If Argentine criticism ever styled itself with a relaxed bitterness, at any time—the Contorno years are the obligatory example—then its defining characteristic in the first two decades of the twenty-first century is appeasement. It might come in academic form (dominated by favored metropolitan theories) or a journalistic one (coopted by one powerful interest after another, or, more frequently, by the editor of the publication). The success of postcolonialism and its sequels, together with the prevalence of sociology putting on scientific airs or the immanentism of philosophical ambition, weighs down and soaks through universities. Its rate of reproduction guarantees it permanent influence on official bodies of research and teaching. I will dedicate an admittedly shallow approach to the second aspect, appealing to the figure who managed to travel both spaces and serve as a go-between over the course of three decades: Beatriz Sarlo, director of Punto de Vista between 1978 and 2008.
It seems symptomatic that the volume in which she sums up her career (Escritos sobre literatura argentina. Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI, 2017; reprinted in 2019) lacks any of the texts that she put out about new Argentine narrators in the Buenos Aires paper Perfil. Just as in the very brief prologue, where she declares that “nothing published before 1980 seems acceptable to me” (11), the most recent articles merit the same exclusion; the recounting comes to a close in 2006. In that moment, she used a classification system where “if the novel from the eighties was ‘interpretive,’ a visible strand of the modern novel is ‘ethnographic’” (473). She points to the works of Washington Cucurto and Daniel Link as evidence. She takes apart the former comparing him with Arlt (who denounced the meanness of the world that Cucurto celebrates) and with Puig (for whom Alfredo Le Pera’s tango lyrics form a poetics that somehow also inhabits the cumbia lyrics favored by Cucurto). She questions Link for appealing to the new technologies that make up a sentimental novel like La ansiedad, which takes place in online diaries, with insertions from Franz Kafka and Thomas Mann. She equates this with “restructuring the canon” (480). In both cases, “the writing-orality of those who don’t know how to write” feature prominently (481).
Sarlo’s categorical judgement comes in part from her condemnation of Alejandro López’s Keres Cojer? = Guan Tu Fak in 2005. She proclaims that the author regresses, insofar as he tries to take the text to a place that television has already shown ad nauseam, turning audacity into custom and pornography into boredom, the capital sin of a genre whose main purpose is to scandalize. Once again, comparing with known objects is the means of ruin: where Puig insists on an aesthetic object, López abuses didacticism. Her reference to Puig is not merely instructive, but insidious. In a footnote, the critic appropriates treating him as a pop writer, and idea, as is known, from the thesis Manuel Puig: después del fin de la literatura (2000), by Graciela Speranza.
Such an observation begs a word on the relationship between Argentine critics and their disciples who share a strict contemporaneity: Sarlo’s excessive, high profile exhibition in the media has brought about repudiation from some of her old, admiring university students. She includes a note about her ex-collaborator, Silvia Saítta, thanking her in return for the friendly continuity and attributes to her the idea of a collection. (Incidentally, concerning the collection that she directs at Eudeba, Saítta—like a historian of literature—compiled the nearly homonymous Ensayos y estudios de literature argentina (2019) by Noé Jitrik, originally published in 1970, without much justification). There is hardly a showing that in Argentina, confrontations and support have lost their desirably professional, disputably intellectual character, only to become unworthy of human relationships and the reasons for the fragmentation of an intellectual outlook that changes at dizzying speed. Eventually, personal bonds define new groups and leave behind all convictions in search of an improbable welfare or a fleeting advantage that translates into recommendations, the opening of spaces, or editorial participation.
