Sculpting in Time With Burundian Marble

 

In keeping (slightly) with the general curvature of my previous blog post (albeit unintentionally), I’d like to posit another connection between a Russian concept/idea/work and the Burundian novel Baho! by Roland Rugero. This time out, though, the citing of Soviet history is bound up in its artistry—namely the work of one of world cinema’s greatest directors: Andrei Tarkovsky.

In Tarkovsky’s filmography, there exists a consistent meditation on time and memory. His non-fiction book detailing his philosophy as a director, Sculpting in Time, solidifies this interpretation of his oeuvre; the Soviet director articulates his vision of a cinema whose chief distinction between itself and other mediums was this titular ability to “sculpt in time.” No other medium, posited the filmmaker, could so gracefully take in the full breadth of temporal reality (laid out before the artist like a block of untouched marble) and permit the artist to chip away at the block until its contours reflected a vision of time distilled, reconfigured, and meditated upon with clear-eyed, spiritual intent.

It is in this same register the Baho! strikes its most effective “beats.” The novel slips through and traverses time with freewheeling vigor—and its thematic spine is married to this same stylistic intent. As the character Nyamuragi traverses the hostility and misunderstanding plaguing him in the opening salvos of this novel, he also travels across temporal strata; the novel veers into the past with slapdash tales of how he and his family became aware of his muteness (12), or his early encounters with violence (18-20), all before returning with equal parts finesse and apparent laxness into the present.

The cumulative effect of these time-based switchbacks is to contextualize and set out before the reader the daunting scope and scale and depth of human life—not just day to day experience but the cumulative weight of memory. Linearity—or at least humanity’s default capacity to perceive time as an inexorable march forward—can often omit the most essential elements that contribute to the vagaries of life. In Tarkovsky’s Mirror, perhaps the best example of the director’s modus operandi at work, the main character’s life is depicted in an apparently haphazard darting back and forth from childhood to adulthood, to abstractions vaguely touching upon young adulthood. Like Tarkovsky, Rugero recognizes and rejects the frailty of baseline human perception, and strikes out for something richer and grander: a life placed in the context of the sum of its parts.

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Hypernormalisation of The Tram

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Still from Adam Curtis’s documentary Hypernormalisation

I’d like to posit that there are two questions which dominate any given society as it lurches toward collapse, and that one of these questions is far more interesting and pertinent than the other:

  1. How does one recognize that they are living in a failing system?

And,

  1. Once an individual, or a mass of individuals, realizes they’re living in a failing system, how do they respond?

The latter, especially today, is of greater importance in the national conversation. In America, I believe wholeheartedly that a significant portion of the population recognizes the inherent vice of our sociopolitical and economic structures, but they carry on in spite of the overwhelming evidence that we are—excuse my language—in some deep shit.

In the mid-2000s, a post-Soviet historian/theorist, Alexei Yurchak, proffered an incredibly compelling analysis of life in the final years of the Soviet Union. Yurchak took note of the unmistakable, inescapable faults in the U.S.S.R. that were apparent to the people—a people who, at the same time, seemed to simply “go on” living without offering a more pronounced challenge to the same system. They recognized that their institutions were hollow. They recognized their leaders lied consistently about the state of things, espousing one set of principles while executing another—but the people kept on playing their part and “making due.” The people worked within the rot, and the process of accepting and adapting to the abnormal conditions which surrounded them created a feedback loop; what was abnormal and farcical in its lack of apparent common sense suddenly became normalized, a process Yurchak called “hypernormalisation.”

A General comes over the state’s communication channels and explains that there was no water for two weeks because of “patriotic reasons” (115). The populace accepts this, even though it laughs at the idea under their breath, and in spite of itself. Hypernormalisation at work.

Fiston Mwanza Mujila evokes hypernormalisation in a contemporary, fictionalized Democratic Republic of the Congo through his novel Tram 83, elucidating the fashion in which the extreme, bizarre, and unconscionable day-to-day lives in the failing “City-State” revolve around a bleak acceptance of “norms.” The book’s notable use of repetition, and the actions it indicates (i.e. the repeated “do you have the time?” delivered by one of the novel’s many prostitutes) speak to this ever-churning machine continuing unabated. The narrator laments early in the book that for the individual of the City-State “your fate is already sealed, the route marked in advance… sealed like that of the locomotives carrying spoiled merchandise and the dying” (93). At one point, Requiem is said to remark “the tragedy is already written, we merely preface it. So let us preface” (111). This attitude, lackadaisical and dismissive of hope for change, pulsates throughout the book, rearing its head in offhand caustic remarks that bitterly strike at the heart of the City-State’s problems, offering nothing in the way of solutions. A character in the throes of coaxing a prostitute to his home remarks blithely “foreplay is like democracy, as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t caress me, I’ll call the Americans” (93), acerbically alluding to imperialism even in the throes of verbal foreplay.

People in the fictionalized City-State, then, one imagines, may well continue on into the night as they do at the close of the novel, eking out an existence within an unreal world whose breaches of normalcy have become, and remain, banal.

Rage Against the Máquina

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A maquiladora in Mexico (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maquiladora)

Makina: Crafty, tough, intelligent, and on a deadly trek across the border to find her brother and bring him home.

Máquina: Spanish word meaning “machine.” Embedded in the term one finds positive and negative connotations. A machine is efficient and consistent, but also cold and inhuman.

