PRINT December 1988



Incidents in Leticia, Amazonas.

IN THE MATTER OF NAMES, the Amazon was so-called after Father Carbajal’s account of Francisco de Orellana’s inaugural colonialist voyage along the length of the river in 1541, during which he reported seeing about a dozen female warriors who “appeared to be very tall, robust, good-looking, with long hair twisted over their heads. . . and bows and arrows in their hands with which they killed seven or eight Spaniards.”1 Thus these early adventurers, whose oral and visual narratives of the New World are notoriously imbricated with the aberrant sociosexual conditions of their long voyages of exploration—who saw manatees as mermaids—enthusiastically gave the vast green “kingdom” over to the lost (originary) space of Greek (Western) mythology. The explanatory anthropologist might note that the Yagua, who live near Leticia, wear Iberian-deceiving palm-fiber headdresses; and that the ratio of females to males in some headhunter tribes is at least two to one.

Leticia is named for the paramour of some Spanish-speaking administrator. A river’s width from Peru and a hundred yards from Brazil, it forms the apex of a trapezoid territorial bulge that nets Colombia a seventy-odd-mile Amazon frontage. When still a thatched adobe hamlet, it became “historical” in the early 1930s (i.e., it was accorded a separate entry in the Library of Congress catalogue) following the incursion of a crowd of Peruvian filibusters from Iquitos. Their takeover of the village sparked an international border incident whose solution required a League of Nations meeting in Geneva, the dispatch of a task force from the Caribbean to the Atlantic and two thousand miles up the Amazon (which cost some $10 million, at a crucial moment of world depression and Colombian internal reform), and a peace conference in Rio de Janeiro at which a new Peruvian president apologized and gave Leticia back.

Air “is only” 26,000 feet. All afternoons are storm and sunshine, coming in. One wishes that the Boeing were glass-bottomed like an Everglades tourist vessel. The tributaries twist and squirm like the drip paintings of a crazed expressionist. Meander scars are stacked by the side of the main flows like discarded bicycle clips. You can see the breath of the forest become vapor. Some streams are ribbon thin and glint like silk bookmarks from a parachuted literature. Their indentation is a fantastic haywire lacework that makes hairpin bends look like the crow flies.

Time / Life geoformalism in words and images: “A weird sculpture looking like a skyscraper with musical notes for windows is only a palm leaf chewed by hungry insects and lit by sun.”2

The predominant mode of textual representation of the “exotic” places of the cultural Other, particularly in 19th-century ethnographic, “travel,” and scientific literatures, offers a discourse that “centers landscape, separates people from place, and effaces the speaking self.”3 It reproduces the landscape as an informational document, and controls it through the appropriations of scientific identification, naming, and description. When value judgments or asides are ventured, of course, the classic texts of travel and ethnography are always predicated on European conventions of the poetic and the picturesque; the character of the writing subject is likewise allowed an occasional release into the usually dispassionate, objective tone of the narrative, often at moments of danger, absurdity, or humor, which help to accommodate the manifest incongruity of that subject in an unfamiliar (or hostile) environment. But for the main part this writing offers vast outpourings of “scientistic rhapsody.”4

In the literature on the Amazon, the idiom was seldom challenged by—though it was often blended with—what Mary Louise Pratt characterizes as the self-dramatizing, parodic, “experiential” genre developed, for example, in Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799). This “multivalent sentimental discourse”5 is occasionally capable of disrupting the monolithic scientific pretensions of the informational mode; yet as the two tendencies have bifurcated in the 20th century into scientific specialties (longterm, on-site anthropology, linguistics, limnology, survey, etc.), on the one hand, and writer-centered journalistic reportage (“Two Thousand Miles with a Dalmatian”) on the other, the latter’s dependence on dilute post-Romantic individualism, and on slapstick comic relief arising from scenarios of imposed difference, has been clearly revealed.

Take Henry Walter Bates, for example, a “sprightly. . . ex-hosier’s apprentice”6 and epigone of the new 19th-century class of salesman-scientists. Bates spent 11 years (1848–59) in the Amazon, collecting and shipping specimens back to England—for which he was compensated at piece-rate; his book The Naturalist on the River Amazons was eulogized by Darwin for its outstanding accumulation of some 8,000 species “previously unknown to science.” Bates describes the native people as at best expeditious for his own purposes and at worst unremittingly dour and taciturn; and although he was capable of a little irony and of modest self-deprecation, especially when overwhelmed by the incidental turmoils of the natural, his principal agenda was the expansion of the itemized knowledge of natural history. Indeed, he took his mission to such extremes that, in correspondence with his brother, he even became the designated object of his own descriptive discourse:

On my left side is suspended a leather bag with two pockets, one for my insect box, the other for powder and two sorts of shot; on my right hand hangs my “game bag,” an ornamental affair, with red leather trappings and thongs to hang lizards, snakes, frogs, or large birds; one small pocket in this bag contains my caps, another papers for wrapping up delicate birds. . . to my shirt is pinned my pin cushion, with six sizes of pins.7

To Puerto Nariño by boat. We saw red-headed turkey vultures swooping vacantly. At the Primavera Ranch there were a few cowboys on horses and a rank of zebus standing like thick-cut paper at the fringe of the Amazon. Mischievous and imitative crested oropendolas disgorged from their yard-long hanging nests; kiskadees sang and hornet-screamers screamed. Along the way, felled and fallen trees disported their roots like pan-bottom spaghetti or ’50s tail fins. The water was brown soda-froth, and the bank knifed into faceted grottoes like putty. On a few green terraced silt-hills (rising above 100 feet) a vast tonnage of prostrate whale-white lumber lay in wait. When currents met, whirlpools of spongelike flotsam spun on the surface of the water. Here and there spears of wild bamboo stuck up; the Yaguas use it to make their flutes. The best-looking structure out of town was a neat Catholic missionary school. There was an island of rice ready for harvesting, and a billboard for Cristal aguardente (firewater). Every so often a golden-piranha fishing contest is held on black-water Lake Tarapoto.

