Jean Franco, pioneer of Latin American Cultural Studies and witness to its Cold War gigantomachy, passed away a couple of weeks in December at age 98. She remained lively and curious even at the very end of her scholarly life, and for some of us that saw her in action she embodied the memory of the century. The photograph above is of Jean’s visit to Arcadio Díaz Quiñones graduate seminar in the fall of 2015 where she discussed some of the main arguments of her last book Cruel Modernity (Duke U Press, 2014), a cartography showing the definite closure of the Latin American insomnia for political modernity in light of its most oblique mutations: narcoviolence, the emergence of a dualist state structure, and new global economic forces that putted an end to the vigil of the revolutionary enterprise. I write “definite” purposely, since Jean’s own The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City (Harvard U Press, 2002) already hinted at a certain exhaustion (to borrow the strategic term of Alberto Moreiras also writing during these years), most definitely a thorough disillusion, in the sense deployed by Claudio Magris, of cultural substitution for the belated state-making modernization. The function of “culture” (and its hegemonic state apparatus) was always insufficient, dragging behind, or simply put, unintentionally laboring for the cunning of a project forever postponed in the sweatshop of the newest ideologue, or for the hidden interests of the “local” marketplace of moral academicism. All of this has come crashing down rather quickly even if the demand for culturalist janitorial or housekeeping services are still in demand to sustain the illusion sans reve et sans merci.
What always impressed me about Franco’s scholarship was her intellectual honesty to record, even if through an adjacent detours and academic finesse, the destitution of all the main categories of the Latin American modern wardrobe: developmentalism, state-civil society relations, the intellectual, cultural hegemony, revolutionary violence, the “rights revolution”, and the intra-national spatiality (rural/metropolitan divide). From now on it is hard to say that there is a “task of the critic”, if we are to understand the critic in the Kantian aspiration of sponsoring modern values and perceptiveness to an enthusiastic disposition (definitely optimistic towards action) to transforming the present. As a witness to the twilight of the Latin American modern epoch, Franco univocally resisted the inflationary, value-driven, demand for politicity and ‘more politics’. This is why her attitude remained at the threshold of any given effective political panaceas or half-baked illusions.
Does her biographical experience say anything to this particular inclination? It is difficult to say, although as a witness of the century Jean had lived through the coup in Guatemala in 1954, visited the Cuban Revolution during its most “intense years” of the sugar cane milestone (La Zafra de los Diez Millones), and followed with attentiveness the rise and transformation of the Southern Cone dictatorships in the 1980s coupled with the irreversible social transformation of neoliberalism in the 1990s signaling the effective end to regional integration in the face of planetary unity. All of this to say that I find it hard – at least leaving aside the many nuances – to see in Jean’s scholarly witness an enthusiasm for the Latin American Pink Tide, the communal state, or abstract regional historicizing that could finally bring about the moral universe of the national-popular state (as if said moral realization would be anything worthwhile, which we some of us seriously doubt). If Jon Beasley-Murray once said that John Beverley was the “Latin American unconscious”, I guess it is fair to claim that Jean Franco was an authentic Latin americanist realist; that is, someone that was up to task to see in the face of the tragic, the cruel, and the heinous as the proper elements of the interregnum. Or to better qualify this: she was a worldly realist, leaving aside utopias and its abstractions. At the end end of the day, Leninists are also realists, or at least claim to be so. What places Jean’s earthly realism apart from the Leninist realism is the subtraction from the seduction of Idealization, which even in the name of the “idea” (“the idea of communism”, say) or “immanent higher causes” must bear and render effective the logic of sacrifice at whatever cost, even the real sense of freedom if demanded by the party, the leader, or the community. This is why at the closure of Latin American modernizing enterprise communitarian arrangements, posthistorical subjects / identities, or grand-spaces that mimic the constitution of Earth are foul dishes for a final banquet. It is always convenient to refuse them.
Going back to my conversations with Franco at Princeton, and some exchanges a few months later in a cafe near Columbia University, for her there was remaining only the anomic geography of Santa Teresa in Bolaño’s 2666, a novel that charts the current ongoing planetary civil war in the wake of the crisis of modern principles of political authority. I can recall one remark from Jean during these exchanges: “¿Y quién pudiera mirar hacia otra parte?” This is the general contour of her witnessing: how not to look somewhere else? In other words, how not to look here and now, into the abyss that is no longer regional or national, Latin American or cultural specific, but rather proper to our own civilization? A civilization is, after all, nothing but the organization of a civis, which has now abdicated to both the metropolitan dominium, as well as the campo santo of sacrificed life at the hand of techno-administrative operators (the new praetorian guard) of a well lighted and fully integrated Earth.
There is no alternative modernity, decolonial state, or hegemonic culture that will not serve to the compensatory and sadistic interests of the cruel policing of death and value, as the only masters in town. We are in Santa Teresa as a species of energy extraction. Can reflection be courageous enough to look through and against them? This is the lasting and eternal question that Franco left for those who are willing to see. It does not take much, although it amounts to everything: mirar / to gaze – in an opening where human form is lacking and categories are wretched – is the the most contemplative of all human actions. Whatever we make of it, this practice now becomes the daring task of the coming scholar.