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Painted Brain | In Collaboration With Elena, The Schizoid-droid Machine Character In Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City
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In Collaboration With Elena, The Schizoid-droid Machine Character in Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City

The streets smelled of chemicals. There was a mix of burnt orange smell with a hint of gasoline and some other unidentifiable smells. I was smoking cigarettes then and they too had pungent chemical odors, but I was still compelled to smoke them. Within the smoke clouds, I thought there were dead bodies hidden in the bushes. If this sounds like a dystopian futuristic novel, it isn’t. This is what I was experiencing while I was having a psychotic break in the winter of 1993…

I am beginning my paper with this because it is not that different from some of the stories conveyed by Elena, the schizoid machine/character in Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City. In a section of the novel entitled “The Recording” the machine tells a story in which there is a description of a mass grave, built to hide the bodies of the disappeared in the Argentino proseso. The Machine tells us “there were all sorts of terrible things in there, bodies piled up, remains, even a woman all rolled up, sitting like this, her arms across her legs…” (Piglia 33).

In addition to my experiences with psychotic breaks, I, along with my family, was exiled from Argentina in 1976. Growing up I heard similar stories to those in The Absent City. Things like, “ She knew that the clinic was a sinister place. When Doctor Arana came in, he confirmed her worst fears. He seemed to be there just to make every single paranoid delirium come true”(Piglia 58). Later we see Doctor Arana torturing Elena.   

I along with my immediate family was exiled from Argentina in 1976 due to the toppling of the civilian government and the rise of a military dictatorship. As a child and a young adult I heard about terrible things the dictatorial government did to the people. As I write I will use all of these experiences to inform my analysis.    

When contemplating madness, as a mad person I find it particularly difficult to answer the question what is madness. I know that folks experiencing madness are somehow different from other folks but I am still not sure exactly how we are different or what the true meaning of that difference is. One of the main problems with defining some as “mad” and others as “sane” is that in our current dominant culture there is an inherent false dichotomy in the labels. Michel Foucault’s Birth of The Clinic makes this dichotomy between “sane” and “insane” a central part of his work, as does Shayda Kafai in her “Mad Border Body.”

Psychology Today defines madness as “a mental illness of such a severe nature that a person can not distinguish fantasy from reality.” This may be one of the most popular and well-established definitions. But this definition begs the question of what is fantasy and what is reality? Often the definition of madness is simply a juxtaposing of madness to sanity or reason. There always seems to be this binary and privileging of one over the other. 

When talking about madness and delineating what madness is and how it is to be treated we are talking about some of the highest human functioning. When we speak of reason versus madness this discussion focuses even more sharply. What is reason? What is madness? These are questions that are perhaps unsolvable. And maybe that is a good thing for folks experiencing madness.

What is needed then perhaps is more of a complicating and a reimagining of madness. Shayda Kafai in her essay “The Mad Border Body” provides just that.  “Crucial in the conversation of sanity and madness are the values and judgments that are assigned to each term.” (Kafai 2).  Kafai goes on to describe how sanity is favored and insanity disfavored. But Kafai also states that the true experience of madness came when she “began to consider the application of this in-betweenness…  identifying a border existence in the context of madness”(Kafai 4). In this work there is a complication and a multiplicity assigned to the term madness.

In another way Deleuze and Guattari in the book A Thousand Plateaus and also in their book Anti-Oedipus, look at schizophrenia as a pair of opposing tendencies, the schizoid and the paranoid. Each of these tendencies has different effects on the person experiencing them and also on society (Rojas).

Therefore my goal is to take a complex view of madness. I will look at madness as the “schizoid” and the “paranoid” as Deleuze and Guattari do. I will also consider how Elena, the mad machine, in Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City uses madness and her “schizoid” and “paranoid” tendencies to defy the totalitarian state as Rojas explains, “As such, paranoia and schizophrenia can be viewed in Deleuze and Guattari as two opposing types of madness, the first being repressive and authoritative while the other is liberating and resistant” (Rojas 74).  I will also take Kafai’s ideas into question, particularly her formulation that madness is a multiplicity, a simultaneous set of experiences.

Beyond this form of madness there is also the idea of the beautiful lunatic, which is as Jack Kerouac eloquently wrote in On the Road, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (Kerouac 5). I remember reading this book in my junior year of high school and falling in love with the type of madness described here. I felt like one such mad person. I felt that to truly live and experience life I would need to enter this form of madness.

