shit politics

All traditions have made the broom a symbol of magic, and for good reason: the broom, an instrument of power over vital space. Sanitation took from us both the odor and the broom. — Jean Robert

Underneath the cosmetic sheen of the metropolis run its smelly guts: thousands of miles of pipes and tunnels channel millions of gallons of urine and feces toward discrete evacuations out in the open seas, over rivers, onto peasant farmlands. Wherever freshwater is scarce we demand treatment plants that can recycle the pestilential liquid back into potable water: a wondrous technical feat! The sewage system is the intestinal matrix of our modern body politic, and we have become the only species that literally, systematically, shits where it eats and drinks.

Slavoj Žižek has comically used the toilet as a metaphorical index of Western ideology. French, English, and German toilet designs, the story goes, betray the essential temperaments of the “European Trinity,” standing as monuments to those nations’ political, economic, and metaphysical contributions, respectively. What, then, should we make of the dry toilet? Throughout vast regions of the world the latrine persists, if unwittingly, as a symbol of evasion from infrastructural capture. Gandhi spends a considerable number of pages in his Experiments with Truth—his autobiography—exploringthematter. Heisfastidiousaboutthecolor,consistency, texture, heft, and smell of his daily stool, and is particularly forceful about the need to dispose of it oneself. In southern Mexico, in the arid central valleys of Oaxaca, a quixotic immigrant from a Zapotec village to the growing urban periphery of the city once explained to me that his family’s dry latrine was their one remaining claim of sovereignty. “Cagar,” he sentenced, “es hacer política.”

Like Renaissance queens and kings, we turn up our noses and flush our waste down porcelain thrones, never to think of it again. Parasites upon our host, we extract, consume, and banish the earth’s nutrients in this perpetual state of cultural coprophobia. Day and night we beat to the pulse of metastasized cityscapes, in a tacit choreography of civilizational bowel movements: flush, flush, flush! Disembodied, displaced, deracinated, thoroughly urban, we feel pitying distaste for the rural underdeveloped: poor souls who continue to relieve themselves into the ground like lowly beasts. Through our Millennium Summits, our Human Development Indices, and our Peace Corps, we make sure they internalize our shame for lacking this most dignifying of devices. The fact that there is not enough fresh water in our planet for seven billion thrones may betray our Promethean hubris but is entirely beside the point. It is the aura of royalty and the lure of its anticipation that truly matter. 

the inexorable logic of the machine

Cars create distance. Speedy vehicles of all kinds render space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake. This monopoly over land turns space into car fodder. It destroys the environment for feet and bicycles. Even if planes and buses could run as nonpolluting, nondepleting public services, their inhuman velocities would degrade man's innate mobility and force him to spend more time for the sake of travel.

 — Ivan Illich (Tools for Conviviality, 1973)

It was getting darker and it was hard to see anything anymore, save for the headlights of oncoming traffic, the red break lights of the vehicle ahead, and the occasional brightly lit scene of yellow tractors toiling away through the night, nonstop. They were making a highway out of this narrow mountain road. In the darkness, we were enveloped by the sounds all around us: the downhill revving of the engine, the rain pelting down on the metallic roof of our van, the muffled cries of a baby, the hacking cough of an old man, and the constant slushing of mud underneath.

This was my second trip to Tucurú, and I would stay for five months. I had boarded the microbús—or small van—as it was starting to rain. By the time the last person got in, I’d counted nineteen of us. These small vehicles are the only mode of public transportation that services the communities in the Polochic Valley down below, connecting them to the highway that leads to Guatemala City. It was uncomfortably crowded and humid and hot inside the van, but we all had to make do. Soaked in sweat and condensed steam, I was pressed up against the window. I distracted myself by doodling on it with my index finger. Which is to say, it could’ve been worse: I could’ve been stuck in the middle of the row.

