Review of Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia

“The objective of memory is to highlight both the struggle of the dead
and the nature of the powers that silenced them.”
—Luis Carlos Restrepo

As part of my pre-visit area studies and research for Unraveling, I picked up Law in a Lawless Land: Diary of a Limpieza in Colombia by Michael Taussig prior to going to Medellin. A first person account told in a diary format over two weeks, Taussig recounts the dynamics, shares the stories of others and contextualizes the history of the region to explain the murders that once made Colombia the world’s murder capital. While conditions and the murder rates have drastically changed since then, it’s still a place where massacres of campesinos over access to land still occurs to this day.

Taussig’s journal describes in at times uncomfortable details a number of large-scale public killings, referred to as limpiezas in Spanish, as well as the backgrounds of the actors and the historical context in which they occur. Besides this, Taussig also reflects on the role of memory and accountability from a personal in reflections on the process of writing a journal as well as in the political sense, ie – through which means hegemony is formed.

Indigenes, Viciosas, Delincuentes, Traficantes, Paras, Sicarios, Guerrillas, Policia y la Ejercito Oh My!

While many of the participants in the conflict are prone to describing things in terms of good or evil, what is really going on is conflict over modes of production and access to fertile and resource rich lands. Though the quote from Karl Marx’s work Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations is one that opens Michael Taussig’s other book The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, I think it a good one for quickly that describes the primary driver for conflict here as well.

Thus the ancient conception in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production.   

While not nearly as knowledgeable as Taussig about Colombia’s past or collective psyche, my experience with various social strata in Medellin and Jerico, a pueblo in Antioquia, provided me a similar view. Those that primarily outside the capitalist mode of exchange for supplying their daily needs seemed more peaceful, calm and happy then those that depended on it.

In a long passage discussing the transformation of Cali’s agricultural lands in the 1950s and 1960s, Taussig describes how the thousands of peasants, who were outside the capitalist mode of production as the variety of plants they would grow and rotate provided them with all they needed were forcibly dispossessed so that a foreign born family could grow and export sugar. These instances of rapid proletarianization helped contribute to the problems faced within the cities – people without capital or many skills flocking to them – and were accelerated once cocaine became the crop of choice for those wanting to live beyond subsistence means.

 

When You Don’t Want Your Haters To Know Your Name

The immensity of the cocaine market drove traffickers to form paramilitary organizations to seize land and routes with high use value from the FARC and other large scale farmers. Unable to effectively contest such a well-financed group and still keep their scruples, the FARC got into the protection and trafficking rackets so that they could survive as an organization. Armed conflict over this left many frightened and dead , however this was not the full extent of the new dynamics influencing Colombia’s political economy. Large nuber of addicts too cropped along with a profound incentivization for “bad behavior” as la vida facil – or the drug-dealing/trafficking life – was known to be sweet, but short.

Planfleto Amenzas, or warning pamphlets, like the one above along with the graffiti signs of paras scrawled around the community are the first indication that the paramilitaries are soon coming in for a cleansing of such mala gente. Translating the above picture, it says the following:

“We will be killing all rat bastard sons of bitches, leftist communists, defenders of human rights and the process of peace and restitution of the land, student communist groups, unionists and guerillas.”

Then continues to name the people that will be killed following by the ominous entre otros, or “among others” and a warning that caught or informed upon for helping these people will also be receive lead.

Sometimes warnings are not so explicit and people must rely upon word of mouth news networks or wait until AUC graffiti was painted someplace public to know where and when the AUC was.

The Massive Scope of the Conflict

At the time of this book’s publication in 2002, Michael Taussig states that he’s been visiting Colombia to do fieldwork for 30 years. While the intensity of the civil war has halted, there are still multiple bad effects that stem from the narco-trafficking. There are neighborhoods that require thousands of police in Bogota to clear out the open air drug markets made by vendors and addicts and anyone visiting the area around El Centro in Medellin has seen the improvised encampments filled with bazuco addicts.

Taussig describes in details various encampments and characters he encounters in such places in a way the bring much needed levity to the stories he’s sharing. Behind those moment of levity, however, is the underlying fear. Fear of being seen with the wrong person. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of your name showing up on a computer provided to the paras by the military. In numerous anecdotes the absolute terror felt by those in towns undergoing a cleaning is clear. Just as who is behind these, the local power elites.

¡No Tiene Sentido!

One of the recurring themes in my readings thus far on Colombia which is again reinforced here, is how distorted the reporting of the events are in Colombia. Many journalists fear intimidation, harassment, assault or death as reporting a story in the wrong way would could mean various armed groups would target them, so often they distort reporting in favor of the government or the paras or do not report on important events at all.  The result of this is a collective unreality on all sides.

Threats of violence aren’t the only reasons why mass delusions as to the acts of the government, the paras and the guerillas are reported in a manner that later is corrected in the evidentiary findings of human rights NGOs.

