Some Questions for Infrapolitics. By Stephen Buttes.

6593be21-8068-4b2b-8506-db9298e8228dI attended the 2016 ACLA at Harvard, but because my seminar overlapped with the afternoon session of the Línea de sombra seminar on Friday, I unfortunately had to leave the discussions before the conversations had really gotten under way and was unable to attend the Saturday session for the same reason. Such is our fate amid scheduling at large, important conferences like ACLA. But I should say that this was a disappointment for me because there is a great deal I find of interest in Línea de sombra, and I wish I would have had the opportunity to engage in the conversation fully since my own presentation modestly sought to dialogue with some of the claims made in the volume. What follows in my comments below was initially begun as a short response to Moreiras’ recent post “Some comments on the ACLA 2016 discussions,” but it has grown substantially as I started to write it two weeks ago. So, I apologize for the length and also if the comments I make were already addressed during the discussion.

One of the aspects I admire about Línea de sombra and especially his more recent work, such as the essay giving an overview of the infrapolitical project, published in Transmodernity last year, is the ways in which Moreiras continues his attempts to move past some of the limits of the project of subaltern studies. By acknowledging that we all are “subaltern or potentially subaltern in ways that would have been unimaginable only a generation or two ago” (“Some comments,” my emphasis, and more on that emphasis in a moment), he situates the infrapolitical project in a place to deal with one of the limits signaled but unresolved by John Beverley in Latinamericanism after 9/11:

“in the Haitian Revolution the slave-owning planter class became a subordinated group, in the sense that its own identity and interests were coercively negated—its plantations were confiscated, and many of the slave owners and their families and associates were killed and forced into exile. Does that mean that the former slave owners became ‘subaltern’? In a narrow sense, yes, if—to recall Guha’s definition—the subaltern is ‘a name for the general attribute of subordination. . . whether this is expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender and office or in any other way,’ so that ‘in any other way’ could be understood as including having one’s slaves rebel and one’s plantations seized. But to insist on that point (rather than, for example, to characterize the former slave owners as counterrevolutionary émigrés) would seem to distort significantly the meaning and political valence of the idea of the subaltern” (Beverley, Latinamericanism After 9/11 112).

To think of these particular instances of dispossession as subalternization, Beverley notes, would be a corruption or “distortion” of the term, which for him, and for Ranajit Guha, as Javier Sanjinés has noted, sees “subalternity [as] a euphemism Gramsci used for the proletariat and peasantry” (88). For this reason Sanjinés expands the notion and “along with Beverley . . . [is] inclined to define [the subaltern] . . . as the poor in spirit mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount” (89). This links one version of subaltern studies and its transformation in discussions of the multitude and the marea rosada with Beverley’s account in in Subalternity and Representation (1999) of “subaltern studies as a secular version of the ‘preferential option for the poor’ of liberation theology” (Beverley, Subalternity and Representation 38). Indeed, like liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor, this version of subaltern studies possesses the “structure of the asymptotic curve: we can approximate in our work, personal relations, and political practice closer and closer the world of the subaltern, but we can never actually merge with it” (40). Subalternity can never come fully into view and so cannot be addressed in fullness, an affirmation, if followed to its end, leads to the conclusion that we can never actually eliminate poverty or make the poor and non-poor self same to each other: we can only ever approximate eliminating it. This is because, as Gustavo Gutiérrez puts it,

“poverty is an act of love and liberation. It has redemptive value. If the ultimate cause of human exploitation and alienation is selfishness, the deepest reason for voluntary poverty is love of neighbor. Christian poverty has meaning only as a commitment of solidarity with the poor, with those who suffer misery and injustice. The commitment is to witness to the evil which has resulted from sin and is a breach of communion. It is not a question of idealizing poverty, but rather of taking it on as it is—an evil—to protest against it and to struggle to abolish it . . . . It is poverty lived not for its own sake, but rather an authentic imitation of Christ; it is a poverty which means taking on the sinful human condition to liberate humankind from sin and all its consequences. (Gutiérrez 172, my emphasis)

Voluntary poverty, or “spiritual poverty” (the “poor in spirit”), is “an ability to receive, not a passive acceptance” of “the Lord” (171) and “above all total availability” (171) to that messianic witness.

Confusingly, this model of justice both requires poverty and also requires that no one actually be poor (that is, exploited or dispossessed). Poverty must always appear and be present because it is what produces the justice of the community: “[it is] not a question of erecting poverty as an ideal, but rather of seeing to it that there were no poor” (173). But poverty itself is “an act of love” (172) and indeed is the process by which the community can carry out the eschatological project set out by the Messiah and as a consequence cannot be eliminated. In other words, the poverty that appears in a truly just society—one that has eliminated exploitation—must be voluntary poverty, spiritual poverty: openness and incompleteness. But this category of poverty must necessarily be treated as if it were real, as if it were material poverty: “the meaning of the community of goods is clear: to eliminate poverty because of love of the poor person” (Gutiérrez 173). This is not love of the saint but love of the “marginated.” The poor must appear so that there can be no poor. In this sense, poverty can only ever be eliminated through something paralleling the painterly technique of trompe l’oeil. In this model of justice, the poor must appear as if they were exploited, and the community must believe that their poverty is a sin, but the poor must in actuality be voluntarily poor, be Christian witnesses employing an act of love. They must be an “an authentic imitation of Christ,” a trompe l’oeil representation of poverty: “being rich, [but appearing] poor,” material plenty appearing as lack, fullness and completeness as its opposite. We can only approximate closure so that closure is possible: the asymptotic curve.