We rolled and slid down the muddy mountain road until we came to the first construction site. “Tokura,” I read aloud from the side of a white, brand-new Mitsubishi pick-up truck that stood next to a light rig amidst the downpour. “Los japoneses,” a muffled voice muttered back from behind me. The Japanese firm was co-financing and building the new highway to the coast. I wondered what Tokura meant in Japanese, given that it sounded so much like Tucurú. The resource boom sweeping Latin America was attracting investors from far and wide. “Algo les dan; ni modo que gratis van a hacer la carretera,” the same man grumbled to himself, but likely for me, the caxlán—the white person—to hear. But I shared his skepticism: these investors wouldn’t co- finance an infrastructural project of this magnitude unless the Guatemalan government had made it worth their while: a mineral concession, perhaps. Copper? Nickel? Zinc, silver, gold? Or maybe another hydroelectric project was in the works. Water? This region had it all, and the new highway would connect it to Puerto Barrios, the Atlantic, and the world.

The story of the Polochic Valley is emblematic of the country’s history. In the late 1870s, the liberal government of Justo Rufino Barrios, the Great Reformer, expropriated over 70 percent of the country’s cultivated land from indigenous campesinos and distributed it among a select group of white landowners. Barrios granted the best lands along the Polochic River to German agro- industrialists, such as the great-grandfather of Michel Lasctoutx, the old patrón in Cuchil. In exchange, the settlers were to establish the coffee plantations and build the necessary infrastructure that would fuel the economic growth and modernization of the country for the next hundred years. Things like a Vagrancy Law would guarantee the provision of a reserve army of dispossessed Q’eqchi’ Indians to physically build the plantations, roads and railways.

The metallic pounding of backhoe excavators startled me. We’d come to a stop and the ground beneath our seats was shaking. We watched as yellow metallic beasts tore at the mountainsides like furious prehistoric animals. They loaded wet, dark soil and rocks onto the backs of iron mastodons, which then dumped them into the ravine, filling the edge of the precipice enough to eventually hold up an extra lane of hydraulic concrete highway. In a mountainous region so perennially wet, it seemed a herculean, if not a foolhardy task. We waited thirty minutes each time we drove up to a construction site like this one, until a worker in reflective gear would signal that it was safe to proceed. After three hours, Tucurú’s glittering lights came into view through the splattered windshield. We had finally arrived. 

worlds that matter

I propose as a materialist motto: we never get a relevant answer if our practices have not enabled us to produce a relevant question. [....]

Naming sorcery the power of what has been able to profit from any assurance our convenient simplifications entailed, means that it may well be we have something to learn from those practices we have eliminated as superstitious, the practices of those for whom sorcery and protection against sorcery, is a matter of seri- ous practical concern. I do not claim we should mimic those practices, but maybe we should accept to ‘seeing’ them, and wonder.

—Isabelle Stengers, “Wondering about Materialism”

Social science scholarship would describe them as a “local peasant movement to recover communal lands.” Yes, there was that—but there was also more. —Marisol de la Cadena, “Indigenous Cosmopolitics”

Politics is not made up of power relations; it is made up of relations among worlds.

—Jacques Rancière, Disagreement, 1999


Two white men stand before the camera making their case. They assure us that they are the victims in this lawless land. They are irritated yet composed. The younger of the two sports a khaki safari hat, a modern version of what his German forebears might have worn in their late- nineteenth-century coffee plantation. Carlos and Walter, father and son, they are members of the Widmann family: one of the wealthiest in Guatemala. They are sugarcane producers, and their plantation in the Polochic Valley will produce ethanol for biofuel destined for the North American and European markets. They live in the capital city but have travelled here today to oversee the eviction of 14 communities that they claim are illegally invading their property.

A cell phone rings. The older Widmann beckons our attention: “It’s the Minister of Interior,” he says, excusing himself as he answers the call with an informal, “¡Don Carlos!”, and not the more deferential, “Señor ministro” that one would expect. He walks away from the camera, which follows him, as do we, in the hopes of hearing what he is saying, but to no avail. In the background, we see a backhoe excavator as it razes a field of corn.

