Tuesday, December 08, 2009


I've long been fascinated by the FMLN's November 1989 "Final Offensive" (click here for a sequence of photos) and particularly by the incident in the Sheraton Hotel (for which see this image, by Jeremy Bigwood, which will be included in the book).

Here, a small band of guerrillas made their way into Escalón, San Salvador's most exclusive neighborhood, took over what was then (with the Camino Real) one of the city's two top luxury hotels, and so also effectively took hostage a group of US green berets, "dressed in pajamas and bulletproof vests", who so happened to be staying there at the time. (The Secretary General of the OAS, João Baena Soares, was also caught up in the action.)

I remember following events in the British papers at the time, as it caught the eye of the international press much more than the guerrillas' control of the working-class barrios where the insurrection had started. See Time's contemporaneous account, which focuses on the possibility that for the first time the US military would be directly involved in the civil war. And as Time also points out, there was something carnivalesque about the whole affair:
Despite the tension, the scene became like something from a TV situation comedy, with the rebels enjoying a feast of hotel food and the U.S. soldiers resolutely glowering from behind their barricades.
But it always seemed to me that there was more to the incident than its value as some kind of spectacular publicity stunt in the middle of an uprising that eventually ended in stalemate. It was a digression, but an important one.

I've discussed the Sheraton incident before, and also recounted something of a visit two years ago in which I stayed in a Sheraton, if not (it turned out) "the" Sheraton.

In Posthegemony, I deal with the Salvadoran civil war, and particularly the capture of the Sheraton, at some length. I try, among other things, to argue that this brief episode is in fact significant in broader world-historical terms. As I put it there:
The Salvadoran civil war was part of a broader, global transition. [. . .] As the guerrilla forces quietly slipped away from the scene, and as the fighting across the country began to subside, on the other side of the world the Cold War was ending. The FMLN offensive had taken place in the brief interlude between the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, and the first Eastern European Communist regime to collapse (in Czechoslovakia) on November 24. The November offensive ("in all probability, the biggest guerrilla offensive ever mounted against a Latin American government"), and particularly the incident in the Sheraton with which it ended, was a hinge: both the last confrontation of the Cold War era, and the first post-Cold War conflict, a premonition of future actions against tall buildings. [. . .] Perhaps, then, San Salvador provided a better indication then Berlin or Prague of how the world would soon look. For all the euphoria of the border-breaching and deterritorialization in Eastern and Central Europe, Central America offered a clearer index of the low-intensity fear and control societies emerging from the shell of Cold War ideological tussles.
In the book's overall argument, however, this is something of a digression. It is part of my general intuition that in some sense (almost) all of modern history starts in Latin America. This is my rejoinder to the self-confidence of someone like Henry Kissinger who, in 1969, declared to the Chilean foreign minister of the time:
Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance. You're wasting your time.
By contrast, I like to say that everything of importance comes from the South: modernity, the industrial revolution, nationalism, neoliberalism... and so on and so forth. The only exception is liberal democracy, but then how important is that, anyway?

Of course, in many ways this argument is simply intended as a provocation. It's a useful corrective to unthinking Eurocentrism, modeled on and extending some of the provocations initially put forward for instance by dependency theory, but the very idea of an "axis of history" is itself rather dubious. Rather, in almost every case phenomena such as modernity or neoliberalism arise in a complex series of interactions, complicities, encounters, and struggles that involve both North and South. And more dependency theory itself, while emphasizing the importance of (say) the mines of Potosí for the development of industrial capitalism, also shows that it is the interaction of (what it calls) "center" and "periphery" that counts. Indeed, in the end the very distinction between center and periphery, North and South, becomes ultimately tenuous.

Hence my suggestion that the Final Offensive is a "hinge" and a "premonition of future actions against tall buildings" is a digression: perhaps (again) an important one, but ultimately not crucial to the main argument. I want rather to establish resonances between the Central American guerrilla and contemporary terrorism, mostly through a phenomenology of terrorist affect, and the ways in which it undermines both liberal and conservative conceptions of the state. Any sense of historical causality or origin is by the by. After all, there were plenty of other things going on in Latin America in that fateful year, not least for instance the Venezuelan Caracazo.

And yet... I continue to have the sense that there is something particularly interesting about the Final Offensive. And now, reading Carl Schmitt's Theory of the Partisan, I feel I have more of an idea as to why that might be. In short, November 1989 demonstrated the final crisis of the figure (or, in Schitt's terms, the "theory") of the partisan. It is here that we see definitively the arrival of "unexpected new forms of the new partisan" with all the implications that has for "the concept of the political, [. . .] the question of the real enemy and of a new nomos of the earth" (Schmitt, 95).

But enough for today. More on this, probably, tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


While I'm at it... I am coming to believe that Winnipeg is in fact the site of the "real" Canada.

This makes sense on so many levels. It's the geographic center of the country, after all. It also has a prairie. And clearly British Columbia, for instance, isn't Canada (too mild). Nor is Toronto or the rest of Ontario (too much like the USA). Quebec is, well, a case apart. Calgary is a weird bit of Texas transplanted to northern climes. And the Maritimes are too far away from anything. Newfoundland is a lost rock in the Atlantic Ocean, that only joined the Confederation when forced to do so. The Territories are empty and barren. No, only Saskatchewan comes close. But Manitoba, I think, is like Saskatchewan only more so.

So in the same way that the Weakerthans are really singing about Canada when they declare their hate for their native city, so surely Guy Maddin's marvellous movie My Winnipeg should similarly be read allegorically, as a film about the best and the worst that this country could be and is.

It's a mesmerizing, magnificent film, deeply strange and troubled, which is loosely premised on the film-maker's eternally ill-fated attempt to leave this place in which everyone is strangely half-asleep.

My Winnipeg is also a lament. And after all, if Canada has an identity, it involves a lament for an identity is now lost, and was never recognized at the time; Canada's identity is permanently après coup, as Lacan would say. (This is also the theme of Douglas Coupland's Souvenir of Canada, as I've hinted before, in not dissimilar circumstances.) Specifically, Maddin's lament revolves around the demolition of the Jets' stadium, and so the departure of major league hockey from the town.

And (forgive the spoiler) the film ends with the most astonishing vision of some kind of prairie socialist realist goddess reversing the flow of time and conjuring the stadium back from the rubble. It's an amazing finale, and well worth the occasional longeur en route.

Anyhow, here's the trailer...

Tuesday, December 01, 2009


Smug liberality is one of Canada's less endearing traits. Some (too much) of that was on display yesterday at an event I attended that went under the title of a "Foreign Policy Camp" organized by something called Canada's World. The basic impulse was to ask how Canada could lead the world, as it was apparently born to do, by spreading its fine liberal values to the less fortunate mass of humanity who sadly live elsewhere on the globe.

I participated in person (with a call for Open Borders that went down surprisingly well), but some of the discussion can be found on twitter. In the fray, I seem to have started a bit of an argument with one of Canada's best and brightest after she was quoted as saying that the influence of "diaspora communities" made the country "vulnerable". Oh well.

(And yes, those who are so minded can follow me on Twitter here.)

I also, incidentally, got to meet up with my old buddy and sparring partner Carlo Dade, who mentioned what to me is the astonishing fact that immigration has never yet been on the agenda of the Summit of the Americas.

Anyhow, I happily admit to having an ambivalent relationship to Canada. But increasingly I come to discover that such ambivalence is itself rather Canadian... and in so far as it can be considered a potential antidote to the temptation to smugness, it is one of the country's virtues.

Perhaps the same fundamental insecurity drives the smugness, too. But far better for it to be articulated as openness to others, and a willingness not to tout "Canadian values" but to rethink them. For indeed, this country is far more hospitable to others than many. And, for instance, fear-mongering against immigrants has yet to make great inroads here, unlike (say) in the UK or the US.

But all this is prelude to the following video, which I was indirectly recommended by a guy, Gord McIntyre, whom I first met twenty years ago, at a very difficult moment, in Guatemala, when we were both attached to a human rights NGO in Santa Cruz de Quiché. (It was that experience that first really made me doubt the whole discourse of human rights, by the way.)

