its a blog innit


This blog came to an end in December 2009, while I was still doing my PhD fieldwork and living in Chile. I shut this site down some time after that, so it hasn’t been available for some time.

Six years later, and I’ve decided to make it visible again. But I won’t be updating it any more.

Instead, come visit me on my new site: Dispatches from The Wrong Side

Thanks for dropping by! m


I am on holiday. An actual, proper, holiday.

Not a trip to see relatives that involves traveling the length and breadth of the entire country five times in three weeks. Not a day off to see the city on the day no-one I know is presenting at a conference. Not an exhausted and guilt ridden afternoon out from field work, where you finally go visit that great big tourist attraction in the center of town everyone assumes you’ve already seen 6 months ago, because you’re obviously just here on permanent vacation for a year, right?

No, I am finally on an actual proper holiday for three weeks, and have refused to do any work whatsoever. Bring on the cocktails, the enormous meals, the frivolous shopping trips and the trashy trashy novels! Hurray!!

Its also great to see my friend Carly, whose house I Paraguay I am spending these weeks lounging about it. Given that both of us are stranded in this part of the world together over the festive season, we made a plan a few months back to spend Christmas and New Year together. Its wonderful to finally have someone to talk about my work with, who knows my project well and is great at giving both insight and encouragement. Carly also has the knack when it comes to persuading me I really do need to buy myself a very expensive pair of gorgeous 6 inch high heels to show off my new bright red pedicure. I’ll be taking a splash of Paraguayan va-va-voom back to Germanic Santiago with me after all.

Carly is doing fieldwork in Ciudad del Este, on the border of Brazil and Argentina, and has a wonderfully homey apartment here that’s a lovely relief after my somewhat spartan rented room in Chile. We decided to spend the week of Christmas here and the New Year on a beach in Brazil. The original plan had been to spend the whole time on the beach, but we eventually decided it would be more fun to take advantage of her apartment to cook an enormous and extravagant christmas dinner, and of course indulge in the most glitzy, tacky, over the top christmas tree we could muster. Although I really can’t get used to the idea of a summer christmas being “really” christmas, the sheer quantity of glittery bling we have smothered this apartment in helps get us half the way there. I’m a particular fan of the neon pink “present” tree ornaments, that have holograms of kittens in santa hats on them. Carly is more enamored of the shiny plastic champagne bottles ornaments, that are testing the strength of our poor bedraggled plastic christmas tree to the limit. (It was the last one left in the discount store on christmas eve, and it looks it.) We’ll be finding glitter in our hair for months to come.

I’ve never been to Paraguay before, so its been great to get to know it through Carly, whose detailed knowledge and experience of the city is testament to her skills as an ethnographer. After the subdued urban chic of Santiago, Ciudad del Este reminds me a lot more of my experiences in Peru or Bolivia, but not so much it feels familiar. For a start, the heat and humidity are overwhelming, as are the intense colours: the thick vegetation that smothers the city in lush greens; the rich red earth that seems to be seeping out of every crack in the pavement, sticking to your clothes and skin to follow you into the house. Plus Carly has the most fantastically bright yellow VW beetle that has a habit of breaking down in odd places, adding its own rather inconvenient splash of sunshine yellow to the landscape.

Paraguay is one of the few countries in South America where the entire population are bilingual in both Spanish and the indigenous language, Guaraní. Everyone from the president to the kids on the street speak both languages, code switching back and forth between them all the time. While other countries like Bolivia have large proportions of the population who are bilingual, its always the case that Spanish is the dominant language of power and elitism. That just everyone here is bilingual is remarkable. Not to mention that most people in Cuidad del Este are also fluent in Portuguese, because of the constant movement over the border to Brazil, and many also have some Arabic and/or Chinese because of the very large populations of migrants who have become permanent and prominent parts of the city. Talking to one of Carly’s friends last night, who speaks Guaraní, Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and a little German and Italian, I felt really very ashamed of my ungainly Spanish.

There is always something quiet fascinating about border towns though, not only in the kind of linguistic and economic fluency they require of people who constantly juggle 4 different exchange rates and 7 different languages in their head. But also the very particular sense of space and movement they provoke.

Not long after I arrived we took a shopping trip to stock up on ingredients for our Christmas dinner. 40 degree heat be damned: we were cooking roast duck with prunes and red cabbage, roast potatoes and carrots, English christmas pudding with rum butter and English christmas cake with all the usual decorations. This involved heading out from our house in Paraguay mid morning, stopping off in Argentina for wines and some lunch, a visit to the super market in Brazil to get a frozen duck, almonds to make marzipan and some high-heeled Havanahs, eventually making it back home just around 5ish for tea. The whole afternoon involved two time zones, two languages, 4 currencies and nearly 3 pages worth of stamps in my passport.

Sometimes its not so easy. Saturday was a particularly hot day, so we decided to head to a shopping mall on the Brazil side of the border to hang out in the air conditioning and look for white clothes for new year. The road to the bridge that crosses the river-border between Brazil and Paraguay was chocked with traffic, and once we were trapped in there was no possible way of getting out. We sat there in the non-airconditioned bug for nearly 2 hours, in temperatures in the low 40s. It was so slow we had the engine off most of the time, lurching 2 meters forward in a tiny spurt of activity every ten minutes or so.

Once we finally got over the border and into Brazil, the poor bug collapsed at a traffic light, something ominous having happened to the clutch that caused the pedal to suddenly fall off mid-motion.

Two hot and bothered gringas in high heeled flip flops pushing a bright yellow Beetle down the road is probably not a typical Brazilian sight. But I’m happy to say its one that caused several guys on motor bikes to screech to a halt beside us and offer assistance. Sometimes a macho culture has its advantages. The only good thing is that we didn’t break down on the bridge itself, or in that impenetrable traffic jam. But then there is the complication of trying to arrange getting a mechanic from one side of a border to connect with a broken car on the other side, all without arousing the suspicion of twitchy border guards hot on the look out for car smuggling.

Hopefully the bug will be resurrected in time to take us to the Brazilian bus station tonight. We have a 16 hour bus journey booked to take us to Florianópolis in southern Brazil, where we’ll be spending the new year on a beach. I’ve never in my life had a beach holiday, and I’m not entirely sure what one is actually supposed to do. But I have a few James Bond novels and some recipes for rum cocktails, so I’m sure I’ll be able to figure something out. In fact, I think this holiday m’larky could be something I may develop a knack for.

All in all, this appears to have been a good week for paedophiles. As long, that is, as they can call themselves artists.

