Desborde subterráneo


For those whose vision of Peruvian music goes no further than pan pipes, or perhaps at best the Afro-Peruvian chanteuse Susana Baca, Fabiola Bazo’s Desborde subterráneo: 1983-1992 will come as something of a shock. For it documents Lima’s punk and post-punk scene in the 1980s, featuring myriad mostly short-lived bands that reveled in names such as Narcosis and Psicosis, Eutanasia (Euthanasia) and Ataque Frontal (Frontal Attack), not to mention Kaos General (General Chaos) and Sociedad de Mierda (Shitty Society). “El Condor Pasa” this is not. Nor is it exactly the “world music” beloved of Peter Gabriel, Luaka Bop, or Starbucks.

But the frantic, frenetic explosion of musical energy captured by Bazo’s book, richly illustrated with grainy photographs and fading handbills, emerged less from some autochthonous folk tradition (despite the proto-punk of Lima’s pathbreaking garage-rock band Los Saicos in the 1960s) than from disaffected Peruvian youth turning to the world at large in search of ways to express their anger at the constraints imposed by a traditional society suddenly thrown into crisis. For the 1980s in Peru were years of insurgency and repression, civil war and car bombs, blackouts and curfews, as the Maoist “Shining Path” guerrilla fought a “prolonged people’s war” to bring down a state that reacted with increasing authoritarianism and almost random brutality.

It was in this context that adolescents in Lima searched out precious imported records and tapes, soon pirated and exchanged in the flourishing informal market of street traders and hawkers, then begged, borrowed, or stole musical instruments to play and record their own frustrations and anxieties, with lyrics written in Spanish and specific to the local context. In turn, then, they passed around demos and cassettes, or organized impromptu concerts and gigs in nightclubs and private houses, to pogo to songs such as “Toque de Queda” (“Curfew”), “Sucio Policía” (“Dirty Cop”), “¿Dónde está la libertad?” (“Where’s the Freedom?”), or “Ya no formo parte de esto” (“I’m No Longer Part of This”). And though this music started as something hidden or underground, as Bazo’s title (“Subterranean Outpouring”) indicates, it soon overflowed and, however fleetingly, caught the mood of a significant section of young people across the city, from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, and social classes.

At least briefly, it seemed that if there was one thing that all Peruvians under the age of (say) twenty-five could agree on, it was that society was shit, and that the armed forces and government were as bad as the so-called terrorists. Economic crisis and hyper-inflation only added to the feeling that there was really “no future” for the country. For the most part, the subterraneans or “subtes” disdained politics, as the political system was manifestly broken across the spectrum from Left to Right. In Bazo’s words, “They had no political agenda or plan of action. Their songs denounced the burdens of a decaying society. In reality theirs were cries of impotence and very individualistic personal alienation” (52)

The irony, however, as Bazo makes clear, is that the punk rejection or refusal of established norms was largely a reflection of new social realities that were rapidly transforming Peru. As such, the “subtes” hardly offered an alternative to the broader movements around them; if anything, they were rather mainstream.

In some ways, the punks of Peru’s capital had much in common with the militants of Shining Path, though their backgrounds were usually different–urban rather than rural, for instance; skeptics rather than believers in Peru’s potential for modernization and radical renovation. Bazo strenuously resists the comparison, but Shining Path likewise looked overseas, in their case to a strange combination of Chinese Communism and their leader Abimael Guzmán’s idiosyncratic reading of Kant, for forms of expression suited to local frustrations and deep disappointment at the historic failures of the Peruvian state. Moreover, motivated as much by affect as by reason, the Maoists and the punks alike were often drawn to a mythology of violence as a purgative force, a remedy of both first and last resort: as the Eutanasia song “Ratas Callejeras” (“Street Rats”) puts it, “Anger says it’s time to start [. . .] a whole army of rats will march through this dying city’s shit” (178).

On the other hand, Bazo does argue that, if only in their most utopian moments, the “subtes” were equally like Peru’s mid-1980s populist president Alan García in their effort to put forward a “multi-class message” that might transcend the deep divisions between Lima’s rich and poor (28). The book laments that the punks had no more success in this than did the ill-fated García. Indeed, the second half of Desborde subterráneo focuses on the protracted disintegration of the punk scene, torn apart by hostilities that followed the lines of class (and implicitly also racial) difference and inequality. Bazo seems to have more sympathy with the so-called “pitupunks” or “posh punks” than with what she portrays as the rather more violent, unpredictable, and ultimately self-consciously political second-wave of punk bands that came from Lima’s marginal neighbourhoods. But she has to admit that one of the latter’s representatives, Sociedad de Mierda’s Pedro “Tóxico,” has a point or two in a fanzine article in which he writes: “I don’t know, but I think I hate the pitupunks. That’s why I don’t believe anything they say, because what I do know for sure is that one day, sooner or later, I’ll be working for one of them: because that’s what they’ll be: BOSSES. My bosses, my exploiters” (165).

