When Theory and Fiction Collide: Savage Theories by Pola Oloixarac

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Theory and fiction have a history. They’d been flirting with each other for centuries and now regularly engage in textual intercourse. Creative theorists cite Kafka and Borges as often as Kant or Freud and there is a new breed of author more likely to be influenced by Jean Baudrillard or bell hooks than Raymond Carver or Alice Munro.

Pola Oloixarac is a case in point. Having studied philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires, she is currently working on her PhD at Stanford (the third philosophy student novelist I’ve reviewed this year). Her debut novel, Savage Theories, is the story of a city and a species, incarnated by its theorist-practitioners. Heroically translated by Roy Kesey, Oloixarac’s word-playful narrative reinterprets the origin of species, tracking the evolution of violence from early hominids to the “disappeared” of Argentina’s Dirty War.

Though there are echoes of Bolaño (beyond the titular Salvajes) and Clarice Lispector (“thoughtways of cockroaches”), contemporary comparatives (Valeria Luiselli, Mark de Silva, Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees), as well as philosophical forerunners (Hegel, Badiou, Deleuze), Pola Oloixarac’s Savage Theories blazes its own trail through human history. Her multi-disciplinary, synchronic, panoptic vision of humanity aims at no less than an evolutionary theory of everything. Her characters are drawn from real and invented histories, collaborating in a semi-fictional milieu where the living and the dead (flesh and text) coordinate in moving the plot. Together, these figures form a kind of Hegelian Idea moving toward its realization, while individually, each is a potential subject (à la Badiou) at the hinge of history.

I stood like the I that rises up at the beginning of a sentence, on the verge of throwing itself upon a verb and an object, of ruling over them, possessing them… in control of events.

The direction of the novel is driven by fictional anthropologist Johan van Vliet’s Theory of Egoic Transmissions and his various disciples’ endeavor to promote, differentiate, and embody this idea. The latter undertaken by a gradually emerging narrator, the pseudonymous Rosa Ostreech. Rosa wants to demonstrate van Vliet’s theory by provoking an unsuspecting subject, the lecherous dissident Collazo.

Meanwhile, an unabashedly ugly couple, Kamtchowski and Pabst, (ugliness deemed Darwinian as it necessitates resourcefulness) parallel the narrator’s experimentation by swinging with the ideally attractive Andy and Mara. The foursome ventures into the underground nightlife of Buenos Aires where ketamine and casual sex are common denominators. In an emblematic encounter, Andy is fellated by a transgender woman, ejaculating just as Pabst (looking on) begins to vomit. This is an ambivalent, eruptive novel.

In addition to these libidinous intellectuals, there are two inherent protagonists: Buenos Aires and homo habilis. The latter, according to van Vliet and his disciples, is the species that evolved into human beings as we know them today. This hominid’s mastery of tools, weapons, etc. signaled the end of its long run as a cowering, fleeing, hunted animal.

…the persecution of the earliest hominids lived on, carved in the depths of the species; it had influenced the evolution of the human brain, and thus the organization of culture as a celebration of the passage from prey to predator.

As brutal rites of passage and perpetual war between tribes defined our species for millennia (beggaring our relatively recent reign at the top of the food chain), it is dread, not desire, that motivates human action. Or so van Vliet’s theory goes. This grand theory reinterprets the 20th century in general, and Buenos Aires in particular.

Argentina’s recent history of dissidence and disappearance has clearly inspired Oloixarac’s tale. The country’s unique mélange of left and right under the banner of Perón, its sectarian violence and fierce repression, its amnesty and recrimination, its implicating of everyone from the French and American governments to the PLO and Che Guevara, is best summed up by Argentine President, Carlos Menem’s 1989 declaration, “We come from long and cruel confrontations”.

Oloixarac’s theorist-protagonists are not content to interpret this cruel world, however, as the point is to change it. (Specters of Marx haunt the novel’s sexual, political and academic battlefields.) Enter Q, a gamer tech who spearheads the group’s online video game project, Dirty War 1975. This venture involves hacking Google Earth in order to produce a user-generated, spatiotemporal map of Buenos Aires where the multifarious layers of history are superimposed. Therein, one can see everything from the home of a Borges character to “the assault vehicles parked in the Plaza de Mayo” to “the geological strata of the region’s speech patterns,” all of it engendered by the aforementioned dread.

Facts, details, architecture, catastrophe, chaos, it all returned to write itself once more into the spatial history of repercussion.

The picture of modernity presented here is less of will-to-power at cross-purposes than of myriad egos wrestling themselves into mutually inclusive contortions.

The semi-fictional world these egos inhabit (of Rosa Ostreech and Juan Perón, van Vliet and the West African Fon, Borges and “Carlos Argentino Daneri”) is a byproduct of egoic transmission. In this hybrid reality, we begin to see individuals (egos) as phases, forces that interact, vectors intersecting to trigger the explosive events of history. Each person acts in concert with all others like organs in a body or words in a sentence, each being the signifier in a societal syntax.

…it’s plausible that the irresistible instinct to act en masse, to replicate the irresistible circuit of empathy, constitutes a sort of private language for our species, one that is older than any spoken language, its source residing deep below the conscious mind. The phenomena of synchrony and contagion may yield only a single visible detail in a vast and complex field of study.

Vast and complex field of study, indeed. Anthropology, philosophy, history, linguistics, psychology, pornography, et al.; nothing escapes the conceptual slash-and-burn as it readies each field for a new yield. The groundwork laid for a body politic that has absorbed its subjects and foreclosed “the fiction of individuality”.

CAN’T YOU SEE THAT PEOPLE AND PERSONALITIES ARE ONLY FALLACIES?… YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN AN ORGAN, AN ORGAN INSIDE A PURE SENTENCE, AN ORGANIZATIONAL CHART…THE PUBLIC-PRIVATE HYMN THAT SPEAKS WITHIN YOU

Savage Theories presents a deep-focus tableau wherein theory and praxis, subject and object, past and present share a single stage in an ongoing, immemorial drama. Its kaleidoscopic vision of a densely layered life-world (Lebenswelt) illuminates the sheer scope of existence. At times the tone strays into a superficial pop sensibility, but Oloixarac’s creative force is ferocious, comprehensive, tidal. Her debut novel formulates one of the most thoroughgoing theories of the way we live now.


Steven Felicelli is the author of two novels (Notes Toward a Monograph of the Moment/Six Gallery Press, White/Purgatorio Press) and various film and book reviews. He was born in Chicago and lives in the Bay Area. More from this author →