U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Scand and Deliver, Part II: The Sheriff Is Interpreted To Death

In the second part of this essay, I hope to create a bridge between Part I’s discussion of Lacan and “scanding,” and a consideration of Americo Paredes’s With His Pistol In His Hand.     

Paredes One

I was struggling to figure out how to re-introduce the notion of “scanding” when, as luck would have it, this novelty poster of “diagrammed first sentences of famous novels” began to make the rounds on social media: http://popchartlab.com/products/a-diagrammatical-dissertation-on-opening-lines-of-notable-novels. (It would certainly make a good gift for those who like such things, by whom I mean, emphatically: people who are not me). The poster uses the Reed-Kellogg system of diagramming sentences (a method developed in 1877, a year not without significance in US history, by the excellently named American grammarians Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg).

This poster provides a helpful reminder of what Lacan means by “scanding”:  the active work of diagramming sentences in the “halfway between” speech and text. To apply the Reed-Kellogg system to a reliably fixed sentence is one thing; to put something like it to work during the duration of another’s act of speaking is another. But this is not a simple text/voice binary. In the previous sentence, as soon as I typed: “is one thing…” I created the readerly expectation that I would follow at some point with the cadential “another.” I could have swerved and said:  “To apply the Reed-Kellogg system to a reliably fixed sentence is one thing I have promised my parents I will never do!” My family would have to be pretty weird for that to make sense, on the one hand; on the other hand (heh heh, I did it again) most readers would follow the formal logic. “Halfway between” speech and text seems to be where we spend a lot of our time.

What Lacan and Fink ask about “scanding” is this: where do all the miscues, the possible implications, the multiple meanings, the rhymes and homonyms, the perverse puns go, exactly, once the final meaning of the sentence is fixed? The logic of fantasy would suggest that they do not go anywhere: they linger, or hover, or swirl around the unconscious. In this sense, we might be able to better appreciate the difference between “scanning,” which is the business of properly diagramming speech and text (as in the novelty poster for literary nerds), and “scanding,” which is the work of interrupting that process at some point prior to the papering-over of ambiguity. “Scanning” can be accomplished perfectly well via a Reed-Kellogg diagram; “scanding,” in contrast, requires something like musical stave paper (a suggestion implied by Lacan and worked out provocatively by Fink), which would allow for the polysemy that marks the work of listening to be registered and figured contrapuntally.

(***)

Américo Paredes’s ‘With a Pistol In His Hand’: A Border Ballad and its Hero, first published in 1958, is a study of “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” (“The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez”), one of the most popular corridos of the Texas-Mexico Lower Rio Grande region.

Paredes wants to tell us as much as he can about “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez.” He also wants to theorize the form itself, to map the inner logic of the corrido, the Mexican narrative folk song, typically articulated to epic themes, which takes its name from the verb correr, which means “to run” or “to flow.”

Corridos like “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” are peculiarly creatures of the border. “Borders and ballads,” Paredes writes, “seem to go together.” He leaves it to the reader to fill in why that might be for her or himself.

At the heart of “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” is a story: Gregorio Cortez is an innocent man, enmeshed in a tragic misunderstanding that draws the attention of a racist vigilante police force called the Texas Rangers. In a standoff, Cortez shoots a sheriff. Cortez runs; he outwits the Rangers and accumulates ever-increasing quantities of prestige as a social rebel. He meets his predestined end with dignity and defiance.

Rock afficionado will recognize this as roughly the literary space of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.” Family resemblances can certainly be found to Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” or Bob Marley’s “I Shot the Sheriff,” not to mention a large number of Child Ballads. Body Count’s “Cop Killer,” The Coup’s “Kill My Landlord,” and at least half a dozen titles by Immortal Technique might be seen as latter-day additions to the canon, to say nothing of the outlaw narratives of contemporary country and banda music.

As Ramon Saldivar notes, Paredes works on a traditional, folkloric subject, but is thoroughly postmodern in his approach.  In With His Pistol In His Hand, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” is celebrated as an “open” text, well before Roland Barthes popularized the notion that “openness” might be a radical textual virtue. Paredes seeks the “truth” of Cortez’s encounter with the Texas Rangers, but acknowledges that a final, verifiable account is impossible, and stresses, furthermore, that the accretion of “errors” around Cortez’s story is just as important (and no less politically valuable) than the survival of some singular truth. American literary studies, then, did not need to await the arrival of Derrida or Baudrillard to learn about deconstruction or the politics of simulation.

Here, however, we are most interested in the resonance between Paredes and Lacan. The corrido—flexible and permeable, accommodating changing expressive needs and current events, predicated on a set of legends and myths––seems a perfect example of the “halfway between” speech and text of which Lacan writes. What is remarkable about With His Pistol in His Hand is that Paredes provides a fully fleshed out complement to the corridor on the side of power: what he calls “the Anglo-Texan Legend.”

The “English-speaking Texan (whom we shall call the Anglo-Texan for short),” Paredes writes winkingly, “disappoints us in a folkloristic sense.” The Anglo-Texan “produces no border balladry.” Rather, his “contribution to the literature of border conflict”—a halfway between laid over a halfway between––is “a set of attitudes and beliefs about the Mexican which form a legend of their own and are the complement of the corrido.”

