- Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age by Ericka Beckman
Ericka Beckman, Alejandro Mejias-Lopez, Capital Fictions, Latin American Literature, Political Economy, Global Capitalism, Export Age, Export Reverie, Modernity, Modernization, Neocolonialism, Modernismo, José Martí, Rubén Darío, Julián Del Casal, José Asunción Silva, Julián Martel, José Enrique Rodó, José Eustasio Rivera, Gabriel García Márquez
Traditional categories of literary periodization have been largely displaced as the main organizing principle of our thinking about 19th-century Latin American literature. Increasingly, we have come to read literary texts through conceptual lenses and frameworks from other disciplines, from anthropology and sociology to philosophy and political science. In this book, Ericka Beckman brings another discipline, political economy, to the table in an attempt to offer a new periodization for the turn of the 20th century (xxi). Building on Eric Hobsbawm (The Age of Capital) and Doris Sommer (Foundational Fictions), Beckman’s Capital Fictions: The Literature of Latin America’s Export Age encourages us to think Latin America’s cultural history and modernity on its own terms. Rather than passive (and premodern) objects of capitalism and empire, her focus on the “Export Age” presents Latin American liberals as subjects of the region’s modernization process, however flawed it ended up being, and Latin American writers as fully engaged in making sense of global economic dynamics through their writings.
Beckman’s study aims to provide us with a model for understanding literature and economics as deeply interconnected. On the one hand, the avatars of capitalist global development in the late 19th century were not a mere context for literary texts, but central to even the most disinterested literature. On the other hand, [End Page 345] Beckman reminds us, following Karl Polanyi, that political economy’s “capacity to imagine worlds that do not yet exist” (xx) generate an abundance of fictions essential to the functioning of the capitalist machine. For Beckman, then, “capital fictions” are not only those produced about, but also by capitalism so that “when we turn to the study of specific texts and genres of the Export Age, the term acquires additional meaning in reference to works of the imagination whose value resides not so much in their truth or falsity, but rather in their capacity to seize on the fictitious dimension of capitalist economy itself” (xx). In this light, Latin American fictions are not external to, but rather function within the capitalist system. In her book, then, Beckman sets out to explore how modern capitalism and its fictions developed in the peripheries of the system according to their own concrete conditions. As she rightly puts it, “the idea that Latin America lies somehow outside of or anterior to modern capitalist formations is itself a ‘capital fiction,’ or fiction of the first order … the time has come, I think, to reposition this region’s cultural production at the vanguard, and not the rear guard, of the history of global capital” (xviii).
The book begins with an introduction in which Beckman lays out the main argument and theoretical framework of the book, a new historicist and Marxist approach to cultural analysis. The subsequent two parts of the book, “Boom” and “Bust,” are meant to evoke “Latin American engagements with global capital as permanently volatile and uneven” (xxiii). According to Beckman, a focus on the Export Age is particularly helpful for illuminating these broader cycles, as this period was marked by both moments of hopeful utopian liberalism and dystopic moments of realization that the liberal modernizing dream would never come to pass, moments often provoked by actual economic crises.
Part one, “Boom,” consists of two chapters organized around the directionality of commerce: production/export and consumption/import. In the first, and perhaps the best chapter of the book, Beckman does a remarkable job of analyzing, through a variety of literary and nonliterary texts, how capitalist fictions of modernization worked in Latin America. Placing them in the context of dominant economic theories such as David Ricardo’s influential model...