When discussing madness in literature as opposed to real life, however, it is necessary to consider how madness and other forms of disability have functioned in literature over time. In the book Narrative Prosthesis, Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse the authors David T. Mitchell and Sharon L Snyder take up this issue:

Our thesis centers not simply upon the fact that people with disabilities have been the object of representational treatments, but rather that their function in literary discourse is primarily twofold: disability pervades literary narrative, first as stock features of characters, and, second, as an opportunistic metaphorical device.” (Mitchell, Snyder 47).

There is definitely some of this at play in The Absent City. The character of Elena is a mad person most definitely. Also Narrative Prosthesis puts forth the idea that the disability of a character is often used as a device to further a plot or as a metaphorical device. Again this is at play in The Absent City. One is left to wonder how much of Elena’s character falls to such stereotype and also convenient and how much Piglia use Elena’s madness to further the plot in this novel. Although Elena is clearly a mad person, and her character might fall to convention in some parts, the concept of madness itself is squarely drawn into question. It is not altogether clear who the real mad people are. There is Junior on a quixotic journey to find Elena, there is Doctor Arana a torturer and a psychiatrist in a state hospital, there is a museum guard who protects or infiltrates a hidden machine in a museum that has been closed, there are also many other minor characters. Some scientists, some writers, a bookshop owner, police, and in a way everyone in this novel is inflicted by some form of madness. There is also an air of suspiciousness to everyone. The motives of the characters are complex and layered. Every character seems to be pumping others for information while at the same time getting pumped for information.

When taking the ideas of Narrative Prosthesis into account and reflecting it back to The Absent City, my goal is to reveal who Elena is and whether her character is an authentic one. Is Elena a stock character that falls to convention or is her character more dynamic, more authentic. I believe that Piglia does make Elena complex. Just the fact that she is so many things, cyborg, human, woman, machine, and perhaps myth, storyteller, collector of stories, translation machine, disseminator of stories, she is multi dimensional.

In Piglia’s book, the reader is reintroduced to the character of Elena as a Machine, a Woman, a Mental Patient, and with these incarnations are associated with the mythos that are explored in the book when the author writes: “We are not dealing with a machine, but with a more complex organism” (Piglia 89). In this section of the book, Elena is portrayed as a cyborg with human tendencies, more than organism and more than a machine. In “A Cyborg Manifesto” Donna Haraway talks about cyborg characters like Elena being “Organisms (that) could be mechanized—reduced to body understood as resource of mind” (Haraway 178). The character of Elena is most definitely one such being. A construction of the mind, she is much more than just machine and even much more than organism. Also, what Haraway later explains is that the cyborg gains most in her mental abilities than in any other. Elena is also just that as she uses her mind to feed censored stories to Junior and also to avoid detection by the authorities.

Who or what Elena really is remains a mystery. Elena is a type of mythos and a type of fiction. J Andrew Brown offers some valuable insights to this mythic notion in his article “Cyborgs, Post-Punk, and the Neobaroque: Piglia’s La ciudad ausente” In this article Brown looks at the myth associated with Piglia’s Elena and how she relates to a mural by Diego Rivera. Brown tells us “… Diego Rivera’s great mural Pan American Unity… This mural is not what first comes to mind when one thinks of cyborg art… It is a huge picture dominated by a giantess, half Indian goddess, half robot machine… For Rivera it represented the unification of the anima of South America with North America, ancient wisdom/ magic [in compilation with] technological power” (Brown 318). Brown uses the giantess in Rivera’s mural to connect to the mythos of the Americas. He also uses it as a way to connect what he calls the neo-baroque to the post punk. Brown spends a lot of time in his article talking about the hybrid. Whether it is the cyborg or the hybrid text, there is much that Brown wished to bridge in his work.

To this point of hybridity and bridging, Brown states, “Piglia’s creation of a text that combines cyborg bodies, hybridized genres, and radical intertextuality suggests the formation of a new kind of Pan American Unity” (Brown 234). Here Brown is emphasizing how Piglia combines “cyborg bodies, hybridized genres, and radical intertextuality”(Brown 324), in The Absent City and how such combinations lead us back to the mural by Rivera. There is also an entering into the myth of North America and the myth of South America; the North being associated with mechanism and the south with spirituality.

As a person who was born in South America and has lived the majority of my life in North America, I too yearn for Pan American Unity. It would be great and wondrous if the spiritual insights and way of being associated with South America could unite with the technology and industry of North America. Let the giantess come to life. In a way, Brown claims, this union is something that Piglia has begun to create with The Absent City.

