Juan Luis Rodríguez on his book, Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta


Interview by Rusty Barrett

Rusty Barrett: First, for those unfamiliar with Venezuela, could you explain the term “revolutionary magic”?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I first encountered the term revolutionary magic in one of Fernando Coronil’s interviews where he wondered whether the Bolivarian revolution would be a new iteration of what he called the magical state. Coronil argued back in the 1990s that Venezuela’s dependency on oil put the state in a mediating position between the social body of the nation and both its nature and international capital. This position made the Venezuelan state appear magical to Venezuelans because it had the possibility of carrying out grandiose projects of infrastructure and welfare policies with money that seemed to come from nowhere. The state, without taxing either its citizens or its industries, was in the position to undertake the process of making Venezuela a modern country. This magic, of course, has the downside of depending on the ups and downs of oil prices in the international market. When Chavez was elected to office in 1999, he took office at the end of a long period of economic crisis that extended from 1983 to the end of the1990s. After a few years in office, he found himself as the leader of a revolution (later he will call this turn socialism of the 21st century), and as the Venezuelan president that has managed the largest budget in the history of the country. Since roughly 2004 to the end of 2012 Venezuela received more money from oil exports than at any other time in its history. In this historical period Venezuela combined all the structural features of the magical state with all the utopian desires of a 21st century socialist. The term, revolutionary magic, then refers to the assemblages of performances, political ways of speaking, and infrastructural projects that emerge out of that combination of those factors. If the magic of the Venezuelan state in the 20th century produced a kind of modernity, in the 21st century this capacity was turned to construct a revolution. In both cases, modernity and revolution suffer from the same reliance on the state to scaffold rhetorical and performative apparatuses with an unreliable source of economic success.          

Rusty Barrett: Your work is clearly situated within the discourse-based approach to culture, why did you choose that particular framework? How does this approach address concerns beyond linguistic anthropology?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I came to learn about discourse-centered approaches to culture during my grad school years studying under Jonathan Hill and Anthony K. Webster. I still remember how reading Jonathan’s work and going to seminar with Tony grounded my work on the idea that I should go after naturally occurring instances of language use emphasizing the centrality of performance and showcasing the complexity of what people say while we do fieldwork. This was very important to me because this is what methodologically separated my work from Coronil’s who rather had the methodological gaze of a historian. I wanted to understand Venezuelan political discourse and gift-giving in the context of the magic of the state (or magical state), but I wanted to do it by paying attention to how people get folded into actual contexts of linguistic interaction where they must engage in actual political speech. The distribution of state resources and the magic of the Bolivarian revolution produced actual instances of language use. I wanted to go after that. Discourse-centered approaches, especially the branch coming down from Joel Sherzer, have always been associated with verbal play, poetics, and performance, and rightly so. I hope that my book shows how discourse-centered approaches to culture can also shed light on questions of political economy, revolution, and modernity that are often not addressed from this perspective.

Rusty Barrett: Your book emphasizes issues of translation and transduction. How are those concepts important for understanding the place of the Warao in Venezuelan politics?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: Part of the transition from what Chavez called the fourth republic into the Bolivarian revolution was a change in the kind of relationships that state institutions, and the Catholic church, had with Indigenous communities. After 1958, when dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez was deposed, Venezuelan political parties signed what was known as the Puntofijo pact and embraced representative democracy as a core ideological value. During this period, Indigenous peoples were regarded as potential constituents to be represented by appointed officials from the central government in Caracas. They were supposed to be integrated into Venezuela’s political and economic system, but that future was always imagined as a process of acculturation in which they become undifferentiated citizens who speak Spanish primarily. Their languages were supposed to disappear and, from the point of view of the State, it made sense to translate their oral traditions into Spanish making them cultural patrimony of the nation. In this way the ideals of representative democracy gave a specific directionality to the work of translation from Indigenous language to Spanish because the product of these texts was supposed to represent Indigenous peoples as future integrated citizens of a modern State. The work of the Magical State is to produce modernity, and during this period that meant pulling Indigenous peoples into the orbit of the state. The work of translation followed that logic.

