La ciudad y los perros posterFrancisco Lombardi’s La ciudad y los perros is an adaptation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s first book. The title translates as “The City and the Dogs” (though for some reason the book was translated into English as The Time of the Hero). But the film shows much less of the city and much more of the dogs than does Vargas Llosa’s novel, whose first edition came complete with a map of Lima. Lombardi keeps us mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the military academy in which the “dogs,” the army cadets, have forged a rough and tumble community whose hierarchies, values, and abuses both challenge and mirror those of the army, and by extension the nation, itself.

Lombardi also narrows his focus among the group of cadets. The book is notable for employed a narrative style that switches constantly between narrators and perspectives, creating the overall effect of portraying the “dogs” as a kind of multiform, collective subjectivity. Moreover, Vargas Llosa’s novel hides a huge twist in its tail, as on what is practically the book’s final page we suddenly take stock of a dramatic breach between interior monologue and external appearance. Sadly but perhaps inevitably the film excises these properly literary effects, to concentrate on the figure of one Alberto Fernández, nicknamed “the poet,” who functions mostly as an observer through whom we in turn apprehend other characters and the actions they undertake.

The cohort’s top dogs are a group of four cadets known as “the circle,” led by a striking young touch nicknamed the “Jaguar,” who run a thriving black market trade in cigarettes, liquor, pornography, and stolen exam papers for the other inmates of this military boarding school. The film’s plot kicks off as the theft of a Chemistry exam is discovered by the academy’s authorities, and as a result the four cadets who were on guard at the time of the theft have all their weekend leave cancelled. One of the four is a boy who inhabits the very lowest rung of the savage hierarchy that the cadets have established, as is indicated by the nickname they’ve given him: Ricard Arana is better known as the “Slave.” The Slave has managed to pass three years in the institution without making a single friend, except perhaps the Poet himself, to whom he pours out his troubles. The Slave is particularly agonized by the fact of his confinement, as it means he’s unable to meet up with the neighborhood girl, Teresa, to whom he’s shyly taken a fancy. Little does he know that in fact his only friend, the Poet, has started up a relationship with Teresa himself.

The Slave then commits the worst sin imaginable among the boys: he betrays the group by turning stool pigeon in order to have his exit privileges reinstated. As a result, the exam thief, Cava, a member of the circle, is humiliatingly thrown out of the academy and his compadres vow revenge.

La ciudad y los perros stillDuring live ammunition exercises in the countryside, the Slave is shot and mortally wounded. The authorities, hushing up the scandal, declare that young Ricardo accidentally killed himself with his own rifle. But the Poet suspects a more likely narrative: that the Jaguar took rough justice into his own hands, gunning down the weakling who had dared to question his group’s authority.

And so the Poet himself, agonized by his own betrayal of the dead boy, in turn decides to inform on the circle and incriminate the Jaguar. He convinces one Lieutenant Gamboa of the truth of his account: that the cadets are essentially beyond the control of the institution, and that their leaders feel they can even get away with murder. Gamboa, portrayed as a decent man who’s prepared to risk his career in the name of what is right, forces the issue through to his superiors. But little justice is done: the cover-up continues, Gamboa is transferred out to a remote posting in the Andes, and the only (albeit perhaps the most devastating) punishment that the Jaguar receives is to be overthrown by those who were previously his loyal henchmen.

In the end, though the film presents itself as an incisive critique of the corruption and machismo that dominate both the cadet cohort and the army as a whole, it’s unclear what if any values it upholds. It’s difficult not to feel some sympathy for the Jaguar, who so stubbornly upholds his own code of honour that he refuses to clear at least some part of his disrepute by squealing in turn on the Poet’s act of treason. Indeed, in some senses the Jaguar is the only figure who avoids the taint of treason: even Gamboa, given a final chance to prove the truth of what has taken places, rips up the evidence before heading out of the school gates and on to his lonely highland exile. The Jaguar believes in his strict moral doctrine because he has nothing else to believe in. But it is this rigidity that leads to the Slave’s demise. It’s the demand for absolute solidarity that drives a merciless scapegoating.

YouTube Link: Cava’s expulsion.


Madeinusa posterMadeinusa is one of the most successful and acclaimed Peruvian films ever: it was the country’s Oscar submission last year and has won awards in film festivals in Colombia, Argentina, Havana, Hamburg, Rotterdam, as well as nominations or official selections at Sundance, Miami, Helsinki, among other places. It is also one of the most controversial films, especially within Peru itself.

