Epplin, Craig. Late Book Culture in Argentina.
Like many scholarly monographs in the field of literary studies, Craig Epplin's Late Book Culture in Argentina is itself a book. Yet from the very first pages, Epplin fights against the tendency to view literary production as coterminous with the book. He has accumulated a set of stimulating and compelling examples of literature, all of which have in common the problematization or the outright rejection of the book-object as the neutral form in which literary content is disseminated. In other words, in this contribution to Argentine literary studies, "the book cannot be taken for granted" (4).
Epplin proposes Cesar Aira as the key landmark for the critic to navigate this landscape in which the book is foregrounded at every turn. Aira provides the epigraph, he is also the focus of an entire chapter and the epilogue, and serves as the social glue connecting every author in between. Epplin divides his study into two sections. In the first, he focuses on the book as a problem to be solved (8); he calls this section a "genealogy," and Aira certainly serves as the trunk of Epplin's literary family tree. Once Aira, Lamborghini (the roots), and Eloisa Cartonera (the branches) all have had their say in constructing the late-book as an aesthetic and material problem, Epplin transitions to his "morphology" of potential solutions to these "book problems," which include the invocation of a literary community, a geographical account of the literary, and a computational/algorithmic understanding of literature itself.
First in the tripartite genealogy is Oswaldo Lamborghini, whose elevation of the artisanal edition into the literary desiderata, Epplin argues, proposes a new way of constructing the literary encounter. That is because Lamborghini's texts are visibly constructed, as Epplin reiterates through his close focus on the material support surrounding several of Lamborghini's texts. This author's artisanal book objects come to define, for Epplin, their creator's oppositional orientation towards the mass-market paperback. Against those mechanically-produced volumes--standardized, universalized, and yet consumed in solitary privacy--Lamborghini creates objects that condense writing, publishing, and reading into "a sort of theater of publishing, turning the scene of production into a minimal work of performance art" (30).
Next in the genealogy is Cesar Aira, the prolific author of a near-uncountable number of short novels. Epplin undertakes the difficult task of analyzing Aira's texts on a formal level from both within and outside of Aira's own self-proclaimed mythology of discipline, improvisation, and flight forward. The critic straddles the two interpretive poles he finds in the growing scholarly literature on Aira: on one side, a focus on Aira's proceduralism that anoints him heir apparent to the avant-garde tradition of Breton and Duchamp; on the other, a close attention to Aira's engagement with the technological and social shifts of his era, and to his thoroughly committed, if still absurd, Argentine (or even porteno) regionalism. Epplin conjugates these two poles through an insistence on Aira's texts as a chain of singularities (52). In other words, in it not just that Aira views the invention of procedures as the central aspect of his aesthetic practice (54); but that Aira's procedure is bound up, as Lamborghini's texts before him, in the scene of its own production. What has shifted between the two authors is the condition of that literary production in itself, for Aira writes in full-fledged late book culture, during the flourishing of late capitalism and neoliberal globalization. This leads Aira to showcase a certain kind of contingency inherent not only in his own procedure, but in the general contours of late book culture itself.
The final branch of Epplin's genealogy is the artisanal, politically engaged publishing house Eloisa Cartonera. The "Cartonera" of the publishing house's name refers to the cardboard (carton) that serves as the background to the hand-painted covers of their photocopied books. The publishing house, located in La Boca, Buenos Aires, is a collaborative workshop space open to public visitors; according to Epplin, "the workshop itself comes to play the role of literary interface" (59). The combination of recycled materials, donated content (or content developed with local youth at the workshop), and savvy self-promotion turn this literary arts collective into something like an aesthetic civil society. Yet as opposed to the more traditional institutions of civil society, like an international NGO dedicated to increasing governmental transparency or eradicating an infectious disease, Eloisa Cartonera exists exclusively to highlight the mediated materiality of literary production, even if such a reflection unfolds against the background of a cumbia beat. In the workshop, Lamborghini's artisanal eccentricities merge with Aira's accelerated proceduralism, and the end result is a kind of "imperfect literature" that harkens back to Garcia Espinosa's "imperfect cinema" while harnessing the technological innovations proper to late book culture.
In the second half of the book, Epplin shifts from a genealogical to a morphological account. The first iteration of his proposed morphology showcases the late-book as performance. In that vein Epplin describes the performances at Estacion Pringles as literary but not bookish encounters (76). Estacion Pringles creates a literary community and an aesthetic laboratory, participating in a global trend that Epplin, following Claire Bishop, calls the "participatory paradigm," while also responding locally to "Argentina's failed experiment in orthodox neoliberal governance" (73). Location becomes the key concept for Epplin's interpretations of some of the poetry performed and printed under the Estacion Pringles moniker, but the rather tangential connections between this textual analysis and Epplin's reflections on Vivi Tellas' theatrical interventions hint at this study's looming subtext: does late-book culture also necessarily imply a late-author culture?
Epplin postpones this question, and instead shifts to the next morphological structure of late book culture: the late-book as digital manuscript, as exemplified by Sergio Chejfec's literary production. It is the originality of the literary manuscript, not the originality of the author-figure him/herself, that falls under question on Chejfec's blog, where the author posts digitized versions of handwritten manuscript pages. Epplin reads Chejfec through a rubric of wandering and ellipsis, with an ephemeral focus on the combination of writing and mapping that delineate the trajectories of the author's textual universe (104).
The final morphological structure is at once concrete and abstract: Pablo Katchadjian's vision of the late-book as database. According to Epplin, Katchadjian's late-book aesthetics lead the author to break his narrative texts into discrete units, and then manipulate those units as if they were cells in a data set. When the book becomes database, writing becomes algorithm (106-7); Epplin connects Katchadjian's "recombinant dynamic" (112) with Kenneth Goldsmith's uncreative writing and Lev Manovich's database aesthetic; in all cases, the writing algorithm becomes a process of assemblage. Katchadjian does not completely renounce his author-function, however, as proven by the lawsuit brought against him by the Borges' estate for his 'uncreative rewriting' of Borges' El Aleph.
Epplin's study presents a deep, engaged interpretation of one particular local manifestation of late book culture (although one wishes Epplin would have included the original Spanish-language quotations with his translations). Yet the virtue of depth comes at the sacrifice of breadth: while attempting to engage in aesthetic trends that unfold on a regional or even global scale, the study limits its considerations to one particular nation-state. Epplin certainly traces a tight constellation within that national stage, with Aira as its lodestar, but one wonders why the same technological, cultural, and material forces that give rise to late-book culture would stop short of challenging the nationalist paradigm for literary interpretation. As it stands, Epplin's monograph will be of interest to students and scholars of contemporary Argentine literature, and it will surely provide an important reference point for future comparative studies of global book culture and media-specific analysis.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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