But the book ultimately suggests that the “subte” scene’s social role is best understood in terms of the guiding metaphor of a subterranean “outpouring” or overflow. This image is in turn taken from Peruvian anthropologist José Matos Mar, whose book Desborde popular y crisis del estado depicts an emergent unofficial economic circuit of (Bazo quotes him saying) “unregistered businesses and activities, that operate outside of the legal system or on its borders, often [. . .] creatively developing their own rules of the game” (12). This, of course, is precisely the murky world of street-trading and semi-clandestine pirate reproduction through which punk spread and on which it fed in Lima. It is also the selfsame informal sector that right-wing economist Hernando de Soto praised in his book El otro sendero as an atomized but efficient collection of do-it-yourself entrepreneurs. And perhaps this is how the overtly individualistic “subte” scene was most mainstream of all: it was carried along in a broader flux of uprooted people who were simultaneously abandoned and celebrated in the neoliberal transformation of the welfare state into security apparatus. The punk (at least, pitupunk) disdain for politics should then be understood in the context of a Peru that voted in an outsider president such as Alberto Fujimori (a sort of proto-Trump) and then applauded as he dissolved Congress and assumed authoritarian powers in order to defeat “terrorism.”

Myself, I wonder if it is really true that there was never any hope for an alternative, even in all the chaos and carnage of the time. Bazo, however, seems to think so when she boldly declares that, when the dust finally settled, “the system [had] shown, once again, that it couldn’t be destroyed” (167). On the contrary, one could very well argue that Peru’s postcolonial creole republic was destroyed, just not in the ways that anyone had expected or desired.

Yet finally, if I am stressing the politics (and sociology) of the punk and post-punk scene that this book depicts, it is because that is what Bazo likewise does. Perhaps surprisingly, she seems rather uninterested in the music itself, preferring to focus on either broad labels (punk, hardcore, metal, and so on) or specific lyrics, which she often quotes at length. We get very little sense of the sound of the subtes. Now maybe this is because, as she tells us, “the important thing [was] the attitude” (148). But surely something can be said about the music, not least because (deluded or otherwise) so many of the informants quoted here consistently tell us that it’s the music that matters. What was the panorama of sounds, rhythms, beats, resonance and noise that energized so many so completely at least for a short time? How did it change and develop, and how much if at all did it end up diverging from its “world music” (Anglo-American or Spanish) models?

Similarly, it is a little odd that a book published by an art gallery (Lima’s Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, which organized a show to accompany it) should have so little to say about the visual components of the scene it is describing. For all the copious illustrations of comics, fanzines, photographs, handbills, posters, and so on, these generally go unanalyzed, unremarked. Hence the paradox that a book about a phenomenon that it hesitates to call a movement, precisely because of its obstreperous refusal of any political claims or demands, in the end views this same phenomenon almost entirely through political categories that the punk scene manifestly overflows or exceeds.

Fortunately, however, this marvelous book overflows too, goes beyond the boundaries that it itself sets: it overwhelms us with its visual charge, and it makes us ache to hear the music much like Lima’s “subtes” ached to hear it themselves. Enough of pan pipes! Desborde subterráneo inspires us to rethink and re-hear (or hear for the very first time) Peru’s music, and perhaps the soundscape of Latin America as a whole.

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.

Posthegemony in Peru

I was fortunate a few weeks ago to be able to present my book at a “Mesa Verde” at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Lima.  Guillermo Rochabrún and Juan Carlos Ubilluz provided stimulating comments, and there was a spirited discussion session at the end.  Herewith, the video of the event.  Many thanks to Patricia Ames for moderating and making it possible.

Renaming the Desert

La teta asustada poster

“Renaming the Desert: Sound and Image in the Films of Claudia Llosa”

For a film-maker, whom one might suppose to be more concerned with the visual image, Claudia Llosa shows a perhaps surprising interest in language and, indeed, sound. In the first instance, this is manifest in the prominence of indigenous language in both her films, Madeinusa and La teta asustada. In each case, the movie opens, with very little else in the way of preliminaries, to the sound of a song sung in Quechua. In fact, in La teta asustada that is all there is: the screen itself is completely blank. It is as though, instead of the traditional cinematic establishing shot, a panorama that would establish a spatial milieu and setting within which the narrative is then to unfold, we have rather an establishing sound. In Llosa’s films, the action is situated acoustically or linguistically before it finds physical space or a visual field. And in that the specific sound in each case is Quechua folk song, the characters and plot are therefore located in a sonic space defined by the Andean highlands, even when, as in La teta asustada, their physical location is the outskirts of Lima, in the desert littoral. In this film, then, we soon find that there is an ongoing tension between sound and image, language and the things it is to describe or name. If the plot of La teta asustada is driven by fundamental physical and geographical displacement–it revolves around the task of returning the corpse of the principal character’s mother (who sang the opening song) back to her highland village–this is duplicated in its formal structure, by the slippage between what is heard or said and what is seen.

