Los Vigilantes Diamela Eltit Analysis Essay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       LOS VIGILANTES

Diamela Eltit. Editorial Sudamericana, 2001.

Diamela Eltit nació en 1949 en Santiago de Chile. Se graduó en Literatura en la Universidad de Chile e inició un postgrado en la Universidad Católica. Es autora de dieciséis libros. No escribe de manera tradicional sino que recurre a figuras alegóricaspara transmitir un mensaje reflexivo, y a veces subversivo. Ese lenguaje enrevesado parece explicarse por el lugar y el momento en los que ella comenzó a escribir: en Chile en la década de los 80, en plena época pinochetista, cuando era muy difícil para los escritores expresar críticas al sistema de manera abierta. Eltit ha sido candidata al Premio Nacional de Literatura de Chile. Su novela Los vigilantes recibió el Premio José Martín Nuez 1995.

Los vigilantes es una novela corta, totalmente alegórica. La obra está cifrada de tal manera que terminé de leerla sin entender exactamente qué es lo que la autora quería transmitirnos. Si usted desea descifrarla aquí le presento los elementos que nos provee el libro.

El primer personaje que aparece es un hijo que no habla, babea copiosamente, desprende risotadas estrepitosas e inesperadas, se golpea contra las paredes, utiliza un lenguaje a veces  desconcertante («BAAAM, BAAM», «TON TON TONto», etc.) y ejecuta juegos corporales extraños, a veces a gran velocidad al punto que pareciera desaparecer o desintegrarse. Sin embargo, piensa y parece tener un juego inteligente con sus vasijas, es consciente de lo que hace su madre, y de los efectos que su comportamiento produce en ella y, anote usted, les captael pensamiento a ambos padres.

El segundo personaje –que parece ser el personaje principal- es una mujer, su madre, la cual se dedica a escribir cartas al padre en una comunicación que aparece como bilateral aunque nunca se lee ni una palabra de las cartas que supuestamente él le envía, el lector solo es testigo de las que ella contesta. Estas misivas  están escritas defensivamente, respondiendo a las acusaciones que él le presenta, a los reproches que le hace sobre su comportamiento, a las exigencias de que cambie su conducta y a las amenazas a las que la somete permanentemente para que se ajuste a sus creencias. El clima en que se desarrolla la mayor parte de la novela es muy opresivo, fundamentalmente un invierno despiadado con extrema carencia de alimentos. Ella siente que él la vigila. Y no es el único personaje que lo hace.

Paralelamente recibe frecuentes visitas de la madre de este hombre, una mujer a la que nunca llama suegra (como nunca llama hijo al niño sino que se refiere a él como tu hijo en sus cartas). La razón de esas visitas es la supervisión de su forma de vida (que cómo viste al niño, que qué comen, que si el niño está pálido, que si la casa está muy obscura, que cuáles son sus modales para comer, etc.) de modo que se siente doblemente vigilada. Merodearán también los vecinos en constante vigilancia (que si hay objetos que han desaparecido de su casa, que quién entra a su casa, que cómo consigue sus alimentos, etc.). Estos vecinos confabularán con el marido e intervendrán en la vida de esta mujer cuando lo crean necesario para pedirle cuentas de su comportamiento subverviso. Lo subversivo viene de no atenerse a todas las reglas impuestas por esa sociedad; como cuando, por ejemplo, recibe en su casa a los llamados desamparados, habitantes callejeros moribundos para evitarles la muerte. La mujer se siente asediada.

El acoso que sufre es doloroso, ella da explicaciones todo el tiempo, pide que le alivien esa persecución, hace concesiones para verse aligerada de ese control, ruega que no la lleven a juicio, etc. El círculo se su libertad se cierra cada vez más, hasta que se le abre un juicio del que no podrá escapar sin condena, proceso al cual ella decide finalmente colaborar.

Mientras tanto, en el hogar donde madre e hijo se encuentran confinados, ella se va acercando progresivamente al niño y comienza a entender su juego y su lenguaje. El libro termina cuando ambos  huyen de la ciudad y en esa huida ella se va transformando, convirtiéndose un poco en lo que es el hijo, babea, ríe estrepitosamente, etc. pero finalmente encuentran las hogueras que buscaban para salvarse.

Interprete usted.

He tenido que recurrir a lecturas complementarias y a comentarios de la propia autora para descifrar los enigmas contenidos en este libro, y he podido concluir lo siguiente.  La mujer representa a la América Latina marginal, subyugada, impregnada de una cultura tradicional pero presionada a vivir dentro de los cánones de la cultura occidental moderna.

El hombre representa el poder y las normas occidentales que ejercen una presión despiadada contra quienes sienten y quieren vivir la vida de una manera diferente. Lo despiadado de esa actitud consiste no solo en un ataque incansable por todos los frentes posibles sino también en que no toma en consideración el dolor o las limitaciones de los desfavorecidos o desamparados en Latinoamérica. Esos frentes están constituidos por la figura patriarcal pero también por la familia, las leyes, las cárceles, las instituciones legislativas y educativas así como el mismo Estado. Un sistema que por un lado u otro logra la sujeción de los marginados.

El hijo representa la resistencia, la subversión y la promesa de una alternativa. Ni su cuerpo ni su mundo intelectual o psicológico son normales. Su apariencia es diferente, su lenguaje es a primera vista indescifrable pero no está enfermo ni loco, tan solo ha encontrado una manera de escaparse del control; algo que su madre no ha logrado hacer. Ella se defiende, se explica y ruega que la entiendan, pero el niño sabe que al usar el mismo lenguaje y respetar las mismas instituciones de su dominador ha caído en su juego y no podrá jamás escapar de su domino. Por eso al hijo le molesta verla escribir dándole la espalda y se ríe de lo que ella hace, por eso ríe también cuando ella es incapaz de descifrar el lenguaje de sus vasijas. Sabe que está enajenada. No importa el argumento o el recurso al que ella recurra, tarde o temprano será derrotada.La baba que desprende este niño tiene vida (corre, por ejemplo); es decir, la identidad de este ser no se ajusta a ninguna identidad conocida. Esa característica demuestra que ni su cuerpo está regulado de acuerdo a normas típicas.

