The Technology of Barbarism


Image by Crisologo via Flickr

Tecnología de la barbarie (Spanish)

The Technology of Barbarism

           Uncle Caíto was about thirty years old when they took him in 1972. They said that he had collaborated with some Tupamaro guerrillas who were running loose in the countryside where he worked.

           I remember him as balding and with a big mustache. He still stuttered whenever he was nervous.

           If he were still alive, we would probably fight a lot, due to political disagreements. Why did you get involved in that? How could you not realize that the Russians had their dictatorship too, their own crimes, their own injustices, their own excrement?

           Of course, it’s easy to think that now. It’s easy to solve the problems of the past. If we had only seen where we were going with the same clarity with which we look behind us, where it is too late for us to do anything. But that’s the human condition: we learn at the same rate that we cease needing to learn. We learn to raise a child when that child has already grown or we truly understand a parent when he is already an old man or is no longer with us.

They took Uncle Caíto in a field in Tacuarembó, Uruguay, and they dragged him behind a horse as if his body was a plow. They tried to drown him several times in a creek. He was not able to confess anything because he knew less than the soldiers who wanted to know something, and to have a little fun as well; because the days were long and their salaries were meager.

Maybe Caíto made up a name or a place or some detail to make things easy on himself for a moment.

He had to spend some time in prison. One visiting day he confessed to his mother that he had become a Tupamaro there inside. At least from then on the military dictatorship had a reason for holding him.

Military justice must have had other reasons for using pleasure and entertainment through the suffering of others, the way respectable spectators receive pleasure from the torture of an animal in a bullfight.

The military personnel at that time were quite ingenious when they were bored. I have proposed several times the creation of a Museum of the Cold War, as a monument to the human condition. However, I have always been told that this would be somewhat inconvenient, something that would not promote understanding among all Uruguayans. Maybe that is why there are so many museums about the Charrúa indians where pottery and little arrows from those sympathetic savages is collected, but not a single one about the Charrúa holocaust carried out by some of those heroes who still gallop like multiplied ghosts on their bronze horses through the streets of many cities. I am certain that the material of such a museum would be diverse, with so many declassified documents here and there (those sterile psychoanalytical confessions that democracies make every thirty years to relieve their existential conflicts), with so many sexual toys and other curiosities so instructive for students and scholars.

For example. One day the soldiers punished a prisoner and pretended that they had castrated him. Then they came by Caíto’s cell and showed him a kidney-shaped surgical basin filled with blood.

“Today we castrated this guy”, said one of them. “Tomorrow it’s your turn.”

The next day Caíto’s groin was monstously swollen. He had spent the entire night trying to hide his testicles.

I heard this story from some of those who had been imprisoned with him. That was when I remembered and understood why my grandmother Joaquina had told someone, secretly, that they had not been able to find her son’s testicles. When I was little I had imagined that my uncle suffered from a congenital defect and that was why he had never had children.

They told his wife, Marta, something similar:

“Today we castrated him. Tomorrow we shoot him.”

Of course, the soldiers of the fatherland did neither of these things. They didn’t go to such extremes because in Uruguay the disappearances were not as common as in Argentina or in Chile. We Uruguayans were always more moderate, more civilized. More subtle. We always felt so small between Brazil and Argentina, and always so relieved and so proud of not engaging in the barbarities practiced by our stepbrothers. At the end of the day, if one does not speak of such things, they do not exist, like in García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba: “silence, silence, silence I said…”

In those days my brother and I were in our grandparents’ house in the countryside. I was three years old and my brother almost doubles that. We were playing on the patio, next to the wheels of a wagon, when we heard a very loud noise. I remember the patio, the wagon, the tree and almost everything else. We went running and were the first to arrive at Aunt Marta’s room. Our aunt was laying face up on the bed, with a hole in her chest.

An adult immediately dragged us outside to avoid the inevitable.

The assumption was we would be traumatized, turned into delinquents or something of the kind.

