A Surprising Read: On Abraham Acosta’s ‘Thresholds of Illiteracy’ and Erin Graff Zivin’s ‘Figurative Inquisitions’


Peter Baker

It seems to me that these two books under discussion, Abraham Acosta’s Thresholds of Illiteracy and Erin Graff Zivin’s Figurative Inquisitions are the latest in a series of contributions of what we could call, following Alberto Moreiras, a second-order Latin Americanism or a critical Latin Americanism.[1] They should thus be celebrated, as we are doing here and under the terms which give the title of the original event where these papers were presented at UT Dallas with the generous support of Charles Hatfield: “New Directions in Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies.” In other words, celebrated not only for their contribution to a specific body of knowledge but, perhaps more importantly, for taking the classical objects of study in our field –marranismo, indigenismo, testimonio– in new directions, providing them with new readings, even with a new reading of reading. Indeed, I would say that what both contributions have in common is that they both have something to say about reading, about what it is to read, about how to read, and about the limits of reading itself. These new readings that they propose, in both cases, would be identified explicitly with a democratic practice even if it is never clear if this identification would be a necessary identification, or would simply be one of the many possible ways that such readings could be put into practice.

Why the emphasis on reading? Following Catherine Malabou’s reflections on the plasticity of Hegel’s absolute knowing in her 1996 French publication translated into English as The Future of Hegel (L’avenir de Hegel), reading would be the mode of contemporary engagement for critical thought today post-Hegel. At the end of history, according to Malabou, there is no more to write, no more philosophers of the book. But there is reading. What is at stake here is the question of why it is still important to read Hegel, how to think the future of Hegelianism when Hegelianism itself had already announced, some 200 years ago, the end of history. Catherine Malabou therefore describes this essential aspect of reading with reference to Hegel’s futurity, which is also for her what makes it possible to think even the future itself, to see what is coming while simultaneously never being prepared for it, always being surprised or –to follow the original French which has, it appears to me, strong Althusserian implications– sur-prise:

‘To see what is coming’ denotes at the same time the invisibility and the visibility of what is coming. The future is not the absolutely invisible, subject of pure transcendence which would refuse itself to all forms of anticipation, of knowledge and of speech. The future is neither the absolutely visible, object of pure prevision. It thwarts anticipation by its precipitation and force of surprise. ‘To see what is coming’ means therefore seeing without seeing –waiting without waiting [attendre sans attendre]– a future which is neither in front of our eyes, nor hidden from view. Now this intervallic situation, is it not that of reading par excellence? (245, my emphasis. Translation is my own)

If I quote this passage at some length, it is because, perhaps, what conditions the possibility of the readings that are proposed here by Abraham Acosta and Erin Graff Zivin would necessarily be based on the unpredictability (or better, in Spanish, imprevisibilidad) of the “to come,” in the sense that it is given here by Malabou, though this ‘what is to come’ it should not be understood here in simple terms of chronology, of the future as ‘that which lies ahead’. It is a reading which is open to its own plasticity, of an alterity which unbinds the dualism sameness and difference, as an alterity of the “to come,” not of the future in its vulgar sense, but of that surprising advent of something new from within the same (this would be, for Malabou, then the experience of reading itself, indeed, just like her own reading of Hegel produces new meanings from within this timeless text).

In Figurative Inquisitions, Erin Graff Zivin states: “[I want to propose] an ethics of reading as witnessing that, in departure from the logic of proof, abandons Inquisitional logic in favor of something more expansive, but also more dangerous [this would be one that is open to ‘multiple possibilities of interpretation’]” (74). What we have in the case of Figurative Inquisitions is the exposure of a logic of terror and of torture which nevertheless turns on and around a process of truth extraction centered on the secret, the secret of the marrano. The logic of the Inquisition stands in for a kind of totalitarianism which is the unethical practice of reading par excellence, to the extent that it constantly has to cover the fact that the marrano’s secret “is neither locked in a crypt nor confessable” (51) in order to sustain itself. At the same time, revealing the unreadability of the marrano’s secret is what conditions the ethical practice of reading Inquisitional logic, insofar as it opens up to a particular kind of alterity which is not this other or that other, or even the Other with a capital “O”, but an alterity that might be the very condition of possibility of an ethical practice of reading as it is here understood.

Zivin therefore makes a series of moves by which she draws a circle repeatedly around these voids that, on the one hand, lie at the heart of Inquisitional Logic’s own fallacy and, on the other hand, provide the condition of possibility for her own practice of reading. Her treatment of allegory is a perfectly good example of this. The author insists that allegory is not to be understood as a way of being indirect about the truth of the situation, not a ‘when I say the Company I actually mean the Inquisition,’ but rather as a haunting, “an irruption of a deformed past into the present as a reminder and an echo, a repetition” (58). As a haunting, as the specters of a past which live with us contemporaneously and help us to think the future, there is necessarily an untimely quality to the allegorical, it is something that arrives “from the past as absolute future” (59). It shows time to be out of joint, it is unexpected, a surprise and a sur-prise. It adopts an aporetic structure insofar as history, or at least a certain image of history, sets the stage for an unexpected event in the future, the sur-prise itself. It is an encounter as mis-encounter. The question is brought again back round to reading. The ruins of history as allegory in the texts that the author studies, “serve as the condition of possibility and impossibility for contemporary readings of violence and totalitarianism” (58–9). I understand this to mean that is serves, on the one hand, the possibility of reading violence insofar as the uncanny quality of an image of the past which touches upon the present allows one to see or feel that violence from a different perspective. At the same time, however, that reading is impossible: it is not that past, nor are we ever entirely able to read that violence. In other words, it is not only that allegory adopts an aporetic structure (as the author claims): the allegory itself brings us into the aporetic structure of history for which an ethics of reading becomes, for Zivin, necessary.

