San Francisco State University
the social movements of the 1960s sought peace, love, and revolution,
the economic and political realities of the 1970s proved a grim specter
of those ideals. In the United States, the Vietnam War, oil crisis,
Watergate scandal, near-bankruptcy of New York City, and accelerating
inflation and economic stagnation contributed to an especially chaotic
decade. Five thousand miles to the south, Argentina was experiencing
severe political and economic crises, as shifting authoritarian regimes
were responsible for the
disappearance, torture, and
murder of thousands. Though different in their historical contexts,
the crises of these two nations were rooted in a period of transition
between industrial capitalism and globalized, information-driven postindustrial
capitalism. This critical move from modernity to postmodernity,
and its violent effects, are inextricable from the settings of William
Gaddis's J R (1975), a novel loosely about a young Long
Island boy who becomes president of a multinational corporation, and
Manuel Puig's El beso de la mujer araña
(Kiss of the Spider Woman)
(1976), a novel about the interactions between two men contained in
a Buenos Aires prison cell. Although neither text seems to share
much topical similarity on the surface, both highlight and problematize
the central roles of language and discourse in this hemispheric crisis
of postmodernity. A multiplicity of discourses—none of
which are absolutely dominant or permanently privileged over the others—forms
not only the subjectivities and speech of the novels' characters,
but also the overall formal and stylistic structures of the texts.
By reading these seemingly disparate novels in comparison, they reveal
how a multiplicity of discourses simultaneously forms the landscape
of postmodernity emerging in the western hemisphere during the 1970s
and is the means by which individuals can critique, subvert and survive
in the crisis of postmodernity.
A Brief Genealogy of the Postmodern Crisis
order to understand the ways in which the multiplicity of discourse
works in El beso de la mujer araña and J R, one
must reconcile what
postmodernity is and how it relates
to the historical conditions central to each text. Jean-François
Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge1,
one of the first writings on the subject, posits that because of economic
and cultural shifts since the end of the 1950s, "societies enter
what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known
as the postmodern age" (3). For Lyotard, the developed
nations' shift to postindustrial economies has produced a cultural
movement from modernity to postmodernity. Moreover, this transition
shifts power structures away from state apparatuses toward "new
forms of the circulation of capital that go by the generic name of
multinational corporation" that ultimately control the exchange
of knowledge (Lyotard 5). Unlike in the economies of industrial
capitalism, in which capital and commodity production are based in a
single nation, private, boundary-less entities based on exchanging
knowledge form the foundation of postindustrialism. Although he
fails to take into account the many social and political implications
of the transition, Lyotard does begin to shed light on how a shift toward
postindustrialism inevitably shifts the value and exchange of knowledge
in the cultural sphere.
Though Lyotard's work meets much criticism for not fully accounting
for postmodernity's economic, political, and cultural effects,
he does succeed in bringing the issue to the forefront of theoretical
debates. In Fredric Jameson's foreword to the English translation
of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard's work meets one
of its most ardent critics. With his highly politicized Marxist
critique of Lyotard, Jameson helps fill in the gaps for our working
definition of postmodernity as he challenges the many ways in which
Lyotard fails to fully recognize the social, political, and economic
factors—especially those of exploitation and class struggle—that
drive postmodern societies. Moreover, Jameson states that the
underpinning ethic of Lyotard's work "was not at all a
revolutionary one, but a way of surviving under capitalism, producing
fresh desires within the structural limits of the capitalist mode of
production" (Foreword xviii). Here, Jameson critiques Lyotard's
work as an apolitical description of postmodernity rather than a theory
that could help reverse its alienating and repressive effects.
For Jameson, the cultural postmodernism that accompanies postmodernity
(which he calls late-capitalism) is the development of a widespread
cultural logic that "has forgotten how to think historically
in the first place" and is rooted in "a whole new wave
of American military and economic domination" between the end
of World War II and 1973 (Postmodernism xviiii-xx). In
other words, Jameson attributes a global ahistoricism—one that
he suggests Lyotard slips into—to the postmodernity that American
imperialism helped create. In effect, his critique historicizes
and politicizes Lyotard's description of the postmodern, more
concretely developing the political and economic contexts for the transition
from high capitalism to late-capitalism, from modernity to postmodernity.
