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Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction

Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction

by Gastón R. Gordillo

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At the foot of the Argentine Andes, bulldozers are destroying forests and homes to create soy fields in an area already strewn with rubble from previous waves of destruction and violence. Based on ethnographic research in this region where the mountains give way to the Gran Chaco lowlands, Gastón R. Gordillo shows how geographic space is inseparable from the


At the foot of the Argentine Andes, bulldozers are destroying forests and homes to create soy fields in an area already strewn with rubble from previous waves of destruction and violence. Based on ethnographic research in this region where the mountains give way to the Gran Chaco lowlands, Gastón R. Gordillo shows how geographic space is inseparable from the material, historical, and affective ruptures embodied in debris. His exploration of the significance of rubble encompasses lost cities, derelict train stations, overgrown Jesuit missions and Spanish forts, stranded steamships, mass graves, and razed forests. Examining the effects of these and other forms of debris on the people living on nearby ranches and farms, and in towns, Gordillo emphasizes that for the rural poor, the rubble left in the wake of capitalist and imperialist endeavors is not romanticized ruin but the material manifestation of the violence and dislocation that created it.

Editorial Reviews

Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon - Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing

"At the edges of the dreamscapes put forward by the state and capital, Gastón R. Gordillo shows us the haunted places where phantoms and curses join human bones and broken bricks: rubble. The Argentine Chaco becomes a magical landscape wrapped in multiple pasts and presents. Simultaneously erudite and evocative, Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction remakes the stories we tell about knowledge and history—and the legacy of violent conquest from the Spanish empire to the soy boom."
From the Publisher
"At the edges of the dreamscapes put forward by the state and capital, Gastón R. Gordillo shows us haunted places where phantoms and curses join human bones and broken bricks: rubble. The Argentine Chaco becomes a magical landscape wrapped in multiple pasts and presents. Simultaneously erudite and evocative, Rubble remakes the stories we tell about knowledge and history—and the legacy of violent conquest from the Spanish empire to the soy boom."—Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, coeditor of Words in Motion: Toward a Global Lexicon
Posthegemony blog - Jon Beasley-Murray

"[I]t is the signal merit of Gordillo’s book to remind us of the value of the loose, but productive and fertile, horizontal connections and communities that make up the network of nodes and constellations that we too easily dismiss as 'mere' rubble."
Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India - Akhil Gupta

"This stunningly original rethinking of space through negativity represents a major intervention in theories of ruination, memory, and history. Gastón R. Gordillo gives us a subaltern and democratizing theory of ruins as rubble that is grounded in rich ethnographic observation. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction is a book that is simultaneously wildly imaginative and rigorously analytical."
Journal of Latin American Geography - Diane Barthel-Bouchier

Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction is theoretically dense and richly illustrated with diagrams and photographs. The ethnographic detail is often engrossing, while the overall argument challenges heritage and regional specialists to engage in more penetrating analysis of how historic forces of destruction shape the world and add to the rubble that piles up along the way.”
Journal of Anthropological Research - Roberto E. Barr

“Rubble is remarkable because Gordillo does not shy away from complex theorizing while also providing us with rich ethnographic storytelling. The result is a book that is as engaging as it is innovative, and which should capture the interest of a diverse audience. … dealing with the social production of space, racialized and ethnicized relations in Latin and South America, human-environment relationships, and affect theory. If the purpose of a book is to change the way one sees the world, Rubble succeeds.”
Journal of International & Global Studies - Ismael Vaccaro

[A]n excellent monograph that will be of the utmost interest to scholars concerned with the study of the idea of space and history, their interactions, and their social production (and destruction), with special emphasis on a critique of the capitalistic and modernist views of history, and of space as a receptacle for disposable people and resources.”
Latin America Bureau blog - Marcela López Levy

“Both the idea of rethinking ruins and going deep into the Chaco region are original and a welcome foray into events and people that have been side-lined by official histories. ...Rubble gives us layers of history, of rubble, overlapping stories of indigenous identity and conquering violence.”
Latin America Bureau blog - Marcela L��pez Levy
“Both the idea of rethinking ruins and going deep into the Chaco region are original and a welcome foray into events and people that have been side-lined by official histories. ...Rubble gives us layers of history, of rubble, overlapping stories of indigenous identity and conquering violence.”

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The Afterlife of Destruction

By Gastón R. Gordillo

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7690-3


A Haunted Frontier

Absence can exert a positive causal influence.