Besides the stick, there is the carrot. Writing about the paradoxical viewpoint that many Colombians have, Taussig points out on page 76 the following commonplace hypocrisy of many Colombian political commentators:

“How is it that while the pandillas, or gangs of the young preoccupy everybody to the point of collective hysteria, while the bandas of the local upper class rarely get talked about? Is it because the bandas have for so long been a part of reality and that many people, or at least many influential people, get fat on them?”

The corruption in the country is notoriously endemic. In fact when asking one taxi drive in Medellin what he thought about the President Santos he want on a long rant about how all the politicians were corrupt – Liberals and Conservatives alike – and that stated that there’s no party that represents the poor and the campesinos except for the FARC, who would never come to power given so many people disliked them for the reason I said above. As a result, leading to million and billions of dollars of state money going to development projects. Maybe a few dollars goes in the pocket of a reporter, or maybe the ownerships of the new outlet gets some money out of it so exercises editorial control, or maybe a company that purchases advertising threatens to pull money if certain things are said. Either way, there are are lot of incentives to sow confusion in community by incomplete or false reporting.

 

Review of “The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era”

The Idea Writers – Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era by Teresa Iezzi with an afterword by Lee Clow and Jeff Goodby is an in-depth look at the state of today’s copywriting and brand creativity in today’s advertising. With insight on creative process and campaign development from the industry’s leading creatives, Iezzi provides solid advice for copywriters at all stages of their career – from those trying to break into it to those trying to become more involved with branding. A useful guide for industry professional understand brand creativity today, the book actually starts with a detailed examination of the changes in the digital realm that have completely remade the advertising industry before jumping into a number of case studies.

The rise of smart phones, social media and other internet phenomenon’s have fundamentally changed that manner in which advertising and copy-writing relates to consumers of media. Iezzi quotes New York University Interactive Telecommunications Program professor Clay Shirky in the book Here Comes Everybody, to make her point on the depth of this change: “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race.” Because of this the general rulebook that governed advertising affairs for over a hundred years is no longer applicable and for that reason, it’s a more exciting and potentially creatively rewarding time for those in the “since Bill Bernbach put art directors and copywriters together and proved that effective advertising could be witty, quotable and uplifting rather than a dreary recitation of “unique selling points.”

Though this is the case, Iezzi doesn’t dismiss the importance of the ad work created and books written by the Fathers of Modern Advertising such as Rosser Reeves – a pioneer in writing for the emerging media of television, the man responsible for the idea of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and the person who was the inspiration for Don Draper in Mad Men. What does Iezzi see as the thread that connecting those such as Reeves, Bill Burnbach, and David Ogilvy? Simple. Effective story-telling.

Quoting the book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink, Iezzi points out how it is the ability to detect patterns and create narratives, to understand human interaction, to seek and convey meaning that are the new marketable skill sets rather than the ability to write a perfectly crafted headline according to a pseudo-scientific formula. These skill are important not only as many marketing agencies in the present are just likely to be producing an app or a web experiment as a form of commercial communication but also in the age of greater corporate scrutiny it’s important for corporations to at least appear that they are doing the right thing.

Another challenge of today’s copywriter is being able to telling a story across multiple platforms while involving the consumer in that story – something also gone into detail in Storyscaping. Here the views of Gaston Legoburu and Darren McColl matches that of Iezzi on the future of advertising. They both state that design and story are key for informing the interaction that plays out between brands and consumers. With this in mind, creatives can achieve the goal of having their customers message proactively talked about and shared by people that will at best transition into brand ambassadors and at least increase sales during the increase in brand awareness.

Building on this Iezzi adds the following:

“The copywriter (is) responsible for putting things into the world, and those things should be useful, entertaining or beautiful, or all of those things. They should make people feel better, not worse, about them- selves, the brand involved and living in the world in general.”

Advertising has to offer an entertaining reason for people to even acknowledge its existence. I’ve heard a variety of numbers but I’ve yet to see a source for the number, but I’ve heard that it’s something like 85 percent of ads go unnoticed by people. Not surprise given the large amount of messages that are being sent past them every day. As Gossage himself words it: “The fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

In addition to the analysis of the history of marketing and how the qualities of the new digital age impacts modern marketing, Teresa Iezzi provides a lot of valuable case studies for effective campaign processes and final products as well as giving instructions for those that are establishing themselves as a brand.

The book closes with a number of considerations for career development one someone is already in the field that could be distilled into the words “influencer marketing”. If there are events where what you do will be discussed, put yourself forward as a speaker or panel member. If there’s a story written about the kind of work you do, contact the writer and send her some of your work to keep in mind for next time. Apply the same self-promotion guidelines to your personal projects and you’ll always be wanted by people in the marketing industry.

