Wednesday, February 27, 2008


Some old notes on Augusto Roa Bastos's Yo el supremo, which follow on from a previous post on dictation, which dealt with language in the novel:


Dr Francia"Here the generality of the people is embodied in the State. Here I can affirm with perfect reason: I-am-the-State, since the people have made me their supreme potestate" (166)

In the first and last instance, I the Supreme is a novel about power. As we have seen, the title itself is a declaration of power and authority: power is here made to speak, performatively. The first person declares himself to be first among the equals that constitute the republic in a relation of apposition that is to go without saying, for "I, the Supreme" presupposes the initial foundation "I am the Supreme." This foundation is to be taken for granted; the Supreme insists that he (and only he) has the right to speak as supreme authority. He is the state.

But as we have seen, the novel also revolves around the fact that the parody found pinned to the cathedral door threatens to undermine this assumption of supreme power. It would seem that somebody is attempting to usurp the Supreme's right to absolute authority by forging his authorship of state decrees. Hence the book threatens to undo the assumption contained within its title, and the Supreme finds himself forced to justify and so (re)legitimate his place as head of state. The novel unfolds as an anatomy not only of power but also of (potential) counter-powers.

The dictator reasserts his right to supreme authority not only through repression but also by narratively re-enacting the history of the state's coming into being, its struggle for independence first from Spanish rule and second from the threat posed by the neighboring states of Argentina and Brazil. Thus the Supreme re-tells the story not only of the battles but also (more importantly from his standpoint) of the negotiations in which he played a key part in maintaining Paraguay's autonomy as the various parts of what was previously the Spanish Empire reconstituted themselves as sovereign nations. The establishment of Paraguayan sovereignty is represented as a process that is both material and discursive, a question of force and persuasion. Even the most absolute of dictatorial powers feels the need for discursive legitimation.

We should note particularly that the discourse to which the dictator has recourse establishes Paraguay as a distinctively modern state, and thus the Supreme's power as a specifically modern power, in so far as his narrative is one that invokes the people as the source of legitimate power. Rather than the divine right that was invoked to justify monarchical power, the Supreme appeals to the notion of a social contract as elaborated by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Indeed, he signals that he is more modern than the Argentina delegation who come to Asunción with their talk of power politics and pragmatics. He is frustrated that there is not more opportunity to talk further about the principles of political philosophy and their adaptability to the nascent American republics: "I would have liked to discuss at that moment the principles of the Social Contract as applied to our countries" (205). Paraguay was, after all, the first Latin American republic, and the Supreme's concern is in part how to found this new type of regime from the ashes of a discredited Empire.

Rousseau's notion of the Social Contract is an attempt to legitimate the State through reason and consent, rather than tradition (or theology). A newly independent Paraguay has no republican tradition on which it can draw (and has turned its back on the church). All that remains is reason, and it is important to recognize therefore that the Supreme is a profoundly rational man in so far as his power is founded upon reason's dictates. This is so even as and when we see his reason dissolving or becoming unreasonable. We should still see that his attempts to consolidate his power have also to be presented at attempts to ward off the irrational. And after all, in so far as his power is undercut, it is never by reasoned argument, but rather by parody, multiplicity, or material decay (of either his body or his text).

What we have, therefore, is a hyper-politicized version of Borges's concern with the limits of reason. In the person of the Supreme, the Borgesian preoccupation with reason and order is immediately also a concern with the legitimation of the social. The crisis that afflicts the dictator (and if this is a novel about power, it is also a novel about power in crisis) concerns the extent to which not only his will but also rationality itself can be imposed upon a recalcitrant world. There is an echo of Hamlet, here quoted in the dictator's conversation with the Robertsons--"There's a Divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will!" (129). The Supreme's wager is that he can invoke a republican power that supersedes the things of heaven and earth: "I am the final judge. I can decide how things will go. Contrive the facts. Invent the events" (196).

In a sense, then, dictatorship is presented not so much as the power of the individual counterposed against that of the people, for the people, the State, and the individual are a single entity incarnated in the body of the people's supreme representative; rather dictatorship here involves the attempt to assert the power of reason over that of history.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Thursday, February 21, 2008


Barack Obama and Friends
Stuff White People Like.

