Thursday, May 28, 2015


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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My 15 minutes, one year later

My latest column for Inside Higher Ed updates my viral essay from March 2014 about the job market, and asks us to use a bit of Rawls to think about our fate:
And for those of us who do (or will, in my case) have the privilege of working as part of an increasingly rare model that supports our activity as researchers, I have increasingly found myself thinking about what we do and do not deserve, in the manner of the philosopher John Rawls. For Rawls, we cannot possibly deserve our lot in life. This is for many reasons: our skills and attitudes depend on accidents of birth and parentage, for example. More fundamentally, the qualities that we happen to possess are (or are not) valued in certain ways by our particular social arrangement at our particular point in time.
Rawls, famously, suggests that we should design a just society from behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing which position in it we will occupy after our birth. Under these conditions, Rawls thinks, we would grant everyone basic rights, and those inequalities that exist would exist only insofar as they benefited those least well-off. It would be hard to argue, looking only at the system of higher education employment that we have today, that it would meet any kind of Rawlsian standard of justice.
Those of us who have had good fortune to be on the tenure track need to be humble about our luck. We have indeed worked hard for our position, so it can be difficult to feel that we don’t deserve it. But the number of astonishingly talented people who also deserve what we have should shame us from such feelings. We are not behind a veil of ignorance, and we cannot build a new order from scratch. But we should make sure that we are attentive to ways that we can use our positions to improve conditions for those who are least well-off. We cannot deserve our privilege, and they deserve no less.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Review of Deborah Cohn's "The Latin American Literary Boom"

A review I wrote of Deborah Cohn's The Latin American Literary Boom and U.S. Nationalism during the Cold War that will appear in the journal The Latin Americanist.

If the search for the great (North) American novel goes on, the great Latin American novel was thought discovered in 1970. That was the year that the English translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude appeared and became a sensation in the English-speaking world. It was the second work by a Latin American writer to make the New York Times bestseller list (after Jorge Amado’s Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon), and it represented the height of the “boom” in Latin American letters. The literature of the boom generation, for good and for ill, continues to provide readers from around the world with metaphors and points of reference for understanding Latin American politics, society, and history. But, as Deborah Cohn argues in this subtle and rewarding book, the boom happened neither precisely by accident nor by design. It was the complex result of multiple factors, including the work of Spanish publishing houses and literary agents, the solidarity of a small group of talented Latin American writers, the international appeal of the Cuban Revolution, and the Cold War politics of institutions and foundations in the United States.

It is the U.S. Cold War politics of the boom that are the primary subject of Cohn’s book, and they form a particularly rich vein for thinking through problems of cultural transmission. Most of the authors of the boom were resolutely left-wing—sympathizers and defenders of the Cuban Revolution. García Márquez would be famous for his decades-long friendship with Fidel Castro. And many of the novels of the boom explored the decadence of the Latin American bourgeoisie and had clear anti-capitalist interpretations. Yet U.S.-based foundations and organizations with anti-revolutionary Cold War outlooks contributed to making the boom possible. As Cohn writes, “Latin American literature’s circulation in the United States thus paradoxically benefited from both hegemonic and anti-hegemonic forces—that is, from endeavors that stemmed from commitments to anti-revolutionary and revolutionary politics alike.” (4)

To make the argument, Cohn moves through investigations of a number of institutions that had Cold War agendas at work in the background but were made into something more complex than that by their participants. She begins with a description of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which denied visas to foreigners with suspected ties to Communism, a provision that caused intermittent problems for many Latin American writers. The subsequent three chapters cover the meeting of International P.E.N. in New York in 1966, the growth of Latin American literature studies in U.S. universities in the 1960s, the translations sponsored by grants from the Association of American University Presses, and the Ford- and Rockefeller-funded Center for Inter-American Relations (CIAR). The foundations that sponsored these organizations had Cold War objectives—P.E.N. even received some money from CIA fronts.

But in all cases, Cohn weaves complex arguments about the consequences of institutional action, seeing less capacity for ideological control than previous scholars who have examined related topics. The P.E.N. meeting, for example, was a key moment for various Latin American writers, many of them on the left, to meet each other and consolidate the connections that sustained the “boom” as a community. And the CIAR, similarly, promoted left-wing writers and perspectives. In Cohn’s words, “Cold War efforts to neutralize the Communist threat motivated public and private support for the cultural production of a region of great political interest to the United States, creating a space for authors associated with the rising tide of Marxism in Latin America and, by extension, for the expression and dissemination in their works of the ideology that the state was trying to eradicate.” (149)

This is an admirably subtle, and, in my view, convincing argument. But perhaps it is not as surprising as it first appears: both the Ford and Rockefeller foundations were going through politically progressive moments in the late 1960s and 1970s, and practiced some “self-criticism” regarding their sponsorship of earlier “Cold War” projects. Emir Rodríguez Monegal, who edited the magazine Review for CIAR for a time, was fresh off of the exposure of the CIA connections of his previous effort—the infamous Mundo Nuevo—and was eager to demonstrate that he had been an independent socialist all along. And it is not clear that the “boom” literature would always read to North American audiences as “Marxist”—as Cohn points out, modernist literary techniques that were widely used by “boom” writers like Gárcia Márquez were associated with anti-Communist politics in the United States, though not in Latin America. But Cohn’s book is an important and rewarding study that should be of interest to scholars from multiple disciplines, and even to those outside Latin American studies who work on Cold War institutions. She has succeeded in making the politics of the boom simultaneously more complex, and more intelligible.