In 1940, Adolfo Bioy Casares published a short novel, La invención de Morel ([Bioy Casares, 1991 (1940) #282]) which charts, in very prescient manner, a journey from terrorized dissimulation to post-technological simulation. A strange rewriting and transformation of H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau of 1896 ([Wells, 1896 #285]), it concerns a political refugee, escapee from life imprisonment on a trumped-up charge in Caracas, who makes his way to a secret and uninhabited southwest Pacific island. Although the island is rumoured to be the focus of some strange disease, as yet unknown to science, which kills from the outside in, causing the body to lose its substance and crumble slowly away, he prefers to take his chances there than to live a life of dissimulation and hiding, pursued by the world's police forces for a crime he did not commit.
What he finds there is a terrifying and seductive new technological invention, created by a mad scientist Morel, a 1940s televisual answer to Wells' Moreau who, you will remember, fashioned human beings out of pumas in a double allegory of science and colonization, medicine and mission. Morel's invention also transforms bodies, quite literally consuming the real to produce its hyperreal simulacrum. In that, it can serve for us today as an allegory for a new kind of technologically mediated colonization -- that of globalization -- and precursor of a new mode of telematic simulation.
The island contains some abandoned buildings: a museum, a chapel, and a swimming pool (the relationship of the figure of the museum to the production and containment of reality effects is one that is hinted at here and taken up extensively by Piglia, as we shall see). Believing himself to be alone on the island, the narrator survives by eating plant roots, until one night he awakens to find people -- a group of holidaymakers, he thinks -- suddenly on the island. A fugitive from justice, he has to hide from them, but is nevertheless intrigued by them, particularly by one woman, who he later finds out is called Faustine. The intrigue of the story lies in the slow and paranoia-inducing discovery by the narrator that none of the people on the island are real: they are all projections of a new recording device, precursor of virtual reality, invented by Morel. Morel himself appears as one character in this simulation of an entire week in the lives of the holidaymakers, a week that, the narrator discovers, is recorded on a self-repeating disk; a week destined to be repeatedly projected in all its details, in every act, movement, and thought, for eternity, or for so long as the machines, powered by tidal hydroelectricity, continue to function. The projections are not merely images: Morel has discovered how to project matter itself into space, but the holograms cannot interact with anything that was not already in the recording, for they are not in that sense alive, repeating mechanically the actions, words, and even, it is conjectured, thoughts, that they underwent at the time that they were recorded. Morel explains to his gathered guests at the end of the recorded week, an explanation that is itself contained within the recording:
"Mi abuso consiste en haberlos fotografiado sin autorización. Es claro que no es una fotografía como todas; es mi último invento. Nosotros viviremos en esa fotografía, siempre. Imagínense un escenario en que se representa completamente nuestra vida en estos siete días. Nosotros representamos. Todos nuestros actos han quedado grabados." (80)
He then explains the functioning of his invention:
"Me puse a buscar ondas y vibraciones inalcanzadas, a idear instrumentos para captarlas y transmitirlas. [...] Esta es la primera parte de la máquina; la segunda graba; la tercera proyecta. No necesita pantallas ni papeles; sus proyecciones son bien acogidas por todo el espacio y no importa que se día o noche. En aras de la claridad osaré comparar las partes de la máquina con: el aparato de televisión [...]; la cámara que toma una película de las imágenes traídas por el aparato de televisión; el proyector cinematográfico." (84-85)
But the device, this ultimate holographic projection, has a terrible cost. In recording matter itself, it extracts some fundamental essence of matter, leaving the original that was recorded without material substance. Between eight and fifteen days after having been recorded by the machine, organic bodies begin to decay from the outside in. The body, still alive, begins to crumble, consumed, literally, by the image, until the original dies, leaving only the holographic projection to repeat for eternity.
Published in 1940, this vision of simulation consuming the real is a remarkably prescient allegory for an effect that, many would argue, only begins to make itself felt fully from the 1960s, and which Jean Baudrillard analyses some forty years later as the liquidation of all referentials in the age of simulation ([Baudrillard, 1988 (1981) #290], 167). Inverting a parable by Borges at the beginning of his essay on "Simulacra and Simulations", it is now the real, Baudrillard suggests, whose shreds slowly rot away beneath our simulations, the real "whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself" (166).
The protagonist of La invención de Morel, literally seduced by the simulacrum of a woman, decides to record himself next to her, simulating interaction with the holidaymakers, although the interaction is merely an illusion, eternally replayed as the simulation of a dissimulation. At the close of the novel, he writes of his body disintegrating, accompanied by what he believes must be atrocious pain, but which is somehow numbed and from which he is totally detached, while his image lives on in the projection.
In 1986, three years after the dissolution of a ferocious dictatorship in Argentina, Eliseo Subiela makes a film, Hombre mirando al sudeste ([Subiela, 1986 #286]), in which the collapse of a boundary between dissimulation and simulation seems once more to be at stake. A patient calling himself Rantés appears in an asylum in Buenos Aires claiming that he is from outer space. More specifically, he claims to be the projection, or hologram, of some giant extra-terrestrial computer. The job of the doctor, whose name is Julio Denis, is to unmask Rantés's delusion, to put the reality principle firmly back in place, while the film's job would appear to be the steady erosion of the doctor's certainty, and with it our own, about the patient's ontological status. In a Marat/Sade type allegory, it is, bizarrely, Julio Denis, alias Julio Cortázar, who finds himself playing Pontius Pilate, indeed ultimately torturer and executioner, to Rantés's cybernetic Christ. The asylum is, amongst other things, an allegory of the Agentine State, dependent for its operation on the submission of minds and bodies to a violent, drug-enforced reality principle. Rantés, "un simulador" in the doctor's words, seems to reveal the sham nature of the State's own simulation of the real, and pays for it through a replay of the Christian passion.
