From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education

What follows is my contribution to a debate organized as part of “Open UBC,” itself the university’s contribution to “Open Access Week”. In the discussion that followed, another contributor to the debate characterized my talk as a series of “ad hominems” lacking substance and “besmirching” those who “stay up late to balance the university’s budget” and so ensure I am paid. I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of the argument is ad hominem, what substance it may have, and whether anyone is “besmirched.” But I do find it worrisome that disagreement and debate should be stifled in the name of civility or respect for senior administration.

UBC From Here

“From Here: MOOCs and Higher Education”

Let me begin by setting one thing straight. In the publicity for this debate, I am described as “a vocal critic of the current model of learning and assessment common in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), especially for the Humanities.” But I want to emphasize that I have nothing against MOOCs per se. More particularly, I have nothing against courses that are massive, open, and/or online. Most of the courses that I myself teach are both open and have a large online component, and some of them are also massive: Arts One Open, for instance, a course that I helped to pioneer (along with Christina Hendricks and others) has had over 65,000 views of its videos on YouTube alone. And we have achieved that kind of reach, let me add, without spending a single dollar of the many hundreds of thousands that UBC has lavished on MOOCs and the like as part of its so-called “flexible learning initiative.” We have shown, indeed, that something very much like a MOOC can be built and achieve enormous success by leveraging the talents and commitments of ordinary faculty even in the face of official indifference or outright discouragement.

So I am not someone who fears MOOCs. In fact, quite the reverse. This is true even when it comes to the mostly corporate, often for-profit ventures such as Coursera, EdX that have hi-jacked both the concept and the name of the MOOC from its home-grown, democratic, and open origins. While I have no doubts that the university (this university, the North American university, the university in general) has a thousand and one problems, as far as I am concerned the MOOC phenomenon doesn’t register even in the top hundred. Here of course (but not only here) is where I part company from much of this university’s senior administration. A year or so ago, as part of an extraordinarily fulsome introduction to a presentation by Daphe Koller, co-founder of Coursera, UBC Provost David Farrar declared that “this fundamentally challenges the university’s business model.” Again, the university can, and should, be challenged in many ways. But in itself the challenge of the MOOC is relatively insignificant. So why, then, talk and think about MOOCs at all? Well, in the first place, because any challenge to the university and its business model is welcome, even if the point of the challenge that I myself would want to make is quite different from that presented by Koller and her venture-capitalist partners. And second, because the university’s reaction to the MOOCs is so very revealing. It shows us how much is rotten in the institution and how far we still have to go before we achieve the vision of a truly open education.

Read more… (.pdf document)

Rubble

Gastón Gordillo, Rubble

Before ruins, there was rubble. This is the startling and counter-intuitive claim at the heart of Gastón Gordillo’s magnificent new book. It is counter-intuitive because we tend to think of rubble as an extrapolation of ruination, ruination taken to the nth degree. Rubble is what we are left with when we don’t even have a ruin, when the forms of ruined structures are no longer comprehensible, leaving us with little more than shapeless masses of material and debris. Rubble is what ruins ultimately become, if left to their own devices; they are what ruin the ruin itself. If ruins are a palimpsest, rubble is their holocaust. If in the ruin, as Walter Benjamin observes, “the idea of the plan speaks” (The Origin of German Tragic Drama 235), and we can think we imagine a completed building, a unified structure, by contrast in the mound of rubble little can be discerned. Rubble is illegible, seemingly mute and expressionless; it defies representation. Or if rubble speaks, surely it tells us only of the extreme violence that has silenced it, that has erased the history that it once incarnated? No, says Gordillo: quite the opposite. Rubble’s apparent formlessness is an indication of its generative potential. From heaps of rubble mighty ruins spring.

