It exists! Spotted in a bookstore in Buenos Aires… photograph by my friend Brian Lamb:
My friend and colleague Gastón Gordillo has started a blog, entitled “Space and Politics” (“Espacio y política”). I highly recommend it.
To date, Gastón has been mainly concerned with what he calls the “birth of Kirchnerism,” that is, the multitudinous energies unleashed in the wake of the death of Argentina’s ex-president Néstor Kirchner, and the way in which Kirchner’s ghost now haunts (and energizes) Argentine politics.
In a post comparing Peronism’s mythic 17th of October 1945 to the day of Kirchner’s death on the 27th of October 2010, Gastón writes:
Just as after 1945 it was clear that Perón was not alone, the principle message of the 27th of October is that from now on Cristina Kircher is not alone. There is a multitude mobilized behind her, that within hours showed that it could take over the country’s main public spaces when it felt that the government was in danger in a moment of possible weakness. Obviously this energy didn’t just appear out of thin air, but it was only with the emergence of a multitude that occupied public space that such popular support was transformed into a political vector worthy of respect.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, though in short I’d say that Gastón’s tone is a little more celebratory than mine would be. In the UK over recent years there have been a series of high profile deaths (from Diana to John Smith or Robin Cook, or even David Kelly) that at the time seemed to change everything… but looking back at them now, the public affects that they provoked seem strangely anomalous. Indeed, if anything any changes that they provoked have been only for the worse.
None of which really goes against Gastón’s thesis that the death of Néstor Kirchner has provided a space for the multitude to appear in a new way. My doubt is not so much about that, but rather about the way that (as Gastón himself suggests) such affects are all too soon and all too easily re-channeled for the sake of constituted power.
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s third film, La mujer sin cabeza, concerns a mysterious accident on a dusty road in the provinces.
Of course, the accident is only mysterious because the woman who causes it, the middle-class protagonist Verónica, allows it to be so. The quest that structures the bulk of the movie, and that turns around the question “Who or what did she hit?” really begs the more fundamental question of “Why did she run?”
We have seen, in the opening scenes, a trio of local kids playing with their dog in the road near a dried-up drainage ditch or canal. We then shift to a social event, full of inconsequential gossip that we strain to understand and contextualize, from which the bleached-blonde Verónica then heads home. As she is on the road, her cellphone rings and it is while she is distracted, trying to find the phone and take the call, that with a jolt and a lurch she runs over something or someone.
Shaken, she sits in the car while the radio discordantly plays an upbeat melody from the 1970s. A handprint on the car window reminds us both of the world she has just left (where we saw a young child leave the imprint on the glass) and also of the possibility that what she hit might well have been one of the kids we saw playing earlier.
But, recomposing herself slightly, Verónica drives on and only some yards further down the track stops to get out and wonder what kind of mess she has left behind her on the road. The camera captures only a blurred image out of focus; it looks perhaps like the dog, but there’s no going back to investigate.
For the rest of the film, then, we are caught up in the protagonist’s hazy sense of guilt and uncertainty about what might have happened. We have no direct access to Verónica’s consciousness–there are almost no point-of-view shots–but somehow her confusion is contagious as we are never quite sure about the social relationships around her.
There’s a husband, a brother, a lover, friends, and an endless stream of hired helps who do everything from cooking to massage. But if in some ways Verónica’s class and social status (she’s a dentist) seems always to have kept her insulated from the poverty of the broader society that surrounds her, now that insulation has turned to isolation and anomie.
Shortly after the accident, a rainstorm had set in and flooded the roadside canal at the scene. This is no cleansing shower, however; if anything, it merely muddies Verónica’s tracks and makes it all the more difficult for her to figure out subsequently what she could so easily have ascertained before the rain set in.
After some pause, she confesses her sense of guilt to her husband. He and his friends reassure her that of course she must have hit some animal rather than the child who does indeed prove to be missing until his body is dredged up from the swollen canal. But for all their reassurances, it turns out that Verónica’s intimates have carefully done the rounds to ensure that any trace of the collision and its consequences soon disappear: they quietly repair the car’s front fender and wipe the record of Vero’s subsequent hospital visit.
So Verónica is left with a sense of guilt, of doubt, but also ultimately of complicity. She dyes her hair as though she had something to hide, even if perhaps her true secret is that her doubts are in fact unfounded.
