The official word: criminalize the victim

De mestizo e india, sale coiote (From a Mestiz...

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The official word: criminalize the victim

By Jorge Majfud

Translated by Tony R. Barret

Few weeks ago, just as in the last few centuries, the land claims of rural workers have been brought back up in several spots of Latin America. If it is really true that our own 21st century cannot base its economies exclusively in small farms, it isn’t less true that economic disenfranchisement is still an urgent popular cause in any social or historical progress. I could very well say that that the old Latin American cause didn’t exist in the United States, the paradigm of economic development, etc. But the answer is quite easy: in the United States there were no farm movements nor “liberation movements” because this country wasn’t founded upon the estates of an aristocratic society, as in Latin America, but rather upon an initial distribution infinitely more equitable of colonists that worked for themselves and not for the King or the landholder.

It’s not by chance that the founders of the original United States considered themselves successful in their anti-imperialist, populist, and radically revolutionary projects, whereas our Latin American leaders died embittered when not in exile. As the caudillos of that day used to say, “the laws are respected but not enforced.” And so we had republican and egalitarian constitutions, almost always copies of the American one but with a different twist: reality contradicted them.

In Latin America, we were the laughingstock of a discussion that wasn’t even applied in the developed centers of the world, but rather catered to the creole oligarchy. So violent was this moralization that when the Bolivian and Peruvian Indians systematically burned out at age 30 because of the animal jobs they had to do, sometimes with another’s pride and almost always with self-reluctance, they were unfailingly called “bums” or “idiots.”

That feudal system (typical of so many Latin American countries that included pawns for free almost, or the “pongueo” system that impeded farming and industrial development) existed in the southern United States. But it was defeated by the progressivist forces of the North. Not in Latin America. This structure of our continent, vertical and aristocratic, served up its own self-exploitation and its own underdevelopment and benefited the world powers taking their turns, who were not foolish enough to sustain moralist discourses about the old aristocracy. Meanwhile, our “heroic” oligarchy squandered the demoralizing debate toward those who claimed more social and economic equity. According to this discourse accepted unanimously by the slaves themselves, those who were opposed to the landholding estate Order were idlers that wanted to live off the State, as if the oligarchy didn’t help itself to the violence of this State to sustain its privileges and interests, almost always supporting dictatorships on call that they meaningfully called “saviors” and then they “combated” in the discourse to present themselves as the eternal “saviors of the country” and to reinstall the same aristocratic status quo, the very reason for the historical setbacks of our societies. Thus, business was twofold but insatisfaction was also twofold: both those at the bottom and those at the top agreed on something: “things in this country don’t work” or “no one can save this country, etc.” But on reforms, nothing.

Jorge Majfud

The University of Georgia, March 2007

Translator: Tony R. Barrett

The Importance of Being Called an Idiot

Mario Vargas Llosa

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¿ Cómo definimos la idiotez ideológica? (Spanish)

The Importance of Being Called an Idiot

Jorge Majfud


A few days ago a gentleman recommended that I read a new book about idiocy.  I  believe it was called The Return of the Idiot, The Idiot Returns, or something like that.  I told him that I had read a similar book ten years ago, titled Manual for the Perfect Latinamerican Idiot.

“What did you think?” the man asked me narrowing his eyes, kind of scrutinizing my reaction, kind of measuring the time it took me to respond.  I always take a few seconds to respond.  I also like to observe the things around me, take a healthy distance, control the temptation to exercise my freedom and, kindly, go after the guy.

“What did I think?  Entertaining.  A famous writer who uses his fists against his colleagues as his principal dialectical weapon when he has them within reach, said that it was a book with a lot of humor, edifying… I would not say so much.  Entertaining is sufficient.  Clearly there are better books.”

“Yes, that was the father of one of the authors, the Nobel Vargas Llosa.”

“Mario, he is still called Mario.”

“Fine, but what did you think about the book?” he insisted anxiously.

Perhaps he was not so interested in my opinion as he was in his own.

“Someone asked me the same question ten years ago”, I recalled.  “I thought it deserved to be a best seller.”

“That’s what I said.  And it was, it was; in effect, it was a best seller.  You realized that pretty quick, like me.

“It wasn’t so difficult.  In the first place, it was written by experts on the topic.”

“Undoubtedly”, he interrupted, with contagious enthusiasm.

“Who better to write about idiocy, am I right?  Second, the authors are staunch defenders of the market, above all else.  I sell, I consume, therefore I am.  What other  merit could they have but to turn a book into a sales success?  If it were an excellent book with limited sales it would be a contradiction.  I suppose that for the publisher it’s also not a contradiction that they have sold so many books on the Idiot Continent, right?  In the intelligent and successful countries it did not have the same reception.”

For some reason the man in the red tie sensed some doubts on my part about the virtues of his favorite books.  That meant, for him, a declaration of war or something of the kind.  I made a friendly gesture to bid farewell, but he did not allow me to place my hand on his shoulder.

“You must be one of those who defend those idiotic ideas of which those books speak.  It is incredible that a cultured and educated man like yourself could uphold those stupidities.”

“Could it be that too much studying and researching cause damage?” I asked.

“No, studying doesn’t do damage, of course not.  The problem is that you are separated from reality, you don’t know what it is to live like a construction worker or business manager, like us.”

“Nonetheless, there are construction workers and business managers who think radically differently from you.  Might there not be another factor?  That is, for example, could it be that those who have ideas like yours are more intelligent?”

“Ah, yes, that must be…”

His euphoria had reached climax.  I was going to leave him with that little vanity, but I couldn’t contain myself.  I thought out loud:

“It’s quite strange.  The most intelligent people don’t need idiots like me to realize such obvious things, no?”

“Negative, sir. Negative.”


Translated by Bruce Campbell



The Rebellion of the Readers, Key to Our Century

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam, 1523. Oil an...

