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Beatriz Sarlo and Cultural Criticism in Argentina

By David William Foster

The importance of the critical discourse of Beatriz Sarlo lies in the success she has had in positioning herself in terms of the debates occurring in Argentina with respect to cultural production. This has meant not only engaging in strategic expansions of the realm of literary and cultural studies, but the willingness to enter, in a fashion that is characterized by the dynamism and the aggressiveness of intellectual debate in Argentina, in issues relating to the politics of culture.

Sarlo was trained in a narrow focus on literary studies of the sort that has traditionally dominated the Argentine academy. Although the Argentine university has often hosted highly trained and original scholars, the combined pressure of intellectual traditionalism and the circumscriptions of authoritarian rule, punctuated in turn by neofascist tyranny, has often made it difficult to move programs in newer, innovative, and risk-taking directions (for example, gender studies have only recently become possible in some disciplinary sectors, and queer studies still remain pretty much of a remote possibility). Thus, the quest for a space in which to expand definitions of the literary and to conjugate it with larger parameters of cultural production in which the literary beings to lose its privileged place, has been a difficult undertaking: in many Latin American societies, literature continues to be considered the high point of all Culture. Correlating it with other modes of cultural production or suggesting a geometry of cultural production in which literature is only one plane among many others meets with considerable resistance.

Sarlo's critical writing, however, with the encouragement of the possibility for developing a sociology of literature that dominated in some sectors in Argentine during the heyday of leftist sociopolitical movements in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, began to move away from a concept of literary elitism with her first work to attract an enthusiastic critical reception, El imperio de los sentimientos: narraciones de circulación periódica en la Argentina, 1917-1927 (1985). In her examination of romance-novel writing appearing in periodical literature at a high point of Argentine modernism, Sarlo brought to the critical forum one of the first rigorously principled examples of cultural criticism to be published in Argentina.

Sarlo's subsequent work has interacted with at least three dominant sociopolitical discourses in Argentina. First, the discourse of the neofascist tyranny which, although Argentina returned to constitutional democracy in 1983, still dominates many institutional and social sectors of the country, less in terms of a call to return to military dictatorship than an abiding endorsement of the principles that provided some measure of endorsement and legitimacy for de facto government. Specifically, Sarlo has written and taught extensively on the cultural production of resistance during the time of the tyranny and on the cultural response to the transition to constitutional democracy. In focusing on writers whose works, like the highly praised novels of Ricardo Piglia, considered by many to be the most important novelist to emerge in this period of transition, Sarlo has underscored the way in which literature provides an interpretation of the sociohistorical process. This is less of a sociology of literature in the manner of her early writings on the role of literature in the social arena than it is a scrutiny of the strategies available to literature and that literature privileges for interpreting the sociohistorical in an act of cultural semiosis.

Secondly, Sarlo has intervened in persuasive ways on the relationship of Buenos Aires to the cultural projects of modernity and the degree to which one can speak of a postmodernity in Argentina is a sequel to modernity, as in a continuum with modernity, and as a critical stance toward modernity. Una modernidad periférica, Buenos Aires 1920-1930 (1988) returns to her earlier interest in the period of the vacas gordas in Argentina, but this time with an interest in the relationship between cultural production as a whole and the circumstances of its relationship to larger social and historical processes at work in the country. Several recent works continue Sarlo's perceptive and incisive thoughts on the subject: La imaginación técnica: sueños modernos de la cultura argentina (1992).

Thirdly, Sarlo has continued to expand the horizons of her work on the spheres of cultural production, and the attention to that production that is often considered both peripheral to and antagonistic vis-à-vis traditional literary culture has provoked much debate among intellectual circles in Argentina and considerable antagonism toward Sarlo's intellectual project. This work is available in Escenas de la vida posmoderna: intelectuales, arte y videocultura en la Argentina (1994) and Instantáneas: medios, ciudad y costumbres en el fin de siglo (1996). In Instantáneas, Sarlo makes it clear that the whole range of cultural production must be submitted to a theoretically grounded ideological analysis, that appeals to "high culture values" are meaningless as a response to ever-changing examples of cultural production, and that intellectuals, while at the same time grounding their work in carefully elaborated theoretical models, must be able to forge a public discourse that makes cultural commentary a vital part of a vigorous national debate about culture on all social levels.

© David William Foster, Arizona State University, 1998


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