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MISCREANTS & MISCREATIVE WRITING: On Hugo García Manríquez’s Anti-Humboldt

By Divya Victor

Considering Two Vandals of History: Hugo García Manríquez (2014) and “Thompson of Sunderland” (c. 1850)

 

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The “miscreant” is someone who breaks the law or, etymologically, is a mischief-maker who, in spirit, is a “disbeliever” (mescreire ‘disbelieve’)—someone in disbelief of the creed. To “miscreate” is an act of creating wrongly or making something awry; an act of disbelieving.  From something “pure” and authoritative comes the miscreated—the deliberate vandalism of an authoritative document and the joyful creation of the oppositional document. I want to consider two anachronistically kindred writers or inscribers—Hugo and Thompson.

The Oppositional Documentation of Hugo García Manríquez (2014)

There are documents we live among and to “see them is to know ourselves” as others.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was created and signed in December 1992 and came into effect on January 1, 1994. Every year since, it has regulated and framed over $900billion in imports and exports between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. Of this $900billion, we have carried across borders steel and wire, blood and flesh: machinery, red meat, coarse grains, plastics, berries, motion pictures. Just as the trilateral agreement has framed the exchange of goods, it has framed too the transfer of persons, the uprooting of communities, the stripping of secured resources, the wrenching of protected lands, and the unilateral creation of vulnerabilities.

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The agreement exists as a nearly four hundred page document, parsed into 22 chapters. Why is there no copy of this document in each of our homes? Why can’t we find this in the night-tables of every Motel 6 and Best Western around this Great Country? Why doesn’t this land on my front porch every six months, wrapped in pink plastic, like the Yellow Pages of Disaster? The NAFTA document should be hung from chains in defunct public telephone booths so that time and the elements can tatter its pages and send them tumbling onto windshields moving through cities at 90miles an hour. It should be hung on flagpoles on May Day so that we can hoist its promises into the breathless ozone. There is essential information here—information that we can’t live without; information that we have not lived with; information that has named the objects that we have lived with: a person “means a natural person or an enterprise,” meat means “meat of swine, carcasses and half- carcasses, fresh or chilled,” flowers mean “fresh cut flowers and flower bud

There are things we live among—in our refrigerators, on our mantles, in our bellies and in our beds—and to see them is to know something about NAFTA: “The sad marvels;/Of this was told/ A tale of our wickedness.”

In 2014, twenty years after the NAFTA document took effect, Hugo García Manríquez translates, re-creates, and, as I am thinking of it, miscreates the NAFTA agreement through an entwined activity of reading as inscribing. This attempt is a bi-lingual (Spanish and English) codex artifact called Anti-Humboldt, soon to be published by two independent publishers, Litmus Press in Brooklyn, NY, and Aldus Editorial, in Mexico City. Hugo’s miscreation is a tale of our wickedness—our knot of complicity, passivity, and outrage as both the benefactors and casualties of the document’s stipulations.

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I read Hugo’s manuscript in the tradition of oppositional documentation and vandalisms that have often taken on the poetics of inscription, overwriting, and erasure that have emerged in contemporary poetics—Yedda Morrison’s Darkness (an erasure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,) Nick Thurston’s Reading The Remove of Literature (an erasure and re-inscription of Maurice Blanchot’s The Space of Literature), M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (an erasure and re-arrangement of an  insurance dispute surrounding the Zong massacre) (and Ronald Johnson,Tom Phillips, Jen Bervin, and as Lynn Xu has recently pointed out to me—Doris Cross, and, and …)

These books, like Anti-Humboldt, enact, in varying ways, what Jacob Edmond has named “emancipation via elimination” (in regards to Vanessa Place’s Boycott projects). Oppositional documents may not always need to claim the emancipation of X (the subject defined within its rhetorical manacles? the subject constructed in its neoliberal logics? the reader? the text “as if” it existed?—which?) and often cannot do so in order to justify their existence. Nor can they lay claim to their myriad emancipatory effects. However, they can exist—if not swinging from flagpoles and telephone booths and nested in Motel drawers, they can and should exist.  Oppositional documentation is the mere fact of the document done wrong.

