Jaime Rodriguez Matos’ Writing of the Formless: José Lezama Lima and the End of Time (Fordham U Press, 2016) is an ambitious and truly mesmerizing mediation on the Cuban poet José Lezama Lima in light of contemporary theoretical debates concerning the status of the political in the wake of Modernity’s decline into nihilism. Rodriguez Matos’ sophisticated intervention attempts to accomplish several objectives at once, and in this sense, the book does not pretend to be an exegetical or philological contribution to scholarly debates on the poet. Rather, in the book, Lezama is taken as a poet-thinker of the informe, whose main import into Western history of writing and thought is that of a ‘writing of the formless’ (Rodriguez Matos 171). In its totality, the whole book is a groundwork for such a claim, and it works through a series of tropologies, figures, and debates that extend from Lezama’s specific cultural Cuban context and its readers, to a set of wider debates pertinent to Left-Heideggerianism, political theology, or the event (although by no means, is the complex set of debates reducible to these three philosophical indexes).
If one were to describe the project in its most far-reaching ends, Writing of the Formless is important yet for another reason: by handling several topologies of Lezama Lima’s oeuvre, we are offered an in-depth analysis of the intricate conceptual wager in infrapolitics, or in infrapolitical-deconstruction, which as Rodriguez Matos suggests, is the provenance of Lezama Lima’s contribution as a critical task. The book is divided in two parts. In the first one, four chapters grid an explication of the problem of time, as well as that of the formless, revolution, and nihilism. In the second, Rodriguez Matos engages in an innovative reading of different zones in Lezama Lima that evidence the destruction of principial politics, and the opening towards an (infra)politics of the void. In this review, I can hardly do justice to a book that I truly consider a masterwork of contemporary thought. In my opinion, this monograph comes as close as it gets to being flawless in establishing conceptual premises and argumentative deployment. In what follows I will map some provocative elements of his exposition, in hope that it will be a starting point for a discussion with those critically engaging Latin America, the political, and the stakes of thought in our time.
The point of departure of Writing of the Formless is the temporal question (in Latin America, although it is not localized here as a site of privilege) of Modernity, which is registered as a Janus face machine: on one end, the linear time of Hegel’s philosophy of history; and on the other, the teleological time of the messianic redemption and reservoir to many salvific political theologies. Early in the book, Rodriguez Matos sets up to establish the conditions that guide the development of his task:
“But it now it seems that in fact modernity, and not any possible redemption or liberation from its political and economic deadlocks, is itself a mixed temporality that is constantly battling between a circular and a linear time – a linear time of alienation and a circulation teleological time of redemption. The two need to be taken together, even in the very (im)possibility of such a synthesis. And this would mean that modernity is no longer the other of the revolutionary interruption of empty chronological time; rather, these are two sides of a single coin” (Rodriguez Matos 33).
By way of this dual apparatus of time, it becomes clear that linear time represents the time of alienation, where the eternal return marks its radical detachment only to become the engine of the theological messianic interruption. The two temporalities that frame Modernity, according to Rodriguez Matos, are a policing force, as well as “a residual effect or the symptom of the emergence of order itself” (Rodriguez Matos 22). And it is this formal legislation that synthesizes a duality that veil, in a variety of effective techniques, the formless of any foundation. Throughout the book the formless has different dispositions, such as the “intemporal”, “time of the absence of time”, or Lezama’s own “muerte del tiempo”. These all play key strategic functions and deconstructive relays. It might be the case, at least implicitly, that Rodriguez Matos knows that the history of metaphysics to cover up the void is, at the same time, the narrative produced by its apparatuses. What is important, however, is that by allocating these two times, Rodriguez Matos is able to set up what was otherwise obstructed: mainly, the time of void, which falls right beneath all principial politics, always in retreat and outside legitimizing messianic and developmental policity of Western modernity that governs both the time of the One and that of the multiple. Lezama is the figure that mobilizes a drift away from these two modalities:
“…beyond the politization of politics, and beyond the image of time as synthetic operation, what remains is the possibility of thinking with the poet beyond the current apparatus of academic-imperial) knowledge and all of its returns” (Rodriguez 25).
