Tuesday, January 31, 2006


Inspired by Matt's comment on Charles Bourbaki's "difference without apologies" at Long Sunday...

Social scientists, or at least social scientists of a particular stripe (perhaps it would be better to say political scientists?), are fond of referring to culture as the "symbolic." Moreover, often if not always this terminology is both containment and diminution. Cultural conflicts and negotiations are "merely" symbolic; it is the matter of policy-making, economic development, the legal code, the use of force (or whatever) that counts. And, we might add, that can be counted. Relegating cultural processes to this other arena of the symbolic, viewing them as ancillary to the main event, is also a methodological presupposition: it clears the terrain of, above all, affect; it substitutes quantitative extension for qualitative intensity.

So, in excluding the symbolic for being a site of repetition, a place where fundamental conflicts are played out but in another register, such an approach discards while also tacitly acknowledging the specificity of the cultural. It brushes under the carpet, as it were, the ways in which even in its reiteration or reflection of positions established elsewhere, culture is non-coincident with (say) political interest. That non-coincidence is at best an aberration, an irrationality. Hence the myth of the "rational actor," who is of course a deculturated actor, an agent who behaves always and only in line with his or her interest.

albatrossMeanwhile, traditional literary criticism has also understood the symbolic to be a form of repetition or reiteration. A symbol is an instance of double voicing: where a given word or thing signifies on two (or more) registers. Thus to say that, for example, the albatross in Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" functions as a symbol, is to say that the bird is more than it first appears: not only is it an element within the ostensible plot; it also carries with it broader connotations. So when the mariner kills the bird, he kills more than just a feathered beast.

Indeed, this symbolization is thematized within Coleridge's poem itself, which is in some ways a didactic text concerned precisely with the power of symbols.

And that is where the literary tradition and the social scientific diverge: the former ascribes power to the symbolic, where the latter denies it that power.

For in literature, the symbolic is viewed as the site of a particular intensity and for that reason the object of particular attention and interest. In the symbol's concentration and condensation of meaning and attention, it is ascribed a privileged mark of the literary itself, and of literature's capacity to affect and be affected. Whereas for the social scientist, the whiff of intensity provides an excuse for delegitimation.

But an anxiety over the power of the "merely" symbolic haunts social science still. God help us, after all, should people act affectively rather than "rationally."

Monday, January 30, 2006


"Allegories," Walter Benjamin famously tells us, "are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things" (178). And, to turn the comparison around, it's no surprise that ruins have long been viewed as allegories: as always pointing beyond themselves, to some absent totality. Moreover that, at another level of abstraction, the gap itself between ruin and totality has itself been insistently conceived as some kind of second-order allegory. Allegory upon allegory, ruin upon ruin.

Benjamin's interest here is in the Baroque--though, more abstractly still, he is reading modernity through the Baroque, and the Baroque work of art as an allegory for the work of art in general. But it is with Romanticism that the ruin really comes into its own.

Or rather, the point of a ruin is the extent to which it falls short of "its own," the extent to which it is non-coincident with the structure that it implies. And Romanticism takes particular note of that discrepancy between the absent presence of the material trace and the present absence of the sublime that it invokes in its very default.

OzymandiasIn invoking totality and sublimity, ruins have been read as particularly vivid allegories of power and sovereignty--and their vicissitudes. Take, for instance, Shelley's "Ozymandias." Here the poet relates the tale of a traveller coming across a desert ruin, the toppled remains of a vast sculpture of power. On its pedestal
            these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away. (11)
The levels of allegory and irony are complex. The inscription, for instance, with its injunction to despair, was presumably first intended to be interpreted in terms of the king's transcendent and overarching authority. Yet the mighty could now be tempted to despair for quite another reason: because in the fallen desolation of the broken monument they can perceive the temporary nature of even the most overweening despotism. But, in yet another twist, the fact that this missive, however ruined, endures even as all around the civilization over which Ozymandias presided has faded without trace, could also be seen to bear out the truth of the sentiment: that the signs of transcendence prevail over the most calamitous of social and natural catastrophes.

In other words, long after all memory of his kingdom has disappeared, long after all detail of the social order that he secured has faded into the real of this desert, we still remember the name of Ozymandias. The ruin ensures (to paraphrase Benjamin again) that his legacy has transcended history, by becoming immanent with nature itself. "In the ruin history has physically merged into the setting" (177-178). This is Ozymandias's final triumph.

And this is thanks to the power of narrative, which again here is multilayered. We have not only the inscription--which itself implies a prior order, the imperative of temporal power. We also have the fact that Shelley's poem consists almost entirely (all bar the first line) of the reported speech of an un-named "traveller from an antique land." Whose account is then repeated, recorded and enshrined, in published verse.

So here's the challenge: is there any way to resist the lure of narrative? To undo the symmetry between ruin and allegory? To see, in short, the ruin in itself, rather than as sign of an uninterrupted idea of sovereignty?

Sunday, January 29, 2006


[Customary apologies for meta-blogging...]

This blog has been nominated for an award. Not that it is the only blog to be so nominated: it is among 300 up for a "Koufax Award" in the category "most deserving of wider recognition".

Which is, itself, a form of recognition. And what's not to like about that?

Most of the 300 are very much focussed on the US political and foreign policy news agenda. But among other notable blogs on the list for this category are: the excellent 3 Quarks Daily; Jodi Dean's I cite; the pugnacious Lenin's Tomb; the "theory" group blog with which I am involved, Long Sunday; one of the better political blogs, Opinions You Should Have; and then how could I not mention We move to Canada?

Saturday, January 28, 2006


"The body is never in the present," Gilles Deleuze notes, "it contains the before and after, tiredness and waiting. Tiredness and waiting, even despair are the attitudes of the body" (Cinema 2 189).

Gabriel Garcia MarquezGabriel García Márquez's "No One Writes to the Colonel" is concerned above all with tiredness and waiting--and so also the corresponding attitudes of the body. It provides, therefore, a version of what Deleuze terms the "time-image":
the series of time. The daily attitude is what puts the before and after into the body, the body as the revealer of the deadline. The attitude of the body relates thought to time as to that outside which is infinitely further than the outside world" (189)
The story opens with the colonel of the novella's title making his wife a cup of that ubiquitous stimulant, coffee, banishing tiredness with caffeine. The process is described in all its material determinants: the ground beans, the boiling fluid, and a series of containers that themselves leech into the resulting mixture as he "scrape[s] the inside of the can with a knife until the last scrapings of the ground coffee, mixed with bits of rust, fell into the pot" (109).

At the same time, we also get an early insight into the physical maladies that ail both the colonel and his wife. He finds his gut and stomach affected: "the colonel experienced the feeling that fungus and poisonous lilies were taking root in his gut" (109). She "had suffered an asthma attack" the previous night and "sip[s] her coffee in the pauses of her gravelly breathing. She was scarcely more than a bit of white on an arched, rigid spine" (109, 110).

The pair's deteriorating corporeal condition is a direct result of their long wait for the colonel's overdue pension. "For nearly sixty years--since the end of the last civil war--the colonel had done nothing else but wait" (109). And in the novella's sixty or so pages that follow, there is not much in the way of action except for the small routines that occupy the couple in their quiet, desperate poverty.

In the first few of these pages, the colonel makes coffee, winds the pendulum clock (one of their few remaining possessions, a constant reminder of time's passage), sees to the rooster they are keeping for a forthcoming cockfight, seeks out his suit, shaves, dresses... "He did each thing as if it were a transcendent act" (112). But of course these habits are far from transcendent; they are the endlessly iterated reflexes of a life spent waiting for transcendence, for a response from that department of state bureaucracy charged with allocating money to war veterans.

For of all the colonel's routines, the most symptomatic is his weekly trip down to greet the mail launch, follow the postman to the post office, and watch him sort the mail. "And, as on every Friday, he returned home without the longed-for letter" (127).

Colonel waiting
Still from the film El coronel no tiene quien le escriba

These are, then, bodies that have yet to be scripted into the national narrative. The colonel frequently and somewhat obsessively casts his mind back to his role in the revolution--in which ironically he himself was a type of mailman, whose own arduous journey delivering funds for the war is somewhat belated, arriving only "half an hour before the treaty was signed" (131). But he receives a receipt for his delivery, a proof of his service, and can't believe that it can now have been mislaid in the national archives. "'No official could fail to notice documents like those,' the colonel said" (131).

