John Beverley: Critical Legacy of “Theory” in the Larger Context of Politics since the 1960s. By Fernando Gómez Herrero, who attended the Arts Week 2017 (


“Theory” in the U.S. and beyond.

John Beverley delivered a 3-set masterclass titled “The Politics of Theory,” plus one extra lecture, “A New Orientalism: The Question of Literature as Such and Islamic Fundamentalism,” hosted by the Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies, in the context of Arts Week 2017 at Birkbeck College, University of London. It is a sign of what “the arts” can do. It was very good to meet John Beverley since the last time we met at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the U.S., about 13 years ago, where he has developed his professional career in the Department of Hispanic Languages and Literatures, where I taught briefly. He is foundational figure of Hispanic and Latin American studies at the University of Pittsburgh with all the accolades and songs of glory. His career begins in the California setting in the 1960s, studying with a figure such as Herbert Marcuse, a second-generation member of the German Frankfurt School, one valid preamble of the U.S.-based cultural studies modality of “theory.” His early work is on Góngora, the most elaborate Baroque poet in the Spanish language in the Seventeeth century. We are perhaps most importantly also dealing with the “New Left” emerging in the vicinity of the Vietnam War. How is that for an interesting juxtaposition?


No more no less than 50 years later, we find him taking stock of these legacies in the context of Brexit-Britain London a couple of weeks away from the general elections between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. It is also the moment of a certain revival of the perennial Churchillian theme of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and the U.K. on the part of May. Where will this go? Hailing from the heart of the big imperial country, Beverley (1943-) is foundational figure in the establishment of cultural studies and subaltern studies, having had significant incursions into postcolonial studies in the important point of reference of Duke University, North Carolina, US in the 1990s, perhaps one of the most innovative and creative environments in the immediate past, from where I obtained my Ph.D. at the turn of the century. “Hispanic” is no easy or automatic label for the English-speaking world on either side of the Atlantic, neither is “Latin:” both tend to refer to the area studies of the Spanish-speaking side of the Iberian peninsula and / or its larger Latin American dimension, also inside the U.S., subaltern part of the West, European and American at the same time, domain of high culture and most typically of popular culture, historically imperial and currently mostly postcolonial in equal measure. Trained as a Hispanist, i.e. scholar in Iberian studies, his main vehicle is the field of Latin American Studies, without ever letting go of this European side of things, particularly in relation to the (neo-)Baroque, uneasy label in the domains of “letters” in the English-speaking context, it is fair to say.


But “letters” are very much summoned to the interrogation chamber of these lectures, or rather “literature.” There is less of a curiosity in “literacy.” And, what is this funny word, “theory”? It is code for critical intellectual tendencies emanating from (post-)structuralism, displacing historicist, philologist schools of thought. We are dealing with a specific set of academic cultures of scholarship and also of interdisciplinary university practice, particularly in the North Atlantic, U.S. & France & U.K., but not exclusively, and its radiation elsewhere, with its inevitable “blowback” effect reaching us today with a vengeance. Beverley’s “politics of theory” lectures, about 10 hours total, addressed a vast panorama inside which these multiple connections between academia and the world were made explicit, i.e. “studies” and larger political events in the world, particularly the inspiration of Third World and Latin America (or the South), starting from the anti-Vietnam-War opposition, independence movements in the Third World, Cuban Revolution, Sandinismo in Nicaragua, and most recently the Marea Rosada (Pink Tide) with a persistent Bolivian focus. This account was a rich, vivid, vast panorama of an intellectual life trajectory keeping track of political events happening in different parts of the world, and how could it be otherwise in our global interconnectedness?: rest assured that Empire will find its “Empire strikes back” response. It is less certain if there will be a narrative for either or both dimensions (counter-Empire) that will allow us to make sense of things. “Literature” becomes a contested signifier that is not your conventional sign in the bookshops for fiction. In this vicinity, it is the same as the interrogation of structures of power and privilege, inside and outside the institution of the university. The disciplines will dance to high culture (Theodor Adorno’s Schoenberg or Stravinsky dilemma), or to rock’ n ‘roll or pop or punk and less so to funk or hip hop or rap in the case of Beverley’s generation, admittedly a fan of television watching it for hours. Perhaps millenials and native digital creatures will raise eyebrows. The disparity between Frankfurt school theories of culture and consumerist American popular culture was detonator of things to come, at least in the case of Beverley, sitting unevenly high in the “Cathedral of Learning” (the name of the main building at the University of Pittsburgh) in the “home of the brave and the land of the free,” as the American anthem still has it. What about the transformative connection between the “disciplines” or the “studies” as one gets to find them in the libraries, classrooms and lecture halls, and political life expansively understood? This is one of the fundamental preoccupations of John Beverley displayed during these lectures.


