The Figure of Death in The-Place-Where-the-Black-Caiman-Walks

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: Behold the Black Caiman

Photo by Lucas Bessire.

What is the figure of death with which we are presented when we are asked to behold the Black Caiman, to trace and track its form? It is no longer a figure of collective cultural death, subject to mourning and salvage, but rather a figure of transformation, continuity and rupture. This is a death that is not the end-of-Being, but the continuing emergence of becomings. In contrast to the space of death that the colonial system and epistemology enforces, a figure of degradation, fatalism, and finalism, the figure of death encountered in The-Place-Where-the-Black-Caiman-Walks is a figure of transformation. It is a figure of death that expresses tendencies through which vitality engages in becomings-other: not an Other that is essentialized absolute alterity, the premodern or nonmodern, but becomings-other that are active processes of affirming vitality in terms beyond absolute oppositions of finalist death or authentic life.

What we find in this figure is a place where madness, vice, and emergent moral selves shift colonial situations with ties to finalist and fatalist death into reference points for radical becomings and self-transformations. No longer are the post-contact Ayoreo the passive victims of an enforced execution; rather, they are active components in a complexity of power relations whereby the binary of active master and passive servant is undone amidst multiplicity.

The inhabitants of The-Place-Where-The-Black-Caiman-Walks refuse to be assigned to the space of death that the colonial order, economic rationalization, and the anthropological fetishization of tradition seeks to assign them. In their refusal to become bare life or the ashes to be borne back to the centers of modernity, the Ayoreo affirm their life and deny the figure of fatalistic death that was to be enforced upon them. Through madness, vice, and apocalyptic futurism, through transformations of the ayipie and radio waves, the Ayoreo endlessly contest the boundaries of the space of death carved out for them, repeatedly moving beyond these spaces and redefining moral humanity on their own negotiated terms. They create lines of flight, which are experimental leakages probing the limits of a transformed humanity. The Ayoreo constitute these zones of rupture, disjunction, and negotiation as intensive zones of translation, allowing them to reconfigure their experiential selves beyond the limits of normative assigned definitions of indigeneity and alterity and rupture the very ruptures assigned to them. Such is the tragic figure, dark and sorrowful, hopeful and positive, that is found in Behold the Black Caiman. Through it, sites that the gaze tainted by essentialized difference and alterity would look upon as degraded and decaying are reconfigured as sites of phenomenological, ontological, and moral struggle, as sites where the limits of new figures of humanity are continually contested.

In this way the Ayoreo who now dwell with the strangers, the cojonne, refuse to become only the biological remnants of public cultural death, even as this identity is thrust upon them. While the gaze that seeks perfect cultural identity and authentic indigineity violently assigns postcontact Ayoreo-speaking people to the desolate subhuman domain of a finalistic death, the zones of intensive translation—the future, madness, vice, radios, the ayipie—still find room to redefine and refuse such attribution. When the postcontact Ayoreo-speaking people are subject to such immense physical, discursive, and epistemological violence and depersonalization, assigned to a space of fatalistic and finalist death as ashes to be borne, they still establish spaces of becoming in which their continued vitality and humanity can be negotiated, spaces where the figure of death is one of transformation, not finalism and fatalism.

Rather than accepting an identity marked by essentialized cultural difference, an alternative and external ontology that would forever fail to match up to the reality of Ayoreo life and so would find that life forever deficient, degraded, and dying, the Ayoreo negotiate the fields of identity on their own terms, transcending the limits of finalistic death and affirming the becoming of vitality. In so doing, they refuse essentialized assignment to the edge of human/nonhuman divides, and so refuse to fit within the legitimate life/illegitimate death divides that these essentializations of difference produce. What we find are disordered subjectivities and schizoid tendencies that are not psychopathologies, but radical lines of flight and active domains of intensive translation.

All of these unfreezable becomings, these meanings that forever exceed categorization, bring about deaths of social death, the rupturing of ruptures, the ongoing vitalization of colonial spaces of death. It is the reaffirming of vital becoming beyond and against the assigned spaces of a finalist death through the negotiation, translation, exploration and interpretation of the spaces of death that have been thrust upon the Ayoreo. They make of these spaces of death the foundations of life, and in so doing refigure death not as the final absolute and fatalistic rupture, but as a space of transformation, translation and interpretation, a rupturing of the ruptures. This is by no means an easy or painless task; it is rather a task characterized precisely by a contingent, incoherent, and complex violence, the violence of the Black Caiman.

Here, the hyperreal specter of the isolated Ayoreo, the form of life that is characterized by its absence, its presence made by nonpresence, degrades the living form of Ayoreo peoples as they are encountered. The ex-isolated, ex-primitive is a degraded mode of vitality when standing besides this ghost. What, then, is the figure of death with which this haunting presents us? Is it the life defined precisely by absence? What is the figure of death in The-Place-Where-the-Black-Caiman-Walks, when the only mode of Ayoreo life that can be encountered has already been determined to be dying or dead by the ghost of isolation? What is the figure of death in the place where authentic life has been tied to an absent, isolated life?

When we are no longer to mourn the passing of a pure essentialized culture, when we are no longer the sorrowful, colonial bearer of ashes, when we are no longer the fetishizers and archivers of tradition, the helpers of the devil, then what is the figure of death that we are certain to mourn when the day dawns of the next, first, last contact? What, Bessire asks, does this mourning demand of us? What are the vital commons that these transformations carve out, and how can we also care for them? What is the call that comes forth from these transformative spaces of death that are not an end-of-Being but tendencies of becoming, and how should we respond?