La utopía en ruinas

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Presentado en el I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)
Santiago de Chile, agosto de 2015

“La utopía en ruinas: el hospital Ochagavía”

una ruina incompleta

Parece superfluo llamar a una ruina “incompleta”: ¿no es parte de la definición misma de ruina ser una estructura a la que le falta algo? Una ruina siempre debe perderse la plenitud: está descompuesta, desintegrada, deteriorada, destruida, imperfecta. De ahí el énfasis abrumador en la negatividad o negación (en todos los sentidos de la palabra) en la mayoría de las reflexiones sobre ruinas: se asocian con la pérdida, con la nostalgia, con la ausencia, con todas las formas en las cuales la ruina no llega a estar completa. Una y otra vez, el acento se pone en lo que no está, en lo que falta y solo puede evocarse con la imaginación o la memoria. En el mejor de los casos, la ruina evoca fantasmas, espectros, sueños o promesas: complementos insustanciales de su materialidad bruta e inútil. Una ruina es una estructura que tiene que completarse por otros medios: a través del discurso, de la narración, de los relatos. Parece pedir la intervención de la arqueología, la historia o la política para que nos cuenten lo que significan esos fragmentos, cuál es el todo al cual no pueden unirse por sí mismos. De hecho, una ruina solamente se convierte en ruina (en vez de una serie de partes desvinculadas) una vez ha sido asumida por esas formas discursivas. Al estar incompletas, las ruinas no pueden hablar por sí mismas y tienen que ser explicadas; requieren un suplemento que les asegure su representabilidad. Necesitan algo más. De este modo es cómo las ruinas vienen a ser la imagen misma de la dependencia de lo material en lo inmaterial, de la promesa narrativa de compensar la pérdida por otros medios, de la subordinación de lo real al mundo. Es la imagen misma de la hegemonía, del modo en que los fragmentos disociados se articulan en una cadena significante para dar la ilusión de totalidad.

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Utopia in Ruins

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Presented at the “I Simposio de la Sección de Estudios del Cono Sur (LASA)”
Santiago de Chile, August 2015

“Utopia in Ruins: The Ochagavía Hospital”

an incomplete ruin

It would seem superfluous to call a ruin “incomplete”: is it not part of the very definition of a ruin that it is a structure that somehow lacks something? A ruin must always miss out on plenitude: it is decayed, disintegrated, deteriorated, destroyed, imperfect. Hence the overwhelming stress on negativity or negation (in all senses of the term) in most reflections on ruination: ruins are associated with loss, with nostalgia, with absence, with all the ways in which the ruin falls short of completion. Over and over, the focus is on what is not there, what is missing and can only be conjured up through the imagination or memory. At best, the ruin conjures up ghosts, specters, dreams, or promises: insubstantial complements to its brute and senseless materiality. A ruin is a structure that has to be completed by other means: through discourse, narrative, story-telling. It seems to ask for the intervention of archaeology, history, or politics to tell us what these fragments mean, what is the whole to which on their own they do not quite add up. Indeed, a ruin only truly becomes a ruin (rather than a series of disaggregated parts) once it is taken up by such discursive formations. It is because they are incomplete that ruins cannot speak for themselves and have to be spoken for; they demand a supplement that will ensure their representability. They demand something else. This is how the ruin comes to appear the very figure of the dependency of the material on the immaterial, of narrative’s promise to make up for loss by some other means, of the subordination of the real to the word. It is the very figure of hegemony, of the way in which discrete fragments are taken up in larger signifying chains to give the illusion of wholeness.

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LAST100

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This Fall, I’m teaching “Introduction to Latin American Studies.” I’ve taught it before, but the twist this time is that I have some money to make videos to illustrate and enhance the course.

There will be three types of videos: 1) “instructor videos,” or mini-lectures that I write and deliver; 2) conversations with colleagues and others on specific topics; 3) student-made videos.

Everything will be made available (via YouTube) with a CC-BY-NC license. This means that anybody can re-use and even remake the material, so long as they attribute the original source, and so long as they don’t use them for commercial purposes.

