Gastón Gordillo is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, and the author of several books including Landscapes of Devils: Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco and the forthcoming Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. He also runs the wide-ranging blog Space and Politics.
Stuart Elden: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview Gastón. You’re a Professor of Anthropology, but your work blends political, historical and ethnographic work, with a strong interest in geographical questions and debates in philosophy and social theory. Could you say something about your academic background and how you came to be interested in these diverse issues?
Gastón Gordillo: Many thanks for the interview Stuart. It’s an honor to have the opportunity to talk about my work at Society and Space. Your question goes to the heart of what I’m trying to do with my research and writing, in terms of blending perspectives from different disciplines. My interest in critical theory and philosophy began when I was an anthropology undergraduate at the University of Buenos Aires in the second half of the 1980s. Argentina was then going through a “democratic spring,” right after the end of the military dictatorship, and the university was then an intellectually effervescent place, with many stimulating theoretical and political debates going on. Partly as a reaction against the asphyxiating political environment I grew up in as a teenager under the military regime, in which the public expression of left-wing ideas or concepts could get you in trouble or simply killed, as an undergrad I was quickly drawn to Marxist theory, which at the time was the dominant paradigm at the university. I had initially decided to study anthropology, like many others at that age, seduced by a romantic image of this discipline as the study of exotic cultures, influenced for instance by Carlos Castaneda’s best-selling books on shamanism. My discovery of Marxist theory and philosophy was a political awakening of sorts, and also gave me tools to better understand my earlier politicization during high-school, when many of my classmates and I were part of an underground student union at the end of the dictatorship. So while I studied anthropology as an undergraduate, my engagement with Marx, Althusser, Adorno, Horkheimer also made me think beyond anthropology. I also had excellent history professors who taught me to appreciate history, and its importance for anthropology.
When I did my PhD in anthropology at the University of Toronto in the mid and late 1990s I continued cultivating an ethnographic perspective open to other disciplines. Influenced by being in a North American context, I also began reading more widely, not only Marxian-influenced authors (like Raymond Williams, EP Thompson, Gramsci, Lukacs, or Benjamin) but also phenomenology, practice theory, human geography, and post-structuralism. I also studied Adorno in more detail. Reading Lefebvre’s The Production of Space was certainly a major turning point in my thinking, which shifted my lens heavily toward questions of geography. Lefebvre allowed me to connect the historical production of space in the region where I was doing fieldwork since the late 1980s, the Gran Chaco in northern Argentina, with issues of embodiment, subjectivity, experience, violence, capitalism, and the state. This spatial lens has certainly stayed with me since, and has profoundly influenced the way I do fieldwork and certainly my writing and blogging. In the past four years, my experience as a blogger on Space and Politics, in which I write about the spatiality of political issues drawing on philosophers like Spinoza, Deleuze, or Badiou has certainly pushed this trans-disciplinary approach even further, especially because I explicitly write for a wide audience, irrespective of disciplinary filiations. But in the last instance, I think I still write as an anthropologist and ethnographer who tries to ground theory in concrete social and spatial circumstances, for it is in those tangible situations that I see the power of theory coming to light in a more explicit and illuminating manner.
SE: That’s a fascinating story, and raises all kinds of questions I’d like to discuss with you in this interview. The point about grounded theory certainly comes in through in your writings, both on the blog and in more formal outlets. Let’s start with your previous English language book, Landscapes of Devils: Tensions of Place and Memory in the Argentinean Chaco, which came out in 2004. It received a lot of praise in reviews and won the 2005 American Ethnological Society Sharon Stephens First Book Award. You’ve said a little of how Lefebvre impacted on your thinking about the Chaco, but could you elaborate a little on how you connected his work to memories and traces in both people and landscapes? There are also a whole host of complicated relations and processes you explore in the book – the impact of capitalism, nationalism, militarism and urbanization, for example, so it would be good if you could say a little about how you explored these.