One would not exaggerate much in concluding that Lezama Lima as a thinker of the informe becomes the necessary antidote and hospitable dispensary against the philological exercises of the traditional belleletrism, but also of decolonial and neocommunist designs that, although attempting at the surface to break-away with imperial semblances, end up carrying the guise of principial politics as the highest flagpole for self-legitimation.
The reading of the informe allows us to move beyond the temporal dichotomy between revolution and conservation, messianic originalism (such as that of catholic, later convert post-socialist official poet Cintio Vitier), and the multiplicity of historical time (such as that endorsed by Rafael Rojas, Cuba’s most sophisticated neo-republican intellectual historian). It must be noted, however, that many other intellectuals and thinkers are tested on this basis. The common ground shared by diverse thinkers such as Rafael Rojas, Ernesto Laclau, Cintio Vitier, Walter Benjamin, Bruno Bosteels, Alain Badiou, and those that subscribe to post-foundationalism becomes clear: mainly, the assumption that the crisis of nihilism of temporality can be amended by always providing an adjustment for the abyss. In this way, Rodriguez Matos offers a frontal critique of any claim instantiated in hegemonic phantasms: “Our task remains to think time in all its radical complexity – that is, to think time as something other than a solution” (Rodriguez Matos 44). Writing of the Formless stands up to this deliverance.
There are many important elements that come forth in this argumentation, one of them being that the covering of the formless, or the lack of foundation, is usually articulated through a master and masterable political theology. It is not just Rodriguez Matos who arrives at this conclusion, but also Bruno Bosteels by way of observing the inscription of Christianity in many of contemporary thinkers of the Left. In a passage cited by Rodriguez Matos from Marx and Freud in Latin America, we read: “All these thinkers [Badiou, Negri, Zizek], in fact, remain deeply entangled in the political theology of Christianity – unable to illustrate the militant subject except through the figure of the saint” (Rodriguez Matos 44). It is even more perplexing then, that Bosteels’ own solution to this problem ends up being just more political theology by way of Leon Rozitchner’s reading of Saint Augustine, and merely exchanging the category of the saint for that of the militant subject, even though this is already part of the history of alienation of Christianity . But the reason for this might be, as Rodriguez Matos thematizes a few pages later, that any predicament for politization as supreme value today needs to ascertain some sort of militant subject of the event in order to guarantee a consensus on “contemporaneity”, and in this way avoids what the present is or what it actually stands for (Rodriguez Matos 109).
The chapters 2 (“Sovereignties, Poetic, and Otherwise) and three (“The Mixed Times of the Revolution”) attend to how the question of time was conceived within the Cuban Revolution. This framing, one must first note, already dislocates the grounds of the discussion centered on the sovereign or the caudillo, a fetish so dear to both revolutionary and liberal imaginations when confronting the ‘Latinamericanist object’. Hence, in chapter two, Rodriguez Matos advances a demolishing reading of the temporality of foquismo, although not on the grounds that one could have imagined. From a historiographical standpoint, it is common to agree on the fact that that both Guevara and Debray’s formulations have little substance in historical experience, since they are theoretical fictions that develop to master a non-repeatable event (the Cuban Revolution), which was far from being successful solely because of the foco guerrillero in the first place. But this is not Rodriguez Matos’ critique. The argument is set up to make the claim that the Revolution, in order to become flesh and conceive the unity and sameness with the people, theory must be first discarded (Rodriguez Matos 60). Rather mysteriously, in foquismo it is the people that ‘act’, while Guevara becomes its narratological supplement. This is the inversion of the Leninist principle that alleged that in order for a revolution to materialize it needs a good theory beforehand.
