Friday, December 22, 2006


A friend was asked for a prediction for what might happen in Latin America over the next twelve months. This is what I suggested (with a little help from another friend, Eric)...

Castro dies. Nothing happens. So some fool Florida gusano tries to assassinate Raúl, but fails. We find out that US special services have helped him out on the sly, and that Cheney's given them the nod. Scandal. Cheney has a heart attack. Bush is impeached. Hillary is the only one with the machine to step in, and so in these exceptional circumstances she becomes president. But the perverse result is that, as the first woman commander-in-chief doesn't want to look soft on defence... she invades Cuba by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, happy holidays and all that.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Via Left Turns? (and also my colleague Max Cameron), an interesting article on "democracy promotion," and specifically Canada's role supporting and providing an alibi for US "overt operations" in Latin America: "Canada's Contribution to 'Democracy Promotion'".

democracy cartoonWith a particular focus on FOCAL, the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, Anthony Fenton describes Canada's role as a National Endowment for Democracy "proxy" in "this new genre of political intervention into the affairs of the nations of the Global South."

The article is of special interest to me in part because (along with Max) the other day I met up with Carlo Dade, a former World Bank employee who is described here as "a FOCAL senior advisor" and "the main point person for FOCAL’s 'Canada and the Rebuilding of Haiti' program." Dade is quoted quite unabashedly arguing for Canada's proxy role in support of US policy objectives in Latin America:
The U.S. would welcome Canadian involvement and Canada’s taking the lead in Haiti. The administration in Washington has its hands more than full with Afghanistan, Iraq. . . This is a chance for Canada to step up and provide that sort of focused attention and leadership, and the administration would welcome this.
Dade was a nice enough guy to have a beer with, but it was indeed quickly apparent that his version of "democracy" was unashamedly tied to free markets and private sector interests.

Canada's role in these overt operations, to push a particular formula of social governance on Latin America, is legitimized by the linguistic slip that ties the country's self-image of itself as a "civil society" (in the sense of peaceable and polite) to the concept of civil society, or Hegel's "bürgerliche Gesellschaft" (bourgeois society), as a bulwark against authoritarian states and radical social movements alike.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Titarenko, Untitled (Boy)"I'll keep in touch," they say, you say. But as with all metaphors, it's a porous and ineffable boundary that separates what's in and what's out of touch. Perhaps it creeps up on you after a while, perhaps you catch note of it while it's happening, seemingly unstoppable like a glacier slowly falling towards the sea: you've lost touch, you're losing touch, you may even be losing your touch.

I'll phone tomorrow; I'll send that email tonight; you promise yourself. But the first deferral makes the second easier, and so progressively until you no longer remember what you might have said, what you might have written.

In part it may be because now there are so many more ways to keep in touch: letter, phone, email, instant message.

You can look up addresses and phone numbers with lightning speed: the other day I was naively shocked by how easy it was to locate people at, and even more by how much more information (and for only $39.95) US Search could offer me.

Plugging in my own name, I saw US Search had details of 22 former addresses. Had I really moved so much? I wondered. And so the feeling with which that left me was more a sense of being irrevocably out of touch, now with my own life, with all that I had managed to forget even about myself.

It's like the strange shock of looking at old photos, seeing yourself among a smiling group of people, and realizing you have no idea who these others are: people who obviously meant so much, so intensely, at one point, but who have now drifted irredeemably out of your memory.

There's something brutal, then, about technology's power of memorialization and recall, when set alongside our own dwindling capabilities to keep in touch with the many now nameless individuals who at one point touched you, whom you at one point touched.

And with all the power we now have to remedy these deficits, increasingly we allow it to fall into disuse. When was the last time I sent or received a letter? Or did much with email beyond barely trying to keep abreast of my inbox?

Perhaps we teachers are (if we allow ourselves to be) especially susceptible to this sudden shock of realizing how much we have lost touch. The other day I stumbled across a sheaf of essays that students had forgotten to pick up a couple of semesters ago. Looking over the names of my former students, while some images suddenly flashed back into view, I realized how many names I could no longer put a face to, how many of their personalities and characteristics had been obliterated in my attempt to learn the names of ever new student cohorts each semester.

But somewhere here is simply the same old, same old vertigo of modernity: the experience of rapid change, even during one lifetime, the sense that expanded social circles and social mobility casts its shadow in transience and oblivion.

And no wonder paranoia becomes our age's defining neurosis, generating on the one hand the conpiratorial theses that suggest everything is connected, and on the other hand the worry that if I have lost touch it's somehow their fault. But at least if they're all after me, then they're thinking about me after all.

Titarenko, Begging Woman
images by Alexey Titarenko

Crossposted at Act 13. Touch.

Monday, November 06, 2006


To return to my first post in this series... There I suggested that rights could be seen as "surfaces of inscription, sites within which the current balance of forces in a given struggle is marked." I suppose I mean by this that rights discourse produces a series of texts within which can be read (albeit in coded form, perhaps) a history of struggle and repression. Those texts would include both rights declarations (the UN Declaration and so on) and also the reports produced by rights organizations (such as Amnesty).

Two issues therefore arise:

First, the mechanisms of encoding. These are perhaps successive. For instance, what happens as pain is expressed or transmitted first affectively (paradigmatically, in the scream; see John Holloway on this), then narratively (say, in testimonio), and then as a legal plaint (taking rights discourse to be a version of juridical deliberation)? How, in other words, is the discourse of rights produced? Looking at this would involve understanding the ways in which struggle and repression become encoded, enter into various types of representation. I think it's out of a concern with this process that Deleuze argues for the importance of jurisprudence:
Creation, in law, is jurisprudence, and that's the only thing there is. So: fighting for jurisprudence. That's what being on the left is about. It's creating the right.
One would have therefore also to think further about the theory of representation at work here. Deleuze argues in terms of "creation" rather than a perhaps more customary emphasis on the dislocation between referent and sign.

One would also consider all the various groups, institutions, and (in short) agencies in all senses of that word that contribute to the mechanics of rights discourse: the role of human rights groups, for instance; or the relays between international bodies such as the OAS or the UN; or the part played by truth commissions and the like.

Second, however, why think of rights discourse as the final text, as an end product? Indeed, though rights as often presented as goal as they are assumed as origin--hence the notion of "fighting for" or seeking to gain rights--it's surely best to see them as an instrument, as one more cog or chain in a much broader arrangement. After all, does anybody really care about the right to (say) shelter, privacy, or free speech? No, they care for the achievement of those goals. In rights discourse, this is finessed as the distinction between an exercised and an unexercised right; but an unexercised right is dead, useless.

What then (and here I'm inspired by some discussion at Serena's blog) of rights discourse as one part of a broader mechanism of social justice? Rights here (as Peggy implies) would be the abstract moment bridging two concrete practices: crime and its punishment.

A few concerns:

First, all this sounds worryingly dialectical, as the abstract universal mediates concrete particulars.

Second, would the above not also apply to law tout court? (What difference is there between rights and law? Are rights not just a (fictitious) model for an entire legal constitution?)

Third, such talk of mechanisms seems to obscure the importance of interpretation.

Fourth, we shouldn't forget the sovereign instance (state or divinity, or even the idea of the human) that ultimately guarantees the possibility of any such mediation.

OK, for a moment there I thought I might be on the road towards salvaging rights, now as mechanism rather than discourse. Perhaps not.

Magnetic Aids to Skaters to be installed in the London Parks during the Skating SeasonBut it might be worth figuring out how the machine of rights discourse functions, and how it compares with the machine of state power or sovereignty.

Reading about the 1954 Guatemalan coup, I'm struck by how much what the CIA cobbled together was a Heath Robinson contraption (Rube Goldberg machine for North Americans) constantly in danger of breaking down, but finally anchored by US President Eisenhower's say so.

How different is that from (what would be more charitably described as) the network by means of which human rights abuses are charted, publicized, and acted against? I'm thinking here for instance of Amnesty's decentralized collection of letter writers, assiduously (as I imagine them) sending postcards off to jailors and generals throughout the Third World. But again, does this network not also depend upon a sovereign instance as anchor?