First we have the case of Roman Polanski who apparently should be forgiven for drugging and raping a teenage girl because he’s had a really tough life and makes really nice movies. My facebook wall has been covered with reposts of this article from, which reminds us that, yes, he might make great movies, but he’s still a rapist.

But hot on its heels we have another hang-over case from the 70s, that of the photographs of pre-pubescent Brooke Shields. In case you haven’t heard about this one yet, it goes something like this:

Back in 1975, Brooke Shields’s mother gave the aptly named photographer Garry Gross permission to take pictures of her ten year old daughter naked in a bath, in full make-up and with her tiny child’s body covered in oil. The photos were used in many different contexts since then, some more obviously straight off kiddy-porn than others, because Shield’s mother had signed away all rights to the photos in exchange for $450.

In 1981, when Shields was 16, she tried to sue Gross to get control of the images, and stop them being distributed – but was unsuccessful. (Why she also didn’t sue her own pimp of a mother I have no idea…) Gross later sold the rights to the photos to American artist Richard Prince, who re-contextualised them as ‘Art’ under the title Spiritual America.

As Art, they are now part of a new exhibit opening at the Tate this week called Pop Life. But in the latest twist, the police have just ordered the image of Brooke Shields to be removed because it counts as obscenity under laws against child pornography.

Now I know at this point its expected that we all throw our hands up in the air and start spouting something clichéd about censorship and freedom and blah blah blah. But I’m finding it very difficult to not support someone, anyone, taking a stand to say that no, these images should not be displayed.

First on the general principle that child porn is wrong. The judge in Shield’s court case who ruled that the photos are not sexualised, and just show “a prepubescent girl posing innocently in her bath”, must have been either incredibly naive or on the receiving end of a good bribe.

But secondly on the fact that a particular individual, no matter what her subsequent choice of career, has been and continues to be exploited through the these images. That Richard Prince knew her objection to their distribution, and decided that this warranted him publicising them further, demonstrates a rather revolting misogyny on his part. Yeah, it makes a good story and its really, like, edgy, y’know? But some cynical wank repeating half hearted clichés about America’s obsession with sex and fame (and I realise that with that sentence I’ve probably granting his $151,000 art work more depth than it deserves – maybe he really did just want to show a naked child) isn’t a good enough reason to hurt the victims of child porn.

The photos should not have been taken in the first place. They should not have continued to be distributed after the 16 year old was old enough to made it very clear she didn’t want them to be. That she’s no longer a child doesn’t make it any different – just as it makes no difference that Roman Polanski’s 13 year old victim has managed to survive her rape and make a life for herself, and no longer wants him to be prosecuted because it would cause her and her family further harm.

I’m disappointed that it took a bunch of Met officers walking into the Tate to point out that taking photos of naked ten year old girls is wrong, and am preparing to be drowned out by the cynical, condescending cry that “Its art!” and therefore all ok. Just us its sad that it was considered all ok to allow Roman Polanski to carry on having a successful and rich life making art after he admitted drugging and raping a 13 year old child.

But its funny how these things get taken up and turned around. Last week as Polanski was making headlines across Europe and the US, Chile was gripped by quiet another story. That of a 14 year old girl who was kidnapped while walking home from the cinema with her boyfriend, violently raped and beaten, then dumped by a canal. When her father went the next morning to try and collect a prescription for the morning-after-pill that the doctor had given him, he went from pharmacy to pharmacy across Santiago only to discover that none of them actually stocked it. As time ran out for him to get it before it was too late (abortion is illegal in Chile under all circumstances), he eventually had to take his traumatised daughter to the emergency room in the hospital.

The case has caused outrage in Chile, with all the major newspapers and the candidates for the upcoming presidential election condemning the pharmacies for not stocking the pill (which has been legally available for women aged 14 and over without their parents permission since 2006). Many have pointed out that its useless it being legal, if its not available.

In the context of other news, its refreshing to know that rape of children can still cause outrage and a compassionate debate about its consequences.

Chile has the nastiest, meanest looking riot cop vans I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Big hulking blocks of dark green metal with barred up blacked out windows, always lurking round the most innocent looking street corners on sunny afternoons.

I’m doing fieldwork on a university campus at the moment, a twenty minute bus ride from my apartment. Jumping off at the stop a short block away from the university this morning, I noticed again that there were two large riot vans parked in the drive through McDonalds nearby. I have been trying to work out what this signifies. Do the Santiago police really like Big Macs? Is there not enough parking space at the cop shop? Is McDonalds perceived to be in need of two van loads of riot cops to protect it? Or maybe its McDs itself that’s considered subversive, and we the public are being protected from its revolting pseudo food by the boys in riot gear? One of my many daily mysteries.

Sometime this afternoon, during a rather boring class I was observing, we were disturbed by the sound of crowds of voices and loud sharp cracks outside the window. The guys sulking at the back of the class jumped up to peer out the window – but the window was closed and we went back to work. Let out half an hour later, I followed the shouting and smell of burning to the other side of campus – where one of those huge hulking riot vans was squatting in the street close up to the spiky iron perimeter railings of the campus. The water cannon was aimed at a crowd of protesting students and onlookers (but not at the burning trash cans, sadly, which would perhaps have been more useful).

Things progressed, and eventually the armoured-up cops marched back to their riot vans, while the cat calls and wolf whistles of the crowd rained down on them: punctuated with a few farewell rocks and bottles.

A classic moment – the black clad figure, face masked by a red and black scarf, runs forward with arm pulled back to sling his rock at the retreating cops. The Bansky pose, if you will, iconic whether he holds a rock or a flaming bottle or a bunch of flowers.

Except in mid hurl he slipped on the wet pavement and landed on his arse, and the entire crowd of protesters and onlookers burst into giggles.

Poor guy. He did manage to jump up again and land a good thonk with his rock afterwards, bless him. I guess his pride took a bit of a battering too. But he has given me something to remember and laugh about whenever I come across those scary scary machines in the future.

Check out this video:

But then watch this one for a longer interview with Maxine Johnson, the woman dragged out. Its worth watching to the end to hear her opinions on the healthcare debate.

I’m a huge fan of the documentary maker Louis Theroux, as his work often has a very ethnographic flavour to it. While he famously choices “weird” and often highly distasteful subject matters, he shares with ethnography the attempt to empathise with his subjects, that make his films more than voyeurism. Rather than encouraging the viewer to point and judge, his seems to be trying to understand the world in the way his subject understands it – even if he doesn’t agree. And that, ultimately, is what anthropology is about.

