Poetics of Defacement

It is in this sense that the members of Diaspora(s) escape a poetry of the sublime, of radical change, that is, one of total destruction (obliteration of aesthetics), as well as the poetry of absolute pleasure (national canonical Cuban aesthetics) that the group attacks for its archaic understanding of history and identity.

The emotional response of “dysfunctional delight” is key to understanding the type of affect that the Diaspora(s)’s work displaces. As we have seen, poesis comes from negativity, violence, or destruction. If we read it in psychological terms, it means that the poetic creation and experience mobilize the death drive. This intangible and metaphysical Freudian concept refers to our preorganic and chaotic past, and aims at unsettling the whole that is the organic system. The death drive finds pleasure in what is most troubling in the organism. It does not rebut but rather attracts the subject. As we know, libidinal cathexis creates attachments between objects and subjects, but the death drive destroys them by instigating conflict. Interestingly enough, this is exactly the goal of the Diaspora(s)’s “dysfunctional delight.” This oxymoron thus indicates that poetic expression must be articulated as negative passion that takes pleasure in unsettling the system. In the Cuban case, “the system” refers to the hegemonic representation of the literary canon and the discourse of national identity on which it is based. Now comes a second question, however: How is the relationship between ideology and aesthetics played out in the creation of this particular affect?

Sanchez Mejias’s “Violence and Literature” is one of Diaspora(s)’s iconic texts because it lays out their position on this issue. On the one hand, the essay posits the autonomy of literature in opposition to social poetics as they were practiced during the sixties and seventies. On the other hand, it assigns to literature the power to stand up to the ideological power of hegemonic official discourses: “iQue se le puede oponer al poder? . . . Pero lo que resplandece sin lugar a dudas es la idea de la literature [What can oppose power? . . . what shines forth without a shadow of doubt is the idea of literature]” (Sanchez Mejias 1999, 5). Both gestures negate what hegemonic literature affirms and embraces: harmony, social power, and clarity of expression. According to the Diaspora(s), conversationalist and nonconversationalist poetry put more emphasis on the social function of literature, while the members of the Diaspora(s) believe that language alone defines literature: “Si yo fuera a definir a mi generacion literaria, la definiria con el siguiente lema: ‘hijos de la palabra’ [If I had to define my literary generation, I would do so with the following slogan: ‘children of the word’]” (ibid.). Does this mean that they conceive of literature as merely an aesthetic practice? The answer to this question has to do with the complexity of the relationship between ideology and the materiality of language. Let us remember that this was precisely the same question that the proponents of socialist realism addressed during the early stages of the revolution. How are we to understand the treatment of this complex and long-standing question for Cuban revolutionary literature in the work of the Proyecto Diaspora(s)?

The answer to this question is actually of an Adornian nature, and as one may suspect, it is related to Adorno’s notion of negative dialectics. His materialist philosophy is a response to Hegel’s idealism and the idea that there is an identification between referent and signified. In opposition to Hegel, he thinks that the a priori categories of understanding are nonconceptual, because otherwise they would be incomprehensible. With Marx, Adorno thinks that economic antagonisms structure the social, and that the identification between use value and exchange value is false. The theoretical problem that concerns Adorno has to do with the Hegelian notion of identification. He argues that the sublation of negativity in the dialectic conceals the singularities of each subject/object by wrapping them into a totalizing system. That is, in the dialectical synthesis of affirmation and negation, the absolute is always an affirmation. As a way to preserve particularities, Adorno suggests instead that identity should take the form of negativity. In other words, the dialectic would be a process of sublation between identity and nonidentity that would result in nonidentity. Against Marx, he does not believe that philosophy can have a direct access to what he calls the nonidentical. He argues, however, that reason can have access to the nonidentical through the conceptual criticism of “false identifications” (the ones that the social produces). What are the available resources to grapple with them? For Adorno, we can only access false identifications and their contradictions through language. These contradictions can only be represented via their Darstellung (presentation). Adorno’s modified version of the Benjaminian Darstellung is the idea that philosophy has a rhetorical power to present concepts that enables it to say something that is itself nonconceptual: “Its integral, nonconceptually mimetic moment of expression is objectified only by presentation in language. The freedom of philosophy is nothing but the capacity to lend a voice to its unfreedom” (Adorno 1973, 18). In other words, language is reified by social discourses, but philosophy is able to recover the meaning of concepts and the representation of experience by means of the contextual meaning to be found between the lines and, especially with the discovery of what exceeds the meaning of a word.