Sunday, November 05, 2006


Reading Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer's now classic account of the 1954 Guatemalan coup, Bitter Fruit, comparisons with the United States' more recent adventures in regime change and nation-building are inevitable.

anti-Arbenz rebelsAs in Iraq, toppling the Guatemalan government proved easier than many expected. Indeed, in 1954, and despite some nervous moments, US provision of air power to its small proxy army meant that the overthrow of reforming (and democratically elected) president Jacobo Arbenz was almost too easy. On being debriefed by the CIA operatives who orchestrated the coup, and hearing that the rebel force had suffered only one fatality in the whole process, "Eisenhower shook his head, perhaps thinking of the mass slaughter he had seen in World War II, and muttered 'Incredible!'" (218).

What's striking, in fact, is how modern were the methods used to bring down Arbenz. Beyond buzzing the capital and strafing a few provincial towns, the CIA relied for the most part on PR and psychological warfare. In short, their aim was to sow fear--or better, terror--within the country, and to ensure complacency outside. Precisely in its paucity of casualties (and loyalist forces themselves only lost "a total of fifteen soldiers, with another twenty-five wounded" [194]), the coup was very much a media event, complete with the US ambassador feeding the foreign press (dis)information over drinks at Guatemala City's American Club (186).

Together with the covert operation to topple Iran's Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953, the coup against Arbenz marked a departure for the CIA, which under Truman had since its foundation in 1947 mainly confined itself to passive intelligence gathering: but with John Foster Dulles as head of the State Department, the Agency had "embarked on an activist course" (100). One might speculate that had the outcomes of these two operations been different, the US might have thought twice in subsequent years about such aggressive intervention in overseas jurisdictions. As it was, however, "the CIA as an institution got a renewed lease of life" thanks to its apparently almost effortless success (228).

But that success was short lived. Schlesinger and Kinzer quote "the 'official' historian of the coup, Ronald Schneider," as saying that "in the light of subsequent events it might reasonably be considered little short of disaster" (227). They also cite a former advisor in the US Embassy to Guatemala: "Having a revolution is a little like releasing a wheel at the top of a hill. You don't know where it's going to bounce or where it's going to go" (227).

For, in the first place, the US had installed a military class that was almost comically divided and fractious. Though they, in conjunction with the influential United Fruit Company, had set up Colonel Castillo Armas to be the country's putative "liberator," soon a rather squalid power struggle erupted. Castillo Armas, chosen in part "because he was a stupid man" was in fact the Americans' third choice, and he soon had to face the contending claims of various other army leaders, not least General Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, who eventually came to power upon Castillo Armas's assassination in 1957.

Second, and in part because of the precarious legitimacy of the regimes subsequent to the coup, the history of Guatemala since 1954 has been remarkably violent and bloody. The country holds the dubious distinction of being the first place to see the practice of "disappearing" political opponents, a fact that Greg Grandin underscores in The Last Colonial Massacre (which I review here) and also in an interview on the University of Chicago Press website:
In March of 1966 [. . .] over thirty leftists were captured, interrogated, tortured, and executed between March 3 and March 5. Their bodies were placed in sacks and dropped into the Pacific from US-supplied helicopters. Although some of their remains washed back to shore, and despite pleas from Guatemala’s archbishop and over five hundred petitions of habeas corpus filed by relatives, the government and the American embassy remained silent about the fate of the executed.
More generally, though the 1980s genocide in the Guatemalan highlands is relatively well known, as Bitter Fruit (as also The Last Colonial Massacre) makes evident, this was merely the culmination of years of slaughter: more than 30,000 people "abducted, tortured, and assassinated" in the 1960s and 1970s (247); already by 1976 René de León Shlotter can speak of "a spectacular form of violence" over the previous two decades, notable for its "intensity--the high number of victims and the cruelty of the methods used" (qtd. 250).

Third, however, Grandin also argues that the coup was
perhaps the single most important event in twentieth-century US-Latin American relations [. . . leading] to a radicalization of hemispheric politics. [. . .]

The overthrow of Arbenz convinced many Latin American reformers, democrats, and nationalists that the United States was less a model to be emulated than a danger to be feared. Che Guevara, for example, was in Guatemala working as a doctor and witnessed firsthand the effects of US intervention. He fled to Mexico, where he would meet Fidel Castro and go on to lead the Cuban Revolution. He taunted the United States repeatedly in his speeches by saying that "Cuba will not be Guatemala." For its part, the United States promised to turn Guatemala into a "showcase for democracy" but instead created a laboratory of repression. Practices institutionalized there—such as death squad killings conducted by professionalized intelligence agencies—spread throughout Latin America in the coming decades.
In some ways, the whole cycle of violence that will later lead to such concern for human rights in the region starts here, in 1954. In other ways, it's in Guatemala more than anywhere else that we see the clearest continuity with the kinds of practices documented by Bartolomé de las Casas as early as the 1530s.

But again, if only the US had taken to heart at the time the lesson that regime change is easy; yet political legitimacy and stability cannot be assured thereafter.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


A pointer to a new(ish) blog: Left Turns? Progressive Parties, Insurgent Movements, and Alternative Policies in Latin America. It's an investigation into the so-called "turn to the Left" in Latin America, from Chávez in 1998 and on through Kirchner in Argentina or Bachelet in Chile to, most recently, Lula's re-election in Brazil and the prospect Ortega might return to the presidency in Nicaragua.

The blog is one element in a broader project, with which I'm involved in collaboration with (among others) Max Cameron, Eric Hershberg, and Andy Hira. For more on that project, see our conference proposal.

As is probably too obvious, I'm more or less responsible for the "insurgent movements" element. I had to sneak "insurgency" in somehow. Here's how we describe that section:
From Venezuela’s Caracazo of 1989 to Mexico’s Zapatista campaign from 1994, and from the Argentine protests of December 2001 to the Bolivian protests that came to a head in October 2004, a multitude of new movements have emerged, often marginal or even actively opposed to traditional organizations such as unions or NGOs. Some of these spectacular displays of popular protest quickly disappeared. Others created the conditions for the electoral successes of a new breed of leaders. Each has often appeared spontaneous and surprising, generating new strategies of protest and grassroots self-organization or appropriating old tactics in new ways. We will ask how far left-leaning governments are expressions of such social insurgencies, whether they translate movement demands and desires into action, or whether rather they function as reactive pressure valves: venting steam, but little else. In other words, as well as examining the differences between left parties and movements across national and cultural borders, it is also necessary to examine the tensions between social movements and the electoral campaigns that claim to be their vehicles.
The "multitude" is also smuggled in there; again perhaps too obviously, I'm interested in seeing how much this so-called "left turn" fits with the framework that poses constituent against constituted power.

More is to come, including some cross-posted entries from here to there and vice versa.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Marguerite Feitlowitz's A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture examines the relation between language and state violence. In some ways it's a companion piece to Diana Taylor's Disappearing Acts, which analyzes a similar connection between performance and terror, also focussing on Argentina.

The New York Times has an online version of the book's first chapter, whose title is likewise "A Lexicon of Terror", and where we find her most sustained examination of the role of language under Argentina's military regime of 1976 to 1983.

War is PeaceSince Orwell at least, we've been familiar with the concept that authoritarianism impacts language, bending it out of shape and introducing a whole series of figures and double meanings that violate common sense: war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. Doublespeak. And in "Politics and the English Language", for instance, Orwell insists upon linguistic clarity as a remedy to political obfuscation: in so far as "the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language [. . .] one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy."

But as Feitlowitz observes, while the Argentine junta made use of language's slipperiness precisely in the service of something like Orwellian doublespeak (e.g., in a distortion of human rights discourse, "We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right"), they were also quite self-conscious and wary about the sign's inherently arbitrary relation to its referent. In the words of Admiral Emilio Massera, with which Feitlowitz opens her chapter, "Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers of reason" (19).

