A Conversation-as-Review by Edgar Garcia and Jose-Luis Moctezuma
Edgar Garcia: What we should do, I guess, is think for a minute about how to have a conjoined conversation about two books. We might try to identify throughlines and also points of departure, and maybe I can start by talking about the book that I was supposed to focus on, Bridge of the World. I feel that it has more texture than culebra because the structure of the latter book utilizes three-line stanzas throughout.
Jose-Luis Moctezuma: Yes, culebra is very schematic, kind of programmed.
EG: It feels more like a long-form study in a single form. What do you think?
JM: That’s one entry point that I was hoping to bring up. In the notes to culebra, Roberto talks about Panama as culebra, and then eventually as the “bridge of the world.” So evidently the two books are very much in tandem, in conversation with each other.
EG: I do want to talk about the figure of Panama in the books. I thought of it as interesting, but also a bit frustrating at times. But I want to hear you out first.
JM: Well, one entry point could be the sort of schematism, the kind of programmatic mold, that structures culebra, which seems distinct from the structure of Bridge of the World, which feels closer presumably to what culebra was aspiring to be. In Bridge of the World there is more slithering, more texture, more gathering of different skins and surfaces. culebra, however, is different, and its difference has something to do with a frequent characteristic in Roberto’s poetry, and I’m not sure if it’s just a fascination with technology, with techne, with the digital as such, but…
EG: Roberto was a programmer, right?
JM: Yes, he was, and he has a strong interest in mathematics, in programming, in binary code. And in thinking of zeros and ones, and perhaps the convenience of having something like Erich Neumann’s The Origins and History of Consciousness informing the theoretical stakes of the book, and also in thinking of how the book is neatly split into two halves, “zero” and “one,” with each section comprising twenty-two poems, and each poem composed of tercets—is it possible that maybe we can talk about this book, culebra, as a “zero” and the other book, Bridge of the World, as a “one,” in some relational way in which Bridge of the World fulfills something which culebra lacks, or vice versa?
EG: Yeah, or maybe we don’t have to think of it as lack and fulfillment, but something like, one and the other, sameness disrupted in its repetition, which is to say difference being marked out…
JM: Right, difference and repetition.
EG: Difference and repetition like the primary motivation for a book that is completely organized, in every poem and stanza, around this three-line structure. So I guess my question to you is: did the book feel variegated enough?
JM: Well, one thing that I have regarded, and I’m not sure if it’s a quibble with it, but it’s something that poetically I’ve long noticed in Roberto’s lyric, is this accretional force, this verbosity. He’s extremely prolific, I would say he flourishes, he’s constantly flourishing, which is to say, he doesn’t edit himself down too much because he is a force of flourishing. What would be the opposite school of that? He’s not a concise or minimalist poet, he’s not interested in the containment of his voice and images. In fact, in one of the blurbs for culebra, Carmen Giménez Smith says that Roberto is a minimalist, which doesn’t make much sense to me, unless she means that Roberto is a minimalist in that he threads together very specific patterns that he endlessly weaves and threads together in, as he calls them, molas, after the Panamanian Kuna practice. Just infinite molas that recycle pattern-specific images like the face, numerosity, elemental forces. He speaks of these elemental forces as personhoods of the elements, such as waters, oceans, rivers, creaturely things, animal beings. I think he indulges in this kind of accretional lyric because he is very “prepositional” but I’m not sure if that means anything. I will read a passage from culebra, in the poem “ghost animals,” in which the first stanza goes: “skin after skin, a revolver / lets go the body / and makes answers, the sky // collapses.” Skin after skin, but also: the skin of grammar, and maybe also, the skin of the tercet form, the binary code he’s writing in. But within that skin is a kind of amorphous violence, or what I would like to call an indigestion, where it doesn’t seem that he reaches fluid or fluent ways of thinking through sense, but he does achieve fluency through thinking in sonics. The sense is never really there other than through the sonics. Roberto is very influenced by aleatoric poetics, he references John Cage, La Monte Young, Jackson Mac Low, and in one poem he remixes Henry Flynt and son cubano. He’s very diagrammatic and very conceptual but I’m not sure if there’s an advantage or disadvantage to the type of what I would call a formal formlessness. He’s obsessed with form, and yet under the skin of his works, there’s this powerful formlessness. It feels like a procreative indigestion rather than sheer fluency.
EG: I want to elaborate this concept of the body that your metaphor of indigestion brings up, of the stomach and the body, because I agree that there’s a way in which the poems in their repetition, accretion, maximalist minimalism, seek to go beyond sense and into the sonic, into the tactile, into the felt, rather than the merely understood. The way I thought about the problematics and possibilities underlying that move were through the sign, or what you referred to as the mola, what might be the dominant sign-form at play in these poems. I find that a very compelling reading because the sign-form here is definitely not the isomorphic sign, or the natural sign as Foucault talks about it in The Order of Things. So, interestingly, these poems, while they’re dominated by a sense of the sign, and a sense of the natural sign specifically, of the body, of the sign as body, the body as sign, it’s not the kind of sign that Foucault talks about in the The Order of Things, because there, when Foucault talks about the natural sign as disseminated from ecclesiastical philosophy from the seventeenth century forward, it’s a sign with infinite iterability but singular reference. What he means is that signs can manifest themselves in so many ways, not only in letters and words, but also in forests, trees, rocks, sky, and whatnot, but they only have one reference if you look deeply enough, and that reference always goes back to God; attempts to read nature there wish to find in it Scripture with a capital S.