Jameson's added political dimension, the motivations for using
crisis of postmodernity to signal the historical
contexts of the 1970s becomes more apparent. As Jameson argues,
postmodernity's material effects of repression, violence, and
exploitation are not only very real but are also bound to the transition
to late-capitalism. Whereas the conservative economist
Daniel Bell saw postmodernity as responsible for the crisis of contemporary
capitalism (qtd. in Huyssen 132), through Lyotard's and Jameson's
work we find that it is the other way around: that the economic and
political shifts to contemporary capitalism are responsible for the
crisis of postmodernity. Citing the
great shock of the
crises of 1973 —the oil crisis, the end of the international
the end of the great wave of and the
the end of traditional communism,— Jameson describes
the infrastructural conditions of contemporary capitalism that brought
about the postmodern crises that are represented throughout J R
and El beso de la mujer araña
(Postmodernism xx). However, this crisis played out differently
in both contexts, and in order to effectively understand how discourses
operate in each novel, one must first historicize the political and
economic trajectories of New York and Buenos Aires.
described by its inhabitants in passing as a
mugre de celda
filthy cell )2, the setting of
Puig's text is precisely the kind of repressive condition to
which Jameson refers. These conditions in Argentina are continually
at the fringes of the novel in its references to the political turmoil
that spanned from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Political
economist William C. Smith suggests that during the constant fluctuation
of authoritarian regimes in the 1970s, "the political sphere—where
struggles for power among rival leaders, social forces, and institutional
actors were played out— "acquired an extraordinary autonomy and
logic of its own" (14). What Smith views as autonomous
political logic is a logic effected by Argentina's shift toward
postmodernity, a logic that was not autonomous but one that came about
from the authoritarian regimes' attempt to resist the forces
of a globalized marketplace and revert to the state capitalism of Argentina's
agro-industrial past. Smith describes, in attempting to
logic of transnationalization of markets and production
and the call
for greater integration with the world-economy,
these regimes found their own perils and were regularly deposed (187).
Ultimately, the main problem for these regimes was their resistance
to the inevitable shift in political and economic logics: from nation-based
to globalized industrial economies; from state-capitalism to
free-market late-capitalism; in short, from modernity
to postmodernity. Argentina's official state discourse
had few qualms in stating their solution to those who did not support
the authoritarian policies. For example, General Luciano Menéndez
acknowledged that his regime was "going to have to kill 50,000
people: 25,000 subversives, 20,000 sympathizers, and we will make 5,000
mistakes" (qtd. in Smith 232, sic). In a nation whose political
ideologies ranged from revolutionary Marxism to conservative Peronism,
these authoritarian regimes blatantly and explicitly resorted to the
logic and discourse of repression in their attempts to maintain power.
Unfortunately for the citizens of Argentina, this logic created the
disappearance, torture, and murder.
In El beso de la mujer araña, these repressive means to a political
end are never far from the text's surface, though its protagonists
Valentín—a Marxist revolutionary—and Molina—a
homosexual imprisoned for the
corrupción de minores
(Puig 151) (
corruption of minors )—are
constantly trying to escape them. Not only do the
(Puig 281) (
brutality) of the third degree burns Valentín
receives from his torturer and the prison warden's coercive attempts
to make Molina poison his cellmate exemplify these repressive conditions,
but the very underlying premise of the text does so as well: both cellmates
are imprisoned under awfully unlawful circumstances. In his biography
of Puig, Jonathan Tittler connects this repressive political logic to
Puig's own reaction to these historical circumstances, citing
the novel as Puig's response to the "brutal military governments
whose repressive regimes tended to curtail or abolish entirely freedom
of speech and of the press, not to mention their engagement in acts
of torture, rape, pillage and the like" (51). As Santiago
Colás points out, even as Puig was writing the novel in self-exile,
the period of democratic government from 1973 to 1976 was a "no-less-fearsome
period of semi-official state sanctioned terrorism" (76).
