Still on the Fuvest list – contextual event

Image: Caio PX


Literature places us at the intersection between ethics and aesthetics. Sometimes it forces us to make a choice.


It is not surprising, although it is saddening, that the most heated debate of the last five (ten?) years in the area of ​​Literature is based on a legal instrument par excellence: a notice; more precisely, a list. Much more than ten years ago, we in Literature gave up on debating the imaginary (and its consequences) and placed the literary on an x, y axis where “x”, or “y”, is aesthetics and “y”, or “x”, is ethics. It doesn't take much effort to see how this quarrel between the old and the older repeats this duality: those against the list would be on the aesthetic axis and those in favor on the ethical axis.

We need to not get ahead of ourselves, however. The loss of discursive ballast, the fact that we are no longer able to construct a linguistic interval between the horizon of expectation and the space of experience towards a sharing of the sensible, meant that, in the vacuum of meaning left there, legal and all its structures acted as a mediator of all disputes. In other words, the judicialization of the world. Or, to use a term that went viral, we created, and not just in Brazil, “coalition judiciary”.

Notices regulate literary awards, public policies, access to jobs, places at university; the fight for rights involves their sedimentation in the form of law; the STF became the executive’s guarantor; the first impulse of political movements and bringing dictators, imperialist countries and war criminals in general to trial; Donald Trump, in the country of “accountability” proposes that presidents should never be held responsible for anything, which reinforces the strength of the legal system in today’s world.

Our imagination is populated by legal structures, and by their language, of course. Whether, as I propose, as a direct consequence of this loss of discursive ballast, or as a natural process of the capital's advancement, it matters little for what we will discuss here. Let us just take this domination of the imaginary as a starting point.

We don't need much effort to understand how the domination of the authorless language par excellence, law, ends up interfering in the construction of what is the author's language par excellence, literature. The ethical dimension swallows up, although not completely, the aesthetic dimension. It's as if we can only live in accordance with at least one of the UN's 17 sustainable development goals. In this clash, the imaginary stops being an interesting political dispute (after all, who still supports a utopia?) and begins to compete for the construction of ethical narratives that will generate greater engagement.

It's a leap for us to hope that an edict is the key to salvation that would scratch some structure of oppression. Did you notice the problem? A notice, a legal and exclusionary instrument by definition, as a lifeline. If it is not in the notice, students will no longer read Machado de Assis; If it is not in the notice, literary training will be harmed. The problem is no longer the school, teaching, the construction of the curriculum and even, why not?, teacher training. The problem is the legal instrument and, through it, we will resolve everything.

This opposition between aesthetics and ethics, however, ends up sublimating what is perhaps the most important question in this dispute: for what literature? This is, in some way, the question that underlies the most interesting text about this, written by Paulo Franchetti, what question is it that we have a list of works to be read? Convincingly answer the “why literature?” It is a task that led Antonio Candido to write the “Right to Literature” in the midst of the Constitution in the 1980s. Not by chance, this is the document that Literature students throughout Brazil learn to use as a defense in the face of literature and its questioning.

Still in this opposition, it serves to mask a very simple fact: there is no way to question the list without it being a sexist question. Simply due to the fact that never before in the history of this country had the list been questioned. Or To Is it an unmissable work by Alencar? (by the way, is Alencar unavoidable?) Does Eça de Queirós train students? The list, like every list, in fact, can always be questioned. He always presented problems and a lack of clarity in his guidance. Why only now, asked?

This questioning, by placing itself as a champion of the defense of the aesthetic and, therefore, in the defense of the specificity of the literary, also erases what is most dear to literature: its enunciative power. Literature is the only artistic discourse in which the body is not a prior given. The reader, or interlocutor, can occupy different positions due to this detail. This has nothing to do with the simple ethical dimension. That is why a female author changes the enunciative possibilities and, consequently, modifies, or can modify, our imagination.

Changing the list is also changing the interpretative axis of what literature is. No high school, prep school, or YouTube teacher will be able to use Roberto Schwarz to talk about Conceição Evaristo. For the simple fact that he never talked about her. New keys and critical interpretations, many made by young researchers, will be incorporated into the discourse of Basic Education teachers. And here's another big problem with the ubiquity of legal discourse: the entrance exam is just a test. It's a competition like any other that measures nothing other than the ability to take an entrance exam. Assuming that the entrance exam defines what students read is to completely ignore the reality of basic education, both public and private.

The judicialization of language also brings, as a challenge, the loss of certain important nuances in this debate. The discussion about ethics and aesthetics in literature, another form of the old form x content debate, places any issue that deals with an ethical element in the same basket: a list composed of female authors would be on the same level as an author who argues that literature today It's worth the story that tells more than how it tells. There are nuances in this ethical and narrative debate, to which we attach the identity label, which must also be treated as aesthetic problems.