This model, however, creates a difficult dilemma. Who, might we say, is choosing poverty of their own free will? How should we distinguish the person who loves their neighbor (voluntary Christian poverty as “an expression of love” (172)) from the one who is exploited by their neighbor (“material poverty” (171) as “a scandalous condition inimical to human dignity” (165))? Who is functioning as the necessary witness to justice and who is the victim of injustice? Who is “[living] . . . as an authentic imitation of Christ” (172) and can redeem the corrupted society and all the consequences of that corruption and who is victim of dispossession? How can we calculate these differences?

These questions, of course, make it perfectly reasonable to ask about what we should do with ruined oligarchs and white collar criminals and the flotsam and jetsam of the upper crust who are forced to work for a living after a crash or a revolution, and Beverley notes as much in the footnote that follows the passage I quote above: “[This] is not to say of course that elements of defeated classes, or of elite classes in decomposition, such as the petty nobility in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, could not migrate in class status terms to form part of the subaltern sectors of a given society” (141 n6). But it also makes Beverley’s demand that we distinguish who is voluntarily poor (the necessary witness) and who is not, who is a “counterrevolutionary émigré” and who is a victim of dispossession a difficult one to mesh with this earlier (and abandoned?) version of subaltern studies, which is why I suspect he makes the claim for a postsubalternist age and maintains little or no mention of Gutiérrez in the more recent book.

This dilemma is also where the infrapolitical intervention, as I modestly understand it, seems to fit, responding to the metaphysical and spiritual dilemma of voluntary poverty with an account of the marrano, with an account of those who do not quite fit into the regulated archives and structures of society, the remainders of projects of modernization: we are all potentially subaltern because the eschatologies of justice that structure society can always be captured. Línea de sombra, like liberation theology, views the possibility of the world in the poor, or, as it has more broadly been pointed out, in “all infrapolitical lives,” the “potentially subaltern,” those lives which cannot be properly political in existing modes of calculation and regulation. Might this share a genealogy with the “poor in spirit” that has “[a] relationship to the use or ownership of economic goods [that] is inescapable but secondary and partial” (Gutiérrez 171)? Perhaps, but unlike liberation theology, infrapolitics rejects communitarian forms of justice, championing unrepeatable forms of singularity, rejecting any mode of capture. The poor are the possibility of the world because they maintain an openness to the (denarrativized) world to come whatever it may be: the messianic structure without messianism.

This is a deeply compelling way to view the world, and it is for this reason that these points of view have been gaining so much attention and are being widely adopted in contemporary literature and culture, despite the vague claims of a field-wide resistance to the infrapolitical that Moreiras asserts in his recent post.[1] What is so attractive about the infrapolitical project is the notion of the “minor adjustment,” the notion that there is a “pequeño ajuste infrapolítico” that is hiding in plain sight and already in all of us, the notion that the liberation of the world and the solution to exploitation and domination will emerge through a minor change, the notion that the world to come is just the same as this world but a little different. This idea, of course, owes one portion of its genealogy to Walter Benjamin, and for this reason the “minor adjustment” has emerged as a popular idea in contemporary culture, present in a wide array of contexts and texts like Ben Lerner’s recent novel 10:04 (2014), which, through its engagement with Agamben’s The Coming Community, cites as its epigraph Benjamin’s famous anecdote discussing the Hassidim’s vision of the Messiah’s world to come, which like the infrapolitical claim, sees that future as just the same but a little different: “The Hassidim tell a story about the world to come that says everything there will be just as it is here. Just as our room is now, so it will be in the world to come; where our baby sleeps now, there too it will sleep in the other world. And the clothes we wear in this world, those too we will wear there. Everything will be as it is now, just a little different.”

An example of this dynamic appears about halfway through the novel (but really all throughout), when we meet a character named Noor, an Arab-American co-worker of the narrator-protagonist, to whom it is revealed that Nawaf, the Lebanese man she had been told was her father, and with whom she had always identified racially and ethnically, was, in fact, her adopted father, and that the identity of her biological father, a white man named Stephen, meant, in her view, that she had no claim to the Arabic-speaking world and Arab culture with which she had identified her entire life. This “minor adjustment” to her biography led her to begin “seeing [her] own body differently” (104), an invisible change that denies her “ownership” of a past (her own) that she feels she wrongfully claimed, even though nothing else about her lived experiences nor her beliefs about the Arabic world had changed: her world was the same but a little different. For example, when asked to speak about the Arab Spring at an Occupy protest, she felt she had no right to do so given this (invisible) revelation about her past, and she remained silent as a “new” member of a racially powerful group, as a “new” member of the group of imperialists who appropriate culture for their own ends.[2] And she compares this to a friend who felt wronged by his brother and who, in seeking to confront him, finally managed to tell his brother during a mundane cell phone conversation everything he’d been feeling for so many years. Towards the end of his cathartic airing of grievances, he realized, to his horror, that this deeply emotional experience—“a major event in his life” (107)—actually hadn’t taken place: the cell phone call had dropped before the brother could hear anything: “it happened but it didn’t happen” (107). And the brother, like Noor, must figure out how to live in this transformed world, which is really no different from the world before the transformation, in which major, life changing events happened but did not happen: they remain invisible to all except a singular witness. Their task is to prepare themselves to confront the transformations they recognize in the world. In these silences—Noor’s silent presence at Zucotti Park and the brother’s sudden absence from the cell phone call—we can hear an echo of the world Línea de sombra describes: “la posibilidad mesiánica del fin de la subalternidad en contraimperio es lo que no toma lugar, lo que está sujeto a un retraso infinito” (Moreiras 209). Infrapolitics is a constant preparation for “accounting for what was never on [the world’s] radar in the first place” (Moreiras, “Some comments”).