Read more… (pdf file)


I wonder whether it is the pressure of the Nobel prize acceptance speech itself, which marks the point at which the writer is thrust into a new form of public celebrity, or the burden that Latin American literature takes upon itself to be politically engaged where other literatures do not feel the same need, but it’s notable how little Mario Vargas Llosa has to say about literature in his recent Nobel lecture.

The speech is entitled “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” an echo no doubt of Vargas Llosa’s own book, In Praise of the Stepmother, which is by chance one of his least obviously political books. But it might equally have gone by a title such as “In Denunciation of Authoritarianism,” for beyond some well-worn homilies about the power of fiction (“Literature is a false representation of life that nevertheless helps us to understand life better”), and a little bit of incidental autobiography, Vargas Llosa has more to say about politics than anything else.

In denouncing authoritarianism, the Nobel laureate takes the opportunity to launch pot-shots at Cuba (of course), but also Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Morales, as well as indulging in a long digression whose main purpose is to denigrate Catalan nationalism.

Generally, it’s interesting how Vargas Llosa constructs and tries to balance his various audiences. He speaks in praise of Spain, the country of his current residence and citizenship, and presumably the comments on Catalonia are a function of his self-positioning as a specifically Spanish intellectual. But he also appeals to his Peruvian roots and tries to deflect the charge that he has in any way betrayed them by moving to Europe and taking up with the former conquistadors who did so much damage to Peru’s pre-Columbian cultures. And he further has to present himself as a fully cosmopolitan, global figure whose ties to any one particular place are necessarily weaker than his allegiance to the world republic of letters.

And yet, for all his purported praise of reading and fiction, ultimately his investment in the world republic of letters (that “false representation of life”) always has to cede to the greater calling offered by the res publica itself. Why, for instance, does he feel compelled to tell us that “Latin America has made progress”, that “We are afflicted with fewer dictatorships than before,” and that “if it stays on it, combats insidious corruption, and continues to integrate with the world, Latin America will finally stop being the continent of the future and become the continent of the present”?

He has, after all, much less to say about the state of Latin American literature; indeed, his literary references are all at least half a century old: to José María Arguedas and Juan Rulfo, to the Boom writers “Borges, Octavio Paz, Cortázar, García Márquez, Fuentes, Cabrera Infante, Rulfo, Onetti, Carpentier, Edwards, Donoso,” when not to figures such as “Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, and Proust.” His literary narrative is soaked in nostalgia; but when it comes to politics he feels the need to renounce all lost loves (socialism, above all) in the name of a paean to democratic progress and a concomitant warning against the excesses of the contemporary “left turns.”

Literary dreams are, apparently, to be indulged; political dreams, however, are to be disparaged.

Finally, it may be a strange kind of false modesty (or justified by the fact that the prize itself presumably attests to his pre-eminence in the field), but Vargas Llosa make precious little reference to his own works of fiction. He says somewhat more about his love of the theater, and still more about his work as a journalist.

In short, it is as though the Nobel laureate himself shared some of the fear of literature that he projects upon those in power. He claims that “all regimes determined to control the behavior of citizens from cradle to grave fear [literature] so much they establish systems of censorship to repress it,” In fact, this is at best a half-truth: as many literary and cultural historians have observed, Latin American literature is a good a place as any to research the ways in which elites use the written word to their own advantage. From the privileged role of the church and letrados under colonialism, to the “foundational fictions” of the nineteenth century that continue to imbue the virtues of citizenship in contemporary school curricula, literature has historically been as much handmaiden of power as its opponent.

In sum, Vargas Llosa seems to want to confine sedition to fiction: literature, in his conception, invokes romantic images of the past, with sweet memories of big-nosed grandfathers and enthusiastic Uncle Luchos. When it comes to the present, however, he steps outside this literary role so as to curb the foolishness of those who have not followed his example in putting behind them their youthful dreams.


Congratulations to Claudia Llosa and, by extension, to Peru for the success of La teta asustada, which just won the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear for best picture.