So in that "the whole regime was intensely verbal," as Feitlowitz contends, with its "constant torrent of speeches, proclamations, and interviews" such that "Argentinians lived in an echo chamber" (20), not only did the junta remake language, it also opened up the possibility that its own language could be turned against it. Indeed, this was (as Taylor argues) something that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo realized: that they could take the regime's rhetoric about the centrality of the family and women's role as nurturers and guardians, and turn it against the practices that separated mother from child through kidnap and torture.

There are two possible positions: one insists on clarity and common sense against the obfuscations and euphemisms of overweening power; the other thrives on the fact that even the most powerful cannot fully control their language (or anybody else's).

The problem is that Feitlowitz never fully chooses either one of these possibilities. And as such, she constantly falls prey to the worst of all worlds. Consider her chapter's conclusion:
The repression lives on in [. . .] aberrations of the language, in the scars it left on the language. When a people's very words have been wounded, the society cannot fully recover until the language has been healed. [. . .] When, like skin, the language is bruised, punctured, or mutilated, that boundary [between inner self and the outside world] breaks down. [. . .]

We must pay attention to this dis-ease, we must document its signs. We must make an artifact of this Lexicon of Terror, so that it will no longer be a living language. (62)
Here is a denunciation of language's aberration expressed in the most aberrant of language. Is it not, after all, a form of "doublespeak" to use such a richly figural, metaphoric mode of expression as to refer to language's "scars," its bruises, punctures, and wounds? And while we're at it, why does this linguistic cure depend upon killing a "living language"?

How far, after all, are we from the Argentine junta's own metaphorical analogies, condemned by Feitlowitz, to the "cleanliness and health" that they propose to bring to an Argentina purged of political aberration (33)? If Massera is wrong to appropriate what Feitlowitz terms "Neo-Nazi 'germ theory'" when he declares that "we must cleanse the country of subversion" (33), is it not equally problematic to portray language itself as a body whose sickness is to be cured or as a life that is to be euthanized . . . especially when it is metaphorical aberration that is to be purged, linguistic excess to be eliminated?

In other words, Feitlowitz uses metaphor to argue for de-metaphorization.

We should either use metaphor or denounce it. And if it turns out that we cannot rid our language of figures, then perhaps there's a limit to the political blame we can pin on figuration per se. All the more so when we've borrowed our most powerful figures from those we claim to be condemning.

(Paul de Man's "Semiology and Rhetoric" [JSTOR access required] has something to say about this, too.)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


The Giant of Ljubljana was giving a talk on campus today.

In advance, some lack of coordination was obvious, in that his lecture clashed with one by Simon Schaffer. The two events were organized by people who one would otherwise have thought should have been in some kind of communication with each other.

I went to the first thirty minutes of Schaffer's talk. Entitled "Single Vision and Newton's Sleep," it was good: on the politics of optics, Blake, Newton, Hobbes, and so on. The argument revolved around scientific and political attempts to make one appear many, and many to appear one. Sadly, I had to miss his conclusion, as I sloped off, making my way to the theatre where Zizek was to be speaking.

On arriving, ten minutes early, I find a group of disgruntled intellectual types milling around. Apparently the place is already full, and nobody more is to be admitted. I chat to a couple that I know.

Then, seeing a fairly dissolute figure in the middle distance jog up to the building and start peering into the windows, seeking access, I comment "Actually we seem to be in the right place, as Zizek is also shut out." "Who? Where?" they ask. And I point to the man himself, trying to catch the attention of somebody inside so that he can enter and give his talk.

A minute or so later, from another door, nearer us, one of the so-called organizers emerges and asks if anyone has seen Slavoj. "Yes," I say, "he's over there." "Where?" I am asked, again. "Which one is he?" "The guy at the end there," I reply, "who's trying to get in."

So the so-called organizer goes up somewhat nervously and asks "Slavoj?" With this interpellation presumably successful, the two head back in to the theatre.

And still the rest of us remained outside, unhailed.

Zizek in happier times. He's the one in white.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


s0metim3s argues that
One has rights – or does not have them, as the case may be. One can be right, of course, but this particular formulation of the claim to legitimacy, this assertion of rightness, is not necessarily of the same register as an assumed, or claimed, legal or moral entitlement which might transform the circumstantial, concrete instance of being correct about this or that into having just claim or, more simpy put: of being right into having a right – which is to say, into a property. The language of rights is, in its grammar, the language of property.
It's certainly true that the language of rights and the language of property overlap. But I'm not entirely sure that the two can be conflated so quickly. Or rather, it might be worth unpicking the differences that someone such as Locke (whom s0metim3s quotes) obscures.

So, yes, property discourse infiltrates rights discourse at almost every turn. The UN Universal Declaration, for instance, delcares in its first article that "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towoard one another in a spirit of brotherhood." And for "endow," the OED gives "1 a. To give a dowry to (a woman) [. . .]; 2. To enrich with property; to provide (by bequest or gift) a permanent income for (a person, society, or institution)."

(Let's hold off for a moment on the familial language of "brotherhood" and the innate connection between rights and reason.)

On the other hand, rights constitute a peculiar kind of property, if property they are.

First, in that (some?) rights are held to be, as the US Declaration of Independence puts it, "unalienable." They are not to be bought and sold; they are innate, whether that innateness stems from the fact that they are natural, or from some legal or constitutional framework. Human, natural, and civil rights can all be considered "unalienable" from this perspective. They may be abrogated or abused, but they can never be taken away.

Yet, second, rights discourse also sometimes indulges in the language of alienability. Some rights can be won or lost; they are precarious or (again, from the US Declaration) need to be "secure[d]." In so far as we can be deprived of our rights, then it is simply not true for instance that (as the UN Declaration has it), "everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state."

So rights are at turns almost ontological, in that they are coterminous with existence: I am, therefore I have rights. And at other turns, they are a precious commodity, all too easily forfeited (if we do not act upon them) or lost (if we are deprived of them).

To what extent then can rights be exchanged? Social contract theory seems to suggest precisely such an operation, as natural rights are given up in favour of civil rights. But Spinoza (for instance) implies that in fact such rights can never be surrendered; indeed, that it is pure ideology to suggest so.

Do we have the right not to have rights? I suspect that this is what's at issue when the state steps in to criminalize suicide or euthanasia, for instance. But then suicide, or self-harm of any sort, is rather a tricky issue for Spinoza, too.

Somos derechos y somos humanos decalMeanwhile, as to the slippage between "being right" and "having rights": Marguerite Feitlowitz points out that the Argentine junta played out precisely such a game of words in the context of other games at the time:
This war of words culminated in a dramatic display in 1978, when the World Soccer Championships were held in Argentina. Taking advantage of their access, foreign journalists pressed the regime for information on reported disappearances, torture, and secret concentration camps. "What do you mean, 'human rights'? the commanders fumed. "We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right." The message was writ large on a huge banner in the reception area of Ezeiza, the international airport. Shiny decals with this slogan appeared in shop windows and offices, on private cars and taxi cabs. Employees at the Ministry of the Interior--who routinely shredded writs of habeas corpus--wore the decals and demonstrated in Plaza de Mayo. This group came face to face with another demonstration--parents, spouses, and children of desaparecidos who marched silently, wearing pictures of their loved ones and signs that asked ¿Dónde están? "Where are they?" The official reply? "We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right." (A Lexicon of Terror 35-36)
Clarín has an article on this same campaign, ""Somos derechos y humanos": cómo se armó la campaña", and see also Rubén Morales's "Somos derechos y humanos". Morales also bears out Feitlowitz's contention that public relations (PR) functioned for the Argentine military in the way that radio served the Nazis (41).

Saturday, October 14, 2006


Ball posterThe Secret Policeman's Ball is back. After a hiatus of over fifteen years, the comic fundraiser for Amnesty International is returning.

The event was first organized in 1976, as human rights were high on the international agenda, thanks in large part to a series of military takeovers in the Southern Cone (Chile, 1973; Uruguay, 1973; Argentina, 1976).

In "Chase Heads Policeman's Ball Bill", the BBC quotes Amnesty's UK director Kate Allen as saying "The reason we brought back The Secret Policeman's Ball is that it's never been more important to stand up for human rights. They are coming under threat in ways that we hadn't anticipated."