Guevara, in Rodriguez Matos, takes the role of the anti-Lenin. In fact, in a strange way, Che appears as a sort of naturalist-philosopher: “…what Guevara is after is the same time that was at issue in Marti: the idealism of the Revolution has to become a force of nature, sprouting in the wind without being cultivated…in all its originary ontological stability, phusis) and the people, without the transubstantiation of the idea into flesh yielding intimate unity, and without this force of nature forging revolutionary ideology…this passage would be nothing but the declaration of one individual from Argentina who has recently landed in a foreign land…” (Rodriguez Matos 60). Guevara is a hopeless romantic, who recaps the Romantic ideal of the fragmented temporality in the pedagogical poem, only that for him the impolitical people are in a “time out of joint”. This is why they must also become a New Man. The catastrophe of foquismo, is thus not merely at the level of a massive historical evidence, but an afterfact of a metaphysics that is already one step away from thinking the void, while formalizing it through a dialectical moment. Rodriguez Matos stages the central problem, just after having glossed Guevara’s revolutionary thought:
“For the metaphysics in question already relies heavily on the form in which it makes multiple small narratives. For the metaphysics in question already relieves heavily on the form in which it makes multiple temporalities appears together. That is, modernity is fundamentally and internally committed to the constant confrontation of disparate forms of time. Instead, I suggest taking a closer look at the time of lost time, the time of the void, and what might happen when it is not filled in but, rather, allowed to resonate in all its formlessness.” (Rodriguez Matos 61).
How should we understand this echo? The turn to Celan and Heidegger’s immersion in noise and the ontological difference validates immediately any vacillation in the answer, since what is at stake is ultimately to think not the “standstill of all time” of the messianic force, but our being in time understood as our most basic and intimate relation that we have with time (Rodriguez Matos 70). It is only this absent time of the formless that will be one of majesty, capable of undoing sovereign authority and its governability over the singular.
The third chapter moves against the belief that Lezama Lima can be grasped in interested disputes regarding his intellectual provenance, political ideology, or assumed Catholicism (origenismo). This is an arduous task, but Rodriguez Matos makes it look easy through a threefold operation. First, Lezama is moved beyond the antinomies of secularization and aesthetics, placed in the proper site of the religion of the formless (we will come back to this). Secondly, Rodriguez Matos confronts Lezama’s own interpretation of the Revolution as parusia or Second Coming, which coincides perfectly with Guevara’s own model of the “ways things are” that folds revolutionary Cuba into globalization due an ingrained total administrate apparatus over life (Rodriguez Matos 93).
This entails that revolutions, if we take the Cuban experience as metonymic of the phenomenon, are always already biopolitical experiences, even though Rodriguez Matos does not frame it in such terms. Third, by understanding the ‘mixed’ temporality of communism and revolutionary politics as convergent with the temporality of capitalism, we come to understand that the second is always on reserve in the backdrop of the state and its institutions (Rodriguez Matos 96-97). In sum, the superposition of revolutionary times with the time of capital is here shown, once again, to be two sides of the same dual narrative of modernity that turns away from the abyss at the heart of politics. This complicates many, if not all, of the assumptions that Cuban transitologists have disputed with very futile outcomes, in my opinion, in the last decade.
Finally, the fourth chapter “Nihilism: Politics as the Highest Value” rightly places the question of nihilism at the center. This is a return to the question of political theologies discussed above. Whereas many of the thinkers on both sides, republicanist and communist alike, take up the question of nihilism, the result, according to Rodriguez Matos, is that it is presented as a fight against those that think the problem of nihilism. Thus, the “banality of nihilism must be dismissed or critiqued” (Rodriguez Matos 104). The operation rests on the fact that the question of being must be avoided at all costs. And this is achieved in at least two main forms: discarding nihilism by proposing a “multiplicity of times” (Rojas), or by proposing a “living philology” (Vitier, Bosteels) that would be able to restitute a truth of a text of the past to give proper political ground (Rodriguez Matos 115). Now the tables are turned, and those that seek to cover the void, as if that were an option, appear as agents of a true nihilistic force.