JM: It’s hierarchical.
EG: It’s hierarchical, it’s that ecclesiastical natural sign that is not the type of natural sign at play here in Harrison’s poetry. I agree with you a hundred percent, there’s this way in which the sign in Roberto’s poetry is not integumented, not woven into, it’s a singular spiritual referent, it’s a deeper thing than just a weaving, it’s of the One, it’s encrusted in the body and in material things, but not in a way that’s concerned with giving a unifying meaning to those material significations. Like a mola, it has infinite iterability with all its colors and shapes and designs and movements, but also infinite reference, and the experience can be a little frustrating even, because it’s not a way of thinking that we normally apply to things, objects, and subjects.
JM: To add on to and to layer what you said—and I think you’re absolutely right—one way to think about it is through the syntactic logic of how Roberto composes, in how he enjambs and breaks, which provides some context for the mola-like encrustation you speak of. On page 44 of “ghost animals,” we read, “the engine, is / in effort—sidewinder, skin off / rumors, accumulated skin sheets // the gravity services / to color, the red / accretion // increases for the rain / operations.” I think a lot of this encapsulates much of the gnosis within this work, particularly in the multiple significations of “rumors,” because I like how rumors, in Spanish rumores, can mean “sound,” or the murmur of something coming from a distance; but it could also mean “hearsay,” in the sense that there’s a gossiping, or a kind of playfulness in language. But the fact that there has to be a skin, a skin in the sense of a drum, the patter on a drum-skin, in rumores, but also “skin” in the sense that “rumors” are only a cosmetic understanding of things, a superficial gossip of things. The rumor of a serpentine “engine” that accumulates “skin-sheets”—an image that Roberto’s machinic practice encapsulates——leads toward an accretion but not necessarily to an interiority. In this, I’d like to think of this accretion around absence as a ritualistic use and abuse of prepositions, of the placelessness of prepositions, what comes before or after positioning and position-taking. I circled the amount of prepositional phrases, for instance, in a few sections of “ghost animals,” where we read, “each inside a THEN hut,” a little later on, “to a word,” “off it on,” “in the function,” “to the West,” “to receive // in this the hand,” “in the darkness,” “toward its next,” etc., until the final, we can call it a breakdown of the prepositional logic, where it literally ends with a preposition that supports nothing but an absence: “is this for it on.” There’s a constant being in or on something, or trying to be inside or beneath or around something, and I read these accumulated “skin sheets,” if I can call these prepositional phrases that, as an absence of interiority, or a refusal of interiority beneath all these skins, in the same sense that there is never an “interiority” within the supreme externality of the mola. So it’s skin upon skin upon skin, accumulated skin-sheets, accumulated colors, accumulated “rain / operations.” Thus, the syntactic logic of this poem, along with many of the poems in this book, is predicated upon this problem of getting to or defining an elusive interiority through accumulation and accretion.
EG: I think the reference to the mola as accumulated meaning and signification for the sign, which I think is continuous with ideas of transitivity and movement, especially in capitalized words like “THEN” and “BEFORE,” (these temporal movements forward and backward), force us to readjust our expectations from a Kantian modality of categories to one of Benjaminian movements from thing to thing, condition to condition, instance to instance, situation to situation. I think that Roberto is not thinking about Walter Benjamin, he’s probably thinking about Kuna Indian conceptions of the cosmos as he understands them. By way of those cosmological conceptions he draws out this idea that, rather than categorical enclosure, what’s significant for how homology is organized here in the poem (as he wants it to be and how he wants the body to be organized too), is that it is not as a situation of containment but as instances of transitivity, dispersal, fuzziness, cloudiness, and maybe even a gushing movingness.
JM: On page 46 [of “ghost animals”], Roberto lays it out very explicitly in the first stanza, with the mention of “in accretion,” which if you line it up with the final phrase of the last line, reads as “in accretion […] is this for it on”—does this accretion add up to a failure, a breakdown in sense or signification of the natural sign, or does it add up to a different type of coherence?
EG: Yes, I think it coincides with the idea of language as not something that sits but that floats, which we get with all these prepositions pointing in various directions and sending us off in the same way that Pound ends the first Canto with “So that:” which sends the reader back to the numinous reality of language, which I think is related to the idea of gossip and rumors, because gossip is also language when it is operational or active in a fuzzy state. It can misrepresent, it can alter representation to damage you, it can do so to help you, but it’s not understood to be a place of reliable relationship between sign and referent. It’s a place where sign and referent are in a very ambivalent relationship with each other. Murmur and rumor are key elements to Harrison’s epic poetry of the Americas.
