Issue 14: Look Who's Talking - Chile

Paz Guevara

Reading time: 14 minutes



Palimpsests: Re-reading the Stories of Hubert Fichte in South America

Curator Paz Guevara makes a constellation of the different editorial interventions that have been made into Hubert Fichte’s works written in Latin America, to propose, out of the re-reading of those texts, the trace of a counter-cartography of the affects that question the ways in which the region has been narrated.

Re-reading, an operation contrary to the commercial and ideological habits of our society, which would have us “throw away” the story once it has been consumed (“devoured”), so that we can then move on to another story […]

Roland Barthes
How Many Readings? S/Z [1]

The re-reading of the work of writer and self-taught German ethnologist Hubert Fichte (1935-1986) has brought together writers, editors, translators, and artists in Santiago, Chile to contribute to the project Hubert Fichte: Amor y Etnología. Considered one of the precursors of postcolonial and queer studies in Germany, Fichte wrote numerous stories based on his research trips during the sixties and eighties. While he mostly traveled to Africa and its diaspora, where he was almost always accompanied by the photographer Leonore Mau, in 1971, Fichte and Mau expanded the Black Atlantic itinerary—which would take them to Portugal, Brazil, Senegal, and New York, among many other destinations. They eventually ended up in Santiago, Chile, “on a trip to the socialist Chile” (viaje hacia el Chile socialista[2], where he wrote about Unidad Popular, interviewed President Salvador Allende and members of the government, and took note of his wandering around the city in transformation which he described as “Santiago, a palimpsest of political metamorphosis .[3]” Fichte and Mau traveled several times to Brazil, where they dedicated themselves to the study of Afro-Brazilian religions and participated in the Candomblé rituals, and where Fichte developed a critique of ethnology he called an “etnologia da etnologia”. [4] In both contexts, Fichte also wandered through the parks and cinemas of the underground “marica […], the oldest revolution, the permanent one, the one that is never overcome”. [5]  Fichte’s irreverent, critical, and experimental writing was not limited to the thematic; re-reading his work leads us also to follow the clues of his critical strategies, and to question their performance in the current context. What contributions of meaning does the critical view of Fichte’s texts provide us today? What local genealogies do his stories open? How do we problematize the new conditions that make this re-reading possible?

The project Hubert Fichte: Amor y Etnología (2017-2020) was conceived by Diedrich Diederichsen and Anselm Franke, from Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) and the Goethe-Institut. This project gathers a series of collaborators involved in the translation, publication, and discussion of the writings of Fichte, in order to make them accessible for the first time in several of the languages spoken in the places the author traveled to and wrote about. Two new translations with the stories from South America have been published. First, Explosion. Roman der Ethnologie (Editorial Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1993) has been translated entirely into Portuguese as Explosão. Romance da Etnologia (Editorial Hedra, São Paulo, 2017, translation by Marcelo Backes). The publication contains mainly stories from Rio de Janeiro, Salvador do Bahia, Buenos Aires, and Santiago. Second, a compilation of two “Chilean” stories by Fichte have been translated under the title of Chile: un experimento por el futuro [6], which is based mainly on his 1971 trip to Santiago (he also traveled and referred briefly to Valparaíso and Easter Island and includes a later interview with Carlos Jorquera, former press officer of Allende in Caracas in 1977). The publication in Spanish brings together the section about Chile in Explosión. Novela de la Etnología and a fascinating little-known story conceived for the radio, from where the book takes the title.[7]

Notably, Explosión was originally edited by the Chilean author Ronald Kay, who in the early eighties moved to Germany, where he met Fichte and Mau. Taking the editorial work of several of his books, Kay was one of the editors responsible for the multi-volume series entitled La Historia de la Sensibilidad, which Fichte worked on until his death in 1983.[8] Seventeen volumes have been published posthumously by the German publishing house S. Fischer, and Explosión is one of the most significant. Departing from the translation of five books in this series, the project Hubert Fichte: Amor y Etnología has initiated exhibitions, public programs, conferences, conversations, and debates in the corresponding cities of these narrations: Lisbon, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador do Bahia, Santiago, Dakar, and New York.

Irreverent, critical, and experimental writing was not limited to the thematic; re-reading his work leads us also to follow the clues of his critical strategies, and to question their performance in the current context.