But indeed, despite the myriad documents and missives that circulate through the story--newspapers, pamphlets, an air-mail letter for the local doctor--the story emphasizes the lives and experiences that never achieve representation. All this writing is characterized by its absences, its lacks. The national papers are subject to censorship, demanding but also frustrating suspicious interpretation: "'What's in the news?' the colonel asked. [. . .] 'No one knows,' [the doctor] said. 'It's hard to read between the lines which the censor lets them print'" (119). While there's little hope that any outsiders will interest themselves in local happenings: "'To the Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar, and a gun,' the doctor said, laughing over his newspaper. 'They don't understand the problems'" (127).

And though there are also clandestine missives and messages that attempt to make up for this representational lack, these endlessly say "the same as always," and the colonel doesn't even bother reading them (137).

Waiting, waiting, the colonel and his wife are subject to a "slow death" (165). But almost to the end, they maintain their patience, however much it is tried in their various squabbles as they figure out strategies to keep their bodies at least semi-nourished. Should they sell or keep the clock, and above all the rooster whose fight might lead to a big pay-out? "But suppose he loses," objects the wife (165).

In the end, the couple are reduced to something like what Giorgio Agamben terms "bare life". What are the two then to eat? And yet it is, strangely, this condition, in its loss of hope for transcendence and realization of pure, immanent materiality, that is portrayed as a moment of almost ecstatic ascesis. After all his hesitations, his anxiety, after all the ways in which he is ignored or taken advantage of by the state and local notables alike, somehow the waiting is over:
It had taken the colonel seventy-five years--the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute--to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment that he replied:

"Shit." (166)
(In the meantime, it would seem that García Márquez himself is now tired of writing.)

Friday, January 27, 2006


[I've temporarily interrupted the hiatus over on Latin America on Screen for an analysis of Kill Bill.]

Kill Bill posterPerhaps surprisingly, at the end of a two-part movie extravaganza that's so much a homage to pop culture Orientalism, the climactic "final chapter" of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill turns out to be a rather sedate melodrama in Latin American setting.

It's true that plenty of the preceding action has also taken place on the Southwestern frontier: Texas and Southern California. The shift south of the border is, then, not unlike the move in the Tarantino-penned From Dusk to Dawn from an extended crime sequence in the US desert to the occult sensuality of a Mexican biker bar.

Still, the sudden and (here) almost random displacement is jarring in both films.


Thursday, January 26, 2006


Another short post, mainly a placeholder. I very much like the following image, by Russian photographer Alexey Titarenko:

Viewed from the perspective of a slight temporal extension or duration, running together or blurring the precise chronometric moments fixed in ordinary snapshots (not quite sub specie aeternitatis, but getting there), the crowd shows its commonality. Individuality disappears even as elements of singularity (hands, shoes) remain readily discernable.

From lens culture via Space and Culture.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Via 3 Quarks Daily, an MSNBC report of an experiment on brain activity in response to politically oriented stimuli:
"We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, director of clinical psychology at Emory University. "What we saw instead was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts." [. . .]

Then, with their minds made up, brain activity ceased in the areas that deal with negative emotions such as disgust. But activity spiked in the circuits involved in reward, a response similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix, Westen explained. [. . .]

"None of the circuits involved in conscious reasoning were particularly engaged," Westen said. [. . .]

Notably absent were any increases in activation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with reasoning.
Now, the interpretation put on these results, by MSNBC if not by the Emory team itself, concerns the irrationality of partisan "bias." "Nonpartisanship" is such a strange fetish in US media and political culture.

But of course political habits are about affective fixes; and political responses are affectively conditioned before they are reasoned--or even ideological--judgements. No great surprise or scandal there.

Update: further discussion at Alas.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Rolf Harris portraitIt's a serious business painting the sovereign. And it remains so even when, as in the most recent instance with Rolf Harris's commission, entrusted to a comedian.

Rolf is one of those Australians probably better known in the UK than in his homeland, in that he has taken it upon himself to represent the Antipodes to the (former) motherland. This he has done through a musical oeuvre that began with "The Wild Colonial Boy" (Rolf Harris Thursday Night at the Down Under Club London [1957]) and notably includes "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" (Relax with Rolf [1960], but much reprised since).

Rolf crosses genres with gusto: he has inducted the Brits into the sound of the digeridoo, and has also spent much screen time demystifying the world of high art, with his mid-composition catchphrase of "Can you see what it is yet?" (One must imagine Michelangelo shouting down the same question from his scaffold while halfway through the Sistine Chapel ceiling.)

And as Rolf's trademark goatee has slowly turned white with age, British television viewers have come to see him less as an over-chirpy annoyance and more as the object of some affection. He is, after all, in many ways our creation, a fixture in the media landscape since time immemorial and for reasons long since forgotten.

The same is, mutatis mutandis, true of Queen Elizabeth II, of course. Like Rolf, the queen is a hangover from a previous age: born into Empire, and still intangibly associated with that curious and much misunderstood international organization, the Commonwealth; her contours gradually softening in old age; for most of us, she has simply always been there, consistently if periodically mentioned in the media, with a glitzy special on the telly at Christmas. So it makes a certain sense that Rolf should be her latest portraitist.

(Hitherto, Rolf's closest brush with the political came with Margaret Thatcher's unexpected and emotional revelation on Desert Island Discs that his version of "Two Little Boys" was her favourite song of all time.)

The Queen, detailRolf declared that his aim was to represent the queen as "one of us." To put a smile on her lips, and so also on ours. Queenie would be everybody's granny: a little rumpled, a little out of it, sitting in the corner, mostly ignored as the conversation goes on around her.

Close up, however, Rolf also manages to give the Queen's eyes a maniacal glint. Does this pensioner's harmless façade harbour untold dreams of power?

For Rolf reveals the real predicament of representing royalty: how to give a sense of the monarch's two bodies, the mortal and the juridical. With Rolf's portrait, it is in the eyes, but also the rather awkwardly rendered hands, which reveal not only our artist's struggles with draughtsmanship, but a definite tension, too. The queen is sitting under some kind of duress: she'd rather be with the corgis. But here she is, paraded again for our inspection, the face (and head) of state.

Monday, January 23, 2006


It may have passed the attention of some that Canadians have been voting today. Not all of them, mind you: Craig of theoria and RIPope of Long Sunday have both made clear that they have better things to do. Or rather, that they are holding out for such better things. In RIPope's words:
it is precisely because I feel so much pathos that I won’t just make myself feel a bit better by voting. I’m willing to suffer this hell for the sake of something Other.
There are, on the other hand, two scare stories circulating to encourage people to the polls.

One, much promulgated by the Liberal party, is that the election of Stephen Harper's rejuvenated Conservative party would mean the rise of American-style neoconservatism; Harper would be "Bush lite." This warning worked well enough at the last federal election, in June 2004, when a swing away from the Conservatives in the final few days of the campaign ensured the Liberals would have enough support to form at least a minority government. Subsequent revelations of Liberal corruption, however, mean that fewer are now persuaded that they are a much lesser evil than the Conservatives.

The other scare story, a version of which can be found in Dave Pollard's "Mulroney's Revenge", is that this election could mean the end of Canada. Unable to win a clear majority themselves, the Conservatives will form an unholy alliance with the Bloc Quebecois. The alienated West (the Conservatives' power base) and the alienated Francophones will together conspire if not to the physical and geographical break-up of the nation, at least to gut the Federation of all power.

But both scare stories are, in essence, one and the same: they prey on the fear of becoming American. In Pollard's words:
We will then be America Lite -- still bristling at the thought that we're just like Americans, but with our assets even more substantially owned by Americans than they are today, an economic colony with the fading illusion of relevant political independence. Instead of being the potential role model for the 21st century, we will be the country of great promise that was never realized.
This is a theme that obsesses Canadian pundits and commentators. Here, plucked almost at random, is another example, taken from one Rafe Mair and his two-part story, "Why Canada is Unraveling Again" and "How to Deal with our Next Unity Crisis":
The country teeters on the chasm of national disintegration and the federal government and indeed opposition act as if nothing is happening for fear that simply by admitting that there's a problem will itself encourage a bad result.
The irony is that to avoid becoming American, the only solution these anxious nationalists can devise is to be a little more American:
I think it useful to look at how the Americans did it in 1787 when, with equal representation from all states, large and small, they came up with what is unquestionably the best constitution ever made.
How to be like the US, without exactly being the US? How to be "America lite" without quite being (perceived as?) America lite? That seems to be the question around which much of contemporary Canadian politics turns.