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La rebelión de los lectores (Spanish)

The Rebellion of the Readers,

Key to Our Century

Jorge Majfud

Among the most frequented sites for tourists in Europe are the Gothic cathedrals.  Gothic spaces, so different from the Romanesque of centuries before, tend to impress us through the subtlety of their aesthetic, something they share with the ancient architecture of the old Arab empire.  Perhaps what is most overlooked is the reason for the reliefs on the facades.  Although the Bible condemns the custom of representing human figures, these abound on the stones, on the walls and on the stained glass.  The reason is, more than aesthetic, symbolic and narrative.

In a culture of illiterates, orality was the mainstay of communication, of history and of social control.  Although Christianity was based on the Scriptures, writing was least abundant.  Just as in our current culture, social power was constructed on the basis of written culture, while the working classes had to resign themselves to listening.  Books were not only rare, almost original pieces, but were jealously guarded by those who administered political power and the politics of God.  Writing and reading were nearly exclusively the patrimony of the nobility; listening and obeying was the function of the masses.  That is to say, the nobility was always noble because the vulgate was very vulgar.  For the same reason, the masses, illiterate, went every Sunday to listen to the priest read and interpret sacred texts at his whim – the official whim – and confirm the truth of these interpretations in another kind of visual interpretation: the icons and relief sculptures that illustrated the sacred history on the walls of stone.

The oral culture of the Middle Ages begins to change in that moment we call Humanism and that is more commonly taught as the Renaissance.  The demand for written texts is accelerated long before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450.  In fact, Gutenberg did not invent the printing press, but a technique for movable type that accelerated even more this process of reproduction of texts and massification of readers.  The invention was a technical response to a historical need.  This is the century of the emigration of Turkish and Greek scholars to Italy, of the travel by Europeans to the Middle East without the blindness of a new crusade. Perhaps, it is also the moment in which Western and Christian culture turns toward the humanism that survives today, while Islamic culture, which had been characterized by this same humanism and by plurality of non-religious knowledge, makes an inverse, reactionary turn.

The following century, the 16th, would be the century of the Protestant Reform.  Although centuries later it would become a conservative fore, it birth – like the birth of all religion – arises from a rebellion against authority.  In this case, against the authority of the Vatican.  Luther, however, is not the first to exercise this rebellion, but the humanist Catholics themselves who were disillusioned and in disagreement with the arbitrariness of the Church’s political power.  This disagreement was justified by the corruption of the Vatican, but it is likely that the difference was rooted in a new way of perceiving an old theocratic order.

Protestantism, as the word itself says, is – was – a disobedient response to an established power.  One of its particularities was the radicalization of written culture over oral culture, the independence of the reader instead of the obedient listener.  Not only was the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the sacred texts, questioned; the authority of the sermon moved to the direct, or almost direct, reading of the sacred text that had been translated into vulgar languages, the languages of the people.  The use of a dead language like Latin confirmed the hermetic elitism of religion (philosophy and science would abandon this usage long before).  From this moment on, the oral tradition of Catholicism will continually lose strength and authority.  It will have, nevertheless, several rebirths, especially in Franco’s Spain.  Professor of ethics José Luis Aranguren, for example, who made a number of progressive historical observations, was not free from the strong tradition that surrounded him.  In Catolicismo y protestantismo como formas de existencia (Catholicism and Protestantism as Forms of Existence) he was explicit: “Christianity should not be a ‘reader’ but a ‘listener’ of the Word, and ‘hearing it’ is a much as ‘living it.’” (1952)

We can understand that the culture of orality and obedience had a revival with the invention of the radio and of television.  Let’s remember that the radio was the principal instrument of the Nazis in Germany of the pre-war period.  Film and other techniques of spectacle were also important, although in lesser measure.  Almost nobody had read that mediocre little book called Mein Campf (its original title was Against Lying, Stupidity and Cowardice) but everyone participated in the media explosion that was produced with the expansion of radio.  During the entire 20th century, first film and later television were the omnipresent channels of US culture.  Because of them, not only was an aesthetic modeled but, through this aesthetic, an ethics and an ideology, the capitalist ideology.

In great measure, we can consider the 20th century to be a regression to the culture of the cathedrals: orality and the use of the image as means for narrating history, the present and the future.  News media, more than informative have been and continue to be formative of opinion, true pulpits – in form and in content – that describe and interpret a reality that is difficult to question.  The idea of the objective camera is almost uncontestable, like in the Middle Ages when no one or very few opposed the true existence of demons and fantastical stories represented on the stones of the cathedrals.

In a society where the governments depend on popular support, the creation and manipulation of public opinion is more important and must be more sophisticated than in a crude dictatorship.  It is for this reason that television news media have become a battlefield where only one side is armed.  If the main weapons in this war are the radio and television channels, their munitions are the ideolexicons.  For example, the ideolexicon radical, which is encountered with a negative value, must always be applied, by association and repetition, to the opponent.  What is paradoxical is that radical thought is condemned – all serious thought is radical – at the same time that a radical action is promoted against that supposed radicalism.  That is to say, one stigmatizes the critics that go beyond politically correct thinking when these critics point out the violence of a radical action, such as a war, a coup d’etat, the militarization of a society, etc.  In the old dictatorships of our America, for example, the custom was to persecute and assassinate every journalist, priest, activist or unionist identified as radical.  To protest or throw stones was the behavior of radicals; torturing and killing in a systematic manner was the main resource of the moderates.  Today, throughout the world, official discourse speaks of radicals when referring to anyone who disagrees with official ideology.

Nothing in history happens by chance, even though causes are located more in the future than in the past.  It is not by accident that today we are entering into a new era of written culture that is, in great measure, the main instrument of intellectual disobedience of the nations.  Two centuries ago reading meant a lecture or sermon from the pulpit; today it is the opposite: to read means an effort at interpretation, and a text is no longer only a piece of writing but any symbolic organization of reality that transmits and conceals values and meanings.

One of the principal physical platforms for that new attitude is the Internet, and its procedure consists of beginning to rewrite history at the margins of the traditional media of visual imposition.  Its chaos is only apparent.  Although the Intenet also includes images and sounds, these are no longer products that are received but symbols that are searched for and produced in an exercise of reading.