A medida que la novela avanza, sucede que el nivel de comunicación entre madre e hijo mejora y la mujer parece tomar conciencia de su propia situación.  La madre descifra poco a poco el lenguaje de las vasijas hasta que decide dejar de escribir, dejar de usar el lenguaje que ahora percibe como dominante. Al final, madre e hijo  escapan de la casa, a pesar de todos los riesgos que ello supone. Se esfuerzan en alejarse del cerco de vigilancia y en llegar a las hogueras. En ese camino ella va convirtiéndose en un ser que ríe, babea y se arrastra como su hijo, que es la manera como se muestra que ella conquista su identidad y su libertad.

Si yo hubiera leído una interpretación como ésta antes de iniciar la lectura de esta novela, me hubiera servido de guía para entenderla,  probablemente la hubiera apreciado mejor y quizá hasta la hubiera disfrutado. Al no tenerla, pasé todas sus hojas tratando de especular, adivinar, comprender qué nos quería decir Diamela Eltit. La experiencia fue sin duda más un sufrimiento que un placer. Este es un libro profundamente enigmático, llega a trasmitir los sentimientos que sus alegorías pretenden despertar en el lector, pero sin esclarecer su mensaje. Con la reseña que aquí comparto usted tiene el lenguaje con el que al parecer podría decodificar la obra. Contando con esta herramienta, hasta yo misma me animaría a volver a leerlo.

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Amo las palabras porque amo a los seres humanos y por medio de ellas me siento en intimidad con quienes escriben o quienes me leen. Compartimos nuestros pensamientos, nuestras dudas, nuestros miedos, nuestros modos de mirar, de decir o de sentir. No puedo decir que leí mucho ni que escribí mucho en mi vida pero puedo afirmar que cuando leí o cuando escribí me entregué por entero a esa relación que existe entre escritor y lector. No hubo nada a medias, me vinculé con cada palabra con la misma intensidad con que vivo cada segundo de mi vida.

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Diamela Eltit


By Robert Neustadt


A critical . . . reading is one that changes the representation into a performance which exceeds the text. —Teresa de Lauretis


Born in 1949 in Santiago, Chile, Diamela Eltit examines the violent fracturing of post-coup Chile through novels,[2] video and performance art. She exposes and problematizes discrete social, artistic and political boundaries by overlapping the issues of gender, class and discourse. In a variety of contexts Eltit explores themes of confused identity, the body, and subjectivity. Lumpérica (1983), Eltit’s first novel, represents a bizarre spectacle in which a protagonist mutilates her own body. Eltit herself performed an analogous expression in which she scarified her own arms and then read her manuscript in a brothel. This performance, in turn, engendered another “text,” the video Maipu.[3]


In this essay I trace the projection of Eltit’s performance across multiple genres, media and texts. My reading of Lumpérica and Maipu, with Eltit’s action of self-effacement, suggests a continuum that spirals between fictional, corporeal and visual performances. I use the concept of performance not only in terms of theatrical or dramatic representation but also in the literal sense of accomplishment, achievement and success. Consequently, a reading of Eltit’s performance will take into account how the work performs nar­ratively as well as politically.


The context of the Chilean dictatorship imbues Eltit’s work with a sense of social and political urgency. Following the military coup of September 11, 1973, anyone who even remotely supported Salvador Allende’s socialist Unidad Popular lived under serious threat of “dis­appearance,” torture, imprisonment and murder. During the early years of dictatorship, censorship gagged literary and artistic dissension, creat­ing a state of cultural blackout, apagóncultural. In addition to physical repression, the regime fought to secure hegemony on ideological and discursive grounds. Women played a key role in this ideological strug­gle. The military government organized groups of mothers and wives (General Pinochet’s wife headed the most important national organiza­tions) who worked for the dictatorship by espousing the traditional values of family and patriotism. On a day-to-day level, women were encouraged to serve the country by working as volunteers for charitable organizations that maintained familiar and ecclesiastical institutions. Socially, these women did not act as autonomous Subjects but rather they participated as auxiliary support within a hierarchical family para­digm.[4] Nuclear families were to support the great “national family,” la patria, directed by the father figure Pinochet, who purportedly served the will of God. Ultimately, the discurso pinochetista projected an image of the ideal woman within the symbolism of the Catholic Church, the Madonna.


Eltit addresses these concerns with a particularly eclectic brand of artistic activism. Rather than delineating a clearly defined agenda, Eltit projects fragmented images of self-mutilating bodies. On one level, Eltit’s narrative fragmentation evokes what one might call a realistic image of life under dictatorship. In his book La mala memoria, Marco Antonio de la Parra insists that any accurate representation of life during the dictatorship would have to be fragmented: “Every account from that time period that attempts to be linear is false. . . . We have been fragmented by history, turned into splinters, we cling to personal history because public history has been blown into a thousand pieces” (111, my translation). One way to read Eltit’s experimental style, then, would posit that she mimetically represents the confusion of a society that has been blown to pieces. This is a plausible scenario, though the resulting imbroglio raises serious questions about the political effectiveness of experimental art. One must ask whether the interpretive “difficulty” of these texts undermines their subversive power. What does it mean to mutilate one’s own body while living under a military dictatorship? And why write a novel ostensibly devoid of plot and apparent meaning?


My analysis twists together the formal and aesthetic elements of Eltit’s experimentation with the political and literary notions of repre­sentation. From a strictly literary perspective, Eltit’s style situates her in opposition to any and all formulations of realism. In other words, her neo-avant-gardism resists the traditional status quo rendering of the literary canon as well as the easygoing plot constructions of popular literature. She turns the dominant representation of a novel inside out, rejecting even the possibility of representing reality in a clear unbiased viewpoint. It is crucial to note, nevertheless, that her approximation of literary fragmentation is inextricably related to a political agenda.


By accentuating what René Jara has called the “limits of representation,” Eltit discursively op­poses the neo-fascistic sense of order imposed by the military dictator­ship. The aesthetic, formal and structural fragmentation that is so pervasive in Eltit’s work articulates a paradoxically coherent agenda of narrative obliteration. Through a process of narrative mutilation, Eltit displaces the narrative of national order.


