Report from an Academy 3: Chile Diary

by Paul North

Santiago-Viñas-Santiago / October 2017

For Willy Thayer, who moved a river in me

DF4129C1-DF5C-490B-8BB0-37E563567C96Theory in the Critical International. Professors travel. They trek their personal penury and their meager intellectual wares over highlands and lowlands, and, because culture is supposed to fly outward without stopping and never—gods forbid—turn around and go home again, altered by the foreign, we aren't really supposed to be affected by what encounters us on our travels. We are professors, not students. We are experts, untouchable.

How lucky they are in Chile! How lucky they are in Chile, the past is dead and gone, how lucky that their state did not externalize it's hideous violence into secret ops, proxy wars, distant destruction of sovereign states and peoples without sovereignty, offensives in which the people at home barely believed. How lucky they are to have had a home-spun dictatorship, how fortunate that it is over and has been expelled from their nation once and for all. How envious I am that they, so far south, got the full benefit of the freest free market from the Hayek school, the Chicago School, the American corporate school up north. Between us the driest desert in the world—money scoffs at distances. It turned a murderous coup into a social reformation. What stability! "Chile is one of the most stable economies and our honest ally." How lucky that they converted brutalities into profits, detention centers into shopping malls. This is not all. How charmed the life of critical theorists suspended between the desert and the glacier. They don't know how lucky they are! To have their object so clearly in front of them, even if few ears are listening. Except the students, not the students!, some few students whose ear for critique has been sharpened by the experiences of their parents and teachers. They hear the past calling like the hollow whisper on a wireless call.

Portrait of a Thinker in Traffic. Neo-liberalism is good for traffic. Rules are for following, people without means who clutter up the city are for moving out of the centers to new desolate zones. Not like in Argentina—there's no dawdling here, that is the old way. The old way blows away. Stiching his car through the city, the thinker—nothing can block him, not diligent workers or entrepreneurs with their malls, offices, homes. No place to go, no matter. Keep driving. Flow is everything. We are happy with small affordances: to pass consumers and producers by. Passing is pleasure, unlike the acrobats who greet us at each traffic light, jugglers who illuminate the cliff edges of the system of flexible labor. Gainfully employed by contingency, they stand on their heads, balancing balls, a few pesos. "Viste, no se me cayó ninguno." "See, I didn't drop one."

A Beautiful Work. Arriving in a place for the first time you have the illusion of viewing everything important about it all at once, as though it were sketched out in colored pencil in a child's storybook. That kind of truth is useful because, when it fades, the critical image emerges. Walter Benjamin writes somewhere that he knows how to put an end to capital punishment. Have every citizen spend one night on death row. The trick to giving citizens this experience, unlike giving them the experience of war through the TV, is that it cuts into them. They have to believe truly that they will be executed in the morning.

A Beautiful Work II. While cutting the Costanera Toll road through Santiago "the Rio Mapocho was diverted for the work on the tunnel into its own specially built waterway, running on the southern bank of the present river bed.” There was a film about the bodies in the river Mapocho, it was a beautiful work, a beautiful work. How did they make the film, if no verisimil footage survived? The story was not in the images but in a quote from Heraclitus placed as a caption under the entire film. To please the citizens of the polis, the Ephesian riddler Heraclitus said, it is wise to go farther away from the city than where you dispose of the shit, when you want to dispose of the bodies. Obviously he meant because it is not the smell that needs to be hidden but the fact that the bodies are hidden. This caption cuts into me. This pre-Greek dictum that found its kairotic "right time" in the post-dictatorship is vastly different from the journalist's dictum: "this critical theory to which we have dedicated ourselves in the tumult of our Latin American countries" (Horacio Gonzalez). There is critical theory for the tumult, newspaper theory; and then there is critical theory that remembers the outer precincts, where the bodies get sluiced, the apopolis, apopolitical theory. We are less interested in the question why there have to be bodies than in their psychic and phenomenal location relative to the state.

Amereida. How to understand "experimentation" if it is a method in both art and politics, one productive of truth, the other productive of bodies. Is the utopian community with its architecture different enough from the concentration camp and its architecture? Do the inmates live so very differently in the one than in the other? A beach sand meridian in Ritoque stretches from The Open City Amereida, a specially built architectural utopia begun in 1969, to The Center of Concentration in Ritoque, which was operated by Pinochet's military commanders between 1974 and 1975. A geographic dividing line but more importantly a cultural connecting line, the beachsand, the meridian, balances on this word, "experimentation." Both locales housed "artists" who performed their experimental arts, conditioning and conditioned by their walled spaces. The concentration camp gives the lie to the built city. Encarcerated artists and theater performers, the inhabitants of the concentration camp, put on a continuous farce. They played themselves as citizens of a free town called the "Village of Ritoque" that had, in their hilariously black inverted farce, its own autonomous government. The prisoners enacted themselves as inhabitants of the only free town in Chile; the walls were there to prevent others from getting in.

Locos. Have you tried our regional delicacy? You see, they are not very delicate. To open the shell you have to put it in a sock and swing it with all the strength of your lifetime and your parents' lifetimes against the floor, and only then, just then, after many blows, the shells loosen; the meat is tough, you have to cook it for hours; slowly they go soft, like beaten students. Do you find them bland? For a foreigner we sometimes have to order sauce—

Phantom Ruiz. He taught at the Instituto del Arte during those two years, while he was making those two films in Chile. Did you know that in his essays and notes, Ruiz had 100 ways or more of saying "image"? Leaf, constellation of patterns, unintended mirage, experiential punctuation mark, darkening, sudden collapse of the real, the between-cuts, fairytale for the eye—none of these are exactly Ruiz's images of image, and yet if you follow this series along its logical development you will find the filmmaker at its end. At the same endpoint you find El Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, though not the one in Santiago at the corner of Matucana y Catedral, where the second part of the title, "…and Human Rights," hangs as a hasty afterthought. How can there be a museum of human rights? If our rights are in a museum, which they may well be, then they are not our rights are they? This museum is an "image" in one of Raul Ruiz's senses of the term, in this way: the museum is itself the only exhibit. It stands on display, a shameful image, cleft by claw and fang marks of a social animal that bit off the violence of the years of oppression and buried it outside the city, beyond the shit. What is left is an image, that is, an aggregation that hides what it doesn't want you to see and shows at every turn how much has been blacked out in the national portrait.