RP 177 () / Review

Bruno Bosteels, Marx and Freud in Latin America: Politics, Psychoanalysis and Religion in Times of Terror, Verso, London and New York, 2012. 326 pp., £19.99 pb., 978 1 84467 755 9.

Bruno Bosteels is probably best known to readers of Radical Philosophy as translator of and commentator on the work of Alain Badiou – most recently in his Badiou and Politics (Duke University Press, 2011) – and a contributor in his own right to contemporary debates on communism. But in his day job as a professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University he is also an erudite and trenchant voice in Latin American studies, a voice that speaks beyond the disciplinary boundaries of area studies and established canons. Marx and Freud in Latin America brings together (and in many cases expands) a number of essays, most of which have been previously published (bar one) over the last decade, and which engage with topics and figures within Latin America loosely organized by the names Marx and Freud. The texts are never less than provocative, wide-ranging, informative and copiously footnoted. There is a keen and magisterial intelligence at work here.

Bosteels describes his intention in various ways: in part it is a form of ‘counter-memory’ that the author himself compares to the exhumation of dangerous books rapidly buried during the 1976-83 Argentine dictatorship and photographed for an installation by the Argentine artist Marcelo Brodsky. ‘Counter-memory’ implies a memory that works against established periodizations, narratives and hierarchies, and Bosteels wants to restitute certain figures – notably the Mexican writer and philosopher Jose Revueltas – who have passed into a certain critical oblivion, or those like the Argentine psychoanalyst and thinker Leon Rozitchner, who were ignored, patronized or grudgingly acknowledged post mortem at home and little known in the Anglosphere (though readers of Radical Philosophy, the Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies andnd Sitegeist will be familiar with translations of his work). He also wants to rescue certain political experiences, such as that of Maoism in pre-dictatorship Argentina, which he begins successfully in an article on Ricardo Piglia, novelist and ex- (though never self-disowning) Maoist and the influence of that politics on both literary production and the theorization of literary value. Similarly, he recovers the experience of the ‘Mexican ’68’, the confrontation of students and others with the state prior to the Olympic Games of that year in Mexico City, which led to the military’s cold-blooded slaughter of the demonstrators in Tlatelolco. ‘Counter-memory’ restores a history that is erased by the state and misread by the Left, a process that haunts other instances, notably the guerrilla of the southern cone, and reactivates its potential for critique in the present.

Elsewhere, the thematic of ‘counter-memory’ is perhaps less obvious or less accurate as a description of Bosteels’s enterprise: an investigation of the policiers of Paco Ignacio Taibo that draws links with the latter’s biography of Che; the missed encounter between Marx and the nineteenth-century Cuban writer and fighter for independence Jose Marti; or the extended review of the Mexican drama Happy New Century, Dr Freud, by far the weakest essay, which turns less on counter-memory than on counter-interpretation, criticizing a culturalist account of Freud, which, Bosteels claims, suppresses the radical discovery and potential at the heart of the Freudian enterprise. Here the author’s other account of his project is probably helpful: the essays work in the ‘productive disjunction’ between cultural criticism and critical theory, or more precisely in the ‘productive disjunction within each of the two fields – neither of which lives up to its promise without the polemical input of the other’. Bosteels is keen that he ‘tease[s] out a theoretical framework from the texts themselves’, but that has to be slightly disingenuous as Badiou is often called upon to lend a certain imprimatur to what is discerned in the texts. Bosteels is a strong reader, with Badiouian inclinations, and this hardly seems a matter for disavowal, especially when, as in the best of the essays here, such as the one on Piglia and Maoism, and that on Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), such readings generate real insight. At other times, one might wonder at the discovery of Badiou avant la lettre in Revueltas, or the latter’s echoes of Benjamin.

‘Productive disjunction’ might also characterize the form of the essays, which operate as montages of commentary, certain persistent preoccupations and lapidary nuclei of theory. ‘Constellation’ might be another name for this critical practice, where, for example, melodrama, underdevelopment, ‘the spectral’, the ‘ethical turn’ and other notions punctuate the field of the book, immanently deployed but never quite fully articulated. This is the problem with collections, especially of material written over time: the essay is always a sketch and the superposition of multiple sketches need not produce a clearer figure. Clarity comes from the outside light: a certain understanding of the political that contrasts with a tendency to the melodramatic rewritten through Hegel. The insistence of Bosteels’s accumulation is to draw the outline of a militancy that names itself after Marx and Freud, and holds a position of loyalty to a past under attack and erasure. So, counter-memory is really fidelity, Marx is the name for a tradition of communism and its insistent potential, and Freud the placeholder of a theory of desire: the communist variants of the virtues of faith, hope and love. Militancy – discovered or disjunct – is the austere mirror of sainthood with its cardinal character, courage, especially in its self-dives ting version, analogous to Lacan’s analyst. Austere involvement against the beautiful soul’s refusal of mains sales, where melodrama is the political schema of the absolute scission of good from evil and allows the narcissistic pleasures of inaction. The figure of the militant, then, is the place where Marx encounters Freud in the void, under the sign of truth, but with spectral elements of the religious (the secularized version of Pascal’s Jansenism here is intriguing).