Recently Gord got back in touch, and it turns out he now lives in Winnipeg. He suggested I might like one of that city's local bands, the Weakerthans, and I find that they wrote this marvellous song that encapsulates something of Canada's virtuous ambivalence and self-doubt. Long may it continue thus. And long may Canada continue "weaker than" it would rather be.

To put this another way: let us all hate Canada in exactly the same way as the Weakerthans hate Winnipeg.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


This is a call for help!

The University of Minnesota Press, publisher of Posthegemony, the book, tell me that they want it to have a subtitle.

It looks as though they are particularly keen for "Latin America" to feature in that subtitle, though that may not be vital.

I guess I'd like it to pick out some of the key themes, which include the critique of cultural studies and civil society theory, and the combination of affect, habit, and the multitude.

It's aimed at various constituencies: Latin Americanists, yes, but also political and cultural theorists, for instance.

Perhaps looking at the introduction will help?

Options so far include:

* "Posthegemony: Cultural Theory and Latin America"
* "Posthegemony: Affect, Habit, and the Latin American Multitude"
* "Posthegemony: Toward a Latin American Multitude"
* "Posthegemony: Rethinking the Political from Latin America"
* "Posthegemony: From Columbus to Chavez and Beyond"

Which of these do you prefer? Any other ideas? All suggestions will be most gratefully received. I'm hoping to emulate John Batelle's success with the same strategy. I may even come up with a prize for the winning idea!

Update: In the end, I settled on "Political Theory and Latin America," probably the most neutral subtitle, and the press is happy with it. Thanks to all for their suggestions and comments!

Sunday, October 25, 2009


A pointer to the online project Política común ("Common Politics").

This is a multilingual (though to date, mostly Spanish language) forum that is a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen and Mexico's 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos.

The site's aims and methodology are described as follows:
Esta plataforma digital busca el desarrollo de modos de producción teórica colectivos, en discusión abierta, y al margen del formato de la ponencia o del artículo académico. Es un proyecto que intenta abarcar la totalidad del pensamiento contemporáneo con particular atención a sus registros políticos y genealogico-políticos. Es un proyecto público que admite entradas directas en castellano, italiano y portugués, y en traducción desde cualquier otra lengua. Todos los textos que se publiquen en él, al margen de los ofrecidos en las secciones de Comentarios o en el Forum general, serán arbitrados por un colectivo de tres personas.
Discussions have already begun in the fora devoted to the various working groups, "Heteronomía y democracia," "Imagen y acción," "Vida y uso," "Psicoanálisis y democracia," "Testimonio y práctica teórica," and "Comunismo y acción."

UPDATE: My friend Alberto Corsín-Jímenez also directs me to Medialab-Prado Madrid's Commons Lab.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The Saturday photo, part X: Daniel Santoro's "Eva Perón castiga al niño marxista leninista."

In English, "Eva Perón Punishes the Marxist-Leninist Child."

This is merely one of a series of extraordinary paintings on Peronist themes. A selection is available all on one page here, and there are still more to be seen at Santoro's website.

Now I simply have to get hold of his Manual del niño peronista.

Many thanks to Ana Vivaldi for pointing me in Santoro's direction.

Friday, October 23, 2009


I've long expressed my enthusiasm for the photographer Martin Parr. So it's worth checking out a burgeoning debate recorded by Owen Hatherley between himself and Nina Power, inspired by a visit to Parrworld.

But it does sound as though Owen rather quickly concedes:
Nina reckons, and she is of course right, that this decontextualised pile up is just an exemplar of postmodernism at its worst, an end of history scenario where we can just accumulate ephemera from a time where we actually believed in stuff, place it untouchable under glass, and nothing need ever happen ever again.
They focus on what happens to documents of working class militancy, such as posters from the miner's strike.

A first point to note is that Parr is equally (if not more) skeptical about the claims of those in power (think of the Saddam Hussein watch series) or of popular culture (the Spice girls chocolate bars).

Second, I'd say that Parr was more skeptical about political claims, political symbols, and political projects (including, yes, that of the the National Union of Mineworkers) than about politics per se. Or perhaps he clears the ground for a different kind of politics.

In any case, I don't think he can be so easily dismissed as run-of-the-mill postmodernism gone amuck.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Lieutenant Nun coverCatalina de Erauso's Lieutenant Nun is a quite extraordinary little book. It is, as the subtitle indicates, the "Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World." Or as Catalina herself summarizes her own story, when she ultimately reveals her identity to the Bishop of Huamanga sometime around 1619:
The truth is this: that I am a woman, that I was born in such and such a place, the daughter of this man and this woman, that at a certain age I as placed in a certain convent with a certain aunt, that I was raised there and took the veil and became a novice, and that when I was about to profess my final vows, I left the convent for such and such a reason, went to such and such a place, undressed myself and dressed myself up again, cut my hair traveled here and there, embarked, disembarked, hustled, killed, maimed, wreaked havoc, and roamed about, until coming to a stop in this very instant, at the feet of Your Eminence. (64)
This sentence also gives a sense of the tone of the book: breezy, even when recounting killings, maimings, and the wreaking of havoc. Details are distributed around the text in what appears to be a fairly arbitrary manner: we are often told how many monasteries a given city contains, and how many leagues it is from the next city; we may or may not, however, learn the precise reasons for a killing or a maiming or what exactly provokes our heroine to pack up her bags once again and move on in her adventures.

Catalina skips over some episodes and lingers over others for no obvious reason; she hardly seems to care about a reader's desire to know more about the "this, that, and the other thing" (47) that she so casually invokes. She certainly has no desire to court the crowds that gather around her once her story becomes public. However extraordinary her tale is, she wants to treat it as absolutely matter-of-fact.

Yet it is extraordinary, not least because Erauso is indeed both lieutenant and nun in roughly equal measure. It is not that she transforms from one to the other, rather that she is constantly switching between the two.

On one level, for instance, the narrative is remarkably unified as it tells the tale of Catalina's spiritual progress. She begins as a novice, sent to a Basque convent at the age of four, and she ends up in Rome where she meets the Pope (Urban VIII) and chats to cardinals. En route, moreover, she is in and out of convents and churches. Indeed, at just about every opportunity we find her running back to the church.

But on another level, that of Catalina the picaresque rogue and ne'er-do-well, the narrative is equally unified. For she turns to the church for protection so frequently simply because she is endlessly getting into trouble of one sort or another. More than once she is condemned to death, for instance, for some murder or another. Sometimes she is guilty, sometimes not; it matters little. Either way, through some trick (or the help of a passing fellow Basque) she makes her way to the local cathedral and holes up there for a while until she can sneak away once more and resume her wayward rough-and-tumble life.

Hence there is a little coda to the story. In the book's final and shortest chapter, after Catalina's meeting with the church hierarchy in Rome and after a nice little joke which feels like the punchline to the book as one long shaggy-dog story, she leaves Rome for Naples. And here, down by the docks, still dressed as a man but known to be a woman, she is dressed by a couple of prostitutes who are chatting up their potential tricks. "Señora Catalina," they shout out, apparently flirtatiously, "where are you going, all by your lonesome?" (80)

Catalina de ErausoResponding to this combination of provocation and invitation from the prostitutes, this woman who has long lived as a man replies as... well, either as lieutenant or as nun, or perhaps as both. "My dear harlots," she says, "I have come to deliver one hundred to your pretty little necks, and a hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your honor." Michele Stepto argues that this is a "parody of masculinist culture," which is surely right. It is also a threat to re-impose normative morality upon a pair of wayward women. And it is a curiously ambivalent response ("my dear harlots") to an entreaty which itself is ambivalently coded as either heterosexual or homosexual (indeed, no doubt both). To the painted ladies of Naples, this Basque cross-dresser throws back a performance that they are unsure how to read or answer.

