“Archives, Voids, Nihilism. State and University.” Talk given as part of the working group “University and State,” a UCI Humanities Commons Research Cluster. University of California, Irvine. March 10, 2017. (By Jaime Rodríguez Matos)

Jaime Rodríguez Matos (CSU, Fresno)


Lo que el Caribe, sin duda, no es insiste en ser idealizado o comprobado como realidad mítica por variados custodios disciplinarios del archivo. (Quintero Herencia 112)



In the 1983 lecture, “The Principle of Reason,” Jacques Derrida points out a question that Heidegger asked himself about the university and its modern architectonics grounded as it is on the axiom that nothing is without a reason.  We read in Derrida’s text, which is paraphrasing and quoting Heidegger’s 1955-56 seminar Der Satz vom Grund:

if today’s university, locus of modern science, ‘is grounded on the principle of grounding,’ nowhere do we encounter within it the principle of reason itself; nowhere is this principle thought, scrutinized, interrogated as to its origins.  Nowhere, within the university as such, is anyone wondering from where that call of reason is voiced, nowhere is anyone inquiring into the origin of that demand for grounds, for reason that is to be provided, rendered, delivered ….  And this dissimulation of its origin within what remains unthought is not harmful, quite the contrary, to the development of the modern university. (Derrida 140).

The reason for reason is that which even American pragmatists allow themselves without further interrogation.  Derrida cites Charles Sanders Pierce: “One cannot well demand a reason for reasonableness itself” (138).  Furthermore, those inclined to pose the question of the (absent) foundation are accused of obscurantism and, above all, nihilism (138).  This accusation of nihilism follows a certain pattern.  Considering the abyss, it is said, goes hand in hand with a disenchantment that corrodes the highest values; it undermines the very nature of what we understand by the word institutions.  Pointing to this groundlessness entails a thinking, a mode of thinking that is not reason, for which, as Derrida puts it, “It is not certain that [it] can bring together a community or found an institution in the traditional sense of these words.  It must rethink what is meant by community and institution” (148).  And this rethinking is something to which the university tends to react in ways that are not always rational, one might even say that it reacts, or some of its representatives react, in violent ways against this rethinking.  Ways that entail foregoing even the most basic protocols of reasonable critique—like reading the texts that one is glossing or contesting.  Though not always, even radical forms of critique like Marxism and Psychoanalysis have an easier time in this regard.  And the claims of something like a “decolonial reason” or those of knowledges that differ from the scientific model are not different in this context.  For what is at issue is the continued valuation of epistemology and the continuity in maintaining the epistemo-centric “fundamental axiomatics and deontology of the institution” (149).  This is also a form of nihilism, but one that is put into action in the name of values that stand in stark opposition to the actions that defend them.  The professor that allows him or herself a visceral anti-rationalist reaction to safeguard the rationality and reasonableness of the university—this is not an uncommon paradox.

Thus, in 1983, Derrida is speaking with full knowledge of the resistance to the question of being within the institution of the university.  When the abyss on which that institution stands is interrogated, everyone involved seems to tremble.  This is not a question of the textuality of the university, of its appearance and disappearance within a chain of signifiers; it is a question that concerns the relation of the university to another thing, the marks of which have no need of language.  The question is that of the university’s very existence and the existence of the people that live (in) it.  And it is a question that cuts equally deep whether you are on the side of those who think that the university is the site of disinterested knowledge-for-knowledge’s-sake or on the side of those who see it as a technical training facility with the mission of producing profitable end results.

Perhaps because of this resistance, Derrida’s gesture seems, to my eyes at least, timid or overly cautious.  He insists that there must be a double gesture.  On the one hand, we must ensure professional competence, while, on the other, we must go as far as we can in thinking the abyss itself: “‘Thinking’ requires both the principle of reason and what is beyond the principle of reason, the arche and an-archy” (153).  He adds:

Between the two, the difference of breath or an accent, only the enactment of this “thinking” can decide.  That decision is always risky; it always risks the worst.  To claim to eliminate this risk through an institutional program is quite simply to erect a barricade against a future.  The decision of thinking cannot be an intra-institutional event, an academic moment. (153)

Why do I find this overly timid or cautious?  For one, because it is a petitio, and, in this case, there should not be any question begging.  If we didn’t know this in 1983, I think we know it today: those willing to forego the professionalism that should characterizes the university when it comes putting the lable of “nihilists” on those who opt for thinking through the institutions’ fundamental fantasy are not going to change course for the very simple reason that as an institution the university is not interested in taking risks, certainly not today.  On a different front, it is perhaps high time that we begin to face up to the barricade that professionalism erects against the future of any thinking whatsoever.  Today, as in 1983, the accusation of professionalism and antiprofessionalism can be leveled jointly without anyone batting an eye.  “You are too theoretical and your language is too technical, while your exposition and performance of the archive is too undisciplined.”  However, at the heart of this circumstance what lies is the ever-clearer realization that we now live a situation in which, as Alberto Moreiras has observed commenting on David R. Castillo and William Egginton’s recent book Medialogies: Reading Reality in the Age of Inflationary Media, we are

Professors who must consider not just their students as objects but essentially the totality of [our] work to be driven by exploitation (and self-exploitation) for profit[; and thus we] may no longer be in a position to embrace the parergonal critique[, the critique of frameworks,] Castillo and Egginton recommend [but we may add that this is the balance that Derrida’s double gesture recommends as well], [and] which will turn out to be[, as Moreiras adds] only the residual privilege of those … entrenched enough in the institution to consider [that they] still have a few years of relative academic freedom ahead …. (Unpublished manuscript)

The question then is why the double gesture in Derrida?  For no academic program, no intra-academic event, will ever be hospitable enough for a rigorous thinking of the groundlessness of the university?  And even in those cases where such hospitality is given, is it not “professionalism” which reacts and over-reacts always too soon, and always in the name of foreclosing the abyss in question?  With these questions, I simply want to point out not only that today we are in a situation in which it is more important than ever to rethink and reimagine all our activities as they relate to the university: our service, our pedagogy, our research and writing.[1]  But also that today it might also appear that looking into the abyss has become part and parcel of what the various disciplines do almost as a way of auto-immunizing themselves against the effects of rethinking the lack of foundations.  This is something that is at issue in today’s “post-foudationalism” (including the theory of hegemony and various other inheritors of “poststructuralism”), but also in less purely theoretical contexts—so that it is possible today to see the critique of foundations voiced in terms, for instance, of a reading of the Caribbean.  The point being that the questioning of foundations today seems, up to a point, to be more common today than it was either in 1955-56 or 1983, but that this implies not that we are closer to the radical interrogation of the void on which the university and its various disciplines stands but that things are more complicated than ever before.  How are we to understand that questioning the subject as a foundational category of (identity) politics in the Caribbean can lead one to speak of non-subjects in the Caribbean, of the Caribbean non-subject?

