An Infinite Regression: Deconstructing Modernity and Chronology in Fábula asiática by Rodrigo Rey Rosa
By Ketzali Antu Saravia Umaña
Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s novel, Fábula asiática, argues that modernity and chronology are cultural constructs used to diagram our lives. The novel revolves around the stories of three young mathematicians who came together from distinct parts of the globe to put an end to Western modernity by destroying all forms of satellite communication. Parallel to Peter Osborne’s ideas regarding time, the novel argues that time is the simultaneity of multiple temporalities and not one continuous stream heading in a single direction. The narrative leaps around time as it stitches together the stories of the three main characters, Abdelkrim, Pacal and Xeno. To further elaborate on Osborne’s ideas regarding time, in this essay I will explore the musical concept of polyrhythmia as an analogy to global entanglements, since polyrhythms deconstruct linear perceptions of time in a similar fashion. The novel invites its readers to consider that the diagrams of Western modernity are used to exclude people who don’t fit into its confines and illustrates this through the United States’ treatment of Abdelkrim as a metaphorical “indio permitido,” an Indigenous person limited to modernity’s diagrams constructed to force assimilation. Along this vein, I will use the collective first person to disrupt the metaphor of the “indio permitido” by using Indigenous theorists’ use of “we” to discuss our mental colonization.
Historically, we have been forced to understand time as chronologically linear where the Western world has deemed itself the model of progress. However, Western chronology is an exclusive temporal construct, not the universal unfolding of time. The universalization of Western Chronology is a consequence of the ideas from the European Enlightenment becoming the global norm through its colonial imposition, where world history is told from a Eurocentric perspective. The West equates itself to the “First World”; whoever doesn’t fit in to its standards of development become part of the “Second” or “Third World”. We are relegated to different temporal zones dictated by a Western perspective on Cold War politics with the “Second World” representing the ideological “other” of Western Capitalism, the former Soviet Union and Communism, and the “Third World” representing the land of the “ancient”, “underdeveloped” and “conquered world”. The three mathematicians in the novel aim to erase the hegemony of the Western temporality, realizing that the Western temporality is a construction and an arbitrary fiction.
By bringing Abdelkrim, Xeno, and Pacal together across time, space and differing cultures the novel evokes the idea of global entanglement. The three mathematicians meet while working on various astrophysics projects in the United States. It is through Rubirosa’s accounts, a writer tasked by his friend Mohammed to reconstruct Abdelkrim’s data, that the readers learn that Abdelkrim is chosen by Allah and is going to be someone of great importance because a crow communicates with Mohammed, Abdelkrim’s father (Rey Rosa, 33). Discovered by Orthodox Greek monks, Xeno’s prophecy is to have a brilliant mind, he must abandon his dreams of becoming an art curator because his father thinks he is too bright to be a curator (Rey Rosa, 83-84). Pacal is from a rural town in Guatemala with no electricity, but, with an open sky; Pacal’s mother prophecies a bright future for him using Mayan cosmology (Rey Rosa, 91-92). Their stories do not occur in sub-sequential order, they happen in simultaneity like a polyrhythm, a simultaneous layer of 2 or more contrasting rhythms; these three mathematicians intertwine with one another in a way that defies the confines of a linear Western chronological order and modern understanding of space. Peter Osborne’s, Modernity: a Different Time, argues that chronological time is a cultural construct of Western modernity. Osborne also argues that chronological time is a political construct and is not understood in the same way amongst other cultures. The idea of chronology is a Western construct that excludes non-Western histories from its temporality and is selective with the non-geographical Western civilizations it allows into its temporal zone, i.e. Japan (Osborne 18). This linear construction of time is often used to diagram Indigenous peoples as relics of the past. Western Chronology, which claims to be heading towards progress, assumes that humanity is all coalescing into one homogeneous idea of “progress”, thus, dismissing all participation by anyone who does not fit into the diagrams of modernity. The novel evokes Rosi Braidotti’s concept of the untimely, which refers to things that are “unassimilated” to chronology. The novel brings the three mathematicians together across time and space with metaphors; Abdelkrim embodies the teachings of Allah, Xeno tells everything from his perspective just like the philosopher Xenophon, and Matias Pacal is the imagined cosmonaut that Pacal de Palenque was nicknamed after by often questionable sources, i.e. Chariots of the Gods.
