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Akademia Cartonera: Academic Articles, Cartonera Publications Catalog and Bibliography /Artículos académicos, Catálogo de publicaciones cartoneras y Bibliografía available in original text on CD (2009)

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Theory of the Workshop: César Aira and Eloísa Cartonera

“What are books made of?”

César Aira[1]


One of the reasons we pay attention to artists, to writers and filmmakers, to performers, and founders of small presses, is because we care about the worlds they invent. That is, we care to find out what forms of labor and collective action, of cooperation and hierarchy, are proposed through their symbolic interventions. We care, in short, about what a given distribution of the sensible looks like when modeled as a work of art. And this interest in turn reiterates an old conceit: that artists are capable—for so goes this particular conceit—of placing under the microscope, or refracting through a prism, or situating inside a hall of mirrors, the myriad sense perceptions that make up the stuff of everyday life. To switch metaphors, this would be an understanding of the work of art as the site of an experiment and of the aesthetic experience in general as a small (or large) laboratory made out of words (and other things): a laboratory—or perhaps more accurately, given the topic of this volume of essays, a workshop—for modeling the construction of collective life.

By invoking the idea of a “distribution of the sensible,” I am referencing the work of French philosopher Jacques Rancière. The phrase refers to a “system of self-evident facts of sense perception” that establishes at once what is common and what is private, what is shared and what is not. Works of art—and works of other sorts as well—parse out the realm of what is perceptible; they draw lines that determine what counts and what does not. This is why, to Rancière’s mind, there is “an ‘aesthetics’ at the core of politics,” because artistic practices are “ways of ‘doing and making’ that intervene in the general distribution of ways of doing and making.”  If politics “revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it,” the arts similarly articulate “modes of being and forms of visibility” that are proposals for collective life. Here the aesthetic laboratory finds its ultimate application, for aesthetics and politics would (often secretly) share a common task: the delineation of worlds accessible to sensation and thought.[2]

The “distribution of the sensible” is a central concept throughout Rancière’s work. There is a brilliant exposition of its political consequences in “The Order of the City,” an essay on the division of labor as understood by Plato and Aristotle. In it, Rancière finds that the central prohibition in The Republic—that no one person occupies two different jobs—has nothing to do with competence. This pretense is only a ruse, aimed solely at shoring up class divisions. Thus, “[t]he only danger” in Plato’s republic “lies in confusing orders. Between artisan and warrior, or between warrior and ruler, there can be no exchange of place and function; neither can two things be done at the same time without bringing doom to the city.”  Stripping away the rhetoric of competency that underlies this mandate, we find that “[a]ll that remains is the prohibition,” which is to say that the function of the citizen is simply to obey, to stay in “his” place.[3] This political division is foundational for Western philosophy, and it is not restricted to questions of labor. Thus in another essay Rancière finds that Western theater is premised on “a gap between two positions,” identified with the dramaturge and the spectator. “There is,” in this distribution of positions, “capacity on one side and incapacity on the other.”  The rhetoric of capacity, its lie revealed in the essay on The Republic, recurs in the genesis and structure of Western theater, oriented again toward delineating a basic division of roles. For Rancière, what is contravened, as long as we accept this framework, is a democratic distribution of authority. The alternative, or one alternative in any case, is to jettison the principle of inequality and to “emancipate the spectator.”  “Emancipation,” Rancière proposes, “starts from the opposite principle, the principle of equality. It begins when we dismiss the opposition between looking and acting.”[4]   Emancipation, stand-in for a more democratic mode of social life, thus begins with a leveling and also with a blurring or erasure of lines, a “distribution” in which equality and collusion among participants is assumed from the outset.

It would not be a stretch to assert that the series of aesthetic interventions that are the topic of this volume are motivated by a similar desire: the desire to distribute roles and responsibilities in an egalitarian, fluid manner. Thus the rhetoric of Eloísa Cartonera, the first of the cartonera presses to appear and still the most well-known among them, emphasizes cooperation among cardboard collectors, artists, and writers: “a cardboard shop, called No hay cuchillo sin Rosas, is its site, where cardboard collectors exchange ideas with artists and writers.”[5] This putatively free exchange of ideas would seek to generate a collaborative work environment, which is to say that the press considers itself “a social and artistic project in which we learn to work in a cooperative manner.”[6]  Eloísa Cartonera’s participants, subsumed under the “we” (“aprendemos”) of this formulation, aim at “working in a cooperative manner” and also a more responsible one: as the project’s website tells us, the cardboard collectors are compensated at five times the going rate for their materials. All these efforts at achieving equality are oriented toward producing a more “genuine” mode of labor: “The idea of the project is to generate genuine work through publishing books of contemporary Latin American literature. To this end, we came up with a very simple form of work that consists in making cardboard books.”[7] The cardboard book, in this picture, becomes a vehicle through which a somewhat egalitarian distribution of labor and authority is theorized.

