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Review

 of  Jean  Franco,  Cruel  Modernity  (Durham,  NC:  Duke  University  Press,  2013)  
 
 
 
Jean  Franco's  formidable  new  book  offers  a  sobering  reflection  on  forms  of  extreme  cruelty  

in  Latin  America.  For  reasons  that  may  be  worth  pondering,  this  place  name  does  not  

appear  in  the  title,  nor  did  the  author  add  a  subtitle  to  account  for  the  site-­‐specificity  of  the  

book,  as  I  am  sure  she  felt  tempted  or  maybe  even  pressured  to  do.  Immediately,  the  

laudable  decision  not  to  give  in  to  this  temptation  or  pressure  has  two  salutary  effects.  

First,  through  its  curt  title  the  book  presents  itself  as  a  historically  based  account  of  the  

close  connection  between  cruelty  and  modernity,  without  having  to  resort  to  any  notions  of  

an  alternative,  peripheral,  or  non-­‐Western  modernity:  "Although  Cruel  Modernity  focuses  

on  Latin  America,  I  do  not  intend  to  suggest  that  cruelty  is  uniquely  exercised  here;  rather,  I  

examine  under  what  conditions  it  became  the  instrument  of  armies,  governments,  and  

rogue  groups  and  how  such  conditions  might  be  different  in  these  case  than  in  the  often-­‐

discussed  European  cases"  (2).  Modernity  here  is  referred  back  not  to  the  eighteenth-­‐

century  European  Enlightenment  or  to  the  French  and  American  Revolutions  but  to  the  

crucial  event  of  the  conquest  of  the  New  World.  But,  unlike  the  Argentine  philosopher  and  

liberation  theologist  Enrique  Dussel  whose  work  on  the  birth  of  modernity  in  colonial  

violence  she  dutifully  references,  Jean  Franco  does  not  indulge  in  the  kneejerk  rejection  of  

Eurocentrism.  Instead,  she  calmly  and  persuasively  moves  on  to  document  a  history  and  

gradually  builds  a  theory  of  the  cruelty  of  modernity  as  such,  without  particularizing  

attributes,  in  the  understanding  that  even  the  unprepared  reader  will  have  to  adapt  to  the  

idea  that  the  supposed  universalism  of  modern  civilization,  first  called  European  and  then  

Western  so  as  to  include  the  United  States,  is  inherently  based  on  the  violent  exclusion  of  
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the  primitive,  the  underdeveloped,  the  backward,  the  atavistic  or  whatever  is  otherwise  

considered  alien  to  modernity.  If  this  history  and  theory  had  announced  itself  from  the  very  

title  or  subtitle  of  the  book  as  pertaining  specifically  to  the  area  of  Latin  American  studies,  

such  insights  could  easily  have  been  marginalized  yet  again  as  being  relevant  only  to  

specialists  interested  in  the  goings-­‐on  south  of  the  Río  Grande.  But  Jean  Franco  simply  

refuses  to  shoulder  the  burden  of  particularism,  which  I  admittedly  am  imposing  on  her  all  

over  again  by  making  this  claim;  and  instead  as  a  generalist,  if  not  a  humanist,  tackles  the  

question  of  cruelty  head-­‐on.      

  The  second  effect  involves  a  similar  displacement  of  the  focus  of  studies  of  cruelty  

and  violence,  this  time  away  from  the  unique  event  of  the  Holocaust.  "Because  the  

Holocaust  is  generally  depicted  as  unique  in  its  horror,  other  environments  in  which  

cruelty  was  practiced  have  received  less  attention,"  Jean  Franco  writes  (4).  And,  expanding  

upon  Achille  Mbembe's  argument  for  including  not  only  the  concentration  camp  but  also  

slavery  and  apartheid  in  any  consideration  of  modern  biopolitics,  she  allows  her  field  of  

specialty  further  to  broaden  the  horizon:  "To  consider  the  exercise  of  cruelty  in  Latin  

America  moves  the  debate  into  a  different  and  complex  terrain  that  links  conquest  to  

feminicide,  the  war  on  communism  to  genocide  and  neoliberalism  to  casual  violence"  (5).  

