How does a mountain think? How do we think with mountains? We do not have to be Aymara or Quechua—though it may help—to sense that the imposing presence of a mountain range such as the Andes, or of a peak such as Illimani constantly on the La Paz horizon, may disquiet and disturb thought. This, after all, is the basis of the Kantian notion of the sublime: “The sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peaks arise above the clouds [. . .] arouses satisfaction, but with dread” (Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime 14). That “dread” stays with us and conditions what we can think about the object that gives rise to it, and also what we can say about the surrounding environment. It points, moreover, to the limits of what can be calculated or perceived. In contemplating the “the sublime in nature the mind feels agitated,” Kant further explains in his Critique of Judgment. “This agitation (above all at its inception) can be compared with a vibration, i.e., with a rapid alternation of repulsion from, and attraction to, one and the same object” (115). In contemplating what is effectively beyond measure, we approach the infinite and recognize at the same time our “inability to take it in” (116). As a result, however, the imagination is stimulated to supplement reason: the incomprehensibility that is constitutive of the sublime stimulates the mind in new ways, provoking it to take on new powers that compensate for reason’s failures, and to embark on new paths. We are therefore also drawn to the experience of the sublime because, Kant continues, the objects that give rise to it “raise the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist” (261). Mountains teach us a lesson in resilience and resistance.
Rodolfo Ortiz’s splendid Nudos y enredos: Revistas andinas del siglo XX is a book that guides us on the new paths that mountain thinking forces upon us. His first step is simply to remind us that the mountains are there. Against the cartographic fictions of surveyors keen to produce a two-dimensional image in which national territories predominate, traversed therefore by lines that outline what are fundamentally administrative divisions, claims to order and sovereignty, he returns us instead to the three-dimensional terrain of the land itself. Terrain has “materiality and volume,” as Gastón Gordillo notes (“Hostile Terrain” 7). The going can be easy or hard, boggy marsh or smooth rock. It is marked by zones of friction and points of impasse, by inclines that can either militate against movement or alternatively invite and channel flows, depending on where you are coming from or going to: what is uphill in one direction is downhill in another. Moreover, the suitability of terrain for either inhabitation or movement (and for resistance or control) can vary according to the season or circumstance, the time of day or the balance of forces among those seeking to traverse, take, or find a home within it. It is one thing to come across a river in flood at the end of a long day, and another to look down on a valley from a high mountain pass at dawn. It is one thing to be a lone traveller with a light pack, and another to be moving in formation, weighed down by baggage. A landscape seen (better, felt) in terms of terrain rather than territory implies a situated subject, already in the thick of the potential and risk that it offers, a body confronted with other bodies, rather than the abstract eye of the surveyor’s claim to transcendence that sees only as far as the next boundary post. Terrain, in short, is a form of spatiality—again, better, a feeling for spatiality—that is affective, that both reveals and tests, reduces and enhances, what a body can do, its powers to affect and be affected.
Ortiz shows us that this sense of terrain is both revealed by and fundamental to understanding the avant-garde journals of the first part of the twentieth century that circulated across and around the Andean altiplano, from La Paz to Cuzco, Potosí to Puno, and beyond. Journals, in the first place, are objects that circulate, that both trace and establish circuits of readership and exchange, points of view and trajectories of subjectification. Whether sent through the post (hitch-hiking on the nation state’s communication infrastructure) or passed hand to hand, whether their movements are wayward or direct, they create connection and enable both friendship and respect, alliance and polemic as they establish what Ortiz terms “un diálogo crítico entre oralidad, escritura y visualidad como un nuevo canal de germinación de estéticas emancipatorias” (41). For these are objects that are made to be seen—and Ortiz has plenty to say about their striking visual dimension, about their mastheads and illustrations, their design and orthography—as much as to be read. Then their passage and arrival are to draw comment and discussion, to constitute an event that is both predictably regular (as one issue follows another) and an unexpected novelty, as who knows what the latest issue will bring? Finally, the journals draw written responses, either in other journals or in subsequent issues of the same journal, so generating more writing that in turn becomes an object to be seen, discussed, and commented on. The journal as object establishes patterns and habits, a temporality of call and response enabling encounters at a distance.
