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25.05.2020

Epidermia

In the midst of the pandemic, artist Duen Sacchi invites us to reexamine our corporality as a place of negotiation and encounter of oneself and others, instrumentalizing dreams in his critical research to deconstruct hygienist fantasies inherited from the Western colonial project.

A long time ago, I had a portentous dream. I was running between the rows of a strawberry field. The dream began suddenly as if memory were taking it by storm. Something serious was happening—something disconcerting—and I, along with another figure, was running for my life. I knew it wasn’t a dream because when I turned around and looked behind me, I recognized the barn that stands at kilometer 260 on National Highway 34. The strawberries were tiny. My bent body only found shelter under the plastic used to make greenhouses. I woke up in San Miguel de Tucumán at the end of the nineties of the last century. I knew then that my dream was a premonition: it had showed me what would happen in the course of my life. The interruption in my dream would also come to pass in real life.

A couple years ago, I applied for a research grant at a European museum. The grant included access to their archive and library, a desk, and a computer with free passwords to platforms like JSTOR, though no monetary compensation. I applied because my computer had recently broken; I had asked for a loan to fix it, but it was going to take time to come together. The structure of the culture industry is such that its workers must make all of their means of production available for a salary to be paid in future installments. It is determined by a strange formula of visibility and circulation, which can be generally summed up in the phrase “being on the market.” And the museum has responded accordingly to this logic; it employs a range of different artists as temporary workers offering the promise of visibility and circulation by providing the means of production. In any case, my salary came from the same industry, but a different service: cleaning. In this way, the culture market was able to extract from one body double the (highly reducible) economic output through “low intensity” extractionism: symbolic legitimation and sanitation.

How was it that the skin that covered the limbs of the Indies came to be the symptomatic organ of an infinitude of pathologies which would come to obsess Western thinkers?

At that time, the image of the premonitory dream would come to me, persistently, in the morning. Maybe it was a particular feeling resulting from the many confinements the city was organizing at the time, a city unable to abide the presence of bodies in public space unless they were immediately contributing to some kind of productivist visibility and circulation. Maybe it was because, for the first time, I had agreed to this kind of formal confinement to produce. Or maybe, the insistent frequency of those morning visions was due to the hypnotic herds of white European tourists who gathered outside the museum on bicycle and on foot at seven in the morning. Ordered, clean, punctual, they reminded me of the alien images of Fordist propaganda documentaries. Maybe the dreams came from the order of the books in their metal cages in the archives of that European museum, unfurling in repetitive rails like giant automatons. Maybe they came from the unarticulated mixture of pain that accumulates in the physical body through the constant violation of social rights. Or maybe they came from the smells that emanated from the latex gloves, cleaning products, and sponges. Or maybe it was quite simply the viscous surface of the puddles of water mixed with piss and disinfectant through which my bike slid as I rode along the streets that stirred in me this question about the symptomatic body. Especially because the contrast between the radical materiality of our bodies—sweaty and tangible—and the prevailing description of the market as an invisible, intangible entity of dream spaces and the territory of impulses and desires, never ceased to surprise me.

In the library of that European museum I found a fascinating book—two yellowing tomes by a certain Robert Burton, who, in the seventeenth century, dedicated himself to the documentation of all the signs, symptoms, and morbid aspects of melancholy—titled The Anatomy of Melancholy. I also found a sixteenth-century engraving that depicted a plant flowering sheep, an image that demonstrated European ignorance about the plant-based fabric, a result of colonial delusions. This series of unexpected discoveries and sensations led me to wonder about the history of melancholy and how that history has impacted us in terms of the ways in which we understand feelings in relation to trauma, pain, and time.

The coloniality of the invention of Western anatomy has two axes: that of closing off and that of appropriation. The description of its materiality, structure, and forms, as well as its notions about how to heal the body, care for it, and return it to functionality have been impregnated with knowledge extracted from colonized bodies, their lands, and cosmologies. But the history of the capture, resemanticization, and appropriation of these bodies and cultures has been sealed off and the possibility of tracing a connection between this origin and the current conditions dictating the understanding and diffusion of knowledge about the Western body have been erased. And what’s worse, these modalities of thought reinforce ideas about upward mobility and hierarchy all the while harboring pretensions of universality. How does the embodiment of the colonial symptom make a body?