I’ve been watching his documentaries again recently and trying to use them as ways of thinking about doing ethnography – as a kind of foil perhaps. Given that I think so highly of them as a form of (very popular) communication and education, what do they have in common with ethnography, and what are they lacking? Given that in a documentary you see what in ethnography would be both the data gathering (fieldword) and the presentation (publication of a final work) stages at once, watching them provides some food for thought on both how to relate to subjects in order to find out something about them, and how then to present what you’ve learnt to a wider audience.

(All this in in the context of the fact that I’m reading the fantastic book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” right now, which is a bit like ethnography bootcamp. Its full of insightful but sternly phrased instructions on what one must and must not do as an ethnographer, most of which I had never even thought about before. Its seriously whipping my ass.)

I’m starting with Louis’ documentary on African hunting holidays, which I think is one of his weakest films, while paradoxically one of the most interesting subjects. While there was a lot of good stuff in there, I was left with the feeling that it was too complicated a subject for him to handle. That in this case Louis’ own view point made him unable to explore the issue from a different – and ultimately more interesting – angle.

The 45 min long documentary follows Louis as he spends a weekend on various South African ranches where wild animals have been bred in order to be hunted by US tourists. We see him talk to a couple of hunters from Ohio, as well as various South Africans involved in the business. Louis is obviously highly distressed throughout the entire process. He can’t get over the fact that the animals are being killed, and when at one point he tried to bring himself to join in and shoot something himself, he backs out at the last moment.

The impression Louis seems to want to make with this documentary is that there is something really fucked up about shooting wild animals for sport, when the animal is practically domesticated and you are shooting it point blank with a very powerful gun. The problem is that this is really not that insightful a point. Most people viewing this film probably already share the same opinion, so we are not really learning much that is new. What I wanted to learn more about was why, then, do these US guys (and girls) want to do it? While Louis keeps asking them, he never gets closer to an explanation other than that it just feels amazing. At which point I read into the situation my own interpretation – that there is something about that adrenalin rush we see in their faces after they “make a kill”. That its not so much about a sense of skill (because there is barely any involved), as a sense of power.

But I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, because its never asked or explored.

Other more fundamental questions were raised though, that seem only unintentionally to have come up. And by ‘unintentionally’, I’m refering to the moment when one of the ranch owners gets really pissed off and starts telling Louis he’s asking all the wrong questions. While Louis keeps going on and on about how pretty the animals are, the owner points out that they would kill him if he got too close. Louis says isn’t it sad they have to die, and the owner replies that Louis doesn’t think its sad that cows and chickens die in far worse circumstances. Louis asks in a sad voice whether the owner likes animals, and the guy finally explodes that his country is “fucked”.

His land used to have orange trees and cattle, but that’s all gone. This is all the sells. The animals they are standing looking at were on the verge of extinction, and thanks to his work raising them for hunting they’ve been saved.

As the program ends Louis is still getting weepy about the pretty animals, but I’m left with more sympathy for the owners of the ranches who he has spent most of the program trying to run down. I might possibly be able to understand why someone would want to shoot an animal for sport. But I think I would find that person revolting. I think I can understand why someone would want to turn their failing agricultural business into a successful tourist industry, by switching from breeding domestic animals to wild ones and throwing in a hotel. And I don’t really have Louis moral repugnance to that.

Which then throws up the entirely unintended question of, why does Louis Theroux have such an issue with the whole set up? What image of the urban liberal is he projecting, that he can’t look at an animal without seeing Bambi?

So if this were an ethnography with the luxury of being able to spend one or two years doing fieldwork on this topic, rather than a 45 min documentary based on 3 days of research – I guess I’d start with the following:

    There ought to be more attention to context. What are the bigger social conditions in South Africa that have made farming so unprofitable, and tourism so attractive?
    How come he only ever talks to the owners of the ranches? Who are all those (black) guys we see working doing the driving and beating and skinning and hauling… What do they have to say?
    So those US hunters – what’s with them? So much of the kill seemed to be focused on getting a good photography. They kept using the word “trophy” without anyone asking anything about what that meant. How come its mostly men (and young men, given that the older ones all said they “grew out of it”)? Asking some deeper questions than “don’t you think its mean” might help get a little more insight.
    In this case – and this isn’t usually the case – Louis couldn’t get over his own issues enough to listen to the people he was studying. What is that saying about Louis’ own conceptualisation of animals?

I don’t think this was Louis Theroux’s best work, but it did get me interested in this topic. Next up to watch – plastic surgery!

I had the most amazing steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten last night. Here in Chile, of all places!

I’m a tad embarrassed about where I went, though. For the last month I’ve been walking past this very tacky looking “English Pub” near my house called The Phone Box Pub. Of course, it has a big red phone box on the patio, just like you can’t find in England. Plus an exciting range of revolting bitters, just like those I tried for so many years to avoid back home. Every day I roll my eyes at it, in the condescending way that people who live abroad for a long time like to.

So its quiet amazing that I ended up there last night, given my own snobbishness. Even more so given that I absolutely hate going to bars or restaurants on my own in the evening, something that’s a bit of a draw back if you spend a lot of time travelling on your own. I don’t mind eating lunch or other innocuous meals on my own in public. Though given that lunch is the main meal of the day here, I’ve been getting some very odd looks for sitting on my own reading a book or writing notes over my sandwich and coffee. I’ve become something of an amusing quirk in the little street of coffee shops I spend most of my time hanging out in. I’m usually the only person there on their own. Still, I would usually rather go hungry, or sit on my own in my hotel room with something depressingly portable like a cold sandwich and a cuppa soup, than sit alone in a restaurant at night.

But I’ve had an ongoing cold for three weeks now, and its really been wearing me down. I am not a good cook at the best of times, and living with someone else’s (very tiny) kitchen, I tend to resort to the most basic of meals. I’ve been subsisting on toast and omelets and egg sandwiches and iceberg lettuce salads and fruit, usually followed by those addictive little pots of vanilla “flan” and packets of bitter-orange chocodonut cookies.

I think some part of my brain snapped last night and craved great big chunks of meat. I was in that place and ordering the steak and kidney pie before the rest of my brain had time to work out what was going on.

And meat I got. Its taking me a while to work out how to order meals here. Like I said, lunch is the only really large meal. Breakfast is quite small, the evening meal rarely more than a light snack or a sandwich. And then there is this odd (but delightful) meal called “Once” which consists of tea, cake, and light sandwiches, eaten around 6 or 7. Yes – they have elevensis at 7. Go figure.

