This article was written on 01 Aug 2013, and is filled under Urbanities.

Glosses on Termites and the City

Caracas at night

The first time I arrived in Caracas, I remember being struck by the lights of the shantytowns spreading out all over the hills. You could see them from the plane, and later on the highway that leads from the airport into the city. This forest of lights was like nothing I had ever seen. I was young and knew little about cities. I naively imagined this is what people meant when they talked about their bright lights.

An essay by Sergio Chejfec begins by describing those same lights. Disorienting also to him, they initially seemed “innocent signals, urbanism of the mountain.” The lights flicker, he adds, and as you cruise down the highway, they signal new surfaces in the folds of the landscape. They insist, by simple means of their numbers, on the complex ecology veiled by the dark.

In that essay, titled “Apropiación de la ciudad” (Appropriation of the city, Quimera 291, 2008), Chejfec quickly leaves these lights behind, as he begins to narrate rather his initial foray into the city center. Walking without destination, he writes, he happens upon a store that’s liquidating its stock of school supplies, and there he buys a collection of old postcards. Two days into his residency in Venezuela, he feels oddly nostalgic for the past splendor represented in these images. He purchases the whole set, in what he calls a “selfish gesture”–selfish because he wants simply “to hide from the eyes of others… those landscapes that I imagined belonged exclusively to me.”

This narrative is, up to this point, unremarkable. However, Chejfec soon notices something that sends the essay in a new direction: some bugs, termites or moths, have eaten away at the postcards. They’ve carved little tunnels through the stacks. The hole in one corresponds to the same space in the postcard below it, and so on. This simple observation becomes the basis of a theory of urban space and how we occupy and pass through it.

On the one hand, Chejfec considers that the holes could be symbols of urban decay: the postcards have been ravaged by time, like Caracas itself by decades of overpopulation and government ineptitude. Or in another sense, the perfectly manicured views of the city in the fifties, the period of the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, would be unveiled and revealed to be false.

This interpretation, valid enough, is less interesting than the other one offered up: Chejfec takes the termites’ tunnels as a “concrete manifestation” or a “reality-fiction.” He proposes we see the holes as little communicating vessels or, better yet, something like wormholes, drawing unlikely connections between distant areas of the city. The image of a streetlight, for example, now, through the hole opened up by the bugs, touches an attic in a different area of town. The termites act like cops on cop shows, plotting crimes on a corkboard map, but the pins they drive into maps overlay one another. They introduce new and impossible itineraries into the city.

We could take this as simple fancy, but I think there’s more to it than the fantasy of termites carving imaginary itineraries into cardstock. I think we can take their paper-eating (which Chejfec calls “writing”) in itself as a significant moment of passing through the city. They do so by devouring a pile of representations, monumental and idealized and real and significant. I once impertinently told a caraqueña that I didn’t think the city was very attractive. She said it was, as long as you didn’t look at the shantytowns. The way she experienced Caracas, I’d venture, was something analogous to what was proposed by those postcards (and it was more or less how I experienced it too): a city that corresponded to the criollo inheritance, that excluded its marginal outskirts. Postcards, themselves an infinitesimal artifact within the city, teach us about scale and limits; they tell us the places where one’s displacements stop, or should stop: the limits and characteristics of different sorts of neighborhoods, metro stops in bad parts of town, etc. Chejfec might agree, as he attributes to the termites an effective sort of action: “They had changed the coordinates and scales of Caracas, the landscape had acquired another meaning, the urban motifs were different, the idea of the use of space and its regulatory capabilities had been modified, etc.” And the termites can do this because the postcards were already doing something similar.

Maybe the most significant item in that list is “regulatory capabilities.” The idea seems to be that images and representations participate actively in the governance of a city. Maps and the visibilities they allow aid in control, and they also contribute to the forms of knowledge that help decide what needs to be controlled in the first place. That is clear enough. But the same point holds true for more trivial, or at least less obviously strategic, objects like postcards.

Those termites, of course, cared little for any of this. And in any case, the urban itineraries they marked don’t suggest itineraries that are very interesting or significant in themselves. I think that what is more meaningful is the form of the experiment in reading that Chejfec proposes. For if the termites’ tunnels through the stack of postcards matter at all, if they can be taken seriously, then so can other, perhaps more consequential, itineraries: those that make up other and better maps and guides for the appropriation of the city.

One Comment

  1. […] time to post here. I have a couple links to share, things I’ve written lately. The first is a post over at Feedback; it’s on an essay by Sergio Chejfec that I really like, inspired by my time […]