Jean Franco and her Critical Passions

Jean Franco and her Critical Passions


This piece is extracted, condensed and revised from a review of Franco’s Critical Passions, published in Mixing the Personal and Professional: Essays, Days and Ways Left Along the Way (Santiago Chile and Houston, Texas: Bravo y Allende and Global LACASA Books, 2006). I’ve prepared it for El BeiSMAn, in view of the writer’s presentations at the University of Illinois Chicago, Wednesday and Thursday, April 9 and 10 but also as a means of honoring Jean Franco and congratulating her most fully soon after her 90th birthday celebration. May she continue to write and present ever new and wonderful work. MZ

Over the past several years, Latin American literary studies have extended from textual to contextual analysis, from literary to film, music, and art, to class, gender and race—to an overall, comprehensive cultural studies. Many forerunning practitioners of these transformations come to mind, including such figures as Angel Rama, Antonio Cornejo Polar, Roberto Fernández Retamar, and Antonio Candido. However no figure affected the predominant, U.S. version of emergent Latin American cultural studies more than the English-born teacher and critic Jean Franco.

Perhaps known most to this day for her early books on Latin American culture and literature, Franco has since written brilliant tomes on Cesar Vallejo and Mexican women’s writing, as well as a collection of essays on Southern Cone dictatorship and repression. Near the end of the twentieth century, two of the most distinguished of her many students and disciples, Mary Louise Pratt and Kathleen Newman, major Latin Americanist critics in their own right, brought together a very ample collection of her previously uncollected essays (Critical Passions: Selected Essays. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), to constitute one of the most brilliant and persuasive books of Latin American literary and cultural studies, a book which signals its author’s broad and persistent readings, her powers of analysis and synthesis, her steady, democratic radicalism, her wit and depth. Longtime workers in these areas can only stand in humble awe and admiration of the impressive combination of intricacy and clarity, theoretical rigor and critical verve which so characterizes her work.

Franco’s mature writing is marked by a search for social commitment and relation to class and popular struggle that we would generally relate to the least dogmatic strains of the Western Marxist tradition in the work of Raymond Williams. However, her encounter with indigenous and above all gender questions, her growing interest in everyday life, popular culture and social movement theory in relation to Latin America, led to a drift from Marxism clearly paralleling and some ways anticipating that accomplished in the work of the late Stuart Hall.

The break involved entails a distancing from the more culturalist version of Marxism (in particular, Gramscian theory) in its automatic and inevitable reduction and “suturing” of social process and struggle in relation to questions of class and modes of production, thereby minimizing and indeed trivializing other perspectives and interests which are seen as merely ideological and conjunctural. According to this theoretical mode, the insistence on the Marxist “last instance” has constituted a Euro-centric imposition on Latin American social theory, which has not been able to capture the importance and nuances of such matters as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference and “post-coloniality” which have been crucial in the formation of Latin American identities since the Conquest. Consequently a truly accurate and radical form of social theorizing can only emerge with the development of perspectives which, warranted within a deconstructive line extending and breaking with Marxist logics through the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, are able to grasp the matters neglected in terms of their functionality in given Latin American societies.

These same matters take on new contours in the post-Cold War period, marked by the decline of workers’ and Marxist organizations and the emergence of new social movements characterized by a concern with identity politics and issues related to the very perspectives underplayed in theory and practice during an earlier period. Franco’s work involves the effort to establish a more open view of shifting hegemonies, alliances and group coalitions, to explore the new dynamics of relations among groups-in-formation, and their emergent contradictions and points of conjuncture and alliance with other groups in given areas or in given transnational contexts. What is striking in her own recent efforts, is how, as the new post-Cold War narrative of globalization comes increasingly to the fore in our new century, she seeks to chart particular cultural modes and works in relation to group dynamics and overall trends of local, national, regional and more global forces. Such matters come to the fore in the books she has recently published, including her study of Latin American literature in relation to the Cold War, and her most recent volumes, The Decline and Fall of the Lettered City: Latin America in the Cold War (Harvard UP, 2002) and Cruel Modernity (Duke UP, 2013).

Focusing here on her pivotal Critical Passions collection, we may note how Franco’s essays center on the relation of literary and cultural matters to questions of feminist and gender critique; clearly she has been concerned with the relation between women’s struggles, women’s organizations and feminist orientations as they impact and in some cases reshape cultural and literary production and enable them to play key roles in the overall array of social action and transformation. But whether focused on feminist issues, questions of globalization theory or literary analysis, she is ever attuned to all human registers and the capacity of literary and cultural critique to encompass and project all in relation to questions of hegemony and subalternity, justice and agency. Her work involves radical critiquing at every level, and the range of levels or modes she involves, as well as constant political sensibility, make her one of the most important Latin Americanist cultural critics of her generation or any generation for that matter.