Gordillo’s book, then, is a wide-ranging account of the production of ruins from rubble across a swathe of Northern Argentina from the foothills of Andes to the Paraguayan border, in the once forested plains of the Gran Chaco. He shows how diverse forces, from the Spanish conquistadors to the colonial Church or the contemporary state, have at various points tried to seize hold of the rubble that litters the region and capture it to produce what (following David Harvey) we might call a “spatial fix” to cement power, shape memory, and organize bodies, human and material alike. For even “naming something a ruin” is, as Gordillo quotes Ann Stoler saying, “in itself a political act” (196). Ruination is a process of selection that negates certain potentialities that remain virtual within rubble, even as it actualizes and celebrates others to produce “deceivingly positive landscapes” (16) punctuated by fetishized monuments to an official version of the past. If there is anything negative in the ruin it is this: the ruin sets out to negate rubble and with it its generative power and complex multiplicity. Against the flexibility and fluidity of what seem to be unformed mounds of material, scattered here and there in all manner of combinations, ruination produces “rigid objects presented as nodes of memory” that “transform space by gathering bodies around them and organizing and modulating their gaze and affective disposition” (206). But with rigidity comes brittleness. It’s no wonder that these ruins become objects of ritual veneration that require “repetitive ceremonies that something worth remembering happened there” (206). Ruins have to be endlessly (at)tended, reconstructed, shored up, rebuilt. Hence the irony that there are no structures more carefully conserved and preserved than ruins, supposed monuments to impermanence and decay that are in fact shaky bulwarks of projects to ensure stability and purity. Ruins have to be kept “whole” to hide the fact that all great structures are only ever ruins in waiting, and that everything tends to return to rubble. Ruins are the precarious legitimation of sovereign power; built on rubble, in the end they are not so mighty after all.

For the transformation of rubble into ruin is not a one-way process. Ruination is not rubble’s destiny, and Gordillo’s history is also the tale of constituted power’s constant battle with rubble’s perennial resurgence. While the elite battle against rubble, perpetually in fear of the ways in which it manifests “the fragility of state power” (57), or indeed the failures of any other would-be hegemonic project, in and around the debris itself arise other practices, other memories: subaltern reappropriations of place, such as the wild parties (“fiestones”) and “exuberant events of a Dionysiac nature” that one of Gordillo’s informants tells him used to take place in an abandoned Jesuit mission. It is this same informant, a local man called Alfredo, who first shocks Gordillo into realizing that if “we aren’t afraid of ruins” (as his Conclusion has it), it’s because we fear rubble even less. Calmly breaking off pieces of stucco, “enthusiastically eroding the materiality of the wall” (4), Alfredo happily demonstrates the vulnerability of ruins, their susceptibility to a subaltern counter-violence. Sous les pavés, la plage; beneath ruins, rubble.

But what comes before rubble? Or is history simply some kind of endless dialectic between rubble and ruin, violence and counter-violence? No. Gordillo suggests that before rubble is the void. But void does not here mean absence of any kind. It is true that Gordillo has much to say about negation, and in general his book is often dressed up in Frankfurt-School and particularly Adornian and Benjaminian rags. But his is an Adorno who, in proper Deleuzian fashion, has been well and truly fucked in the arse. So despite imperial or national depictions of the Chaco as some kind of savage abyss, defined by everything it supposedly lacks (culture, order, hierarchy), Gordillo stresses its plenitude, indeed its multiplicitous excess. This is what truly makes elites tremble: not that there is nothing there, but that there is too much, as is evidenced by the void’s power to create rubble. For perhaps it is better to speak not of the void, as though it were one object among many, but of voiding as an activity, as an insistent presence, a vital expression of the war machine as constituent power that (here Gordillo references Pierre Clastres) exerts its own violence to ward off the state, and in so doing creates rubble. The difference between the void and rubble is that the void is truly formless, a smooth space of pure immanence. Rubble, by contrast is organized (much as the state cannot see this or has to deny it) in zones of intensity, or what Gordillo consistently calls “nodes,” which themselves constitute “constellations.” This makes sense of the description of rubble as “ruptured multiplicity” (2), as opposed to the “ruptured unity” that more conventional accounts suggest. For it is not unity but multiplicity that is prior, and it is this basic (pure) multiplicity of the void that rubble ruptures.