All of this is not without precedent, of course, as attempts to build bridges across class divides are not new in Latin American literary history. In this direction, we might think of the long pedagogical (and more often than not, pedantic) tradition that stretches from certain nineteenth-century “national romances” through the Martín Fierro up to novels like Doña Bárbara and the Teatro Guiñol of Rosario Castellanos and others. In broad strokes, these texts and undertakings sought to mediate the class and ethnic divisions of postcolonial Latin American countries through a literature of cultural uplift. The pedagogical bent of this tradition, it almost goes without saying, largely leaves intact that initial division critiqued by Ranciére: “capacity on one side and incapacity on the other.”  More radical--and more immediately informative for the cartonera presses--is a project like the “teatro do oprimido” of Augusto Boal. A series of theater projects staged primarily in São Paulo and rural Peru, this “theater of the oppressed” provided a touchstone for a complex theoretical apparatus. Thus, in an eponymous text, the Brazilian director traces a genealogy of Western theater and finds, as Rancière later would, a foundational division between actors and spectators: “In the beginning, the theater was the dithyrambic song: free people singing in the open air. The carnival. The feast. Later the ruling classes took possession of the theater and built their dividing walls. First, they divided the people, separating actors from spectators: people who act and people who watch—the party is over! Secondly, among the actors, they separated the protagonists from the mass. The coercive indoctrination began!”[8]

Here, then, Boal proposes that prior to the Aristotelian “distribution of the sensible” there had been a time of flux and celebration, of “free people in the open air.”  The factual basis of this assertion is of little concern for the present essay. What is more interesting is how this history became the basis for Boal’s theater experiments, interventions conceived as nothing less than a “rehearsal for revolution.”  Animating this “rehearsal” was an attempt at recuperating a moment anterior to a distribution of roles putatively based on “capacity and incapacity.”

We find, then, an antecedent of the cartonera publishing houses—more specifically, of Eloísa Cartonera—in a particular theater tradition. Cartonera publishing, like Boal’s theater, seeks to “stage,” through a series of elaborate and somewhat informal scenes, the construction of social life itself. Equally significant for the cartonera presses, however, has been a certain lineage of print literature. In an essay published on the website of Eloísa Cartonera, Washington Cucurto, one of the press’s founders, traces a genealogy of Argentine writers—from Roberto Arlt through Copi up to César Aira and Dalia Rosetti (pseudonym of Fernanda Laguna, another of the founders)—who in some way prefigure the operations of the cartonera presses. What do these writers’ texts have in common?  Cucurto claims that the work of all these authors is propelled forward by the “force of circumstances,” which is to say that their writing is conceived as a sort of event, the performance of a real-time intervention in reality.[9] That Cucurto makes this point is hardly surprising, for in some way this is also the form that his own writing would ideally take. For example, his novel Hasta quitarle Panamá a los yanquis was published in serial format on Eloísa Cartonera’s website, and its prologue extends an invitation to his readers: “Ah, and to all those visitors to W.C.’s page, he’ll be waiting on you each Friday at midnight at the danceable Mbarete Bronco (Pasaje O’Brian 150).”[10] The publication of the novel is thus linked, conceptually, to the possibility of a meeting, of an informal encounter among readers with the writer. And this is what connects the written work of Cucurto to the operations of Eloísa Cartonera in general: a distribution of roles in which the literary act is seen as a collaborative performance, as the occasion of an encounter.

Of the two living authors mentioned as forerunners of this sort of literature, César Aira is certainly the better known. The author of more than fifty short novels and essays, Aira is fast becoming one of Latin America’s most celebrated writers; this will continue as more of his books are translated and reissued. Aira’s readers would certainly find resonance between his work and a gesture like Cucurto’s invitation to readers. Already in Cómo me hice monja, one of his better-known texts, he had encouraged his readers to call him on the phone: “My number’s in the phonebook. I keep the answering machine turned on, but I’m there next to the telephone.” César Aira, Cómo me hice monja, 74. Such a gesture, like Cucurto’s, would correspond to a central fantasy in his work, “the fantasy of a text that registers and displays the concomitant unfolding of life and writing, writing inciting the unfolding of life, life imposing its inscription in writing.”[12] The fusion of the act of writing and the process of living, the idea of a writing that advances at the pace of lived time, a literature of circumstances: this describes an old avant-garde aspiration, a filiation that Aira often underscores when he writes and speaks about his own work. With the rapid, almost careless, publication of his short novels, he seemingly follows Breton’s first commandment of surrealism to the letter: “write quickly….”  But, underlying this fantasy—indeed, underlying the entirety of Aira’s work—is a more fundamental question: that of the dimensions of the literary experience, of the temporal and spatial extensions of writing and reading, for what we call literature is always mediated through things with particular limits and potentials. How do these things—books, to take a paradigmatic example, or telephones, webpages and discotheques, to mention others—delineate an experience of literature?  This is the question presupposed by the shared fantasy of Aira and Cucurto, and it is one that affects directly the distribution of the sensible proposed by each of them.