Rather than paraphrasing further, I should like at this point to show my first clip from Hombre mirando al sudeste. Here we see Doctor Denis asking Rantés about his mother; this, you will remember, is the key question which catches out the replicant Léon in Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner, since the biologically engineered replicants in that film do not have mothers. Rantés goes on to explain his ontological status as a hologram, and the doctor, unable to resist, goes to check out his story in a physics laboratory:
"Todos vamos a terminar así, una máquina vigilando a otra máquina" (La ciudad ausente, 157)
It is a dense and baffling hallucinatory text in which the re-reading, displacement, re-combination, and invention of stories is figured as the only means of resistance to a post-dictatorial, technocratic police state, a.k.a. free-market democracy, which has abolished memory and history to allow for the free circulation of commodities, controls the populace through televisual feedback -- a technologically-mediated, quasi-telepathic monitoring of thoughts --, and institutes a regime of "truth" and "transparency" where the police are the agents of a ferocious reality principle and psychiatrists are the inheritors of the techniques and know-how of erstwhile torturers (in this, Piglia's approach is very similar to that of Subiela):
"El comisario sonrió. Querían controlar el principio de realidad.
Piglia shares with Jean Baudrillard a view of the postmodern, free-market, globalized, capitalist polis as engaged in a ferocious, compulsively re-iterated simulation of the real. To the extent that it was the business of the dictatorships to impose the social conditions that would allow the transition from State to Market in the Southern Cone, the democratic governments that marked the end of dictatorship are in some sense the inheritors and continuers of the work done by the military, rather than representing an absolute break with "authoritarianism", which is how they projected themselves ideologically. In agreement with Idelber Avelar in his book The Untimely Present on postdictatorial Latin American fiction, I take this to be one of the central ideas underlying La ciudad ausente, or as the cyborg storytelling machine puts it in her final Molly Bloom-esque monologue in the novel:
"el liberalismo, las tasas libres liquidaron el negocio [de los contrabandistas], el fin del contrabando [...] es el fin de la historia argentina. Esa era una novela río, empezaba en 1776, en las dos orillas del Plata, la chalupa con las mercancías inglesas y ahora se terminó, tantos muertos para nada, tanto dolor." (166)
The stories, constituting much of the novel, which are figured as circulating clandestinely throughout Buenos Aires, and which are so threatening to the regime of truth upheld by the police and the psychiatrists in the novel, are transmitted by this cyborg woman-machine imagined by the avant-garde Argentine writer 'Macedonio Fernández' as a way of keeping alive the memory of his beloved Elena: "Macedonio no intentaba producir una réplica del hombre, sino una máquina de producir réplicas. Su objetivo era anular la muerte y construir un mundo virtual" (60). This machine, enclosed by the State within a Museum, was constructed with the help of one Emil Russo (the reference to Rousseau's 1762 work on education, Émile, is obvious), an Arltian style inventor, possibly a Hungarian collector of automata, or he might perhaps be a Swiss physics teacher called Richter, who spun the fib to Perón that he was an atomic physicist refugee from Nazi Germany, selling him the "secret" of nuclear cold fission woven out of hot air. Perón, we are told, spent a small fortune on this dream of the Argentine atom bomb: "Richter se infiltró en el Estado argentino, infiltró su propia imaginación paranoica en la imaginación paranoica de Perón" (144). Although eventually revealed to be different, Russo and Richter are confused by several characters in the novel, and the confusion points us, I think, to a knot of political philosophy and scientific discourse underpinning the truth effects and truth claims of the modern information State.
The novel seems to suggest that it is possible to subvert this techno-scientific system, by introducing into it instabilities and paradoxes, all of them occasioned by the proliferation of recombinatory, self-referential fictions, told by "la máquina de Macedonio". In other words, exploiting the ambiguity noted earlier in relation to the Arltian technological dream, it is possible to oppose to the simulations of the State a further set of simulations which confuse the codes which constitute what counts as real. The fake functions to reveal the fake, as explained by the Museum guard, Fuyita, whose whose job it is to regulate the machine's output, but who has become seduced by this cyberpunk version of Macedonio's Museo de la novela de la Eterna:
"--El poder político es siempre criminal --dijo Fuyita--. El Presidente es un loco, sus ministros son todos psicópatas. El Estado argentino es telépata, sus servicios de inteligencia captan la mente ajena. [... P]ero la [...] máquina ha logrado infiltrarse en sus redes, ya no distinguen la historia cierta de las versiones falsas. Existe una cierta relación entre la facultad telepática y la televisión [...], el ojo técnico-miope de la cámara graba y transmite los pensamientos reprimidos y hostiles de las masas convertidas en imágenes. Ver televisión es leer el pensamiento de millones de personas." (63)
Specifically in relation to our theme of science and the creative imagination, Russo sums up Piglia's thinking -- which takes us all the way back to Arlt -- about the way science as discourse underpins the technocratic State and for that very reason becomes a key site of discursive resignification for the creative artist. Noting that it was physicists who gave the name "quark" to their new elementary particle, in homage to Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, Russo comments:
"Si los políticos les creen a los científicos y los científicos les creen a los novelistas, la conclusión era sencilla. Había que influir sobre la realidad y usar los métodos de la ciencia para inventar un mundo donde un soldado que se pasa treinta años metido en la selva obedeciendo órdenes sea imposible [...]." (142)
Please send your comments to Dr Geoffrey Kantaris. This document was updated 22/03/2001.