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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 67-80
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The Work of Literature and the Unworking of Community or Writing in Eltit's Lumpérica
THE TRUTH THAT WE LIVE IN URGENT TIMES HAS BEEN THE CASE FOR AS LONG as anyone can remember. Under such circumstances, sitting back and reading a book, a work of literature, might seem to be ultimately apolitical, dismissive of the world and its very immediate problems—poverty, war, oppression. It would be like the figure of Borges at the end of "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," when the world is being taken over by a particularly nefarious kind of idealism, and the narrator describes himself as sitting quietly in a suburban hotel, attempting to finish a translation of Browne's "Urne-Buriall." 1
It is easy to consider literature (reading, writing, or translating) to be a form of turning one's back to the real world—literature understood as "Literature," that is: canonical, revered works, objects that presume closure and self-identification, monuments of culture. In a talk delivered recently at Duke University, the Argentine critic Nicolás Casullo referred to the importance of "writing or literature" in face of the catastrophe of modern existence. 2 This was received by the majority of the audience as an admission of failure of revolutionary projects or, in the worst of cases, as a conservative [End Page 67] approach to the world, an escape to the protected space of the written word while the rest of the world falls to pieces. Taking this misunderstanding as perhaps symptomatic of a trend in cultural criticism today, this essay will address the question of how literature relates to politics, and in particular to what Jean-Luc Nancy has described as the essence of the political: community. These questions will be posed in relation to the field of U.S. Latin Americanism, a field in which literature and writing have in recent years been regarded with suspicion, or when embraced, tend to be read as testimonies of lived experience. Against such a prosopopeic regionalism, I will consider the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit's novel, Lumpérica, as an example of how the figuration of community is represented not as an object distinct from language, but precisely in and through writing itself.
Nancy defines the political as the place where community as such is brought into play. He explains the Left as a politics that is receptive to the possibilities of community, while the Right is that which approaches the notion of community through order and administration. 3 He considers writing to be inherently political, an intrinsic part of both politics and community. Writing is defined as that which "speaks" or strains toward community, or which serves as testimony to community's absence, or perhaps both simultaneously—the absence not canceling out the remote possibility, the possibility not necessarily signifying an absence. In this sense, Nancy suggests, writing is intimately related to revolution, understanding revolution not as the foundation of a new order, but as something that happens in an ongoing present.
Both Nancy and Casullo use the terms "writing" and "literature" interchangeably as forms of relating to the political urgencies of the world. It is tempting to try to distinguish two fundamentally different phenomena here. The two words have different resonances, both of them equally disagreeable to current critical tastes. 'Writing' brings Derrida and deconstruction to mind; and the word 'literature' may have a variety of associations, but primarily it conjures up the idea of canonical literature—texts produced in privileged circumstances, protected from and unconcerned with the world around them. Yet when we think of writing as that which "calls to" community, we might agree that we cannot do without writing, and furthermore that we ourselves [End Page 68] (critics, students, professors) are engaged in long and committed processes of writing, and that writing also serves an important function in the communities about which we write. On the other hand, writing is an activity that is practiced...