Chotti Munda and His Arrow

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“All’s a story in Chotti Munda’s life,” we’re told near the beginning of Mahasweta Devi’s Chotti Munda and His Arrow, a novel that tells of the eponymous Chotti and his Munda village across seven decades in colonial and postcolonial West Bengal. “Munda language has no script. So they turn significant events into story, and hold them as saying, as song. That’s their history as well” (18). But this is a history that has often gone untold. The Munda people are among the so-called Tribals or Adivasi, the indigenous groups that make up almost 10% of India’s population but remain at the margins (at best) of the country’s national imaginary. Devi’s novel thus rescues an alternative history that troubles and even subverts the official narrative, revealing its blindspots and silences.

Not the least of this book’s subversions is the fact that it forcefully refuses any gesture towards national allegory. Whereas, say, Saleem Sinai, protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, is born symbolically at the precise moment of India’s independence, Chotti Munda is born much more prosaically sometime at the beginning of the twentieth century. Which means that he is almost fifty when the Indian state comes into being on August 15, 1947. But the event hardly enters into his story; independence is a matter for the “Dikus,” the Hindu majority who impinge on the Mundas’ world as landowners, merchants, and shopkeepers. “The August movement did not even touch the life of Chotti’s community. It was as if that was the Dikus’ struggle for liberation. Dikus never thought of the adivasis as Indian. They did not draw them into the liberation struggle.” Yet on the other hand this makes the Tribal perspective a rather good one for assessing the achievements (or otherwise) of the nation-state, given that the adivasis “stand at a distance and watch it all” (96). Among the stories told here, then, is the story of India; what the novel refuses is the way in which allegory enforces an identification between character (and reader) and nation. However much it imitates the myth-making tendencies of folklore, and despite (or even because of) its keen interest in the workings of culture and power, the history told in Chotti Munda and His Arrow is posthegemonic.

Chotti himself has an ambivalent relationship to the story-telling and myth-making that surround him. As a teenager, against family warnings, he is drawn to Dhani Munda, his sister’s grandfather-in-law, who has fame as a rebel (he passes on the history of Birsa Munda’s late nineteenth-century revolt against the British) and as an archer. No one else wants to hear the old man’s stories, so Chotti becomes their guardian when he asks Dhani to teach him to shoot arrows; and by doing so he also “becomes a part of the epic” (7). When Dhani dies, killed by the colonial police for breaking an order expelling him from the region, Chotti takes on his legacy and earns a reputation as an archer with a magic arrow who wins tournaments at every local fair. He finds he now has the “responsibility of keeping alive the legend that is growing up around him as he wins stake after stake. But he hadn’t wanted to be the hero of legend” (32-3), and he resists the notion that there is anything supernatural or magic about his prowess. The secret, he tells anyone who asks, is simply repetition, practice: “That practisin’ is t’spell” (25). And this is the lesson that he later passes on to a younger generation in turn, that they can reshape their bodies through practice, habitual adaptation to the bow: “Spell, spell, all see me spell. Look at me hand man, hard wit’ pullin’ t’ bowstring. I practice all t’ time. Will ye?” (50).

(Devi’s translator, Gayatri Spivak, renders Munda speech in English with an odd patois that seems to be half African American, half Yorkshire. This works in so far as it is a constant reminder of linguistic and cultural difference; the reader–this reader, at least–is always set slightly on edge. But much fluency is also lost, especially given how much the novel relies on dialogue. It is as though the Mundas are perpetually either slightly taciturn or strangely stuttering, even when talking among themselves.)

Chotti thus becomes an agent of continuity and tradition over a seventy-five year period (three generations) in which everything changes and yet nothing changes. Everything changes in that, beyond the departure of the British and the transition to independence, modernity and economic development also transform even this relatively remote landscape of rivers and forests. The railway comes, and even if the train doesn’t always stop, it means “modernity, power, machine” (49). The station is enlarged and Chotti notes that “everything seemed to be changing with the Mundas” (107). Eventually, the arrival of motorcars and movies confirm that the village enters “the modern age” (222). Meanwhile, “the Mundas and lowcastes of Chotti village enter the national economic pattern of independent India” (140) and capitalist relations of commodification and wage labour replace traditional communal ties: “The day is coming. Mundas will not be able to live with their identity. [. . .] Then there’ll be a shirt on his body, perhaps shoes on his feet. Then the ‘Munda’ identity will live only in festivals–in social exchange” (110). Not that the Tribals are simply unwilling victims of these transformations: when feudal, bonded labour is banished it is the landowner who finds himself stuck in the past as his workforce demand that the new law is enforced, and refuse to collect the harvest otherwise, much against his wishes.

If Chotti is not particularly sentimental about the transformations he witnesses (and in fact encourages) over the course of his long lifetime, it is perhaps because in other ways so little changes. In the final, violent showdown over the shift from bonded to wage labour, two agents of the Youth Congress who have been instrumental in repressing the Naxalite insurgency under Indira Ghandi’s State of Exception, the “Emergency,” are killed in the forest. One, named Romeo, had been especially brutal. But when he is killed, and as Chotti Munda considers the inevitable police reaction to come, “terror like we’ve never seen” (285), the narrator muses that “There are adivasis, there are subcastes, the Romeos kill them, it happens like this. But if one or a few adivasis kill the Romeos it is an unexpected event. The Romeos kill, they are not killed. This is the rule. Under all regimes” (283). And though this is in some ways a disheartening observation, in that there seems no end to the villagers’ subaltern status, it is also a source of some comfort: the adivasis will endure this injustice, as they have endured so many before. Or as the outcaste (“untouchable”), Chhagan puts it to Chotti when they go down to the riverbank to discuss the latest crisis, “All’s changed. [. . .] But t’ river’s t’ same.” To which Chotti, who himself is named after the river and is almost as unperturbable, responds: “Nothing’s changed. Just t’ pressure’s on t’ rise” (276).