While you're there, read through the rest of the blog and comments... it's hilarious. (Via phronesisaical.)

See also The Pinocchio Theory on "magical negroes".

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


I don't normally do these quizzes, but quite liked the results of this one. It said of me:
You are breakfasty, like a pile of pancakes on a Sunday morning that have just the right amount of syrup, so every bite is sweet perfection and not a soppy mess. You are a glass of orange juice that's cool, refreshing, and not overly pulpy. You are the time of day that's just right for turning the pages of a newspaper, flipping through channels, or clicking around online to get a sense of how the world changed during the night. You don't want to stumble sleepily through life, so you make a real effort to wake your brain up and get it thinking. You feel inspired to accomplish things (whether it's checking something off your to-do list or changing the world), but there's plenty of time for making things happen later in the day. First, pancakes.
Note, however, the timestamp of this post. In fact I'm not always up by 10:02am...

Monday, February 18, 2008


El aura posterFabián Bielinsky's second and (given the director's untimely death) final feature film, El aura, manages to combine various different kinds of suspense. As a thriller, that revolves around a scheme to rob a casino in a remote part of Argentine Patagonia, it draws us in to the intricacies of the criminal plot and its likely success. But the bigger mystery entails its central character, an anonymous Buenos Aires taxidermist played by the excellent Ricardo Darín (who also starred in Bielinsky's previous movie, Nueve reinas).

Darín's character wanders into the casino heist by accident, but soon finds himself trying to convince the other members of the gang that he is an integral part of the plan. So a double deception is at work: the thieves' bid to deceive the casino, and the taxidermists' bid to pull the wool over the criminals' eyes. And if one plot fails, then so will the other. The interloper from the capital has to be always thinking on his feet, relying on his powers of observation, recall, and improvisation. He has often dreamed of being part of a caper like this; now thrust into one that is not of his own devising, yet cast as the unlikely ringleader, he has to prove that he can live up to the cool and calculated persona he plays in his dreams.

But as the movie continues, its haunting and even spooky quality, its slow lingering camerawork and plaintive musical soundtrack, give the impression of a dreamlike quality cast over the entire operation. Perhaps the fantasy lived out by this otherwise unassuming craftsman is indeed only that: another of his fantasies.

A commentator on the movie's IMDB message board notes that El aura is strangely reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges's acclaimed short story "El Sur". (There's added weight to this notion in that Bielinsky's first film, a short entitled La espera, was an adaption of a Borges story.) In "El Sur" ("The South"), a Buenos Aires librarian finds himself in the midst of a violent escapade, complete with gauchos and knife-fights, in a godforsaken town somewhere far to the South. His journey to the provinces is also a trip to the rough-hewn frontier life that characterized Argentine society in the semi-mythical past in texts from Sarmiento's Facundo onwards. It is a voyage to his country's cultural unconscious that also, the reader gradually comes to suspect, is played out in the character's own unconscious as he lies, unheroically dying of an infected scratch on his forehead, on a hospital operating table.

El aura's protagonist, likewise, has a relatively minor medical condition: he suffers from epileptic fits, petits mals, in which he blacks out for a few minutes or seconds. As a fit comes on him, moreover, he briefly enters a state of altered consciousness that (he tells us) is termed "the aura." As he describes the experience, "It's horrible and it's perfect. Because during those few seconds, you're free. There's no choice; there's no alternative; nothing for you to decide. Everything tightens up, gets narrower...and you surrender yourself." Is it possible that the entire trip to the Patagonian South, and the rich panoply of shady villains and victims that we see there, are conjured up in this penumbra between consciousness and unconsciousness, between freedom and necessity? That the taxidermist, who works with dead objects but seeks to give them the sense of life, a dramatic placement in vivid museum-bound dioramas, has also animated the movie's suspenseful plot from the moribund elements that surround him in his workshop?

The film's final shot shows us a dog who is initially as still as the stuffed animals that surround him before finally the blink of a canine eye (not unlike the similar movement in Chris Marker's La jetée) seems to confirm the reality of all we have just seen. Or perhaps it just reinforces the power of the fantasy that spins its narrative web in the aura between dreaming and waking.

El aura still
See also: El aura official site.
See also: "El Sur" in Spanish (.pdf).