 

Review of “The Ten Principal Upanishads”

“Neither neglect your spiritual nor your worldly welfare. Always learn and teach. Forget neither God nor Ancestor.”

*

The Ten Principal Upanishads, this edition translated and edited by Shree Purohit Swami and W. B. Yeats, are the most sacred texts of the Hindu religion. These are not God’s words to man, but an incarnation of revelation captured by Rishis that contain the ultimate Truth and the knowledge that leads to spiritual emancipation that are considered the distillation of the best of Vedic metaphysical and speculative thought. From the Upanishads the central doctrines of Hinduism are derived, the philosophy of yoga is developed, and through dialogue with Buddhism that a number of sects on both sides emerge. This is what Paramahansa Yogananda and many other yogis have studied throughout their lives. Worth nothing, a number of the benefits of such practices as those written about within are increasingly being verified by modern Western science – both as it relates to mental health, healing and general social welfare.

This particular collection contains only ten of the traditional one-hundred and nine Upanishads and are intended as an introduction to the uninitiated. The specific texts of this collected are titled thusly: Isha, Kena and Katha, Prashan, Mundaka, Mandukya, Tattiriya, Aitareya, Chhandogya and Brihadaranyaka. The text is different from the one I studied at the International Meditation Institute in that it has removed a number of the repeating phrases that are of a ritualistic nature that are normally interspersed throughout. Thus while it is not the best edition for a religious scholar, the essence of it – the delineation of the path of Spirit and its importance for life – remains. This conceptual translation is not, however, without its own merits. Yeats, a poet, maintains some of those mantra-like refrains (i.e. “May peace and peace and peace be everywhere.”) and has musical qualities and well-worded conceits.

 

Each lesson within the collection of Upanishads meditates upon and interrogates themes ranging from the correct means of thinking so as to avoid disturbing thoughts but also how to properly fixate on the eternal Spirit that animates all human beings and material things. As progress is made in the pursuit of the Spirit, one comes closer to finding enlightenment and ending the cycle of re-birth. The essence of their teachings is that Truth cannot be known intellectually, but embodied through continued action inflected with faith. There are various stages in a person’s development towards moksha, or liberation, as well as reasons for why they may not achieve is.

Various forms of Vedic practices

Speaking on the myriad components of spirits, the Upanishads state the following:

“Worship spirit as the support, be supported; worship Spirit as the Great, become great; worship spirit as the mind, become mind. Bow down to Spirit as the sole object of desire, be the goal of all desire; worship Spirit as the master of all, become the master of all”

It is because of such passages, and many others like it, that a large number of corporate cultural leaders are embracing and encouraging others to use Mindfulness practices – which is a de-sacralized form of Hinduism/Buddhism – in the workplace.

I’ve certainly seen how such practices help increase creativity, presentness and productivity while decreasing tension in the workplace. I am, however, suspicious of such initiatives unless it’s practiced from the top down as otherwise it seems to me to encourage the type of workplace apathy that leads to larger social issues (i.e. you shouldn’t ask for a raise when you’re worth it, but instead just be happy with what you have as you are Spirit). All in all, however, meditation, yoga, chanting, reflective silence, and other Vedic practices, are beneficial as it helps to realize the Spirit. I’ve been reading this book prior to and after my yoga practice at Flying Tree Yoga school, found myself feeling lighter as a result of it and will likely reread it again soon.

*

In closing, here’s a great video by Alan Watts on what the Spirit is:

Review of “The Brethren”

I haven’t read a trade paperback book in a very long time, however only two of the five books that I’d purchased with the intent to read while in Colombia came to me in sufficient time before my trip. Because of this, when I finished my last book on Colombia I picked up a copy of The Brethren by John Grisham for no other reason than it was there. The last time that I read a trade paperback that wasn’t a reissued classic was, I think, when I was early in my teenage years. Back then I read a lot of Grisham as well as James Patterson, Steven King and Clive Barker. I’m glad I read this, however, as it was nice to re-encounter the specific style and voice that based on sales has one of the widest audiences.

The novel develops around two separate plots that at converge to create the purportedly dynamic but unpredictable third act tension. I say unpredictable not as Grisham gives anything away, he plays the scenes close to the cuff, but because I’m sure if it’d been any other way then there would have been thought pieces published in some of the literary journals listing examples and posturing about the verisimilitude of the world we now find ourselves in.

The book opens on three imprisoned ex-judges that have been given the collective name of “the Brethren” by the security guards in the minimum-security prison. In this prison they attempt to re-create their former power by acting as Justices of the Court by hearing complaints amongst the inmates. Their judgements are considered final and are always a 2-1 verdict, so that if an inmate corners one of them they can claim they were the one that voted in their favor for security purposes. The Brethren also engage in an elaborate blackmail scheme that preys on wealthy, closeted homosexual men with the help of a drunkard lawyer. Since their job in the minimum security prison only pays cents an hour, this is a good way to save time and put money aside to prepare for their relase.