The list, more than proposing an ethical element, proposes an aesthetic debate, which is being completely ignored. It is questioned, for example, whether literary quality continues, but no one looked into the selected works to show their supposed lack of quality, as if the fact that the list was made up only of female authors was a clear indication of their lack of quality ( but there is no sexism in this discussion, of course not).


When Jacques Derrida writes, in 1971, Signature Event Context, to enter into a debate with John Searle about the performative theory of John Austin, who had died 11 years earlier, he is in a reckoning with his own work. For Austin, context is fundamental to determining what we call meaning, therefore, to the communicative possibility of an utterance. For Derrida, all of his theories are based on the exact opposite: there is only communication because the context does not matter. Evidently, this is a simplification of a broader and more complex issue. However, even as a simplification, it places the central conflict between Derrida and Austin, represented by Searle.

Derrida sees great strength in Austin's argument, something that, in principle, would weaken the central point of his philosophy regarding the textualization of the world, discourse without context. Hence the virulence of the attack against Austin's ideas, first, and then against Searle and the effort to combine the two perspectives that, in principle, are exclusive. This debate gave rise to some of the most influential theories, such as Judith Butler's interpretation of gender, the idea of ​​intersectionality and place of speech are, to some degree, indebted to this rapprochement between Derrida and Austin.

For the point I bring here, the list of mandatory readings for an entrance exam, it is important to note the problem of context. The loss of discursive ballast has as one of its consequences the abandonment of context as a fundamental element in the production of meaning. Social networks, evidently, only exacerbated this characteristic with displaced discourses of temporality and historicity. It is no coincidence that legal discourse, in addition to being a discourse without an author, is also a discourse without context. 

The dispute, on both sides, ends up falling into the decontextualization of what a list is, what its real function is (does anyone really believe that Fuvest still guides curricula? especially with the BNCC and the New Secondary Education?), and what its real impact. In the fundamental tripod of meaning construction, the author-work-reader relationship, or, to expand to other enunciative situations, the enunciator-utterance-enunciatee relationship, or to name how we usually name this relationship, the context, we leave aside triangulation and we begin to operate in a binary way to produce meaning: author-work; reader-author; reader-work.

Just see how much the debate about the list focused on its “author”, Fuvest, and the explanation given by its directors. Always based on generalizing expressions such as the erasure of literary historicity or the decolonization of thought, we become accustomed to statements without context. As if saying that literary historicity will disappear, without showing how and why, was enough. As if the simple existence of a list made up of authors was reason enough for anything. Everything was discussed, in short, except the list.


The central question behind the list, from the perspective adopted here, is the old “for what Literature?” or, in another formulation “why Literature?”. This question is part of the debate about the canon, it is in Antonio Candido's program text, it is at the basis of the construction of the very idea of ​​a mandatory reading list. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, Fuvest's first mandatory list dates back to the end of the 1980s, which coincides with Antonio Candido's movement on the constituent. In the book The invention of human rights, historian Lynn Hunt hypothesizes the fact that literature helped to establish what we call, today, Human Rights.

It is equivalent to saying that the ubiquity of literature as a regulatory discourse in the humanities and arts is directly linked to the expansion of a demand for rights. Look at the aesthetic-ethical relationship once again, with a clear predominance of ethics. Literature for humanization. Literature because it is what makes us human. This is Candido's response, which, to this day, shapes the debate on literature. Even in this dispute. On both sides.

Change the whole paragraph: Literature, however, is valuable, as it is an art in which the body is not a piece of data glued to the statement, but, rather, a construction of the enunciation. The literary statement, to be an enunciation, can be occupied in the most varied forms. Theater, cinema, and the visual arts in general immediately place us in the position of enunciatee, a more passive position, even though the production of meaning can go beyond this passivity. There is a body occupying that enunciation. This body directs the production of meaning. Literature has no body. It does not, at least, have a body prior to the enunciation itself. It is up to the enunciatee to fill the gaps in literary enunciation and, thus, occupy the different positions within the tripod, enunciator-utterance-enunciatee

Even though, with the loss of ballast, there is an increasing desire to embody literature (see the performances of poets and writers), the discursive functioning of literature resists. Although the list may have been an attempt to flesh out the literary, there is no way to limit the literary event to this attempt. Literature places us at the intersection between ethics and aesthetics. Sometimes it forces us to make a choice.

*Lucius Provase He has a PhD in Literary Theory from USP, translator and professor of Literature and Portuguese Language in the private education network.

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