From Puig's biographical circumstances, Argentina's historical
situation, and the textual references, we see that El beso de la mujer araña
is inextricably connected to the repressive
conditions created to suppress Argentinean citizens during the transition
Puig's novel, Gaddis's J R is also embedded in
the context of a postmodern crisis during the 1970s. Unlike El beso de la mujer araña,
the crisis in J R is in
the transition from American economic hegemony to a multinational heterogeneity.
Here, the political and economic landscape of what John Johnston calls
run away late-capitalist system was not so
much appallingly violent as it was farcically absurd (169). At
this time, the United States was in a major state of economic and political
transition: the idealistic movements of the sixties were replaced by
stagflation, the oil crisis, and the political
debacles of Vietnam and Watergate (Lankevich 214). As America's
financial nexus, New York found itself in an even greater predicament.
Not only was crime rampant throughout the city, but the institution
charged with keeping order in the city, the New York Police Department,
was so corrupt that its way to stay out of trouble was "to do
nothing" (Bratton and Kelling 1225). At the top of the
city's problems was its debt, or rather, the repercussions from
the city government's
creative accounting (Lankevich
214). The imminence of the city's bankruptcy during 1974
seemed of little concern to President Ford or Treasury Secretary William
Simon, even as
chaos in New York City ensued (Lankevich
218). Jameson's marking of the end of the "American
Century" in 1973 is apparent here (Postmodernism 5): by
1974, New York City, the nexus of international stock trading, Fortune
500 companies, and commercial capital, was buckling under the economic
and political crises of the postmodernity it helped create. The
heterogeneity of language that constitutes J R reflects and mimics
this chaotic historical context, inextricable from the crisis of America's
shifting economic system.
historicizing the postmodern conditions to which these texts constantly
refer, we can see that both novels mark what Nicholas Spencer terms
space of crisis that the transition to postmodernity
helped bring on (Spencer 194). As Jameson states, language is
inherently connected to this transitional
space of crisis
of postmodernity: "The advanced capitalist countries today are
now a field of stylistic and discursive heterogeneity without a norm.
Faceless masters continue to inflect the economic strategies which constrain
our existences, but they no longer need to impose their speech"
(Postmodernism 17). In other words, the heterogeneity of
discourse constitutes the landscape of postmodernity where economic
and political realities are played out. In addition, Jameson states
faceless masters, who control this landscape,
have no need of speech. Yet, as J R
and El beso de la mujer araña show, the
discourse is just one among a multiplicity of discourses, one that must
also compete for power and privilege. Both present this multiplicity
on two different axes: the heterogeneity of language that structures
the novels and the hybridity that forms the individual characters'
language. Mikhail Bakhtin describes this hybridity—two
discourses within one character's speech—as heteroglossia,
an utterance that belongs, by its grammatical (syntactic) and
compositional markers, to a single speaker, but that actually contains
mixed within it two utterances, two speech manners, two styles, two
(306). To use Linda Hutcheon's
term, both novels use heteroglossia and heterogeneity in order to
languages, two semantic and axiological belief systems
without formal boundaries
the discourses that shape, mediate, and dominate individuals in this
critical transition (2). This heteroglossia brings into question
the role of discourse in the contemporary postmodern landscape.
Postmodernity, or, the
Crisis of Discourse
into the second half of J R, the image of a child-like figure
locked behind a dollar sign marks Gaddis's use of heterogeneous
and hybrid discourse in the novel. As one of eight logos proposed
for the J R Family of Corporations, the multinational corporate empire
built by the eleven-year-old Long Island schoolboy, the
image is one of the many facsimiles that add to the novel's textual
heterogeneity. The emblem signifies two very different discursive
ideologies: the image is a corporate advertisement, and it marks the
novel's bitingly satirical critique of American late-capitalism.
