Campo-sition as Exhumation: On Zurita and Stein

by on Sep.10, 2012


1. What is Purgatory but a zone constantly eating itself, digesting itself, shitting itself out, spreading out, making more of itself, accepting and ejecting material, but never (as a zone) moving closer to God? An in-between place, a non-site. Something which may be transcended, but which does not transcend itself. An im-mediacy. A non-transcendent zone.

2. Inside ‘composition’ is a ‘campo’, a field. Purgatory is a flexing, spasming field, and so is composition. Zurita’s Purgatory,  a revolutionary book written in the immediate aftermath of his torture and imprisonment in the first few months of Pinochet’s regime in 1973, is full of grazing animals, dumb animals, saints and chattel ready to be broken down (decomposed) and slaughtered for their useful parts or made to render fluids (including sound), even (especially) in their dreams of power.


Today I dreamed that I was King

they were dressing me in black-and-white spotted pelts

Today I moo with my head about to fall

as the church bells’ mournful clanging

says that milk goes to market


–Purgatory, Zurita.(Anna Deeny, translation)


4. In this field of Purgatory, power spasms between its two poles of the absolute despot and the sovereign victim. One can go clad as the other, one can be slaughtered like the other. The slaughter of the despot happens in the future in a dream that is already over but also always “Today”. The paradox of purgatory’s campo is in its oscillating anachronistic state: immediate/aftermath.

Composition, a decomposition.

5. Zurita’s Purgatory presents a field of images and texts which follow one another in numbered sections, yet which create not the successiveness or linearity of a rhetorical document but a holographic, 3-D structure, its various contentions hanging on air, echoing each other, contradicting each other, unwriting each other, changing each other, making new regimes of meaning, melting, disappearing each other.

6.  “The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.” (Stein, Campo-sition as Exhumation)

7. Stein’s famous composition is both a composition and a decomposition, each thing linked to its opposite or at least its modification,  the contradictions continually torqueing and realigning themselves, and the result a possible/impossible ‘zone’ of notions, something which on the one hand need only be “seen” and “looked at” to be recognized, tautologically, as ‘the composition’ and, on the other hand, “it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen.”  This is a campo on loop, a Moebius campo which does and does not intersect itself by twisting, a campo where moo goes to market.  A campo-sition which is about relentlessness, and looping.

8. Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons:



Climb up in sight climb in the whole utter needles and a guess a whole guess is hanging. Hanging hanging.


9. Relentless, and looping, and contradicting. “It confuses, it shows, it is, it looks.” Zurita:


Over the cliffs of the hillside: the sun

then below in the valley

the earth covered with flowers

Zurita enamored friend

takes in the sun of photosynthesis

Zurita will now never again be friend

since 7 P.M. it’s been getting dark


Night is the insane asylum of the plants


10. In this little geography, this campo where a sinister sun hangs and depends, Zurita is consumed from line four to line six, Zurita, “enamored friend”, “will now never again be friend/since 7 PM”. That run of words crowds the line with decomposition temporalities of future, present, the negated future, againness, and a specific temporal time. All this crushes down to a paradoxically uncrushable benthic layer of plants; crushed to the bottom of this stanza, its final line nevertheless pushes back (visually) against the weight of what’s above it, clearing a breathing space for itself. An “insane” “asylum”, frantic and dead calm—another of the campo’s paradoxes.

11. In the note published in the bilingual edition of Purgatory, Zurita remarks, “It has occurred to me that everything I’ve done either well or inadequately since is an extension of Purgatory zones”;  he has also remarked in various places and on various occasions that although he has written a Purgatory, he will never write a “Paradiso” since the true Paradiso would have been if there had been no need for any of his books to have been written.

“In a more benign world, art would no longer be necessary, because each particle of life, every human emotion, would be in itself a poem the vastest of symphonies, a mural of skies, the cordilleras, the Pacific, the seashores and deserts. Then, between poetryand love, we would not require the mediation of words.”

So Paradise is a non-human place, a languageless place, a place where there is spatial room for ‘every human emotion’, thus a place where contradiction, where conflict may be borne.  An ever expanding, non-competitive zone built on contradiction and balance. A zone of fullness. Another kind of campo.

5 comments for this entry:
  1. Hilal Omar Al Jamal

    Hi, your interest in Zurita interests me. I like this article. I have read a good deal of Zurita’s work—I even had the pleasure of meeting with him in Chile—and I think you are right to bring to the table his interest in destabilizing language, in breathing new life into it, re-appropriating it from the regime. I think you neglect some of the specifics of his imagery: the milk metaphor as reference to Allende’s promise of a half a liter of milk for every Chilean child, market as a reference to capitalism, etc. His work is aesthetico-political, mesianic, beautiful. I really appreciate your article. If you’d like to chat a little about his work my email is hilaloajamal at gmail dot com. I’d be happy to share some excerpts from an unpublished interview I did with him. They’re great: the man speaks poetry.


  2. Kent Johnson

    Regarding Hilal’s mention of the milk metaphor… This was in fact the basis of one of the CADA’s first actions during the Pinochet regime: the guerilla-art performance involved the commissioning of a fleet of milk trucks!

    I’ve met Zurita, too, Hilal, spent some time with him in Santiago, and we’ve corresponded some since. An impressive person, that’s for sure… There is an account of that meeting here, with some photos.

    Really eager to see that interview.

  3. Johannes

    Yes, actually he talked to us about that milk truck event when he was here at Notre Dame.


  4. Johannes

    And if Halal wants to, we can post something from the interview on Montevidayo.


  5. Hilal Omar Al Jamal

    Hey, Kent and Johannes,

    Been a while since my original post. I apologize for not having been more attentive to the thread. It’d be cool if one of you guys emailed me and I’d throw some excerpts from the interview for you guys to check out and publish on here if you’d like. Zurita says some pretty beautiful stuff (about CADA, about the mutilation and demarcation of the body and chilean landscape, about the military regime.). I also have an unpublished interview with Diamela Eltit and Lotty Rosenfeld of CADA; therein, they talk a little about their intellectual influences, bicker a little, and are just absolutely lovely.

    Your right to sight the milk truck action (inversión de escena) by CADA, Johannas. The milk metaphor is really an operative metaphor that adds a subtle yet powerfully suggestive dimension to the performances, not only inversión de escena but also para no morir de hambre en el arte. I mean think about it: they were playing with the idea that Allende promised milk to children, a kind of mother’s milk. It feminizes the Unidad Popular party at the same time that it offers up this memory of a kind of wronged provider, of something taken from Chileans by this cruel force that represses and denies…

    I was also at the conference at ND. That’s where i met Zurita for the first time. Wonderful human being.

    Let me know if you’re still interested in tossing up some of the interview.

    All the best,


    hilaloajamal at/@ gmail dot/ . com