Monday, March 31, 2008


“Life and Letters”
(Beneath the Bathtub, the Ocean)

David's Death of MaratWhen we first meet the General, he is in the bath. But this is not so much a place for cleansing refreshment and revitalizaton: it is more of a watery grave. As the General’s loyal aide and manservant, José Palacios, catches sight of his master floating naked with his eyes open in the bath’s purgative waters, he believes that the great man has drowned.

Not that the General’s demise is marked by tragedy. On the contrary: Palacios reads on the semi-submerged body before him the signs of an “ecstacy” that is reserved only for those who are no longer of this world. The General is known for his habit of bathtime meditation; he has now simply gone a step further, and entered a state of blessedness that is no longer mortal, no longer human. No wonder Palacios approaches with trepidation, fearful of coming too close. The General is his master, but the master’s death promises not liberation but rather a new form of enchantment. Palacios softly calls to the inert form in the tub, fulfilling his orders to wake the General up even if he senses that the great man is now beyond the call of a human voice. Palacios’s is a voz sorda: a lowered or whispered voice, but also literally a deaf voice, an unhearing sound that calls out without the expectation of response from an unhearing ear.

In fact, however, the supposed corpse in the bath does respond. The General Simón Bolívar (for it is he) emerges from his stupor, his state of enchantment, and with unexpected force and grace he rises from the waters. Yet even this sudden rush of energy is compared to the “spirit of a dolphin”: an animal that leaps above the waves only to fall back down almost as soon as it has appeared. The General Bolívar, asleep or awake, is in his labyrinth. And in the book that this incident introduces, Gabriel García Márquez’s El general en su laberinto, the great Latin American Liberator will remain always on the verge, hovering somewhere between life and death, reason and ecstasy, the dazzling surface and the deadening deep.

And so also, perhaps more importantly, the General as García Márquez depicts him is also endlessly hovering between his mortal body and his impulse to mastery, between the material depradations of his encroaching illnesses and his continued ambition to construct and consolidate a united Latin American republic. Throughout what will follow, an account of his watery passage down the Magdalena river from upland Bogotá to the Caribbean sea, the General is, in other words, rather precariously suspended between biology and politics, the two poles, as Roberto Esposito observes, of what we have come to call biopolitics. Simón Bolívar, the body in the bathtub, is the biopolitical subject par excellence.

Read more... (.pdf document)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Wikipedia logo"Was introducing wikipedia to the classroom an act of madness leading only to mayhem if not murder?"

At present, wikipedia hovers at the fringes of academia, like an unwelcome ghost. Wikipedia's aims are eminently academic, concerned with collecting, storing, and transmitting knowledge. Judging by the number of the site's articles and readers, it has been remarkably successful at promoting a culture of intellectual inquiry. Yet it is fairly consistently derided by academics themselves.

Still, everybody uses it, in one way or another, even if they might want not to admit to the fact. Above all, our students use it, openly or otherwise (as they are often explicitly told not to cite wikipedia article in term papers), but without necessarily knowing how it works. They are told that wikipedia is bad, but they are not often told why; and of course, they find it an incredibly useful resource.


Wednesday, March 12, 2008


FreeloaderThe Wednesday quotation, part IX: A traveller is shocked to learn that they speak foreign in France.
Not only did no one not speak the language, they had also seen us as just a bunch of freeloading backpackers, which is the complete opposite of what the pilgrimage is really about. ("Language Barrier Scuppers Walker", BBC News)
This guy seems to have as much difficulty with English as with French. And how exactly was his "pilgrimage" "the complete opposite" of freeloading?

Monday, March 03, 2008


Still more Roa Bastos...

The Body

"Usted mismo, Señor, dice que los hechos no son narrables" (568)

As much as this is a book about language or power, it is also a book about the limits of both, which it identifies at least in part with the materiality of the body. Indeed, even history, in so far as it is a narrative of or about power, finds its limit in the physicality (and corruptibility) of the matter that constitutes us. In fact, the book's broad narrative could perhaps be summarized in terms of an attempt to use language to stave off the bodily dissolution threatened by the anonymous decree, an attempt ultimately doomed to failure as the Supreme recognizes the futility of the struggle to impose narrative on events.

The main body of the book (and that the book also has a body is not insignificant) ends with a conflagration engulfing the Supreme's papers, and a vision of the dictator's body consumed by worms. We take, I think, this to be the conflagration that has partially destroyed the texts with which the compiler constructs the novel we have before us. That the compiler is continually forced to interpolate comments (more frequent in the final pages than hitherto) indicating the state of these texts (burnt, illegible, missing) reminds us that language has to be incarnated in some physical medium for it to be transmitted. We are constantly reminded that literature has a real (not simply an ideal) presence, that the letter is also material, and so subject to the vicissitudes that may befall all material things. At the same time, the partial survival of the Supreme's papers point to another, contrasting aspect to the letter's materiality: the fact that the dictator is unable fully to destroy his papers demonstrates that once committed to paper his thoughts have a stubborn presence that cannot easily be revoked. In short, the paradox of materiality is that it is both obstinately resistant to change and yet also always mutable, never self-similar.

