Friday, January 26, 2007



I hadn`t planned to cross the border into Bolivia last Thursday evening. I had wanted to savour one last Argentinian meal, one last night in an Argentinian bed. But I met a guy on the bus from Jujuy in north-west Argentina, and as the bus ascended to 2,000, 2,500, 3,000 metres above sea level, the thrill of the altitude hit us and we decided we would catch a connecting bus from the Argentinian-Bolivian border town of Villazon to the town of Tupiza, where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid robbed their last bank.

In Villazon we met an Israeli couple, and the four of us caught a bone-rattling bus on which we travelled the two hour long bumpy ride to Tupiza. Buses in Bolivia, even those which purport to be 5-star buses, are fairly creaky machines, rejects from the USA. When such a bus is driven on a dirt road (only the most major roads in Bolivia are covered with asphalt), you should expect a fairly jarring ride.


In the Argentinian city of Salta, I had been warned not to go to Bolivia. Two weeks or so ago, trouble broke out in the central Bolivian city of Cochabamba. Supporters of President Evo Morales took to the streets in a protest to demand the resignation of Manfred Reyes Villa, the conservative governor of Cochabamba. The protest began peacefully enough, but soon turned violent, with two people from each side of the battle being killed.

In its page about Evo, Wikipedia describes the cause of the uprising in Cochabamba :

In January, Evo tried to force (citation needed) the Governor of Cochabamba Reyes-Villa, to resign due to his opposing views regarding the economy (citation needed). The Governor of Cochabamba, who had recently been democratically elected by a majority of the popular vote in the state, refused to step down unless the people who voted for him asked him to do so, and this triggered widespread support for the governor (citation needed). Morales sent irregular forces (citation needed) to quell the support and force the Governor to resign. Supported by Venezuelan advisors (citation needed) the cocaleros laid seige to the city, cutting off the airport, all roads, and forcing the local government to take refuge in a hotel. This caused the governors supporters to take to the street and defend their elected official, in turn the irregular forces were armed with machetes and sticks (citation needed). Radio broadcasts were transmitted and small battles erupted leaving at least 2 dead and over 100 injured.

You may have guessed from the quantity of citations needed that this account may be biased ; in fact, it is fabulously inaccurate, a pack of lies from start to finish. Evo did not try to force Manfred from power ; Manfred´s actions in the past few weeks have made him extremely unpopular ; Evo did not send in "irregular forces" ; and it was Manfred´s supporters who were armed with baseball bats, and who were smashing the shit out of elderly coca growers.


The real issue here is who stands to gain from Bolivia´s rich, and recently re-nationalised, mineral resources. Bolivia has been described as a beggar sitting on a goldmine. Its oilfields are the second most profitable in South America (after Venezuela), and yet Bolivia has had the lowest GDP of any country in the continent for many years. Bolivia´s GDP currently stands at around $2,700. Internationally, it is slightly lower than Angola and slightly higher than Pakistan, and there are 125 countries in the world which are richer. Why has Bolivia not realised its economic potential for so long?

Both the distant and the recent past suggest that this is because the profits made from its resources (whether silver from Potosi in the western altiplano, or oil from the eastern lowlands) have not stayed in Bolivia. We have already seen how indigenous and African slaves were worked to death in the 16th century to provide riches for the Spanish crown. But during the 1980s and 1990s, Bolivia was forced to privatise many of its natural resources in return for foreign aid, and state companies were sold to private corporations for absurdly low prices. I will go into much more depth on this in the next month or so.

In January 2005, after two or three years of fierce opposition to the neoliberal policies that had crippled Bolivia´s economy, Evo Morales was sworn in as President - the first indigenous President in the history of Latin America. Evo won the election, the first President to be elected by the people for many years, gaining over 50% of the vote. His victory was primarily the result of two pledges : to re-nationalise those resources which had been sold off by previous governments, and to re-write the constitution to give more power to indigenous people, who despite being a majority, have traditionally been marginalised from the political process. (A third important pledge was to increase GDP by confiscating private land which was not being used productively - 80% of the land in Santa Cruz is owned by just 14 families, many of whom do not live in Bolivia) In his first year, Evo has carried out the first pledge, and is making some (though limited) progress with the second.


But anyone who thought that such a dramatic shift in ideology - away from the IMF/World Bank appeasing policies of his predecessors towards a more socialist approach, specific to Bolivia - was going to be painless and seamless, would have been badly mistaken. The conservative elite may not be in government anymore, but they have not gone away. Whereas Evo and his Movimiento al Socialismo party believe that theirs is a revolutionary government, in power to liberate Bolivia from hundreds of years of imperialism, their opponents see MAS as just another government. MAS sees itself as sowing the seeds of a new era of Bolivian socialism ; the right-wing believes that its time will come around again, and that the country is just going through a temporary (if regrettable) blip.

Which side is correct remains to be seen, but the unrest in Cochabamba in January was a sign of both sides flexing their muscles. The furore was provoked, contrary to the claims of Wikipedia, by Manfred Reyes Villa, the conservative governor of the Cochabamba Department calling for regional autonomy. The issue of autonomy comes down (as it does in Iraq) to oil. The eastern Departments of Bolivia are the richest in oil, and there is a wing of politicans and business people who believe that autonomy would mean that their departments would not need to share their wealth with the Departments in the western altiplano. They are, of course, correct ; but the voters of Cochabamba have already rejected this vision : in 2006, a large majority of Cochabambinos voted "no" to autonomy.


