Thomas Cohen


1.Sorata—May, 1996; or, Bad Timing

What the traveler craves, in the space afforded by alien settings whose historial trajectories are differently situated (or "presented") than our own—in technology, in linguistic ritual, in temporalities—is not "surprise," otherness, the different. This last a French backpacker asserted on the ferry crossing Titicaca, noting a commodifiable preference for "Asia" to "South America" for the European on this basis (a South America in which the Euro-eye still encounters the grotesque flowering of his belated seed, siphoned through, and very much against, the "indigenous" soil, history, backdrops). The so-called traveler is the tourist who exceeds his role as "late capitalist" agent of transformation or use, and is marked by this excess. He romanticizes it not by being eco-friendly or knowing how to "contact" the other—but by seeking out in predatory fashion the jugular vein of differential temporal strata, faults in historial models and occurrences, displaced or foreclosed turns in seemingly decided trajectories, junctures that conjure still virtual turns in the system from which he perpetually seems on the point of arrival without. This sort of traveler, then, is at once vampire and mock-hunter willing to parody his role as consumer to excess—like the science fiction agent sent back from a future to acquire a once extant element or knowledge to counter or forestall the coming plague or catastrophe. Only since these two time lines also are co-incident, and since the system one derives from is also, inevitably, going to be that which transforms and ruptures whatever economies, othernesses, and "realities" one has oneself come to siphon off, one is aware of a parallel complicity and chronographic loop.

In the Residencial Sorata they show videos at night. Copied from cable TV in La Paz, the titles are not announced until late afternoon to give the manager, Luis, time to assess his mood or constituency. Dave, The Fugitive, Blade Runner—which last drew out the wine bottles and a fire in the immense "colonial" reading room where the vcr is locked. An old mansion at the edge of the square in this town set beneath glacial ridges and Andean villages and at the top of a valley stretching scores of miles down to the Amazon basin—passed on in the German family from early days when Sorata sat on the gold transit route, until those when the proto-nazi patriarch, well-entrenched with the Bolivian elite, died (too soon) in forty-two—it has immense rooms deteriorating around the once finely detailed edges, haphazardly plied with beddings of different sorts, each utterly individual, the half-restored rooms of past intrigue or power housing the disreputable comfort of backpackers.

The time of the valley simulates "natural" time—a factor that haunts one, peaking on occasion, down the valley road during the requisite visit to "the cave," a stooped destination in which a rancid underground pond and squealing alarmed bats greet one in anti-climax. But the point of the walk and its telos is other: to be marked, and situated within, the shifting co-ordinates of innumerable cliff faces, vistas, protrusions, lines, and absent gazes. Bolivia, like an effaced metacommentary on the Peruvian earth-inscriptions (great etchings in the hillsides or desserts meant for hypothetical non-eyes), is too hectic in the challenge of its surfaces to read up close. The Inca, who could putatively exist in some unreproduced relation to stone and topography, letting in the powers of the non-human by not-writing—by becoming a form of inscription themselves—make one aware as do few others of alternate virtual trajectories, alternative mnemonic systems cut off or paths not taken in "subsequent" human time.

The Sorata valley briefly mimes an alpine setting—which must have influenced the German patriarch. Earlier, the Aymara Indians in furious rebellion, were said to have stopped up the glacial rivers above, to flood out the Spanish. Mist effaces the white peaks often, making it seem like the stone mounts across the valley dominate the stony outcroppings and rises until the clouds disperse—whereby the peaks again assert utter power and domination. This ritual of surprise is repeated daily. Across the ridge, more gold mining—down in adjacent jungles, and across the mountain. Some mines wash out the gold from Inca burial sites. Considering "Bolivia's" place in the continental and metaphysical map, one is aware that this scene will be transfigured again from without: the Japanese financed road from La Paz beyond Coroico—replacing a legendary terror-road along sheer cliffs (and of which we just heard the latest report: an Israeli got out of his bus at a stop and went right over the edge at night). This lane begins two processes: one, to divest the selva of its timber, and two, to enhance Bolivia's use as a transit country between Brazil and the Pacific. A straw placed into the continent's heart to be sucked on by global industrial and commercial needs.