JM: The fuzziness, like you said, the fuzzy object, characterizes the lack of order that objects either pronounce or dissemble. Objects do not necessarily come with a predesigned order to give them coherence on their own, outside of structural conditions.
EG: This is actually something which we can continue thinking about through Benjamin, because when he visited Naples, where he was moving through its neighborhoods, he talked about the permeability—or, as he called it, the porosity—of life, where people were communicating across windows, overhearing conversations.
JM: This sort of Bakhtinian carnivalesque discourse.
EG: Yes, the social and the personal are completely elided and there is fluidity and fuzziness between the two. That also becomes deeply dangerous when—and this is Benjamin’s critique of it—the relationship between the social and the police state emerges, and the permeability of local administration, fractious governmentality, the cops, the family, are suddenly all blurred, as Benjamin experienced in the 1920s when he was in Naples in those early years of Fascist Italy. There can be this utopic element when we talk about transitivity and movement, when bodies are something like dissolving parts, but there’s also this dystopic element where it can get scary in the hands of, or when motivated by, improper rationales. To give a critical lens to some of these concepts: the figure of Panama, the force of utopia that it seems to take on in this work, I found to be a little frustrating because it’s also a historically complex nation. It has multiple geopolitical problems, subject to those same elisions of state power, narco-trafficking, and family structures that create a homologous relationship between, for instance, someone like Mussolini and someone like Noriega. Manuel Noriega is also Panama, and a significant part of its national identification.
JM: Right, something like how Porfirio Díaz constituted a significant part of Mexican national identity, and founded so much of the architectural spirit, and yet was dictatorial, authoritarian, unjust. Maybe one way of thinking about this problem would be to consider how we, as Latinos, as Chicanos, are people who have to fabricate our heritage at some level.
EG: The performance of an archive, as Diana Taylor describes it.
JM: Yes, definitely, and one way we can think about it, and I sense that this is what interests Roberto, is that Panama can be broken down according to the tripartite schema of the books themselves. Panama is a nation-state, but that’s just one piece of a greater tercet form, in which Panama is also an isthmus, it’s also a canal, which is how Panama gains coherence within the logic of imperialism—for the United States Panama only serves as a “canal” for empire-building. But for Roberto, maybe he’s trying to recover its figurality as an ouroboros, or as culebra as he calls it. So Panama has three possible names that have three possible uses or significations that are transcultural, or maybe even contrapuntal. So I see that “Panama” is only one of the names for a region that existed before the time of nations, but its name is culebra in the time of the Kuna, and its name is “isthmus” in the time of geographers.
EG: Well, that’s the thing: to attribute a kind of Panamanian utopianism to people who spent the better part of the twentieth century, and much of the nineteenth century, fighting Panama, fighting the state of Panama.
JM: Like in [Pierre] Clastres’s Society Against the State.
EG: Within the Kuna norms of living and being, why Panama? Panama is their enemy, and in fact the Kuna were very canny in uniting themselves to the United States, when the Panamanian government was imposing fishing restrictions on them (trying to administer the fish markets and other things), and trying to instrumentalize and create an administrative structure over their lives. The Kuna Indians turned to the United States for help, and they presented themselves as an indigenous people, which was really interesting, because they somewhat played on the stereotype of the indigenous person to better their standing in appealing to the United States against their home government, Panama.
JM: As some Mayan communities might do in Mexico or in Guatemala, where they refuse to be identified by these nationalist markers.
EG: The Kuna played on the romanticism of the “overrun indigenous,” they played it up to the United States government so that the US would intervene on their behalf against Panama. So they were very canny about the relationship between nation and globe, and they knew how to manipulate that relationship in a way that troubles any easy celebration of Panama. And I get you, I see that there’s this kind of self-circling negativity to Panama in Roberto’s writing, but I’m not sure I quite buy that, or at least in how it’s played out here. When Roberto talks about the Darién Gap, that to me is more along the lines of the negativity or Bataille-inspired remainder we spoke of, because that’s the one place where the Pan-American Highway can’t cross since there’s all this swampland there.
JM: And the text is swampy in many places. But maybe one way of seeing Panama through his lens, or a question that could be brought up for us in particular: do you think the figure of Panama serves the same purpose as “Aztlán” had for Chicano poets in the 1960s and 1970s?
EG: But don‘t you think that’s kind of damning at some level?
JM: It could be, yes, if we consider all the contextual problems that come with the conceptual formation of Aztlán, the historical fabrications and hyperbole that that term carries with it. But even in considering the possible alignment we might make of Roberto’s specific context as a Panamanian American poet alongside the kind of Chicanismo we saw in the spirit of the 1960s, might we not note the differences at play in Roberto’s formulation of Panama and in the kind of poetry he writes from that of antecedent Latinx forms?
