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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

scissor dancer


Monday Arguediana

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

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

And then, adjacent to the above series:

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

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

See also:


Monday Arguediana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday Arguediana

river in floodTodas las sangres ends with yet another image of the “yawar mayu”, the “blood river,” which Arguedas himself here glosses as a “desperate outpouring of tears, the first waters of the rivers in flood, the moment in the dance when the men start to fight” (410).

The yawar mayu is first associated with the “kurku” Getrudis, the dwarf maidservant to the drunken and bedridden Peralta mother. The kurku is also at the origin of Don Bruno Aragón de Peralta’s downfall and curse: he had raped her, getting her pregnant with a child who turned out to be a monster, stillborn. It’s suggested also that this traumatic act, preying on the most vulnerable, the most subaltern figure imaginable, was also the source of Bruno’s mother’s misery: “What happened to my mother when the kurku Getrudis gave birth to a condemned thing: a dead foetus covered in bristles?” (25). But by the end of the novel, and with her mistress dead, the kurku finds some kind of redemption for the purity of her voice and the hymns that she composes and sings.

The kurku “has been sanctified” (411) and is “chosen by the Lord” (410) thanks, it appears, to the depth of her suffering. For in Arguedas, suffering, purification, truth, and finally vengeance are always associated. Hence “the river of blood that breaks from her heart [. . .]. At some point, perhaps now, perhaps in a hundred years, her tears will drown the thieves who stole La Esmeralda, the men who had the great silversmith and man of purity, Bellido, killed” (410).

So the yawar mayu is an outpouring of passion long built up in suffering, finally flowing violently and uncontrollably, destroying all that lies in its path. In William Rowe’s words, it is “a tidal wave of passion that breaks all boundaries” (Ensayos Arguedianos 92).

And ultimately it is Don Bruno, the kurku’s aggressor, who acts out the yawar mayu’s cleansing destruction. For following his initial violence as stain, as (self-)condemnation, in the interval Bruno too has learned to suffer. He too becomes, and learns to become, a victim: of his own sexual violence, of his father’s curse, and ultimately of the modernizing tendencies introduced by multinational capital that is itself sweeping away all that lies before it.

At the culmination of Todas las sangres, then, two devastating flows meet, conjugate, and compete. The town of San Pedro has been destroyed, its church razed by the mestizos now sidelined from history. Their land has been forcibly appropriated by the Wisther-Bozart corporation, which has suborned the state for the purpose of mineral extraction and capital gain. And Don Bruno, like his mother and father before him increasingly identified with the indigenous multitude, is on the warpath, “a river of blood in [his] eyes; the yawar mayu of which the Indians spoke. The river was about to break its banks over him with more power than any sudden upsurge of the raging torrent that ran through a gorge, five hundred metres beyond his own hacienda’s canefields” (437).

Bruno heads first for the neighbouring estate of Don Lucas, a landlord who mistreats and underpays his peons and farm manager alike. Declaring himself an agent of God’s own justice, Bruno shoots Lucas dead and hands over his property to the Indians, declaring “I have killed him in order to redeem myself. [. . .] I have killed Don Lucas on orders from on high.” “You have suffered more than God himself,” he tells the Indians, “you are innocent…” (438). And Arguedas treats this murder and its consequences with remarkable equanimity, suggesting that nature itself covers over the stench almost immediately:

The colonos [indigenous peons] began meeting in council at Don Lucas’s hacienda. The former lord’s corpse, disfigured and bloody, was by now black with the flies that crawled over it. But the orange trees gave off a gentle light and a bit of freshness to the burning courtyard. (439)

Having downed this representative of feudal corruption, Bruno then makes for his brother, Don Fermín, the modernizer whose dream has been to convert the Indians into a wage labouring rural working class. “You sold out to the mining company,” Bruno tells him. “You sold out your people; you sold out me” (440). And Bruno shoots, but this time only manages to wound, his brother, with the antique pistol that is his only inheritance from their father.

