Cyborgs, Post-Punk,
and the Neobaroque:
Ricardo Piglia’s
La ciudad ausente

N EAL STEPHENSON’S LITERARY CAREER surprised readers and critics
when it took a sharp turn from the future to the past — from his early cyber-
punk/science fiction novels, Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, to a series of nov-
els, The Baroque Cycle, set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In doing so,
Stephenson replaced cybernetic bodies and nanotechnology with blacksmiths,
natural historians, and early physicists. While this shift could be viewed simply
as an attempt by an author to reach beyond the genre that earned him a certain
standing in literary and academic circles, it suggests more importantly a connec-
tion between cyberpunk and the baroque — a connection that offers a model for
approaching Ricardo Piglia’s La ciudad ausente (1992; The Absent City, 2000), in which
we find both cyborgs and the textual pyrotechnics characteristic of the Latin
American neobaroque (see, for example, Salgado). In this essay, I propose a read-
ing of La ciudad ausente as a work of the neobaroque, or even ultra-baroque, in
order to theorize various strategies of literary and cultural intertextuality in nar-
ratives appearing recently throughout the Americas.
The connection between the cyborg and the neobaroque is certainly not new
with Stephenson, nor is the connection especially original within the Latin Amer-
ican context. The organizing image of Diego Rivera’s mural Pan American Unity
(1940) provides one such link between cyborg thinking and expressions of the
baroque. (See Fig. 1, “The Aestheticizing of the Creative Power of Northern Tech-
nology by Uniting It with the Artistic Tradition of the South,” the central panel
of the five that comprise the mural.) The left half of the central cybernetic figure
represents the Aztec goddess Coatlicue with her fangs, necklace of hearts, and
serpent skirt, and the right half an industrial stamping press, with the resulting
hybrid clearly intended to symbolize the union of the mechanical North and
the organic South, as the title of this panel insists. It should not be surprising,
then, that Chris Gray mentions Rivera’s figure in his discussion of cyborg art in
Cyborg Citizen:

Comparative Literature 61:3
DOI 10.1215/00104124-2009-018 © 2009 by University of Oregon

Central Panel: “The Aestheticizing of the Creative Power of Northern Technology by Uniting It with the Artistic Tradition of the South.Figure 1. Pan American Unity: Marriage of the Artistic Expression of the North and South of this Continent.” .

(5–6)1 Gray’s inclusion of Rivera’s mural as the final example of his introduction situates the cyborg at the meeting of North and South. . 3 For more information about Rivera’s Pan American Unity see Diego Rivera: A Retrospective. painted in 1927 on a wall in San Francisco’s City College. lies in the erasure of boundar- ies and the creation of an idea of America that goes beyond a simple syntagmatic arrangement. esp. viewing his recuperations and revisions as acts that resituate the baroque of colonial times in the neobaroque gestures of the twentieth century. religious ardor and plastic expression and the genius of the North . .riveramural.. much less something that celebrated a proposed fusion of North and South. his impulse to recuperate and revise are one.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 318 Take Diego Rivera’s great mural Pan American Unity. Of Rivera she notes in particular: As idealized as his (re)vision of Mexican indigenous history is. 2 Extending that logic to Pan American Unity. the mural was originally installed in the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts for the Golden Gate Exhibition in 1940. . In 1927 Rivera was in the USSR and would not have been inclined to paint anything for the U. 308–11. This mural is not what fi rst comes to mind when one thinks of cyborg art. . . half Indian goddess. 299–301. .” Perhaps this can be our future. It is a huge picture dominated by a giantess. . and Hamill 130–34. he was realistic in his recognition of the continuum that connected him to visual traditions and his tlacuilo forebears. Louis in April of 2008. as an example. “The Aestheticizing of the Creative Power of a Northern Technology by Uniting It with the Artistic Tradition of the South. especially in the context of neobaroque aesthetics.3 The power of cyborg thinking. and particularly to its center panel.S.” Rivera’s own characterization of his piece invokes the values of the Latin American baroque that Lois Parkinson Zamora has articulated so carefully in her recent book. and his radical revisions are aimed at constructing continuity despite rupture.com. 295. Like the Neobaroque writers whom we’ll discuss in the following chapters. Rivera’s essentialist insistence on the dichotomy between the mechanical North and spiritualistic South is not nearly as useful for this argument as is the hybrid- ized cultural product that the artist suggests.” we see how the cybernetic figure that unifies North and South represents a revisionism that makes cyborg art particularly appropriate to thinking about cultural and textual syncretism in the Americas. (78–79) Zamora focuses on Rivera’s use of prehispanic codices in his murals. . 2 I am grateful to Zamora for fi rst suggesting this connection in a presentation at Washington University in St. 4 Corey Shouse presents an excellent summary of baroque and neobaroque criticism that focuses on hybridity and heterogeneity. . Diego Rivera described Pan American Unity as a “fusion of the genius of the South . The essential hybridity of the cyborg figure and its celebration of artifice are both key characteristics of the Latin American baroque and suggest an impor- tant place for the posthuman figure in the neobaroque imaginary. For Rivera it represented the unification of the anima of South America with North America: ancient wisdom/ magic with technological power/magic. It is not Robert Longo’s All You Zombies or Robo-cop or even Eva from the movie Metropolis. and http://www. See Marnham. . Of course. a colossal cauldron of life. the precise position that this issue of Comparative Literature attempts to explore. creative mechanical explosion .4 Angela Ndali- anis shows that this exaltation of artifice (and the artificial) was essential to the sensibility of the historical baroque: 1 Actually. see also Moraña for an excellent discussion of this phenomenon in baroque studies (269–75). half robot machine. While Gray is not interested in the baroque or neobaroque implications of Rivera’s display of “cyborg art.