One of the campesinos being evicted had been fatally wounded the day before when a Pennsylvania-made tear gas canister shot at close range, presumably by a police officer, struck him on the head. “Hopefully everything will turn out OK,” the younger Widmann expresses in a more conciliatory voice. “Hopefully there won’t be another unfortunate incident... and there will be peace among those of us who live in this valley. After all, it wasn’t only nature that brought us here together...” he enigmatically begins to explain, as the scene suddenly cuts to his father.

“For the love of god, do your job!” the older Widmann recreates for us the telephone conversation he justhadwiththeMinister. “Oh,well,yes,ofcourse,um,yousee...” InWidmann’srendition,that’s how the Minister responded to him: awkwardly, subserviently. He is frustrated by the obvious incompetence and indecisiveness of the men who head the government. “You have the arrest warrants, now execute them!” he says he told him.


A ladino lawyer sits behind a desk in a tiny, windowless office. He wears a graying mustache and a cheap navy-blue blazer. Behind him, on metal shelving, sit stacks of case files that we assume he has litigated. Over his left shoulder, we can see a child’s drawing of a purple bird that is flying toward the peak of a volcano that juts out over a sea of blue clouds. It is a calendar that hangs from the corner of a old filing cabinet, and bears the familiar red and yellow insignia of the CUC, a prominent indigenous-campesino organization. Every time the CUC mobilizes its base of support and blocks a national highway, its leaders are accused of being criminals, destabilizers, and, more recently, “terrorists”. The business elite, the government, and the press all assert in unison that “the space for circulating is nothing but the space of circulation”.

“The Widmanns changed their minds at the last minute,” the lawyer explains. “They brought in heavy machinery and destroyed hundreds of acres of corn, breaking the negotiated agreement to allow the families to harvest their crops despite the eviction.”


A Q’eqchi’ middle-aged woman stands on the side of the road. In the background stand a dozen national police officers in antiriot uniforms. Immediately behind and around her are other, younger Q’eqchi’s; the men wear plaid shirts and baseball caps, the women wear the see-through floral huipiles, the blouses that are typical of this hot and humid region. She looks straight at her interviewer and states matter-of-factly in Q’eqchi’ what had been their petition to the authorities: that they be allowed enough time to harvest their crops after the eviction. But then the tractors were brought in.

“This is what hurts,” her voice quivers, “it makes me cry. My son worked day after day. You see, it wasn’t a day’s worth or even a week’s worth of work. It cost money and much effort to ready the soil and sow the corn. Now it’s all lost, razed to the ground. If my husband were on the streets the law would declare him a criminal. But if we stay and we struggle and we work hard on this land, is it stealing? Is it a sin? We eat and drink from this land. We’re not wealthy. I thank god that I’m here and I can witness this. But it feels as if my son were dying.” She sobs. “This is painful, what these Guatemalan brothers are doing.” And she turns to the cameraman, “Thank you for visiting us.”


The older Widmann exudes the arrogance of a powerful man, but one who is also sure that he’s right and that others are either utterly naïve or cynically mistaken. This eviction is not just a matter of law and order to him, nor is it even solely a matter of defending the right to private property. No, you see, this is fundamentally a matter of business, and therefore, of modernization and national development; it is a matter of bringing infrastructure, jobs, and progress to this godforsaken land and its inhabitants; and it is also a matter of global environmental responsibility. Because today, the Widmanns not only have economic and political power on their side, but also the legitimating moral force of science.

“Somebody said to me that there’s a food crisis here,” he scoffs before the camera. “For the love of god, don’t tell me stories! What we are doing here to eradicate poverty and combat the food crisis is to create 2000 jobs! Plus, consider the indirect impact that a 50-million dollar investment entails, and more so in a rinky-dink little valley like this one. THAT’S combating poverty! THIS, on the other hand,” and he points with a sweeping swing of his right arm toward the razed fields behind him, “THIS is condemning these poor people to misery. After all, what are they supposed to do with their stupid little corn?!”