At the novel’s conclusion, this identification between Chotti and the river becomes explicit, as does the notion that the subaltern is outside of history, not because history has left them behind but more because they see things from the perspective of eternity. At a village festival, in the tense aftermath of the killing of the Youth Congress members, Chotti revives memories of the past as he steps forward to compete in the archery contest. But first he takes a megaphone and, in front of the local administrator as well as the whole community, shoulders the blame for the murders so as to forestall further violence. Then he invokes his former teacher, who six decades earlier had taught him both the art of the bow and arrow and the language of rebellion, as he

says fast in the language of the Mundas, Dhani Munda! I’m raisin’ yer name an’ shootin’ yer arrer today. To stay true, meself to meself.

Chotti comes before the target with light and fast footsteps. And tells everyone, No fear y’all. Then he shoots, into the target.

Then he waits, unarmed. As he waits he mingles with all time and becomes river, folklore, eternal. What only the human can be. Brings all adivasi struggle into the present, today into the united struggle of the adivasi and the outcaste.

The novel’s final lines see Chotti still waiting to see the administrator’s reaction, as “a thousand adivasis raise their bows,” a multitude pronouncing “a warning announced in many upraised hands” (288), a declaration from outside of history that this time, perhaps, history itself may change for good, and a new story be told.

Stasis

Agamben, Stasis

Giorgio Agamben’s short book Stasis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm comprises two brief essays, one on the Athenian concept of “stasis” or civil war, the other on the role of the multitude in Hobbes’s Leviathan. What links them, he tells us, is the notion that “the constitutive element of the modern State” is “ademia [. . .] that is, [. . .] the absence of a people” (vi). Obviously enough, this will come as something of a surprise to “the Western political tradition” for which, as Agamben notes, the “concept of people” is “arguably the fundamental concept” (39). Think after all of the opening of the United States constitution, for which “we the people” are presented as that country’s basic political bedrock.

Agamben proposes instead the multitude as the core concept of political theory. So far, so good, and no doubt also so Italian. But what Agamben adds to the work of (say) Toni Negri and Paolo Virno is the observation that “the multitude is the subject of civil war” (40) and, further, that it is thus through civil war that the political realm is established. Or, as he puts it in his discussion of the Greeks:

it constitutes a zone of indifference between the unpolitical space of the family [oikos] and the political space of the city [polis]. [. . .] In the system of Greek politics civil war functions as a threshold of politicization and depoliticization, through which the house is exceeded in the city and the city is depoliticized in the family. (12)

For, as Agamben points out, Solon’s law explicitly punishes those who do not take part in civil war: such people forfeit their rights to citizenship; “not taking part in the civil war amounts to being expelled from the polis and confined in the oikos” (13). Civil war is, therefore, not (as we tend to see it) simply the point at which the political dissolves, as the state fractures and society is reduced to warring factions. It is also constituent, “the unforgettable that must always remain possible in the city,” however much today, by contrast, we regard it as “something that one must seek to make impossible at every cost” (16).

To put this another way (in terms that Agamben himself does not use), it is civil war that is the threshold or hinge between infrapolitics and politics per se. He offers here a theory of the ways in which the political emerges and is dissolved. Moreover, in his study of Hobbes, Agamben further offers civil war as the process by which what he calls the “dissolved multitude” (the multitude subject to biopolitical power) is transformed into the “disunited multitude” that makes itself known by turning on the absent people (absorbed into the figure of sovereign power, the Leviathan). And though it is not entirely obvious how these two conceptions mesh with each other, in both cases civil war has to remain an intimate possibility in the heart of any and every political order. For sovereignty, at least until the coming of the end times, can only remain an (optical) illusion, a trick of representation. In the meantime, “no real unity, no political body is actually possible: the body political can only dissolve itself into a multitude” (49). Agamben thus reverses the eschatological tendencies inherent (as I have argued elsewhere) in Negri’s vision of the multitude: here it is only the state that dreams of a substantial presence and unity to come. The multitude, by contrast, is located on a perennial threshold, figured as civil war, between house and city, infrapolitics and the political.

The sting in the tail of Agamben’s analysis, however, is given only sotto voce, in a digression or coda to the first essay that’s presented in smaller font than the rest. This is the observation that “the form that civil war has acquired today in world history is terrorism. [. . .] Global terrorism is the form that civil war acquires when life as such becomes the stake of politics” (18). This only goes to show once again that (whatever Negri thinks) nobody should look to the multitude for their salvation. But instead of denying the possibility of civil war, trying to exclude it from the political order, we need to recognize that order’s indebtedness to it, and pick one of the many sides (who says there should be just two?) that any such conflict opens up. For this is the very paradigm of the political, of the perpetual emergence and dissolution of political activity as such.

Crossposted to Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective.

San Camilo, 1936 I

Cela, San Camilo

Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 opens with a scene in front of the mirror, and consistently returns to this same site of reflection and self-observation. At first, the mirrored gaze brings familiarity, perhaps a sort of comfort. The English translation has it: “A man sees himself in the mirror and even feels comfortable addressing himself in a familiar way” (3). In the Spanish, though, this is not a particular individual, but a generic, impersonal third person: “Uno se ve en el espejo” (13). This is the way things are in general, at least at first sight: in the mirror, we see ourselves and feel we know what we see. But it is not long before the reflection becomes both more uncertain and more specific, revealing something that perhaps we would rather not see. A second glance is less reassuring: “the quality of the pane is not good and the image that it reflects shows bitter and disjointed features [. . .] maybe what’s happening is that it reflects the astonished face of a dead man still masked with the mask of the fear of death” (3). So by the time the second chapter comes around, also opening with a mirror, the address is both more personal (second person rather than third) and more desolating: “Look at yourself in the mirror and don’t break out crying, it’s hardly worth while for you to break out crying because your soul is already more than damned” (32). And it is not long before the reflection provokes a real ambivalence, the mirror seeming to exert a strange hold on a spectator who can’t bear to look but can’t turn away: “look at yourself in the mirror and escape from the mirror, it’s like a gymnastic exercise, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror and so on until you can’t take it any more” (34). And why? Why “are you scared to look at yourself in the mirror?, yes, you’re scared to look at yourself in the mirror, are you afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks?, yes, you’re afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks” (49). Here as elsewhere, in the novel’s insistent repetitions and reiterations, we end up discovering that what we are returning to is the scene of a crime, a crime in which we are both victim and victimizer, murderer and murdered, the dead and the damned.