In the measure that the economic powers that be, corporations of all kinds, lose their monopoly on the production of works of art – like film – or the production of that other genre of school desk fiction, the daily sermon where the meaning of reality is managed – the so-called news media – individuals and nations begin to develop a more critical awareness, which naturally is a disobedient state of mind.  Perhaps in the future, we might even be speaking of the end of national empires and the inefficacy of military force.  This new culture leads to a progressive inversion of social control: top-down control is converted to the more democratic control from the bottom up.  The so-called democratic governments and the old style dictatorships do not tolerate this because they are democratic or benevolent but because direct censorship of a process that is unstoppable is not convenient to them.  They can only limit themselves to reacting and delaying as long as possible, by recourse to the old tool of physical violence, the downfall of their sectarian empires.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

Virginia Tech: an ideo-lexical analysis of a tragedy

One of the war memorial pylons on a snowy day ...

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Análisis ideoléxico de una tragedia (Spanish)


Virginia Tech: an ideo-lexical analysis of a tragedy

By Jorge Majfud

Most of the medicines that it is sold as pills cover a certain drug, chemic or compound with a coat that has an attractive color and a sweet taste. In Spanish, popular wisdom uses this characteristic to build a metaphor: “to swallow the pill” has a negative meaning and expresses the action of taking something with the shape or the taste of something else. That means, to believe or accept a truth as an unquestionable event without being conscious of the true implications. In literary tradition this epistemological phenomena is understood with the Troy Horse metaphor, which is also still use to name some computer viruses. An ideo-lexical may be understood as a pill prescribed and imposed by an hegemonic discourse with a seducing violence. For example, the ideo-lexical freedom is covered by a plethora of common and sweetly positive places (freedom, as a universal precept is so).

However, within this sweet and brilliant cover there are the true reasons behind the actions: domination, oppression, violence against sectarian interests, etc. The sweet and brilliant cover annuls the perception of its opposites: the sour and opaque content.

The job of the critic is to break the cover, to discover, to reveal the content of the pill, of the ideo-lexical. Of course, this job has bitter results, just like the center of the pill. Those who are addicted to a drug do not renounce to it just because someone might discover the grave implications of their momentary comfort. In fact, they will try to resist this operation of exposition.

Let us analyze a common ideo-lexical in the dominating discourse of late capitalism: personal responsibility. To start of we notice that its cover is totally sweet and brilliant. Who would be capable of arguing the value of the responsibility of each individual? A possible question would be quickly annulled by a fake alternative: irresponsibility. But we may start by taking the new fake dilemma as the problem by observing that the adjective itself-personal-of this compound ideo-lexical annuls or anesthetizes another one which is less common and harder to appreciate by the senses: the possibility of the existence of a “social responsibility” is never mentioned. It is also never mentioned or accepted-due to a long religious tradition-that there might be “social sins.”

Let us go deeper in a specific case: the tragic massacre which took place at the Virginia Tech University. Those people who—shyly, as ever—placed their accusing finger in the weapons culture from the United States, were criticized in the name of the personal responsibility ideo-lexical. “Weapons are not what kill people-commented a friend of the rifle in a newspaper-people are who kill people. The problem is the people, not the weapons.” The pill shows a high level of obviousness, but there are again some other problems: nobody questioned how some crazy man could kill thirty people with a stone, with a stick or even with a knife.

This logic is expressed by covering an internal contradiction in the discourse. When we talk about drugs, we are blaming the producers, not the consumers. But when we talk about weapons, we are blaming the consumers, not the producers. The reason is to be found, I believe, in the place where power is to be found. In the case of drugs, the producers are the others, not us; in the case of the weapons, the consumers are the other; we are only producing them. The hegemonic discourse never mentions that if there were no drug consumption in the wealthy countries there would be no production to satisfy that demand; if there was no illegality there would also never exist the mafia groups of drug dealers. Or at least, their existence would be minimal, compared to what we have today. But because the others (the producers from the poor countries) are individually responsible, we (the producers of weapons, who are responsible of administrating the law) are legitimized to produce more weapons which should be consumed by the others to back up the law-and to break it.

If someone like the Virginia Tech murder buys a couple of guns more easily and a hundred times faster than you can buy a car and commits a massacre, the responsibility is completely of the madman. We reach then a tragic paradox: a society that is armed to their teeth is entirely in the hands of the crazy people who do not know how to correctly control their personal responsibility. In order to solve this problem, they don’t turn to social responsibility, by fighting the weapons and the economic and moral system that sustains them, but they sell more weapons to the responsible individuals, so that every single one of them may be more capable of performing their own “personal responsibility.” Until somebody else who is exceptionally ill-in a society of saints, demons are very frequent exceptions-may appear again and commits another massacre, bigger this time, because the power of destruction of the weapons is getting more and more perfected, thanks to the high technology and the moral of the responsible individuals.

* Jorge Majfud, Uruguayan writer, he is a Latin American Literature Professor at The University of Georgia, United States.

Violence of the Master, Violence of the Slave

A Bolivian aymara woman praying

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Violencia del amo, violencia del esclavo (English)

Violence of the Master, Violence of the Slave

Jorge Majfud

For some reason, the phrase “violence begets violence” was popularized the world over at the same time that its implicit meaning was kept restricted to the violence of the oppressed.  That is to say, the master’s violence over the slave is invisible in a state of slavery, just as in a state of oppression the force that sustains it uses every(ideological) means in order not to lose this category of invisibility or – in case of exposure– of naturalness.

Within that invisible or natural frame, the Cuban slave Juan Manzano referred nostalgically to his first masters: “I had there the same Madam Joaquina who treated me like a child, she would dress me, groom me and take care that I not come in contact with the other little black boys at the same table like when with the Marquess Lady Justis I was given my plate at the feet of my Lady the Marquess.”  Then the bad times came, when the young Juan was punished by imprisonment, hunger and torture.  Once the punishment was finished, he ate “without measure” and for this sin he was punished again.  “Not a few times have I suffered by the hand of a black man vigorous whippings,” he recalled in his Autobiography of a Slave (1839), which proves the perfection of the oppression even in a primitive state of production and education.