What are the dimensions of the literary experience imagined by Aira?  And by Eloísa Cartonera?  The latter of these suggests an answer to this question: its dimensions are those of a workshop. Everywhere on the project’s website—a video demonstrating how a cardboard book is made, the emphasis on each individual book’s roughly-hewn appearance, the availability of book-making classes—it points toward its own workshop as the central space of literary experience. It is with respect to this emphasis on work, and on work that takes place in a determinate location, that Aira can most usefully be seen as a precursor—indeed, the primary precursor—of the press’s operations. This relationship—the conceptual linking of Aira’s writings to Eloísa Cartonera’s operations—occupies the crux of this essay. In it, I will propose that Aira delineates a notion of literature in which the task of writing and the job of publishing are seen as necessarily interdependent processes, a notion that later becomes foundational for Eloísa Cartonera. In other words, Aira proposes a form of literature that engages with the materials of its construction, and the cartonera presses ultimately enact this sort of literature. It is at the crossing of these writings with these publishing projects that we witness the emergence of a literature based on concrete work, a literature that is best conceived along the lines of a theory of the workshop.


But what is a workshop? “[A] productive space in which people deal face-to-face with issues of authority”: Richard Sennett offers up this provisional definition in a recent cultural history of work and craft.[13] With characteristic concision, Sennett’s formula gets at the question of distribution that I have outlined above. The cartonera presses would be workshops in as much as they foreground the question of authority, of how it is distributed and how it is exercised. And following Sennett’s definition closely, this question ideally emerges in a face-to-face dynamic, which is to say in a space whose dimensions are somewhat limited. That is, a key characteristic of workshops tends to be a high level of contact among participants. The result is an intimate, tight-knit social scene. “The history of the workshop shows, in sum, a recipe for binding people tightly together.”[14] As Sennett tells the story, the workshop has been, in its various incarnations since medieval times, a “living scene of labor.”[15]

Sennett’s use of the term “scene” is not surprising. Like Boal and Rancière before him, he makes reference to the theater in order to illustrate an elementary division of labor: “In the archaic theater there was relatively little divide between spectator and performer, seeing and doing: people danced and spoke, then retired to a stone seat to watch others dance and declaim. By the time of Aristotle, actors and dancers had become a caste with special skills of costuming, speaking, and moving. Audiences stayed offstage, and so developed their own skills of interpretation as spectators. As critics, the audience sought to speculate then about what the stage-characters did not understand themselves (though the chorus on stage sometimes also took on this clarifying role).”[16]

The resonances with Boal’s text are evident here: singing, dancing, speaking, and sitting in turn, participants in early theater took on every possible role. But, by the time of Aristotle, this participatory flux had given way to an early form of specialization, which would ultimately produce the professional actor and, simultaneously, the professional critic (the most highly specialized of spectators): some perform, others watch. This division between spectator and actor bears important consequences for Sennett’s appeal to craftsmanship as a paradigm for work because it limits access to the “tools” (broadly conceived) of a given art. The prohibitions of specialization, in short, make craft impossible. “The craftsman, engaged in a continual dialogue with materials, does not suffer [the] divide” between maker and consumer, or between performer and spectator.[17] Craft, in this conception, corresponds to a mode of labor in which roles are not distributed as hard-and-fast positions, but rather where all participants would engage in various tasks.

Here, as is the case with Eloísa Cartonera, engagement with the materials of construction is central. This sort of engagement recurs, almost obsessively, in the novels of César Aira. These texts are replete with fanciful descriptions of practices that, we are led to suppose, imagine ways of constructing literary objects. They abound with instructions and tools, and with scenes in which tools are invented or improvised. There is an extraordinary example of this tendency in the 1992 novella El volante, which as the title indicates begins as a “flier,” although it quickly gets out of hand and becomes something like a novel, the one we are reading. Halfway through, we read a description of how the text is being constructed:

I’m using what’s called, in English, “stenciling,” “extensiling,” as you’d say it, and will later print it on a mimeograph machine. These days fliers are made with the photoduplication system, I looked into it, but it was pretty expensive. And besides, just as with simple photocopies (more expensive still, but with the advantage that I could make them as I passed them out), I’d have to make a typed original, and as it happens I don’t own a typewriter. [. . .]  And now, since I don’t have a typewriter, I make those incisions by hand, with a needle, imitating as best I can a printed typeface.[18]

Here we find a “living scene of labor,” a workshop-like figuration of the act of writing: a made-up one, for certain, but one that accurately represents the relationship between literature and labor imagined in Aira’s fiction. The task of the writer, if we follow the suggestion of this scene, would ideally take the form of an artisanal practice, in which the author must carve out the individual letters he will later use on a mimeograph. The resultant product is likely to be rough and imprecise, still bearing traces of this improvisational labor. That is, the author will imitate, as best as he can, standard typeface, but as he implicitly recognizes he can hope only to come close.

Aira couches this painstaking operation within a situation of penury: this writer (a wryly constructed stand-in for himself) cannot afford a typewriter, and photocopies are prohibitively expensive. The suggestion is that in such circumstances one must go back and start over, reinventing the wheel, or in this case the press, in the face of a poverty of options. The passage thus reads well as a comment on contemporary publishing conditions—both in Latin America and in numerous other places. The material constraints hyperbolized here are nothing new to Latin American publishers. Throughout the twentieth century, and even during what Matilde Sánchez calls the “era of publishing splendor” of the sixties, Spanish-language publishers faced all sorts of difficulties, ranging from political repression to seemingly banal commercial problems like the high prices of paper, postage, and translation rights.[19] In recent decades, this penury has given rise, among young Argentine writers, to a particular set of aesthetic practices and attitudes, which ultimately become manifest in a concern with how the literary object appears, with how it is made and circulated. One recent essay on “new” Argentine poetry proposes that:

…if there’s something truly new in this literature it’s the material on which it appears. The first thing about this poetry that attracts attention isn’t the way it’s written but rather the materiality of the book-object that houses it. Curious designs, formats rather distinct from “common” books... things that make us wonder “but what is this?”  That feeling of surprise is the mode in which the “new,” the distinctive element of this recent poetry, initially appears to us. And we should pay special attention to it. The design of books of recent poetry makes up the first and fundamental mediation that the critic should pay attention to when s/he sits down to read it.[20]

A fundamental characteristic of recent Argentine poetry, then, would be a concern with the vehicle that allows it to appear—a concern that simultaneously provokes experimentation with other vehicles (cardboard books, for instance). To be sure, this is not the result of an artistic whim. Rather, it reflects a concrete economic conjuncture characterized by the “absolute impossibility” for an ambitious or experimental writer to be published by a major press. While most contemporary writers of this ilk do not carve their own typeface, in this context it is not inconceivable that one or some of them might.

To illustrate how this plays out, I will mention just one exemplary case, the “Escuela de Poesía y Edición” (“Poetry and Publishing School”) recently announced by Argentine poet Daniel Durand. At first glance, the description of the school (a simple text posted on a blog) seems quite unremarkable: the first year centers on reading, writing, and critique, and the second focuses on translation and orality; classes are small, none of them exceeding five participants. However, another topic of the course’s second year seems particular to the present moment, as the practice of publishing is taught. While completion of the course will not result in a diploma, something more substantial is promised: “at the close of the second year students will walk away with a poetry press under their arms.”[21]   Students will not take away with them a published text, as the metaphor of the arm would lead us to expect, rather they will construct a poetry press of their own. Like Durand himself (co-founder of Ediciones Deldiego and Colecciones Chapita), participants in the school will become ideally both poets and editors.

“First publish, then write”: this notorious dictum sums up this general reorientation in Argentine letters. This phrase is scattered, in various permutations, throughout the work of Osvaldo Lamborghini, a writer whose posthumous writings have been edited and extensively glossed by Aira. In his notes on these volumes (epilogues that contain invaluable insights into his late friend’s work) Aira never ceases to underscore the centrality of this notion. This owes to a number of reasons, for certain, but to one in particular: Aira conceives that publishing is a central—and perhaps the central—act in the contemporary literary experience. As I outline above, this conception of literature results from a general impoverishment, both in general economic terms and in particular of access to channels of publication. However, and just as significantly, it also stems from a number of more propitious circumstances. In Argentina, for instance, the maintenance of a strong peso during the nineties meant that imported photocopy machines became more widely available. This was good for students and non-mainstream writers, but less good for the book industry (already undergoing transformations of vaster proportions).[22] Similarly, during those same years advances in computer technology opened up new possibilities for text design. By the mid-nineties, writes one observer, “[t]ext and images could be prepared, edited and even typeset on the computer. With the introduction of the laser printer, high-quality printing too became a desktop operation. Every aspect of the traditional publishing industry had been made accessible, except the mechanisms of distribution.”[23] And of course, it goes without saying that these developments in printing and design were mirrored by an expansion in the possibilities of online publishing. By the late nineties, user-friendly platforms such as Blogger had appeared, providing the infrastructure for influential blogs such as Daniel Link’s “Linkillo (cosas mías)” as well as a host of others. Aira had his finger on the technological pulse when he advised, during those same years, to “expect nothing from publishers. The future, if there is a future, is in self-publication. Very soon, thanks to technological advances, books will be able to be made at home, we’ll all be able to make them.”[24] The cartonera workshops represent the logical unfolding of this scenario, as they seemingly suggest that the future (of literature, I might add), if such a future exists, is contingent on a fusion of roles, on writers becoming publishers.


