Rethinking Community from Peru

[Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.]


What kind of political philosophy should one expect of a novelist? Irina Feldman’s fascinating Rethinking Community from Peru: The Political Philosophy of José María Arguedas prompts this question, as it proposes to present us with the political philosophy of José María Arguedas, the Peruvian author of Los ríos profundos, Todas las sangres, and El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (among much else). Her starting point is the (in)famous 1965 Mesa Redonda sobre Todas las Sangres, in which (as she explains) Arguedas’s vision of Peruvian society was “severely questioned by a group of progressive scholars” (p. 3). His interlocutors felt that Arguedas had spurned class analysis in favor of an atavistic (if not reactionary) attachment to indigenous cultural forms such as the ayllu. For Feldman, what they missed was that Arguedas saw in such forms “an alternative project of community” that might carry over to a socialist society. But the more fundamental problem with this discussion was that the social scientists reading the novel had overlooked the fact that ultimately it was literary artifact, not sociological analysis. And to some extent Feldman replicates that mistake in seeking to squeeze a full-flown “political philosophy” from Arguedas’s fiction.

The bulk of this book is a reading of Todas las sangres highlighting the failures of the Peruvian state to achieve anything like hegemony in the highlands. What we see instead, we are told, is something more akin to what Ranajit Guha terms “dominance without hegemony” (p. 85). But in fact, in the Andes the state is not even dominant. As Feldman shows, Arguedas’s novel documents at least three other competing powers: the traditional hacendado system of large landowners with quasi-divine authority over “their” Indians; the indigenous ayllu, with its rotating leadership of varayok’s; and the forces of multinational capital, represented here by the Wisther-Bozart mining consortium. And though the haciendas are in decline–also, if more arguably so, the ayllu–the pressures of capital investment and resource extraction are such that the state can hardly carve out space to institute a liberal civil society, even if it wanted to do so.

Arguedas has a surprisingly positive view of the landowning class, perhaps because–like the varayok’s–they manifest the “solid bodily presence of the figure of authority” in contrast to the absent, “ghostly state” (p. 33). Hence the novel presents us with Don Bruno, a landowner who mobilizes his authority on the Indians’ behalf. But he can do so only by means of a self-sacrifice that destroys any chance of an effective alliance with the indigenous, and that further undercuts the state’s claims to sovereignty, rendering ordinary people all the more defenseless in the face of the mining corporations.

The saving grace of Andean culture, Feldman tells us, is its refusal to grant a “negative connotation” to physical labor, enabling “the indigenous serfs [to] escape the process of alienation” thanks to “the ritual appropriation of work in the mine [. . .] which signals a possibility of symbolic appropriation of the means of production” (p. 116). It is not clear, however, how much the real owners of the means of production are concerned about such symbolic reappropriation, so long as the workers continue to do their jobs without grumbling. In other words: is this not the most minimal, even self-defeating, revolution imaginable? Yet this is a phenomenon that Arguedas repeatedly depicts in his novels, from the communal road-building in Yawar Fiesta to the procession demanding a Catholic mass in Los ríos profundos: even in hegemony’s absence, the indigenous continue to struggle for their own servitude as stubbornly as though it were their salvation.

This may indeed be (as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest) the fundamental problem of political philosophy, but it is not clear that Arguedas grasps it as such. Should he? I am unconvinced that Arguedas ever satisfactorily rethinks the concept of community. His work is more symptom than solution, and if anything its weakness is that too often he does think like a social scientist, not least in his anguished concern for a Peruvian national project. The fact that Feldman’s examples of an Arguedan “political philosophy” in action all come from Bolivia, not Peru, shows the error of taking the nation-state as political horizon. More fundamentally, rather than trying to extract a political project from Arguedas’s fiction, it is more rewarding to see it as among the best mappings of Andean infrapolitics; that is, as an exploration of the conditions of possibility (and impossibility) of politics tout court.


Further to my earlier Arguediana, here’s a lovely little cinematic version of the “Sueño del pongo” (“Pongo’s Dream”), a traditional Quechua story collected and elaborated by Arguedas. The film was made in Cuba in 1970, adapted by Roberto Fernández Retamar. It’s shot using atmospheric black and white still photographs.

See also the text of the story in Spanish and in English. It begins…

“A little man headed to his master’s mansion. As one of the serfs on the lord’s estate, he had to perform the duty of a pongo, a lowly house servant. He had a small and feeble body, a meek spirit. His clothes were old and tattered. Everything about him was pitiful.

The great lord, owner of the mansion and lands surrounding it, could not help laughing when the little man greeted him in the mansion’s corridors….”


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

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

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

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

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

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

scissor dancer


Monday Arguediana

Here is a list of the posts I’ve written over the semester on the Peruvian author José María Arguedas (1911-1969; a brief biography in English is here).