In the latter sense, the image signifies the dominance of money over
the individual subject (perhaps the child-like figure represents J R),
as well as the language of money's dominance over individuals:
the dollar sign is itself a signifier, a sign of the discourse that
propagates capitalism, a discourse that Gaddis presents as confining
to the individual. Yet Davidoff, the corporate executive pitching
the logos, does not seem to catch the image's heteroglossic quality:
"some of them a little off target see the deadline pressure the
agency boys were under [. . .] wanted to stress the profit motif without
hitting you over the head with it name of the game after all something
patriotic about the dollar sign" (Gaddis 537, sic). Davidoff,
like the rest of the capitalists, lawyers, consultants, and advertisers
in J R, is ignorant of the subversive irony of the image—he
only perceives it in the context of the image's hybrid languages.
He does not see the logo
hit one over the head with
a poignant critique of America's—especially New York's—chaotic
and almost patriotic preoccupation with profit. In its heteroglossia,
the image is simultaneously the language of late-capitalism
as well as the language against late-capitalism. From this
logo, there are neither naturally dominant discourses nor any absolute
contexts in which one can interpret those discourses.
problem is compounded by the fact that even the narration cannot provide
sufficient context for the reader despite its hulking 726 pages of text.
The vast majority of J R's radically constructed text
is unmarked dialogue, leaving the few bits of narrative content to only
briefly hold power over the rest of the text. This style makes
the novel exceptional difficult to read, for in those brief moments
of narrative discourse, the third person narration always interrupts
one character's speech and is interrupted and subsumed by another
give a God damn where you go, he came down one curb, up
the next bumped left, right by elbows, muzzled umbrellas,
a yellow fender, finally through the whirl of a revolving door [. .
.] shaken by the abrupt departure of an expanse of print dress
for the next booth with the hasty removal of an earring, the clatter
of the door. -Hello . . .? I'm calling a Mister Bast,
is this his. . . (Gaddis 251, narration italicized)3
This nightmarish journey exemplifies
the narration's sole function of bringing the reader from one
discursive interchange to another. J R's narrative discourse
continually fails to provide narrative's traditional purpose
of context for the undifferentiated speech that governs the text.
The impossibility or perhaps endlessness of contextualization follows
Jacques Derrida's assertion that
every linguistic sign
[. . .] can be cited, put between quotation marks; thereby it
can break with every given context (320). Gaddis's
failing narration mimics Derrida's problematization of context
as the novel continually highlights how discourses break with their
context. As a result, the narration itself becomes folded into
J R's heterogeneous landscape of postmodernity—it
is just one voice competing amongst a throng of others.
problem of narratable context is different in El beso de la mujer araña,
though it still falls into the heterogeneous
struggle for discursive power. In Puig's text, the protagonists
continually struggle for the powerful and privileged position of narrator
(Kerr 197). Early on, during one of Molina's escapist film
narrations, Valentín interrupts his cellmate's speech
to poke fun at the film's B-grade plot. Molina snaps
Si te vas a reir no sigo (
are going to laugh I won't go on), to which Valentín
No, me gusta
la película, pero es que vos te divertís contándola
y por ahí también yo quiero intervenir un poco, ¿te
das cuenta? No soy un tipo que sepa escuchar demasiado, ¿sabés,
no?, y de golpe me tengo que estarte escuchando callado horas.
(No, I like the picture, but
you have the fun of telling it and I just want to chime in
once in a while too, see what I mean? I am not the type who knows how
to sit around and just listen all the time, you get what I mean? And
all of a sudden I have to sit quiet listening to you for hours
on end. )
Here, the tension between Molina's anger at his cellmate's interruption along with Valentín's jealousy of his cellmate's narrative authority rise to the surface of the text. This tension between the two characters' desire for verbal power continually comes up in the first half of the text.