The gold mining—distant echo of the early lure of conquistadors—is an old example of the parasitism of future space witnessed elsewhere, by the clash of different times. It is the "Indians'" role to keep the standard of difference for this: the one connected to the earth, to village and subsistence economies, to the pre-Christian and pre-Columbian, trace-figures of anonymous catastrophe, black holes of illegible re-assurance, ghost commodities. Thus one encounters "gold mines" on the altiplano that are set over Inca tombs and graves, whereby the gold that floats up comes exclusively from trinkets. (I have noted a relief I experience in the presence of mountain people, with whom one can have little overt "communication," and whose environmental molding already postulates abysses of difference in lungs, ability, memory—one can imagine different settings for all of this had another European patron "discovered" the then "new" world rather than the Spanish and its attendant Catholicism; it is nonetheless a pretext of communication: as if imparting gestures to people across such temporal gulfs promises more contact than using the paranoid rituals of coded English among professionals at a university.)

There is an urge, at once duty and a banal romanticism, that clings like a fragile coat to travel of this sort, to witness. Not to consume or vampirize alone—what is a form of eating, or negating, what one seeks to alter. That is, the mountain heights, infinitely individuated teeth purveying the tears constitutive of all horizons, and which formed one core of worship for the older cultures—in contrast to which the grotesque imposition of the crucified Jesus appears as a historical theft (the decaying god, corpse exposed, killed by men)—recall us to a non-human rift divesting one (including the consumers, vampires) of all kinds of faux mourning: as if less for some undesignable past where a catastrophe had already been decided that has yet to reach full disclosure, than for an "earth" itself. It recalls our inability to remap or chart the surfaces of this today, or to predict more than the end of a certain phase of anthropomorphism with the nullification of bio-diversity and bio-systems. So "witnessing" can be confused or have a double logic: one cannot simply witness a passing or disappearance, if one is the tomb and trace of that (without knowing what it was that passed in the act of disappearance); at the same time, the gesture of witnessing returns us to a formalized stance that mimics already a non-human site or position. One seeks in part, "today," a vantage point, a bit to the side of the human (which language, ultimately, provides while bracketing). One recalls bladerunner, where the photo-memories retain connections to pasts that cannot be affirmed, identities that may be defense-fostered, or where "animals" themselves are prized as token, simulated generally as rarities. The face of ecotourism itself seeks sightings of "animals" in proximity to virtual extinction (river otters); peasant livelihoods that are pre-industrial, aping indistinct structural memories, at once pre- and post-individual; medieval orders bracing with their theatrical displays of humans caught in transparent yet permanent machines (Potosi's mines, with their slave-like workers, which my French friend, Christophe, told me he refused to visit, though passing through on a train, suggesting it would be like a zoo). . . For what "one" encounters is, to some degree, the dissolution of witnessing: not the pretense of partaking of a feasting (or vampiric) gaze, but the loss of the pretext—not the post-human one desires to glimpse and which is all around one (in the image of the Inca, the "prehistorical" post-historical), but a kind of pan-zographics, what displaces the effect of life-death. (Christophe, it should be noted, I later met: he and two partners wanted to do a quick three-day trek to glacier lakes—having to catch a plane—and relied on the services of a shady "mountaineer club" proprietor: connections were not made further up, the guide delayed and route altered, the tent inadequate to the freezing nights: "and they brought only tea, no coffee. Can you imagine, for a Frenchman, 'tea'!")