The crime, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, and the second-person narrator is both particular and general: it is a young student, about twenty years old; it is Spain; it is all of us. “You, you, you,” the narrative voice addresses himself, but also the reader, in a tone that both strives for self-knowledge and seeks at all costs to avoid it, in what is effectively one long, sprawling denunciation of the murderous desire written on all our faces–or, what is perhaps worse, the nonchalant ignorance and self-preoccupation that allows others to murder in our name. For sometimes it is by looking too hard in the mirror that we miss what is going on elsewhere, the violence that is about to break out without our lifting a finger to stop it. For we are both perpetrators and bystanders to a history that could not take place without us, but which we barely notice, or only indirectly. We are too close to the scene of the crime either to avoid its implications (and our complicity) or to understand them: “Seen from close up history confuses everyone, both actors and spectators, and is always very tiny and startling, and also very hard to interpret” (61). Because ultimately “history is full of Narcissuses” but “it will do no good to run away, do not close your eyes, contemplate your full and true (or full and false) image in the mirror, take advantage of your being as though hypnotized, [. . .] the miracle is not likely to occur but you must not give up that hope” (112). Cela is here returning to the civil war, to the very outbreak of hostilities, recognizing the narcissism involved but unwilling to give up on the miraculous possibility of hope for self-understanding none the less. You can’t look at it directly; but you can’t quite look away. Self-reflection and self-ignorance alike open up to moral quagmires. The best you can do, perhaps, is a gaze that looks aslant: indirect, interrupted, but repeated and insistent.

Hence this novel of the civil war is also somehow about anything and everything but. In the first instance because (at least as the first part comes to a close) the war itself has yet to break out. The conflict is (only) on the horizon; it’s a matter of rumour and fear, potential but not full actuality. We hear of the murder of Lieutenant José Castillo, a Republican policeman–a murder that took place on July 12, 1936. We register the assassination the following day of the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo. Who is behind these deaths? Falangists? Communists? Or was Castillo, for instance, merely the victim of a crime of passion? Cela passes on all the various stories that circulate around and try to explain the violence: “Listen, couldn’t he have been hit by a taxi as he was crossing the street?” (68). Meanwhile, off stage, something larger is brewing: “They say there is going to be a military coup to guarantee law and order and to save the Republic” (68). No wonder that fear stalks Madrid, that “the country is nervous, the spark can fly at any moment, maybe it has already flown with these stupid deaths, and the fire, if it breaks out, will be hard to contain” (71). But none of this is shown directly or straightforwardly. For (in the second instance) everything is at the margin of the narrator’s own concerns and preoccupations: with his family, his friends, his girlfriend Toisha, his own anxieties and fantasies about sex and health and the day to day. To put this another way, this is less a political novel than an infrapolitical tale par excellence. Cela’s interest is less in the political shenanigans and conspiracies, or even the broad structural tensions and open conflicts, that lead to the open violence of the war itself, than rather in everything that is not itself directly political but without which politics itself would be unthinkable, unworkable. Hence also the novel’s meandering, nonlinear, repetitive style, a “stream of consciousness” that belongs to no one single individual, but which presents the fragmented reflection of an uncertain, ambivalent multitude that at any moment will be cast as two great forces–Fascist and Loyalist, Right Wing and Left–that are supposedly mutually incommensurable. Cela writes against that political fiction, with all its reductiveness, to give us instead a more complex (non)narrative glimpsed in a distorting mirror for which we are inevitably always on both sides of the divide.

Crossposted to Infrapolitial Deconstrution Collective.

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!

Read more… (.pdf file)

Interview in eldiario.es

Jon Beasley-Murray

I was interviewed by Amador Fernández-Savater for eldiario.es: Jon Beasley-Murray: “La clave del cambio social no es la ideología, sino los cuerpos, los afectos y los hábitos”. An extract:

12- Los movimientos políticos que te interesan son “enigmáticos, invisibles, misteriosos y fuera de lugar”. No representan ni se dejan representar. Funcionan de alguna manera como los propios afectos: opacos y sin discurso articulado, sin demanda ni proyecto. Pero ese tipo de fuerza, ¿puede ser algo más que destituyente? ¿Puede convertirse también en un poder constituyente, creador de instituciones que organicen nuestra vida cotidiana?

Jon Beasley-Murray. ¡Son muchos los movimientos políticos que me interesan! O, en otras palabras, son muchos (¿todos?) los que tienen su costado enigmático, invisible, misterioso y fuera de lugar. Para mí, no se trata de escoger los movimientos que te gustan y apostar todo en ellos, como si se tratase de una carrera de caballos. Los movimientos son procesos de experimentación y los resultados nunca se pueden predecir ¡ni prevenir! Esa experimentación sin garantías es la esencia de la política, de otro modo no estamos hablando de política, sino de implementación de planes técnicos. En cada caso, en cada momento, está presente la posibilidad de ambivalencia, de error, de desastre.

No vamos a ninguna parte sin reconocer esa opacidad inherente e inevitable de la política. Mejor afirmarla que negarla o intentar eliminarla. Sobre todo, porque es desde ese lado oscuro que emerge cualquier posibilidad de lo nuevo, de la creación. Así que lo veo todo al revés de como lo plantea tu pregunta: lo que es claro, visible, ordenado, previsible y cognoscible me parece que nunca puede ser constituyente, porque (para bien o para mal) es pura repetición de lo mismo.

Pero bueno, algo que aprendemos del hábito es que la repetición de lo mismo es otra ilusión: aún dentro de las repeticiones más regulares, algo se escapa, entra siempre la opacidad y el enigma. Y es por esto que debemos atender a estos momentos, de desviación y deriva, por sutiles y (casi) invisibles que sean.

13- Si no es la toma del poder, ¿qué sería un éxito, un logro, una victoria para los movimientos que te interesan?

Jon Beasley-Murray. La creatividad, la creación, la invención de nuevas formas de vivir; la expansión de lo común, de la comunidad. Un éxito nunca acabado, por supuesto; una victoria siempre por venir. O, en palabras del marqués de Sade, supuestamente en reacción a la Revolución Francesa: encore un effort si vous voulez être vraiment républicains! (todavía un esfuerzo si queréis ser verdaderamente republicanos)

There should be a second piece before long, with a focus on corruption. In the meantime, there’s quite a lively discussion of this one, not only in the comments on eldiario.es, but also on a page dedicated to Podemos on Reddit.