Jean Franco describes Eltit as a writer who is “obliged to separate the political from the aesthetic” (70). For Franco, Eltit’s literary experi­mentation pursues a different, less blatantly political tangent:


Consider, for example, the case of the Chilean writer Diamela Eltit. She actively collaborated with the Por la vida movement, which stages demonstrations to publicize disappearance; she wrote novels that are so hermetic they seem to baffle critics, and she staged public performances such as kissing a homeless man or reading her novel in a brothel in a poor section of Santiago. In this one author, we find a tangle of conflicting intentions: to act against the authoritarian state, to take literature symbolically into the most marginal of spaces, to work against the easy readability of the commercial text, to foreground the woman’s body as a site of contention, to increase or exaggerate the marginality of art, and juxtapose literature’s marginality to that of prostitutes, vaga­bonds, and the homeless. (70)


Franco’s summary, while critically insightful of Eltit’s agency, starts from, what seems to me, a misguided preconception. Rather than separating “the political from the aesthetic,” Eltit explicitly conflates the two realms. Highlighting the aesthetic nature of politics, she actively politicizes her exceedingly experimental fiction. In my view, Eltit’s “tangle of conflicting intentions” reveals an understanding of the political and the aesthetic as inextricably related both to each other, and significantly, to narrative.[5] It is crucial to interpret Eltit performatively—to read not only what she “says” but what her work “does.” Re-presenting authoritarian order through narrative confusion, Eltit produces antidisciplinary chaos in the regimes of literature and politics.


Eltit’s rearticulation of the discursive body corresponds to a per­formance that also performs. Eltit’s performance clears a critical space for critique and subsequent political/artistic performance. Obviously, “lit­erature” did not topple the neo-fascist military regime in Chile. Never­theless, Eltit’s critical performance created a political opening, allowing for writers and artists (including herself) to express and perform political resistance in increasingly blatant defiance.


In spite of Eltit’s infamous “hermeticism” many critics (including Nelly Richard, Julio Ortega, Eugenia Brito and others) have rigorously and correctly inter­preted her texts as polyvalent deconstructions of hegemonic power. At times, nevertheless, critics seem to isolate specific themes from her multifaceted critique. Her reinscription of the gendered body cannot and should not be separated from her political re(dis)articulation of discourse, her poststructuralist awareness of language nor the repres­sion of the Pinochet regime. Her more recent books explore the dictatorial underpinnings that remain institutionalized in democratic Chile. My analysis aims to reconfigure these disparate interpretations (deconstructions of patriarchy, language and political power) together within the wider context of cultural, narrative and political performance.


Performance represents the common denominator of Eltit’s work. Not only does spectacle play a key role in each of Eltit’s “texts,” but each of these respective performances dialogues intertextually. I do not claim that biographical analysis can “explain” Lumpérica, but Eltit’s self-effacement, her public reading and the video Maipu function as formative episodes for the mise en scène that culminates with the publication of Lumpérica. Key passages of the novel constitute significant components of Eltit’s performance action. The ensemble of Eltit’s work, like De Lauretis’s conception of a critical feminist reading, “changes the representation into a performance which exceeds the text” (36). The bulk of this essay focuses on Eltit’s texts, particularly Lumpérica, in relation to the technological, discursive and political representation of her “performance.” Of course Eltit’s complex mode of expression did not merely emerge spontaneously. Comprehend­ing the ideological conflicts within the Left, both before and during the dictatorship, establishes the theoretical framework of Eltit’s political and artistic strategy.


Art Actions and Political Performance


Performance art was not a common means of expression in Chile of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. Carlos Leppe was probably the first artist in Chile to use his body as a medium of performance with his “Happening of the Hens” (“Happening de las gallinas”) in 1974. Leppe gave a series of performances in galleries challenging the traditional concepts and taboos associated with the body, sexuality and gender.[6]


Though drawn to the radical politics of performance, Eltit was never interested in performing in art galleries. Instead, while writing Lumpérica, she developed an approach to performing “art actions” (acciones de arte) in the streets of Santiago with an artists’ collective known as the “Collective of Art Actions” (Colectivo Acciones de Arte, CADA).[7] In 1979 Eltit participated in the formation of CADA with poet Raúl Zurita, the visual artists Lotty Rosenfeld and Juan Castillo, and sociologist Fernando Balcells. By mounting theoretically complex art actions in public, CADA simultaneously denounced Pinochet’s authoritarian regime and at the same time articulated a critique of the traditional linear protest art of the orthodox Left. CADA’s actions were massive events—a parade of milk trucks, a squadron of small aircrafts from which 400,000 flyers were thrown, graffiti written on walls throughout Santiago—that denied the government sanctioned concept of art and, more importantly, forced dialogue and questioning.


While CADA performed their actions collectively from 1979 - 1985, several members of the group also carried out individual actions. Lotty Rosenfeld’s 1979 action “A Mile of Crosses on Pavement” (Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento) in which she converted traffic dividers on a street into + signs is considered by many to be one of the most important works of visual art in post-coup Chile.[8] Eltit’s performances–-scarifying her arms, washing the pavement in front of a brothel, reading her manuscript in this brothel, and kissing a homeless man on video––function according to a similar logic as the group actions produced by CADA. The complex (neo-avantgarde) actions constituted a code with practical as well as theoretical consequences. This approach protected the artists from police reprisals and at the same time formulated a multifaceted critique of authoritarianism. The art actions engaged with the monological discourse promulgated by both the military government and the orthodox Left. The strategy was to occupy Santiago’s urban zones with arresting images that questioned conditions that had become habitual in the repressed environment of dictatorial Chile. In this essay I analyze the manner in which Eltit’s act of scarification and her reading of a text in the brothel play a key part of a larger performance that includes her novel Lumpérica. This performance, furthermore, played a part in what later became a massive pro-democracy movement in Chile.


Lumpérica: A Multimedia Performance Novel


Lumpérica was originally published in 1983 by a small independent publisher (no longer in existence) called Ornitorrinco. The novel has since been republished by progressively larger publishing companies (Planeta in 1993 and Sex Barral in 1998) and has also been translated to English and French.


