Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction by Gastón R. Gordillo (review)
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Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Gastón R. Gordillo. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2014. xiii and 315 pp., maps, diagrs, photos, notes, and index. $94.95 cloth (978-0-8223-5614-1) $26.95 paper (978-0-8223-5619-6) (£58.61 and £18.02 pounds, 81.62 and 21.68€).

In this provocative analysis of historic remains in the Chaco province of northern Argentina, Gordillo shows us how the vast devastation created over [End Page 182] the past decade by agribusiness led him to reject the classic focus on singular ruins to emphasize instead the many forms and layers of rubble. Drawing on the work of Benjamin and Adorno, Gordillo sees rubble as taking the form of constellations, that is objects understood in relationship to other historical objects, places, and processes. Also, following Levi Bryant, he emphasizes the power of bright objects: objects whose attractiveness results in part from the networks of objects in which they are embedded.

This theoretical approach guided his multisite ethnography. Following a preliminary trip in 2003, Gordillo spent four years on the project, including fourteen months of fieldwork. He soon discovered that criollos (the local people, often of mestizo background) were themselves more likely to view ruins as rubble or “old bricks”, than as sacred sites: indeed, much of the book consists of an exploration of how people of various class and cultural backgrounds react to the same object differently. In contrast to the concept of the ruin, which Gordillo associates with a modern and elitist sensibility, the concept of rubble deglamorizes ruins by focusing on the processes of destruction, even as these remains help constitute new social spaces and figure in collective mentalities.

Much of the discussion that follows relies upon an appreciation of how historic periods of violence and destruction shaped this region. The Chaco appears as a “haunted frontier,” haunted by the ghosts of Indians who were exterminated as the region was brought under the control of the Spanish. Gordillo writes, “[T]he rubble of the city of Esteco, the forts, the Jesuit stations, and the mounds that mark mass graves evoke among residents the violence and labor exploitation once unleashed on Indians as well as the wealth that resulted from this violence” (p. 36). Many locals integrate the past into the present through such mundane practices as appropriating the bricks of the ruins of a Franciscan mission into charcoal ovens. Among the criollos who self-identify as cattle-raising gauchos, the past is prologue, for the destruction of their grazing lands by the industrial soy farmers means that they risk following the path of the Indians.

The current destruction of the social and geographic landscape is occurring against a backdrop of historic violence dating from the 1540s, when the Spanish began conquering the Argentinean Andes. Against the general pattern of Indian torture and enslavement, Gordillo recounts the case of the peaceful encounter between mutinous Spanish troops and a settlement of people called the Esteko. In contrast to other Spanish settlements, “Esteco” had no fortified walls, churches, or places of execution. Unable to tolerate such “subversive egalitarianism,” the Spanish authorities sent in troops in 1567 who executed the Spanish renegades, submitted the Esteko people to forced labor, and recreated the town so that it fulfilled the usual requirements of social control, as they understood it. But by the late 1600s, this second Esteco had itself been reduced to rubble by a series of raids and a devastating earthquake. These sites, along with other lost cities such as Concepción del Bermejo, in the center of the Chaco region, came to figure in the imperial imaginaire, with considerable effort being directed over the centuries to finding their exact location.

In time, the ruins of the second Esteco were discovered on the land of a farmer. When he began bulldozing the area in order to create a fruit-packing factory, the distant urban elite responded with shock and horror, but most of the locals believed the change was for the good. Gordillo emphasizes that their reaction did not result from some closed-off local culture but rather reflected, “an open critique of state discourses of preservation and...