Saturday, June 24, 2006


Paraguay has a significant population of German immigrants and their descendants. It's not the only Latin American country with a German influence: see Colonia Tovar in Venezuela, for instance, or the now rather nefarious Colonia Dignidad in Chile. And there's little more surprising in the Yucatán and Belize than the sight of packs of blond Mennonites on the move, all cowboy hats, check shirts, and overalls for the boys and men, headscarves and dresses for the girls and women.

But in Paraguay the German presence is particularly notable. At times it is as though German were the country's second language (or third, after the indigenous Guaraní). This page on German genealogy suggests there are 166,000 speakers of the language in the country. And at the hotel where I was staying last week, for instance, the guide to room services was in Spanish and German, rather than English. Most of the other visitors were speaking German, including a large group of young girls from the Chaco, in town for some kind of sports tournament, chaperoned by a tall young blond man with the air of a Christian youth leader, who spoke heavily accented Spanish.

The German colony in the Chaco are Mennonites who peaceably enough raise cattle and make cheese. By all accounts, the Chaco is a pretty desolate place, and the Mennonites and the Guaraní have it pretty much to themselves. (Even so, early last century the Paraguayans managed to lose a war with Bolivia over the territory.)

But then there are Germans and there are Germans. And the topic of Nazis or former Nazis in South America is always a subject of intrigue and speculation: luridly fictionalized as The Boys from Brazil or The Odessa File, but on the basis of real cases such as most famously Eichmann's flight to and capture from Argentina. Josef Mengele, though he initially fled to Buenos Aires, spent signficant post-war time in Paraguay.

Still, I had either forgotten or repressed from my only previous visit to Paraguay the shock induced, this time, by noting the first day of my stay a Spanish translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on sale at a street corner kiosk. Or, a little later, just off one of Asunción's main squares, on the pavement outside a cybercafe, seeing two pencil drawings of Hitler on sale among the usual collection of secondhand textbooks and shabby novels. No irony, no self-consciousness as far as I could see: just a couple of portraits of the Führer, should I have wished to buy them as a souvenir of Paraguay.

I take it that most Paraguayan Germans shudder somewhat as I did in seeing such reminders of the Reich. Not least now that Germany itself is, with the World Cup, trying to rebrand itself beyond the clichés of either jackboots or dull efficiency. But perhaps more likely, these signs of history's unsavoriness merely blend in with their adopted country's long history of dictatorships (Doctor Francia "the Supreme" as well as that other son of Germany, Stroessner) and injudicious wars of aggression and catastrophic defeat.

UPDATE: Royden Loewen's Mennonite and Nazi would seem to be a book to read, complicating my account above.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Jodi Dean on "Blogging Theory":
Theory blogs belie three assumptions about blogging in particular and networked communications in general, assumptions about speed, punditry, and self-indulgence. In contrast, my experience with blogs is that they allow for slower reflection, the emergence of spaces of affinity through specialized writing, and the experience of a presentation and cultivation of a self.
Now go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ycuá Bolaños

Posting is hereby resumed...

One of the most interesting (and also moving) experiences of the past two weeks was to visit the site of the Ycuá Bolaños tragedy in Asunción.

Ycua Bolanos fireFrom Paraguay, ABC Digital has a page on "La tragedia de Ycuá Bolaños", with links to many articles on the case and recent updates. There's also "La investigación de Ycuá Bolaños", a site with pieces that are more reflective or critical. And here is the BBC report immediately following the incident.

In short, however, on August 1st 2004 a fire gutted a huge supermarket in suburban Asunción. The fire started thanks to design flaws (a chimney that couldn't be cleaned), and was aggravated by inattention to building codes. But it became a disaster in which over 400 people died when the supermarket owner ordered the doors locked so that shoppers wouldn't rob the store of its produce en route to escaping with their lives.

Almost two years later, though the owner is in custody, he is due to be released if the Paraguayan judicial system doesn't come up with at least a provisional verdict (a "juicio oral") that assigns some culpability for the blaze and for the ensuing deaths.

The ruin itself is still remarkably intact: you can see the check-out counters, the shelving, piles of half-incinerated toothpaste tubes or bags of flour, half-melted crates of coke and so on. To one side, families of victims have constructed a kind of sanctuary, full of shrines to their deceased relatives. And though (because?) these shrines are decorated in typically kitsch Latin American style--fairy lights, plastic figurines of angels, and so on--the place is incredibly moving.