Returning back to The Absent City, one of the few times we truly meet Elena the character is when Junior (an independent journalist who is searching for Elena and what she really is) discovers clues about where to meet her as he receives essential information from her. He also sleeps with her and the next day, after their rendezvous, the police show up at the same hotel room to arrest her. The police are careful to discredit Elena in every way. They tell Junior that she is a prostitute, that she feeds information to the police and that she lives in a delusional state. All she said to him is fantasy they claim, “She’s at the external phase of fantasy, an addict running away from herself. She interjects her hallucinations and must be watched” (Piglia 80). Again the authorities are discounting her. They go on to say, “The police… are completely removed from all fantasy. We are reality. We only care about real events. We are servants of the truth” (Piglia 80). Of course these assertions from the police are clearly the real fantasy. Here again we get the notion that the police, and the State as an extension of the police are the one who can dictate what is normal and true and also what is fantasy and false. Michel Foucault in his Birth of The Clinic describes how the mental clinic became this arbiter of normality. He states “Nineteenth century medicine, on the other hand, was regulated more in accordance with normality than with health.” (Foucault 35) Kafai also makes this point.

We can also see Elena as a keeper of story. In one of her origin stories she is described as initially being created as a translation machine as Piglia wrote:

The machine “spontaneously” breaks up elements of Poe’s story and transforms them into fictional nuclei. This is how the initial plot had emerged. The myth of origin. All the stories came from there. The future meaning of what was occurring depended on that story about the other and what is to come. Reality is defined by the possible (and not what was). (83)

Within her first translation Elena changes the story she is meant to translate. This is important for a variety of reasons. First, Elena does not follow orders. She is a creative machine. Also she introduces some of herself into all she does. Here, Eunice Rojas in her book Spaces of Madness offers some crucial insight, when Rojas states, “While the machine’s function of storytelling is described as one of translation, the State’s … recoding of its own history is described in the novel as “retranslation.” According to Russo, the engineer who helped Macidonio create the story-telling machine, the State “retranslates” thereby altering the collective memory of the people” (Rojas 77). Here we see the difference between the official State story and the story that Elena tells, the story from below. Elena keeps many stories and releases them to Junior, and presumably, to many others.

When thinking about how stories operate and how I have learned from stories in my life I think of the article by Daniel G. Solórzano and Tara J. Yosso “Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research” For me when I think about how I listened to stories my family told me about the years of repression in Argentina and also about current topics as I grew up there was much resonance. Also Elena as a compiler of stories and as a disseminator of stories has much in common with the ideas put forth by Solórzano and Yosso. The article states “Storytelling and counter-storytelling these experiences can help strengthen traditions of social, political, and cultural survival and resistance.” (Solórzano and Yosso 32). Elena does this work. She holds stories and tells them to the media and to others who will listen.

Elena also tells the Sorry From Below. This is very similar to the History From Bellow as described by Laura Sangha in “David Hitchcock, ‘Why History From Bellow Matters More Than Ever.’” In this essay Hitchcock outlines the importance of telling stories usually overlooked, similar to the stories told be Elena. As Sangha references Hitchcock who wrote “I believe that “History from Bellow” is history which preservers, and which foregrounds, the marginalized stores and experiences of people who, all else being equal, did not get a chance to author their own story. History from Below tires to readdress that most final, and brutal, of life’s inequalities: whether you are forgotten”(Sangha).

No longer forgotten, I too am a storyteller. I have chosen fiction as my primary form of storytelling and there is much in this book and in the character of Elena that I identify with as a storyteller. And in a way as a mad person who has had experiences far outside the normal range, I too am a type of mad storyteller. Fiction and madness in my life offer a certain type of freedom. To speak as a mad person and as a fiction writer I am often discounted. And so, in a way, I can tell more truth. As can many mad people. Our version of the story is often scrutinized and discounted. Not unlike others who dare to tell the story from beneath and question the Official State Story.

When considering the character of Elena we have to remember that she appears in a vast variety of ways, as one of her powers is in multiplicity. She appears as a real live woman, as the one Junior encounters. She also appears as a machine in a museum. She also appears as a variety of different apparatus incarnations throughout different geographical parts of and in different time periods in Argentina. The most relevant thing to consider here is her ability to be simultaneous. Kafai places what she calls “The Mad Border Body” as “a positionality that questions the implications of undoing social ideologies and stereotypes, particularly those that construct madness as categorically distinct from sanity” (Kafai). Again, there is this multiplicity here.

Kafai draws heavily from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands, La Frontera, in her analysis and creation of “The Mad Border Body.” When looking at Anzaldua and this notion of multiplicity and borders we can see how borders work into Kafai’s conceptualization. Anzaldua speaks of mixings, of multiple forms, in her chapter “La Conciencia de La Meztiza. Towards a New Consciousness” Anzaldua uses the metaphor of mixing to describe the racially mixed meztiza, part Indigenous, part European and part African to get to the reality of mixing. “These new ideas leave la meztiza floundering in uncharted seas. In perceiving conflicting information and points of view, she is subjected to a swamping of her psychological borders. She has discovered that she can’t hold concepts or ideas in rigid boundaries” (Anzaldua 101).  Again there is this idea that there is not just one identity, there is a “rupturing of binaries” as Kafai puts it.