Aira’s position, prescient of the cartonera presses and of other phenomena in contemporary Argentine literature, has often been read as indicating his resistance to the imperatives of market culture. Take, for instance, this judgment by Francine Masiello: “In the style of Macedonio Fernández,” she writes, “who knew that the unfinished work was the one that most resisted the market, Aira leaves a sense of fragmented knowledge, which resists linear recuperation, and refuses a turn to nostalgia. As such, his texts remain outside the usual forms of best-seller commerce and sales and instead celebrate the dissolution of identity politics along with the dissolution of conventional narrative form.”[25] Here, Masiello conjugates a number of features of Aira’s work—its seemingly unfinished quality, its unconventional form, its anti-essentialist attitudes around questions of identity—as signaling his resistance to the demands of the market in cultural goods. Aira’s essays on literature (generally polemical in tone) indeed frequently lend credence to this interpretation. Between the best seller and the work of literature, he writes in one text, “the incompatibility is absolute.”[26] The real work of literature, in this somewhat derivative formulation, would resist its incorporation into the sphere of commerce.

A novel like Las curas milagrosas del Doctor Aira, to take one example, would, on the surface, serve to bolster such a claim. The Doctor Aira of the novella’s title is a sort of medicine man, a paranoid healer convinced that his rival, representative of the medical establishment, is out to get him, to out him as a fraud in a candid camera stunt. He is also, we learn, a writer, a prolific and unpublished one, who in his spare time has filled notebook upon notebook with his meditations on what he calls “miraculous cures.” He has come into some money, and takes a sabbatical from healing to edit and publish his accumulated writings. This is no small task, for the writings are as ill-organized as they are extensive. “He was,” we read, “in the position of a poet who had written ten thousand poems, and the time had come to start thinking seriously about editing them.”[27] The analogy, however, does not precisely hold, for Doctor Aira’s writings do not take the form of discrete, easily identifiable units such as poems. Rather, his is an amorphous body of text that extends in all directions, covering—it would seem—the entirety of his thought throughout his lifetime: “over the course of the last years he had filled an incredible number of notebooks with the development of his ideas; he had written so much that to write more, on the same theme, was directly impossible.”[28]   Editing such a body of work means parceling it out, and to do so Doctor Aira decides that the most adequate format will be the fascículo, or serial installment. His fascículos will be little hardcover volumes, will not exceed a few pages in length, and will appear at regular intervals, as is customary with serial texts.[29]

Unlike other common forms of serial production—novels by Dickens or Rowling, or Latin American telenovelas—Doctor Aira’s novels will not be profitable, will not come close to covering their own costs. Thus, Doctor Aira decides to edit his works only upon receiving a lump sum of money, analogous perhaps to a sort of fellowship or grant, to draw a parallel with one common form of financing artistic production in the present. This allows him a certain freedom in the production of his installments: economic calculations become superfluous. And thus, Doctor Aira “did not consider selling the fascículos, for which he would have had to set up a commercial sort of business, register as a publisher, pay value-added taxes, and a thousand other things that he didn’t dream of doing. He’d give them away; nobody could stop him from doing that.”[30] But if they are unlike other, more profitable forms of serial texts, what sort of thing are these fascículos? With their whimsical focus on “miraculous cures,” they seem rather to invoke the sort of text that any recent visitor to a large Latin American city cannot help but encounter: eight- or twelve-page books of poetry (stapled or just folded) handed out on the subway, small compilations of quotations by philosophers aimed at improving our love lives given away for a small donation, fliers handed out by people standing on corners. These are some common forms of circulation taken by marginal forms of written material in many parts of Latin America today.[31] And they certainly make their way from their authors to their readers (or to their potential readers—I, for one, spend little time reading the texts that are thrust into my hands) outside “the usual forms of best-seller commerce and sales,” to return to Masiello’s neat formulation. And it is in something like this manner that Doctor Aira imagines his fascículos circulating, which ultimately explains why Masiello reads resistance in Aira, and by extension in the print subjects who remain faithful to his poetics.

