Diacritics is 50: A golden anniversary is a significant milestone for any academic publication, let alone one that began from a rather eccentric (dare I say punk?) ethos. Rather than the usual toasts or special commemorative issues, we have asked our readers and writers to reflect on the history of the journal. For the second entry in our anniversary series, Diacritics graduate board member Matías Borg Oviedo interviewed Alicia Borinsky. He spoke with Borinsky about the two essays that she published in Diacritics in 1974 and how they related to the beginnings of Latin American Studies as an academic discipline in the U.S.
“Literature is not a generator of symptoms, a potential patient of theory”: An Interview with Alicia Borinsky
Alicia Borinsky is a U.S.-based Argentine novelist, poet and literary critic. She is also Professor of Latin American and Comparative Literature and Director of the Writing in the Americas Program at Boston University.
Matías Borg Oviedo: You published two review articles in Diacritics, both in 1974. My first question is: How did you get involved with the journal initially?
Alicia Borinsky: At the time of the publication of these articles I was a very young Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins. A number of colleagues at the same rank contributed to the lively incorporation of French thought in U.S. academia. Jeffrey Mehlman, a prolific collaborator of Diacritics, and Richard Klein called my attention to the existence of the journal. I had a sense that there was an urgent dialogue for me to add my voice to. A community of interpretation was emerging. Hopkins was a congenial space to think with certain French figures such as Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, Michel Serres, Jean-François Lyotard (all of them visiting professors and more than willing interlocutors). I was in the Romance Studies Department but my initial field of interest was philosophy. I knew then already that philosophy and literature were intersecting and undistinguishable fields. Diacritics was part of that moment for me, and the collegiality it created was stimulating.
I had a sense of mission because I had discovered Macedonio Fernández in Jorge Luis Borges’s classes in Buenos Aires and was determined to feature him as a precursor of the sort of boundary-questioning going on in France. You can see the attraction of Diacritics as a forum.
MBO: A follow-up question to that—after having published in Diacritics, did you keep up with the journal? Would you say that you kept on reading Diacritics? Do you still read it?
AB: Well, on and off. I did keep up with the journal for many years and in fact I was the co-founder of a journal called Glyph that was not directly modeled on Diacritics but in retrospect had many points of contact with it. So I was very interested in all that and I continued to be interested not only in the journal but also in the work of people who have been associated with the journal, like Jonathan Culler and Jeffrey Mehlman, for example. The journal had a very important impact—do I read it now? My work over time has taken me elsewhere. I am a fiction writer, a poet, I practice interstitial genres. Although I still write books on criticism, my interests are such that my knowledge of the journal and of other journals, not only Diacritics, is now spottier. But Diacritics has my vote of confidence; it’s always been a great polemical journal and very much alive.
MBO: So, your relationship with Diacritics probably has more to do with your own trajectory and your own interests.
AB: Exactly, it has to do with my own trajectory. I have always been what is called, deceptively, a creative writer. I like the freedom of Diacritics but I do not follow it very closely, just like I don’t follow many other journals. I think it is a reality of our profession now. What we do takes place now in a spottier way, in international meetings, in associations that come out of single interests. I just participated in a panel that had people from Berlin, Poland, Paris, and myself talking about Witold Gombrowicz, about whom I have written extensively, particularly in my book One Way Tickets, Writers and the Culture of Exile. Gombrowicz is the glue that connected groups of writers and critics in diverse formats, be it in print, conferences, dramatic performances, film. So, I think what happens is that things now are not that coherent. As we become more global, we shift our ways of communication.
MBO: I think it is very interesting that you underline these differences between what the profession looked like back then, and what it looks like now. And how this changes the way we read and follow or don’t follow certain journals, and that speaks to me too, where I see that I draw from different places and conversations that are not necessarily channeled in one and the same space.
AB: Yes, and there are journals that only last a very short time. I became associated with a group of people with whom I am still connected, but at the time I was first associated with them, they had a publication outlet called Lamujerdemivida. Then they evolved, and they became El congreso Gombrowicz, El grupo alejandría. It is a game of hide-and-seek. Now I think that we know how to spread the news faster, but we are also more ephemeral.