EG: Absolutely, I think that if we consider the natural sign of Panama within the slippery domain that we agree the poem creates for its signs, for all signs (that is, that they don’t have a singular reference, they have infinite reference in endless iterability, moving in a much fuzzier atmosphere of relationship between sign and referent), then Panama comes to mean something very different from what Aztlán meant for the Chicano movement of the 1970s, where the referent was very clear, it was about Chicano nationalism. In that respect, yes, Panama looks to be more complicated than what Aztlán might have meant for the Chicano movement—but even Aztlán is pretty complicated, and there were some writers, like Miguel Méndez, who were very reflexive about the meaning of Aztlán in the 1970s. But, even so, why Panama?
JM: Well, Roberto is Panamanian American.
EG: Yes, but why not the Darién Gap for instance, why not…. Well, I guess he does go to the indigenous, which manages to reinscribe “Aztlán logic” at some level, and I guess there’s something about Panama that carries its own contradiction, and maybe that’s valuable for him.
JM: Right, and maybe what’s troubling for you is that the political context for Panama never seems to arise in the text, or in any of the poems, at least not the current political situation in all its specificity, nor the understanding for the historical sources for Panama. It’s all mythopoesis, but it might not register what Panama can mean on the level of the strictly historical or political.
EG: It’s also all primalism. It’s Panama transposed to primal meanings, which therefore transposes Panama to an ontology that the book seems intent to prove it doesn’t have. A singular ontology.
JM: Do you mean it’s constantly being hyphenated?
EG: No, that’s not what I mean, I mean that if Panama takes on primal meanings, meanings of deep consciousness, Jungian transhistorical meanings, it actually serves to naturalize, normalize, and reinscribe the “nature” of Panama as such, of the nation-state, and that’s just a fictional construct. So why primalize it? Why primalize the thing you’re set on deconstructing or performing the contingency of?
JM: True, but then, it seems that what you’re implying is that he senses himself being primalized, so he deconstructs it and then only ends up reinscribing the primalism that he starts out with, that he senses himself being racialized or primalized?
EG: No, not that either. Let me refer to the opening “Notes for culebra”: “Panamá is shaped like a snake.” Okay, fine, that seems fairly figural, but I think the book is also quite clear that that statement is not figurative, it’s some kind of ontological relationship between its snakelike shape and its meaning for the world, which we get in the next sentence: “It is the bridge of the world. It is the crack in the egg of the world.” When you say, “the world… the world,” you are reinscribing a singular modernity of global capitalism, because what other world could you be referring to?
JM: But why global capitalism?
EG: Because that’s the only place in which Panama as such has come into being.
JM: Is that a strictly hemispheric way of thinking? I mean—what does he mean by world? I think that’s what you’re asking, because you’re thinking about the “world-system” in which Panama is merely a component of a globalized form of life dominated and conditioned by capital.
EG: Yes, exactly, I do think he means the world-system. Don’t you read it that way?
JM: I sensed it as more…
EG: He even says, “It links the Northern hemisphere with the Southern hemisphere….” That’s world-system thinking, in a hard-core Wallersteinian sense; it derives its geocultural forms from the language of globally shared division of labor (in the service, of course, of commodity circulation).
JM: True. But in indigenous knowledge the directions do exist, there are colors for them, ways of existing within or outside of them.
EG: But the Northern and Southern hemispheres don’t, not in the same way.
JM: Yes, I see what you mean, and Roberto has a systems way of thinking in how he formulates the structure of the book. But you also can’t forget that he says (in the same prologue for the book), “I am Panamanian American. This book is groundwork for understanding what that might mean.” Hence, he’s at a loss for what that might mean, and I use hyphenation here as a way of understanding that he begins as an American, understands that he has Panamanian roots and is trying to recover his identity through mythopoetic means, but at the same time it’s contaminated, as you said, with the fact that he grew up in the Midwest, and he grew up with this kind of education that pretty much limits our understanding of the world as anything other than world-system.
EG: Yes, and trust me, no one is more prone to get frustrated by the claim that brown people of the Americas trying to think in hemispheric ways are colonialist than I am. That’s something that people have said to me: “Aren’t you just reinscribing a particular world-system logic?” No, because, having just arrived, I’m working with what I have, and I’m trying to imagine forms of political existence with tropes and figures that are available to me in ways that might undermine the organizing power of capitalism. So how can the hemisphere mean something other than global distribution of labor and circulation of capital? That’s the question: does this book perform a world-making outside of a world-system, one which doesn’t just subsist within it, but also manages to subsume it? Does this book do enough to have the one subsume the other, or is it captive to a particular idea of “world” in which Panama, the nation that is interpolated in world-systems theory, is just that? Sahlins calls such thinking, when world only ever signifies capitalist world-system, “a superstructural expression of the very imperialism it despises.”
JM: One possible answer might be found in the poem titled “i see worlds,” and it’s after Hannah Weiner, referencing the famous photo of Weiner with the phrase “I see words” written on her forehead. On page 98, we read:
Panamá. in the most loving gaze a violence
again, a thin line of blood across the neck
appears, without Origin. without — destination.
where is the line between ViOLEnce and love?
after so many years, tokens passing, after all the warm
worlds heave through silent departures
where the mute will not begin again
the endless word
through moonlight without shadows.