It is with this background in mind that I want to turn to the recent publication of Juan Carlos Quintero Herencia’s groundbreaking book, La hoja de mar (:) Efecto archipielago.  It is also a question of the an-archy, of the void, and of the groundless, seen now in terms of the archi-pelago that breaks the horizon of the principle of reason.  For the effect archi-pelago is an effect without a cause (Quintero Herencia 34)—exactly what the principle of reason interdicts.  I hasten to add that I offer what follows as a way of thinking with Quintero Herencia, as an homage to him, and in gratitude for what his work makes possible.




La hoja de mar is an important and profound look at the Caribbean.  I will refrain from attempting a point-by-point summary of it here.  I simply recommend to you that reading this book will be very much worth your while.  If I had to pick only one path of entry, it would be the one that he himself chooses when he writes about the gestation of the book.  Along with the reading the “warrior-texts of the Cuban Revolution,” Quintero Herencia kept company with a poetry that, while in contact with the historical intensity of the revolutionary experience, it opened a different path: toward a perspective which revealed the sacrificial image of the historically acceptable and recognizable subject of politics as a false one.  The intuition was that: “among the letters that made up certain poems, an essay here or there, in some narratives, the image and the body of another form of political participation and sensibility, as it was labored by literature, was detectable” (11).  He adds:

I believed I could glimpse other literary ways of doing and saying the political, inaudible, perhaps un-sensible, and not very sensible, among the … then hegemonic ways of political discursivity and practice …. But the appearing of these traces was and was not there, in the texts that I read and the contexts that saw them emerge.  I intuited that the political quality of these texts deserved to be read in a different mode, to be savored with different senses.  This confounding sensation regarding how to read these other politics from a different constellation of resonances caused me to set aside my research on the Cuban Revolution for a while. (11)

The intuition concerns a way of being political that does not pass the test of the archive: or, in Quintero Herencia’s words, what is at issue is a kind of writing that does not in any way want to present itself as an autonomous and disenfranchised aesthetic sphere, which sits out or is immune to what happens in a putatively different political realm.  It is a writing that is given to “generate perspectives and to assemble its political subjectivities [but] which are difficult or impossible to submit to verification in the Caribbean archipelago” (11).  Moreover, this difficult intuition is one that does not allow for the disciplinary archival machine to go on without interruption.  It brought the research work of a university scholar to a halt.  The book thematizes in various occasions the disciplinary or academic obstacles that emerge when the intuition that it treats concerns something about the Caribbean which is there only as a lack or a void, which at one point is named a “linking void” (47, falta vinculante).  How to write and think, within the university, but in a different mode, about “what is lacking and what fails” (48)?

To deal with the emptiness between the islands that make up the archipelago is to deal with instances in which reason becomes delirious (34).  As Quintero Herencia puts it: “The archipelago,” as the thought of the an-archic, as the thought of the lack of foundation, “disorganizes disciplinary methodologies to the extent that it literally drags and decomposes [arrastra y descompone] the modes of belonging, identifying and naming a Caribbean citizenship, modernity or sovereignty” (29).  This becoming-abyssal of the most fundamental categories of the various Caribbean archives does not result in recovering or repairing something that was lost or broken, thus filling-in a lacuna.  Rather, it is the insistence on not forgetting the void that attaches to any possible object of the archive whatsoever, a gesture that Quintero Herencia marks with what he calls a “fictitious” equation: ( )-(x).  Thus, it is important to emphasize that this lack needs to be inscribed not as a merely experimental writerly preoccupation or as a subjective deficiency, but as the core of a different kind of understanding of historicity: “The archipelagic lack that monkey-wrenches [traba] a writing is the manifestation of a historical circumstance that signs equally its reading objects, the images savored by the critical sensorium, as well as its writing” (49).

Quintero Herencia’s “sensorium,” which is the center of the book’s considerations, is paradoxical in the way that it does not exclude but makes necessary sensing what presences without being present, without being there in the form of an object which is always an object available for knowledge, and for which one can offer a reason and a cause.  In what follows, I will give it the name of a “materialism of absence”—even if this is a provisional term and one that cannot be found in his text.  I use it as a way of displacing of shifting the emphasis from what would seem like a philosophical or metaphysical interrogation of the ontological difference between being and beings to a pre-occupation with the understanding of historicity that opens when we consider “being” as the unfolding of history by way of the non-equation “()-(x).”  In my estimation, this problematic itself constitutes the central insight of the book.  Again, I cannot do it justice in these short remarks, but what we are dealing with is also the central unresolved tension of this work.  I will limit myself to sketching it out as it relates to the function of the word politics in Quintero Herencia’s text.