The movie’s success abroad and its fierce critique at home are not unrelated. For the source of the discomfort that it provokes is in part the notion that it provides exactly the image that outsiders have always wanted to purvey of life in the Andes. In the words of Peruvian cultural critic Victor Vich, it presents “on the whole, the usual thing: a very questionable and at times banal Orientalist exoticization, a sort of Death in the Andes with a tint of world music.” Or in the somewhat less temperate version provided by one Pilar Roca, the film is “a cinematic insult”: if cinema provides a country with its “face,” then Madeinusa portrays to the world a country populated by “ignorant, uncouth, and savage Indians [who are] so captivated by the outside world that they have named a simple smalltown girl ‘Madeinusa.'” Moreover, the film-makers were “as brutal and short-sighted as these highlanders who appear on screen raping their children, getting drunk until they fall down, and betraying the candor of an upper class young man from Lima who had dared to bring his beautiful humanity to this Hell on earth.”

In short, as Fernando Vivas is quoted as saying, in an implicit nod to a controversy the previous year over inflight movies, “Madeinusa is not a movie to be shown on a plane en route to Peru.”

But in fact, what better to show to incoming international visitors than the very image they seek: colorful rituals that leaven exotic if savage practices in the highlands? The film’s success on the festival circuit can hardly have hindered the efforts of PromPerú, whose own website trades largely on traditional costumes and pre-Columbian ceremonies, to attract the tourist dollar. No, the debate around Madeinusa has much more to do with the country’s historic internal tensions than with some Machiavellian distinction between a poor, misrepresented Latin American nation faced with an Orientalist West.

UchuraccayOther critics’ references to Uchuraccay and the Peruvian peace commission are more telling. Madeinusa is in this sense made more in Peru than in the USA, and the controversy has its roots in the historic divide between the coast (above all Lima) and the highlands, and in the still unhealed scars of the Sendero uprising and subsequent civil war of the 1980s and 1990s.

In this reading, the central character is less the eponymous Madeinusa, and more the metropolitan visitor, Salvador, who wanders into the highland community of Manayaycuna unaware presumably that the (fictional) village’s name means “the town no-one can enter” in Quechua.

Salvador finds himself in the middle of an annual festival in which, over the Easter weekend, villagers celebrate a tiempo santo or “holy time” in which God is dead, his figure taken down from the cross and blindfolded, and so the law is suspended and there is no sin. Protagonist Madeinusa’s father, the village mayor, had presumed that this year’s holy time would provide the opportunity to deflower his young daughter. But it is Salvador who catches the young woman’s eye, and she proffers herself to him while still in her elaborate costume of festival virgin. In turn, Salvador gradually comes to sympathize with Madeinusa’s fate, terrorized as she is by her drunken, mean-spirited father and shrewish sister, Chale, alike, and eventually he agrees to take her away to Lima, to which her mother had escaped some time previously leaving only a pair of beaded ear-rings as keepsake. But when, as holy time is about to run out, Madeinusa realizes that her father has destroyed the ear-rings, she determines to poison him with soup laced with rat poison. Here, however, comes the most savage twist: discovering the murder, Chale turns on the “gringo,” and so in turn does Madeinusa herself. So the putative savior becomes scapegoat, his fate (we assume) to be lynched by the vigorously xenophobic highland community.

So although the story’s cinematic precursors include such films as The Wicker Man or (as strictly film school perceptively observes) Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa, in Peru itself the resonance is immediately with the fate of the eight journalists murdered by the inhabitants of the small village of Uchuraccay in 1983, early on during the Sendero civil war. And indeed Vich’s comparison between this film and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes implies this comparison, too. For Vargas Llosa was one of the celebrated authors of the report on the Uchuraccay massacre, concluding that blame had squarely to be placed on the continuing presence of premodern indigenous barbarism.

But the problem that the movie poses can be best understood in terms of subalternity and (the failures of) hegemony. Gonzalo Portocarrero suggests as much when he argues that Madeinusa portrays “Peru’s impossibility”: “the film depicts a country that is unviable thanks to barbarism and lack of authority amid popular culture.” Naturally enough he swiftly adds: “I would like to believe that the film is wrong.” But what the movie both displays and enacts is a betrayal of precisely such well-intentioned efforts on the part of the coastal elite to hegemonize the subaltern interior. That elite is shocked at the movie’s refusal to endorse a politics of solidarity; but they miss the power precisely of its critique of the savior complex and power relations that underlie even (especially) the most liberal of efforts to construct the Peruvian nation.

Madeinusa still
For Madeinusa turns around the systematic destitution of authority: religious, lay, and liberal, each of which is represented in turn by the three male figures who die as the plot unfolds. Christ, the mayor, and the “gringo” all have to be killed if Madeinusa has any hope of liberation. And each is necessarily undone by treason, rather than by frontal assault or counter-hegemonic persuasion.