The Andes, for all the mysticism of its peoples, is starkly "material" in this sense. Not as producing the commodified otherness of cultural humanism (as if this rested on visiting alternate "cultures") but by recalling the ant-swarm of human creatures over primeval land-masses. From the "point of view" of undoing the life-death dyad—and perhaps it is the latter's maintenance today, Western bio-centrist, that imperils the whole show—one peers beyond the parallel human investment in a ruinous ideology of meaning, the management of reserves. "Bio-centrism"—that is, the mimetic reflex on behalf of the linguistic endowed organism to misinterpret, by analogy to semantics or property, the effect called "life" as what must be stored up against armies of others it is only a variant logic of, inserted in the opposite sheath of logic: evisceration, accelerated cancellation. Let us call this bio-centrism which itself mimics a kind of paranoid semantic the ultimate "political incorrectness"—a techno-ideology dependent on what is neither living nor dead (language) to fabricate and protect a mock-interior, an unwittingly deadly home or host territory. This "beyond" is not apocalyptic, though it inherits the logics of everything that had converged about the organizing models of apocalyptics from millenarians to visions of atomic waste. Mt. Illumani—like the sacred Salkantay on the walking route to Machu Picchu—purveys a certain caesura when the mists fall: not the anthropomorphized deity of a dead culture as "we" imagine it ("the Inca"), but the de-anthropomorphized site that constitutes such events as non-humanist clearings. They do not "look" at the present juncture from the point of view of a memorialized past—the Inca vision or sacrifice romanticized—but with the same trace-chains of genetico-semiotic effects that preceded dinosaurs or pre-mammalian epochs. The trace, of course, is neither alive nor dead (nor necessarily terrestrial), but threads this folding of space-time—informing the effect, and affirmation, of "life" as nervous variant of the inorganic, the receding glaciers of Illumani. The narrativized after-human, even as the waste of current bio-systems, will be another systematics indifferent to Illumani—because "nature" never existed (quite) to be avenged, betrayed, extincted. "Nature" was never other than the active and proto-mimetic chemical war of traces poised in relations of camouflage, strategic and entirely sign-oriented networks of predation and evasion, reading technologies. (Today, it is interesting to hear theories of the earth's reception of a "life" germ from Mars or elsewhere—a culture dish of bacterial logics.) For the human epoch it would seem a certain view of language, a certain historical error in this regard, represented a catastrophic turn within "natural history" that masked or deferred the conceit of catastrophe by projecting the specter of a narrative axis. In his own misleading way, Heidegger locates this in "Plato" (but Plato, in fact, may have tried to dissipate or erase this pressure, much as Heidegger re-implants it as an icon to stage himself against—hence re-installing it). Mimesis, representation—the compulsive disorder, installed like an itch, programmed supposedly at a perpetually unfindable before and after of the Greek fold, that wishes for and practices the "as if" of a cancellation of signs en route to referents, that desires to store and consume reference as mnemonic ground, that conceals in the ideology of referentials and its legitimizing ghost, nature, the sleight-of-hand involved with the covert control (still medieval) of the past, of difference, of that anteriority through which all signifying passes and which bracketing spawns, it seems, the illusory maw of interiority. What the Inca, clearly, lacked any corruptive relation to (what accounts, strangely, for the deformations of stone resisting abstract symmetry—for whom only prefigural inscription, numeration, and the sheer aesthetic formalism of stone mattered. Aesthetic formalism being, for them, the direct and violent access to divine ecology, a theogonic theater. Mimesis—which confutes and confuses "nature" with reference, reference with reserves, reserves with capital, capital with deferred yet controlled wealth. (Before "capital"—mimesis.) So, one travels—who one, not to be "one"?—to dislocate, elude, systems of mimetic imprinting (places, that is, where this apparatus has been installed faultily on which one's relation to language and mock-self culturally depend)? To elicit cracks and caesuras, errors or lapses in the historical calculus, that can be strategically pursued? That can, still, open or imply uncalculated or virtual "futures," alternative temporalities, or keep such as Archimedian points for alternative systems of reference, terra-culture, varieties of active rather than passive mimesis (without model or copy)? The virtuality of these alternate logics should not be under-estimated: their non-existence or non-presence would not have any less power than the grotesquely doomed existents one is familiar with or surrounded by at "home." As if such home—like language—were from before the start already alien, compelling a disinhabitation of signs, advertisements, air, water, personae. What does one commune with, if the humans are not even human anymore—but the post-humans of the "past"? Of "Bolivia"? What we learn in and of the non-system we are now emissaries of (and can only be marked as by the looks and remarks we draw, by the value of our business), is that what comes, by accident, force, historical shifts, to occupy the "place" of the real may (or must) itself be non-existent. Like the array of non-ideas or non-truths, non-icons and non-thoughts that traverse the tele-screen of American English. "Poverty," here, is an ascesis imposed aesthetically as the allegory of the Andean. It is a commodity.

At the Residencial Sorata the Blade Runner tape (director's cut, no voice over, wide screen) was jammed twice. Once when Deckert sat before his piano, covered with photographs that preceded his own life-span—aggressive "implants" that did not take—the artificed human, for whom the mimetic testimony of a past, the mnemotechnics of identity, ran to the excess of innumerable shots back to the earliest days of the camera itself. Shots, substitute-ghosts of others' memories, what in the (other) replicants persist as implants but here run to excess (recalling, in fact, the tourist's hopeless addiction to the redundant and impotent violence of the camera). These replicants, more human than human (we hear), would be erased in the end. A second jam—bad timing—when Roy was winding down: where only the "copy" can experience "death." When the tape stops, Bolivian television intervened with a Spanish version of Dirty Harry. Caesura within a caesura. . . —the trace of Illumani through the elaborated circuitry.

| 2. Selva—or, Recollecting Genre |

| Echotourism: MAIN |