—Slavoj Zizek, Organs without Bodies

The area at the foot of the Andes around Metán is currently known in the province of Salta as la frontera (the frontier). As a Jesuit missionary put it in 1746, this region was called the frontier because it was "infested by Indians toward the east" (cited in Furlong 1939, 21). In South America, the Spanish turned the mountains, high plateaus, and valleys of the Andes into state territory, yet, like the Incas prior to them, they faced clear limits in seeking to control the tropical lowlands extending east. Along the western edge of the Chaco, officials and missionaries experienced this territorial dissolution as an "infestation" created by uncontrollable swarms of Indians that voided the spatial reach of imperial power. The Argentine army may have brought this frontier to an end in the late 1800s when it submitted the interior of the Chaco to state control, but the legacy of that past voiding of space by Indians at the foot of the Andes has far from dissipated; it lingers in the present, for starters, in the resilience of the region's name.

Despite its social diversity, the region that stretches between Metán and Joaquín V. González shares a structure of feeling constituted by an often subtle yet recurring haunting. Strictly speaking, a haunting is distinct from memory, for it is not reducible to narratives articulated linguistically; it is, rather, an affect created by an absence that exerts a hard-to-articulate, nondiscursive, yet positive pressure on the body, thereby turning such absence into a physical presence that is felt and that thereby affects. Most places are haunted by absences in one way or another and with different levels of intensity, as the power of the absence of the World Trade Center in New York City reveals. The haunting that defines la frontera is that this is a region without Indians that nevertheless is not indifferent to their absence, and that has not fully broken away from this absence because of a twofold, ongoing presence: the material debris of the places that once defined the frontier and the "indigenous blood" of its population.

Robert Ginsberg (2004) argues that ruins should be examined as expressions of positivity, fullness, resilience, and life, rather than as sites of rupture, absence, loss, and negativity. Seeking to criticize the mainstream view of ruins as dead objects, he demonstrates that ruins have an active presence that shapes the configuration of the present. Yet positivity and negativity, contra what Ginsberg indicates, are not the poles of a dichotomy, but different moments in the deployment of relations of force. The positive afterlife of ruins, in this regard, is inseparable from the absences that pervade them. This is why, as Ginsberg admits in a line that articulates the productive force of negativity, "perhaps the most pervasive incongruity in the ruin is the strange absence that occurs amid presence, for what is not there may cast an uncanny reflection on what is there" (2004, 60). In southeast Salta, the strange absence that hovers around the presence of nodes of rubble in the region is that many of them—the city of Esteco, the church, the tower, the forts—were once built to combat a political force that no longer exists: los indios, the Indians of the Chaco, the reason that the region is still called the frontier. And as Slavoj Zizek put it, "absence can exert a positive causal influence" (2004, 31). This chapter introduces the main protagonists of this book, the rural poor of southeast Salta, through an examination of how this absence shapes their subjectivity and their bodily disposition to be affected by some nodes of rubble in distinct ways.

The Indians Within

Most of the people I interacted with in rural areas self-identify as criollos, a term that has a long, multifaceted history in Latin America. Initially used to refer to people of Iberian background born in the Americas, criollo subsequently acquired contrasting meanings in different parts of the continent. Whereas in Mexico it came to symbolize elite status and whiteness, elsewhere on the continent criollo signified cultural and racial mixture (mestizaje) and "someone who was local in birth and allegiance" (Stewart 2007, 8). The latter meaning prevailed in Argentina, where criollo has been used to refer to people and habits characteristic of the nation and, in particular, to subaltern rural populations of mestizo background (Chamosa 2008).

Argentina has historically stood out in Latin America for its efforts to present itself as a white, Europeanized nation. This means that even the existence of widespread mestizaje has been officially downplayed and silenced. In Salta, the fact that criollo evokes indigenous ancestry has meant that the regional elites have long tried to minimize, and therefore exorcise, the Indian ghost that haunts criollo bodies. This gesture was embodied by criollismo. Created at the turn of the twentieth century by conservative authors and officials, this was an intellectual and political movement that longed for a nation anchored in "the land" and "the traditions" best represented by the gauchos, "the most original and authentic product of our land" (Leguizamón 1935, 12). But criollismo was also a project of whitening that celebrated the gauchos of "the Salta frontier" as mestizos whose indigenous background was dismissed as "minuscule," an expression that "the invading race prevailed over the invaded race" (Dávalos 1928, 17–18; see Chamosa 2008, 102). The emphasis that their Hispanic heritage had "prevailed" also meant that criollos were presented in dualistic opposition to the Indians of the Chaco. In Salta, this conjuring away of the Indian ghost lurking within criollo bodies has long informed official ceremonies, commemorations, and school curricula.