In the critical reception of Aira’s work, this perceived resistance has almost invariably been coupled to his allegiance to the avant-garde (ultimately an articulation of an arrière-garde, to draw on a recent text by Marjorie Perloff).[32] Dierdra Reber has identified this aspect of Aira’s work as marking the dominant strand of critical reflection on it. She cites the plethora of “arguments that seek to define his entire oeuvre as a unified set of unorthodox procedures either suggestive of or identifiable with those of historical Vanguard artists,” a characterization that Aira himself has, as I signal above, often promoted.[33] This critical tendency, she maintains, invariably centers on Aira’s invocation of procedure as the driving force that underlies all artistic creation. Thus Aira’s most cited critical text, titled “La nueva escritura,” affirms that “[t]he great artists of the twentieth century aren’t those who made works, but rather those who invented procedures for works to make themselves, or not. What do we need works for?  Who wants another novel, another painting, another symphony?  As if there weren’t enough already!”[34] The question is worth asking: who, in effect, wants another novel, another painting, another symphony?  Who, when there are so many out there already, needs more?  The question makes sense not because of the empirical answer to it (for plenty of people do indeed want more novels, more paintings, more symphonies), but because it reminds us of the original inventive gesture—the labor—that gives rise not to works but to the possibility of works. This would be, then, the defining characteristic of the avant-garde that Aira seeks to recover.

Aira’s emphasis on process—his obsessive return to the act of fabrication, to the invention of procedures—is thus often seen as indicative of a resistance to the cultural demands of late capitalism. It would be an easy enough task to debunk this claim. After all, we all know that capitalism is voracious, that its appetite is only whetted by cultural models that seem to escape its reach. We still find ourselves within the prolonged “historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life.”[35] And thus, it comes as no surprise that Aira’s texts are increasingly taken up by large publishing houses firmly ensconced within the international culture industry (seemingly negating, years later, Masiello’s original judgment that his texts are, in practical terms, unassimilable to the market). Various second editions of his novels, for example, have appeared under Mondadori’s imprint. The Spanish-language operations of this Italian company, chaired by Silvio Berlusconi, are managed through a partnership with Random House. This company, in turn, forms part of Bertelsmann media, a German conglomerate comprising five divisions involved in broadcasting, music, periodicals, media distribution, and publishing. In this very literal sense, Aira’s work is increasingly integrated into the literary arm of the culture industry.

Debunking can be satisfying. It is easy enough to answer the question, “does Aira’s work, in spite of its express desires, resist the operations of transnational capitalism?” with a resounding or qualified “no.”  And while we are at it, we might say something similar about Eloísa Cartonera, notwithstanding its rhetoric of “genuine work” and cooperative labor. We might easily see such a project as engaging in the cultural administration of members of the urban poor, of a global underclass that, as Mike Davis has shown, is increasingly treated as a “surplus humanity.”[36] But to restrict our analysis to this point would leave another, more pragmatic and immediate question unasked: within the present cultural ecology, what sorts of literary and social worlds do these projects imagine?  That is, within contemporary constraints on literary and cultural production, what distribution of roles are proposed and set forth by them?  Such a question sidesteps the issue of resistance, instead focusing on what happens within the horizon of production characteristic of the present. This question is, in part, answered above: for Aira, as for many literary actors in contemporary Argentina—Eloísa Cartonera foremost among them—the possibility of literature (its future, if it has a future) is contingent on publication and writing becoming two sides of the same coin. Aira highlights and exemplifies this in his work—his critical essays and his fiction—as for him the act of making ultimately takes precedence over the finished literary product; publishing exists on a continuum with writing (even preceding it, conceptually speaking). The literary experience, in this formulation, ideally becomes a “scene of living labor” in which traditional roles, the traditional divisions based on divergent capacities, are confounded. And this is why I propose we read Aira’s texts as theorizing an experience of literature centered in the workshop.


Scenes of literary labor such as these necessarily happen in concrete places, which is why the cartonera workshops—invariably anchored in a neighborhood, at a specific address—exemplify this notion of literature. And this has consequences for the reach, for the dimensions of this sort of literary experience, dimensions that are necessarily small. “Small” means two things here. It means, on the one hand, that the literary horizon has diminished for writers like those who see their work published by presses such as Eloísa Cartonera. As one astute observer points out, contemporary literature has become, within a highly variegated media landscape, “[j]ust another among so many formats that the versions or stories of historical or social life might take.”[37] This is a widely commented, general development, and it places limits on the reach of contemporary literary discourse. At the same time, however, these limitations often become the occasion for a certain delirious optimism. “Literature,” Aira writes in a moment of illumination, “that grandiose, oversized institution, can also be small and light like a butterfly.”[38] This revelation puts a particular spin on the loss of literature’s grandiosity and, indeed, its relevance (again, a loss experienced principally by certain sorts of literature). This loss suddenly seems strangely liberating. Why is this so?  Perhaps because through its reduced reach, literature is forced to posit forms of production that are heterodox to inherited modes.