This  is  why  Cruel  Modernity,  on  a  par  with  the  work  of  Hannah  Arendt,  Giorgio  Agamben,  

Jacques  Derrida,  Elaine  Scarry,  Judith  Butler  or  Etienne  Balibar,  should  be  required  reading  

material  for  anyone  concerned  about  the  fate  of  democracy  in  an  age  in  which  students  in  

places  such  as  Mexico  can  be  massacred  and  burned  deep  down  in  a  remote  garbage  dump  

or  have  their  skin  pulled  off  their  face,  with  likely  impunity  for  the  perpetrators  and  almost  

certain  complicity  of  the  federal  army  and  other  agents  of  the  state.    
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  In  the  dark  light  shed  by  Cruel  Modernity,  the  recent  case  of  the  43  disappeared  

normalistas  in  Ayotzinapa  turns  out  to  be  only  one  among  countless  incidents  of  

excruciating  violence-­‐-­‐including  ritualized  murder,  cannibalism,  torture,  rape,  desecration,  

forced  disappearance  and,  after  the  fact,  attempts  to  banish  the  last  traces  of  memory  of  the  

nameless  and  faceless  victims  from  the  earth.  Setting  apart  what  has  now  become  the  land  

of  the  Zetas  instead  of  Zapata  is  only  the  fact  that  in  recent  years  it  has  taken  up  the  baton  

from  the  1970s  and  1980s  military  dictatorships  in  Central  America  and  the  Southern  Cone  

as  being  the  paragon  of  senseless  cruelty:  "Mexico,  a  country  that  avoided  the  extreme  

consequences  of  the  war  on  communism,  has  become  the  showcase  of  contemporary  

atrocity"  (21).  But  the  phenomenon  itself  is  by  no  means  isolated  or  limited  to  Mexico:  "In  

many  countries  of  Central  America  and  parts  of  Latin  America,  the  positive  aspects  of  

globalization-­‐-­‐the  transnational  alliances  of  social  groups,  the  multiplication  of  cultural  

styles,  the  forging  of  new  urban  identities,  the  resources  of  technology,  and  unprecedented  

mobility-­‐-­‐have  erected  a  glossy  façade  on  societies,  but  beneath  this  façade,  cruelty  

formerly  exercised  by  military  governments  is  now  exercised  by  powerful  gangs  

responsible  for  a  culture  of  fear  and  intimidation"  (216).  How  we  have  become  almost  

immune  to  this  state  of  everyday  violence  and  terror  is  what  Jean  Franco  wants  to  

understand:  "If  Cruel  Modernity  lingers  on  this  dark  side,  it  is  because  I  believe  that  unless  

there  is  a  better  understanding  of  the  social  vacuum  that  allows  cruel  acts,  political  

solutions  and  ethical  principles  will  remain  in  the  realm  of  the  abstract"  (22).  This  also  

means  that,  without  diminishing  the  importance  of  criminal  or  juridical  accountability,  

including  at  the  level  of  international  human  rights  commissions,  this  book  is  concerned  

above  all  with  the  difficult  task  of  understanding  the  nature  and  function  of  cruelty,  in  
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order  to  lay  the  grounds  for  concrete  ethical  and  political  answers.  The  point  is  not  facile  

moralistic  condemnation  but  painstaking  critical  elucidation.  

  Beginning  with  the  six-­‐day  massacre  ordered  by  President  Trujillo  that  killed  an  

estimated  twenty  thousand  Haitians  on  the  Dominican  side  of  the  border,  in  October  1937,  

and  ending  with  the  case  of  the  more  than  2000  murdered  women  of  Ciudad  Juárez  near  

the  Mexican  border  with  the  United  States,  Cruel  Modernity  tells  one  harrowing  story  after  

another  of  humanity's  sinister  and  seemingly  irrepressible  capacity  for  unchecked  brutality  

and  senseless  aggression.  Without  ever  becoming  overbearing  or  splitting  off  from  the  

numerous  cases  under  discussion,  two  recurrent  arguments  throughout  this  history  give  

shape  simultaneously  to  a  minimal  theory  of  cruelty.    