This type of slavery was abolished in the written laws of almost all of Latin America in the early 19th century.  But slavery of the same kind was continued in practice until the 20th century.  The Ecuadorian Juan Montalvo warned that “the indians are free by law, but how can one deny it? They are slaves by abuse and custom.”  And then: “they give him the stick so he will remember and return for another beating.  And the indian returns, because that is his condition, that when he is whipped, trembling on the ground, he gets up thanking his tormenter: ‘Diu su lu pagui, amu.’ [God bless you, Master] Races oppressed and reviled for three hundred years need eight hundred more to return to themselves.”

For his part, the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, in Pueblo enfermo (A Sick People, 1909), recognized that the landed elite of his country refused to develop the freight train because the indians carried their harvests from one region to another for free and, as if that were not enough, the honesty of the indians made them incapable of stealing someone else’s oxen.  This example alone would be enough to demonstrate that the ideologies of the dominant classes insinuate themselves into the morality of the oppressed (the way the fact that an illiterate might handle complex grammatical rules demonstrates the existence of an unconscious knowledge). Another Arguedas, the Peruvian José María Arguedas, left us a living portrait of this culture of the indian-servant, the unsalaried freed slave, in Los ríos profundos (Deep Rivers, 1958).

According to the Bolivian Alcides Arguedas, the soldiers would take the indians by the hair and drag them off under threat of the saber to clean their barracks, or steal their sheep in order to maintain army troops as they passed through.  So that it be clear to us that oppression makes use of all possible institutions, in the same book we read a citation from the period which informed, with reference to one of those condemned by history, that “the ox and his seven year old son are impounded by the priest due to the rights of the burial of his wife.”  And further along: “Exasperated, dispirited, physically and morally spent, incapable of attempting the violent assertion of its rights, the indigenous race has given itself over to alcoholism in alarming fashion.  […] The indian is never seen laughing except when he is inebriated.  […] His soul is a repository of rancor accumulated from long ago, since the moment when, the flower of the race sealed up, against its will, in the depth of the mines, he rapidly withered, without provoking mercy in anyone. […] Today, ignorant, degraded, miserable, he is the object of general exploitation and general antipathy.”  Until one day he explodes “listening to his soul replete with hatreds, vents his passions and robs, kills, murders with atrocious brutality.”  And since violence cannot occur with impunity, “the soldiers go out well munitioned; they shoot down as many as they can; they rob, rape, spread fear and terror wherever they go.”  In this culture of oppression, the woman can be no better: “rough and awkward, she feels loved when beaten by the male; otherwise, for her a man has no value.”

A year later, in various articles appearing in daily newspapers of La Paz and collected in the book Creación de la pedagogía nacional (Creation of National Pedagogy), Franz Tamayo responds to some of Arguedas’ conclusions and confirms others:  “work, justice, glory, it is all lies, it is all lies in Bolivia; everyone lies, except the one who does not speak, the one who works and is silent: the indian.”  Then: “Even whites of a certain category spoke of a divine curse, and the priests of the small towns and villages spread rumors among their ignorant indian parishioners of God’s anger at the fallen race and his desire to make it disappear due to its lack of obedience, submissiveness and obsequiousness.” (1910)  Needless to say, instead of Bolivia we could write the name of any other Latin American country and we would not do violence to the truth of the statement.

The master is visualized as a pure and generous being when he concedes an unusual benefit to the slave, as if he possessed a divine power to administer the rights of another.  Perhaps we might accept a certain kindness of the oppressor if we were to consider a particular context.  The point is that we do not demand of the old feudal subjects that they think like us; we demand from ourselves that we not think like the old feudal subjects, as if there existed no historical experience in between.

From a humanistic point of view, the violence of the slave is always engendered by the violence of the master and not the other way around.  But when we impose the idea that the violence of the slave engenders more violence, we are equating what is not equal in order to maintain an order that, in fact and in its discourse, denies the very notion of human equality.

For this reason, just as during the mid-twentieth century reactionaries of all kinds associated, strategically, racial integration with communism in order to justify apartheid as a social system, today also they associate humanist principles with a specific left politics.  Conservatives cannot comprehend that part of their so frequently mentioned personal responsibility is to think globally and collectively.  Otherwise, personal responsibility is just selfishness, which is to say, moral irresponsibility.

If as recently as 1972 Rene Dubos coined the famous phrase, “Think globally, act locally,” reactionary thought has always practiced an inverse moral formula: “Think locally, act globally.”  In other words, think provincially about the interests of your own village, your own class, and act like an imperialist who is going to save civilization as if he were the armed hand of God.

If the masters insist so much on the benefits of competition, why do they demand so much cooperation from the slaves?  Because one needs something more than all the weapons in the world in order to force an entire people into submission: it is the demoralization of the oppressed, the ideology of the master, the fear of the slave and the collaboration of the rest of the people that functions as the fulcrum for the lever of oppression.  Otherwise, one could not comprehend how a few thousand Spanish adventurers conquered, dominated millions of Incans and Aztecs and destroyed centuries old sophisticated cultures.

In many moments of history, from the so-called independence of the American countries to the liberation of the slaves, frequently the only solution was the use of violence.  It remains to be determined whether this resource is always effective or, on occasion, only aggravates the initial problem.