These three conceptual beings represent the three mathematicians, influencing the way in which the three interpret the world around them. Thinking about ideas and concepts as nomadic selves using conscious beings to diffuse knowledge, time and space become inconsequential. In this way, Allah, Xenopohon, and Pacal de Palenque all became the contemporaries of Abdelkrim, Xeno, and Matias Pacal. The three mathematicians were able to set their differences aside and regard each other as equals, their philosophies and cultures all worth learning from, all contemporary, in the pluriversity of thought they created. There is a great amount of respect and admiration amongst the three mathematicians regarding each other’s cultures, they learn from each other; Pacal teaches Xeno and Abdelkrim about the Maya and how they were living in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish (Rey Rosa, 93-94). Abdelkrim presents Pacal and Xeno a counter-narrative to what the dominant narrative of the West thinks of people of the Islamic faith and Xeno teaches his friends how to speak Greek acting like a walking Rosetta Stone. Their gathering illustrates Osborne’s idea of conceptual temporalities since, as a collective, the three mathematicians, along with Allah, Xenephon and Pacal of Palenque, construct a space that is inclusive of Greek, Islamic, and Mayan thought and unite their desire to change the world. Their entanglement deconstructs subjective time in a way that examines the issue at hand, not from one perspective, which would make it relative to the individual, but rather, it is told from an outside perspective where the abstract issue, in this case the social injustices caused by the global implementation of Western modernity, is the focal point because individuals are entangled throughout several different points in time and space. The novel is told from the outside perspective of Rubirosa, the writer who is put in charge of deciphering the recordings and letters that constructed this novel, because he is the “counter-historian” documenting and making sense of the history that is being created by the three mathematicians. As a writer, Rubirosa has the power to breathe life into the stories of the three mathematicians; his inclusion in the novel serves as an avatar of the author, Rey Rosa.
To further understand a non-linear construction of time, in relation to global entanglement, the musical concept of the polyrhythm is very useful. In his article, Marking Time and Sounding Difference: Brubeck, Temporality, and Modernity, Andy Birtwistle discusses the music of Dave Brubeck as a catalyst for marking difference in the world of Western music through his use of polyrhythm and odd meter, meaning music not in the common time of 4/4. Polyrhythms, like global entanglement, create a space for multiplicity and simultaneous temporal spaces; they both deconstruct linear perceptions of time. When summing up the importance of Brubeck’s music Birtwistle concludes, “in negotiating the heterogeneity of multiple temporal frames, Brubeck expands or unfolds time in the same way that the Cubists opened up space in their paintings. While accessible, not only does Brubeck's use of polyrhythm have the potential to render one aspect of musical temporality opaque, but his recasting of time as a drifting multiplicity, rather than as linear and metronomic, destabilizes the very notion of a coherent, consistent temporal base, rendering temporality neither comforting, unified, nor ultimately knowable” (Birtwistle, 369). This construction of time allows for the possibility of simultaneity; the perception of time as a dimension unfolds toward an infinite future, in infinite directions, with infinite possibilities, rather than a linear construction moving in only one direction. The only reason subjective time is conceptualized as linear and applicable homogeneously is because it is negated as one of our unique senses. Subjective time is a sense. It’s something each person perceives in their own way. This perception of time displaces people from their tunnel vision and enables us to look at the bigger picture—time is opaque and infinite.