He then sits down and he “began to weep. His tears fell like a waterfall from his eyes, running over his throat, bathing his face, falling on the old brick floor. [. . .] The mestizo woman couldn’t stop herself from crying out ‘He’s weeping for his child, for his whole life, for his whole life he is weeping!'” (441).

Bruno is stopped, arrested and jailed, and his right-hand man Demetrio Rendón Willka is shot by impromptu firing squad. But the messianism that imbues these final pages of Arguedas’s masterpiece continues. Just before he is shot, Rendón Willka, who is by Arguedas’s own admission the true if somewhat inscrutable hero of the piece, declares “Our heart is made of fire. Here, and everywhere! We’ve finally discovered the fatherland. And you, sir, are not going to kill the fatherland.” After giving the order to shoot, the captain commanding the firing squad, “as well as the other guards, heard the sound of great torrents shaking the ground far beneath them, as if the mountains had begun to move” (455).

Meanwhile in Lima, the shadowy figure who controls all the strings, the Czar, is conferring with one of his henchmen, Palalo:

“What was that noise, my President?”
“What noise, Palalo?”
“Didn’t you feel it? Listen. It’s as though a subterranean river were beginning to rise up.”
“It’s a bad night, Palalo! You’re getting feeble,” the Czar replied. “I don’t hear a thing. I’m full of health and I’m conscious only of what my will desires.”
But the kurku also heard the noise; Don Bruno heard it; and Don Fermín and [his wife] Matilde listened to it with fearful enthusiasm. (456)

The question, however, remains as to whether this flooding river is really the cleansing flow of divine judgement, from and after which a new society can be built, a community governed by true solidarity (as William Rowe suggests).

Or is it closer to the self-destructive line of flight of an incipient fascism: either the “rivers of blood” shortly to be invoked in the UK by anti-immigration MP Enoch Powell; or perhaps an anticipation of the terror that would come to the Andes a couple of decades later, as Sendero Luminoso brought their own promises of a “river of blood, purifying blood”

Sendero Luminoso“Los senderistas llegaron a Yerbabuena,” by Edilberto Jiménez, via Rómpete el ojo


Monday Arguediana

More ruins… But in Todas las sangres Arguedas is less interested in physical ruins than in the fragmentation and ruination of a social order, and particularly of the dying order’s dominant class.

The story concerns the transition from a feudal economy based upon agriculture to a modern, capitalist economy of mineral extraction. Such a transition is not an instance of modernization in any simple sense: mineral extraction had always been at the heart of Spanish Imperial ambitions in Peru–above all, of course, Upper Peru, now Bolivia, which contained the “cerro rico” of Potosí. So mining might also be seen as a recolonization, and what’s at issue here is the competition between national and international capital, between local landowner Fermín Aragón on the one hand and the foreign corporation Wisther-Bozart on the other.

Potosi mineFrom Loïc Venance’s photo series on Potosí
Among those caught up in the ensuing struggle are Fermín’s brother, Bruno, who is the very model of an old-style landowner; Fermín’s mining engineer, Cabrejos, a “faithful disciple of the North American school” (77) who is in fact in the pay of Wisther-Bozart; and Demetrio Rendón Willka, an “ex indian” whose task is to harness Don Bruno’s indigenous peons in the name of the mining operation.

Cast aside, meanwhile, is the former governing class of this mining village, the “ruined notables” who have been gradually bought out by the Aragóns (81). Their houses have slowly decayed as though in sympathy with their fate:

the doors now losing their paint or varnish began to be covered in dust, and to take on the ruinousness of the walls, of the roofs, of the large courtyards and dirty arcades. The whole town started to take on an air of irredeemable age. The Aragón de Peraltas flourished by remaining on top of the desperate rival bands, untouchable. (69)

But Fermín still needs the last pieces of land to which this declining aristocracy maintains its title–and Cabrejos aims to ensure that these landowners don’t sell up.