Relatives come by the sanctuary, to comb once more through the wreckage, to meet up with other victims, to hang out, to talk, to plan their next demonstration against an incredibly corrupt and inefficient judiciary.

Different movements have sprung up in the wake of the disaster, some more militant than others. The most radical is the Collective "Ni olvido ni perdón" ("No forgetting, and no forgiveness"). I talked for some time with a very articulate--and justifiably enraged--member of this group. But even for the more moderate elements of the movement, the attempt to win justice has become a fully-fledged battle against the state.

Many of these groups' slogans (such as "Nunca más" or "Never again") are taken directly from the movements that struggled against the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the Paraguayans now have links and contacts with organizations such as Argentina's Mothers of the Disappeared.

So what's interesting is that some time after one of the longest dictatorships in Latin American history (Stroessner's 36 years in which the country was his personal fiefdom), and as a result of an incident in which capital, the state, and the law directly coincide, something in Paraguay may finally be awakening.

Agosto en llamas

Monday, June 05, 2006


Stranded by Continental Airlines in Houston for 24 hours, I decided to take the bus downtown from the airport hotel in which they'd put me.

Given that buses were the spark and focus of so much of the civil rights movement, what's striking now is that, yes, African Americans have won the right to sit at the front of the bus. But that's because they are also sitting at the back and in the middle: essentially, whites have abandoned public transport altogether in a city such as Houston. And this despite, or rather because of, the fact that it's astonishingly cheap ($2 for an all-day pass, though you need to top that up on express buses in the evening rush hour... see below).

So from an explicit divide drawn through the middle of the bus, we now have an implicit, and so invisible, line drawn between transport users and the suburban commuters in their trucks and SUVs.

Interestingly, however, there were no Latinos on the buses I took. And this despite the fact that in many ways Houston is a bicultural city: all signs and announcements are in Spanish as well as English, and on the street at least I heard Spanish probably more than English. Just about every service worker I encountered, from the check-in agents at the hotel to the guys leaf-blowing the streets, to the bus driver and the cleaners at the airport... they were almost all Latino.

But on the return journey to the airport, it was a white guy who gave me a dollar on seeing that my pass no longer worked. Perhaps an act of racial solidarity among the bus-borne minority.

Rothko ChapelMeanwhile, I went down to the Rothko Chapel, which I first saw almost two decades ago. I still feel rather underwhelmed, but it was good to return and to re-experience the underwhelment. I also stopped by the Jung Centre. Most of the other museums were closed, it being a Monday.

Even so, I should apologize to my friend Ivonne, Houston native and very much a booster of her home city. The place is far better than I remember it. The public transport works, or at least it worked for me. There's plenty to do. I even managed to find a few decent bars. And it's not its inhabitants fault that the place is so damn hot and humid.

Though perhaps my good feelings towards Houston are also because in the interim since my last visit I have seen cities such as Dallas, a better example of the disaster that American cities can become.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


As promised, if tardy, here is the essay that I have written on Arguedas: “Arguedasmachine: Techno-Indigenism and Affect in the Andes” (.pdf document).

Here "I offer another Arguedas from the one presented by the critical canon: an Arguedasmachine that 'nobody has observed.' This Arguedasmachine is hard at work fabricating a techno-indigenism that both separates and presses together the various elements of Peruvian culture [. . .] but it finally breaks down by becoming fully immanent to the affective flows on which it operates."

It's a draft, so all the usual caveats apply. But comments, questions, disputations, etc. would be most welcome. I'm not sure I like the conclusion, but there we go.

Meantime, here's a snippet, about one of Arguedas's most renowned short stories:

