In August 2017 I travelled to Dayuma, a small town on the Ecuadorian oil frontier. I was conducting research for my recent book on fantastical materialism and post-neoliberal state utopias, which was the focus of my previous post on literary techniques for the critique of political economy. But as I entered the town, I could see a demonstration taking place outside the production facilities of a multinational oil company. And within hours of my arrival I was caught up in a labour dispute, which quickly escalated into a more serious and generalized conflict, involving the detention of the strike organizers, the kidnapping of the company manager, the blockading of the production complex, the launch of a military operation to break the blockade, and the unleashing of a rapidly evolving battle against seemingly impossible odds that was destined to achieve a remarkable victory.
I tell the story of this struggle in my new book, Extractivism and Universality: Inside an Uprising in the Amazon. Breaking with academic conventions, the book has been researched and written in the spirit of the gonzo journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson. Gonzo rejects the mainstream journalistic pretense of objectivity as “a pompous contradiction in terms,” and places the journalist at the center of the action, based on the principle that “the writer must be a participant in the scene.” Though best known for his personal documentation of dystopian decadence in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Thompson’s early gonzo experiments were politically charged works, including studies of the Black Power and Chicano movements of the 1960s, and a portrait of the Hell’s Angels when they were an illegal organization of marginalized renegades. Through these deeply personal accounts, Thompson sought to gain a deeper insight into these renegade collectives than was possible from the perspective of the supposedly external observer.
Gonzo, however, is about form as well as method. The challenge lies not only in full involvement in the events that are to be reported, but also in communicating this experience in a direct and unmediated way. To this end, Thompson wrote in raw prose from a first-person perspective, basing his texts directly on his notes and transcripts, and maintaining a frenetic pace throughout. The resulting style has been described as “a literary Molotov cocktail.” Or as Thompson himself put it:
“The basic concept… was to lash the whole thing together and essentially record the reality of an incredibly volatile [event] as it was happening. From an eye in the eye of the hurricane, as it were… What I would like to preserve is a kind of high-speed cinematic reel-record of what [the situation] was like at the time, not what the whole thing boils down to or how it fits into history.”
Extractivism and Universality follows Thompson’s lead in this regard. My involvement in the uprising is reported in the first person and the present tense, and the actions and events are described in language that aims to remain as close to the bone as possible. Unlike Thompson, however, I am not a journalist but an academic, and I cannot help considering what the struggle “boils down to” and “how it fits into history.” To this end, the book argues that the uprising embodied an “insurgent universality,” in which Black, mestizo, and Indigenous workers and communities confronted the combined forces of a multinational oil company and a militarized state. Unlike the Eurocentric universalism rightly critiqued by decolonial theorists, insurgent universality is not the legacy of colonial Europe, but of the victims of its oppression, and arises not from the abstract doctrines of Western intellectuals, but from the concrete struggles of the oppressed peoples of the Global South.
As Susan Buck-Morss insists, this subaltern form of universality cannot be grasped “by subsuming facts within overarching systems or homogenizing premises, but [only] by attending to the edges of systems.” Hunter S. Thompson likewise refers to his gonzo methodology as “edgework,” in which the researcher joins their subversive research subjects in violating the limits set by social norms and legal order, on the understanding that such transgression releases collective energies that can only be fully experienced by those who cross the line.
A similar point has been made by Alain Badiou, who depicts uprisings as moments of “intensive super-existence” that transcend the differences between those involved. Reflecting on his own involvement in such events, Badiou claims that “a new political situation can only be known from within its own process, and that ordinary news and commentary are not enough. And there is a very simple reason for that: political novelty, which is subjective, does not allow itself to be grasped from the outside at the moment of constituting itself.” This is the essence of edgework, which is likewise based on full immersion in the intense events it documents, as the only means of accessing their inner truth. Gonzo, in other words, turns out to be a good method for grasping the insurgent universal as it emerges “at the moment of constituting itself” – and this is so precisely because of its insistence on the primacy of the particular and the subjective.
I will conclude this post with a brief edited extract from Extractivism and Universality, which gives a sense of how I put this gonzo method to work. The extract depicts the moment when two strike leaders detained by the police are released. (A few terminological clarifications for those unfamiliar with the context – Shuar, Kichwa and Huaorani are Indigenous nationalities participating in the uprising; paro means strike or blockade; and jestei is a Shuar call to unity in times of confrontation):
Suddenly the news arrives: the prisoners have been released and are returning to the paro! The celebrations are led by [the Shuar leader] Bolívar Naichap, who instructs all men to strip off their shirts and everyone to grab a spear. It is a call to embody the universal humanity that is unmistakably emerging in the face of the savagery of state and capital, in which particular identities are superseded by a shared commitment to a common struggle against seemingly impossible odds. This universal dimension was visible in the launch of the initial sit-down strike by workers, Indigenous communities and the unemployed; in the kidnap of the company boss by indígenas to avenge the seizure of their mestizo comrades by the cops; in the making of speeches and bearing of banners defending Indigenous rights by mestizo workers; in the insistence of the Shuar leaders that they are representing not only their own group but everyone; in the solidarity conveyed in both the Shuar battle-cry and the slogans shouted by Shuar and mestizo voices in response; and now in this explicit expression of unity, symbolized by the same naked flesh and the same wooden spear. And far from erasing Indigenous identity beneath an exclusionary appeal to a homogenizing Eurocentric universalism, it is indigeneity itself that is being invoked as the universal category – and being invoked as such by the indígenas themselves: “Here we are all Indigenous!”, Bolívar shouts with his spear raised high, “There is neither Shuar, nor Kichwa, nor Huaorani, nor mestizo!”
Soon both sides of the road are lined with women and men of all races and ethnicities wielding spears and chanting “Viva el paro!” at every vehicle that passes. Bolívar now calls on one man after another to take part in the same ritual that he performed with [fellow Shuar leader] Santiago [Jempekta] this morning. Each dance is more enthusiastic than the last, and each time the men holler the same Shuar ancestral call to unity and solidarity with even greater abandon: “Jestei! Jestei!” Huge chants go up around them as they dance: “Viva el paro!” “Viva Dayuma!” “Viva los Shuar!” Before long a bus arrives from Coca, and [the released prisoners] Barberan and Tilapia jump down into the throng. They are hoisted on the shoulders of the crowd and paraded around in triumph, punching their fists in the air. Then Barberan delivers a brief speech, in which the universality of the uprising is once again expressed: “They took us prisoner saying that we are the leaders [of the paro]. We were never the leaders. Who are the leaders here?” The crowd responds in unison: “Everyone! Everyone!”
The release of the prisoners is now celebrated with a “caravan of struggle (caravana de lucha).” We pile into the backs of three beat-up old pick-up trucks and head up the hill into town, with others riding motorbikes and running along the roadside. Everyone is shouting, honking horns, bashing pots and pans, stomping feet and clapping hands, clashing their spears against each other and slapping the sides of the trucks in a cacophonous rebel symphony: “Unite yourself with the people! Unite yourself with the people!” … There is an uncannily ecstatic atmosphere, born of stark circumstances and desperate action, and surging upward in a chaotic whirlwind of collective egalitarian passion … The night is clear, the stars are blazing, and by this time tomorrow their victory is sure to be complete.
Image descriptions: Photos taken on the night of the release of the prisoners depicted in the extract.