But what does all this mean here? Is this the only way that politics or historicity comes out in his verse? Because I don’t see it anywhere else as boldly as it is here.
EG: I think this is really interesting to think through because it does stage the problem. A “loving gaze” and a fact of “violence,” which are all related to the idea of world-making and world-identifying and world-living, inasmuch as what we’re thinking about here are not sources but practices, not origins but becomings, in which Panama maybe doesn’t refer to where he came from, or where his family is rooted, genealogically, biologically, but is just a thing that he is making right now from elements of earth, air, and language. A thing that is meaningful for him as a way of being because it’s creative practice. Panama is creativity. It’s not memory.
JM: No, it’s not memory. In fact, to add to what you just said, on page 98, he writes, “each flesh will not remember, it will speak // in a common force of standing water.” Which I think is a beautiful line, and I think it speaks to what you just said. It’s not memory, it’s imagination. “Each flesh will not remember,” in the sense that it’s not memory because it’s not a lived-in memory, particularly for him, biographically, he is not, strictly speaking, a Panamanian, nor does he pretend to be, but he is creatively manufacturing this identity as a creative practice, or, as he puts it, “a common force.”
EG: Well, that’s really an interesting way of re-presenting the nation rather than representing the nation. Controlling it by making it not a source of origin, but a thing in your hands, a shaking jelly that you can mold and fashion as you will. And although the Panama of this book is suffused and filled out by a history of violence and the fact of colonialism, its greatest power is that it narrates a here-and-now.
JM: So how do you relate this book, culebra, which we’ve been talking about for some time now, to Bridge of the World?
EG: Well, I was really excited by this book because, in it, I was happy to find the first poem by Roberto that I ever read, “Snake Vision: A Poetics,” and this was the poem that we posted on our Nagualli blog [nagualli.blogspot.com] back in the day. So encountering the poem again gave me this kind of ouroborean, full-circle, coming-back-to-our-origins-type feeling, now that we find ourselves reviewing it, collaboratively as two people in conversation! Origins as making and becoming.
JM: Which, fittingly, goes along with Roberto’s binary code, the schematism of zeros and ones that both books maintain.
EG: Yes! And it goes back to the originating idea of Nagualli, which is about the double, the one who always holds its Other, and thus persists in its own undoing. So it’s very interesting to return to this text. I remember, when I first read this poem, which is really the centerpiece of Bridge of the World, how it gave me the sense of being at once a manifesto, an apologia, an epic poem, and in all ways a multiform, multi-genre work held together by the idea of the snake and its poetics. And I first read this poem in Mandorla, it must have been around 2008–2009, in the wonderful publication edited by Roberto Tejada and Kristin Dykstra. We can first talk about the historical context of this poem, both in its relationship to Mandorla and in its relationship to Nagualli. Because we never actually talked about what we were doing when we began Nagualli. I think it’s an interesting context that’s interwoven with Mandorla’s project, of a hemispheric Americanity, a hemispheric poetics, and both emerged around the same time. And yet you and I haven’t yet discussed this in much detail.
JM: One shared term we always used was that it was a shared “psychogeography,” which I think Roberto is definitely implementing and performing in these books, and by “psychogeography” we’re obviously referencing Guy Debord’s dérive, the Situationist practice of urban experience, of producing the city through spontaneous, directionless, inebriated walking. For us, it’s different; we’re producing our own multitudinous sense of self not as a contained centralized subjectivity, but as a constant doubling, and whether that means “double consciousness” in the sense Du Bois gave it, or double consciousness in the way a body is doubled through racialization, or through hybridity or anti-hybridity, whichever gesture you lean towards, there’s always some type of play between what you are not and what you think you are. We utilize the figure of the nagual, the animal other, or as you put it, the ability to contain an Other, to provide an account for what’s always relevant to our situation, our presumed, yet contaminated national consciousness, or what Jameson discusses regarding national allegory, the allegorization of one’s own national consciousness, or the manner in which marginalized narratives gain coherence within colonial, imperial lenses through allegory.
EG: That argument doesn’t bother me so much for its developmentalist mind-set as much as it bothers me for its very weak reading of allegory.
JM: Right, it is incorrect, it stretches allegory too much, and a medievalist would quibble with the widening of allegory to suit these overlarge claims of critiques of modernity. Nonetheless, I can describe this nagualism not as an allegorization of self, but as a metaphoricity that allows us to walk our doubles out, not into urban zones of experience, but into hemispheric zones of experience that mimic our doubling, of polarities always at play with each other.