At stake is a conflict not only between old capital and new, national and international, but also between the ruination suffered by the old, and the corruption embraced by the ambitious. Fermín, we are told, can no longer hear the birds that belong to a nature he views only extractively: “he has lost the gift of hearing them thanks to corrupt capital”; his wife is asked to “ensure that ambition does not continue to corrupt him” (76).

But the whole town is soon swept into a web of deceit and corruption, in which old grudges or desires are rekindled and stoked by the various competing forces: Rendón Willka’s traumatic bullying at the hands of his schoolmates, or the chauffeur Gregorio’s fancy for shopkeeper Doña Asusta.

Moreover, the discourse of corruption is also retranslated into meditations on cleanliness and fanaticism, both of which have premonitory resonances for the subsequent history of Sendero Luminoso in highland Peru.

Back with the novel, we’ll see what plays out: whether either Bruno or Fermín can overcome the taint of the curses their father throws down at them from the church tower in the powerful scene that opens the novel; whether Cabrejos has met his match in either Fermín or Willka; and whether Willka himself can maintain his mediating role, slipping in and out of indigeneity or mestizaje as circumstances change. (My guesses: no; yes; no.)

Update: In answer to my questions… arguably Bruno does redeem himself, and perhaps so does Fermín, too; then it turns out that Cabrejos meets his match in the woman whose suitor he killed, rather than in any of the men; and at the end, mediation of any kind proves impossible, I think.


Monday Arguediana

Peru Tourist Board imageDespite everything, readers still come to Arguedas looking for the voice of the subaltern. Arguedas is presented as a privileged translator between Quechua and Spanish, indigenous and Western, archaic and modern. “Speaking and writing from within,” his is “an authentic, autonomous, testimonial, and metatestimonial voice” (Sandoval xxxvi).

Yes, critics are usually prepared to concede that nothing is ever quite so simple: the subaltern remains always somehow inaccessible; translation is acknowledged to be a risky, imperfect affair; and claims of authenticity and autonomy give way to the realities of transculturation, mestizaje, and the like.

But still, it is as though with Arguedas we can have our cake and eat it. Theory, precisely the theory that cautions us against such Romantic fantasies of authenticity, can be both affirmed and negated at the same time. We can deploy a theoretical discourse and yet bask in the aura of otherness.

Mignolo Local Histories coverThere’s more than a hint of this attitude in Walter Mignolo’s influential work. His writing is densely packed with theoretical references and convoluted phraseology, including relative neologisms such as “coloniality of power,” “border gnosis,” “loci of enunciation,” and “pluritopic hermeneutics.”

Yet, beneath it all, what’s at issue is a remarkably untheoretical inversion: those previously silenced should now be permitted to speak. Take for instance the following complex paragraph that presents the core argument of his book Local Histories / Global Designs:

That colonial modernities, or “subaltern modernities” as Coronil (1997) prefers to label it, a period expending from the late fifteenth century to the current stage of globalization, has built a frame and a conception of knowledge based on the distinction between epistemology and hermeneutics and, by so doing, has subalternized other kinds of knowledge is the main thesis of this book. That long process of subalternization of knowledge is being radically transformed by new forms of knowledge in which what has been subalternized and considered interesting only as object of study becomes articulated as new loci of enunciation. This is the second thesis of this book. The first is explored through a cultural critique of historical configurations; the second, by looking at the emergence of new loci of enunciation, by describing them as “border gnosis” and by arguing that “border gnosis” is the subaltern reason striving to bring to the foreground the force and creativity of knowledges subalternized during a long process of colonization of the planet, which was at the same time the process in which modernity and the modern Reason were constructed. (13)

Put to one side, if you will, the infelicity and even ungrammaticality of expression here–the lack of agreement, for instance, between subject and main verb in the opening sentence. Ignore also the repetition, apparent contradiction, and unnecessary complication.

Mignolo’s basic points are in fact straightforward: that modernity promoted one form of knowledge over other forms; and that those other forms of knowledge are now re-emerging from their former suppression.