Let me then rehearse the questions that I have raised by addressing them to the poetics of the Proyecto Diaspora(s). Given that the Diaspora(s)’s members do not believe in the emancipatory function of literature, what is the role of literature? Or does it even have one? Is literature only an aesthetic experience for them? We can indeed pose a similar question about the significance of violence. Do the members of the Diaspora(s) follow Bernhard’s notion of violence as a form that externalizes the effects of the ideological trap in which we are caught? Is the symbolic power of violence creating an alternative narrative to Dario’s? In other words, is it conceived as a form of liberation from hegemonic ideology? Does violence articulate a new language that opens up different paths to theorize? And, finally, does violence act like a Darstellung, enabling the presentation of what exceeds language? Only the texts themselves can unravel these questions, or entangle them further.

Like most Diaspora(s) pieces, “Un gato llamado Smith” (A Cat Named Adam Smith”), by Rogelio Saunders, resists all kinds of formal categorizations, whether of genre, style, theme, or plot. In what appears to be an adventure story the narrator, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir embark on a trip deep into the jungle, which is at once a geographical, mental, and literary space. Abandoned by their Jeep driver, they walk until they bump into a Lewis Carroll Cheshire cat of sorts: “ ‘Bien dicho,’ susurro el gato, apareciendo de ninguna parte, como un dibujo animado que brota de una gota de tinta [‘Well spoken,’ whispered the cat, appearing out of nowhere, like a cartoon sprouting from a drop of ink]” (Saunders 2002, 16). The piece is narrated as a Joycean stream of consciousness. What is relevant for our purpose, however, is how the poetics of defacement articulate the text. Before meeting the cat, the three characters get out of the Jeep and start walking until they reach a clearing that the narrator describes in awe:

Llegada a un claro en medio de la inmensidad. . . . En medio del mayor espesor y de su transparencia. Arte del agrimensor sobre las hojas de silueta de venablo repetidas ad infinitum. Peso y densidad. Forma y volumen. Medir y volver a medir. Medirme a mi mismo. Pesarme a mi mismo. Y luego medir y pesar a la bella Simone. Tomar el peso de sus pequenas nalgas y sobre todo escapar hacia ese azul imponente atrayente erotico denso inmenso de una vez por todas. ^Perdidos porque (re)encontrados? ^Donde estan las ciudades que nos prometieron? . . . ^Donde estaba lo nuevo (el novum), mi querida Simone?

[Arrival in a clearing amid the vastness. . . . Amid the greater thickness and its transparency. The surveyor’s art on the leaves silhouetted like darts repeated ad infinitum. Weight and density.

Form and volume. Measure and remeasure. Measure myself. Weigh myself. And then measure and weigh the lovely Simone. Weigh her small buttocks and above all escape to the impotent compelling erotic dense immense blue once and for all. Lost why found (again)? Where are the cities they promised us? . . . Where is the new (the novum), my dear Simone?] (ibid.)