Ordinary criollo people partly subvert this elite gesture by regularly evoking the ongoing presence of Indians within their own criollo bodies. In Las Lajitas, for instance, I asked an eighty-two-year-old criollo man, Jesús, whether there were any indigenous people living in town. "I have indigenous blood," he responded casually, implying that he counted himself as partly indigenous. His son Antonio was with us and added, "Almost all of us criollos from around here are mestizos." I encountered many such statements throughout the region, where my questions about indigenous people prompted criollos to respond that they themselves descended from Indians and that being criollo is synonymous with being "mestizo" and having "indigenous blood." Because of this racialization, middle-class people and public-sector employees who live in towns distance themselves from the category criollo, which for them also evokes rural poverty and backwardness. Yet among rural criollo residents, gestures toward indigeneity are not free from friction, for they have partly internalized official commemorations and often imagine the Indians of the past as violent, inscrutable savages. The term criollo is thereby permeated by slippage and deferral in relation to the indigenous past it evokes and also conjures away.

This oscillation shapes the way criollo people are affected by rubble associated with Indians. El Fuerte (the Fort) is a gaucho village in the Santa Bárbara mountain range, which while located in the province of Jujuy was historically settled by gauchos from Salta and provides grand views of the Chaco (see map 9.1, page 210). The hamlet is named after the nearby ruins of a fort strongly associated with the memory of Indians and of the violence that exterminated them. On my second visit in 2004, Faustino, a man in his late forties, welcomed me into his house after several neighbors indicated that he knew details of the fort's history. His wife and two friends were with us, and we began talking about the Indians who fought the Spanish over those ridges. I asked what had happened to them. Faustino replied, "They were all defeated."

"They've killed them all," added his wife.

"That's right," he said. "They have pushed them away so that all the Indians disappeared. Of them, it's us who remain here [De ellos hemos quedado nosotros acá]."

They all laughed, and I did too. Their comments included the same type of affective oscillation that I noticed elsewhere. They first conjured the Indians away, linking their absence and "disappearance" to their violent extermination, but shortly thereafter called the Indians back in to suggest their ongoingpresence within their own criollo bodies. Conversations about absent Indians, in this regard, often led criollos to declare that those Indians were not totally absent because in fact they themselves descended from them. Such mestizo positioning has a double phantom resonance because it suggests that criollos embody the ghost of the Indians, who are gone but not quite. The laughter of my interlocutors at El Fuerte, I felt, expressed their complicity with that truth, as well as their slight discomfort at being confronted with it.

The literature on mestizaje in Latin America has shown that, contrary to mainstream understandings, mestizos and Indians do not necessarily form a binary in which the two terms exclude each other. Yet François Laplantine and Alexis Nouss (2007) argue that this does not mean that mestizaje should be seen as hybridity: that is, a process in which distinct elements have dissolved to create an undifferentiated fusion. Mestizaje, rather, marks for these authors an elliptic movement of tension, vibration, and oscillation that incorporates what it negates and creates an unresolved multiplicity, what Deleuze and Guattari (1983) call "disjunctive synthesis": a crossing without fusion. The criollos' mestizaje, likewise, is not a fusion of European and indigenous traits that have lost their distinctive elements; rather, it is an oscillating bodily node that engages with Indians through a movement of repulsion and attraction (see Nelson 1999).

What is the affective nature of Indians' ghostly presence in the regional space and in criollo bodily sensibilities, several generations after the conquest of the Chaco? What is, in the first place, "an Indian"? Axel Lazzari (2010) rightly argues that the answer to this question cannot but begin with Guillermo Bonfil Batalla's classic point that indio is a structural category of an imperial situation meaning "not like us." Lazzari makes a further, crucial point: the Indian as the not-like-us is always "a phantom and fetish, the fleeting materialized counter-figure of the State of Civilization; its doubly double; radical alterity and its construction" (2010, 23). This "doubly double" reification becomes even more fleeting in southeast Salta, where los indios are phantoms in a twofold sense: first, as archetypical counter-figures that are made even more ghostly by their absence, often asserted through comments that Indians still exist but always elsewhere (an elsewhere that usually points east, toward the heart of the Chaco); and second, as phantoms because of the haunting created by the debris they left behind and by the criollos' perceptions that Indians are their savage ancestors. I initially debated using a racist term so loaded with imperial hubris as "Indians" to name what was, in the Chaco, a collective refusal to abide by state domination. But as Benjamin and Michael Taussig (1987; 1992) have argued, critically dissolving the fetish requires first revealing and appreciating its hallucinatory power. This is the hallucinatory power that I seek to retain in using the term-fetish "Indians" in this book, as the term that names the haunting, fetishized, mythical entities that affect criollos from the distance of faraway times and places, but also from within their own bodies.