Those voters saw Manfred´s interjection as interfering and undemocratic, and many travelled to the city of Cochabamba to demand that their governor resign. These demonstrations were largely peaceful, and aimed at disrupting the city via blockades rather than violence. But then, a day or so later, Manfred´s supporters turned up, armed with baseball bats :

The pro-Manfred march had been billed as peaceful, and there were reasonable, non-violent people who participated in it. But the contingent at the front of the crowd evidently had something else in mind. They didn’t march toward the campesinos in the style, even, of an aggressive protest. Once through the police line, either acting on plans made beforehand or giving in to the angry chaos of the moment, they launched an assault that bore no resemblance to civil protest.

I saw men using their sticks to threaten young and middle-aged campesinas—even one with a child on her back—yelling at them. Expressions of terror flashed on the faces of the women. One campesina, pursued by marchers, fled into the gated front yard of a nearby establishment. The person guarding the gate shut it behind her. A crowd gathered around yelling at her. They dispersed when someone behind the gate escorted her safely out of sight.

The police continued shielding the injured with their own bodies until each person was safely inside an ambulance or a truck. At one point, they had to hold a small crowd of yelling pro-Manfred supporters back from a campesino man on a stretcher. My Spanish is not good enough to know exactly what was being yelled at the campesinos out in the crowd, but I made out one statement hollered by my very own neighbor at an injured man: “Go home, Indian!”

Even a man whose face was a river of blood—whose T-shirt was soaked-through so that the entire front of it was crimson, whose eyes were foggy with shock—was yelled at as he staggered by dripping a trail of blood.
- Eyewitness account from Jonas Brown, a resident of Cochabamba.

Two people - one campesino, and one young supporter of Manfred - were killed in the violence, with many more badly injured.

After these days of violence, Evo and Manfred (whom were both absent from Cochabamba at the time of the riots) took stock. Evo returned from Daniel Ortega´s Presidential inauguration in Nicaragua and said he would not push for Manfred to be ousted. Manfred, who had not improved his reputation by exiling himself himself in another city (Santa Cruz) during the violence, stated that he would not push for a re-vote on autonomy.

However horrible the violence was, none of this means that Bolivia is on the brink of civil war. Bolivia is beginning a new chapter of its history - a chapter in which itis attempting to wrest control back from international authorities and corporations. Such a genesis was never going to be painless, and Evo has done well to make the progress that he has. For the first time in many years, Bolivia is now running a budget surplus, and the salaries of many public sector workers (especially teachers) have jumped as a result of increased revenues following subsoil hydrocarbon renationalisation. It is also true that Evo can be his own worst enemy - he has alienated many of Bolivia´s non-indigenous people by not really including them in his plans for the new Bolivia ; and his first anniversary State of the Nation address last week went on for a portentous four hours.

From what I have seen, though, Evo has nursed a remarkably smooth birth of a new Bolivia, which stands with Venezuela and, recently, Ecuador as an alternative to neoliberalism. It should be hoped that Cochabamba is not a sign of things to come, for in general political disputes between normal people have been carried out with the enthusiasm of a country searching for a better future. If only the West could enjoy such lively political debate, perhaps some of their countries would not be stuck in the quagmire of Iraq right now. Moreover, as US Professor Newton Garner has pointed out, violence is tactically, as well as morally, undesirable :

Violent confrontation would suit the rich elite, for they are rich enough to win a show of force. Violent confrontations also stall the economy, and if there is to be greater equality in Bolivia it must come from greater wealth, not through dividing existing wealth.

For more on Bolivia, Venezuela and South America in general, see here.


My first morning on Bolivian soil was spent on the back of a horse named Calypso. Calypso and I did hit it off at first ; the guide gave me his most tranquilo horse, but for the first hour Calypso barely broke into a trot. In fact, I told him in no uncertain terms that I thought he was rather lazy. Everytime we passed a patch of grass, which even in the earthy south-west of Bolivia was often, Calypso ground to a halt, had a snack, and took a siesta. When he saw the guide glaring at him as if he was a miscreant child, he sped up a bit, but suffice to say that I lingered at the back of the group for most of the outbound journey.


At least Calypso´s pace (or lack thereof) enabled me to soak up the landscapes. Brick-red cliffs and jagged rocks strike out from a burned and thirsty floor, from which uncompromising scrubs of grass grow ; and all is covered by a brilliant blue sky. The colours of the landscape - and the sky - have changed regularly during my first week here : within a day the extreme colours of Tupiza had given way to pastel greys and pinks and browns, as we climbed several kilometres above sea level. But for now, we cantered through vivid technicolor. And on the way back, Calypso decided he was bored of cantering and suddenly bolted into a furious gallop. I nearly fell off his back on several occasions, and whether I will ever be able to have children remains to be seen ; but Calypso and I parted on friendly terms. I thanked him in my best Spanish for such an energetic ride, and he replied with a courteous snort.