These infrapolitical intonations, of course, appear outside the literary realm as well, perhaps, I cautiously want to suggest, in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s now-famous book Nudge (2008). Using behavioral science, the book argues that through invisible modifications to the “architecture of choice” in both government and free markets policy makers and companies can significantly reshape the world. As an example of one of these “nudges” in “choice architecture,” Sunstein points to the mundane task of filling out forms for a driver’s license. Here, there is still a box to check relating to organ donation, but it is slightly modified: instead of opting in, one has to opt out. Instead of actively choosing to donate life-giving organs, instead of imagining one’s own heart in the body of another, instead of imagining ourselves become another—instead of thousands of dollars spent on marketing campaigns meant to mobilize this empathic or affective identification that would produce the necessary minor move of the pen or the mouse to choose yes— one has to negate, to actively choose not to donate life, to actively deny ourselves, which, through the transformation of the default option, through a shift in our immanent field of existence, has already been given to another. Here, the world is just the same—a box to check—but a little different: instead of choosing to give ourselves to another, we already have, but the choice remains: to give or not to give, movement and action are still possible. By making paternalism invisible—by modifying the “choice architecture” so that no one needs to decide on things about which they may or may not have beliefs, by making it so that no one need ask themselves if they have any beliefs at all, and by nudging and modifying habits by intervening with a modified default option—the invisible baseline around which society organizes itself transforms, and the “world reorganizes itself around you” as Lerner puts it time and again in his novel.

But as Sunstein points out in his more recent book Simpler: The Future of Government (2014), invisible paternalism—the invisible nudge in the restructuring of choice architecture—simply acknowledges the fact that most choices—indeed a good number of bad choices—are made because the truth of a situation—the clarity of the choices available—is distorted or obscured through existing modes of calculation. There are important aspects of all situations that remain invisible, and good governance must integrate, that is, must make these characteristics visible through the invisibility of the architecture of choice. A key example of this imperative is Sunstein’s description of the famous “invisible gorilla” experiment. Here subjects are asked to count how many times a basketball is passed between a group of players. In the middle of this, a person in a gorilla suit enters the scene and then leaves. Most subjects calculate the right number of passes, but they completely miss the gorilla. (The experiment is here: The gorilla is beyond calculation because it cannot be described in the number of passes: it is simply not on the radar of those participating in the experiment. It is precisely for this reason that the White House—seeing the power of incorporating into choice architecture the gorillas we are likely to miss, the benevolent paternalistic witness who sees the gorillas we cannot—has transformed the nudge into a properly political tool: the possibilities for a progressive politics are always based on what is beyond existing modes of calculation, what is open to infinite modification.[3]

It is clear that the nudge shares something with the infrapolitical “minor difference”: transforming the world not by force but rather through the minor adjustment, they both prepare the ground for the world to come. But their differences are also fairly obvious: while one is a form of messianism (or paternalism), the other maintains a messianic structure without messianism; while one is a mechanism of control, the other is a mode of freedom; while the former is unabashedly managerial, the latter stakes a claim to the pure possibility of politics and a truly just world; while the former emerges from the behavioral and social sciences, the latter emerges from philosophy and literary and cultural studies. But these differences, if I understand Moreiras’ most recent comments correctly, cannot be made to matter, for these are ultimately academic or “straightforwardly political” debates. What can count as evidence, modes of access to truth and the importance of choosing one mode of expression (a novel) over another (a graph, a survey, an algorithm, an experiment) are all part of modes of regulated knowledge production; choosing what information to make visible to consumers or lawmakers (“just the facts” or “an argued position”) are part of political debates. To focus our attention on any of these issues, that is, to focus on what is currently visible would be to miss the “gorillas in our midst,” which is what is truly important.

And it is from here where one of my points of disagreement with Moreiras begins to become clear. Because for Moreiras, these differences only matter artificially, can only appear to matter and in fact are a product of dominating, managerial claims to knowledge. To decide whether something is a novel and therefore engaging particular kinds of constraints and approaching a problem from a particular point of view, or to decide that something, on the other hand, is the product of a series of experiments misses the gorilla for the passes: the truth of the world is “out there” in “the world,” in life itself which cannot be completely known and can never be knowable through the micromanaged institutions of the university and government that seek to calculate how many times the ball was passed, what counts as the humanities and what counts as the social sciences and so on. As Moreiras points out in his reflections on the ACLA seminar:

there is no ivory tower. The university is no more than a symptomal torsion of the wider society.  Which is why infrapolitics must abandon its original roots in university discourse, exit disciplinary configurations, and break away from any attempt to surrender at the capture of thought through increasingly domesticated, indexed, regulated, venued, and analytically-ranked self-insertion. This is one of the reasons why infrapolitics claims a savage terrain of engagement, beyond fields: because it understands that battles internal to university politics are always already rigged, always already lost battles. Hence infrapolitics prefers to hide in the plain sight of the world at large, and reflect away from any regulated archive: the real struggle is out there, particularly if we manage to escape from the boredom that threatens us from the rear, and from the sides. (“Some comments,” my emphasis)