Molina, well aware that speech begets power, leaves Valentín in suspense during one of his narrations:
Sí, pero seguí un poco más. Un poquito no más, me gusta sacarte el dulce en lo mejor, así te gusta más la película (Puig 23) (
Okay, but go on a little more. A little bit, no more, I like to leave you hanging, that way you enjoy the film more ). By shifting from a desire to narrate to a desire to suspend narration, Molina attempts to overpower Valentín's thought by giving him something more pleasurable to ponder than his political magazines. Not long after this scene, Valentín attempts to empower his own discourse by suspending narration, stating to Molina,
es que no te quiero cargar con informaciones que es mejor que no las tengas (Puig 41) (
I'd rather not saddle you with any information you're better off not having ). While Valentín is partially looking out for Molina's safety, he is also making a claim for authority, informing Molina that his discourse has something vital the other's does not, just as Molina attempts to assert his own discourse's power to escape from their repressive conditions. These constant claims to power through narration or withholding narration reveals that the heterogeneity of discourse includes the shifting power relations between these discourses.
While the struggle of discursive authority between Molina and Valentín is controlled and acute, the chaotic and overwhelming desire to dominate speech in J R completely envelops the text. In the scene where J R's class buys the one note Diamond Corporation's stock that begins the schoolboy's obsession with capitalism, the ebb and flow of discourses show that none are privileged over the others for very long:
Four different types of discourse chaotically spew forth here: a public relations video (in italics), the school children's questions (the second, third, and fourth lines), Davidoff's corporate executive spiel (the fifth and seventh lines), and the narration (interrupting the fifth line). Meant to brighten the image of Diamond's otherwise ecological and social exploitation, the video is disregarded by the students whose own voices attempt to drown out each other's in the exciting commotion of the corporate boardroom. During Davidoff's speech, the narration cuts in briefly, highlighting the students'
of industrial ingenuity rising like a glittering peak above the surface, for like the iceberg . . .
Hey didn't we already see this movie someplace?
We getting tested on this Mrs Joubert?
Like remember where that tree's falling right on top of you like?
All right boys and girls? or should I say Diamond shareowners, begging your pawdon . . . down the length of walnut his truckling glittered beneath expressions of intent vacancy. [. . .] you're the owners aren't you? The rest of us only work here, we work for you and all the other shareowners running your company exactly the way you want it run . . .
Today, the riches which belong to us all . . .
that you and your other fellow Americans no longer play a passive part in our nation's great economy, Carol . . . ? [. . .]
wedding of the grand alliance of technological knowhow and free enterprise syssssrrrrp (Gaddis 105-06, sic)
intent vacancy at his rhetoric. This vacancy is not only one of disinterest but one that subverts Davidoff's attempts to interpellate the students as fellow capitalists. Davidoff himself is disinterested in the students' questions as he rambles on regardless of the competition from the video and the questions from the
shareowners. Since no voice dominates or even communicates in J R's
collage of discourses, as Johnston observes, this sceneand the entire noveldescends into the chattering white noise of late-capitalist, postmodern verbal exchange (162). Unlike the conscious mediation and discussion of discursive power in Valentín and Molina's cell, Diamond's corporate meeting room is Gaddis's portrait of the postmodern landscape: a free-market, laissez faire exchange of discourse where the insatiable desire to speak eliminates any use-value of communication whatsoever.
Although El beso de la mujer araña never quite descends into J R's type of white noise, its collage of discourses grappling for authority extends beyond the protagonists' dialogue. Besides the contest between Molina and Valentín for the power of narration, other forms of discourse compose the text's heterogeneous structure: stream-of-consciousness dream sequences, recorded exchanges between the Warden and Molina, official surveillance documentation, even a grocery list. The most notable and unusual discourse vying for power is found in the nine footnotes that sprawl along the bottom of the novel's pages and interrupt the story's progression with their survey of academic and psychoanalytic scholarship on homosexuality. As Colás points out, by citing such authorities on human sexuality as Sigmund Freud, Herbert Marcuse, and Kate Millett, the annotations
draw our attention away from the cell for pages at a time, creating an illusion of self-sufficiency and autonomy from its reality (91). By citing academic authority, the annotations attempt to assert their own power over the text and affirm their own autonomous validity for the reader. The final note, however, undermines any claim to authority when it takes onand quite literally makes upa character of its own:
Aquí es conveniente señelar los trabajos recientes de la doctora danesa Anneli Taube, como Sexualidad y revolución (209) (
It is appropriate here to note a recent work of the Danish doctor Anneli Taube, Sexuality and Revolution ). Unlike all of the other information in the footnotes, Dr. Taube and her work do not exist; they are fiction. Here, the notes seem aware of their failures to take an autonomous and privileged position and therefore resort to citing a false authority in order to reassert their power.