The second narrative traces the rise of presidential candidate Aaron Lake. Lake is, essentially, a puppet created by CIA director Teddy Maynard to fulfill his desire for increased U.S. military spending to counter a General in Russia that he foresees as rising in power and leading to an existential threat to America. Grisham does not quickly weave these two threads together immediately, thereby leaving the reader to wonder in the opening chapters how and when these two worlds will collide.

This plotting was tight, but the stakes for the characters involved was so low that I had trouble getting too invested in their struggles. Towards the middle and end, when there’s much more intrigue going on, I still never felt that anyone was in “real danger” or that the cause for actions was all that significant. Part of this is because I think Grisham want’s to cynically highlight the false personalities we expect of politicians and the political process – there are certainly a few passages and asides that accomplish this. However this intrusion of social commentary in sparse and comes off in all but a few passages less as insightful critique and more as scathing but essentially fatalistic pessimism.

I found Grisham’s portrayal of characters to be interesting but not altogether impressive. There are some complex figures, such as Justice Hatlee Beech, but even then this former millionaire judge rendered divorced, bankrupt, and friendless after his conviction for vehicular homicide while drunk (two students outside the car and a naked female stranger in his car) doesn’t strike me as well developed. His trauma is less from the acts that took him there and more from his loss of a job that was a well-paying appointment for life, prestige, his wife’s money. Even his children’s lack of contact with him, so as to stay in the good graces of their rich mother, seems to only be an afterthought. Presidential candidate Lake seems and even the CIA director Teddy Maynard also read to me as nearly one-dimensional. Maynard is not evil, but a puppet-master who uses his knowledge and connections to help mold the public will via ad campaigns, illicit contributions, and international intrigue. There is, however, little description on any of this and instead we read of CIA ops going on in the office of a small town lawyer that’s also a drunkard.

I didn’t particularly find the book’s resolution to be all that engaging. Spoiler alert! Even after The Brethren hustle their way out of prison they return to the scam that helped get them out. It’s sensible, as they were able to make a lot of money the first time around, however I find given their recognition of the precariousness of their safety (they’re being constantly watched) that they would be willing to risk this.

 

Review of “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual”

I’ve been meaning to review The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual by Harold Cruse for quite some time. With it’s depth and breath of evidence and a forceful analysis it’s no surprise that following it’s publication it was a cultural touchstone amongst the cultural and political elites of the early 1970s. Truth is, whenever I’ve sat in front of an open Word document with the intent to respond to it’s arguments and evidence, I start to feel a bit overwhelmed. This despite the fact that I’ve had some pretty extended conversations on this book.

Thankfully, one of the Facebook groups whose posts I follow, the Society for United States Intellectual History, recently curated a Roundtable on the Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. Rather than provide you with my thoughts on the matter, I decided I’d share these instead:

 

Along with two other insightful PDFs:

and some random other links:

Beyond the Color Line: Jews, Black and the American Racial Imagination

Review of “The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads”

The Para-State: An Ethnography of Colombia’s Death Squads by Alvo Civico is an engaging and at times haunting account of the armed conflict between various groups that has shaped Colombia’s political economy over the past forty years. The books anthropologically oriented methodology combines first person interviews with cocaine kingpins, leaders of para-military forces as well as the regulars, victims of paramilitary violence, as well as supporters of the paramilitary along with a historical account that contextualizes the events described in the interviewees stories. Through these accounts, Colombia’s rural interior comes to be seen as a space where actors project their desires for wealth and personally engage or organize horrific behavior in order to obtain it.

While it appears late in Para-State’s chapters, despo-capitalism is the term that Civio uses to describes the socio-economic dynamics of Colombia. It is a “threshold where the repressive forces of the despot combine with the liberating forces of capitalism” (140). His theoretical model for understanding the dynamics of despo-capitalism is decidedly Marxian with deference to Deleuze and a dash of Zizek. He states repeatedly, in fact, that the role of the AUC is what is described as a War Machine in the book A Thousand Plateaus. To bolster this positions, he includes a brief comparative political account based on interviews with an Italian prosecutor that illustrates the similarity of development of the Sicilian Mafia to the Colombian para-militaries.

Paisas Son Un Gente Muy Amable y Acogedoras

 If you consume enough of the marketing content that encourages travel and investment in Colombia or various polls, you’ll soon notice that one of the recurring themes is of how wonderful and welcoming the people are here. While as of writing this I’ve only spent time in Antioquia, this combined with the many others I met from this region while living in South Florida makes me feel that this is a general truism. The irony, of course, is the happiness that they feel despite there being a longest standing civil war throughout any Latin American country.