On the one hand, there is no autonomous university discourse: “there is no ivory tower.” The university is the “wider society,” the modes of thinking that populate the university are the modes of thinking that belong to the “world at large.” And so it follows that university politics—the disciplinary border wars, if you will— are politics that have already collapsed into the world at large. But if the university is already heteronomous—if there is no ivory tower—in what sense can we claim, as Moreiras does, that there are still “battles internal to university politics” (“Some comments,” my emphasis). If we take the infrapolitical claim seriously, that the “real struggle is out there,” we also must say that the real struggle is also “in here” given that the university is the world—there is no ivory tower—and the world the university. Indeed, if we are all “potentially subaltern,” if the point of infrapolitics is recognizing the ever-shifting minor difference or nudge that sends us careening one way or another, it would seem that the space of engagement would not really matter at all: all battles are already lost, all modes of thinking already corrupt, everything already managerial, everything already controlled. I suspect that it is for this reason that the infrapolitical seeks to escape the boredom of what Moreiras calls here “regulation,” and the futility of already existing, already managed modes of thought to focus instead on that which escapes (something always does, Jon Beasley-Murray tells us), that which remains invisible, that which is pure potential, that which is free of all constraints. Infrapolitics tells us to search continually for the “invisible gorilla,” an object that may never appear in “gorilla form,” that may only ever emerge as the Augenblick—the blink of an eye—(as Patrick Dove has termed it, following Jacques Derrida) or as the figure that brushes against us and comprises a “secret index” (as Kate Jenckes has termed it, following Walter Benjamin).

But this is to imagine that as long as it remains invisible, undetected and off the radar that it remains free of constraining choices—that it is pure potentiality, that it is unchosen—and we are guaranteed an escape from capture and a path to secure the liberation from eschatology: the Augenblick, the passing touch, all infrapolitical “immaterials” (for lack of a better word) create a usable potentiality. But these usable potentialities, as Ignacio Sánchez-Prado notes in his recent critique of Rancière and infrapolitics, creates what he calls a fetish—“a form of thinking the political that fetishizes the undoing of power as a value in itself” (“Limitations of the Sensible” 375)—and what I argue we can call an icon: “an object that matches (is just like) the sign itself” (Ghosh 66), but a little different.[4] Of course, the infrapolitical icon is not exactly an object—“It names the threshold of the visible—the closing of the eye is also the prelude to its opening—and, thus, cannot itself become a possible object of vision” (Dove, “Aesthetics, Politics, Event”)—but the threshold, a passage that functions in the way that icons do, a product of the desire to escape that motivates the infrapolitical reflection. That which escapes regulation, visibilization through the metaphors chosen to organize the world—the unthought thought, that which “what was never [on the] radar” (“Some comments”), freedoms that remain beyond writing (Williams, The Mexican Exception), the unfinished manuscript (Cometa, “Non-finito”), averroist intellect (Muñoz “Esse extraneum”) and so on—always remains invisible, and as a consequence always emerges as something that looks like the thing it is: real life beyond calculation, beyond visibilization, beyond metaphoric capture. In other words, it is the image, as Dove has called it. This image, of course, is characterized by its invisibility, by its ability to be sensed but not seen, experienced but not known, used but not valued. In other words, infrapolitical “immateriality” becomes iconic in its invisibility, in its immanent potentiality, through the fact that the “infrapolitical minor adjustment” looks something like the Borgesian revelation that doesn’t take place, or like, if I can be a little more concrete, “The Unending Gift” memorialized by Jorge Luis Borges in Elogio de la sombra (1969).

The “gift” that gives the poem its title is a landscape painting that the Argentine painter Jorge Larco promised to Borges before Larco’s death in 1967 and which Larco never completed. What we see in the gift Borges cherishes is not the thing itself—an iconic landscape fully realized in watercolor—but rather the promise of the painting and its escape from full realization: “si [el cuadro] estuviera allí, sería con el tiempo una cosa / más, una cosa, una de las vanidades de la casa; / ahora es ilimitada, incesante, capaz de cualquier forma y / cualquier color y no atada a ninguno” (984, my emphasis). This, of course, sounds quite a bit like a map of the invisible, savage, uncapturable terrain of the infrapolitical, almost literally evoking the Derridean promise, an icon that is usable but not interpretable.

And yet, as Borges points out, despite this escape from habit, despite the landscape’s full invisibilization and despite the guaranteed “imminence of a revelation that [will never] produce itself” given that Larco died before realizing the work and fulfilling his promise, the painting has already been captured by existence. “Existe de algún modo,” Borges tells us, and this “de algún modo,” this mode of existence is what makes possible the transposition of gods and men Borges imagines (parenthetically) in his poem: “Sólo los dioses pueden prometer porque son inmortales . . . También los hombres pueden prometer, porque en la promesa / hay algo inmortal” (984). These temporal landscapes are linked with eternal ones through the linguistic “de algún modo” that imparts its “algo inmortal,” but it is clear that we should not confuse the signified—“the unending gift” of the absent landscape painting, the immortality or eternity of Larco’s infinite promise, the imminence of the revelation that will not produce itself—for any particular signifier, which can arbitrarily be evoked by “cualquier forma y / culaquier color,” and perhaps “cualquier hombre” as repeated singularities in time: a messianic structure without messianism.