They are far from perfect (we’re not professionals), but I’m pretty pleased with how they’re turning out so far. Each one gets a little better, at least in technical terms, I think, even though we also find ways to add new glitches we’d barely considered before.

We’ll have to wait, of course, for the student-made videos, but here are the first few instructor videos and conversations:

Instructor videos:

  1. Where is Latin America?
  2. The Meeting of Two Worlds
  3. The Colonial Experience

Interviews:

  1. Hugo Chávez in Context, with Max Cameron
  2. Modernity and Modernization in Mexico, with Alec Dawson
  3. The Mexican Revolution, with Alec Dawson

Wikipedia and Higher Education

wikimania

Jon Beasley-Murray
University of British Columbia
jon.beasley-murray@ubc.ca

Presented at Wikimania, July 2015, Mexico City

“Two Solitudes: Wikipedia and Higher Education”

It is an institution on the verge of crisis, though not everyone is prepared to admit it. With a bloated bureaucracy that’s increasingly brought in from outside and ever-more out of touch with the rank and file that do most of the work, it seems to have lost its sense of purpose. Founded with noble goals, dedicated to the public good and enlightenment ideals of knowledge and global understanding, it now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots. The situation is hardly helped by periodic scandals that erupt and are seized on by adversaries in the media, who accuse it of corruption and bias. Its heavy-handed response to these scandals hardly aids its cause, and issues around civility, freedom of expression, or gender and other disparities are a flashpoint for conflict and discontent. Low morale and petty but energy-sapping disputes are just one outcome of a crisis in governance. It has tried to deal with these problems through technical fixes and better metrics, more accountability and accessibility. It is increasingly concerned about its public face and does what it can to allow its users to bypass its often arcane practices and have a smoother, more enjoyable experience. But ultimately these are short-term solutions that if anything only hide the real problems. Pushed this way and that, much misunderstood and maligned, but still performing a vital role upon which almost everyone depends, this is an organization that desperately needs to take stock and put its house in order.

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Roa Bastosmachine

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Presented at LASA 2015
San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 2015

“Roa Bastosmachine: Explosiveness and Multitude in the Boom”

This is the third of a trio of essays, at present in varying states of completion, in which I explore the relationship between Latin American literature and posthegemony. Each of the three is dedicated to a distinct aspect of posthegemony, though collectively they are united by an interest in machines and the machinic. Hence with their titles I appropriate the formulation of East German playwright Heiner Müller, whose Hamletmachine is a well-known recasting and reinvention of Shakespeare. The other two essays are “Arguedasmachine” (on affect) and “Borgesmachine” (on habit). Together, these essays are also intended to constitute a re-reading of the Latin American canon, and so to suggest that posthegemony is far from being a marginal aspect of literary production, but rather a central and ineludible feature of the so-called mainstream. For there is, of course, no hegemony and never has been.

Boom! Already the name itself of Latin America’s most famous and influential literary movement indicates unpredictability, disruption, and not a little violence. The pity is that it was so quickly and so easily defused, domesticated, captured. Boom! Already the name itself is transcultural, transculturated, transculturating: an English term to describe a phenomenon with global ramifications, from Buenos Aires to Barcelona; Paris, Mexico City, New York. And yet the movement’s key texts are still read in regionalist or localist terms, as national allegories or tales of underdevelopment. Boom! Already the name itself is onomatopoeic rather than signifying, interjection rather than sign: it does not so much refer to something elsewhere, as instantiate and reproduce an sensation here and now; its impact is intense and affective, a matter of feeling and the body rather than interpretation or consent. And yet our reading of the movement’s authors is endlessly wrapped up in issues of representation and representativity. Boom! Already with the name itself there is nothing natural or organic here, rather an explosion that shatters boundaries and sows disorder with immediate effect, before we even have time to catch our breath. It is a mad machine, or volatile conjunction of machinery, that works always by breaking down, in fits and starts, setting off a chain reaction that multiplies and resonates with an entire multitude. What a mistake to have ever said the Boom, as though it were once and once only. Boom! As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari put it in another context, “Everywhere it is machines [. . .] machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections” (). Everywhere they fire and discharge, detonate and recompose something new from the pieces. Boom! Boom! BOOM!