YouTube Link: the movie trailer.

Sunday, February 17, 2008


Gerry posterGus Van Sant's Gerry is an homage to the power of landscape: the camera endlessly pans slowly over deserts and mountains in a series of long takes (the film averages a staggering sixty seconds between cuts) that emphasize the vastness and imperturbability of the environment in which the movie's two protagonists find themselves lost. Stitching together scenes shot in California, Utah, and Argentina, with a range of different terrains from scrubland to canyons to saltpan, Gerry unfolds an almost mythical panorama of inhospitable (perhaps better, indifferent) grandeur. The two would-be adventurers who traipse through the frame are doubly lost: not only do they have not the slightest idea of where they are and where they are headed; also they have increasingly to recognize their insignificance against this magnificent natural backdrop.

And yet the film is also touchingly human. For it is equally, and perhaps even more importantly, the depiction of a friendship.

We first meet the two young men (played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) in a long opening sequence in which they are driving through what looks to be the US Southwest. Arvo Pärt's sparse piano music sets a stately, unhurried mood. Inside the car, neither occupant talks to the other. It's only later that we realize that they don't talk because they don't need to talk: nothing needs to be said. Theirs is a silence of long mutual familiarity.

When the couple do speak, it is in a short-hand born of what is evidently a history of in-jokes that have created something like a private language. They both call each other "Gerry," but also use "gerry" as a verb with multiple meanings. It's as though English had too many superfluous words, and they feel they can get by with a pared-down version of the language. Yet their idiolect hardly lacks creativity and humor: they happily come up with neologisms such as "dirt blanket" and "shirt basket" as they try to figure a way out of a predicament in which one of them finds himself stuck on a prominent rock.

They refer to their initial objective, for which they've set out on this journey in the first place, as "the thing." But the point of their jaunt in the country seems to be more mutual silent companionship than any well-defined telos: soon enough they abandon their half-hearted quest, because the thing is just a "thing" after all. It's not then as though they see more importance to the objects to which words are rather precariously attached. What's important is a shared affect that lies somewhere between words and things, between their deliberately curtailed discourse and the thing itself.

Gerry still
It's on the return from their soon-abandoned mission to find the thing that they gradually realize that they are lost, and increasingly so with every attempt to extricate themselves from their predicament. But this realization doesn't bring with it any reminiscence, confession, or reflection on their lives together or alone. They exchange anecdotes about TV shows or video games. And at the one point at which recrimination or blame seems about to surface, it's defused with the simplest of ironic denunciations: "Fuck you," says one Gerry to the other. "Fuck you," the other replies. And then they walk on, still together.

Even at the last, they maintain an understated humour. The two are lying side by side in the middle of a salt desert whose featureless whiteness carries echoes of polar ice. This could be a contemporary reworking of the last moments of Scott's doomed Antarctic expedition. And one says to the other: "How do you think the hike's going so far?" "Very good," the other replies. What follows shortly thereafter is a final embrace whose very finality, we know without (now) needing to be told, is going to haunt the one Gerry who survives the experience for as long as he lives.

See also Thomas Clolus, "Gerry, ou le corps Deleuzien de Gus Van Sant".

YouTube link: the film's trailer.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Further to previous discussions of the neoliberal university...

This is a very dodgy enterprise. It is a limited company established by four local academic institutions, all of which (like almost all Canadian universities) are in the public sector. Its goal seems to be to profit from the local real estate market and what it itself calls "the City’s rapidly growing high-technology precinct". Yet it is masquerading as itself an educational institution, wrapped up in visions of high-tech cyber-utopia and "digital villages" and the like. This is no doubt to the advantage of its sponsors and investors, both public and corporate. The gaming industry (et al.) gains prestige (as well as human capital) from its association with higher education; the university hopes to rake in the cash (not that it necessarily will) while spouting the requisite terms of art about cutting edge interdisciplinary research.

The gall of it, as far as I can see, is that its corporate name, Great Northern Way Campus Ltd, is easily enough shortened to "Great Northern Way Campus" which on first sight (I was fooled for a long time) seems to imply that it is indeed the campus of some other educational institutional, i.e. an integral part of that institution. In no way is this the case.