And though the articulation of such subaltern knowledges is clearly part of a political struggle, for Mignolo there is apparently little reason in theory why we should not have access to the voice of the other, given the right conditions.

The theoretical work required, it seems, amounts merely to a set of successive redescriptions, by which subaltern knowledge is renamed as “new loci of enunciation,” only to be renamed once again as “border gnosis” and yet again as “subaltern reason.” The theorist, then, becomes a translator and phrasemaker who re-presents subalternity within a suitably rarified frame of reference, so that it comes to seem equivalent, and so implicitly acceptable, to the allegedly mystifying discourse against which it is said to be arrayed.

So however laudable this project of discursive salvage seems at first sight, it’s soon clear that such an unproblematic conception of desublaternization does little to overturn the applecart of Western reason: it merely assimilates “subaltern knowledge” to “colonial knowledge” (hence, in the paragraph above, “colonial modernities” and “subaltern modernities” are quickly conflated) and any concept of subalternity, or indeed of coloniality, disappears.

Ultimately this is a consoling exorcism of colonial guilt, whereby an author such as Arguedas can be taken up and celebrated for providing little more than costumbrismo: local colour and the image of difference rather than difference itself. And surely in a story such as “The Agony of Rasu-Ñiti”, the most indigenist of all his work, is that not what he provides? No wonder the story is so celebrated. Despite or perhaps because of its anomalousness, it offers a glimpse of what Arguedas’s readers want all along: the ventriloquy of “an authentic, autonomous, testimonial, and metatestimonial voice.”

The question then is how to read Arguedas otherwise. How perhaps to misread him, to stumble in our reading, to stutter as his awkward, barely literary prose often stutters and threatens to break down, so that subalternity is truly brought to light, or made present, without being wished away by our desires, precisely, for presence. How, in short, to ensure that it is difference that is presented, for the first time; rather than a fantasized sameness that is re-presented, familiarly meeting our expectations.

(And how to do this without being subject to the same critique: of deploying a theoretical discourse and yet basking in the aura of otherness?)


Monday Arguediana

I’m now less convinced than I was before of Antonio Melis’s argument that “the writings of Arguedas should be considered as an integrated totality (i.e. without the constraint of barriers such as genre)” (xi). Or rather, what’s striking when comparing Arguedas’s work across different genres is the way in which he adopts such very different voices depending on whether he is writing a novel, anthropology, or poetry. Perhaps they are different strategies. But some are surely more successful than others.

Arguedas poetryIf Arguedas’s anthropological writing repeats the Western ethnographic gaze, by contrast his poetry constitutes a full-blown performance of indigeneity.

Written in Quechua, then translated usually by Arguedas himself into Spanish, his poetic output is distinguished by its passion and commitment. And this is true even when the theme is far from Arguedas’s customary Peruvian concerns, as in his brief declarations of solidarity with Cuba and with the North Vietnamese.

At the same time, it is rather formulaic, especially in these latter two poems. It’s as though they were Arguedas’s minimal gesture to the international issues preoccupying intellectuals in the late 1960s. The poem to the Vietnamese is entitled “Qollana Vietnam Llaqtaman,” translated as “Ofrenda al pueblo de Vietnam,” “Offering to the People of Vietnam”: this is an offering of due devotion paid to a cause that is not Arguedas’s own.

Arguedas is also perhaps paying the price of admission to a community of intellectuals with pretensions to universality. In which case it is worth noting that it is as a Quechua speaker that Arguedas is seeking entry to this exclusive club. Arguedas wants to ensure Quechua is recognized as a language of artistic and intellectual creation.

Another of these poems also turns to the intellectuals. Here, directly so: “Huk Doctorkunaman Qayay” or “Appeal to some Doctors” is addressed to Carlos Cueto Fernandini and John V. Murra; Cueto Fernandini occupied a series of prestigious posts, including the directorship of the National Library, while John Murra was a Cornell-based anthropologist, and close friend of Arguedas’s.