The following day, six of us - two Argentinian artists, a Dutch-Iranian dancer, an Israeli couple, and myself - set off in a jeep from Tupiza on a four-day excursion around the south-western altiplano. After a long drive into the mountains, we arrived at our first hostel just as the sun was beginning to set. It was in the middle of nowhere, without hot water or electricity. The lack of light and the cloudless sky gave us the second-best night sky I have ever seen - a mass of pitch-black, dotted with pinpricks of white, hinting at a brilliant universe beyond our own. Since we had to be up at 5am the following day, and since it was too cold (even in my new llama-wool hat and gloves) to watch the sky for long, we all had an early night and lulled ourselves to sleep with songs (a Persian folk-song, an Israeli children´s song, and a tango duet). Fear not, dear readers, for I did not partake in the singing. I told the first chapter of my novel, and then attempted to translate what I had just related into Spanish. Everybody was so baffled, they fell asleep immediately.

You can only travel round the extreme south-west of Bolivia via an organised excursion. To do it off your own back would be insane. All the roads are dirt-tracks, most are upwards of 4km above sea-level, and some of the ground is so harsh that only the hardy pajabravo ("brave straw") can survive there. But among the scrubby, wild-west mountains and volcanoes, and the dadesque rock formations, there are places of astonishing beauty - lagunas coloured green and red by mineral deposits and plankton. These lagunas are home to flocks and flocks and flocks of pink and white flamingos. But enough of my guff : a few photos will tell the story much better.






This salt
in the saltcellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know
you won't
believe me,
it sings,
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
the voice
the salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the nitrous
a mournful

In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
we see your piquant
vital light
our food.
of the ancient
holds of ships,
the high seas,
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
the smallest,
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste infinitude.

- Pablo Neruda, "Ode to Salt"




We´re all waiting for Him. We´ve all been waiting for Him for centuries. Wherever our dreams take us - onto the airplane we see pictured in that same paper, into a well-lit room, there to fall into the arms of a beautiful woman - it is Him we seek. We long for Him as we stroll along muddy pavements, laden with groceries wrapped in newspapers that a hundred pairs of eyes have scanned, with plastic bags that make all the apples inside them smell synthetic, with string bags that leave purple stains on our fingers. We wait for Him as we sit in movie theaters watching hairy men breaking bottles on a Saturday night and world beauties embarking on breathtaking adventures ; we seek Him as we walk home from the brothels that have succeeded only in making us feel lonelier than before, as we thank our neighbour for inviting us over to hear the radio play, even though we didn´t hear a word of it because his noisy children refused to go to bed. Some of us believe it will be in the back streets - in a lonely corner where darkness has reigned ever since louts with slingshots shattered the streetlamps - that He will make His first appearance ; others of us believe it will be in front of one of those impious shops where they sell lottery tickets, girlie magazines, toys, tobacco, condoms, and untold quantities of useless trinkets. But wherever He ultimately chooses to reveal Himself, be it in the restaurant kitchens where little children mold ground meat into meatballs for twelve hours a day, or a movie theater where thousands of eyes unite in longing to become a single eye, or a green hill sitting where shepherds as pure as angels fall under the spell of the cypresses swaying in the graveyard, we are agreed at least that when the endless wait is over, when eternity vanishes in the blinking of an eye, those of us who are lucky enough to see Him first will recognise Him immediately and know, too, that deliverance is nigh.

But here´s the surprising thing : Though we all await His coming, and though many claim to have foreseen it, no one - and I am speaking now of all humanity, from my dear reader Mehmet Yilmaz, who once described a vision that came to him while sitting in his home in remotest Anatolia, to the great Ibn´Arabi, who recounts being visited by the same vision seven hundred years earlier in The Phoenix ; from the philosopher al-Kindi, who dreamed that He, and all those He had saved, would take Constantinople from the Christians, to the salesgirl who sees Him in her daydreams as she sits surrounded by bobbins, buttons, and nylon stockings in a dry-goods store in a Beyoglu back street, centuries after al-Kindi´s dream came true - there is not in this throng of humanity a single soul who saw His face.

- from Orhan Pamuk, The Black Book


Thursday, January 25, 2007


The country had a history ; now it is just a place. Have a nice day is the limit of its conscious struggle, which is not nothing ; its citizens shoulder on, their weapons an eagerness to please and a submerged resentment of the apparent fact that the country does not give back what its history promised. So ordinariness rules, and an actor who can catch it gets work.

- Greil Marcus, The shape of things to come


Monday, January 15, 2007


Pictures of Bariloche (Western Argentina) at the end of 2006.


There has been something of a lack of photos of my travels so far, but I have finally downloaded the first batch, so here is a selection on which to feast your eyes. They don´t include my most recent destination - Cafayate and the surrounding valleys : these are stunningly beautiful, and will hopefully follow soon.

(PS : this post is in two parts - first BA, next Bariloche, which are rather more lovely)








Saturday, January 13, 2007


I overdid it a bit this morning - I cycled to the desert. To be honest, that makes it sound more adventurous than it actually was, but still - I was ravaged by a bastard headwind on the way there. On the way back, I thought, logically, I should have a nice tailwind. But no, the wind had changed direction, was still in my face, and had been joined by its friend, relentless drizzle. And I got stung by a killer-wasp yesterday. I am, I´m sure you will agree, somewhat in the wars (or, more likely, doing the typically male "woe-is-me-please-give-me-some-attention" thang).

Anyway, this afternoon I retired to an internet cafe for a couple of hours, and was lazily surfing the net when I came across this : the top 55 songs of 2006 according to Said the Gramophone, an mp3 blog which I, forever behind the times when it comes to trends, had not seen before. I think the authors of the blog post free downloads most days, but there is a warning that mp3s only stay on the website for two or three weeks. So, hurry along.