Which is hardly a question that would get me up and running to a ballot box.

And surely, as Craig notes, the refrain of "Well, at least we aren't American!", the more or less smug fetishization of small differences, hinders rather than helps any real political analysis.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


BorgesOne of the curiosities of Jorge Luis Borges's stories is the way in which they combine the most rarified of philosophical abstractions with an almost obsessive focus on violence, death, and the body.

In one of his earliest books, Historia universal de la infamia (A Universal History of Infamy), Borges is interested in how violence is narrativized: in the semi-mythical narratives that accrete around crime and criminality, preserving but also domesticating our fear of those who live on and transgress society's margins.

"The Widow Ching--Pirate" is particularly concerned with the intersection between storytelling and warfaring. Its plot details the way in which this notorious pirate "queen" is compelled to surrender ultimately not by force, but by her own interpretation of signs both natural and man-made:
The moon grew thin in the sky, and still the figures of rice paper and reed wrote the same story each evening, with almost imperceptible variations. The widow was troubled, and she brooded. (23)
The widow feels that she herself has been emplotted in this narrative that she reads in the skies, a narrative slowly coming to its "inevitable end," either "infinite pardon or infinite punishment" (23). And in surrendering she both accepts and influences her fate, choosing to seek pardon rather than punishment, or at least to take her chances.

It is then chance--the unpredictable, undecideable, and indeterminate--that also connects violence and narrative. Texts are constantly subject to "almost imperceptible variations," some of which may have the most dramatic of consequences. "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", though in many ways a playful satire of avant-garde literary pretensions, alerts us to the different interpretations that can be generated by barely (here, absolutely) imperceptible differences between texts:
It is a revelation to compare the Don Quixote of Pierre Menard with that of Miguel de Cervantes. Cervantes, for example, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes:
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
History, the mother of truth!--the idea is staggering. (94)
Again, we shouldn't forget the comedy here, but Borges returns endlessly to the drastically contrasting outcomes that can be the result of the smallest initial differences: in, for instance, "The Garden of Forking Paths" (and compare the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors) or "The South".

So in "The South," it is not so much that there is any one pivotal moment: there are many, all of which cumulatively lead the plot to its narrative conclusion, and the story's protagonist, Juan Dahlmann, to his untimely end. But each of these pivots on which the story and Dahlmann's fate rests is presented as the lightest of touches: literally so, in the instance of the injury that leads him to septicemia and the sanatorium. "Fate can be merciless with the slightest distractions," comments the story's narrator:
That afternoon Dahlmann had come upon a copy (from which some pages were missing) of Weil's Arabian Nights; eager to examine his find, he did not wait for the elevator--he hurriedly took the stairs. Something in the dimness brushed his forehead--a bat? a bird? On the face of the woman who opened the door to him, he saw an expression of horror, and the hand he passed over his forehead came back red with blood. (174-175)
The choices we make only half-aware (taking the stairs rather than the elevator) combine with half-noticed events (a brush on the forehead) to produce unexpected and sometimes fatal results. This particular event is here later mirrored when, in a store in the south of the story's title, "Dahlmann suddenly felt something lightly brush his face" (278). But it would be wrong to say that it is his reaction to this encounter--accepting a young thug's challenge to a fight--that seals his fate. For one thing, what's required is the intervention of yet another "unforeseeable" intervention, a gaucho throwing Dahlmann a weapon; for another, we might also say that our protagonist's conclusion has been inscribed in his ancestry, his grandfather's own death fighting in the south, and the "pull" of that lineage.

Moreover, it's not even as though the story ends so very determinately: it requires the reader to imagine a perhaps inevitable conclusion: "Dahlmann firmly grips the knife, which he may have no idea how to manage, and steps out into the plains" (179; my emphasis).

Finally, "The Library of Babel" examines narrative, and its infinitude, and also the violent passions that it can provoke, with its image of librarians searching for the elusive (but assuredly existent) volume that would vindicate their lives:
Thousands of greedy individuals abandoned their sweet native hexagons and rushed downstairs, spurred by the vain desire to find their Vindication. These pilgrims squabbled in the narrow corridors, muttered dark imprecations, strangled one another on the divine staircases, threw deceiving volumes down ventilation shafts, were themselves hurled to their deaths by men of distant regions. Others went insane... (115)
The despairing realization here is of the dark nexus between chance, certainty, and totality. For it to be certain that the library contains precisely the volume that the pilgrims seek, then the library has to be infinite, to contain the totality of all possible books. Which means that the chance of finding that particular text "can be calculated to be zero" (115).

As such, even in the perfectly ordered world represented by the all-encompassing universe that is the library, we are left at best to take, but also then to relish, our chances.

Library of Babel

Saturday, January 21, 2006


Yawar fiesta cover
That's what they had wanted! To shock Puquio. To take charge [ser mando], if only for one day, of the whole town. (133)
Arguedas's Yawar fiesta dramatizes a complex series of power struggles. What's at stake is also the format and interpretation of those struggles.

The focus is a festival in the Andean town of Puquio, a festival celebrated on Peru's national day (July 28th), but whose roots reach back to the founding trauma of Spanish colonization.

Traditionally, the centerpiece has been a rough and ready bullfight, in which representatives of the various ayllus that constitute the town's indigenous majority compete for the honour of their clan by braving the fiercest wild bulls brought down from the remote upland puna. This contest can be a brutal and bloody affair, in which young men fortified by copious quantities of drink hurl themselves at the untamed animals, often coming off worst in the encounter. Indeed, much of the anticipation and excitement surrounding this "Festival of Blood" is provoked by the evident danger and the likelihood of serious injury or death.

This year, however, things will be different. An order has come down from the government that bans such amateur displays. The subprefect assigned to the town is determined to ensure that a "civilized" display will replace customary "savagery." He enlists the local notables in his cause, who in turn call upon townsfolk who have emigrated to Lima. These émigrés, driven by their experience with urban modernity but also new intellectual fashions, are all too keen to return to their hometown in the service of this civilizing mission. They hire a professional bullfighter, a Spaniard eking out the twilight of his career, and bring him to the Andes determined to teach a lesson as much to the provincial oligarchy as to the "backward" Indians.

So just as the ayllus compete among themselves for prestige, as well as to show the mistis what indigenous organization, bravery, and force of will can achieve, so also the local landowners and merchants are split: some more favourable to the modernizing influence brought by the state and even by a radicalism inspired by the Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui; others, including the largest and most feared landowner of all, strangely allied with the Indians they admit to oppressing in their desire that this semi-Rabelasian carnival should go ahead.

Nothing is simple in Arguedas's delicately poised account. It is the indigenous, for instance, who have themselves opened Puquio up to modernization by building, of their own accord and with impressive industriousness, the highway that links the highland town to the coast. We are led to feel a certain sympathy for the gamonal Don Julián as well as for the shopkeeper Don Pancho, both of whom profit from exploitation, but who are incarcerated by the subprefect for daring to champion tradition against the state's purported rationalization.

Even the Lima-based mestizos are treated with much subtlety and ambivalence: they are at least prepared to recognize and name the oppression endemic to these semi-feudal relations, even if their educative desires are portrayed as ill-judged and arrogant: "We'd need a thousand years to save the Indians from their superstitions," says one (128). "That depends," another replies.
If we were the Government, my brothers! What would happen? We would do away with the causes that have allowed primitivism and servitude to survive for so many centuries. (129)
These men, whose most vocal member is the "student" Escobar, aspire to be the organic intellectuals of a liberated peasantry. They show their willing affiliation with the indigenous by literally putting their shoulders to the effort of bringing the bull Misitu into town at the same time as they try to frustrate the very purpose of that effort, by also importing the professional matador to substitute for Misitu's indigenous challengers.