No wonder that, in what is the book's rather abrupt final sentence, we are told that "the women fell dead silent, and then they hurried off" (80). A similar silence is perhaps also our best response to this narrative that demands to be read but whose author is strangely blasé about her (or his?) readers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


The Wednesday quotation, part XIII: Jacques Derrida on ruination and love:
Ruin is not a negative thing. First, it is obviously not a thing. One could write [. . .] a short treatise on the love of ruins. What else is there to love, anyway? One cannot love a monument, a work of architecture, an institution as such except in an experience itself precarious in its fragility: it has not always been there, it will not always be there, it is finite. And for this very reason one loves it as mortal, through its birth and its death, through one's own birth and death, through the ghost or the silhouette of its ruin, one's own ruin--which it already is, therefore, or already prefigures. How can one love otherwise than in this finitude? ("Force of Law," Acts of Religion [London: Routledge, 2002], 278)

Mike Johnduff quotes the same passage and has some interesting things to say about Derrida, ruins, and love (mainly riffing off Memoirs of the Blind) at Working Notes. The image above comes from Zingology. And there are some further thoughts about ruins at borrowed city, not least "Love Among the Ruin Porn" parts one (Highland Park) and two (the Heidelberg project).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Jacques Rancière's The Ignorant Schoolmaster may be egalitarian, but it is far from anti-authoritarian. Indeed, what's curious is the way in which the book implicitly argues for the superiority of traditional forms of authority, against the illegitimacy of modern expertise.

Rancière's book elaborates on the theory of intellectual emancipation propounded by the Frenchman Joseph Jacotot in the early nineteenth-century. Exiled from France after the conservative restoration, Jacotot found himself in Belgium where he was charged with teaching French to native Flemish-speakers. Knowing no Flemish himself, Jacotot was forced to rely on his students' abilities to glean the basics of French grammar from the bilingual edition of a French novel. This they did, with remarkable results. Thus Jacotot propounded a novel pedagogic theory whose basic principle was that "one can teach what one doesn't know" (15).

On this foundation, the observation that teaching is not a matter of communicating expertise from master to pupil, Jacotot develops an entire philosophy, which Rancière in turn seems to affirm. (It is hard to disentangle Rancière's voice from that of Jacotot.) The practice of explication, instruction, and interpretation is denounced. The true pedagogue enables the student to discover his or her own intelligence, rather than to be illuminated by the professor's. Or rather, it is suggested that all teaching is a matter of harnessing and guiding the student's will to learn; "explication is the myth of pedagogy," whose function is not to communicate knowledge but to produce "a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the stupid" (6). For in fact, all intelligences are equal, or of equal capacity--this at least is the hypothesis or opinion that an emancipatory pedagogy sets out to verify.

Hence the radical egalitarianism: all intelligences are of the same kind and "any human work of art is the practice of the same intellectual potential" (36); it is just that sometimes that potential is developed, and sometimes it is constrained. Moreover, one of the foremost forces to constrain the development of natural intelligence is the very educational system that claims that this is its object. The school doesn't educate; it stultifies.

But hence therefore the strange reversion to traditional authority: the business of education has to be taken from the educational system and returned to the family. Intellectual emancipation cannot be systematized; "universal teaching belongs to families, and the best that an enlightened ruler can do for its propagation is to use his authority to protect the free circulation of its service" (103).

For it is not that Jacotot (or, implicitly, Rancière) would be done with authority: his students "had learned without a master explicator, but not for all that, without a master" (12). If anything, the new master is more demanding than the old one in forever insisting that the student pay attention and direct his or her will to achieving their own potential: "Is this insignificant? Think about everything the demand implies for the student in the way of an endless task" (31).

So it is perhaps unsurprising, if unfortunate, that the family is chosen as the sole legitimate sphere for universal education on the basis that (and here Rancière is directly quoting Jacotot) it "was the sanctuary where the father was the supreme arbiter" (105). The "natural method of the human mind" (105) appeals to the supposed naturalness of patriarchal authority for its implementation.

All this is strangely anti-social in every sense of the term, and it's not clear how much it jives with Rancière's later concern with precisely the institution of the social (however precarious and necessarily incomplete). But it ain't necessarily so. For surely this strong division between natural families and un-natural social institutions itself merely replicates the false dichotomy between pedagogy and instruction.

After all, explicators and instructors are in fact pedagogues, though they are (ironically) ignorant of the fact: "learning also takes place at the stultifiers' school; a professor is a thing, less easily handled than a book, undoubtedly, but he can be learned" (102). As such, rather than legitimating the authority of the patriarchal family, surely another route towards emancipatory pedagogy would be the further objectification of the professoriat?

Sunday, September 13, 2009


In the same spirit as my love for ballboy, I'm now rather keen on getting hold of this record.

Meanwhile, I'm reading David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero, and despite my previous praise for his work, my feeling is that he's becoming too close to a novelty act for comfort. I very seldom abandon a book midway, but here I'm sorely tempted to do so.

Peace's style, and particularly his insistent use of repetition, is becoming downright irritating. James Meek wrote a very good review of this novel's sequel (Occupied City) in a recent London Review of Books. The title he chose for his review, "Polly the Bleeding Parrot," is both a quotation from a character in one of Peace's books, and also (as Meek observes) a rather good indication of the gore and the excessive doubling that characterize them.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


This is a guest post by Freya Schiwy, author of Indianizing Film: Decolonization, the Andes, and the Question of Technology. Here she responds to my earlier discussion of her book.

To begin, I would like to thank Jon for reading and commenting on my book Indianizing Film. His reflections offer initial, generous appreciation of Indianizing Film and then suggest some critical disagreements with the methodology and theoretical focus of my study. I appreciate the opportunity to respond.

There is a wide-spread, sometimes unquestioned assumption that research on contemporary indigenous peoples belongs to the domain of anthropology, or at least that it should be informed by its methodologies and critical concerns: extensive field research in one local site and a focus on changes and forms of identity formation. The social sciences, particularly political sciences, have also staked out a claim on studying indigenous movements, frequently in relation to the state and to global institutions. The methodology here does not require extensive fieldwork. The interest here does not lie with cultural production but the dynamics of political organization and often the relation to the state. My work is neither anthropological nor focused on the concerns in political science. I have, however, spent significant time in face-to-face contact with indigenous media activists as well as in their audiovisual archives.

Jon’s response to my study of indigenous media, decolonization, and the Andes takes issue with the lack of attention to audience reception and the effects of indigenous videos in local communities. He concludes that more field-research should have taken place in order to answer questions about indigenous identity. Unfortunately, he thus misses the key argument of my study: It is possible, even necessary to critically engage with texts (in the widest sense) produced by indigenous movements.

Reading these texts offers insight into the discourse created by indigenous movements. This discourse constructs a pan-indigenous identity, which, I hoped to make clear, is not ontological but precisely a cultural and political project constituted in the face of more than 500 years of colonialism. The texts, including the documentary and fiction videos I engage with, however also contribute ideas and perspectives on issues – such as literacy and power, the theorization of the “coloniality of power”, even recent debates about late capitalism and the possibly immanent nature of political-economic transformation. My study does not aim to document the multiple dimensions and impact of political struggle in the Andes nor the complexity of economic forms indigenous communities and individuals engage in. Rather I wish to focus on the critical potential of the indigenous discourse for enriching our scholarly discussions.

While Jon offers a fine summary of the description of the material I study, he fails to give adequate account of how I believe this material helps to problematize several key concepts in cultural theory. As I elaborate in individual chapters, indigenous media suggest, for example, rethinking the notion of the lettered city as based on a division of literacy and orality. I also argue that theorizing colonial legacies in today’s constellation of power needs to regard constructions of gender. They are central to the process of decolonization and overcoming a colonial dismissal of indigenous peoples’ capability for taking part in political, let alone critical debates. Finally, Jon fails to make reference to the way the production and circulation of indigenous media open up a border to the immanence created by late capitalism. This border is informed by the recently strengthened political memory and practice of reciprocal economic forms. The appropriation of video as a non-commercial and non-artistic yet highly political process of communication forces us, as I elaborate in Indianizing Film, to qualify the notion of immanence.

