Research Statement

In my dissertation, Poetics of Revelation: Communities of the Literary Oracular in Transatlantic Modernism, I asked why Cold War Latin America had a rebirth of “visionary” poetry. Why revelation in an age of revolution? With case studies on Spain (María Zambrano), Mexico (Octavio Paz), and Bolivia (Jaime Saenz), I studied intellectuals who radicalized politically in their youth only to retreat from politics after 1940, focusing my analysis on their internalization of revolutionary fatigue and growing distrust in any self-declared people’s party. Their new concern that “national energy” was so volatile it could turn assemblies into mobs convinced them that such a perilous force needed to be protected and transmitted for posterity, as is reflected in “Hacia un saber sobre el alma” by María Zambrano, “La poesía de soledad y la poesía de comunión” by Octavio Paz, and Muerte por el tacto by Jaime Saenz.

With an interdisciplinary approach that combines intellectual history with post-structural analysis and the sociology of literature, I set forth a theoretical model (“the literary oracular”) which permitted the conflict of poetic revelation to articulate its unity in transatlantic modernism through a critique of instrumental reason leveled by cultural mediators who refused to accept the disintegration of tradition, which they thought had to pass through them if it was to survive. Identifying as part of a transhistorical society of kindred interpreters of history who defied western philosophy in praise of revelation, these seers abandoned the systematic abstraction of truth for a philosophy of life based on discipleship, as is reflected in “La confesión como género literario y como método,” Los hijos del limo, and “En la abadía de San Florián” by the same authors, respectively. Since these authors were poets, to name their visions they imagined a new language that would remain impervious to the vociferous chants of the political rally. Their disillusionment with radical platforms that constructed mass culture as a people led them to step in as an oracular sage and to use the rhetoric of revelation to mediate between the extremes of a polarized political field and between elite literary production and a new literate class.

Building on my dissertation’s theme of communitarian thought, my current project focuses on populism and populist leaders in Spanish and Latin American history and literature, inviting us to rethink these social phenomena in our historical present by asking, what counts as a people and how can a people make itself count? Drawing on examples from conservative and progressive social movements in an extensive Hispanic tradition of non-participatory democracy and strongman rule, I analyze the evolution of the category of “people” as advanced by political theorists and sociologists from the 1950s to the present. Guided by frameworks of political philosophy, intellectual history, and rhetorical analysis that informed my dissertation, I ask how the “people” may serve a social function that is foundational and, at once, destabilizing. If it is the “people” who bestow sovereignty upon a leader, how is this leader able to dissolve the institutions of representative democracy in the name of the people? To pursue this line of inquiry, I turn to the representational repertoires mobilized by leaderless movements and populist leaders, vis-à-vis the rhetorical construction of the people. Within the evolution of the category of the “people,” I wish to study Persona y democracia (1958) by Spanish philosopher María Zambrano, which counts as her most overtly sociopolitical work, written from exile in Rome.

This research will contribute to the reevaluation of populist movements and theories of populism currently under way among intellectual historians, political theorists, and cultural sociologists. I want to understand how Zambrano’s proposal of “democratic personhood” may renew our understanding of this social phenomenon under the scrutiny of analysis aimed not only at the theoretical program she advanced as a “sacrificial history,” but also at how she undoes Ortega y Gasset’s oversimplified dichotomy of the “minorías directivas” and the “hombre-masa,” in her communitarian thinking about the alienated subject’s relation to the public sphere. I will demonstrate how her philosophy facilitates an assessment of arguments advanced by leaderless movements and the claims of political reformers who demand compensation for disenfranchised communities, paradoxically, by undermining the institutions of representative democracy so that party politics does not block the path to social justice or obstruct the personal relation between the people and their chosen leader. Bringing her thinking to bear on populist rhetoric of the 20th and 21st centuries, I also will examine politicians’ reception of influential reactionary arguments which conflate the distinction between legality and legitimacy, positive law and a people’s natural constitution, while challenging the priority of “autoridad de la razón” over “razón de autoridad.”

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