The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis

The Insubordination of Signs: Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis

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Nelly Richard is one of the most prominent cultural theorists writing in Latin America today. As a participant in Chile’s neo-avantgarde, Richard worked to expand the possibilities for cultural debate within the constraints imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–1990), and she has continued to offer incisive commentary about the country’s transition to democracy. Well known as the founder and director of the influential journal Revista de crítica cultural, based in Santiago, Richard has been central to the dissemination throughout Latin America of work by key contemporary thinkers, including Néstor García Canclini, Jacques Derrida, Fredric Jameson, and Diamela Eltit. Her own writing provides rigorous considerations of Latin American identity, postmodernism, gender, neoliberalism, and strategies of political and cultural resistance.

In The Insubordination of Signs Richard theorizes the cultural reactions—particularly within the realms of visual arts, literature, and the social sciences—to the oppression of the Chilean dictatorship. She reflects on the role of memory in the historical shadow of the military regime and on the strategies offered by marginal discourses for critiquing institutional systems of power. She considers the importance of Walter Benjamin for the theoretical self-understanding of the Latin American intellectual left, and she offers revisionary interpretations of the Chilean neo-avantgarde in terms of its relationships with the traditional left and postmodernism. Exploring the gap between Chile’s new left social sciences and its “new scene” aesthetic and critical practices, Richard discusses how, with the return of democracy, the energies that had set in motion the democratizing process seemed to exhaust themselves as cultural debate was attenuated in order to reduce any risk of a return to authoritarianism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822385721
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 03/23/2004
Series: Latin America in Translation
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 149
File size: 442 KB

About the Author

Nelly Richard is a renowned Latin American cultural studies theorist. Born in France and a graduate of the Sorbonne, Richard has lived in Chile since 1970. Among her many books are La estratificación de los márgenes and Políticas y estéticas de la memoria.

Alice A. Nelson is a Member of the Faculty at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She is the author of Political Bodies: Gender, History, and the Struggle for Narrative Power in Recent Chilean Literature.

Silvia R. Tandeciarz is Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies at the College of William and Mary. She is the author of Exorcismos, a book of poetry.

Read an Excerpt

The insubordination of signs

Political Change, Cultural Transformation, and Poetics of the Crisis
By Nelly Richard

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3339-2

Chapter One

Ruptures, Memory, and Discontinuities (Homage to Walter Benjamin)


Within the entire symbolic repertoire of the last two decades of Chilean history, the figure of memory has been most strongly dramatized by the unresolved tension between recollection and forgetting (between latency and death, revelation and concealment, proof and denial, theft and restitution). The subject of human rights abuses has sharply marked all Chilean narrative about the national body with images of human remains: of bodies that have not been found, bodies that have not been laid to rest. This lack of burial is the image |-without recovery-of a historical mourning process, one that never completely assimilates the sense of loss, but rather conserves it in an unfinished, transitional version. It is also the metaphorical condition of an unsealed temporality: inconclusive, and therefore open to reexploration in many new directions by our memory, increasingly active and dissatisfied.

In the dismembered landscape of postcoup Chile, three issues have caused memory, compulsively, to provoke ruptures, links, and discontinuities. First, the threat of its loss, when those taking power in 1973 partitioned and mutilated the past prior to the militaryregime's foundational break. Second, the task of its recuperation, when the country started to recover the social ties recomposing its democratic tradition. And, third, the official challenge of its pacification, when today, a community divided by the trauma of homicidal violence must be reunited on the postdictatorial stage, suturing the edges of a wound that separates punishment from forgiveness.