GG: Lefebvre’s writings on the production of space resonated very strongly with the ways in which the geography of the Chaco had been materially produced by the territorial expansion of capitalism and the state. For instance, when I first did fieldwork in Toba villages on the marshlands formed by the Pilcomayo River, on the border between Argentina and Paraguay, I was impressed by the extension and density of the forests that covered the region. On arriving for the fist time, it was easy to assume that those forests were part of the natural landscape of the region. But those forests didn’t exist in the early 1900s. Up until then, the area had been indigenous territory that neither the Spanish empire nor the Argentine state had been able to conquer, and the landscape was defined by wide grasslands on both sides of the Pilcomayo, which local groups managed through fires. So local people’s memories of those transformed landscapes, and of the disappearance of the grasslands and the emergence of forests, made me appreciate the material dynamism of this geography but also the ways in which this space was produced, in this case by state violence. Military conquest by the Argentine army was followed by the arrival of settlers with cattle, which rapidly depleted the grasslands and contributed (by spreading tree seeds through their feces) to the expansion of forests that in the past were restricted to the Chaco hinterland. So Lefebvre’s ideas about the production of space allowed me to read a whole set of historical and social processes through a spatial angle that brought them to light in a material, palpable way.
Lefebvre was also influential in his insistence that we can only make sense of space through the body. While he got this insight from phenomenology, I appreciated how he politicized and historicized these embodied, experiential dimensions of space. In the Chaco, people’s embodied experiences of place were inseparable from memory. First, their memory of grasslands that had disappeared, which was also the memory of the end of their ancestor’s autonomy from the state, but also the memory of sugar plantations located hundreds of kilometers to the west at the foot of the Andes, where men and women had worked for generations until the late 1960s, when production was mechanized. So I became interested in the ways these different memories informed people’s experiences of place in the Chaco, where despite land encroachment and conditions of poverty they maintained relative access to places of their own through fishing, gathering, and farming. And the body became key to read this spatiality of memory, for instance in people’s references to their sick bodies on the plantations, where they felt haunted by evil spirits or “devils,” and to forms of bodily well-being in the Chaco created through foraging in the forests and the marshes and through the consumption of “bush food.” But in the book I analyze how contradictory these embodied experiences and memories of places are, for people migrated to the plantations because of the poverty that had come to define their lives in the Chaco and of the many commodities they earned trough wage labor. So in the book I analyzed how these places were also defined through contradictory bodily experiences and imaginaries of wealth, poverty, and estrangement, which gained their significance in tension with each other.
This is also why my argument in Landscapes of Devils was also strongly influenced by Lefebvre’s insistence that places are profoundly contradictory and defined by ruptures and tensions. Also influenced by Adorno’s Negative Dialectic, I tried to show that these tensions are spatially and culturally generative through a “negative dialectic” that I felt was crucial for understanding the production of space as a fraught and unstable process, entangling in this case the forests in the Chaco, the Toba villages, the plantations, the grasslands of the past and a few other places, as spatial configurations defined by a multiplicity of contradictory meanings and memories that, far from being neatly defined or bounded, are in a permanent state of tension and entanglement.
SE: That’s very interesting, and it’s good to see Lefebvre – who was, among other things, a rural sociologist – being used to analyse spaces that have perhaps not been entirely urbanized, even though they always exist in a profound relation, and tension, with the urban. Some of these questions, and some of these places in Argentina, are also a focus of your forthcoming book Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. It would be useful if you could say something of how you moved from one book project to another. Was it that you felt things were left unsaid, or did something else spark the return to these questions within renewed energy and a different focus?
GG: The transition from one book to the next is conceptual but also geographic, in the sense that each book covers very different places of northern Argentina. By 2003, I had done research in the geographic center of the Chaco, among the Toba people, for sixteen years, had written several books about it, and felt it was time to move on and do fieldwork elsewhere. And since 2000 I had been intrigued by accounts in the Buenos Aires media about the “discovery” by archaeologists of heavily overgrown ruins of Spanish forts and towns at the foot of the Andes, on what used to be the western Chaco frontier. This area is about four hundred kilometers west of my previous fieldsite, in an area of rolling hills that is the transition zone between the Chaco lowlands and the mountains. I had never been in that area, but knew quite a bit about its history, because those places had been part of the attempts by the Spanish to conquer the Chaco. The media accounts about those ruins intrigued me because I had assumed that those places had completely disappeared. So in 2003 I explored a wide area at the foot of the Andes in order to see whether those ruins meant anything to the people living nearby. I was amazed by what I found, so I got a larger grant to do more fieldwork, and that’s how the project that led to Rubble began.