Politics constitutes one of the most important threads in making the Caribbean visible in a different manner, in making an “other” politics appear if only precariously.  From the Slave Revolution in Haiti to the Cuban Revolution, as C. L. R. James put it, politics has provided the firmest narrative to erase any trace of a lack in the archipelago, it has served better than anything else to foreclose the void and erect foundations (Quintero Herencia 37-40).  As such, it is also a mechanism that erases or voids other forms of politicity, less foundational forms, such as the rethinking of what words like community and institution can mean.  Following Rancière up to a point, though always in an original form, Quintero Herencia understands his sensorium as the redistribution of the sensible that makes audible the part of those who have no part.  This is one of the cornerstones of his understanding of politics.  And not without reason, since for Rancière, as Quintero Herencia himself points out the demos exists only as the rupture of the arche; the people is the supplement that unhinges the population from itself and, in this sense, can also be understood as one of the effects of the archipelago.  Yet, there is a subtle tremor at the heart of this seemingly too political radicalization of the question of politics as that of broken arches.  We can sense it in the use of the word “quizás” in the following passage, which in my estimation illustrates the book’s central ambivalence regarding words like politics and community:

[I]t is those who differ, those who dissent—before others, once the others accept, in that instant, the communality [comunalidad] of the voice of the whole—[they] are the ones who achieve the activation of the always conflictive political arena [arena, in Spanish, is also “sand,” and as such it is one of the images that in the book indicate disintegration].  To differ in this arena (and sand is abundant at the beach) is to put into question the very nature of taking the word [las tomas de palabra], it is to struggle with the various modes of thinking the problem ….  Perhaps [quizás] it could even be a question of going beyond this Rancièrian arena/sand and communality … in order to open ourselves, and get close to some of the non-subjects in the Caribbean, to the multiplicity of subjects and objects that end up at the shore, [and this] as a way of poking holes into the identitarian dialectic that serves as the foundation of politics in the Caribbean. (22-23)

On the one hand, we have the meeting or reunión of those who up until a certain moment had no part in the communal distribution of the sensible.  This is not a truth that can be demonstrated but the possibility of democracy as it emerges “above a void that makes politics possible” (23).  On the other hand, we have a “perhaps,” which points in the direction of going beyond even that sandy political non-foundation and into a consideration of the non-subject as rethinking of what “politics” might mean beyond the identitarian dialectic of the Caribbean.  Quintero Herencia writes “Quizás se trate incluso, de ir más allá de esa arena…”—going beyond, perhaps, the political arena/sand.  How do we understand the positioning here?  Is the sand in question a way of covering over the abyss at the center of Derrida’s 1983 lecture?  Perhaps.  One way of entering into this question would be to point out that the meditation on the non-subject, and here Quintero Herencia is thinking about the work of Alberto Moreiras in Línea de sombra and beyond, is not at all a beyond that one gets to by sheer will.  Rather, it is simply what follows once we take up seriously or rigorously the rethinking of central political categories like the subject and the community which emerge above a void.  Does the “perhaps,” then, have the function of a barricade that is put in place as protection, to prevent us from falling into the abyss?  Perhaps!

Another reading of this “perhaps” was offered last Friday (March 3rd, 2017) when the book was presented at the Library of Congress.[2]  Juan Duchesne Winter’s reading took aim at what he claimed was the wrong way to critique the identitarian dialectic of Caribbean politics.  Which is that of Moreiras and “la gente de Moreiras,” among whom I count myself I should add.  He stood in front of that barricade protecting us from the void and said that beyond it what lies is the practice of those enthralled by the linguistic turn.  Which as we all know is an accusation that seeks to reduce the work on politics that Quintero Herencia himself is undertaking to a mere preoccupation with language games that take place away from history and reality.  Though the efficacy of this phrase as accusation is undoubtedly waning, it still holds sway, particularly when it comes to very disciplinary and institutional ways of being political and fighting against the overwhelming onslaught of capitalist violence on all fronts, including the university.  In his remarks, Duchesne Winter (a figure that has had an impeccable career and represents the best of what is done under the banner of a Cribbeanist or Latinamericanist banner today, is the last person one expected to go into this kind of forsaking of the professional protocols of the university in the name of visceral dismissal) referred to Derrida’s supposedly logocentric dictum about there being nothing outside of the text, and then, in the question and answer period he explained that he was aiming at the work being done today under the name ifrapolitics.  In a tacit manner, Derrida becomes a stand-in for Moreiras’ place not only in our contemporary university, but also, and more important, in Quintero Herencia’s book.  A move that is strange for many reason, not the least of which is that on the second page of the text of La hoja de mar we find the author referring to Derrida’s notion of the text and the trace in the following terms: “The notion of trace or of text is introduced to mark the limits of the linguist turn.  This is one more reason why I prefer to speak of ‘mark’ rather than of language.  [… The mark] is prelinguistic ….” (quoted in Quintero Herencia 10 n. 2).  No where was this complication considered.  However good-humored, and I do not want to overdramatize this (even as I also do not want to let it go unremarked), this scene can be understood within the purview of the axiomatics of an epistemo-centric and deontologized university that suspends its most basic sense of reasonableness when it comes to protecting its Reason—its arche.  Moreover, the central issue is not only about this specific way of reading Quintero Herencia’s “quizás”—for what is more urgent, to me at least, is to ask as to what in the text makes this barricade/interpretation possible in the first place.  And I want to suggest is that the answer touches on the fact that even after the herculean effort to maintain the logic of the equation of the lack, ()-(x), the text struggles with its impossibility to say politics other than as political; it is as if it is not sufficient to simply say another politics, or politics otherwise, without the risk becoming too great for a re-politicization that does not take the archi-pelagic effect into account in any way.  The problematic that opens here is not simply a question of using different words.  If Quintero Herencia had used the word infrapolitics, for instance, the issues would remain.  I want to spend what remains of my time today trying to outline some of the major problems that need to be thought through if we are to be rigorous with the question at hand.




To return to the question of what earlier I called materialism of absence, I want to center my remarks on a recent novel written by Carlos Fonseca, Cronel Lágrimas.  Fonseca was born in San José, Costa Rica, but was raised in Puerto Rico, spent his graduate and undergraduate years between Stanford and Princeton, he currently lives in London, and he has published a novel about Alexander Grothendrieck’s self-exile from fame, politics and cosmopolitan life.  Grothendriek was a pacifist and a mathematician, and you might have already thought deeply about his work if you have invested any time on Alain Badiou’s second volume of Being and Event, published in 2006 as Logics of Worlds.  Badiou’s complex concept of world, a “remodeling … of the relationship between the thinking of place (topology) and the thinking of the multiple” (389), is only his philosophical translation of Grothendieck’s work.  To think Fonseca’s book one must first develop a framework which would allow one to move across many disparate fields of knowledge, but also across the many absences that make up no field, and never serve as the constitutive void of any discursivity.