They trace a reading of what is essentially Arguedas’s entire published work (except for his correspondence and translations), in rough chronological order.

And then, adjacent to the above series:

  • vendetta (Todas las sangres alongside V is for Vendetta)
  • blocks (El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo alongside Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature)

Finally, the essay I’ve written on Arguedas, the machinic, and affect:

See also:


Posthegemony is on something of a diagram spree right now. I have more of Douglas Oliver’s diagrams to post shortly–next week, most likely. Meanwhile, however, two from the last couple of books I’ve read.

First, Arguedas’s El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo includes, as one element of its decidedly messy mixed-genre text, a diagram.

This comes in the same section that I’ve discussed already: as the factory manager, Don Angel, is showing his visitor, Diego, around the bowels of the machinic apparatus. Diego asks Don Angel “And the panorama? How do you see the panorama, the conjunction of things?” Angel replies:

Yes, Diego my friend; yes I see the panorama more clearly. Wait a moment. This is the way the conjunction is. That’s it! Take a good look at this map or diagram, complete with names, that I’ll trace and write down; I’ll be drawing it. This is how it starts. Watch my hand and listen to my words. I think that something will come out of this; yes, something objective. Look…

Zorros diagram
Seven white eggs against three red ones. There’s us, and industry, and the USA, the Peruvian government, the Peruvian people’s ignorance, and the ignorance of the Cardozos [the liberation theology priests] about the Peruvian people, together we all make up the white forces. On the other hand, John XXIII, Communism, and the rage, whether lucid or cock-eyed, of a small section of the Peruvian people against the USA, industry, and the government, all these make up the red forces. Take a look: that’s the face of Peru, that’s it with its three little red lines. [. . .] In short, Diego my friend, we are seven white eggs against three red ones. And one of the red ones, Communism that is, has maggots infesting its dying body. I know what I’m talking about. And this map won’t change ever at all against capital, only in its favour. It’s a sure thing! There are just a few people in power through the whole universe, heaven and earth, water and sea. (92-93)

So we have ten eggs, and ten lines, which converge and cross over a face, a mask, that is the face of Peru. This is a diagram of power (is there any other kind?), a balance of forces, in which the industrialist expresses his confidence in the eternal omnipotence of capital.

But if Diego is indeed “watch[ing his] hand and listen[ing] to [his] words” at the same time, as Don Angel encourages him to do, perhaps it might occur to him that the two are not necessarily consonant. Where does the factory manager come up with these seven blocks, for instance? And where are “we,” the elite subject that he first invokes? Part of the Peruvian government, or part of the Peruvian people? What is the logic of the lines’ criss-crossing and semi-convergence, also at times semi-divergence? Do these lines construct the face we see, or does that pre-exist the diagram? Is it indeed a face, or a mask, a fetish, set at a distance from all the elements of Peruvian society that are, after all, separated out at the top of the picture?

In other words, for all the narrative verve and confidence that Don Angel brings to his analysis of the social panorama, there’s a sense in which the diagram betrays him. The lines of force that he traces take flight, obeying their own logic, suggesting their own conclusions–perhaps a more open future than the inevitable permanence of capitalist rule the manager himself so confidently predicts.

Meanwhile, there’s at least a topological similarity between the diagram to be found in Arguedas’s book and the two architectures of power outlined in Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature.

These two diagrams designate two states of social architectonics, which are both distinct and commingling. The first of these is the image of transcendence, or the quasi-cause: rather than eggs we have blocks, set at a distance from a central tower in which power purports to reside. (There is of course something here of Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, though that’s not directly referenced.)

This first state is governed by a logic of

the distant and the close [. . .] the blocks that form arches of the circle are close to each other–they join up by forming couples. It is also true that they remain distant from each other, since gaps that will never be filled remain between them. Furthermore, the transcendental law, the infinite tower, is infinitely distant from each block; and, at the same time, it is always very close and never ceases to send its messager to each block, bringing one near the other when it moves away from the other, and so on. The infinitely distant law emits hypostases, sends emanations that always come closer and closer. (76-77)

Kafka diagram
The second architectural state, on the other hand, is governed by a logic of the

faraway and the contiguous. Faraway is opposed to close, contiguous is opposed to distant. But in the grouping of the experiences and concepts, faraway is equally opposed to distant, contiguous opposed to close. In fact, the offices are very far away from each other because of the length of the hallway that separates them (they aren’t very close), but they are contiguous because of the back doors that connect them along the same line (they aren’t very distant). (77)

Rhizome versus arborescence, in short–but also bureaucratic machine versus (myth of) sovereignty. And posthegemony versus hegemony.