Before receiving this research grant, I had already researched what I will call “the limbs of the Indies” in relation to the Western clinical body. I had experimented with the construction of objects and narratives that would allow me to understand a history of dismemberments and forced suturing. I took advantage of the practice common in Western thought of associating the Indies—both West and East—with the wild, with nature, with animality, with landscape, and with the exotic in order to demonstrate the complexity of this relationship in terms of resistance to the imposed colonial-patriarchal, disciplinarian, and clinical order. Allowing these organs to grow in the earth “outside” the Western clinical body, I hoped to reveal other paths of eroticism, spirituality, and the limits of the materiality of the body itself—and of the ego—in order to investigate the vestiges of my personal and collective history—creating space for it to bear fruit.

For the premonition does not speak to us of the future, it speaks to us of that which has not found its place in the curing of pain.

It was through this line of thought that the subtle relationship between the transformations in the model, design, and color of woven fabrics in the plantation economy of the sixteenth-century Peruvian viceroyalty and The Anatomy of Melancholy came to interest me. What was the history behind the imposition of the symptom as a system of interpretation in relation to the colonial order? What fantasies, desires, and fears did the trembling skin—its color, its surfaces, its cracks, its sweat, its odors, the traces of its touch—display? How was it that the skin that covered the limbs of the Indies came to be the symptomatic organ of an infinitude of pathologies which would come to obsess Western thinkers? How was it that bodies, described in terms of their economic function, came to be the space of the symptomology that warned against the dangers of a knowledge about that which is linguistically inarticulable?

In The Anatomy of Melancholy, the English cleric Robert Burton states that melancholy is a disease without fever, accompanied by sadness and fear, and that bodies that appear to be assailed by a universal melancholy—that which “affects the whole body” and which provokes “delirium, madness, frenzy, hydrophobia, lycanthropy, St. Vitus’s dance, ecstasy [and other] syndromes of melancholy that flourish in the whole body” is a quality found in “black bodies.” This assertion in the literature on melancholy extends to “savages,” weak people, indigenous people, women, the “poor,” and the “abnormal.” My first attempt at demonstrating how the colonial rationality glossed sadness, fear, and desperation in bodies foreign to itself was to create a fictional character named M.q. This character, a migrant, who survived by sleeping on couches and in libraries, writes:

“The blue cotton war began two years ago. Social media calls it the silent war because it doesn’t produce visible symptoms, or else it will suddenly show symptoms, which become prolific in their variations. The experts talk about a war of melancholy, referring to its multiple causes which include God, discontentment, worry, narcissism, excessive happiness, education, technology, poverty and need, hatred, rage, fear, food quality, as well as loneliness and the influence of the stars, the imagination, and witchcraft. The walls of museums were painted with cartoons warning against the danger of indifference; these warnings reminded us that, as graphic expressions of a totalitarian war, institutional torture—that is, the power of the state to protect the lives of a few at the expense of the death and suffering of many—exists. These were the last days of a collective fantasy, a ménage à trois of the powers of revolutionary resistance, progressive reformers, and extracto-productivist economists. But it was ending. It wasn’t an environmental feeling, you could almost anticipate how the walls holding us up would be cast off […] Spaces of confinement were taking everything over, just as the symptoms of melancholy were starting to take over everything, especially my own body.” [1]

This was my account of my premonition. Blue cotton is an invention of the Monsanto Company, created in Missouri, an indigenous territory colonized by the Spanish, sold to the French, and bought by North American colonists, the sons of a slave-owning nation. Genetic manipulation of the color of cotton would render the dye for the ubiquitous pair of jeans. Many small farmers would kill themselves, unable to pay for the seed for the next harvest because Monsanto had created a strain that was not only patented but was also designed to die after its first use. The images of the devastation that occurred on and around cotton plantations and their continuation through the colonization of bodies and minds, the crude slaughter, the brutality of the trauma of the plantations that linger in our histories, were the subject of the symptom of my repetitive and portentous dream. For the premonition does not speak to us of the future, it speaks to us of that which has not found its place in the curing of pain.