The few times I’ve tried to eat a larger meal in the evening – including last night – I’ve been thrown off by how the meal arrives. Namely, wysiwyg. So for example, I went out with some friends my first week here, and I ordered the prawns.

What I got was a bowl of prawns. But just a big bowl of prawns. Unadorned with bits of lettuce, or some kind of carbohydrate, or anything in fact – other than more prawns.

The next time I went out I tried to pre-empt a protein overload by ordering a side of roast potatoes with my steak. What I got that time were two large bowls – one filled with potatoes and the other with chunks of steak. Which were lovely. But a bit heavy.

For my steak and kidney pie event, I was curious if the “English” pub would produce a meal based on the English grammar of food serving – i.e., meat plus carbs plus some small veg based component on the side. Nope. I got a big bowl of meat, covered in a thin pie crust. With complimentary ketchup. And still I think it was the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever eaten!

So ok, why was it the best steak and kidney pie I’ve ever had? Well, not because of the pie-ness of it. The crust was basically an large circle of empanada dough stretched over the top of the dish. But the inside… oh my. It was amazing. None of that gloopy, commerical-gravey tasting sauce you would usually expect (and which I usually have no overpowering objection to – steak and kidney pie is one of my favourite British foods). It was insanely rich in flavour, had huge great big chunks of really amazing meat in it.

And – I began to suspect – actual kidney! I don’t think I have ever had a steak and kidney pie that actually had kidney in it before! I’m strictly a non-offal-eating kind of girl. But this thing was just amazing. I even managed to get over the texture of the chunks of kidney – the flavour was just so incredible!

So there you go. The secret to the best steak and kidney pie in the world is to use kidneys. And probably better steak than will ever be available anywhere in the world other than Argentina and Chile. Plus, one has to get over one’s “I’m-not-going-in-to-that-tourist-trap-and-anyway-I-hate-English-beer” snobbery.

Never having been a big fan of racist and misogynist humour, I’m cheered by the rumours that Top Gear may finally be axed. And about time too. Of course, this won’t change the fact that it was a very popular show. Stopping the show won’t suddenly mean that the huge numbers of people who enjoyed being thrilled by bigotry on the telly undergo a revelation, and decide to stop being wankers. No doubt they will find plenty of ways to continue shocking each other with admissions of pretty minded bullying and hatred. Because its so, like, daring to see a white guy making jokes about foreigners and women! What a rebel!!

So it goes. But it would be nice to not have it supported by the BBC.

Jodie Matthews has a brave opinion piece in the Guardian today on the move to drop the show. I say brave because, as the hundreds of comments the article has attracted show, when you point out that “humour” is racist you open yourself up to the braying crowds who try to shout you down by telling you you’re just not funny/intelligent/cool enough to ‘get it’. Pitching yourself into a battle, especially as a woman, with the kind of people who enjoy slapping their bellies and wiping away the tears of laughter while Jeremy Clarkson undermines a century of social progress: well, its not exactly going to be an intelligent debate, now, is it.

Moreover, she’s chosen to use the example of racism against Roma, Gypsies and Travellers – people its considered perfectly acceptable to be racist towards these days. They are the great big blind spot in the country’s multi-cultural dream. (I’ve talked about this before over here.) Ask your average British “liberal” friend about Travellers, and they start frothing at the mouth about dirty gypsies who, everyone knows, are all thieves and violent. All of them. Even the children. No doubt your anti-war, pro-life, organic-food, Obama supporting friend will have known someone who knows someone who once got robbed by someone they knew was a gypsy. Probably because of their beady little eyes or evil gypsy nose or something equally rational. Trying to point out the incredible double standards that permeate this kind of common-placed attitude is surprisingly hard work.

So it was refreshing to read her article. But depressing at the same time, that still – yes still, even though the US has a black president – we have to spell out in such explicit, point-by-point, arguments exactly why laughing at minorities is racist.

(And for those who want to squeal “oh its all about cars, not making bigoted jokes”, I give you: Car Talk. Less venom, more cars. Should suit you fine.)

I (very) recently came across the work of Do-Ho Suh, an artist whose sculptures filled with hundreds of tiny figures pressing up and out at the world conjure up images of pressure and conformity, but also collective space and solidarity.

Do-Ho Suh "Public Figures"

Suh’s Korean origins are a major theme in his work – in particular he returns to the effects of compulsory military service on both an individual and a nation. A giant chain mail suit of armour that seeps out into a carpet: each link under foot is a dogtag, and all there is inside the suit is a mirror. His self portrait is a line of suits, each rigidly neat. Nostalgia for something hated, the memory of having been dehumanised, the trauma of militarisation across generations.

Other works explore the existence of a foreigner, and that thorny issue of where you consider “home” to be after half a lifetime spent as an im/emigrant. But its his works that make use of the tiny figures that have really captured my imagination. There is an obvious reference to communist propaganda iconography, but he’s doing more than shoot at that particular pop-culture fish in a, like, totally ironic barrow.

The figures stand shoulder to shoulder, arms raised high, backs and legs bent under the same weight. Literally holding up the viewer in some cases; in my favourite piece holding up the plinth rather than sitting on top of it. Their faces could be expressionless – or they could be relaxed. Other sets of figures glow, gently melting into sensual pools of light. Somehow they don’t seem to imply repression so much as solidarity, warmth. Suh himself has said he sees them as expressions of the crowd, as a comment on collective and personal space.

And yet… their tiny stature, the sense that they are a collective version of Atlas doomed to stand holding the world for eternity… There is no doubt these are also images of repression, of the endlessly replaceable little people who make world go round but are oh so easily trampled under foot. But is it repression through forced solidarity (collective dehumanisation), or solidarity as a means of pushing back against (resisting) repression? I can’t decide. And I think that’s really the point.

Detail from "Public Figures"

I feel I can’t leave it without mentioning Antony Gormley, given that I already talked about both his “One and Other” plinth piece, and his “Fields” project which makes use of thousands of tiny blobby figures. But I’m actually finding the similarity between the two artists quiet irritating. I always appreciated Gormley’s work, but seeing Suh’s subtle, multi-layered and frankly far more interesting sculptures, I’m starting to find Gormley a little smug. Perhaps its wrong to put two artists next to each other like this. But if we do, say for the plinths, what do we get? Much as I like the idea of selecting people to “become” art on camera and be broadcast live around the world, I can’t help but love the concept of the people taking up the plinth above their heads and carrying it off.


original here

Tuesday, midday. My usual method of navigation – turn up vaguely in the area of town I think I remember the Natural History Museum is in, and walk around until I find it – is not working. I know its somewhere near the Plaza de Armas. Having got off at the wrong metro stop, walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction, searched every street on, off and parallel to the Plaza and still not found it, I’m hot, bothered and hungry. Time to take a moment out for lunch.