Writes Isabelle Stengers: “And those who struggle against this operative redefinition of our worlds will have against them the authority of reason and science. [...] This is why silencing the power of wonder is not to be identified with a scientific attitude. Rather, it designates science as it has been mobilized in defense of public order.” As we slow down to the side of the road where the members of the 800 displaced families are now disposed to set up camp with nowhere else to go, a police officer moves toward us and yells as he waves his arm, “Circulate! Move along, now! There’s nothing to see here!” 

sensory attunement

My Cocaine Museum made me think about ethnography and writing as much as about matter. It is evident to me that certain sense experiences trigger remembrances, sensuous remembrances that are so clear and potent that we are usually left speechless before them. The word choice is not casual, I do not mean memories but re-membrances, as in the members of my body suddenly re- attuning or re-assembling in such a particular disposition as to revive a specific atmosphere with which I am somehow intimately acquainted. Remembrance in this sense is therefore not analogous to the way in which “speech persists in writing, so that to imagine yesterday’s sentence, still present, I must imagine yesterday’s sentence recorded somewhere so that it can be resurrected. The winged word, the bird that has passed... put on a skewer somewhere.” 

In Spanish, re-cordar from the Latin root cordis, heart, is distinct etymologically from memoria: memory, mind. Remembrance brings my body and matter into reverberate complicity. This is not about speech or thought, body or mind, the individual or the collective. It is about matter and how matter matters: about a disposition that does not take for granted “the materiality of the material world and of the workaday world” but intends to be “continuous[ly] surprise[d] as to the material facts of Being” (25).

Ineffably, an affective attunement can temporarily compose an atmosphere that is reminiscent of another: I suddenly feel as I did then, I am “there” again.  Rather than saying that this moment has “transported me”—to a distant place in a distant past—, I resolutely avoid the sheer inadequacy of such expression. No, no technology has intervened; I have not been displaced. Quite the contrary: I am very much here right now, and this place, this minute have been qualitatively altered by a composition that I have walked into or elicited, or both. A residual sediment that was inside of me has suddenly been alchemically altered and for just a moment my interior, latent state of acute awareness is no longer mere potentiality, but part of an emergent actuality. 

Something about this place and this moment has a trajectory and a force, and I don’t need to trace it back to its source: the smell of my grandmother’s hands, for instance, or the trickling sound of that creek that used to pass behind our house in Atitlán when I was little, stones and pebbles and dampness fresh and shady, green, the cackling of hens in the distance. Or the smoky scent of burning ocote and pine from Doña Chabela’s clay comal wafting through the trees as she made tortillas. Or the feel of the wet ground beneath my bare feet, cool, or the airy touch of breeze behind my ears, that sense of space, so immense, fragrant, and promising. Or Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the windows down in a “boxy-but-good” old Volvo, the sunny air more crisp as we climb the mountainous highlands. Or the dread of a recurring nightmare, of screaming in the dead, dark silence to awaken that thing that lies in wait, just for me, that terrible shadowy thing ready to pounce as soon as I scream, which I inexorably do, as I must play my part in our game. Or the delicious pleasure of listening to strangers whisper in a silent room, unconcerned by their meaning but acutely attuned to textured sounds of intimacy and air and lips and moisture and tongues and silence. It is all of these things and more.

So I ask myself: what is my cocaine museum going to look like? Will I be able to train myself and remain attentive to this dimension of experience, its materialty, in a way that bridges the autobiographical and the lives of those with whom I work? How to express in my sensory ethnography that which by virtue of its inherent ineffability is by no means less significant? Or political. Can research-creation enable a disruptive incursion into a specific distribution of the sensible? If visuality is consensus-as-foreclosure, how to deploy a “’dialectical optic’ that discerns the mystery of the everyday, no less than the everydayness of the mystery” (ibid). This is what excites me now. 

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