Audiovisual technology is a key element in this process – a form of representation with its own inscription into the scholarly canon, but also a social, economic form. As indigenous media indicate, technology, however, does not determine use and desire but is itself a malleable tool. The fact that its uses and aesthetics have changed from anti-imperialist revolutionary cinema attests to the new sensibility that informs indigenous struggle today. No longer does the final freeze-frame of rifles raised seek to incite viewers into violent action. After integrating the staples of Hollywood film (cause-effect narratives, continuity editing, stable cameras, improvised dolly-shots and genres such as melodrama and the horror movie) into local narrative and textile traditions, indigenous videos often end by fading out pensive protagonists who reconsider long dismissed cultural values, subjectivity, and epistemologies. This new sensibility toward social transformation as based in the decolonization of the way indigenous peoples generate knowledge, alas, offers us as scholars the opportunity to critically review our desire to perversely maintain or transcend our own, colonially constituted epistemic privilege.

This kind of critical reading of indigenous discourse builds on and goes beyond at least two exceptions to the dominant approaches in the study of indigenous peoples. Literary studies and film studies have both focused on textual production, including the critical reflection on production and circulation but without necessarily engaging in the field-research required for audience reception. Indeed, for those interested in such an approach, Gabriela Zamorano’s dissertation in process (in the field of anthropology) will offer precisely such a perspective, though limited to the Bolivian context. For those interested in a critical approach (similar to my own) that teases out indigenous media’s epistemic potential for transforming the critical tools of cultural theory, Michelle Raheja’s forthcoming book Redfacing and Visual Sovereignty opens up productive ways of engaging with North American Native visual and autobiographical discourse.

This has been a guest post from Freya Schiwy.

Monday, September 07, 2009


There is almost always something reticent about a ruin: a ruin is a retreat, a fading away. What was once foreground starts to melt into the background as the built environment cedes to the natural environment. Nature takes the place of culture as weeds start to push through cracked stones, wood rots away, or solid rock sinks into the sand. There may come a point at which it is hard to discern the ruin from the jungle or the desert. At some point the ruin may disappear altogether as it becomes one with its surroundings.

The disconcerting thing about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO-designated site in southern Alberta, is that from the outset it was already fully part of its surroundings. Figure was already ground. For the ruin is simply a cliff (and a relatively slight one to boot) that briefly interrupts the long descent from the Rockies to the Great Plains. It was here that, for several millennia, native Americans enticed buffalo to their death, again precisely by blurring or dissimulating the distinction between human activity and natural environment.

Indeed, it is hard to locate the site of the Buffalo Jump itself. You have to be told or shown. Head-Smashed-In depends upon the pedagogical work of demonstration, explanation, and interpretation without which it would hardly even come to light. Or more precisely, Head-Smashed-In highlights the role of imagination in the construction of the ruin: it's no accident that archaeologist Jack Brink's book about the site is entitled Imagining Head-Smashed-In. As he puts it, "capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination." But never is this more true than with those "many ancient cultures that [. . .] managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves." Brink's task is "to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid" (xii). He has to sell us the idea that this is a ruin.

Hence at Head-Smashed-In it is the interpretive center that is the focus of the visit experience. Many ruins have some kind of signage or attached museum, but usually they can be appreciated well enough without resort to such ancillary explanation. Here, however, the interpretation overwhelms the ruin itself. The museum is built into the cliff alongside the Jump, and it is impossible to see the archaeological site from within its galleries. Though you can access a gallery from which to view the cliff-face at the top of the building, the majority of a visitor's time is necessarily spent in the enclosed space of the museum through which you have to pass twice, both on the way up and on the way down. And this interpretive center, while dedicated to explaining what is just outside, in fact looks in on itself and the multiple reconstructions of the site that it contains. For all intents and purposes, this museum could be any place whatever.

The reconstructions of the site within the museum include scale models, images, and video. Three full-size replica of buffalo at the top of a fiberglass cliff dominate much of the interior space. Staff direct you to a fifteen-minute filmed reconstruction of the indigenous buffalo hunt (made by a company called "Myth Merchant Films") in which computer-generated imagery aids a spectacle that aims at considerable realism. In helping us imagine the buffalo jump, the interpretive center leaves little to the imagination.

But whose imagination is at work here? The museum's problem is that it has to negotiate between multiple modes of interpretation: deductions based on archaeological evidence, readings of historical texts left by European travelers, and memories passed down through oral history among the First Nations. Often there is a tension between these different narrative strategies, and the museum tries to maintain a counterpoint between some fairly standard displays and, for instance, the text of indigenous legends that is projected upon those displays.

So in some ways the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is peculiarly detached from its ostensible object, both because it reproduces that object within a space that is literally to one side, and because the multiple interpretations that the object generates are allowed more or less free reign. The visit experience becomes all about the creative vagaries of imagination. And yet the notion that this is a physical site is also clearly of vital importance, in that it is to anchor these otherwise drifting narratives, to help us re-read the natural environment as shaped by cultural and historical processes. In the end both the scientific and the mythic narratives come together in the indigenist claim that native Americans have a particular relationship to the landscape, and indeed to the land itself.

Friday, September 04, 2009


Freya Schiwy's Indianizing Film is an important and ambitious book. Its subject is indigenous media, by which Schiwy means specifically the video and DVD programming made (mostly) by and (mostly) for indigenous groups, above all in Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to some extent Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico.

This programming is sometimes broadcast on television, but more often is screened directly in villages and other indigenous communities, usually in the presence of a facilitator from the organization that has produced the material. If necessary, the facilitator will bring the TV or projector and screen, and even a generator so that the presentation can be staged even in the most remote areas. The show may well be accompanied by commentary, translation, or interpretation, and be designed to foster debate and discussion at the end of the screening. What is shown is usually (at least in the Bolivian case) a package that may include short documentaries or docudramas, news briefs, video letters or memories, and dramas. The shorter pieces tend to be no more than ten minutes long; the dramas may run for half an hour or more.

Though her focus is on the Andes and the Amazon, or rather more particularly on the Bolivian case that straddles high and lowland, Schiwy is clearly thoroughly familiar with indigenous media production from across Latin America, and also with the comparable material from New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. This book takes its place alongside Eric Michaels's Bad Aboriginal Art as an indispensable reference point for any consideration of indigenous media.

The topic is important because it revises our understanding of what it means to make politically committed or radical art. Schiwy compares at some length the new indigenous media with the Marxist experimental film of the 1960s and 70s (again, above all in Bolivia). She notes that though the new media is less formally adventurous, it has perhaps greater impact than the rather highbrow cinematic efforts it effectively replaces. At the same time, there are important continuities between the two movements, and it's significant that one of the leading lights on the Bolivian scene is the son of renowned sixties director, Jorge Sanjinés.

Perhaps more importantly still, Schiwy's examination of indigenous media cautions us against seeing the indigenous as simply the relics of the past, or even as some kind of romantic essence that persists beyond and despite time and history. It reminds us that there is no necessary contradiction between indigeneity and modernity or technology. Indeed, ironically some of the most persistent and romantic images of Native Americans are in fact the result of indigenous people's interaction and adaptation of European technologies: the Plains Indians' mastery of horsemanship, for instance, could only come about once the horse had first been introduced to North America. Moreover, Schiwy suggests that indigenous media reveal the possibility of alternative modernities that would enable what she variously describes as "decolonizing the soul" (28) and (more often) a decolonization of knowledge.

Here, however, I start to take issue with Schiwy's approach. Her stress on what towards the end of the book she terms the "politics of knowledge" (212) or "knowledge politics" (213), which she throughout signals in terms of "epistemic privilege" (139ff) and "epistemological hierarchies" (13), is unhelpful. For a start, it is a strange reduction of indigenous politics--and indeed, politics as such--to issues of epistemology. Yet, as the UN Report Schiwy cites in her Afterword reveals, "the major points of contention" in recent indigenous mobilization have been "sovereignty (and the implications this may have for the coherence of nation-states) and, perhaps most important, the control over natural resources on indigenous lands" (217-18). Trying to force such struggles into the framework of knowledge politics, or for instance to talk of "epistemological and economic border[s]" as though they were one and the same (210), is strangely depoliticizing.

