Science Fiction Studies

#124 = Volume 41, Part 3 = November 2014


Rudi Kraeher

Neoliberalism, Posthumanism, and Memory in Latin American SF and Technoculture Studies

M. Elizabeth Ginway and J. Andrew Brown, eds. Latin American Science Fiction: Theory and Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. ix + 252 pp. $76.50 hc.

In a recent talk at the University of California, Riverside, prominent Mexican novelist Ignacio Padilla described the contemporary Spanish-language novel as monstrous.1 Ambiguous, paradoxical, and perpetually unfinished, the form is by nature brutal, preoccupied with complex histories of violence throughout the continent. Tracing the novel’s development from Cervantes to Chilean author Roberto Bolaño, Padilla described a matrix of literary, historical, and social conditions that coalesce in an arbitrary and dystopian monstrosity he called the “ultramodern” novel. In many ways, Bolaño’s apocalyptic literary labyrinth 2666 (2004) exemplifies the formal crisis of the novel that Padilla describes—the intricate narrative threads of the text unravel and become entangled again with ubiquitous historical and personal traumas. The escalation of femicides in Ciudad Juárez is mythologized and memorialized in Bolaño’s text in a hyperreal catalogue of murders that straddles a fine line between cataclysmic social reality and dystopian fantasy.

There is an abundance of “dystopian” Latin American fiction that engages in political commentary using speculative fantasy to address the role of technology in contemporary society. And because of its ability to address technological, cultural, and social change in potent ways, sf is an important genre for discussions of dystopian transformations in Latin America. Scholarship on Latin American science fiction has until recently been primarily invested in projects of excavation, constructing useful bibliographies of primary texts, or else it has appeared in a variety of scattered individual papers, many only available in Spanish or Portuguese. While such endeavors are essential for ongoing work that continues to uncover a tradition in Latin America of what we now call science fiction dating back to the nineteenth century, coordinated and in-depth critical analyses of these texts have been lacking in the scholarly discourse. Filling this gap, several studies have emerged in the past few years that build on earlier work, helping to energize a critical conversation that is quickly gaining traction and causing a shift in the way we discuss this dynamic global genre.

Indeed, there now exists a critical mass of book-length studies that approach Latin American cultural production through the critical prism of science fiction(ality). Rachel Haywood Ferreira’s monograph The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction (2011) is a magisterial extension of previous efforts to uncover early sf classics, arguing for a global understanding of this literary genre within the culturally specific contexts of nineteenth and early twentieth-century technoscience in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. Several other recent publications have contributed to cultivating an interdisciplinary field informed by a wide range of converging (and in some cases colliding) academic discourses: literary and cultural studies, science and technology studies, technoculture and cyberculture studies, new media studies, political science, and historiography. Edward King examines the use of sf tropes as metaphors for larger shifts in power and culture in his book Science Fiction and Digital Technologies in Argentine and Brazilian Culture (2013). The field of Borges studies has generated several texts that explore the relationship between the author’s complex metafictions and the phenomenon of posthumanism: Perla Sassón-Henry’s Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds (2007) and Ivan Callus and Stefan Herbrechter’s collection of essays Cy-Borges: Memories of the Posthuman in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges (2009). This discussion of posthumanism has been elaborated in the context of contemporary Latin American narrative and neoliberalism by J. Andrew Brown in his excellent study Cyborgs in Latin America (2010). There have also been publications on literary utopias or utopian studies more generally, such as Odette Casamayor-Cisneros’s Utopía, distopía e ingravidez: Reconfiguraciones cosmológicas en la narrativa postsoviética cubana [Utopia, Dystopia and Weightlessness: Reconfigurations of Cosmological Narrative in Post-Soviet Cuba, 2013] and Gisela Heffes’s anthology Utopías urbanas: geopolíticas del deseo en América Latina [Urban Utopias: The Geopolitics of Desire in Latin America, 2013]. And David Roas and Patricia García, members of the International Grupo de Estudio sobre lo Fantástico [Group for the Study of the Fantastic, or GEF], have recently published a collection of theoretical essays called Visiones de lo fantástico: Aproximaciones teóricas [Visions of the Fantastic: Theoretical Approaches, 2013]. Given this recent upsurge of critical activity, I would like to take the opportunity to offer a brief overview of the current discourse on Latin American sf and technoculture studies in order to trace some connections within a quickly growing corpus of scholarly texts and approaches.

