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DiAspora(s) and Vanguardism
In the nineties Diaspora(s) represented the coming into being of a new aesthetics that rejected postorigenismo. But Diaspora(s) was much more than that, which is why official institutions dismissed it. In 1993, after Minister of Culture Abel Prieto rejected Sanchez Mejfas’s ideas for an interdisciplinary journal, the group decided to launch Diaspora(s) as a samizdat.86 In spite of their somewhat different poetics, the founding members of the project had many other traits in common. Most of them did not come from careers in the humanities, and their interdisciplinary work was largely influenced by poststructuralism. In spite of the fact that Sanchez Mejfas, Aguilera, and Marques de Armas are poets, their work belongs in a liminal, hybrid space, which does away with the concept of genre altogether. Writing is no longer defined by genres. It is instead based on the high conceptual power of words and the most economical use of syntactical patterns, in a minimalist use of words and a maximalist approach to conceptual abstraction.
Above all, the three writers shared ideological views. First, they rejected the idea of a national canon and a national identity. They took issue with the official Origenes revival of the eighties and nineties, specifically the ideological capitalization on that group’s take on the relationship between national identity and literature. Instead of seeking to rescue Grupo Origenes’s writing from oblivion, they engaged it critically. They were especially interested in Virgilio Pinera and Lorenzo Garcia Vega, whose poetics they embraced as their own. The Proyecto Diaspora(s) shared Pinera’s and Garcia Vega’s irreverent attitude and their antibaroquism. Sanchez Mejias, Aguilera, and Marques de Armas shared a sardonic outlook on social mores and a nonutopian view of history. Their poetics were aggressive, ironic, and devoid of sentimentality. Second, Diaspora(s)’s rejection of totalitarianism fed their interest in Central European authors such as Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ror Wolf, and Franz Kafka, all of whom had been critical of absolutist systems of thought. To publish and discuss literature that disrupts state-sponsored culture was one of the aims of Diaspora(s).
Like the members of the Grupo Origenes, they had a more internationalist approach to literature, and in addition to reading the French symbolists and the Spanish Generation of 1927, they also explored works by authors who had never been published in Cuba, such as Boris Pasternak, Milan Kundera, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Their understanding of literature clearly went against the sixties ideological remnants that rejected European and Western literature, in general, for their roots in philosophical idealism.
They were also very interested in poststructuralism and questions of postmodernity, and they were the first to organize a panel on modernity and postmodernity, which took place in October 1996 at the UNEAC. As Hans Magnus Enzensberger says in his text “America,” they also argue that literature saved their lives (1999, 64). The samizdat was also committed to publishing auteurs maudits whose ideology and aesthetics went against the grain and who were silenced by the regime (Lorenzo Garcia Vega, Virgilio Pinera, etc.). From an ideological point of view, for example, the journal reprinted polemical articles by dissident authors from the Eastern European bloc, pieces that could not have circulated in any of Cuba’s official cultural journals.87 They also had anticanonical views about Cuban literature. Like many other intellectuals of the nineties, they conceived of themselves as the inheritors of a genealogy of auteurs maudits silenced by the national canon. Juan Zenea, Julian del Casal, Virgilio Pinera, and Angel Escobar were relegated in the canon to the status of obscure or minor poets, and the samizdat Diaspora(s) contributed to the dissemination of their work. In “El arte de graznar” (“The Art of Squawking”), Sanchez Mejias criticizes Cintio Vitier’s Lo cubano en la poesia (Cubanness in Poetry) for its agenda to construct a canon that fits the teleological narration of the nation in cultural terms (2002, 27).
Sanchez Mejias’s point is that Virgilio Pinera’s poetics does not contribute to that narration, and as a result is excluded from the canon. The nation thus understood arises with the project of modernity and its cultural construction. Such a national discourse takes shape in the works of Jose Marti and Ruben Dario, the two major modernists who advanced the values of modernity and shaped the vanguardist projects of the beginning of the twentieth century. It is thus not farfetched to compare both movements (modernism and the vanguardism represented by anticanonical authors) as the two major turning points of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.88 Not only are these two movements crucial, but they are also antithetical. More than establishing a new anticanon, however, the Diaspora(s) was interested in creating a poetics against the grain of modernity. The ideological and formal premises of Dario’s work, for example, were antithetically debunked. If Dario’s poetics attacked capitalist utilitarianism with the excess of beauty, Diaspora(s) attacked violent totalitarian discourse with more violence and “feismo” (the aesthetic of ugliness). Actually, Enrique Sainz calls it “dirty writing”: “Escritura en ocasiones sucia (en el sentido de objeto esteticamente sucio, no admitido por poeticas establecidas antes de la vanguardia) [Dirty writing (as in an aesthetically dirty object, not admitted by the poetics established before the vanguards)]” (Sainz 2013, 28). For Dario, aristocratic beauty was the space of lavishness and delightful waste; for Diaspora(s), excessive ornament characterizes a political discourse that conceals an ideological lack. To such linguistic extravagance, Diaspora(s) responds with the abstraction and the rigor of philosophy. The swans that populate Dario’s poetry become revolting animals in Diaspora(s) (rats, pigs, insects, etc.), and the harmonious relationship with nature turns into the alienation of beings from the space they inhabit. What about the social and political aims of the two movements?