Further, what is meant by "knowledge" in these instances is quite undertheorized and too often (despite Schiwy's occasional protestations) devolves into mere representation. So in practice the video programming is treated as a conduit of pre-existing native knowledges which are otherwise in danger of disappearance. Indeed, it seems that very often this is also the explicit theme of the programming itself, which is dedicated either to preserving and disseminating the memory of traditional beliefs and practices, or (in the dramatic pieces) to warning of the dangers of letting them be forgotten. Schiwy's analysis loses sight of the productive aspects of the technology, the ways in which it produces new forms and modes of subjectivity and indigeneity rather than merely preserving the old. She invokes the networks that such technology traces yet subsumes them under the strange notion, simultaneously totalizing and essentializing, of a "pan-indigenous social ethos" (84).

The problem is the theoretical tools with which Schiwy is working, which are not up to the task she sets them. The reduction of politics to an undertheorized version of epistemology, and the romantic conception of subaltern otherness, is the hallmark of Schiwy's reliance on the work of Walter Mignolo. Indianizing Film tries, often heroically, to put some of Mignolo's slogans to good use. We read of the "coloniality of power," the "colonial difference" and "border gnosis," but they remain as unenlightening here as they are in their original context. I will give a prize to anyone who can even parse the phrase "coloniality of power," let alone explain what it is intended to mean. What, for instance, is intended by the claim that "the coloniality of power constructs the idea of modernity as a projection of European economy and epistemology" (40)? Schiwy tries to do justice to such concepts, but in the end they fail her.

In short, Schiwy's material is much more interesting that the theoretical slogans that have been imposed upon it. I would have liked to have heard, by contrast, more about the reception of this programming, the ways in which local facilitators interact both with the programming and with audiences in the debates that follow. For a project that is, we are repeatedly told, collective and communal, we hear overwhelmingly from the film-makers and activists, who travel to and fro between one film festival or another, and far less from the communities themselves. Schiwy consistently questions, often with good reason, traditional anthropological approaches to indigeneity, but a little anthropology here might have gone a long way. It would have meant she could have dispensed with the North American champions of indigeneity such as Mignolo, as well perhaps as their Latin American spokespeople.

Indigenous media are clearly a fascinating and important interface between indigeneity and technology, in which both elements are transformed by the encounter. Unfortunately, the guiding metaphor of Schiwy's book suggests that only technology is affected as the video-makers "integrat[e] what is foreign into traditional cultural and economic forms" (13). This notion of indianization as simple integration or appropriation is but the reverse of the traditional notion of assimilation, the idea that one culture can be unproblematically folded into another.

Yet as Schiwy's own analyses indicate, everything about both the technological processes at work here (the creation of new networks, the filmic montage that allows new connections and so new conceptions of indigeneity) and even the content of the videos themselves goes against this idea. One film, Angels of the Earth, for instance, is described as "a story of shifting ethnic identification" (43) that is also surely an intervention into the "unsteady category" that is indigenous identity (44). If this is indianization, the technology is not the passive object of indigenous uses and desires, but an active agent that is to redesign and retool those desires. The notion that film is more about teaching us how to desire than about informing us what to think is familiar from film theory and is, for instance, the entire thesis of Slavoj Zizek's A Pervert's Guide to the Cinema. In this sense, the indigenous are perverts, too, and there is no harm saying so.

Freya kindly agreed to respond to this review of her book, here.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Panama City feels like a cross between Havana and Hong Kong. Like Havana, its downtown "Casco Viejo" displays the faded elegance of dilapidated balconied buildings alongside ruined colonial churches. Though gentrification is driving out the working class families who lounge in living rooms that open right on to the street, for the time being the area is still edgy and cheap enough to be a backpacker's dream. Like Hong Kong, on the other hand, on the other side of the bay the Panamanian capital is a city of high rises and unabated construction. Soon it is due to be home of nine of the ten tallest buildings in Latin America, and the speed at which the towers go up seems hardly to have been affected by the global financial crisis which elsewhere has hit property especially hard.

Panama spans the various epochs of colonialism that shaped first Havana, as one of the fortified cities shepherding silver and gold bullion from South American mines to Spanish ports, and then Hong Kong, as a vital node in a global network of free trade. Even now, Panama is shaped mostly by the wealth the flows through it, whether that be thanks to its new-found prominence at the end of the Central American gringo trail, or the combination of speculation and money-laundering that have fuelled its real estate boom.

Above all, Panama is still shaped by the canal without which it would never have existed as an independent country. You can sit and watch the container ships pass through the locks at either Miraflores (at the Pacific end of the transit) or Gatún (at the Caribbean). Each is carrying perhaps millions of dollars' worth of merchandise, and paying hundreds of thousands for the privilege of taking its goods through the isthmus rather than the long way around South America, via Cape Horn. In turn, the size of the canal locks has long determined the breadth and length of the majority of the world's ocean-going container fleet. Only now, with a new breed of "post-Panamax" ships, is the canal to be widened and deepened, at a cost of up to $5 billion.

Panama has always flourished by siphoning off some of the capital that flows through its borders. In turn, however, it has always been vulnerable to those who wish to prey on its own parasitism. In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, these were pirates, most notably the Welsh privateer Henry Morgan who destroyed the first incarnation of Panama City and repeatedly attacked the fortresses (such as San Lorenzo and Portobelo) that guarded its Caribbean flanks. Today the profiteers are the more anonymous and decidedly less romantic figures of the bankers, real estate agents, and construction interests, as well of course as the usual litany of corrupt official in the public sector.

For the spoils of Panama's fortune have hardly been divided equally, and indeed have been the ruin of many. The canal itself, and the railway that preceded it, was only built at the cost of tens of thousands of lives from among the labor force that flocked from around the Caribbean and across the world. Some of the survivors' descendants now live in cities such as Colón, which is essentially one large (and rather dangerous) slum, avoided by backpackers and speculators alike.

When I was in Colón, in a city-center mall with plenty of vacant store lots that had rather over-optimistically been built to attract cruise passengers, hundreds of senior citizens were patiently sitting in line. They were there to register with a scheme promulgated by the new president, Ricardo Martinelli, whose government has pledged them a pension of $100 a month. This handout is no doubt a populist gesture, but for those who aren't in a position to start sailing under a black flag or Jolly Roger, such gestures are welcome.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


Guyane, I was told, makes Europeans go crazy. Or maybe it just attracts the ones who are crazy already. It's like a mental asylum for white people.

Officially an integral part of France (the only place on the South American mainland where the currency is the Euro), Guyane attracts legions of fonctionnaires--civil servants and public sector workers--from Europe. They work in administration and in the schools, in customs and in the police; there is also a sizeable contingent from the armed forces, plus the Guiana Space Center in Kourou draws technicians and scientists.

French workers in Guyane are paid a premium--i.e., more than they would be earning back home--both, again I was told, to compensate for the discomfort and sacrifice of life in the tropics, and in recognition of the fact that the cost of living in Guyane is (perhaps surprisingly) higher than that in Paris.

But still the métropolitains complain. They are bored and easily distracted; they lament their distance from the metropolis, their confinement in this "enfer vert" or green hell; they turn to drink, to drugs, to sex. They go a little bit crazy.

Same as it ever was. Guyane is a reminder that colonialism, at least as experienced by the colonizer, was always as much about boredom and minor debauchery as it was about the exercise of power. It involved a few too many gin and tonics at the club in the afternoon, perhaps followed by a drunken trip to the local brothel. Or as Carolyn Fick puts it of eighteenth-century Haiti, "for the colonial planter, life was generally one of monotony and isolation, compensated by sheer dissipation and indulgence" (The Making of Haiti 16).

Of course, Guyane is not an exact incarnation of traditional colonialism, but then it never was: it was above all a penal colony, rather than the site of agricultural production and exploitation; indeed, even now, compared to Suriname and Guyana there is for instance very little sugar processed or rum distilled. Its economy is dependent upon subsidies, and the people draw welfare from the French state. Unemployment is a particular problem.

