The following is excerpted from selection of essays titled The Internet Does Not Exist published on e-flux journal and available in print through Sternberg Press.
Malinche and the End of the World
by Franco “Bifo” Baradri
Humans have experienced an end of the world (the end of a world) before. A world ends when signs proceeding from the semiotic meta-machine grow indecipherable to a cultural community that perceives itself as a world.
A world in fact is the projection of meaningful patterns onto the surrounding space of lived experience, and the sharing of a common code whose key lies in the forms of life of the community itself.
When flows of incomprehensible enunciation proceeding from the meta-machine invade the space of symbolic exchange, our world collapses because we are unable to say anything effective about events and things that surround us.
When signs proceeding from the environment are no longer consistent and understandable within the shared code frame, when the meaning of the signs that convey effectiveness and power escapes the shared cultural code, a civilization ceases to be vital. It enters a tunnel of despair and quickly decays, then dissolves. Its members die, or lose their ability to feel like they are part of a common evolving reality. Those who survive undergo a process of integration into the code of an emerging culture, of assimilation to the colonizer’s language and system of values.
From the point of view of the various indigenous cultures of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Spanish colonization can be described as an end of the world (as the end of a world).
The Spaniards overcame the indigenous population thanks to their overwhelming military force, but colonization was essentially a process of symbolic and cultural subjugation. The “superiority’*' of the colonizers lay essentially in the operational effectiveness of their technical productions and expressions. Colonization destroyed the cultural environment in which indigenous communities had lived for centuries: alphabetic technology—the power of the written word—overwhelmed, threatened, and finally superseded the indigenous cultures.The Christian message merged with pre-colonization mythologies, and modern Mexican culture emerged as an effect of submission to alphabetic semiosis, but also as an effect of contamination and syncretism.
The alphabetic meta-machine is based on the externalization of memory, and on the possibility of transferring information in time and space.Thanks to this functional superiority of their semiomachine, the Europeans subdued, subsumed, and recoded the cultural universe of the natives, both in Mexico and in other areas of the continent.
What happens when a world dies, when out-side flows of semiosis overpower and outperform the existing language and forms of life, and an entire world of values, expectations, and moral codes disintegrates?
Is it possible to deal with the emerging forms on the basis of the past code? Obviously not, but it is what we are currently doing, because we are unable to do otherwise. We try to interpret phenomena emerging from a hyper-complex and hyper-fast system according to the normative categories that proceed from the alphabetic universe.
The mythos of Malinche lies at the foundation of the Latin American Unconscious.
Before the arrival of the Spanish invaders, Malinche (“Maltnalli” in the Nahuatl language, or “Marina” for the Spaniards), the daughter of a noble Aztec family, was given away as a slave to passing traders after her father died and her mother remarried.
By the time Cortés arrived, she had learned the Mayan dialects spoken in the Yucatan while still understanding Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. For many years, Malinche—a resourceful woman of exceptional beauty and intellect—became the lover of Cortes and accompanied him as his interpreter. She translated the words exchanged between Cortes and Moctezuma, king of the Aztec population of Tenochtitlan, and she translated the conqueror’s words when he met crowds of indigenous people. She translated for Nahuatl-speaking people the words of Christian conquerors and Christian priests.
In the novel Malinche (2006), Laura Esquivel imagines Malinalli trapped between her own beliefs—taught to her through folktales and vivid imagery by her loving grandmother—and the Christian beliefs introduced by her master and lover. How did she manage to translate Christian mythology and ethical concepts into the mythology of Quetzalcoatl and Huitzilopochtli? What kind of symbolic transformation and re-elaboration did her translations involve? In Mexico—and South America in general—Christian culture and mythology was reshaped in a syncretic way, and ambiguity was accepted as an essential feature of the religious exchange. The translator was a traitor in a double direction: she betrayed her own people, linking up with the invaders, but she also betrayed the conquerors, her lover included. I use the word “betrayal” only in a technical sense: from the moral point of view, she owed nothing to her own people, who had sold her into slavery and treated her as a servant. Cortes chose her as his lover and collaborator, and they had a child, Martin, who was the first Mexican person.
Malinche was extremely helpful to Cortés in his conquest. In a letter preserved in the Spanish archives, Cortes said: “After God we owe this conquest of New Spain to Dona Marina” (her Spanish name).The legacy of Malinche is controversial: in contemporary Mexico, the word “malinche” is sometimes used pejoratively to describe someone who denies their heritage, someone who values other cultures above their own. Although she has been described as a traitor, historians say that when conflict exploded between the Spanish and indigenous people, Malinche played a key role in avoiding bloodshed. Her role as translator gave her the power to control information, and, most importantly, to translate concepts. Octavio Paz speaks of Malinche in The Labyrinth of Solitude:
In contrast to Guadalupe, who is the Virgin Mother, the Chingada is the violated Mother. [...] Guadalupe is pure receptivity, and the benefits she bestows are of the same order: she consoles, quiets, dries tears, calms passions.The Chingada is even more passive. Her passivity is abject: she does not resist violence, but is an inert heap of bones, blood, and dust. Her taint is constitutional and resides, as we said earlier, in her sex. This passivity, open to the outside world, causes her to lose her identity: she is the Chingada, she loses her name, she disappears into nothingness, she is Nothingness. And yet she is the cruel incarnation of the feminine condition.