Gordillo wants to persuade us not to fear ruins, in the name of a plea that we appreciate and affirm rubble. But should we not then love the void even more? Is this a radical call to embrace the war machine, reversing all the polarities of constituted power? Again, no, for this is not a book tainted with nostalgia for the so-called primitive, nor does it surrender to banal dialectics. There is something deeply ambivalent about the void. And we can see why if we look at the latest forces to shape the landscape of the Argentine Chaco: truly “primitive” accumulation in its purest state; neoliberal agribusiness as incarnated in the so-called “Soy Boom” of the past couple of decades. For what marks the process by which the forests are destroyed to be replaced by vast fields of soy is that the devastation is near absolute: not even rubble is produced or left behind, while the rubble that was once there is now consumed by fire. This is truly a smooth space. Moreover, there is something of the nomad, something of the war machine and even something multitudinous in these new multinational forces sweeping through the Chaco. Their voiding is certainly vigorous and active, and ultimately as threatening to state sovereignty as marauding indigenous bands ever were. These are the new spectres that haunt the Chaco, constituting lines of flight in pursuit of capital that (as Deleuze and Guattari comment in another context) “emanate a strange despair, like an odor of death and immolation, a state of war from which one returns broken” (A Thousand Plateaus 229). In the face of this latest challenge to the Argentine (but not just Argentine) spatio-historical ecosystem, it is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as “mere” rubble.

Historia personal del “Boom”

Donoso, Historia personal del "boom"

José Donoso’s Historia personal del “boom” presents itself as an insider’s account of the phenomenal success suddenly achieved by Latin American writers in the 1960s. Yet Donoso is never fully an insider, as he himself notes. He mentions the great Uruguayan critic Angel Rama’s pronouncement that the Boom had four fixed members about whom there was no dispute: Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes. But there seemed to be one more place open in the group, and little agreement as to who occupied it: perhaps Ernesto Sábato, perhaps Donoso himself (217). At other times, there have been other claimants and other nominees to this fifth, strangely mobile and uncertain, place in the Boom pantheon: Severo Sarduy or Augusto Roa Bastos, for instance. In this company, Donoso has a good a claim as any and better then most, not least because he was friends with many of the key players and travelled the same circuit of conferences, festivals, openings, and parties. As his wife’s own account, “El ‘boom’ doméstico,” relates, there was even a time when their families, living in Spain and France, would converge on Barcelona to celebrate Christmas together. But stylistic differences and (crucially) somewhat lesser commercial success prevent Donoso from being fully part of the gang. Like Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, or Brian Epstein and George Martin, he will perhaps eternally be simply one of many contenders to the status of “fifth Beatle” alongside the fab four.

The main point Donoso makes is that the Boom was about more than marketing. Indeed, he’s keen to point out that almost all the key texts he read in the heady days of the early 1960s came to him informally, as gifts or by personal recommendation, carried in the luggage of friends who formed a network that he compares to the ancient Inca system of long-distance messengers known as “chasquis.” It was these informal exchanges, nourished by occasional events such as the 1962 Congress of Intellectuals in Concepción, Chile, that made the Boom possible. Individual writers were inspired to believe that they could go beyond the costumbrismo and social realism of their immediate forbears, whose concern was to construct or consolidate images of national identity. So while young authors were trying to overcome or bypass national borders and boundaries, they felt hamstrung by the insistence on the part of their elders that what mattered was difference and distinction, specificity and particularity. But by invoking an Inca model to explain the workings of an incipient informal cultural globalization, Donoso is also implicitly challenging standard historical narratives: the true Latin American, he suggests, prefers openness and fluidity to the hermetic closures of the nationalist tradition. If the Boom authors refused to recognize literary parentage, declaring themselves (as here) “orphans” (28), perhaps this was because the preceding generation had, in their turn, already betrayed a more hybrid and cosmopolitan version of Latin American identity.

