by JAMES COBB
by Paola Oloixarac. Translated by Roy Kesey. Soho Press, 2017, pp. 304.
Pola Oloixarac’s novel Savage Theories is a work of academic fiction. That is to say, it is not a fictional version of an academic paper but a novel populated with and narrated by academics in the creation, explication, and application of theory. Oloixarac’s novel explores from where—and how—the academic and political ideology of contemporary Argentina are created, as well as the inability of this theorization to affect change.
Rosa Ostreech, a young Argentinian anthropologist, narrates the story of two phenomenally intelligent young academics, her boyfriend Pablo (known as Pabst) and Kamtchowsky, and their social circle in Buenos Aires. The socially active academics engage in group sex, write blogs, and create video games, all while developing increasingly intricate theories about their world.
At the same time, Rosa details her unflinching obsession with the theories of Augusto García Roxler, a man she loves and is stalking. Despite her affection for the man, she believes that his work contains profound errors. If Roxler is ever to find academic favor it is necessary that she speak to him. Yet, her connection to him devolves into jealous fawning.
Theory is the through-line of the novel. Language is steeped in academic jargon, citations and subordinate clauses. It is hard for a reader who has not completed graduate work in anthropology to follow these essays without recourse to Wikipedia. Great care and copious research have clearly gone into the creation of the theories found in this novel. There is a brilliance to Roxler’s claim that the fundamental nature of mankind relies on man’s transition from prey to predator and the bestial fear that still populates his mind. Yet there is a motif underlying the novel that all this theorization is useless.
As Rosa spins a theory regarding the hunting of cockroaches, one wonders: what is the point? Rosa will never publish this. It does not further her understanding of Van Vliet or Roxler, and it does nothing to impact the world within which she lives. Despite Rosa’s obsession with Roxler, she labels him, early on, a failure: a once noble, but now faded scholar. Van Vliet himself was lost in the jungle while developing his theory, and his disciples were forced to fold psychoanalysis into their papers to create the briefest of interest. Even the more practical theories of political activists are presented as useless: adherence to the political ideologies of the Monotoneros or the Peronists is overthrown by physical attraction.
What good is carrying around a trilingual edition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics if it won’t get you laid? What good is studying under a revolutionary anthropologist if it won’t get you a job? Theorization lacks social impact.
There is no value attributed to the work of academia. “Scholarship” falls out of the mouths of protagonists and narrator like a conversation at a bus stop. Complex arguments arise while contemplating the merits of public sex with a man with Down syndrome, or while watching Montaigne the cat ambush cockroaches. But the lives of those involved are hardly altered. At one point the narrator is literarily giving away esoteric works by Trotsky and Péguy to muggers.
The sterility of theory is most conspicuously mocked when sophisticated arguments are counterpoised with the grotesque. Kamotchsky and Pabst often theorize in the proximity of their sexual exploits. After one particular escapade, Pabst one-ups his partner, Andy, a beautiful, young intellectual with whom Pabst and Kamotchsky often engage in group sex. Against Andy’s theory that human mass action is reliant upon an ancient, nonverbal, private language, Pabst discourses about the amoeba’s (Dictyostelium discoideum) self-organization from “individuality to coordinated action” through chemical means while utilizing Paolo and Francesca from Dante’s The Divine Comedy as an explanatory analogy. Yet, both men argue in the nude. Even further, Pabst’s argument opens with him placing his hand next to his genitals and closes with him popping a zit. Oloixarac stresses the relationship between theory and the world as a lived-in space to the point that the work reads as a satire on academia. Pabst’s theories have no effect upon the world in which he inhabits. They do not allow him to better understand or interact with his world. Despite their complexity, they are simply features of his surroundings with less potential than the hand he uses to masturbate or the pus excreted from a pimple.
And yet, the novel is more than satire. Academic theories are intentionally debased in the novel not through their lack of complexity or their inability to properly codify some observation, but through how distant theorization is from what motivates culture. Oloixarac does not attempt to open the young academic’s mind to new topics of discussion; she wishes to show the inefficacy of theorization. The problem with academia is not the locus or object of contemplation but the lack of application. Despite the earnestness of the young academics’ activities, they are self-centered: their diligent maintenance of their blogs, Pabst’s and Andy’s naked theorization, Rosa’s correction of Roxler’s work—all revolve around the supposed genius of the young scholars.
Despite constant argumentation, what actually alters the perception of Argentina comes through the replacement of the academic voice with that of the guerilla. Late in the novel Pabst, Kamotchsky and their social circle “poison” Google Earth by rerouting the site through servers that replace the images Google has judged as indicative of Buenos Aires with those that the youth of Argentina can actively and instantly deem as representative of their city. The world is therefore presented with images of the Liniers slaughterhouses, tortured children, and Perón on his motorbike. Oloixarac replaces the academic jargon with the landscape of a horrifyingly, beautiful history, and in so doing provides the most moving passages of the novel. It is “poisoning,” not theory, that ultimately gains a foothold of influence in the outside world.