I take the return of this event as yet another sign both of a new era of rights discourse, and also of the distance between this era and the previous one.

We're no longer, in fact, in an era of secret policemen, the leaden-footed apparatchiks of the Eastern Bloc or the national security state that could be so easily parodied by Monty Python et al. (A parody that no doubt drew on second world war folk memory, in which the dictator's genitalia are offered up for derision.)

But what era are we in? And why did the previous rights discourse fail, it seems, so disastrously to anticipate it?

Sunday, October 08, 2006


I half-followed the brouhaha over various weeks in the Letters pages of the London Review of Books about John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt's article, “The Israel Lobby”. (Links to the correspondence that the article provoked can be found on the LRB site, at the end of Mearsheimer and Walt's article.)

LRB debateAnyhow, in response, the LRB organized a debate at Cooper Union, entitled "The Israeli Lobby: Does it Have Too Much Influence on US Foreign Policy?" Thanks to ScribeMedia, the entire debate can now be viewed online. I recommend it.

Panelists at the debate were John Mearsheimer, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Martin Indyk, Tony Judt, Rashid Khalidi, and Dennis Ross, with Anne-Marie Slaughter as moderator.

Just one small thing I noted, which could perhaps be added to Charlotte Street's Notes on Rhetoric, is that Mearsheimer and Walt are repeatedly accused of "selective quotation."

While I guess I understand what is meant by this accusation, in fact it is nonsense, a tautology. Of course quotation is selective. Even when an entire article or speech or discourse is quoted, that too is a selection. We may not like or may disagree about the principles of selection, but the charge of selectivity is itself bogus.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Princess Diana in AfricaI had the good fortune this week to read a wonderful book proposal about development work, and more specifically the "desire for development," particularly among white women in the North.

The focus is on Canadian aid workers in sub-Saharan Africa, and the ways in which their investment in their work (and even their resistance) enables their self-constitution as moral subjects. The manuscript includes the following marvellous quotation about the ways in which the assumption of global difference constructs and confirms a sense of moral purpose in Canada above all:
A Canadian today knows herself or himself as someone who comes from the nicest place on earth, as someone from a peacekeeping nation, and as a modest, self-deprecating individual who is able to gently teach Third World Others about civility. (Sherene Razack, Dark Threats and White Knights 9)
This is another approach to the problems I've mentioned before inherent in the self-proclaimed mission to teach "global citizenship".

The manuscript also notes something that surprised me, but probably shouldn't have, that "there are likely more expatriate development workers operating in Africa at this point than there were ever colonialists in the era of empire" (cf R L Stirrat, "Cultures of Consultancy," Critique of Anthropology 20.1 [2000]: 31-46).

Saturday, September 16, 2006

last301 links

Some internet resources on rights and Latin America. I'll be adding to this as time goes by.

s0metim3s has an extraordinarily useful collection of links, mostly theoretical, on rights. See also her essay "The Barbed End of Human Rights".

All the major human rights organizations have websites: such as Amnesty International (who have their own collection of links) and Human Rights Watch (see their page on the Americas). See also for instance the European Human Rights Centre.

Some Declarations of Rights...

On Latin America in general, a good starting point is the Latin American Network Information Center; they also have a page on Human Rights in Latin America.

The OAS has an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

On the sidebar I have links to two blogs that, together, do a pretty good job of covering news on the region as it's reported week by week: Latin America News Review and The Latin Americanist.

I also have a few country-specific blogs there: Blog from Bolivia, Tim's El Salvador blog, and Look for me in the Whirlwind (this last, from Venezuela). But there are lots of other blogs from or about particular countries. You can use Technorati to look for, say, blogs about Argentina or Mexico.

(Technorati also lists many blogs that claim to be concerned with human rights; it'd be nice if you could search for blogs that are tagged both human rights and Latin America, but that doesn't seem to be possible.)

From Georgetown University, an excellent project on Comparative Constitutional Studies, with the text of all the various Constitutions of the Americas.

Many of the Latin American truth commissions have published their work online. Argentina's Nunca más is a particularly useful site, with lots of testimonios. (The testimonios are in Spanish, but the published report is also available in English.) Check out too Guatemala's Report of the Commission for Historical Clarification, whose conclusions and recommendations are available. Then for instance there's Peru's Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Bridges of Madison County posterOn the face of it, The Bridges of Madison County is a study in psychology: an Iowa housewife, Francesca, dies; among her effects her children discover the key to a closely-held secret, a brief but passionate love affair several decades previously.

Her secret is presented as the key to understanding this woman. Her diaries open up to her children another side to their mother, revealing her to be more than the mere inhabitant of a social role. Yet, within the logic of the secret itself (told in flashback) there is the question as to why she didn't take the chance to escape, to wander the world with the exotic National Geographic photographer who has entered her life and showed how everything might have been otherwise.

So, first: why? And then: why not?

The notion that the film is psychological is emphasized by its format: almost a chamber piece with the bulk of the screen time taken up by the two characters of Francesca (brilliantly portrayed by Meryl Streep) and the photographer, Robert (Clint Eastwood). We are brought to these two subjectivities, one perhaps still only just burgeoning, at a moment of intensity.

But precisely this extreme focus, on these two people over just four days, already starts to give the lie to any psychological realism. We never get any sense, for instance, as to why the episode should have held such importance for Robert, whose character remains a cipher: he stands, rather abstractly, for exoticism and transience; otherwise, there is almost nothing to him. Nor, in the end, do we really see any deeper into Francesca's motivations: yes, we can understand that she might feel isolated and adrift in rural Iowa, but why really is she there in the first place? What holds her to her husband?

Streep and EastwoodStreep give Francesca an interesting gesture, repeated so often it becomes a tic, a habit: she is endlessly putting her hand to her face, usually to half turn away. It is as though hiding behind her raised hand are inner depths that constantly elude us--and also Francesca herself, so deeply has she repressed her passions. But why insist on some depth beneath the gesture? Why not see the gesture itself as part of an affective mechanism, fully imbued with Francesca's desire.

The gesture of hand to face is complicated by a further gesture that Francesca (almost) makes near the film's end: rather than hand to face, now hand to (car door handle) as, in a crucial moment, she faces the choice of leaving her husband, his car, his life, and joining Robert who is in the truck up front, stopped at traffic lights in the rain. Hand to handle. Hand to handle. It starts to turn. But then the lights change and, after a pause, Robert heads off; Francesca stays, now putting hand to face again.

Hand - face - hand - handle: this minimal mechanism constitutes the film.

We might add, though, various lines of movement and change, along and beside which the mechanism operates: above all, the road leading to Francesca's isolated farmhouse, a road full of ups and downs, twists and turns, such that (as Robert finds when he first turns up on it), it's easy to get lost on it. The road brings Robert to her; it also takes her husband and children away, though then brings them back, while Francesca gazes again up the track hoping that Robert will reappear.

The road also leads (eventually) to a bridge, or rather a series of bridges, the eponymous covered bridges of Madison Country. Points of transition where the mechanism of transition (the crossing itself) is hidden: a black box in which what's to be found at the other side, or even whether one emerges out the other side at all, remains something of a surprise; these are sites of situations, of (possible) events. Will she cross? Won't she cross?

And yet the bridges hide nothing: there's no secret heart, (again) no psychological depth. Just a minimal series of gestures, a diagram with serried bifurcations, which may or may not prompt one body to take flight with another.

Friday, September 01, 2006


[The first in a series...]

Are, then, rights--that cherished shibboleth of progressive liberalism--beyond redemption? Gilles Deleuze seems to think so, calling rights "softheaded thinking" and "a party line for intellectuals, and for odious intellectuals, and for intellectuals without any ideas of their own" ("On Human Rights").

If we were to salvage rights, then on what grounds? The most frequently cited might be the tactical use of rights discourse, perhaps particularly as a mode of appealing beyond given territorial boundaries. So (say) a beseiged minority in a third world state (though why not also a first world one?) appeals to the UN charter of rights as a tactic within a local, punctual struggle. Rights then as a line of flight?