Donoso does, however, recognize the risks that these young, ambitious authors ran. The Boom begins and ends, he suggests, with a party. The first of these takes place in Fuentes’s Mexico City house in 1965; full of “chaos and hullaballoo,” it is the culmination of a “dazzling Mexican carnival” (112). Writers mix with film stars, and the atmosphere is excitement and vivacity. But there’s also a menacing and grotesque note sounded, as “tarantulas” form that sweep even the most timid of party-goers into the mix of “bodies captive to the rhythmic rattle in which the beautiful people shed one item of clothing after another.” Donoso goes looking to introduce himself to García Márquez, only to be approached by “a man with a black moustache who asked if I was Pepe Donoso. We embraced like Latin Americans and were swallowed up by the frenzied tarantula as it passed by” (113). Five years later, Donoso tells us, the Boom finally fizzles out in another party, this time in Juan Goytisolo’s house in Barcelona, to celebrate the New Year of 1970. Here, the dancing is less chaotic and more predictable, the acting out of national stereotype: the Vargas Llosas perform to a Peruvian waltz before the García Márquezes come out to a tropical merengue. In the middle of it all, lounging on a couch, is famed Catalan literary agent Carmen Balcells: “She seemed to hold in her hands the strings to make us all dance like puppets” (124). The ecstatic frenzy of the New World has become Old World decadence and grand guignol, spontaneity replaced by stage management and exploitation.

Perhaps the writers protest too much. Several times we hear from García Márquez that “all editors are rich and all writers are poor” (72), but this quip starts to ring hollow after a while, not least from the best-selling Boom author of them all. If there was exploitation between writers and agents, publishers and publicists, it no doubt went both ways. And if the very concept of the Boom was, as Donoso argues, the creation of its detractors, product of “hysteria, envy, and paranoia” (11), those it described, and even many of those caught up in its coat-tails, still did quite well from this upsurge of interest in Latin America and its literature. For good or ill, the Boom transformed the way in which we think about the region, and continues to frame many of our (pre)conceptions and assumptions. And by “we” I mean not just outsiders–Europeans and North Americans. As Donoso himself attests, the Boom also challenged and reconfigured the ways in which Latin American writers saw their vocation and its possibilities. The Boom itself may have fizzled or dissipated all too soon, and Donoso and his wife both write with some nostalgia and regret about the brief moment that camaraderie and friendship accompanied shared literary success. But in the end neither friendship nor success were the Boom’s lasting legacy, rather a new network of associations and a new set of habits and expectations.

El lugar sin límites

José Donoso, El lugar sin límites

For some reason, José Donoso’s work seems particularly susceptible to a reading as national allegory. Perhaps it’s the obsession with houses: Casa de campo (A House in the Country), for instance, as (in Monika Kaup’s words) “an allegorical novel about Latin American history and culture in general and Chile’s national trauma [. . .] in particular” (“Postdictatorsahip Allegory and Neobaroque Disillusionment” 92). Likewise, then, in her introduction to El lugar sin límites (translated into English as Hell Has No Limits), Selena Millares argues that Donoso is “a man of houses” and that “the house encapsulates and represents an entire society and the history that underpins it, just like a cell speaks of the human organism to which it belongs” (74). But the biological metaphor is misleading: it is less the cell itself than its DNA that tells us about the person of which it is a part, and it tells us little if anything about that person’s history. Rather, houses are only like cells in so far as they are part of a larger and more complex assemblage, and in that they may well be affected by changes in the broader environment, if perhaps in unequal and unpredictable ways.

The houses that feature in El lugar sin límites include El Olivo, the farmhouse of local landowner and politician, Alejandro Cruz, and then the various properties that constitute Estación El Olivo, the hamlet that is both dependent upon and threatened by the estate whose name it shares. The village was established to service the needs of Cruz’s vineyards, but the coopers who made his barrels have mostly moved out, and the railway station is practically unused. Everything travels along the new highway, which bypassed the settlement and condemned it to what seems like terminal decline. All that remains are a church and a small brothel that has seen better days. The villagers’ one hope is the promise that electricity will come to Estación El Olivo. Cruz tells them that he’s putting pressure on the authorities to hook them up to the national grid. For the brothel’s part-owner, a young woman known as the “Japonesita,” with the coming of electric power everything would change: “the entire town would come back to life with electricity.” Above all, she would immediately swap her hand-cranked Victrola record player with a flash new Wurlitzer jukebox: “As soon as they brought electricity to the town she’d buy a Wurlitzer. Immediately. [. . .] The most colourful one, the one with a beach scene showing palm trees by a turquoise sea, the biggest machine of the lot” (136-137).