But, if I am reading this poem as the infrapolitical approach would ask, what also becomes clear is that all of these singularities do not escape an eschatology: all of them are incorporated into the gift, into the infinite, eternal whole that is the unending landscape painting, Larco’s promise or gesture: the gift that functions as a mode of passage, a metaphor of metaphor itself, or more simply as a gap between what Moreiras calls in “Mules and Snakes” the saying and the said. These unrepeatable singularities or intonations are incorporated into this absent or indeterminate whole but also can never be domesticated into yet one more of the “vanidades de la casa” because there is always a new gap, a new approach to glimpsing what Moreiras calls in his essay “Mules and Snakes” “a non-caputrable exteriority” (“Mules” 203). This gap that Moreiras describes in that 2005 essay, this gift that escapes capture and is “non-capturable” defines what I understand as a version of infrapolitics, a version that he does “not hesitate to call neobaroque” (224).

Following this logic, I want to suggest that an infrapolitical reading of the landscape painting produces an iconicity that parallels Baroque hagiographic imagery. As Lois Parkinson Zamora points out in The Inordinate Eye, Baroque hagiographic images are premised “upon the separation of the image from what [they represent]” and their ability to “point to invisible realities but . . . not to be mistaken for those realities” (Parkinson Zamora 172): they are a mode of passage to the world to come. As Parkinson Zamora demonstrates in her reading of Frida Kahlo’s repeated, visceral self-portraits that parallel the Baroque tradition of serial portraits of suffering martyrs and virgins, the Neobaroque replicates “the process of metonymic displacement typical of the Baroque” in which the “association accumulation, and diffusion” of repetitive but individualized portraits serve to make visible an “indeterminate or absent whole” (186-87) to which new portraits, new fragments and, following Moreiras, new intonations can continually be added. These (Neo)baroque icons always maintain certain characteristics. While in Baroque iconography it is the situation of the death of the saint, in infrapolitical iconography it is what is sensed in the “sacredness of man”: the echo, the glance, the might have been, the intonation, the Augenblick. This creates a dynamic relationship between artwork and beholder that is theatrical in nature, a potentiality that can be created again and again in and on one’s own body as Borges does, metonymically relating the singular to an “indeterminate or absent whole:” “Vivirá y crecerá como una música y estará conmigo hasta el fin.” And here we can hear an echo of the discussion of subalternity above: el fin = el retraso infinito; or the asymptotic curve Beverley evokes from liberation theology. An end that is not an end because it can (and must) always be recreated in the gap between the saying and the said, in the gaps between the interlocking illusions that produce the Neobaroque spaces of our “world theater.”

Seen as a Neobaroque icon of potentiality and passage, the infrapolitical does not avoid the eschatology that Moreiras seeks, because the recognition of immanence always requires a witness, a particular kind of viewer: the marrano, the unbelieving beholder, the remainder of modernity, the witness who refuses to (or cannot) count the passes and sees the “invisible gorilla” and “invisible mules” and “invisible snakes” and other members of the Baroque bestiary who will seminally enter the scene and require infinite minor adjustments that briefly integrates the beholder into and then releases him/her from the absent whole. The Neobaroque icon of potentiality, then,—the echoes, the breaths, the blinks, the invisible remainder or fallen fur or scales of the gorillas or mules or snakes that pass before our very eyes in the gap between the saying and the said—pairs with the trompe l’oeil logic of a secular liberation theology. While infrapolitics opts for the materials over the mediation, negating or denarrativizing the illusion, Beverley opts for the illusion that can escape the frame.[5] But both models remain squarely within Baroque modes of trompe l’oeil thought, requiring either believing or unbelieving beholders. In choosing image over metaphor, in choosing the invisible over the visible, in choosing the icon of potentiality over the icon of actuality, there is little ground from which the infrapolitical minor adjustment might escape the nudge noted above since the kinds of absent wholes into which the infrapolitical minor adjustment and the nudge are integrated cannot be distinguished without some recurrence to categories that pass through disciplinary and political debates, the world of the visible and the world of constraints, the world of calculating what was chosen and valued and what was not. Indeed, it is impossible to follow Borges in his valorization of Larco’s gift without recurrence to these same sorts of categories. In reducing lived experience to the singular category of potentiality and by iconizing what we cannot see, infrapolitics seems to valorize its own form of calculation: the accumulation of the unchosen, the piling up of non-commensurable possibilities. Making us all miners of life’s raw material, infrapolitics seems to value what appears unchosen and so unconstrained. But the moment it passes into active choice, into regulation, into visibility, into the representative, into the metaphor, into the aesthetic, it loses all value, loses potentiality and thus demands a return to a savage terrain. But what do we make of choices we have made, including the choice not to choose one non-commensurable option over another (e.g. choosing to visibilize lived experience through a novel instead of a painting or an experiment or a blog post or a government report or a street performance or a day at the park)? What to make of choosing one set of constraints and not choosing another?

A path out of this dilemma contrasts the infrapolitical of Borges’ account of Larco’s landscape painting with a Friedian one, one that acknowledges that particular kinds of choices have been made and one that seeks to explain the importance of making something other than simply another everyday object. It is notable that Borges highlights the fact that Larco’s painting is not “una cosa / más” [just another thing or object] that is placed in the world for him or by him. The promise is perceived by him but also transcends him (is eternal, has “algo inmortal”). It is possible to read here a radicalized antitheatrical demand paralleling that highlighted by Michael Fried in his reading of Barthes’ punctum and extended by Walter Benn Michaels in his recent book. One question that emerges from thinking through this possible reading, then, which marks the difference between the promise of the landscape painting and the promise of graphically represented statistics on organ donation, or, we might add here, poverty, is the extent to which infrapolitics shares its orientation with Barthes’ punctum as well.