I suspect that there exists historically a coefficient of critical progression that depends on the material possibilities of the moment – technical and economic – and on the mental, moral and cultural maturity of a people.  An ideal state for humanism, in accordance with its development since the 15th century, should be a perfectly anarchic social state.  Nevertheless, to pretend to eliminate the force and violence of the State without having achieved the requisite technical and moral development, would not make us advance toward that utopia but rather the opposite; we would be set back several centuries.  Both a revolutionary advance that aims to by-pass that parameter of critical progression and a conservative reaction lead us to the historical frustration of humanity as a whole. I am afraid that there are recent examples in Latin America where the oppressor even organized the violence of the oppressed in order to legitimate and conserve the oppressor’s privileges.  This refinement of the techniques of domination has a purpose.   At a point in history when the population counts, not only in systems of representative democracy but, even, in some dictatorships, the construction of public opinion is a key chess piece, the most important, in the strategy of the dominant elites.  Not by accident was the poorly-named universalization of the vote in the 19th century a way of maintaining the status quo: with scarce instruction, the population was easy to manipulate, especially easy when it believed that the caudillos were elected by them and not by a previously constructed discourse of the oligarchy, a discourse that included ideolexicons like, fatherland, honor, order and freedom.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Repressed History of the United States

Robert R. Livingston

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La historia reprimida de Estados Unidos (Spanish)


The Repressed History of the United States

Revolution, Egalitarianism and Anti-imperialism

By Jorge Majfud


Taking advantage of another anniversary of the birth of George Washington, president George W. Bush used the occasion to compare the American Revolution of the 18th century with the war in Iraq.  In passing he recalled that the first president, like the latest, had been “George W.”

The technique of associations is proper to advertising.  In accordance with the latter, a fast food chain promotes itself with thin, happy young people or a mouse like Mickey is identified with the police and the legal order, while the only character from this “natural” world that dresses like a worker, the Wolf, is presented as a criminal.  Direct associations are so effective that they even permit the use of the observation of the conical shadow that the Earth projects on the Moon as proof that the Earth is square.  When the defenders of private enterprise mention the great feat of the businessman who managed to complete a space trip in 2004, they exercise the same dialectical acrobatics.  Is this an example in favor of or against private sector efficacy?  Because neither Sputnik nor any of the flights and missions carried out by NASA since 1950 were anything other than achievements of governmental organization.

But let’s get to the main point.

An implicit reading accepts as a fact that the United States is a conservative country, refractory of all popular revolution, an imperial, capitalist monolith, constructed by its successful class – which is to say, by its upper class – from the top down.  Ergo, those engines of material progress must be conserved here and copied over there in other realities, for good or for bad, in order to provoke the same happy effects.  These implicit understandings have been consolidated within the national borders by the omnipresent apparatuses of private diffusion and simultaneously confirmed outside by their very detractors.

Let’s see just how fallacious this is.

If we re-read history, we will find that the American Revolution (financed in part by the other power, France) was an anti-imperialist and egalitarian revolution.  Not only was it a violent revolution against the empire of the other George, the king of England, against this empire’s theft via foreign exchange designed to finance its own wars, but also against the vertical structures of absolutist, aristocratic and estate-based societies of old Europe.  The United States is born on the basis of a radically revolutionary and progressive ideology.  Its first constitution was the political and institutional materialization of an ideology that well into the 20th century was condemned by European conservatives as a popular subversion, responsible for the annihilation of all noble tradition, for the exercise of a social practice that was identified as the “devil’s work”: democracy.  The humanist radicalism of the first drafts of that foundational document (like the proposal to abolish slavery) did not materialize due to the pragmatism that always represents conservatives.  Despite which, nevertheless signified a novel and revolutionary proclamation which many famous Latin Americans, from José Artigas to Simón Bolívar, attempted to copy and adapt, ever frustrated by the feudal culture that surrounded them.

Let’s situate ourselves in the second half of the 18th century: the principles of Enlightenment thought, the new ideas about the rights of the individual and of the nations were as subversive as the most socialist thought could have been under the Military Junta headed by Videla or as the thought of a republican surviving under Franco’s regime.  Paradoxically, while in Latin America anyone with a book by Marx in their home was being kidnapped, tortured and killed, in the universities of the United States Marxism was one of the most commonly used instruments of study and analysis, even by his detractors.  Those colonels and soldiers who justified their crimes by accusing the dead of being Marxist, had never in their lives read a single book by the German philosopher.  We might recall that none other than Octavio Paz, one of the clearest and most conservative Mexican intellectuals, never ceased to recognize the lucidity of that current of thought.  One of my professors, Caudio Williman, a conservative politician from my country was, at the same time, a scholar of Marxism, when this doctrine and its mere mention were prohibited because it represented a threat to Western tradition, never mind that Marxist thought was a large part of that same tradition.  Obviously, all with the consent and complacency of Big Brother.

The Spanish Conquest of the American continent was an undeniably imperialist enterprise, carried out by priests and military men, by the loyal servants of Emperor-King Carlos I.  The first goal of its leaders was the extraction of wealth from the subjugated territories and peoples in order to sustain an aristocratic society and in order to finance its endless imperial wars.  For many of the priests, the goal was the expansion of religion and the ecclesiastical dominance of the Catholic Church.  For the soldiers and adventurers, it was the opportunity to make themselves rich and then return to Europe and buy themselves a title of the nobility that would give them prestige and save them from the curse of labor.  The Spanish conquistadors crossed the territory of what today is the United States and left it behind not only because they did not find mineral wealth there but because the indigenous population was scarce.  It made more sense to occupy Mexico and Perú.

The first Northamerican colonizers were not free of material ambitions nor were they above the despoiling of native peoples, often recurring to the more subtle conquest through land purchase.  Nevertheless, not a minority, they were dispossessed people who fled from the oppressions and absolutisms – religious and of the state – of the societies that resisted change: many migratory movements were motivated by the new dreams of collectivist utopias.  For the majority, to colonize meant to appropriate a small portion of land in order to work it and put down one’s roots there.  From the beginning, this distribution was infinitely more egalitarian than that which was produced in the South.  In Hispanic America, an iron willed economic monopoly was imposed and a stratified and semifeudal society was reproduced, where the boss, the strongman or the landed elite had at their disposal extensions of land as vast as any province in Europe.  Only the southern states of the United States could compare to the social, moral and economic system of Brazil or of the Caribbean, but we know that this system – although not its moral values – was defeated in the War of Secession (1861-1865) by the northern representatives of the century to come.

