Winnipeg

While I’m at it… I am coming to believe that Winnipeg is in fact the site of the “real” Canada.

This makes sense on so many levels. It’s the geographic center of the country, after all. It also has a prairie. And clearly British Columbia, for instance, isn’t Canada (too mild). Nor is Toronto or the rest of Ontario (too much like the USA). Quebec is, well, a case apart. Calgary is a weird bit of Texas transplanted to northern climes. And the Maritimes are too far away from anything. Newfoundland is a lost rock in the Atlantic Ocean, that only joined the Confederation when forced to do so. The Territories are empty and barren. No, only Saskatchewan comes close. But Manitoba, I think, is like Saskatchewan only more so.

So in the same way that the Weakerthans are really singing about Canada when they declare their hate for their native city, so surely Guy Maddin’s marvellous movie My Winnipeg should similarly be read allegorically, as a film about the best and the worst that this country could be and is.

It’s a mesmerizing, magnificent film, deeply strange and troubled, which is loosely premised on the film-maker’s eternally ill-fated attempt to leave this place in which everyone is strangely half-asleep.

My Winnipeg is also a lament. And after all, if Canada has an identity, it involves a lament for an identity is now lost, and was never recognized at the time; Canada’s identity is permanently après coup, as Lacan would say. (This is also the theme of Douglas Coupland’s Souvenir of Canada, as I’ve hinted before, in not dissimilar circumstances.) Specifically, Maddin’s lament revolves around the demolition of the Jets’ stadium, and so the departure of major league hockey from the town.

And (forgive the spoiler) the film ends with the most astonishing vision of some kind of prairie socialist realist goddess reversing the flow of time and conjuring the stadium back from the rubble. It’s an amazing finale, and well worth the occasional longeur en route.

Anyhow, here’s the trailer…

environment

There is almost always something reticent about a ruin: a ruin is a retreat, a fading away. What was once foreground starts to melt into the background as the built environment cedes to the natural environment. Nature takes the place of culture as weeds start to push through cracked stones, wood rots away, or solid rock sinks into the sand. There may come a point at which it is hard to discern the ruin from the jungle or the desert. At some point the ruin may disappear altogether as it becomes one with its surroundings.

The disconcerting thing about Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO-designated site in southern Alberta, is that from the outset it was already fully part of its surroundings. Figure was already ground. For the ruin is simply a cliff (and a relatively slight one to boot) that briefly interrupts the long descent from the Rockies to the Great Plains. It was here that, for several millennia, native Americans enticed buffalo to their death, again precisely by blurring or dissimulating the distinction between human activity and natural environment.


Indeed, it is hard to locate the site of the Buffalo Jump itself. You have to be told or shown. Head-Smashed-In depends upon the pedagogical work of demonstration, explanation, and interpretation without which it would hardly even come to light. Or more precisely, Head-Smashed-In highlights the role of imagination in the construction of the ruin: it’s no accident that archaeologist Jack Brink’s book about the site is entitled Imagining Head-Smashed-In. As he puts it, “capturing people and events that disappeared from our world centuries ago requires a judicious helping of imagination.” But never is this more true than with those “many ancient cultures that [. . .] managed to survive in demanding environments for extraordinary lengths of time without leaving towering monuments to themselves.” Brink’s task is “to show how simple lines of rocks stretching across the prairies are every bit as inspirational as rocks piled up in the shape of a pyramid” (xii). He has to sell us the idea that this is a ruin.

Hence at Head-Smashed-In it is the interpretive center that is the focus of the visit experience. Many ruins have some kind of signage or attached museum, but usually they can be appreciated well enough without resort to such ancillary explanation. Here, however, the interpretation overwhelms the ruin itself. The museum is built into the cliff alongside the Jump, and it is impossible to see the archaeological site from within its galleries. Though you can access a gallery from which to view the cliff-face at the top of the building, the majority of a visitor’s time is necessarily spent in the enclosed space of the museum through which you have to pass twice, both on the way up and on the way down. And this interpretive center, while dedicated to explaining what is just outside, in fact looks in on itself and the multiple reconstructions of the site that it contains. For all intents and purposes, this museum could be any place whatever.

The reconstructions of the site within the museum include scale models, images, and video. Three full-size replica of buffalo at the top of a fiberglass cliff dominate much of the interior space. Staff direct you to a fifteen-minute filmed reconstruction of the indigenous buffalo hunt (made by a company called “Myth Merchant Films”) in which computer-generated imagery aids a spectacle that aims at considerable realism. In helping us imagine the buffalo jump, the interpretive center leaves little to the imagination.