In the beautiful and (for me) moving opening pages of the Exergo in Tercer espacio, Moreiras analyzes a personal photo that serves (as I understand it) as a “foundational allegory,” highlighting certain confluences between “el tercer espacio” and the punctum by way of the “baroque [barroco]” mirror that makes the reflection (in both its literal and critical senses) possible. Indeed, such a claim emerges in Moreiras’s extension of this photographic reading in his account of the photographed images of painted landscapes, or “pinturas campesinas” (Tercer 375), that appear in Cortázar’s “Apocalipsis de Solentiname.” Following Rosalind Krauss, Moreiras calls the “failed fetish” that is the photographic image of these landscape paintings “la opción antióptica” (377) that is an extension of Barthes’ punctum. Is this a demand for something antitheatrical, something that arrests us and holds us in our place because it appears as if it were not there for us, doesn’t quite fit into standardized modes of representation and in a flash or an instant captures us in a demand for contemplation of that which is structured beyond the habitual world created by or for us? And if so, how does that demand map onto the critique of visibilization, metaphorization and narrative fiction we’ve seen above?[6] The landscape paintings were made with a particular form of community and a particular end in mind as were the photographs of them: there is a critical mode of potentiality made available through each particular visualization, whether they be the painting, the photography, the fictional narrative or the essay of literary criticism. As Moreiras himself notes, “[el] efecto literario [de “Apocalipsis de Solentiname”] no puede ser asimilado automáticamente al tipo de eficacia lograble por el texto histórico, periodístico, científico-social o testimonial” (355). How does the “opción antióptica”—efecto literario? translation?—map onto the infrapolitical and dialogue with the antitheatrical account of the punctum? Does the infrapolitical assert a difference between the unassimilable “efecto literario” and the “eficacia científico-social”? How does this connect to the “savage terrain . . . beyond fields” demanded above?

To try to make my ultimate question a little clearer, I’ll end with one last landscape artist admired by Borges: the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg, as Borges notes in his 1978 lecture on Swedenborg, developed an account of the world to come—“el otro mundo” (196)—“un poco a la manera de los cabalistas” (196). Above all, Borges notes, “su visión de la inmortalidad personal . . . está basado en el libre albedrío” (196). Borges continues:

[En Swedenborg] los muertos [no] son condenados por un tribunal [que les dice que] merecen el cielo o el infierno . . . Nos dice [en cambio] que cuando un hombre muere no se da cuenta que ha muerto, ya que todo lo que le rodea es igual. Se encuentra en su casa, lo visitan sus amigos, recorre las calles de su ciudad, no piensa que ha muerto; pero luego empieza a notar algo. Empieza a notar algo que al principio lo alegra y que lo alarma después: todo en el otro mundo, es más vívido que este . . . . Hay más colores, hay más formas. Todo es más concreto, todo es más tangible que en este mundo . . . este mundo, comparado con el mundo que yo he visto en mis innumerables andanzas por los cielos y los infiernos, es como una sombra. Es como si nosotros viviéramos en la sombra (196).

Obviously there is something in this description of a world to come that is just the same but a little different that is shared with the account of the Hassdim’s world to come admired by Benjamin and connected with “pequño ajuste infrapolítico.” But it is also notable that the known world, the visible world is described by Swedenborg in Borges’ reading as “like a shadow,” precisely that which is valued by the infrapolitical approach. What we know and what we see, what we choose and our desired modes of expression, metaphors visibilized and calculated are, without our knowing it, open to change. In this model, there is no messiah that saves or condemns. Rather, it is a messianic structure without messianism: “hay una región intermedia, que es la región de los espíritus. En esa región están los hombres, están las almas de quienes han muerto, y conversan con ángeles y con demonios. Entonces llega ese momento que puede durar una semana, puede durar un mes, puede durar muchos años; no sabemos cuánto tiempo puede durar. En ese momento el hombre resuelve ser un demonio, o llegar a ser un demonio o un ángel” (197). As Borges notes, this would take place through lengthy “theological conversations” between angels and humans in Latin and would lead to decisions for self-condemnation or self-salvation “por la inteligencia, por la ética y por el ejercicio del arte” (199). In Swedenborg, that recognition takes place in Latin, but Moreiras’ recent reflections on Florencia Mallón’s work asks us to think about what those conversations might be like in Guaraní (likely much to the horror of the elder Borges in “El otro” who laments the loss of Latin in favor of Guaraní).

Given the parallels between infrapolitics and Borges’ account of a Swedenborgian world to come and the centrality of Borges to both, my question for the infrapolitical collective, then, is what role art and particularly literature might take in these accounts. Can the difference between the nudge and the “pequeño ajuste” be distinguished, and if so how? Does it dialogue with the reading of Cortázar in Tercer espacio? If so, is there a role for artistic visibilizations in infrapolitical projects? Are the terms “neobaroque” and “infrapolitical” synonyms for each other? Do the punctum and the “opción antóptica” come to bear on the infrapolitical project? Do these concepts dialogue with the concept of the antitheatrical, which shares a common space through the punctum? And finally, can poverty—which can be defined with Amartya Sen as the depravation of freedom to live the kind of life one has reason to value—be brought to an end given its central role in the open-ended eternities imagined by the processes of Neobaroque or infrapolitical iconization?[7]

The questions I have attempted to pose throughout this reflection serve as an effort to take seriously the critiques posed by infrapolitics, that is, the hidden forms of exploitation that emerge in developmentalist logic and that I understand as motivating these critiques. At the same time, I question the iconization of potentiality, possibility and invisibility and wonder if it is possible to move beyond Neobaroque modes of thought to create real possibilities for an end to certain specific modes of existence such as unchosen hunger and other aspects of poverty and to what extent art and particularly literature can (if it can) play a role in that process.