the human in the machine embraces this scientific technology: in the guise of Neo. La ciudad ausente (1992) begins with Junior. . is born. Furthermore. it interfaces with the technology in order to master it.” she continues. and Demaría. whose consciousness is now installed in a machine that gives physical form to the textual mechanisms designed by Macedonio in texts like El museo de la novela de la eternidad. Borges. Macedonio Fernández’s deceased wife. POST-PUNK. Piglia’s novel includes a Borgesian treatise on an island community in Tigre that organized its society according to its reading of Finnegans Wake. which consists of a series of prologues that lay bare the narrative structure of a novel that never gets around to appearing. The result is that a new being. In the case of a novel like La ciudad ausente. James Joyce. the creation (which has been granted motion and a spirit by the computer) threatens to overthrow the human as Creator.5 Most critics express an appreciation for the depth and breadth of Piglia’s literary references to Macedonio Fernández. and the postdictatorship. a place in which he encounters audiovisual exhibits that accompany these stories. this genealogy provides a way both to theorize Piglia’s cyborg figure and to navigate the more obscure refer- ences to cyberpunk aesthetics in the novel. the technological human. which range from the tale of a gaucho’s discovery of mass graves to that of an autistic girl’s fascination with fans. and Villiers. During the seventeenth-century baroque. as does Neal Stephenson’s neobaroque move to the historical baroque (see Hayles 276). but ultimately. Waisman examines Joyce and Macedonio Fernández in the novel (“Piglia”) and the textualization of the city (“De la ciudad”). The novel has received extraordinary critical attention in the fifteen years since its publication. (249) “Now. In our neobaroque times. Roberto Arlt. This is the fear that is narrativized in The Matrix. He slowly discov- ers that the source of these stories is Elena. CYBORGS. See also Kefala’s discussion of syncretist aesthetics in Piglia. science fiction genres. Much as in our own era. treatments of the city. ranging from Idelber Avelar’s influential study of mourning in the novel to examinations of intertextuality. an Anglo-Argentine reporter charged with discovering the source of a series of stories that sometimes miraculously anticipate the news and other times interweave fact and fiction. His investigation brings him to the Museum. a humanity that sought to mimic the grand Creator. as well as Bratsovich. artistry and technology also radiated a sense of the divine in the very fact that they were the creations of human- ity. becoming a sacred monster in the process. Balderston. The novel has also recently appeared as a graphic novel. The breadth of this critical attention is impressive. The creation may become the Creator. its use of science fiction tropes making it an especially appropriate work for importation into that visual(izing) genre. the adeptness of the creation reflected back on the scientific and technological capabilities of the culture in which it was created. narrative theory. with dozens of articles and chapters already published. as well as a sustained meditation on loss and mourning in post-dictatorship Argentina that runs throughout the var- ious stories and the narrative as a whole. AND THE NEOBAROQUE / 319 Automatons and sculptures played an important role in explaining the relationship between nature and culture. and Sánchez Prado gives noteworthy consideration to the mechanics of narration in the novel. to name some of the most oft-visited themes. we find ourselves in the midst of another paradigm shift. (250) Rivera’s cybernetic figure fits retrospectively within this artistic genealogy of cyber- punk. Philip Dick. 5 Lindstrom and Orecchia Havas have recently examined the use of foundational texts. among many others. the artist/scientist as creator threatened to overthrow God the Creator.