Within the Latin American fiefdoms the indigenous and African peoples and immigrant workers remained trapped, condemned to exploitation and to working someone else’s land for someone else’s benefit.  Nothing less egalitarian, nothing less revolutionary, nothing less imperialist than this old system which would serve in turn the new empires.  It should not seem strange, therefore, that in Latin American there would persist so many “dangerous subversives” who demanded agrarian reforms (recall the two Mexican revolutions, separated by a century), revolutionary movements of every kind who all called themselves movements of liberation, intellectuals who in their overwhelming majority positioned themselves on the left of the political spectrum because power was rooted in the dominant, conservative classes of a vertical order that favored private interests and defended these with every resource at hand: the Army, the Church, the State, the media of the press, public moral instruction, etc.

One cannot say that the United States emerged as a capitalist country while Latin American suffered the curse of a socialist ideology, or anything of the kind.  No, quite the contrary.  This fact is forgotten due to later history and the interests that dominate economic power in the present.  The rapid development of the United States was not based on economic liberalism nor on capitalist speculation.  It was based on the greater equality of its citizens which was expressed as ideology in the country’s founding and as politics in some of the country’s more democratic institutions, on the law and not on the unpredictable and uncontestable will of the Viceroy, of the Censor, or of the caudillo.  That is to say, democratic egalitarianism made possible and multiplied the development of a nation freed from monopolies and bureaucratic arbitrariness; rebelliously opposed to spoliation by the empire of the moment.  The United States did not become a world power through having been an empire, instead it became an empire through its great initial development.

The result might be paradoxical, but we cannot deny that the initial engine was precisely those values that today are held in contempt or attributed to the failure of other nations: the liberation of the people through an anti-imperialist revolution, the egalitarianism of its ideology, in its practice of workshops, from its foundational economy to the more recent technical revolutions like Microsoft or Hewlett Packard.  All values that are coherent with the humanistic wave initiated centuries before.


Translated by Bruce Campbell


What Is an Ideolexicon?

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¿Qué es un ideoléxico? (Spanish)

What Is an Ideolexicon?

Jorge Majfud

I have been asked several times to define what I mean by ideolexicon. I have never given the same response, but that is not due to the idea being ambiguous or undefined but quite the contrary.

Although this term is a neologism, I do not believe that at root the idea is original: everything that occurs to us others have already intuited before. It is sufficient to read those ancient Greeks in order to discover there the first indications of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Empedocles), Dalton or Bohr’s atoms (Leucippius or Democritus), Einstein’s mass-energy equivalency (Heraclitus), modern epistemology (idem), Freud’s bicephalic psyche (Plato), Derrida or Lyotard’s poststructuralism (the Sophists), etc.

I suspect that the Italian Antonio Gramsci could have broadened the ideolexicon concept in the 1930s (perhaps he had already done so in his Quaderni del carcere, although I have not been able to find that precise moment among the more than two thousand pages of this disarticulated work). One of Gramsci’s observations with regard to Marxism was the warning of a certain autonomy of the superstructure. That is, if previously it was understood that the infrastructure (the productive, economic order) determined superstructural reality (culture in general), later it was seen that the process could not only be the inverse (Max Weber) but simultaneous or dialectical (Althusser). For me, examples of the first are slavery, modern education, feminism, etc. Humanist ideals that condemned slavery existed centuries before they would be transformed into a social precept. A Marxist explanation is immediate: only when the industry of the developed countries (England and the northern United States) found an economic problem with the slavery system was the new morality (and practice) imposed. The same with universal education: the uniformity of the children’s tunics, the rigorous compliance with schedules do nothing more than to adapt the future worker to the discipline of industry (or the army), the culture of standardization. For which reason today the universities and education in general have begun a reverse process of de-uniformization. Feminist demands are also ancient (and part of humanism), but they do not become a moral exigency until capitalist society and the industrialized communist societies needed new workers and, above all, new female wage workers.

Anyway, we can understand that, although these advances have not been obtained by an ethical conscience but by initial interests of the oppressors (like the universal vote for a people easily manipulable by the caudillo and propaganda), at any rate the road travelled “forward” is not walked backward so easily, even if those interests that made it possible were to change. Power is never absolute; it always must make concessions in order to maintain itself.

In our time, even though the use of brute force like in the times of Attila is not entirely looked down upon, it is no longer possible to lay waste to peoples and oppress other men and women without a legitimation. Much less in a global society that, though still submersed in the traditional networks of information, progressively tends to snatch from sectarian powers the narration of its own history. These legitimations of power may be farcical (they still trust in the fragile memory of obedient nations, or nations terrified by physical and moral violence), but their strength is the power of semantic manipulation to produce a determined reality: when a bomb is dropped from a plane and tens of innocents die, terms are used like “defense,” “liberation,” “collateral effects,” etc. If the same bomb is placed by an individual in a market and it kills the same quantity of innocents, that act is defined as “terrorist,” “barbaric,” “murderous,” etc. From the other side, the ideolexicons will be different: some are imperialists, other rebels or patriots.

In the 19th century, the Argentine D.F. Sarmiento defined José Artigas as “terrorist” (for others he was liberator, rebel), while the general Julio Argentino Roca became a military hero, in multiple bronze statues, because of the ethnic cleansing that his army carried out against the original owners of Patagonia (“There was no battle, it was a parade beneath the Patagonian sun and we achieved 1600 dead and another 10,000 of the rabble. It was the fate of a savage race that was already defeated,” informed the venerated general Roca).

Which is to say, an ideolexicon is a word or a combination of terms (extremist, radical, patriot, normal, democrat, good manners) that has been colonized in its semantics with a politico-ideological purpose. This colonization generally is carried out by a hegemonic culture, but its greatest particularity is rooted in the discursive manipulation of a hegemonic political power that is disputed by resistant ideologies. The qualification of “radical” or “extremist,” by possessing a negative valorization, will be an instrument of struggle: each adversary – the dominant and the marginal – will seek to associate this ideolexicon (whose valorization is not found to be in dispute) with those other ideolexicons whose valorization is unstable, like progressive, feminist, homosexual, liberal, globalization, civilization, etc.

In summary, an ideolexicon is a semantic weapon with a political (or socio-political) usage and at the same time it is the object of dispute of different groups in a society. When one of them is consolidated as a negative or positive value (ex., communism), it comes to be an instrument of colonization of other ideolexicons that are in social and historical dispute.