The reason for the Civil War is long, and stems in part to the violence between Liberal and Conservative Parties before that. Each operated with tenuous. After a number of periods of sectarian killings, including La Violencia, the political elite united around the Frente Nacional (1959), which is incredibly similar to Venezuela’s Pact of Punto Fijo (1958). This specifically lead to the establishment of the FARC and would later open up the conditions for the death squads the books describes. Unable to get enough civilian support in regions rich with fecund land and extractable primary goods, the para-militaries became a means for the elite to establish control.

Limpiezas were right wing paramilitary that went throughout the rural and urban areas and liquidated those that they considered FARC sympathizers (real and imagined) as well as desechables, gamines, and those in combos. There were a large number of such groups, such as the Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), that came to be united in name but not always in orientation under the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Regional groups were funded by either the upper classes with financial interests in a region or workers being under their total control or cocaine producers and distributors.

Death By BananasDespite what the above meme suggests, getting murdered because you don’t want to pick bananas for the wages offered is not something relegated to the not so distant past. In the period when the bi-lateral trade agreement between Colombia and the United States was being debated by the Legislative branches of government, the American trade unions pointed to the wave of over 450 assassinations of civil rights leaders, trade unionists and community leaders that was then going on. Chiquita Banana, may still face trial for its support of the AUC after the State Department deemed it a terrorist group.

The informant network created by the AUC deemed all such people as “collaborators to the FARC’s cause,” even if there was no such material support evidence. The mere belief that workers had a right to collectively bargain was considered cause for getting kidnapped, shot, dismembered by chainsaw and the remains left somewhere in the forest for animals to consume.

In regions with fecund soil that inhabitants had adopted a subsistence model of reproduction, market relations were either forced on them by paracos or they were dispossessed. In regions where wage-labor for agricultural production was pre-existent but drives for higher wages occurred, paracos enforced at gunpoint the continuation of work. In a word, the feudalistic model for enforcing labor participation for capitalist production was the norm.

The information network of the AUC would later identify and assassinate over 450 unionists, community rights leaders, and other “sympathizers” or collaborators to the FARC’s cause. If this seems high, well, the number of civilians the AUC killed is drastically higher. When a valley needed to be cleared of occupiers so that a foreign national company could grow bananas, for instance, or a gold lode was discovered that initial seismic wave readings indicated could be worth billions – paracos would declare that town a pueblo guerillero for resisting such displacement. After they’d encircle it with hundreds of heavily armed people, they’d raid a number of people specifically identified as trouble and then publicly execute them and put their bodies on display in an area with high pedestrian and automobile traffic.

The Direction of Colombia’s Economic Development is the Heart of its Civil Conflict


These capital and labor intensive industries along with cocaine production and trafficking are at the heart of the Colombian political economy. The latter more so as cocaine itself is a totem that organizes the distribution of bodies, practices, objects, symbols and words. The class divide determine by one’s placement in the such a system of capital circulation is both implicit by social norms but also by the legal system which designates people according to a legal class (estrata). Those that are lower class are not given much, if any, assistance by the state – hence the antagonism to it, as those on the lower end see the benefits given to those at the top – and thus can best earn through trafficking or muscle. An additional element driving the conflict has to do with US investment in the region.

Cocaine and the Development of Medellin

The Para-State’s account of cocaine’s role in the geographical and demographic development of Medellin describes evolving dangers from sundry violent actors working in unison and against each other. With vast amounts of capital coming into the country through sales via Miami and other points, the traffickers soon became the largest land holders in the country. Not all wanting to live in highly guarded fincas outside of the city center, they invested in different neighborhoods in Medellin.

As a result of the the aforementioned dispossessions and high level of unemployment, combos formed in these area. The effects that these two converging factors in one region is described on page 158 by Civico as follows:

“Medellin has long been crossed by these invisible but powerful boundaries, and transgression could trigger a death sentence from a rival armed group. These lives have shifted constantly, and residents have learned which streets to travel on, which ones to avoid, and which boundaries to cross. Walking on the wrong side of a street can get you killed. In several of the city’s barrios, survival has been a matter of such cartographic knowledge.

Having spent a few weeks now in Medellin, it’s worth noting that even now, 20-30 years after the period described the dynamic remain the same – with the higher areas along the mountains being more “dangerous” while the center is safer. That this is a dynamic caused by wealth inequality from the hegemonic economic capitalist enterprises is clearly shown to be the case.

De-armament, Reintegration and Politicization of the Struggle

Even before the recent FARC demobilization, those once in the AUC were in the process of demobilizing. As Civico describes it, however, this is not an easy process. The job prospects for those once involved pay significantly lower, making them ripe for recruitment by narcos, their history of violence makes them apt to end up in jail or dead over minor disputes and others that aware of their crimes – be they family members of those they killed or rival groups – sometimes take justice in their own hands. One of the interviewees that Civico writes about, in fact, is taken by a group that he was on bad terms with and is never seen again.

