Saturday, March 20, 2010

On The Voice

“Let’s be the voice”--shouts the man at the microphone. His voice fills the air of Cusco’s plaza on this, the third day, of Catholic school children marching around the plaza in mass, representing their schools and hence the Church, while claiming a civic right.

When he yells “¡Seamos la voz! (Spanish for “Let’s be the voice”) the school kids passing before him--right now they are elementary school students, mostly girls--scream. Again the air fills with sound, now un-amplified by the microphone.

He then says “for those who have no voice”. “A strong shout for life”.

Today’s march is opposed to abortion. Religious schools and the Church have stepped into an interesting space normally filled with political demonstration. Certainly on Thursday, before the school kids from the Salesian schools could parade, labor unions filled the plaza arguing against the privitization of water rights in the Amazon. They yelled “El Agua no se vende” (“Water should not be sold), despite the efforts of the national government, following neo-liberal plans, to make mineral and water rights for sale, even on collective lands. In neighboring Bolivia, similar efforts in favor of Bechtel’s water division, led to a massive uprising that, when combined with concerns about the country’s natural gas policy, led to the overthrow of the Bolivia’s government and the appearance of a majoritarian, anti-neo-liberal government that troubles the US.

The marchers in Cusco’s streets are well aware of Bolivia’s experience and that awareness gave force to their cries of “the people united will never be defeated.” Of course it is a struggle for who are the “people”, those who are the subjects of national ideals and the national imaginary, as opposed to those who are not, even if they govern and were born in Peru.

Now, the Church has moved into this space of defining the people and their voice. Though Catholics no longer are the exclusive Church in Peru, they still are the largest and are showing their weight in their ability to convoke people. But, unlike the movements in Bolivia, this is driven by elites--transnational elites-- who use their control over institutions, such as schools, based on their political religious commitments, such as the very conservative Opus Dei to which the Arch Bishop of Cusco belongs, to convoke people to appear in the streets and there by claim people-ness. It is this latter, the abstraction "people" taking form in bodies on the street, that is important and not the issue of how they were convoked.

In Bolivia, there was social organization, to be sure, but that did not account for the massive uprisings that overthrew the government, after first driving out Bechtel. The abstraction of "people" took a very different form, as a result, even if its ostensible meaning was the same.

The Church has thrown itself in a struggle for representation, that is to say, the right of elites to agglomerate people and give them voice, like the man at the microphone speaking for the girls, who then would scream, and for the unborn who cannot speak. The lower classes claim to be “the people” and to be the “voice” of the nation, through massive demonstrations without clear convocation and organization of power, while the elites are claiming the democratic notion that leaders are there to re-present the people, who express their “voice” primarily through voting in elections and occasionally appearing when convoked to demonstrate.

This is a fascinating struggle over representation, over semiotics and the basic function of meaning whose end is nowhere in sight.

The Arch Bishop just spoke. He said he was not speaking for religious ends per se, but for all people. He said “natural law” goes beyond religion and beyond culture, and so is “scientifically demonstrated”. Of course, at that point, his ties and his following authority that comes from beyond the nation and its culture are no longer important. Rather he speaks as a Peruvian citizen and as someone who is speaking a "universal truth" which should, therefore, be the property of all peoples.

In Bolivia part of the uprising was over culture, specifically the place of multiple cultures within a common national space. Although analysts would point out that the neo-liberal government led by Sanchez de Losada which was overthrown, was also based on culture, it claimed to be based on universal principles of “economic law” and management science. It held these to be beyond culture and, as a result, Bolivia could be multicultural as long as the cultures accepted the reduced space left once management science and economics take their just place as universals, ostensibly beyond culture.

People rejected this. They heard the gringo-accent of Goni and so perceived a cultural putsch in the technocentric efforts. The current government and constitution now places culture front and center in government.

The Church’s efforts to create a “natural law” that just happens to give power to religion and the Church’s theology is an important part of current Church politics all over the world. Pope Benedict XVI, following Pope John Paul II, makes this argument a centerpiece of his philosophy, his management, and his efforts to build a stronger place for the Church as this century progresses.

In the meantime children are marching in Cusco’s main square and dancing to popuar children’s music, besides carrying signs in favor of that wonderfully poetic abstraction “life” that, as Giorgio Agamben observes, “has never been defined as such.” Agamben continues to argue that it is precisely the undefined nature of life of it, and the voicelessness we might add, that makes it such a powerful image. It is generally defined by its contrastive relationship with death, like in the argument about abortion and natural law, as if that were in actual fact a definition.

Agamben continues “what remains so indeterminate is articulated and divided, on every occasion, through a set of gaps and oppositions that dress it with a decisive strategic function in domains that are apparently so disparate as philosophy, theology, politics, and, only later, medicine and biology. It would seem, in our culture, to be that which cannot be defined but, precisely for which, that for which it must be incessantly articulated and divided.”

In these terms, it is fascinating that life is separated from culture, especially since there is no human without culture. The idea defies logic and splits living people into abstractions that can be manipulated for ideological ends, especially the building of so-called universals that are somehow “natural” and beyond human diversity.

Nevertheless, the political efforts to fight semiotic battles over representation, whether in engineering of raw material exploitation in the Amazon, or of bringing school children into the streets to fight for an undefined and perhaps undefinable abstraction are important events of our time.

I am just fascinated, while sitting in this cafe on Cusco plaza, that the response to the order which is more than an order “¡Seamos la Voz!”--Let’s be the voice--flirts with not just giving voice to the abstract voiceless, but to creating a noun, “The Voice”, which like life must remain undefined at the same time it must be articulated and divided for all kinds of other ends.

Agamben writes that the fantasy of the natural man, prior to culture, generally has implied humans without language, since language seems the place where human diversity operates at the same time it is what we people have in common--besides simply our bodies--and which makes us homo sapiens. So there must be an empty signifier, The Voice, to represent this human quality, but which can have the characteristics of no language to function and no specific meaning beyond this fact. It is created by declaration, not by speaking and being heard. So when the man shouts, “Let’s be the voice” the answer can only be a scream devoid of the normal meaning of screams but invoked by the declaration. It’s meaning lies in its following the declaration, and not in the ordinary processes by which human sound acquires meaning and language.

I know that is very abstract, but I think it important, if we wish to make sense of these children screaming in the street in response to a man, speaking for the Church, and creating The Voice.

They are done for now. Lunch time is coming. Already I can smell garlic sautéeing in the cafe’s kitchen. A group of blond, Dutch speaking twenty-somethings just occupied a table next to mine. The sound of their vowels and consonants, with meanings that I sometimes get and sometimes don’t have now filled the space that used to belong to the demonstration.

I guess this raises the inevitable question of whether meanings are somehow outside of language and hence, potentially, universal. Again the trouble of representation and semiotics and the politics here. But, I shall leave it for now. My stomach is beginning to growl after all. I love garlic!

Reference: Giorgio Agamben, Lo Abierto, (Buenos Aires: Adriana Hidalgo Editores, 2002), p 31. Translation mine.

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