Note that this is a not a case of some kind of organic community faced with the coming of modernity, or of nature replaced by technology. El Olivo is an outgrowth of agribusiness from the start. If this is a village in ruins, these are capitalist ruins, the ruins of modernity itself. And there is nothing particularly natural here: the vines are laid out in geometric patterns, fully part of a social network from the start. Rather, what’s at stake is the replacement of one machine by another: turntable by jukebox, train by truck, while un-needed equipment is cast aside, like the “antediluvian threshing machine” left rusting by the railway track (117).

But one never knows when an outmoded or neglected machine might come in handy again. For the same word that the Japonesita uses of the Wurlitzer, “aparato” or apparatus, is also the term used by her co-owner, a flamboyant transvestite who goes by the name of “Manuela,” when referring to his (her) penis: “This piece of kit [este aparato] is no use to me except to go pee” (168). And it turns out that Manuela’s apparatus is not only surprisingly large (drawing comments such as “What a donkey!” and “Look how well equipped he is” [168]) but also in full working order. For the Japonesita is in fact Manuela’s daughter, offspring of a bet that landlord Cruz made to the brothel’s previous Madam that she couldn’t arouse him, couldn’t put his equipment to work. Riding on the bet was ownership of the brothel itself, and Manuela agreed to go through with the indignity of being publicly (if briefly) brought back into the supposed sexual norm with the understanding that the property would be split between the two of them. So the house is dependent on well-functioning machinery in more ways than one: Manuela’s apparatus won him his share in it, but for lack of power it’s left lifeless when the Victrola finally breaks: “They no longer make parts for this type of machine [esta clase de aparatos]” (211). Still, the Japonesita is confident she can find a replacement in a second-hand shop in the city. Alongside the trade in novelty and the latest gadget is a parallel economy of refitting or repurposing the ruined detritus discarded along the way.

And it is in this spirit of bricolage and making-do that Donoso puts his (admittedly somewhat disillusioned) faith: in the kids who turn the urine-stained thresher into their playground, in Manuela’s piecing together her ripped rags into a red dress that may once again perhaps seduce even the most boorish of the locals, however briefly and however tragic the final outcome. As the Japonesita reflects, it’s happened before, that after one of his escapades Manuela has come back “with a black eye or a couple of broken ribs after the men, roaming drunks, have beaten him up for being a queer. What am I to worry about? Like a cat, he has nine lives” (214). Grit in the machinery of capitalist development, a cobbled-together apparatus or assemblage of patched rags and reworked ruins, the way of life presented in El lugar sin límites incarnates a corrosion neither fully within nor fully outside of modernity’s grand narrative. And for the same reason, it makes a mockery of the restricted spatiality of houses or households: it makes them spaces without limits.

Boom!

garcia_marquez_jorge_edwards_Vargas_llosa_donoso_y_mu_oz_suaz

I’m currently teaching a course on the Latin American Boom (comments on that site are welcome), and I thought I’d gather together the posts I’m writing for that course, as well as others I’ve written on Boom authors in the past:

See also a list of my posts on José María Arguedas.

La ciudad y los perros

Mario Vargas Llosa, La ciudad y los perros

Mario Vargas Llosa’s first published novel, La ciudad y los perros, ends with something of a twist, as we discover that one of the book’s central characters is also one of its principal narrators, a boy who’s been telling us a fairly sad but quite sweet tale about his love for a young girl who lives near him. This comes as a shock because when he is portrayed by others, it is as the ringleader and tough guy of a student gang at Lima’s Leoncio Prado Military Academy, where much of the novel is set. Fully deserving his self-appointed nickname of “the Jaguar,” there he is uncompromising and absolutely unsentimental, quick to jump on the slightest weakness or avenge any slight or infraction. He may well have gone so far as to murder a classmate whom he suspects of snitching. As another gang member puts it, a guy who could be the Jaguar’s best friend if only he had friends rather than merely henchmen and enemies: “Nothing surprises me about the Jaguar, I knew he has no feelings” (317). Hence the surprise indeed when we discover that this hard-bitten delinquent is in fact a closet romantic, whose voice we’d heard but hardly recognized. How much do we, or anyone else, know him after all? We never even discover his real name.