My favourite from the list is the re-make of "Kick out the Jams" (now called "Kick out the Chairs") by James Murphy and Munk, but then I have only downloaded five or six so far. With new music posted every day, I suspect I won´t get a lot done in the next week or so. Especially since it´s all kicking off in Cochabamba (my next destination) at the moment.

UPDATE! "Graceland" by Casiotone for the Painfully Alone is now my joint-favourite (posted on StG on 12 January). Usually I would disregard a band with a name like that, but the promise of a "Graceland" cover drew me in.

UPDATE II! I hadn´t spotted there was a Roy Harper mp3 available! OK, so now "North Country" (10 January) is my new favourite. And now I shall say goodbye and let you get on with your lives.

Friday, January 05, 2007


The most absurd programme I watched in 2006 was probably Heston Blumenthal`s "In Search of Perfection". Heston, as all good bourgeois readers of the Guardian-Independent-Sunday-Times will know, owns a restaurant called The Fat Duck in Berkshire. The Fat Duck has three Michelin stars and was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2005. The following year, it was relegated to second place by El Bulli, a restaurant on the Costa Brava. Both restaurants specialise in "molecular gastronomy," a sphere of cooking which seeks a conciliation between science and food (and which no domestic cook can ever hope to replicate). Via ingredients denoted merely by letters and numbers (N7 is a store cupboard favourite), Heston can magically transform bacon and eggs into ice cream, or a cup of tea into one that is half-hot, half-cold. His menu, for those with the inclination or money to see it for themselves, reads like a culinary joke :
etc etc


Food critics wax lyrical about his revolutionary powers, while the rest of us scratch our heads and wonder if he`s taking the piss. (I should point out that his Taster Menu will set you back 80 quid a head, without drinks.)

I don`t think he`s taking the piss, and I have absolutely nothing against experimenting with food. I don`t doubt that many of his dishes are delicious. But his television series was interesting because of the dishes he chose to "perfect". In the first programme, Heston tried his hand at two dishes : sausage and mash, and treacle tart with ice cream. The implication is clear : Heston wishes to take two staples and cleanse them off their proletarian muck.

Roland Barthes, in Mythologies, noted the class-differences in domestic cooking, when he demonstrated the ornamental style of cooking favoured by many French magazines :

Ornamentation proceeds in two contradictory ways, which we shall in a moment see dialectically reconciled : on the one hand, fleeing from nature thanks to a kind of frenzied baroque (sticking shrimps in a lemon, making a chicken look pink, serving grapefruit hot), and on the other, trying to reconstitute it through an incongruous artifice (strewing meringue mushrooms and holly leaves on a traditional log-shaped Christmas cake, replacing the heads of crayfish around the sophisticated bechamel which hides their bodies). It is in fact the same pattern which one finds in the elaboration of petit-bourgeois trinkets (ashtrays in the shape of a saddle, lighters in the shape of a cigarette, terrines in the shape of a hare).

Barthes added that magazines aimed at the working class were full of recipes for absurd, decorative dishes, the ingredients for which the average person had no hope of affording, while magazines aimed at the middle classes described how to cook more straightforward dishes (a salad nicoise or, to Anglicise things, a Lancashire hotpot). The message here is that, for the working class, food is not to be consumed and enjoyed, but to be aspired to. If only housewife a could better herself and afford a partridge, a new social stratum would be hers for the taking ... but, alas, she cannot. Conversely, bourgeois housewife b does not need to aspire to partridge - she is equipped to divine the simple pleasures of a chicken or lamb shank - and so she can look down upon housewife a as a pretentious wannabe. A food column in a Sunday newspaper will tell you more about its politics and its target audience than its news section.

But Heston´s tactic is altogether more unpleasant. He wishes to shame housewife a into believeing that her humble sausage and mash is inadequate. If your pork is not taken from a bespoke pig from a farm in Somerset ; if you don`t soak the breadcrumbs first and then freeze-dry them ; hell, if you don`t own a sausage making machine and have to buy your sausages (probably from a - pshaw! - supermarket), then you don`t deserve to eat this British classic. No, let`s leave the proper preparation of this sacred dish to the experts - the real cooks, the men and women who watch Heston`s programmes and sleep soundly in the knowledge that they will never need to cook one of his laborious recipes. The mere fact of their class assures them that sausage and mash, or treacle tart and ice cream, are rightfully, morally, their preserve.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Since this blog is currently supposed to be doubling as a kind of travelogue, it is time that I wrote something on my first month in South America. I apologise for the lack of original photos - I am trying to find a British adaptor so that I can charge my camera up, without, thus far, much luck.

It is difficult to overstate how little I have done so far. Apart from brief trips to Bariloche and Colonia (which I had been to before) I have stated in BA for well over a month. When fellow travellers hear that I have stayed in one place, reading, drinking coffee (and, I must confess, one or two beers), and generally avoiding the tourist traps, it is with some disbelief. Why would I choose to spend nearly one fifth of my trip in such a state of inactivity?