To return to Arguedas, then, the task would be to seek out the other diagram, the rhizomatic diagram of the faraway and the contiguous that would start to undo and counter Don Angel’s faith in the distant and the close.

As a first approximation, as I have suggested, we may find traces of that other diagram even in the map drawn by the factory manager himself. For is not the shape of his diagram closer to the second of Deleuze and Guattari’s diagram (the posthegemonic assemblage) than the first: another triangle, another set of disjunctive convergences, albeit inverted? One step might then be to invert the industrialist’s diagram, to put his account of Peruvian society, in which capital is necessarily in the driving seat, back on its feet.

And a second approximation would be to seek that other, missing diagram elsewhere in Arguedas’s work. To open up the Arguedas-machine to the immanence of affective contiguity and intensity in the faraway highlands, to follow the set of procedures for achieving the plane of immanence that have governed his writing from the very start.


Monday Arguediana

Chimbote fish factoryIn some ways, and perhaps rather strangely, José María Arguedas’s last book, El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, bears more than a passing resemblance to the metafiction characteristic of late twentieth-century postmodernism.

The book is, after all, studded with authorial interventions, written as diary entries, that interrupt the narrative and reflect on the process of writing itself, as well as on the plot and the characters it contains. (Many of these, including the first and final diaries, plus the epilogue and the speech “No soy un aculturado,” can be found here.) At an intermediate level, the novel also incorporates another pair of commentators in the eponymous foxes (elements drawn from indigenous folklore) who meet and watch over the action as it unfolds in the Peruvian port city of Chimbote.

Los zorros is, moreover, an eminently nonlinear and open work: it is composed of a series of brief stories, often presented as long dialogues as individual characters recall their past histories and so situate themselves within the rapid transformations of capitalist development affecting them all.

These individual narrative arcs are never fully brought together. Rather they coexist somewhat uneasily, precariously shoulder to shoulder in the shared space of a city that has sprung up almost from nowhere around the fish processing factories driving this dislocated pole of economic expansion.

Plus there is the fact that the book remains unfinished. In the “final diary entry” Arguedas outlines how he might have continued, and reveals some of the fate that he has had in store for individual characters. Then among the other paratexts with which it concludes is a letter from the author to his publisher, apologizing for the text’s incomplete state, describing it as “a body that’s half-blind and deformed but perhaps still able to walk on its own” (201).

But this same letter reveals what distinguishes the novel from the flamboyant literary exhibitionism of a John Barth or an Italo Calvino. In a postscript, Arguedas writes: “P. S. (on my return to Lima) In Chile I got hold of a .22 caliber revolver. I’ve tested it. It works. It will do. It won’t be easy to choose the day, to carry it out” (203). This is not, in other words, some playful metafiction in which textuality is all. This is a book that begins with a discussion of suicide, ends with a suicide note, and is signed with the author’s own dead body.

For Alberto Moreiras observes that in a further letter, also included as part of the novel, dated November 27, 1969, the day before his suicide

Arguedas notes almost casually that his novel is “casi inconclusa” [“almost unfinished”]. It is “almost unfinished” because he had not yet killed himself, but he had already made the irrevocable decision to do so. After Arguedas’s suicide the novel will and will not be finished, simultaneously and undecidably [. . .] Arguedas’s suicide is, properly speaking, the end of the book. (The Exhaustion of Difference 204)

But the suicide is only the last of a series of breakdowns that run through the text, and that have to be read as at one and the same time corporeal, material, as well as textual. And just as the (here very literal) death of the author both puts an end to what Barthes calls the “work” and gives birth to the “text,” so these breakdowns both bring writing to a halt and at the same time, by doing so, show the process of its operation, enabling it to start up again.

What we have here, in other words, is a revelation of the machinic qualities of Arguedas’s writing, and perhaps writing tout court. And in some way it may have been this revelation that proved too much for Arguedas himself.

Yet this notion of a productive factory, driven by desire, and the becoming-machinic of those attending to it, is an explicit theme within the novel itself. For in an extended sequence, perhaps the novel’s longest, at the (dead?) centre of the book, we are shown around a Chimbote fish factory, shown the workings of the mechanisms that have enabled the city’s prodigious growth as in a few short years it has concentrated all the forces of international capital: “corralling in Chimbote bay the Hudson and the Marañon, the Thames and the Apurimac” (76).

