Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction

This is a general overview of my forthcoming book Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Last week I submitted the manuscript to Duke UP for the second round of reviews. If all goes well, the book should be out in 2014. In the next few weeks, I'll be posting brief, more theoretical excerpts from the book. Since the main argument goes beyond the places I explored in my fieldwork, it's fitting to illustrate this post with images from other ruptured spaces... 

Mankind is merely the experimental material, the tremendous surplus of failures: a field of ruins.
Fredric Nietzsche, Will to Power 

Only in traces and ruins… is there ever hope of coming across genuine and just reality.
        Theodor Adorno, The Actuality of Philosophy

The foothills of the Andes in northern Argentina were for centuries the theater of a violent confrontation between the state and the indigenous insurgencies that controlled the Gran Chaco, the tropical lowlands stretching toward the east. In 2003-2007, roughly a century after the state had finally prevailed, I conducted fourteen months of fieldwork in different areas of the former frontier; I wanted to analyze the myriad ruins that this conflict left in space and how the people living around them related to this spatial sedimentation of older histories. These older ruins confronted me, in turn, with debris created by more recent processes of state and capitalist decline and expansion, including the ruination generated by agribusinesses at the time of my fieldwork. In this book, I examine how my experience in this fraught geography unsettled not only my assumptions about “ruins” but also my understandings about space, its production, and particularly its destruction and generative afterlife. Those palimpsests of ruins revealed the extent to which the destruction of space had become sedimented in the texture of contemporary geographies and in local forms of collective life. And those ruins also brought to light the power of those places to affect the living in the present as well as the legacies of violence that the state and the Catholic Church seek to relegate to oblivion.

What, exactly, is a ruin? Can the material, historical, and affective ruptures congealed in the countless ruins strewn all over the world help us look at space differently? In this book, I argue that answering these questions requires, first, undoing the fetishism that dominates mainstream and elite views of ruins, which celebrate historic ruins as objects whose form should be revered while, at the same time, erasing the experience of the people living around them as well as much vaster and ongoing spatial destruction created by capitalist and state forces. The book analyzes how people at the foot of the Andes view ruins through what was to me an illuminating lens that, as Adorno and Benjamin would put it, revealed the historical constellations congealed in those objects and the tense processes that created them.

This book argues that the afterlife of ruins can only be understood through an affective view of space sensitive to the power of certain objects to affect living social actors, both through their presence in the materiality of the terrain and through the absences and generative ruptures they evoke. On the western edge of the Chaco, the constellations of debris I analyze have different levels of visibility and affective force. Some are famous throughout the region while others are only known locally; some generate apprehension, while others are disregarded. Yet most of these sites are haunted by past presence of the indigenous insurgencies that over several centuries were powerful enough to turn four Spanish cities and multiple missions and forts into ruins. And these ruins are also haunted by the violence unleashed by the state, which was so widespread that today this is the only region in the western edge of the Argentinean Chaco without a rural population that identifies as indigenous. This is why the state and the Church have sought to erase the memory of that violence through the topographic and affective modulation of what some of these ruins are supposed to mean, often involving massive religious processions and ceremonies. Yet the book also shows that the meaning of a peculiar type of ruin, human bones assembled in mass graves, is harder to control by the state because its material form exudes the violence that created it.

In short, this book seeks to critically examine one of the major tropes of modernity, “the ruin,” in order to reflect on a number of interrelated themes: the destruction of space, the sedimentation of processes of violence in the material and affective texture of contemporary geographies, and the ways in which ordinary people and institutional actors are attracted to and haunted by the presence of ruins. More broadly, the book is a call to look at space through a lens that is more attentive to the material and affective immanence of the ruptures that define it, seeking to translate into spatial terms Nietzsche’s observation that humanity is “merely the experimental material, the tremendous surplus of failures: a field of ruins.
Table Of Contents


Part I: Ghosts of Indians

1. Old Walls in Gaucho Spaces
2. On the Edge of the Void

Part II: Lost Cities

    The Destruction of Space
3. Land of Curses and Miracles
4. The Ruins of Ruins

Part III: Residues of a Dream World

    Treks Across Fields of Ruins 
5. Ships Stranded in the Forest
6. Bringing a Destroyed Place Back to Life
7. Railroads to Nowhere

Part IV: The Debris of Violence

    Bright Objects
8. Topographies of Oblivion
9. Piles of Bones
10. The Return of the Indians

We Aren’t Afraid of Ruins                                                                                   

Overview of Chapters
This book is an ethnography that regularly delves into history in order to illustrate the processes through which particular places were destroyed to become ruins. Yet my analysis also draws on the historical and cultural specificity of these places to analyze conceptual themes about space, destruction, form, materiality, affect, negativity, haunting, violence, fetishism, memory, the void, and oblivion.
The book is divided up in ten chapters assembled in four parts, and preceded by an introduction (Constellations) that presents the main places and ruins to be analyzed in the book as they are entangled in “constellations” of objects (drawing from Benjamin’s and Adorno’s use of this concept) that reveal the processes that created them.