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today

Radical Democracy and Collective Movements Today: The Biopolitics of the Multitude versus the Hegemony of the People
Edited By Alexandros Kioupkiolis and Giorgos Katsambekis
Ashgate, Farnham, 2014, x+247 pp., ISBN: 978-1-4094-7052-6

“Back in 2011,” the editors of this collection of essays tell us, “it came to the notice of various observers that the worldwide civil insurgencies that kicked off in Tunisia shared a set of singular features. The ‘Arab Spring,’ the Spanish indignados, the Greek aganaktismenoi and the Occupy World Street movement appeared to be leaderless and self-organized insurgencies of common citizens” (2). But the way this formulation suggests that 2011 is already half a lifetime away indicates that these “various observers” have a journalist’s rather than a historian’s sense of timing and context. Indeed, the use of the casual phrase “kicked off” to describe the outbreak of the Arab Spring–as though it were a football match or a playground fight–shows the influence of Paul Mason, formerly Business Editor for the BBC’s Current Affairs show Newsnight (now Economics Editor at Channel Four News). Mason’s 2012 book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, updated a year later as Why It’s Still Kicking Off Everywhere, breathlessly compiles a series of dispatches from the frontlines of what he calls the “new global revolutions.” Mason is well-informed and smart, but it is not evident why his perspective should be setting the agenda for a volume of essays on political theory. It may be because he puts the Greek and Spanish protests front and centre: Kioupkiolis and Katasambekis are both based in Greece, and their contributors such as Marina Prentoulis and Lasse Thomassen also want to tell us about Spain and, to a much lesser extent, Occupy Wall Street. But hardly any of these writers address the Arab Spring, let alone the precursors to what happened way “back in 2011.” It is therefore hard not to feel that this is, from the outset, a shallow book, too attached to its place and its moment, too much a creature of its immediate environment.

The collection treats theoretical differences in similar fashion, as a kind of spectator sport: its subtitle pits Biopolitics against Hegemony, Multitude “versus” People. In the essays themselves, this split tends to play out as a head-to-head between Italian theorist Antonio Negri and the late Ernesto Laclau. Too often, however, these antagonisms come off as rather artificial–it is worth noting, for instance, that Negri and Laclau hardly engaged with each other’s work–and they generate more heat than light as it is seldom clear what, if anything, is at stake in the contest. In fact, the essays by the collection’s editors, Kioupkiolis and Katsambekis, are among the better contributions precisely because they refuse to be seduced by the very false dichotomies that their book otherwise promotes. So Kioupkiolis prefers to “muddle the lines” by arguing that “hegemony” can and should “be radically recast beyond recognition, assuming a multitudinous form” (150); equally, then, the multitude would have to “come to grips with residues of hegemonic politics in its midst” (166). Likewise, Katsambekis suggests “that the very opposition between ‘multitude’ and ‘the people’ should be challenged,” proposing instead that we think in terms of a “multitudinous people” (172), or rather of “the inescapable slippage between multitude and people” (187). In short, instead of pitting these concepts against each other it would be better to consider the biopolitics of hegemony, and the ways in which the multitude is repeatedly converted into people even as the people continuously threaten to become multitude. Seeing them as dichotomies is unhelpful, not least because it obscures the fact that what is at stake is less some fixed opposition between different conceptions of politics, but the points of transition or transmutation between them. The key to populism, for instance, is the way in which it constructs a people and has then forever to fend off the multitude. If we simply replicate this hostility (multitude “versus” people) in our own work, all we achieve is a translation of the logic of populism to the theoretical domain. This was precisely Laclau’s failing: an inability to see beyond populism, and so to understand either what passes for hegemony or its alternatives. Fortunately, this book shows that post-Laclauian theorists have moved on from such a dogmatically reductive vision of the political.

Take for instance Yannis Stavrakakis’s article on “Hegemony or Post-hegemony?” At first sight, and starting with its title (another “either/or”), this is a trenchant defense of Laclau’s legacy that takes aim at my own book, Posthegemony, as well as the work of Scott Lash and Richard Day. I will not engage in detail with his criticisms, except to note that it is odd that Stavrakakis should read my repeated and quite explicit rejections of binarism as, instead, inadvertent contradictions of some other position that I have in fact never taken. But the point is this: that precisely in establishing, however fitfully, binarism as the theoretical enemy (and here the fact that this enmity is projected onto my own work, among others, is by the by), Stavrakakis starts to open up Laclau’s legacy in interesting and productive ways. Admitting, then, that “not all [. . .] struggles are bound, sooner or later, to acquire a hegemonic form” directs our attention to the preconditions for so-called hegemonic projects and the factors that lead to “the gradual sublimation of the emerging multitude into ‘a people’” (121), all of which is what provokes a shift from hegemony to posthegemony in the first place. In this light, Stavrakakis’s only real mistake is to invoke the dialectic (“a historical dialectics of mutual engagement and co-constitution” [122]), as though the relationship between multitude and people, potentia and potestas, and so on, were a matter of negation (and negation of the negation) or, worse still, subject to some kind of historical or political teleology, with hegemony always destined to emerge from posthegemony. Laclau himself, with his insistence on contingency, would have been the first to reject this recuperation of Hegelianism to manage hegemony’s limitations. But otherwise I can only agree with Stavrakakis’s point that “the issue is not to radically isolate the eras of hegemony and post-hegemony” (123); this after all is the import of my own declaration, contra Lash and others, that “there is no hegemony and never has been” (Posthegemony ix). And I agree even more whole-heartedly with the argument that “discourse and affect, symbolic and real” are far from being “mutually exclusive dimensions,” and that it is therefore our task “to explore, in every historical conjuncture, the different and multiple ways in which these interact to co-constitute subjects, objects and socio-political orders” (123). It is just a pity that this book features so little of such explorations.