“Appeal to some Doctors” begins by acknowledging the way in which indigenous knowledge is ignored: “They say that we no longer know anything, that we are backwardness, that they have to change our heads for other, better ones” (253). It continues by negating such assertions, arguing for indigenous knowledge of nature, plants, and suffering.

But it ends by returning to the theme of ignorance, to an unforeseeable future in the fact of modernization:

We do not know exactly what will happen. Let death makes its way towards us; let these strangers come. We will be on our guard waiting for them; we are the children of the father of all the rivers, of the father of all the mountains. Is it that the world is now worthless, my little brother the doctor? (257)

So Arguedas here fully assumes a subjectivity defined by ethnicity and language: “we are the children.” And he shares in their anxious, guarded wait for what the future brings.

This declaration of identity, taking on an indigenous “nosotros” is even more marked in “Tupac Amaru kamac taytanchisman (Haylli-taki),” “To our Creator Father Túpac Amaru (Hymn-Song),” in which Arguedas declares “We are alive, we still are!” as a kind of phatic expression to link a grammatical subject (“we”) to ontology and also to history (467). “We still are!” “¡Somos todavía!” “¡Kachkaniraqkun!” (467). The Peruvian congress took up this declaration as the title for its recent edition of Arguedas’s “essential works”: ¡Kachkaniraqmi! ¡Sigo siendo!.

Pan Am to PeruFinally, though, in “Jetman, Haylli,” “Ode to the Jet,” Arguedas envisages a modernity in which Quechua, and an indigenous cosmovision, have fully appropriated the fruit of Western technology:

Here I am in this world, sitting most comfortably, on a fiery steed,
Iron alight, whiter than white, made by man’s hand, swimming in the wind.
Yes. “Jet” is its name. (75)

The price, or perhaps the advantage, of this techno-indigenism is a blasphemous denial of gods both native and Christian, and an affirmation of the divinity of mankind: “God is man, man is God” (75).

But is there not a still more serious disadvantage in making of Quechua a majoritarian language, albeit in a written form that can have only the smallest of audiences, and so giving up on the project to inflict a minoritarian insurrection on the colonizers’ Spanish?


Monday Arguediana

Angel Rama

Angel Rama’s introduction to Arguedas’s Señores e indios is perceptive about the challenge Arguedas faced in adapting an essentially social realist novelistic form to his own purposes.

Rama suggests that Arguedas resorted to “a type of return to the accumulative system corresponding to earlier stages in the development of the genre” (35). Instead of the “organic unity” of the nineteenth-century novel, in which plot and character develop mutually and linearly, Arguedas’s novels turn around “the accumulation of intense and sudden ‘illuminations,’ structured and synchronic visions of an apprehension of the real that retains all its possible manifestations” (36).

In other words, Western narrative proceeds by the elimination of possibilities, as the plot puts options to characters who are unable to move on without making a decision between them. By contrast, Arguedas maintains a sense of the possible–perhaps better, the always present virtual–implicit in a landscape, human and natural, that always goes beyond the individual and his or her decisions. Or rather, bringing together the two forms, one Western the other closer to an indigenous worldview, Arguedas presents:

a double operation: on the one hand, a causal chain of actions and characters comes together in line with the traditional requirements of realist narrative; on the other, unexpected ‘illuminations’ arise, that may or may not be connected to the sphere of the action, but which enable another development and another interpretation that the author sees as more profound, and more effective as literature. (37)

Hence, for Rama, Arguedas offers a model of literary transculturation. More precisely, he offers his literature as a model of an ideal transculturation that might be an object lesson for Peruvian culture as a whole. Because “if it were possible in literature, then it might also be possible in the rest of the culture” (15).

So Arguedas’s is a transculturation in reverse: it is not that his novels are the products of transculturating forces; it is that they themselves aim to force the production of transculturation elsewhere.

It’s a little strange, however, that Rama should make this eloquent case for the importance of Arguedas’s literary project in the introduction to what is a collection of anthropological essays. Indeed, Rama says little to illuminate the thirty eight short pieces that his own essay supposedly introduces.