I don’t know about the trauma, but I can testify that the most outside the law I have been in my life was when I was five years old. I climbed the control tower of a prison and set off the alarms. After the commotion of security guards chasing after me, they brought me down hanging from one arm.

Caíto died not long after being set free. This is an ironic manner of speaking. He was held in the largest prison for political prisoners, in a town called Libertad (or Freedom). Let’s just say, to be precise, he died in the countryside, shortly after leaving prison, at the age of 39. Perhaps from a heart attack, like the doctor said, or from a blow to the head, as his mother believed, or from both. Or from all the other things.

If he were alive today, we would be arguing all the time about politics. I would be throwing his mistakes in his face. He would be calling me “petty bourgeois” or something equally deserved. Or maybe I’m wrong and we would continue being the good friends we were until he died.

Because ultimately what matters most are not political arguments. The sadism they practiced on him has no ideology, although eventually it may serve left-wing or right-wing dictatorships, democracies of the North or those of the South.

The Caítos and the Martas of Uruguay are not considered very important. They weren’t disappeared, and they died of natural causes or committed suicide. On the other hand, those soldiers with a sense of humor who played at castrating prisoners today are probably poor little old men who make sure that their grandchildren don’t watch violence on television, while they explain to them that violence is a lack of morality in today’s society, and has resulted from a loss of fundamental family values.

 Squawk Back (USA)

Jorge Majfud

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

Campaign Poster of Bertrand Russell for the ca...

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Hombres de las cavernas cibernéticas (Spanish)

Men of the Cybernetic Caves

Jorge Majfud

Every time someone complains about ideas that fall outside an arbitrary and narrow circle called “common sense” (also known in English as “horse sense”), they do so by brandishing two classic arguments: 1) the philosophers live in another world, surrounded by books and eccentric ideas and 2) we know what reality is because we live in it. But when we ask what “reality” is they automatically recite to us a list of ideas that other philosophers placed in circulation in the 19th century or during the Renaissance, when those philosophers were branded by their neighbors, if not jailed or burned alive on the holy bonfire of good manners in the name of a common sense that represented the fantasies or realities of the Middle Ages.

The Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, still in the name of what his detractors could frivolously call “populism” – as if a dominant culture were not simultaneously populist and classist by definition; what is more demagogic than the consumer market? – critiqued the idea that the poet must repeat what the people says when “misery attempts to pass itself off as sobriety” (Tengo, 1964). Then he recalled something that turns out to be obvious and, therefore, easy to forget: the “common man” is an abstraction if not a class formed and deformed by the communication media: film, radio, the press, etc.

Perhaps common sense is the inability of that common man to see the world from provinces other than his own. The first time that a common man like Colombus – common for his ideas, not for his actions – saw a Caribean, he saw the scarcity of weapons of war. In his diary he reported that the conquest of that innocent people would be easy. It is no accident that the violent enterprise of the Castilian Reconquest would be continued in the Conquest of the other side of the Atlantic in 1492, the same year the former was completed. The Cortéses, the Pizarros and other “advanced” men were unable to see in the New World anything other than their own myths through the insatiable thirst for domination of old Europe.

The old chronicles recall a certain occasion when a group of conquistadors arrived at a humble village and the indigenous people came out to meet them with a banquet they had prepared. While they were eating, one of the soldiers took out his heavy sword and split open the head of a savage who was trying to serve him fresh fruits. The comrades of the noble knight, fearing a reaction from the savages, proceeded to imitate him until they retreated from that village leaving behind several hundred indians cut to pieces. After a brief investigation, the same conquistadors reported that the event had been justified given that a welcome such as the one they had witnessed could only be a trick. In this way they inaugurated – at least for the chronicles or as slander – the first preemptive action on behalf of civilization. The popular idea that “when the charity is great even the saint is suspicious,” makes heaven complicit in that miserable human condition.

In the same way, both science fiction and the plundering of resources by colonizing new planets are nothing more than the expression of the same aggressive mentality that doesn’t end up solving the conflicts it provokes at each step because it is already undertaking the expansion of its own convictions in the name of its own mental frontiers. The conquistadors (of any race, of any culture) can neither comprehend nor accept that supposedly more primitive beings (native Americans) as well as more evolved beings (possible extraterrestrials) might be capable of something more than a close-minded military conduct, aggressively exploitative of the barbarians who don’t speak our language.