Conceiving the collection in terms of critical passions, which are also the major divisions of the book, editors Pratt and Newman have designated four major ones; they have then selected essays which correspond to each of these passions and organized the essays in the four groupings in function of a chronological order based on their dates of publication. The four passions are Feminism and the Critique of Authoritarianism; Mass and Popular Culture; Latin American Literature: The Boom and Beyond; and Mexico. The ordering of the essays in relation to these passions provides us with a view of the author’s development over the years and across a wide range of emerging themes, issues and overall problematics.

Franco’s most abiding passion has been feminist and gender critique—above all, the relation between women’s struggles, women’s organizations and feminist orientations as they impact and reshape cultural and literary production and enable them to play key roles in the overall array of social action and transformation. Her opening essays are rich in perspective and associative power, in theory and concrete example—rare combination, which Pratt and Newman are so right in signaling as her work’s defining quality. In addition, the essays reveal Franco growing as committed feminist far beyond the ivory tower. There is a persistent logic in these first essays which anticipates and provides the bases for her critiques in relation to her other passions. Her three Mexican essays, on Frida Kahlo, La Malinche and Sor Juana, make a good overture to her essay on contemporary women’s romance and the “The Mares of the Apocalypse,” which starts by describing Pedro Lemebel’s transvestite parody of Kahlo, and takes us to issues of gender studies as part of a new Latin American postmodern cultural condition. A final essay in this section stands as a biting attack on the Catholic hierarchy’s position on women’s reproductive rights, contraception and the like.

The next passion, dedicated to cultural studies, starts with a treatment of 19th Century British travelers and leaps to Franco’s brilliant essay on “Latin American Narrative in the Age of Mass Culture.” Franco’s critiques of popular culture and globalization theories, her articles on the transformations of the left intelligentsia and recent turns in Latin American cultural modeling are very fine examples of her work. The first two essays are among the most important in the book; the other two round out her overall theoretical stance and push her arguments into very contemporary debates. Franco’s “High-Tech Primitivism” involves a treatment of recent films about Latin America, including a critique of Conquest films. All of the essays point to her moves beyond standard top-down critics of “cultural imperialism” to a mapping out of migrating theory, involving her debt to European figures like Bourdieu, Deleuze, and Guattari, etc., as well as Latin Americans like Jesús Martín Barbero, Néstor García Canclini, Nelly Richard, and others.

The literary section contains three general articles, on the boom, the postboom and recent novels, as instances of postmodern pastiche. The first was one of the great pioneer critiques of the boom. The second essay continues the exploration of possible praxis and social commitment in boom “écriture,” arguing that even Cortázar fails to break though the encapsulation of politics in a world of aesthetic games. More successful in this regard are testimonial works by Elena Poniatowska, chronicles by Carlos Monsiváis and post-Nerudian collage poems like those by Ernesto Cardenal. “Self-Destructing Heroines” traces postmodern and political dimensions in postboom women’s writing. Then an essay on pastiche centers on Borges and others who followed him. There are also particular studies centered on given writers and works—some of them among the richest essay-length efforts of close analysis that the reader may encounter.

The final passion/section, Mexico, starts with Rulfo and then extends retrospectively to the colonial period. “Dominant Ideology and Literature” supplements her many earlier pages on Fuentes and explores the work of Mexican essayists and novelists from 1915 to the 1950s. Another essay involves a perceptive treatment of Lizardi and his La Quijotita; it is complemented by an essay on the Mexican intelligentsia during the Independence period. The section concludes with an essay that takes us to the Inquisition and women in the mid-17th century.

The book ends with an afterward pointing to new literary directions and popular culture trends. Franco underlines the importance of indigenous and U.S. Latino literature, the impact of feminism and the role of non-academic criticism in the future development of Latin American cultural studies.

It is true that this reader can think of additional texts that might have been included here. Yet the fundamental point is that we have Pratt and Newman to thank for bringing together, selecting and editing a rich and marvelous collection of work and for tracing the development of a cultural studies practitioner that all Latin Americanists neglect at their great peril. 

Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.

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Jean Franco will be at the University of Illinois Chicago, Wednesday and Thursday, April 9 and 10.

Lecture: Reading Atrocity
April 9, 2014 at 3:00pm - 5:00pm
Institute for the Humanities 

Workshop: Cruel Modernity
April 10, 2014 at 4:00pm - 6:00pm
1501 UH