Perhaps more interestingly, surely we should also see rights, or the various declarations within which rights are defined and announced (however "self-evident[ly]," as with the US Constitution), as surfaces of inscription, sites within which the current balance of forces in a given struggle is marked? As such, though the danger is that the state of play is thereby reified and miscrecognized (always a temptation with rights: to see them as immutable and transhistorical), at the same time it might be worth considering how that act of inscription functions to complicate and feed back upon the struggle itself.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


birthday cakeToday this blog is a year old.

Over the past twelve months, there have been 217 posts, including two fine guest posts, courtesy of Jeremy Lane.

Posthegemony has received more than 25,000 visits, which over the past few months has meant around 100 a day, with visitors from Argentina to Zambia, and many places in between.

(And I know there are plenty of more frequented blogs around; but surprisingly Technorati suggests that not only should this be your first port of call for all things Deleuze, Bourdieu, and Negri, as well as affect, habit, and multitude, plus of course both hegemony and posthegemony; it's also the number one place for cultural theory and social theory and a remarkably good resource for cultural studies and Latin America. For what that's worth.)

Many thanks to everyone who has stopped by, and especially to those who have commented, offered encouragement, and generated a series of interesting and productive conversations.

Monday, July 17, 2006


I've been reading a couple of things sent me by my friend Susana Draper. They're mostly about the Punta Carretas mall in Montevideo.

Punta Carretas mallPunta Carretas is interesting not least because what is now a mall was once a prison, notorious for the incarceration and torture of political prisoners during the 1970s and 1980s. One could hardly wish for a better image of neoliberal transition: a marketplace founded on the site (and in the very building) of what was once an institution of state discipline.

Recycled in this way, the building is a place both of (perhaps unwelcome) memory, especially for its former prisoners, and also of collective amnesia, for the busy shopper. It presents a somewhat uneasy combination of these two temporalities--neoliberal present and dictatorial past--which are also two ways of thinking temporality, the scars of political memory or the eternal "now" of the commodity.

Susana is particularly interested in a famous escape from Punta Carretas prison when, in September 1971, over a hundred imprisoned Tupamaro guerrillas tunneled their way to freedom. Moreover, the escape unfolded another temporal doubling, as those burrowing their way out suddenly came across the tunnel that had been dug in the 1930s by anarchist prisoners, also seeking escape. Here, however, this resonance (or "dejà vu" as Susana observes, following Paolo Virno) between two different historical moments is felt as an empowerment, a potentialization, rather than a cancelling out.

There is much more than can be said here about lines of flight, immanence, exodus, creativity, the search for freedom, and so on--and Susana says much of it.

The fact, however, that much of her account is based on a reading of Eleuterio Fernández Huidobro's book La fuga de Punta Carretas made me realize that the prison escape memoir constitutes an entire sub-genre of Latin American testimonial literature.

For instance, there is also Claribel Alegría and DJ Flakoll's Tunnel to Canto Grande, about an MRTA escape from a Peruvian prison, and Ricardo Palma Salamanca's El gran rescate, about a helicopter rescue undertaken by Chile's FPMR.

(Meanwhile, the 1997 "Chavín de Huantar" operation, in which Peruvian special forces tunnelled in to the MRTA-held Japanese ambassador's residence, offers a kind of inverse movement.)

The only English-language comparison that immediately comes to mind would be the wealth of narratives about WWII escapes from German prisoner-of-war camps--such as Eric Williams's The Wooden Horse or the Steve McQueen vehicle The Great Escape. These stories are very different: they are mostly about stiff-upper-lip Englishness and fair play, though of course the "Great Escape" has now been adopted by England football fans.

But it might be worth doing a fuller survey of such escape literature to think further through the theme and the different possible modalities of flight, tunnelling, going underground. Or even jumping fences...

Steve McQueen in The Great Escape

Sunday, July 16, 2006


The question regarding democracy is whether or not we can imagine an anti-democratic, or better non-democratic, politics. In other words, is politics tied to democracy, or can it be imagined beyond democracy?

(A supplmentary question might then be whether or not we can and should imagine a beyond to politics itself: a post-politics.)

The prevailing consensus would seem to be that politics is unimaginable without democracy, that it is only democracy that opens up the possibility for politics. Without democracy, all we are left with is (variously, or perhaps in combination) power, administration, fanaticism, hatred.

Jacques RanciereSuch is the view of Ernesto Laclau, but also, for instance, Jacques Rancière, who writes:
There is politics, the art and science of politics, because there is democracy. Politics is encountered as already present in the factuality of democracy, in the very strangeness of the combination of words which joins the unassignable quantity of the demos to the indefinable action of kratein. (On the Shores of Politics 94)
Rancière traces the mixed fortunes of both politics and democracy from its invention in Athens to the current "end of politics."

For Rancière, democracy (and so politics) is characterized by three conditions, which together constitute a split and antagonistic subject:
Politics is a function of the fact of democracy, of the way in which democracy's factuality presents itself in three forms: the appearance deployed by the name of the people, the imparity of the people when counted and the grievance connected with the antagonism between rich and poor. (96)
In our post-political, post-democratic age, all three of these conditions are now undermined, ironically for the sake of democracy's correction or perfection, in other words to erase the split that (for Rancière) characterizes the democratic subject:
Exhibition in place of appearance, exhaustive counting in place of imparity, consensus in place of grievance--such are the commanding features of the current correction of democracy, a correction which thinks of itself as the end of politics but which might better be called post-democracy. (98)
There is, however, a tension in this formulation: first, the declaration that this correction only "thinks of itself as the end of politics" implies that in fact politics continues; and second, the admission that this correction of democracy is itself in the name of democracy implies that it is less post-democratic than, in fact, a limit internal to democracy.

Meanwhile, the threat of post-democracy, as Rancière sees it, is that it summons up "the spectre of the great all-devouring Whole" (65), "the rule of the principle of unification of the multitude under the common law of the One" (88), an "ochlocracy" (33), that is, the "turbulent unification of individual turbulences" (31). And what is most monstrous about this threat, we are told, is that its unity is impossible, fantasmatic, and depends only on the violent, passionate exclusion of the racialized other; it conjures up therefore a world of "fear and hate" (36), "the return of the animalistic aspect of politics" rather than "the democratic virtue of trust" that inheres in democracy's "polemical space of shared meaning" (60).

So democracy has to be split, has to depend on inequality and grievance, so as to ward off the threat of radical difference incarnated in the multitude and its purported others.

We have here, therefore, something like a mirror image of Negri's conception of the multitude--with, of course, the difference that for Negri the multitude's passion is not hatred but love.

Moreover, Hardt and Negri's wager is that the (self-)rule of the multitude might still be termed democracy; indeed, that in that it escapes the entire problematic of (in)equality and identity that (as Rancière points out) bedevils democratic theory and practice, replacing it with the combination of commonality and singularity, multitudinous immanence is now a better bearer of the name democracy than are actually existing political regimes. "Post-democracy" therefore invokes this new, more democratic, democracy of pure immanence.

Angela Mitropoulos and Brett Neilson condemn this move as at best a form of "diplomacy" (and "diplomacy is already a technique of statecraft"), but more importantly because it thereby "fails to confront the politics of the demos and the kratos that invocations of democracy set to work" ("Cutting Democracy's Knot"). I'm not so sure; refusing to confront democracy's entanglements might also be seen as a strategic evasion, another mode of cutting the knot.

More importantly, however, it would be worth taking seriously the notion that the multitude might equally be characterized by hatred as by love; I see no obvious reason for simply assuming that the multitude's passion is the latter rather than the former. Certainly not if we look at groups that are otherwise organized very much along the lines that Negri argues are characteristic of the multitude: Sendero Luminoso or al Qaida, for instance. We need, at the least, to distinguish between multitudes good and bad--though that distinction may turn on ethics, rather than on politics.