If the Chingada is a representation of the violated Mother, it is appropriate to associate her with the Conquest, which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense but also in the very flesh of Indian women. The symbol of this violation is doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés. It is true that she gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador, but he forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over. Doña Marina becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated, or seduced by the Spaniards.1
Malinche is not only the expression of the mixing of cultures. She is also the expression of the rebirth of the world from the collapse of the old. She is considered a symbol of subjection but also a symbol of the emergence of a new Mexico, of a new history and a new world. But first and foremost she is the expression of the consciousness that her world is over: the world as a system of consistent cultural and semiotic references disintegrates. If the limits of a world are the limits of the language that makes this world consistent and meaningful, Malinche is the symbol of the end of a world, and also the symbol'Of the formation of a new semiotic space of world-projection at the intersection between two different codes. Malinche is able to transform the collapse of her world into the creation of a new language, and therefore of a new world that is neither a perpetuation of the old, nor a mere translation of the world of the conquistadores.
Only when someone is able to see such a collapse as the obliteration of memory and identity—in a word, as the end of the world—can a new world can be imagined. This is the lesson that Malinche teaches us.
The Cognitive Automaton and Us
At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are in a position that is similar to that of Malinche: the conqueror is here, peaceful or aggressive, infinitely superior, unattainable, incomprehensible. We have given birth to the conqueror, who emerged from our history and went away, beyond- the ocean, and destroyed any form of existing life in order to create a new code, based on purity, in order to create the automaton, the rationale for never-ending automation.
The bio-info automaton is taking shape at the point of connection between electronic machines, digital languages, and minds formatted in a way that complies with its codes. The automaton’s flow of enunciation emanates a connective world that conjunctive codes cannot interpret, a world that is semiotically incompatible with the social civilization that was the outcome of five centuries of humanism, enlightenment, and socialism.
I will never be able to live in peace with the automaton, because I was formatted in the old world. As Pris says in Blade Runner, I’m dead because I’m stupid. My body survives because I cannot find a way out.The human race is becoming an army of sleepwalkers: people suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, people taking pills to face reality, smiling, saying yes, yes...
The automaton is the reification of the networked cognitive activity of millions of semioworkers around the globe. Only when they become compatible with the connective code can semioworkers enter into the process of networking. This implies the deactivation of conjunctive modes of communication and perception (compassion, empathy, solidarity, ambiguity, and irony), paving the way for the assimilation of the conscious organism into the digital automaton.
According to transhumanist ideology, a few decades from now the digital automaton will be able to perfectly replace human organisms. Ray Kurzweil thinks that in the near future humans and machines will become interchangeable from the point of view of cognitive efficacy. This is clearly possible, but the implication that the automaton and the human will merge—essential to the transhuman hypothesis—is false: the automaton will never be assimilable to the human being because human specificity lies in the relation between conscious rationality and the Unconscious.
From the operational point of view, the functional cognitively of the automaton is more powerful than human cognitively—more powerful, more effective, and obviously more destructive. But the unbridgeable difference between the conscious organism and the automaton, as complex and refined as it may be, lies in the Unconscious.
The Unconscious of the automaton is the material hardware of electromagnetic machinery that we call the Net. The human Unconscious is fleshy, marked by ambiguity, inconsequentially and (most importantly) death.
The automaton is pure functionality, even when it is endowed with self-regulating evolution. It will subsume human cognitive competence and subject it to its rule. The prospect that we have to face, then, is not the tender transhuman alliance between friendly, hyper-intelligent machines and human beings; it is rather the final subjection of humans to the rule of nonorganic intelligent automata, whose behavior will be regulated according to criteria inscribed in them by their builder: biofinancial capitalism. The automaton will be able to evolve, yes. But the paradigm of this evolution will be inscribed into its info-genetic code by the builder. And the builder coincides with the most advanced corporations of biofinancial capitalism, like Google.
In the global landscape today, after the disappearance of egalitarian cultures, we see only two actors: the first actor is the all-pervading force of financial abstraction, the second is the proliferation of rancorous reactive identitarian bodies.
Financial abstraction is based on the faceless operatively of automatisms embedded in soulless social dynamics. Nobody is really in charge, nobody is consciously making decisions: in economic operations, logical mathematical implications have replaced the decider, and the algorithm of capital has grown independent of the individual will of the owner.
The impersonality of the financial abstraction escapes any attempt at conscious political transformation, so people who have lost control of their lives cling to a sense of illusory belonging: nation, religious faith, and ethnicity are protections against insecurity and loneliness. They are also tools of aggression used against competitors.
The connective energies of the new generation are recombined by the technofinancial automaton, and reduced to a condition of precariousness. Aggressive belonging is their only form of cohesion.
Will the general intellect be able to disentangle itself from the automaton? Can consciousness act on neurological evolution? Will language overcome the limits of the code of vanishing conjunctive cultures? Will pleasure, affection, and empathy find a way to reemerge out of their conjunctive framework? Will we translate into human language the connective language of the automated semiomachine whose buzzing is growing in our heads?
These are questions that only Malinche can answer, opening to the incomprehensible other, betraying her people, and reinventing language in order to express what cannot be said.
1Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings (New York: Grove Press, 1985), 85-86.