The novel dissects modernity and regards it as colonialism in a universal language. Modernity is living the life of the colonizers and not living the life one thinks is theirs. A colonized subject living within the diagrams of the West must remember what it is like to have a time of their own. We have been robbed of our time; we spend our whole lives attempting to relearn to feel our own time. We each live in our own temporality and together, create this plane of existence called time. We are all born with our very own rhythmic pulse, our heartbeat; our metronome. But we’re told our whole lives to follow someone else’s pulse, someone else’s rhythm; someone else’s way of life. We take our hearts for granted, we are told not to pursue our dreams because of who we were born as, we get discouraged if we don’t have empirical evidence to prove our growth, or if our growth takes longer than someone else’s because we’re comparing our time to someone else’s time in a system that has diagrammed each and every one of us; this system doesn’t allow us to be anybody, it forces us to be somebody. Realizing the implications of living as colonized subjects drove the three mathematicians to take down all forms of satellite communication because for them it was representative of the modernity that the Enlightenment gave birth to and, subsequently, imposed on the world as a universal standard of living. To fix the world, the three mathematicians saw that it was vital to bring humanity back to a time before the introduction of Western technologies since these technologies were not spread out evenly around the globe. This uneven distribution of technologies led to the further marginalization and diagramming of communities to be part of the “Third World” temporality.
To analyze Abdelkrim’s experience as a Moroccan Muslim immigrant in the United States, Edgar Esquit’s article, Los Discursos Dominantes Sobre la Diversidad Cultural en Guatemala: Naturalizando el Multiculturalismo, presents the concept of the “indio permitido” (Esquit 294). The “indio permitido,” a concept produced by Charles Hale and further explored by Edgar Esquit, is an Indigenous person who is allowed to exist inside a modern society because they have assimilated to the diagrams that the West has outlined for them. Esquit discusses how Mayan culture in Guatemala has been appropriated by the government to appear culturally diverse while continuing to marginalize its large Indigenous population and diagram them as relics of the past. The Maya have had their time completely stripped away from them as Western modernity has been superimposed onto their lives (Esquit 283-294). In the novel, Abdelkrim falls victim to a form of this token multiculturalism, not because he’s a rural Indigenous person in his is own land, but because he is sought after by the United States’ as this “Alien of Extraordinary Ability” to appear more culturally diverse (Rey Rosa 67). The rigid diagrams of Western modernity leave no wiggle room and the novel addresses this point when Abdelkrim is denied his American citizenship (Rey Rosa, 69). In this way, the concept of the “indio permitido” can be applied to the experiences of Abdelkrim because he is denied access and opportunity in the Western temporality in a similar fashion to the Maya of Guatemala. Through the lens of token multiculturalism, following Esquit, the United States’ treatment of Abdelkrim (represented by MIT and NASA) is clear; MIT only wanted the brilliant Muslim Moroccan mathematician to join the institution to be a metaphorical “indio permitido,” an adornment meant only to spruce up the institution’s image of cultural diversity. Abdelkrim is denied any real voice or opportunity when wanting to carve out a space of his own and pursue his ambitions. One of MIT’s finest is denied a spot in NASA because he practices Islam. As an “indio permitido”, Abdelkrim is expected to fit into the molds and diagrams that have been created for him and other Muslim immigrants in the United States and to be grateful for the opportunities the United States has given him. The United States denies Abdelkrim his dream because he threatens to disrupt the diagrams created for the Muslim experience in the United States. The United States government subjugates Abdelkrim and expects him to show gratitude for being allowed to stay in the country much like how the Guatemalan government believes the Maya should feel grateful for being allowed to stay in the country.
To further elaborate on Abdelkrim’s experience as a metaphorical “indio permitido” in the United States, Hector Leyva’s article, El discrete encanto del cuerpo social corrupto, argues that violent images permeate because they diffuse through media and are then ingrained subconsciously (Leyva 2). Because of the permeating stereotypes and prejudices surrounding the people of the Islamic faith in the United States, their government denies Abdelkrim his citizenship and can no longer pursue his dream of becoming an astronaut for NASA. In the United States, one-sided narratives are used to perpetuate violent images and stereotypes of Middle Eastern men, where they are widely portrayed as terrorists in just about any television crime drama imaginable to keep prejudices alive. In conjunction with the concept of the “indio permitido”, the implicit violence towards Abdelkrim places him in a space where he is only allowed to be an adornment for a cultural diversity narrative but cannot pursue his own dreams or make his own decisions; he is a slave to the diagrams of Western modernity. In subjugating Abdelkrim the United States takes on the role of the crime drama hero by reinstituting law and order and taming the “bad guy.” This act then makes Abdelkrim an Other and absolves the United States government of any explicit blame since they rely on perpetuated ideas of violence committed by extremists who are not representative of the entire Muslim community to justify Abdelkrim’s exclusion; the United States diagrams Abdelkrim as a part of anti-Muslim sentiment.