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Hugo’s attempt to read the NAFTA agreement produces its afterimage—a series of visual reliefs in black typography against the swamp of grey—rising like tiny darkened phantoms that are the remnants of his attention. As I read the manuscript, my eyes are both pleased and strained—an effect of the broken syntax and the broken astigmatic curvature of my own pupils. My attention vacillates wildly; my eyes cannot take a side in the conflict between the black and the grey; my interest in the background competes with Hugo’s choices in the foreground; my eyes are watering; my finger is pressed to my screen. I have suddenly reverted, to my surprise, to a reading practice of my childhood, when I was 8 or 9. I am walking the line with my finger and opening and closing my mouth in silent recitation. I am tracing the reiteration of the agreement on my iPad; I am unable to lift it to point at the culprit who signed the original iteration. A finger to guide the eye to guide the mouth reciting something silently: Brown sugar—Canned sardines— Canned tuna—Canned peppers— Chicken broth— Condensed milk.

Visual muttering. Echoed retorts. The madman in the corner of the chapel repeating every word of the chaplain. Who am I listening to? Typographic stutters. This is decomposition as one explanation. Hugo is drawing my attention to something and yet refusing to tell me what that is. I sense that I have been studying something carefully for hours, and yet, what remains is the feeling of having learned something quite other to the data that is in front of me.

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I have, in effect, been in a staring contest with NAFTA for the last three hours. I am, maybe, winning—or so my body tells me.

The poetic page of Anti-Humboldt appears like a retinal imprint produced by hours of staring at the overwhelming data of such monumental documents. An afterimage is a stress symptom produced when the eye’s cone-cells adapt to the traumas of overexposure and lose their sensitivity to the real object in front of them. An afterimage is a symptom of my failure to reckon; a failure to see something for what it is. Afterimages are also products of non-retinal rupture. As Oliver Sacks has said, we see with our eyes and our minds—and thus, an afterimage can be a kind of oppositional document to the object that we’ve simply been looking at for too long; the object that has been staring at us for so long. I want to suggest here that our examination of the monumental NAFTA agreement has not been clarified or interpreted or even emancipated by Hugo. He has, however, interrupted and disarmed my reading of this document. In doing so, he has disarmed the document in my presence and I have witnessed this disarmament with my own eyes.

The Oppositional Documentation of Thompson of Sunderland (1850)

There are monuments we live among and to see them is to know ourselves. Or so would go the motto of the tourist. One such tourist is the great and mustachioed Gustave Flaubert.

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In his letter to his uncle Parain on 6 October 1850, Gustave Flaubert describes his visit to Pompey’s Pillar—a twenty-one meter tall salute to the Roman Empire’s triumph over the Alexandrine revolt erected in 297 AD puncturing the skies of Alexandria, Egypt.

A certain Thompson, from Sunderland, has written his name in letters six feet tall on the Pompey column […] There is no way of seeing the column without seeing the name of Thompson. The cretin has incorporated himself into the monument and perpetuates himself with it.

Elsewhere, our Thomson, our “cretin,” has been called an “idiot” (Charles Carver translation). The so-called idiocy of his action which infuriates Flaubert is conditioned by a most wonderful duality:  both Thompson’s utter ignorance of the “meaning” of that very monument and his intuitive understanding of its cultural importance. After all, one does not graphically deface potatoes or soap. That is, he knows only that the monument is significant, but little of the content of that significance.

(Somewhat ironically, about 40 years prior to Flaubert’s visit, the Commander of the British Empire’s HMS Pandour, one John Shortland, is rumored to have climbed the column, flown the Union Jack atop it, yelled three cheers, drunk a toast to King George III, and consumed a beefsteak on its summit.)