Whereas Landscapes of Devils and Rubble share an interest in the spatiality of memory and the tensions that are intrinsic to any geography, Rubble has a more clear focus on the materiality and spatiality of debris, and on the affective pull created by what I call constellations of rubble. What was illuminating of that first trip in 2003 was to discover that the overgrown ruins of Spanish towns and Jesuit missions from the 1600s and 1700s that I was initially looking for were part of dense and complicated palimpsests of debris from multiple eras, entangled with each other both in a material sense and in local people’s perceptions, practice, and experiences. And some of these ruins were very recent. The rubble created by neoliberalism in Argentina in the 1990s, for instance, was noticeable everywhere I went, especially the ruins of railroad stations and small towns that were abandoned and literally destroyed by the privatization of Argentine Railways and the termination of passenger trains. More shockingly, there was an ongoing ruination gaining momentum all over the region, produced by the expansion of agribusiness creating soy fields, which demanded evictions and the destruction of forests and homes by bulldozers and fires. This ruination was affecting the main people I was interacting with and who are the main protagonists of the book, the rural poor living in this transition zone between the Andes and the Chaco. Most of them are mestizos of mixed indigenous and Spanish background, who have been socialized in gaucho or cowboy traditions, for cattle ranching on forested land has dominated the region since the 1800s. In this region, these mestizo cowboys had replaced the “wild Indians of the Chaco” in the name of progress over a century ago only to become the new victims of progress.
What made me analyze these different nodes of rubble as forming constellations interconnected with each other were people’s accounts and practices, for it was soon clear that for them these different ruins were in dialogue with each other. Far from seeing ruins as dead objects associated with the past, locals tend to experience these constellations of rubble as part of the living and fraught geographies of the present. They engaged with them in a multiplicity of ways, from digging mounds looking for treasures left by the Jesuits, turning abandoned train stations into homes, avoiding ruins seen as haunted, or annually converging on places in ruins through religious processions that inject life onto places marked by legacies of violence and destruction. This is why I analyze rubble as matter with a distinct afterlife, for it continues affecting people in the present, long after those places were abandoned or destroyed. But this affectation has in each case different levels of intensity, in the sense that some ruins are famous in the region while others are known only among those living nearby. Spinoza became a major inspiration to analyze these affective dimensions, and in many ways Rubble articulates an affective analysis of space, also read through philosophies of multiplicity and negativity that made me look at the affective force created by rubble that evokes absences, rupture, and destruction.
I should add that the fieldwork for this project was very different from the more local, traditional ethnography I had carried out on the Pilcomayo. Rubble is a regional ethnography based on multi-sited fieldwork that I did over four years and that covered many different places, some of them hundreds of kilometers apart from each other. This made fieldwork more challenging but also more exciting and illuminating, I think, in the sense that it allowed me to explore this idea of constellations of rubble in their multiplicity, an creating what I would call, inspired by Benjamin, a constellational or multilayered depth that I’d have missed had I done fieldwork in a couple of places.
SE: In the new book you discuss the “destruction of space” and what remains, introducing the concept of “rubble”. Could you outline how you understand the process of the destruction of space, and why did you decide rubble was more useful than the more common concept of “ruins”?
