Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Graffiti and the Poetics of Politics in Rosas's Argentina (1829-1852)

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Graffiti and the Poetics of Politics in Rosas's Argentina (1829-1852)

Article excerpt

In the Andean province of San Juan, Argentina, there is a stone monument that reads On ne tue point les idées. It is a durable simulacrum of the defiant, hasty scrawl that Domingo Faustino Sarmiento recalls in the "Advertencia" that opens Civilización y barbarie, vida de Facundo Quiroga y aspecto fisico, costumbres y hábitos de la República Argentina (1845). In a larger sense, the lapidary inscription is an emblem of the equally longstanding tendency to monumentalize Sarmiento and his fellow letrados of the so-called Generation of 1837 as the originators of a national literature and the architects of a mod- ern nation-state. The commemoration of these authors and their works pro- motes the received idea that Argentine nation-building, in the context of Spanish America, was an exceptional process. At the core of this myth of exceptionality is the belief that "el progreso argentino es la encamación en el cuerpo de la nación de lo que comenzó por ser un proyecto formulado en los escritos de algunos argentinos cuya única arma era su superior clarividencia" (Halperín Donghi 8). Concretely, it identifies the resistance to the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas (1829-1852) as the crucible of modern nationhood.1 In this context, the opening of Facundo serves as the point of departure for an entire intellectual tradition; it becomes an origin that "makes possible a field of knowledge whose function is to recover it" (Foucault 143).

On ne tue point les idées demarcates, thus, a nationalist discourse whose boundaries remain relatively stable and impermeable. Such a reading reinforces the basic thesis of Facundo that Spanish-American society is starkly divided between two incompatible modes of existence, between civilization and barbarism. In Ricardo Piglia's words, this opposition "se cristaliza en el contraste entre quienes pueden y quienes no pueden leer esa frase (que es una cita) escrita en otro idioma" ("Notas sobre Facundo" 15). The binary logic collapses, however, as soon as it becomes apparent that the phrase is a paraphrase or misquotation, which Sarmiento erroneously attributes to Hippolyte Fortoul. Drawing on Paul Groussac and Paul Verdvoye, Piglia argues that the saying does not serve as a shibboleth, but rather articulates the "double bond" of Argentine literature: "on the one hand, its relation to political discourse; on the other, its relation to foreign forms and genres of an already autonomous fiction" ("Sarmiento the Writer" 131). Sarmiento's ersatz erudition makes it impossible to fetishize the meaning of the quote; ideas may be untouchable, but they cannot transcend their utterance. The generative force of on ne tue point les idées resides in its dislocation, in a narrative that depicts it as hurriedly etched in charcoal beneath the crest of the nation. Though the gesture epitomizes the desire to constitute an independent literary field, it also reveals a conflictive relationship with the public discourse of Rosas's Argentine Confederation, a body of writing that literary and cultural studies have traditionally ignored. In other words, while the scrawl that opens Facundo puts into relief the fissures that divided the political field, the histrionic act also reveals the common discursive space that made these oppositions mutually intelligible.

This intervention proposes to reconsider the function of writing in the struggle for national organization in mid- nineteenth-century Argentina by rereading the opening of Facundo not as a misquotation, but as graffiti. It thus situates Sarmiento's inscription in a specific sociopolitical context during which visuality and public performance were central to the expansion of a populist hegemony centered on the figure of the caudillo. Emphasizing the centrality of gesture in this celebrated anecdote reveals the points of contention as well as the affinities that the foundational works of the Generation of 1837 shared with cultural practices employed by supporters of the Rosas regime. …

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