Interestingly enough, the narrator describes the impossibility of measuring what he sees. As he tries to compare himself to nature, he feels powerless and unable to do it: “Measure and remeasure.” As if he had suddenly discovered nature as the sublime, the narrator is unable to measure the object of his contemplation. The image of femininity blends with nature and its sublime quality. But, contrary to what is common in Latin American modernist fiction, woman and nature do not form an allegorical representation of the nation. Quite the contrary, the characters are lost and without roots. In spite of this, they are not victims because the logical sequence between the actions of losing and meeting is reversed: “Lost why found (again)?” In other words, there are two different motions at play, one of dispersal and the other of attraction, and they are indistinguishable. As the characters walk through the jungle, they suddenly find themselves in indigenous territory. The two opposite forces reappear as the real (physical) and the unreal (fiction) merge, and space and time disappear:

No era de noche ni de dia. No habia espacio o unicamente habia tiempo. iQuien eres tu? Yo cree la figura horrenda. Yo sola le di a luz. A la figra magica, horrenda, ultima. Me interne en el bosque (en el unico bosque). No ha habido calavera mas sordida ni crimen mas ejemplarizante. Creo en los ninos del mundo, atentos y con terrorificos orificios a modo de ojos. Lo dice el gran bosque, cantando con el silbido profundo de los lenadores, que responden a otros silbidos iguales lanzados por otros lenadores en los confines rojos de Australia.

[It was neither night nor day. There was no space or there was only time. Who are you? I created the horrendous figure.

I alone gave birth to it. To the magic, horrendous, final figure.

I went into the forest (the only forest). There hasn’t been a more sordid skull, nor a more exemplifying crime. I believe in the world children, attentive, and with horrific holes by way of eyes, singing with the deep whistle of woodcutters, who answer other similar whistles from other woodcutters in the red depths of Australia.] (ibid., 17)

These two scenes are articulated through paradoxes that do not lead to a resolution. Deceptively caught by nature’s sublimity, the narrator realizes the lack of novelty (novum). Thus, sublimity does not provoke, as it does in Kant, an undecipherable perception. In other words, there is no sudden shock because there is no separation between reality and fiction; the action occurs without logic. As a matter of fact, the narrator admits to being in a state of insanity, which of course makes him an “unreliable narrator.”

Violence, whether real or not, is the fabric of the story. It is also the experience that creates it, its point of departure: “I created the horrendous figure. I alone gave birth to it.” Clearly referencing Pinera’s “La isla en peso [The Island by Weight],” the short story climbs to an anticlimactic end through an apocalyptic representation of nature defined by sex, bestiality, and excess. It is indeed reality in its entirety that short-circuits the imagination, transforming it all into “the sleepless moment of children” (ibid., 21). It is precisely the inversion that the Enlightenment saw in imaginary monstrosity, as it was, for example, represented by Goya’s condemnation of irrationality: “La imagination abandonada por la razon concibe monstruos imposibles [Imagination abandoned by reason conceives impossible monsters]” (Goya’s Caprichos). As a matter of fact, the text frequently comments critically on Cartesian rationalism. What is more, violence is language, and above all writing: “Yo soy quien no escribe, porque quien escribe supongo que sufre (que sufre mucho) y yo no sufro nada. Nada de nada [I’m the one who doesn’t write, because I suspect that a person who writes suffers (suffers a lot) and I don’t suffer anything. Anything at all]” (ibid., 18). Writing is actually the source of violence and suffering. The word is violence, and the word qua violence is produced by the death drive that generates the text: “Si escribes (si de verdad escribes dit-elle), entonces no es cosa de mirar abajo, al borde de la pagina. Eres algo que se estremece, borracho, hurgando entre las heces [If you write (if you really write, dit-elle), then it’s nothing to look down on, at the edge of the page. You’re something that shudders, drunk, rummaging amid the feces]” (ibid.). That is, writing is not a fiction; it does not originate in the process of creation, by looking at the page as a blank source of possibilities. Instead, it comes from an inner darkness of the intoxicated subject (borracho), who once believed in political emancipation: “Where are the cities they promised us? . . . Where is the new (the novum)?” It is not by chance, of course, that the narrator is addressing Sartre with those words. Sartre’s commitment to the Cuban Revolution, his endorsement of communism, which have been backed up by book-length essays such as Sartre on Cuba as well as numerous articles written for Le Monde, are the target of the narrator’s sarcasm:

No nos han (ni te han) dejado otra cosa. Ni ha habido ni hay otra cosa. Convencete. Eres un puro oh humano detritus. Un coprolitus sagrado. Tu fineza (tu improbable y en todo caso espurea descendencia aristocratica) es solo el discurso delirante de un desencuadernado esqueleto no museable, un milisegundo antes de disolverse en polvo con o sin estruendo, mas bello para siempre en la luz que dueno indiscutido de sus razones. La gesta es una mano que ondula en el sueno proa a la desaparicion y pasto de horripilantes legiones. No sueno esto y sobre todo nunca lo escribire.