GG: The two concepts, “the destruction of space” and “rubble,” came out of the ethnography. First, it was quite striking to me to notice how many times, and in very different places, people referred to ruins as places that had been “destroyed.” “They have destroyed that place,” they would say, casually, either to refer to homes razed by bulldozers or to refer to the impact of the termination of the passenger trains. So, people openly talked about “destruction” to refer to debris, and in ways that highlighted, very explicitly, the negativity congealed in the rubble. Or to put it differently, they saw rubble as evidence of destruction. So this got me thinking about “the destruction of space” as a distinct concept. Obviously, from The Communist Manifesto to the work of David Harvey there are many studies of, or references to, the destructive dynamic of capitalism, but I felt that the very idea of “the destruction of space” had been overlooked and deserved closer analysis, especially in the material sense of the term. Writing about this concept in more depth meant taking Lefebvre’s ideas about the production of space further, especially since Lefebvre was well aware that the production of space under capitalism is particularly violent and destructive. So, in Rubble I analyze the destruction of space as the negative moment of the production of space, in the sense that the production of new places usually requires destroying the spatial configurations that were there before. The creation of soy fields in northern Argentina is a case in point, for the production of these places requires the destruction of forests and homes. Thinking about the destruction of space allowed me to see the constellations of rubble I mentioned earlier as the long-term sedimentation of multiple waves of spatial production and destruction that had changed the form of the geography over several centuries. But in the book I also analyze very different forms of destruction that involved different levels of intensity and violence. Some were part of projects of domination, from the Spanish empire to the soy boom. But others were produced by indigenous and mestizo insurgencies, for the rubble of a famous lost city in this region, Esteco, and the rubble of the Spanish forts were created by regional uprisings against the Spanish empire. This is why I analyze destruction from different angles, partly inspired by Benjamin’s ideas about revolutionary destruction, a destruction that destroys machineries of destruction, a point I explore in the conclusions.
Something similar happened with the concept of “rubble.” It was local people who taught me to see ruins as rubble, and to deglamorize the very idea of “ruins.” In 2003, I arrived in the region carrying with me a whole set of subconscious assumptions and bodily dispositions toward “ruins,” a term that seems like a purely descriptive word but is in fact immersed in dense and romanticized imaginaries and affects that have become part of the common sense of the middle-classes and academics worldwide. In the book, I tell different stories of how local people literally woke me up from the spell of “the ruin,” and made me aware of how strange and class-based my own fascination with ruins was. For instance, when I first arrived in the region, I spent the first few weeks locating debris from the Spanish era. And I would drive in rural areas and ask the people I met about “ruins.” Most of them, usually gauchos working on cattle ranches, didn’t know what I was talking about. They didn’t know the word ruinas meant. They simply viewed the places I was after as “old walls” or “piles of bricks.” So I quickly learned to stop using the word “ruin” and ask about “old walls.” This is, by the way, how indigenous people in the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico call the many ruins strewn in the region: xlapak, “old walls.” And this is in fact the case all over the world among subaltern rural populations, who tend to refer to what we call “ruins” through terms that are sensitive to the tangible texture and form of their materiality. The interesting thing is that for middle-class urbanites, the expression “old walls” evokes rubble, or debris seen as worthless. But encountering this linguistic dissonance was just the beginning of my gradual estrangement from the concept of “the ruin,” which in the book I analyze as a modernist abstraction about the past and, especially at heritage sites, as the fetishized emblem of the past’s pastness, that is, as something that allegedly does not belong in the present. What was particularly illuminating during my fieldwork was the several times in which I was shocked, often viscerally, by seeing that locals treated what I saw as valuable historic ruins (for instance, a Jesuit ruin from the 1700s) simply as rubble: as abandoned matter on the ground, which they didn’t see as worth preserving and that they casually appropriated and put to use to new ends. The idea that those old walls should be left intact because they were historic was alien to them. But at the same time, people often had an affective appreciation for these places as sites charged with personal experiences and memories. But this affective connection did not depend on that place’s reification as an object to be revered, for they saw those old walls simply as rubble.
And this is how I began thinking about the ways in which the very idea of the ruin, for a certain middle-class and urban common sense, has become a fetish of sorts, an object that ought to inspire veneration for the sake of its materiality. But I also analyze how this is a selective sensibility, for not all ruins are seen as such. My argument is that the modernist fascination with ruins tends to disregard the rubble that surrounds the places labeled “ruins.” For instance, during my fieldwork the same officials and scholars who often complained about local people being indifferent to the historic value of old, overgrown Spanish ruins were themselves indifferent to the destruction of living places and the creation of rubble by agribusiness. And those local people were needless to say outraged by the creation of rubble by soy farmers and their destruction of people’s homes. These people were at the same time sensitive to the legacies of violence and destruction congealed in the piles of rubble that officials revered as “ruins.” While officials and scholars often pointed to the overgrown ruins of old Spanish towns or mission stations to celebrate the legacy of Spanish colonialism, local people told stories of slavery, massacres, and mass graves associated with those sites. A whole chapter of the book is about the debris of mass graves that exists in the region, which I analyze as organic rubble. While this human rubble is silenced in official commemorations in the region, it has a haunting presence in the spatial sensibilities of the rural poor.