But whose imagination is at work here? The museum’s problem is that it has to negotiate between multiple modes of interpretation: deductions based on archaeological evidence, readings of historical texts left by European travelers, and memories passed down through oral history among the First Nations. Often there is a tension between these different narrative strategies, and the museum tries to maintain a counterpoint between some fairly standard displays and, for instance, the text of indigenous legends that is projected upon those displays.

So in some ways the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump is peculiarly detached from its ostensible object, both because it reproduces that object within a space that is literally to one side, and because the multiple interpretations that the object generates are allowed more or less free reign. The visit experience becomes all about the creative vagaries of imagination. And yet the notion that this is a physical site is also clearly of vital importance, in that it is to anchor these otherwise drifting narratives, to help us re-read the natural environment as shaped by cultural and historical processes. In the end both the scientific and the mythic narratives come together in the indigenist claim that native Americans have a particular relationship to the landscape, and indeed to the land itself.

silencing

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “The Three Faces of Sans Souci” takes the Haitian ruins of Sans Souci as a case study for his investigation into historiography and the “silencing of the past.” What’s interesting is that he regards the ruins themselves as both complicit in this silencing and as a form of resistance against it.

Sans Souci refers, in the first instance, to the lavish palace built by Henry Christophe, self-styled post-revolutionary King of Haiti (or rather, the north of the country) in the early nineteenth century. In the second instance, it refers to another palace of the same name, built a few years earlier by Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great in Potsdam, near Berlin. Finally, Sans Souci was also the name of a now almost forgotten Haitian revolutionary who had, in fact, been put to death on Christophe’s orders.

Trouillot’s argument is that the Haitian palace is named for Christophe’s former rival, in order both to establish and to extirpate his memory. On the one hand, “Henry killed Sans Souci twice: first, literally, during their last meeting; second, symbolically, by naming his most famous palace Sans Souci . . . [which] erased Sans Souci from Christophe’s own past, and it erased him from his future.” On the other hand, “Christophe may even have wanted to perpetuate the memory of his enemy as the most formidable one he defeated” (59). However, now that it is generally assumed that the source of the name was its German precursor, even that original silencing is itself silenced and the revolutionary Sans Souci effectively disappears from history. The final result is “an erasure more effective than the absence or failure of memory, whether faked or genuine” (60).


Yet Trouillot also suggests that acts of erasure such as Henry Christophe’s are “silences of resistance, silences thrown against a superior silence,” specifically here the silence “which Western historiography has produced around the revolution of Saint Domingue / Haiti.” In this context the now “crumbling walls” of the former palace “still stand as a last defense against oblivion” (69). They recall at least one move in the internecine strategies played out among those who led the Haitian revolution, disrupting both the heroic narrative preferred by Haitians themselves, and also the broader attempt to portray the revolution as some kind of non-event.

Finally, Trouillot further argues that history is necessarily incomplete, and so warns against the hyper-empiricist fantasy that “an enlargement of the empirical base” will necessarily lead to “the production of a ‘better’ history.” No: “Silences are inherent in history because any single event enters history with some of its constituting parts missing” (49). As such, history is always a collection of ruins; it is history itself that is, at root, ruined in advance.

declassification

Cartas mapuche coverA brief note. In Chile in December, thanks to Rodrigo Naranjo, I came across the work of the Laboratory of Declassification. Rodrigo also introduced me to Jorge Pávez, who kindly gave me a copy of his book, Cartas mapuche: Siglo XIX, which is in large part an outgrowth of this declassification project. The book is to be formally launched on Thursday; on the off-chance I have any readers in Chile, I urge you to attend.

Jorge has written a very interesting introduction to the volume, which I hope to comment upon at some point. And Rodrigo was quite insistent that Posthegemony was merely a new Latin American cartography (to return to such topological metaphors) or, I suppose, a restratification. I’m not convinced about that, or that in fact declassification doesn’t inadvertently fall into a similar trap: isn’t every declassification also necessarily a reclassification, too?

However, and again in light of the fact that subaltern studies qua subaltern studies never in the end produced very much in the way of redescriptions, let alone historical redescriptions, of Latin America, perhaps declassification is the true inheritor of the subalternist project?

Link: The Laboratory also has a blog which, although it has not been updated for some time, has some interesting texts, including by people such as Federico Galende.

substratum

Constituent power is continuous and everyday. Appearances, however, are deceptive: in appearance, constituent power emerges only in moments of crisis, in the transition from one political order to another, soon thereafter to disappear. As Negri notes, “once the exceptional moment of innovation is over, constituent power seems to exhaust its effects” (Insurgencies 327).