Perhaps Rama’s silence owes something to the fact that however much Arguedas may have struggled with literary form, however much his novels were a series of more or less inconclusive, even unsatisfactory, experiments, he seems not to have struggled in the same way with the conventions of anthropological writing.

There is very little sign in Señores e indios of the tensions that would later in the twentieth century lead to the myriad critiques and auto-critiques that have both plagued and invigorated the discipline of Anthropology. For all the autobiographical elements in Arguedas’s writing (for instance in “Canciones quechuas”) or the more journalistic accounts in which he writes of his own observations (such as “Andahuaylinos, alemanes y amueshas”), there is no point at which he produces anything like a self-conscious or self-reflexive approach to the business of studying Peruvian customs and culture.

There is in fact hardly anything like an explicitly theoretical approach. And though he declares that he is avoiding theory in what are mainly semi-popular essays (destined for newspapers rather than specialized journals), Arguedas is happy enough to endorse a straightforwardly positivist and empiricist, even scientistic, attitude to his object of study. In a discussion of Andean music, for instance, he deplores those who are ignorant of even “the rudiments of the science devoted to the study of this aspect of the culture” (210). Such ignorance leads, he tells us, to the adoption of “bluntening and deforming measures” (210) that increase the likelihood of “what we can perfectly properly call falsifications” (209).

And in what does such falsification consist? In an inability to tell the original from a copy. This is what anthropological science can provide: a distinction between the true and the false; between model and imitation. Here, however, a whole can of worms opens up. For it turns out that the “copy” that Arguedas is denouncing involves a return to what one might otherwise suggest would be an “original” pre-Hispanic, “Incaist” cultural identity.

Arguedas insists that this Incaist return to some pre-Hispanic form not only denies the continuity between Inca civilization and contemporary indigenous culture, but also thereby loses sight of the “authenticity” of that culture, much of which is in fact “richer and more extensive than the ancient, because it has assimilated and transformed excellent instruments of expression that come from Europe, and that are more perfect than the ancient” (216). This leads him to the counter-intuitive stance of defending transculturation on account of its authenticity and originality, and denouncing nativism for its artificiality and secondariness.

But above all: why and on what grounds denounce this transculturation, the product of the current vogue for indigeneity among an intellectual elite in Lima, but not the former transculturation, that has already taken place in the Andes?

John Galliano for Dior

Why denounce the “abyss between the original and the imitation” when it comes to the coastal appropriation of highland folk dances and music (219), but not when it comes to the centuries of very similar appropriations that, Arguedas emphasizes, have given rise to this very culture in the “first” place?

And what of John Galliano’s collection for Dior last year, inspired by Andean traje? Would this not confirm Arguedas’s intuition that were indigenous cultures presented properly abroad, “we would conquer the world for Peru” (232)?

In short: what are transculturation’s limits? And who can legislate as to those limits? The anthropologist as scientist?


Monday Arguediana

El sexto is no doubt the least read and least appreciated of Arguedas’s novels. Mario Vargas Llosa states that it is, with El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo, “the most imperfect one that he wrote” (20). But Los zorros has received a fair amount of critical attention. Precisely its imperfection, and the fact that it was left unfinished at the author’s suicide, are seen as symptomatic of the fate of the Peruvian’s literary project as a whole. El sexto‘s imperfections, on the other hand, are seen as altogether less interesting.

Moreover, this semi-autobiographical account of life in a Lima prison doesn’t fit well within the thematic continuities of the rest of Arguedas’s work. Though some of its characters are from the Andes, not least the protagonist, Gabriel, and his cellmate, Cámac, the prison walls limit the narrative. Any indigenism is thoroughly attenuated, glimpsed only in some of Gabriel’s more fleeting reminiscences. We are, instead, endlessly drawn back to the brute realities of the jail’s physical environment.