But the recent history of Chilean memory should not be summed up as a linear and progressive sequence of gestures harmoniously converging toward one and the same result: that of returning one meaning ("its" unique and true meaning) to a national-historical corpus disintegrated by breaks with tradition. Semi-obscured in a plot that subsumes the more residual history of these breaks lie hidden the still clandestine threads of many other artistic and cultural memories, memories that rebelled against the ideological determinism of rationalities unified by final and totalizing truths. If we are to extract a lesson from the relearning of memory that bodies and languages had to practice in the Chile of forgetfulness [de la desmemoria, "disremembering"], it is knowing that the past is not a time irreversibly seized and frozen in recollection under the rubric of what already was, thus condemning memory to follow the dictum of obediently reestablishing its own continuity. Instead, the past is a field of citations, crisscrossed as much by continuity (the various forms of supposing or imposing an idea of succession) as by discontinuity (by cuts that interrupt the dependence of that succession on a predetermined chronology). It simply takes certain critical junctures to unleash that heterodox reformulation, for memories bound by history to undo the knots of their discordant temporalities.

The dramatization of memory is played out today in the context of political contingency, but it was also played out in those Chilean cultural works that, during the dictatorship, committed dispossession to memory using an alphabet of survival. This was an alphabet of marks to be recycled via the precarious economies of the fragmentary and of the trace [del trozo y de la traza].

Those works elaborated various techniques for reinventing memory in the shadow of a history full of violent forced entries and oppositional struggle. In almost all of them, and not by mere coincidence, resounds the echo of significations derived from the drift of Benjaminian influence. It is not that such works were responding directly to Walter Benjamin's texts, following correspondences prearranged by erudite bibliographical transfers. Benjamin was never part of the corpus of theoretical references handled within Chilean universities by literary critics on the left, who could have welcomed him in: "[The characteristics of Benjamin's work]-his atypical Marxism, more like scaffolding than a central plot, the distance in his thought from globalizing constructions and ideological alignments, his disposition toward the insertion of cultural residues, layers of meaning hidden in the corners or margins of texts-were not perhaps the most pertinent for a criticism that needed to address a social and political emergency that required less oblique forms of analysis." But this does not mean that Benjamin's thought has not become a real force for critical intervention in the Chilean cultural milieu. Instead, it means that the productivity of that force unfolded outside the university's walls, and that it was not channeled via a preconstituted lesson, but rather flowed dispersedly and heterogeneously, as Benjamin himself had proposed: "What is decisive is not the progression from one piece of knowledge to the next, but the leap implicit in any one piece of knowledge. This is the inconspicuous mark of authenticity which distinguishes it from every kind of standard product that has been mass produced."

Chilean works colluded with Walter Benjamin's texts, forgoing in many instances the theoretical contours of knowledge produced within the university and weaving through his chiaroscuros without needing to recur to the academic mediation of a formally designed line of thought. Instead, these works were inspired by a certain kinship that secretly aligned them, without premeditated agendas or methods. A mixture of chance and necessity wound up making several Benjaminian references productive, through "the combinations, permutations, [and] utilizations" of concepts whose pertinence and validity "are never interior, but rather depend on their interconnectedness with one or another exterior," as Deleuze and Guattari signaled in their defense of the experimentality of meaning.

Beyond trying to discover conceptual or theoretical filiations owed to some matrix of knowledge, it seems more worthwhile to allow ourselves to be surprised by the itinerary of semidisconnected references that etched Benjamin into the Chilean histories of memory and its erasures. And it also seems worthwhile to ask: "Why does Benjamin return, that Berliner from between the World Wars, on a train to an empty station, to descend upon a foggy platform so close to us?"

What follows is an attempt to gather some of the disparate threads that weave together a Benjaminian reading of the interrupted and assailed memories of some cultural practices within our recent history.


The first Chilean hypothesis of a "refractory art" to emerge during the dictatorship intersected with a recollection of Benjamin's will to forge "concepts which ... [would be] completely useless for the purposes of Fascism." This art was "refractory" in both senses of the word: as a "tenacious negation" and as a "deviation from a route that preceded it." Referring to this first stage of artistic production after the coup (and taking as examples works by Enrique Lihn, Raul Zurita, Eugenio Dittborn, Roser Bru, etc.), Adriana Valdes pointed out how certain works "were produced in order to be unassimilable by any 'official' cultural system." They were works that proposed something that a totalitarian logic would find impossible to take advantage of or appropriate, something useless for fitting "in the system of exchange, in the economy, [or] in circulation within that system, not even as an explicit sign of dissidence."