My book, in short, proposes a theory of ruins as rubble that is a critique of the ideology of “the ruin.” I don’t propose to abandon the word ruin but to view ruins as rubble, regardless of their form or material configuration. For starters, the idea of rubble is harder to glamorize, for it evokes multiplicity and fragmentation. I draw on Adorno and Badiou here, in the sense that “the ruin” tends to evoke a unified and positive object: the ruin-as-one. I conceive of rubble, in contrast, as a figure of negativity and multiplicity that disrupts the fantasy of the ruin-as-one, and whose negativity is unsettling to elite sensibilities because it is the material figure of the void that haunts modernity. The people I met at the foot of the Andes taught me to see ruins as rubble because they confronted me with the void of rubble. And the resulting vertigo was illuminating.
SE: You’ve already mentioned some of the thinkers you’ve used to make sense of these complicated issues, including Lefebvre, Benjamin, Adorno, Harvey and Badiou. These fit within the broadly Marxist framework you mentioned in your answer to the first question. But you’ve also creatively engaged with the work of people like Ann Laura Stoler who has recently edited a collection entitled Imperial Debris that you have a chapter in, and Society and Space board member Anna Tsing and her work on friction. There is also an interest in work on object-oriented ontologies – people like Levi Bryant and Graham Harman, and also the vitalist and materialist work of Jane Bennett. How do these different thinkers relate to what you’re doing in this work? Did you find tensions between their approaches, especially in relation to the more Marxist trajectory you’ve outlined so far in this discussion?
GG: Yes, the work of Ann Stoler and Anna Tsing has been very influential, as was the feedback I got from both of them. My ideas about the destruction of space are in dialogue with Tsing’s concept of friction and Stoler’s theorization on ruination, for both friction and ruination point to the active forces and processes that destroy or erode places and generate rubble. I always appreciated this processual emphasis in their work, as well as their ethnographic sensibility to disruptive forms of domination. Stoler’s argument that we should shift our gaze away from “the ruin,” as an arrested object, and toward the ruination that creates it has also informed my critique of the ideology of “the ruin.” What I mentioned earlier about the elite disregard for rubble was also influenced by Stoler’s work on “imperial disregard” in her previous book, Along the Archival Grain. What I tried to add to Tsing’s and Stoler’s work on friction and ruination is an exploration of their spatial dimensions, in the sense that the destruction of space and rubble are for me important to look at space from a new angle. Ultimately, my point is that any geography, even those that seem prosperous like the soy farms often presented in Argentina as emblems of progress, is built on piles rubble, which are often disregarded and silenced. This is why I analyze rubble not for the sake of rubble but to try to rethink space though an examination of the ruptures congealed in its materiality.
And, indeed, because of my interest in the materiality of rubble I’ve been inspired by the work on new materialisms and object-oriented ontologies. While this literature is quite diverse, I agree with their general call to look at the materiality of objects from a new angle, appreciating the fact that objects are not reducible to how they’re socially constructed or apprehended. This is what in the book I analyze as the positivity of rubble, the fact that in existing as a presence on the landscape, clusters of rubble can exert positive pressures on the people living nearby, and create what Bryant calls a field of gravity. Bryant’s concept of “bright objects,” by which he means objects that exert a relatively strong gravitational pull around them, was very useful to analyze how people tend to gravitate toward certain ruins, either to look for hidden treasures, to look for bricks to be used as construction materials, or to carry out massive religious festivities. But Bryant also notes that objects can be “dim” or “dark,” that is, they can have a weak gravitational pull. And this is the case of many nodes of rubble I analyze in the book, which are known only locally or are disregarded. But because I’m an anthropologist interested in the larger social and historical constellations objects are part of, I see the power of objects to affect people as socially mediated, for different people can be affected by the same ruin in very different ways, depending on their cultural background, local memories, or whether officials say that a particular ruin is historically important.