scissor dancerThe amount of attention that has been paid to one, late, story in particular, “La agonía de Rasu Ñiti,” is surely due to the fact that it is one of Arguedas’s very few texts that can at all convincingly be shoe-horned into a more or less conventional indigenist critical frame. But this is precisely a tale of the machinic transformation of affect. It concerns a traditional scissor dancer on his deathbed. The highland (specifically, Ayacuchan) scissor dance is, as its name suggests, an irreducibly hybrid performance--almost as much as that other ritual to which Arguedas endlessly returns, the “yawar fiesta” (or “festival of blood”) in which a condor is tied to the back of a bull in celebrations tied to Peru’s day of independence. But whereas the “yawar fiesta” brings together principally the Hispanic and the telluric (the bull) with the Inca and the ethereal (the condor), the scissor dance is above all a meeting of man with eminently modern technology. Scissor dancers perform either with actual scissors or, as Martin Lienhard reports, two oversize rods of iron or steel in the form of a pair of scissors. Lienhard goes on to say that the dancer’s use of these strange instruments “may have been a parodic representation of the arrogant Spaniard.” So while the dancers also “represent the wamanis--the mountains in so far as they are ‘divinities’ and forces that dispense water for the farmers’ fields” (Cultura andina 137), the use of these iron implements immediately conjures up the iron that, in the words of the fox from down below, “belches forth smoke and a little blood, making the brain burn, and the testicle too” (The Fox from Up Above 26). The scissors are an instrument of domestic labor, a sign of decadent Spanish fashion and (like Diego’s frockcoat) fashionable modernity, as well as a weapon, a threat of castration, a neutering that could threaten continued biological and cultural reproduction. The scissors are a machine that is, literally, double-edged.

And the scissors are double-edged, too, in the sense that they join as well as cut. The scissors only function in so far as two elements come together; they cut only in that the two blades join. Every rupture, therefore, is equally a new conjunction or conjugation of forces uniting. Just as with the fishmeal factory’s centrifuges, separation also implies mixing, packing together, creating new combinations and new continuities. The importance of such conjugations and continuities is apparent in “La agonía de Rasu Ñiti,” on at least two axes. First, the dancer is himself the point of an intersection at which the natural, the divine, the human, and the industrial meet. He constitutes something like a conveyer, a means of transmission, between the wamani and the scissors. As his wife says to their daughter: “It’s not your father’s fingers that are working the scissors. It’s the wamani that brings them into contact. All your father does is obey” (475). The scissor dance channels energy from above to below; it is a power line, the dancer merely a transformer, converting energy from one form (the natural, divine) into another (the mechanical, but also aesthetic). In this transformative relay of energy, the dancer’s scissors are like the harpist’s “steel fingernail” that causes “the wire and gut strings to explode into sound” (476). Here it is wire, steel, animal gut, and the harpist’s hands that come together to produce the music accompanying and motivating the dance. But second, the dance is also a vital communicating vessel across another axis, the historical and communal. For the dancer’s role is pre-eminently social, “lighting up festivities in hundreds of villages” (474). And in this story he is passing on this power to a new generation. Rasu Ñiti dances his death agony--each component element of his body, first one leg, then another, then his arms, seizing up--only for his role to be taken over by the young dancer in waiting, Atok’ sayku. The old dancer lies on the floor, slowly paralyzed until his eyes alone reveal any trace of life and movement, but the young inheritor picks up the scissors and continues the dance: “It was him, father Rasu Ñiti, reborn, his sinews those of a gentle beast, imbued with fire from the wamani, whose centuries-old current continued to vibrate through him” (480). Finally, Rasu Ñiti’s eldest daughter can shout out “He’s not dead! Because it’s him! Dancing!” (480). At stake, as the man’s vital powers ebb away, as he hovers between death and life, is now what in very similar circumstances Deleuze terms “a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil. [. . .] an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects” (“Immanence: A Life” 29). And this life, indefinite and unqualified by the separation between subject and object, is characterized by a pure affect: “something soft and sweet” (“Immanence: A Life” 28); “pure power and even bliss” (30); for Arguedas, again the “yawar mayu,” the river as a flood of blood that carries all before it but is also the “final step that is a feature of every indigenous dance” (“La agonía de Rasu Ñiti” 478).

scissor dancer

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The "Pirate Studies" panel the other day, organized by Craig of theoria, was fun and generated some useful discussion. It was also good to hang out afterwards with Craig, Weblog denizen Doug Johnson, and others.

Johnny Depp, pirateHere's the last section of my paper, on "piracy, nomadism, and the state." The first two sections were on "why pirates matter" and "the political economy of piracy." The paper as a whole is more or less an outline, sketching out some possible positions within pirate studies. But it brings together some thoughts I've been mulling over for a little while...

piracy, nomadism, and the state

The complexity and confusion regarding piracy’s political economy leads to, is amplified in, and exacerbates a similar set of confusions regarding piracy’s relation to the state. Moreover, an added complication here concerns first, the range of piratical activities and the nomenclature used to describe them, and second the historical vicissitudes of piracy from at least the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, in other words precisely during the period of the European state’s consolidation, and imperial expansion. Take the issue of nomenclature. Though sometimes all non-state maritime violence is considered under the label of piracy, the series of differing terms employed at other times indicates multiple attempts (often finally frustrated) to distinguish between different forms of violence, or more strictly its different degrees of legitimacy. Pirate, buccaneer, privateer, private man-of-war, corsair, filibuster, freebooter, coastal raider. . . all these terms indicate subtle differentiations, of which by far the most important is that between privateer and pirate.