” (The Absent City 64) Elena’s ability to manipulate the silencing of the state from within and so trans- late stories into politically subversive material anticipates the function that Neo serves in Ndalianis’s casting of The Matrix as a neobaroque film. Mabel Moraña’s characterization of the ultrabaroque as occupying cyberspace is relevant here: Finally.” in which I argue that Piglia’s cyborgs are survivors of political violence. Second.6 Given Elena’s syncretic nature — as machine in a museum. personal grief. As long as she was in the machine. “does not mean anything. progressive. which saturates with the obscenity of over-representation and extreme availability of messages. new technologies. or the neobaroque as a model for understanding Piglia’s literary project. and it takes the shape of the word. although Piglia’s narrative mechanics proceed more immediately from the work of Macedonio Fernández. Thus.” Mac said. we have the reality of Elena. (250) Piglia’s museum exhibits are audiovisual containers of the “proof ” of the stories that the cybernetic Elena generates and thus become early hypertexts that Junior encounters as he also sees and hears those same stories in the exhibits (Brown). the soul is the only thing that is alive. What no one has done to date is use Piglia’s cyborg as a bridge to the neobaroque. we see in the connection between machine and story. where the strength of the worker founded in the fusion of North and South now stands as the scarred body of the survivor. and literary theory — she appears as the sorrowful daughter of Diego Rivera’s hopeful cyborg (Fig. as well as her truly cybernetic nature (she is human and machine. the Baroque is inserted in the virtuality of cyberspace. While Elena’s self- consciousness. linear. we cannot avoid hearing ironic echoes of the machinery of baroque cultural production in the neobaroque museum exhibits in La ciudad ausente. as character in a story that the machine narrates. “A body. the coincidence of La ciudad ausente’s publication with the arrival of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto made for a series of studies of Elena as Har- away’s subversive cyborg (see Jagoe and Masiello). in the settings of postmodernity. Elena’s function as mechanical artist not only anticipates the semi- otics of Neo and The Matrix. and. indeed. teleological course. 1). but also evokes the fascination of the historical baroque with the connections between art and the automaton. and with the multiple temporalities that modernity had ordered in a historical. Piglia’s location of the novel in the museum — both literally ( Junior reads the 6 This is the thesis of my article “Ricardo Piglia’s Cyborgs. their prosthetics serving simultaneously as life saving imple- ments that allow the survivors to continue and as constant reminders of the trauma that occasioned their need. . Then they would be able to process her memory and unrecord the information. not merely a human-made machine). distinguishes her from her baroque fore- bears.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 320 I (and others) have written about the posthuman aesthetic in La ciudad ausente. a biomachine born of trauma that becomes the cre- ator of the narrative reality of the novel itself. a dynamic similar to the production of meaning in baroque culture. technology and nar- rative. and that now are displaced and endlessly rearticulated in a communicative carnivalization. Note the descrip- tion of Elena’s resistance to interrogation within one of the stories that Junior encounters: He was afraid that the doctors would inject her with anesthesia and take her to the operating rooms. as prod- uct of the disparate forces of political violence. First. We can use his cyborg in two ways. she could overcome matter and resist.

