A peripheral postmodernity — Zwi Migdal

Rosario. They say it’s a cultural Mecca. Many musicians, writers, playwrights, artists, intellectuals, filmmakers, have been born within the city’s overwhelmingly humid boundaries. Yet it is a truism for rosarinos that nobody is a prophet in their own land. Getting one’s name known in Rosario – more often than not – implies a departure. This might be because of Rosario’s proximity to Buenos Aires – in Argentine terms 300 km is a relatively short distance. Or it might be Rosario’s historical place as a agrarian hotspot, with the city focused more towards money-making and commerce than facilitating cultural exchange. It might be a result of the weather, the heat, the 90% humidity during long stretches of time. Who knows what it is.

From afar it is easy to be philosophical about Rosario. Living there was different. Z hated living there. Z was always the first to complain about their provincialism, their apathy. Z found the lack of a thriving cultural scene frustrating. Z found the city peripheral – many times Z thought it was a shithole too. Leaving wasn’t as much a choice as a survival tactic. Yet, self-exile changes one’s perspective, on many things. If only Z had known then what Z knows now.

They – bohemians – who were adolescents during the 1990s in Rosario had very little to look forward to. They might have arrived either too early or too late for any significant event. Or perhaps it was Z who had very little to look forward to; living in the periphery of a peripheral city in a peripheral country. Now Z knows peripheries and centres are myths anyway, the world a huge chaotic hodgepodge of scattered points. Maybe then, all those years ago in Rosario, Z didn’t know the right people, didn’t know which door was the right one to knock on. Maybe Z was just plain and boring. Nobody can answer that. But save for some interesting parties Z went to, Z’s petty contribution to a self devouring music scene, some experimental plays (where someone always ended up naked), and the usual indoors intellectual activity, it could be said that Z grew accustomed to looking backwards, and elsewhere.

Having all needs secured, back then, Z would only consider the matter of – what could be deemed – cultural ostracism. But if only Rosario’s problems could have been limited to matters of culture. After all, those were the years that would come to be known as the neoliberal decade. This was a lost decade. Not everyone lost in the same way, but many lost something during those years. The demiurge of the Argentine collapse, Carlos Menem (president from 1989 until 1999), defined his role as governing for “dispossessed kids who are hungry and rich kids who are sad” (his politics was a major cause of both maladies). And yet he somehow struck the right chord: hunger and sadness are keywords for the 1990s. Not than sadness and hunger amount to the same type of suffering.

In December 2001, when the country finally exploded, everyone caught up with reality. Well it is more correct to say that a few of the ‘rich’ kids had to. The poor ones never escaped the real in the first place. Perhaps these rich kids never felt hungry, but they saw their privilege collapsing like the Argentine currency. That was towards the end of the decade, when the crisis eating away at the country reached its climax. Unemployment in Rosario hit the 25% mark and many took off, left, vanished, or just bit the dust. Many – most – caught up with reality and started to put their priorities in order (crises can provide a therapeutic shock). Before the crisis, before the real, during what falsely appeared to be the non-eventful part of the decade, being in Rosario, for Z and many others, was based on a game of not-being-thereness.

It was possible to live in 1990s Rosario by imagining it as 1980s London, 1970s New York, 1960s Paris, and so on. Anywhere but 1990s Rosario would do. Z and his crew used to long for other places where they thought (perhaps wrongly) that culture thrived. They used to moan about being born in the ‘arse of the world’. They would cut and edit Rosario to see just the ‘European’, ‘Parisian’, ‘Manhattanesque’ bits. Of course this editing meant erasing every single shanty-town. This is part of the complex Argentine idiosyncrasy, a mix of pride and embarrassment. Argentinians are proud to think of themselves as more ‘European’ than the rest of Latin America. The embarrassment is knowing that, in fact, they will never be anything other than Argentines. This might have changed now (slightly, at least): some kind of Argentine identity has, within the Latin American context, grown out of the ashes of the 2001 collapse. Yet, this doesn’t change how Z and his crew used to feel then: self-exiled in their own city and country. They felt that they should have been born neither in their city, nor in their time. Schizogeography doesn’t get any more schizoid than this.

There were nights, particularly during Z’s first years at university, that Z would spend driving from one gas station to the next, stoned and drunk off Z’s head with Z’s fellow suburban bohemians, never leaving the car for more than 5 minutes at a time, stopping just to buy more booze or cigarettes, going round and round in circles until dawn. They used to call this parade the ‘circle of boredom’. It was desperate and irresponsible but it was the only way they found to keep some sanity. Part of that constant movement, that drunken nomadism, was becoming a line, not joining any points in space – stopping would have meant being somewhere. And they would have rather been nowhere.

At the time it didn’t occur to Z and the rest that this ‘desolation’ could have been a result of the wider economic situation around them. It was all reduced to a matter of centres and peripheries. Even Z’s frequent trips to Buenos Aires were envisioned as trips towards some kind of core. It didn’t matter if poverty was worse in Buenos Aires than Rosario. It didn’t matter the processes by which Buenos Aires could claim some central stage (in the periphery). What mattered was the feeling – a hallucination perhaps – of joining a global circuit by leaving a peripheral place.

Going to Buenos Aires was joining these metropolitan circuits of cultural exchange. It meant going to a Björk concert, to a night club where they would play funk or goth music, or to a Dalí exhibition (back then still regarded as avant garde by Z). It meant stepping into Buenos Aires’ architectural cosmopolitanism. It meant visiting the famous National Book Fair, getting lost in the streets of San Telmo, drinking coffee in the same place that Borges used to visit (Z didn’t even like Borges, but it was something to talk about), sleeping with European tourists, exchanging telephone numbers with international dialling codes. It meant, in other words, leaving the provincialism of Z’s hometown – it meant escaping boredom. But it ultimately meant an unsuccessful and pathetic attempt to escape the space of Z. It became an addiction. Buenos Aires was the start of many and more extreme deterritorialisations for Z. Buenos Aires, Salvador de Bahía, the Argentine South, Los Angeles, and then Europe.

Z visited London for the first time in 1994. Z was 17 then. Because being a tourist involves a process of cognitive impairment Z thought London was the place where Z needed to be. The city is already pre-edited when you are a tourist. Z thought London was an accessible, cultivated, cultured, and rather calm place – perhaps it is calm in comparison to Buenos Aires. Z loved London in 1994. Z fancied everyone in town as a bohemian shoegazer, a contemporary De Quincey – elegant Brits with fantastic accents. It was a short trip. And soon Z was back home, feeling worse than before.

Z bought a music mag during this trip; perhaps it was NME. There was an article about Coventry, about growing up in Coventry, in this mag. In this article a girl was complaining about the boredom of living there, saying that in order to cope with it she had no other choice but to get drunk off her head. Strangely enough Z didn’t connect Coventry with Rosario. Z just thought the Coventry girl was lucky to be able to jump on a train to London. Perhaps this girl was dreaming about Buenos Aires, about sweaty Latin America. Who knows what this girl dreamed about?

Now Z frequently wonders what it must be like to grow up in a place like London, New York, or Paris. Are people in these places aware that their cities occupy a centralised space in the world? Perhaps they pay for that centrality by a constant need to find the exotic, the different, the picturesque, the peripherally authentic. Would everyone rather be elsewhere?

 Translated by Fernando Sdrigotti

Zwi Migdal is a criminal organisation and wishes to remain far from the reader and the text, and hopefully become completely imperceptible (whilst continuing to operate in the darkness).