As a mad person I have often encountered this dichotomy. The mad part of me is less than the sane part of me. Though I too, like Kafai, am both at the same time. I also think of those who have imposed their view on the world, those who insist that they have the only true version of reality. They often appear as authoritarian and closed-minded. The mad folk are often capable of seeing multiple truths.  The notion in Anzaldua of a “swamping” of consciousness is very relevant to my own experience with madness. For me when I first became mad it seemed like everything was dissolving. Everything that I could hold on to turned into a swamp; everything overflowed and sank into everything else, an erosion of all borders, or a sense that the border was everywhere. I truly became the “Mad Border Body”(Kafai).

When considering Elena and how she is depicted as well as how she was created and how she is treated in the novel it is relevant to think about Alison Kafer’s Feminist Queer Crip book. Kafer tells us of a child known as Ashley X that due to her diagnosis of  “static encephalopathy” just after her birth was altered by her parents so that she would never grow into an adult body, although Ashley X would age, she would unfortunately remain infantile. This sentiment of the power over what her-parents-know-best is similar to what Elena experiences. Doctor Arana in the insane asylum is trying to remove parts of Elena’s brain. He claims he is doing it for her own good. Again, there is this sense that Elena like Ashley X is not permitted to be herself and that others know better. While there are some real differences between Elena and Ashley X there are also some striking similarities. Kafer tells us:

From the beginning, the Treatment was described as a way to correct the disjuncture between Ashley’s body and mind. “When you see Asheley,” Dr Dickema tells CNN, “it’s like seeing a baby in a much larger body.” Without the Treatment, this disjuncture would only become more pronounced, as Ashley would eventually become not only a baby in a much larger body, but a baby in an adult’s body. (Kafer 53).

Elena is said to have “white nodes” in her brain that are very interesting to Doctor Arana. She is housed in a clinic where the doctor does drug experiments on her and tries to get to the white nodes. Again there is this notion that Elena like Ashley X is someone who cannot make decisions for herself. She needs to be controlled and altered for her own good. “So they took her twice a week to an institute in La Plata and followed the orders given by Doctor Arana, who treated her with electric shock treatment. He explained that the girl lived in an extreme emotional void”(Piglia 47). Again Elena is treated with this shock treatment for her own good. Later in the novel, Doctor Arana is depicted giving prolonged drug experiments to Elena and preparing to operate on her in what can only be viewed as a type of torture.

I too have experienced this as a mad person, though to a much lesser degree. During different parts of my journey through the mental health system, I was treated as a child. My needs and desires were discounted. People made decisions for me that I could clearly make for myself. I was relegated to being an incompetent.

I want to dwell for a moment on the idea of “conflicting information and points of view”(Anzaldua 77). This is relevant to Elena for a variety of reasons. She is able to hold difference. She is part machine and also, part organism. Elena holds the stories of the State, but also the story from below. When considering the cyborg Haraway tells us that, “The relationships for forming wholes from parts, including those of polarity and hierarchical domination, are at issue in the cyborg world” (Haraway 151). Here again is this notion of opposing worlds and maybe even oppositional realities existing at once.

Here it is relevant to consider history in general and as a person exiled from Argentina, I often heard of the difference between the Official Story and the story from below. Around the dinner table we were told that the Official Story often leaves important parts out. In a way, we were encouraged to consider both the Official Story as well as the story from below. We were definitely from south of the border and this border crossed us more than we crossed it. We were forced to flee our homeland and run into the arms of the north. Growing up I also felt like I was between worlds. I felt like I did not belong anywhere. There was this idea of in-between, I felt like I was in a type of borderlands.

Going back to Anzaldúa’s, she defies borders as: “Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge” (Anzaldúa 25). Here we get the idea that borders are meant to separate. But Anzaldúa goes on to describe people, places, and things that occur within the zone of the border, identities that are forever trapped and multiple in the same instant. This is also what Kafai gets at when she creates “The Mad Border Body.” This is a body that is on the border of mad and sane, or perhaps both and neither in the same instant. There is the idea of being on the border, neither here nor there, but somehow everywhere. Like the idea that if the universe is infinite than everywhere is the center. The border has no center and is also, all center at the same time.