            Coronel Lágrimas is a book that does not have the Caribbean at its center.  It will not serve to speak of non-subjects in the Caribbean.  It will instead monkey-wrench any possible attempt to domesticate the text by framing it within a disciplinary field.  The life that occupies it most intensely is actually a fictive delirium that unfolds taking Grothendieck as a point of departure, but only to unwork both the historical and the biographical novel, as the author tells us in a final note that was not included in the English translation (Fonseca Coronel Lágrimas 169).  Lágrimas, the anchorite, the hermit, the pacifist that flees from the world, is haunted by one image.  His whole life is structured by it.  Or so he thinks.  Toward the end of the book we read:

The colonel’s guilt is simple: he refused to add a final point to that hallucinatory cartography [which spans the familial itinerary that precedes him: a father and a mother that lived through all the major social upheavals of the last two centuries: Russia, Mexico, Spain, Vietnam, France; he has refused to add a final point to that map:] a Caribbean point.  That’s why, on … his final night … he devotes himself to creating a false Caribbean diva behind whose story lies the key to his life and passion, to the twinge that disturbs his well-being and condemns him to the worst kind of tedium.  Cayetana Boamante is the final guilt of a private man. (Colonel Lágrimas. A Novel 209-10)

The guilt concerns the nagging sensation that the Colonel has in the last hours of his life: perhaps he should have taken a plane, loaded it up with his chalkboards full of mathematical equations, and gone to the Caribbean to build the revolution in America.  Why was it impossible for him to follow in his father’s revolutionary footsteps?  Why the hesitation when it came to go with Cayetana, his only true love, and “hurl himself with pistols blazing into the Antilles war” (210).  Why could he not go draw his equations “in the middle of Caribbean gunfire” (210)?  Cayetana’s face is a “Caribbean face,” the face of a mulata with Asiatic and African features—but it is also, as the narrator tells us, “a face in a pantomime of juvenile militancy” (210).  It is this complex image which makes everything come into focus.  Only through it, the narrator tells us, do “We understand everything—the faces, the maps, the genealogies, the archive in all its density” (210).  However, the narrator immediately adds, the image allows us to understand: “Everything except what really matters: that simple gesture by which the colonel let go of himself in the middle of his life” (210).  This gesture is the reason why we are attending to the last day of life of the Colonel, the reason why we are spying on him and his solitude.  There is a happiness that breaks through his decrepitude, his drunkenness, his sermons, everything he says, but which is foreign to the man himself, a happiness of which he is not conscious but which perforates his every word.  The character’s own explanation of his life begins to sound like a farce to the narrator.  The old man exclaims that he sees Cayetana “ready to free the Caribbean islands,” but he “disregarded her entreaties and was left with a photograph” (211, 212).  He thinks that this is the defining event of his life.  This decision is the one that makes everything else fall into place.  But this is all simply information.  The narrator says:

The colonel speaks in information, as if information could be distilled, then become life.  Perhaps that was his mistake: believing that life was something distilled like alcohol, to be drunk later ….  Perhaps his mistake was in thinking that life could be reduced to the eternal rosary of the consequences of a simple decision.  History, as some bearded man said, repeats itself first as tragedy and later as a farce.  In the case of the man who we now look at face to face … who knows what comes first, the farce or the tragedy.  The colonel’s life requires a new genre, a kind of tragic farce that annuls the distinctions between comic and tragic.  …  No, we cannot understand the colonel.  We can approach him …, we can get closer to his truth from a thousand different angles ….  Limit ourselves to the task of a photographer, the copyist, the archive.  No, we cannot understand the colonel, but we can question the tragedy of his farce and corner him until we see him laugh his last laugh. (212-213)

This is a remarkable text in that it manages to condense a vast number of problematics directly touching on the Caribbean without pretending therefore to offer a clear image and logic of it; in fact, it does so while dissolving the very possibility of thinking the Caribbean as a specific code destined to be guarded by academic discipline.  The image of the Caribbean itself is what is adduced as the false start which turns everything into an object of the understanding—which always seems to come too quickly and therefore always brings with it a certain guilt.  The refusal of the Caribbean point is not an event but the beginning of a retreat from the world.  Yet this absence, if processed too directly leads to the forced creation of the image of Cayetana as a surface upon which to project the pseudo-logic of a life.  And it makes too much sense, it is the production of subjective sense as such, an injection of sense, based on the model of the processing of information.  The Caribbean as the guiding light of redemptive models of history, a place defined by the multivalence of the carnival which, as Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá puts it, is “always a rehearsal for revolution” (57), but which by the very same token puts the Caribbean as the position of being the reverse, and all-too-political, teleological narrative of the sort of historiography that the passages indicates needs to be displaced.  The Colonel thinks that his life is defined by the guilt produced in the act of saying no to the love of Cayetana, the Caribbean mulata.  And this is nothing but information.  Beyond and breaking through this subjectivist projection what the text points to, there is a life and a happiness that has nothing to do with the luxuries and the justifications of the man called Colonel Tears.  The “teary” declarations regarding the formalizing drive of the Colonel are offset by something in him that is not available to him for inspection.  Neither is it available to us.  The ideal of a passive and neutral sovereign act, evoked here in the figure of the photographer and the copyist, and which is a cipher for a relationship with modern aesthetics since the romantics, this ideal can only give us information—such is Fonseca’s wager.  Even if the information in question is that of the dictates of the spirit as it passes through the strings of the Aeolian harp or the void of the lens, rendering the subject as a mere recording devise for a higher authority, but also authorizing his word and exalting it to the point where it is the word of the highest value.  The work of art, this Caribbean work of art, set adrift in the globe, does not give us what is most important: but it lets us know that it is known that that which is most important is not computable by it.