[1] If it is true that infrapolitics spans writers from Javier Marías, to Borges, to Lezama Lima to Cormac McCarthy to, as I note below, Ben Lener, and also, plausibly, Sergio Chejfec or Alberto Fuguet, then infrapolitics is the canon, it is the archive itself.


[2] Amartya Sen has an account of a transformation very much like this one that takes place in Tagore’s novel Gora. See Identity and Violence 38. For an account of the centrality of beliefs to Latinamericanism see Hatfield’s book.


[3] I include links to how these are being incorporated into aspects of governance through reports from White House committees and a short article giving an overview of them:


[4] For an account of the icon that links its religious, commercial and fetishistic aspects, see O’Connor and Niebylski’s essay.


[5] See DiStefano and Sauri for a discussion of this:


[6] I try to think through versions of these question in “Towards an Art of Landscapes and Loans”:


[7] Shortly before citing a version of Moreiras’ demand to critique Latin Americanism, Enrique Dussel cites Axel Honneth’s “struggle for recognition,” which some have claimed has parallels Sen’s capabilities approach to poverty. See p. 343-44


Works Cited

Beasley-Murray, Jon. Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America. U Minnesota P: Minneapolis,


Beverley, John. Latinamericanism After 9/11. Duke UP: Durham and London, 2011.

—. Subalternity and Representation: Arguments in Cultural Theory. Duke UP: Durham and London, 1999.

Borges, Jorge Luis. “The Unending Gift.” Obras completas II. Emecé: Buenos Aires, 2007.


—. “Emmanuel Swedenborg.” Obras completas IV. Emecé: Buenos Aires, 2005. 194-203.

Buttes, Stephen. “Towards and Art of Landscapes and Loans: Sergio Chejfec and the Politics of

Literary Form.”

Cortázar, Julio. “Apocalipsis de Solentiname.” La autopista del sur y otros cuentos.

Penguin: New York, 1996. 283-89.

Cometa, Michelle. “Non-finito: Antonio Gramsci’s Infrapolitical Writing.” Infrapolitics Deconstruction

Collective 6 April 2016.

DiStefano, Eugenio and Emilio Sauri. “Making It Visible.”

Dove, Patrick. “Metaphor and Image in Borges’ ‘El Zahir’.” The Romanic Review 98.2-3 (2007): 169-


—. “Aesthetics, Politics, Event: Borges’s ‘El fin,’ the Argentine Tradition and Death.” CR: The New

Centennial Review 14.1 (2014): 25-46.

Dussel, Enrique. “Philosophy of Liberation, the Postmodern Debate and Latin American Studies.”

Coloniality at Large: Latin America and the Postcolonial Debate. Ed. Mabel Moraña. Duke UP:

Durham and London, 2008.

Ghosh, Bishnupriya. Global Icons: Apertures to the Popular. Duke UP: Durham and London, 2011.

Jenckes, Kate. Reading Borges After Benjamin. SUNY P: Albany, 2007.

Fried, Michael. “Barthes’ Punctum.” Critical Inquiry 31 (2005): 539-74.

—. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. Yale UP: New Haven, 2008.

Hatfield, Charles. The Limits of Identity: Politics and Poetics in Latin America. U Texas P: Austin 2015.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. Orbis, 1973.

Lerner, Ben. 10:04: A Novel. Faber and Faber: New York, 2014.

Michaels, Walter Benn. The Beauty of a Social Problem: Photography, Autonomy, Economy. U Chicago P:

Chicago and London, 2015.

—. “Neoliberal Aesthetics.” 1 (2011).


Moreiras, Alberto. Línea de sombra: el no sujeto de lo político. Palinodia: Santiago, 2006.

—. “Mules and Snakes: On the Neobaroque Principle of De-Localization.” Ideologies of Hispanism. Ed.

Mabel Moraña. Vanderbilt UP: Nashville, 2005. 201-29.

—. “Some comments on the ACLA 2016 discussions.” Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective 22 March


—. Tercer espacio: Literatura y duelo en América Latina. LOM: Santiago, 1999.

—. “Infrapolitics: the Project and its Politics. Allegory and Denarrativization.

A Note on Posthegemony.” Transmodernity 5.1 (2015): 9-35.

Muñoz, Gerardo. “Esse extraneum.” Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective 31 March 2016.

O’Connor, Patrick and Dianna C. Niebylski. “Reflections on Iconicity, Celebrity and Cultural

Crossings.” Latin American Icons: Fame Across Borders. Vanderbilt UP: Nashville, 2014. 1-18.

Parkinson Zamora, Lois. The Inordinate Eye: New World Baroque in Latin American Fiction. U Chicago P:

Chicago and London, 2006.

Sánchez Prado, Ignacio M. “Limitations of the Sensible: Reading Rancière in Mexico’s Failed

Transition.” Parallax 20.4 (2015): 372-83.

Sanjinés C., Javier. Embers of the Past: Essays in Times of Decolonization. Duke UP:

Durham and London, 2013.

Sen, Amartya. Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Norton & Co: New York and

London, 2006.

—. Development as Freedom. Knopf: New York, 1999.

Sunstein, Cass. Simpler: The Future of Government. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2014.

Thaler, Richard and Cass Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

Penguin: New York, 2008.

Williams, Gareth. The Mexican Exception: Sovereignty, Police, Democracy. Palgrave: New York, 2011.