  First,  as  I  already  mentioned  above,  there  is  a  repeated  suggestion  that  the  atrocities  

of  contemporary  Latin  America  point  back  to  the  racially  motivated  violence  perpetrated  

upon  the  indigenous  peoples  of  the  New  World  by  the  conquering  Spaniards.  With  regard  

to  the  use  of  rape  as  a  genocidal  weapon  during  the  civil  wars  in  Guatemala  and  Peru,  for  

example,  Jean  Franco  asks  out  loud:  "To  rape  and  then  kill  suggests  more  than  an  act  of  

warrior  triumph.  Is  it  too  exaggerated  to  suggest  that  it  is  a  reenactment  of  the  Conquest  

itself?"  (79).  What  is  specifically  modern  about  cruelty,  then,  is  not  its  factual  presence  but  

the  vanishing  of  ideological  taboos  about  its  indiscriminate  use.  Even  as  she  raises  doubts  

about  the  validity  of  arguments  for  the  modernity  of  bureaucratic  uses  of  torture,  Jean  

Franco  still  sends  the  reader  back  to  sixteenth-­‐century  Spain:  "I  am  not  altogether  

convinced  by  claims  that  contemporary  torture  practices  are  modern  and  bureaucratic,  for  

what  was  more  bureaucratic  than  the  Inquisition,  with  its  detailed  accounts  of  

interrogation?"  (99).  One  might  wonder,  though,  about  the  interpretive  advantages  of  this  
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recurrent  argument  that  places  the  roots  of  modern  cruelty  in  the  Conquest.  In  particular,  

there  exists  a  risk  that  we  fall  back  on  a  scheme  familiar  from  the  mostly  male  authors  of  

the  "Boom"  generation  for  whom  modern  violence  would  but  be  the  outcome  of  the  eternal  

return  of  a  primitive  unconscious.  Jean  Franco  is  nowhere  sharper  in  her  condemnation  of  

the  pitfalls  of  such  schematic  explanations  than  in  the  case  of  Mario  Vargas  Llosa.  But  at  

times  the  Spain  of  the  Inquisition  seems  to  play  a  similar  role  in  Cruel  Modernity  as  the  

sacrificial  pyramid  of  the  Aztecs  for  Octavio  Paz  or  the  archaic  utopia  of  Arguedas  for  

Vargas  Llosa.  The  author  is  certainly  aware  of  this  risk:  ""Like  Mexico's  heart  of  darkness,  

according  to  which  there  was  an  Aztec  in  every  Mexican,  this  notion  of  buried  violence  

offers  an  alibi  that  absolves  modernity,  attributing  violence  instead  to  primitive  elements  

as  if  the  entire  region,  its  mountains  and  avalanches  and  its  inhabitants,  are  not  only  alien  

to  modernity  but  also  in  danger  of  contaminating  the  rest  of  Peru"  (69).  

  The  second  recurrent  argument  concerns  the  heavily  gendered  nature  of  cruelty.  

Indigenous  populations  but  women  in  particular  constitute  the  overwhelming  majority  

among  victims  of  rape,  desecration,  abjection,  and  physical  or  ideological  debasement  in  

Latin  America.  Jean  Franco  proposes  to  elucidate  this  fact  by  interrogating  the  possibility  of  

speaking  in  terms  of  "hypermasculinist"  violence.  Shared  by  ideologues  of  the  military  

dictatorships  as  well  as  fervent  admirers  of  the  "new  man"  of  revolutionary  guerrillas,  the  

attempt  to  strengthen  one's  manhood  by  purging  it  of  all  traces  of  weakness  frequently  

takes  the  form  of  a  violent  acting  out  against  all  perceived  threats  to  the  "band  of  brothers,"  

to  use  the  words  of  Freud's  Totem  and  Taboo:  from  the  uncontrollable  "hysteria"  of  women,  

transvestites  and  prostitutes,  to  the  dangerously  "effeminate"  homosexuality  of  fellow  

militants.  This  was  true  even  in  organizations  such  as  Sendero  Luminoso:  "This  tutelary  
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and  charismatic  party,  40  percent  of  whose  members  were  women,  made  it  a  condition  

that  women  militants  should  act  like  men.  Indeed,  they  rivaled  the  men  in  their  implacable  

dedication,  their  discipline,  and  their  acceptance  of  probable  death"  (143).  As  in  the  Juárez  

killings,  which  may  be  the  most  publicized  but  are  certainly  not  unique,  masculine  

subjectivity  requires  repeated  confirmation  in  expressive  crimes  against  women.  "What  

massacres,  rape,  and  desecration  suggest  is  a  meltdown  of  the  fundamental  core  that  

makes  humans  recognize  their  own  vulnerability  and  hence  acknowledge  that  of  the  other,"  

Jean  Franco  claims  in  her  introduction.  And,  before  admitting  to  having  attributed  cruel  

practices  to  "rogue  males"  in  an  earlier  version,  a  term  she  now  finds  misleading  ("'Rogue'  

suggests  aberration  from  a  norm,  but  the  'normative'  is  not  a  stable  or  universal  category  

because  we  are  dealing  with  the  complex  question  of  subjectification"  [19]),  she  settles  for  