M. Elizabeth Ginway and J. Andrew Brown’s new collection of essays Latin American Science Fiction: Theory and Practice provides a compelling opportunity for just such an assessment since the anthology is a major effort to organize this burgeoning scholarly field into a single cohesive site. Ginway and Brown claim that their book is meant as a general resource and a kind of initial foray into a richer theoretical approach to Latin American sf criticism. “This collection should be seen more as a first incursion into a promising field for future research,” they write, “and less as a definitive or all-encompassing paradigm” (11). Yet the sheer diversity of viewpoints, topics, and styles presented in the volume—while challenging the reader to rise to the task of tracing larger arguments across its wide-ranging contents—functions to provide a fertile overview of the extant critical tradition, as well as being well-suited for the kind of field sampling they aim to achieve. One of the greatest strengths of the collection is its discussion of Latin American sf within larger national literary and publication contexts and its awareness of how many of the overlooked relationships between “literary” fiction and science fiction have worked to reshape the genre itself. Moreover, a general movement “beyond a historical, archival, or descriptive view of Latin American SF” (10) is well represented in the volume. Discussing sf in Latin America in a way that has culturally and regionally specific nuance while still remaining faithful to comparative analysis across a variety of national literary traditions and a broad range of critical theories is difficult to do without the risk of overgeneralizing—a danger the editors acknowledge. Considering that Latin American sf is written for local audiences with particular contexts and perspectives while at the same time being part of a popular global genre, Ginway and Brown prefer to leave the umbrella descriptor “science fiction” undefined in favor of an inclusive notion of a “Latin American SF sensibility” (10; emphasis added).2 This is a shrewd way to invite further research that will continue to shape this sensibility.

Part I is devoted to putting canonical authors such as Bolaño and Carmen Boullosa—whose connections to sf are often neglected in order to focus on the more “serious,” “literary” qualities of their writing—into an sf context. This re-contextualization is supplemented by the abundance of historical analyses provided in many of the contributions—for example, Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado’s fine treatment of the work of popular Mexican sf author Bernardo Fernández (a.k.a. BEF) and the particular development of science fiction within Mexico’s literary institutions. Sf itself is, in the volume, complicated by various critical revisions and additions that suggest the fluidity and lines of cross-pollination linking the genre with horror, social realism, Third Cinema, erotic literature, and biography. With its coverage of such a large scope of literary, publishing, and generic contexts, the collection forges unique connections, bridging critical gaps in both Latin American literary and sf scholarship and proposing many kinds of unlikely contact between worlds and disciplines.

Another, perhaps rather obvious, asset of the anthology is that it draws attention to many Latin American sf writers and texts, as well as to the historical/political conditions that have limited treatment of them by Anglophone readers and scholars. This issue of access is especially significant for Brazilian sf—a problem that Ginway has addressed in her own book, Brazilian Science Fiction: Cultural Myths and Nationhood in the Land of the Future (2004). Several of the essays in Ginway and Brown’s collection were originally written in Spanish or Portuguese and are presented here in English translation for the first time. Some of the texts and authors discussed (e.g., Bolaño) might be more familiar to English-language readers because of their canonical status and the widespread translation of their work. The work of others—such as Roberto Panko (Argentina) and Luiz Gê (Brazil), who have to date been largely absent from Anglocentric scholarship—is here provided a platform that will expand its critical reception.

In addition to traversing this language barrier, the chapters are peppered with references to authors and works of Euro-American sf. Not surprisingly, H.G. Wells and Philip K. Dick are alluded to frequently and prominently, but many other works of (primarily) popular science fiction—Star Trek (1966-69), The Matrix (1999),etc.—are cited as well. These shared touchstones indicate the “global roots” of the genre (10) while providing cultural reference points for readers unfamiliar with the other primary texts being discussed. They also promote comparative reading practices by putting the various contexts, traditions, and texts of Latin American sf into critical conversation with established works in the field. And they point to a substantial representation among the essays of criticism on film and visual culture—including comics and political cartoons (the third part of the collection is entirely devoted to sf across these media).

Neoliberalism. Throughout almost all of the essays in the collection, there is a particular interest in discussing contemporary Latin American science fiction in relation to the various post-dictatorial, neoliberal contexts of the region. In some cases, this means examining texts that are not overtly works of genre sf, adopting an inclusive “Latin American SF sensibility” aligned with a Borgesian erosion of boundaries between technocultural fictions, broadly defined, and dystopian neoliberal realities. In his Cyborgs in Latin America, a study of contemporary Latin American narrative and technological identity, Brown uses the figure of the cyborg to analyze posthuman subjectivity from a Latin American perspective (specifically, cultural productions from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay) in comparative readings of “science fiction and fiction specifically coded as not science fiction” (3). In his chapter “Neoliberal Prosthetics in Postdictatorial Argentina and Bolivia,” Brown discusses the fallout from neoliberal policies in both countries during the 1990s and the ways in which posthuman identity—in the fictions of Carlos Gamerro (Argentina) and Edmundo Paz Soldán (Bolivia)—helps us to understand how technological imports are precariously fused with Latin American bodies while also revealing a complex hybridity between neoliberal economic policy and local dictatorships. In the work of both Paz Soldán and Gamerro, an importance is given to the hacker figure—a fundamental iconic feature of cyberpunk and a fruitful way for these authors to use posthuman bodies to criticize neoliberal policy.