suggests levels of complexity inherent in baroque aesthetics. Macedonio Fernández. POST-PUNK. a constant of the human spirit that is characterized by a horror of the vacuum. These materials appear in various forms.7 La ciudad ausente presents a series of references that act as nuclei of signification. and when undone they release a series of meanings that. but this time through a game of oblique references and obscure allusions. the harmony of linear geometry.” an implicit allusion to Severo Sarduy’s theory of the neobaroque (see “The Baroque and the Neo- baroque”). . . especially in the realm of literary attribution. And yet. even beautiful. Nudos blancos is the title of one of the key stories that Junior encounters. these “white nodes” are important structuring and theoretical elements in the novel. the baroque. a style where the central axis. decorative elements that completely fill the space of the construction. Joyce. on the other hand. a testimo- nial that forms a part of the subversive proliferation of narratives throughout the city. so Piglia introduces his so-called nudos blancos to perform similarly expansive narrative acts. and Arlt all appear in the novel. we find a series of literary and cult references that heighten the experience of the hybrid text. it would be a sufficient. I refer. In fact. combination of narrative and cinematic aesthetics. especially if approached by means of Alejo Carpentier’s con- cept of nuclei proliferantes: We have. largely forgotten. the walls. and their presence has provided a great deal of grist for the critical mill. the naked surface. These apparently organic cerebral nodes hold the key to memory. of course. and. . these white nodes are described as “areas of condensation. I would argue. thus producing the noir cliché in which the protago- nist appears half illuminated. is surrounded by what one might call “proliferat- ing nuclei. surrounded by the 7 As we begin to tease out some of the more obscure references. These nuclei can either be glossed over or undone. to the now infamous case in which Piglia pretended to discover a previously unpublished story by Roberto Arlt. which is not always manifest or apparent . half in shadow. CYBORGS. but principally those related to art and litera- ture. One important nucleus. . This striking visual moment prepares the reader for the introduction of one of the machine’s stories. that launch or project forms centrifugally. moments that can expand indefinitely when examined but which remain latent when not observed carefully. more importantly. it would be well to keep in mind Piglia’s playful suggestion that the reader is a detective. See McCracken’s article for a description and excellent analysis of Piglia’s exploits. presence in Argentine literature. or nudo blanco. the entire city caught between the gleam of electric light and the darkness of the evening. Alongside the neobaroque cybernetic figures in Piglia’s text. Piglia emphasizes the beams that bathe the night sky in blue. (93) Just as Carpentier describes the expansive force of baroque elements that fill the spaces into which they are introduced. particu- larly in readings of Piglia’s vindication of Macedonio Fernández as a major. Borges. If this were the entirety of the scene. all architecturally available space: motifs that contain their own expansive energy. occurs near the end of the first section of the novel when Junior is leaving the city (29–30).” that is. as well as the problems that stem from taking the Argentine writer at his word. and they must be untied and unlocked in the same way that myths are deciphered (Piglia. AND THE NEOBAROQUE / 321 stories that compose the novel in the museum) and figuratively (Elena becomes the symbolic source of the entire novel)— creates precisely the kind of cyber- space experience that Moraña describes in her analysis of the ultrabaroque. La ciudad 71). Poe.

