Norma Kaminsky

David King

Kathleen Sharp

Vered Weiss

Christopher Zepeda


Discourse and the Crisis of Postmodernity: Heterogeneity and Heteroglossia in El beso de la mujer araña

David King
San Francisco State University

While 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

In 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.

With Jameson's added political dimension, the motivations for using the title 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 gold standard, the end of the great wave of wars of national liberation, and the beginning of 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.

Though described by its inhabitants in passing as a mugre de celda (23) (filthy cell [17])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 reverse the 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 realities of 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 [148])—are constantly trying to escape them. Not only do the brutalidad (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 to postmodernity.

Like 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 the 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 economic 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.

By historicizing the postmodern conditions to which these texts constantly refer, we can see that both novels mark what Nicholas Spencer terms the 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 that the faceless masters, who control this landscape, have no need of speech. Yet, as J R and El beso de la mujer araña show, the master's 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 languages, two semantic and axiological belief systems without formal boundaries (306). To use Linda Hutcheon's term, both novels use heteroglossia and heterogeneity in order to de-naturalize 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

Deep 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.

This 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 conversation:

--Don't 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.

The 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 back: Si te vas a reir no sigo (If you are going to laugh I won't go on), to which Valentín replies:

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. (Puig 21)
(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. [15])

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 [25]). 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 [35]). 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:

——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)

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' 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 scene—and the entire novel—descends 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 on—and quite literally makes up—a 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 [207]). 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 position—the 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 logophobia—a 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 speech—their heteroglossia—is 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 [28]). 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 songs—a 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 [219]). 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 [236]). 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 discourse—the language of institutions and ideologies that is at once produced and producing, controlled and controlling—to 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.


1 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).
2 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.
3 Unless denoted with brackets, all ellipses are reproduced from the original texts
4 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).

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 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'
         Views of the New York City Story.
The Journal of Criminal Law
        and Criminology
. 88.4 (1998): 1217-1232.

Colás, Santiago. Postmodernity in Latin America: The Argentine Paradigm.
         Durham: Duke UP, 1994.

Derrida, Jacques. 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.

Foucault, Michel. 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.

Huyssen, Andreas. 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.
         Madrid: Editorial Pliegos, 2006.

Jameson, Fredric. Foreword. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
. 1979.Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi.
         Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1984. vii-xxii.

---. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke
         UP, 1991.

Johnston, John. J R and the Flux of Capital. Revue fran�çois d'études
. 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:
         Vintage, 1979.

Smith, William C. Authoritarianism and the Crisis of the Argentine Political
. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1989.

Spencer, Nicholas. 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







home | back issues | store | links | submissions | about | contact

© 2008 Comparative Literature Student Association at San Francisco State University
design: landisdesigns.com