The politicization of the armed struggle is certainly a step in the right direction for a united Colombia, however as this book shows there is a lot of bloody history that will continue to make such a transition difficult. While it’s not clear if this will work, Civico is clear that if the massive modernization projects which dislocates thousands continue, if the assassination of leftists continues, if the state continues to fail in its ability to speak for all but the elite, that this project will fail.

Vocabulary

Desechables – Literally means “disposable people”. This meant people that were drug addicts, petty thieves, homosexuals, domestic abusers and could sometime include people that had long hair.

Intreccio –the inter-twinement of the state and the parastate. First used to describe the relationship between the Italian Mafia and state

Traquetos – the people engaged in cocaine trafficking who make a show of their wealth with thick gold chains around their necks, expansive cars and stunning young women

Pajeria – literally means “squad”. People who enacted organized political violence

Vacuna – protection money

Farras – parties to get drunk

Urbano – a paramilitary working in an urban area

Bonification – a bonus according to the number of people you killed

Paracos – paramilitaries

Bara – The dynamic wherein a commander likes your performance and gives you frequent opportunities and recommends you

Limpieza – social cleansing accomplished through spectacular violence

Raspachin – coca gatherer

Pueblo guerillero – a town associated with guerillas

Gamine – street kids

Vallenato – romantic Colombian music from the coastal region with lyrical content similar to African griots

Pillos – a Medellin specific term for gang-members and junkies

Culebras – literally poisonous snakes. A term for one’s enemies.

Combos – street corner gangs

Review of “Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing”

Reading Finding Your Voice: How to Put Personality in Your Writing by Les Edgerton reminded me how to be attentive to the variety of creative decisions that determine the voice of a work. How they can be interpreted, improved and evolved from different experiential exercises. The book contains focus on various voices – pulpy, sardonic, confessional, etc. – along with “before and after”  changes. Theres illustrate how a few different decisions can radically alter the ease and enjoyment level of the reading. Some of the various traps to watch out for that Edgerton cites are the “beige voice” as well as talking up or down to the reader. As all of the fictive dream – the neurological firings in your brain that are activated during the process of readings words on page or screen- occur as the results of words, best get them right. Right?!

There are, additionally, exercises contained within for identifying the ways in which honing in on voice in specific passages can radically improve the experience of the reader and how some choices can lead to it “going wrong” in one’s writing. For instance, say one wanted to get the reader to slow down. Not to scan the text; as so many are apt now to do. Well, the solution is simple. Place a number of shorter sentences back to back. This is a particularly effective practice following longer expository passages. Explaining difficult things, after all, requires the combination of lots of pieces. Much as in the same way that sentence variation forces the reader out of the simplistic subject verb object constructions.

The book is for both writers of fiction and non-fiction and addresses something that is very important as it relates to today’s media landscape – talking up, down and beigley to the reader. Explaining every and all thing can cause passages to drag on and o n. If they are known by the reader, it’s a bore, and leads to mental lagging. A good writer, Hemingway and others have stated, leaves something for the reader to want to discover. Writing in too high of a voice is the struggle that I’ve had, having an advanced academic background I can sometimes lapse into uncommon terms that are, nevertheless, quite useful for understanding today’s world. But this isn’t all about me. This is not purple prose, either, which I’ve only found in contemporary Latin American literature, is not gone in to but that’s just because it’s so rare in American fictional and non-fictional works that get published.

Edgerton’s colloquialisms, and the linguistic playfulness of the text was, I thought, a little corny at first. However it did grow on me. Plus, I recognized what he was doing with it. Not only was he describing insights into what makes a well crafted writers voice; but he was also demonstrating it! By sharing this, as well as the hat of instructor, he’s helping to show one of the Walt Whitman quotes about – I’m stacatato-cattically summarizing her : “there being multitudes that exist within each of us”. It’s true. There are!

Les’ lessons are follower by exercises to either read, write or re-write. The book is an attempt at a comprehensive attempt to teach the craft of good writing, plot, etc. but just focus on narrative voice and the voice of characters. He lists a large number of books that go into these other areas, and it’s clear with his familiar with them that a lot of experience and time went into the formation of this book.

I finished the book not only informed but also interested in seeing the dynamic that exists in his writing workshops. Having attended several writing workshops as an undergraduate at Florida Atlantic University and in Prauge, Czech republic as part of a University of Michigan program – not to mention other informal gatherings – I’ve always found workshops a productive place where people provide new eyes to help you see things you may not be aware of because you’re too close to the work, or wasn’t aware of some insight or whatever other reason that shows up when people gather with strategic and creative intentions.

I like how following this book one can apply like dissection tools onto the writings of your favorite writers in order to better place their style in history rather than a burden. Stealing can always be great art, but only if it’s great art does it get called great art – not just because it’s just an iteration of the same efforts. That last quote, ya, that’s me. Put that on a goddamn site so i can get me da stats higher.