The normative regulations of constituted power are more familiar than is the uproarious intensity associated with constitutional assemblies, when constituent power is glimpsed in full force as it intervenes decisively on the political stage. But for Negri, this “appearance of exhaustion” is simply “mystification”; in fact, “the only limits on constituent power are the limits of the world of life” (327, 328).

Constituent power “persists”: once a constitution is declared, it goes underground; unseen, it continues to expand until it erupts once more to interrupt constituted power, forcing drastic changes in social relations. Capital responds with a series of class recompositions that it presents as natural; the state reacts with periodic refoundations that it presents as simple renegotiations of some original social pact.

At each stage, the multitude is beaten back, temporarily defeated, “absorbed into the mechanism of representation” (Insurgencies 3) and so misrecognized as class, people, mass, or some other docile political subject. But even such misrecognitions, Negri claims, signal an “ontological accumulation” (334). Being itself is transformed through the “continuous and unrestrainable practice” that is the multitude’s everyday, permanent revolution (334).

A focus on constituent power, then, rather than on the different forms taken by constituted power, opens up “a new substratum” of history, “an ontological level on which productive humanity anticipate[s] the concrete becoming, forcing it or being blocked by it” (232).

perpetual

More on Roa Bastos’s Yo el supremo

History

“En cuanto a mí veo ya el pasado confundido con el futuro” (369)

I the Supreme is a historical novel in more than one sense of this phrase. In the first place, it is a novel set in the past: Roa Bastos has chosen to write about a figure who had been dead over a century by the time of the book’s publication. In this sense (and not unlike even the “pulp fiction” of, say, a Catherine Cookson) the novel functions to animate or dramatise–bring to life or “make real”–a period with which its readers will have no direct experience. Historical fiction works (and finds much of its justification) because of the way in which the license allowed to the novelist enables him or her to fill in the gaps left the historical record, to give us some imagined sense of what it must have been like to live in a particular epoch or now past period by giving us the emotions, voices (often interior or psychological) voices and motivations that have not survived in the archive of historical documentation. Here, the historical novel points to and makes use of the deficiencies of other forms of history.

Second, however, this novel also quotes and uses these same historical sources; it is not merely set in the past, it also provides us with excerpts from many of the kinds of documents that professional historians also use to shed light on the actual events and figures that it also treats fictionally. Often therefore we are presented both with a fictionalized version of situations or happenings and (by means of the footnotes, a device more usually found in texts that are thought to be factual) also a version of those same situations as they have been recorded in documents, letters, and publications of the nineteenth century. On several occasions these different accounts seem to contradict each other: to be more precise, the “compiler” presents the historical record as a correction to the account that is presented in the voice of the Supreme. Here, the novel would seem to be pointing to the deficiencies of either memory (if we take the Supreme’s narrative at face value as a remembrance of incidents in which he has played a part) or fiction itself.

Third, then, this is also a novel that thematizes history as one of its key concerns. This thematization takes place on a number of levels, one of which involves the way in which the Supreme (above all in his “perpetual circular,” an ascription that also has something to say about the writing of history) narrates the historical foundation of the Paraguayan republic, and his role in the construction of the nation, in part to justify and legitimate his own hold on power in the (novel’s) present. At the same time, prompted by the reminder of his mortality that opens the story (the “historia” in Spanish), the Supreme is also concerned to establish a sense of his legacy to the country. Hence there is a concern with history as it is written (and as it is therefore perpetuated), as opposed to history as it is (mis)remembered in an oral tradition. The novel thus repeats (or mirrors) on another level some of the concerns that we have also seen shared by the compiler, that is, the difference between memory (or myth) and written, documented, history.

Finally (though there is as always much more that could be said), the novel is historical in the sense that it was written at a particular historical conjuncture (now over thirty years past), that is, the epoch in which dictatorial or military regimes ruled in many Latin American countries, not least Paraguay (under Stroessner), and at a point when Argentina (where the book was written) was also about to be subject to the military coup of 1976. We can therefore read the book in the light of the historical context of its production–as well as the context of a literary history for which, some argue, this is the last great modernist novel of world literature (or the first great postmodernist novel of Latin American literature).