Or take the image that provides Rancière with his book's title, of maritime flows and desires that have to be domesticated by shepherds on shore. Rancière writes that
The great beast of the populace, the democratic assembly of the imperialist city, can be represented as a trireme of drunken sailors. In order to save politics it must be pulled aground among the shepherds. (1)
But without romanticizing shipboard life and lusts, and while recognizing that it was maritime power that built terrestial empires, can we not rescue a politics of perhaps something like democracy from the interstitial, unbounded spaces of the high seas?

Crossposted to Long Sunday.

Saturday, July 15, 2006


Emperor's New Groove posterThe Emperor's New Groove is not the first Disney film to feature animated llamas: in an extended sequence in Saludos Amigos Donald Duck attempts to ride a llama, with predictably chaotic results. But the differences between the two llamas, and the two films, are salutory, and demonstrate perhaps the changing nature of Disney's relationship with its audience in recent years.


The Emperor's New Groove works to express, as only cartoons can, the purity of given characters' grooves, and to chart the inertia that prevents any easy deviations. (This is a constant theme in cartoons, where a change of state is always somehow delayed, always lags behind, archetypically when a character runs off a cliff and then hangs in mid-air before gravity suddenly, and belatedly, takes hold.) And it's in this displaced, cartoon version of pre-Columbian Latin America, with its vibrant colours and exaggerated imagery (green palm fronds, parrots, endless staircases, complex architectural patterns) that it can both express a groove and also imagine ways in which a groove can be changed.

Friday, July 14, 2006


Following on from my recent posts "tautology" and "radical", here is my draft review of Radical Democracy and Beyond Hegemony: "Radical Philosophy?". As it is a draft, please do not cite without permission.

As a taster, the conclusion:

Schecter's critique of purported post-liberalism, as simply a warmed-over liberalism that conserves the worst rather than the best of what it claims to supercede, is a useful antidote to theories of radical democracy. His analysis of liberalism's paradoxes, while not always novel, is also sharp and to the point. However, he might have considered more the possibility that we are already living in a posthegemonic age. Bush, Blair, and Co. hardly stir themselves much to fabricate consensus these days--indeed, Blair's main argument for the war in Iraq is now that precisely the unpopularity of his policies is a guarantee that he is not merely bowing to the court of legitimate public opinion. Moreover, is not Schecter's dream of a "constant exchange of information between producers [. . .] and consumers" (138) not already with us albeit in the form of questionnaires, focus groups, and the information derived from loyalty cards on the one hand, and advertising and the ideologies of business transparency on the other? We are already beyond hegemony, and whatever else radicalism might be, surely it does not involve rescuing liberalism, whether in its purer, idealist, form or in its corrupt, democratizing, incarnations.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Born in East LA posterCheech Marin's Born in East L. A. is a Chicano take on "Latin America on Screen." Marin takes the questions of border permeability, national security, and identity's performativity, ironizes them, and attempts to milk what comedy results.

Marin plays Rudy, a fairly thoroughly deracinated Los Angelino (who speaks no Spanish and is completely ignorant of Latino music, for instance), who by one of those strange mix-ups finds himself taken to be an illegal and deported to Mexico. He then spends most of the film attempting to cross back over the border, hustling for money with which to pay a coyote, and falling in love with a beautiful young Salvadoran woman, Dolores.


And just as Rudy plays a German folk song (picked up as a GI in Europe) to seduce appreciative European tourists to part with their money, so he teaches a band of Mexican buskers to play rock and roll. Though Mexico may still (just) be a cradle of authenticity, it can also be a site for the experimentation in multiple identities and identifications, preparing the intrepid for the risky step of crossing the border and claiming all the same rights and benefits as those actually "born in East LA."

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


More thoughts towards a review of Tønder and Thomassen's Radical Democracy...

In a quirk of sloppy copy-editing, one of the contributions to Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen's collection, Radical Democracy, bears the running header "For an Agnostic Public Sphere" instead of the essay's actual title, which is "For an Agonistic Public Sphere."

But this confusion between agnosticism and agonism is perhaps symptomatic of the problems afflicting the very concept of radical democracy. For though its proponents repeatedly invoke notions of political combat and engagement, they all too easily slip into quiescent indecision.

Put it this way: it is far from clear what is "radical" about radical democracy behind the rhetorical display of terms such as agonism, antagonism, pluralism, and the like.

ballot boxIs radical democracy a specific form of democracy, comparable to but different from (say) the Athenian, liberal, or neoliberal variants of democratic practice? And if so, is it a democracy still to come, to be fought for as a perhaps utopian horizon of democratic thought and struggle?

Or is it, by contrast, a form of democracy in which some groups (new social movements, say) currently engage, in other words a counter-democratic actuality that has emerged since the end of the Cold War and the bad old days of class politics?

On the other hand, could radical democracy be found less either in the future or the present, but in a return to the founding moment of the so-called "democratic revolutions"? Is radical democracy then a rediscovery of an inherent radicality democracy once provided but has now lost? In slightly different words, is radical democracy simply another name for what Simon Critchley here terms "true" democracy?

Or finally, is democracy always radical? Is radical democracy really a tautology, in that democracy properly understood and described, even as it is played out currently in the real world, is necessarily in some way radical?

Friday, July 07, 2006


I'm reading a couple of books for a review essay: Darrow Schecter's Beyond Hegemony and Lars Tønder and Lasse Thomassen's Radical Democracy.

Schecter's book is smart but misguided, and essentially involves an attempt to rescue liberalism from itself--or what he sometimes terms "early liberalism" from its historical vicissitudes. He likes, in short, the ways in which Kantianism sets up formal legality over legitimacy, as legitimacy (he argues) always involves a compromise in which particular interests take precedence over the universal, and a forced reconciliation or fabricated consensus (hegemony) results. The problem, Schecter recognizes, is that Kant secured such a distance of legality from interest or need only by assuming a limited suffrage and so by excluding women, wage-earners, etc. from the sphere of politics. Moreover, even within such an attenuated public sphere, actually existing liberal democracy depended upon a covert subject, the white male property-owner, and his particular interests. Still, Schecter wants to maintain the notion that a disinterested (and so legitimate) legality is attainable. For this he turns (rather unconvincingly) to the libertarian or "guild" socialism of G D H Cole.

Still, however wrong, Schecter's book is at least provocative and intelligent.

The same can hardly be said for Tønder and Thomassen's collection. Its premise is to set up a distinction "between abundance and lack," which essentially means playing off Lacanianism and Deleuzianism, all under the sign of radical democracy. The so-called Lacanians (because in fact they are Laclauians through and through) run through the same old moves about hegemony, constitutive outsides, tendentially empty signifiers, non-coincidence of desire, and the like. The so-called Deleuzians are, however, on the whole even worse, as they attempt to shoe-horn Deleuze within the framework of "radical democracy," as bidden by the collection's editors. Paul Patton's piece, for instance, rather bizarrely tries to claim that Deleuze was a paid-up liberal democrat mainly based on the fact that he so seldom discusses liberal democracy. His argument is generally along the lines of admitting "there is no doubt that Deleuze is not a theorist of democracy in the narrow sense of the term," but only to follow up with the thought that "it does not follow from this that Deleuze is hostile to democratic government" (54). Well, but you can't make of a non sequitur a democratic theorist.

Meanwhile, the whole concept of "radical democracy" is a con. The tag "radical" is basically meaningless. And there is much confusion as to what purpose the adjective serves: is the notion that radical democracy is some new kind of democracy, exciting, different, and better than (say) liberal or neoliberal democracy? Or is it that democracy is itself radical, and what's involved is merely a redescription to make democracy seem more exciting, different, and better than it currently appears? This ambivalence, which is never directly confronted, undermines the book's very premises.

Monday, July 03, 2006


FogwillThe Argentine author Fogwill's Los pichiciegos is an astonishing tale derived from the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The book is all the more remarkable as it was written between June 11-17, 1982, i.e. as the war itself was ending and so while the war of words still followed a rigid ideological dichotomy, and before the combatants themselves had had a chance to tell of their experiences.

Yet the novel is rooted in a sense of the physical experience of the Falklands war, in all its brute materiality. And it refuses not only the rhetorical dichotomization that assigns legitimacy to one side or another, but also the very notion of sides.