The factory manager takes his guest (and so also the novel’s readers) to the heart of the productive process, the centrifuges in which the fish oil is extracted, which “nobody has observed.” At the threshold, the guest, Diego, takes a step back in some trepidation. And indeed the manager warns of possible danger: “The cyclones have never burned anyone, but even so…” And then there, at the heart of this near-deserted factory in which the workers merely oversee the machines, the membrane between human and machine is suddenly permeable:

The visitor stopped short a few steps in. His breathing no longer in the control of his own lungs, but governed by the eight machines; the environs was all lit up. Don Diego started to turn around with his arms outstretched; some kind of bluish vapour began escaping from his nose; the sheen of his leather shoes reflected all the light and compression there inside. A musical happiness arose, something like that produced by the tallest breakers that sound on unprotected beaches, threatening nobody, developing on their own, falling on the sand in torrents more powerful and more joyful than the waterfalls in Andean rivers and streams; so a happiness churned around the vistor’s body, churned in silence and Don Angel and the group of workers sat there, eating their anchovy soup, leaning on the gallery walls, felt that the force of the world, centered in the dance and in these eight machines, lapped at them, and made them transparent. (103-104)

This is an extraordinary epiphany, again at the heart of the book and in the entrails of industrial capitalism: a vision that seems to supersede even the “yawar mayu,” the Andean rivers in flood. A new messianism opens up in a posthuman conjuncture of nature, man, and machine.

CentrifugeIs there a key here to an Arguedas-machine, comparable to the “Kafka-machine” mapped by Deleuze and Guattari who argue that “a writer isn’t a writer-man; he is a machine-man, and an experimental man” (Kafka 7). For surely Arguedas and Kafka have much in common: writers of minor literatures in a tongue that is not their own, stuttering, undoing, and causing breakdowns in the major literature and the culture of majorities.

The machines in the Chimbote factory “shit gold; that is life, isn’t it?” (100). Arguedas likewise, and like the character Esteban who is dedicated to spitting out and selling the coal dust in his lungs, aims to make of his mutilated body and psyche a machinic apparatus for the selection and intensification of affects, for the alchemical transformation of shit and suffering into gold and happiness.

Of course, the machine only works in and through its breakdowns: as Deleuze and Guattari say elsewhere, the desiring-machines “work only when they break down, and by continually breaking down” (Anti-Oedipus 8). That’s their danger and the risk that the writer takes. And at some point, for Arguedas, that breakdown was terminal. But not before he’d revealed the epiphany at the heart of his anguished, delirious writing assemblage.


V for Vendetta posterMy friend Gareth passed me J Hoberman’s Village Voice review of V for Vendetta, which argues:

If The Matrix betrayed the Wachowskis’ acquaintance with Jean Baudrillard, V for Vendetta suggests they’ve been perusing political philosopher Antonio Negri—both the old ultra-left Negri of Domination and Sabotage and the new Michael Hardt–collaborating Negri of Empire and Multitude. (The latter book even name-dropped The Matrix as an example of how Empire feeds on the creative “social productivity” of the ruled.) V’s dictum that “people shouldn’t be afraid of their government, the government should be afraid of its people”—is a Cracker Jack box restatement of Negri and Hardt’s notion of democracy for all. And the theorists would surely approve of V as the antithesis of a Leninist revolutionary elite.

Well, I’m not quite so sure about that. V, for instance, is hardly “the antithesis of a Leninist revolutionary elite.” If anything, his tactics are a prime example of anarchist propaganda of the deed: sowing the seed of disorder through spectacular but still fundamentally individual assaults on the symbols of power.

And yes, there’s something interesting about the crowds that in the final scenes converge on the Houses of Parliament, and overwhelm the security forces. But they aren’t “mysteriously networked” as Hoberman goes on to suggest; they have been interpellated by our hero V’s appropriation of the airwaves twelve months previously–the same V who personally, it seems, sent out the masks that they have donned as uniform as much as identification with his cause.

V has more in common with Don Bruno Aragón de Peralta, of José María Arguedas’s Todas las sangres (All the Bloods). Don Bruno is a Catholic fanatic who goes on a purifying rampage at the novel’s climax, an all-out assault both on the cruelties and perversions of feudalism, and on the soullessness and commodification of capitalism. (I discuss this at further length here.) And Guy Fawkes, V’s model in insurgency, was likewise a Catholic whose violence was intended to be restorative more than revolutionary.

Moreover, Bruno and V alike act out of ressentiment and revenge, to expunge a founding trauma or stain that they bear (V very literally) upon their bodies. So although in the film Evey suggests at the end that V is a modern-day everyman–he is her father, her mother, her brother, her lover…–in fact the plot depends upon the (only half-explained) idiosyncrasy of V’s personal immune system, in that he is the sole survivor of a gruesome programme of biological testing. So, in the final scene, V is singular and the crowd that passively watch his long-planned spectacle are common; but the multitude should in fact combine singularity and commonality, rather than separating them out in this way.

Which is not to say that the multitude is not an ambivalent category, too. And there is something invigorating about seeing Parliament blown up.

Parliament blowing up