Of course this becomes a whole new realm of annoyance, as I’m now in a pissy mood and can’t decide on anything. Dithering in front of a fried pollo place, pacing past several spots that seem ‘too touristy’, unable to make up my mind if I should just buy an empenada and eat it on a bench. Hunger makes me stupid, hence me wanting to make what ought to be a refueling situation into a comfort situation – I just wanna sit down somewhere that’s not gonna present a whole language/culture problem for half an hour, to drink a coffee and get my equilibrium back.

After another ten minutes walking in circles I notice what looks like a chain patisserie off one of the side streets of the plaza. The patisserie faces onto the street, selling pastries and bread over a counter, while the building behind appears to be a separate cafe area, a little tucked back from the street but still with a glass front facing a small patio area. There’s a big reassuring photo of a giant croissant on the glass windows, and various signs advertising the usual Santiago-style croissant and coffee deals. My feet hurt, I need coffee, it looks reasonable – I head inside.

And… I stop. I walk in the door, and stop up short, though I’m not exactly sure yet why. There’s… something. Something about the place I’m not sure about… A waitress on the other side of the room looks up, and makes a gesture for me to come in. I hesitate, still not sure. But I’m hungry. And damn it, I’m annoyed at myself for faffing so long already. I sit down at the nearest table.

A few days later, I finally worked out that I had just made a rather embarrassing mistake that, if I admitted it to any Santiagoen, would be considered hilarious. But I didn’t realise that at the time. Only… suspected. In a flustered kind of way.

The place looked like any other cafe. Tiled floor, small round tables with easy to wipe surfaces, bright florescent lighting, aforementioned giant croissant pictures on the wall. But it also looked a little odd. There were only two other customers, even though it was the peak of lunch time – the main meal of the day. Two young guys in black faux-leather jackets and short spiky hair, hunched over coffees, making occasional conversation with long pauses while they stared at the large plasma tv. A bored cashier seated on a tall stool in front of her till: middle-aged, a little plump, but neat enough with her carefully set hair, brown trousers and beige cardigan. The tv itself, blasting out what seemed like an MTV medley – all the hits of the last ten years rattling past in an endless mix that only stopped to give you a verse and chorus of each club anthem before lurching on to the next video. Slightly nauseating after a while, especially as the nearest table when I sat down was the one right underneath it.

But most of all, the waitresses. Two stick thin, very young women in entirely matching outfits and make up. A uniform no doubt. But a uniform of skin tight purple lycra mini-dresses, with spindly black high heels, black patterned tights, long pink nails and electric blue eye shadow. As I sat down a little uncertainly, one of them came over, sweeping long black hair over her shoulder as she handed me a short menu.

She acted exactly like any other waitress would. Which just made me more confused about the frankly weird outfit. I asked for a coffee and sandwich. She told me they only had one sandwich left.

Only one? But – but – what about the giant croissant on the door? Sorry, she says. Only one. But she could have it heated up for me.

I order the one sandwich this cafe has at lunch time, and sit sipping my coffee, trying to work out what is going on. I seem to be the only person here confused. The cashier and the waitresses act like there is nothing at all strange about either their attire, or me being here looking at them in their attire – even though this is a cafe with no food. I start to get paranoid about whether the two guys are really looking at Britney Spears above my head, or at me. Are they laughing at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be? Because by the time I see a guy walk in off the street and deliver a shopping bag full of sandwiches to the waitress, that he’s obviously just brought from the supermarket over the road, I’m convinced that this must all be a front for something.

The waitress comes back and tells me politely that they now have more sandwiches. Perhaps I’d like to chose a different flavour? She lists the new ones just delivered – tripping back to the tiny little preparation counter on her ridiculously high heels when she forgets one. What she’s saying and how she says it is are utterly ordinary for a waitress. But she does have a tendency to lean in so close towards me that I find myself backing away from her in my chair. Towering above me in her heels with that long black hair about to fall on me as she politely asks if I’d like my chicken and avocado sandwich toasted… I’m grinning like a maniac so she won’t notice that I’m risking a broken neck trying to put another few centimetres between us.

While the sandwich is being taken out of its wrapper and put on a plate, I hunker down over my coffee and notebook, trying to look like I’m really busy and not at all confused. My waitress goes to stand by the cashier, leaning sideways against the counter with her arms over her skinny chest, gazing up at the tv. An air of controlled boredom hovers over them both.

Meanwhile, her matching colleague comes out from the back with a mop and a bottle of pungent bleach cleaner. Still mini-dress clad and stiletto heel shod, she gets down to mopping the floor. The whole floor. Working her way thoroughly round all those empty tables, she pushed on to clean under the table of the two guys who both ignore her as much as she ignores them. The bleach smell is putting me off my cheap white bread and mushy avocado sandwich, which I’m gulping down with as much speed as I can politely muster given that its pretty revolting to start with. She eventually makes her way over to me and, following the lead of the guys, I try to ignore the fact that she’s mopping up under my table while I’m still sitting here. And of course the fact that she’s doing so in what looks like more appropriate clothing for a cheap nightclub than the afternoon shift in a centre of town coffee shop.

I can admire a girl for being able to wash a floor that thoroughly. I can admire her for being able to walk in three inch heels. I can’t help but stare like an idiot at someone who is able to do both at once.

Eventually I have swallowed the last mouthful of my lunch, and the nice purple micro-skirt wearing waitress comes over with my bill. I leave a tip, she wishes me a nice day. As I hurry out, I notice that no one is noticing me, only watching me leave with the bored expressions of employees with no customers and hours to go till they can get out of their uniform and go home. The most confusing part of the whole experience is that I’m the only one who seems to think its really bizarre. Either I just walked into a strip joint posing as a coffee shop (in which case wouldn’t my obvious confusion have at least raised the slightest hint of a condescending eyebrow?), or there’s a really odd fancy dress theme going on today that the staff are totally unfazed by.

Half an hour later, when I finally stopped at an internet place to check, I worked out the Natural History Museum is on the other side of town to the Plaza de Armas. An hour later, when I got there and read the hand painted banner on the door, I found out the museum was closed because the staff were all on strike. Three days later, while looking through my guide book, I came across the following that explained the cafe.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

The most annoying day I’ve had so far in Santiago? Quite possibly.