In terms of tensions with object-oriented perspectives, yes, probably my main difference with them is, as you say, that I’ve been more influenced by a Marxist orientation that is critical of the capitalist and imperial present. That’s why I’m interested in the reification of objects and the way this silences processes of destruction and violence. Most object-oriented ontologists either reject the concept of fetishism (for instance Latour) or tend to downplay it or ignore it for allegedly being an anthropocentric concern that overemphasizes human agency (this is Bennett’s position in Vibrant Matter). My engagement with the Marxist tradition, I should probably add, has long been open-ended, in the sense that the label “Marxism” can mean so many different and contradictory things that I don’t have an attachment to the term as an identity that captures what I do or how I think. But one question at the core of the Marxist tradition that to me remains important is that of fetishism, especially for its role in reproducig relations of domination. This doesn’t mean treating objects as dead, passive matter manipulated by all-powerful humans and shrouded in a “false consciousness,” which is some of these authors’ concern. My inspirations here are Benjamin and in anthropology Michael Taussig, who looked at the reality of the hallucinatory power of fetishes, and at the fact that demystification should start by recognizing and appreciating this very real, tangible power of objects to affect human perceptions, expectations, and dispositions. In my book, for instance, I analyze several cases in which the reification of some ruins and monuments by state agents and priests affects locals at a bodily and topographic level by attracting their gaze toward the reified object of memory. So, we’re back to Bryant’s bright objects, except that this gravitational force is institutionally-induced and creates in this region what I call topographies of oblivion of state violence. But all reifications are fields of contestation, and I also show that many people disregard the elite fetishization of ruins and are sensitive to the presence of debris of violence.
In Rubble, I talk about an “object-oriented negativity” to outline my own take on object-oriented approaches, in the sense that my ethnography was oriented toward places and objects that were ruptured, destroyed, and haunted by absences and legacies of violence. So the book seeks to contribute to the recent turn toward new materialisms by adding questions of negativity, rupture, violence, and reification to these perspectives, which in focusing perhaps too closely on the positive, seemingly whole, functional objects that define the dominant geographies of the present tend to naturalize them.
SE: Your books are so clearly immersed in a detailed knowledge of particular places. But your excellent blog Space and Politics departs from these specific interests and ranges widely across contemporary political and theoretical debates. You’ve published pieces on the missing flight MH370, Nazi architecture, Occupy, events in Egypt, England and elsewhere. Have you found keeping a blog a liberation from more formal academic writing, both in terms of content and form?
GG: Yes, liberating is indeed the right word. I had been frustrated by the constraining format of academic writing and by its limited reach for quite some time. So writing on the blog, engaging with a wider audience, and writing more informally on a wide range of topics marked a clear turning point in the way I think and write. And getting feedback from people from all backgrounds and from all over the world and engaging in dialogues with other bloggers has been incredibly enriching. This is something that other academic bloggers have commented on. And the fast-paced nature of the feedback, and seeing in a few days how certain posts are received or which are the posts that attract more interest, added a different rhythm to the evolution of my own ideas. As an anthropologist used to writing about places and people I knew first-hand, I initially felt a bit uncomfortable blogging about countries I don’t really know, like Egypt during the 2011 insurrection. In anthropology, you’re trained to cultivate an ethnographic authority based on your direct knowledge of certain places. So writing about the Egyptian revolution initially felt like a breach of that code. But obviously this depends on what you want to say about other places, and I certainly don’t blog to contribute to the knowledge of places I don’t know. What attracted me to the Egyptian insurrection or Occupy was their spatial and affective dynamic, the intensity and political power of the bodily resonances produced on the streets and in those very charged places like Tahir and Zuccotti Park. So while trying to read as many sources I could about these events and to be relatively well-informed about them, as a blogger I became interested in questions that went beyond Egypt or the US. And that’s in general my attitude toward blogging about such a diversity of topics: to think about broader theoretical and political questions that go beyond local specificities.