8 For more information on the band. and the fan website. reality. One of them falls in love with a trapeze artist and decides to abandon the angelic realm and become mor- tal. Junior decides to accompany the ver- bal and visual with the auditory. putting on his headphones to listen to Crime and the City Solution. who included them in his 1988 film Wings of Desire. Piglia’s novel engages in a dialogue with this scene in the Wenders film. also.9 Piglia’s reference to Crime and the City Solution invites us to pay close attention to the next reference to music and the act of listening to music. Both bands apparently attracted the attention of the German film director Wim Wenders. a band whose name fits the noir aesthetic so perfectly that it seems invented for the novel. thanks mainly to the success of the other members of The Birthday Party. The reference to Ballard’s story (published in 1963) creates a narrative space that. In this case. the author of such novels as Crash (1973) and Empire of the Sun (1984). juxtaposes oddities in dynamic relation. . Piglia most likely learned of Crime and the City Solutions’s existence from their appearance in this film. The Hunger. rather. Throughout the film we hear long meditations on the nature of life. connect and then move on to other signify- ing contexts. The scene in which Crime and the City Solution appears is marked by a swooping camera that travels from shots of the band and Simon Bon- net to a crowd that includes the trapeze artist and the angel. In the midst of all this. playing a song called “The Reptile Enclo- sure” (76). see Buckley 249–50. The Hunger is not an actual band and “The Rep- tile Enclosure” is not an actual song. and desire intercut with images of the ruins of post-war Berlin and the Holocaust. who had gone on to form the group Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. and was active through 1978.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 322 cinematic scenery of the ride out of town. Paradise Cybertheque <http://www.org/crime/> 9 This is not the only reference to film in the novel. only to disband and then reform in 1984 (in Berlin) by including members of another recently dissolved band. The Birthday Party. This reconstitution helped Crime and the City Solution gain vis- ibility. watching their lives and commiserating with their pain.8 Wings of Desire presents the story of angels who live invisibly among humans. as well as several science fiction texts. a connection that seems all the more important given Piglia’s co-authorship of the film La sonámbula. Piglia thus creates an active visual and auditory space in which his nudos blancos (necessarily verbal) move in and out of relation to other media. Junior is following El Tano and Elena (not a machine but a patient in a sanitarium that bears a striking resemblance to a dirty war detention center). it is the title of a short story by J. and Piglia’s character Junior becomes Wender’s angel Damiel as he searches for an Elena who is also Marion. Ballard.bad-seed. In fact. At this point in the novel. as does Ballard’s more famous museum piece The Atrocity Exhibition. which contains a series of visual references to Tartovski’s film. Crime and the City Solution is an Australian band that was founded in Melbourne in 1977 at the cusp of the transition from New York and British punk to a post-punk aesthetic. the characters attend two concerts given by the bands in a ruined night club. like a zoo. The group was loosely organized around its lead singer.G. the trapeze artist in the film who can cause the fall of angels. Simon Bonnet. Cervera Salinas argues convincingly for a link between La ciudad ausente and Andrei Tartovski’s film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (362–63). See. the discussion of The Hun- ger below. and he hears an Irish band. however.

” which is included in the McOndo anthology. CYBORGS. self- consciously invokes a story that overflows its boundaries — and literally so in the case of the beachgoers of Ballard’s tale. and other entertainment media are expanding ever outward as they intersect with diverse media in a multitude of ways. an undercurrent of popular culture that informs Piglia’s narrative and the ambience in which his characters find themselves. computer games. although differences in cinematic style are also evident throughout. and the cuts between Murphy. the band Joy Division has written and performed a song named “The Atrocity Exhibition. then. . Indeed. Unfortunately. The fact that the seekers in both The Hunger and Wings of Desire are immortal and hold secrets strengthens the similarities. and narrative nuclei thus expand and bleed into one another in La ciudad ausente according to the dynamics of a post-punk/goth sensibility.” His short story “Señales captadas en el corazón de una fiesta. musical. also incorporates references to bands and popular songs in order to construct implicit “soundtracks. is based on the confluence of a David Byrne album and a song by the Pet Shop Boys. The Hun- ger is now remembered (if it is remembered at all) for the surprising stature of its cast (Catherine Deneuve. and trapeze artist in Wenders’s Wings of Desire.10 In the story Ballard explores the unexpected and uncontrollable instincts that drive humans to mass suicide. AND THE NEOBAROQUE / 323 which aims to create a museum of the pornographic. Piglia’s fictitious Irish band can thus be situated alongside other (actual) bands inspired by Ballard’s work. 1983). “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (1979). Susan Sarandon. a force that cannot be enclosed and that defies the taxonomical aspirations that museums and zoos suggest. we can see the kind of erosion of boundaries between artistic forms and genres that Ndalianis has identified as an essential element of the connection between the neobaroque and contemporary entertainment: The boundaries of fi lms. and sought that anticipates the triangular relationship of Simon Bonnet. and their prey form a triangle of musician. The active and reflexive engagement of specta- tors and game players in a critical understanding of the process of meaning production is also integral to the neo-baroque. Cinematic. themati- cally as well as structurally. seeker.11 These brief observations about La ciudad ausente lead us back to ideas we first perceived in baroque and neobaroque aesthetics. a friend and admirer of Piglia’s. 11 Rodrigo Fresán. His insistence on a menacing force that lies beneath the consciousness of humans and also peers down on them via satellites suggests the state’s mechanical surveillance and the unspoken horror of Argentina’s expe- rience of the postdictatorship. the vampire couple (Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie). which appeared at approximately the same time that Crime and the City Solution was reconstituted. angel. The neo-baroque nature of these media is not only reflected in their open form. the film’s depiction of Peter Murphy (the lead singer of Bauhaus) singing inside a cage and grasping the bars that separate him from the camera is surely the inspiration for the fictitious song (“The Reptile Enclosure”) sung by Piglia’s fictitious band (The Hunger). and David Bowie) and an introductory scene in which the two lead vampires hunt prey in a nightclub while the group Bauhaus plays its best-known song. On an initial level. POST-PUNK. (72) 10 Coincidentally. trans- gressing the shores of both life and ocean.” itself inspired by the Ballard book. The name of Piglia’s fictional band also adds to the neobaroque circulation of post-punk/goth tonal aesthetics in the novel by alluding to a 1980s vampire film with the same title (The Hunger. Piglia’s intertextual reference to Ballard. who rush into the sea to drown. Ballard’s story also evokes the baroque.