MBO: As I was reading your articles, and I am going to refresh your memory a little bit here—your first one is entitled “What Do We Read When We Read,” it is on Mario Vargas Llosa’s book García Márquez. Historia de un deicidio, and there is a passage that called my attention:
“Spanish American literature has matured considerably during the last decades and it has given us texts as those of Borges, Macedonio Fernández, Cortázar, Carpentier, Sarduy, Lezama Lima, Bioy Casares, García Márquez, Donoso and many others. These have a complex self-reflexive character calling for the initiation of a criticism capable of exploiting the possibilities of reading modern literature without recourse to transcendentalist fallacies. But the existence of such a literature has not yet created a criticism of commensurable quality, a criticism freed from tradition in the same way in which those texts have freed themselves from naïve realism and naturalism. The absence of a critical space, noticed by so many Spanish American writers, is beginning to be resolved.”
I found this to be very interesting because it speaks to a specific moment in Spanish American literature and its criticism, and I wanted to ask you how you would evaluate this in hindsight?
AB: Literature is not a generator of symptoms, a potential patient of theory. It has an analytical energy capable of producing a discourse with the lucidity of both an explanation and an aporia—opening up the kinds of questions that are worth thinking about. I still think that those writers gave us that kind of possibility.
At the time when I wrote this in Diacritics, some of them were marginal, like Macedonio Fernández or Severy Sarduy. Sarduy was someone I knew, and people around him knew he was a big deal—in his own eyes and in our eyes, too—but he was not major. So, one of the tasks was to build a different canon and to give to the canon a different kind of meaning, to have a canon made of questions. I continued working in that direction. But what I don’t maintain anymore is this business of the “transcendentalist fallacies,” because at that time I was really convinced that there was a kind of new materialism that could dismantle metaphysics. It had a polemical force to deconstruct truth as a fictional construct. I changed my mind rather quickly. My book Theoretical Fables outlines the post-theoretical shift in my thought. It talks about how certain writers, Macedonio, Borges, Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, Manuel Puig, Gabriel García Márquez, point to an “outside” of the text to produce effects of truth. The subtitle, The Pedagogical Dream in Latin American Literature is an indication of an opening to a literature “beyond.”
I thought that it was possible to avoid metaphysics, but as I started writing that book, I realized that there were different forms of metaphysical imaginations that had to do with teaching, with being a militant, with the politicization of writing and meaning, or the desperation of non-meaning. There is a funny turn. This book comes out, I am very happy that I found the right cover (a faceless man holding a mask with a human face), that the publishers accepted it and I said, well, this is really what I believe—that the contemporary metaphor is a metaphor that points outside itself, but there is nothing behind it. It is that kind of frustrated transcendence . . . and then I say to myself, so who was the artist behind the cover? Did I find out about the working conditions of the artist? I became very upset because this was an artist who had been working during the Nazi era in Europe, and if this was one of the first anti-humanists, was he a Nazi? Or a proto-Nazi? Luckily, he wasn’t. The collage pointed me in the direction of a man who had photographed not only Anne Frank but had also produced fake documents to allow people to flee Nazi-occupied territories during the war. Authorship, that most criticized notion, became relevant!
At the time I wrote that book, I was not truly aware of the impact of history on my analysis, but I knew that the moment had an impact. I think that “Rewritings and Writings,” the other article I wrote for Diacritics, inscribes some of the consequences as an interest in Fray Servando and Reinaldo Arenas. So for me Diacritics, and the clash between one article and the other, to a certain extent adds meaning to the beginnings of a preoccupation with the density of language as it echoes contexts.
MBO: My next question is in fact about this other article, “Rewritings and Writings. On Hallucinations by Reinaldo Arenas.” It was part of what we might call the first “Latin American” issue of Diacritics. It had your contribution, and others by Rolena Adorno, Roberto González Echevarría, Emir Rodríguez Monegal—an excerpt from his biography on Borges—, and even an interview with Cortázar, among others. One could see this as a testimony to the consolidation of Latin American Studies within the U.S. I wanted to ask you how you see the evolution of the field since then.
AB: You’re right. In fact, I was recently awarded the Anderson Imbert Prize by the Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española for my life-long contributions to the field. It not only humbled me but made me reflect on the field and its inception. Enrique Anderson Imbert was a predecessor who thought, with others, that they were founding Latin American Studies in the U.S. We were different because the group you name and include me in is more cosmopolitan in nature. I would say that initially the study of Latin American literature was more at the level that some people, some students and scholars, now regard as too flat, because of the propensity to offer inventories of works and names in histories of Latin American literature, like those by Anderson Imbert or José Miguel Oviedo. I just adored these lists because they would alert me to the existence of writers I would not have known otherwise. But our moment is different. It coincides with the internationalization of Latin American literature and the internationalization of criticism. So, it is a different time, another kind of excitement. It is about travel, friendships, moments such as Puig’s reaction to seeing my essay on him in an American encyclopedia of literary criticism: “Alicia, they picked us both up from the gutter.” It was a mission and a game. A game against solemnity as a mission.