And that environment is brute and brutish with a vengeance. Arguedas provides us with a picture of utter filth and degradation, both literal and figurative. The jail’s bathrooms have been destroyed, so prisoners shit and piss in full view of each other. Except that is for the stronger, more vicious among them, who have made their way up the prisoners’ brutal hierarchy: they shit on pieces of paper in their cells, and get their lackeys to carry their excrement off to the holes in the ground that pass for latrines. Mealtime is survival of the fittest: those too weak to push their way to the front of the crowd, to have their gruel served directly into their cupped hands, soon further weaken and starve. The most desperate are prepared to lick up fellow inmates’ blood from where it falls on the stone floors. Half the common prisoners are crazy already or are driven mad by their surroundings. A cruel traffic in sexual favours predominates. The whole place gives off a stench of dirt, degeneracy, and decay: “The Sexto stinks as though all those locked up in there were rotting away” (221).

Sendero prisoners at Canto GrandeYet there is also music in the air. The novel opens and closes with a hymn. And throughout, an array of songs punctuate the story’s violence, death, destruction, and horror.

This music is diverse. It includes the Quechua huayno familiar from Los ríos profundos; but here the indigenous have no monopoly on song. These hymns are also rousing chants of war, political propaganda given some melody, however rough.

For the political prisoners who inhabit the prison’s upper levels are bitterly divided between apristas (followers of the populist APRA party) and Communists. Though they are equally persecuted by the military dictatorship that has shut both sets of activists away, their mutual enmity almost overwhelms their shared hostility to the state. And they express their rivalry, as well as maintaining internal discipline, in part through their party hymns: the “aprista Marsellaise” on the one hand; the “Internationale” on the other. These are the songs that greet Gabriel as he arrives at the novel’s opening, and with which the book also ends.

And in the interval we hear not only Gabriel’s attempts to recall the highland music appropriate to the occasions he’s living through–“as a good highlander I would repeat a huayno under my breath [. . .]. Its sadness consoled me, grabbed hold of my feelings” (178, 179). Also, for instance, the one flagrant, and so perhaps liberated, homosexual, Rositas, is often to be found humming or whistling a tune. Plus one of the Afro-Peruvian prisoners, a group whom Arguedas generally tends to portray as the lowest of the low, dances a dance “with an incredible energy” that marks out “a joyful rhythm” moving even the prison’s “rigid walls” and resonating through “the prisoners’ souls like a message from the coast’s broad valleys” (201). And the cellmate Cámac embarks on a project to construct a guitar, though this enterprise is cut short by his own death, a demise that his Communist comrades pin in part on this very deviation from orthodoxy.

So whether it stirs up and condenses hatred or pride, rivalry or brotherhood, joy or sadness, music is a privileged conduit of affect for lowlander and highlander alike.

It’s a matter of life and death: the dead are saluted with song, and at one point Gabriel and the cellmate who replaces Cámac make a rather macabre pledge to each other, to sing “the saddest melody, the saddest in the world” should the other die first (190). For what’s really heartbreaking is to have nobody to sing for you. “So sing something” pleads one prisoner as he’s led away to the hospital. “Sing some little thing for me!” (166). But no one sings, so he has to make do himself, “in a rasping voice, as though it came not from a human throat but from some ungainly, impotent bird” (167).

So, no, it’s not as though song will bring rivals together or transcend physical misery. This music is inflected by the physicality, whether decrepit or resistant, of those singing. But it is one of the few markers that forestalls utter abjection. For even the most abject of them all, a prisoner who has thoroughly lost his senses, who cannot live outside the jail and dies within it, and who is described as “the most lowly victim of capitalist society” (92), is a man who goes by the name of “the pianist” because while prostrate on the floor he acts as though playing a keyboard. The pianist, we are told, “had something of the sanctity of the heavens and mother earth. [. . .] He heard the music that comes from outside, invented by mankind, torn from space and the surface of the earth” (127).

This inaudible music promises perhaps to transfigure, if not redeem, a putrid materiality.