Well, firstly I have been here before. I have enjoyed the surrealism of the cemetery at Recoleta ; I have walked round the Casa de Rosa in the Plaza de Mayo and seen the balcony from which Evita gave her speeches ; I have done day-trips to Tigre, and I have ballsed up the tango. I feel no great need to do any of these again. Secondly, I am not much of an adrenalin junkie - I actually really like doing nothing - it is the way to get to know a place. And thirdly - and this is where people go "Ah, of course!" and slap my back knowingly - I have met a rather lovely young chica, a Colombian with whom I have spent lots of time (including Christmas and New Year) during the last three weeks or so. (It is remarkable how women can change your travelling plans.) Kelly speaks no English at all, which has made it, in at least one way, the most interesting relationship I have been in. My last post suggested that love is a master signifier, an empty space, a nothingness into which two people plunge. When those two people literally struggle to understand each other, the black hole becomes all the more obscure, and when you are in a state of obscurity, you cannot very well ask the sort of damaging internal questions that usually beset a relationship. The first question I asked myself when it became apparent that Kelly liked me was : why? She cannot speak my language, I can barely speak hers ; how can you like / love / whatever somebody with whom you cannot talk? I put the thought out of my mind when I discovered the answer : far more easily than somebody with whom you are bound to talk too much. (And besides, she is damned hot.)

That said, we have had some cracking conversations (and barneys), all helped by her patience with my broken Spanish (which has nevertheless improved a lot). She is studying film in BA, and her favourite director is Hitchcock - an excellent start. The people in South America I have spoken to - all lower-middle-upper-working class - seem far better educated than people in Europe or the US. I tried to bullshit my way through a conversation about Spinoza, but I was quickly found wanting, the difference being that Colombians actually study philosophy as a matter of course at school. I have seen Marx being read by several people on the subte ; Daniel Barenboim chose to perform a free new year concert not in London or New York or Paris, but in the Avenida 9 de Julio (the widest street in the world) ; on every street corner there is a kiosk selling psychoanalytic journals (you have to sift through the porn to get to them) - and what´s more, people actually buy and read them! I have never been to a city which absorbs the cultures of other countries so much, while remaining intensely proud of its own - hence why Barenboim chose to conduct a philharmonic orhcestra playing lost and familiar tango classics.

And yes, BA is the world capital of Lacanian psychoanalysis. I won`t dwell on this too much (the old man is still turning in his grave after my portentous last post), but my first question on learning this was : does this mean porteños are saner as a result, or a priori bonkers and therefore more needy of help? A stupid question, but perhaps it is related to the style of relationships in South America. Machismo rules, of course, and there are plenty of sins committed in its name (another case of which-comes-first : is Catholicism big because they fuck around so much, or is the serial adultery a product of needing to have something to repent?). Reading Lacan, I have never quite felt as though he`s talking about my life. If I hung around BA for much longer, maybe I would.

But `twas not always thus. BA began as a neglected embarrassment for the Spanish crown. We have seen already how the early Spanish pirates were intent on raping their new-found colony of its abundant riches. "The corrupt," said the Indian politician Juan de Solórzano Pereyra in 1647, "are greater and more insolent sinners than thieves, as these steal in fear, while the former do so openly and securely."

The early years (not to mention the latter) of the Spanish Empire were marked by theft on a colossal scale. Of course, larceny is implicit in imperial capitalism, but it was exacerbated by Spain´s kamikaze policies on imports and exports. The source of much of the riches was Potosi, in present-day Bolivia, where in 1545 the Spanish had discovered vast reserves of the highest quality silver. The rush to mine these reserves dry turned Potosi into a death-camp. Felipe Pigna states that during the late sixteenth century, "both the amount of silver recovered from the ore and the exploitation and death rate of the Indians doubled." Because of this decline in the Indian population, Potosi became the new home for millions of black slaves. Fray Tomas Mercado, who witnesses the transfer of many slaves from Africa to America, describes the journey :

They travel so closely packed together, so filthy and battered, that those who bring them have assured me that they travel in groups of six, yoked and shackled in pairs, so that they are chained from head to toes, transported below deck, locked from the outside, where neither the moon nor the sun will shine, where no Spaniard dare poke his head in unless forced to, nor remain longer than an hour without a serious risk to his health, such is the stench, the crowing and the misery of the place. And their only solace is what they are given to east only once a day, not more than an average bowl of corn flour or raw millet, which is to them like our rice, with a small jar of water ; that and the regular beatings, whippings and cursing. This is the usual procedure.

But who would gain from these riches, and who (aside from the wretched slaves) would lose? We have to bear in mind that the capitalists and masters of the early Spanish Empire were not united in how the profits of their new-found treasures should be distributed. Merchants from Seville decreed that all exports from Latin America must flow via Lima - this would maximise profits and commissions for partners in both cities. But this left BA, whose genesis was pretty much solely the result of the riches at Potosi, in limbo, for imports also had to flow via Lima. As can be imagine, en route from Lima to BA, prices got hiked to such an extent that the inhabitants of BA hadn`t a hope in hell of affording them.

Contraband, therefore, became the first fully fledged industry in Buenos Aires. BA pirates and smugglers became locked in a deadlock with the Spanish Crown, which eventually decreed that all trade to and from BA was illegal unless its journey was to or from Seville, via Peru. In effect, this closed the newly established port of Buenos Aires down altogether.