In part, Vargas Llosa is playing with the basic illusion that we can know any character in literature, or even that there are characters to be known. All we have are textual effects. The Jaguar has no “real” name, because he doesn’t exist outside of a text in which any such name is perpetually with-held. Or to put this another way: the Jaguar’s function in the novel is to be a character whose “real” name can only be the subject of conjecture. That’s how the character was written, and if we were to be given his name, it would be less a question of our knowing more about him (as though he really existed, outside the text) than of his becoming a different character with some other function. Likewise, the point is less that we should try to reconcile the apparent divergences between the Jaguar as he is portrayed by others in the Academy, and the character as he is made to reveal himself through first-person narration. It is more that we shouldn’t really be expecting consistency in the first place. The notion of character as a consistent set of attributes and dispositions that endures over time and space is itself a literary fiction, a narrative device.

To put it yet another way: the kind of fractured, non-linear, distributed narration employed by a book such as La ciudad y los perros, with its abrupt shifts of style, point of view, location, and temporality, makes us question the forms of subjectivity that other modes of literary fiction (realism or costumbrismo, for instance) had presented as natural or self-evident. The characters inscribed in Vargas Llosa’s novel are both excessive and elusive: we know too much about them, and find this excessiveness untidy and ambivalent; and yet we also realize that we can never really know them, that they do not exist to be known. In a novel that is obsessed with faces (and above all with “saving” face), we are reminded that neither the Jaguar nor anyone else in the book has a face unless the narrative deigns to describe it. Which is of course how it can get away with its long-delayed twist: the Jaguar is never given a face, so we are unable to recognize that the same character spans two sections of the text. Again, we are reminded of what is left out of the narrative. Or rather, once more, it is not so much that the Jaguar has a face that is simply never shown to us; his facelessness is a constitutive characteristic of his inscription on the page.

All this suggests perhaps other modes of subjectivity, other ways of conceiving the self or selves. An inconsistent, self-contradictory, and faceless self. For all selves are fictions of one sort or another, and we could imagine the effects of different narrative strategies on the construction and presentation of the self. In a fight near the end of the book (a strange, wordless struggle between two of the schoolboy cadets), the Jaguar mutilates the face of one of his classmates: “He’s destroyed his face,” an observer says, “I don’t understand” (382). But it may be that this is the Jaguar’s function more generally (the “jaguar effect,” if you like): an assault on all our faces; a violent desecration of outmoded notions of the subject.

La muerte de Artemio Cruz

Carlos Fuentes, La muerte de Artemio Cruz

Carlos Fuentes’s pioneering novel La muerte de Artemio Cruz is a book that, famously, plays with both temporality and narrative voice. On one level, everything takes place within a single day as the eponymous Cruz, a wealthy business magnate and politician now semi-conscious and close to death, is surrounded by family and staff, doctors and priest, who attend to him in what turn out to be his final hours of life. Much of the story is presented as more or less chaotic stream of consciousness, as Cruz is only dimly aware of what is going on around him and returns to certain repeated phrases and idées fixes whose true significance emerges only gradually. What apparently gives sense, then, to this confused present, this intense jumble of thoughts and impressions as life slips away, are a series of episodes recounted from Cruz’s past, recollections of other days of particular intensity and importance recounted almost as a set of short stories. Collectively, these vignettes also illustrate a paradigmatic Mexican life of the first half of the twentieth century, from the injustices of the Porfirian dictatorship to initial transformations generated by the Revolution until it turns sour and sediments into institutionalized corruption. Meanwhile, if the present of the sickbed is narrated in the first person (“I”), and the past vignettes gain clarity through the use of the third person (“He”), interspersed between them–uniting and further fragmenting the story at the same time–are passages in the second person (“You”) and, mostly, future tense whether the events described are past (“Oh, you will work hard yesterday in the morning” [14]) or still to come: “you will bequeath this country: your newspaper, the hints and adulation, the conscience drugged by lying men of no ability” (234).

