Post-autonomy

by craigepplin

The other day began for me with a conversation about literary autonomy. I had sat down with the editorial director of a press I admire. She and I got to talking about her press’s catalogue and ended up discussing Josefina Ludmer’s notion of “literaturas posautónomas.” The term refers to a particular sort of neighborhood-centered writing that, Ludmer contends, became prominent in Argentina during the first decade of the twenty-first century. These texts, by writers like César Aira and Daniel Link, represent a turn away from literary autonomy, she argues:

They appear as literature but cannot be read through criteria or categories such as author, work, style, writing, text, and meaning. They cannot be read as literature because they empty it out: meaning (or the author, or the writing) is left without density, without paradox, without undecidability [. . .], and it is occupied entirely by ambivalence: these texts are and aren’t literature, they are both fiction and reality.

She then posits that these sorts of texts are representative of a general shift in literary culture in Argentina and beyond, in which transnational publishers and media companies have come to dominate the “language industry.” And finally, she argues that in an era in which economics = culture and vice versa, the separate realms of reality and fiction likewise become impossible to delineate.

I believe that most of us would accept at least some of these premises—for example, that culture and economics are tightly intertwined in the present. However, my interlocutor insisted that she wanted to believe that literature was still autonomous, that literature can still point to a realm of thought beyond the everyday. In other words, she didn’t exactly take a stance on the reality of literary autonomy today, but rather expressed a desire for its continued existence.

I turned that idea over in my head all day. In a sense, desire does produce real effects. Part of our ability to continue speaking about literature stems from our desire to keep it around. In that way, desire maintains a category simply by insisting on it. But at the same time, categories don’t simply emerge from speech acts. They also require physical infrastructure, and as I had that conversation, as we sat in the café of a bookstore that hosts readings, book presentations, and lectures, as I found myself looking around and feeling insulated from the noise outside, it was a simple matter to say that yes, of course, literature does indeed retain a certain sort of autonomy today. It was palpable in the space I sat in.

That’s not a satisfactory explanation, though, for the strong sense of literary autonomy refers not only to the idea that literature works with its own spatial and linguistic coordinates. It holds that these coordinates delineate a world at odds with the utilitarian imperatives of capital. It’s difficult to argue that such a world is plausible today.

That conversation ended up framing my own literary wanderings throughout the day, even if imprecisely. I had a few hours to kill in the afternoon, and ended up meandering through San Telmo. I happened upon a majestic building that I had never entered, the old Biblioteca Nacional. Its doors were open, so I walked up and in. This is what I saw inside:

Flying Books

These books had been arranged by Christian Boltanski in homage to Borges, a one-time director of the National Library. A woman at the exhibit explained to me that Boltanski’s premise was simple: to repopulate the now-empty building with books. I’ll be interested to read more about the show, but my first impression was awe mixed with disappointment. Awe at the beauty of the tangled suspension of open books; they looked like bugs trapped in a spider web. But I was disappointed about the criteria that, at least according to the woman I spoke with, had guided the artist’s selection of the texts. Or better said, the lack of criteria, since the idea was that they would be any old sort of text, as long as they were used books. This may or may not be the case—again, I haven’t had the chance to read up on the exhibit—but if it’s the case, it strikes me that this randomness betrays a lack of care.

As I wrote that last sentence, I had a second, contrary thought. Perhaps the randomness has to do with Borges’s argument in “El escritor argentino y la tradición.” Maybe it’s about the putative permeability of Argentine letters to any sort of writing…

(I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts on this idea, so leave a comment if you’d like to correct me or add to this reading. In any case, these thoughts are clearly still pretty scattered.)

As I walked out of the library, after circulating through the books and lying on the floor under them, wondering if one might fall on me, I returned to the morning conversation about autonomy. This exhibit populates a library, one of the hallmark institutions of traditional literary culture, but the books are not meant to be read. They become purely formal artifacts, empty of content. It reminded me of something that a bookstore owner had told me, something that we all know: that lots of people buy books just to have them, not to read them. In this sort of formal experience, there is no encounter with the actual verbal constructions of a book—no encounter, that is, with the aspects of the book that are supposed to transport us beyond the quotidian. Rather, there’s a sort of encounter with the vague environs of literature: a habitation of the world of words without attending to the words themselves.

That night I went to a jazz tango show. I went because part of the performance had something to do with Clarice Lispector. I was interested to see how the singer would integrate her work into what sounded like a rather traditional sort of musical performance. As it turns out, she didn’t so much integrate Lispector’s writing into the music as she simply read pieces of her chronicles between some of the songs. I didn’t really get it.

And so, as I sat at the bar of one of Buenos Aires’s most beautiful bookstores, drank my negroni, and listened to these intermittent reading sessions, I wondered what sort of experience of literature I was having. Was this simply literature as totem, invoked to lend gravitas to the musical performance? I thought so, which was a let-down. Ornamentation isn’t a literary value I much care for.

As the show proceeded, I found myself looking past the singer and through the windows of the bookstore, where passersby peered through the glass. Some of them seemed genuinely interested. Others were poking fun. A few were pretty lewd. I liked watching them. It seemed like a return to the conversation I’d had about autonomy, for here inside literature was held up over music, an authoritative prosthesis to traditional tango and jazz and boleros, but here also was literature as something semi-permeable to the world: It seemed to me exclusive to a space but invaded by the outside, by humor and vulgarity and simple indifference.

That has always been the case, of course. Literature has never been autonomous. Or rather it has, but only in as much as we have desired it to be so.