Review of “The Sounds of Things Falling”

“And the walls of my dream burning, toppling
Like a city collapsing in scream”
Aurelio Arturo, Dream City

*

Before I moved to Colombia I looked up online a number of lesser known than Gabo Colombian novelists and saw a number of positive reviews for Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s book The Sounds of Things Falling. After reading it and getting taken in by the compelling storytelling, tone and language often only found in those writers whose medium is the romantic languages.

The novel begins with background the narrator, Antonio, who is a young, successful professor of law at the University of Bogota that is dating a former student, Aura, that he soon learns has become pregnant with their future daughter, Leticia. Antonio is shot on the street, not with intention but because he is a bystander of the successful assassination attempt of Richard Laverde. His recovery is not speedy and once the psychological fetters that makes him somewhat agoraphobic starts to wear off, he sets out determine as to what he can learn about the man that he played pool with for years, watched die in front of him and yet knew very little about.

Antonio recalls the few exchanges that he and Richard made and places them within a broad context of those that grew up in Bogota in the 1980s. As later in the novel conversations show, this generation grew up during the period in which Pablo Escobar was fighting the Colombian state apparatus that sought to either imprison him in Colombia or have him be extradited to the United States. At first the psychological difference between those born in 1970 and those born several years later is shown in the manner in which Antonio and Aura respond to the shooting that nearly kills Antonio – she being younger and thinking that it was such a “rare” act that he need not worry while he is now consumed by fear. Later, it’s shown in the discussion between Richard Laverne’s daughter, Maya, and Antonio and how it is that they are able to recall with perfect detail where they were on hearing certain people were assassinated or various places were bombed. However it is not the just the dead of years ago that weighs on the mind of the living. A tape, which we come to learn is the black box recording of a flight that recently crashed and caused the death of Richard’s wife, becomes like a fetish prodding those that listen to it to come to reconciliation with the violence and death of the past. Antonio doesn’t hear this tape, however, until nearly two years after the event. It’s effect on him is significant.

Shortly after Antonio hears this, the person who let him listen to it passes along his contact information to Richard Laverde’s daughter, Maya. She requests his presence to talk about her father, and he decides to go visit her in order to learn more about the “friend” of his that he really knew nothing about. Here the novel shifts perspectives and the story of Elaine Fritts and Richard Laverde is presented. Elaine was a Peace Corps volunteer who came into Colombia and fell in love with one of the men that she encountered during her classes in Bogota prior to assignment in the less developed regions.

While throughout the book there’s social criticism about attitudes, values and beliefs – such as Antonio’s resentment of the “vacuous courtesies always exchanged by Borodino’s, with no expectation of a sincere or considered response.” In this section, however, they take on a paternalistic form. As a result of the leadership role that Elaine is granted, she comes to feel that many of the ways that the rural community within which she operates is, in many ways, still suffering from what she calls a “colonial mentality.” Such behaviors that she mentions specifically include a deference to someone like herself (That is, a White Person, an Invader) to initiate and direct health, sanitation and economic cooperative projects; the role of bribes in making sure that government agents follow through on the assistance that they promise; the omnipresent role of alcohol in important discussions amongst all male community leaders, etc.

Laverde, who doesn’t come from campesino stock, is not like this and incrementally ratchets his aviation career from sundry medical and development supplies needed and people to marijuana to cocaine. Elaine Fritt’s lifestyle soon sees the results of his work and, at first, is not worried about where it comes from due to the new conveniences each stage of illegal drug transportation provides her and her new daughter. From horse, to truck, to large farm with a number of staff to support her, she’s shown simultaneously trusting totally her husband to recognizing, after an encounter with one of the American’s that helped him get involved in the business, that he won’t be returning as something terrible has happened.

The segue explaining how it is that Maya learned of the truth of her father’s still being alive, her mother’s plan to re-unite with him and leads to a conversation on the appeal that the cocaine traffickers had throughout wide swathes of society. A conversation on Hacienda Napoles, in fact, leads the two of them to go visit it in the jeep purchased by Richard 29 years ago from money made from transporting drugs to the United States. The two of them share a nostalgia destroying experience there, much of the once “amazing” statues and décor have fallen into disrepair and no longer appear as large, and at the former estate that Maya grew up on before her mother ran to the city with her.

With the problems previously described as existing between Antonio and Aura, I was not too surprised by the sexual relations that occur between Antonio and Maya on their return from the trip and like that it engenders a perpetuation of the traumatic dynamic that Maya previously went through – mother’s departure and the loss of father due. I thought it was a very clever way to not only wrap up the story but to evoke the causes of the social thought maladies that are mentioned throughout the text.