Exchange between my 5 year old Asterix-obsessed niece and her godmother:

“So when you grow up do you want to be a teacher like me and Daddy?”

“No (appropriate level of scorn) of course not. When I grow up I want to be a Roman.”

Sunday. 2pm. Sitting in the multiplex cinema waiting for Emma. On the weekends the whole city closes down apart from a few sparse cafes and the larger shopping malls. Even those are practically deserted. Planning ahead, we arrange to spend Sunday afternoon sitting in the dark somewhere warm, eating popcorn and watching Harry Potter.

Hence here I am, in the big, bright, multicoloured and sticky foyer of the multiplex. Its the school vacation, so there are hoards of kids everywhere. And since the Harry Potter movie only just came out, there’s a small band of moody looking teenage goths in black plastic capes and pointy hats hovering together in a corner.

Bright lights. Sticky yellow and red colours. Bursts of popping, whizzing machine noise. The smell of pop corn, disinfectant, and hot dogs. Plump, bored employees in matching t-shirts and baseball hats. I’m early by ten mins, so find a safe haven on a bench festooned with M+M characters, half hidden behind one of those machines that gives you plastic tat in small round eggs. Next to me on a bench sits a middle aged guy, staring vaguely into the distance with the blank expression of a boyfriend deposited there by his girlfriend while she goes to get the tickets. We sit on opposite ends of the M+Ms bench, a little island of silence.

After a while two young female employees come over with a mop, half a cardboard box folded up, and expressions of resignation. They set themselves up a few meters in front of us, over a tiny splash of something on the floor that that looks sticky. Trying to ignore the kids that rush around them, one mops the floor while the other starts to fan the slops of water with the piece of cardboard. Mop. Fan Fan. Mop. Fan Fan. Both work in a slow, lackluster manner, but while the mopper keeps her head down, the woman with the “fan” stops every few seconds to shift her weight to the other foot, stick her hand on her hip, and cast glances around her. All the while keeping up a desultory stream of chit chat with her colleague, desperate not to draw attention to herself, desperate to make some small act of separation between herself and the utter ridiculousness of what she’s doing. But its hard to look ironic when you’re wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and baseball cap and flapping a piece of cardboard over a puddle.

The guy on the bench and I both stare at them. The moment passes. The kids carry on screaming and running around in a grease and sugar induced frenzy.

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove…

An insightful article by the British journalist Gary Younge in the Guardian today, that touches on some of the things I was rather incoherently burbling about in my post on personal responsibility a few days ago.

It is this context that makes elements of Barack Obama’s speech to the NAACP conference problematic. Having paid homage to the heroic role of the civil rights movement and recognised the inequalities bequeathed by segregation, he started on parenting. “We’ve got to say to our children, if you’re African- American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher,” he said. “If you live in a poor neighbourhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that’s not a reason to get bad grades; that’s not a reason to cut class; that’s not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school. No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands – you cannot forget that. That’s what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses. No excuses.”

The audience lapped it up. Such admonitions are commonplace at any aspirant black American dinner table, where parents tell children they will have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts to get just as far. These are the mantras with which I was raised, and may well one day repeat. But I would not like to see them elevated to national policy.

Weight and health is an issue in the US that I still, after 4 years, feel I am only slowly managing to understand. It seemed clear early on that its an issue of class and race – poor people are fat, rich people are thin. But its taken me the rest of those 4 years to try and get my head around why, like most things to do with class and race, its conceptualised and discussed as a matter of personal responsibility.

The image that comes to mind is Oprah’s publicly fought “battle” with her weight. The guilt ridden confessions where she draws herself close to her audience, admitting her own weakness and resolution to continue, amid extortions to her public to keep up the fight themselves, to not admit defeat in the face of their own urges and failings.

Similar attitudes prevail of course in the UK, but I can’t imagine something like Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food series being screened in the US, or taken seriously, with its bizarre discussions of things like education, literacy and work being involved in healthy eating.

Its your own fault if your fat, a failing of moral character, a lack of discipline. Nothing to do with the cost of food, the availability of food stores in places that people can reach without access to cars, family size and structure, the ability to cook (either in terms of knowing what to do or in having time to do it)… none of these things. Its about personal discipline. Nothing else.

(On a personal note, its been hard to avoid absorbing some of the way weight, food, health and body image are conceptualised, after several years living there. The message imparted by the fact I can never find clothes over a (UK) size 14 in the kind of shops that cater to my demographic is depressing. Spending an afternoon trailing around the shops trying to squeeze into yet another too small “XL” is not likely to do much to anyone’s ego I guess. Getting indignant about the fact that size 12 is considered “extra large” is only satisfying if I don’t actually need to buy a new coat, or sshirt or whatever. As a result, my annual trip back to the UK has become my excuse for a new wardrobe. Picture me gleefully skipping along the high street, giddy with possibilities, beaming at all the other normal, sized 12+ women around me who are blissfully unaware of how lucky they are! (Then apologising as they back away looking freaked out). Its a yearly reminder that I’m not an total heifer who ought to be kept out of sight in sackcloth and ashes.)

Health is a moral issue. To not be healthy, to not moderate one’s eating and regularly go to a gym, is perceived as a matter of moral failing, a sign of excess and laxity. The only alternative is that its a matter of genes, which then becomes a lost-Eden story of our modern perversion from a natural order laid out for us by mythical ancestors who needed fat genes to survive in a distant “primitive” past. (Which was no doubt red in tooth and claw.)

There is no society. Only personal responsibility. Personal choices.

And so this is the thing I still don’t understand, about health and about the US in general. Or rather, I see it – I get that the concept of “personal responsibility” is the whole point – but it still makes no sense. Its the same thing that makes the idea of free health care, or free higher education, or taxes, abhorrent – not just ridiculous, but a personal affront – even to the people who need it most. Its the underlying concept that makes the US tick, and I get that. But I don’t get it. I still don’t understand why anyone with half a brain, and eyes in their head to see, would believe it.

What got me thinking about it this morning, was the articles about the nomination of Regina Benjamin to be surgeon general. As reports, Benjamin’s nomination has been criticised because she is “obese”.

By all accounts Surgeon General nominee Dr. Regina Benjamin is an extraordinary woman. She is an African-American family doctor who has spent most of her professional life serving the people of Bayou La Batre, a poor rural Alabama coastal community. She makes house calls, pays for patients’ medicines, works for free when there is no money. She’s had heaps of honors poured on her head , including a MacArthur genius award. She rebuilt her clinic twice, once following Hurricane Katrina and then a year later when it was destroyed by a fire.