If anything, Guyane is an instance of colonialism inverted: where the plantation system depended on black slaves who were forced to work without pay, contemporary welfare colonialism involves paying people to compensate for the fact that they can't work. And yet, strangely, everything else remains the same.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Journey to Nowhere coverAbout halfway through Shiva Naipaul's Journey to Nowhere, the author finds himself at a "New Earth Exposition" in San Francisco, confronted with a panoply of hippies and New Agers as well as people he describes as "shaggy feminists, liberated homosexuals" and "earnest, mustachioed teachers worried about Energy" (188). He falls into conversation with a succession of representatives of the "World Hunger Project," one of whom remarks "I can see you're a pretty negative type, Shiva. [. . .] You're hung up on logic and all that kind of bullshit" (198). For Naipaul, this is one of those moments when the deluded proponents of alternative lifestyles condemn themselves, leaving little more to be said. But there's no doubt that the hippy was right about one thing: Shiva is certainly a "pretty negative type."

Journey to Nowhere is an account of the Jonestown disaster (about which I've written before). Naipaul's book, published in 1980, is written almost in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, and indeed he visits Guyana just a couple of weeks after this "revolutionary suicide" of almost a thousand Americans, at a time when there is still much press interest in the events.

What makes Naipaul's approach different is that he believes that hitherto the blame has not been spread widely enough. "No one," he argues, "accepted any measure of personal responsibility for what had happened" (228). For instance, he quotes numerous survivors and defectors from the People's Temple but notes that not a single one "has ever admitted any culpability for the carnage that occurred at Jonestown. Not one has ever conceded that past complicities may have contributed to the Guyana tragedy" (157). This was no case of simple brainwashing on the part of a devious would-be messiah, Naipaul tells us; they were in fact all in it together. What's more, even the so-called "Concerned Relatives" are almost as much to blame as the people they ultimately failed to save: "by their words and action, they helped create the conditions" for the mass suicide; "their hysteria goaded [the People's Temple] toward extinction" (156).

But the blame is ultimately spread much further still. Naipaul has little truck for the notion that Jonestown is a case of utopian idealism that somewhere went wrong. He finds fault with the idealism in the first place, which "had already gone wrong [. . .] eaten up with inner decay" (297). Hence the seeds of Jonestown's destruction are already found in San Francisco's "New Age Exposition," Los Angeles hedonism, Berkeley's student radicalism, and Oakland's Black Panthers. California, that glittering, sun-drenched mirage, turns out to be the setting for wholesale "intellectual and spiritual collapse" (208), a place where "the intellect was dead and its place taken by a set of shared pathological obsessions" (211). Moreover, Naipaul wants us to take the metaphor of sickness seriously: "ideas had indeed become viruses" (211); "they were a disease you caught; a contamination of the intellect" (196).

California, however, is simply the concentration of a set of obsessions and pathologies that are distinctively American, a "laboratory" (199) in which all that is wrong with the country comes to the surface: "America's wilder dreams have always rolled to the Far West. Fantasies flourish best in a warm, sensual climate" (202). And so it was with Jim Jones and his followers. It was not just that they had been infected by some Californian contagion; they had brought the madness with them in their trek (which Naipaul repeatedly calls a "hegira") from Indiana and the Middle West. For everything "was already in place when Jones left Indianapolis for the Redwood Valley. Those who were received into its inner circles knowingly recruited themselves into corruption" (249).

It gets worse. There's a reason why Naipaul subtitles his book "A New World Tragedy": he sees Jonestown as an indictment of the Americas as a whole. This is no simple anti-Americanism in which the vices of the dominant are mocked or denounced. If anything, it is the dominated, and particularly the blacks who figured so strongly in Jones's multiracial vision, who are to blame. Was it not Huey Newton who came up with the notion of "revolutionary suicide"? Had not "the basic groundwork [for Jones's fatal paranoia] been done by his black radical precursors" (288)? What the People's Temple suffered from, in the end, was "an intolerably aggravated racial consciousness. [. . .] The Temple was the disease it claimed to be fighting. In that lay its most hopeless corruption" (249).

Hence the appropriateness of the Guyanese setting for the final denouement. Naipaul portrays Guyana as a sort of Jonestown in macrocosm, ruled over by a paranoid leader (Forbes Burnham), in thrall to ideologies of black consciousness and socialist cooperation (a "Cooperative Socialist Republic"), suspicious of visitors who are subjected to surveillance and vacuous propaganda. Guyana, like the People's Temple, is a place of "degeneracy," of "moral decay" (105), of "a kind of universal mental retardation" (31). Or perhaps not quite universal: Naipaul describes going to a party in Georgetown where his host's enervated young English wife dances with him and whispers in his ear "Take me away with you! You must take me way from here! [. . .] Every night I dream it's my turn to drink the poison" (111). Coming from Trinidad, it is as though Naipaul is a "concerned relative" aghast at what he repeatedly terms the "cultural and intellectual regression" born of "the vocabulary of resentment and racial self-assertion" (26).

The figure to whom Naipaul ultimately resorts to understand Guyana (and so by extension Jonestown) is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that of the first black post-independence leader in the Americas: "In the Caribbean, only Haiti could furnish parallels to this almost complete subversion of government: King Christophe had been reborn" (39).

Finally, however, it would be worth putting to Naipaul the same question that he implicitly puts to the concerned relatives of Jonestown. Is not his own description of the postcolonial Americas, with the "riffraff" (27) like "animals" (17) in the grip of nefarious ideologies of racial and cultural empowerment amidst a "jungly nightmare" (13) . . . is all this not a little hysterical? Indeed, has not Naipaul rather lost touch of his much-prized "logic and all that bullshit" in his total negativity towards the Americas and any possible dream of liberation or social justice?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


The Guianas don't fit well within our conception of Latin America. For instance, at the last Latin American Studies Association congress (in Rio de Janeiro earlier this summer), there wasn't a single paper on this part of the world among 1,270 panels. Guyana, Suriname, and Guyane are a geographical oddity: in South America but not of it.

In fact, it's surprisingly difficult even to travel to the Guianas from elsewhere in Latin America: there are no road links between Guyana and its neighbor Venezuela, for instance, while from Brazil the only overland links are to Guyana connecting with the difficult road from Lethem, and to Guyane via a boat across the Oyapock river to the rather lonely outpost of Saint-Georges de l'Oyapock. Meanwhile, air services are limited to a fairly intermittent schedule by small plane between the northern Brazilian cities of Boa Vista and Belém to Georgetown and Paramaribo. The Guianas are much better connected to North America and Europe (with direct flights for instance to Toronto and Amsterdam), and to the Caribbean via Trinidad and Tobago.

Guyana, or its populated coastal strip at least, is Caribbean in culture and outlook even though in fact it borders the Atlantic Ocean directly. Guyane has probably a fair amount in common with other French overseas departments such as Martinique and Réunion. Suriname, however, appears to be a case apart.

Compared to Guyana, the first thing to strike you is how orderly and even tidy Suriname is. In part, this is a consequence of the fact that the population is much smaller (less than half a million compared to Guyana's 750,000) and that more than half live in the capital, Paramaribo. Here, there is not the same profusion of people strung out along the coastal road. But even in Paramaribo itself, especially the historic core near the Suriname river, there is a marked absence of litter along the narrow streets that are flanked by often impressively-restored colonial-era wooden buildings. It's all very... well, Dutch. There are even blond-haired youths dashing around on bicycles (though to be fair these seem to be tourists).

On the riverfront there is a delightful open-air food market with stalls selling creole and Javanese dishes, music playing, and people hanging out, drinking beer, taking a stroll, or (while I was there at least, during the Confederations Cup) watching football on television. Nearby are some fairly fancy bars and restaurants, as well as all the major public buildings: the national palace, the Treasury and other ministries, and the impressively huge wooden Cathedral.

Not far away, also by the river, is Fort Zeelandia, well preserved and immaculately restored with permanent and temporary exhibitions devoted to the former colony's history. Everything's beautifully and professionally arrayed. By contrast, in Georgetown, Guyana, when I went looking for the former fort nobody knew where it was and I found myself straying through a decidedly ramshackle area full of weeds and rusted old vehicles.

