Some time in 2000 or 2001 (the chronology is unclear), Juan Carlos Barrios, Guatemalan artist and former member of the then recently defunct Guatemalan rock band Bohemia Suburbana, took a trip to the shores of lake Atitlán in the Highlands of Guatemala. Whilst there, he collected a number of environmental sound samples – the distant strains of dusty old salsa records playing in coffee shops, the gentle patter of old men discussing politics and clinking glasses in a bar, the rumble of old buses rolling through the dusty roads of the highlands and, most importantly, grainy sample after sample from AM radio (the only radio band available up at the lake). Some months later, back in
, Barrios proceeded to weave together an album made up of the samples from the lake area with gentle guitar, drum and bass overlays from his newly formed trio Radio Zumbido. The result, released in 2002 on the Palm label (a subsidiary of Palm Pictures), was the album Los Últimos días Guatemala City AM [The last days of AM]. The album is ostensibly about the demise of the gentle world of AM, local radio dominated by older salsa and meringue from del Cuba and Puerto Rico and a range of traditional and popular songs from Central America. The album stages a number of intriguing dis-locations: first, the dis-location of the site of the reworking of the samples from the site of that first encounter, where the studio in Guatemala city becomes a place in which a certain memory work is enacted; second, the dis-location of the country from the city in which the lo-fi world of makeshift listening is juxtaposed with the hi-fi world of the recording studio; third, the dis-location of the one from the many, in which the cacophony of the lake area voices is juxtaposed with the unitary ‘voice’ of the artist. Soundscapes, noise from the surfaces of old scratched records and voices and encounters are all affectionately re-contextualised to make a seductive elegy for the local, in praise of the delicate glitchiness of AM in the face of the brash Anglo-American globalising pressures of shiny crystalline FM-band radio in the city. As an eloquent act of mourning, then, Barrios’s album shows fidelity to an imagination of community that has persisted and which we might characterise as beholden to the ethnographic sublime, that tendency in thinking about social and cultural practices to construct a kind of primal scene, placed before the act of writing, resolutely separated out from the site of writing, of making, of producing. The three dis-locations in Barrios’s working process for Los Ultimos are symptomatic of this wider ubiquitous willed separation. This separation, invariably covered over in the work of ethnography, stems from a tradition of writing about social reality characteristic of the literary tradition of the mid-nineteenth-century realist novel. Narratives of the ethnographic kind are ‘realist’ in this sense – as beholden to a (literary) convention that seeks to hide the dis-location of one site from another: the site where the writing/composing subject is located and the site of the ‘original’ encounter with the subjects to be written. We can think about this dis-location, then, as constitutive of the academy’s encounter with the field more generally, and, as I will show below, locatable within a certain structure of mourning for the social precisely as it seeks to still its roar.