Other recent scholarship on Latin American sf reads narrative responses to neoliberalism through a somewhat different lens. In Ginway and Brown’s anthology, Prado’s analysis of BEF’s writing, as noted above, places his sf works within the publication context of Mexico’s literary institutions; the essay also, however, demonstrates how “BEF’s career shows the potential of Latin American SF when connected to other forms of writing: rather than a self-referential genre … or, even, a genre overly focused on metaliterature, in the style of Borges…, SF is in BEF a language that captures the urgencies and pains of Mexico’s neoliberal moment” (128). Most of the later chapters in the book involve some discussion of the connections between the dictatorial past and neoliberal present in Latin American sf—from David Laraway’s examination of the “zombie hermeneutic” that links sf with horror and social realism to Haywood Ferreira’s discussion of Argentine writer Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s iconic—and ironic—El Eternauta [The Eternaut] comic series (1957- ), which for over fifty years has functioned as a commentary on shifting sociopolitical realities. The collection concludes with Ginway and Alfredo Suppia’s analysis of the imbrication of technology, sf iconography, and neoliberalism in the films of Brazilian director Jorge Furtado.

Posthumanism. The figure of the Latin American cyborg is, as Brown’s solo-authored book suggests, another important element in many of the recent critical dialogues on Latin American sf and technoculture. Laraway’s chapter in Latin American Science Fiction, “Teenage Zombie Wasteland: Suburbia after the Apocalypse in Mike Wilson’s Zombie and Edmundo Paz Soldán’s Los vivos y los muertos” [The Living and the Dead], while not extensively engaging cyborg theory, does consider the usefulness  of the posthuman zombie for cultural criticism. Laraway argues that while the zombie seems one of many parahuman entities “alongside cyborgs, ghosts, vampires, and so on,” there is “reason to think that it may end up consuming or at least outliving all its posthuman predatory rivals, if only because of the increasingly salient material, political, and economic aspects of the zombie myth” (134). The essay makes a number of interesting points about reading posthuman subjectivity in Latin American fiction in ways that trouble boundaries between sf and other genres. As noted above, Laraway proposes a “zombie hermeneutic” as a set of questions and reading strategies that respond to a (post)apocalyptic Latin American experience of consumer capitalism and the construction of a posthuman collective consciousness.

Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus’s Cy-Borges is another essay collection that considers posthumanism an important concern for Latin American literary and sf criticism. In the introduction to Cyborgs in Latin America, Brown explicitly distances his own project from that of Cy-Borges; as he points out, while works such as Cy-Borges and Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds similarly engage posthumanist discourse and questions of technology in Latin American literature, he sees his own project as less interested in how technological realities of the digital age were anticipated in fiction than in how “cultural production uses the posthuman to make sense of social and political realities as they constitute themselves” (4). Acknowledging this difference is important, of course, but it is also crucial to see the ways in which both Brown’s and Herbrechter and Callus’s works fruitfully revise a posthumanist cybercultural discourse that has to date been dominated by Eurocentric perspectives. Both their studies emphasize how Latin American cultural production not only complicates and extends this critical discourse but also serves as a foundational resource for it.

Herbrechter and Callus’s collection of essays, while lacking a cohesive argument (due in large part to the conflicting positions and conceptual experimentation of the individual contributions), tactically uses Borges to make the case for a critical posthumanism, inviting us to consider how the Argentine author’s work informs our present-day concerns regarding the limits of the human, as well as how posthumanist discourse might influence our readings of Borges. Observing the virtual qualities of characters such as the dreamed man in “The Circular Ruins” (1940) or the mechanical nature of memory in “Funes the Memorious” (1942), the editors suggest that Borges “prefigures … not only the phantasm of the posthuman but also its very impossibility and, at the same time, its accessibility and immanence,” insofar as Borges’s writings can be thought of as experiments in representing or conceiving the impossible (5). We might also think of “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939) as another example of “posthumanism without technology”—a prefiguration of cyberliterature or, anachronistically, a response to the advent of hypertext—that anticipates the limitations of digital textualities, the problems and paradoxes of translation that are not neatly resolvable through technological advancement and a concomitant shift away from the medium of print. Beyond Borges, a good deal of the recent critical work on sf and technology in Latin American literature implies that we have reached a posthuman condition in both fact and fiction. On the other hand, Herbrechter and Callus’s discussion of Borges as an ally for posthumanist theory operates more in terms of formal, metaphysical, and even aesthetic affinities than Ginway and Brown, with their greater sociopolitical focus, are concerned with exploring.