To have formulated meanings that were merely contrary to the dominant point of view, without taking aim at the larger order of its signifying structures, would have meant remaining inscribed within the same linear duality of a Manichaean construction of meaning. It would have meant inverting the symmetry of what was represented, without questioning the topology of the representation. It is true that the predominant tendency of Chilean contestatory art utilized by the traditional left sought above all to take revenge on the dictatorial offense by plotting-in its symmetrical inverse-an epic of resistance that would be the photographic negative of the official "take." But, on the flanks of that heroic and monumental art, new creative works battled-works that refused to attend to the merely figurative contingency of the "no," without simultaneously critiquing the entire discursive regime responsible for transforming the dogmatic rigidity of "yes" versus "no" into an imprisoning paradigm.

The boundary to establish and defend, between what is functional for the system of dominant categories and what is dysfunctional for its political-discursive economy, was plotted in Chile as a conceptual and semantic rupture. This rupture grew out of the challenge of having to name fragments of experience that were no longer speakable in the language that survived the catastrophe of meaning. On the one hand was the fraudulent language spoken by the official power. On the other were the ideological mold of militant art serving the culture of political parties and the discourses of the social sciences, whose research format sought to frame the poetics of the crisis within an explanatory rationalism far removed from the instability of meanings unleashed by the critical juncture itself. Neither of these two languages was sufficiently sensitive to the turmoil of signs that had shaken the very machine of social representation.

The semantic and conceptual rupture to which Benjamin appealed in his mention of refractory art (an art of negation and deviation) was designed-in Chile-to escape military authoritarianism and the censorship administered by the official culture. But it also sought to escape certain ideological and technical forms of reductionism-the former, characterizing orthodox politics, and the latter, characterizing the sociology about oppositional culture. The more audacious and challenging works of the period attempted to break with the conformity of readings domesticated by the commonplaces of institutional rites, hegemonic traditions, militant creeds, official knowledge systems and their disciplinary hierarchies, the cultural market, and so on. It was necessary to reinvent "an indomitable, irreducible, nongregarious reader": a reader faced with "communicable but not easily processed" signs, signs conserving in their interior a linguistic memory of the clashes born from repeated disarmings of meaning. These clashes inscribed resistance and rebellion in the interior of the word, generating a memory of trauma in solidarity with the accidents and deformations of its graphing as a wounded word.

Recalling that word today as a zone of tensions and schisms is one way to keep from being deceived by the slogan of transparency that, in the name of the instrumental realism of consensus and of its sociocommunicative logic, attempts to file down every rough spot on the already too-polished and polite surface of the signs of agreement. Re-enabling that word as a field of plural and divergent forces is useful for opening it up to multiple points of view, whose contradictions should not remain silenced by the current desire to dissolve all opacity, to eliminate every strange body that threatens to obscure the vision of a cultural history falsely reconciled with itself.

The strange body that we must keep afloat, then, as a hybrid recollection, is one composed of "shreds of newspapers, fragments of extermination, syllables of death, pauses of untruth, commercial phrases, names of the deceased" that together speak, in a jumble, about the "infection of memory" that contaminated us through "a deep crisis of language, a disarticulation of all ideologies." It is the impurity of that recollection that merits being made productive through a practice of memory unconcerned with the linear restitution of a single history, particularly given that the substance of history has been irreversibly contaminated by the suspicion weighing on every act presuming to represent a totality of meaning. This suspicion was activated by those aesthetic practices that had submitted the symbolic and discursive mediation of the categories of cultural thought to an intense critical revision, practices conjoined by the artistic and literary program Eugenia Brito called "a new scene of writing." It was this scene that, "much more powerfully than in previous periods," reconceptualized "the death of meaning, the cultural loss of the self, the barely regenerated suturing of gaps between the spaces, rhythms, and cadences in which one signifier replaces another, until arriving at the faintness of the last letter."