Paradoxically, as these notes make their claim for authority, they reveal the crucial fact that no discourse in El beso de la mujer araña can maintain a privileged positionthe problem of this multiplicity of discourses is one of power. Jonathan Tittler indicates that the notes
emphasize the relativity of all ideologies and discourses, and as a result effect an
equitable redistribution of forces over the entire field (55, 62). Lucille Kerr takes this notion even further:
the discursive, narrative, and formal heterogeneity of [Puig's] work has a democratizing effect within each text. This heterogeneity disallows the possibility of assigning more importance or granting more authority to one type of discourse or device than to another (9). If the text's heterogeneity of discourse has a
democratizing effect, this effect is inherently subversive to Argentina's authoritarian governments, which exhibited Foucault's notion of
logophobiaa fear of the heterogeneous and democratic
mass of discourse (229)to such extremes that they sought to appropriate their own power through violence, oppression, and the control of discourse. For these regimes, like all authoritarian institutions, the democratic exchange of ideas could only undermine their authority. Through its
democratizing effect, Puig's heterogeneity of discourse subverts the authoritarian attempt to dominate Argentinean subjects and speech4.
The heterogeneity that occurs within each character's speechtheir heteroglossiais the other axis on which the texts present and critique the historical crisis of postmodernity. J R most clearly demonstrates how multiple discourses speak through him:
I mean this here bond and stock stuff you don't see anybody you don't know anybody [ . . . ] you can be this here funny lookingest person that lives in a toilet someplace how do they know [ . . . ] they don't give a shit whose [stock] it is they're just selling it back and forth for some voice that told them on the phone why should they give a shit if you're a hundred and fifty . . . (Gaddis 172, sic)
Here, Gaddis shows how corporate language forms a substantial part of J R's subjectivity and speech. In these explanations of how the stock market works, how disconnected the exchange of capital has become through technology, J R proves he understands the cold, impersonal realities of late-capitalism better than anyone else, yet he is subsumed by its discourse and is obsessed with its logic. J R's hybrid speech also reflects his childish language of the playground. Even with no textual markers to signal who is speaking, the reader cannot mistake J R's mixture of capitalist language and that of an eleven-year-old boy whose favorite expression is
Holy shit, mister! Since it suggests that an eleven-year-old can manipulate its logic, the heteroglossia of these two discourses is inherently ironic and critical of late-capitalism; however, it also shows neither discourse fully dominates J R's speech.
Unlike the ironic and unconscious heteroglossia that forms J R's discourse, both Jack Gibbs and Mr. Whiteback are completely conscious of their own heteroglossia. Whiteback, J R's elementary school principle and the president of a local bank, speaks in the hybridity of empty political correctness and jargony tautologies of his professions, using language like,
in terms of tangibilitating the full utilization potential of in-school television and
Yes well of course we ahm, communityrelationswise that is to say Vern [. . .] (Gaddis 39, 220, sic). Gibbs, J R's schoolteacher and a writer who also has the ability to consciously utilize his heteroglossia, picks up on Whiteback's double-speak and asks,
speak of tangibilitating unplanlessness where'd you pick up that language, Whiteback? to which Whiteback responds,
You, you have to speak it when you talk to them (Gaddis 50, emphasis added, sic). Whiteback's assertion confirms the necessity of speaking in multiple discourses, especially in the late-capitalist realms of public relations and human resources. Not only does Whiteback
exemplify the confusion and disorder generated by competing modes of discourse, as Stephen Matanle argues (114), but he is completely conscious of his instrumental use of multiple discourses (even though he uses them rather poorly). Showing his prowess at switching between discourses in one scene, Gibbs, who employs heteroglossia to get him out of his own predicaments, begins rambling in German on a train to get sympathy from the conductor and to avoid the fact that he cannot afford the fare (Gaddis 242-43). For these characters, who are at opposite ideological poles, utilizing a multiplicity of languages is their survival mechanism. This use of heterogeneity and heteroglossia echoes Jameson's argument that postmodernism is a way of surviving the crisis of late-capitalism. While neither Gibbs nor Whiteback are the revolutionaries that Jameson might commend, Gaddis shows the necessity of hybrid language in order to function and survive under these chaotic postmodern conditions.