Perhaps that is why Jorge Panesi confesses “the dishonor of not having been controversial” in his personal anthology, La seducción de los relatos. Crítica literaria y política en la Argentina (Buenos Aires, Eterna Cadencia, 2018) (21). In part, because being controversial is a condition of membership in the unstable “intellectual” category—in that sense, the plea of the critic of the old “contornistas” is constant, which ratifies Contorno’s place as the origin story of modern criticism in Argentina. In part, this is because it is about a practice that breaks up that “usual pretext or sociological and structural fetish of our critics” (53), which is the intellectual field, existing in a condition of dissatisfaction and perhaps “the very rupture” (53), in place of the methodological comforts to which it has been reduced by the reproachable laziness of academic research. It would be blameworthy to omit here the reference to Horacio González, a trained sociologist—though numb to the obligatory citation to Pierre Bourdieu—and the literary criticism of multiple works published by Colihue. They barge in with the will to break whatever is left of the buffer in reiterated journalistic interventions. Their complex language and references that do not shrink before the untimely are combined with the goal of defending the alternatives to kirchnerismo, already developed by Sarlo’s media analysis and resisted by Panesi when he confesses his anti-kirchnerismo and proclaims the weight of politics in criticism.
Panesi also seems to set the record straight with his old followers, though he does so in two different ways. On one hand, he recognizes the teachers (whom he groups together in the section “Retratos” in the book). The arc extends from the exaltation of Josefina Ludmer—elevated as a symbol of Argentine criticism—and the inconceivable critiques of Ana María Barrenechea, all the way to astonishment at the writing of Nicolás Rosa and the improbable impact of David Viñas (improbable because he hadn’t been included by whoever adhered to theories of immanence). His works on travel, traced back to 1964, reaffirmed and successively added to, aspire to “intellectual travel.” That category is ironic for Argentine professors that tremble with fascination at going to universities in the United States, who require the consecration of that system. On the other hand, Panesi makes fun of a follower that he never mentions, but whose choices he dismisses: the “prodigal sons of academic criticism, gloomy at what they consider a waste that seems to humiliate them, complain about the university legacy” (14), no less than “those academic critics (believe me, they exist) who, bordering on shamelessness, keep that sort of intimate and private diary—on the Internet, too—, which we call blogs” (122). In this description of the unruly student the reader can just make out the profile of Daniel Link.
In fact, the blog Linkillo (cosas mías), where Link shares the short columns that he writes for Perfíl, has been favored by Panesi’s silence. Perhaps this is due to some knowledge of photographs and reflections that might evoke scandal, whether they’re satisfying, or irritating, or disdainful. Link’s volume in Suturas (Buenos Aires, Eterna Cadencia, 2015), published in Panesi’s same collection, doesn’t even get a mention, despite the rarity of having been translated into Portuguese. I refuse to speculate about the means by which that translation was made possible; I only want to pause to say that that fact contributes to a strategy of building a more fluent relationship between Brazil and Spanish America, which I consider indispensable for the establishment of a Latin American criticism.
What is certain is that, given Panesi’s reticence to include the prolific but casual Link in his book, one can identify the crouching terror that the critic tries to conjure up by occasionally disingenuous means: the fear to the “I”. The distress stemming from the “autobiographical turn” condemns Barrenechea for recognizing her fascination with Borges—whom she inaugurated as subject of criticism in La expresión de la irrealidad en la obra de Borges (1957)—as a “passional judgment” (247) which motivates his use of the diminutive “Anita” (I always called Barrenechea “Anita” too, but it was different; I said it with the conviction that the less formal name evinced maximum affection and allowed me to get closer to the admired figure). He reproaches Alberto Giordano’s tendency to evaluate an essay with a recalcitrant, first-person presence, because “if narcissism takes root in criticism, it’s the essay that disappears amidst the erratic awareness” (288).
