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Critical Theory on the Periphery of Capitalism: Literary Form and Contradictions of Progress in the Work of Roberto Schwarz (2023-)

Pedro Mora Madriñán, Research Area 4: "Literary Currencies"

Doctoral Research Project

Frankfurt Critical Theory has had a tense and problematic relationship with the postcolonial world and with postcolonialism, leading to what has been described as a missed encounter. In this context, the work of Roberto Schwarz, recognized both as Brazil’s foremost literary and cultural critic and as one of the most significant inheritors of the Frankfurt School tradition, is of crucial relevance. This research project argues that Schwarz’s essayistic work, through his meticulous analysis of the relationship between literary form and social process in Brazil, offers an elaboration of the Frankfurt School’s notion of the regressive character of progress by examining its dynamics within a dialectical relationship between the centre and the periphery of capitalism. 

Schwarz’s particular intellectual background allowed him to achieve an articulation between the universalist perspective of the Frankfurt School and the localist one of postcolonialism, in which the problems raised by the sociohistorical peculiarities of Brazil were to be posed as an internal problem of Critical Theory, with a necessary coherent resolution in historical-materialist terms. In turn, Schwarz’s work examines these peculiarities through a rigorous analysis of the reciprocal relationship between literary form and social process, thus illuminating the contradictions of progress and development posed by Brazil’s peripheral situation. 

In this sense, this project will analyse the dialectical relationship between the temporalities of "modernity" and "backwardness", and the interdependent spatial dynamic between the centre and the periphery of capitalism, which lie at the centre of his work. In order to arrive at an understanding of Schwarz’s contribution to a global Critical Theory, this research project will, first, examine how his intellectual background allowed him to apply the ideas of the Frankfurt School to the Brazilian context, leading him to theorise a dialectical dynamic between modernity and backwardness, in other words, a dialectic of development. Secondly, it will analyse Schwarz’s conception of a literary "objective form" and its reciprocal relationship with the social process in the periphery. Finally, it will examine how his analyses of literary form follow the persistence of the contradictions of progress in the periphery of capitalism, from the slaveholding period to the "neo-backwardness" of the present.