For example, this smallness is what would permit the close engagement with materials carried out by Eloísa Cartonera. As in Sennett’s workshop, reduced dimensions are part and parcel of contact with the materials of construction. As I have pointed out above, this form of literature informs and grows out of a context in which the “materiality of the book-object” is of primary importance. At times, it seems that this concern is particular to literature, though it also speaks to the work of art—or indeed, to work—in general: “The maquette of the particle can be constructed at home, in a low-cost workshop, and in your free time. And here we’ll have to guard against a common error: perfectionism. If we wait until we have the most adequate materials for constructing the elements, and until we have the right technology to put them in motion, we’ll never get it done. But scrap materials are good enough: wood, cardboard, paper, strings, rags. It doesn’t matter if it comes out looking like a monstrosity: what matters is making it.”[39]

In this passage Aira explicitly makes reference to a workshop, and the object being constructed is deliberately generic (it is simply a “particle,” made of “elements”). The list of materials evokes a heap of scraps, leaving it up to the reader to imagine what sort of object might emerge from this “low-cost workshop.”  This is a recipe for engaging closely with materials of construction—of art or of any object—for creating what Aira often calls “just anything,” a formula that throughout his work is synonymous with the ideal work of art.

This passage was first published in 1995. It was eight years later that Eloísa Cartonera began a project for which it might serve as a set of guiding principles. A small, informal workshop that makes use of waste materials (among them, cardboard) and espouses an ethos of anti-perfectionism: this is an adequate description of the cartonera workshop. The last of these characteristics—a bias against “perfectionism”—is perhaps the key one, as the imperfect, roughly constructed book-object would epitomize Eloísa Cartonera’s mode of production. And this last principle ultimately invites us to extend the form of construction exemplified here to other realms of social life. After all, the literature that emerges from the workshop described here would necessarily be, at least in part, a literature of amateurs, or more precisely a literature in which the amateur acquires a unique position vis-à-vis experts (which is to say, professional writers, however we conceive this category). This fact is crucial for understanding the sort of social world proposed by Aira and Eloísa Cartonera. This is true because if it is useful to view aesthetic experiences as occasions for modeling collective life, then the invocation of the amateur points us toward an urgent question in contemporary society. This question would ask how amateur practices (or at least non-specialist ones) of all sorts engage with what is by now an entrenched and generalized culture of expertise. Expert practices have a long history, as I have intimated above, and yet recent years have seen their purview extended in unprecedented ways. While earlier forms of expertise—those identified with Taylorist production, for instance—centered on the management of human labor, on the “decomposition of a particular human task into its basic components,” the emergence and increasing sophistication of “intelligent machines” over the past few decades has broadened the possibilities for concentrating knowledge and power.[40] To give just one example, in his sweeping history of military assemblages, Manuel DeLanda demonstrates that contemporary military strategy involves a “process of draining the [human] expert’s brain” and depositing that knowledge in computer networks, “a process that represents an intensification of the earlier historical process of capturing human nature in tables and lists.”[41] Expertise, long concentrated in human brains and bodily practices, is thus increasingly accumulated within an expansive, and by now “social” world of machines. Of course, niether Aira nor Eloísa Cartonera directly takes a position on this question; rather, their work engages this generic scenario—one affecting almost all realms of labor—within the sphere of literature, proposing modes of social relations in which the expert and the amateur might enter into dialogue with each other and with the materials of their labor.

This hypothetical dialogue brings us back to those original divisions identified and critiqued in various contexts by Rancière, Boal, and Sennett: the hierarchical and fixed distribution of capacities. Drawing (directly in some cases, obliquely in others) on the work of César Aira, the cartonera workshops propose another sort of distribution. This would be one in which roles are combined and negotiated, in which the act of construction, and thus the sorts of authority that govern it, becomes the central matter of concern. This is not to say that these aesthetic projects annul these forms of authority; rather, they place them into view—on stage as it were—offering them up for debate. “What are books made of?”: Aira asks this question, one that also seems to lie at the conceptual center of the cartonera presses, in an essay cited above.[42] And in the case of the cardboard publishers, it isn’t simply a question of materials, for we know (because they remind us incessantly) what materials these books are made of. Rather, it is a broader question that asks what sorts of social dynamics might be generated around and through “ways of ‘doing and making’” (Rancière) literary culture in the present. And this in turn takes us, as Rancière intimates, to a final question, a political one: what are the possible, and what are better, ways of doing and making assemblages of social life today?

