After Literature

Josefina  Ludmer

Translated  by Shaj Mathew        

 Walker Evans,  40 Studies of Street Debris, Manhole Covers, and Trash Bins, New York City,  ca. 1968, Film negative, 35mm, 1994, © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Walker Evans, 40 Studies of Street Debris, Manhole Covers, and Trash Bins, New York City, ca. 1968, Film negative, 35mm, 1994, © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art


 We imagine  this. Much of  contemporary writing  crosses the frontier of  literature (or the parameters  that define what is literature)  and remains both outside and in it,  in a diasporic position: outside but trapped  in its interior. As if in exodus. These writings  continue to appear as literature and take the format  of books (they are sold in book stores and on the internet  and in international book fairs), preserve the name of the author  (they are seen on TV and in newspapers and contemporary magazines and  receive prizes at literary festivals), are included in any literary genre  like the novel, and recognize and define themselves as literature.

They  appear  to be literature  but it is not possible  to read them using literary  categories such as the author,  work, style, writing, text, and meaning.  It is impossible to read them as literature  because they empty the term literature of meaning:  the meaning (or the author, or the writing) remains  without density, without paradox, without indecidability,  without metaphor, and is totally consumed with ambivalence:  they are and are not literature at the same time, they are  fiction and reality.

They  would represent  literature at the  end of the cycle of  literary autonomy, in the  epic of transnational literary  agencies or of the offices of the  book featuring in the biggest channels   of newspapers, radio, TV, and other media.  This end of the cycle implies new conditions  of production and circulation of the book that  modify the modes of reading. We might call these  postautonomous writings or literatures.


Postautonomous  literatures, these territorial literary practices of the quotidian,  are based on two (self-­‐evident) postulates about the world today.  The first is that all that is cultural and literary is economic, and  all that is economic is cultural and literary. And the second postulate  of these writings would be that reality (which is constituted by its changing   media) is fiction and fiction is reality.



These diasporic writings not  only cross the frontier of literature but also that of fiction, and remain inside-­‐outside  in both frontiers. This occurs because they reformulate the category of reality: it is not possible  to read them as mere “realism” in either referential or verisimilar terms. They take the form of testimony,  autobiography, journalistic reporting, personal diaries, up to ethnography (many times with a “literary genre” interjected  in their interior:  the police  novel or science  fiction, for example).  They leave literature and  enter “reality” and the everyday,  the reality of the everyday—the everyday  being TV and the media, blogs, email, internet,  etc). They fabricate present with daily life and that  is one of their politics. The quotidian reality is neither  a historical-­‐referential reality nor one of social and political  history, but a reality produced and constructed by the media, technology,  and science. It is a reality that does not want to be represented because  it is already pure presentation: it is a cloth of words and images of different  velocities, grades, and densities, interior-­‐exterior to a subject, that includes the  event but also the virtual, the potential, the magic, and the phantasmatic. The everyday  reality of these postautonomous writings exhibits, like a universal exposition or a global model  of a web, all the historical, social, and magic realisms, the costumbrismo, the surrealisms, and the  naturalisms. It absorbs and combines all of mimesis of the past to constitute the fiction or the fictions  of the present. A fiction that is reality. The different hyperrealisms, naturalisms, and surrealisms, all created  in this undifferentiated reality, they are distanced openly from classic and modern fiction. In this everyday reality,  “subject” and historical “reality” are not opposed. And neither are “literature” and “history,” or fiction and reality.  


The idea  and the experience  of an everyday reality  that absorbs all the realities  of the past changes our ideas about  19th and 20th century Latin American fiction.  In those centuries, the reality was “historical  reality,” and the fiction was defined by a specific  relation between history and literature. Each one had  its sphere well-­‐delimited, and that is what does not  happen today. The classic narration of the canon, or the  Boom (One Hundred Years of Solitude, for example), crossed  clear-­cut frontiers between the historical as real and the literary as fable, symbol, myth, allegory or pure subjectivity,  and produced a tension between the two: the fiction consists in  that tension. The “fiction” was the historical reality (political and  social) and passed through a myth, a fable, a genealogical tree, a symbol,  a subjectivity or verbal density. Or, simply, it crossed a frontier between pure  subjectivity and pure historical reality (like One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I  the Supreme, History of Mayta by Maria Vargas Llosa, The Commandment by José Pablo Feinmann,  and the historical novels of Andrés Rivera, like The Revolution Is An Eternal Dream). These  writings without metaphor would be the fictions (or reality) in the era of media and of industry  of language (in the public imagination). They would be the everyday reality of the present of a few  subjects in an urban island (a local territory). They would form part of the fabric of the present that  is the public imagination.