But she’s not skinny, and therefore “She will have very limited credibility unless she loses weight”. (the links the Salon article provides to the discussions: 1, 2, 3, 4). All the things this woman has done with her life, but its the matter of not being a size 10 that makes her a failure.

Something else comes up here. Looking through the comments, she appears not as a person who is going to do things and who therefore needs particular qualifications, skills and knowledge. But as someone who will “represent” something. Her role is as a symbol, something that people should be able to identify with.

Why, she’s perfect! Looks like an average American, particularly for southern Alabama.

As such, her weight is indeed more important than her qualifications or ability to do a medical job, because her role is to be a representation of… all Americans? African-American women? Working class girl made good? Her skills (possibly her life history as a person) are not as important as her ability to symbolise something – to stand in for a mass. Its the same thread that ran through the angst ridden democratic nominations – do we need a African American or a Woman more? It comes up again and again in the discussions about politicians and public officials. What/who do they represent? Having an affair, getting a divorce, being gay – these are failings to be the mass as the mass want’s to see itself, failings of commitment to the moral ideal, failings of personal discipline. Public figures are not required to have skills or knowledge, but to embody morality. To demonstrate writ large their personal ability to control themselves, to personally overcome their disgusting bodily desires and urges, to be a representation of everything an American should be.

(Now both the Leviathan and the Protestant Work Ethic are echoing in my head, but I can do neither justice.)

Ultimately public figures all fail, just as Oprah will always fail to be skinny, and perhaps there is comfort in that too, because normal people all fail to live this imaginary moral life as well. But if failing is such a central part of the concept, then I don’t see a way to break out of it. To realise that that the problem is not personal failure, but the concept of personal responsibility being the cause of social problems.

I just finished watching Torchwood: Children of the Earth last night. And it was sooo cool! I feel the need to burble about it a little. But watch out, because there will be spoilers below.

[If you haven’t watched it yet, its on youtube, and some of it is on the pirate bay]

Ok, sure you want to read on? Here goes…

Holy hotness! Its Capin' Jack and his cute earthling groupies!

Holy hotness! Its Capin' Jack and his cute earthling groupies!

The new Torchwood mini series was just fantastic. Ok, so there were some pretty big holes in the plot and dead end leads that were untidily left lying about (the ominous caretaker guy who seemed to have all that ominousness for nothing? Or why the 456 didn’t take the 12th child back in 1965, but left him with some combination of super powers and an imaginary friend?). But still. It was damn entertaining, and I was jumping up and down in my seat right till the very end.

Ianto’s death felt a bit pointless – after all, he wasn’t sacrificing himself to save the world as Toshiko and Owen did – instead just being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. On the one hand, we could take that as a sign that his death (and therefore his character) is really more about Jack, and the theme of him having to sacrifice everyone he loves. This is a tad annoying because it takes away from Ianto as a character himself. On the other hand, we can see it as a theme that ordinary people without super heros do die in stupid, casual ways when they try to fight aliens. Torchwood (and Dr Who) have always been about emphasising the “normalness” of their characters, and in this sense are prepared to kill them off rather than twist believability in annoying “oh well he might be a trained sniper who has killed off plenty of extras, but the main characters will always be able to jump out of the way of his bullets” kind of way. So Ianto dying so unexpectedly is a way of saying, yeah, mortal people sometimes die when they fight aliens, and it sucks.

But Torchwood’s habit of killing off its characters – after all, it killed off the much promoted Suzie Costello in the first episode! – does seem like the series has a suicide wish. Despite the complaints that its all just a vehicle for Captain Jack, the original two series were ensemble pieces. The dynamics of the team were a huge part of the appeal – with only two of the original six left, even recruiting in spares from Dr Who won’t help. And while the new girl Lois looks promising… I don’t think its going to be enough. Having taken Torchwood out of obscurity with this prime time stunt, they seem to have inadvertently fucked themselves over by assuming it wouldn’t be as popular – or as good – as it always was. Its like the Frobisher character: things look rough so a glorious suicide seems the best idea, but in retrospect, it would have been better if they had hung on a little longer.

But anyway, back to the plot itself. Its obvious Russell Davies has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about politics these days. The whole civil service v. elected politicians looking out for their own skin theme was just fantastic, and very topical right now. But I did feel that they could have made it stronger by making Frobisher’s character a little less spineless. The point of the civil service, surely, is that is is less about single individual heroics or personalities in the way that the politicians are, and more about collective departments and groups who remain despite the changing fads of party politics. That Frobisher had no-one other than his secretaries to turn to failed to explore that dynamic. But then, I assumed they were making a veiled reference to David Kelly, particularly with his suicide.

(Don’t forget that Frobisher only stood up and did something when his own kids were threatened, implying that he was more than a spineless fool, he was also just as guilty for “following orders” to harm other’s without risk to himself. What do we do with that?)

That the real monsters are our politicians, who are prepared to calmly discuss how to cull 10% of other people’s children without touching their own, was a wonderful twist that added far more suspense than any goo squirting three headed alien could have. It was that moment of thinking: yes, yes they really are going to do it, its happening. Standing back in disbelief, feeling powerless to stop or shout out that its wrong. When everyone waits for a hero to stand up to say no, or a solution to appear that never comes. The feeling that surely this can’t happen, its so obviously wrong – but it still does.

Now where have we felt that before?

In that respect, the deux ex machine ending was rather a shame. Coming so close to the very end, in the last ten minutes, it was a bit holey even with the concept of the sacrifice of one for many thrown in. Given the theme of exploring Jack’s dark side it made sense, but in a plot based on the corruption of politics, it would have been better to have let the “gift” happen. To have had the children taken, and the people of the world rise up in anger and destroy their leaders. Now that would have been amazing. That would have underlined the feeling of powerlessness – not to aliens, but to the corruption of our own society.

Sadly, Torchwood is still a BBC family friendly drama and not a call for revolution. But then, Dr Who has always suffered from Russell T. Davies’ inability to come up with satisfying endings – the most annoying episodes are always the ones written by him. He can build up a great story line (Bad Wolf. The whole Donna thing.) raising the suspense and curiosity bit by bit, drip by drip. But the finales are always stupid. I mean really – that hand thing in Journey’s End? What was that all about?!

(Having said that, I’ve been watching the last few series backwards so may have missed something essential. I saw series 4 first, then 2 and half of 1 last summer, and only got round to watching the end of series 1 and working out what had happened to Rose this christmas. Finally.)