4 thoughts on “Some Questions for Infrapolitics. By Stephen Buttes.

  1. Dear Steve,

    I thank you for your interest and the work you have put into this, which is in itself flattering to the Collective. While I only mean to give you a general response—I do not think I am the owner of infrapolitics, of course, or any kind of gatekeeper—I will also try to follow the thread of your discourse and will make comments as they appear relevant. It is not for me to pass any kind of judgment on the force of your analyses, since I am involved in them in ways too conflicted for me to take a step back.

    Infrapolitics stands indeed in a paradoxical relationship to politics which may have something to do with religion—recently there has come up within the group the notion that marrano infrapolitics (which is a kind of assumed militancy, as opposed to infrapolitics as such, which simply happens) is a religion without religion–, but it does not however think of itself in any kind of ethical commitment to anything or anyone: neither to the poor nor to the rich. It is simply not a thinking of the ethical commitment. So the comparison with liberation theology or with any charity politics kind of breaks down in my opinion. The subaltern relation in infrapolitics hits a different register, and it has to do with its very precise abandonment of social hegemony: it makes exodus of it, whatever the social hegemony happens to be (say, even if it is postsubalternist in Beverley’s parlance). This is not because infrapolitics, in its assumed or “militant” dimension, is antipolitical; it is rather because it affirms a directly posthegemonic politics: a demotic republicanism of equality based on the notion that nadie es más que nadie, which means: nobody occupies the site of representation, neither the rich, nor the poor. It is an-archic in that sense. It does not support the precariat, not directly (I mean, it may, if it comes to political choice, but the action that results from a political choice is no longer infrapolitics): it is itself precarious, and it lives in precarity. Joyfully.

    Re the notion of “pequeño ajuste,” I think it is true this is a major theme. But perhaps not in the messianic (without messianism) way you describe it following Lerner, who himself takes it out of Agamben discussing Benjamin and Scholem. The “pequeño ajuste infrapolítico” involves a lot but, I would say, in a radical, strictly, thoroughly antimessianic way, way beyond any structure of the promise. It is precisely a step back from any kind of promise, and from the economy of the promise. We have talked about this frequently in terms of letting-be, and also more particularly in terms of the notion of Gelassenheit taken from Meister Eckhart, Heidegger, Schürmann. My position is that, while there is ever a practice of Gelassenheit in infrapolitics, while infrapolitics lets-be and is a practice of letting-be, there can be no final letting-be, there can be no final Gelassenheit, since the human is forever trapped in the tragic condition between natality and mortality and all that it entails. The gap between the practice of Gelassenheit and the impossibility of a final state of rest calls for that “pequeño ajuste” that might ground all aspects of existential infrapolitics—it also organizes, I would think, what I will call the politics of infrapolitics in the widest sense. Because it opens up the terrain of action. There is nothing peaceful about infrapolitics.

    This would not have much to do with the Borgesian “imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced” in the sense in which you read it. The revelation is unproduced not because it remains invisible—the “production” of the revelation would never be its coming into visibility (the revelation remains unproduced). Infrapolitics does not search for, nor does it desire, the invisible. On the contrary, it is a radical concern with existence such as it is, which also means with desire such as it is. It takes the structure of desire seriously, of course, which makes it take less seriously the notion that desire may have a goal that has to do either with traducing the invisible into the visible or, in a more Baudelairian (but also more perverse) way, with keeping the invisible invisible. It sees what it can, it desires what it must, and it lets it be. And it knows and acknowledges whatever pain or joy that brings along. To that extent I would make the claim that only infrapolitics is properly material, or materialist.

    Re the saying and the said, or nature and the landscape, the reference here is to the ontico-ontological difference in the Heideggerian sense. I would also, myself, say, the Derridean sense, but there are differences in the group regarding Derrida’s use of the Heideggerian notion. For me infrapolitics is above all an exercise (exercitium, we take this word literally) in the region of the ontico-ontological difference, that is, in the difference between being and beings.

    The punctum is also a crucial concept for me, as precisely the site of desire, redefined by infrapolitics as the crossing of the ontological difference in every case. I should use this precise point in your paper to warn you that when I wrote Tercer espacio, or even Exhaustion of Difference, I was not yet thinking of infrapolitics. So for me the inferences are very interesting, but I am not ready to endorse them without going over them with a very fine comb.

    My general impression, Steve, is that you come at infrapolitics with framings and enframings of your own and have not yet moved into the terrain where infrapolitics may become fertile: you are, if you will, still missing the “minor adjustment.” This is probably the reason why your questions at the end do not strike a chord in me—they are not my questions, which means I cannot provide answers for them, I am sorry. But, as I said, I am not the gatekeeper, so you are very welcome in terms of doing your own theorizing and your own extrapolations. And I am not asking you to “take the step” or anything of the kind. If there is one thing infrapolitics abhors, it is any kind of pedagogy.

    Let me only say one thing, though: there is extreme resistance to infrapolitics in the field, I rarely make vague claims regarding things I have patent experience of. And the sentence “infrapolitics is the canon, it is the archive itself” is, although flattering, since you can only formulate it out of a certain clear respect for the thing, is, I think, misleading. No, infrapolitics is a relation to the archive. A different and difficult one.

    Thanks so very much again for having worried about it, written about it, and shared it so that we can discuss it.


  2. Pingback: A reply to Steve Buttes on infrapolitics. (Gerardo Muñoz) | Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective

  3. Pingback: More thoughts on infrapolitics. (Steve Buttes) | Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective

  4. Pingback: “O friends …” | Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective

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