11 February, 2006

La Violencia

Ultraviolence, or, How to do things with saws.

Caveat lector: this post is not for the squeamish. In his famous essay on the 'Work of Art. . .', Walter Benjamin discusses the increasing interrelation between politics and aesthetics in the modern world. Mankind, he says, has become so alienated from itself that "it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order". How has violence been made aesthetic? Robin Kirk's More Terrible than Death (2003) contains some gruesome details of the killings and post-mortem mutilations perpetrated by extremist militias in Colombia during the period known as 'La Violencia', starting in the late 1940s. I anatomise his prose, thus:
During La Violencia, cuts were elaborate, inventive, even artistic. There was the Colombian necktie (corte de corbata), when the killer cut a deep groove under the jawline of the victim and pull the tongue muscle down and through it, so that it lay like a necktie on the chest.

In the flannel cut (corte de franela), the killer severed the muscles that keep the head forward, thus allowing the head to fall backward over the spine at a ninety-degree angle, like a sailor's square collar.

In the flower vase cut (corte de florero), the killer dismembered the victim and inserted the head and limbs into the trunk or the neck of the body, arranged like flowers in a vase.

The monkey cut (corte de mico) took its name from a killer who decapitated the pet monkey of the victim and left the head in the man's lap. This cut was reproduced by killers who would decapitate their victims and place the victim's head on the chest of the body.

In the French cut (corte francés), the killer would peel back the skin on the head while the victim lived, exposing the skull. Occasionally, the killers would leave bodies arranged in a mise-en-scène, sitting as if waiting for the next truck along a road, their heads like overnight bags in their laps.
And some additional material from a later English article by Kirk's original Spanish-language source, the Colombian anthropologist María Victoria Uribe:
Two other cuts drew on food preparation techniques and are especially worth noting. The first of these was called bocachiquear, a verb normally used to designate the oblique cutting of a species of fish (bocachico) for easier cooking. The second, picar para tamal, describes the action of dicing the meat that fills corn tamales.

— María Victoria Uribe, 'Dismembering and Expelling: Semantics of Political Terror in Colombia', in Public Culture 16.1 (2004) 79-95, available online here.
The liberal / conservative conflict behind the violence is of no interest to me; just the violence. Uribe sanitises her subject for the intellectual reader with some typical high-theory icons, related to Taketani's: underdog political notions like 'the Other' and 'alterities', and structuralist lit-crit concepts like the rupturing of bodily surfaces, 'allegory', 'semantics', 'mimetics'. Kirk himself utters similar banal analogies: "Bodies not only sent a message, they became a message, a language. La Violencia spawned a macabre dialect in which body parts and their arrangement were the letters, grammars and words". You see the same thing in academic discussions of Rabelaisian violence, unsurprisingly. At least Kirk realises that the point about the violence is not that it is communicative or linguistic, but that it's 'inventive, even artistic'. One is delighted, though, that this visceral (or rather evisceral) material leaps out of the ritualised setting that the scholarship provides.


Anonymous said...

Robin Kirk's a "she", genius.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Don't be stupid, no he isn't.

Anonymous said...


Game, set and match, bitch.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Heavens, some people will believe any old thing they see on the internet...