Anyway. Flaubert’s extreme chagrin at the “Thompson” arises not from the instance of vandalism per se, but from his own inability to understand Pompey’s pillar outside of “Thompson.” “Thompson” forces Flaubert into a zone where the encounter with magnificence is impossible, grandeur an illusion, and historical genius merely a sorta embarrassed phallic structure. His signature stupefies Flaubert and is thus the “principle of figuration” for Flaubert’s encounter. It has vandalized Pompey’s pillar into an oppositional document of itself. In effect, Thompson has conquered Pompey’s pillar. Or, as Avital Ronell has remarked, Thompson’s vandalism is a “disaffirming intervention” which has performed “that which is uncalled for.” The inscription is “the performance of a colossal blunder.” Of course, the original colossal blunder here is that of Empire and its devastation of Alexandria. Thompson’s signature, vandalism though it may be, then, is the material opposition that defines and destroys Flaubert’s expectation to encounter the monument—this document made of red Aswan granite—to the spoils of Empire.

Hugo: Making Anti-Humboldt

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I’ve been increasingly interested in the intersections of poetry and economy, literary language and neoliberalism; ultimately, the possible crosspollinations of conceptualism and politics. My recent project speaks to all this, I think.

In 2010, I set out to work through The North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, in Spanish and English. The resulting manuscript is a bilingual artifact forthcoming later this year, thanks to the joined efforts of two independent publishers, Litmus Press in Brooklyn, NY, and Aldus Editorial, in Mexico City.

In historical terms, NAFTA, which went into effect 20 years ago, on January 1, 1994, can be seen as the full embrace of neoliberalism in Mexico. In social terms, it intensified the current diasporic reality of the hemisphere.

Asymmetries inherent to neoliberalism have impacted communities on both sides of the border. In this sense, the bilingual space of Anti-Humboldt would represent the space for a reading in unison from multiple social spaces, particularly United States and Mexico, which frequently seem incommunicado. Perhaps, the interruption of the neoliberal language can turn the document into a possible space of encounter.

:   the gestation of a migratory movement within the documents.

:  the inscription of resistances in the very materiality of historical forms of the imagination.

What poetry can “accomplish,” in this project, must begin from the re-politicization of language. For me, the difference between politics (pre-established practices and discourses) and the political (the potentially present, though unarticulated) seems crucial.

Instead of writing “like a poet,” I attempted to read like one: creating hollows, pauses, where materials, objects, as well as animal and human life now repopulate the document.

In this project I am not proposing that the trade agreement makes no sense, nor much less creating an “ironic” version of the “original” text but rather, following M. NourbeSe Philip, working in the zone of production of meaning. For example, interrupting the hemispheric delirium that I read in the very expression “Harmonized System,” with its perturbing incantatory recurrence in the document:

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A system able to translate objects, animal life, and human (in)mobility, into fragments of an architecture without apparent contradictions. A process where the heterogeneous is disassembled, assembled and exchanged.

In the arc from Alexander von Humboldt’s work (1769-1859), in the early 19th  century to the NAFTA agreement in the late 20th  century, a specter emerges—the re-inscription of the living as mere “standing reserve” (Bestand, in Heidegger).

I initially planned to contrast between Humboldt with the “treason” that, to his body of works, NAFTA would represent. With time, I realized that far from being antagonistic, both can be seen as constituting two moments on the same continuum, not far from the dream of the institutions of Law and Science of stabilizing the flux of contingency into the lexica of the market.

Madness of language; madness of rationality, as in George Oppen’s prescient poem, “A Language of New York.” Words,

Which have run mad

In the subways

And of course the institutions

And the banks

Of course, the institutions and the banks.

 

An incomplete list of key readings:

Michel de CerteauThe Practice of Everyday Life

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Hugo García Manríquez is the author of chapbook Two Poems and Painting is Finite, and two books in Spanish, No oscuro todavia, and Los materiales. Recent work has appeared in Dreamboat, Dusie, Spiral Orb, Tierra Adentro, the collective chapbook Field Work, and in the collection of essays Escribir Poesía en México. The bilingual project Anti-Humboldt is forthcoming as a co-edition from Litmus and Aldus. His work as translator includes, William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, published in Mexico in 2009. In 2014, appeared Mecha de Enebros, his translation of Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination & the Construction of the Underworld by Clayton Eshleman. He has also translated essays and poems by Charles Bernstein, George Oppen and Myung Mi Kim. Hugo lives in Oakland, California, where he is a graduate student in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at UC Berkeley.

 

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Monday, April 28th, 2014 by Divya Victor.