Lumpérica is a virtually plotless novel in which a transient woman, L. Iluminada, spends the night staring at a neon sign in a Santiago plaza. The “action” primarily takes place on the level of narrative perspective and language. Third-person description alternates with first-person narration, ambiguous dialogue, and a kind of impersonal, often lyrical, textuality. Lumpérica’sfragmentation cannot be over-emphasized. Not only does the novel fracture narrative continuity by employing frequent stops and starts, but the prose itself radically distorts the narrative with (neo)avant-garde word play. In spite of these experimental occlusions, reading between the fragments reveals a carefully coordinated structure. The novel amasses and superimposes a series of images of L. Iluminada in the plaza. This woman’s presence in the plaza creates a spectacle during which she collapses, masturbates, smashes her head, burns her hand, makes love with a woman, and gashes her arms. Lumpérica not only blurs the point of view but also overlaps representations of L. Iluminada through diverse representational media. L. Iluminada’s spectacle, in other words, constitutes a multimedia performance.


Early in the first chapter the narrator employs theatrical and filmic terminology: at this point it seems as if the novel’s plot represents the process of making an experimental film. The text depicts cameras circling around a posing L. Ilumindada in the plaza, then the narrative focus expands outward to include a level of metanarrative criticism. The novel turns into a screenplay in which an implied director offers comentarios, indicaciones, and errores of the first three “scenes.” From the first chapter, Lumpérica comprises three narrative stratum: text, presenting the image of L. Iluminada in the plaza; textualization, representing the process of filming L. Iluminada in the plaza; and metatext, critiquing the performance and cinematography.


However, this narrative scheme only scratches the surface of Lumpérica’s representational strategies. In chapters four and five, the visual image modulates into a specifically literary format: “The scene is no longer filmic but narrative.... [T]he image is completely different for he who reads it....Writing is like a zoom” (99).[9]In a later section entitled “Ensayo General,” this novel about a film becomes an essay that interprets a photograph included within the text. In essence, Lumpérica self-reflexively interrogates the process of image construction. The novel assembles a collage of interrelated texts and self-reflexive meta-texts. Each of these layers, in turn, embodies a narrative concretion, mise en abyme, that re-presents Lumpérica’s representation of L. Iluminada. But while L. Iluminada’s identity seems to be in a continual state of flux, her situation remains relatively fixed. A changing image still remains an image, regardless of its format.


Situating L. Iluminada: The Empty Space Between the Signs


Lumpérica depicts the process of filming a voyeuristic spectacle in which L. Iluminada represents the ob-scene object of the gaze. The cameras film vagabond men (the “pallid ones”) staring at L. Iluminada’s performance. Elsewhere, someone describes having scrutinized the film footage of L. Iluminada’s fall. Ultimately the reader “watches” this entire matrix of reticulating gazes. This situation suggests a series of questions about the technical, aesthetic, and ideological foundations of spectacle, performance, film-making, and discourse.


In Lumpérica, the narrative montage revolves around L. lluminada, a transient female figure placed at the center of a plaza, a film, and a novel. Her relationship to language constitutes the core of Lumpérica. Significantly, her language and thought patterns, as well as the novel itself, correspond to a distinctly scrambled code. This situation of a broken woman at the center of a chaotic code recalls an observation by De Lauretis concerning woman’s place in representation: “The position of woman in language and in cinema is one of non-coherence; she finds herself only in a void of meaning, the empty space between the signs” (8). In Lumpérica, the plaza—a void of meaning, an empty space between flickering neon signs—corresponds to L. Iluminada’s position of non-coherence in language and cinema, as well as in society at large. L. Iluminada therefore inhabits the negative space that narrative imposes on “the feminine.” In Derridean terms, Eltit’s novel solicits the foundations of narrative. By superimposing narrative montage and her own corporeal mutilation, Eltit creates and employs a special kind of “body language” that underscores the inescapable nature of discourse. She carves her critique within that space of representation.


Interrogating the Plaza: Re-presenting Representation


At several points in the novel, enigmatic scenes of interrogation appear out of context. In chapter two, for example, an unidentified questioner suddenly grills the narrator (and later another unidentified person) about the utility of a public plaza. Within the context of postcoup Chile, the interrogation evokes an encounter with the (secret) police. As Eltit writes in Lumpérica, “Someone will no longer be there, some names will be erased from the kardex and...the plaza will no longer be important.” (56). The interrogador demands obedience, forcing the interrogado to describe the plaza again and again. This situation in the plaza alludes to the tenuous condition of contemporary reality under dictatorship. People simply disappear, their names erased. The public plaza becomes a superficial facade, a decoration, remodeled by those who represent the nation.


In chapter 7, another cross examination (this time regarding la caída de L. lluminada [“L. Iluminada’s fall”]) eventually becomes an argument about the film. A dissatisfied director interrogates someone (an actor? a technician?), insisting that he restate, over and over, the sequence of events. This scene of interrogation links the notions of political, technological and ideological representation to the novel’s merging of incision and inscription. In film, “cutting” corresponds to a reorganization of reality, framing specific perspectives and re-presenting them, resulting in a produced narrative. Lumpérica’s film of a homeless woman in Santiago evokes the discursive manipulation of political representation and hegemony. Similarly, the Pinochet regime strove to re-present Chile, recasting the film, as it were, and projecting an image of political order. In time the interrogation uncovers a planned rebellion within the film. The interrogado confesses his guilt—he attempted to derail the mise en scène by impeding L. Iluminada’s fall and persuading her to abandon the script. However, the mutiny fails when the planned subversion gets cut from the film. The director refuses the protagonist the right to represent herself: the authority figure controls the image of the public plaza.


Ultimately, the episode of interrogation proves to be a “scene” in the same film it examines (147). In other words, it stages a self-reflexive film within a self-reflexive novel. Lumpérica thereby exposes its own representational foundations at the same time as it implicitly interrogates the political situation in Chile. All of this occurs without even mentioning the coup or military repression. The novel does not describe its referent but rather circumscribes the issue—inscribing, then, a political critique.


“Ensayo General”: Rehearsing an In-scripting Performance


In Lumpérica’seighth chapter, “Ensayo General” (Dress Rehearsal/General Essay/Test), inscription becomes an explicit spectacle of mutilation. The chapter begins with three one-line verses, each of which occupy an entire page. Since these phrases are virtually untranslatable, I will confine my analysis to the subsequent series of epidermal incisions. Suffice to say that “Ensayo General” opens with a series of linguistic mutilations. This episode significantly expands the text’s projection by implying a spectrum of simultaneous subjects and images. In the following sequence of incisions, the narrator’s body becomes text, inscribed by the blade of a knife in a series of six self-immolating gashes. A photo of Eltit’s lacerated arms introduces the chapter, implying a concatenate continuity between the novel and Eltit’s corporeal “art action.” “Ensayo General” constitutes the nexus linking Eltit’s scarification, her novel, and the video Maipu.