However, there was a loophole in the law which the pirates exploited to its maximum (legal loopholes remain a favourite in Argentina). The Crown`s decree stated that any illegal traffic into Buenos Aires must be immediately stopped, and its contents immediately sold. And so, a bunch of entrepenuerial porteños decided they could make a few bob by ambushing Portuguese ships, and immediately selling on their products (including large quantities of slaves). The stability of Buenos Aires was further compromised by a threat that, if the virtual trade-ban on the city wasn`t lifted, its inhabitants would desert en masse.

To sort out this mess, enter Hernando Arias de Saavedra (known to his mates as Henandarias, and why not?). He was clever enough, in appealing to the Spanish Crown to re-open Buenos Aires, to know which buttons to press. Aware of the impending anarchy in BA, Henandarias wrote to the King that if the status quo was maintained, the inevitable unrest might lead to an invasion of Potosi. And, as we know, Potosi was the holy grail for the Spanish Crown. This appeal had some success : in 1602 the port was reopened for imports, but exports were limited to a few piddly bales of wheat and some meat to Brazil. Henandarias saw this as the silver lining which might enable him to root out the curse of smuggling in his city.

But, following his departure as Governor of the province, the city of BA fell once again into the hands of the professional pirates, especially when a group led by Don Diego and Simòn de Caldez, who deployed an international team of racketeers to mop up the profits gained by nicking Portuguese commodities, became influential in the Cabildo (the Argentinian house of government). The Cabildo (whose building still exists in truncated form) was a body made up of men selected by outgoing incumbents ; it was in no way democratic. Thus began a battle between one set of pirates (the Confederates, led by Diego and Valdez) and another (the so-called Worthies, who saw piracy as an obstacle to their own, more legal profiteering) to attain majority rule in the house. All manner of rackets, bribes and death-threats accompanied this battle (one wonders if, in 400 years time, bloggers will be describing similar goings-on in 21st century sites of mud and misery - New Orleans and Baghdad spring to mind), with the general population utterly powerless to do anything. The Confederates temporarily gained control by buying posts, but were soon replaced by the Worthies, etc etc, ad infinitum.


The scourge of empire and capital still besets Buenos Aires - poverty is far more visible than in London, and more marked. It is not at all uncommon to see street-kids of 5 and 6, who are clearly suffering from heroin-addiction. The crash of 2001 (again caused by an unpopular free-market economic system being foisted upon a population whether they liked it or not) plunged 50% of Argentinians into poverty, and the recovery has been slow.

I shall probably write one more post from Argentina before I go to Bolivia. I must, at least, say a few words about the steak here. But if you are itching to read about Bolivia, let me recommend this excellent article, from a person working and living in Cochabamba, where I plan to spend three or four weeks in February, again living and working.

But it`s hasta luego from me for now...


William had been working in the factory all morning. He had received his punishment for being late. He would work the rest of the day for no money and there was nothing he could do about it. As he worked he drifted off into his favourite fantasy. He was in a mob, a crowd of thousands of people all marching along a London street. The mob was packed tightly so that William pushed into the person in front of him, was pushed by the person behind him, and jostled and was jostled by those to either side. Seen from above the crowd had the shape of a mooncalf – surging, coming together, then drifting apart, diluting, then coming together again. It never quite had a set shape, but it never disintegrated.

William was not sure why the crowd was marching. He did not know why he marched with them. He could not see their faces so he did not know if they were angry or hateful or euphoric. He was sure they were all strangers. None of them seemed to be the herds and gangs from his neighbourhood or from the factory. There was an orderliness and a dispassion to the crowd which made William uneasy. Sometimes he looked to his right or to his left and saw, through the mass of people, a policeman. The policeman was always looking at him, wherever he was, always looking at William, smiling stupidly, flashing all his teeth at him. It was not a friendly or a nasty smile, and the policeman did not seem to have any control over it. There was a panic in the policeman’s eye which seemed like a cry for help – “please! take this smile off my face! take these teeth from my mouth!” But still the policeman stood, a vile white smile frozen on his face, always looking at William.

And sometimes unruly sections of the crowd would peel away from the rest and smash the windows of a shop, or shout at the shop’s staff, calling them slaves and smashing their skulls in with their banners or with their own skulls. Such breaks from the crowd were dealt with swiftly by sensible and orderly stewards.

A speaker would get up and the crowd would stop. The speaker would say a few words to focus the minds of the crowd. He would call out familiar slogans to which the crowd would clap in an orderly fashion. The speaker would bawl out another slogan and the crowd would clap again. A heckler would heckle or boo or hiss the speaker, and he would be dealt with by the sensible and orderly stewards. Then the crowd would move forward a little further. And the desperate smiling policeman would keep his gaze on William. Sometimes a tear would run down his face.