In the end, the carnivalesque trumps this attempted imposition of a hegemonic relation. The Spaniard serves up a particularly unedifying spectacle, running for cover almost as soon as Misitu is let loose in the ring. The mistis themselves, led by Puquio's mayor, reject the subprefect and the émigrés' authority alike, calling on the indigenous challengers to enter the scene. And blood is indeed spilled. The novel ends with the mayor's assertion of nativism, of pride in the locality and in the prowess but also the sacrifice of its indigenous multitude:
Do you see, Mr Subprefect? These are our bullfights. The true yawar punchay! (156; emphasis added)
And the possessive "our" is an assertion of ownership, but also the recognition of a complex totality in which the dominant are finally dependent upon the subaltern's constituent power.

Yawar Fiesta diorama

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


topographic map of area near PuquioArguedas portrays the Peruvian landscape as thoroughly imbued with affect. Indeed, he provides an affective topography of the highlands, and is concerned above all with gradients or folds, with charting the more or less sudden switches between different affective states: from sadness to happiness, fear to pride, cowardice to bravery, and so on.

Nature, human structures, groups, and individuals all variously affect and are affected. And in the contagion or influence that connects these different bodies, their distinctions come to seem less important than ever. So, for instance, in "Los escoleros" we see how as the schoolboys play, "fearing nobody [. . .] we filled the heavens with our happiness" (Relatos completos 67); but vice versa, equally "during the night, the sky cleared up a little and the stars happily lit up the village" (61). Or, as the narrator recounts earlier on, "the whole world seemed at peace. [. . .] The freshness of the morning and the happiness of the maternal stream consoled me once more" (53-54).

As the above reference to a "maternal stream" implies, some of this emphasis on affect being common to geographical features as much as to human individuals is due to the indigenous belief that the hills have personalities and character traits. But it's not so much a personification or humanization of nature as, by contrast, a recognition of a common, impersonal but responsive, substrate that underlies the human and the inhuman alike.

This recognition of commonality can be joyous, and vivifying; it can also be threatening, especially when (staying with "Los escoleros") young Juancha believes that he might literally be absorbed by the large rock, Jatunrami, that in a fit of exuberance he had climbed but from which he finds himself unable to descend: "I lost hope. Truly, Jatunrami did not want to let me go. I felt that at any moment a huge black mouth might open up in Jatunrami's head and that it would swallow me up" (51).

It's at this point that Juancha, like Arguedas himself child of a mestizo lawyer, in panicked Peter-like denial insists on his difference: "I'm not for you; I'm son of a white lawyer [. . .] my hair like corn, my eyes are blue; I'm not for you!" (52). The irony being that Juancha uses Quechua expressions ("Tayta"; "mak'tillo") and sentence forms in his address, showing the extent of what Angel Rama would term his transculturation.

Though it is not as though the mistis (whites or mestizos) are absent from this affective landscape. "El vengativo," one of the less characteristic of Arguedas's stories, in epistolary form and told from the perspective of a "principal," makes clear the emotions that course through the veins of the dominant: "how happy man can become through rage as much as through love" (Obras completas 33); "my heart was engorged with rage" (35).

Nor is it quite that the indigenous feel only happiness while the principals are defined solely by their rage: the common people ("comuneros") too have learned to hate, if often ineffectively and impotently, while in "Yawar (Fiesta)" the mistis soon repent of the rationalizing innovations that they themselves have imposed upon traditional Indian celebrations. As the drunken native bullfighters replace the refined but cowardly imported Spaniard, the misti spectators' "hearts jumped with elation. And as they could not resist the force of their contentment, they broke out into nervous applause, shook each others' hands; they congratulated themselves. 'At last!'" (133-134).

It's in these twists and turns, this scarred and unpredictable landscape, these affective dependencies and openings, that much of the interest and motivation of Arguedas's stories reside.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Glass GraduateA brief note in the July 2003 edition of The American Journal of Psychiatry, entitled "Delusional Self-Portrait", concerns the case of "Mr A, a 32-year old Caucasian man" who had asked
to have some wires that stopped him from sleeping removed from his leg. He said there were many more wires inside his body that he had discovered after experiencing that "a magnetism of storms" produced multiple internal sensations in the form of erratic contractions and "electric currents," which he tried to alleviate by sticking needles into himself so as to "discharge the current by touching the wires with a metallic object."
Mr A depicted his condition by means a stick figure, made of wire, which he had taped to the cover of his diary: "That’s what I’m like inside—all made of metal."

The psychiatrists treating him diagnose "cenesthetic schizophrenia," a condition characterized by "a peculiar conservation of affectivity." Chambers defines cenesthesis (also, coenaesthesis) as "general consciousness or awareness of one's body." Webster defines it as "common sensation or general sensibility." It is, in short, affect without specific object. It is affect in common, affect as such; an unspecific but decidedly concrete consciousness of materiality.

It is not then so surprising that the treatment prescribed for Mr A should have been markedly literary: the point was presumably to (re-)enable representation, to give this non-specific affect subject and object. So the patient was recommended to read Miguel de Cervantes's "El licenciado Vidriera" ("The Glass Graduate"). Upon reading Cervantes's short story, we are told, Mr A gained a measure of relief:
I was relieved that somebody else had experienced the same as me, and I realized that reality is a very broad, diverse concept, not something unique and the same for everybody.
This Golden Age "exemplary novel" thus proves its exemplarity: providing both a literary precursor against which experience can be (re-)cast as similar, a repetition; and also ironically modelling singularity, that is the unrepeatable, itself. The singular becomes representable only through its iteration, its doubling.

We have something here of what Jacques Derrida, in Monolingualism of the Other, terms "the exemplary or testimonial singularity of martyred existence" (27; emphasis in original). Cervantes becomes a proleptic witness to Mr A's pain. And Derrida is precisely interested in this establishment of representation by means of the paradoxical meeting of the singular (an unrepresentable affect, a pain no-one else can feel) and the universal (a sign system available to all):
As regards so enigmatic a value as that of attestation, or even of exemplarity in testimony, here is a first question, the most general one, without the shadow of a doubt. What happens when someone resorts to describing an allegedly uncommon situation [. . .] by testifying to it in terms that go beyond it, in a language whose generality takes on a value that is in some way structural, universal, transcendental, or ontological? When anybody who happens by infers the following: "What holds for me, irreplaceably, also applies to all. [. . .]" (19-20)
The only twists here are, first, the pre-emptive character of Cervantes's exemplarity--a "classic" written almost 400 years ago--and second, the analytic scene. But this is precisely how analysis works: transforming immanence into a relation with transcendence through representation, by provoking identification and recognition on the part of the analysand: the conjunctive synthesis, "so that's what it was!" (Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus 20).

Miguel de CervantesThat moment of realization is, of course, the fruit of interpretation. In his Prologue to the Exemplary Novels Cervantes underlines, albeit circuitously and somewhat ironically, the ways in which they demand readerly hermeneutics:
I have called them Exemplary, and if you look closely, you will see that there is not one from which you cannot extract some profitable example; and if it were not for the fact that it would make this over-long, perhaps I would show you the delicious and wholesome fruit which could be pulled both from the collection as a whole and from each one alone.
He is not going to show us the moral to be gleaned from his writing, precisely because a large part of that moral--perhaps the moral--is the requirement to "look closely" and to decipher the texts' meanings, apparently for yourself (your self?).

The story prescribed to treat Mr A, "The Glass Graduate," is in many ways an allegory of interpretation: it deals with clarity and obscurity, and, equally, the difficulties of knowing either the self or the other.

Very briefly, the plot concerns a boy, who initially adopts the name Tomás Rodaja and is in turn adopted by two "gentleman students" from Málaga and sponsored through the course of studies in law at Salamanca. He subsequently takes up with a Captain of the army, and tours Italy before going on to Flanders. Returning to Salamanca, he is poisoned by an ardent suitor, as result of which
The unfortunate young man imagined that he was all made of glass, and in this delusion, whenever anyone approached him, he would shriek, begging and pleading with coherent words and arguments, for people not to come near, because they would break him, because really and truly he was not as other men--he was made of glass from head to foot. (73)
Taking as his name the Glass Graduate, or just Glass, in his madness the youth wanders the streets delivering caustic aphorisms on contemporary social mores, and as such becomes something of a character and celebrity. After two years as a semi-itinerant holy fool, sleeping and travelling packed in hay to ensure that his fragile body is well protected, he is rather abruptly cured by a Hieronymite friar. But, as a notorious former madman, he is unable to return to the practice of law, so with the name now of Tomás Rueda he sets off instead to seek fame in arms in the company of his friend Captain Valdivia.