cre- ates a multimedia text that I have described as neobaroque. North and South. and science fiction becomes an expression of a globalized engagement with expressive forms and experiences that continues to connect the North with the South. and Edmundo Paz Soldán. Junior’s perusal of the museum. More often we see texts that spring from the inter- section of film. as well as Piglia’s inclusion of explicit musical elements and implicit film references. and graphic novels — from Fuguet’s Por favor. rebobinar (1998) and Paz Soldán’s El delirio de Turing (2003) to Gibson’s recent non-sf novels. popular music. Las hormigas asesinas) points to his neobaroque artistic practice.COMPARATIVE LITERATURE / 324 In the case of La ciudad ausente this crossing of boundaries has occurred quite lit- erally by means of its recent adaptation by Pablo Santis as a graphic novel with art by Luis Scafati. These gestures are neobaroque in that they call attention to the artifice of art. both high and popular. Severo Sarduy’s essay “The Baroque and the Neobaroque. Washington University in St. and the films. take both viewer and character to concerts where we experience together the “live” music provided by real musical groups. The Chilean author Alberto Fuguet. Piglia’s inclusive struc- ture links art forms in the Americas and in Europe (the music and films I have discussed are German and English). Piglia’s creation of a text that combines cyborg bodies. This aesthetic. but always and overlappingly both.” . Pattern Recognition (2003) and Spook Country (2007). hybridized genres. Piglia’s neobaroque mix of literature. perhaps without Rivera’s idealism but nevertheless in a space that is not one or the other. television. and Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude (2003). art film. for example) to works by such a North American authors as Neal Stephenson. has recently published a graphic novel version of his “Road Story.” toward which the “condensa- tions” of Piglia’s nudos blancos already gesture. and radical intertextuality suggests the formation of a new kind of Pan American Unity in which disparate elements of Western culture. William Gibson. in which narrative springs from the interplay of multiple genres of popular and elite culture. not all of these novels could be considered science fiction in the same sense as Stephenson’s or Piglia’s. Rodrigo Fresán. nor even one and the other. whose tendency to include popular culture in his novels and then make films that extend his novels (Se arrienda. the globalized and globalizing exchange of genres creates an aesthetic that suggests a continuing place for (neo) baroque thinking about recent American literary production. like the novel. contemporary music. Of course. In each case. from the emphasis on artifice to the importance of cinema in new articulations of the baroque.12 But the novel anticipates this more literal neobaroque act with the construction of a narrative universe nourished by proliferating intertwined references to art that extend well beyond the literary texts that have received so much critical attention in Piglia’s work. and even Jonathan Lethem. Louis 12 This is a recent phenomenon that is becoming increasingly frequent. suggests a way of approaching novels that range from ones produced by several Latin American “McOndo” writers (Alberto Fuguet. outlines Piglia’s narrative strategies point by point. are stitched together in a novel that goes far beyond the usual critical discussion of mourning or literary homage or vindication. creating a kind of mise-en-abime in which the music inside the film inside the novel produces what Martin calls “an intensified style-consciousness” (35) that Ndalianis and others consider basic to the neobaroque aesthetic.

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