Three of the book’s four parts are preceded by brief intermezzos that examine conceptual problems central to my analysis and to anthropology, human geography, and critical theory: the destruction of space as central to understanding the production of space (The Destruction of Space), a re-reading of the dialectic through the ruin and what I propose to call an object-oriented negativity (Treks Across Fields of Ruins), and a discussion of the ways in which philosophies of negativity (such as Adorno’s, Benjamin’s, and Žižek’s) can learn from philosophies of affirmation (such as Spinoza’s and Deleuze’s), and vice versa, in order to examine processes of becoming through rupture, in particular to understand the affective force of the material and bodily debris created by violence (Bright Objects). While conceptual, these are explorations that do not see theory as a transcendental abstraction and, on the contrary, draw from anthropology’s strength: its everyday immersion in actual places and its engagement with ordinary men and women in their historical and cultural circumstances.
Part I, “Ghost of Indians,” begins by presenting the main actors I examine in the book, the criollos of the southeast of the province of Salta, people of mestizo (racially mixed) background who work mostly as gauchos (cowboys) on cattle ranches in the Andean foothills at the western edge of the Chaco. In particular, I analyze how these men and women engage with the ruins that dot the region through a sensibility shaped by their gaucho habits and their participation in local expressions of popular Catholicism. And I show how many of the ruins in the region are for them haunted by the absence of the Indians those ruins were built to contain, and who also happen to be the ancestors of criollos (chapter one). I subsequently examine the historical emergence of the Chaco as an insurgent space that destroyed several Spanish cities and voided state territoriality over several centuries (chapter two). This section tells the history of the military conquest of the Chaco through an analysis of the recurring anxieties, among Spanish and subsequently Argentinean officials, about the vanishing of imperial ruins. The ghosts of Indians currently haunting the region, I argue, are the phantom evocations of the anti-imperial forces that once had the power not only to destroy state spaces but also make their ruins invisible.
In Part II, “Lost Cities,” I examine the contemporary afterlife of the ruins of two major imperial nodes of labor exploitation eroded and destroyed by those insurgencies, the two cities of Esteco. I focus, in particular, on the ruins of the second city of Esteco north of Metán, whose collapse in 1692 was so traumatic that it generated a legend that is to this day famous in northern Argentina and whose ruins have long been considered cursed. This is a curse that prompts massive ceremonies of conjuring annually organized by the Church in surrounding towns. Yet I also draw a counterpoint between these ruins and those of the first, and largely forgotten, city of Esteco a hundred kilometers to the east in the Chaco, which reveals some of the cultural legacies of the spatial ruptures generated by conquest (chapter three). The ruins of the cursed Esteco at the foot of the Andes are also notable because they made apparent, at a collective level, the ways in which criollo views of ruins challenge the elite fetishization of their form (chapter four).
Part III, “Residues of a Dream World,” examines some of the ruins of the project of progress imposed on the Chaco once this region was conquered by the state. These are the ruins of the promises of prosperity that the national elites claimed would pour into the Chaco after indigenous resistance was defeated. Drawing on Benjamin’s view of progress as a bourgeois dream world that mystifies the “wreckage upon wreckage” it leaves on its wake, these three chapters show that the dream elements of progress in this region coalesce in the physical residues of its recurring failures, often the product of new waves of progress equally presented as dreamlike like the agribusinesses currently destroying forests and gaucho spaces. The first chapter of part III narrates my journey to the heart of the Chaco to examine the ghostly detritus of the steamships that failed to conquer the Bermejo River in the 1860s and 1870s (chapter five). I subsequently analyze the ruins of the first town that blossomed on the western Chaco frontier after Argentina’s independence and that annually attracts multitudes in pilgrimage that briefly bring it back to life (chapter six). The last chapter of Part III examines the now derelict railroads that, only a few decades ago, seemed to have brought to southeast Salta the prosperity of industrial modernity (chapter seven).
 In Part IV, “The Debris of Violence,” I examine the material detritus left behind in space by the centuries of violence required to submit the Chaco to state control. These are traces that because of their potential political repercussions have tended to generate myriad attempts by the state and the Catholic Church to modulate their meaning and significance, especially to conjure away the memory of state violence and the power of indigenous insurgencies (chapter eight). But the constellations formed by the debris of violence in rural areas, I show next, also elude affective capture by the state, particularly because the very form of the human bones and mass graves that dot the region have long made criollos and indigenous people aware of the extent of state terror (chapter nine). The last chapter focuses on another, qualitatively different debris of violence: first, the urban neighborhoods created by people of Wichí background who, in different waves throughout the 1900s, arrived in southeast Salta fleeing violence and destruction elsewhere and, second, the ways in which criollos seek to come to terms with and pay homage to, through repetitive performances, the fact that they descend from Indians.
As way of conclusion (We Aren’t Afraid of Ruins), I draw from some of the main analytic and ethnographic threads woven through the book to highlight why, as Adorno once wrote inspired by Benjamin, conceiving of a more just society requires confronting the ruins that surround us, and also the myriad places that are daily destroyed anew. 


  1. I cannot wait to read this. Looks really really nice.

  2. muy interesante post, una consulta ¿cuanto habrá que esperar para una edición en español? de todas formas será bueno leerlo en inglés... Saludos

  3. Hola Francisco: El libro saldría el año que viene en inglés, y apenas esté publicado encargaré la traducción al español, con lo cual que demorará tal vez otro año más. Saludos

  4. Gracias Gastón por la respuesta!! Saludos cordiales