The graduate's sense of self is shown to be brittle in a host of aspects. As I've indicated, he's forever changing both his social role and his name: there's more than a little of the picaresque about his adventures, except that he is for all intents and purposes without character; he is instead consistently renamed and re-adopted by those around him. We learn next to nothing about his background, and never, for instance, learn his real name (if indeed he has one). Until his final (un-narrated) incarnation as valiant soldier, he is notably shy to commit or invest in anything or anyone. (Elaine Dunn's "Fashioning Identities in 'El licenciado Vidriera'" is good on the ways in which he "resists all forms of intimacy and social relations" [130].)

He never really acquires an ego, then: he serves rather as a lens through which others are led to believe they see the hypocrisy and corruption of their own society all the clearer. In this sense, he's not far wrong to imagine himself as made out of glass. (Indeed, as George Shipley implies in "Vidriera's Blather", perhaps that's about the sum total of what he's not wrong about.)

But at least he is of interest. For all the desire for a cure, or for all that this like the other exemplary novels is designed to be curative, in the end the normalized subject is, frankly, portrayed as rather boring. In fact, he's not portrayed at all, but is dispensed with in a final, single sentence, paragraph. When the exemplary becomes universal, it no longer holds any pull on narrative; it has simply flattened out into language as such. It is only in so far as the exemplary remains singular, and so resists representation, that it also demands narrativization, even if that narrative ultimately irons out and eliminates the very singularity that is at first so seductive.

The same is true, for instance, of the eponymous "Jealous Old Man from Extremadura." As soon, at the tale's resolution, as he comes to his senses and gives up his jealousy, he is promptly dispatched without further ado, expiring within seven days and a single sentence. (On a rather different tack, I heartily recommend Shirfa Armon's analysis of this story in "The Paper Key", which persuasively argues that it is a critique of Spain's unprofitable investment of American spoils, and an anticipation of the shift from faith in precious ore to the fluidity of paper money.)

Finally, though, is there not another way of thinking about creatures of glass? One outlined in a poem by Keith Walton that also takes the title "The Glass Graduate". This gives us a voice whose glass self is not distanced and packaged away from the world, but vibrantly expectant and affectively, joyously, erotically responsive to the slightest liquid touch:
I sing
          as the wetted finger
                                           circles my rim
terrified -
                  Sing!           Sing!           Sing!

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Michelle BacheletAnd now Chile.

Also here, from Las Últimas noticias, and here from La Tercera; El Mercurio has yet to register the news... update, that's not quite fair as El Mercurio Online, a separate site, has, under the subhead "Histórico triunfo de la candidata de la Concertación".

Only the second woman to be elected head of state in South America, a socialist and former detainee under Pinochet, a single mother in a country that only legalized divorce last year.

(Other elected women heads of state in the region: Violetta Chamorro, Nicaragua, in 1990; Janet Jagan, Guyana, in 1997; and Mireya Moscoso, Panama, in 1999. The first woman head of state in the Americas was Isabel Perón, from 1974 to 1976, who assumed power on the death of her husband. Indeed, all these four were widows of prominent public figures.)

Here's Michelet's campaign blog. Its post-victory entry stresses the affective, reading in part:
Still it's not words that matter today, but the emotion, the embraces, the happiness of the friends with whom we have shared this long campaign, all those who put up posters, went door to door, convinced a friend to share a dream, the possible dream of a fairer country in which a woman who was once the victim of hate is today the President-elect of Chile . . . We have made history. But that history has only just begun.
And el teléfono rojo, a group blog dedicated to covering the election. Who note that one Chilean TV channel showed Bullworth immediately after concluding its election coverage.

See also Matthew Søberg Shugart, who at Fruits and Votes stresses the continuities rather than the changes registered by this election, in that "It has now been 48 years since Chileans elected a president who was neither a Socialist nor a Christian Democrat". Which is true enough, but the move within the Concertación from Frei to Lagos to Bachelet is also definitely a leftward drift. (While the Concertación and the Unidad Popular are hardly cut from the same cloth.)

But for a well-merited word of caution, here's Marc Cooper: "Her potential to enact more than symbolic change, however, is something that must be viewed with a certain dose of skepticism". Echoed by Beautiful Horizons, who underlines particularly the issue of military finances.

Friday, January 13, 2006

name change

[A service announcement...]

See above for this blog's name change. If, however, there is any kind of clamour calling for the return of "Posthegemonic Musings," I may change it back.

[Here ends the service announcement.]

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Baby of Macon

I used to be quite a fan of Peter Greenaway's work--Drowning by Numbers, The Falls, Belly of an Architect and (especially) A Zed and Two Noughts. At one point I tried to interview him, but passed up the chance because I was only offered a phone interview, which didn't seem to be quite the same. And then along came Prospero's Books, and I felt that his work was just increasingly self-indulgent. A little later I saw The Pillow Book, and was still far from impressed.

Baby of MaconWhere I was at the time, The Baby of Mâcon never showed when it was on release. In fact it hardly showed anywhere--in the USA, only New York and Los Angeles. But I read some reviews and didn't get the sense I was missing much.

I've just seen it. And though I saw the film in far from ideal conditions--in my office, on a TV with a PAL video very imperfectly translated to NTSC--it blew me away. It's an extraordinary movie.

The Baby of Mâcon boasts all the pageantry and lavish, colour-coded sets and costumes of, for instance, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Here the setting is the cathedral and the playhouse rather than a restaurant. There is much in the way of pomp and circumstance. Greenaway's point, in part, is to show the performativity of religion, and more generally of power, and also the slippage between performance (staged, "unreal") and performativity (the rituals by which the real is constructed). And then, everything is meticulously choreographed by the director himself.

A child is born, by apparent miracle, and extraordinary power and influence is attributed to it. As well as being the object of more or less innocent adoration, the child also draws the desires of those who would use him to further their own cynical ends. His sister claims to be his mother, insisting that his was a virgin birth. His mother is shut away, along with the tramp-like father. Hovering around the scenes is a naive duke and a sceptical bishop's son, the latter soon to be killed by the putative virgin mother, the former to be the self-declared mother's own downfall, effectively sentencing her to death by gang rape.

It was the gang rape that caused so much controversy at the time of the film's release. But there's nothing voyeuristic about its portrayal, and what's shocking about the scene is what in fact should be shocking: the callousness and the dehumanization in the very idea of thoughtlessly proposing this as "punishment." There is much more that's equally un-nerving here: not least the (literal) carving up of the child immediately after its death, but also (perhaps more insidiously) the fact that even when alive its pronouncements were always only ventriloquized from off-stage. The child himself, so much the centre of attention, is given no lines to speak for himself. He is both fetish and subaltern.

Baby of Macon rape scene
But no description will really do this film justice. It is visually sumptuous, narratively provocative, and overall profoundly disturbing. Go see it if and when you have the chance.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


Bernal Diaz"Properly to extol the adventures that befell us," writes Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his "Preliminary Note" to The Conquest of New Spain, "and the heroic deeds we performed [. . .] would require eloquence and rhetoric far greater than mine" (14).

From the outset, then, Díaz suggests that there is something improper about his account. Its lack of the required eloquence is felt as some kind of somewhat disturbing fault that has to be signalled right at the start.

Absent these skills, Díaz informs us: "What I myself saw, and the fighting in which I took part, with God's help I will describe quite plainly, as an honest eyewitness, without twisting the facts in any way" (14). The hope is that honesty and clarity will perhaps make up for, or even outdo, a rhetorical excess that could be interpreted, indeed, as "twisting the facts." But Díaz has implanted some seeds of doubt as to whether he is a fit chronicler of the story he tells.

Moreover, the issue of who speaks and how, and of who can or should mediate or represent on behalf of others, is central to The Conquest of New Spain. Not least because of the famous, indeed notorious, role of "Doña Marina," otherwise known as "La Malinche," in the events that Díaz relates.