Another fascinating thing to consider about Elena the schizoid-droid machine is where she gets her power source. All machines must have power. But we never get a clear explanation in the novel as to where Elena draws her power. There is lots of reference to the makers of the machine. There are Russo and Macidonio who seem to have built the machine. There is also reference to the Argentino president Juan Peron and his atomic scientists,’ “He even knows quite well that it was being said that he was Richter the atomic physicist, who had tricked general Peron by selling him the secret to make an atomic bomb in Argentina.” (Piglia 115). There are many of these references to scientists and atomic power but there is no clear explanation of where Elena gets her power.

There is also reference to the telepathic power of the State, “The president is crazy and his ministers are all psychopaths. The Argentine state is telepathic. Its intelligence services can read minds from a distance. It can infiltrate the thoughts of the bases:” (Piglia 55). If the Argentine state has this type of power it might be that the makers of Elena used this same power source, a type of psychic power.

Another relevant quote about psychic power is made during a conversation when Junior is on the search for Elena. “There is a certain relationship between telepathic faculties and television,” he said all of a sudden, “the technical—myopic lens of the camera records and transmits the repressed hostile thoughts of the masses and converts them into images”(Piglia 55). While this quote is simply stated by a passer by in a bar close to a train station, it is also relevant. Maybe Elena gets her power from TV stations or some aerial wave, again some sort of psychic power. This is also a likely power source because there is reference to Elena and psychic power throughout the novel, namely the fact that Elena fed Junior, the independent journalist, news before it actually happens.

I believe there is also an argument that Elena gets her power from the holding and telling of stories and also from the breaking apart of grand narratives. The book its self is highly fractured in its design and this fractured narrative style might be imbued to show Elena as she is the primary storyteller in the novel. “In a sense what Joyce does with language in Finnegan’s Wake—cross one tongue with another, blur and distort linguistic and grammatical distinctions, to end up with a language that seems to contain all languages—is similar to what Piglia does with narrative lines in The Absent City (Piglia 9) There is this notion here that fragments and hybrids can contain more than a whole, that somehow they are more whole because they are fractured. This might be a source of power. There is also the power associated with remembering and holding stories, particularly stories that go against or challenge the Official State Storyline. This act of holding and remembering is certainly revolutionary and may also create some sort of psychic power that Elena the cyborg could use to power her activities.

When moving back to how Elena uses madness to evade the state, Eunice Rojas in her book Spaces of Madness illustrates this precisely. She talks of the two tendencies that Deleuze and Guattari describe, in Anti-Oedipus, namely the paranoid and the schizoid. She describes these as a form of polar opposites that either move towards repression or liberation. “For Deleuze and Guattari, therefore, paranoia is a repressive force from whose bonds schizophrenia attempts to escape.” She also tells us that, “Paranoia therefore, is associated with enslavement while schizophrenia represents the possibility of overcoming that enslaving power” (Rojas 74). Elena through her schizoid tendencies breaks away from the state.

We must remember when speaking about notions of schizophrenia in Deleuze and Guattari that we are not dealing with what has come to be known as “schizophrenia” the diagnosis of mentally ill people, but rather schizophrenia as it exists in systems of power:

It is important to understand that Deleuze and Guattari do not use the term “schizophrenia” in the clinical sense as a disease or mental disturbance. Eugene Holland clarifies that “[s]chizoanalysis does not romanticize asylum inmates and their often excruciating conditions of existence; it construes schizophrenia in broad socio-historical rather than narrowly psychological terms”(Rojas 74).

Again this emphasis of schizophrenia as a “broad socio-historical” concept, allows us to see Elena and her schizophrenia in terms of socio political history. When she has a schizoid thought or experience, she is breaking away from the state. She is creating and holding on to her own reality.

As a person who heard these types of stories, I know how revolutionary it is to remember and also to not let the past be white washed. The fact is that over thirty thousand people were “disappeared” in Argentina between 1976 and 1983. And many others displaced internally and also exiled. The years of the dictatorship characterized some of the most regressive times the country had ever experienced. I myself was displaced due to this conflict. My sister once told me of an event she went to on one of her visits to Argentina. This event took place during the 1990s. The country had returned to civilian rule for several years. The event consisted of people gathering and releasing balloons with the names attached to them of people who were disappeared and exiled. The event was to remember the history. It was definitely an act that reinforced the memory of the community. In a way this revolutionary act of remembering was similar to what Elena does as the translation machine. She remembers.


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Tristan Scremin was born in Rosario, Argentina and emigrated to the US as a child along with his family. He spent his formative years in Albuquerque, NM and has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1991. Tristan believes that a true understanding of one’s own story is a key to understanding the world.

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