In my case, I had the sense that I wanted to tease out something that had happened to me when I was a student in Borges’s course in Buenos Aires. Although it was a course on English and American literature that semester, he couldn’t have cared less about the subject, he would arrive already talking about Macedonio Fernández whom nobody in our class knew.
When I found Macedonio’s work in the library, I remember laughing out loud on the bus going back to my house. It was a joyful discovery. You take somebody who is invisible, and you make him available to others. That is—yes, to do the analytical move, yes to work with the important writers—but, above all, to work in the margins, to work in the corners and include that. That, to me, was the thrill. Let’s write and bring news.
One of the things that I loved about Cortázar was that one day, walking in Paris, he discovered a book by an Uruguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández. Felisberto had to pay for his own editions. I have seen copies of first editions of some of his books that have a list of subscribers—people who paid ahead of time so that he could pay the printer. And Cortázar had him translated into French. Posthumously, he becomes fashionable and people are thinking about him. I think this sense of discovery—that literature can be simultaneously analytical, superior to what we used to call philosophy, and illuminate an archive for us that whispers the names of all the marginalia—was there for me from the get-go.
I think that the people you name are all different. González Echevarría at the time gave us a new complex look at Cuban literature, Rolena Adorno was discovering a field—colonial literature—, and Emir Sader was older than us. He was there every step of the way, pushing for some of the Boom writers, knew Felisberto Hernández personally, had countless anecdotes happening here and there, and assumed a bit of a teacher role. He asked me repeatedly to read Clarice Lispector. I did read her, years after he told me, and still write about her. I regret that I didn’t have a conversation with him about her. But, yes, that was the beginning of a certain kind of inquiry into Latin America, but not the beginning of Latin American studies in literature, because that had occurred before with the Anderson Imbert generation.
MBO: Could you talk a bit more about where these articles led you? Specifically, the second one seems to have been important for your later work.
AB: As I said, that second one led me to writing a book, Theoretical Fables. It led me to continue questioning. There are some who read Borges and become very happy with what I call “the demagogy of the undecidable.” Not me. Studying with and reading Derrida created for some an analytical tic of building an argument by saying: “Well, there is this, there is that, and there is the third term.” At the time nobody would say that there are only two sides to any question, because that would be too naïve. It became a rule that was applied automatically, a recipe for weak thought. In other words, there was a moment, and I think that it may still be alive in some French critics, some of the French literary scholars, to exercise the pleasure of the counterfeit, the pleasure of betrayal, the generalizations about the inner nature of collaboration. Those without principles appear as sophisticates. Human rights emerges as one of the subjects in the trajectory that led me to releasing the polemical energy of texts in historical contexts.
I think that Latin American literature shows us a different path in that article. I was able to do something that benefited Reinaldo Arenas because Reinaldo (as I learned subsequently) was able to use it to become more favored abroad. In Cuba, as you know, he was in jail before coming to the U.S. One of the motors behind my article was the case of Fray Servando Teresa de Mier, and how extraordinary Reinaldo’s creative process was. He was writing a dissertation and, as many people do, he wanted to give up. But instead, he wrote a novel that is a bit like Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, with different versions incorporated successively. In the midst of all that, there are two historical events: one is that very situation, the context of the work of Reinaldo, and the other is the situation of Fray Servando. So the whole idea of the counterfeit here is not a way of accepting the counterfeit as the pleasure of weak thinking. The counterfeit in Fray Servando’s case—if you read the essay, you will remember that there was a reading of the folds in the dress of the Virgin of Guadalupe as part of the language of natural religion. In addition, there was a false attribution: “I didn’t write this, that was a bad translation.” The original had been lost. The intricacy of the argument to save his life seemed to me the exact point at which I wanted to locate my research—through danger, through counterfeit, through tension.
That article led me to writing the book I mentioned. But I shall not say any more about the messages hidden in its surface, because it may find other readers able to render them visible.
So, the discovery of new writers that had been there the whole time, not being complacent about ambiguities, about the counterfeit, but being aware of the web of meanings elicited by a text as it is refracted over time. Archival detection, a sensitivity for the secrets hidden in the surface, are for me a strong political and ethical source of energy. It is an enduring practice that was already present in those early articles.
 “What Do We Read When We Read.” Diacritics 4, no. 2 (1974): 20–3, and “Rewritings and Writings. On Hallucinations by Reinaldo Arenas.” Diacritics 4, no. 4 (1974): 22–8.