The second part of the book titled “Writing the Formless,” provides a roaming through Lezama’s conceptualization of the void against politico-theological closure, arriving at the unthought sites of the ontological difference after Heidegger and deconstruction, and moving into infrapolitics. This is an exemplary section in the sense that Rodriguez Matos warns that he is in no position to offer a transhistorical formal theory of Lezama’s writing, and in this way he calmly avoids the universitarian-Master demand for a totalizing expertise of lezamianos. This operation is undertaken not for the sake of confrontation against Lezama specialists, but rather due to a more modest motive: it is not the point that drives Writing of the Formless. Anyone to counter argue on this level is rather to sidestep its most important contribution of this book. Finally, Rodriguez Matos lays out what is at stake, which is tailored as a question that by far exceeds Lezama Lima as a single corpus:
“Ultimately what is at issue whether there is a difference between those texts of the Western tradition that forget the question of being and those whose starting point is the challenge and the difficulty that the question poses, the challenge and the resistance involved in dealing with the ground that is and is not there in its absence. What is at stake is whether or not it is possible to imagine a writing and a thought that do not simply fall silent in order to guarantee the continuity of the narrative of legitimacy and sovereign authority in the poem or in politics – but the link between these two is also at issue here. That is, whether or not it is possible for posthegemonic infrapolitics to be something other than the trace of politics” (Rodriguez Matos 136).
What immediately follows is a series of closely knit constellations of the writing of the formless as absent time in Lezama, which I can only register here without much commentary: Lezama’s own critique of T.S. Eliot’s notion of the difficult, a critique of Garcia Marruz’s reading of the aposiopesis as rhetoric’s hegemonic property, Lezama’s understanding of Aristotelian metaphoricity; Lezama’s philosophy of an atopical One, and finally Rodriguez Matos’ own conceptual position of Lezama as an infrareligious and infrapolitical figure that pushes politico-theological legislation of principles to their very limit into a ‘nonsynthesizable reminder’ [sic] (Rodriguez Matos 154). Further, Lezama’s vitalist response to the Platonist pros hen, unlike the immanentist modern reversal, concludes in a Platonist affirmation instead of an overcoming of Platonism (Rodriguez Matos 139). Rodriguez Matos intelligently resolves this bizarre multiplicity vis-à-vis a parallel reading of Paul Claudel, who rejects aposteriori knowledge in exchange for the cognizant objectification of God before the sovereignty of the Poet. Although I am left thinking about the status of Neo-Platonism as it relates to the discussion of Christian Trinitarian thought .
But Rodriguez Matos goes further, and the Lezama that emerges from this destructive multi-level procedure is one that resists alleogrization, taking cue from Alberto Moreiras’ pioneering reading in Tercer Espacio (1999), as well as a privileged and secured position of a profane materialism over the question of form. And it is also in this very instance where Rodriguez Matos opens up to a complicated debate, which although unresolved, is the most striking and illuminating kernel of his book. In short: does ‘the roaming of the formless’ [sic] in Lezama offer something other than a trace of politics? I want to suggest, from my first reading of what is certainly a complex conversation, that this remains unresolved in Writing of the Formless. Let’s consider a key moment at the end of the book:
“For part of what I am calling attention to is the fact the staging of the formless in Lezama involves a thematization and an awareness of what should only be there as trace. This awareness goes beyond a more familiar claim regarding the self-deconstruction of discourses of their own accord – this is, after all, also what the trace is supposed to underscore. I would like to read this excess of awareness as a radicalization of deconstruction” (Rodriguez Matos 176).
This radicalization will entail leaving behind the moment of ecriture, which characterized the first wave of deconstruction in literary fixation and textual playfulness. Infrapolitics will be, programmatically speaking, post-deconstruction, or what Moreiras has recently called a second turn towards instituted deconstruction . But the question remains: is infrapolitics then, a trace of politics? It is an unresolved question, but perhaps the most important one. Rodriguez Matos leaves us a clue at the very end of the book. When discussing the baroque – and let’s not lose sight of the fact of how late the question arrives, which is a merit and not a pitfall – Rodriguez Matos cites a letter of Lezama to Carlos Meneses: “I think that by now the baroque has begun to give off a stench” (Rodriguez Matos 181). The Baroque has come become an exchangeable token for the Boom, the last stage of identitarian transaction. But it is more than this: the baroque can no longer account for the informe at the heart of the image and rhythm.
Let’s probe this further. If the baroque is now exhausted, it is because all politics of the frame are insufficient to cope with the formless. The primacy of the critique of political economy today, for example, remains just one of its last formal avatars. But one could also respond to Rodriguez Matos’ final invitation, and say that while the aesthetic program of the baroque is demolished or turned into ashes, perhaps a trace of it remains in posthegemonic politics. To the extent that we understand the baroque as a political of self-affirmation against Imperium beyond hegemony, the baroque necessarily entails a republicanist politics .