It’s striking how much of the criticism that this film has provoked has consisted in moralizing scandal over what Ciberayllu terms the “moral transgressions” that it represents, above all the incest between father and daughter. But of course, within the logic of the film, there are no such transgressions: during holy time God is dead and the law is suspended. It is as though the outraged defenders of Peru’s image could not bear this destitution of the religious authority that has, since the Spanish conquest, been one of the pillars of colonial and postcolonial subjugation.

The murder of the father and mayor has led to less comment. It’s surely strange that the fearless supporters of Andean society and its representation should be least concerned of all over the fate of the only indigenous person who dies. No doubt they are carried away with the notion that to save the highlands, the “bad” indigenous will inevitably have to be purged. But this acceptance of the extrajudicial removal of corrupt indigenous leadership is, for better or for worse, hardly far removed from the practices of Sendero from which Lima’s liberal left are otherwise so quick to disassociate themselves.

No, the real crime of Madeinusa is the breach it opens (the “abyss” according to Portocarrero) between the young man from Lima and the young woman from Manayaycuna. For so much of the film, after all, the plot holds out the promise of a prototypical “foundational fiction” in which romance would quasi-naturally secure the idea of nation. It is when subaltern betrayal refuses this affective mechanism of would-be hegemony that the critics sound the alarm. But why should Madeinusa exchange colonial authority or postcolonial abuse for this unfeasible tie with some liberal hegemon? She has no need of any savior in order to make her way to Lima and who knows where thereafter.

YouTube Link: the film’s trailer.


As the subject of constituent power, the multitude is productive. Hence both its centrality and its ambivalence from the point of view of constituted power. For the multitude is not only economically productive but also socially productive; indeed, the multitude produces everyday life itself. Its activity is immediately biopolitical. Biopower’s parasitical relationship to this productive power is like capital’s relationship to labor, characterized both by indebtedness and by an anxiety that leads to denial. The multitude cannot be acknowledged directly but has to be misrepresented as a dependent subject in an inversion that posits the state and political society as the sole source and arena for power’s exercise. The state is fetishized and hegemony is thereby substituted for any other conception of politics, and civil society presented as a steering mechanism for the efficient control of state power. The multitude is recast in identitarian terms: as people, as class, or as a set of discrete social identities. But these categories are unstable, and they break down as the nomad takes flight in Exodus, while in the insistence of conatus the multitude constitutes a resonant community through quotidian encounters.

Insistently productive and self-organizing, the multitude is more than merely some subaltern remainder or excess. Like the multitude, the subaltern is beyond representation, an insurgent betrayal of constituted power. Moreover, as Alberto Moreiras puts it, “subaltern negation” is posthegemonic in that it constitutes a “refusal to submit to hegemonic interpellation, an exodus from hegemony.” (The Exhaustion of Difference 126). But the subaltern is a limit concept, “the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic,” in Gayatri Spivak’s words (“Subaltern Studies” 16), whereas for Negri the multitude is both central and beyond limit. The subaltern is defined negatively: for Ranajit Guha, it is the “demographic difference” or what is left when the elite are subtracted from the total population (“On Some Aspects of the Colonial Historiography of Colonial India” 44). The multitude, by contrast, is defined positively: it is “the ontological name of full against void, of production against parasitical survivals” (Negri, “Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude”). The subaltern is more abject than subject; indeed, Moreiras describes subalternity as “the non-subject of the political” (“Children of Light I” 12). But despite these differences, subaltern excess is an index of the presence of the multitude, indicating the failures of representation and so the asymmetry between constituent and constituted power. So subaltern insurgency can be a gateway to the multitude, whose positive sense of commonality may start in subaltern negation, in what John Holloway calls “a scream of refusal” (Change the World without Taking Power 1).


buddiesAfter so much enmity in the blogosphere (if sometimes of a semi-affectionate nature), and given that this form seems particularly prone to dispute, occasionally ironized or celebrated as “snark,” it’s refreshing to see some reflections on friendship.

Angela is perhaps shy to mention it, but she’s put up some interesting thoughts on mateship, in the wake of the mining melodrama in Beaconsfield. Glen responds.

I wonder how nationally circumscribed that discussion is, the “mate” as Australian icon of a rather particular type. Indeed, that’s partly what’s at issue in the disagreement between Angela and Glen.

Meanwhile, over on Charlotte Street, Mark Kaplan continues an ongoing series of meditations on friendship, most recently with reference to Blanchot, Benjamin and Brecht, and Nietzsche.

Now, however much my friends are important, I’ve mentioned before I’m also keen on the limits to friendship, the indifference of what Alberto Moreiras terms the “non-friend,” who can in some ways be equated with the subaltern. At issue here is the challenge of living together beyond like or dislike.

It’s the question of community and exclusiveness. And then there’s love.

Perhaps all of this will return when we start reading Schmitt.

Cross-posted from Long Sunday.


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?)