EG: I think that makes sense. To elaborate on this point, the double is the detail that undoes the world. And that’s a more minor way of thinking about it, but it expands upon the idea that I think shoots through Roberto’s work, and what makes it so exciting for me. There is a real resistance in his work to a one-to-one relationship, of this idea that self and world are interfused into a held-together unity. But, actually, every unity is held in its opposition. Every unity is held in its Other. And if every unity is held in its Other, anything like “the world,” the “world-system” even, is reduplicable ad infinitum, and therefore, is easy to break apart and change. It becomes much easier to break a world apart, when it’s not so unified. It’s the belief that things are not as stable as they seem, and everything can be tripped up in its own contradictions, which means that the seeming difficulties, and the things that you run up against when you’re a brown person in the United States, those can be tripped up too. And we can think of that as an instance of non-singularity, of things not just revolving in an inviolable wholeness, a racial wholeness which is heavily policed and organized (because it is the dominant signifier in Victor Turner’s sense of the dominant symbol), because it can’t hold itself up, there are too many contradictions and too many self-splittings. It’s a doubling that believes in the non-singularity of things, a doubling that is never self-referential but always points to other things, and if it can point to other things, those other things can point back.
JM: In the sense that you can always point back to yourself?
EG: No, that you’re able to point back to the seeming unity of the world, and say, “Well, actually, I’m not a part of that, I’m something else.”
JM: While still being part of that world?
EG: Or not.
JM: In everything that you’re saying, those kinds of internal contradictions are what, to go back to the preliminary point, I describe as “indigestions,” that there isn’t this wonderful digestion of substances and ideas, but this kind of indigestion that is realized or reified here as a kind of internal contradiction that doubles itself, that constantly points at itself.
EG: Pointing at its non-referential instability, pointing back at the instability of “the one.”
JM: It is the zero pointing back at the one, quite literally.
EG: Yes, the problem is the one, in an ecclesiastical and in a socioeconomic sense. Ecclesiastical in that it is always pointing back to God, and socioeconomic in that it is always pointing back to capitalism, as if we could only have a world-system (obviously here I’m riffing on Schmitt’s Political Theology, extension of the body subordinated to the body of Christ to the body subordinated the body of the State). And everything that happens is pointing back to this false unity. The false unity that says, “if you want to talk about molas, you have to talk about capitalism.” And I think that’s a way of reinscribing those old conceptions of the natural sign that Foucault critiqued, that are transposed now to the commodity relation, ways of thinking that persist to this day and that reduce everything to a capitalist narrative.
JM: Right, it’s what Jameson calls the metaphysics of the centralized subject.
EG: Or the floating body of capitalism that is always ready to enforce its version of co-presence. Jameson says that that’s what happens, that that’s the case. But I say no, the double is the detail that undoes the world in the singular, and this is what nagualli means, and what made it so interesting to me. And, as you suggest, psychogeography describes something like nagual’s condition of multiplicity.
JM: Psychogeography is a diffuse flow and counter flow, it’s not a unitary subject that goes from place to place and remains whole, but a constant metamorphosis that travels even within its own body.
EG: And that’s another interesting question: what is the relationship between the double and the metamorphic body? Because I see them as totally related in such a cosmology as the Nahuatl philosophical tradition whence the concept of the nagual comes, and it is operative in multiple cosmological systems, such as more broadly in Mesoamerica, where the non-isomorphism of things is also related to the total dynamic mutability of things (as Jim Maffie and the Tedlocks have written about), and I think it has to do with the double as the detail that undoes the unity of the world. It’s also obviously related to the body, too, what allows it to become an animal if it wants or needs to.
JM: You’ve written about it in discussing the lycanthrope, the myth of the wolf-man, such as in Jaime de Angulo’s writings—how might this becoming-animal relate to Roberto’s work though? Do you think that there’s a kind of metamorphism in what he’s doing in Bridge of the World, or is there a kind of metamorphosis in the transition from culebra to Bridge of the World, since these are interrelated terms? When he speaks of animal others, do you think there’s a type of nagualism at work here?
EG: Oh, there are many animals in Bridge of the World, there’s one section titled “Horses of Insight,” there’s the other section called “snake vision: a poetics” which we mentioned, and there’s some talk of “Red and Black Cluster of Beings” in the plural. And within these sections, the poems have many scenes of humans becoming animal, and animals becoming human. And also there’s a sense of transformation not being limited and detained by the biophysical, but also extending into systems, like into information systems, humans becoming information systems, animals becoming information systems. At times there are sentences that I underlined where the metaphor would be a linking of a biophysical entity and a term from informational science, which happens often. There’s the idea that the metamorphoses of the world are not limited to the field of the animal, the domain of the animal as such. The animal is much more expansive than animals in his writings. It continues from the animal to the human, to the cybernetic, and to the philosophical and ideational. I think there’s this sense that ideas have life, and that the birth of the hyper-networked computer, for instance, didn’t so much make this reality possible as it revealed such situational kinetic matrices for thought to have already been the case.