Eugenia Brito posits a relationship between the incisions and Lumpérica’ssyntactical and narrative fragmentation: “The opening of the skin coincides with the opening—the rupturing—of syntax and with the rupturing of a unified meaning” (172). Eltit shreds language, pulling words apart into syllables, substituting mathematical and orthographic symbols, varying the type set, altering syntax, and substituting words from slang, underground, and indigenous vocabularies. Nevertheless, while she tears language apart, this mutilation results in a reconstituted poetic language that releases the myriad shards of meaning contained within words.


How does one “read” Lumpérica’stextual incisions?[10] The corpus of “Ensayo General” clearly draws parallels between physical incision and writing as textual in-scription.[11] Following the narrator’s indications, this episode of inscription initially reads like a standard structuralist text in which meaning derives from difference. The text foregrounds the first cut on her left arm and presents it as a sign: “It is only a mark, sign or line of writing” (155). The second gash acquires significance through comparison with its predecessor: “It is notably weaker” (156). The implied author interprets the third incision as a “flaw” in relation to the pattern previously established (157). This “error,” or change of direction, recapitulates the experience of reading Lumpérica. As soon as one begins to follow a narrative line (L. Iluminada in the plaza, a film of her, an interrogation, an evaluation of the film, etc.) the novel interrupts its progression and changes direction.


Following the third “line,” the text severs the narrative series of incisions, shifting to a metatextual analysis of the preceding pages. This self-reflexive “cut,” splitting “Ensayo General” by delaying the progression of epidermal scoring, recalls the interrupted film shoot from the previous chapter. Someone yelled “‘cut,’they stopped the machines” (148). Within this interval of frozen narrative, the text interrogates the first three slices individually and in relation to one another: “The first cut, if isolated, is the general essay. Is it really a cut? Yes because it breaks a given surface...The cut is the limit. Then, what is the border? The cut? No, the cut is scarcely the sign” (158). “Ensayo General” probes the wounds of its exposition with cross-cut metanarrative cortes.


The following page begins parenthetically, hence separating the series of epidermal and narrative lacerations orthographically. This new narrative corte, “(In relation to a photographic cut)” (159), widens the metatextual implications of the “Ensayo General.” The section specifically examines a photograph of Eltit’s lacerations (included in the original edition) in the context of photography (such as framing the image or cropping the print). Whereas the preceding passage reads and analyzes the narrative incisions, the text now examines a photographic reproduction (a re-presentation) of the incisions. This passage analyzes its own process of reading the photograph of lacerated skin, rendering a two dimensional, flattened image. Viewing the photograph, the reader’s eye cuts open the surface image, much as a reader cuts through the text. Nevertheless, the eye’s hermeneutic potential remains limited to linear interpretation: “The eye that reads, is imprisoned in a linear reading” (159).


Accumulating questions and returning to the sequence of epidermal slashing, the text confounds a linear reading by inverting its chronology. It “chops up” and precariously reconfigures the narrative order of incisions that it had previously established. The reader no longer knows where to enter the series since “the third cut could have been the first one made” (160). The complications compound progressively with the remaining incisions. The fourth slice, itself physically interrupted by a “fragment of skin,” evokes two (logically divided) hypotheses related to both time and depth (162). With the fifth cut, the text introduces burn to create a new surface variation (163). A final sixth incision becomes subsumed and expelled by the burnt flesh (now blistered, showing a raised scab and the traces of singed hairs) (163-166).


“Ensayo General” consists of an open series of epidermal, narrative, temporal, logical, and visual cortes. The text obstructs the individual incisions with skin fragments and splits the narrative sequence—reading, analyzing, and dividing itself. Finally, on the last page, the focus shifts back to encompass the entire subject, who poses in the plaza gripping the knife. Significantly, as she approaches the knife to her skin on the last page of “Ensayo,” she has yet to inflict any incisions: “The Ensayo General is about to begin” (167). Chronologically, then, by juxtaposing the last cut cyclically to the first, “Ensayo General” rehearses a circular performance of inscription. As in Barthes’s texte scriptible, “It has no beginning, it is reversible. One enters through several points of which none can be declared principle” (1970:12).[12]


The cycle of mutilation/inscription can be traced throughout the novel’s editorial history as well. The photograph of Eltit’s slashed arms was “cut” from the second edition. When the second edition did not sell well, the editor (Planeta) shredded, or “chopped up,” the unsold copies. This circular continuity linking incision, inscription, and representation also holds true between Eltit’s performance of self-mutilation and L. Iluminada’s spectacle. From a biographical and historical perspective, Eltit’s action precedes the publication of Lumpérica. Her self-mutilation therefore corresponds to a pretextual (corporeal) inscription that initiates and motivates her novelistic representation. As she writes in “Ensayo General,” “The truth about the first five cuts plus the burns is to think about them, for example, as gesture and pretexts (pose y pretextos)” (165). Although the novel and video constitute subsequent texts that record, document, and re-present Eltit’s action, this chronology can be reversed. In the video Maipu, Eltit displays her recently burnt and slashed arms while reading from Lumpérica’smanuscript. Accordingly, the fictional episode of incisions prefigures the author’s self-immolation. Eltit’s performance, in other words, rehearses the scene of in-scription narratively delineated in Lumpérica’s“Ensayo General.”


Lumpérica constitutes one crucial but not all-encompassing phase in Eltit’s overall performance. “Reading” the video Maipu helps bring the full extension of Eltit’s performance into focus. Maipu documents Eltit’s performance at the same time as it embodies L. Iluminada’s fictional spectacle.


From Lumpérica to Maipu and Beyond: Tracing the Projection of Eltit’s Performance


In Maipu, Eltit reads Lumpérica’schapter 4.4. This passage draws parallels between “diamela eltit” (the implied author, represented in the text by lower case letters) and her fictional character, L. Iluminada (90). Focusing on minute details of her body, the narrator compares herself to her twin. Ultimately, both of these bodies constitute symmetrical texts bearing parallel lines of inscription: “Her arms are symmetrical twins to mine. In the transparency of their skin they show the veiny traces that surround them” (89). The novel’s passage, then, conflates three corporeal subjects—narrator, protagonist, and implied author. In the video, the fact that Eltit herself reads the text involves the historical author in this chain of narrative re-presentation. Furthermore, the particular location of Eltit’s performance imposes far-reaching political and social consequences.


