Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I mentioned this paper some time ago, but I realize that I never uploaded it. Here goes...

Having some time to spare in Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, highland Peru, I climbed the pyramid that looms over the small town. Vilcashuamán (also known simply as Vilcas) was once a significant Inca cultural and administrative center, occupying a strategic location at the crossroads of the various trade routes that crisscrossed the Inca empire: it was the point at which the road from Cuzco to the Pacific met the Empire’s main North-South highway. Moreover, according to Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León’s reports of native accounts, the town was at the geographical midpoint of the Tawantisuyu, the Inca Empire: “for they state that it is the same distance from Quito to Vilcas as from Vilcas to Chile, the limits of their empire” (126). But Vilcas is now a town full of ruins--though one might also say that the place is a set of ruins that enclose a town, as it can be hard to say where the ruins end and the town starts, and vice versa. Houses and shops nestle up against or are perched upon Inca walls and stones, and are themselves made of this same recycled material. As a result, the site is, in Gasparini and Margolies’s words, in an “advanced state of destruction and deformation” (112). It remains, however, undeniably impressive, in part because here you are everywhere up against and on top of the ruins, like it or not. There is no measured distance between contemporary life and sacrosanct historical artifact: no ropes, no fences marking off the museal from the everyday. The ruins of Vilcashuamán are fully if sparsely inhabited; they show no signs of their exceptionality. In John Hemming’s words, conjuring up a scene of desolation, “Vilcashuamán is now a small village, remote on its hill-top, perched on the ruins of the great Inca city whose temples have been pillaged for building blocks, and surrounded by rolling, hilly country with few trees and little population” (Monuments of the Incas 187). History seems to have passed it by, to have set it free from whatever stories it once inspired. Certainly, when I had been taken to Vilcas for the day, with a group of anthropologists and aid workers, I had had no idea I would end up climbing a pyramid.

Indeed, these are in no way the most famous ruins in Peru, and are far from being the most visited, meriting at best a couple of lines in the guidebooks. Rather, that honor goes to Machu Picchu, now perhaps South America’s foremost tourist attraction, which attracts around 450,000 visitors a year, up to 2,000 a day. Machu Picchu stands synecdochically for Peru, and often enough for Latin America as a whole. Arguably, Machu Picchu is a more “modern” set of ruins, being “discovered” (better, invented) only in the early twentieth century, with Hiram Bingham’s Yale-sponsored expedition of 1911. Bingham was fêted for having discovered the “lost city of the Incas.” That claim, however, rings rather hollow when it is realized not only that it was a local tavern proprietor and landlord, Melchor Arteaga, who led him to the site “with the promise of a whole silver dollar,” but also that Bingham himself noted graffiti on the stones: “the name, ‘Lizarraga,’ and the year, ‘1902’” (Alfred Bingham 6, 13). Bingham gave this Lizarraga credit for the “discoveries” in his first book about the expedition, Inca Land; yet by the time of his later account, Lost City of the Incas, Lizarraga’s name disappears (Alfred Bingham 26). Meanwhile, Bingham’s opinion of indigenous knowledge can be inferred from his own comment that “readers of Inca Land will remember that Professor Harry W. Foote and I had often been obliged to add, when discussing reports of ‘noteworthy and important ruins’--‘but he may have been lying’” (Hiram Bingham 10). He observes that the local campesinos do not mark the ruins in any particular way: “Presumably, to him and his kind, Inca ruins of temples and palaces built by their remote kindred are not in themselves interesting but merely evidence that the latter found the land worth occupying and cultivating” (10). In this sense, Bingham’s achievement was to put Machu Picchu into discourse: to articulate its stones, to make them speak in the recognizably modern idiom of ruination.

This, then, is where Vilcashuamán is different. For the ruins of Vilcas have, without entering the narratives of international tourism, and despite not being excavated until the 1980s, a much longer history of being repeatedly articulated and rearticulated to competing stories about Peruvian modernity, from almost the very moment of Spanish conquest and so their initial fall into ruin. We might therefore say that Vilcas is more eloquent about Peru’s modernity than Machu Picchu, especially now that the latter has assumed the status of a brand, a signifier almost without content--like the Nike swoosh or McDonalds’ golden arches. Machu Picchu says “Peru,” or says “Latin America,” but says almost nothing about these places. By contrast, in the to and fro of the conflicting versions of what Vilcas’s ruins might be made to say, a whole series of narratives have been advanced about historicity and hegemony, modernity and, more to the point, the (still essentially modern) lament that Peru has failed to become modern. Mario Vargas Llosa notoriously opens his monumental novel Conversation in the Cathedral with the question “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” (3). We might not know when; but it would not be far-fetched to argue that Vilcashuamán is a contender for a precise place where Peru fucked itself up. It is a place marked by the series of interruptions that, for a writer such as Vargas Llosa, indicate the fuck-ups that have (he would claim) stalled progress towards modernity. Interruptions, symbolized or, better, materialized in the strewn stones of the former Inca edifices, that have served as fissures within which variously confident, wistful, and messianic narratives have sought firm footing, like weeds in the dirt. Yet these interruptions have also, in almost the same moment, brought these stories to their own ruination, their disarticulation.

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