Then a pocket of violence would erupt in the mass of the crowd and would explode outwards like a big bang or a cancer or a nuclear explosion. This was the most exciting bit of the fantasy. This was the bit where William felt a clamp against his heart which squeezed a scream up through his chest and out of his body, a scream that went “AAAAAAAAAA” and blocked out everything else and never stopped. This was when William heard the violence begin and stood still, rolled his eyes back in his head, lifted both feet off the ground and waited for the stream of violence to hit him and sweep him up and carry him off. When it came it felt like flying. Bodies surging towards him; he went from upright to prone, only a few feet off the ground. Some of the bodies were clothed, but some had their clothes ripped off. William wanted to be pushed and shoved by the ones whose clothes had been ripped off and he wanted to push and shove them back. Some of the bodies were children. Sometimes William pushed and shoved the children. Sometimes he kicked and punched the children and tore their limbs apart. Sometimes they were William’s own children. He would close his eyes and smile and feel the heavy boots kick his face and the teeth of desperate women sink into his ears, and hungry hands grab his hair to pull him along in another direction. His neighbour’s blood would drip onto his face and William would count the drops and lick them greedily from his cheeks and under his chin. When he had this fantasy, he would feel nothing but liberation. It took him away from the factory for a while.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007


That this post is a mess is justified twice over. Firstly in Seminaire VIII, Lacan argues that it is impossible to say anything meaningful about love and that, as soon as one tries to do so, one ends up talking gibberish. Secondly, Zizek claims that the core aim of psychoanalysis is to persuade the subject that what appears to him to be constantly stymied by an obstacle he must somehow remove, is actually an inherent impossibility. So I make no claims that this is anything other than a few thoughts, hastily boshed together, which are no doubt as senseless as any that have gone before.

Why so? Because love itself is utterly senseless. Its violence is latent, but no less belligerent for that. Saying the words "I love you" is akin to saying "I want to destroy you - and myself." Unless, of course, one says it without meaning it - but in that case, what does one mean, and what does one not-mean?

Love means giving something you don't have to someone who doesn't want it - Jacques Lacan.

I have been thinking about this post for some time, but its catalyst is a short and ongoing discussion with Andrew over at Newfred:Declensions. Briefly, the conversation between Andrew and I has centred on the viability of the petit objet a, the unlocatable promise of the unknowable other. I am re-interpreting his words somewhat, but Andrew claims that the promise of sexuality is like that of democracy : a mere promise, eternally deferred, never actualised.

It seems to me that the fulfillment of desire can only ever be a complete fantasy, because the objet petit a is only ever a space for narcissism and masturbation - Andrew.

I do not disagree with this, but it seems important to turn this into an optimistic statement, a way of making sex (and love) fulfilling, even if not in the terms through which we traditionally think of fulfilment. To be relativist instead of nihilist. This appears a challenging volte-face : the promise of sexuality is always-already in the future, out of our grasp. How can we ever enjoy it now? Via two routes : first, by accepting that desire, by its very definition, cannot be fulfilled ; and second, by accepting that what appears as failure (a mere partial sexual satisfaction) can in fact be seen as a success.

(As an aside, the fact that the objet petit a is a space for narcissism explains why Bertold Brecht was opposed to the idea of the sacred simultaneous orgasm. In fact, to allow your partner to watch your bring yourself to a climax (with their help), and then to watch your partner bring themselves to a climax (with your help) requires far more trust because, as Zizek explains, you put yourself in a position of vulnerability : there is a risk that you may end up looking utterly ridiculous. There are few things that look quite as c0mical as another person cumming when you are not sexually excited...)


A while back, I had an even briefer tete-a-tete with Darling Vicarage, in response to a John Berger quote that I posted. This hinged around love as the silent, unconscious exchange of gifts. DV stated that "the worst thing about being in love is the fact that despite one's best efforts to show the beloved that you're trying to offer yourself, that message never quite reaches the person in the way you intended, if it ever really reaches them at all." I replied :

But what if your intended target did receive your message loud and clear? Would this not somehow dilute your desire for him? After all, isn't desire merely the gap between the demand for romantic love on the one hand, and its immediate satisfaction on the other?

The fact that you can even formulate a message in the first place must mean that you have compromised the more passionate, violent aspects of love which cannot be communicated. That presents another gap, which is actually the same as the first one. It is the gap, or lack, created by the fact that you cannot articulate your most primordial desires.

(Sorry - it´s terribly vain to quote from your own comments - disculpame...)


Lacan locates love as existing in the realm of the Imaginary. Falling in love consists of the subject seeing, and identifying with the image of, the other. The ensuing relationship must, therefore, be marked by alienation and narcissism.

To fall in love is, in effect, to beseech the other to fall in love with you. In love, man is only loving himself. Not his empirical self, not the weaknesses and vulgarities, not the failings and smallnesses which he outwardly exhibits ; but all that he wants to be, all that he ought to be, his truest, deepest, intelligible nature, free from all fetters of necessity, from all taint of earth ... He projects his ideal of an absolutely worthy existence, the ideal that he is unable to isolate within himself, upon another human being, and this act, and this alone, is none other than love and the significance of love - Otto Weininger.

Any psychoanalytic effort must be an attempt to inscribe what lies in the realm of the Imaginary with language, for otherwise the seductive allure of the specular image of the other will be compromised by the disabling effect of being locked into a set of static, unreachable fixations. This is not easy : the self-other narcissism-alienation is fundamental.

Lacan describes how the stickleback fish becomes sexually aroused when she sees a male, who wears a black spot on its back. But equally, the female stickleback is aroused when she sees a piece of cardboard with an identical black spot. It is the sexual image, rather than its contents, which is privileged. To break out of this specular trap, one must engage with the symbolic, to employ language, laws, codes, contracts and (after Levi-Strauss) the symbolic exchange of "gifts".