Eltit’s performance of Lumpérica’smanuscript takes place in a brothel located on Maipu Street in Santiago. By reading in a space where women’s flesh is routinely rented, Eltit implies a parallel between literary production and prostitution. Publishing Lumpérica, Eltit both sells a narrative body, L. Iluminada, and her own textual body.As she writes in Lumpérica, “the luminoso [light, sign] announces that bodies are sold. Yes, bodies are sold in the plaza” (13). Eltit’s reading evokes images of L. Iluminada, while at the same time addressing an audience of prostitutes attending her performance. The last line of the chapter, “Su alma es a la mia gemela” (90), for example, might be translated as either “Her soul [L. Iluminada’s] is the twin of my soul,” or “Your soul [the audience’s] is the twin of my soul,” due to the ambiguity of the subject pronoun su in Spanish. Consider also the novel’s title, Lumpérica, which conflates three terms: lumpen (underground), perica (Chilean slang for a prostitute), and América.


Historically, as Luce Irigaray writes, women correspond to passive objects that men circulate among themselves for pleasure and reproduction: “Woman is traditionally a use-value for man, an exchange value among men; in other words, a commodity....Women are marked phallicly by their fathers, husbands, procurers. And this branding determines their value in sexual commerce” (emphasis mine, 31). Lumpérica, accordingly, is sold on the literary market, where its commodity “value” is configured by the consensus of critics. And yet by “marking” herself, by inscribing her own body as text, Eltit critically underscores the traditional dynamic of ‘woman’ as commodity. Although she cannot completely invert the market principle, she calls attention to the ob-scene exploitation inherent in the gender economy. Consequently, her performance in Maipu situates the brothel as a locus of narrative. She explicitly inserts herself and her text within the narrative/sexual market economy. Further, she addresses prostitutes—who are traditionally the ‘goods’ sold—not the sellers or critics. This gesture recontextualizes both Lumpérica and prostitution, highlighting an act of literature within the marginal space of the brothel.


Eltit’s conflation of literature and prostitution thus works simultaneously in two directions: if marketing a novel corresponds to selling one’s body, then conversely prostitutes, who create fantasy for payment, sell fiction. Feigning sexual desire in exchange for money, prostitutes perform in a world of (male) fiction. As the text specifies, “in those years she divided herself between fiction and the fiction of her jobs” (83). Lumpérica not only exposes reality through fiction, but underscores the constant play of fiction in reality. Furthermore, Maipu indicates a signifying chain of texts, images, and performances in perpetual flux between reality and fiction.


Maipu reveals the extraordinary sequence of interconnected mises en abyme which form the continuum of Eltit’s performances. The video text explicitly foregrounds Eltit’s arms, focusing on her skin literally inscribed as “text.” As Peter Brooks writes in Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative, the process of corporeal inscription indicates a transformation of the body into a literary text that can be interpreted: “The bodily mark is in some manner a ‘character,’ a hieroglyph, a sign that can eventually, at the right moment of the narrative, be read” (22). Eltit, a woman/text, sits in front of a camera reading Lumpérica. Significantly, Maipu presents Eltit in the process of reading her work-in-progress: the video documents a stage in Lumpérica’s textual evolution. Several times the camera focuses over her shoulder, revealing her typed manuscript replete with handwritten corrections. Eltit, a woman/text, sits reading (on camera) Lumpérica-in-progress. The definitive Lumpérica, in turn, re-presents L. Iluminada, a woman/text, who sits reading a sign (the luminoso) while performing on camera.


The metatextual relationship that defines these representations of representations also reverses direction. Lumpérica’smanuscript appears in Maipu, comprising both audio and video image. Conversely, the original edition of Lumpérica displays a still from Maipu —a double projection of Eltit’s face—on the cover. Projection works as the lynch-pin of Eltit’s double-edged critique. While the successive images of incision-becoming-script retreat farther and farther into “fictional” representations, Eltit’s action of self-mutilation, the novel, and the video spiral “outward” to protest all-too-real social, political, and discursive violations.


Chilean neofascism projected its own fictional representation of an ideal woman—the Madonna—and placed her prominently upon a pedestal. Augusto Pinochet told Chilean women shortly after the coup that there is a “role corresponding to women in the plans of the government” and that they have a “mission as women and mothers” (quoted in Pratt, 151-2). According to Pinochet (as paraphrased by Mary Louise Pratt) the mission for Chilean women was “to defend and transmit spiritual values, serve as a moderating element, . . . educate and instill consciousness and conscience, and serve as repositories of national traditions” (152). In Lumpérica, Diamela Eltit knocks this ideological sculpture off the pedestal and places her inverse image, L. Iluminada, centerstage in the public plaza. Eltit displaces the mythical mother figure and replaces her with L. Iluminada. Furthermore, Eltit not only mutilates the fictional “woman,” she also effaces the pedestal—the discourse—that supports the Madonna image.[13]Eltit’s narrative shredding constitutes a neo-avant-garde performance which is both deconstructive of narrative and narratively poetic. Eltit radically re-presents narrative to articulate a critique that mutilates the fascist image of national, cultural, and political unity.


Reading Lumpérica only as a national allegory ignores the performative component of Eltit’s rearticulation of the discursive body. Lumpérica does not merely represent the violence of neofascism symbolically; the novel systematically reads and deconstructs the discursive and representational violence that precedes and legitimates oppression. Rather than countering the government discourse by replacing the fascist national allegory with a counter-allegory, Eltit displaces the official discourse and then proceeds to efface her own narrative allegory.


Lumpérica deconstructs, re-presents, and subsequently self-de(con)structs. Carving her skin as text, Eltit’s performance embodies her awareness of the poststructuralist paradigm: she can no more get outside of language or discourse than she can escape her body. As Eltit represents a wounded body, she simultaneously mutilates the discursive and representational texts—the official discourse, her novel, and her body. She slashes herself in protest, and thereby affirms the power to rewrite and represent her own body: Eltit seizes control of her body and enacts a performance—a complex series of corporeal, literary, and visual texts.