 In the reality-­fiction  of any “people” in any urban  Latin American island, many writings   today dramatize a certain situation in  literature: the process of the ending literary   autonomy, opened by Kant and modernity. The end of  one era in which the literature had an  internal  logic and  a crucial power.  The power of defining  itself and being directed  by its own laws with its  own institutions (criticism, universities)  that publically debate their function, valor  and meaning. They also would debate the relation  of literature or art with the other spheres: politics,  economy, and the relationship with historical reality. Autonomy, for literature, was specificity and self-­‐referentiality,  and the power to name and refer to itself. The situation of the  loss of autonomy of literature (or the literary) is that of the end  of the spheres or the thinking of spheres. As it has been said many times:  today sees the erasure of the relatively autonomous camps of politics, economics,  and culture. The reality­‐fiction of the public imagination contains and fuses them.     



In  a few  present writings  that have crossed  the literary frontier  (and that we call “postautonomous”)  you can clearly see the process of the  loss of literature’s autonomy and the transformations  that are produced. Literary classifications have formally  ended; this is the end of the wars and divisions and traditional  oppositions between forms of realism or of the vanguard, of “pure literature”  and “social literature,” of rural and urban literature, and also the literary differentiation  between historical reality and fiction. One cannot read these writings with or through these terms;  they are two things, they oscillate between the two or differentiate themselves.

Along  with the  end of these  formal classifications,  the confrontation between  writers and literary movements  seems to be over as well; it is  the end of the fight for power in  the interior of literature. The end of  Bourdieu’s notion of “camp,” which supposes  that autonomy of the sphere, or the idea of  the sphere. Because literary identities are erased,   formally and “in reality,” they become erased politically  as well. And then one can clearly see that these forms,  classifications, identities, divisions, and wars, can only function  in a literature conceived as an autonomous sphere, or like camp. Because  what dramatized it was the fight for literary power and for the definition  of the power of literature. Literary identities, formal and real, are blurred  and this is what differentiates contemporary literature from that of the 60s and 70s.    In the texts that I am reading the “classifications” would respond to another logic and politics.  



Upon  voluntarily  losing specificity  and literary attributes,  upon losing “literary value,”  and upon losing “fiction,” postautonomous  literature would lose the emancipatory and almost   subversive critical power that autonomy assigned to literature  as its own politics. Literature loses power and cannot exercise  it anymore.


Postautonomous literatures may exhibit their  pertinence to literature and the topics of self-­‐ referentiality that marked  the era of autonomous literature: the mark, the speculative relationships,  the book within  a book, the narrator  as writer and reader, the  internal duplications, recursiveness,  parallelisms, paradoxes, quotations, and  allusions to authors and readings, even  if it’s in a burlesque tone, like in the  literature of Roberto Bolaño. They can insert  themselves symbolically inside of literature and continue  to show off the attributes that defined them before, when  they were completely “literature.” Or they can become Trash (Basura,  novel by Héctor Abad Faciolince) or “trash” (La ansiedad: novela trash  by Daniel Link). This does not change their stature as postautonomous literatures.  In the two positions or in their nuances, these writings pose the problem of literary  value. I like them and it does not matter to me if they are good or bad literature.  Everything depends on how literature is read today. Or from where it is read. Or if this  process of transformation of spheres, or the loss of the autonomy or the loss of literariness,  and reading is altered. Or if reading continues to be an interior process to autonomous literatures  and to literariness, and thus appears as literary value in the first place. Said in another way: or  the change is seen in the stature of literature, and so another episteme emerges as well as other modes  of reading. Or it is not observed or it is negated, and so the division between literature and genre, good  and bad books, will continue.



Postautonomous literatures of the present would escape, cross the frontier,  and enter a medium real/virtual, without an outside, the public imagination: all of what is produced circulates, penetrates  us, and is social and private and public and real. That is to say, postautonomous literatures would enter a type of material  and social function (everyday reality) where there is no index of reality or of fiction that constructs the present. They would  enter the fabric of the present that is the public imagination to tell any stories behind daily life in an urban, Latin American  island. The experiences of migration and the subterranean of certain subjects are defined outside and inside of certain territories.


Here I’ve  postulated a  territory, the  political imagination  or the fabric of the  present, where I situate  my reading or myself. In this  territory there is no reality opposed  to fiction, there is no author, and there  is not much sense. From the public imagination  I read contemporary literature as if it were a  piece of news or a call from Amelia in Constitución  or from Iván in Colegiales.



Josefina Ludmer was born in Córdaba in 1939, she died in Buenos Aires in 2016. She was a teacher, writter, essayist and critic.

Shaj Mathew is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale. He studies contemporary literature from the Middle East, Latin America, and the Anglophone world.