Memory and History. Along with interdisciplinary work on neoliberal critique and posthumanism, scholars in the field are also interested in the issues of memory and history. In his contribution to Cy-Borges, “Borges and the Trauma of Posthuman History,” Jonathan Boulter invites readers to consider themselves as posthuman reading subjects whose fully realized cyborg condition allows them to enter into dialogue with Borges’s texts, which “require the reader prosthetically to complete the narratives his subjects —because beyond history, beyond narrative, or, indeed, because too close to narrative history—are incapable of fully comprehending” (127). Boulter uses Freudian theory treating the phenomenon of hysteria to discuss the posthuman experience that memory is trauma (and trauma memory), which is significant in the context of Borges studies more generally in its insistence on relating the author’s often abstract and philosophical work to actual historical events.

Ginway and Brown’s collection features other important essays on memory and history, such as Claire Taylor’s piece “Time Travel and History in Carmen Boullosa’s 1991 Llanto, novelas imposibles” [Crying, Impossible Novels] which reflects on the sf trope of time travel, the Mexican author’s construction of historical figures (such as Moctezuma II), and her troubling of practices of historiography and narrative construction. In Cyborgs in Latin America, Brown provides a stimulating engagement with memory and identity in the work of Rodrigo Fresán (Argentina) and Alberto Fuguet (Chile) that is more focused on posthuman subjectivity than on any kind of political trauma. His analysis of Fresán’s intricately woven postmodern techno-myth Mantra (2002) explores how our lived posthuman condition shapes a hybrid experience of history and memory. According to Brown, “Fresán takes the intimate interactions between human and television to posit a new kind of globalized body, one that is neither dehumanized nor rehumanized, but posthumanized. In so doing, he reconfigures the Argentine cyborg from unholy monster or scarred survivor to citizen of a new global culture in need of a new, cybernetic, mythology” (153). As I see it, questions of memory and history are two sides of a multifaceted critical dialogue focused more broadly on narrative, posthumanism, and contemporary social realities in Latin America.

If this contemporary discourse of Latin American sf studies seems so vibrant, it is due to the quality and diversity of the work of these many estimable scholars. There is a deeply theoretical vein to this field, and future research will undoubtedly build upon what has already been established. Of course, further treatments of post-dictatorial and neoliberal realities as they relate to Latin American sf and technoculture will continue to play an important role in the ongoing discussion. Posthumanist discourse and interdisciplinary examinations of science, technology, history, memory, and trauma all benefit from the invaluable contribution of books such as Ginway and Brown’s Latin American Science Fiction: Theory and Practice. In the spirit of Borges, future research might follow any one of the many forking paths they have laid out here.

                1. On 25 April 2014, Padilla gave a talk entitled “Utopia y distopía: Historia mínima del monstruo ultramoderno” [Utopia and Dystopia: A Minimal History of the Ultramodern Monster] as a guest speaker for the UCR Hispanic Studies graduate student conference, an event that was focused on representations of violence in Latin American and Spanish cultural production.
                2. A similar expansion of the terrain of sf studies—one that addresses the genre’s global nature while assessing what constitutes it in particular contexts—is signaled by the recent announcement of a forthcoming series from the University of Wales Press, New Dimensions in Science Fiction(edited by Paweł Frelik and Patrick Sharp), which promises to cover the fields of global and Indigenous sf, sf across media, and sf in relation to science, technology, and medicine studies.

Jonathan Boulter. “Borges and the Trauma of Posthuman History.” Cy-borges: Memories of the Posthuman in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges. Ed. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2009. 126-47.

Brown, J. Andrew. Cyborgs in Latin America. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Casamayor-Cisneros, Odette. Utopía, Distopía e Ingravidez: Reconfiguraciones Cosmológicas en la narrativa postsoviética cubana. Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2013.      

Ginway, M. Elizabeth. Brazilian Science Fiction: Cultural Myths and Nationhood in the Land of the Future. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2004.

Haywood Ferreira, Rachel. The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011.

Heffes, Gisela. Utopías Urbanas: Geopolíticas del Deseo en América Latina. Madrid: Iberoamericana Vervuert, 2013.

Herbrechter, Stefan, and Ivan Callus. Cy-borges: Memories of the Posthuman in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 2009.

King, Edward. Science Fiction and Digital Technologies in Argentine and Brazilian Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2013.

Roas, David and Patricia García. Visiones de lo fantástico: aproximaciones teóricas. Málaga, Spain: Ediciones de Aquí, 2013.

Sassón-Henry, Perla. Borges 2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.

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