I sympathize with the Greek anarchists to whom Richard Day and Nick Montgomery’s article is notionally addressed: they complain that Day’s book, Gramsci is Dead, is practically unintelligible. When Day replies that he was “in fact trying to write in a way that would make sense to people like them,” one of them responds: “Well, my friend, you kind of fucked up on that, didn’t you?” (45). Yet the shame is that Day and Montgomery then proceed to contribute an argument that is, of all things, meta-meta-theoretical (i.e. about meta-theory) and that has little to say about Greece or, to be honest, anywhere else. Its much-vaunted intelligibility comes down to some populist gestures, a celebration of North American indigeneity, plus a demotic defence of undecidability: “everyone is right that everyone is wrong” (67). Which can hardly help Day’s anarchist friends very much. Perhaps the best essay in this collection is Benjamin Arditi’s article on posthegemony as “Politics outside the usual post-Marxist paradigm,” which stands out not merely for the clarity of its exposition but also for its range of reference and engagement with multiple examples of social movements, from protests against Pinochet or South African apartheid to the Mexican Zapatistas or the Argentine piqueteros. The point is that, though the indignados and the aganaktismenoi may have been particularly enthusiastic in their search for political vocabularies that go beyond the platitudes of populism or the shibboleths of hegemony, they were far from the first. And the fact that (as other essays in this collection delight in reminding us) they may not have entirely succeeded in throwing off the discursive tics of more conventional politics is neither surprising nor damning. What is interesting is the ways in which these movements build on and learn from each other, as well as from what Arditi describes as a whole “range of formats of collective action that were either ignored or dismissed by the advocates of the theory of hegemony” (41). Not all of these have turned out well, not by a long shot: whether in Egypt or Argentina, Spain or the United States, the extraordinary multiplication of political experiments since the end of the Cold War (or since, say, Venezuela’s Caracazo of February, 1989) has had as many dead ends as live wires, as many disappointments and setbacks as promising advances. Still, something always escapes. There is no teleology or predetermination here: neither Negri’s eschatology of the multitude nor Laclau and Mouffe’s infinite expansion of radical democracy. But there is plenty to remind us that politics (and surely, political theory) is rather more than a spectator sport. For better or for worse, as biopolitics it is life itself, and always has been.

La traición de Rita Hayworth

Manuel Puig, La traición de Rita Hayworth

At first sight, Manuel Puig’s La traición de Rita Hayworth seems to stand out for its gaps, for what it lacks. It has, for instance, no plot or narrator, at least in any conventional sense. For many critics, it has no protagonist. It consists merely of a series of texts, more or less connected but written from different perspectives and often in very different styles, that span fifteen years (from 1933 to 1948) in the life of a loose community in a small town on the Argentine Pampa. With each chapter we leap a year or so (sometimes, more, sometimes less) and are propelled into the concerns and obsessions of a new character or series of characters. Little attempt is made to “fill in the blanks” of what might come between these periodic bulletins from or about the town of Coronel Vallejos and its inhabitants. In one chapter (the fourth), the gaps are quite explicitly woven into the text itself, as we are presented with a “dialogue” between two characters, but only given one side of the exchange. At best, then, it may appear that we have little more than an approximation to the “real story,” whatever that may be, or even to a story at all. As such, in a book that (as its title suggests) is often preoccupied by the cinema, our experience as readers is much like that of someone who has not seen a film and has to have the plot described to them. This book is littered with such descriptions, which we gradually suspect are at times highly tendentious and far removed from the real thing; yet another gap opens up, between the description and the thing itself. But then how “real” is a movie, anyway? This novel puts that question center-stage.

But what is important here are ultimately not the gaps or the absences. Or rather, each gap is only the site of a new production or creation. So retelling a movie’s plot is the chance to construct a new narrative, a new version more fitted to the teller or the listener’s life and situation. Likewise, why see the multiple shifts of perspective in terms of the information that is skipped over or lost? In fact, they’re part of a drive to provide always more: more perspectives, more styles, more genres, more possibilities or actualizations of a consistent set of problematics. It’s in this sense that Linda Craig can point out that La traición is “a novel of supplementarity” (Juan Carlos Onetti, Manuel Puig, and Luisa Valenzuela: Marginality and Gender 72). Her prime example is the book’s logic of naming: just about every character has more than one moniker, their “given name” (e.g. José L Casals) plus a nickname (Toto). Likewise, “Rita Hayworth” was originally Margarita Carmen Cansino, her Hispanic heritage erased (but not quite) to make her a global star. The supplement is always political, potentially subversive, and Craig quotes Derrida’s definition of it as “the sign which replaces the center, with supplements it, taking the center’s place in its absence” (qtd. 71). Of course, precisely such relations between center and periphery are at the novel’s heart: General Vallejos and then Merlo (the desolate one-horse town where Toto goes to college) are both on the periphery compared to the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires; not even the radio, Toto’s piano teacher complains, reaches her out on the pampa. But Argentina as a whole is in turn itself on the periphery compared to the sights and sounds of global culture transmitted by machinery of film. And the novel’s various characters comment on the distance between their own lives and what they see on the silver screen, but more importantly they also construct connections between the two worlds: and in translating their circumstances into the vocabulary of the cinema, they produce a second version of their own lives, a supplement that complicates (and to some extent undoes) the entire dichotomy of center and periphery.

The real fear here is not so much that these Argentine lives somehow fall short of the models disseminated by Hollywood mass culture. The real fear is not distance but identity, resemblance, as is indicated by Toto’s abashed admission that a photo he shows his piano teacher depicts someone he’s told he resembles, and that “on getting to fifth grade I’m going to be like him” (306). This is the desultory predictability of social reproduction. But mass culture promises a way out, an alternative, or at least the chance to dream. What’s at stake in these people’s relationship to the cinema is not mimicry but betrayal, though here the novel’s translated title, Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is misleading: it’s not so much that the Argentine spectator is “betrayed” by the sirens of the silver screen, though a case can be made for that reading; but the films’ audiences, who are never simply passive consumers, are equally prepared to betray their idols, too, not least in their always unfaithful translations and repackagings of Hollywood plots for their own needs and desires. There’s also a third rendering of the title’s meaning, in that it’s around the figure of Hayworth that Toto’s father betrays him: he says that she’s his favourite movie star and promises to accompany him to the cinema, but never does. As such, the title is probably best rendered in English as The Rita Hayworth Betrayal, which conveys the multiple forms of resistance, deviation, and resignification that run through the novel. At precisely the time that Peronism is trying to constitute an Argentine people, not least through political technologies based on the cinematic experience, La traición de Rita Hayworth undermines the very notion of a cinematic pact, by refusing to give us a recognizable plot that would bind its constituent parts in the service of a single grand narrative. No: instead of a people, the book’s radical fragmentation and refusal to settle on a single point of view, its constant productive betrayal, point instead to a multitude that rebels against any attempts to reduce multiplicity to identity.