Craig Epplin is visiting assistant professor in the Spanish Department at Reed College. His research focuses on contemporary Latin American literature, new media, and book culture. He has published in the Hispanic Review, Revista Iberoamericana, and Ciberletras, and is currently at work on a book manuscript titled Without Books: Literary Assemblages in Contemporary Latin America.


[1] César Aira, La trompeta de mimbre (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 1995), 132. Throughout this essay, I will use my own translations, citing the original text in brackets as footnotes.

[2] Jacques Rancière, Politics and Aesthetics, translated by Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2004), 12-13.

[3] Jacques Rancière, “The Order of the City,” translated by John Drury, Corinne Oster, and Andrew Parker, Critical Inquiry 30, no. 2 (2004): 290-91.

[4] Jaques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum XLV (2007): 177.

[5] Eloísa Cartonera, No hay cuchillo sin Rosas: Historia de una editorial latinoamericana y Antología de jóvenes autores (Buenos Aires: Merz & Solitude / Eloísa Cartonera, 2007), 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Eloísa Cartonera, “¿De qué se trata?”

[8] Augusto Boal, Theater of the Oppressed, translated by Adrian Jackson (New York: Routledge, 2006), 119.

[9] Washington Cucurto, “Intensidad desviada,”

[10] Washington Cucurto, Hasta quitarle Panamá a los yanquis, Eloísa Cartonera,

[12] Reinaldo Laddaga, Espectáculos de realidad: Ensayo sobre la narrativa latinoamericana de las últimas dos décadas (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 2007), 19.

[13] Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 54.

[14] Ibid., 80.

[15] Ibid., 53.

[16] Ibid., 125.

[17] Ibid.

[18] César Aira, El Volante (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 1992), 44-45.

[19] Sánchez makes this observation in María Teresa Gramuglio et al., “Literatura, mercado y crítica: Un debate,” Punto de vista 66 (2000), 8; Eustasio A. García, “Historia de la empresa editorial en Argentina: Siglo XX,” in Historia de las empresas editoriales de América Latina, siglo XX, edited by Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, 15-104 (Bogotá: CERLALC, 2000), 38.

[20] Ana Mazzoni and Damián Selci, “Poesía actual y cualquierización,” El Interpretador 26 (2006): Cualquierizacion.html

[21] Daniel Durand, “Escuela de Poesía y Edición,” 9 February 2009:

[22] For an excellent survey of these transformations see Malena Botto, “1990-2000: La concentración y polarización de la industria editorial,” in Editores y políticas editoriales en Argentina, 1880-2000, edited by José de Diego, 209-49 (Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2006).

[23] Wade Rowland, Spirit of the Web: The Age of Information from Telegraph to Internet (Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2006), 345.

[24] Aira, La trompeta de mimbre, 131-32:

[“no esperar nada de los editores. El futuro, si hay futuro, está en la autoedición. Dentro de poco, gracias a los adelantos técnicos, los libros podrán hacerse en casa, todos podremos hacerlos”]

[25] Francine Masiello, The Art of Transition: Latin American Culture and Neoliberal Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 103.

[26] César Aira, “Best-sellers y literatura, vigencia de un debate,” La Nación (28 December 2003):

[27] César Aira, Las curas milagrosas del Doctor Aira (Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 1998), 38.

[28] Ibid., 39.

[29] Ibid., 46-50.

[30] Ibid., 51.

[31] An excellent study of related forms of textual circulation in Lima is Víctor Vich’s El discurso de la calle: Los cómicos ambulantes y las tensiones de la modernidad en el Perú (Lima: Editorial del Pacífico, 2001). I thank Jorge Coronado for bringing this study to my attention.

[32] Marjorie Perloff, “Writing as Re-Writing: Concrete Poetry as Arrière-Garde,” Ciberletras 17 (2007):

[33] Reber, “Cure for the Capitalist Headache,” 375.

[34] César Aira, “La nueva escritura,” La Jornada Semanal (12 April 1998):

[35] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1994), 29.

[36] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 1996), 174.

[37] Sergio Chejfec, El punto vacilante: Literatura, ideas y mundo privado (Buenos Aires: Norma, 2005), 18.

[38] Aira, La trompeta de mimbre, 80.

[39] Ibid., 23.

[40] Manuel De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 168.

[41] Ibid., 174-75.

[42] Aira, La trompeta de mimbre, 132.

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