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An Empty Room

Mu Xin, An Empty Room

The title of this collection of short stories by Mu Xin is well-chosen, for this is narrative that is sparse and under-stated, sometimes to an extreme. It would be easier at times to detail what doesn’t happen in these tales than what does, for there is a constant sense of missed opportunities, missed connections. In the opening story, “The Moment Childhood Vanished,” for instance, a child coming home from a trip to a Buddhist monastery leaves his bowl behind. Someone runs to fetch it, but then the child drops and loses it forever in a river. The title story, “An Empty Room,” recounts the discovery of a room that turns out to be almost, if not quite, empty: strewn on the floor are letters that seem to reveal a love story that can’t quite be fully pieced back together. “The Windsor Cemetery Diary” concerns a fleeting and uncertain dialogue between two people who never meet and communicate only by turning over a penny in an otherwise abandoned graveyard. As the narrator notes at one point, “I put these thoughts in my diary to show that there is nothing to be recorded” (134). Little to nothing happens, but it is precisely this nothingness that is to be memorialized and pondered.

And of course the room is not completely empty. In the story of the same name, there are traces of some other narrative, even if it can never be fully reconstructed. Or in the cemetery, the periodic flipping of the coin is sufficient basis on which an entire series of hypotheses can be constructed. And even if one day the coin were not to be flipped, that too would send a series of possible messages, such as “I am dead. I have completely forgotten you. I do not come anymore” (140). It is as though Xin were asking what is the minimum material element of a signifying system, the degree zero of signification. Yet he also teases us with the prospect that there might be more, that there might be a whole hidden script that might one day unfold. “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” for example, tells the tale of a long-married couple apparently plagued by an untold story, of what happened–or didn’t happen–one day (the date and time are quite precise: October 26th, 1944, between three and seven o’clock) some forty or fifty years previously. The couple’s niece seems to think that this is a story that has to be told, for the benefit of her uncle and aunt alike, and does everything in her power to engineer a cathartic dénouement. But nothing happens: she leaves the two of them alone, and “there isn’t a sound” (91). It’s as though the pair are in fact perfectly content for the mystery to remain, or even that it’s precisely what remains unsaid, not what is said, that keeps them together.

It would be easy, no doubt too easy, to ascribe this pared-down tone to some kind of Asian reserve. Indeed, at times Xu seems to play on the notion of Buddhist self-abnegation: one story (“Fellow Passengers”) compares us to pipes “through which both joy and sadness flow. A pipe with all sorts of emotion flowing through it until one’s death or until it is emptied” (97). It ends with the dual assertion: “They are insignificant people. I am less than insignificant” (98). And yet there is a fascination with the almost ethereal traces left by such insignificance, traces that ultimately signify almost despite themselves, despite our shared hollowness or emptiness. In “Halo,” then, there is a lengthy discussion of the iconography of saintliness, in both Western and Eastern cultures. The Western halo, we’re told, is “false and awkward,” a “flaw [. . .] so embarrassing that it further inspires the eloquence of atheists” (108). The Eastern halo, by contrast, is more than mere pictorial “decoration” (112); it derives from an “internal calmness bordering on the state of sainthood” (110).