In a text on Chilean art titled "Parpadeo y piedad," Pablo Oyarzun points out that, "around 1977, the question of photography became installed at the center of debates unfolding around and from within avant-garde activities."

Debate during those years regarding the question of photography incorporated various levels of reflection, although one particularly heated controversy prevailed among groups within the Chilean artistic milieu. This polemic revisited arguments that reading "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936) had made resonate, as weapons in a war of positions set off by the challenge of "the politicization of art" (Benjamin). It also tended to privilege-in response to that challenge-the documentary objectivity of photography (testimonial guarantee, denunciatory realism) above the imaginary transpositions and stylistic re-creations of painting, which were deemed too evocative. Certain aspects of this polemic suggested that incorporating visual technologies of mass reproduction into art condemned the "cultic" value of painting derived from its aura (contemplation, seclusion, mystery, eternity, etc.). They also suggested that the artisanship of the painting (a cult to individual talent cultivated by the manual nature of the trade) had been made obsolete by the technical modernity of the photograph, which relegated painting to a preindustry of the image. One part of Chilean postcoup art further raised a sort of ethical protest against the aesthetisizing subjectivism of painting, accused of belonging "to the realm of self-absorption, self-expression, self-ishness," whose private quality made it seem complicit with the "act of 'pretending' certain things had not happened." These were precisely the events that-by contrast-the camera could denounce, as a visual instrument unrivaled "for showing man in catastrophe."

However, the works with the greatest reflexive density were those that led photographic documentation and pictorial representation to alternate and collate their critical-visual languages in the interior of the image itself. Both referred to a crumbling of identity on the stage of what Walter Benjamin called "an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance." The retrenchment of an "I" that-in the move from painted to photographic portraiture-exchanged the singular for the multiple, the original for the repeated, the authentic for the conventional, the purposeful for the arbitrary.

Certain critics (Ronald Kay, Enrique Lihn, and Adriana Valdes, among others) and certain artists (most especially, Eugenio Dittborn) investigated this situation of "the human countenance." A human face photographed by the machine of visual reproduction, to the point of extracting the analytical and metaphorical keys of a coercive plot, a plot that signaled procedures for detaining and capturing photographic identity: the prison of framing the shot, the straightjacket of the pose, the sentence of the montage, the prison term of the photo's edge, and so on. The detaining and capturing of an image whose imprisoning rhetoric underscored, by procedural analogy, the repressive control that every day affected those bodies submitted to the methods of military violence. The identification (id) photograph spoke substitutionally of identity's own substitutions-destitutions, of the blackmailing and manipulation of roles that the social order exercised on those who were are obliged to identify themselves within its matrices of identification. Both the conversion of individual subjects into a "commonplace" of technical massification due to the stereotype of the pose and the deindividualization of individual subjects serialized by the genericness of a collective portrait archived at the Cabinet for Identification, provided the regulatory and classificatory basis of a system exercising its institutional power by taking possession technically of "an identity, as identified by the stereotyping machine" (Lihn). To speak of id photos, then, was to speak about the identificatory molds and fittings that guaranteed the reproducibility of the order, regulating the pose. It was to expose the social conventions that governed identity based on a portrait-type as the model of disciplinary integration. But it was, above all, to convert the identity on file [la identidad fichada] typical of the portrait, into a technical file card [ ficha tecnica] typical of mechanisms for repressing identity, so that the victims of the repressive order could decipher its mediations of hidden signs in every attempt to erase the physical and symbolic mechanisms of this form of abuse.


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Table of Contents

Author’s Note

Translators’ Acknowledgments xi

Note on This Translation xvii

1. Ruptures, Memory, and Discontinuities (Homage to Walter Benjamin) 1

2. A Border Citation: Between Neo- and Post-Avant-Garde 23

3. Destruction, Reconsstruction, and Deconstruction 39

4. The Social Sciences: Front Lines and Points of Retreat 51

5. Staging Democracy and the Politics of Difference 65

6. Conversation: German Bravo, Martin Hopenhayn, Nelly Richard, and Adriana Valdes 77

Notes 103

Bibliography 113

Index 121

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