People / Faculty

Karen Benezra

Karen Benezra
Assistant Professor Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures, Institute for Latin American Studies, Institute for Comparative Literature and Society
  • Address
    503 Casa Hispánica
    Department of Latin American & Iberian Cultures
    612 W116th Street
    New York NY 10027
  • Office Hours
    By appointment for the academic year 2019-2020
  • Email

Profile

Karen Benezra earned her Ph.D in Romance Studies from Cornell University.

Her first book, Dematerialization: Art and Design in Latin America (University of California Press, 2020) examines the intertwined experimental practices and critical discourses of art and industrial design in Argentina, Mexico, and Chile in the 1960s and 70s. By reconstructing the work of theorists, artists, and industrial designers including Oscar Masotta, Octavio Paz, Alberto Híjar, Felipe Ehrenberg, Tomás Maldonado, and Gui Bonsiepe, among others, the book analyzes the relationship between the crisis of artistic medium and the logic organizing social relations in a moment of accelerated capitalist development. In discussions of art since the 1960s, the word “dematerialization” often serves as a kind of shorthand in order to describe works that questioned the organicity, social autonomy, and techniques that had served to define modern art. However, in doing so, the common use of the term both poses and erases a question about how to define art and its relation to society amidst the obsolescence of formal conventions and schools. Beyond merely staking a claim to the term’s Latin American roots, the book proposes dematerialization as a critical operation revealing how their work mobilized the materiality of the object in order to question the role of the subject in radical social transformation. The book thus attempts to intervene into the fields of Latin American cultural studies and global contemporary art history by questioning dominant assumptions about the transformative potential or failure of neo-avant-garde artistic movements and the immediately political valence of conceptually driven art in Latin America, underscoring, instead, the ways that the social and artistic crisis of the 1960s inspired new critical and theoretical models for interpreting and historicizing art and culture in the so-called peripheries of capitalism.

Karen is currently working on two research projects. The first, tentatively titled The Inorganic: Collective Life under Capitalism, examines the work of anthropologists, philosophers, and social theorists including León Rozitchner, José María Arguedas, Roger Bartra, and Alvaro García Linera, concerned with the psychic, ethical, and political effects of capitalist development during the mid-twentieth century. The Inorganic thus asks how to define the subject of contemporary capitalism in societies characterized by the complex articulation of different modes of production. Drawing on the organicist vocabulary that codes the dialectic of nature in Marx’s definition of property and the self-sabotaging logic of the drive in Freud’s meta-psychological writings, the project attempts to question the historical teleologies and notions of subjectivity either elided or taken for granted in Latin American subalternist critiques of the state-centered modernization projects of the mid-twentieth century and in contemporary discussions about the so-called “real subsumption” of psychic and social life under capital.

Another project, tentatively titled Communist Culture, examines the work of visual artists associated with the Chilean Communist Party when it was most influential, both in its social reach and, contrarily, as a guardian of high or lettered culture on the left, between the mid-1940s and late 1960s. By attending to the work of visual artists and cultural figures including José Venturelli, Pedro Lobos, José Balmes, Julio Escámez, Roberto Matta, and Nemesio Antúnez, among others, the project asks how to decipher within their works a “communist culture” or plebian common sense associated with but not for that reason contained within the cadres or structures of the Party. Responding at once to a renewed interest in social realism in both literature and the visual arts in Chile, and to ongoing post-Marxist debates among U.S.-based Latin Americanists, this research tries to consider the question of hegemony, or of a non-exclusively class-based form of popular consciousness and organization, in a national context defined, counter-intuitively, by one of the communist parties most closely aligned with Soviet policy in the region.

Karen is also at work editing a scholarly collection titled Accumulation and Subjectivity. Contributions address the relationship between capitalism and subjectivity from within the colonial archive and with respect to the logic of history in Marx; by reconstructing key concepts for the critique of political economy in Latin American social thought; as a problem manifest in contemporary film, narrative, urban planning, and immigration policy; and as a issue concerning the historicity of the subject in post-structuralist theory and in Marx’s economic writings.

Karen has been an editor of ARTMargins (MIT Press) since 2012.

Academic Statement

I think of my role as a teacher and adviser as one of structuring a space in which students can develop their own critical relationships to texts and the problems that they present. I address my students both as intellects and as subjects, each defined by a singular set of personal and political experiences, and structure their engagement with assigned readings—through syllabi, process writing assignments, in-class group exercises, and lectures—in such a way as to build upon and estrange common sense ideas and suppositions. At the same time, in attempting to put these ideas into practice over the last several years, I have often considered the ways in which the relations of knowledge and authority at play in the classroom constitute a sphere of sociability with the potential to reproduce or critically resist the racialized, gendered, and class relations of power that shape society. In negotiating the intertwined social, ethical, and intellectual conditions of the classroom, I often return to the relationship between professor and students that philosopher Marilena Chaui describes as one of generous asymmetry. Rather than supposing that the artifice of equality in seminar-style exchanges dismantles hierarchies of knowledge and authority, I try to mobilize the distance that separates me from students in order to solicit their desire to know more about the readings, images, or problems at hand. In this sense, rather than opposing the equality of the intellect and the hierarchy of knowledge, in my experience, helping students to develop their own critical relation to course material or to their own research means constructing a different kind of artifice: a fictional, symbolic structure in which they feel comfortable expressing questions, doubts, or observations regardless of their command over technical terminology and in which their classmates and I are willing to register the quality and relevance of their curiosity or disquiet. Sustaining the intellectual dynamism of such exchanges simultaneously implies listening and reading carefully for the question embedded in students’ comments and asserting my understanding of the text and context when necessary in order to direct their attention to a more nuanced aspect of the argument or narrative in question.