For Molina and Valentín, heteroglossia is not only a means of survival, it marks each character's growth and movement beyond subscribing to a single discourse and ideology. Early in the novel and in the protagonists' friendship, Valentín blatantly defines his dominating ideological perspective:
El gran placer es otro, el de saber que estoy al servicio de lo más noble, que es . . . bueno. . . todos mis ideas.[. . .] el marxismo (Puig 33) (
The greatest pleasure's something else, it's knowing that I've put myself in the service of what's truly noble, I mean . . . well . . . a certain ideology [. . .] my ideals . . . Marxism ). Valentín has no interest in any other perspectives; he claims Marxist discourse as his only language. Likewise, at the beginning of the text Molina speaks exclusively in the stereotypical
feminine discourse articulated in contemporary movies, magazines, and popular songsa discourse that Molina purposely adopts in order to subjugate himself to more
masculine males (Imoro 195). For Molina, the political theories of Marxist discourse are uninteresting and irrelevant hogwash, just as Molina's film plots are to Valentín. However, as their relationship grows, each character develops and internalizes the other's discourse. Molina eventually participates in political acts of subversion while Valentín revels in the escapism of popular culture. The adoption of another's language, of coming into heteroglossia, mediates not just their speech and thoughts but their own conceptions of identity:
me pareció que yo no estaba [. . .] O que yo no era yo. Que ahora yo . . . eras vos (Puig 222) (
It seemed as if I wasn't here at all [. . .] or like I wasn't me anymore. As if now, somehow . . . I . . . were you ). Paralleling the sexual intercourse between the two inmates, the intercoursing of two distinct discourses and ideologies within Molina leads to his identity crisis, a crisis in which he finds contentment and escapes temporarily from the harsh realities surrounding him. Valentín, who also feels the shift into heteroglossia, completes Molina's sentence and pinpoints the positive feeling that has come from their exchanges:
pero que se siente . . . . . . fuera de peligro (238) (
but someone who feels . . . . . . out of danger ). This heteroglossia that develops during the exchanges between Molina and Valentín,
another's speech in another's language as Bakhtin puts it (304), is a way for them to escape their prison cell and temporarily transcend their oppressive realities. In each other and each other's language, Puig's protagonists come to reject a single, dominant discourse and subvert the institutional authority that seeks to keep their discourses controlled, contained, and separate. Like Gibbs and Whiteback, a multiplicity of discourses allows the protagonists in El beso de la mujer araña to find solace in each other and to survive, at least for the moment, under the harsh conditions brought on by their region's transition to postmodernity.
Unfortunately, literary critics have barely touched on the heteroglossia and heterogeneity of discourse in J R and El beso de la mujer araña. In spite of that, in this paper I have attempted to shift attention to these axes of language in order to demonstrate the key role discourse plays in Puig's and Gaddis's presentation of postmodernity and their criticism of its effects. Through this shift in reading we find that each novel paradoxically presents the multiplicity of discourse both as the problem of postmodernity as well as its possible solution. On the one hand, the discursive heterogeneity and heteroglossia form the postmodern landscape in which those absurd and violent conditions occur. In this sense, heterogeneity is the postmodern reality. On the other hand, the democratizing effect of this multiplicity and heteroglossia gives the hope of at least surviving in the crisis of late-capitalism. Leaving this paradox for the reader to sort out, both texts present discoursethe language of institutions and ideologies that is at once produced and producing, controlled and controllingto be the medium through which late-capitalism and postmodernity operate. These novels emphasize the central role of language in postmodernity, a role that neither Lyotard nor Jameson sufficiently explore in their descriptions and critiques of the postmodern. In a world where information is the most valuable commodity and the fate of entire economies can be printed on the letterhead of a multinational financial institution, how could postmodernity and late-capitalism be rooted in anything other than language? Both texts show that in postmodernity, power and language go hand-in-hand: discourse is power; power is discourse. By raising the question of language, of how we use discourse and how discourse uses us, this proposed shift in reading these novels ultimately suggests that if we are to survive, thrive, or make change in our postmodern society, we must be conscious of the discursive power pulsing through each of us, for the postmodern crisis of the 1970s is not far from our own political and economic realities.