In Thresholds of Illiteracy, on the other hand, Abraham Acosta writes that the book is: “a critical examination of the politics of reading resistance in contemporary Latin America” (2). One would imagine, therefore, that the book is itself a proposal for an alternative politics of reading resistance. Indeed, this appears to be confirmed by the author when he writes that his analysis “advances the possibility of a truly democratic reading practice” (3), one that accounts for marginalized voices and texts in Latin America, “on more egalitarian grounds” (3). His concept of illiteracy disrupts the traditional dichotomies of Latin American Cultural Studies such as that of writing and orality, the novel and testimony, in order to point towards those sites of indistinguishability, expressing “the condition of semiological excess and ungovernability that emerges from the critical disruption of the field of intelligibility”, naming a irreducibly ambiguous semiosis that “reveals the ultimately contingent and arbritrary nature of the political order,” collapsing or unworking the field of intelligibility’s very frame.

What distinguishes Acosta’s position with respect to Zivin’s is that what he calls illiteracy is not the placeholder of a secret, but is essentially something that reveals. It indicates a certain unreconcealment and unworks both the binaries of western logocentric thought and the biopolitical dimensions of the national popular in Latin America. The question of the literary-orality binary is a clear example. As we see in the author’s study of José María Arguedas’s Los ríos profundos, and its all too ideological reception in Peru’s premier cultural theorists Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio Cornejo Polar, it is the silence of the novel’s colonos and the unreadability, or even untranslatability, of their violent outburst at the end of the novel that marks this threshold of illiteracy. The novel’s protagonist Ernesto, whose coming of age becomes the central focus of the narrative development, cannot place the colonos within his own field of intelligibility, defined by a nostalgic relation to the magical world of the deep Andean indigenous sierra and the complexity of modern urban life. Indeed, what the colonos resist is Ernesto’s very own economy of literacy-orality which overdetermines the social mapping of the Peruvian landscape, something which, as Acosta shows, both Vargas Llosa and Cornejo Polar actually reproduce in their scholarship. The colonos are thus reduced through Ernesto’s linguistic determination of them to bare life, but the colonos nevertheless represent a trace of illiteracy which, “reveals the breakdown of the coherency provide by the orality-literacy relation” (116). Illiteracy, in the end, unworks or reveals the fallacy of the literacy-orality binary, revealing both poles to be operating within the same metaphysics of presence. The colonos do not have a secret in Acosta’s account, their function in this new economy of reading is rather to unconceal the underlying logocentricism of Ernesto’s narrative voice.

Yet, by following its relation to Rancière’s concept of “the political,” we see that illiteracy is not only this unworking of the binaries orality-literacy, to expose the biopolitical dimensions upon which it, and therefore the Latin American political and cultural tradition, is grounded, but it also underlines the contingency of the social and political order. In other words, illiteracy is not only about seeing through the fallacies of contemporary discourses of resistance in Latin America, but showing that, while things are this way, they never had to be this way and do not continue having to be this way. There is an opening to an alterity that is like the unexpected sur-prise of a future yet to come. “Illiteracy is the name for that mode of expression that articulates the contingency of equality of any speaking beings whatsoever,” writes Acosta, continuing to say that, “[not] only are the conditions for politics unpredictable and precarious, but they also have to actually take place ” (75). Illiteracy advances, then, “the possibility of a politics of reading underwritten by their egalitarian and heterogeneous implications” (76).

To conclude in a somewhat schematic way, I would like to suggest that what Malabou, Zivin and Acosta share in common is the proposal for a practice of reading which emphasizes what Jacques Derrida once called “the democracy to come.” They announce the possibility of democratic readings by virtue of their analysis of an otherness within discursivity that cannot be reduced to the binary of sameness and difference, self and other, but is ultimately that radical alterity of which is not, it must be repeated, of the chronological future that lies ahead. It is rather an alterity given within the fabric of the very self-same, and that can be teased about, precisely, through the practice of reading. A practice of reading as the threshold of illiteracy or the secret of a possible democratic practice. It would certainly be, in any case, a reading always already open to surprise.

Works Cited

Acosta, Abraham. Thresholds of Illiteracy: Theory, Latin America, and the Crisis of Resistance. Fordham University Press, 2014.

Graff Zivin, Erin. Figurative Inquisitions: Conversion, Torture and Truth in the Luso-Hispanic Atlantic. Northwestern University Press, 2014.

Malabou, Catherine. L’avenir de Hegel. Vrin, 1996.

Moreiras, Alberto. The Exhaustion of Difference: The Politics of Latin American Cultural Studies. Duke University Press, 2001.


[1] Refer to Moreiras’s The Exhaustion of Difference, 2001 (25).

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