No wonder it calls itself "a unique, collaborative university campus environment". What's "unique" is that in fact it is not a university, nor is it a campus, however much it may provide an environment. This is the language of set-dressing and interior furnishings. "Not alchemy, but close," they say. No, it's just the usual sleight of hand of corporate shenanigans, attempts to ensure rapid conversion of cultural into financial capital, and shed-loads of PR spin.

Of course, there's nothing too "unique" about this... the Great Northern Way Campus Ltd is a commercial venture like any other, simply one that has managed to wangle an awful lot of money out of public funds for its business ventures (a least $40.5 million, it seems), not to mention the fact of benefiting from an initial real estate donation that one hopes was originally destined for educational purposes. (OK, let's be real, it was a tax write-off or similar, no doubt.)

Anyhow, I ran into all this by accident. Looking for examples to show my students as to how to edit wikipedia, I discovered that the article on this firm was plagiarized from the place's own website. I blanked the page (note at this point I mistakenly thought that this was a university campus). But the deleted text was shortly replaced in similarly glowing terms, if now no longer word-for-word copied from other online promotional materials, but more cunningly crafted, by a wikipedian who apparently is paid by GNWC Ltd to write encyclopedia articles about them, sometimes in the name of Gnwc, at other times anonymously.

Ah, the university of excellence!

Perhaps the only redeeming feature is that university bureaucrats still fortunately make such poor technocrats that they managed to lose c. $1.4 million a year over the first four years since the initial donation. This at the same time as the city was undergoing rampant property inflation! Anyhow, no wonder that despite all the investment, both public and private, those few students enrolled at the "Campus" (21 to date) still have to pay, and at rates far above those paid by their colleagues who are studying in honest-to-goodness Canadian universities.

And what's with the transparent people?

Sunday, February 03, 2008


La hora azul coverWhereas the Peruvian Alonso Cueto’s previous novel, with its title Grandes miradas (which could translate as something like “Broad Gazes”), suggested an interest in the visible, La hora azul (“The Blue Hour,” winner of the 2005 Herralde Prize) is all about the voice. Almost every character is identified by their distinctive voices; there is even one who has structured his entire wardrobe and habits around his voice, believing it to be “the best and most significant demonstration of his qualities as a Lima gentleman” (214).

It’s true that the story opens with a visual image: the photograph of an apparently enviably successful couple, published in the society pages of a glossy magazine. And moreover that the plot is put into motion by a written text, a letter that the novel’s protagonist, a Lima lawyer by the name of Adrián Ormache, finds among his recently dead mother’s effects. But the illusion created by the photograph is unreliable: the gloss of success conceals a sinister family secret. And the letter takes us back to the last words spoken by Adrián’s father, whose “hoarse voice,” a “voice of curt exclamations” (23), had spoken to him of a woman in the highland province of Ayacucho, a woman the son should try to find.

Adrián had taken little account of his father’s dying words, thinking them to be just another symptom of a final delirium. But then his brother, a brother who had “inherited the hoarse voice” of his father (22), tells the story of his father’s activities as military commander in Ayacucho during the war against Sendero Luminoso. Apparently, he used to round up women suspected of being Senderistas, bring them back to base and have sex with them, then pass them on to his junior officers who would also rape them, before delivering the coup de grace with a bullet in their brains. But there was one victim whom he kept to himself, locked up in his room. And this woman somehow escaped from her living hell of enforced servitude and torture. Was this living testament to his father’s brutality, the woman that Adrián was now to track down?

The plot, then, consists in the son’s attempt to locate the one who got away from his father. In part the quest is driven by the need to maintain her silence, to preserve family honour and professional decorum by ensuring that she doesn’t talk to the press. But Ormache’s investigation is also a journey into the bleak secrets of Peruvian society, the gap that separates rich and poor, coast and highlands, light-skinned and dark-skinned. To inform himself about the atrocities committed during the war, he reads a book entitled Las voces de los desaparecidos: “The Voices of the Disappeared.” There is an increasingly testimonial quality to the lawyer’s obsession and also therefore to the novelist’s design. La hora azul aims in part to give voice back to the subaltern voiceless.