That is to say, mass consumer science fiction – that innocent artistic expression, made popular by the disinterested market – is the expression of the most primitive side of humanity. The basic scheme consists of dominating or being dominated, killing or being exterminated, like our ancestors, the Cromagnons, exterminated the big-headed Neanderthals – later turned into the mythological ogres of the European forests – thirty thousand years ago. This genre could be understood especially in the Cold War, but it is as old as our culture’s thirst for colonization. It is not surprising, therefore, that the extraterrestrials, supposedly more evolved than us, would be out there playing hide and seek. It is quite probable, besides, that they know the case of the Nazarene who took the precaution of using metaphors to preach brotherly and universal love and was crucified anyway.

Presently, while conflicts and wars ravage the whole world, while the environment is in its most critical state, scientists are charged with finding life and water on other planets. NASA plans to use greenhouse gases – like carbon dioxide or methane – to raise the temperature of Mars, melting the frozen water at its poles and forming rivers and oceans. With this method – already tested on our own planet – we will stop buying bottled water from Switzerland or from Singapore in order to import it from Mars, at a slightly higher price.

We are not able to communicate with one another, we are not able to adequately conserve the most beautiful planet in the galactic neighborhood, and we will manage to colonize dead planets, discover water and encounter other beings who probably do not want to be found by intergalactic beasts like us.

Nor is it by accident that the objective of video games is almost always the annihilation of the adversary. Playing at killing is the common theme of these electronic caves filled with Cro-Magnon men and women. If indeed we could imagine a positive aspect, like the possibility that the exercise of playing at killing might substitute for the real practice, there still remains the question of whether violence is an invariable human quota (psychoanalytic version) or can be increased or decreased through a precise culture, through a psychological and spiritual evolution on the part of humanity. I believe that both are surviving hypotheses, but the second one is the only active hope, which is to say, an ideology that promotes an evolution of the conscience and not resignation in the face of what is. If ethical evolution does not exist, at least it is a convenient lie which prevents our cynical involution. The Romans also used to express their passions by watching two gladiators kill each other in the arena; some Spaniards also discharge the same passion by watching the torture and murder of a beast (I am referring to the bull). Perhaps the first replaced the imperial monstrosity with soccer; the second are in the process of doing so. A few weeks ago, a group of Spaniards marched through the streets carrying slogans like “Torture is not culture.” Protest is a valiant resistance to barbarism disguised as tradition. We are better off not noting that history shows that, in reality, torture is a culture with a millenarian tradition. A culture refined to the limits of barbarism and sustained by the cowardly refinement of hypocrisy.

Bertrand Russell used to say that the madness of the stadiums had sublimated the madness of war. Sometimes it is the other way around, but this is almost always true. It is not less true, of course, that the culture of violence carries with it two hidden purposes: 1) with the supposedly violent libido sublimated in sports, films and video games, the greater violence of social injustices (injustice, from a humanist and Enlightenment point of view) remain unchallenged by the exhausted and self-satisfied masses; 2) it is a form of anaesthesia, of moral habit-forming, in the periodic return of the brute, prehistoric violence of the electronic wars where one neither kills nor murders but suppresses, eliminates. This cybernetic primitivism seduces by its appearance of progress, of future, of spectacle, of technological exploits. Human ignorance is camouflaged in intelligence. Poor intelligence. But it continues to be ignorance, although more criminal than the simple ignorance of the cave-dweller who split open his neighbor’s head in order to avenge a theft or an offense. Modern wars, like the genre of science fiction, are more direct expressions of a race of cave-dwellers that has multiplied dangerously its power to split open its neighbor’s head but has not committed itself to the courageous enterprise of universal conscience. Instead, it defends itself against this utopia by taking recourse to its only dialectical weapon: mockery and insult.

Translated by Bruce Campbell