In its turn, each ideolexicon is composed of a positive semantic field and a negative one whose limits are defined according to the advance and retreat of the social groups in dispute (for example, justice, freedom, equality, etc.). That is, each group will seek to define what is meant and what is not meant by “justice,” “freedom,” at times using classical instruments like deduction and induction, but generally operating a kind of ontological declaration (A is B, B is not C) by way of association or interception of the semantic fields of two or more ideolexicons (racial integration=communism; equality+freedom=justice, etc.). When in the 1950s in the United States racial integration was in dispute, those who opposed this change demonstrated in the streets with placards: “race mixing is communism.” The word “communism” – like “Marxism” in Latin America – had been consolidated in its negative, demonized, values. Its meaning and valorization were not in dispute. When the soldiers of the Latin American oligarchies would murder a priest or a journalist or a unionist, whatever the case they justified themselves by adducing that the victims were Marxists, without having ever read a book by Marx and without having any more idea of what Marxism was than what they had received through strategic daily repetition.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

The Terrible Innocence of Art

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La terrible inocencia del arte (Spanish)

The Terrible Innocence of Art

Jorge Majfud

The idea that art exists beyond all social reality is similar to the disembodied theology that proscribes political interpretations of the death of Jesus; or to the nationalist mythologies imposed like sacred universal values; or the templars of language, who are scandalized by the ideological impurity of the language used by rebellious nations. In all three cases, the reaction against social, political and historical interpretations or deconstructions has the same objective: the social, political and historical imposition of their own ideologies. The very “death of ideologies” was one of the most terrible of ideologies since, just like the other dictatorial states of the status quo, it presumed its own purity and neutrality.

In the case of art, two examples of this ideology were translated in the idea of “art for art’s sake” in Europe, and in the Modernismo of Spanish America. This latter, although it had the merit of reflecting upon and practicing a new vision with regard to the instruments of expression, soon revealed itself to be the “ivory tower” that it was. Not without paradox, its greatest representatives began by singing the praises of white princesses, non-existent in the tropics, and ended up becoming the maximal figures of politically-engaged literature of the continent: Rubén Darío, José Martí, José Enrique Rodó, etc. Decades later, none other than Alfonso Reyes would recognize that in Latin America one cannot make art from the ivory tower, as in Paris. At most, in the midst of tragic realism one can make magical realism.

Ivory towers have never been constructions indifferent to the rawness of a people’s reality, but instead far from neutral forms of denial of that reality, on the artists’ side, and of consolidation of its state, on the side of the dominant elites (politically dominant, that is). There are historical variations: today the ivory tower is a watchtower strategy, a secular minaret or belltower raised by the consumer market. The artist is less the kind of his tower, but his labor consists in making believe that his art is pure creation, uncontaminated by the laws of the market or with hegemonic morality and politics. At the foot of the stock market tower run rivers of people, from one office to another, scaling in rapid elevators other glass towers in the name of progress, freedom, democracy and other products that spill from the communication towers. All of the towers raised with the same purpose. Because more than from contradictions – as the Marxists would assert – late capitalism is constructed from coherences, from standardized thought, etc. Capitalism is consistent with its contradictions.

The explanation of the most faithful consumers of commercial art is always the same: they seek a healthy form of entertainment that is not polluted by violence or politics, all that which abounds in the news media and in the “difficult” writers. Which reminds us that there are few political parties so demagogic and populist as the imperial party of commercialism, with its eternal promises of eternal youth, full satisfaction and infinite happiness. The idea of “healthy entertainment” carries an implicit understanding that fantasy and science fiction are neutral genres, separate from the political history of the world and separate from any ideological manipulation. There are at least five reasons for this consensus: 1) this is also the thinking of the literary greats, like Jorge Luis Borges; 2) mediocre writers frequently have confused the profundity or the commitment of the writer with the political pamphlet; 3) it is justifiable to understand art from this purist perspective, because art is also a form of entertainment and pastime; 4) the idea of neutrality is part of the strength of a hegemonic culture that is anything but neutral; lastly, 5) neutrality is confused with “dominant values” and the latter with universal values.

At this point, I believe that it is very easy to distinguish at least two major types of art: 1) that which seeks to distract, to divert attention (“divertir” means to entertain in Spanish). That is to say, that which seeks to “escape from the world.” Paradoxically, the function of this type of art is the inverse: the consumer departs from his work routine and enters into this kind of entertaining fiction in order to recuperate his energies. Once outside the oneiric lounge of the theater, outside the magical best-seller, the work of art no longer matters for more than its anecdotal value. It is the forgetting that matters: within the artwork one is able to forget the routine world; upon leaving the artwork, one is able to forget the problem presented by that work, since it is always a problem invented at the beginning (the murder) and solved at the end (the killer was the butler). This is the function of the happy ending. It is a socially reproductive function: it reproduces the productive energy and the values of the system that makes use of that individual worn out by routine. The work of art fulfills here the same function as the bordello and the author is little more than the prostitute who charges a fee for the reparative pleasure.

Different is the problematic type of art: it is not comfort that it offers to whomever enters into its territory. It is not forgetting but memory that it demands of he who leaves it. The reader, the viewer do not forget what is exhibited in that aesthetic space because the problem has not been solved. The great artwork does not solve a problem because the artwork is not the one who has created it: the exposition of the existential problem of the individual is what will lead to departure from it. Clearly in a consumerist world this type of art cannot be the ideal prototype. Paradoxically, the problematic artwork is an implosion of the author-reader, a gaze within that ought to provoke a critical awareness of one’s surroundings. The entertaining artwork is the inverse: it is anasthesia that imposes a forgetting of the existential problem, replacing it with the solution of a problem created by the artwork itself.