The Desirable “Negation” or “Interruption” of Theory.

‘Theory” is short name for these “cultural” preoccupations in the vicinity of the vast institution that will not go away, the state. Politics, much more than electoral politics, extends from Vietnam to Iraq and Syria, from Johnson to Bush, Obama and Trump. The reader of other parts will add his/her favourite names and meaningful geographies. We live in tremendous moments of uncertainty, with looming Brexit for Britain, neo-conservative upsurge inside and outside the isles, and correspondingly there is a certain retreat and debilitation of “theory.” The focus was placed during these lectures on what may constitute the collective subject of politics, with or without its displays of impatience, even anger. We are looking for this subject beyond the Althusserian conception. The lectures conjured names galore of living figures (García Linera, Spivak, Butler, Wendy Brown, Kraniauskas, Mignolo), following the traces of already established canonical names (Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Otto Bauer, Fanon, Stuart Hall, E. P. Thompson, Gramsci, Deleuze, Hardt, Negri, etc.). It was therefore a crowded imaginary house in the Gordon Square Birkbeck Cinema room. We can “nativize” this type of thought process and bring the affinity to the British school of Stuart Hall in the context of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies founded at the University of Birmingham in 1964 (Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957) must also be included). In Latin America, Néstor García Canclini’s urban anthropology and consumerism is one recognizable name. There will be others. Beverley emerges from this 1960s radicalism on the West Coast of the U.S. His analogy is that of Bob Dylan going electric “transculturizing” the folk tradition resisted also by many, including the cultural theoreticians of the Communist party. Such “contamination freaked out a lot of people.” Some of that is what is wanted for cultural / subaltern studies in the realm of area studies of the foreign dimension, call it Latin American Studies among other names. Where to go but to the popular, i.e. the category of the people?: the Gramscian formula of the national-popular identity and the “failure” of the Italian case. This is the “failure” that reaches our contemporaneity with the neo-conservative focus on the working classes and the “national identity” issue which does not go away, even in our globalized times.


Latin America emerges to global consciousness in the 1960s with theories of uneven modernity, the Cuban revolution, a new kind of postcolonial sensibility, the peculiarity of the hybridity of its cultural forms (Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation, the example of the soup called “ajiaco”) responding to Fascist acculturation, and most famously with literary “magical realism” (García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, etc.) among those who still hold a predilection for the book format and the form of the novel. The history of jazz (Stan Getz is mentioned) is a kind of successful transculturation, mostly for elitist groups, perhaps. There as no reference to other artistic forms. “Literature” however remains, for the most part, at least in Beverley’s vision, complicit sign of high culture, the superstructure concomitant with what can be abbreviated as the “institution (literature, university, and perhaps most damaging, the state). If this is the “hell” to avoid at all costs, at least for the sensibility of a certain generation, a certain cultural / subaltern studies will have to go to (the theory of) popular culture wanting the (theoretical) interruption or “negation.” The suggestion is to push the closed metaphorical quality of the critical language as it marches through or perhaps falls, within institutions. The idea is to give force to the subordinate, the dominated, humiliated dimension, the unequal, the space called the “South,” the Fanonian formula of the “wretched of the earth.” The notion of (in-)equality is highlighted between those of freedom and fraternity.


We live, alas, in an impasse of “theory.” Beverley is explicit about his feelings (or “affect”) of resentment in our apparent times of conservative restoration. Perhaps “theory” is compensatory radical function for the debilitations of leftist politics kicking off at least since the Thatcher / Reagan moment. Is our moment any better? Where are we looking for global inspiration? Literature? Culture? The Momentum side of Jeremy Corby? The Andean high planes? Syriza? Podemos? Para-institutional spaces? Privatized environments? Digital domains? Where is the power of the imagination to create new worlds of alternative possibility? “Literature” finds itself in “free fall” inside the neoliberal ideology that places the principle of authority in the free market with no particular value or permanent attachment to the “humanities,” hence undergoing a corrosive effect, even liquidation within the cultural industry of the global corporate university and virtualized society at large. The suspicion is that cultural and subaltern studies may indeed have been unwitting collaborators with the system, at least on the American side of global things, since the late 1990s. The self-styled “rebels” may have woken up one tangled-up one bad morning like the characters in the film The Matrix. The Duke moment has now gone. In other words, if Spivak answered her own famous question in the negative, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” Beverley alarm bells toll for the American-style marketing of the University: the Duke Dean who famously proclaimed that Subaltern Studies will be the success model for the global university. The whole point was never to want to find the DNA of global success in the first place. How radically different is the British system by the time this account is made public?