JM: I’d like to think that animals always were information systems, and we’re only barely catching up to the full extent of what this could mean. It isn’t like the imposition of information technologies upon nature/cultures is something new, or that somehow our current culture of information technologies are suddenly, by way of a gimmick, being mapped onto nature. We’re somehow discovering the informational aspects of nature, and we’re only barely as ecologists understanding, or coming to grips with, that complexity. And having previously, mythopoetically, and phantasmagorically, seen nature as just wilderness, as something that has to be enclosed, or as something that is merely unenclosed—now we’re actually within the world, or more properly said, as researchers and scholars of the Anthropocene might say, we’re now finally in the world, not the world-system necessarily, but in the world as animal beings would understand it, in a way that implicates us completely, in which there is no longer any easy divide between nature and culture. This is nature at the point of extinction, we’re all somehow gathered up in this shared extinction, moving toward extinction, toward cognitive nihilism. So, do you think that nagualism coincides with what Roberto is trying to do with his lyrical use of information technologies and digital culture? Or do you think that becoming-animal, or the animal-being described by the nagual, is resistant of that?
EG: I’m very interested to know what Roberto would say to the idea that the underlying premises of these books—in their binarism, in their ones and zeros, in their pairing and play on the same title—what would he say to the idea that this is a very structuralist way of thinking?
JM: You mean going back to the Lévi-Straussian way of anthropological critique?
EG: Right, the Lévi-Straussian conceptions of myth as the organization of one and the other, of a thing and its difference (in a non-stabilizing sense, I should add: in as much as these differences trace the effect of a new situation on the myth). Which, if so, is not at the end of the day very post-structuralist as structuralism tends to be understood (you know, if you read Tristes Tropiques its structure reveals itself as very anti-structural, prone to ‘transient efflorescences’ and constant becomings-Other. So I think that when you refer to a return to the ecology of things in his work, which is also the myth of things, that sounds to me as very Lévi-Straussian, very much in the vein that a myth transforms the thing by which myth is itself changed. In its organization of space and time, the myth emerges as a trace of that same organizing situation.
JM: I guess one way of putting it would be that we all share a language of entropy, and if we understand it as such, if we can understand it as systems theory, following the line of thinking from Lévi-Strauss to anthropologists like Gregory Bateson, systems that are always arriving at some degree of entropy, then it becomes intelligible to us across the sort of boundaries and obstacles that prevent a shared understanding of otherness. That would be one way of explaining it, though I can’t presume to call it a correct form of thinking, nor one that holds true in Roberto’s poetry.
EG: I think what you’re saying is interesting, but that’s not exactly what I’m saying. What I’m talking about is this kind of faith in the organizing power of the binary between sign and thing. And maybe not faith, but something along the lines of deep observation on how signs and objects circle into one another (with us myth-makers as their transit point). And that maybe we’ve gone too far in deranging and deconstructing some really meaningful concepts, such as myth, the Other, the value of difference, the value of the zero and the one, the value of the nagual as a thing that explains a lot about historical transformation in its present glimpsing, or that shows us a version of ecology that isn’t just philosophical head-games.
JM: I see. One way of translating what I think you’re saying is that there’s a value to othering, for example, in the othering of the wilderness, or in the othering of the animal. You don’t fuck with tigers, right? You don’t mess with snakes. For reasons that are clear to us even if they defy our comprehension.
EG: Well, because they’ve also othered you…
JM: Definitely, you’re referring to Viveiros de Castro’s cannibal metaphysics, the metaphysics of predation. So, because there’s a value to othering, in the same respect that in identity politics we speak of a value in difference as opposed to a false homogeneity secured by capitalist individuation, we can speak of a softening that has implicated us in a self-same death with those we no longer other, we’re all now implicated in that movement toward entropy.
EG: I guess I’m just not so interested in Lévi-Strauss on entropy. To me the entropy stuff is the weaker content of the work [Tristes Tropiques] whose form is anything but entropic. There’s a deep investment there in the poetics of the relation always breaking in multiple directions, with variegated subsumptions, taking on a variety of instantiations. It’s also a condition in which words mean nothing, and in which the use-value of something like identity politics (and its own staid narrative of entropy) has been lost by its migration into relational studies. There’s a structure of power there that’s important to keep in mind. But I think what we are also trying to say—here, you and I, I mean—is: let’s forget all of that, let’s return to the organizing power of myth. And in thinking about myth and reality, or about myth and the animal, in how they hold each other up, to think carefully about how to give and receive value across that doubling. The myth and the animal don’t peripheralize one another, they animate each other as world-centers.
JM: We seem to be describing here a return to the sacred, and we’ve lost the sense of that. A sense that there are places you don’t go to, and that there are animals you don’t touch or normalize. And now everything has to be reachable, touchable, on a screen or in a petting zoo, something which, to return to our previous discussion, global capitalism and the world-system make desirable and possible. Everything is within the same interface, and now the sacred is lost, or it has no more valency for us. There was a value in othering, which we were calling nagualism, that we’re trying to recover through our project, and perhaps Roberto is recovering through his lyric practice.
EG: And I think that othering takes on a real edge for him. His psychogeography plays a big part in his books, certainly in Bridge of the World, in the form of hallucinations, in his movements between worlds, between the visible and the invisible, between the mythic and the real, between the safe and the dangerous. I think there’s a sharp dimensionality in his poetry that in other poets’ works remains figurative or metaphorical. In his poetry, the images are not figurative, they are actual.