Cien años de soledad II

Cien años de soledad

Given the criticisms that have targeted magical realism for its easy descent into cheap exoticism and even kitsch–see for instance Julian Barnes’s complaint about the “package-tour baroque”– it’s perhaps surprising to remember that Cien años de soledad ends in such apocalyptic manner: with a mother bleeding to death, her newborn baby eaten by ants, and a hurricane of Biblical proportions that destroys Macondo and its entire fictional universe, all of which is to be “exiled from the memory of men” (549 [417]). There is little here in the way of consolation or hope. It’s closer to James Ellroy or Cormac McCarthy than to the gentle amiability that we expect of the always-smiling García Márquez. Of course, in some ways the book’s concluding gesture is futile: Macondo is far from wiped out from its readers’ memories. And despite the prediction that “everything written” in the manuscripts that describe and predict this holocaust–and so, by implication, everything that’s written in the novel itself–“was unrepeatable from time immemorial and forever more” (550 [417]), there have been innumerable attempts to copy and adapt the magical realist style, with more and less success, from Salman Rushdie to Laura Esquivel. Indeed, if anything tends to be forgotten about Cien años, perhaps it is its devastating climax and the symbolic self-destruction of everything that has come before. It is the dark side of magical realism, its grotesque horror, that all too quickly fades from the reader’s mind, or perhaps is simply not taken seriously enough.

Meanwhile, this final claim that the novel is somehow an unrepeatable event is both an impossible paradox and something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. For Cien años is indeed a singular book, and its astonishing combination of equally enormous critical and commercial success has seldom if ever been duplicated: not by any other of the novelists of the Boom, or even by García Márquez himself. But it is precisely its uniqueness that has ensured that it has never lacked for imitators. No wonder that Barnes or the writers later associated with the “McOndo” movement should plead for a stop to the proliferating repetitions of something like (but not like enough) One Hundred Years of Solitude, whose nadir was probably The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts, by self-confessed “Márquez parasite” Louis de Bernières. More fundamentally, Cien años is also largely a book about (indeed, obsessed with) repetition, and it goes against the novel’s own logic that it should end with such an absolute prohibition of duplication and reiteration. After all, it is the failure of such a prohibition–the injunction against the Buendía family’s “original sin” of incest–that sets its plot moving and drives it forward, as the narrative is full of every variation of incestuous desire until finally the last of the line, Amaranta Ursula and her nephew Aureliano Babilonia, come together and produce the foretold offspring with the tail of a pig. However much you try to do something different and avoid the mistakes of the past, that past continues to haunt you. Indeed, it is perhaps only because by the end the very atmosphere of Macondo is so full of the ghosts of the motley cast of characters that have wandered through the book’s pages, that in the end García Márquez can only end the thing by shouting “enough!” and bringing on a cataclysmic hurricane that will tear the whole place down.

For another irony is that this novel, whose title tells us it is concerned with solitude, does in fact, and thanks in part to its proliferating repetitions, present us with what can only be called a multitude. Even at the end, when Aureliano is practically the only man left in town, the very objects that surround him invoke the continued presence of other lives that live on through shared habits. He sits in a rocking chair, for instance, that is “the same one in which Rebeca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Márquez, and in which Amaranta Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child” (546 [414]). His response to feel oppressed under “the crushing weight of so much past” (546 [414]); this may well be a bad multitude. But the point is that his problem is hardly solitude per se, or at least not in any simple sense. Indeed, more generally this is a book that is characterized by excess and overindulgence more than anything else. Indeed, it would be no less misleading if it had the title Cien años de plenitud.

This is, after all, also a book that clearly has ambition to be a “total novel”–another reason for it ultimately to declare that it can never be done again–and in service of that (itself, excessive) ambition, it overflows. It’s not just one multitude, but many: a multitude of Aurelianos and José Arcadios, of butterflies and beauties, of inventions and apparatuses, of firing squads and wars, of gypsies and of bananas and caramels, of flowers and books, of chamber pots and doubloons, of merchants and mistresses, of (mis)interpretations and mistakes, of solitudes (yes, solitudes, too) and friendships. Everything is singular but nothing is single: another will always come along in due time. If anything, Macondo’s problem (and that of its inhabitants) is that it is never alone, that there is no way of avoiding or preventing the various forces and energies that sweep through it. Even shutting oneself away (as so many characters repeatedly do) is simply embedding oneself in the machine, often enough to invest still further in the formidable cycles of creation, production, and destruction that drive the multitude. The task, then, is less to resist the multitudes than to determine which are bad (pestilential or merely kitsch) and which are good, enhancing life in all its myriad incarnations.

The Everyday Multitude

This is one of my contributions to this year’s Latin American Studies Association Congress in Chicago…

Coco Fusco, The Empty Plaza

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously announce that there is a “specter haunting Europe.” And in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, a book that Slavoj Zizek called a “Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century,” we are reminded of this ghostly scene, which now, however, seems to be global: in the Americas as much as Europe, First as much as Third Worlds, “it is midnight in a night of specters,” they tell us (386). If anything, the number of ghostly apparitions have increased: not one, but many. Or at least two. On the one hand, there is the new supranational mode of political organization and sovereignty that they term “Empire.” And on the other, there is a countervailing but equally international, unbounded political subject that goes by the name of the multitude. “Both the new reign of Empire,” however, “and the new immaterial and cooperative creativity of the multitude,” Hardt and Negri tell us, “move in shadows, and nothing manages to illuminate our destiny ahead” (386). But if Empire is shadowy and mysterious, at least its traces can be fairly clearly discerned in a series of developments from the creation of the United Nations to the end of the Cold War and beyond. The multitude, by contrast, is particularly difficult to pin down. It is, if you like, the specter haunting the specter of Empire: a counter-specter of a “political subject [. . .] begin[ning] to emerge on the world scene” (411). Or as they put it in their follow-up book–entitled, precisely, Multitude–it is “the living alternative growing within Empire” (xiii). However much we find ourselves in the shadow of globalization and “under the cloud of war” (xviii), the multitude, they argue, is on its way. Yet in some ways, the more they argue for its actuality, the more spectral it appears: in response to the criticism “You are really just utopians!” they declare that “We have taken pains to argue that the multitude is not merely some abstract, impossible dream detached from our present reality but rather that the concrete conditions for the multitude are in the process of formation in our social world and that the possibility of the multitude is emerging from that tendency” (Multitude 226-27). This, however, hardly seems to shed much light on things. It may have “concrete conditions,” but the multitude remains merely a “possibility [. . .] emerging” from a tendency. It is perpetually “to come.”