The non-existent reference to the book Un género culpable by Eduardo Grüner (Buenos Aires, Godot, 2014) in Panesi’s article about essays (“Escenas institucionales. Sobre Modos del ensayo de Alberto Giordano”, 283-294) is probably a sign of the restrictions of criticism. The book was published in a new edition twenty years after its launch in Rosario, which resorts to the same Barthesian definition of the genre: the writing of a text is in practice a conglomeration of all of the times you’ve raised your head to think of a phrase while reading it. Likewise, Grüner contemplates in the subtitle the connection between essay and controversy, which Panesi arrives at years later: “to question, not be questionable” (288). One might suppose that Grüner’s edition in Rosario had a closed off circulation as a result of not having come from Buenos Aires, which the stuffiest and most closely guarded, unifying tradition defines as the center of all cultural undertakings. Nevertheless, Panesi offhandedly rejects that rash tradition and the notion of place-based determinism when he proclaims that criticism arising from classrooms in Rosario is “the center” (114). His evidence: the indisputable names of Ludmer and Rosa, alongside those of Gramuglio, Contreras, Giordano, Adolfo, and Martín Prieto.
Panesi’s resistance to the “I” has contrarily resulted in an editorial rather than critical streak where some authors base themselves with reference to their relationship with books. Since 2018, Ampersand’s “Colección Lector&s” stimulated the memories of those who make bookishness an emblem of exclusivity. That is where one finds the alliance between art historian José Emilio Burucúa, poetry critic Jorge Monteleone, novelist and critic Sylvia Molloy, her Mexican colleague Margo Glantz, and the multifaceted Edgardo Cozarinsky, among others. The series points to an investigation of the reader’s education, even though it drags along the memoir trap: writers stop in childhood and adolescence, but with the knowledge of an adult that doesn’t vacillate between filling up innocent reading with facts or in building up what were once nothing more than relatively secret pleasures in anticipation of one’s career.
A final aspect of this matter that I want to address in this outline: that of the feminist critic and her avatars in an Argentina whose big cities are touched by a movement of women in favor of legal abortion. Its leaders are part of the debate about the function and consequences of inclusive language, calling upon certain institutions who wear a political correctness medal to convert it into privileged expression. The feminist variable in Argentina prefers the work of women and not—as Griselda Pollock put it with notorious lucidity three decades ago for the artistic protests—representations of femininity independent of women’s autonomy. In that sense, together with the rising place of privilege that María Moreno has obtained in the media in recent years (as a result of her chronicles, her autobiography, and her revision of the legacy of Rodolfo Walsh), a Feminist history of Argentina literature has been announced over the course of 2019, as part of the catalog of the university press Eduvim, starting in 2020. Its list of collaborators is exclusively made up of women, and its goals promise to fit that that exclusive requirement as well.
One can legitimately hope that the feminist history would also include the way in which women have considered the literary productions of men, along the lines that Sao Paulo-based Lilia Moritz Schwarcz wrote in Lima Barreto: Triste visionário (São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2017). Indeed, orienting one’s gaze towards Brazilian works, apart from favoring cultural exchange between neighbors—knocking down their mutual exclusivity over the biggest record labels and turning sideways the popular, stubborn notion that the country on the other side of the border is nothing more than a football rival—moderates the restricted, worried perspectives that each place promotes to stay in line with the mandates proclaimed by metropolitan academies. It’s true that reprobation, once consigned, and to which a certain sector of Argentine criticism dedicates to the “I”, does not allow for a balanced evaluation of Lilia’s confession. According to her, the organization of the biography of Lima Barreto became the “amigo da minha intimidade.” Rather, it is advisable to recalibrate the expulsion of first person and recover the dialectic that Panesi himself establishes in his book: the sort which weaves itself between magisterium and criticism, and which is translated, in its solid embodiment, as the bridge between orality and the written word.
The synthesis of both dominions provides hope: a hope to be listened to and understood, as though in class; and the hope to be read, within the will of the text. And since we’re talking about education: why not take the precaution of using that phrase that, in affable conversations effuse with wisdom—much more than with erudition, easily quantifiable, but transmitted only with difficulty—Anita Barrenchea used to say, both as a counsel and as a prediction of conceited totalizations: “criticism ages”? Such an outrageous reminder of the historical character of practice seems to recommend that one both denounce absolutes and admit of the transitory condition of an exercise that requires, if not the toppling of all myths, then at the very least their redefinition as a function of an efficacy that is not limited to reproducing itself.
Translated by Michael Redzich