Masters of Suspicion

Army occupying the Zocalo in Mexico City via

A review of Bruno Bosteel’s Marx and Freud in Latin America

In Latin America there is an old saying, sometimes attributed to an editor of La Jornada, a left-wing newspaper in my hometown of Mexico City: La verdad es siempre sospechosa. Literally, the saying translates as “truth is always suspicious,” but “the truth is always a suspect” is an equally valid reading. But neither of these fully captures the rich suggestiveness of the phrase. The line is an injunction to mistrust all accepted truths. Paradoxically, though, this counsel of suspicion is also a call to credulity. Since the official truth is always untruth, we are also advised to believe apparently dubious conspiracy theories. And since these incredible truths threaten the state, their bearers will always be persecuted—suspected, that is, of political crimes.

A three-part lesson, then: Doubt the obvious, believe the fantastic, and prepare to suffer for the truth. Such distrust is an essential—perhaps the essential—mood of Latin American leftism.

Suspicion certainly links the activists, filmmakers, and theorists whom Bruno Bosteels, a Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell, profiles in Marx and Freud in Latin America. Marx and Freud, whose penetrations of Victorian surfaces earned them the sobriquet “masters of suspicion,” should be apt guides to the mistrust endemic to Latin American thought. Some of the stories he tells are familiar, but Bosteels has not written yet another history of orthodox Marxism and official psychoanalysis in Latin America. His considerable originality lies in his focus on intriguing and under-appreciated thinkers, often heretics within already heretical traditions. Encountering figures like León Rozitchner—an Argentine psychoanalyst who found in Augustine’s Confessions a handbook for overcoming internalized oppression—will be exciting and novel for most readers.

But for all this philological merit, Bosteel’s work feels unfinished. Of the book’s ten chapters, nine had been previously published in standalone form, and the collection of fragments achieves neither historical narrative nor theoretical argument. This would be less objectionable if Bosteels did not feint toward something grander. The preface suggests a tighter framework: Marx and Freud's studied neglect of Latin America were“missed encounters” that challenged Latin Americans to think as the masters of suspicion Marx and Freud might have thought, had they been less parochial. Yet this intriguing logic disappears after a few chapters, never to return. When Bosteels approvingly quotes the Argentine novelist and erstwhile Maoist Roberto Piglia's dictum that “That criticism alone is valid which, dedicated to literature, generates a concept that can be used outside of literature,” the reader wonders what useful “concept” Bosteels's own criticism has generated.

Insofar as the book has a political message, it is as a Latin American case study of theories developed by the French philosopher Alain Badiou (whose work Bosteels has translated). In works like Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Badiou has developed a scathing critique of the “ethical turn”—the tendency among contemporary leftist thinkers to frame their vision around a single, negative imperative: do no harm. The collapse of grand narratives of liberation (Marxism, most especially) left a vacuum now filled by ethical doctrines like human rights and Emmanuel Levinas's doctrine of responsibility for “the Other.” By renouncing universal emancipation and avowing a Hippocratic willingness to do nothing rather than risk evil, the “ethical turn” ideologically protects the liberal capitalist status quo and its countless injustices from a positive radical challenge.

In his epilogue, Bosteels musters his digressions and detours to argue that the disarray of the Latin American Left confirms Badiou's diagnosis.  After locating early symptoms of depoliticization in the late nineteenth century Cuban poet and revolutionary Jose Marti, whose work manifests a “displacement from politics to morals, or from the struggle of the poor to the plight of the weak,” he focuses on the late 1960s and early 1970s, when radical movements were defeated by state repression and hope for continental revolution on the Cuban model flickered. Today, Bosteels suggests, Marti's moralistic limitations have become general.

The long career of Octavio Paz, Mexico's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, illustrates the ethical turn’s Latin American career. Once a radical militant in the Spanish Civil War, the vagaries of the twentieth century found the elderly Paz advocating a harsh “military solution” against the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas in 1994. The centerpiece of Bosteels's analysis is the short poem “Intermintencias del Oeste (3),” written immediately after the Mexican government massacred hundreds of student demonstrators on October 2, 1968.  One might expect such an event to be radicalizing, but for Bosteels, “Intermintencias” already signals Paz’s turn from socialism to liberalism. The poem’s Mallarmean “poetics of unwriting,” preoccupied with the fragility of meaning,  represents an antipolitical “turning inward of enraged subjectivity.” Bosteels argues convincingly that Paz's poetics, which registers oppression but refuses to fight it or even represent it clearly, is of a piece with his liberal “anti-totalitarian” politics:

A perspective [like that of Paz], whether in art or in politics, may very well expose the lack intrinsic to any given system of representation, but without exceeding the limits of a mere recognition of this lack. The spectral or phantasmal element, then, remains as such, indefinitely suspending the protocols of delinking, instead of marking the onset of a subjective intervention.