La MalincheDíaz takes time out from his narrative, which is otherwise concerned above all with a detailed chronology of the various expeditions to the mainland, above all that led by Hernando Cortes, to give us, almost as an aside, "Doña Marina's Story." But this aside, as is so often the case, contains what is in fact essential.

There's a good reason why "before speaking of the great Montezuma," Díaz should want "to give an account of Doña Marina" (85).

Doña Marina was an object of numerous exchanges: her parents, caciques from Paynala, had secretly entrusted her to "some Indians from Xilango," who in turn "gave the child to the people of Tabasco, and the Tabascans gave her to Cortes" (85). Passed around in this way, she clearly picked up a facility with languages, developing a hybrid subjectivity of which the Spanish were crucially to take advantage. She was able to translate between Nahuatl and the language of Tabasco, a language with the former deserter Jeronimo de Aguilar had picked up in the Yucatán: "these two understood one another well, and Aguilar translated into Castillian for Cortes" (86-87).

These two renegade subjects, then, Doña Marina and Aguilar, formed a communicative relay, enabling Cortes to represent himself and to be in turn addressed by the Aztecs and their vassals. In Díaz's words:
This was the beginning of our conquests, and thus, praise be to God, all things prospered with us. I have made a point of telling this story, because without Doña Marina we could not have understood the language of New Spain and Mexico. (87)
And in fact time after time, notably in Cholula shortly before the conquering party moved on to Tenochtitlan itself, they made good use of the fact that they were able to gather information about the natives' plans. Díaz reports that this was why "they took us for magicians and said that no plot against us could be so secret as to escape discovery" (203).

So it turns out that the people who are able to speak "properly"--and though we hear relatively little about Aguilar, we often hear how Doña Marina "translated [Cortes's] speech and made it perfectly clear" (199)--are these hybrid, somewhat untrustworthy subjects. The Spaniards are reliant on their powers of translation and persuasion, but also naturally somewhat suspicious of their abilities.

No wonder, too, that Cortes should warn against the way with words apparently possessed by someone such as Bartolomé de las Casas, who "was never tired of talking" about the conquistadors' unwarranted massacres. Las Casas "writes so persuasively that he would convince anyone who had not witnessed the event, or had no knowledge of it, that these and the other cruelties of which he writes took place as he says" (203). But, Díaz insists, we should "beware of this book of his" (203). Its very fluency should alert us that its tale is perhaps too seductive, too convincing.

So in the end Díaz's account is a defence of the improper, of the stumbling, stuttering way in which he himself writes, often informing us of the lapses in his own memory: the chief's name or the idol's name he forgets, for instance (192, 202). It's precisely these lapses in his chronicle, these failures to translate or articulate adequately, that guarantee, Díaz suggests, its truthfulness.

Jack Shafer expresses a very similar sentiment at the end of his mea culpa detailing how he was taken in by one of the many recent scandalous writing "frauds" (JT Leroy, James Frey), in this case Stephen Glass: "Anyone can doubt a bad writer. It's the good ones who need watching."

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


Jose Maria ArguedasAntonio Melis says of the Peruvian writer José María Arguedas, "To begin with, the writings of Arguedas should be considered as an integrated totality (i.e. without the constraint of barriers such as genre)" (xi). This is indeed a good place to start: with a project to read the whole of Arguedas's writing, from the anthropological writings to the novels, from the poetry to the literary criticism, as constituting a whole life's work.

"It goes without saying," continues Melis, "that there are continuous and fertile exchanges between Arguedas's ethnoanthropological investigations and literary creations, exchanges that open the way to fruitful and reciprocal illuminations" (xi).

Ciro Sandoval makes a similar point about "the extraordinary cultural intertextuality called for when reading Arguedas":
It is arbitrary, therefore, to study Arguedas's literary work as independent or disconnected from his work as ethnographer, folklorist, translator, and interpreter of legends, myths, songs, and especially from his deep preoccupation with the study of autochthonous creativity and culture. If Arguedas is important, it is because he attempted a sociology of art and culture through literary, anthropological, ethnographic, linguistic, and folkloric venues. All these endeavors simultaneously unfold in Arguedas and mutually complement and interconnect at different levels. (xxxiii)
This is not to discard the question of genre completely. Rather, we should understand Arguedas's various incursions into different generic models as strategic interventions, a continuous process of experimentation, by which he attempted ever-new approaches towards the same fundamental problems that concerned him.

Arguedas's shift between genres, and his propensity to mix them up and crosspollinate them, introducing for instance to his novel Los ríos profundos chapters taken verbatim from his anthropological research, is not some exercise in writerly virtuosity. It's a sign of his profound dissatisfaction with all the genres available to him. More fundamentally, it's a sign of his dissatisfaction with writing, and indeed with language itself.

As Sandoval goes on to argue:
Arguedas's life and work represent a drama of the unspeakable, of the undecidable, of the culturally and linguistically untranslatable, a drama that began for him as a struggle with language [. . .]. (xxxiii)
Arguedas's lifework was an attempt to formulate something like a subaltern aesthetics, to translate, incarnate, or record in written, linguistic form a subaltern poiesis.

Arguedas, better perhaps than any other Latin American writer, reveals and explores the problem of subalternity's relation with representation. Nobody was more aware of the fact that the subaltern cannot speak, of the ways in which the Andean world lies outside of, and excluded from, Western frameworks of representation. Nobody was more agonized by the fact that portrayals of the indigenous, from the conquistadors' chronicles to liberal indigenism, always entailed a silencing and occlusion of any hope for subaltern self-expression.

None of which is to imply that the subaltern is mute: Arguedas celebrates and documents both the cultural creativity of (particularly) Quechua song and folklore, and also the force of a kind of collective murmur, the semi-audible rumours that circulate like water through any highland crowd (or multitude), at the same time as he indicates how that fluency and fluidity is broken in its translation to Spanish.

In the first place, then, Arguedas's numerous switches between genres register that brokenness: his work is indeed a "totality," as Melis suggests, but a totality that is fractured, perhaps (Arguedas fears) irredeemably so. But it was the hope that some redemption might be possible that kept him going for as long as he did.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Morales (anticipation)

A week or so ago, Glen nudged me to comment on a recent speech by Bolivian present-elect Evo Morales, translated as "I Believe in the Power of the People".

Evo MoralesFor the moment, though, this is just a placeholder.

And a link, first, to the original text, "Bolivia, el poder del pueblo", as well as to another translation of this same speech, courtesy of the Center for Media and Democracy.

Second, James Painter's analysis for the BBC, "Bolivia in for a bumpy ride", is a good enough general account of the situation.

Third, a clutch of bloggers: "A New Path for Bolivia", by Jim Schultz of Blog from Bolivia; "My Thoughts on Evo", by Miguel Centenellas of Ciao!; some reflections from Miguel Buitrago of MABB; and "Bolivia: A Democratic Revolution--or some other kind?", by Matthew Søberg Shugart of Fruits and Votes.

Finally, a link to a piece by James Petras, "Evo Morales: All Growl, No Claws?", which offers a rather more pessimistic prediction of Morales's future trajectory than others have provided.

Petras, a stalwart of publications such as the Monthly Review, is consistently the voice of ultra-left more-radical-than-thou commentary on Latin American politics. He's not particularly reliable. Still, it's worth quoting what he says:
All the data on Evo Morales' politics, especially since 2002, point to a decided right turn, from mass struggle to electoral politics, a shift toward operating inside Congress and with institutional elites. Evo has turned from supporting popular uprisings to backing one or another neo-liberal President. His style is populist, his dress informal. He speaks the language of the people. He is photogenic, personable and charismatic. He mixes well with street venders and visits the homes of the poor. But what political purpose do all these populist gestures and symbols serve? His anti-neo-liberal rhetoric will not have any meaning if he invites more foreign investors to plunder iron, gas, oil, magnesium and other prime materials. [. . .] Unfortunately, the Left will continue to respond to symbols, mythical histories, political rhetoric and gestures and not to programmatic substance, historical experiences and concrete socio-economic policies.
And for context, here's an older article by Petras on Bolivia: "Bolivia: Between Colonisation and Revolution". Well, vamos a ver, as they say. I'll return to this.

