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.