Interestingly enough, Raymond Leslie Williams points out that the Spanish translation of Lyotard's work, La condición posmoderna,
was a bestseller in Buenos Aires in July of 1991. Williams also
suggests that this probably never happened with Lyotard's work in any
other country and that the "redemocratization" of Argentina in 1983
brought about the cultural conditions necessary for such a fascination
with the postmodern (69). |
All bracketed English translations ofEl beso de la mujer araña with page citations come from Thomas Colchie's translation, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Bibliographic information can be found in the Works Cited under Puig. I have translated where there are no page citations.
Unless denoted with brackets, all ellipses are reproduced from the original texts
Like many texts from this era, El beso de la mujer araña, was officially banned when it was published until after Argentina's return to democracy in 1983 (Gutmann and D'EMilio 216).
Discourse in the Novel. The Dialogic Imagination: Four
Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emersen and
Michael Holquist. Austin: Texas UP, 1981. 259-422.
Bratton, William J. and Kelling, George L.
Declining Crime Rates: Insiders'
The Journal of Criminal Law
Views of the New York City Story.
and Criminology. 88.4 (1998): 1217-1232.
Colás, Santiago. Postmodernity in Latin America: The Argentine Paradigm.
Durham: Duke UP, 1994.
Signature Event Context. Margins of Philosophy. 1972.
Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1982. 307-30.
Gutmann, Matthew C. and D'Emilio, John C. Changing Men and Masculinities in
Latin America. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
The Discourse on Language. The Archaeology of Knowledge
and The Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon, 1972. 215-38.
Gaddis, William. J R. New York: Penguin, 1975.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 1989.
Mapping the Postmodern. A Postmodern Reader. Ed.
Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. New York: NY State UP, 1993.
Imoro, Peter Tupawuni. Cultura e ideología en cuatro novelas de Manuel Puig.
Editorial Pliegos, 2006.
Jameson, Fredric. Foreword. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge. 1979.Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi.
Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1984. vii-xxii.
---. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke
J R and the Flux of Capital. Revue fran�çois d'études
américaines. 15 (1990): 161-71.
Kerr, Lucille. Suspended Fictions: Reading Novels by Manuel Puig. Chicago:
Illinois UP, 1987.
Lankevich, George J. American Metropolis: A History of New York City.
New York: New York UP, 1998.
Lyotard, Jean-Franç�ois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
1979. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis:
Minnesota UP, 1984.
Matanle, Stephen H.
Love and Strife in William Gaddis' J R. In Recognition
of William Gaddis. Ed. John Kuehl and Steven Moore. New York:
Syracuse UP, 1984. 106-18.
Puig, Manuel. El beso de la mujer araña. Barcelona: Seix-Barral, 1976.
---. Kiss of the Spider Woman. 1976. Trans. Thomas Colchie. New York:
Smith, William C. Authoritarianism and the Crisis of the Argentine Political
Economy. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989.
J R's Transition to Postmodernity. Paper Empire: William
Gaddis and the World System. Ed. Joseph Tabbi and Rone Shavers.
Tuscaloosa: Alabama UP, 2007. 149-83.
Tittler, Jonathan. Manuel Puig . New York: Twayne, 1993.
Williams, Raymond Leslie. The Postmodern Novel in Latin America: Politics,
Culture, and the Crisis of Truth . New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Back to top