In the end, however, Xin rejects Western and Eastern traditions alike, in favour of “another kind of halo,” much more materialist if equally minimalist, “that exists in the dim realm of suffering” (112). He has a sculptor tell a story of when he was imprisoned “in the second half of the twentieth century, in a certain decade” (113)–one of Xu’s fleeting but repeated allusions to his own incarceration, during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a crowded cell, the artist meets an old man who mentions the Buddhist halo and then points to the cell wall against which the more privileged inmates sit and where:

Miraculously, I could suddenly make out a hazy circle behind the head of each prisoner. With so many heads repeatedly rubbing against the chalky surface, sweat had tainted patches of the wall in circular shapes. Since everyone was of a different height, the repeated rubbing produced circles of proportionate size to the heads before them. The circles were exactly like the dignified light of Buddha portrayed in ancient art. [. . .] I almost burst out laughing–the subtle profundity had to be felt not just spoken. (115-6)

Once the prisons were emptied, then, the halos would remain, a ghostly but absolutely material trace that can only point to, never fully encapsulate, an entire history of power and something like resistance that goes beyond words. And when the sculptor finishes his tale, “We raised our glasses. Why we didn’t quite know why we needed to empty the glasses, we emptied them anyway” (116). Mu Xin shows no great nostalgia for the fuller description and understanding that is inevitably lost; he knows them to be irrecuperable. Such is the way of the world, the effects of time and history. But even in their inevitably incomplete, precarious state, the traces of these broader histories deserve some acknowledgement, perhaps celebration, though we may not exactly know why.

Delirio II

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

In the end, everything is resolved: Laura Restrepo’s Delirio obeys the generic requirements of both the detective story and the romance, as the enigma of Agustina’s “four dark and dreadful days” while her husband was away is finally revealed, and the couple get back together, having survived the tribulations of madness and memory. All is ultimately well, as the crazy one ends up only “playing the fool” as she pretends not to see the red tie that Aguilar has put on as a sign of their renewed love (303). As I commented earlier, however, this is surely all a bit of a let-down. Not least because the solution to the mystery turns out to be remarkably banal: nothing of any particular note took place at the hotel where Agustina was found; the man she was with was simply there to look after her, and had no designs on her, nor even any real interaction with her; the trigger for her breakdown took place elsewhere, and was in any event merely an overheard conversation that imparted no real surprise or new information; everything of any significance had in fact already taken place long before, and if anything the only real question is why Aguilar had been so clueless about his wife’s past. In short, the mystery of the missing four days comes to seem like a classic cinematic McGuffin: a narrative device that is meaningless or empty in itself. And perhaps it is the vacuousness of the final revelation that enables the happy conclusion, in that there is nothing much for the wounded husband to pardon and indeed crazy Agustina emerges from the story both saner and saintlier than ever. Even the conclusions to the other narrative strands are likewise heart-warmingly low-key. Midas McAlister, for instance, the ne’er-do-well arriviste money-launderer, also ends up where he started, back home with an apparently all-forgiving mother. And Bichi, Agustina’s much put-upon younger brother, is about to arrive at the airport, boyfriend in tow, to a warm welcome from Aguilar and family. Individuals and families alike have been (so far as is possible) put back together. Something like unity and wholeness has replaced the earlier fragmentation and dissolution.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and the Londoño family remains stubbornly divided: her mother and older brother still cling to their sense of status and respectability; it is after all their rejection of Bichi that sparked the crisis. And for all Agustina’s troubled hallucinations that predicted the imminent return of the father, he is dead and gone, as are her grandparents with their own anxieties and concerns. Aguilar remains separated from his kids, despite a brief fantasy of reconciling with his first wife, and Restrepo knows not to push the comedic conventions too far by suggesting that, after two previous terminations, Agustina would ever be likely to produce a child. The family that they (re)construct, then, is partial and hybrid: husband and wife (though in fact they are formally unmarried), aunt, brother, lover. But the suggestions seems to be that the absences no longer haunt this happy rearrangement as they once did. When Aguilar finally returns home, having passed up on the opportunity of a fling with a sexy hotel clerk, he is greeted with familiar smells, familiar habits: “a smell of home, what else can I say, an everyday smell, of people who sleep at night and wake up in the morning, of real life, of life that has here once more returned to the realm of the possible, I don’t know for how long but at least while this smell lasts” (302). That night, then, “the last thought that cross my mind [. . .] was I’m happy, tonight I’m happy even though I don’t know how long this happiness will last” (302). However precarious or partial, it is still, surely, too good to be true. As Aguilar says, renouncing his rationalism, “Forgive me Voltaire but this is a miracle” (300).