Have Cultural / Subaltern Studies Been Complicit with the Logic of the Reproduction of Capital?

Beverley’s critical hindsight is explicit that these early moments of cultural studies and subaltern studies may have indeed been part and parcel of the postmodernist logic of the global university in late-capitalist formulations. Pause for a minute and take a good look at the culture industry of the university system in the present moment. We may know where we have been, but do we really know where we are (not) going? Pause, rewind and fast-forward taking into account practices and discourses (not) taking place. Subaltern studies is –or at least was– a new way of thinking beyond that by emphasizing what was of inferior status, the lesser value, the foreshortened perspective of the shoe shiner level if you wish. The subaltern has hit a wall since Guha’s masterpiece, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, with or without the refusal by a certain Latinamericanism to accept the “Indian” influence, but also the American and British influences. Beverley still defends the affinity felt among a few Latin Americanists with Asian Subalterns, at least since the Spivak moment at the University of Pittsburgh. Contaminations go in many directions in the present global present and identity politics will get tangled up and often reinforced in any binary (native and foreign for Area Studies modalities, for example). How could they not? The key thing is still to highlight the dimension of insubordination, and see how far “we” can go. But “we:” who are “we”? Tensions informing Area Studies models of global studies, or the rendering of the “foreign” political dimensions of “who we are,” are perceptible, particularly when “identities” of all sorts come round the corner to live with “us.” Cultural / subaltern studies bring into question this subject position (the “us”) and what would make it desirable against others (the “them”).


“We are all post-Marxists now, we are all post-colonialists now…”

Why have “theory” people for the most part stopped short of the state? What have they stopped short, period? How to rethink political subjectivity in the conjuncture? Where is now the point of Archimedes that will move the entire world? Is this too grandiose a statement? Beverley’s brand of cultural studies will still defend “to want to change the world,” around the notion of the totality. One needs a different kind of history that is not the typical biography of the nation state. So, in essence, Beverley’s proposition is for a kind of anti-history stance, at least against a certain conventionality of the discipline of “history.” But there is no retreat from these nouns (nation and state, not even “history” with/out the crisis of all the narratives), not even since the retreat of the Zapatistas (a certain arsenal for Subaltern studies according to Beverley). “Studies” wanted, perhaps still want, to intervene in the structural matrix of the university system in the manner of a desirable interruption, hence the emphasis on the synchronic and also on the sphere of the civil society, or the category of the “people.” The downturn of the Pink Tide governments (Centre-Left, not Red, a kind of social democracy, not in the conventional European sense) puts Beverley in a bind (“I invested his (cultural) capital in the Pink Tide, if I can mix the metaphors. I am bankrupt”). Way out? Perhaps the “politics of dehistoricized affect.” And the issue of representation of “the people” comes to the fore. Beverley is open about the points of contact with the religious domain, from an atheist perspective, and Liberation Theology’s “preferential option for the poor” (Gustavo Gutierrez). Parallels with Enrique Dussel, for example, were not explored.


Beverley’s claim is that “we are all post-Marxists, we are all post-colonialists now,” which is a provocation of sorts. This ecumenic call will find sympathy in specialized types of academic discourse and perhaps even affinity in the streets. The desire remains in the meantime one of counter-cultural heterodoxy finding no easy outlet and certainly no automatic release in Britain and elsewhere in the second decade in the new century. A certain Deleuzean tendency seems to be gone in the direction of Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s progeny of the best-seller Empire. Beverley holds his breath here, strikes a neo-Leninist pose accusing their followers of “infantile disorder,” whilst conceding that it perhaps shows the limitations of his own generation. We live in terse, tense conjunctures scratching our skulls as to what sort of apparition, catastrophe, epiphany or horror or none of the above, will come next, perhaps the figures of the migrant and the foreign, perhaps convincingly captured by the “modern languages,” “literature” and the “visual culture.”