"extreme  masculinity"  instead,  "for  I  do  not  believe  that  all  men  are  necessarily  prone  to  

violence  or  that  women  do  not  torture"  (15).  However,  what  makes  some  men  more  prone  

to  violence  than  others,  or  what  drives  even  certain  women  militants  to  pick  up  arms,  is  left  

in  the  dark,  or  phrased  only  in  rhetorical  questions:  "What  did  it  take  to  turn  them  into  

executioners  who  used  machetes,  knives,  and  stones  to  smash  bodies?  Were  the  victims  

regarded  merely  as  physical  obstacles  on  the  path  to  the  future?"  (147).  Even  though  this  

enigma  is  left  unanswered  in  the  book,  Cruel  Modernity  does  suggest  ways  to  address  the  

underlying  question,  particularly  in  its  recourse  to  literature  and  art.  

  Jean  Franco's  sources  indeed  are  not  limited  to  human  rights  reports,  eyewitness  

accounts,  or  studies  by  journalists,  historians,  anthropologists,  philosophers  and  

sociologists.  As  a  long-­‐time  specialist  in  Latin  American  literature  whose  first  monograph  

was  a  superb  study  of  the  Peruvian  poet  César  Vallejo  and  whose  award-­‐winning  books  
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include  Plotting  Women:  Gender  and  Representation  in  Mexico  as  well  as  The  Decline  and  

Fall  of  the  Lettered  City:  Latin  America  in  the  Cold  War,  she  also  frequently  turns  to  literary  

writings  in  conjunction  with  photography  and  fictional  or  documentary  film.  Alejo  

Carpentier,  Roque  Dalton,  Diamela  Eltit,  Horacio  Castellanos  Moya,  Pedro  Lemebel,  

Santiago  Roncagliolo  and  Roberto  Bolaño  are  some  of  the  better-­‐known  authors  whose  

work  she  turns  to,  but  not  without  at  the  same  time  raising  the  very  issue  of  what  it  means  

to  bring  up  literature  in  the  context  of  a  reflection  about  violence  and  cruelty.  In  fact,  what  

strikes  me  in  this  context  is  the  recurrence  of  references  to  "the  human,"  to  "humanism"  

and  "the  humanities,"  as  though  the  principal  factor  in  explaining  the  ubiquity  of  gratuitous  

cruelty  involved  an  abandonment  of  the  value  of  humanity  as  such.  Thus,  in  a  passage  on  

Roberto  Bolaño  in  which  the  author's  voice  seems  to  merge  with  that  of  her  literary  

subject,  we  read:  "Once  we  strip  humanity  of  transcendental  destiny,  once  the  utopian  has  

been  discredited,  once  we  take  away  the  ethical  imperatives  of  either  religious  belief  or  

humanism,  there  is  nothing  to  rein  in  our  infamous  desires.  What  freedom  has  brought  

about  is  self-­‐destruction  through  the  quest  for  pleasure  that  leads  to  boredom  or  worse"  

(235).  But  on  a  number  of  other  occasions,  too,  one  comes  away  from  reading  Cruel  

Modernity  with  a  sense  that  in  the  absence  of  democratically  administered  justice  and  given  

the  impossibility  of  the  victims  themselves  to  bear  witness  to  their  suffering,  the  

impossible  task  of  mourning  is  left  to  literature  or  photography.  "There  is  no  creative  relief  

here  from  the  collective  trauma  of  massacre,"  Jean  Franco  writes  about  the  massacre  in  the  

Dominican  Republic.  "It  is  left  to  the  reader  to  wonder  whether  such  private  relief  can  ever  

be  productive  or  whether  the  avenue  to  the  social  is  blocked,  making  literature  the  unique  

place  for  vindication"  (43).  And,  about  the  disappeared  in  the  Southern  Cone,  she  similarly  
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observes  that  "although  testimony  and  memoir  are  the  genres  in  which  stories  of  atrocity  

are  usually  narrated,  the  disappeared  cannot  testify,  and  we  can  only  imagine  their  agony  

from  the  accounts  of  survivors.  In  the  absence  of  their  narratives,  photographs,  films,  and  

art  installations  are  ghostly  hauntings.  The  silence  of  the  disappeared  is  absolute"  (195).  