JM: What do you mean by “actual”?
EG: I mean that in Roberto’s works, madness is a real thing, it is scary. When you refer to the sacred and the dangerous, where the sacred structures the dangerous, and the dangerous drives the sacred—that’s here, in his poems. You can sense that he has experienced that danger.
JM: True. In culebra Roberto states that in a non-drug-infused state he saw himself “turn into a snake in the mirror.” He’s also been very confessional in interviews and in speaking with us that he went through some difficult phases in his life, during which he was prescribed specific drugs and medication to help with his mental state.
EG: Yeah, he talks about it here, there’s a whole poem here where he talks about changing prescriptions, and it’s a really beautiful exploration of that boundary zone between the sacred, the poetic text, the dangerous, and the pharmacological. What I love about it is that it never acquires the kind of sheen it tends to have when that trope migrates into the aesthetics of psychedelia. Like Jim Morrison and madness, where it’s just very “sexy” and glamorous. Roberto keeps it very scary, very real.
JM: He doesn’t shy away from the realism of it, the ugliness, he preserves the boundaries and respects that the sacred and the dangerous are real operations that can’t be mixed in the way certain intoxicants can’t be mixed. Do you think Roberto’s treatment of the pharmacological, at least in respect to its resistance to facile aestheticization, is similar to the work of someone like Burroughs?
EG: Burroughs is also pretty “sexy” about it.
JM: [laughter] That’s the last thing I would ever expect for Burroughs, the claim that he’s sexy.
EG: No, what I mean is that he’s the kind of writer who makes one want to go take heroin or whatever. He glamorizes it, he still wants to make it seem cool.
JM: Right, he’s still a fundamental part of the counterculture, he’s still a proxy of the Beat ethos.
EG: Even when Burroughs discusses the dangers of taking ayahuasca in the jungles of Colombia, he still makes you want to try it, in a way that I think Michael Taussig for instance doesn’t. In his study of terror and healing, Taussig shores up the terror of the history that gives rise to these healing practices. So the healing is always interwoven with the real horror of colonialism and the violence of being a mind alive in that ongoing horror.
JM: And the sort of sedation of these practices, or the diminishment of the risk factor attending these rituals, is indebted to the countercultural movement that leads, for instance, from the Beats to the hippie ideology of the 1960s, and the irony of seeing this hippie ideology eventually corporatized into mainstream neoliberal culture, for example, in the corporatization of things like the Burning Man festival, where I’ve read that many of the Google and Microsoft and Facebook executives drop acid or take drugs of one kind or another, form deep bonds among themselves, and even recruit or promote each other during and after these rituals of bonding, only to return to their bicoastal enclaves of neoliberal programming. I read this as a feature of the selfsame movement toward entropy in the sense that there is no difference, there is no othering, we all want to share in the same strain of metaphysics, and that dampens and destroys the sacred, not in the sense of Foucauldian ecclesiastical hierarchization, but in the sense of a real respect for the otherness of things, the otherness we ourselves nurture and give rise to.
EG: The thing about entropy is interesting when we think of Lévi-Strauss, especially in Tristes Tropiques, which is about the entropy of the world. But…
JM: The loss of the magical.
EG: The loss of the magical, of the native, and the increasing capture of that by Western modernity. And so people have taken that to be a strong determinism in Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, but it’s actually the case that he gives that term a lot of contingency and a lot of flexibility. He talks about “turning points” in history that have enabled the seeming power of that structure. One of those turning points is the neolithic revolution, without writing, irrespective of writing. But the point is that these things are not inevitable, and if there were turning points, there is the virtual possibility for returning to instances where it wasn’t this way or for turning in some other way. To me, that is the un-Tristes quality of Tristes Tropiques, the possibility opened up by its dynamic poetics of montage and colportage. Or where we don’t just want it to be this way or that, and we can choose a new turning point or inflection. So it’s not that deterministic; as I read it, the entropy is not totalistically ontologized; there’s a possibility for reinvigorating the discrepant meaning and work of signs.
JM: Signs change dimension at some level, but it doesn’t mean they will go extinct forever?
EG: Right, exactly. And I think there’s one passage in Bridge of the World that really speaks to that. And it’s one of those moments in which Roberto’s humility and honesty shine through, and its a quality that holds these two books together, an intense humility, and an intense honesty. Sometimes Roberto will just let a really flat line sit, just honestly let it be, because it’s a part of the ecology of the poem. And this speaks to the idea that poetic forces might subsume the seemingly singular world-system into their makings, that is, that there might be other forms of subsumption. He writes:
Don’t tell me again that there’s a hierarchy from which we can’t remove ourselves. I’ve seen it, that breathing will bring it all together. Because I cannot breathe, I cannot breathe, and I do not see. Kindness is the main objective.
JM: That’s beautiful.
EG: I really think so, and it captures all those problems we discussed concerning Panama and other colonial signifiers. They’re all in his chaos.
November 2017, Chicago
Read Roberto Harrison’s response to this review in Commentary.