richard. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004
Masculine/Feminine: Practices of Difference(s). Nelly Richard. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004.
Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education. Doris Sommer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004

Read together, these three books raise questions about aesthetic practices and their relation to politics and about what might have changed in the ten years that separate them. Nelly Richard's books of essays were originally published in Spanish in 1993 and 1994 but only now are available to an English-language audience. In brief, Richard analyzes the ways Chilean artists, social scientists, writers, feminists, and others negotiated the relationships between art, life, and politics in the wake of the military coup [End Page 207] in 1973. She focuses on (and identifies with) the artists and intellectuals of the escena de la avanzada (new scene), those who were marked by a perception that the dictatorship had unleashed a crisis that was profound enough to put everything—assumptions about language, representation, subjectivity, and memory—into question. They cultivated what Richard calls a "poetics of the crisis"or "aesthetics of the fragment."1 This response to the dictatorship is contrasted consistently in Richard's essays to another set of responses that she associates with the traditional left, which did not want or allow the crisis to shipwreck certain categories, methodologies, or beliefs.

The key question around which Doris Sommer's Bilingual Aesthetics revolves is not so much how to keep open, and radicalize, the crisis of representation unleashed by violence in the face of an all too easy return to (superficial or false) democracy but how to preserve and strengthen a democracy that finds itself under siege. "What to do with difference in a world like today?" she asks at one point. By "world like today," she means the global movements of people and capital through multicultural states; the fact, in other words, that the nation-state is pressured from below by the movements of people and from above by the proliferation of non-national entities and networks (she lists courts, banks, and even terrorist grids) (2004, 131). In her argument, democracy is not threatened so much by these movements in themselves, this multiculturalism, this messiness, but by the responses they have more recently elicited. At several times in her book, these reactions are exemplified by George Bush and Osama Bin Ladin, whom Sommer characterizes through a drive for univocity and universalism, through "damaging efforts to cleanse and conquer" (2004, xv). Democracy is threatened, therefore, not only by the monotheism of Bin Ladin's terrorism but also by an America that moves towards restricted immigration, racial profiling, monolingualism (English), ever more fragile civil liberties at home, and an expanded empire abroad. The alternative to patriots who prefer "monolingual and centripetal loyalties," the alternative she advocates, is what she later calls a "migrant sensibility" or a "double-consciousness," one that is produced through certain everyday aesthetic effects, as I'll show in more detail below. The basic thrust of her book is that the ambivalence and tolerance of such migrant sensibilities are needed to [End Page 208] shore up democracy and possibly even deter large-scale conflict such as terrorism or imperial war.

Doris Sommer's and Nelly Richard's books, therefore, spell out kindred projects in a number of senses. Both share a poststructuralist suspicion of the transparency and stability of language. Both share an interest in promoting difference, in granting visibility to minority subjects and their practices, and in pushing for a more radical democracy. Nonetheless, there are important differences. One way to begin to think through these differences is to consider the fact that Richard's books revolve around a historical moment understood in terms of postmodernity whereas Doris Sommer grapples with globalization. This shift—from postmodern to global times —means that we...


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