“Postcolonial Criticism of the Inscription of Literature as such.”

Beverley’s open lecture, “A New Orientalism? The Question of Literature as Such and Islamic Fundamentalism” follows one of the fundamental propositions of postcolonial criticism, that modern literature itself, from the Renaissance onwards, is complicit with processes of European colonization of the world. I do not see Beverley calling himself postcolonialist, but he is, no doubt, touched by this set of issues. Stepping outside his “home” in Latin American cultural products, Beverley approaches European cultural products, specifically Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission (Submission), Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow, and Michael Haneke’s film Caché (Hidden), recreating collective guilt in relation to the 1961 Seine Massacre. The answer to the question in the title of the lecture is yes: a spectre is haunting Western secular and consumer liberal democratic consciousness and it is that of the Islamic / Muslim Otherness reproduced by high forms of literature and film. Are “we” all (un-)wittingly recycling Orientalism failing to assimilate the lessons of Edward Said and others as though there was no way out but for whom? The convergence of these three European works is around the challenge to secular modernity / modernization posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Beverley synthesized the narrative of each of these cultural products caught up in what we can call the dilemma of the “Literature in the Third World” (to use the old, perhaps still valid nomenclature of the social sciences in the Cold War moment; the name of Aleksandr Dugin was conjured about worse things to come in geopolitics). Islamic fundamentalism is the conundrum that brings Rushdi and Said, Charlie Hebdo and Fanon’s words on violence together. Roberto Bolaño’s work is introduced as perfect example of Left melancholia in Latin America.

But “literature” is always already the sign of high culture in Beverley’s account and its globalization is no transcendence of colonialism but universalization of new neo-colonial forms, images or letters. Here, the French setting adds a fair amount of fear and (self-)loathing, despite Macron’s recent victory over Le Pen, with worrying signs in many settings (the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, Germany, also Britain, and what about Russia?). Yet again, “literature” is, at least in Beverley’s axiomatic account, the opposite of emancipation: complicit (high-culture) dimension of this New Orientalism with or without declining number of readers and interpreters. If there is a different kind of literature, it was not made explicit. Is there no alternative nesting in mid- or popular culture then? No kitsch either? No schlock? Are there no sustainable examples of a different type of literature in the English and Spanish speaking parts of the world? Is such condemnation made in relation to the author’s fantasy, the rigidly expected reader response, the predictions of the market, the minority effect of consumers of literature and cinema in the “fake-news” mass media? It is not clear. Yet, the main argument in the lecture is that this form of globalism or universalism is easier to denounce than forcefully dislodge. The role of the novel cannot be disentangled from this modernity, including its peripheral variations (Turkey, multicultural Muslim France, the aftermath of the Algeria War of Independence in France). The film Caché reinforces the depressing argument stemming from the famous film Battle of Algiers (1966), allegedly used by Americans during interrogation techniques in war situations mainstreamed by films such as Boal and Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty ( My mind inevitably went to the famous article by Fredric Jameson about national allegory and the Third World and the critique by Aljad Ahmad along the lines of “othering” in the 1980s. Was Beverley updating this tension for us thirty-plus years later siding with one or the other? Was he more Jamesonian than Ahmadian or neither?


But we are all here, inevitably?, in the evanescence of the object of study called “literature,” caught up in the certain impasse of the “studies” privileged by Beverley (cultural, subaltern, gender / queer, etc.), inside perceptible mutations of the institution of the university. Would the (foreign) visual culture provide better alternatives in the strictures of Brexit and the Age of Trump? In these panoramic lectures, we saw the unequal visibility of the Americas, disturbing glimpses of the “Other” vis-a-vis Britain’s increasingly negative exchange with its own continent, at least in relation to its European Union formulations. But there is more: the Muslim / Islamic “otherness” looks at the distorting mirror image of the secular values and global modernity and the violences occurring in the Middle East and the West most visibly since 9/11 (I am finishing this piece one day after the suicide bombing in the concert of the American pop singer Ariana Grande in the city of Manchester). Final Hispanist surprise: Cervantes’s Quijote is hailed as the founding text of literary modernity making this Western interruption of the Islamic Other. There was no mention of the once celebrated coexistence of the three religions in historic Spain. Perhaps this is a receding horizon beyond our reach in our accelerated and violent timespaces of genuine global disorientation. Will our studies play catch-up?



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