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Book Excerpt: “Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta”

[This is an excerpt from Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta which won the SLA New Voices 2021 Book Prize]

This book is about the distribution of political gifts and the changing linguistic practices that mediate the relationship between the Warao of the Orinoco Delta and Venezuelan politicians. In a broader sense it sheds light on the interpenetration of the linguistic, performative, and gift-giving practices underlying current Venezuelan politics. This work focuses on the ways the Warao try to understand semiotic communicative practices in the context of a self-identified socialist revolutionary government. It analyzes how and why the Warao found themselves involved in electoral politics in the twentieth century and the consequences of such integration. The book argues that the challenge of understanding this relationship calls for an ethnographic exploration of acts of translation and transduction, and of meaningful correspondences between semiotic mediums. I focus throughout the book on publicly available text, discourses, and practices (Sherzer 1987; Urban 1991), and how they can be translated and transformed into other semiotic forms. These translations and transformations depend on a conceptualization of language as material social action, and of gifts as part of a general process of sign interpretation. My analysis is ultimately about the importance of processes such as translation, transduction, and co-naturalization of semiotic signs (Rosa 2019) for the construction of political reality in Venezuela.

I take as a background for my analysis perhaps the most important process of transformation and translation at work in Venezuela, that of oil revenue into state resources and ultimately into meaningful social/political relations. Venezuela became a “magical state” during the twentieth century (Coronil 1997). What makes it magical is that the state situates itself as a mediator between the social body of the nation, oil as the main product of export extracted from the nation’s natural body, and foreign capital. In this position the magical state mediates the relationship between international capital and the natural resources of the state on the one hand, and the social and political body of the nation on the other. 

The Venezuelan state has at its disposal a source of financial funding that allows it to take on a role independent from the people, and makes it capable sometimes of creating a clientelist relationship between politicians and their constituents. The state does not depend on taxes or any other form of public financing, and, at the same time, is capable of providing for the people with resources that seem to come straight from nature. Such a state is then capable of producing spectacular acts of development that seems to come out of nowhere. The magical state must be able to also produce the signs of a modern way of life. It, in Coronil’s interpretation, “‘captivates minds’ through highly rhetorical forms which seek the public’s compliance by leaving it, in Godzich’s words, boquiabierto (dumbfounded; literally open-mouthed)” (Coronil 1997: 4–5).

This book is an exploration of these rhetorical forms not as an abstract idea but as a matter of naturally occurring instances of language use and actual performances by politicians in their interactions with the nation’s social body. I take here a discourse-centered approach to language and culture (Urban 1991; Sherzer 1987), which requires paying attention to actual instances of language use to understand how the magical state is produced and sustained in the Orinoco Delta and what other semiotic forms, such as campaign gifts distributed during elections, play a role in captivating people’s political imagination.

Hanks and Severi (2014) have argued that translation should be central to understanding all cultural and social processes. I take that point to heart at multiple levels by paying attention to actual processes of linguistic translation, as well as the transformation of state resources available to politicians into meaningful performances for their constituents. Thus, both narrowly defined linguistic translations and broader semiotic processes of transforming oil into public performances are central to the creation of democratic publics (Warner 2002; Gal and Woolard 2001) and the Venezuelan political system.

The Venezuelan state is in a translating/transducting position. The state transforms natural resources into revenue, and rent into performances and gifts for the people. This is also a performative (Austin 1962) process that affects electoral politics in Venezuela as a whole. Venezuelan politicians are then forced by this structural dynamic to use the natural body of the nation to “promise paradise,” as Venezuelan playwright Jose Ignasio Cabrujas (1987) would put it.

The money obtained through oil is used to enchant the political body, which in turn expects nothing but the promise of instant reward from its political leaders. This has resulted in an extreme personalization of politics in Venezuela. Those leaders who have benefited from an oil boom are remembered as magicians who fulfilled the country’s fantasies, but those who could not use the natural body in this way have been rejected and at best forgotten in Venezuela’s history. They have been lost in translation, so to speak. 

Coronil’s analysis of Venezuela’s history is important as a point of entry into the mediated dynamic between the political body of the nation and the resources of the state. But, in this book, I want to argue that there is more to it than meets the eye in this process. While the political body of the nation is taken as already existing in Coronil’s analysis, I trace the incorporation of an indigenous people into this body as a particular kind of public. By this I mean as a kind of interpellated subject organized around text and discursive practices (Warner 2002). The Warao were not part of the political body of the nation in Coronil’s sense for most of the twentieth century. Rather, the magic of the Venezuelan nation-state is something that surrounded them but that they did not participate in until very recently. One has to ask what kinds of linguistic strategies need to be put in place for the magical state to take hold among indigenous communities. This implies a particular historical trajectory that sheds light into how forms of political speech are translated and how these forms come to craft the kind of publics that become, in turn, part of Venezuela’s political body. Such is the problem this book attempts to tackle, to add complexity to our understanding of how indigenous peoples are integrated into Venezuela’s political public sphere.

If you are interesting in getting Language and Revolutionary Magic in the Orinoco Delta by Juan Luis Rodriguez, we have a discount for our SLA community members! Get the book through Bloomsbury’s online store here and key in the code SOCLINGANTH20 (valid until 14th June 2022).