To understand the diagrams of Western modernity, Gilles Deleuze’s ideas regarding Nomadism and the striated diagrams of modernity provide more clarity. For Deleuze, Nomadism refers to going against the state apparatus, to question and defy the rigid diagrams that are outlined for us to follow before birth, to be a metaphorical war machine that tears down the fabric of what the pastoral powers (Foucault 784) of modernity have inoculated us to believe to be true and good for us (Deleuze/Guattari 24). The striated spaces are where the diagrams exist; this is where the performative nature of a diagram, like the “indio permitido”, is enforced. Diagramming robs the potentiality of a life, and, in the case of Abdelkrim, slams doors that should otherwise be wide open. Nomadism is about smoothing out the striated spaces of modernity; Abdelkrim, Xeno, and Pacal exemplify Nomadism by creating a literal war machine, Los anillos de la tierra, which is a spaceship the three mathematicians create to deconstruct the diagrams that were implemented by Western modernity.
These diagrams, that are constructs of Western modernity, exist only in our heads; diagrams are ingrained not intrinsic. Diagrams can be deconstructed. Alex E. Blazer’s article The Matrix Trilogy and the Revolutionary Drive through the Desert of the Real argues that modernity and chronology, the overall system of the Matrix films (a metaphorical representation of the world that has been pulled over our eyes), exists only in our heads, which would then tie in to how Leyva’s ideas of self-diagramming are learned and ingrained, in the sense that they are images and ideas, not intrinsic thoughts. Like a conceptual prison, a prison for the mind, to quote Morpheus, one of the main protagonists in Lana and Lily Wachowski’s Matrix Trilogy, since it diagrams and teaches to self-diagram (Osborne 13, 16). Blazer analyzes the Matrix Trilogy by applying French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s ideas regarding the imaginary (in The Matrix), the symbolic (in The Matrix: Reloaded) and the real (in The Matrix: Revolutions). Lacan’s concept of the imaginary can be interpreted as “what is fraudulent”, like the shadows on our cave walls that are used to keep us sedated in Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the context of a capitalist structure, the representation of the human as a battery to feed the “machines” in the Matrix films functions parallel to the suffering of the people who have been used by Western Capitalism to keep it afloat. In the novel, the three mathematicians discuss how the Western world is at the forefront of much of the world’s suffering, Xeno witnessing firsthand the destructive nature of the West as he and his father aided sick Syrian refugees caught in the crossfire of another one of the United States’ world policing events (Rey Rosa 77-81). Abdelkrim, Xeno and Pacal, much like the Zionists, are rebels; revolutionaries fighting for everyone stuck in the matrix; Abdelkrim shows Rubirosa horrid scenes of torture in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, North American soldiers raping a young Somali girl and much more toward the end of the novel (Rey Rosa, 167-170) to show Rubirosa what the three mathematicians wanted to put an end to. This scene in the novel parallels the walk through the “desert of the real” Morpheus gives Neo in the first Matrix film to show Neo the true world that existed outside of the matrix. So, for a colonized subject to purge the self from the matrix, one must walk through the “desert of the real”, we can no longer avert our eyes.