She has acquired the habit of deception even if there’s nobody to deceive or nothing to deceive them about.
Shame, in short, need have no final cause. In what is an allegory of attitudes towards the past and the legacy of Argentina’s dirty war, Martel seems to be suggesting that those who act as though they are guilty should indeed be treated as such. There is smoke without fire, and those who run even though they didn’t hit anything do so because they know that, carelessly insulated and distracted in their SUV, they might have killed a child, and that’s how they would react if they had.
YouTube Link: the film’s trailer.
The Saturday photo, part X: Daniel Santoro’s “Eva Perón castiga al niño marxista leninista.”
Now I simply have to get hold of his Manual del niño peronista.
Many thanks to Ana Vivaldi for pointing me in Santoro’s direction.
When Latin American modernization projects fail, or when their ideological legitimation falters, authoritarian regimes often step in to complete (or to further) their agenda. Though authoritarianism is defined by its contempt for consensus (for which it substitutes coercion), it does not give up on discursive legitimation altogether; it merely prioritizes efficiency over hegemony. Authoritarianism’s legitimation may still take its cue from populism’s project of national popular redemption. Authoritarianism comes to be the pursuit of hegemony by other means once populism has defined hegemony as the model for the political–or rather, once populism has defined hegemony as politics by other means. Military rulers seeking justification by appealing to populist understandings of hegemony give an ironic twist to the martial understanding of politics implicit in the Gramscian concept of hegemony. Authoritarianism literalizes what, in cultural studies at least, is the figurative conceit of defining the pursuit of hegemony as a war of position. Thus the Argentine military president Juan Carlos Onganía in 1966 appeals to national unity, arguing that “the cohesion of our institutions [. . .] ought to be our permanent concern because that cohesion is the maximum guarantor of the spirit that gave rise to the republic” (qtd. in Loveman and Davis, The Politics of Antipolitics 195). Equally, handing over to what would become Perón’s second administration, “in his farewell address to the Argentine people in 1973, General Alejandro Lanusse felt obliged to thank his fellow citizens for their patience with a government that had not been elected” (Schoultz, The Populist Challenge 20).
Fabián Bielinsky’s second and (given the director’s untimely death) final feature film, El aura, manages to combine various different kinds of suspense. As a thriller, that revolves around a scheme to rob a casino in a remote part of Argentine Patagonia, it draws us in to the intricacies of the criminal plot and its likely success. But the bigger mystery entails its central character, an anonymous Buenos Aires taxidermist played by the excellent Ricardo Darín (who also starred in Bielinsky’s previous movie, Nueve reinas).
Darín’s character wanders into the casino heist by accident, but soon finds himself trying to convince the other members of the gang that he is an integral part of the plan. So a double deception is at work: the thieves’ bid to deceive the casino, and the taxidermists’ bid to pull the wool over the criminals’ eyes. And if one plot fails, then so will the other. The interloper from the capital has to be always thinking on his feet, relying on his powers of observation, recall, and improvisation. He has often dreamed of being part of a caper like this; now thrust into one that is not of his own devising, yet cast as the unlikely ringleader, he has to prove that he can live up to the cool and calculated persona he plays in his dreams.
But as the movie continues, its haunting and even spooky quality, its slow lingering camerawork and plaintive musical soundtrack, give the impression of a dreamlike quality cast over the entire operation. Perhaps the fantasy lived out by this otherwise unassuming craftsman is indeed only that: another of his fantasies.
A commentator on the movie’s IMDB message board notes that El aura is strangely reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s acclaimed short story “El Sur”. (There’s added weight to this notion in that Bielinsky’s first film, a short entitled La espera, was an adaption of a Borges story.) In “El Sur” (“The South”), a Buenos Aires librarian finds himself in the midst of a violent escapade, complete with gauchos and knife-fights, in a godforsaken town somewhere far to the South. His journey to the provinces is also a trip to the rough-hewn frontier life that characterized Argentine society in the semi-mythical past in texts from Sarmiento’s Facundo onwards. It is a voyage to his country’s cultural unconscious that also, the reader gradually comes to suspect, is played out in the character’s own unconscious as he lies, unheroically dying of an infected scratch on his forehead, on a hospital operating table.