In Santiago, the public program of the project which the artist and curator Mario Navarro and I conceived and moderated together, accompanied the exhibition Suprasensibilidades (curated by Mario at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, September 13th to November 18th, 2018). It brought together authors and artists who related the critical re-reading of the writings of Fichte to the contexts of Chile and Brazil. This constituted the first critical encounter with the Chilean stories that until now had been scarcely been analyzed.[9] Through some reviews, positions, and quotes, the present text addresses a re-reading and re-enters in the palimpsest from the multiple ideas and voices that emerged in the Santiago program (which took place between September 14th and 15th, 2018 at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and Centro Nacional de Arte Contemporáneo Cerrillos). The program included the participation of: the biologist, writer, and activist Jorge Díaz; the artist Gonzalo Díaz; the cultural critic Diedrich Diederichsen; the artist Claudia del Fierro; the curator and Director of the Visual Arts Department at HKW Anselm Franke; the artist Tamar Guimarães; the researcher David Maulén; the designer Mario Navarro Cortés; the artist and curator Amilcar Packer; and cultural critic Nelly Richard.

Through the re-readings, Fichte’s texts are released of their repetition, and we enter here once more into its plurality and recontextualization.

The destabilizing impulses that Fichte’s writing provoked in South America are not limited to the selection of motifs, but they arise mainly from critical displacements, starting with the displacement of its culture of reference: Europe. For this, the author uses ethnology, from which he also develops a critical relationship, breaking the claim of neutrality and objectivity of this science of otherness. Without fear of contradicting himself, Fichte subjects to suspicion the ideologies that he sympathizes with. In Explosión, , while one enunciation celebrates that he has “decided on socialism” in Chile—from the position of his literary alter ego Jäcki—; he goes on to declare, “No, as maricón Jäcki was not going to submit to socialism,” detecting that sexual liberation did not seem to be part of the socialist revolution. He states: “in opposition to the persecution of homosexuals by the newspaper Puro Chile, the Ministry of Justice cannot do anything… In this country, homosexuality does not matter.” These critical movements formed the basis of Diedrich Diederichsen’s Sensibilidad, Sexualidad y Socialismo conference:

Jäcki/Fichte, the extravagant and polarizing author, polarizing with long fur coats and his untamable curly mane, the chronicler for the demi-monde of Hamburg, gay activist that ends up quarreling with his friends of the extreme Left excited with Cuba, for they fail to understand how homophobic the Castro regime is, […] At the same time [Fichte] practically will no longer be in Germany: this man who has always traveled a lot, fleeing Germany, will spend the remaining 14 years he has left, staying in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Belize, Grenada, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, Florida, Senegal, Dahomey, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Togo, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain, New York, Portugal and some other countries […]

Fichte’s scriptural action crosses the literary edges permanently. Using ethnographic, journalistic, and literary means, he hybridizes genres and fields. “The novelist, who wanted to become an ethnologist, arrives again as a journalist.” Jorge Díaz pointed out (in his talk Tocándonos a través del tiempo. Lecturas desde activismos de disidencia sexual a la obra de Hubert Fichte en Chile) how Fichte “mixes in a promiscuous way, chronicle, poetry, essays, and interviews” in his texts, establishing a correlation between the way in which he crosses the margins of sexual and literary genres.

For Fichte, the limits of language (and body) were no longer guarded; in the reading that double explosion occurs. When Fichte interviews Allende, they talk about the nationalization of copper and banks, agrarian reform and workers’ cooperatives in the context of social reforms and the international crossroads of the Cold War. While Fichte publishes the interview, first as a political article in the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau [10], Jäcki’s literary trappings allow us also to read a question that escaped him from the conversation, which subsequently bursts into the radio feature story without any problem: “There are no more minutes… For me, it would have been important to ask him: why does he tolerate that, in Puro Chile, a newspaper of the Popular Unity, homosexuals are persecuted?” In her conference Hubert Fichte en el Chile de la Unidad Popular: Mitad Revolución Socialista, Mitad Liberación Homosexual, Nelly Richard took as her point of departure this interrogation to establish the comparison with the legendary interview that Régis Debray made to Allende a few months before, in January 1971 [11], and deconstruct the revolutionary male imaginary:

Of course, this question taken from the political libretto would never have occurred to Régis Debray in his private conversation with the “compañero president” (1971), who revolves orthodoxly around Marxism, class struggle, and the conquest of state power. Another proof of how the masculine-revolutionary imaginary of the Latin American left neglects the themes of subjectivity and the unconscious, of the body, and of sexuality, considering that these belong to the bourgeois sphere of the private, and therefore, they do deserve to be incorporated into the universal discourse of proletarian emancipation.