On a final reader’s note, I too want to thank Beatrice Monti della Corte and Suzanne Larenty for their assistance and patronage in helping this work to be written. I greatly enjoyed reading this and it is in no small part thanks to you that I’m able to do so.

Review of “Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising”

Ryan Holiday’s book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer, is less a “how to” guide than a large number of case studies on how some of the most well-known companies today were able to get to where they now are. Dropbox, Hotmail, Uber, Spotify, Twitter, Groupon – all of these companies and many more used non-traditional marketing techniques, growth hacking, as a means of achieving massive market share growth.

Growth hacking is really more a mind-set for maximizing ROI than a tool kit. It’s an expansion of what the traditional definition of marketing was prior to the advent of social media and the digitization of everyday life. It can include those that produce content designed to be viral; product experience optimization; using platforms and APIs to reach large amounts of people, etc. Whereas all marketing focuses on “who” is receiving their message and “where” they are receiving it, a growth hacking mindset sees marketing as a more fluid process that includes new ways of looking at business. Here are a few of the many examples:

  • Creating an aura of exclusivity with an invite only feature.
  • Create hundreds of fake profiles to make your service look more popular and active than it actually is.
  • Targeting a single service or platform to cater to exclusively so as to piggyback off their growth.
  • Host cool events.
  • Bring on influential advisers and investors.
  • Do other things that are written about in Ryan Holiday’s other book Trust Me, I’m Lying

Because of the lower costs of “growth hacker marketing” in comparison to traditional outlets, with their press releases and media buys, it allows for the greater freedom in experimenting with what works. The evolution of Instagram and Airbnb’s company model are excellent examples of this. Rather than continuing to their original iterations, which is far from what they are now, they used data obtained from their customers use in order to develop a Product Market Fit, a dynamic wherein the product and its customers are “in perfect sync with each other.” While the decisions about areas such as the design of the product is typically given to the Development and Design teams, having in depth knowledge as to who the customers are, what their needs and and how to excite them are also marketing decisions. Growth hackers help structure these through data and information that is testable, trackable, and scalable – be it lead generation or internal optimization. Understanding and applying the principles contained herein can help turn start-ups into growth engines.

Review of “Down These Mean Streets”

I bought Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas shortly after I’d just finished reading all of Junot Diaz’s books. I’d read in an interview with Diaz that Thomas’ book was a personal favorite of his, so I was curious. In the vein of numerous other first works by male authors, the novel is a memoir-based bildungsroman. Covering his early childhood until his mid-twenties, Thomas’ protagonist is himself and like so many other such tales set in New York heavily features drug use, criminal activities and racism.

I found the lyricism that some people have accredited to the writing to not be as prominent as suggested. Thomas certainly captures the Spanish Harlem patois of El Barrio, however there are few and far between extended passages of beautiful writing or musicality. Furthermore the third component of lyricism, profound insight into the human condition, is also an infrequent feature.

Given Thomas’ character as an adolescent – someone that abhors reading ad foregoes completing high school in order to deal drugs, robs people and uses intravenous and other drugs – this should come as no surprise. In the closing chapters, after much maturation, this finally happens. This is not to say that insight into the cause of internal conflict is not fully flushed out, but that Thomas’ does this via short scenes (sans lyrical introspection) that is neverthless engaging and at times heart-breaking to the empathetic reader.

The predominant internal conflict for Piri is reconciling himself to himself in the racist milieu of New York in the 1930’s. Piri’s family is of Puerto Rican extraction. His mother is white, his father black. His siblings are able to pass not only as puertorriqueño but as white. However Piri’s skin color, however, leads others to view him as black. This is something that Piri has trouble accepting, and this leads him to numb the pains of being born into such a caste, to fight those that would keep him there and to search for inner knowledge and confidence by an extended trip from New York to the Jim Crow South.

Much of the tales told by Thomas are picaresque in nature, the chapter ending on some comic high note, however those with Brew – his black friends – often end without such levity. Brew, black as black coffee, plays Piri’s guide to navigating the racial divide in America and his position is one of resigned, but still angry, acceptance. He sings Piri part of a song he learned as a child whose content is about accommodating oneself to oppression by white people, contrasting the genocidal behavior of the whites to the Native Americans for fighting for what traditionally was theirs to the merely exploitative behavior that blacks faced. A discussion between Piri, Brew another mixed race youth, though one with a more privileged background that is currently in college, leads to further troubling reflections on Piri’s racial identity.

After Piri’s returns his bad behavior catches up to him. After having become addicted to heroin and engaging in a number of armed robberies, he is caught and ends up imprisoned in Sing Sing. This is a pivotal period for Piri and the last arc of the books is his slow development into someone able to embody emotional intelligence and rely on the new insights he gained from prison study. He studies with the Nation of Islam, though later rejects ummah for the less exacting Christianity that he was raised on.