El aura‘s protagonist, likewise, has a relatively minor medical condition: he suffers from epileptic fits, petits mals, in which he blacks out for a few minutes or seconds. As a fit comes on him, moreover, he briefly enters a state of altered consciousness that (he tells us) is termed “the aura.” As he describes the experience, “It’s horrible and it’s perfect. Because during those few seconds, you’re free. There’s no choice; there’s no alternative; nothing for you to decide. Everything tightens up, gets narrower…and you surrender yourself.” Is it possible that the entire trip to the Patagonian South, and the rich panoply of shady villains and victims that we see there, are conjured up in this penumbra between consciousness and unconsciousness, between freedom and necessity? That the taxidermist, who works with dead objects but seeks to give them the sense of life, a dramatic placement in vivid museum-bound dioramas, has also animated the movie’s suspenseful plot from the moribund elements that surround him in his workshop?
The film’s final shot shows us a dog who is initially as still as the stuffed animals that surround him before finally the blink of a canine eye (not unlike the similar movement in Chris Marker’s La jetée) seems to confirm the reality of all we have just seen. Or perhaps it just reinforces the power of the fantasy that spins its narrative web in the aura between dreaming and waking.
YouTube Link: the movie trailer.
Marguerite Feitlowitz’s A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture examines the relation between language and state violence. In some ways it’s a companion piece to Diana Taylor’s Disappearing Acts, which analyzes a similar connection between performance and terror, also focussing on Argentina.
The New York Times has an online version of the book’s first chapter, whose title is likewise “A Lexicon of Terror”, and where we find her most sustained examination of the role of language under Argentina’s military regime of 1976 to 1983.
Since Orwell at least, we’ve been familiar with the concept that authoritarianism impacts language, bending it out of shape and introducing a whole series of figures and double meanings that violate common sense: war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength. Doublespeak. And in “Politics and the English Language”, for instance, Orwell insists upon linguistic clarity as a remedy to political obfuscation: in so far as “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language [. . .] one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.”
But as Feitlowitz observes, while the Argentine junta made use of language’s slipperiness precisely in the service of something like Orwellian doublespeak (e.g., in a distortion of human rights discourse, “We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right”), they were also quite self-conscious and wary about the sign’s inherently arbitrary relation to its referent. In the words of Admiral Emilio Massera, with which Feitlowitz opens her chapter, “Unfaithful to their meanings, words perturb our powers of reason” (19).
So in that “the whole regime was intensely verbal,” as Feitlowitz contends, with its “constant torrent of speeches, proclamations, and interviews” such that “Argentinians lived in an echo chamber” (20), not only did the junta remake language, it also opened up the possibility that its own language could be turned against it. Indeed, this was (as Taylor argues) something that the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo realized: that they could take the regime’s rhetoric about the centrality of the family and women’s role as nurturers and guardians, and turn it against the practices that separated mother from child through kidnap and torture.
There are two possible positions: one insists on clarity and common sense against the obfuscations and euphemisms of overweening power; the other thrives on the fact that even the most powerful cannot fully control their language (or anybody else’s).
The problem is that Feitlowitz never fully chooses either one of these possibilities. And as such, she constantly falls prey to the worst of all worlds. Consider her chapter’s conclusion:
The repression lives on in [. . .] aberrations of the language, in the scars it left on the language. When a people’s very words have been wounded, the society cannot fully recover until the language has been healed. [. . .] When, like skin, the language is bruised, punctured, or mutilated, that boundary [between inner self and the outside world] breaks down. [. . .]
We must pay attention to this dis-ease, we must document its signs. We must make an artifact of this Lexicon of Terror, so that it will no longer be a living language. (62)
Here is a denunciation of language’s aberration expressed in the most aberrant of language. Is it not, after all, a form of “doublespeak” to use such a richly figural, metaphoric mode of expression as to refer to language’s “scars,” its bruises, punctures, and wounds? And while we’re at it, why does this linguistic cure depend upon killing a “living language”?
How far, after all, are we from the Argentine junta’s own metaphorical analogies, condemned by Feitlowitz, to the “cleanliness and health” that they propose to bring to an Argentina purged of political aberration (33)? If Massera is wrong to appropriate what Feitlowitz terms “Neo-Nazi ‘germ theory'” when he declares that “we must cleanse the country of subversion” (33), is it not equally problematic to portray language itself as a body whose sickness is to be cured or as a life that is to be euthanized . . . especially when it is metaphorical aberration that is to be purged, linguistic excess to be eliminated?
In other words, Feitlowitz uses metaphor to argue for de-metaphorization.