Yet there's a darker underside to Suriname, too, for all its polished and cultivated sheen. For Fort Zeelandia was, not all that long ago, the site of the so-called "December murders" in which on December 8, 1982, fifteen opponents of the military government then in power were killed in circumstances that have still to be fully clarified. Suriname is not so far distant from the rest of Latin America in that in the 1980s it, like much of the rest of the continent, was also subject to a succession of coups and military leaders. And though these regimes were not particularly bloody, the transition from dictatorship was messy to say the least, with a rebellion by former maroons from the interior and east of the country, and a short but fairly brutal civil war.

As so often, a country that is apparently set apart from the region in fact has more in common with the rest of Latin America than its inhabitants (and its tourist office) might want to acknowledge. There are few, if any, real exceptions in the history of the Americas.

Link: OAS Report on the Human Rights Situation in Suriname (1983), including discussion of the "December murders."

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


There is the interior of Guyana, explored by Evelyn Waugh, and then there is the coastal strip that stretches from the capital, Georgetown, to the Suriname border. The former is, even now, a vast swathe of jungle and savannah thinly populated by indigenous groups and the occasional ranch. There is some logging, some mineral and gold extraction, and increasing amounts of ecotourism, but essentially it is wilderness with just the one unmade road leading to Lethem and the Brazilian border.

The coast, however, has a reasonably well-made road to Corriverton and Moleson Creek in the East, and even a brand-new bridge spanning the Berbice river that means that you can now drive the whole way without taking a ferry. Moreover, strung out along the road are an endless succession of small settlements; indeed, it might be better to say that the entire road is one long, thin, ribbony settlement that stretches for well over a hundred miles.

Taxis and minibuses zip along the road at surprising speed, though drivers have always to be alert to avoid potholes, stray dogs, cows, or other livestock. Guyana is an untidy country (the contrast with neighbouring Suriname is noticeable) and nothing quite stays in its place. The route is also marked, especially in the straggling suburbs of Georgetown, by a profusion of mosques and temples, a reminder that up to two thirds of the population (the highest proportion in the Caribbean) is of East Indian descent.

Indeed, the country's politics (and to some extent also its culture) are inflected by a simmering tension between black and East Indian that has to be almost unique (though perhaps nearby Trinidad is somewhat similar). Political parties are organized on racial lines and, during election periods at least, exacerbate the differences between the two communities to the point of encouraging sporadic intercommunal violence. At other times the tension is much more muted, though apparently when the Indian cricket team comes to town they are not without supporters among the local South Asian population even though some of the most prominent current West Indies players (such as Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan) are also of East Indian origin.

It is unique because I can't think of another example (though I'm willing to be corrected) of a postcolonial society so structured by a tension not between colonizer and colonized but between two groups imported into the colonial situation by the colonizers--the blacks as slaves, and the East Indians as indentured labor. Of course, colonialism and more generally capital has often thrived on playing off the differences between immigrant groups, such as between the Italians and Irish in the Northeastern United States. But here, with the indigenous a tiny minority in the interior and the whites effectively absent, this has now become the primary political and social difference.

Guyana wants to present itself as a model multicultural postcolonial society. Its capital features an "Umana Yana," a huge indigenous hut built for the 1972 Non-Aligned Foreign Ministers Conference, as well as a monument to the Non-Aligned Movement itself, with busts of its founders Nasser, Nkrumah, Nehru, and Tito. No doubt for the most part the messy, sprawling community that stretches along the coastal road is a good instance of everyday cooperation and exuberant hybridization between the various communities that make up the country. But there are plenty of reminders that colonialism's "divide and rule" policies run deep, even once the rulers have packed up and gone home.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Evelyn Waugh's 92 Days is an account of a trip, in 1933, through what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) and the far north of Brazil. Last month I covered some of the same territory, traveling from Boa Vista via Lethem to Georgetown overland, and then on to New Amsterdam. Our means of transportation, however, were rather different: I felt that the sixteen-hour bone-shaking ride in a minibus to the Caribbean coast was bad enough; but for Waugh it was a question of several weeks on horseback, on foot, and in a succession of riverboats. Each stage of the journey in the 1930s involved organizing a small expedition, taking in supplies, hiring horses and porters, or waiting days for the uncertain arrival of mailboats.

Waugh goes out of his way to underline the discomforts of travel, from the sheer physical exertion (not least when he is half-lame thanks to an inflamed foot) to the hordes of biting insects, or from the poor food to the often even poorer company. As he says, "There are a hundred excellent reasons for rough travelling, but good living is not one of them" (135). The book is a catalogue of frustration, delay, deprivation, and discomfort to which Waugh only gradually becomes inured.

It is the fact that Waugh becomes (at least relatively) inured to these daily discomforts that prevents the book from ever becoming a tale of high adventure. And after all, the author is seldom in great danger; the one point at which his expedition is truly at risk of disaster, when he becomes totally lost, he is supremely unaware of the fact until fortuitously meeting the man who will set him back on the right track. Hence there is little in the way of tension or drama in Waugh's rather stately progress through jungle and savannah. Indeed, the atmosphere is rather one of some tedium in which obstacles are rendered merely disagreeable inconveniences.

We might even begin to wonder what are the "hundred excellent reasons" for such a trip. To the extent that his voyage is not completely aimless, Waugh fails in its ostensible goal: he hopes to go to Manaus, but after a fruitless week or two hanging around in Boa Vista, he turns tail and goes back the way he came.

Boa Vista itself, which by default then becomes his ultimate destination, proves a vast disappointment. He had heard mainly tales of the town's magnificence: "I had come to regard it as Middle Western Americans look on Paris, as Chekhov peasants on St Petersburg. In the discomforts of the journey there, I had looked forward to the soft living of Boa Vista" (99). And yet when he finally arrives, Waugh soon finds the place miserable and squalid and that "all that extravagant and highly improbable expectation had been obliterated like a sandcastle beneath the encroaching tide" (103). Even the place's one distinguishing feature, its remarkably high rate of homicide, turns out to be shabby and unremarkable: "It was the first time in my life that I found myself in contact with a society in which murder was regarded as being as common and mildly regrettable as divorce in England; there was no glamour in it; I found it neither heroic nor horrifying" (107).

Throughout, indeed, Waugh deflates any sense of cultural difference, however much he also indicates that the Europeans stranded in this vast landscape are all slightly insane while the indigenous and the blacks are invariably sullen and ugly. They are no more so than his compatriots back home: "In fact the more I saw of Indians the greater I was struck by their similarity to the English. The like living with their families at great distances from their neighbours; they regard strangers with suspicion and despair; they are unprogressive and unambitious, fond of pets, hunting, and fishing" (41) and so on.

Obviously, Waugh does also seek to exploit the comic value in these determinedly unexotic comparisons. And yet the book rather falls between two stools, as it is not on the whole a comic memoir. Enough sense of discomfort and frustration comes through that cannot quite be laughed ironically away. Nor is the voyage ever quite redeemed by any soul-searching or other forms of enlightenment, however much so many of the people he meets are in one way or another obsessed with religion and metaphysics.

As Pauline Melville points out in her thoughtful afterword, the key is no doubt in "what the author chose not to reveal":
Waugh states that the journey was undertaken for reasons of adventure and to collect material for a book. This is not the whole truth. He was in despair. His marriage had broken down after the bitter discovery that he had been betrayed and cuckolded. Humiliation drove Waugh to seek solace in what he describes as the "most far-flung and wild region of the British Empire." (211)
In this light, the apparently trivializing comparison of murder in northern Brazil to divorce in the home counties takes on new significance. Perhaps, in fact, for Waugh the emphasis was the other way around: that as far as he was concerned, divorce was like murder, however unglamorous it may also have been.

Link: Nicholas Lezard's review of the book for The Guardian.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Hubert Aquin's Hamlet's Twin (original title, Neige noir) is a strange, hallucinatory, experimental novel from Québec. But in a book concerned with twins and doubles of all kinds--though with the recognition that no twins are in fact entirely alike--it is Spitsbergen, the archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole, that stands in for Canada, or is Canada's shadowy duplicate.