And it’s because of this expansiveness that blogging changed and redefined my thinking and also my writing. Rubble, while still an academic book, would have been a totally different book if I hadn’t begun blogging when I was halfway through it. In fact, during the uprisings of 2011, for several months I was more drawn to the blog than the book, which in retrospect was a good thing, for I came back to the book with new eyes. I think that Rubble is a better book because of these liberating dimensions of blogging. And several of the blogs I follow influenced the ideas expressed in the book. For instance, in the book I cite posts from several great blogs, such as your own Progressive Geographies, Bryant’s Larval Subjects, Benjamin Noys’ No Useless Leniency, Léopold Lambert’s The Funambulist, and Andrew Culp’s Anarchist Without Content. These blogs are very different from each other, but they were all influential. Today, following blogs has become as important to my habits as reading academic books and articles is, for it’s on the blogosphere that you can feel the pulse of the new ideas and debates that are getting traction. Finally, I’d add that my writing has also changed in style and flow. While I still write academic articles, blogging has made me more aware of the convoluted, formalized, and jargon-dense writing style that we tend to be socialized into in academia. I’m still not free from this style, but I’m more consciously trying to contain it by seeking to articulate, for instance, theoretical ideas through concrete examples.
SE: I know you are increasingly interested in the question of terrain, and have plans to write a book on this crucial but neglected concept. Could you say something about what you intend to do in this project?
GG: Yes, I think that the question of terrain is perhaps the last frontier in our conceptions about space, in the sense that whereas we count on a very rich, sophisticated literature on place, space, landscape, or territory, there’s very little on terrain. You’re in fact one of the very few people who’s written about terrain, in particular in relation to territory. And as you know, terrain is usually used vaguely and in passing, as a purely descriptive term. We hear about terrain, for instance, in references to rugged terrains involving military operations, geological surveys, or outdoor activities, but that’s all. So my aim is to examine in detail what terrain is, as a concept but also in relation to actual terrains.
My starting point is that terrain tells us something crucial, and deeply material, about space that isn’t covered by other spatial categories. It evokes the tangible, three-dimensional, textured, volumetric nature of space, and the fact that these textures and forms profoundly constrain our mobility and fields of vision and perception. When military strategists talk about “the urban terrain” of a particular operation, for instance, they allude to a material multiplicity of forms, volumes, obstacles and pathways that become key in combat, but also in everyday life: buildings, walls, alleys, streets. These physical forms and densities channel movement, visibility, and perception and for this reason have deep political implications, as Eyal Weizman shows in the case of the Israeli architecture of occupation in the West Bank. I see terrain as inseparable from other spatial categories, in the sense that, for instance, a place is part of a particular terrain and that distinct terrains are part of national territories. As you argue in The Birth of Territory, territory is ultimately political control over terrain.
But I’m also interested in the ways in which terrain becomes refractory to human appropriations because of its multiplicity, forms, and textures: for instance, the fact that the debris of the Malaysian airlines plane hasn’t been found so far, despite over four weeks of intense searches, because it fell into a particularly rough, mobile, and isolated area of the planetary terrain: oceanic space. And the ocean poses particularly challenging questions to an understanding of terrain because it’s made up of a liquid materiality that is mobile and elusive. That’s why I’m interested in the concept of opacity in relation to terrain, because despite our sophisticated technologies of orientation and navigation the terrain that makes up the surface of the planet is still profoundly opaque, that is, not fully readable by human perception. I think that a better understanding of terrain can help us appreciate this unassailable and non-representational nature of space. A theory of terrain is, in a way, about the physical limits to the human mastering of space, despite satellites, drones, the NSA and the seemingly all-powerful systems of global surveillance. This is why my book’s working title is Opaque Planet: Outline of a Theory of Terrain.