[They haven’t left us (or you) anything else. There wasn’t and isn’t anything else. Be sure of it. You’re a pure oh human detritus.

A holy coprolite. Your finesse (your improbable and in any event spurious aristocratic lineage) is just the delirious speech of an unbound skeleton unfit for a museum, a millisecond before dissolving with or without making a clatter, forever more beautiful in the light than undisputed master of its reason. The saga is a hand that flutters in a dream prior to disappearing and food for hideous legions. I didn’t dream this and above all will never write it.] (ibid., 18)

“The saga [la gesta]” obviously refers to the epic revolutionary literature that we discussed in the first chapter. The narrator, a son of the revolution, belongs to a generation disenchanted with it. His writing comes from the violence inflicted by a revolutionary epic that conceived of violence as a means of salvation. This explains why the story conceives of the Revolution as a defeat: “Nunca saldremos de aqui. Es mejor que lo sepamos (y sobre todo que lo aceptemos) de una vez por todas. . . . No hay regreso ni estela [We’ll never get out of here. Better that we realize (and above all accept it) once and for all. . . . There is no return and no wake (estela)]” (ibid., 20). Since this literature creates an imaginary that cannot be deciphered, it resists the Symbolic and belongs to the Real: “Y en cuanto a la susodicha comprension, ia quien le importa? . . . Nos espera el exceso y una desapar- icion tan antologica [And as for the aforementioned understanding, who cares? . . . What awaits us is excess and a disappearance for the history books]” (ibid.).

In the story, writing has the function of the death drive, because it disrupts the system by hindering communication and interrupting libidinal cathexis. As such it produces suffering, although paradoxically, this is not the only feeling that writing produces. In several instances, contentment and discontent are at the source of the same phenomenological perception: “iO este divertirse hasta la locura (este amar hasta la locura y mas alla de la locura, como cuando se dice: “era la locura”) podria ser sufrimiento en estado puro? [Oh this enjoyment to the point of madness (this loving to the point of madness and beyond, like when they say, ‘It was madness’) could it be suffering in its purest form?]” (ibid., 18). The paradox is that the death drive finds pleasure in what is most troubling in the organism. How can we explain such paradox in political terms and how did it play out in the different authors we have discussed? In sixties and seventies epic poetry, violence produces fulfillment because it is a means for a just cause. In this poetry, the discourse of violence follows a Hegelian dialectic where life sublates into death and produces an affirmation in the form of salvation. For Pasolini, instead, the denunciation of terror as it is perpetrated by the state is presented (Darstellung) as a negative force whose goal is an affirmation in the form of destruction (i.e., elimination of state hegemony). This operation has the logic of Adornian negative dialectics. In contrast to these two logics (revolutionary ideology and Pasolini’s terror), the Proyecto Diaspora(s) aims to produce a “dysfunctional delight”:


El placer del texto ya pasara. Entonces vendra la epoca del displacer, de raspar el texto con los ojos, o de poner los ojos en blanco, frente al texto.


Ojala que al leernos sientan, ustedes, una fruicion inespecifica, disfuncional.


The pleasure of the text will pass. Then will come the era of displeasure, of scraping the text with one’s eyes, or rolling one’s eyes before the text.