  In  questioning  the  link  between  literature  and  the  human,  I  am  not  trying  to  

pinpoint  a  contradiction  of  the  kind  that  reviewers  are  always  eager  to  find,  as  if  the  

authors  under  discussion  were  caught  unawares.  Few  literary  critics  are  more  attuned  to  

the  problematic  of  humanist  justifications  for  the  reading  of  literature  than  Jean  Franco,  

especially  in  the  context  of  the  lettered  city  in  Latin  America.  Indeed,  as  she  herself  writes:  

"It  also  raises  questions  about  the  ethical  status  of  literature  and  the  authoritarian  nature  

of  the  lettered  city"  (58).  In  her  discussion  of  the  victim-­‐turned-­‐collaborator-­‐and-­‐writer,  

the  Chilean  Mariana  Callejas,  Jean  Franco  talks  about  "the  complicity  of  the  literary  

institution  in  atrocity,  shattering  the  notion  that  literature  was,  by  its  very  nature,  

uncontaminated  by  the  dirty  work  of  the  state"  (114);  and,  drawing  on  Bolaño,  she  finds  

that  the  author  "sees  himself  as  tacitly  complicit  in  the  degeneration  of  the  human  (and  

perhaps  of  literature),  a  process  that,  far  from  coming  to  an  end  with  the  military  regime,  

was  still  going  on"  (119).    

  And  yet,  even  without  the  association  with  literature  or  art,  it  is  the  value  of  "the  

human"  that  is  perhaps  the  most  intriguing  presupposition  in  Cruel  Modernity.  "Those  of  us  

brought  up  in  the  humanities,  which  rest  on  a  certain  concept  of  the  human,  find  it  difficult  

to  confront  such  a  divestment  of  humanity,"  we  read  about  the  act  of  devouring  the  flesh  of  

the  enemy  (55);  and  about  a  fictional  killing  machine  in  the  work  of  Castellanos  Moya:  "His  

survival  in  the  deadly  war  games  has  been  achieved  at  the  price  of  surrendering  every  last  
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trace  of  what  is  usually  regarded  as  the  human-­‐-­‐that  is  to  say,  he  has  stripped  himself  of  

empathy,  joy,  tenderness,  and  love  in  order  to  become  a  killing  machine.  The  price  of  

survival  has  been  the  death  of  the  self"  (114).  Surely  for  a  book  that  sets  out  from  Sigmund  

Freud's  insights  into  the  seemingly  inevitable  degree  of  aggression  that  alone  might  

account  for  the  violence  of  the  First  World  War,  the  notion  that  "the  human"  can  be  defined  

in  terms  of  "empathy,  joy,  tenderness,  and  love"  is  nothing  short  of  surprising.  After  all,  for  

Freud,  civilization  will  not  be  able  to  avoid  generating  more  and  more  discontent  if  we  do  

not  first  acknowledge  the  fact  that  humanity  is  defined  as  much  by  the  death  drive  as  by  

love.  Such  an  acknowledgement,  however,  runs  the  risk  of  giving  way  to  a  suprahistorical  

and  quasi-­‐metaphysical  theory  about  the  inevitability  of  violence  as  such,  justified  if  need  

be  with  the  "just-­‐so  story"  of  the  killing  of  the  primordial  father,  whereas  the  purpose  and  

strength  of  this  book  in  particular  lies  in  historicizing  the  links  between  cruelty,  modernity,  

and  extreme  masculinity.  

  In  conclusion,  then,  perhaps  we  need  to  redefine  the  shifting  boundaries  around  the  

notion  of  "the  human"  in  the  first  place.  Speaking  about  the  almost  routine  nature  of  rape  

during  the  civil  war  in  Guatemala,  Jean  Franco  admits:  "Attempting  to  account  for  such  

atrocities  confronts  one  with  a  harsh  truth-­‐-­‐the  truth  that  humans  greatly  outdo  the  animal  

in  acts  of  cruelty  that  we  then  describe  as  'bestial'"  (83).  But  no  sooner  does  she  turn  to  

Agamben's  notion  of  the  state  of  exception  in  order  to  account  for  why  "all  men  do  not  

participate  in  atrocities  and  torture,  and  all  women  are  not  innocent  spectators"  than  she  

has  to  ask  herself-­‐-­‐and  this  is  a  question  that  is  asked  of  us,  too,  as  readers  of  literature  or  

scholars  in  the  humanities:  "But  is  'bestiality'  proper  to  the  beast,  or  is  it  human,  all  too  

human?"  (94).    
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Bruno  Bosteels  

Cornell  University