Read more… (.pdf file)

We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez

George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez, which styles itself as “a people’s history of the Venezuelan Revolution,” is a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of the contemporary Venezuelan government and its origins, but also if more indirectly to debates over the so-called Latin American “left turns” and indeed to our thinking about the relationship between social movements and the state in general.

Ciccariello-Maher positions his book as a response of sorts to the debate initiated by John Holloway, whose influential Change the World Without Changing Power was inspired by the experience of the Mexican Zapatistas. Holloway argues that the Zapatistas, who famously opted out of and even argued against participation in the electoral process with their “Other Campaign,” offered a vision of what we might call constituent power trumping a constituted power that only ever repeats all-too-familiar structures of domination. A few years later, drawing on the Venezuelan case in which Hugo Chávez was merely the first in a series of often stunning electoral victories by the Latin American Left, Gregory Wilpert followed with a book whose title is an explicit rebuke to Holloway: Changing Venezuela by Taking Power. In trying to bring together these perspectives, refusing to choose in any simple fashion between social movements “from below” and the role of the state “from above,” Ciccariello-Maher’s contribution is broadly in line with the account given by Sujantha Fernandes’s Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavez’s Venezuela, the main methodological difference being that where Fernandes provides a more thorough-going and textured anthropological account focussed on the urban poor, We Created Chávez is more broadly historical, examining a range of groups and organizations across the country from the 1950s to the present. Unfortunately, Ciccariello-Maher provides what is only a response “of sorts” to this debate in that specific references to this previous work is muted, most often found buried in footnotes.

Moreover, there are other references that are simply missing. For instance, on another, more theoretical level, this same debate about Venezuela and the contemporary Latin American Left is to some extent replicated in the exchange between Simon Critchley, author of Infinitely Demanding, and Slavoj Zizek, who like Wilpert turns to Chávez (as elsewhere he turns to Lenin) to justify the importance of seizing the “commanding heights” as much as the grassroots in any serious effort to effect social change. Invocations of constituent and constituted power also suggest the controversies surrounding Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s theorization of Empire and (more recently) Commonwealth or even Negri and Giuseppe Cocco’s GlobAL, on “biopolitics and struggle in a globalized Latin America”; and one might have thought that (for instance) Bruno Bosteels’s reflections on the similar situation of Bolivia, addressed in The Actuality of Communism, deserved a mention. But while Hardt and Negri are mentioned in passing (and again, in footnotes), these other names are absent.

Ciccariello-Maher’s main points of reference are, instead, Régis Debray (as antagonist) and Frantz Fanon, CLR James, and Enrique Dussel, mixed with a little Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau where occasion seems to merit. At the very end, Lenin comes to save the day and resolve the apparent “paradox” that despite their “militant autonomy and rejection of the Venezuelan state,” so many social activists and ordinary people alike “nevertheless pledge their loyalty, however temporarily and contingently, to the man currently [as Ciccariello-Maher was writing] sitting atop that state” (5-6). The problem remains that there is very little explicit dialogue in this book with other contemporary critical approaches to Latin American politics and culture. Translating both that paradox and Ciccariello-Maher’s proposed solution into the terms of broader debates in the region and elsewhere is left, then, as an exercise for the reader.

One possibility is a turn to the dialectic. For if one were in a dialectical frame of mind (and Ciccariello-Maher very often is, on occasion finding even a “dialectic within a dialectic” [236]), one might suggest that We Created Chávez resolves the apparent antagonism between the positions outlined by Holloway and Wilpert in terms of the triumphant synthesis of a Revolution whose revolutionary nature is constantly asserted and never questioned. This is the synthesis of the constituent process and the constituted fact of institutional organization; this is the negation of the negation that presents us with the revolutionary state incarnated in “an individual, Chávez, as an expression of [. . .] alternative power ‘from below’” (242). Hence the need to support Chávez and his government: he is after all (as the book’s title reminds us) the creation of popular energies that long predate him, and that the narrative Ciccarielo-Maher presents dates back to the 1950s and the origins of Venezuelan democracy.

The book begins with the various guerrilla groups that sprang up in the wake of the 1958 overthrow of dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, tracing the effects of their misjudged vanguardism and the relative ease with which they were routed by the state, only for the masses to grow in power and finally show the bankruptcy of “Venezuelan exceptionalism” in the Caracazo, whose consummation was Chávez’s electoral victory of 1998. On a somewhat shorter timescale (and perhaps another dialectic within the dialectic), if the violent protests of 1989 were “a mass charge without a vanguard” and Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt were then the actions of “a vanguard that was not able to immediately coordinate its masses” (101), Chávez in power represents their sublation or Aufhebung.

But once the long view is introduced, a somewhat different story emerges. In rather less dialectical manner Ciccariello-Maher’s book is also about the varied and torturous paths taken by a vast range of social struggles, some of which become unified under the name of Chávez and the umbrella of the Bolivarian revolution (at least for a time), but others not. Even at its best, this is less the negation of negation than a long, slow consolidation of forces more reminiscent of Laclau than of Zizek or Hegel. At its worst, in Ciccariello-Maher’s account the dialectic is replaced by a sometimes rather teleological narrative of progress. More to the point, what we mostly see as the book guides us through an alphabet soup of acronyms (FALN, LCR, MAS, PCUV, M-28, CFPs, CTV, FRETECO, and many more) is a complexity that is not well served by the proliferation of appeals to dialectical thinking, however fast and loose our conception of the dialectic may be. Any unity appears fragmentary at best, and yet there are even uncanny moments (in the history of the student movement, for instance, or in official reaction to lumpen self-organization) at which the line between chavismo and the anti-chavista opposition becomes awfully blurred, despite Chávez’s (and this book’s) consistent attempts to distinguish as clearly as possible between revolutionary Bolivarians and reactionary escuálidos.