For all its twists and turns, the plot is in some ways simple enough. An actor by the name of Nicolas is playing Fortinbras in a TV production of Hamlet, but decides that he will leave the theater to write and direct his own films. Before doing that, or as part of the break from his old life, he takes his newly-wed wife, Sylvie, on a honeymoon to Spitsbergen. Once there, however, Sylvie dies in mysterious circumstances on a camping trip into the snow and ice. Nicolas returns to Norway and hooks up with his friend Eva, who soon comes to stand in for Sylvie. He also decides that his film will be autobiographical, and so that the death of his wife will be at its heart. But he can't quite bring himself to write that crucial scene.

Where things become complicated is that the novel itself is presented as a screenplay, perhaps as the screenplay for the film that Nicolas is himself writing. So it is shot through with reflections on the nature of representation, particularly the differences between filmic and literary representation, and the relation between fiction and reality. In some ways, then, Hamlet's Twin is almost classically postmodern: the distinction between characters and the people who play them, or between author, narrator, and protagonist, are all made the object of both literary play and somewhat disturbingly undermined.

And when the scene of Sylvie's death is finally written, it turns out to be particularly gruesome, and we are left to decide whether it is the product of a particularly disturbed imagination, or whether it is the violent mark of something like the real, at least within the terms of the metafictional apparatus that the book establishes. Eva, for one, becomes convinced that the film that Nicolas is writing will end up a snuff movie, and makes haste to warn the actress who is set to play Sylvie of the danger she believes is on the horizon.

For this actress, Linda, has also become another twin of Sylvie's; and moreover Sylvie is revealed to be split in other ways, too, until the fact that her body is never recovered from the Arctic wastes (and the fact that her true fate is ultimately undecideable) is a way of telling us that this character, around who the entire novel revolves, is going to remain inaccessible for us, as much as for Nicolas or the other characters. For after all, she is but a character in a novel, even though we are over the course of time slowly seduced into concern for her fate such that the graphic representation of her violent demise comes to be shocking, however much we recognize that this is, after all, just another novel.

For ultimately, Hamlet's Twin is about the hold that fiction has upon either the viewer (in the case of film) or the reader (in the case of literature). At one point Aquin points out that one difference between the two genres is that in the cinema, the viewer can't simply put down the narrative to resume it later, whereas a reader can leave a book to be continued anon. Playing with this fact, then, just before the novel's climax the narrator suggests that now might be the time for a break "for the reader who is waiting until the end of the story to make love with an impatient partner [. . .]. Come on, a nice break! It will be easier to concentrate afterwards, and tackle what is about to happen in the story" (184).

Of course, the point is that Aquin wants to implicate the reader all the more affectively and almost corporeally into the story. We are to imagine (or perhaps in fact to act out) having sex just before the representation of a most brutal perversion (though Aquin might also suggest apogee) of sexual love.

So for all its many games, its allusions and cleverness (not least the fundamental conceit that the book itself is some kind of disturbed twin to Shakespeare's Hamlet), ultimately this is a novel that, perhaps more desperately and yet unerotically than almost any other I can think of, really wants to grab us quite violently by the short and curlies. It seeks to get beyond the fact that representation is only ever going to be itself the inevitably perverted twin of the real, to break that unequal bond in order to establish a new relationship with the reader.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


One of my panels at LASA (the Latin American Studies Association congress) turned once more to discussion of Ernesto Laclau.

I have spent a long time engaging with Laclau (and I deal with his work at length in my book's first chapter). His is an important and influential theory--indeed, I argue that it is the most complete theory of hegemony--but it is also fundamentally flawed and fatally limited.

In essence, what Laclau has done is extrapolate from the discussions among a small number of leftist radicals in Argentina during the early 1970s, when populism seemed the only possible horizon for politics. Their question then was how could they redeem populism for a progressive project, when there seemed to be no alternative available.

It is impressive that Laclau has managed to produce an entire politico-theoretical system from the dilemma that these militants perceived in a particular place at a particular time.

But what is extraordinary, given the subsequent adoption of this system almost wholesale by so much of cultural studies, is that if we return to the Argentine situation we see that left-populism was proved totally mistaken.

For the left was violently expelled from the Peronist coalition almost as soon as Perón arrived back in the country following his long exile. Moreover, the subsequent military coup then (and even more violently) showed that populism itself had run up against its limit when it refused to acknowledge the role of the state.

No doubt pretty much any political philosophy is at root largely an extrapolation from a particular state of affairs. Antonio Negri, for instance, is in his own way also still captivated by his observation of the rapid changes in Italy during the 1950s and 1960s, and then by his part in the resulting struggles of the early 1970s.

But Negri was at least to some extent right: the dismal failure of the Italian Communist Party’s so-called "historic compromise" revealed the political and theoretical poverty of the theory of hegemony upon which Eurocommunism (so lauded by Laclau) depended.

Negri was of course wrong about the imminence of revolution both then and, I'd argue, now, though I still think that there is much to salvage from his work none-the-less. I suppose that followers of Laclau could similarly argue that hegemony theory can likewise be salvaged even after its failure in the context in which it was originally elaborated, and for which it should ideally work best.

But they don't seem to acknowledge that failure in the first place, in part no doubt because Laclau's increasingly abstract systematization serves to obscure that context quite totally for most of his commentators.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Boa Vista is not far from the site of Arthur Conan Doyle's "Lost World," and at times it feels that way. The capital of Roraima State in Brazil's far north, near the border with Venezuela and Guayana, is a tropical backwater.

Down by the Rio Branco, the river on whose banks the city sits, there is a small complex of restaurants, bars, and cafes, but even on Saturday night half of them were closed and the other half were almost empty. Two solo guitarists, singing Brazilian popular hits, competed for what little attention that there was. A few couples lounged around, either at the outside tables or on the benches of the park alongside. A small child running around provided what little life that there was.

Earlier in the day there had been some kind of festivities on the other side of town, part the "Festa Junina," celebrated throughout Brazil in honor of the Summer Solstice and the Saints Anthony and John. Stalls and playgrounds had been set out, and loud music blared. But by five o'clock things had already wound down, tables were being cleared and chairs stacked.

The architecture, and the history that that architecture reflects, probably doesn't help. Boa Vista is quite clearly a planned town, with wide avenues radiating from a large (but quite unfrequented) central park. From above, or rather from Google Maps, it looks rather like the "arched window" from Play School.

Though there are a few older buildings down by the waterfront, mostly (with the exception of a beautiful church, painted in strident yellow) in a state of some disrepair, the town is now characterized by broad expanses dotted with the occasional modernist monument. The cathedral, for instance, is composed of sweeping concrete curves. A stadium further out shows similar attempts to make an architectural statement. The tallest structure in town (and no doubt the only one from which a "good view" can be found) is a concrete tube whose purpose is not immediately evident. Overall, it's as though Boa Vista had been envisaged as some kind of mini-Brasilia, a means to impose order on an otherwise dauntingly vast landscape of forest and plains.

But Boa Vista's history goes back further than Brasilia's. The small cluster of older buildings has been supplemented by a concrete, three-dimensional mural commemorating the pioneers and their "courage and hope" that founded the city back in the early to mid nineteenth century. It depicts a mounted settler who is leaping out of a canoe, his arm thrusting forwards, only to land on the shoulder of an oversized, naked indigenous youth.

For this is also the territory of Macunaíma, and so in some ways of some of Brazil's founding mythology. Macunaíma, here represented as the first inhabitant of the Rio Branco, is the eponymous subject of Mário de Andrade's 1928 novel, which traces the young man's journey from the jungle to Rio and São Paulo and back again, in the process uniting ancient and modern, indigenous and white, interior and coast in the image of a single if diverse national culture.

In such narratives (and there are many other similar ones--the successful film Central Station comes to mind, for instance) backwaters such as Boa Vista are recreated less as the site of a lost world than as the place where Brazil finally finds itself.

Perhaps no more. When I asked at my hotel's reception how to get to the town center, I was directed neither to the historic nor to the modern centers, but to what turned out to be a huge supermarket some blocks from either. Are Brazilians, too, now lost in the supermarket?