But while I'm at it, here's David Raby on Petras on Chávez: "Venezuela: The Myths of James Petras".

Sunday, January 08, 2006


A quick note on my friend Adam Frank's "Valdemar's Tongue, Poe's Telegraphy", available (for those who don't have access to Project Muse) from the most recent issue (number 72) of ELH.

Frank reads Edgar Allan Poe's 1845 short story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar", a text analyzed also by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, in terms not merely of nineteenth-century enthusiasm for Mesmerism, but also an engagement with the (then) new communications technology of telegraphy.

ValdemarThe tale's narrator is some kind of amateur scientist, interested in Mesmerism, who is called to the deathbed of one M. Valdemar, eager to experiment as to whether hypnosis might delay or arrest "the encroachments of Death." The narrator successfully puts his patient in a trance, only to discover that he enters a sort of post-mortem limbo, in which his tongue, "swollen and blackened," displays a "strong vibratory motion" and a voice emanating as though "from a vast distance" declares "Yes; - no; - I have been sleeping - and now - now - I am dead."

General horror ensures, and Valdemar is left in his funereal trance for seven months. Then, as the narrator decides finally to awaken his patient, once more "the tongue quiver[s]" and a voice is heard intoning "For God's sake! - quick! - quick! - put me to sleep - or, quick! - waken me! - quick! - I say to you that I am dead!" "Waking" him, the narrator finds that, at one stroke, the body deteriorates, leaving only "a nearly liquid mass of loathsome - of detestable putrescence."

Frank reads this episode, of the tongue speaking from within a dead body, both as a scene of writing--a black mark on a face white as paper--and as an instance of telegraphic communication. The vibrating tongue functions as a vibrating armature, registering a voice transmitted from an almost unimaginable distance, and conveying with it the affect associated (for Poe) with the innovation, creativity, and novelty of the new technology.

In stressing the affective qualities of telegraphic communication, Frank sees Poe's story as staging an almost anticipatory criticism of the discourse of science and transparency that will soon claim telegraphy for its own:
The narrator's facts-in-the-case [cf. the story's title], antifigurative style can be understood as governed by a decontamination script, one that tries to purify itself of figurative language: the struggle between the narrator and Valdemar, a struggle over style, is more specifically a struggle over figure. [. . . The story can then be read as] a burlesque of the antifigurative style and its desire for a purified control. [. . .] Poe's writing insists not on telegraphy as antifigurative but on telegraphy as (from the start) an overdetermined figure for, precisely, effective or manipulative writing, writing that may conceal the figurative but can never do without it. (655-656)
At the interface of telegraphic and literary writing, and also registering a nascent contest between and over these two technologies of communication, Poe's story is therefore profoundly political. At stake is
the control of body parts, thinking, and feeling of people at a distance [. . . that] creates the imagined possibility of a social body's consensus through the powerful force of a mass medium. (657)
At stake, in other words, is the properly posthegemonic question of the affective technologies that produce the fantasy--the "imagined possibility"--of a consensus that will then be misread as hegemony. The alternative is perhaps a dissolution, a literal body without organs, that belies the suspended animation of the mesmerized subject conjured up by rational control.

Such a dissolution provokes intense disgust in the narrator, and "unwarranted popular feeling" in his addressees, but is for Valdemar himself "a matter neither to be avoided nor regretted."

Saturday, January 07, 2006

more confusion

I have already discussed Leigh Binford's work on El Salvador, in which he argues for the utility of the concept of hegemony as a means to understand guerrilla insurgency.

I had been looking forward to reading his article "Hegemony in the Interior of the Salvadoran Revolution: The ERP in Northern Morazán," not least because I had assumed it would be a more theoretically robust defence of his approach. Unfortunately, it is not.

Northern Morazan
Northern Morazán was the area in which the FMLN had probably most secure hold throughout the war, and is where the so-called guerrilla capital, Perquín, was located. The area's prominence, however, is also due to the fact that it was the stronghold of what was the dominant and probably savviest of all the guerrilla forces that constituted the FMLN, the ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, or Revolutionary People's Army). On the one hand, this makes the region somewhat atypical of FMLN wartime experience and activity; on the other hand, it arguably provides particular insight into guerrilla organization and the likely shape of a post-revolutionary society, should the Revolution have been successful.

Binford's approach combines the concept of hegemony with the concepts of habitus and "field of power," these latter two terms drawn from the work of Pierre Bourdieu. His argument is that the FMLN embarked on "a double process of hegemony construction" (4), first among the civilians within the zone, and second (but at the same time) among their own guerrilla combatants. However, they were doubly constrained: first, by the fact that they were operating within what Binford calls a "military-political field of power" (4) within which the repressive state and its armed forces (literally) called many of the shots; and second, by the durability of pre-existing habitus, which included the machismo endemic among many of the guerrilla's own cadre and also the privileging of "household over collective production and individual over communal activity" among much of the peasantry (30).

In the end, then, Binford sees the FMLN's project as a failure, not simply because the Revolution never took place, but also (and perhaps this was the cause) because they were unable to effect durable change in people's pre-existing dispositions. In short, the "depth of ERP hegemony" (29) was at best shallow:
The motives of many participants remained instrumental, accompanied by only minor changes of consciousness, even if for some persons these practices contributed to the development of the "common meaningful and material framework" that is the sine qua non of hegemony (Roseberry 1994: 360-361). That that emergent framework never consolidated into a new "structure of feeling" (Williams 1977: 132) owed much to the short duration (eight years) and limited scope of the doble cara experiment [combining military and civil organization], which failed to reverse at the regional level well-entrenched cultural systems based on individualism and authoritarian control. (29-30)
There is here significant confusion as to whether or not what's at issue is consciousness, as in a traditional conception of ideology and consciousness-raising, or practice, which would be more in line of Bourdieu's notion of habitus as embodied well beneath the level of ideology. Binford would no doubt suggest that the answer is both: he earlier suggests that ERP strategy was focussed on practice, on the attempt to develop new habits, "reconfiguring practices rather than projecting messages" (17), but that this was intended to ensure that "representations more appropriate to that situation--those promoted by the FMLN--would then stand a better chance of becoming generalized" (18). In what would appear to be a dialectical process, "the representations would reinforce practices and the military's real and symbolic power would suffer continuous erosion" (18).

The entrance to Perquin
The concept of hegemony that Binford adopts, taken solely from William Roseberry's "Hegemony and the Language of Contention" (and essentially from one sentence of Roseberry's at that) brings together these two aspects, of consciousness and practice, in its definition (much cited by Binford) of hegemony as a "common meaningful and material framework." Unfortunately, however, neither in Roseberry nor in Binford are the elements that constitute this phrase properly explored or unpacked. Throwing in then the notion of "structure of feeling," drawn from Raymond Williams, only adds to the murk. Hegemony becomes a catch-all category to designate any and all forms of social inequality, control, dominance, or inertia.

Binford employs these concepts more as totems than as analytical categories. This is most evident in his use of the term "field of power," almost always italicized within his text as if to signify both that it is somehow foreign, untranslated French taken straight from Bourdieu, and that it is special, possessed of some undefined and ineffable aura. Occasionally some specification is added: as well as the "military-political field of power" (4), Binford also writes of Northern Morazán simply as a "field of power" (8) when it is not a "social field of power" (9) or a "field of political-military power" (9), a "regional field of power" within "more encompassing fields of power" (11), or perhaps a "field of military power" (11) (emphases all in original). But it is not at all clear what differentiations, if any, are to be marked by these slight changes. They give the impression of complexity without actually enhancing our understanding.

So it is more generally with Binford's use of the term "hegemony." This is not, in the end, a theoretical concept. Or rather, it is "theory" (Theory?) only in the sense that those who oppose theory imagine: it is the use of a somewhat unfamiliar term to add the gloss of sophistication, but thereby mystifying what is in the end an analysis premised on no more than common sense.

