Writing machines against apocalypse

Page, Joanna (2014), Creativity and science in contemporary argentine literature: between romanticism and formalism. Calgary press. Open access e-book: http://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781552387320

We have seen recently, in the English-speaking world, an interest in Latin American science fiction literature. Works from J. Andrew Brown, Ed King, Rachel Haywood and Joanna Page, for example, as well as editorial projects, such as Cosmos latinos (2001), a compilation of short stories, are evidence of this phenomenon. Traditionally, science fiction literature has been prolifically analyzed in English studies. One of the main reasons for this is its abundance and popularity. In Argentina, Sci-fi is a minor genre. Nonetheless, this genre remains profoundly imbricated to fantastic literature, a major tradition in the country. In this sense, Argentinean writers have been offering different perspectives on problems treated by British and American Sci-fi authors. However, political and historical studies, focusing on the literary representation of traumatic events of the Argentinean history and the reconstruction of collective memory, have overwhelmed the analysis of South-American literary proposals to Sci-fi questions. This is why the works of English-speaking critics is important: because they are offering readings that are related to their own critical tradition, and hence, are not just contributing to extending the horizon of reception of these texts but are also enlarging the discussions about the genre.

For instance, Joanna Page’s book, Creativity and science in contemporary Argentinean literature: between romanticism and formalism, published in 2014, offers an alternative reading of the works of Guillermo Martínez, Marcelo Cohen and Ricardo Piglia. She opposes these three authors to an American and British literature (such as Pynchon and Ballard) that, since the 1960s, has been pervaded by apocalyptic “visions of social and cultural decay or of an incomprehensible universe that lies beyond the limits of our science.” (p. 1) Furthermore, this opposition is reinforced by a critique of the postmodern use of contemporary science theories embodied in this literature. In spite of this differentiation, the question about how to write after the horrifying events that characterized the 20th century bonds them together. The answer, in each case, is different. From a general perspective, what Joanna Page finds in these three Argentinean writers is a less pessimistic view on the present. Acording to Page, the authors worry more about creativity than about fear and decay. Therefore, they avoid the cynicism that characterizes Postmodernism and take on writing as an affirmative act of innovation and resistance. In what follows, we will note three of the main distinctions between the non-postmodern Argentinean literature and the postmodern Anglo-American literature.

The three distinctions

First distinction: the possibilities of Science are the possibilities of literature, not its impossibilities

First of all, we must assume that scientific theories, such as the theory of chaos, uncertainty, entropy or relativity, are the causes of skepticism in postmodern thinking. Since these theories point to the limitations of logic and rational thinking, so postmodernist thinkers have often concluded that any epistemological or artistic attempt at progress or regeneration is pointless. As a result, authenticity, mining the emerging of the new, would be an illusion.

In opposition, Joanna Page draws a diverging conclusion after studying Argentinean literature. In the first place, she reminds us that postmodernism has inherited a romantic vision of science as “over-rigid, alienating, and inhuman”. Secondly, her study of these authors shows that the limitations of axiomatic logic actually lead to the possibility of new and different ones. Furthermore, these new logics do not oppose classical thinking but emerge from it and cohabit with it. Thirdly, she describes how formal experimentation enriches meaning, how chaos, for example, continually “generates ephemeral forms and orders itself” (p. 155). Consequently, these texts use scientific theories not to discredit rationalism or exhibit its limitations, but instead, to innovate in creative writing and transmit an idea of literature which is open to authenticity.

Marcelo Cohen

Second distinction: Reflexive irony leads to literary machines not to empty parody

Joanna Page affirms that the act of creating is the principal subject of this Argentinean literature. In consequence, reflexivity is fundamental to these authors. Postmodern thinking is also characterized by reflexivity. Nonetheless, instead of using reflexivity in order to express, cynically, the romantic role of the writer as master of his or her work and as designer of a world, these authors explore reflexivity differently: they present literature as an impersonal and organic entity. In other words, literature is understood as an expression of the immanence of nature, so that the writer becomes not its master but its mediator. Romantic irony leads here not to a “paralyzing epistemological doubt (…) but to a much more engaged and ethical approach”, explains Joanna Page (p. 148). Essentially, literature appears as an organic machine that is constantly showing its own process of regeneration through the mediation of the writer.

In this manner, the use of quotations, anachronisms, genres and clichés does not lead to empty parody, as in postmodernism, but to processes of decontextualization and recontextualization. Recycling forms of the past develops into a source of new, alternative configurations, innovative synthesis, hence revitalizing reading and writing.

Ricardo Piglia

Third distinction: literature of exhaustion Vs. literature of self-renewal

Joanna Page observes that an “image of exhaustion”, related to the theory of entropy, has prevailed in literature since the 19th century. As a result, in the 1960s, entropy became a literary metaphor to express social and cultural decline, leading to the ideas of the end of progress and the beginning of an era of stasis and technological alienation. To this “literature of exhaustion”, the author opposes a “literature of self-renewal”. In this case, entropy does not function as a metaphor but as a metamorphosis of literary form. In this sense, literary entropy creates the possibilities of new energy fluxes, entailing new formal proposals. Consequently, literature becomes a source of resistance against a “poetics of exhaustion” that instigates fear, culpability and cynicism, and brings us to adopt dangerously to conciliating positions vis-à-vis authoritarianism.

Guillermo Martinez

Conclusion: a war machine against postmodern thinking

These three distinctions between two literatures and between postmodern and non-postmodern ideas are fundamental in Joanna Page’s study. They are also a testimony on the dialectical way the study is structured and on the presence of formalist, romantic and Deleuzean concepts.

What remains to discover is whether what the Argentinian writers are proposing is a positive variant of postmodernism or a different way of thinking in postmodernity. And if it is a way of thinking in postmodernity, we are lacking the concept of this non-postmodern philosophy. If these authors are offering an utopian thought, “in spite of our postmodern sense of endings and the ruinous collusion of language and power, or after the chillingly rational basis on which the twentieth century carried out its genocides” (p. 43), it seems to us that it is crucial to name it, even if we take the risk of using oversimplying labels.

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