What becomes evident instead is a multiplicity that remains stubbornly resistant to any final unification or even neat divisions. A tension remains, then, to trouble over-confident declarations of synthesis or loyalty. When the book (like Zizek) reaches for Lenin, it is now the Lenin of “dual power,” of the sometimes uneasy, often downright contradictory, cohabitation of popular power and state command, local councils and sovereign institutions, constituent and constituted power in an equilibrium that can only ever be provisional. From this point of view, as the book’s last line has it, support for Chávez can only be “por ahora” or “for now” (255). Theory is abandoned in favor of a pragmatism that sits somewhat uneasily with the radicalism that Ciccariello-Maher otherwise wears rather ostentatiously on his sleeve. And the fact that this watchword of enduring suspicion is taken from Chávez himself–from his brief televised address in the aftermath of his failed coup attempt of 1992–is but a further irony or twist in the tale. It is as though we can go beyond the gran comandante only by mimicking his own rhetorical strategies.

But if there is no tidy synthesis at the end of the story, the excessiveness of constituent or popular power cuts both ways. On the one hand, Chávez can never fully represent the Venezuelan people, however hard he tried (and nobody, frankly has tried harder), because ultimately there is something that always resists and overpowers such representation. But then there are also the aspects of social struggle that are somehow left behind along the road, that are never fully incorporated into chavismo or that are dropped or drop out. Emblematic of the other side or failures of chavista populism, its failure to construct a “people,” is the fate of Douglas Bravo, long-term revolutionary and now disillusioned ex-chavista. Bravo bookends We Created Chávez: he is introduced early, in part to establish Ciccariello-Maher’s credentials, in a book that is very concerned with the bona-fides of the anthropological “I,” with its possession of the passwords and “magic words” (83) that enable and guarantee the authenticity of its and our entry into Venezuelan reality. We are told that Bravo himself checks the author out and ultimately approves: “I can work with you” he “abruptly announces” (25). But it turns out that Ciccariello-Maher cannot work with Bravo, who is twice described as “seething” (28, 253), as in some sense out of control; this is a word otherwise only applied to an anti-Chávez journalist’s denunciation of the “lumpen.” In a final scene, moreover, Bravo is portrayed with “his mind clearly moving quicker than his words” (whatever exactly that means) and depicted with more than a smattering of condescension as “an isolated former guerrilla who cannot accept the reality of the battle ahead, a comandante without troops” (253).

So who, I wonder, created Bravo? Why is he a comandante without troops, while Chávez by contrast has so many battalions to call upon? If we are to blame Bravo for being left behind by history, then why not in turn praise Chávez for his astuteness in figuring out the way the wind blows? Why, in short, ascribe agency only to the losers (here, Bravo) while so resolutely denying it the victors (Chávez)? There are some strange choices at work here. Or perhaps not so strange, merely overdetermined. Everyone likes a winner, after all.

In the end, my problem with Ciccariello-Maher’s purported resolution of the conflict between constituent and constituted power is that it comes down to something of a truism. Of course in some ways the “people” created Chávez–though one would have thought that a dialectician would also point out the ways in which Chávez likewise created his people, not least through his consistent politicization of the social field, his insistent division between the people and the escuálidos who fall outside and beyond any attempt at representation. But more to the point: didn’t the “people” also create Betancourt, Carlos Andrés Pérez, and the like? Isn’t constituted power always a result of constituent processes, even when the results don’t turn out quite how we (or the people) might want?

In other words, the simple gesture of pointing to popular creativity and productivity doesn’t in itself legitimate their resultant representatives. Suggesting that it does risks repeating the dual festishism that Ciccariello-Maher sets out to abolish: it fetishes the state and the people at the very same time. Here, indeed, it might have been helpful to consider the distinction between people and multitude upon which Hardt and Negri (among others) insist: it is surely better put to say that it is the multitude that creates Chávez, while he in turn constructs them as a people. Sadly, the very notion of multitude is here dismissed in the tersest of footnotes for its supposed “abstract implausibility” (275). Far from it: Ciccariello-Maher had the chance here to investigate the concrete and quite particular attributes and activities of the Venezuelan multitude, and perhaps also then to complicate Hardt and Negri’s faith that the multitude is always good, always to be trusted. It is this faith that is abstract and implausible, not the category of the multitude itself. But to employ the concept of the “people” so loosely and so uncritically is no great improvement.

In short, this is an important–indeed vital–book that does much to rectify the often short-sighted and shallow accounts of the Bolivarian process by its detractors and defenders alike. By pointing to the centrality of the Caracazo, and beyond that of struggles that originate as far back as the 1950s (and one could go further still, of course, as Margarita López Maya suggests, back to the 1930s or even the 1900s), it displaces the rather sterile debate about Chávez’s (now, Maduro’s) mindset or personality. Along with Who Can Stop the Drums? (as well as the work of others, such as Luis Duno’s important forthcoming contributions), We Created Chávez usefully shifts our attention from the symbolic figure of the sovereign himself, who has otherwise beguiled even those (such as Richard Gott or Tariq Ali) who pledge themselves to him.

But in its tendency to characterize both Chávez and sovereignty more generally simply as product, simply as the result of popular power, this book proposes a new version of Venezuelan exceptionalism, as though the Bolivarian state were unique or somehow singularly organic in its authentic expressiveness of a popular base. It plays down therefore all the various tactics of the chavista state, not least its novel use of media, and utterly ignores the effects of the construction of transcendence, the ways in which constituted power, by folding constituent power back on itself, converts multitude into a delimited people, creating a new range of subalterns and a new set of exclusions. It ignores the ways in which Chávez proved the last gasp of puntofijismo in ensuring some kind of stability for rich and poor alike (“the only leader capable of staving off the threat of civil war” as one of Ciccariello-Maher’s informants rather regretfully puts it [87]).

In sum, and despite all the hedges and provisos that it offers, We Created Chávez runs the risk of re-enchanting the chavista state all the more firmly: no longer as simply the agency that more or less arbitrarily redistributes oil rent, but as the only one that can do so legitimately in the name of its constituents.