To be honest, it has been very difficult for me to write this in these times. Perhaps, because standing at the edge of our own precipice, it is still difficult to remain calm and look to the future. Perhaps because we are still covering outdoor constructions with plastic in order to shield ourselves from the cold. The narrative thread appears only in the dream state, in disparate situations, surrounded by the power of the quotidian to sustain life. Years ago, when I was very young, I lived in a small community of la Puna, at the edge of the Andes. I was suffering from a fever and pain; herbal teas, barba de choclo, and breaking stones and earth on my stomach did nothing to cure my discomfort. I woke up early and went down to the hospital that was connected to other institutions like the church and the post office on the “colonial” side of town. The town was known for its intact and well-preserved colonial architecture. I lived on the other side of town, across the river, in a room in my teacher’s house. My window gave onto the little garden patch, where we grew beans and potatoes.

It was very cold in the waiting room at the hospital, the buzz of the heaters connected to gas tanks produced a general somnolence. The wait was long. I asked for a pen and some paper from the administrators at the desk and I started to write. I felt comforted and protected. The doctor would tell me later that I would have to redo the test because it was dirty—I had made it dirty: “Clean yourself, you made it dirty.” I felt bad and so at that moment, I conceded that he was right, after all I had peed in a little jar, holding myself up between the bathroom’s two adobe walls and aided only the dim light of dawn. With time I would come to realize that he meant a different kind of dirtiness, one that only he could see. But, made to repeat the test two times more, made to spend almost a week in the waiting room, I accrued another, strange kind of comfort: writing in waiting rooms, in a state of half-sleep and desperation, near at once to pain and to relief, between waiting bodies.

While social media and news channels registered a sense of global waiting upon the declaration of the pandemic, I, on the other hand, felt that we were being thrown outside. A strange feeling in this time of preventative and obligatory confinement. The COVID crisis has found my partner and I out in the open, outside, in contact. “Dirty” is what the doctor from the colonial town in la Puna would have called us. The pandemic has found us out of the house—without a house—in the midst of the compulsive repetition of the ten letters of the syntagma: “stay at home.” It has found us in search of shelter, which has meant that we had to learn quickly how to live among the bugs. Quickly, the terms of the mutual and collective COVID have had to be reorganized, once and then a second time. Quickly, basic care has shown us the face of absence, of difficulty, of inequality. Quickly, we have passed by the remains of houses and spaces that the bourgeoisie has abandoned or tried to assign the lowest rate possible. Quickly, we have learned to focus our gaze on the distance and, like the child I watched cross the street while I waited outside the hospital, we have learned to dodge adults, keeping our distance in the face of their fantasies of total immunity. The work of grief occurs outside. In one of the houses that welcomed us in I lit a candle, which, stuck into the mud of a fountain made with the dual purpose of keeping its contents warm and radiating heat to warm the room, burned the surface of a piece of furniture of undoubtedly European origin.

My symptom of the brutal collective trauma into which we have all been thrust appeared to me there and I exclaimed: “Fire!” In the following days I sewed face masks by hand and used one to protect myself from the dust while I sanded, softly, meticulously and with great care for the wood, as I had seen my father do and as I had learned to do since I was little. The burn remained because the pandemic exists and I—and our fire—pass by there. I fixed the surface of the piece of furniture, which has been damaged in such a way that can be fixed to let the mark remain as a kind of memory of the moment or else so that the mark disappears entirely. That will be the decision of its owner. I sanded for seven days, varnished it, and added color. I was able to create for myself a little emotional language to respond to the trauma of the COVID crisis.

The body of pain, our dear numeric dead, the marked body, the amputated body, the body disappeared into mass graves, the mutated body, the body of excess, of sickness, of rage, the body of anguish, the trembling body, the body of absence, the body of the tumor, the naked body, the body of loss, the body of melancholy, makes itself present in the communal COVID. I believe that it is not only writers and artists who will be recording situations, dreams, fears, and reflections, as well as keeping up their struggles in a time which has produced for us a situation of profound premonition: Epidermia, the total plantation.

(And the sowing-time too.)

 

Notes

  1. Duen Sacchi, Organoléptico (Barcelona: Eremuak & La Virreina, 2018), p. 15 -18

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