In other words, while the infrareligious trace depends on the abyss, posthegemonic politics of republicanism sprouts from the baroque in early modernity against any imperial and counter-imperial conversions. Rodriguez Matos interchangeably speaks of infrapolitics and posthegemony throughout the book, therefore this nuance could be taken as a radicalization of the second term in line with the disclosure regarding the baroque. Post-deconstructive infrapolitics remains open. But if Lezama’s legacy is waged on having confronted the formless abyss of the absent time; perhaps, the author of Dador can also reemerge as a political thinker and existential representative not of Paradise, but of the secret Republic. This will entail a republicanism that, in each and every single time, does not longer participate in the eternal arcanum.
- This does not mean that St. Augustine cannot be read against the myth of political theology. Such is the task that José Luis Villacañas has accomplished in his Teología Political Imperial: una genealogía de la division de poderes (Trotta, 2016). In my view, Rozitchner’s La Cosa y la Cruz (1997) is a flagrant misreading of Augustinian anti-political-theology in exchange for a superficial materialist affective analysis. Although I do not have space to discuss this at length, I must note that Rodriguez Matos’ discussion of contemporary materialisms is also a timely warning about the easy exists that the so-called “materialisms” offer today as an effective transaction in contemporary thought. For his discussion of materialism see, pgs. 104-108.
- The question of Neo-Platonism is a fascinating story by itself, which speaks about the multiple in the One. Pierre Hadot studied its influenced in debates of early Trinitarian thought in his work of Marius Victorinus; recherches sur sa vie et ses œuvres (Paris: Etudes augustiniennes, 1971). Now, it seems that Lezama Lima himself was not foreign to Plotinus and Neoplatonism, which he linked it to the emergence of the modern poem. In fact, while reading Writing of the Formless, I revisited my copy of Lezama Lima’s unpublished notes in La Posibilidad Infinita: Archivo de José Lezama Lima, ed. Iván González Cruz (Verbum Editorial 2000). It was interesting to find that in “Oscura vencida”, a fragment from 1958, Lezama writes: “Si unimos a Guido Cavalcanti, March, Maurice Sceve, John Donne, en lo que puede ser motejados de oscuros, con distintos grados de densidad, precisamos que sus lectores, puede ser los más distinguidos cortesanos, o estudiantes que versifican cuando la hija del tabernero inaugura unos zarbillos…Con una apresurada lectura de la Metafísica de Aristóteles, sobre todo su genial concepto del tiempo que pasa a Hegel (sic) y a Heidegger; con cuatro diálogos platónicos, donde desde luego no faltara el Parménides. Con algunas añadiduras de Plotino sobre la sustancia y el uno…ya está el afanoso de la voluptuosos métrica en placentera potencialidad para saborear una canción medieval, un soneto del renacimiento florentino, o una ingenua aglomeración escolástica que se quiere sensibilizar, o una súmala de saber infantil, regida por un pulso que no se abandonó a la plácida oficiosa…” (252). This does not necessarily dodge Rodriguez Matos’ discussion of Claudel, but complicates it, since the trinity also merges at different points throughout the book. My question is whether any discussion of Trinitarian co-substantialism is still embedded in metaphysical structuration as potentia absoluta, or if Lezama’s informe is a Parthian attack against this influential model of absolute potentiality by turning it into a monstrous infrareligion. At stake here is also the issue of ‘reversibility’ that is obliquely exposed at the end of the book (Rodriguez Matos 189).
- See Alberto Moreiras, “Comentario a Glas, de Jacques Derrida”. https://infrapolitica.wordpress.com/2017/01/13/comentario-a-glas-de-jacques-derrida-notas-para-la-presentacion-de-la-nueva-traduccion-espanola-clamor-publicada-en-madrid-la-oficina-2016-y-hecha-por-muchos-autores-con-copyright-de-cristina/
- The question of the republicanist politics, Imperium, and the baroque is studied in detailed in Ángel Octavio Álvarez Solis’ La República de la Melancolía: Politica y Subjetividad en el Barroco (La Cebra, 2015).