Marx and FreudBosteels reclaims the Mexican October (1968) as the students’ ‘forcing’ of the situation, showing a drive to exceed the system, but then says ‘the task is to traverse the fantasy’ but also to ‘prescribe a sequence to found a new justice’. A curious instability of referent here (whose task?) is perhaps (un)clarified in the claim that the ‘political subject has no ground to stand on, no stable identity or social link … the lion’s leap starts from anxiety’. The void is ‘the starting point for a possible universalist project … the passage in which a subject emerges from the void … toward a declaration of a new universal truth’ where ‘total commitment, the entire process of militancy … proceeds in intimate dialogue with [the registers of popular culture] … where rumours [etc.] have a contagious force equal to the ubiquitous picture of Che’s dead body’. Militancy here must be a stance rather than a programme: a wager in the void, rather than a calculation of the balance of forces. ‘The ubiquitous picture of Che’s dead body’ might prefigure the more constant consequences of the actions of such militants, even though Bosteels wants politics to be ‘practiced thought’. An extensive recovery of the events in Valle Grande might yield more than simply a reiteration of the value of courage.

Bosteels never quite specifies what Marx and Freud he wants to discuss, though he is clear that it is a Marx beyond orthodox Marxism (in crisis, and hence dismissable) and a Freud beyond the International Psychoanalytical Association. Whilst underdevelopment haunts Latin America and Bosteels’s text, the economics of dependency hardly figure at all: after Althusser, underdevelopment challenges the model of harmonious articulation of base and superstructure, and after Žižek, unevenness characterizes all social formations. But is there, then, nothing particular about the (post)colonial relation? Similarly, if a certain culturalist Freud, that is a Freud of a determinate time and place, is rejected in favour of the theoretician of a ‘singular universal’, what is left of the particularity of the subject in history and in personal history that the best psychoanalysis endeavours to preserve? This question of history and its possibilities takes on a weight and depth to which the notion of ‘counter-memory’ is inadequate. The internalization within a destitute subject of the relation to the past – the recuperation of the past void and its ‘lion’s leap’ – both de-socializes a militant subjectivity (Bosteels is best precisely on those figures who illustrate the failure to attain revolutionary consciousness) and subtracts any content from its project. The past is a sequence of iterated possibilities-in-void, a reduction that is perhaps indicated by history being constituted by a staccato enumeration of incidents in the discussion of Mexico.

This is symptomatically played out in the readings of Rozitchner that both make him into a theoretician of militancy and allow a certain historicity to emerge at least onto the horizon. An uncanny, wavering transference of authority is at work in the text – only Rozitchner and Badiou speak in the majority of essays – and what Rozitchner can speak against Badiou, what we might call fleshly materiality, is both invoked and repressed in a gesture that repeats Rozitchner’s own powerful readings of Freud. Notoriously, Rozitchner reads Freud’s ‘Group Psychology’ essay through its absent dialogue with Le Bon in order to produce a social Freud that positively invokes the mass subject; a reading that is at odds with standard readings of Freud’s text, and that depends in part on a claim for privilege in reading that flows from the colonial order of space. Rozitchner reworks Freud through the optic of the colonial and through the political demands for a mass subject, which leads to a complex reading of the figure of Che as both a militant who challenges the mortal threat of paternal power and a corpus, an incorporated moment of the mass. Most crucially, the body, the forma cuerpo, is the bearer of history and historical possibility as sensual engagement. Sexuality is funda­mental to Rozitchner’s materialism. Bosteels perceives the discussion of militancy, though in another text – the book on St Augustine, the as yet untranslated La cosa y la cruz {The Thing and the Cross, 1996) – but not the stress on materiality. This emerges in the discussion of Rozitchner’s polemic on the Six Day War, Ser judio {Being Jewish, 1967), where the fact of history as the substance of identity is asserted: here it would be the ‘the full affective, corporeal and historical density of one’s being’ and the substance of revolution is ‘transit’: the old and the new are not scissioned, there is ‘no leap’; rather revolution is the mode of transit and the consequence of transit. Instead of a void we have ‘full density’, which echoes Rozitchner’s stress on the corporeal locus and content of rebellion: the theme of Freud y los limites del individualismo burgues {Freud and the Limits of Bourgeois Individualism, 1972).

So, against an abstract vision of militancy, Bosteels introduces a notion of the embodied and embedded revolutionary subject which flickers and then vanishes under a second Rozitchner brought closer to the Badiouian model of the militant as the ‘watchman on the edge of the void’ derived from a text which is itself moving away from the dialectic of repression and liberation as situated in a male subject (a necessary criticism of Rozitchner’s early texts) with the limning of the issue of the mother, as the mater in materialism. Bosteels’s reading of La cosa acknowledges the theme but is more concerned with failure to separate from the mother so characteristic of Lacan than with the transmutation of the mother, which is Rozitchner’s new direction. And in later texts his stress on the difference between the Jewish Oedipus and the Christian not only signals a critique of the progressivism entailed in Christian apologetics (and apologetics for Christianity a la Žižek, as Bosteels notes) but also a critique of the origins of abstraction and money. The deep structure of Christianity is a fundamental voiding of the body of the mother to provide the form for social abstraction and capital. The Virgin and the Holy Ghost are coeval origins of the commodity and money.

This account is underdeveloped in Bosteels’s reading (though obviously the desire for history emerges, as we have seen, in almost fascinated quotation) and echoes Rozitchner’s own art of productive disjuncture, but leaves out precisely what was most productive in the Argentine’s later work. The social content of militancy is just what we would call culture, and which Rozitchner sees most profoundly at work in its religious forms, even nodding at the possibility of an Aymara Oedipus in a late article: such content provides concrete resources for a transformed future. All that said, Bosteels is to be particularly commended for bringing Rozitchner’s thought to the awareness of a wider public and more generally for producing a collection of eminent seriousness.