Paz reverses the formula of socialist realism to unite moderate politics and avant-garde art. While it offers the (illusory) comfort of clean hands and a beautiful soul, Bosteels doubts that this admixture can motivate a “subjective intervention”—an action that realizes the radical possibilities uncovered by an Event, Badiou's term for the singular, world-disclosing rupture in which politics and ethics truly abide. For Bosteels, Paz's philosophy is an alibi for wealthy aesthetes, not a contribution to the popular uprising Latin Americans desperately need.

Another exemplary figure is Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a veteran of the student movement of 1968 who has won minor celebrity as a detective novelist. Bosteels reads Taibo’s antihero, “independent detective” Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, as a cipher for post-1968 Latin American militants. Belascoarán’s virtues (critical suspicion, stubborn attachment to principle) and defects (paranoia, melancholy, Quixotism) correspond precisely to those of the real-life Mexican Left. No matter how many crimes Belascoarán solves, Mexico City remains a cradle of corruption. Over thousands of pages, Belascoarán obstinately persists in a project doomed from the start. Bosteels traces this failure to the detective’s understanding of injustice in individual moral terms, a failed strategy which should be replaced with a properly political analysis. The melancholic detective, Bosteels proposes, would do well to exchange his lonely pursuits for a revolutionary organization willing to identify class enemies and deal with them summarily. After abandoning bourgeois comforts, one presumes, the “independent detective” should reinvent himself as an urban guerrilla.

Bosteels's injunction to the Latin American Left does not stop short of a call to political violence:

If we want to prevent the failures, defeats, and heroic nostalgias of those years at the end of the 1960s and in the first half of the 1970s to continue to produce merely pathetic messages on the answering machines of the next generation, we will also have to go against the grain of this image of the Left, which finds itself absorbed in total rejection of, and simultaneous fascination with, the logic of war and state terror.

Coming after a relentless critique of nostalgia, this prescription of loyalty to the past flirts with bitter irony.  But Bosteels wishes to distinguish aimless lingering from revolutionary fidelity. Taibo's detective—and his many comrades—remember the right historical moment in the wrong way: as a mausoleum of the dead, not an invocation to action. The past, as Walter Benjamin had it, contains a spark of hope, and it is up to contemporary leftists to blow on the embers until they ignite.

In practice, I would submit, it is not so easy to separate impotent nostalgia from committed revolutionism. One wonders what Bosteels makes of the persistence of left-wing terrorism in countries like Mexico or Colombia, or, for that matter, of the persistence of the revolutionary socialist government in Cuba. When militants of the Mexican Ejercito Popular Revolucionario kill soldiers and blow up oil pipelines, or when Raul Castro has a dissident imprisoned, they cannot be said to “reject the logic of war and state terror.” And yet they seem, all the same, to be acting from a misguided commitment to the past—in the Mexican case, to a model of political struggle better suited to older, more repressive governments, and in Cuba, to a revolution which has long lost its meaning. They certainly inspire little hope of general emancipation. Where in Badiou's system, or Bosteels's attempt to import it into the Southern hemisphere, do we find a solution to this riddle: for some, impotent nostalgia and political violence are not opposites, but complements?

As a Mexican citizen, Bosteels’s critique rang true for me, but not exactly as he intended. Reading his critique of the “ethical turn,” my thoughts turned not to Levinas but to Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO, as he is popularly known, was the unsuccessful center-left candidate for Mexico’s presidency in the last two elections and the hero of those who would like to see Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution spread north. But his Manichean discourse of a “power Mafia” opposed to “the good people,” his talk of a “Republic of Love,” and his quotations from quasi-fascist corporatist tracts appear to place AMLO solidly in the “ethical” tradition of Marti rather than Marx.  He epitomizes the current state of the Latin American Left: sentimental, paranoid, moralizing, melancholic, melodramatic—and ineffective. This fulminating machine politician—not post-structuralist theory or liberal aestheticism—is the ugliest manifestation of Latin America’s ethical turn. And, for better or worse, against a defiantly political figure like AMLO, nothing so simple as “political violence” can be posed as the solution to Mexico's malaise.