Criollo mestizaje is this haunting: the perception that Indians have an ongoing presence among them. In Ghostly Matters Avery Gordon wrote, "If haunting describes how that which appears to be not there is often a seething presence, acting on and often meddling with taken-for-granted realities, the ghost is just the sign, or the empirical evidence if you like, that tells you a haunting is taking place. The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life" (2007, 8). The phantom Indian is, likewise, a social figure that is key to understanding the historical nature of subaltern subjectivities and spatial perceptions in southeast Salta, particularly in relation to rubble from the days when the region was the frontier.

The Strange Absence amid Presence

Jacques Derrida argued that the ghost is the permanent return of the absent and that this return is spatially pervasive, for the ghost is potentially everywhere and "comes from everywhere," proliferating in "a mob of specters to which one can no longer even assign a point of view: they invade all of space" (1994, 168). In southeast Salta, this haunting by the legacy of Indians does invade potentially all places. In rural areas, for instance, people often answered my questions about the Indians of the past by referring to the persistence of their material traces: objects made by Indians that occasionally surface around homes, in the forest, or around streams: arrowheads or pieces of ceramic exposed at eroded riverbanks or when digging a hole in the ground. That the terrain is potentially everywhere saturated with the debris left behind by Indians reminds criollos that their vanishing has been not complete, for it has left myriad traces of their past presence. This debris, in turn, makes apparent the extent of the Indians' absence.

This absence is even more pervasive with the rubble of the places responsible for the disappearance of Indians. The rubble of the city of Esteco, the forts, the Jesuit stations, and the mounds that mark mass graves evoke among residents the violence and labor exploitation once unleashed on Indians as well as the wealth that resulted from this violence. This entanglement between residues of violence and wealth is the topic of several chapters. It also surfaces in current evocations of the one spatial configuration that wove Esteco, the forts, and the Jesuit stations together: "the royal road" (el camino real) that once followed the course of the Salado River along the Chaco frontier. People of all ages and class backgrounds told me about this road and made a point in saying that in the 1900s the railroads as well as Route 16 were built following the contours of this ancient trail, as if the royal road persisted in dictating the spatial layout of contemporary flows of traffic. The wagons that carried riches on the royal road are assumed to have left a detritus of treasures, called tapados, buried in multiple places. The region is to this day haunted by the phantom presence of this elusive debris of the frontier.

In rural areas, talk about tapados is ubiquitous and hovers over most ruins. Many people I met for the first time, therefore, assumed that I was interested in rubble because I was a treasure hunter going after the tapados buried underneath. The idea that someone coming from afar could be interested in rubble for reasons other than finding riches struck them as bizarre. In many of my initial conversations with locals about the "old walls" or "piles of bricks" that existed in the area, I was promptly asked, "Where's your metal detector?" When I said I was not looking for treasures, some seemed perplexed, for the assumption is that one is drawn to ruins because of the past wealth of the Salta frontier. To be perceived as treasure hunters has also been the fate of the historical archaeologists who work at some sites in the region. Near the ruins of the first city of Esteco, at the village of El Vencido, many residents remain convinced that the archaeologists who visit the site every winter are there because of the presence of tapados underneath the rubble of the lost city.

The tapados are charged with the negativity that created their riches through enslavement and violence in centuries past; they are therefore haunted, and protected by jealous guardian spirits described as ghosts or devils (diablos). This is why many residents argue that it is pointless to look for tapados with metal detectors. You can only find a tapado, they say, if the guardian spirit grants you access to it, usually by marking the location with a mysterious light. But even those who find tapados this way confront a cursed wealth. The gold coins of tapados, I was told many times, emanate poisonous, deadly vapors. This has not stopped countless treasure hunters from combing nodes of rubble looking for this elusive wealth, revealing that ongoing magnetism of the debris from the days when the region was a violent frontier.


Excerpted from Rubble by Gastón R. Gordillo. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Gastón R. Gordillo is Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of Landscapes of Devils: Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco, also published by Duke University Press.

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