What would be necessary would be nothing less than a complete overhaul of the thought of history as we have inherited from Marx—and therefore, to go back further, from Hegel, and therefore, to go back even further, and this is most important, as we have inherited from the Haitian Revolution.  The Caribbean, then, first as a moment of modernity and not also of modernity (Buck-Morss 138).  The Caribbean in its “experience of impoverished dependence on the global economy, in early struggle against Western policies of genocide, and in its postcolonial, hierarchical articulation of social elites,” writes Susan Buck-Morss in her Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, “stands as the vanguard of the history of modernity” (137-138).  But this formulation, useful as it is for a certain decolonial drive to delight in the secondariness of Europe in all respects, is far from enough.  And Fonseca’s text illuminates this insufficiency.  For what we are saying when we are able to point out that the Haitian Revolution places the Caribbean at the forefront of all those socio-economic and political processes that Buck-Morss collects as so many names of the (now primary) Caribbean (the experience of impoverished dependence, the postcolonial articulation of elites, the struggle against Western genocide), what is left unthought, I want to emphasize, is that this primacy itself is of the order of the image, of the order of a sensorium which would other politics.  The issue is not simply a matter of settling a score with any one school of thought.  It is a rather important point that needs to be made in this regard, if we are going to be able to grasp some of the most extreme connotations in Fonseca’s text, as well as in the consideration of the an-archic engagement with the (Caribbean) archive.

Allow me a short digression.  Eduardo Lalo has written extensively on the problem of this primary secondariness in relation to Puerto Rico and its place within the process of globalization.  For him, Puerto Rico lived through globalization before we had a concept for it, and therefore, he states, “before it was possible to think it” (54).  For Lalo, this globalizing process has allowed certain regions of the planet that were previously invisible to gain a place of visibility in the present world stage.  But this has not been the case for Puerto Rico.  And it would be a dubious honor indeed to claim to be the first to have gone through the globalizing process.  In fact, what takes place is a radicalization of the problem (and this is what is lost in the decolonial explanation of modernity).  As Lalo puts it:

Not only has globalization not made us anymore visible, on the contrary, that form of mundialization of the consumer society has created the conditions in which as other regions take on characteristics that, for some time now, have been ours, we ourselves begin to appear more and more as an unsettling generic image.  Creating the illusion, born out of our condition of inexistence [of being invisible to the world], that it can be possible to think of us as copies of what we were the first to announce to the world. (54)

The question then becomes: the inscription of Puerto Rico into globalization, as a historical process, is it the tragedy or the farce?  Does it become more thinkable, less mute, if we re-inscribe it or mark out a way to sense it, shifting the archive, within the master-slave dialectic?  Or do these questions only serve to make Lalo and Fonseca and the various names of the Caribbean even more invisible, mute and unthinkable?  Lalo’s work is of great importance within this horizon, for as a whole—in books like donde, La inutilidad, Intemperie, or Los pies de San Juan—it is one of the clearest appraisals of what it would mean to be a materialist regarding the historical specificity of the various Caribbeans we have been alluding to so far.  Which is to say, what it would mean to be a materialist regarding the historical specificity of an absence that needs to be placed as the first evidence of any discourse on the various Caribbean archives at issue here.  The paradox, though this might seem paradoxical only from certain points of view, is that this materialism would go after a point that is there only as its absence.  And yet, to close this digression, to leave things here would ultimately give the false impression that what is at issue is the appropriateness of Lalo’s view of things to the reality of the Caribbean.  And I want to argue is that it goes much further than that.

To get back to the Colonel: perhaps it would be useful to think against even the narrator of the novel, and ask: does not the avoidance of saying the name Marx, above all when what is implied is clear to all, tell us something about the naiveté of the voice in question?  Does not the apparently radical questioning concerning a reconfiguration and cancelling out of the tragic and the comic belie the attitude of one who is already too caught up in the invisibilization of the original that becomes generic secondary image as it begins to infect the thought of the European other?  Did not Hegel already lay out that tragedy in its pure form was no longer attainable in a world without the possibility of a spontaneous knowledge of the whole?  What I want to suggest by way of these questions is that it could be possible to see the endgame of this Caribbean novel, which is nevertheless built around the central character’s exclusion of the Caribbean point, as the desire for a theory of the dialectic that we already have at our disposal from Hegel, which neglects to think the place of Haiti in it, and neglects as well to think all that this implies when thinking the dialectic itself.  This reading would in effect obscure the play of visibility and invisibility that I touched on by way of Lalo.  Could we also derive Hegel’s theory of tragedy and all that it implies in his thought from his reading of the Haitian Revolution?  We do not need to go back to Hegel and Marx to think the possibility of a future reconfiguration of the relationship between the tragic and the comic in the Caribbean archive.

The list of Caribbean rewritings of classic tragedies is rife with examples of just that.  Virgilio Piñera’s Electra Garrigó, José Triana’s Medea en el espejo, Luis Rafael Sánchez’s Antígona Pérez, Reinaldo González’s Medea, Iván Silen’s various versions of Oedipus, these works share the impossibility of sustaining the tragic tonality with any assurance.  Even the most earnest of these, as is the case with Antígina Pérez, evoke a smile simply by the juxtaposition of first and last names.  And in many cases the rewriting of the tragedy has no other purpose than to put an end to the tragedy in question.  For example, in González’s Medea, a Cuban exile in what seems to be Florida (though it is not named), keeps her children alive even if only so that they can be turned into idiots by the Imperial educational system.  And rarely do these works give the definitive impression that what is at issue is working out an example of just action in the face of tyranny—in fact, the opposite is more often the case.  In Piñera’s Electra Garrigó the heroine triumphs only to become the embodiment of a totalitarian will to be in all things everywhere.  This is also an example of the farce being itself the tragedy, that the liberated one becomes the oppressor, as if this cycle itself, which is always there if only tacitly, were the real manifestation of the tragic.  The result is a mode in which the tragic elements hover above the manifest elements of plays which achieve the paradoxical effect of entertaining.  One would be tempted to conclude, though things are much more complicated than this, that the point of rewriting tragedies in the Caribbean is to make the audience laugh.  From a different point of view, and to paraphrase Fonseca, I would argue that what is at work in these pseudo-tragedies is a deep questioning of the tragedy of farce, which takes place until the audience laughs its last laugh.  Why, then, are these precursors not seen by the figure that poses the problem as if it were a matter of a radical event to come, or of something still to be thought through?