Second, journals are also of course vectors for ideas and concepts, slogans and arguments, to circulate, flow, and escape. For instance, Ortiz shows how the notion of “barbarie” circulates in response to Indigenous uprising (above all the revolt led by “el temible Willka” at the turn of the century), giving a second life to that discontent, translating it into other forms, even as the Bolivian government sought to ensure a fiction of national hegemony in anticipation of the centenary of the nation’s independence. Transmission is also translation and transmutation: from politics to aesthetics and back again, for instance. As words and concepts travel from journal to journal, sometimes contextual complexity is lost—this is in part what Ortiz surely means when he talks of “short-circuits” as much as circuits—as they take up residence in unfamiliar terrain, sometimes flaring up with new intensity as they enter into new circuits of sense-making and significance. So for example “lo bárbaro” might, in some hands, “empezara a transformar su contenido negativo en la idea de un autoctonismo indianista revitalizable” (95). Indianismo or Indigenismo emerge to re-suture the discursive fractures opened up by rebellion. “Barbarie, bohemia, anarquismo, andinismo se convierten en conceptos fagocitados y digeridos porque son los que afectan y los que permanentemente hay que redefinir, desplazar y abrir para densificar el campo político y literario andino” (104). As in the case of Gesta Bárbara, editorial boards split, former collaborators part ways, a journal comes to the end of its life. Not all is harmony, by a long shot, and there are many dead ends and false starts. This book is as much as anything else a catalogue of journeys not taken, or movements that succumb to inertia and grind to a halt. But, at least in the period that Ortiz covers in this book, when one journal closes there is soon enough always another journal to take its place, another link in the circuits (and short-circuits) that breathe new life into old concepts or take them in new directions to novel destinations, or even creating those destinations as they travel.
For nothing is ever simply one thing in the history that Ortiz recounts. Ambivalence and ambiguity—abigarramiento and unevenness—are the watchwords. Most symptomatic, perhaps, are the travels undertaken not simply by the journals themselves but also by their contributors and editors, who in the process often end up with new names, new personae with which to sign their articles. So for instance Pablo Iturri Jurado becomes variously Román Latino and Ramún Katari, Arturo Peralta becomes both Juan Cajal and (most famously) Gamaliel Churata. More generally, throughout the multi-layered narrative, or overlapping narratives, that Ortiz so deftly retells, we find dizzying concatenations of alliance and animosity, resonance and discord, encounter and missed encounter. . . knots, of course, and tangles. The book itself is precariously poised between full-scale immersion in what can sometimes feel like a riotous cacophony of voices and, on the other hand, an inevitable temptation to flatten out difference in the name of a comprehensibility that would mean simplification. Hence the importance of its central theoretical figures: the knot itself, as a point at which the tension between different lines of discourse or thought tightens, binding or fixing its constituent elements to gain strength and intensity but at the cost of a certain rigidity; and (dis)entanglement as the knots fray and unravel, introducing play and flexibility into the field, only to end up re-knotted, sometimes all the more intractably. We see therefore “pugnas y acuerdos sobre la independencia o dependencia sindical [but also so much more], consensos y disensos en lo organizativo e ideológico, tensiones perpetuas de donde emergen las líneas y saltan los hilos,” threads that “se entrelazan, pero que no se pueden totalizar” (227). More than simply a historical or sociological account of Andean journals during a specified period of time, what this book ultimately offers is a posthegemonic theory of discourse that emphasizes its “materiality and volume,” in other words that treats discourse as terrain in its own right.
But what kind of terrain is this? None of these journals are exactly mountains. They come and go with mind-boggling frequency and rapidity, and much of Ortiz’s painstaking work has been dedicated to archival recovery of publications effectively for the most part lost to scholarly history. One expects of course that this will now change and that the effort evidenced here, and also in Ortiz’s own journal, the Mariposa Mundial, will now put such apparently ephemeral titles such as Inti or Kuntur on the map for other scholars. Much attention has been paid to, say, Amauta and the Boletín Titikaka, but this book presents us for the first time with the ecosystem from which such journals emerged and within which they were read and understood at the time of their publication. They can be seen no longer as isolated peaks, but as part of a whole cordillera. Similarly, the names attached to these journals, the individuals that have come to be seen as representative of the entire Andean avant-garde—Churata and Arturo Borda, César Vallejo and of course José Carlos Mariátegui—can now better be understood in terms both of their mutual interactions, and also of their exchanges and influences, differences and singularities, within an entire field of intellectual production that did not necessarily pass through the national capitals, Lima and La Paz. Ortiz restores density—again, materiality and volume—to an entire field of cultural production and intellectual innovation. In place of singular genius or isolated outcrops, we begin to sense the presence of a collective subject. Better still, following Ortiz, we should call it a non-subject, from which subjectivity is later adduced, or onto which it is projected by an intellectual history seeking to carve out a canon when it should be paying attention to the many canyons and mountain passes without which there would be no peaks at all.