The "pichiciegos" of the title are a group of Argentine deserters who have established a subterranean settlement (a bunker, a series of passages and chimneys) somewhere in no man's land. They are, effectively, maroons who commerce with both sides (British and Argentine) as they seek the kerosene, sugar, cigarettes, and so on that they need to survive. Yet they also maintain their distance, digging firmly into the slush and mud of the islands' desolate landscape. Theirs is a wary Exodus from the claims and counter-claims that they hear on the radio, and a becoming-immanent to the rough terrain amid the minefields and bomb craters.

pichiciegosPichiciegos are also a species of Argentine armadillo, armour-coated, blind burrowing creatures active only at night. One of the group tells the others about this animal, how they live and how they are hunted. What most takes their fancy is the way in which, to dislodge them from their burrows, a hunter is forced sometimes to grab them by the tail and stick a finger up their arse. At the shock (or perhaps the pleasure) of the penetration, the pichiciegos lose all resistance and can easily be extracted. Likewise, the deserters are aware that at any moment they may be fucked in the arse by either the Argentines or the Brits.

Still, they stockpile supplies and are prepared to wait the war out. They have yerba mate, cigarettes, liquor, food... everything except chemical toilets, which means they either have to brave the subzero elements to shit outside, or plug up their systems with anti-diahrreal drugs. Yet in their nervous limbo between the two opposing camps, in the fear that is both omnipresent backdrop and specific response to the Harriers, the helicopters, and the other machinery of war, even or perhaps especially here they become themselves as never before.

It's as though it were only in this fearful Exodus that the virtual qualities constituting both individuals and group could be actualized: "It's that fear releases the instinct that everyone carries within him" (103).

In the end, however, this rebel colony--neither one thing nor the other, surplus and so almost invisible to the friend/enemy distinction of war and politics--is almost inevitably extinguished. Poisoned by the carbon monoxide emitted by their own stove once the snow silently blocks the chimney, the pichiciegos are entombed, to become literally part of the landscape, a buried relic of other ways of living the war.

But the maroon experience is also buried by less natural forces: by the Argentine generals' declaration that the war continues, if by other means; and even by the politicians' promises of elections and choice, as though there were anything to choose. Fogwill already anticipates the slogan of Argentina's 2001 uprising: "No... I wouldn't vote for any of them. Let them all go off [¡que se vayan todos!] back to the whore of a mother who bore them!" (55).

One survivor alone remains, an un-named pichiciego who is gradually revealed to be recounting his story to a shadowy narrator who seems to be half-author, half-psychologist. A narrator who may or may not believe the strange tales that he is told (of a hovering Harrier with its engines off, of nuns in the snow, of the "Great Attraction" as a fleet of warplanes disappears into the ether), and who certainly, his informant insists, doesn't understand, cannot understand.

But at least he records, he records the pichiciego's words so that they are not entirely lost to a future whose first glimmering possibilities they may perhaps predict.

Links: Beatriz Sarlo on Los pichiciegos; Julio Schvartzman, "Un lugar bajo el mundo"; and "Fogwill, en pose de combate", a recent interview by Alan Pauls for Clarín.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


Snuff poster1971 saw the release of Slaughter, a low-budget exploitation flick, filmed in Argentina and set in Argentina and Uruguay.

The film told the story of a cult led by a Mansonesque figure rejoicing in the name of Satán or Satahn. The young women who follow Satán, all hippie types with flowing hair and a predeliction for removing their blouses, are kept in servitude by a sort of sadomasochistic desire: transgressions are punished by ritual torture that is experienced as erotic pleasure and observed with voyeuristic glee.


Snuff, in short, becomes a film about the dictatorships, and an allegory of a violence that is in plain sight, paraded before voyeuristic eyes, a violence that is real but pretends to be theatrical, mirroring the film's own violence that is so theatrical as it pretends to be real.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


Paraguay has a significant population of German immigrants and their descendants. It's not the only Latin American country with a German influence: see Colonia Tovar in Venezuela, for instance, or the now rather nefarious Colonia Dignidad in Chile. And there's little more surprising in the Yucatán and Belize than the sight of packs of blond Mennonites on the move, all cowboy hats, check shirts, and overalls for the boys and men, headscarves and dresses for the girls and women.

But in Paraguay the German presence is particularly notable. At times it is as though German were the country's second language (or third, after the indigenous Guaraní). This page on German genealogy suggests there are 166,000 speakers of the language in the country. And at the hotel where I was staying last week, for instance, the guide to room services was in Spanish and German, rather than English. Most of the other visitors were speaking German, including a large group of young girls from the Chaco, in town for some kind of sports tournament, chaperoned by a tall young blond man with the air of a Christian youth leader, who spoke heavily accented Spanish.

The German colony in the Chaco are Mennonites who peaceably enough raise cattle and make cheese. By all accounts, the Chaco is a pretty desolate place, and the Mennonites and the Guaraní have it pretty much to themselves. (Even so, early last century the Paraguayans managed to lose a war with Bolivia over the territory.)

But then there are Germans and there are Germans. And the topic of Nazis or former Nazis in South America is always a subject of intrigue and speculation: luridly fictionalized as The Boys from Brazil or The Odessa File, but on the basis of real cases such as most famously Eichmann's flight to and capture from Argentina. Josef Mengele, though he initially fled to Buenos Aires, spent signficant post-war time in Paraguay.

Still, I had either forgotten or repressed from my only previous visit to Paraguay the shock induced, this time, by noting the first day of my stay a Spanish translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on sale at a street corner kiosk. Or, a little later, just off one of Asunción's main squares, on the pavement outside a cybercafe, seeing two pencil drawings of Hitler on sale among the usual collection of secondhand textbooks and shabby novels. No irony, no self-consciousness as far as I could see: just a couple of portraits of the Führer, should I have wished to buy them as a souvenir of Paraguay.

I take it that most Paraguayan Germans shudder somewhat as I did in seeing such reminders of the Reich. Not least now that Germany itself is, with the World Cup, trying to rebrand itself beyond the clichés of either jackboots or dull efficiency. But perhaps more likely, these signs of history's unsavoriness merely blend in with their adopted country's long history of dictatorships (Doctor Francia "the Supreme" as well as that other son of Germany, Stroessner) and injudicious wars of aggression and catastrophic defeat.

UPDATE: Royden Loewen's Mennonite and Nazi would seem to be a book to read, complicating my account above.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


Jodi Dean on "Blogging Theory":
Theory blogs belie three assumptions about blogging in particular and networked communications in general, assumptions about speed, punditry, and self-indulgence. In contrast, my experience with blogs is that they allow for slower reflection, the emergence of spaces of affinity through specialized writing, and the experience of a presentation and cultivation of a self.
Now go read the whole thing.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Ycuá Bolaños

Posting is hereby resumed...

One of the most interesting (and also moving) experiences of the past two weeks was to visit the site of the Ycuá Bolaños tragedy in Asunción.

Ycua Bolanos fireFrom Paraguay, ABC Digital has a page on "La tragedia de Ycuá Bolaños", with links to many articles on the case and recent updates. There's also "La investigación de Ycuá Bolaños", a site with pieces that are more reflective or critical. And here is the BBC report immediately following the incident.

In short, however, on August 1st 2004 a fire gutted a huge supermarket in suburban Asunción. The fire started thanks to design flaws (a chimney that couldn't be cleaned), and was aggravated by inattention to building codes. But it became a disaster in which over 400 people died when the supermarket owner ordered the doors locked so that shoppers wouldn't rob the store of its produce en route to escaping with their lives.

Almost two years later, though the owner is in custody, he is due to be released if the Paraguayan judicial system doesn't come up with at least a provisional verdict (a "juicio oral") that assigns some culpability for the blaze and for the ensuing deaths.