As a way of beginning to offer an answer to that question, allow me to turn to the Haitian Revolution as it has been thought in the tragic form.  Among the various classic plays written about the Haitian Revolution, including those by Lamartine, Jean Brierre, Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, and Édouard Glissant, I want only to touch briefly on the work of Glissant and Césaire.  We know that C. L. R. James imagined Toussaint Louverture as a heroic world-historical figure whose tragedy was his loss of touch with the popular base that gave meaning to his struggle—and that Aimé Césaire followed in his footsteps.  The political imagination behind these two versions of the leader is unmistakable.  They were rescuing this figure at a specific moment in history to mark a possible path of struggle.  James, at first in the late 1930s, and with the help of Paul Robeson, wanted to show to what extent civilization was simply the carnage of the colonial enterprise; and later, in the 1950s and 1960s, he rewrote the play as a commentary on the ongoing struggles for national liberation.  Glissant, however, wants to distance himself from this overtly political tack.  In the preface to the 1961 edition of Monsieur Toussaint, he explains his aim in these terms:

… the present work is not politically inspired; rather it is linked to what I would call, paradoxically, a prophetic vision of the past.  For those whose history has been reduced by others to darkness and despair, the recovery of the near or distant past is imperative.  To renew acquaintance with one’s history, obscured or obliterated by others, is to relish fully the present, for the experience of the present, stripped of its roots in time, yields only hollow delights.  This is a poetic endeavor. (15-16)

I want to call attention not so much to the program to relish fully the present, poetically restored to its fullness in connection with an illuminated and restituted past.  It could be argued that the turn of phrase in this instance makes it very easy to misunderstand Glissant’s rather complex ideas on time, which since at least his second novel, The Fourth Century [Le quatrième siècle, published three years later in 1964], hinge on the notion that in the new world the past is a negative plenitude, which can never be fully unfolded in a linear or historicists fashion.  In fact, if it can be said that Glissant’s language as a whole is an attempt to find an Antillean conception of time, then the word “conception” must take into account the negativity at the heart of the temporal that his take on this complex problem implies: a time that is not available to be wielded and presented as a positive quantity.  For Glissant, this is a time that does not fall into the genealogical linearity of project and projection.  And it is for this reason that he can say that the inspiration behind the play about Louverture is not political, or at least not political in the sense that the work of James and Césaire was imagined to be a direct political answer to the question: “what is to be done?”

However, it could also be possible to interpret Glissant’s words as one of the possible not-so-political lessons that can be learned from Césaire’s poetics in general, and in the tragicomic treatment of King Christophe specifically.  In Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe, the initial dispute concerns the provisions against tyranny, which for Christophe were simply a way of curtailing his personal power; the amendment to the constitution limiting the powers of the president were put in place, he felt, not because of a republican principle but as a reaction to the color of his skin.  To this he counters that what his people truly need at that point is the uneasy freedom of the State: “Yes, my philosopher friend,” he tells Pétion, “something that will enable this transplanted people to strike roots, to burgeon and flower, to fling the fruits and perfumes of its flowering into the face of the world, something which, to speak plainly, will oblige our people, by force if need be, to be born of itself, to surpass itself” (13).

For Christophe, the problem of the Haitian people is not that the French, or the rest of the world for that matter, does not respect them because they are black or because of the republican nature of their government.  For him, it is a question of the self-inflicted injury caused by indolence and the hatred of discipline (18).  The remedy is the discipline that comes with the creation of the State.  And the state is, for him, an alternative way of dealing with the temporal negative plentitude at issue in Glissant’s thought.  As Christophe explains, it is because their real names, their past, has been forever lost, that he wants to forget the slave names and create a court with titles which will be the names of “rebirth” and “redemption” (26).  In his own words: “Since we can’t rescue our names from the past, we’ll take them from the future” (25).  The solemnity of the pronouncement contrasts with the King’s new Court and their understanding of the issue.  For the more ironic members of the new nobility, the essence of the founding of the kingdom of Christophe has everything to do with the efficacy of pure form, which for them stands for blind faith in an inane formalism.  As Vastey puts it with irony:

Form is what counts, my friend.  That’s what civilization is … the forming of man.  Think it over.  Form is the matrix of being, of substance, in short, of man himself.  Of everything.  It’s empty, yes, but what a stupendous, generative, life-giving emptiness!  …  There’s one man who understands it instinctively.  That’s Christophe.  With his great potter’s hands, kneading the Haitian clay—he may not know, but what is more important, he feels, he smells, the sinuous line of the future, in a word, the form.  Believe me, that’s something in a country like ours. (22)

The mocking speech paints Christophe’s project as a pretentious and merely aesthetic foolishness (21, 22)—particularly given that the scene revolves around a discussion regarding the precedents for titles such as the Duke of Marmalade, of Lemonade, of Candytown, the Count of Stinkhole, and so forth.  The humor of the scene is hard to miss and it taints the entire catastrophic enterprise until the end.  It is for this reason that one of the lessons that can be gleaned from Césaire’s play is precisely that there is a danger in a merely political solution to the political problem at hand: which in this case means imagining that a certain kind of modern program to mold and form men, and to give them their time, is the be all and end all of politics as such.  Metellus, the chief of the rebels, appears briefly, but for him the Revolution was betrayed the second that “politicos” got involved (30).  That is, Christophe (king) and Pétion (president) are a false opposition: they are a double tyranny (30).  The fear, or the cautionary note being sounded, is that all politics is simply the caricature of politics as it is supposed to really and truthfully be … elsewhere (34).  Césaire does not say it, but the point is implicitly made in the play: the King’s understanding of the problem of having to be a materialist with regards to the absence that is their history has been solved the wrong way—and it has been solved the wrong way in its Hegelian overtones: a rising up from the chaos and toward the idea of the state as the correct form for politics.  If we take Buck-Morss seriously, that Hegel’s reading of the Haitian Revolution was, like the Colonel’s reading of his own life, the wrong kind of reading—the reading that reads only for the information, the reading that forgets that what matters most is not going to be found in any one of the words of the text.  Christophe would stand in for the generic secondariness that Lalo outlines.  It is time to go back to the reason behind the narrator’s naïve questioning of history repeating itself as farce in Fonseca’s novel.