Likewise, then, the Supreme's predicament might be described as a combination of the fact that his written or spoken dictates are insufficiently powerful to provide him with absolute power over the Paraguayan social body, yet his words will inevitably prove more durable than his own decaying flesh. On the one hand, his power is not powerful enough; on the other, his power far outstrips his own body.

Traditionally, one way in which to conceptualize this second dislocation between the mortality of those who wield power and the presumed eternity of power itself revolves around the concept of the "king's two bodies." As a subject of power, the king's body is incorruptible and immortal, transcending any particular individual (hence the instantaneousness of transition articulated in the declaration "The king is dead, long live the king!"); as a human subject, however, it is recognized that the king's body may suffer illness and decrepitude. The separation between "yo" and "él" that we see in Roa Bastos's novel expresses therefore not only a linguistic complexity, but also a material doubling. Yet even in this neat solution to the question of power's materiality, problems arise in the intricate relation between these two bodies. What happens, for instance, when the king seems to go mad (as with George III)? And, more fundamentally, rather than preserving an ideal, untouchable body is not this doubling itself a form of monstrosity?

As an attempt to resolve these contradictions, the Supreme's discourse therefore attempts a constant dialogue between language itself and materiality. Yet this is always inevitably a failed dialogue, as there can be no dialogue between language and what is not language; by definition a dialogue can only be established within language. The material will always remain forever mute and (at least in part) unknowable.

Sunday, March 02, 2008


More on Roa Bastos's Yo el supremo...


"En cuanto a mí veo ya el pasado confundido con el futuro" (369)

I the Supreme is a historical novel in more than one sense of this phrase. In the first place, it is a novel set in the past: Roa Bastos has chosen to write about a figure who had been dead over a century by the time of the book's publication. In this sense (and not unlike even the "pulp fiction" of, say, a Catherine Cookson) the novel functions to animate or dramatise--bring to life or "make real"--a period with which its readers will have no direct experience. Historical fiction works (and finds much of its justification) because of the way in which the license allowed to the novelist enables him or her to fill in the gaps left the historical record, to give us some imagined sense of what it must have been like to live in a particular epoch or now past period by giving us the emotions, voices (often interior or psychological) voices and motivations that have not survived in the archive of historical documentation. Here, the historical novel points to and makes use of the deficiencies of other forms of history.

Second, however, this novel also quotes and uses these same historical sources; it is not merely set in the past, it also provides us with excerpts from many of the kinds of documents that professional historians also use to shed light on the actual events and figures that it also treats fictionally. Often therefore we are presented both with a fictionalized version of situations or happenings and (by means of the footnotes, a device more usually found in texts that are thought to be factual) also a version of those same situations as they have been recorded in documents, letters, and publications of the nineteenth century. On several occasions these different accounts seem to contradict each other: to be more precise, the "compiler" presents the historical record as a correction to the account that is presented in the voice of the Supreme. Here, the novel would seem to be pointing to the deficiencies of either memory (if we take the Supreme's narrative at face value as a remembrance of incidents in which he has played a part) or fiction itself.

Third, then, this is also a novel that thematizes history as one of its key concerns. This thematization takes place on a number of levels, one of which involves the way in which the Supreme (above all in his "perpetual circular," an ascription that also has something to say about the writing of history) narrates the historical foundation of the Paraguayan republic, and his role in the construction of the nation, in part to justify and legitimate his own hold on power in the (novel's) present. At the same time, prompted by the reminder of his mortality that opens the story (the "historia" in Spanish), the Supreme is also concerned to establish a sense of his legacy to the country. Hence there is a concern with history as it is written (and as it is therefore perpetuated), as opposed to history as it is (mis)remembered in an oral tradition. The novel thus repeats (or mirrors) on another level some of the concerns that we have also seen shared by the compiler, that is, the difference between memory (or myth) and written, documented, history.

Finally (though there is as always much more that could be said), the novel is historical in the sense that it was written at a particular historical conjuncture (now over thirty years past), that is, the epoch in which dictatorial or military regimes ruled in many Latin American countries, not least Paraguay (under Stroessner), and at a point when Argentina (where the book was written) was also about to be subject to the military coup of 1976. We can therefore read the book in the light of the historical context of its production--as well as the context of a literary history for which, some argue, this is the last great modernist novel of world literature (or the first great postmodernist novel of Latin American literature).