Notes on the Dissolution of Literature

Context N°24

Jorge Etcheverry

As the borders that separate literature from testimony or document become increasingly nebulous, literature as a singular entity becomes no more than a memory anchored by the convention of a name. But what of literature’s singularity in relation to a country—Chilean or Canadian literature, for instance?
Cultural change occurs slowly, and largely underground, and for a time the old labels remain stuck on new jars. Although doing so is now regarded almost as a cliché, it is still necessary to talk about multiple literatures. The notion of a universal and unique literary canon has been widely dismissed, recognized as Western, patriarchal, and dominant. In its place, a range of literatures and critiques have emerged, or come out from hiding, variously linked to age and gender, and to social, regional, cultural, religious, ethnic, special interest, or other groups.
It seems, then that status has been granted to the genres of gay and lesbian, women’s, feminist, indigenous, regional, sectorial, and social class literatures, even if they are germinal or preexistent. In Chile, literature “of the people” has the historical and political backing of a canonic form of socially committed literature. Now, for the first time, another literature is emerging, one that openly displays and recognizes the lifestyles and discourses of urban middle-class youth (or former youth).
Correspondingly, critics are now grouping authors by region and province, not by generation only, nor solely as authors from the south (as was done with poetry in the 1960s and 1970s); nor as exiled writers who emerged from the 1973 coup and whose existence could no longer be ignored. Such literature is no longer exiled, but instead is now “from abroad,” “from Region XIV” of Chile’s thirteen, or “diasporic,” and thus situated within the context of other, non-Chilean, literatures of exile and immigration.
Chile currently lacks a concept of transplanted literatures, although this may emerge. Such literatures exist in developed Anglo-Saxon countries as so-called “ethnic” literatures, or in Canada, at least in certain circles, as “literatures of lesser diffusion.”
Chile, as a relatively successful enclave, if not in terms of equality then in terms of globalization and as a bridgehead of neoliberal economics, has beco­me a magnet for Asian populations, and for migrant populations from poorer neighboring countries. Given this character, it is only a matter of time before these immigrant communities develop their own cultural enclaves and literatures.
One example of which I am aware is the Palestinian Democratic Committee of Chile’s virtual anthology of Arab Chilean writers—authors who are part of the Palestinian migration or descendants of the “ancient land.” As another example, if you will excuse the self-reference, I once returned to Canada after a conference of Region XIV poets, organized by Chilepoesía, to find an email in which a Basque television program asked to interview me as a Basque writer.
Individual literatures have found or are finding a place in Chile in the context of institutional literature. There are already hints of a parallel institutionality and market in the case of women’s literature, the most solid and well developed sector, which comprises incipient feminist critics, publishers, and websites. And in some regions there has also been editorial activity, criticism, and a growing awareness of literature written by Chileans abroad.
But this Marxist shift toward the populace, from literature to literatures, is of course a social phenomenon. In some way, the writer as individual—with all of the romanticism, eccentricity, and impatience that this entails—is being replaced by, or finds herself obliged to coexist with, the representative author, who stands out because she can be perceived as a “voice,” as the “expression” of the collective she represents, and who, in the best case, embodies the collective.
The author is now a spokesperson, and her duty as writer is inseparable from her public negotiations as promoter of the advancement of her group within wider society, advancement that could guarantee equality in terms of civic conditions or freedom of expression. At least in the Global North—as developed countries in the Old and New Worlds are euphemistically called—if an outsider to a group speaks or writes on its behalf or from its members’ point of view, they are looked upon with some suspicion and moral reproach, as if having committed a cultural appropriation.
It need not be said that in these new literatures, what can be roughly termed “content” predominates over “form.” Distancing is sacrificed for, or subordinates itself to, the message. The point is to depict both a state of things and the situation of the literary emissary in light of, and above all within, this state.
Furthermore, discourses in the social sciences, and particularly within development and aid organizations of the so-called “Global North”, tend to affirm the singularities at stake in the process of globalization, with its imposition of homogeneity. So-called localization thus becomes a kind of dialectical positive pole in the movement for the safeguarding or institutional inclusion of those groups, cultures, ways of life, and even languages, whose particular characteristics are threatened by the simplification of the economic trade system. Along with this, human relations, patterns of production and consumption, and lifestyles are forced to become more and more rapid, or else die out or succumb to vestigial isolation.
Many of these differential bodies of writing were established through intense sectorial struggles for rights in the “Global North.” Despite such aggressive beginnings, the most influential of these literatures have attained an appreciable portion of the literary market and with that a comfortable place in the literary institution.
This occurred with the literature and culture of alternative sexual prefe­ren­ces, Black culture, and to a certain extent Native American culture, all of which acquired distinctive profiles at particular historical moments. In differ­ing ways and to varying degrees, all of these movements proposed that, in order to obtain rights and opportunities for minorities and subordinated groups, the system in force at the time had to be replaced.

An example can be found in comparing Marxist, feminist, and African-American movements for civil rights and political affirmation. At the same time and in the same climate, literatures of exile with precedents in the socially committed and militant literature of Latin America emerged.

In this way, what just a few decades ago was considered the writing of Latin American (mostly Chilean) exiles in Canada began to constitute the nucleus of a Canadian Latin American literature. However, in a democratic regime, it was impossible to affirm the legitimacy of the cultural manifestations of some subordinated or minority sectors without extending such affirmation universally. Thus, in the most institutionally advan­ced countries of the first world, political interest in multiculturalism grew, running parallel to the demographic increase in exiled or immigrant populations.

This tendency, however, cannot extend beyond the moment being lived within a system. The principal actors and their institutions are functioning within the system, which provides the only significant vehicles of institutional diffusion. In general, the various marginal, minority, or subordinated sectors do not secrete a literary institutionality that would need a parallel market, a niche market, or a micro market.
In Chile, then, the current literary institution in force encompasses to a greater or lesser extent authors who are “representative” of minority or subordinated groups, and whose representatives and activists do not propose a parallel cultural institution with its own editorial apparatus, criticism, and distribution. Rather, the Chilean literary institution encompasses authors who aspire to “mainstream recognition.” Their editorial instantiations and critics nervously scrutinize every corner of the country to see if a new regional, cultural, generational, gender, or idiomatic shoot will spring up. They then bring it to “public light” and integrate it into the mainstream through consecration and publication in critical and academic venues.

Translated by Kate Grim-Feinberg

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