John Beverley (Latin Americanist)

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John Randolph Beverley II is a literary and cultural critic who works at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies as well as an adjunct professor in the English and communication departments. He was influential in co-founding the Latin American subaltern studies[1] group as well as a founding member of the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

PhD, University of California at San Diego.

Visiting professor at Stanford University, University of California–San Diego, Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar, University of Minnesota, University of Washington.


No one who has read the work of John Beverley will doubt his importance as one of the most key U.S.-based Latin Americanist cultural and literary theorists of his generation. But what is the nature of that importance? Overall it is his commitment to revolutionary changes that would end the differences between rich and poor in Latin America and make a new and revolutionary democratic culture corresponding to the people’s economic and political democratic revolutions. It is this dual emphasis on democracy and the people--the workers, the masses, los de abajo, the multitude, and ultimately, his preferred designation, the subalter--that distinguishes his work as a Latin Americanist.

Born into a prosperous Anglo American family residing in South America, he became sensitive to the poverty and misery in which so many lived even as he had all the benefits of his class and caste. In this sense, his life goal has been to negate such differences. As a non-Hispanic student of Spanish literature, he gradually turned to Latin American themes, but always relating them to Spanish, but also U.S., European and worldwide concerns as he knew them more than most from his special point of enunciation. At Princeton and then at the University of California, San Diego, he focused on Spanish Peninsular literature with the likes of Américo Castro, Carlos Blanco Aguinaga, and Claudio Guillén; and he ventured to study with the young Fredric Jameson who was developing sophisticated methods for a rich Marxist approach to cultural and literary phenomena. The first result was a fine Marxist interpretation of Gongora’s Soledades as his dissertation and first book. But early on, the center of his interests began to drift from Spain to Latin America, impelled by the political hopes of the 60s and 70s and given weight by his application of his understanding of the Baroque to the development and structural situation of literature as a colonial and postcolonial institution in the Americas. Probably his early interest was spurred on by the dichotomy Américo Castro claimed existed in the Spanish literary tradition between state-centered officialist castizo structures and those emanating from converso and other trends helped lead him to examine the relation of literature to different social groups and structures of power. As a self-proclaimed Marxist and activist, he developed his literary work in relation to the Institute of Ideologies and Literatures in Minnesota, seeking to find progressive dimensions of literature and criticism that transcended state-centered powers of structure. That effort culminated in his Del Lazarillo a Sandinismo and his book with Marc Zimmerman, Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. But that book also marked the limit of his hopes in Latin America’s Marxism and in literature as he began to doubt the very social groups of letrados which both produced the area’s cultural leftism and even its most leftist literature. Already Beverley had written crucial texts on a form of literature which was in some ways anti-literature, the testimonio, a subject which becomes central to the question of popular representation in Literature and Politics. But along with his literary concerns came his growing suspicion that Latin America’s own ideological structures prevented the area's most progressive intellectuals from grasping their own reality--a position not received very favorably by his Latin American intellectual colleagues and friends. With the end of the cold war, the defeat of the Sandinistas and the full emergence of postmodern perspectives in Latin Americanist discourse, he produced a key collection called The Post-Modern Debate in Latin America. While working on that text, he along with Ileana Rodríguez and others, co-founded the Latin American Subaltern Studies group, seeking a new post-cold war/post-sandinista post/postmodedrn theorization of the relations between culture, literature and political possibility, which he and other members (following Ernesto Laclau and others involved in cultural studies theory, but above all the South Asian Subaltern studies Group—at first through Gayatri Spivack and then more directly through R. Guha and others) saw as centered not directly on social classes but on the social groups and movements that struggled for empowerment and expression in the Americas. A first articulation of his evolving views came with the publication of the provocative Against Literature, a transitional work which, from a subalternist perspective, poses literature and existing literary studies (even leftwing versions) as implicated in hegemonic modernization projects at odds with subaltern positions. This view, now developed in relation to developing Latin American cultural studies discourse and in relation to the full emergence of globalization as the new macro-narrative of the post-postmodern period, became the subject of Subalternity and Representation, which appeared in 1999. The Latin American subaltern group dissolved early in our new century, but Beverley has continued working, co-developing a Pittsburgh University Press book series called “Illuminations: Cultural Formations of the Americas,” publishing a new collection on Cuban literature, re-publishing his book with Hugo Achugar on testimonio, and completing his own definitive take on the theme, in Testimonio: The Politics of Truth (2004). Meanwhile he has kept abreast of all the polemics surrounding Latin American Cultural Studies in relation to globalization and the new lefts in Latin America, culminating in his recent volume, Latin Americanism after 9/11. This volume argues for a new situation for Latin America in the emerging global order, especially in view of Chavez, Evo Morales and the other new left figures which have emerged in recent years and have threatened older paradigms of left and right that circulated in previous decades. This small book is replete with acute analyses of the failed politics of Zapatismo, and the “neo-conservative turn” which he imputes to his arielist antagonists on the Latin American left. Beverley has always found the polemical edge to make his voice heard. He has been probably the major target of his friends and students seeking to up their cultural capital by mounting arguments against his views. At times depressed by the constant debates, but pleased ever to be part of them, he repeatedly speaks of ending his Latin Americanist effort, only to try again as he … keeps on rollin’ on.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Latin American Subaltern Studies Group". Retrieved 2011-04-01. 

List of works[edit]

"Latin Americanism after 9/11". (2014).

  • (ed.) From Cuba (2002)
  • (ed.) La voz del otro: Testimonio, subalternidad y verdad narrativa (new edition; 2002)
  • Subalternity and Representation, Arguments in Cultural Theory (1999)
  • Una modernidad obsoleta: estudios sobre el barroco (1998)
  • Against Literature (1993)
  • "Aspects of Gongora's 'Soledades'" (1980)
  • "Del Lazarillo al Sandinismo" (1987)
  • "Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions" (1990)