Funes and the Toolbox of Inequality
javier auyero
‘‘With one quick look,’’ writes Jorge Luis Borges in his tale ‘‘Funes, His
Memory,’’ ‘‘you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table. Funes perceived
every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and
tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky
on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory
with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or
with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Río Negro on the eve of the
Battle of Quebracho’’ (Borges 1999: 135). Ireneo Funes had a prodigious
memory; he ‘‘remembered not only every leaf of every tree in every patch of
forest, but every time he had perceived or imagined that leaf.’’ He was
incapable of general ideas: ‘‘Not only was it di≈cult for him to see that the
generic symbol ‘dog’ took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and
sizes, it irritated him that the ‘dog’ of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen
in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog of three-fifteen,
seen frontally.’’ Funes, who died young, in 1889 was, Borges writes, ‘‘the
solitary, lucid spectator of a multiform, momentaneous, and almost un-
bearably precise world’’ (136). But, despite all his meticulous memory, he
was ‘‘not very good at thinking.’’ Thinking, Borges suggests, ‘‘is to ignore
(or forget) di√erences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of
Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars—and they were virtually
immediate particulars’’ (137).
An observer of Latin America’s contemporary social, political, economic,
and cultural realities faces a dilemma similar to Funes. Too many particu-
lars, too many immediate concerns bombard the onlooker and obfuscate
his or her vision. How to make sense of the region’s present condition?
Let’s perhaps imagine a curious citizen of the ‘‘advanced’’ North traveling
through the region. Let’s imagine she is a college student on some ‘‘study-
abroad’’ program. Picture her in Quito, Buenos Aires, or Mexico City. She
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