But it’s not that Ayacuchan peasants have no voice; just that the Lima elite fail to recognize them. Indeed Miriam, Adrián’s father’s former prisoner, made good her escape from the military barracks by imitating the voice of one of her torturers. And on the other hand, the objects of the lawyer’s investigation manage to retain some sense of autonomy and control only by refusing to speak: for much of the novel they maintain a guarded silence, frustrating his attempts to reach out, to play the liberal who only wants to hear their stories. For when finally he does hear something of the violence and suffering that his father, amongst others, had inflicted on the highland population, the best that Adrián can come out with are the most banal of platitudes that leave even him feeling “insuperably ridiculous” (251).

Hence this mystery novel ends with silence on some of its main points. Miriam dies, we know not whether from an unexpected heart attack or by her own hand. Before her death, she had equivocated when asked whether or not her child was Ormache’s son, and so Adrián’s brother. Her uncle refuses to clarify things, saying only “with a velvety voice” that “she told me various things, but that is between her and me” (284, 282). And finally, the son himself, Miguel, is unnaturally silent. Adrián diagnoses this as a problem, and has him sent to a psychologist who promises to teach him to find his voice. But even so, and however much the protagonist declares that the poor, the people of Ayacucho, “are like us,” he remains unnerved and disconcerted by “their silence faced with the brutal repartition of death in which they have been born.” No wonder that he also concludes that “the line that separates us from them is marked by the blade of an enormous knife” (274).

It is the violence of hundreds of years of colonial and postcolonial oppression that ensures that the liberal project of “giving voice” is doomed to failure.

Friday, February 01, 2008


The following is a draft of something shortly to be published in Radical Philosophy...

La Paz is the world’s highest capital city, at 3,636 meters above sea level. So it is all the more surprising that to get there, you have to descend: it is located is what the locals call a hueco, a hole or a hollow. When I visited in December, I arrived from across the Altiplano, a broad almost perfectly flat plain that stretches out towards Lake Titicaca in the Northwest. Snow-capped mountains loom up on the horizon. The plain itself is dotted with small subsistence farms and apparently run-down huts and houses that gradually coalesce as you approach the city, to form the sprawling shantytown of El Alto.

With almost a million inhabitants, almost all of whom are migrants from the countryside, El Alto is now a city in its own right and comprises the largest concentration of indigenous people in the Americas. It is here, where the ground is still level, that the international airport is located. And then suddenly, the ground drops away and you find yourself looking down into the hueco itself, a cliff-lined bowl packed with buildings of every type. Five hundred meters beneath you are the sky-scrapers of La Paz city center.

Hunkered down in its hollow, the Bolivian capital shelters from the cold, the wind, and the oxygen-starved air of the high Altiplano. But this relative comfort is won at a price. The motorway that winds down the side of the cliff from El Alto is a precarious affair. And yet almost everything that goes in and out of the city has to pass along it. During the disturbances of October 2004 that ultimately gave rise to the current government of Evo Morales, indigenous protestors took a leaf out of the Argentine piqueteros’ book: they blocked the road, turning their marginal location, perched on the edge of the precipice, into a significant geopolitical advantage. In the narrow and winding city streets far below, it is relatively rare that you get a glimpse of the heights that surround you. But in the tumult leading up to the 2005 presidential elections, the periphery decisively made its presence felt.

Since 2005, and especially in recent months, another periphery has been flexing its muscles. For heading East other routes, among them one labeled the most dangerous road in the world because of the perils of its descent, drop down towards the lowland plains. At well under 3,000 meters, temperate Sucre has long been a counterweight to the constituted power otherwise concentrated in La Paz; a historic colonial center and nineteenth-century capital, it is still the location of the Supreme Court among other government institutions. Further and lower down still, in the sweltering heat where the Andes finally give out and between Amazon basin and Paraguayan desert Chaco, Santa Cruz is now the country’s largest city, a boomtown product of the oil and gas exploration that is the latest key to Bolivia’s dreams of wealth and development, and so also the focus of foreign capital, political machination, and social struggle. If the protests of 2004 and earlier, such as the so-called water war in Cochabamba of 2000 and 2001, almost all took place in the highlands, now it is Sucre and Santa Cruz that are the site of disturbances. At stake is the constitution of the country itself.

Read more... (.pdf document)

Cross-posted to Left Turns?.