As much as it is anything for the West, the Amazon is a statistic, an index and a manual for the equivocal blandishments of ecology and development. In the ’60s it was established, successively, as an economic panacea, as the future zone of hope for expanding populations and accelerating production, and as a “counterfeit paradise” locked into an interminably intricate series of ecosystems, a “masterpiece of natural selection”8 whose slightest disturbance would be catastrophic, not only to the life it supports, but beyond that to the planet at large. In 1967, the Hudson Institute, a United States “think tank” (which felt the need, no doubt, to act out its colloquial designation), proposed to return the Amazon Basin to its Tertiary-period condition as a lake by damming the lower river. This would improve access to some of the resources of the outer basin. And 1967, the year of the great Minimalist/Conceptualist divide, also saw the climax (or exposure) of the systematic subjugation of native Amazonians by the very Brazilian agency (the Indian Protection Service) originally established, as early as 1910, to safeguard their interests through an agenda of humanitarian positivism—a racism no less egregious in its context than historical slaughters by the Portuguese, the Spanish, and the fin-de-siècle rubber companies who gilded the Amazon ports.

“The peak of the Empire State Building is four times the elevation of Iquitos in eastern Peru, which lies 2,300 miles from the mouth of the Amazon”—i.e. the Amazon descends only about a quarter of an inch a mile.9 There are islands in the Amazon bigger than Switzerland/Yorkshire/Connecticut. (Pick your own correlate.) The volume of the Amazon is five times that of the Congo, or twelve times that of the Mississippi; or the Amazon disgorges more in 24 hours than the Thames moves past London in a year—or a fifth of the world’s sweet water.

The Amazon is a top-notch beauty queen in the statistical glamor world.

Sunday morning at the Bellavista Country Club. From the rancid zoological compound and its cayman pen brightly painted with faux-primitive murals; from the ceramic Tropical Hospital with its noted collection of pickled snakes, we traveled on a limitlessly rugged track, mutilated at its every yard by severely gouged tropical potholes, until we came to the club, near to the limit of roadworthiness. There were tree-stump chairs, a humpbacked water chute, a disco-kiosk, and a tepid boating swamp. One could play teju by tossing weighty metal pucks sixty feet or so into a clay pit, hoping to land them on diminutive, well-grounded orange blasting caps and thus stir the air with the reek of cordite. On the way back we stopped to visit the coca-chewing Witoto. We played footsie with their half-strangled yard chickens until someone said they were busy. I wanted to imagine that we left them to their own hallucinogenic world.

Coming away, I asked, What are the pitfalls of reporting, speaking, representing, visiting, seeing this place? What morality, real or imagined, governs the zone of the Other? Is there a morality that prohibits in some (or all) measure the (inevitable) discursive takeover of those places, territories, spaces, that are emphatically elsewhere—places whose morphology is unurban, places without infrastructures, with closed (sufficient) agricultural (and commodity) economies? Despite its burden of humanist philanthropy and its traces of liberal self-determination, perhaps the invocation of some kind of “morality” here is not the wrong plea. There is certainly an amorality in going, a pure surrender (according to the limits of that possibility) to the pleasure of difference, and to the voyeuristic consumption of the Other’s place. And when one’s mark in the Other place, and one’s continual construction of it, are always coded, if not controlled, by the dominant myths and social practices that constitute the ideology of the West, what is left outside prohibition? The “primitive” or “exotic” may indeed be declining in “appeal. . . as a descriptive space in which to evoke alternatives and differences” (as a recent attempt to propound “anthropology as cultural critique” has suggested), but let us not believe that the solution to the (moral) problem of social displacement (and witness) can be found in the crudely revivified Modernist categories that underwrite what the same text calls the “repatriation of ethnographic research,” and a relativizing “defamiliarization by cross-cultural juxtaposition.”10 In this case, the inferno verde (the green hell) is only our hell, no one else’s.

John Welchman teaches in the Visual Arts Department of the University of California, San Diego. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.



1. Cited in George R. Steward, Names on the Globe, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 330.

2. Tom Sterling, The Amazon, Amsterdam: Time-Life International, 1973, p. 170. Author’s italics.

3. Mary Louise Pratt, “The Face of the Country; or, What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen,” in “Race,” Writing and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chicago: at the University Press, 1986, p. 143.

4. Ibid., p. 148.

5. Ibid., p. 152.

6. Sterling, p. 122.

7. Ibid., p. 126.

8. Betty J. Meggers, Amazonia: Man and Culture in a Counterfeit Paradise, Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1971, p. 157.

9. Ibid., p. 1.

10. See George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.