The imaginary construct, the matrix, is the same mental prison Western chronology and modernity constructed and is what the three mathematicians aim to deconstruct. The matrix is a tool used to diagram those that exist within it. To combat the matrix, the three mathematicians imagine a future of “destruction” that will take the world back into a temporality prior to the universal application of Western modernity; it will “unplug” everyone who’s been diagrammed into the matrix. In the Introduction to her book, the Death of the Post-Human, Claire Colebrook discusses the current state of society that emphasizes constant, mind numbing, stimuli over complex narrative which is something that the three mathematicians believe modernity has done to the world to obscure the truth (Colebrook, 12). Social media outlets and television are, in this sense, re-conceptualizations of the shadows in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave since they prevent consumers from seeing and believing in the physical world we interact with and are used to perpetuate diagrams and stereotypes. The transient ecstasies, as Colebrook calls them, of social media and instant communication are erased by Abdelkrim, Xeno, and Pacal’s grand work, "Los anillos de la tierra," since its success entailed the destruction of all forms of satellite communication. Deconstructing toward this future would erase the imaginary constructs of modernity and would allow society to experience the world in a similar fashion to that of Pacal, one unrestrained by the technologies and diagrams of Western modernity. Colebrook also discusses the duality of the eye, “it is this organ that both stares up into the skies in wonder, reads, and theorizes that is crippled by sedating stimuli; we are torn between spectacle and speculation” (Colebrook, 13). By getting rid of instant communication, the three mathematicians aim to have society speculate more often and wonder at the sky and enjoy their time, since they’d no longer be distracted by the constant stimuli and perpetuated diagrams of Western modernity. Humanity would be forced to experience and learn about the world for themselves, something that has been neglected for quite some time by the over emphasis on spectacle.
The novel successfully invites the reader to imagine a world where chronological time does not exist, a sentiment that is echoed several times throughout the novel as a reminder to untether ourselves from this imaginary prison we are currently bound by. The three mathematicians found a way to operate beyond the confines of the Western temporality; by creating "Los anillos de la tierra," they were able to continue to defy the diagrams that were outlined for them and demonstrated that the marginalized have the power to push back. Their passion and curiosity for mathematics was boundless, and since the United States refused to aid them in their endeavor, they decided to craft their own temporality and imagined a world without the contemporary borders that continue to separate and confine us. As colonized subjects, question “common sense”, question the state apparatus and ask yourself, “how did we get like this?” when facing the injustices of the world we live in. Follow the white rabbit down the rabbit hole just as Neo did, go down the path of the infinite regression and you will find that the very foundation upon which the argument for modernity rests upon is false.
Birtwistle, Andy. “Marking Time and Sounding Difference: Brubeck, Temporality and Modernity.” Popular Music, vol. 29, no. 3, 2010, pp. 351–371. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40926940.
Blazer, Alex E. “The Matrix Trilogy and the Revolutionary Drive Through ‘the Desert of the Real’.” Literature-Film Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 4, 2007, p.265+. Expanded Academic ASAP, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A171773951/EAIM?u=csunorthridge&sid=EAIM&xid=0902ecec.
Braidotti, Rosi. “On Putting the Active Back into Activism. “New Formations, no. 68, 2009, p. 42+. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.libproxy.csun.edu/apps/doc/A236816134/LitRC?u=csunorthridge&sid=LitRC&xid=dc798dfc.Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
Colebrook, Claire. “Introduction.”Death of the Posthuman: Essays on Extinction, Open Humanities Press, 2014, pp. 9-28.
Esquit, Edgar. “Los discursos dominantes sobre la diversidad cultural en Guatemala: naturalizando el multiculturalismo.”
“First World.” Merriam-Webster’s Learners Dictionary, Merriam-Webster.www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/first-world. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
Focault, Michel. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 777-795.
Guattari, Felix. “Introduction: Rhizome.” A Thousand Plateaus, by Gilles Deleuze, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp. 3-25.
Hale, Charles. “Mas que un indio”. Ambivalencia racial y multiculturalismo neoliberal en Guatemala. Guatemala: Avancso, 2008.
Leyva, Hector M. “El discreto del cuerpo social corrupto: violencia, literatura y medios de comunicación.”
Osborne, Peter. “Modernity: a Different Time.” The Politics of Time Modernity and Avant-Garde, Verso, 2011, pp. 1-29.
“Polyrhythm.” Merriam-Webster’s Learners Dictionary, Merriam-Webster.www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polyrhythm. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
“Second World”.Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary, Merriam-Webster.www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/second-world. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
“Third World”.Merriam-Webster’s Learners Dictionary, Merriam-Webster.www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/third-world. Accessed 8 Feb. 2018.
Wachowski, Lana and Lily Wachowski, directors. The Matrix Trilogy. Performance by Keanu Reeves, et al., Warner Bros., 1999-2003.