This all changed with the arrival of Hugo Chávez to power. He opposed a new ideal of participatory democracy, and later socialism, to the previous ideology of political representation. This new ideology centered around the notion that people must have a degree of direct participation in the decision-making process and implementation of policies. This new ideological position was central to the writing of the new constitution in 1999. At the same time the circulation of texts and practices of translation was completely reversed. Indigenous peoples were now not supposed to be integrated as culturally and linguistically undifferentiated constituents who needed representation but as subjects who would keep these differences and participate in the democratic process themselves. The constitution, laws that affected Indigenous peoples’ lives, and the symbols of the nation, such as the national anthem, had to be translated into Indigenous languages. That reverted the flow of translation in the hope that it would give Indigenous peoples the knowledge and capacity to participate in the political life of the nation representing themselves in the process.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the Bolivarian revolution is how this process of political participation that seemed so good in paper never really took off. Instead, the nominal legal rights to participation have been contradicted with strategies of cooptation that allowed Chavez, and now Nicolas Maduro, to pose as if Indigenous peoples have achieved a degree of integration into the political decision-making process while in practices they marginalize and manipulate this participation. Indigenous peoples in Venezuela have recently faced a deterioration on the conditions of their voting rights as well as a brutal encroachment on their ancestral territories. The Bolivarian revolution has produced some of the most brutal ecological degradations in Indigenous territories through the so-called Arco Minero that only reproduces the logic of capitalist extraction that was supposed to be rejected with the arrival of the revolution.

This brings me to the place of transduction in my book. I understand transduction as the transformations, and assemblage, of signs across semiotic modalities. As I explain at the beginning of the book, the main process of transduction that I am interested in is the transformation of oil revenue into forms of political performances and political influence. Oil revenue support forms of political speech linked with ideologies of modernity and state control in Venezuela. My argument in the book is that despite the reversal on the flow of translations that correlated with a transition from representative to participatory democracy, the basic transduction of oil revenue into modernity and political control remained the same in both periods. In other words, despite rhetorical differences in ideological principles, Chavez’ revolution never really produced a systemic transformation in the structural conditions that marginalized Indigenous subjects in Venezuela. They might have more nominal rights now, but oil dependency still means those rights are principally rhetorical devices. The transduction of oil revenue into political performance and celebrated forms of modernity is an unstable structural condition subject to ups and downs of commodity markets and this means that the revolutionary gains in political participation can disappear at any moment.                      

Rusty Barrett: What aspects of your analysis do you feel are most useful for looking at the relationship between Indigenous communities and the state in places beyond Venezuela?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: I think my analysis is useful for understanding how the integration of Indigenous peoples into public political spheres–and the performative and communicative strategies used for that purpose–depend on kinds of ideological political project made possible by entire political-economic systems. The main goal of my book is to show how discourse-centered approaches to culture can help us accomplish that goal.

Another aspect of my analysis that I think can be useful is to bring attention to the ways in which State actors’ agendas and intentions do not determine the consequences of their actions. I tried to illustrate this point by bringing examples of political gift-giving which is in Venezuela stereotypically regarded as a form of political bribery, corruption, and coercion. I show how the gift per se does not accomplish any of this without further discursive engagement in the communities where is received. Likewise, promises of political gifts do not amount to simple deception since gift-giving and discourse form complex chains of interpretation in the Orinoco Delta. I hope these insights can served to inspire more ethnographic research into how these complex semiotic systems are developed under different political and economic conditions.   

Rusty Barrett: The book provides a language-based approach to understanding political gifts and campaign promises. In what ways do you see this approach as providing insights that might be overlooked by other approaches? What would you hope scholars in other fields take away from your analysis?

Juan Luis Rodriguez: What I would hope other researchers take away from my book is the necessity to see political gift-giving and speech as interrelated. The naturalness of the correlation between gift-giving and political influence that some researchers see in patron-client relationships do not occur without the mediation of a great deal of speech. Paying attention to these patterns allow us to understand how political influence through gift-giving and political promises is an interactional achievement that we cannot take for granted. I would hope that researchers interested in these kinds of questions will take a little more seriously the fact that naturally occurring instances of language use (discourse) provide not only frames for cultural interpretation but are, more importantly, embodied practices that make political gifts feel right or not in a particular social context. Paying attention to that relationship is central to how I study politics through the lens of a discourse-centered approach to culture.