Claudia Llosa
A couple of notes…

First, the English title Milk of Sorrow is not even close to the Spanish original. I would have translated it as “The Nervous Tit.” I haven’t seen the film myself yet, but I would hope that the resonance with “nervous tic” might prove appropriate. Of course, some could think that the film was a psychological portrait of a common garden bird.

Second, this here blog has tried to provide a guide to Peruvian cinema. I’d like to think that this collection of reviews is the most comprehensive to be found online in English. It even features an essay on the topic, complete with a fairly detailed account of Llosa’s previous movie, Madeinusa.

Finally, for offline resources on Peruvian film, you’ll have to wait for Jeffery Middents’s forthcoming book. Middents himself is, naturally enough, rather cock-a-hoop at Llosa’s recent success.


La hora azul coverWhereas the Peruvian Alonso Cueto’s previous novel, with its title Grandes miradas (which could translate as something like “Broad Gazes”), suggested an interest in the visible, La hora azul (“The Blue Hour,” winner of the 2005 Herralde Prize) is all about the voice. Almost every character is identified by their distinctive voices; there is even one who has structured his entire wardrobe and habits around his voice, believing it to be “the best and most significant demonstration of his qualities as a Lima gentleman” (214).

It’s true that the story opens with a visual image: the photograph of an apparently enviably successful couple, published in the society pages of a glossy magazine. And moreover that the plot is put into motion by a written text, a letter that the novel’s protagonist, a Lima lawyer by the name of Adrián Ormache, finds among his recently dead mother’s effects. But the illusion created by the photograph is unreliable: the gloss of success conceals a sinister family secret. And the letter takes us back to the last words spoken by Adrián’s father, whose “hoarse voice,” a “voice of curt exclamations” (23), had spoken to him of a woman in the highland province of Ayacucho, a woman the son should try to find.

Adrián had taken little account of his father’s dying words, thinking them to be just another symptom of a final delirium. But then his brother, a brother who had “inherited the hoarse voice” of his father (22), tells the story of his father’s activities as military commander in Ayacucho during the war against Sendero Luminoso. Apparently, he used to round up women suspected of being Senderistas, bring them back to base and have sex with them, then pass them on to his junior officers who would also rape them, before delivering the coup de grace with a bullet in their brains. But there was one victim whom he kept to himself, locked up in his room. And this woman somehow escaped from her living hell of enforced servitude and torture. Was this living testament to his father’s brutality, the woman that Adrián was now to track down?

The plot, then, consists in the son’s attempt to locate the one who got away from his father. In part the quest is driven by the need to maintain her silence, to preserve family honour and professional decorum by ensuring that she doesn’t talk to the press. But Ormache’s investigation is also a journey into the bleak secrets of Peruvian society, the gap that separates rich and poor, coast and highlands, light-skinned and dark-skinned. To inform himself about the atrocities committed during the war, he reads a book entitled Las voces de los desaparecidos: “The Voices of the Disappeared.” There is an increasingly testimonial quality to the lawyer’s obsession and also therefore to the novelist’s design. La hora azul aims in part to give voice back to the subaltern voiceless.

But it’s not that Ayacuchan peasants have no voice; just that the Lima elite fail to recognize them. Indeed Miriam, Adrián’s father’s former prisoner, made good her escape from the military barracks by imitating the voice of one of her torturers. And on the other hand, the objects of the lawyer’s investigation manage to retain some sense of autonomy and control only by refusing to speak: for much of the novel they maintain a guarded silence, frustrating his attempts to reach out, to play the liberal who only wants to hear their stories. For when finally he does hear something of the violence and suffering that his father, amongst others, had inflicted on the highland population, the best that Adrián can come out with are the most banal of platitudes that leave even him feeling “insuperably ridiculous” (251).

Hence this mystery novel ends with silence on some of its main points. Miriam dies, we know not whether from an unexpected heart attack or by her own hand. Before her death, she had equivocated when asked whether or not her child was Ormache’s son, and so Adrián’s brother. Her uncle refuses to clarify things, saying only “with a velvety voice” that “she told me various things, but that is between her and me” (284, 282). And finally, the son himself, Miguel, is unnaturally silent. Adrián diagnoses this as a problem, and has him sent to a psychologist who promises to teach him to find his voice. But even so, and however much the protagonist declares that the poor, the people of Ayacucho, “are like us,” he remains unnerved and disconcerted by “their silence faced with the brutal repartition of death in which they have been born.” No wonder that he also concludes that “the line that separates us from them is marked by the blade of an enormous knife” (274).

It is the violence of hundreds of years of colonial and postcolonial oppression that ensures that the liberal project of “giving voice” is doomed to failure.