The answer is not that the narrative voice is also forgetting the Caribbean point and thus authorizing itself out of a sanctioned ignorance that ends up transforming what is ignored into a generic copy of itself.  This would imply that is it simply a question of restoring the visibility of what was ignored, after which we would have solved all our problems.  In fact, that is exactly what the text tells us that the Colonel did.  He restored the missing point, the Caribbean point, and explained his life away.  The question is posed in all its naiveté, as if the narrator were the first in history to think of the possibility, to signal to a more profound problematic which begins precisely by mistaking the empty pronouncement for a radical insight.  What this forgetting achieves is the perpetual continuation of the circle of total politicization in the name of a materiality that is in fact only information without thought.  And wouldn’t it be quite ironic that one could say something like this about the dialectic: that it is a machine for reducing existence into information without thought.

I want to conclude these remarks by clarifying a point which I think can be easily misunderstood about what I have been trying to outline here today.  It is well known that the dialectic and the absolute have been intricately linked and in a very facile manner to totalitarianism.  It is one of the great quips of contemporary neo-communist thought that this charge is always used in order to prevent any real politics from ever taking place, that somehow pointing to this link is only a way of infinitely extending a sort of negative or destructive critique, which because it is infinite, simply serves to safeguard the way things are (and as we all know, today things are absolutely horrible).  If we were to follow this admittedly facile line of thought, one could adduce any number of examples from the Caribbean archives and be done with it.  One could cite Reinaldo Arena’s El asalto, a novel that is an acerbic critique and hilarious parody of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba.  One of the things that “El Reprimerísimo,” Castro’s stand-in, decrees is that in a society that has been liberated from all forms of alienation there cannot be the darkness of night, which they will have to abolish—a feat that is accomplished by calling it the non-night  (60).  This desire to get rid of all negativity is not at all unfamiliar as a way of sketching the basic logic of the totalitarian mindset.  But this is not quite what I am trying to get at.  And I think the point can be made by emphasizing that from the perspective of a fierce critique of the Cuban state, such as Rafael Rojas,’ who can be identified as a voice deeply committed to a new form of republicanism and democracy in the island, tarrying with the negative in this sense, such as it was done by that sector of the intellectual tradition which prior to the Revolution made the materialism of absences its own, is identified as a nihilist readying of the of the ground needed for the arrival of the Revolution.  For Rojas, this disbelief in the pseudo-Republic, or this obstinate discipline which insists on pointing out that the first evidence is something that lacks or is not there, heralds the occupation of all political space by a hyper nihilist will to destroy and clear the slate, and to act as Christophe: projecting and molding the human clay into a proper citizen under the time of the absolute State.

However, the link between what I am calling here materialisms of absence and any one juridico-political determination is far from being an obvious and linear relation of cause and effect.  One could argue that it is one of the upshots of any materialism of absence to allow us to think the contradiction and even the error at the heart of any declaration of necessity between the void as first evidence and political determinations in general.  That is Chirstophe’s error as it was Lezama’s (when he compared Castro entering Havana to the Second Coming of Christ).  Yet the leap from one to the other remains beyond the capabilities of all apparatuses of capture.  To paraphrase Fonseca once more: No, we cannot understand ….  We can approach …, we can get closer to [t]his truth from a thousand different angles ….  Limit ourselves to the task of a photographer, the copyist, the archive.  Nevertheless, we do understand the limits this implies.  And in this understanding we also glimpse that inquiring about the void at the heart or foundation of any one political determination is not something that “perhaps even includes” going beyond the “arena” of politics.  It could be one of the tasks of the university today were we to allow it to tremble a little.  Otherwise, and to close with Quintero Herencia’s words: “What the Caribbean … is not” will continue to be “idealized and demonstrated as a mythical reality by the various disciplinary custodians of the archive” (112).  For this to happen, however, it is not enough to say politics otherwise.  For othering politics is one of the contemporary forms that disciplinary and all-too-professional work takes on.



Arenas, Reinaldo. El asalto. Barcelona: Tusquets Editores, 2003. Print.

Badiou, Alain. Logics of Worlds. Being and Event II. Trans. Toscano, Alberto. London; New York: Continuum, 2009. Print.

Buck-Morss, Susan. Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Print.

Césaire, Aimé. The Tragedy of King Christophe. 1963. Trans. Menheim, Ralph. New York: Grove Press, 1969. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Eyes of the University. Right to Philosophy 2. Trans. Plug, Jan and Others. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004. Print.

Fonseca, Carlos. Colonel Lágrimas. A Novel. Trans. McDowell, Megan. Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, 2016. Print.

____. Coronel Lágrimas. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2015. Print.

Glissant, Éduard. Monsieur Toussaint. 1961. Trans. Dash, J. Michael. Boulder; London: Lynne Reiner, 2005. Print.

Lalo, Eduardo. Los países invisibles. 2008. Córdoba: Corregidor, 2014. Print.

Moreiras, Alberto. “Universidad y principio de equivalencia. Hacia el fin de la Alta Alegoría. Borrador de conferencia para 17 Instituto de Estudios Críticos, México DF, 22 de enero, 2017.” Infrapolitical Deconstruction.  https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2017/01/17/universidad-y-principio-de-equivalencia-hacia-el-fin-de-la-alta-alegoria-borrador-de-conferencia-para-17-instituto-de-estudios-criticos-mexico-df-22-de-enero-2017-por-alberto-moreiras/ 2017.