On the other hand, ethnographic “field notes” allow Fichte to capture detailed urban moments; thus, we surprisingly re-enter forgotten scenes of Unidad Popular, erased by the violent closure by the military coup in 1973. While waiting for the in- terview with Allende, which took six weeks to materialize, Fichte/Jäcki recorded their observations of the city; from “the low-cost menu” that all the food stores (including the Sheraton Hotel) had to offer, to the marches of the Juventud Comunista (Communist Youth), where “the girls carry a cane in their hands, they make it turn, they raise it up to the chest, they make it turn again,” or the different kinds of hippies, “young people of the refined society who take their ‘tea’ and poor young adventurers who arrive with a fantastic aspect from the country and prove that in the city they call their way of life ‘hip’.” The “palimpsest of political metamorphosis” is especially evident in the painted murals that covered “ruins, mansions, office buildings, slopes, bridges…” and the signs of the socialist march against economic dependence and the US, and imperialist threat read on every step around capital:

Copper is Chilean! It says on buses.
The sign that says: The Chileans put on their long pants!
Has been written above: Because the Americans allowed it.
      Yanki go home, writes Puro Chile[12]

It is at the end of this story that Jäcki declares that he has found “new structures of sensitivity.” David Maulén, in his conference Diseñando la Sensibilidad, pointed out that Fichte’s interest in the Chilean Unidad Popular was also the bearer of a “declared commitment to the possibility of building a model for humanity as an alternative to the models defined by the two great powers of the Cold War.” An attempt that would be confirmed in the title of the radio account: “Chile: Experimento por el Futuro, and that could be perceived both in the contemporary work of the designers of the Universidad Técnica del Estado (UTE) directed by Mario Navarro Cortés, and in the transformations driven by foreign experts, such as the designer Gui Bonsiepe, for whom more than in Germany, his idea of Interface [13] was only possible to materialize in the conditions of the Chilean socialist government.”

In other descriptions Fichte/Jäcki change their strategy, and lead us on “homoerotic” tours, as Nelly calls them, of the sensual underground of the city: the saunas, parks or cinemas where “[…] 50 men were squeezed between each other […]—I am missing!” or the Hotel Foresta that “belongs to the king of porn of Santiago whose […] elevator is lined with red plush and has golden details.” Means of displacements and contradictions, writing is also the critical way of self-reflection: “The language was useful for self-knowledge, and that’s why it was corrosive,” says Jäcki in Santiago. Thus, Jackie was critical of ethnography that did not include the position of the observer, as in the case of Pierre Verger in Salvador do Bahia, to whom he criticized for not writing on his own homosexuality. On the contrary, in several scenes of Fichte’s texts, the objectivity and distance of ethnographic science begin to explode: the author/character observes his own behavior, thematizing his desire and homosexuality:

To Catedral. To Las Delicias, where, below, one took a shower among
indigenous workers, and then, upstairs, participated in orgies.
[…] It was one of those establishments that, thanks to the complicity
with any given time, would support any revolution everywhere.
Well, the queers, Jäcki was convinced, they are the oldest revolution,
the permanent one, the one that is never overcome. [14]

Nelly Richard has precisely discussed the attraction that the themes of Fichte’s work arouse in queer studies. However, more than an affiliation to an international discipline, Nelly proposed a “critical regionalism.” Jorge Díaz also put forward a localized critique and “kuir activism”, from “[…] a ‘comparative literature’ [which] in this case, would be a gesture of decolonial sensibility.” For both, a decolonial re-reading would involve establishing the dialogues between Fichte’s critical work and South American dissident authors. Pedro Lemebel and his manifesto Hablo por mi diferencia (1986) and the work of Nestor Perlongher were some of the examples discussed. In the words of Nelly:

The work of H. Fichte has been revalued on the international scene due to the rise of queer studies that recognize in it the twisted figure of dissident sexuality. It would not be hard to re-read Fichte from the key points of this metropolitan repertoire that seeks to transfer its discursive categories through the globalized machine of academic reproduction that also colonizes Chile. But, this queer re-reading of Fichte’s work would be neglecting the need to practice a “critical regionalism” when it comes to drawing local maps of Latin American sexual dissidence.