This has been a controversial question in discussions of modernist writers, especially Dario, precisely because of the aesthetics of his poetry. Scholars have argued that while his work does not have a political agenda, its language is ideologically charged. There is a tension in Dario’s work between the desire to guard the autonomy of art while simultaneously creating a language capable of challenging hegemonic discourse. This tension is also fundamental for Diaspora(s), because of these writers’ attack on linguistic tropes, especially metaphor and allegory. In sum, Diaspora(s) rejects baroque language because its numerous metaphors can be co-opted by official political rhetoric. They also reject the social poetry of the seventies for its doctrinaire nature. Their goal, then, is to create a language not determined by a political cause, a language that attests to its ideological and formal withering, and that accounts for state violence. Their style is a direct consequence of the emergent interest in poststructuralist and post-Marxist theory as a new way to experiment with language and thought, as I argue in the introduction. Although these considerations were true for most poets of this decade (Omar Perez, Emilio Sanchez Montiel, Alessandra Molina, etc.), Diaspora(s) was more radical than the rest.
As its name indicates, Diaspora(s) was first and foremost a publication that sought to deterritorialize power and language. To publish and discuss literature that disrupts state-sponsored culture is one of the aims of Diaspora(s). On some occasions, however, this gesture, which in fact is not grandiose, results in the fetishization of the Diaspora(s)’s work. The journal shared some of the characteristics of a minor literature, and the work of Deleuze and Guattari clearly influenced its mission. This is a useful category for a first approximation to their poetics, but like most literary classifications, it lacks complexity. I will, nonetheless, approach their poetics by discussing their work as a minor literature, especially because of their own interest in Deleuze and Guattari.
Minor literature is the denomination Deleuze and Guattari use to describe Franz Kafka’s work in Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, as their attempt to cut through the debate over the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow literature. Their ideologically framed discussion aims to demonstrate the revolutionary potential of experimental literature. In this sense, the contextual framework of this discussion stems from the debate between Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukacs about the avant-garde and its revolutionary potential. For Deleuze and Guattari, however, a minor literature can be “experimental” (highbrow) or “marginal” (lowbrow), but it must above all be a form of deterritorialization of a major language. Linguistically speaking, a deterritorialization is the destruction of a standard language, that is, the expression of a minority who uses a major language (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 16). In the case of Kafka, they argue that his writing is caught between several languages (German, Czech, and Yiddish) and that he does not recognize any of them as his own. That is, Kafka (a minority writer) is writing in German (a major language). Minor literature can also be an “experimental” mode of writing, such as the high modernist rupture of style (as in Joyce or Beckett). Deterritorialization must also be political because it must destroy grand narratives, such as Freudian psychoanalysis and its imposition of Greco-Roman myths as a universal analytical matrix. Unlike major literatures that narrate individual stories, in minor literature there is no separation between the political and the personal. The destruction of those narratives must above all be a collective and revolutionary project that arises from an active solidarity and that produces alternative communities.
The collective role of literature also has an emancipatory function, and in this regard it blends with sixties revolutionary Cuban literature: “But above all else, because collective or national consciousness is ‘often inactive in external life and always in the process of break-down,’ literature finds itself positively charged with the role and function of collective, and even, revolutionary enunciation” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986, 17).
The journal Diaspora(s), however, was not a project of resistance, as its classification as minor literature might lead one to think (Diaz Infante). This scholarly appreciation of Diaspora(s) as a “minor literature,” is also how the works that the samizdat discusses have been defined. But the critics have fallen prey to the epistemological contradictions of “minor literature” as a notion that recreates the same premise it criticizes. That is, “minor literature” is a concept that seeks to disassociate certain authors from a hegemonic norm by affirming their particularities. But in so doing it reinscribes them into a category, since they still share their belonging to a group. The idea of a “minor literature” defeats its own purpose because any process of identification is necessarily also a process of differentiation, so the concept is recreating the same duality it wants to abolish. In this regard, instead of “minor literature” I prefer what Maurice Blanchot has called “a community without a community,” a concept that points to the idea of group or ensemble in spite of its undetermined nature. To categorize Diaspora(s) as a systematic or asystematic literary endeavor goes against the nature of a project that is constantly calling into question the process of differentiation. In other words, this type of categorization not only goes against the intellectual project of Diaspora(s), it also fetishizes the group’s work. Ricardo Alberto Perez, another member of the group, argues that Diaspora(s) never took a direct political position. The political nature of their work was actually articulated by their poetics, and is to be inferred from their writing, as Perez seems to suggest.89 In other words, in general they have an antisystemic view of the world, but this did not translate into a systematic political agenda. It did, however, create an iconoclastic poetics driven by antisystemic political ideology.