We should either use metaphor or denounce it. And if it turns out that we cannot rid our language of figures, then perhaps there’s a limit to the political blame we can pin on figuration per se. All the more so when we’ve borrowed our most powerful figures from those we claim to be condemning.
(Paul de Man’s “Semiology and Rhetoric” [JSTOR access required] has something to say about this, too.)
s0metim3s argues that
One has rights – or does not have them, as the case may be. One can be right, of course, but this particular formulation of the claim to legitimacy, this assertion of rightness, is not necessarily of the same register as an assumed, or claimed, legal or moral entitlement which might transform the circumstantial, concrete instance of being correct about this or that into having just claim or, more simpy put: of being right into having a right – which is to say, into a property. The language of rights is, in its grammar, the language of property.
It’s certainly true that the language of rights and the language of property overlap. But I’m not entirely sure that the two can be conflated so quickly. Or rather, it might be worth unpicking the differences that someone such as Locke (whom s0metim3s quotes) obscures.
So, yes, property discourse infiltrates rights discourse at almost every turn. The UN Universal Declaration, for instance, delcares in its first article that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towoard one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” And for “endow,” the OED gives “1 a. To give a dowry to (a woman) [. . .]; 2. To enrich with property; to provide (by bequest or gift) a permanent income for (a person, society, or institution).”
(Let’s hold off for a moment on the familial language of “brotherhood” and the innate connection between rights and reason.)
On the other hand, rights constitute a peculiar kind of property, if property they are.
First, in that (some?) rights are held to be, as the US Declaration of Independence puts it, “unalienable.” They are not to be bought and sold; they are innate, whether that innateness stems from the fact that they are natural, or from some legal or constitutional framework. Human, natural, and civil rights can all be considered “unalienable” from this perspective. They may be abrogated or abused, but they can never be taken away.
Yet, second, rights discourse also sometimes indulges in the language of alienability. Some rights can be won or lost; they are precarious or (again, from the US Declaration) need to be “secure[d].” In so far as we can be deprived of our rights, then it is simply not true for instance that (as the UN Declaration has it), “everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.”
So rights are at turns almost ontological, in that they are coterminous with existence: I am, therefore I have rights. And at other turns, they are a precious commodity, all too easily forfeited (if we do not act upon them) or lost (if we are deprived of them).
To what extent then can rights be exchanged? Social contract theory seems to suggest precisely such an operation, as natural rights are given up in favour of civil rights. But Spinoza (for instance) implies that in fact such rights can never be surrendered; indeed, that it is pure ideology to suggest so.
Do we have the right not to have rights? I suspect that this is what’s at issue when the state steps in to criminalize suicide or euthanasia, for instance. But then suicide, or self-harm of any sort, is rather a tricky issue for Spinoza, too.
Meanwhile, as to the slippage between “being right” and “having rights”: Marguerite Feitlowitz points out that the Argentine junta played out precisely such a game of words in the context of other games at the time:
This war of words culminated in a dramatic display in 1978, when the World Soccer Championships were held in Argentina. Taking advantage of their access, foreign journalists pressed the regime for information on reported disappearances, torture, and secret concentration camps. “What do you mean, ‘human rights’? the commanders fumed. “We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right.” The message was writ large on a huge banner in the reception area of Ezeiza, the international airport. Shiny decals with this slogan appeared in shop windows and offices, on private cars and taxi cabs. Employees at the Ministry of the Interior–who routinely shredded writs of habeas corpus–wore the decals and demonstrated in Plaza de Mayo. This group came face to face with another demonstration–parents, spouses, and children of desaparecidos who marched silently, wearing pictures of their loved ones and signs that asked ¿Dónde están? “Where are they?” The official reply? “We Argentines are human, we Argentines are right.” (A Lexicon of Terror 35-36)
Clarín has an article on this same campaign, “”Somos derechos y humanos”: cómo se armó la campaña”, and see also Rubén Morales’s “Somos derechos y humanos”. Morales also bears out Feitlowitz’s contention that public relations (PR) functioned for the Argentine military in the way that radio served the Nazis (41).
