Rubble* is a book that explores some of the most actively forgotten regions of Argentina and the southern cone. Gordillo sets out from the mountains of Salta eastwards across the Gran Chaco, a plain that stretches for thousands of kilometres – it is likely you will not have heard of any of the places or peoples he encounters. Chaco is a region that spans Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay, a hot dry plain regarded as remote in all three countries. 

rubbleThe title Rubble makes explicit the interest of the author in reconsidering the colonial ruins of the region and showing how they could be thought of as rubble instead. Gordillo is an anthropologist and his mission into the lowlands east of Salta promises to reveal a little known social landscape. He sets out to talk to local people and find out whether and how colonial ruins are still meaningful to the criollos living there. His search for meaning in long-abandoned mounds and settlements seeks to make the history of the region more accessible and reconnect it to the currents of global history.

Both the idea of rethinking ruins and going deep into the Chaco region are original and a welcome foray into events and people that have been side-lined by official histories. The way Gordillo does this will appeal to those who are comfortable with theoretical debates that draw on Benjamin and Adorno, whom he quotes extensively, and their ‘efforts to open paths that negate the destructiveness of the present’ (p.27). In his own words, ‘this book examines rubble as a conceptual figure than can help us understand the ruptured multiplicity that is constitutive of all geographies as they are produced, destroyed, and remade,’ (p.2). He then goes on to remind us that “the idea of ‘ruin’ is a conceptual invention of modernity and of its efforts to present itself as a break from the past” (p.8); and contrasts ruins, the ‘attempt to conjure away the void of rubble and the resulting vertigo,’ (p.10) with rubble, which ‘deglamorises ruins by revealing the material sedimentation of destruction,’ (ibid.) 

Gordillo draws on the concept of ‘constellations’, an idea traced to Benjamin and used in the book to hold together a series of places and historical moments that are connected by the experience of the anthropologist travelling and researching. The result is a series of loosely connected narratives that are often too glancing to really absorb the reader. The book is likely to frustrate readers looking for a more traditionally structured history or complete geography of a neglected region. However, it succeeds on its own terms, and ‘open[s] up constellations of rubble [and] draws parallels with constellations of rubble elsewhere in the world, in order to reflect, among other themes, on the intimate connection between rubble and insurrections,’ (p.28). 

Some of the most enlightening stories Gordillo traces are the encounters between indigenous peoples and the Spanish in the Chaco that led to the imaginary still intact in Buenos Aires that equates the region with the forest known as the Impenetrable (lit. inaccessible, and figuratively, incomprehensible, obscure). In Chapter 2 he shows how the real forest could be easily criss-crossed by indigenous peoples in battle and retreat, and became the site of successful resistance to conquest.  The forest thus became a frightening impassable void to invaders, inaccessible to colonial advances. Gordillo deciphers the rubble he is searching for in the region in terms of haunting, as in, ‘a haunting is distinct from memory, for it is not reducible to narratives articulated linguistically; it is, rather, an affect created by an absence that exerts a hard-to-articulate, non-discursive, yet positive pressure on the body, thereby turning such absence into a physical presence that is felt and that thereby affects,’ (p.32). He links the stories of places with those of real people living today, and reflects that ‘in the geographies of northern Argentina, many people living in rural areas counter the reification of ruins by disregarding their material integrity and form and by being more attentive to the presence of traces of destroyed human life,’ (p.255, emphasis in the original). 

Rubble gives us layers of history, of rubble, overlapping stories of indigenous identity and conquering violence. We are shown ghost of railroads, rural enclaves on the edge of towns, and twenty-Gordillofirst century bulldozers flattening everything to make way for agribusiness. The attention to rubble brings the gaze to ‘the present fact of places that were destroyed,’ (p.257, emphasis in the original).

There are many tantalising tales in Rubble, as when Gordillo goes in search of boats stranded in rivers that have long since changed their course. He finds a steam engine belonging to one such wreck in the plaza of a remote village and quotes W.G. Sebald on the ‘immense power of emptiness’ (p.135). Bringing Sebald into the narrative inadvertently reminds the reader that these stories do not have the narrative clarity or linger in the mind in the way Sebald’s writing does. Gordillo takes us on a journey that is rich in encounters and references but somehow fails to build up to a lasting impression. The multi-layered presentation of physical facts and theoretical reflection lose their initial sharpness in a dreaminess that may well be intentional – Gordillo explicitly refers to Benjamin’s phantasmagorias – but also serves to distance us from what we are learning. The effect is that we accompany him on his journey of exploration and come away rich in detail but unsure of where we’ve been.

 * Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction by Gaston R. Gordillo is published by Duke University Press

** Marcela López Levy is a former LAB Editor and an independent researcher and writer based in Lewes, East Sussex.