The editorial collective shared similar aesthetics and an antiestablishment position. Influenced by Eastern European dissident movements and by the belief that walls would fall in Havana as they had in Berlin, the journal attacked and analyzed totalitarianism. Most important, the journal was unique in condemning the understanding of literature as a national category. It was also one of the rare journals committed to the dissemination of foreign literature, and in that regard, it followed the mission of important journals such as Criterios and Pensamiento cntico. Moreover, the samizdat Diaspora(s) did away with the focus on national and cultural identity. In so doing, its endeavor radicalized minor literature’s goal to decenter the nation, getting rid of national narrations altogether. The name of the journal also alluded to a spatial dispersion, to the narrowness of the nation and the need to embrace worldwide intellectual genealogies. During the Republic, the Grupo Origenes noted for the first time how Mexico was debating the problem between nationalism and cosmopolitism. This debate is brought back to light now, after the anti-intellectualism and dogmatism that characterized the conversationalist poetic movement. In this sense, the parenthetical “s” in Diaspora(s) has two meanings that do not exclude each other. On the one hand, it refers to a retreat from hegemonic thought; on the other, it points to a place of isolation. The project thus alluded to a space of exile or dissidence that, paradoxically never points to a physical reality or a communal space. In other words, if what characterizes the journal is the idea of dispersion, then one cannot argue simultaneously that the project is defined according to the notion of collective action as the notion of minor literature implies. This type of politics keeps considering democracy as the attempt to achieve hegemony by wresting power from the elite rather than as the possibility of abolishing the relations of rule (Vatter 2011, 2). As we have discussed, politically speaking, Diaspora(s) was neither a literature of resistance (literature associated with the political struggles of national liberation) nor a minor literature, two categories that understand the political as emancipation. That is, the journal denounced intellectual projects, which in general understood literature as an instrument of political emancipation, regardless of whether they originated in the island or in the Cuban exile. As a matter of fact, it was as critical of emancipatory literature originating in the exiled community. Diaspora(s) clearly differentiated its tactics from those of different journals. For example, it implicitly criticized Encuentro de la cultura cubana (Meeting of Cuban Culture), a journal created by Jesus Diaz, an exiled intellectual who had been very close to the regime at the beginning of the revolution. The journal was based in Madrid and launched in 1996, three years before Sanchez Mejias wrote the following text:
Ahora se suena con una Cuba donde todos sus intelectuales seran como sus hij os sonados. Se habla del “encuentro,” de la “confluencia,” del estado final de gracia de todos—incluso los que nunca han tenido voz en Cuba—seran redimidos por la Nacion. Los “cubanologos” (esa nueva raza del intelectual cubano) inventan nuevas averiguaciones: construyen, producen, se adelantan a la futura maquina de produccion de realidad. Se parecen al socialismo por su energia de organizar nuevos construc- tos de saber y de utopia nacionales en nombre de una epopeya insular.
[Today people dream of a Cuba in which all the country’s intellectuals would be like the children of its dreams. People speak of the “meeting” [encuentro], of the “convergence,” of the state of final grace in which everyone—including those who have never had a voice in Cuba—will be redeemed by the nation. “Cubanologists” (that new race of Cuban intellectuals) invent new research questions, building, producing, pushing ahead of the future reality machine—They act like socialism in its endeavor of organizing new life simulacra, new constructs of knowledge and utopia in the name of an island epic.] (1999, 6-7)
The original mission of Encuentro de la cultura cubana was to create an intellectual space for debate between exiled intellectuals (dissidents) and those living on the island.90 This explains why Sanchez Mejias clearly refers to it by apparently questioning the politics of ideological consensus between dissidents and the island’s critical or official intellectuals. Encuentro de la cultura cubana was not the only journal that Diaspora(s) targeted. Sanchez Mejias was also alluding to previous attempts to create a dialogue between the Cuban and the Cuban American cultural productions, often metaphorically depicted as a “bridge” between Miami and Cuba.91 That is, this argument replicated the paradigm of cultural exceptionalism as a way to define the nation in revolutionary official discourse. This is what Sanchez Mejias identifies as “the island epic.” Hence, rather than national identity, literature needs to address the question of state intervention in culture. Namely, the writer has to fight for literature’s autonomy. A literature at the service of a political idea of emancipation is bound to become the literature of the ruling class: “Porque el poder suena con convertirse en Naturaleza. Final- mente el poder tambien suena como un nino: aunque suene con la cabeza vacia. Su sueno es tan monstruoso como el de la literatura [Because power dreams of converting itself into Nature. In the end, power also dreams like a child, although it dreams empty-headed. Its dream is as monstrous as that of literature]” (ibid., 6).