It is, after all, now almost a commonplace in geomorphology that everything we learned in school about how mountains are created is wrong. The standard story goes that mountain ranges (the Andes but also the Himalayas and the Alps and so on) are the result of the movements of the great tectonic plates, an instance of how broad subterranean processes create and impact the terrain around us. Then weathering and other superficial forces gradually shape the resultant massifs in an endless dialectic of uplift and erosion. But as Peter Molnar and Philip England first suggested in an analysis of the formation of mountain ranges during the late Cenozoic (that is, in geological terms, the relatively recent past), in fact climate change, increased precipitation, and glacier melt equally carve out mountains from land mass that accordingly rises thanks to “isostatic rebound” as the weight of the ice sheets that once covered it is lifted. The more erosion, the more weight is lifted, the more rebound: “Isostatic compensation of material removed by erosion will elevate the remaining terrain” (“Late Cenozoic Uplift” 33). Thus rivers, for instance, rather than being a consequence of uplift, a by-product of mountainous terrain, in fact come first: rivers produce mountains, rather than the other way around.
Hence the “deep rivers” of the Andes beloved of José María Arguedas give rise to the monumental peaks down and around which they flow. Similarly, the literary flows that passed through the journals of Bolivia and Peru around what Ortiz calls the “aquatic axis” of Lake Titicaca likewise gave rise to the cultural terrain with which we have become familiar. The journals are not mere context, of perhaps peripheral interest even to the most dedicated Andeanist. They help to construct not just the terrain but also the sense of place incarnated the cultural world of the entire region. It is Ortiz’s great achievement to have delineated what he calls this “movimiento constituyente y potencial al interior de esa zona abigarrada de las revistas” (281). Or more precisely, this book shows the inherent connection between the “poder destituyente” of the Andean avant-garde, its refusal of the geopolitical mapping from the nation-state that aims to reduce everything to a two-dimensional plane (and plain), easily surveyed and controlled, and its constituent power, its intense productivity and drive to come up with something more interesting, more solid, more real. To think with mountains is to follow these flows that create them, these inconsistent torrents that rise and fall with the climate and the seasons. During the first half of the twentieth century, such rivers were in flood: a “yawar mayu,” as Arguedas would put it, full of the sediment whose agitated and sometimes violent movement not only carved the valleys and raised the peaks around then but also fertilized the plains below.
We owe, then, Rodolfo Ortiz a great debt. Not simply for revealing and untangling (to shift metaphors once again) some of the complex, knotty history of Andean cultural production and exchange of a century or so ago, but also for helping us rethink the project of literary history more generally. Such knots that were once, with the quipus of the Inca chasquis, a form of communication and accountability of their own, albeit in the service of a pre-Hispanic empire (for Empire we always have with us) are here loosened, if but a little, and their wayward threads can and should be picked up by others elsewhere, even those who live close to other, far distant, mountain ranges, perhaps on the flatlands by the coast. Restoring a sense of density to discourse as terrain can help us to re-knot or re-weave the web of politics, aesthetics, infrapolitics, and (indeed) infra-aesthetics in accordance with the frictions and affordances thrown up by other literatures, other histories. This book itself, then, builds on and amplifies what Ortiz calls “una dinámica de flujos transfronterizos que actúan a contrapelo del modelo geopolítico” (319). Eroding our siloed certainties, it raises everything around them to hint at a Global Andes, an Andeanism without borders. Not without some dread and disquiet, for sure, but also with a sense of potential and possibility, of renewed powers of resistance, we are all enjoined to feel what it means to think with an Illimani on the horizon.
Arguedas, José María. Los ríos profundos. Caracas: Fundación Editorial el perro y la rana, 2006.
Gordillo, Gastón. “Hostile Terrain: On the Spatial and Affective Conditions for Revolution.” Territory, Politics, Governance (2023). <https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2023.2172450>
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
—. “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime.” Trans. Paul Guyer. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings. Ed. Patrick Frierson and Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 9-62.
Molnar, Peter, and Philip England. “Late Cenozoic Uplift of Mountain Ranges and Global Climate Change: Chicken or Egg?” Nature 346 (July 5, 1990): 29-34.