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  • A Critique of the Post-Althusserian Conception of Ideology in Latin American Cultural Studies
  • Greg Dawes
Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, by John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman (Austin: U of Texas P, 1990).

One of the major contributions to literary studies in recent years has been the recognition that political consciousness is invariably fused with aesthetic practice. In light of literary approaches prior to Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious (1981), which tended to isolate and fetishize the text, such a development in cultural studies can only be seen as salutary. Nonetheless, this re-evaluation of the relation between the political and aesthetic spheres has tended to gravitate towards an interpretation of this dialectic as unconscious. This comes in response, perhaps, to mechanistic formulations of the conjunction of politics and art, but primarily to Georg Lukacs’ reflection theory. Althusserianism and post-Althusserianism (or post-marxism) are certainly among the most significant proponents of unearthing unconscious impulses in cultural investigations. While Althusser’s work has largely remained intact—and in fact could be seen exercizing a hegemonic role within Marxism—in spite of the criticism directed at it, in many ways it has been unable to overcome such structuralist contradictions as the division created between science and ideology.1 Latin American cultural studies has felt the impact of Althusserianism at least since Marta Harnecker published her monumental study Los conceptos elementales del materialismo historico [The Elementary Concepts of Historical Materialism] in 1969; and Marc Zimmerman and John Beverley’s latest book, Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, comes out of this Althusserian tradition as well as the post-Althusserian and post-Marxist thinking of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. As I will argue below, many of the old problems that plagued Althusser’s concept of ideology continue to afflict a work like Zimmerman and Beverley’s, not only on a theoretical plane, but also in the practical analyses of historico-political events. While we gain many insights into cultural phenomena through such an approach, ultimately a gap is created between the theory, on the one hand, and actual historical events, on the other.

In their study, Zimmerman and Beverley make an upfront, forceful, and compelling argument in favor of an Althusserian ideological analysis which propels their study forward and is aided by the adoption of Gramsci’s concept of the ‘National Popular.’ This theory provides the authors with a foundation for elucidating a discussion on aesthetic commitment in the Central American context and for furnishing a reply as to why literature carries so much weight in Latin America. Briefly stated, poetry, for both Zimmerman and Beverley, accrues a significant and unique value in the Central American region because it can function as a symbolic arena which gathers together—from the optic of Althusserianism—an assortment of feelings, images, and myths.2 Poetry thus serves as a catalyst in forming national identity in revolutionary circumstances in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua—all of which combine nationalism and socialism in their ideology.

Leaving aside the theoretical aspects for the time being, as a historical tract on literary and revolutionary vanguards in Central America, Literature and Politics succeeds in providing the reader with detailed accounts of the intersection of Roque Dalton’s revolutionary commitment and his poetry, the fusion of liberation theology with the Nicarguan revolution, and the role of the testimonio as a transitional, narrational mode. Beverley, of course, has been one of the most astute analysts of the testimonio; and this latest version (Chapter 7) is an expansion of the work he has done in the past.3

It is to both Zimmerman and Beverley’s credit that in this most recent analysis, the testimonio (documentary or testimonial literature) is defined as a “transitional literary form” which, as the authors put it, “does not seem particularly well adapted to be the primary narrative form of an elaborated postrevolutionary society, perhaps because its dynamics depend precisely on the conditions of social and cultural inequality and direct oppression that fuel the revolutionary impulse in the first place” (207). While Central American testimonial literature emerges from conscious revolutionary activity, it is completely enmeshed in this praxis. Hence, as Lukacs’ argues...

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