In one of his most famous cases, Freud demonstrates how we must symbolise the absence generated by desire when he describes his grandson playing the "fort da" game. In this game, which the child repeated over and over, he would throw a reel of string under the bed where it could not be seen, and then pull it back into view. When the reel could not be seen the child would shout "fort" (gone!), and when it came back into view he would exclaim "da" (there!) with delight. The pain of absence (the child´s father had recently been sent to the front in World War One) is mastered by the signification of absence and retrieval via language. A year or so ago, I had a brief, rather traumatic and certainly formative fling with a girl who, in Freudian terms, made me feel as though I, and only I, possessed the phallus. As Freud himself said, this makes you feel like a God, such is its symbolic power. But of course its power is illusory, and it can be stolen from you without a moment`s notice. I was given a day`s notice that the girl did not want to see me again, and it scarred me (not badly, but with the dull roar of a mild depression) for another six months. I am not sure what it was, exactly, that cured me of the pain of this relationship. A week in the Lake District helped more than anything, but again I am not sure why. All I know is that when I returned from Cumbria, I felt a whole lot happier ; not only could I explain (more or less) why she might have disappeared from my life and why I had felt so shitty, I also didn`t feel a compulsion to explain it.


Love means an affirmative desire towards the Other - to respect the Other, to pay attention to the Other, not to destroy the otherness of the Other - Jacques Derrida.

You fell for her again, she watched it happen
Every day, day by day
But more important, night by night
She watched it all come into play
He held her hands, she listened to what he had to say

Thrown down like a barricade
Maybe now he could prove to her
That he could be good for her
And they should be together - Fleetwood Mac, "Thrown Down"

It is apparent pretty early on in Patricia Highsmith`s This Sweet Sickness that its protagonist, David Kelsey, is a psychopath. He is clinging on to a sweetheart, Annabelle, from his early twenties, even though Annabelle has married another man. His relatives and, as the book progresses, the colleagues who (in the eyes of the prejudiced-God-narrator) admire and even worship David, can all see that he is clinging. But David cannot. He writes letters to Annabelle in which he tells her of his confidence that she will realise that her dull marriage was a mistake, and return to the warm embrace of David. David kills Annabelle`s first husband (an event disturbing only by its lack of disturbance), and the plot develops into a kind of murder mystery in which David evades the police by the use of a pseudonym, William Neumeister. Neumister is David`s ego-ideal, the hallowed place from which he judges himself ; but, of course, the identities of ego-ideal (like the objet petit a, a constantly reflexive, unstable black hole) and the ego merge with each other. He is neither David nor William, for he does not have the symbolic power to recognise either ; it is this psychosis which blinds him to non-reciprocity of his love for Annabelle.

And yet, the strangest part of the book is Annabelle`s behaviour. Why does she allow David to persist in writing letters? Why does she occasionally agree to meet him - often enough, anyway, for his delusions to persist? It is as if Lacan`s dictum that Woman does not exist is made flesh over the course of the book ; we are trapped in the very same position as Kelsey`David`s fellow lodgers in that we cannot be sure to what extent Annabelle exists. Certainly her tolerance of David´s persistence (which is never quite expressed as love, but which has a latent, tranquil force to it) seems to be a psychotic fantasy, but how can we really know? This is the genius of Highsmith`s narrative : it is not the voice of David, but in its cool objectivity, it certainly sides with him, and we are therefore perpetually uncertain as to whose point of view we are looking at things from. But Highsmith makes one thing clear enough : whether Annabelle really exists or not, it is not she whom David loves, but himself : his own ego made real on the imaginery level (to quote Lacan (again)).


Dwight : I will always love you, Gail
Gail : Always - and never - Sin City


**HERE ENDS THE FRAGMENT** (well, I did warn you it would be a mess...)

Monday, January 01, 2007


Thoughts on another year (not by me, I hasten to add) :

Never can I do in peace
That with which my Soul’s obsessed,
Never take things at my ease;
I must press on without rest.

Others only know elation
When things go their peaceful way,
Free with self-congratulation,
Giving thanks each time they pray.

I am caught in endless strife,
Endless ferment, endless dream;
I cannot conform to Life,
Will not travel with the stream.

Heaven I would comprehend,
I would draw the world to me;
Loving, hating, I intend
That my star shine brilliantly.

All things I would strive to win,
All the blessings Gods impart,
Grasp all knowledge deep within,
Plumb the depths of Song and Art.

Worlds I would destroy for ever,
Since I can create no world,
Since my call they notice never,
Coursing dumb in magic whirl.

Dead and dumb, they stare away
At our deeds with scorn up yonder;
We and all our works decay --
Heedless on their ways they wander.

Yet their lot I would share never --
Swept on by the flooding tide,
On through nothing rushing ever,
Fretful in their Pomp and Pride.

Swiftly fall and are destroyed
Halls and bastions in their turn;
As they fly into the Void,
Yet another Empire’s born.

So it rolls from year to year,
From the Nothing to the All,
From the Cradle to the Bier,
Endless Rise and endless Fall.

So the spirits go their way
Till they are consumed outright,
Till their Lords and Masters they
Totally annihilate.

Then let us traverse with daring
That predestined God-drawn ring,
Joy and Sorrow fully sharing
As the scales of Fortune swing.

Therefore let us risk our all,
Never resting, never tiring;
Not in silence dismal, dull,
Without action or desiring;

Not in brooding introspection
Bowed beneath a yoke of pain,
So that yearning, dream and action
Unfulfilled to us remain.

- Karl Marx, 1836