The Argentine author Fogwill’s Los pichiciegos is an astonishing tale derived from the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. The book is all the more remarkable as it was written between June 11-17, 1982, i.e. as the war itself was ending and so while the war of words still followed a rigid ideological dichotomy, and before the combatants themselves had had a chance to tell of their experiences. Yet the novel is rooted in a sense of the physical experience of the Falklands war, in all its brute materiality. And it refuses not only the rhetorical dichotomization that assigns legitimacy to one side or another, but also the very notion of sides.
The “pichiciegos” of the title are a group of Argentine deserters who have established a subterranean settlement (a bunker, a series of passages and chimneys) somewhere in no man’s land. They are, effectively, maroons who commerce with both sides (British and Argentine) as they seek the kerosene, sugar, cigarettes, and so on that they need to survive. Yet they also maintain their distance, digging firmly into the slush and mud of the islands’ desolate landscape. Theirs is a wary Exodus from the claims and counter-claims that they hear on the radio, and a becoming-immanent to the rough terrain amid the minefields and bomb craters.
Pichiciegos are also a species of Argentine armadillo, armour-coated, blind burrowing creatures active only at night. One of the group tells the others about this animal, how they live and how they are hunted. What most takes their fancy is the way in which, to dislodge them from their burrows, a hunter is forced sometimes to grab them by the tail and stick a finger up their arse. At the shock (or perhaps the pleasure) of the penetration, the pichiciegos lose all resistance and can easily be extracted. Likewise, the deserters are aware that at any moment they may be fucked in the arse by either the Argentines or the Brits.
Still, they stockpile supplies and are prepared to wait the war out. They have yerba mate, cigarettes, liquor, food… everything except chemical toilets, which means they either have to brave the subzero elements to shit outside, or plug up their systems with anti-diahrreal drugs. Yet in their nervous limbo between the two opposing camps, in the fear that is both omnipresent backdrop and specific response to the Harriers, the helicopters, and the other machinery of war, even or perhaps especially here they become themselves as never before. It’s as though it were only in this fearful Exodus that the virtual qualities constituting both individuals and group could be actualized: “It’s that fear releases the instinct that everyone carries within him” (103).
In the end, however, this rebel colony–neither one thing nor the other, surplus and so almost invisible to the friend/enemy distinction of war and politics–is almost inevitably extinguished. Poisoned by the carbon monoxide emitted by their own stove once the snow silently blocks the chimney, the pichiciegos are entombed, to become literally part of the landscape, a buried relic of other ways of living the war.
But the maroon experience is also buried by less natural forces: by the Argentine generals’ declaration that the war continues, if by other means; and even by the politicians’ promises of elections and choice, as though there were anything to choose. Fogwill already anticipates the slogan of Argentina’s 2001 uprising: “No… I wouldn’t vote for any of them. Let them all go off [¡que se vayan todos!] back to the whore of a mother who bore them!” (55).
One survivor alone remains, who is gradually revealed to be recounting his story to a shadowy narrator who seems to be half-author, half-psychologist. A narrator who may or may not believe the strange tales that he is told (of a hovering Harrier with its engines off, of nuns in the snow, of the “Great Attraction” as a fleet of warplanes disappears into the ether), and who certainly, his informant insists, doesn’t understand, cannot understand. But at least he records, he records the pichiciego’s words so that they are not entirely lost to a future whose first glimmering possibilities they may perhaps predict.
My friend Susana notes that it would be better to describe The Take as emotional, rather than affective. And it’s certainly true that what we see is affect captured: affect given a subject and object. In Brian Massumi’s terms, this is emotion.
So these Argentine men define their subjectivity through the emotions that they express: their pain at failing to fulfil their duties as a husband or father in fact underlines the sense that their proper role is as pater familias; their pleasure in labour confirms and justifies their identity as workers.
Likewise, their emotions have very specific objects: sentiment ties them to other people (wives, fathers) and things (machines, commodities).
In short, the emotions that the film projects upon its human subjects define it as melodrama, a hackneyed tale of the desire for work and social integration, rather than the social disintegration that a more (self-)critical approach would demand.
And yet, because emotion is affect captured, we can still read back affect through emotion. There is always something that goes beyond or escapes.
Indeed, the very fact that the film’s attention to male affect is so excessive already troubles its attempts at a neat liberal resolution. The film takes too much pleasure in the men’s tears on which its cameras linger. There’s something improper about its attention, so often willing the men to cry, that we might wonder about the limits of propriety itself.
And so it is perhaps that this somewhat disturbing excess offers a line of flight along which we could imagine other forms of community, other forms of solidarity.