Quintero Herencia, Juan Carlos. La hoja de mar (:). Efecto archipiélago I. Leiden, The Netherlands: Almenara, 2016. Print.

Rodríguez Juliá, Edgardo Caribeños. San Juan: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 2002. Print.



[1]           A good starting point for this rethinking is Moreiras’ “Universidad y principio de equivalencia. Hacia el fin de la Alta Alegoría” (a draft of this talk was presented at “17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos” itself a good example of what a post-university might look like).

[2]           The remarks have since been published online: <http://www.80grados.net/el-telurismo-materialista-de-juan-carlos-quintero-herencia/&gt;


4 thoughts on ““Archives, Voids, Nihilism. State and University.” Talk given as part of the working group “University and State,” a UCI Humanities Commons Research Cluster. University of California, Irvine. March 10, 2017. (By Jaime Rodríguez Matos)

  1. Jaime, this is extraordinary and magnificent talk. I am more than grateful and honored to have you as a reader and as a friend. I would like to hear from you the reactions and conversations at Irvine, if any. I really thank you for allowing me to feel the specificity and precarious nature of the university we endure today. This is an important piece on how to begin to think beyond disciplinarity, without the prosthetic of any theoretical framework, on the future of thought during these terrible times.

    I agree with you on your reading of Buck Morss’ Haití, but not quite sure where are you going with Lalo’s. Don’t you think that in the “journalistic” or Lalo- the public intellectual there is a return of the Nation or a call for arms from the plenitudes of the absolute. Also, sometimes, I feel there is a denial of invisibility qua invisibility and a demand and a moral quest for the correct, essential, evident Puerto Rican way of becoming visible. See his articles on the “impuertorriqueñidad”.

    Is this part of a project you are currently working on? I am particularly fascinated by what you called “materialism of absence”. “I use it as a way of displacing of shifting the emphasis from what would seem like a philosophical or metaphysical interrogation of the ontological difference between being and beings to a pre-occupation with the understanding of historicity that opens when we consider “being” as the unfolding of history by way of the non-equation “()-(x).” My preoccupation with the arrival and materiality of historicity is marked, in part, by Walter Benjamin meditations on the topic. I would love to read and hear more from you on this.

    Also your perceptive take on my “quizás” (perhaps) coincidentally is something I have been working on, even, in my poetry. And I quote you: “How do we understand the positioning here? Is the sand in question a way of covering over the abyss at the center of Derrida’s 1983 lecture? Perhaps. One way of entering into this question would be to point out that the meditation on the non-subject, and here Quintero Herencia is thinking about the work of Alberto Moreiras in Línea de sombra and beyond, is not at all a beyond that one gets to by sheer will. Rather, it is simply what follows once we take up seriously or rigorously the rethinking of central political categories like the subject and the community which emerge above a void. Does the “perhaps,” then, have the function of a barricade that is put in place as protection, to prevent us from falling into the abyss? Perhaps!”

    That “quizás” is truly a marker for a beyond, before and/or beyond will and perhaps (sorry) beyond a sense of distance, or a clear sense of how to maneuver in a voided or infinite space. I do not want to avoid it or to prevent my inevitable fall in the gap. For the moment, I can only say, with apprehension, that ese “quizás”, could be consider a way of crossing -among many others-, a way of traversing the challenges of the democratic arena, “un rebasar en esa arena un límite” the begins with a touch, con un tanteo. It is truly an ambiguous gesture on my part, but more than a pendular movement between two values, values displayed there as markers for future acts or demonstrations of my future theoretical desire, this ambiguity responds to an intimate hesitation, to a lack of certainty that resonates in and pays respect to the unfinished, undefined singularity of the “perhaps”. Yes, in the perhaps there is fear of the consequences of losing it in the archipelagic gap: something which, in my case, is inseparable of my decision to plunge myself in it. I need to look in the body of my confusion, I need to relate to this uncertainty as a way of tasting the literary politics that I am obsessed with. It is an unresolved and challenging situation.

    Gracias de nuevo, titán. (Morovis dixit)

    • Efectivamente, lo de Lalo es más complicado de lo que pude explicar aquí. No me interesa por ejemplo decir que Lalo o quien sea tiene la teoría correcta o la manera correcta de ver las cosas. En Lalo hay dos corrientes, según lo voy viendo. Por un lado, una claridad a la hora de (a)notar la nada, la ausencia, la falla, lo borrado, o lo olvidado por Occidente; y por otro la tentación de proponer como corregir eso. Veo en algunas páginas de Lalo la paciencia que conlleva entender que tratar de activamente subsanar o salvar la herida o la borradura es una de la trampas de Occidente, una de las formas de intensificar el nihilismo. Pero también hay páginas de su obra en las que lo que surge es disparo precoz de acción política. No me interesa, como sabes, encontrar y promover modelos puros o perfectos de teoría. Más bien se trata de pensar esa tensión aún cuando tenga mi opinión sobre la insuficiencia de la respuesta mitificadora que esconde la demanda de politización. Pienso esto de la misma manera que en mi lectura de Lezama, en la que no busco esconder o minimizar su catolicismo poco ortodoxo, sino pensar en qué forma su intensificación termina dando algo que no es ni religión, ni filosofía, ni política. Mi lectura de Lalo va progresando lentamente. Estoy trabajando toda su obra, pero no sé en qué acabará todo esto. Ojalá se convierta en parte del libro nuevo que estoy trabajando.

      Gracias por la lectura y por la conversación.


      • Sé que no vas tras modelos o plenitudes, Me refería al tejido de tu itinerario que como señalas termina dejando aparecer eso que no Es algo en los textos que lees. Esto que aquí anotas no lo leí aun como insinuación en el trasunto de la confe. Mazacote gordo. Abrazonski (en ruso).

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