The book won’t be based on fieldwork the way my previous books were. So it’ll be a more theoretical book, a book on geophilosophy if you like, but one still grounded in particular geographies and in comparative examples of how different terrains affect and constrain what the human body and technologies can or cannot do there. In the preliminary outline I’ve put together, the core chapters will cover different types of terrain: the ocean, mountains, forests, rivers, marshlands, and urban terrains. The chapters on forests, rivers, and marshlands will draw substantially from my previous fieldwork in the Chaco. The chapter on mountains will be partly based on my experience trekking in the Patagonian Andes in Argentina and Chile, where I confronted the verticality, texture, and physical power of mountains in a very intense way. I think that the rudiments of my ideas on terrain come from a particularly demanding ten-day trek with a good friend of mine in a mountainous and very rough wilderness area, in which the terrain imposed itself upon our bodies as something both exhilarating and at points terrifying. The chapter on urban terrain will draw from Lefebvre’s ideas about the urban form and also include personal experiences navigating the spatial texture and density of cities in North and South America and Europe. But because the political salience of terrain is most clear in situations of conflict, violence, and warfare, several of the chapters will analyze the role of terrain in combat and insurrections, for instance through examples of insurgent forces using the opaque terrain of mountains, forests, and cities to fight stronger militaries.
My argument also seeks to complicate our views of “space,” “time,” and “nature,” which often get so abstract that they get in the way of our understanding of terrain. I’ll discuss in detail the temporality of terrain by focusing on its temporal-spatial rhythms, especially that of seasons and different moments of the day as they change the consistency of space. I see Lefebvre’s work on rhythm as key, for as you know he saw in the analysis of rhythm the way to overcome the time-space dualism. Another point I want to make in the book is that I see terrain as way to look at so-called “spaces of nature” like mountain ranges or the ocean from a more materialist and geometrical angle. This is also why I’d like to discuss and problematize the whole idea of “nature” in relation to terrain.
Needless to say, this is an ambitious project on a very complex topic, which is forcing me to engage with a multiplicity of disciplines and theories, including physics, physical geography, philosophy, geo-philosophy, complexity theory, and non-representational theory, among others. I have a very intimidating list of books to read and many questions to unpack, and I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to write this book. But I think the project is doable, for we already have the conceptual tools. I want to emphasize that I’ve been inspired by a whole array of authors from different disciplines who are moving in a similar direction. As you’ve argued in recent articles, there’s a growing shift in the humanities toward examining the volumetric and material dimensions of space and toward interrogating the Earth, the roundness of our planet, as a spatial problem. So, my work on terrain is part of an interdisciplinary effort involving very talented thinkers concerned with the materiality of the Earth and its human futures. I look forward to the conversations I hope to have with many of them in the near future.
In the last instance, I’m drawn to terrain because it’s a tangible concept that captures many complex things at the same time, for terrain is the material and ever-shifting medium of the world in which we live, something that we permanently transform and that’s central to the politics of domination and emancipation. But terrain is also a spatial dimension of our planet that we’ll never fully master, for it preceded human life and will outlive us. These more transcendental dimensions in my view of terrain are in dialogue with Badiou and Deleuze, who are the greatest philosophers who have tackled the problem of becoming and multiplicity. Despite their differences, I see them as crucial to this project. I also see this book as a continuation of the affective or Spinozian perspective I began exploring in Rubble: analyzing, as precisely as possible, how different objects affect each other, in a geometrical but also political way. While terrain has transcendental dimensions that go beyond the human, it’s also immanent throughout, for it’s about the planet in which we live, peopled by billions of humans that are profoundly transforming it. For this reason, I view the question of terrain as important for appreciating the spatial and material destructiveness of capitalist globalisation, which is basically what our current anxieties about climate change and a coming planetary collapse are all about. This is how I’m transitioning from Rubble to the question of terrain. The terrain of a future without humans will be saturated with the rubble we left behind. So the question of terrain is also about the places we’re heavily disrupting in a very tangible way. This is why the creation of a more sustainable and equitable human world depends on how to confront the systematic destruction of our living planetary terrain, which is polluting rivers, tearing down mountains, and obliterating homes and forests like the ones I write about in Rubble.
SE: Thank you for this fascinating interview. We will look forward to these future projects.
GG: It was my pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and for the chance to have this stimulating conversation.
*All photos courtesy of Gastón Gordillo.