At the same time, this local critical desire had been set in motion by certain dialogical experiments throughout the project, which intertwined (and entangled) the re-reading with the local networks. From the appropriation and decentering of Fichte’s work, several collaborators presented their methodologies of research, collaboration, and work at the meeting. Could these re-readings displace the fitchean author/work to a mere referent, or even try to make them disappear from the center? The artist Claudia del Fierro, master of reenactments, revisited the places of the Santiago underground narrated by Fichte, and, from an appropriation of his itinerary, she developed an emotional, self-biographical and contingently feminist re-enactment. How many spaces did she record with her camera only from the facade, since they did not admit women?

Amilcar Packer and Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz, curators of Implosão: Trans(relacion)ando Hubert Fichte, the Brazilian edition of the project, departed precisely from a precise local question: “How to create an atmosphere of critical reception for the work of Fichte and, at the same time, set in motion fundamental questions elaborated by him without making him protagonist of those questions?” Through a wide collaborative work, they developed a “counter-cartography.” [15] More than a view of today’s Fichte’s practice in Brazil of the 1970s, they were interested in radicalizing it. Its title Implosión (an inwards rupture) gave an account of the local turn and force; somehow, one could say, they transformed the science of otherness into a self-ethnography. One example was the extensive publication of more than three-hundred pages in a conversational format, where numerous dialogues were developed with authors, researchers, activists, educators, and artists of the Brazilian scene—such as Michelle Mattiuzzi, Vanesa Oliveira, Jota Mombaça, Colectivo Bonobando, Adriana Schneider and Ayrson Heraclitus—who confront from their practices current problems of racism, classism, violence, and marginality, while generating resistance and counter-narratives. More than an interpretation of Fichte’s texts, the publication “traversed” it, as the researcher Cíntia Guedes says in the initial conversation. [16]

After traversing Fichte, what do we see? What do we read in the changing format of the palimpsest, between the traces of Fichte’s strategies and writing, and the new re-inscriptions of appropriations and erasures of the subsequent re-reading? Is it not an inverted or displaced reading, a way of investigating and even self-critical re-reading that, as Anselm Franke raised in his lecture—Curaduría como Investigación: El Problema del Positivismo—“would not reproduce or celebrate the object that analyzes/exposes, but rather undo and re-narrate one’s own categories of research and presentation?”


  1. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1974, p. 76.

  2. All quotes in Spanish from Fichte’s stories related to Santiago correspond to this source: Hubert Fichte, Chile: Un Experimento por el Futuro. Translation by Cecilia Pavón. Santiago: Metales Pesados, 2018.

  3. op.cit. All translations from Spanish into to English are by Carla Canseco.

  4. id., Explosão. Romance da Etnologia. Translation by Marcelo Backes. São Paulo: Editorial Hedra, 2017.

  5. Hubert Fichte, Chile: Un Experimento por el Futuro. Op. cit.

  6. Hubert Fichte, Chile: Un Experimento por el Futuro. Traslation by Cecilia Pavón. Santiago: Metales Pesados, 2018.

  7. id., Chile-Experiment auf die Zukunft. Eine Phänomenology des politischen Bewußtseins, Santiago/Chile, June–July, 1971. The translation has been based on the recording and transcript of the radio program, transmitted on SWR in 18.3.1972.

  8. Fichte died in 1986, in Germany, from diseases related to AIDS.

  9. The exception has been this brief monographic text, which offers a first approach to the stories written by Fichte after his experience in Chile: Muriel Schindler, Versuch über Chile. Eine Darstellung in der Empfindsamkeit des Autors Hubert Fichte (GRIN Verlag, 2005).

  10. id., Ungerechtigkeiten in jedem entwick- lungsprozeß. Chiles Staatspräsident Salvador Allende begründet sein Reformprogramm [Inequalities in each Development Process. The President of Chile, Salvador Allende, Justifies His Program of Reforms], interview published in the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau, in Germany, September 1st, 1971.

  11. Compañero Presidente, Chile, 1971, black & white, 65 min. Direction: Miguel Littin.

  12. op. cit.

  13. More than the interest in the object, Bonsiepe directed attention to the space where action, social agent and artifact are articulated; he called interface the space in which this interaction is structured.

  14. op. cit.

  15. Cíntia Guedes, Amilcar Packer and Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz, Implosão. São Paulo: Editorial Hedra, 2017.

  16. op. cit.

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