As you read us may you feel an unspecified, dysfunctional delight.] (Sanchez Mejias 1997b, 2)

The relationship between pleasure and displeasure needs to be read as a dialectical relationship between affirmation and negation. Displeasure is articulated by the death drive, a force that finds pleasure in what is most troubling. As I have shown, for the Diaspora(s) discontent does not come necessarily from disenchantment with revolutionary politics. In other words, there is no melancholic desire to recover the lost dream. Discontent comes from the Diaspora(s) members’ epistemological disagreement with revolutionary ideology, and their cultural politics, which is what they want to “destroy.” This destruction is a negation (displeasure), but it is also an affirmation (pleasure), because it is articulated by the death drive. That is, the affirmation (pleasure) of the negation (destruction of revolutionary ideology) produces “dysfunctional delight,” but it does not propose a construction (affirmation). The lack of purpose in this dynamic means that there is no closure (neither affirmation nor negation). In this regard, the Diaspora(s)’s poetics is not based in the notion that philosophy can recover the “truth” of ideology (as a thought that has been reified). Does this “dysfunctional delight” produce a Kantian sublime? For Kant, the sublime has magnitudes and qualities that challenge our cognitive capacities. In other words, the sublime is a form of cognition that short-circuits the imagination because it cannot be symbolized. In Lacanian terms this can be read as the Real. The poetics of defacement originates in negativity, and if the creation of this negativity is based on pleasure (in the negative), its goal is the creation of a pleasurable experience in the reader. If we look at it from the perspective of reception, this poetics is asking the reader to think. Yet, as in Kant, one needs to experience dread in order to form a thought. This is precisely what Carmelo Bene argues in his essay about Deleuze reprinted in Diaspora(s) 3. Bene cites Foucault as he argues that the writer has to explore beastliness by incorporating it:

La inteligencia no responde a la bestialidad: es la bestialidad ya vencida, el arte categorial de evitar el error. El estudioso es inteligente. Pero es el pensamiento quien desafia a la bestialidad, y es la filosofia quien la mira. A la larga, estan cara a cara. Con la mirada inmersa en este craneo sin vela. Es su propia cabeza de muerto, Su tentacion, su deseo, tal vez su teatro catatonico. Al limite, pensar seria contemplar intensamente, desde muy cerca, casi hasta que no veamos mas, a la bestialidad; . . .” [el filosofo] debe siempre poseer una dosis de “mal caracter” para enfrentar la bestialidad, para contemplarla sin un gesto, hasta la estupe- faccion, para poder acercarse bien a ella y mimarla, para dejarla montar lentamente sobre si (es tal vez lo que eufemisticamente se traduce como ‘Ser absorbido en los propios pensamientos.’)

[Intelligence does not respond to beastliness. It is vanquished beastliness, the categorical art of avoiding error. The studious person is intelligent. But it is thought that defies beastliness, and philosophy that gazes upon it. In the end they are face to face.

With the gaze plunged in the candleless skull. It is one’s own death’s head, one’s temptation, one’s desire, perhaps one’s catatonic theater. At the limit, to think would be to contemplate beastliness deeply, up close, almost until we cannot see anymore; . . . [the philosopher] must always possess a degree of “bad temper” in order to confront beastliness, in order to contemplate it without flinching [sin un gesto], to the point of stupefaction, in order to get close to it and mimic it, to let it climb up on oneself (this might be what is euphemistically translated as “being absorbed in thoughts themselves”).] (Bene 1998, 20)

That is, first Bene argues that one must experience evil in order to think about it. Second, once a violent act has occurred thought is powerless. Evil cannot be thought a posteriori because it should have been predicted a priori. Third, in order to predict evil one must inhabit it and experience it, but one must not fall into the temptation to combat evil with one’s own violence. Sanchez Mejias defies the reader to experience discontent and “scrape the text with [his] eyes.” That is, he is literally asking the reader to remove the outer layer of the text, meaning not to focus on ornamentation. Readers must undertake reading as an operation to think, and their action must cause some damage. In other words, to begin thinking it is necessary to do away with language (the outer layer), the surface that disables our capacity to think. This action of thinking causes us to “roll our eyes” or look in astonishment, surprise, or dismay. Thought creates a “dysfunctional delight,” and the aesthetic experience becomes a poetics of defacement. That is, a poetics that originates from an experience of dread, and a defacement of language articulated by thought.

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