Presupposing that no discourse can get outside of language and that no countercultural critique can escape its host culture, Eltit marks off an internal space that can be visualized metaphorically as a performance within the frame of a public square. This space is internal precisely because of her awareness that both she and her narrative are represented but not silenced by the images, laws, representations, and realities of an infinitely complex hegemonic matrix. The performance dynamic, constituting a dialogue between spectator and performer, instates an active process of communication that exceeds monological pronouncement. An audience gathering around a performer delineates a circle whose circumference both separates the performer from the surrounding city and at the same time attracts more spectators to view and interpret the performance.


And yet, what kind of conclusion can an audience draw from Eltit’s performance of textual and corporeal effacement? If her agenda stages the deconstruction of narrative continuity, can her audience/readers construe her actions of mutilation in terms of an embodied art that performs politically? Obviously there is a risk involved with a strategy such as Eltit’s. Some readers, especially those not familiar with the context of the Pinochet dictatorship, will inevitably lose the strand of Eltit’s non-linear series of cortes. On the other hand, a contextualized analysis reveals both the coherence of Eltit’s agenda as well as the political effectiveness of her performance. By not attempting to reflect reality, Eltit modifies mimetic codes refracting the “fiction” enveloped within the hegemonic image of “reality.” She avoids a linear mode of narrative description, choosing rather to write, read, and perform inscription. The hermeticism of her performance, consequently, avoids and denies authoritarian predication. Instead of “informing” her public, Eltit provokes thought and action.


The ensemble of Eltit’s texts function within the context of her literary, artistic, and political action. The publication of Lumpérica inaugurated a resurgence of “Resistance Literature” in Chile. As Eugenia Brito writes, “It is no coincidence that the publication of this novel bore witness to the appearance of a literature of the Resistance, that appeared in the space opened by Diamela Eltit” (169). Eltit’s performance carves an opening within the repression of post-coup Chile. Much as each episode of Lumpérica contributes to L. Iluminada’s mise en scène, each of Eltit’s “texts” plays a protagonizing role in the staging of a performance. Cutting through and across narrative, images, discourse, and flesh, Diamela Eltit realizes a performance that in turn performs critically, clearing space for critical performance and political action.


The performance of L. Iluminada in Lumpérica, writes Mary Louise Pratt, “prophesized a related struggle, five years later . . . . The ‘Campaign of the No’—the political campaign in the fall of 1988 that ended Pinochet’s rule” (162). As Pratt explains this movement attempted to “‘open a new circle,’ not in literature but in politics, public life and the social imagination of the Chilean citizenry” (162). CADA (the Colectivo Acciones de Arte) also played a performative role in the growth of this pro-democracy movement. In their action “No +” (No más, 1983 – 1984), CADA members subversively painted “No +” throughout Santiago. The public subsequently added words to the graffiti, such as “torture,” “disappearances,” “violence,” etc., or at times they followed the phrase with drawings of guns and other images of repression. Over time, “No +” became the rallying cry that was carried on banners at the front of pro-democracy marches throughout Chile. Of course only a few Chileans are aware that the use of the phrase “No +” in Chile grew from an anonymous art action instigated by CADA. Similarly, only a group of people directly witnessed Eltit’s performances. The scenes from the novel and performance combine nevertheless—they fuse with political action in the streets and in so doing change the representation into an even larger performance, a performance that exceeds the text.


Works Cited


Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1970.


Brito, Eugenia. “La narrativa de Diamela Eltit: Un nuevo paradigma socio-literario de lectura.” Campos minados: (Literatura post–golpe en Chile). Santiago: Editorial Cuarto Propio, 1990. 167–218.


Brooks, Peter. Body Work: Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative. Cambridge: Harvard U P, 1993.


Castro-Klarén, Sara. “Escritura y cuerpo en Lumpérica.” Una poética de literatura menor: La narrativa de Diamela Eltit. Ed. Juan Carlos Lértora. Santiago: Edi­torial Cuarto Propio, 1993. 97–110.


De la Parra, Marco Antonio. La mala memoria: Historia personal de Chile contemporáneo. Santiago: Editorial Planeta Chilena, 1997.


De Lauretis, Teresa. “Imaging.” Alice Does–N’T. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1982. 37–69.


Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti–Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizo­phrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992.


Eltit, Diamela. E. Luminata. Trans. Ronald Christ with Gene Bell-Villada, Helen Lane and Catalina Parra. Santa Fe: Lumen, 1997.


---. Lumpérica. Santiago: Editorial Planeta Chilena, 1991.


---. “Sobre las acciones de arte: Un nuevo espacio crítico.” Umbral (Nueva Epoca) 3 (1980) : 23-7.


Eltit, Diamela, and Lotty Rosenfeld. Maipu. Videocassette. 1980.


Franco, Jean. “Going Public: Reinhabiting the Private.” On Edge: The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture. Ed. George Yúdice, Jean Franco, and Juan Flores. Minneapolis and London: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 65–83.


---. “Remapping Culture.” Americas: New Interpretive Essays. Ed. Alfred Stepan. New York and Oxford: Oxford U P, 1992. 172–88.


Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell U P, 1985.


Jara, René. Los límites de la representación: La novela chilena del golpe. Madrid: Fundación Instituto Shakespeare, 1985.


Montecino, Sonia. Madres y huachos: Alegorías del mestizaje chileno. San­tiago: Editorial Cuarto Propio, 1993.


Neustadt, Robert. CADA día: La creación de un arte social. Santiago: Editorial Cuarto Propio, 2001.


Ortega, Julio. “Diamela Eltit y el imaginario de la virtualidad.” Una poética de literatura menor: La narrativa de Diamela Eltit. Ed. Juan Carlos Lérto­ra. Santiago: Editorial Cuarto Propio, 1993. 53–81.


Pratt, Mary Louise. “Overwriting Pinochet: Undoing the Culture of Fear in Chile.” Modern Language Quarterly 57.2 (1996) : 151-63.


Richard, Nelly. Margins and Institutions: Art in Chile since 1973. Melbourne: Art & Text, 1986.


Richard, Nelly and Carlos Leppe. Cuerpo Correccional. Santiago: V.I.S.U.A.L., 1980.