I mean to say that, recognizing the multiple dimensions and purposes of a work of art – which include entertainment and mere aesthetic pleasure – means also recognizing the ideological dimensions of any cultural product. That is to say, even a work of “pure imagination” is loaded with political, social, religious, economic and moral values. It would suffice to pose the example of the science fiction in Jules Verne or of the fantastical literature of Adolfo Bioy Casares. Morel’s Invention (1940), considered by Borges to be perfect, is also the perfect expression of a writer of the Argentine upper class who could allow himself the luxury of cultivating the starkest imagination in the midst of a society convulsed by the “infamous decade” (1930-1943). A luxury and a necessity for a class that did not want to see beyond its narrow so-called “universal” circle. What could be farther from the problems of the Argentina of the moment than a lost island in the middle of the ocean, with a machine reproducing the nostalgia of an unbelievably hedonistic upper class, with an individual pursued by justice who seeks a Paradise without poverty and without workers? What could be farther from from a world in the midst of the Holocaust of the Second World War?

Nevertheless, it is a great novel, which demonstrates that art, although it is not only aesthetics, is not only politics either, nor mere expression of the relations of power, nor mere morality, etc.

Freedom, perhaps, may be the main differential characteristic of art. And when this freedom does not turn its face away from the tragic reality of its people, then the characteristic turns into moral consciousness. Aesthetics is reconciled with ethics. Indifference is never neutral; only ignorance is neutral, but it proves to be an ethical and practical problem to promote ignorance in the name of some virtue.

Translated by Bruce Campbell

What good is literature, anyway?

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¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (I) (Spanish)

À quoi sert la littérature ? (Spanish)

What good is literature, anyway?

I am sure that you have heard many times this loaded query: «Well, what good is literature, anyway?» almost always from a pragmatic businessman or, at worst, from a Goering of the day, one of those pseudo-demigods that are always hunched down in a corner of history, waiting for the worst moments of weakness in order to «save» the country and humankind by burning books and teaching men how to be «real» men. And, if one is a freethinking writer during such times, one gets a beating, because nothing is worse for a domineering man with an inferiority complex than being close to somebody who writes. Because if it is true that our financial times have turned most literature into a hateful contest with the leisure industry, the collective unconscious still retains the idea that a writer is an apprentice sorcerer going around touching sore spots, saying inconvenient truths, being a naughty child at naptime. And if his/her work has some value, in fact he/she is all that. Perhaps the deeper mission of literature during the last five centuries has been precisely those things. Not to mention the ancient Greeks, now unreachable for a contemporary human spirit that, as a running dog, has finally gotten exhausted and simply hangs by its neck behind its owner’s moving car.

However, literature is still there; being troublesome from the beginning, because to say its own truths it only needs a modest pen and a piece of paper. Its greatest value will continue to be the same: not to resign itself to the complacency of the people nor to the temptation of barbarism. Politics and television are for that.

Then, yes, we can say literature is good for many things. But, because we know that our inquisitors of the day are most interested in profits and benefits, we should remind them that a narrow spirit can hardly shelter a great intelligence. A great intelligence trapped within a narrow spirit sooner or later chokes. Or it becomes spiteful and vicious. But, of course, a great intelligence, spiteful and vicious, can hardly understand this. Much less, then, when it is not even a great intelligence.

© Jorge Majfud

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (II)

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¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (I)

What good is literature? (II) (English)

À quoi sert la littérature ? (French)

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (II)

Cada tanto algún político, algún burócrata, algún inteligente inversor resuelve estrangular las humanidades con algún recorte en la educación, en algún ministerio de cultura o simplemente descargando toda la fuerza del mercado sobre las atareadas fábricas de sensibilidades prefabricadas.

Mucho más sinceros son los sepultureros que nos miran a los ojos y, con amargura o simple resentimiento, nos arrojan en la cara sus convicciones como si fueran una sola pregunta: ¿para qué sirve la literatura?

Unos esgrimen este tipo de instrumentos no como duda filosófica sino como una pala mecánica que lentamente ensancha una tumba llena de cadáveres vivos.

Los sepultureros son viejos conocidos. Viven o hacen que viven pero siempre están aferrados al trono de turno. Arriba o abajo van repitiendo con voces de muertos supersticiones utilitarias sobre el progreso y la necesidad.

Responder sobre la inutilidad de la literatura depende de lo que entendamos por utilidad, no por literatura. ¿Es útil el epitafio, la lápida labrada, el maquillaje, el sexo con amor, la despedida, el llanto, la risa, el café? ¿Es útil el fútbol, los programas de televisión, las fotografías que se trafican las redes sociales, las carreras de caballos, el whisky, los diamantes, las treinta monedas de Judas y el arrepentimiento?

Son muy pocos los que se preguntan seriamente para qué sirve el fútbol o la codicia de Madoff. No son pocos (o no han tenido suficiente tiempo) los que preguntan o sentencian ¿para qué sirve la literatura? El futbol es, en el mejor de los casos, inocente. No pocas veces ha sido cómplice de titiriteros y sepultureros.

La literatura, cuando no ha sido cómplice del titiritero, ha sido literatura. Sus detractores no se refieren al respetable negocio de los best sellers de emociones prefabricadas. Nunca nadie ha preguntado con tanta insistencia ¿para qué sirve un buen negocio? A los detractores de la literatura, en el fondo, no les preocupa ese tipo de literatura. Les preocupa otra cosa. Les preocupa la literatura.

Los mejores atletas olímpicos han demostrado hasta dónde puede llegar el cuerpo humano. Los corredores de Formula Uno también, aunque valiéndose de algunos artificios. Lo mismo los astronautas que pisaron la Luna, la pala que construye y destruye. Los grandes escritores a lo largo de la historia han demostrado hasta dónde puede llegar la experiencia humana, la verdaderamente importante, la experiencia emocional; el vértigo de las ideas y la múltiple profundidad de las emociones.

Para los sepultureros sólo la pala es útil. Para los vivos muertos, también.

Para los demás que no han olvidado su condición de seres humanos y se atreven a ir más allá de los estrechos límites de su propia experiencia, para los condenados que deambulan por las fosas comunes pero han recuperado la pasión y la dignidad de los seres humanos, para ellos, es la literatura.

Jorge Majfud

La Republica (Uruguay)

Milenio (Mexico)

El diario (Bolivia)

¿Para qué sirve la literatura? (I)