At the end of the day though, this show has a lot going for it. Its fun, its thought provoking, its a change from the other special FX soaked, super hero, too serious for its own good sci-fi out there. And tts truly refreshing to see gay relationships portrayed so well – inserted into the plot to make a point about a relationship, not about ticking a “gay” box. In that respect, it has something in common with The Wire. Sure, John Barrowman is a tad on the hammy side. But he’s hot. And very entertaining.

Overall, I’m sad that this will probably be the end of Torchwood. But what a way to end! Now all we have to look forward to is the new pretty boy whose going to play the next Doctor. But on the plus side, at least we are rid of Russell T Davies annoying writing.

There are lots of people here in Santiago wearing face masks – especially children. I’d like to be generous and say its for the pollution, but you just know its the fear of el gripe porcino.

Chile has had a few deaths from swine flu, but the face mask thing is just ridiculous. Before I left Chicago I saw (in Wicker Park of course – where else?) a man wearing a fashion face mask, in black with a red “tribal” design on it. It totally coordinated with his outfit. And his stupidity.

I’m really excited about Antony Gormley’s new plinth project in London. It started today, and already looks like being as wacky as only the British can be.

To explain… Trafalgar Square in the centre of London has four large plinths set at its corners, three of which have some dead victorians on them. The last one was also meant to have a dead victorian, but they ran out of money and it stood empty for decades. In 1999 the Royal Society of Arts decided to commission a series of art works to be displayed on the plinth, by contemporary artists. It was such a success that it was decided to make it a permanent project. So this year, it was Antony Gormley’s turn.

Marc Quinn's sculpture "Alison Lapper Pregnant". Not a dead victorian.

Marc Quinn's sculpture "Alison Lapper Pregnant"

Gormley is a British sculpture, perhaps best known in the UK for the massive “Angel of the North”. His work plays on ideas of the human condition through the human form. Usually involving casts of his own body, simplified and left in lonely places. But he also likes to incorporate involvement in the process: the “Fields” series involves thousands of tiny terracotta figures, nothing much more than blobs with eyes, that he enrols hundreds of volunteers to create. The figures are then placed in a confined space, all facing the viewer with their thousands of little eyes looking up at you.

they're watching you...

they're watching you...

When I was an undergrad, I got a serious overdose of Gormley via Colin Renfrew, who was still teaching while I was an undergrad in archaeology. Renfrew might be famous for being an archaeologist, but he also happens to be a Lord, an ex master of Jesus College, and a wealthy patron of the arts. His house and Jesus College are covered in art works by famous and soon-to-be-famous contemporary artists and sculptures. Gormley is one of his favourites, and he and Renfrew have worked together on various projects, one of which resulted in Renfrew’s latest book “Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists”.

(On the face of it its a tad strange. Here is Britain’s one stalwart processualist, the guy who still spits venom when anyone mentions Hodder and refuses to accept that “so called post-processualism” actually exists: and in his old age he takes a turn towards super contemporary art. But there you go.)

As an undergrad it meant my European Prehistory classes involved looking at a lot of Gormley’s sculptures. We all went on a field trip to the British Museum to see Fields of the British Isles. Later that afternoon, while wandering around the European Prehistory halls, I came across a little group of Jelly Babies that someone had stood up on a table, with a little sign next to it saying “Antony Gormless”. Wonderful.

Anyway, so Gormless has the fourth plinth this year, and his idea has been to open it up to the public participation. For 100 days, a different person will stand on the plinth each hour, 24 hours a day. Those who applied have been selected at random, with the only aim of making it representative of all parts of the UK. They are allowed to do anything at all in their hour, and so far after the first day it seems that there is quiet some variety. A lot of people doing things for charities, several just standing there looking about for an hour, already a protest crasher (protesting against tobacco products being shown in films), someone advertising happy hour at his pub, and a spouting politician. Last time I checked the live updater, there was a guy sitting in the rain reading a book.

You can see it live here. I really wish I were back home to see it right now, and would love to hear a report from someone whose in London at the moment who can tell me how its going.

I wanted to write something about the coup in Honduras, but what with all the moving I haven’t had much time to concentrate on it. I work only in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, so by no means claim to be an expert – or in fact to know anything – about the situation other than what I have been quickly catching these last few days. As I walk around town I’ve noticed that the papers here in Santiago are full of reports and photos, but I haven’t had a chance to sit down and read any yet.

Still, its been nagging on my mind the last few days. I suspect it has something to do with my anxiety about being here, in Chile, having spent to much time in the last few months reading about their dictatorship. I can’t stop thinking about how recent it was. It ended in 1990, which means that people my age will remember.

Now I’m actually here, walking through the streets looking at the faces of people around me, I find myself trying to guess from their age whether they knew life before and during, looking at the buildings wondering if they bare any scars. Violence that affected everyday life, sunk itself deep into the structures of daily routines, the most intimate of spaces: it sticks. Any building could have been a site of… Might have been the backdrop to…

What struck me the most in the books and accounts I read about Chile was the fact that the coup was so unexpected. No one believed that something like that could happen in a country so “advanced” and “modern”. It was a “normal” country, with a strong democracy, not the kind of place where “those things” happen. The day of the coup, September 11th 1973, the police sent out orders to all leftist activists and politicians, to whole swathes of people, telling them to report to the police station. Many went, of their own accord, taking their papers with them and thinking nothing of it. Expected some hassle, maybe to lose their jobs, nothing more serious. But very few of them were ever seen again.

This is what is so hard to comprehend in retrospect, when we look back and try to understand. That they had so little realisation of what was happening, the concept of such violence and disorder was so impossible to imagine, that they handed themselves over without fear or comprehension.

It becomes hard to comprehend a time before, when it still seemed impossible, when we look back from this place here, knowing what we now know. Which is perhaps what makes it so hard to take the lesson we ought to take: that is can happen anywhere, at any time.

I suspect there will be many shrugs of disinterest about Honduras. Just another Latin American country doing what they always do. Indeed there are so many echos: The Independent’s editorial praising the army for rescuing the country from a dangerous potential dictator, who is, in fact, a popular elected left leaning president, could have been lifted strength from the editorials in 1973 that praised Pinochet from rescuing the country from Allende.

Some quick links:

The Latin American Review blog has up to date news and analysis.

From Zmag, an analysis that, among other things, gives some more background on Zelaya the ousted president.

On Chile, I have been reading Steve Stern’s trilogy on the memory of the dictatorship in the last few decades, “Remembering Pinochet’s Chile”. Beautifully written, and a wonderful example of oral history and memory studies. I’d recommend it as a way to learn about either Chile or about memory studies as a field.

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