This word association, this intentional or accidental cognate, popped into my head as Signs Preceding the End of the World reached its zenith. What emerged as the novel drew to a close, however, was an association between Makina and máquina that goes beyond the realm of characterization and basic traits.

Among the most deleterious and demonstrably denigrating features of our globalized capitalist society is the ravenous exploitation of working people in the “global south.” Through a combination of neoliberal reform instituted by groups like the IMF or The World Bank Group, and trade agreements like NAFTA, countries like Mexico are cast asunder to the economic periphery—forcing more and more people into grinding cycles of precarity and scarcity so that countries in the economic “center” can have cheap labor. The face of NAFTA in Mexico is the máquiladora, hundreds of factories sustained by the importation of tariff free goods which are then assembled by workers—laborers, it must be emphasized, who are paid starvation wages to toil in poor conditions.

Many of those that work in Mexico’s máquiladoras are young women tasked with feeding whole families while the threat of dire poverty looms.

Many of the women, and the families, who come to America do so because the máquiladora has chewed them up and spit them out, and the capitalist, imperialist power which benefits most from their exploitation south of the border offers an illusory vision of economic salvation to Mexico’s north.

Picture Makina, then, not just as a woman on a dangerous quest to find her brother, but as the embodiment of a world, a culture, and a people driven by terrible conditions into the realm of their oppressor. Makina reaches her destination by her own volition but her agency is undergirded by the invisible prodding of a wholistic system of transnational oppression—one which created her and her brother’s need to cross the border in the first place. She is both Makina, the human, and máquina, a product of the brutal world of global imperialism.

“They don’t understand it either, they live in fear of the lights going out, as if every day wasn’t already made of lightning and blackouts. They need us. They want to live forever but still can’t see that for that to work they need to change color and number. But it’s already happening.” (Herrera 104).

There exists a predatory but symbiotic relationship between the United States and Mexico, one which depends upon a shocking degree of inequality and exploitation. For the U.S. to have “cornucopias where you could have more than everyone else or something different or a newer brand or a loaf of bread a little bigger than everyone else’s,” (Herrera 56), they need to maintain a predatory relationship with the very people they seek to make disappear. Makina’s presence may be threatening in the mind of American white supremacy for reasons racial, economic, or political, but at its root the presence of Mexico’s “Makinas” here in the “land of the free” offers a disquieting reminder of the moral disaster at the heart of our economic system. They’re displacement puts up a mirror to our monstrous features.

Hegemony in Extremis

To dispute the rapidly increasing stratification of wealth around the globe is to ignore the very ground on which we stand. To imagine an upending of this global economic order is to imagine either a utopian vision or a cataclysmic reconfiguration—either a deepening of economic and political marginalization to the point of absurdity, or a judicious reconfiguration of established modes and mores.

In Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia, the author attempts to envision the former condition—a world in which the teetering inequality of today explodes into untethered, brutal, and worldwide segregation between a wealthy minority and a seething lower class. One of the novel’s characters laments the state of things: society lost its middle class, and without it one has a “society primed for explosion” (108). The explosion that came kept the wealthy secure and condemned the rest to suffering and degradation. And yet, the character’s analysis of class dynamics feels shockingly contemporary. Where the book attains its most fascinating characteristics is this liminal space between the present and the imagined future catastrophe wrought by the inception of “biroil.” How different, really, is the world of Utopia from the unflinching lived experience of millions today?

Thus far, the novel features first person narration from two characters on either side of this economic order. These two characters provide the novel with its form, as the juxtaposition of their interior lives and exterior conditions makes the division of class a pronounced structural division in the book itself. In other Science Fiction efforts, characters at the center and periphery of the story can often feel like products of their environment that are inextricable from their more fantastic, elevated, and exaggerated conditions. Yet, in Towfik’s work, they could just as easily be products of our current economic, political, and social order.

The vile observations and emotions sputtering from our first narrator—the son of Utopia’s pharmaceutical magnate—ring true as a contemporary view of life, love, and death from the top 1% of the societal ladder. The ennui, base misogyny, non-existent empathy, and mindless appreciation for violence as a political end and as an aesthetically pleasing pastime don’t just feel like capital-T truth about life steeped in exorbitant wealth, it feels like the enumerated characteristics of our president.

Gaber, on the other hand, with his clear-eyed analyses of his lot in life and his deft diagnosis of his strata’s ills, is rendered dutifully as an amalgamation of the colonized, the oppressed, and the brutalized under neocolonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism writ large. His humanity intact, but his disdain for the conditions imposed on him and his sister stoked continuously by the world around him, Gaber must decide every day what tact to take with is oppressors, a task which only became more complicated with the arrival of the Utopians. As more and more people in our globalized capitalist system find themselves in a mire with varying degrees of similarity to the one facing Gaber, choices like those Gaber faces for survival will be laid at the feet of a steadily increasing majority. 

In short, these two characters butting heads reveals Utopia’s main sociopolitical challenge: how can such powerful, all encompassing divisions in character and perception be overcome? Through revolution? Through exposure? Towfik challenges us to imagine a more direct and hypernormalized vision of the world in which we currently find ourselves, asks us which side of the fence we may be on in the near future, and finally urges us to deconstruct the framework of these structures which solidify division and exacerbate inequality.