What’s more, even if the personal and familial dislocations are (miraculously) addressed by the end, the social delirium remains untouched. And this indeed is what makes any sense of resolution all the more unconvincing. For the novel as a whole has hitherto consistently stressed the fact that there is no refuge from broader social dislocations. The one moment of intimacy between Agustina and her father (“the only time that he calls me Tina” [79]) may be their nightly ritual of locking doors and windows to keep out thieves or other potential threats. Just for a while, “everything changes because he and I enter in a world we share with nobody else, as he give me his heavy keychain that rings out like a cowbell” (79). But this ceremony is like the many others in the book, that are ultimately ineffective attempts to conjure away a violence whose insidious presence is always already within the home as well as without. In the end, the one spectre that cannot be conjured away is the ghostly absence/presence of the country itself, a place of which Midas McAlister (the most plugged-in of all the major characters) says that “if it weren’t for the bombs and the bursts of machine-gun fire that echo in the distance, whose tremors reach me here, I’d swear that the place called Colombia had stopped existing long ago” (289). There is little left of the country, caught in the networks of drug traffic and money-laundering that have little respect for any national borders, except for the violence whose reverberations and resonance (sometimes quite literally) explode the fuzzy barrier between public danger and private safehaven.

Why, then, is the social delirium so different, so much more intractable than the private or familial madnesses that (however temporarily or unconvincingly) the novel can claim are cured by the end of the narrative? I think it is more than a matter of either scale or history. After all the insanity that touches Agustina or the Londiños is no more or less historical than the national breakdown, going back at least three generations (perhaps further). No, I think it is this: that paradoxically the more intimate, the more private the derangement, the more it can seem to be ideological. In the end, after all, the source of Agustina’s disturbance are the serial falsehoods that she has to endure. She announces the fact early on, though neither Aguilar nor Aunt Sofi pick up on this rather simple resolution to the apparent mystery: “Why does she want to purify the house? Because she says that it’s full of lies, this morning she was relaxed as she was eating the egg that I served her for breakfast and she told me that it was the lies that were making her crazy. What lies? I don’t know, but that’s what she said, that the lies were making her crazy” (42). Towards the end, it’s Midas McAlister who goes through the “Londiño Catalogue of Basic Falsehoods” (234), the “convenient historical revisions and lies as big as mountains that are gradually turned into realities by mutual consensus” (233). By contrast, the way the country works (or doesn’t) is a matter of public knowledge, at least for everyone but the traditional oligarchy who try deny the new realities yet more often don’t even bother to ask about “the delirious way in which they were getting rich, in the most hygienic style possible, not sullying their hands with murky business [. . .]. Or is it,” Midas asks Agustina, “that you perhaps believed, my queen, that things were otherwise?” (63). Everybody knows, after all: “Don’t make that surprised face,” adds Midas, “don’t make me laugh, don’t come telling me that you hadn’t already figured out this little mystery” (64).

In Colombia as a whole, revelation lacks its power to shock, let alone to induce any change or resolution. It’s thoroughly posthegemonic. So the simulacrum of hegemony passes to the private domain: the notion that some consensus is obscuring more basic truths can only seem to function within the family, within the home. Yet this, too, is a mirage, as Bichi discovers to his cost when he attempts the dramatic gesture of displaying photos that prove his father’s long-running affair with Aunt Sofi. But even after detonating this “atomic bomb,” nothing really changes; it’s as though, Agustina reflects, her mother had always known. The only difference is that, at home, she can (just about) pretend to know otherwise, and the novel as a whole can (just about) pretend that access to the truth can somehow keep the demons of insanity at by. But it isn’t so for society as a whole, and ultimately the happy ending is barely credible for Agustina and Aguilar, either. Perhaps the greatest delirium here, the most violent dislocation between representation and reality, is the therapeutic notion that all this incessant talking can induce a cure, can bring sanity back to the individual or the family. The neat ending, the restoration of order, is in fact the craziest thing in the book.