Vilcas

I mentioned this paper some time ago, but I realize that I never uploaded it. Here goes…

Having some time to spare in Vilcashuamán, Ayacucho, highland Peru, I climbed the pyramid that looms over the small town. Vilcashuamán (also known simply as Vilcas) was once a significant Inca cultural and administrative center, occupying a strategic location at the crossroads of the various trade routes that crisscrossed the Inca empire: it was the point at which the road from Cuzco to the Pacific met the Empire’s main North-South highway. Moreover, according to Spanish chronicler Pedro Cieza de León’s reports of native accounts, the town was at the geographical midpoint of the Tawantisuyu, the Inca Empire: “for they state that it is the same distance from Quito to Vilcas as from Vilcas to Chile, the limits of their empire” (126). But Vilcas is now a town full of ruins–though one might also say that the place is a set of ruins that enclose a town, as it can be hard to say where the ruins end and the town starts, and vice versa. Houses and shops nestle up against or are perched upon Inca walls and stones, and are themselves made of this same recycled material. As a result, the site is, in Gasparini and Margolies’s words, in an “advanced state of destruction and deformation” (112). It remains, however, undeniably impressive, in part because here you are everywhere up against and on top of the ruins, like it or not. There is no measured distance between contemporary life and sacrosanct historical artifact: no ropes, no fences marking off the museal from the everyday. The ruins of Vilcashuamán are fully if sparsely inhabited; they show no signs of their exceptionality. In John Hemming’s words, conjuring up a scene of desolation, “Vilcashuamán is now a small village, remote on its hill-top, perched on the ruins of the great Inca city whose temples have been pillaged for building blocks, and surrounded by rolling, hilly country with few trees and little population” (Monuments of the Incas 187). History seems to have passed it by, to have set it free from whatever stories it once inspired. Certainly, when I had been taken to Vilcas for the day, with a group of anthropologists and aid workers, I had had no idea I would end up climbing a pyramid.

Vilcashuaman
Indeed, these are in no way the most famous ruins in Peru, and are far from being the most visited, meriting at best a couple of lines in the guidebooks. Rather, that honor goes to Machu Picchu, now perhaps South America’s foremost tourist attraction, which attracts around 450,000 visitors a year, up to 2,000 a day. Machu Picchu stands synecdochically for Peru, and often enough for Latin America as a whole. Arguably, Machu Picchu is a more “modern” set of ruins, being “discovered” (better, invented) only in the early twentieth century, with Hiram Bingham’s Yale-sponsored expedition of 1911. Bingham was fêted for having discovered the “lost city of the Incas.” That claim, however, rings rather hollow when it is realized not only that it was a local tavern proprietor and landlord, Melchor Arteaga, who led him to the site “with the promise of a whole silver dollar,” but also that Bingham himself noted graffiti on the stones: “the name, ‘Lizarraga,’ and the year, ‘1902’” (Alfred Bingham 6, 13). Bingham gave this Lizarraga credit for the “discoveries” in his first book about the expedition, Inca Land; yet by the time of his later account, Lost City of the Incas, Lizarraga’s name disappears (Alfred Bingham 26). Meanwhile, Bingham’s opinion of indigenous knowledge can be inferred from his own comment that “readers of Inca Land will remember that Professor Harry W. Foote and I had often been obliged to add, when discussing reports of ‘noteworthy and important ruins’–‘but he may have been lying’” (Hiram Bingham 10). He observes that the local campesinos do not mark the ruins in any particular way: “Presumably, to him and his kind, Inca ruins of temples and palaces built by their remote kindred are not in themselves interesting but merely evidence that the latter found the land worth occupying and cultivating” (10). In this sense, Bingham’s achievement was to put Machu Picchu into discourse: to articulate its stones, to make them speak in the recognizably modern idiom of ruination.

This, then, is where Vilcashuamán is different. For the ruins of Vilcas have, without entering the narratives of international tourism, and despite not being excavated until the 1980s, a much longer history of being repeatedly articulated and rearticulated to competing stories about Peruvian modernity, from almost the very moment of Spanish conquest and so their initial fall into ruin. We might therefore say that Vilcas is more eloquent about Peru’s modernity than Machu Picchu, especially now that the latter has assumed the status of a brand, a signifier almost without content–like the Nike swoosh or McDonalds’ golden arches. Machu Picchu says “Peru,” or says “Latin America,” but says almost nothing about these places. By contrast, in the to and fro of the conflicting versions of what Vilcas’s ruins might be made to say, a whole series of narratives have been advanced about historicity and hegemony, modernity and, more to the point, the (still essentially modern) lament that Peru has failed to become modern. Mario Vargas Llosa notoriously opens his monumental novel Conversation in the Cathedral with the question “At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?” (3). We might not know when; but it would not be far-fetched to argue that Vilcashuamán is a contender for a precise place where Peru fucked itself up. It is a place marked by the series of interruptions that, for a writer such as Vargas Llosa, indicate the fuck-ups that have (he would claim) stalled progress towards modernity. Interruptions, symbolized or, better, materialized in the strewn stones of the former Inca edifices, that have served as fissures within which variously confident, wistful, and messianic narratives have sought firm footing, like weeds in the dirt. Yet these interruptions have also, in almost the same moment, brought these stories to their own ruination, their disarticulation.

Read more… (.pdf file)