Strictly speaking, a privateer is a private merchantman who has been provided with a “letter of marque” from a national state, permitting him to engage with, board, and take goods from merchantmen from other nations, within boundaries more or less precisely delineated by national and international law. As such, privateers (and the closely related private men-of war) were extensions of the state’s juridical and military apparatus in those areas of the world beyond its formal control, or its ability for direct regulation. Privateers and private men-of-war were essentially mercenaries, enabling state expansion without the state having to invest in the expense of fixed capital, and the set-up costs of recruitment, construction, outfitting, and so on. Privateers were particularly a feature of the sixteenth-century Caribbean, when private seamen such as Drake and Hawkins, though viewed as common criminals by the Spanish, in fact did the work of English state foreign policy more effectively and efficiently than the English navy itself was capable of doing. No wonder Elizabeth I would term Drake “my pirate.” Given, however, this close relation between state and private forces, there was significant attempts at regulation and normalization of the relationship. So, for instance, normally, as David Starkey notes, the “authority [of letters of marque] was valid only in wartime and against enemy property” (69). Yet, as Starkey goes on to explain, the boundaries of legality were often disputed, and evidence as to the propriety of specific acts hard to ascertain when they had taken place on the high seas many thousands of miles from any court of law. The British High Court of the Admiralty was charged with determining justice in such cases, with the “issue of letters of marque and privateer commissions and the condemnation of prizes” (73). But the process could be cumbersome, especially as in the case of dispute “either party could appeal against the decision to a superior court, the Court of Prize Appeals, which could delay the final pronouncement for months or even years” (76).

The system was therefore prone to abuses, to privateers going beyond their bounds and misreporting or not reporting the extent or circumstances of their engagements. Increasingly, the regulation of privateering had to take place closer to the spheres in which it actually took place, and so to be monitored more directly by the Royal Navy. As such, however, and with the (in part, consequent) growth in the power and extent of the Navy, the raison d’être for privateering began to wane. After all, if the Navy could now take on the role of monitoring privateering on the high seas, it would be even more efficient for it to perform directly the self-same functions for which privateering was invented. In other words, once the state no longer needed private supplements to enable its foreign adventures, it could dispense with the requirement for privateers, and even take a moral high ground within the international juridical order, by seeking to abolish privateering altogether. And this was precisely what happened over the course of the seventeenth century, until by the beginning of the eighteenth what was supposedly piracy’s “golden age” was in fact the period of its precipitate decline, at least in the Atlantic, as it was the point at which European state collectively turned against the forces that they themselves had historically authorized and nurtured, turning now to outlaw private force, and so to secure their rather tardy achievement of a monopoly over the legitimate use of force, beyond as well as within their territorial borders.

Hence, the relation between piracy and the state is complex and historically variable. And here, to conclude, we can venture some theoretical observations regarding the Deleuzoguattarian conception of nomadism. At times, to be sure, pirates do and have functioned as a kind of absolute outside, a war machine opposed to and in contradistinction to a state which only arises (if perhaps not “all at once”) later. At other times, however, pirates were if anything the advance guard of the state, heralds of its imperial expansion. In a further irony, piracy equally called forth the state as a mode of regulation. This is perhaps most clearly obvious in the case of Spain and its construction of the first modern state bureaucracy, centered in Seville’s “Casa de Contratación,” in direct response to the threat of a continuity of illegal activities, from private commerce to fraud to mutiny to outright piracy. Finally, there is the case of piracy sponsored and originated by the state, instances of groups organized and financed under its care, but which outgrew it, to become semi-autonomous, dangerously out of control. The American filibusters such as William Walker and his Nicaraguan expeditionaries in the nineteenth century, are perhaps a particularly good example of this. In other words, the question of nomadism may not simply be that of the state taking over the war machine (as Deleuze and Guattari suggest) but also the ways in which the state itself becomes immanent, at the frayed edges of its territorial power, at the liminal margins of Empire: the ways in which, in short, the state itself generates its own nomads.