Rosenfeld, Lotty. Desacato: Sobre la obra de Lotty Rosenfeld. With María Eugenia Brito, Diamela Eltit, Gonzalo Muñoz, Nelly Richard y Raúl Zurita. Santiago: Francisco Zegers Editor, 1986.


---. Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento. Santiago: Ediciones C.A.D.A., 1980


[1] Portions of this essay were previously published in my book, (Con)Fusing Signs and Postmodern Positions: Spanish American Performance, Experimental Writing and the Critique of Political Confusion. New York: Garland Publishing, 1999 and an earlier essay, “Diamela Eltit: Clearing Space for Critical Performance.” Women and Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. New Hybrid Identities: Performing Race/ Gender/ Nation /Sexuality. 7:2–8:1 (1995) : 219–239.


[2] To date Diamela Eltit has published six novels: Lumpérica (1983), Por la patria (1986), El cuarto mundo (1988), Vaca sagrada (1991), Los vigilantes (1994), and Los trabajadores de la muerte (1998). Los vigilantes was awarded the Chilean prize Premio José Nuez for best novel in 1995.


In addition she facilitated a “testimonial,” El padre mío (1989), tran­scribing (and prologuing) the words of a schizophrenic street person. Her other recent book, El infarto del alma (1994), is a collaboration with the photographer Paz Errázuriz.


Eltit was awarded a Guggenheim grant for literature in 1985 and a grant from the Social Science Research Council in 1988. In the political sphere she was appointed cultural attaché for the Chilean Embassy in Mexico dur­ing the administration of Chilean President Patricio Aylwin, 1990–94.


[3] I should note that Eltit’s videos (produced in collaboration with Lotty Rosenfeld) are unavailable commercially and have never been distrib­uted. When I asked Eltit for a copy, promising that I would not redistribute them, she assured me that the videos were merely ensayos (essays) of limited inter­est: “¿a quién pueden interesar esas cosas?, sin contar que son trabajos de una máxima precariedad, ni siquiera son piezas audiovisuales formales, más bien ensayos en los que deposité parte de mi locura” (fax to the author, Oct. 27, 1993). Maipu is a historic video­graphic document that registers a key episode in Eltit’s political and literary performance. Eltit’s choice of the term “ensayo,” furthermore, underscores the pertinence of considering her performance actions together with the “Ensayo General” of Lumpérica (which I propose in this essay).


[4] On the role of gender in the Pinochet coup, see Sonia Montecino’s Madres y huachos: Alegorías del mestizaje chileno. Montecino partially inverts the image of women’s passivity with respect to the coup. In her chapter on “maternal politics,” Montecino describes how right-wing women took to the streets before the coup, clattering cookware and pro­testing what they perceived as the communist rape of the Chilean matria (motherland). While this political intervention implicates these women in the rise of Chilean (neo)fascism, Montecino points out that these women situated themselves within the patriarchal discourse as mothers, calling on male soldiers to restore a traditional state of order (103–10).


[5] In her article “Remapping Culture,” Franco recognizes some femi­nist agency in Eltit’s work: “It is too easy to dismiss as ‘elitist’ middle-class women writers who have chosen to write difficult or self-reflexive prose, since frequently (as in the case of Diamela Eltit and Cristina Peri-Rossi) they address questions of women’s sexuality or the definition of aesthetic desire and pleasure, which generally have been represented in masculine terms. On the other hand, to consider their testimonials as major alternatives to the prevailing literary institution is problematic” (183).


[6] See Nelly Richard’s essay, “The Rhetoric of the Body” in Margins and Institutions for analysis of the use of the body in works by Leppe, Eltit and Raúl Zurita. See also the book conceptualized collaboratively between N. Richard and Carlos Leppe, N. Richard’s Cuerpo Correccional (Santiago: V.I.S.U.A.L., 1980).


[7] For description and analysis of CADA’s art actions, interviews with each founding member and a compilation of the majority of CADA manifestos and documents see my book CADA día: La creación de un arte social (Santiago: Editorial Cuarto Propio) 2001. For an early essay written by Eltit about the concept of art actions, see “Sobre las acciones de arte: Un nuevo espacio crítico.” Umbral (Nueva Epoca) 3 (1980) : 23-7.


[8] See Lotty Rosenfeld’s book Una milla de cruces sobre el pavimento. Santiago: Ediciones C.A.D.A., 1980. See also, Desacato: Sobre la obra de Lotty Rosenfeld. With María Eugenia Brito, Diamela Eltit, Gonzalo Muñoz, Nelly Richard y Raúl Zurita. Santiago: Francisco Zegers Editor, 1986.


[9] All quotations from Lumpérica are cited parenthetically with the pagination from the 1991 edition of Editorial Planeta Chilena. All translations cited in my essay are my own. The novel has been translated to English by Ronald Christ with the collaboration of Gene Bell-Villada, Helen Lane and Catalina Parra. See E. Luminata (Santa Fe: Lumen, 1997).


[10] My reading of incisions will emphasize their discursive more than their symbolic enunciation. Castro-Klarén’s article underscores the text’s engagement with Roman Catholic symbolism. According to Castro-Klarén, Lumpérica (and by extension one might add Eltit’s mutilation) stages a “scandal” by positioning a self-sacrificing woman in the role of Christ. Castro-Klarén writes, “Lumpérica re-writes the scene as a ritual pertaining to a feminine body that simultaneously achieves her sexuality and her text. . . . Lumpérica traces the message of the Gospel in reverse: ‘And the word became flesh’” (my translation, 106-108).


[11] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, employ the metaphor of corporeal “inscription” to describe the interrelatedness of culture, violence, language and writing:


Cruelty is the movement of culture that is realized in bodies and inscribed on them, belaboring them … The sign is a position of desire; but the first signs are the territorial signs that plant their flags in bodies. And if one wants to call this inscription in naked flesh ‘writing,’ then it must be said that speech in fact presup­poses writing, and that it is this cruel system of inscribed signs that renders man capable of language, and gives him a memory of the spoken word. (145)


[12] Thematically as well, Lumpérica evokes the reproductive cycles of women and the universal need for sleep, food and light (itself a cycle) among society’s nonproductive sector.


[13] As Julio Ortega writes in “Diamela Eltit y el imaginario de la virtualidad,” “To replace patriarchy with matriarchy only confirms hierarchy. It is a matter, then, of problematizing the entire system of representation” (54).

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