And the problem here is that, shielded beneath this confused pseudo-theoretical armature, what remains most stubbornly resistant to critique is "common sense" itself.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Benito Cereno

The University of Chicago Press's reissue of Carl Schmitt's Political Theology has a new Foreword by Tracy B. Strong. (I guess that's really his name... [and see Jodi's comment on this post]) It's a thoughtful and smart take on Schmitt, aligning him ultimately with Weber as a thinker concerned above all about the bureaucratization and so elimination of politics effected by modern technological rationality. Strong stresses therefore Schmitt's humanism, and suggests that this, however counter-intuitively, is what led him ultimately to Nazism:
Hitler appeared to him as something like the entity God had sent to perform a miracle [. . .] and the miracle was the recovery of a this-world transcendence to sovereignty and thus the human realm of the political. (xxx)
In this context, Strong also notes the connection, for Schmitt, between the exception and the miracle: "The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology" (Political Theology 36).

Strong's engagement with Schmitt's Nazism is well-handled: neither the occasion for simple denunciation, nor for any kind of exculpation. He frames his analysis with a discussion of Schmitt's identification with the eponymous "hero" of Herman Melville's Benito Cereno. Indeed, Strong reports, "in a letter apparently written on his fiftieth birthday in 1938, Schmitt signed himself as 'Benito Cereno'" (ix). He summarizes the novel's plot as follows:
The title character in Benito Cereno is the captain of a slave ship that has been taken over by the African slaves. The owner of the slaves and most of the white crew have been killed, although Don Benito is left alive and forced by the slaves' leader, Babo, to play the role of captain so as not to arouse suspicion from other ships. Eventually, after a prolonged encounter with the frigate of the American Captain Delano during which the American at first suspects Cereno of malfeasance--he cannot conceive of the possibility that slaves have taken over a ship--the truth comes out: the slaves are recaptured and imprisoned, some executed. (viii-ix)
There's plenty of ambivalence in this story, not least when we try to map it on to Schmitt's own circumstances. As Strong notes, after World War II Schmitt's identification with Cereno could also serve as a metaphor for his relationship with the (now) occupying American powers. There are many ways in which one could read this story of a world turned (almost) upside-down.

Benito CerenoAlmost upside-down, that is, in that a white man continues to perform the role of slaveship captain. And the novel revolves around the question of that performance, of its credibility and its effects. In Strong's words again:
Benito Cereno is about, among other things, what being a sovereign or captain is, how one is to recognize one, and the mistakes that can be made when one doesn't. (x)
It's also therefore about the performativity of power, and what happens when the power to decide is displaced from its ostensible location.

Once more, though, ships on the (colonial, Hispanic) high seas serve as the model of sovereignty. And mutiny, treason, on board ship as instances of the threats that sovereignty faces.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

mercenaries II

I've now finished Thomson's Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns. In her concluding pages she addresses some of the issues I raised yesterday about contemporary changes and developments. She writes that:
this study demonstrates the development of norms of nonstate violence that were quite robust in the nineteenth century, but the book has not dealt with certain practices that appear to challenge those norms. Were the Nicaraguan contras mercenaries for the United States? Did the U.S. military sell itself as a mercenary army to Kuwait? What about major instances of nonstate violence such as terrorists, drug smugglers, mafiosi, and pirates in the South China Sea? Do these contemporary practices mean the nineteenth-century norms of sovereignty are obsolete?

In my view, they do not. [. . .] Unlike their nineteenth-century counterparts [. . .] contemporary state leaders must [make use of nonstate violence] in secret. States today cannot shirk responsibility for nonstate violence by simply claiming that the latter is a purely private undertaking. [. . .]

But while each twentieth-century practice may be interpreted as being consistent with nineteenth-century norms of sovereignty, a question meriting further theorizing and more systematic empirical research is: How much can practices change and yet remain consistent with the institution of sovereignty? If this book's arguments are correct, a shift away from sovereignty to heteronomy or something else would require a fundamental change in the identity of the national state. This would entail an end to or at least significant erosion of the state's monopoly on the authority to deploy violence beyond its borders. (152-153)

So much for sovereignty. As for the multitude... there's an interesting hint a little earlier in a reference to Anthony Giddens, who argues, we are told, that
the production and control of violence follows a logic different from the production of wealth because in the former there is no force equivalent to the proletariat. Thus, the production of violence is not a dialectical process. (146)
The reference is to Giddens's A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, volume 2, The Nation-State and Violence. I'm not sure that there isn't some confusion here between violence and power. For Negri's point about the multitude, as I understand it, is that its role in the production of power is equivalent to the proletariat's in the production of wealth. Indeed, that there's an almost exact symmetry between the process by which power is produced and the process by which wealth is produced.

In Thomson's book, power refers to the ability to control the allocation, means, and use of violence. But violence is also, of course, a form of power. Read from the point of view of the multitude, the history that Thomson recounts could precisely (I think) be recast in terms of a contest between different forms of power--heteronomy and sovereignty, if you like, in Thomson's own terms--in which the multitude plays a very similar role to that played by the proletariat in traditional accounts of political economy.

Which is not to say that we are thereby returned to dialectics.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Janice Thomson's Mercenaries, Pirates, and Sovereigns (discussed also in the Laboratorium) is about the constitution of sovereignty not (as is customarily stressed) so much by imposition of order within national territories, but by the delegitimation and suppression of extraterritorial violence wielded by non-state actors. In her words, she asks:
How did the state achieve a monopoly on violence beyond its borders that emanates from its territory? What explains the elimination of nonstate violence from global politics? (3; my emphasis)
For, as Thomson recounts at some length, until remarkably recently--the mid nineteenth-century at least--global violence was if anything dominated by non-state rather than state actors. Moreover, this non-state domination of extraterritorial force was for the most part accepted and even sanctioned by states themselves. Why, Thomson asks, should states desire to end this long tradition, especially in so far as it entailed numerous benefits to states both strong and weak?

Thomson provides a categorization of different forms of international non-state violence, from the different modes of mercenarism, to pirates and privateers, and international mercantile companies with sovereign and war-making rights.

Mercenarism, for instance, was endemic within Europe's armies of the eighteenth century: in 1743, 66% of Prussia's army was foreign; in 1701, 54% of Britain's army was non-national; while fully a third of France's pre-revolutionary land forces were foreign-born (29). Moreover,
Foreigners were not confined to service in armies; navies displayed a similar multinational character. In the 1660s, six thousand French sailors were serving abroad. One-third of the Dutch navy was French. About seven hundred Frenchmen served in the Sicilian navy, and more Frenchmen than Italians served in the Genoese fleet. At the same time, Italian volunteers and "slaves--North African 'Turks' . . . Russians, Negroes from West Africa, and a few Iroquois Indians"--worked as rowers in the French navy. (32-33)
Meanwhile, as for mercantile companies such as the English and Dutch East Indian Companies or the Hudson Bay Company, they
were, as a rule, granted full sovereign powers. In addition to their economic privileges of a monopoly on trade with a given region or in a particular commodity and the right to export bullion, they could raise an army or a navy, build forts, make treaties, make war, govern their fellow nationals, and coin their own money. (35)
Thomson notes the survival of some of these traditions, particularly mercenarism both sanctioned and un-sanctioned such as the role of Gurkhas in the British army, the continued role of the French Foreign Legion, and the role of soldiers of fortune in a variety of Africa's colonial and postcolonial wars. But her point is that by 1900 most of these practices had been thoroughly delegitimated: piracy was an international crime, privateering abolished, the mercantile companies disbanded or (in the case of the Hudson Bay Company) transformed into purely economic enterprises, filibustering (of the type exercised by William Walker in Nicaragua) outlawed, and so on.

I do wonder, however, what she would say now, ten years after her book was published, of the situation in Iraq. For is not mercenarism making a comeback, with the outsourcing of both official US warmaking to contractors, and the widespread use of private companies, usually employing ex-army personnel, for the security of everyone from the BBC to the United Nations? As John Robb's Global Guerrillas notes (and read the comments to his post),
PMCs (private military corporations) are central to the US effort in Iraq. With between 15,000 PMC (Update: 20,000) mercenaries in Iraq, they represent the second largest allied military force in theater.
See also Robert Fisk and Severin Carrell's article "Occupiers Spend Millions on Private Army of Security Men" or Global Risk Strategies' self-description as "the Force Protector for the International Zone Baghdad". And does not the role of a company such as Halliburton in Iraq remind us more than a little of the ways in which the East India companies served as proxies for colonial expansion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries?

What are the implications of these developments for contemporary discussions of sovereignty and the multitude?

Image from Blackwater USA