It would seem, then, that this is a book largely about persons (grammatical or other) and personality: that through this circuitous and multi-faceted narrative, with all its various points and places of view, we will finally uncover the secret of who is this Artemio Cruz, the figure behind the voice that on the opening page tells us, fracturing the language in the process: “I am this, this am I: old man with his face reflected in pieces by different-sizes squares of glass: I am this eye, this eye I am” (9). Moreover, the further (if implicit) promise is that by understanding Cruz, we may also understand Mexico. Hence, for instance, Pedro García-Caro’s recent and apparently uncontroversial claim that Cruz “stands as a symbol of both the revolution and the Mexican nation reborn in its aftermath. [. . .] In La muerte de Artemio Cruz, the focus of attention is placed on one character allegorically used to parody the figure of the caudillo, the leader and savior who is subjected to a moral scrutiny” (After the Nation 87). Cruz, in other words, is the personification of the Mexican nation; his story is the history of Mexico, made person(al). It turns out to be fitting that “Artemio Cruz” is in fact a sort of pseudonym, a made-up name that hides his own illegitimacy (as the child of a landlord’s son’s rape) but exposes his generality, his all-encompassing hybridity: “Cruz without true first name or surname, baptized by the mulattos with the syllables of Isabel Cruz or Cruz Isabel, the mother who had been beaten out with a stick” (257; translation modified). In the end, the novel’s crux would seem to be that I is national allegory.

But not all narratives are personal. Here, for instance, the various voices that surround Cruz’s ailing body include or are supplemented by the tape-recorder brought in by his loyal henchman, Padilla. It appears that this is Cruz and Padilla’s usual practice or habit: to go over their taped conversations and dealings, whether or not (it’s not at all clear) those recorded have consented to their recording and subsequent reproduction. And while other voices try to keep the machine out of the room, Cruz and Padilla insist, presenting this mechanized recapitulation as a rite of its own: “Today, more than ever, you ought to want me think that everything goes along the same as always. Don’t disrupt our rituals, Padilla” (11; translation modified). The device, moreover, in revealing the shadiness of Cruz’s business transactions, acts as a kind of material unconscious that undermines the false piety of the bedside mourning. No wonder Cruz’s daughter, on hearing it spit out the words “In plain Mexican, we’ll be fucked,” should shout out “Stop that machine! [. . .] What kind of vulgarity. . .” (51). But the scandal is less the bad language than the clarity with which mechanical reproduction reveals the corruption of the Mexican state. Or perhaps the real scandal is the way in which Cruz himself has, we gradually come to discover, become fully part of that state, buying into it and bought off by it.

We see, though the various third-person episodes, the steps by which a sort of primal liberty and enthusiasm is gradually both shut down and corralled. Perhaps the key turning point (though Fuentes suggests that each vignette offers a turning point in its own way) comes in 1915, at the heart of the Revolution, when Cruz escapes certain death at the hands of a firing squad by colluding with the enemy. We are told that the prisoner and his guard, a man named Colonel Zagal, “had acted not as Zagal and Artemio Cruz, but as two gears in opposing war machines” (156; translation modified). Cruz proposes to personalize their antagonism: “If you have to kill me, kill me as Artemio Cruz” (156; translation modified). But the savage irony is that this personification is only a front: Cruz’s collusion is a trap, and Zagal will himself be killed as he falls for the notion that honor and personal integrity can really be in play in what Cruz himself understands as nothing more than a cynical game. So Cruz’s cellmates are executed, which gives him the opportunity to take on the identity of one of them: Gonzalo Bernal, an idealistic if now disillusioned young man, son of the landed gentry. Taking Bernal’s place, and eventually assuming the role of the tasteful aristocrat whose house is decorated with fine colonial art and whose parties are catered with the best regional food, Cruz shows us that personality is at best a ruse. If anything La muerte de Artemio Cruz is the story of a becoming-impersonal, a multiplication and fracturing of points of view and perspectives, the many forms of death-in-life that lead to the bare life of the agonizing body helpless before the ministrations of family, church, and the medical profession, with the tape-recorder by his side emitting the only voice to be trusted in the whole crowded room.