The ruin itself is still remarkably intact: you can see the check-out counters, the shelving, piles of half-incinerated toothpaste tubes or bags of flour, half-melted crates of coke and so on. To one side, families of victims have constructed a kind of sanctuary, full of shrines to their deceased relatives. And though (because?) these shrines are decorated in typically kitsch Latin American style--fairy lights, plastic figurines of angels, and so on--the place is incredibly moving.

Relatives come by the sanctuary, to comb once more through the wreckage, to meet up with other victims, to hang out, to talk, to plan their next demonstration against an incredibly corrupt and inefficient judiciary.

Different movements have sprung up in the wake of the disaster, some more militant than others. The most radical is the Collective "Ni olvido ni perdón" ("No forgetting, and no forgiveness"). I talked for some time with a very articulate--and justifiably enraged--member of this group. But even for the more moderate elements of the movement, the attempt to win justice has become a fully-fledged battle against the state.

Many of these groups' slogans (such as "Nunca más" or "Never again") are taken directly from the movements that struggled against the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s. Moreover, the Paraguayans now have links and contacts with organizations such as Argentina's Mothers of the Disappeared.

So what's interesting is that some time after one of the longest dictatorships in Latin American history (Stroessner's 36 years in which the country was his personal fiefdom), and as a result of an incident in which capital, the state, and the law directly coincide, something in Paraguay may finally be awakening.

Agosto en llamas

Monday, June 05, 2006


Stranded by Continental Airlines in Houston for 24 hours, I decided to take the bus downtown from the airport hotel in which they'd put me.

Given that buses were the spark and focus of so much of the civil rights movement, what's striking now is that, yes, African Americans have won the right to sit at the front of the bus. But that's because they are also sitting at the back and in the middle: essentially, whites have abandoned public transport altogether in a city such as Houston. And this despite, or rather because of, the fact that it's astonishingly cheap ($2 for an all-day pass, though you need to top that up on express buses in the evening rush hour... see below).

So from an explicit divide drawn through the middle of the bus, we now have an implicit, and so invisible, line drawn between transport users and the suburban commuters in their trucks and SUVs.

Interestingly, however, there were no Latinos on the buses I took. And this despite the fact that in many ways Houston is a bicultural city: all signs and announcements are in Spanish as well as English, and on the street at least I heard Spanish probably more than English. Just about every service worker I encountered, from the check-in agents at the hotel to the guys leaf-blowing the streets, to the bus driver and the cleaners at the airport... they were almost all Latino.

But on the return journey to the airport, it was a white guy who gave me a dollar on seeing that my pass no longer worked. Perhaps an act of racial solidarity among the bus-borne minority.

Rothko ChapelMeanwhile, I went down to the Rothko Chapel, which I first saw almost two decades ago. I still feel rather underwhelmed, but it was good to return and to re-experience the underwhelment. I also stopped by the Jung Centre. Most of the other museums were closed, it being a Monday.

Even so, I should apologize to my friend Ivonne, Houston native and very much a booster of her home city. The place is far better than I remember it. The public transport works, or at least it worked for me. There's plenty to do. I even managed to find a few decent bars. And it's not its inhabitants fault that the place is so damn hot and humid.

Though perhaps my good feelings towards Houston are also because in the interim since my last visit I have seen cities such as Dallas, a better example of the disaster that American cities can become.

Saturday, June 03, 2006


As promised, if tardy, here is the essay that I have written on Arguedas: “Arguedasmachine: Techno-Indigenism and Affect in the Andes” (.pdf document).

Here "I offer another Arguedas from the one presented by the critical canon: an Arguedasmachine that 'nobody has observed.' This Arguedasmachine is hard at work fabricating a techno-indigenism that both separates and presses together the various elements of Peruvian culture [. . .] but it finally breaks down by becoming fully immanent to the affective flows on which it operates."

It's a draft, so all the usual caveats apply. But comments, questions, disputations, etc. would be most welcome. I'm not sure I like the conclusion, but there we go.

Meantime, here's a snippet, about one of Arguedas's most renowned short stories:

scissor dancerThe amount of attention that has been paid to one, late, story in particular, “La agonía de Rasu Ñiti,” is surely due to the fact that it is one of Arguedas’s very few texts that can at all convincingly be shoe-horned into a more or less conventional indigenist critical frame. But this is precisely a tale of the machinic transformation of affect. It concerns a traditional scissor dancer on his deathbed. The highland (specifically, Ayacuchan) scissor dance is, as its name suggests, an irreducibly hybrid performance--almost as much as that other ritual to which Arguedas endlessly returns, the “yawar fiesta” (or “festival of blood”) in which a condor is tied to the back of a bull in celebrations tied to Peru’s day of independence. But whereas the “yawar fiesta” brings together principally the Hispanic and the telluric (the bull) with the Inca and the ethereal (the condor), the scissor dance is above all a meeting of man with eminently modern technology. Scissor dancers perform either with actual scissors or, as Martin Lienhard reports, two oversize rods of iron or steel in the form of a pair of scissors. Lienhard goes on to say that the dancer’s use of these strange instruments “may have been a parodic representation of the arrogant Spaniard.” So while the dancers also “represent the wamanis--the mountains in so far as they are ‘divinities’ and forces that dispense water for the farmers’ fields” (Cultura andina 137), the use of these iron implements immediately conjures up the iron that, in the words of the fox from down below, “belches forth smoke and a little blood, making the brain burn, and the testicle too” (The Fox from Up Above 26). The scissors are an instrument of domestic labor, a sign of decadent Spanish fashion and (like Diego’s frockcoat) fashionable modernity, as well as a weapon, a threat of castration, a neutering that could threaten continued biological and cultural reproduction. The scissors are a machine that is, literally, double-edged.

And the scissors are double-edged, too, in the sense that they join as well as cut. The scissors only function in so far as two elements come together; they cut only in that the two blades join. Every rupture, therefore, is equally a new conjunction or conjugation of forces uniting. Just as with the fishmeal factory’s centrifuges, separation also implies mixing, packing together, creating new combinations and new continuities. The importance of such conjugations and continuities is apparent in “La agonía de Rasu Ñiti,” on at least two axes. First, the dancer is himself the point of an intersection at which the natural, the divine, the human, and the industrial meet. He constitutes something like a conveyer, a means of transmission, between the wamani and the scissors. As his wife says to their daughter: “It’s not your father’s fingers that are working the scissors. It’s the wamani that brings them into contact. All your father does is obey” (475). The scissor dance channels energy from above to below; it is a power line, the dancer merely a transformer, converting energy from one form (the natural, divine) into another (the mechanical, but also aesthetic). In this transformative relay of energy, the dancer’s scissors are like the harpist’s “steel fingernail” that causes “the wire and gut strings to explode into sound” (476). Here it is wire, steel, animal gut, and the harpist’s hands that come together to produce the music accompanying and motivating the dance. But second, the dance is also a vital communicating vessel across another axis, the historical and communal. For the dancer’s role is pre-eminently social, “lighting up festivities in hundreds of villages” (474). And in this story he is passing on this power to a new generation. Rasu Ñiti dances his death agony--each component element of his body, first one leg, then another, then his arms, seizing up--only for his role to be taken over by the young dancer in waiting, Atok’ sayku. The old dancer lies on the floor, slowly paralyzed until his eyes alone reveal any trace of life and movement, but the young inheritor picks up the scissors and continues the dance: “It was him, father Rasu Ñiti, reborn, his sinews those of a gentle beast, imbued with fire from the wamani, whose centuries-old current continued to vibrate through him” (480). Finally, Rasu Ñiti’s eldest daughter can shout out “He’s not dead! Because it’s him! Dancing!” (480). At stake, as the man’s vital powers ebb away, as he hovers between death and life, is now what in very similar circumstances Deleuze terms “a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil. [. . .] an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects” (“Immanence: A Life” 29). And this life, indefinite and unqualified by the separation between subject and object, is characterized by a pure affect: “something soft and sweet” (“Immanence: A Life” 28); “pure power and even bliss” (30); for Arguedas, again the “yawar mayu,” the river as a flood of blood that carries all before it but is also the “final step that is a feature of every indigenous dance” (“La agonía de Rasu Ñiti” 478).

scissor dancer