What are the components of the “Anglo-Texan legend”? First, the Mexican is “cruel by nature.” In self-defense, therefore, the Anglo-Texan must treat the Mexican cruelly, “since that is the only treatment the Mexican understands.” At the same time, the Mexican is “cowardly and treacherous” and “no match for the Texan.” The Mexican can only get the better of the the Anglo-Texan by “stabbing him in the back or ganging up on him with a crowd of accomplices. “Thievery,” Paredes writes, “is second nature in the Mexican, especially horse and cattle rustling, and on the whole he is about as degenerate a specimen of humanity as may be found anywhere.” This degeneracy is due to “mixed blood.” As such, the Mexican “has always recognized the Texan as his superior and thinks of him as belonging to a race separate from other Americans.” This is as it should be, because the Anglo-Texan “has no equal anywhere, but within Texas itself there developed a special breed of men, the Texas Rangers, in whom the Texan’s qualities reached their culmination.”

While largely an oral tradition, the “Anglo-Texan legend” had recently begun to be fixed in textual form. “This,” Paredes observes, (calling to mind the final chapter of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction) “is what the most distinguished historian Texas has produced had to say about the Mexican in 1935”:

Without disparagement, it may be said that there is a cruel streak in the Mexican nature, or so the history of Texas would lead one to believe. This cruelty may be a heritage from the Spanish of the Inquisition; it may, and doubtless should, be attributed partly to the Indian blood… The Mexican warrior… was, on the whole, inferior to the Comanche and wholly unequal to the Texan. The whine of the leaden slugs stirred in him an irresistible impulse to travel with rather than against the music. He won more victories over the Texans by parley than by force of arms. For making promises—and for breaking them—he had no peer.[1]

By carefully setting up these two discourses “halfway between” speech and text, Paredes prepares the reader for the key section of With His Pistol In His Hand, entitled: “The Sherriff is Interpreted to Death.” And, one can hardly resist noting––“the sheriff is interpreted to death” is a pretty good answer to the question “What is Lacan trying to explain to us?” Might we also say that “the sheriff is interpreted to death” works fairly well as a spot translation of the Freudian/Lacanian motto “Woe es war, soll Ich warden”?

(***)

The misunderstandings that lead to the death of Sheriff W.T. (Brack) Morris are entirely tied up with the business of “scanding” and the politics of interruption. What Paredes’s narration of this event achieves is a rare illumination of the always-polyglot character of the deadly business of interpretation (a reality that has tended to be accentuated in the history of American working class politics).

Both Freud and Lacan spoke a number of languages, and knew a little bit of many more; but there is no question that a certain “ceteris paribus” animated their forays into linguistics. They assumed, for the sake of simplicity, a German, or French, or English speaker speaking to a fellow native speaker. To the degree they allowed for deviations from this model, they attended only weakly to the imbrication of dominant and marginal languages in networks of power. It is in this sense that we would insist that Paredes and Lacan can be productively read together, but we should be on the lookout for ways in which Paredes complicates Lacan, rather than hunting for the “secretly Lacanian” thrust of Paredes.

Sheriff Morris, Paredes tells us, was “an experienced hunter of men,” 41 years old at the time of his encounter with Gregorio Cortez in June of 1916, having spent most of his life as a Texas Ranger. Another sheriff had asked Morris to look for an unnamed horse thief—a “medium-sized Mexican with a big red broad-brimmed Mexican hat”––from Atascosa who had been trailed to Karnes, Texas. This search for the horse thief was at least minimally forensic: Morris enlisted the services of a Spanish interpreter named Boone Choate to help quiz the locals. Choate, however, turned out to be “one of those men who build up a reputation for knowing the Mexicans better than they know themselves on a few bits of broken Spanish and a lot of ‘experience.’”

This Morris/Choate dyad, rooted in the “Anglo-Texan legend,” and this particular arrangement of power and knowledge and the dialogic, already seems to bring us into Lacanian territory. Consider this passage from Paredes:

 If one goes over court records, investigations of claims, and other documents concerning relations between Mexicans and Anglo-Texans, one finds that jail sentences, decisions on claims, and even the ‘facts’ of history have often been based on statements by men who have qualified as experts on Mexican affairs without even knowing the Spanish language. Boone Choate, perhaps through no fault of his own, was one of these men. A number of people might not have died had Choate either known more Spanish or known enough to know what he did not know.

The search for the horse thief becomes both tragic and comic as the lawmen interview a man named Andrés Villareal, who had recently acquired a mare in a horse trade with Gregorio Cortez. Because the distinctions between a “mare” and a “horse” and a “trade” versus a “sale” versus a “theft” requires a certain level of linguistic and metaphysical sophistication—utterly unavailable to an “expert” like Choate or his trusting boss Morris–– the interview with Villareal might be seen as already having sealed both Morris’s and Cortez’s fates.

As Morris and Choate approach the Cortez residence, the “interpretation to death” begins. The combination of mutual “scanding”––filtered through linguistic incommensurabilities, and caught up in two separate fantasy formations––gives way to high psychoanalytic comedy. Cortez is inside the house and sends his brother Ronaldo to see what the police want. “We want to talk to you” becomes “you are wanted!” Choate, hearing “they know you are a wanted man!” takes this as evidence that Cortez will run or fight to the finish. Choate asks: “did you trade a horse to Villareal?” Cortez answers: “no” (he had traded a mare).

“Scanding” this answer (by stopping at a given point), Choate concludes that Cortez is a liar.

“Why Choate, a ranchman” confused a horse with a mare,” Paredes puzzles, “is not clear.” The most plausible guess might be that he did not know or could not think of the word for mare (yegua) and so instead used caballo. In any event, the acknowledgement of “wanted-ness” and the deception was enough to compel Morris to announce that he was going to arrest both Cortez brothers.

The “scanding” grows more intense at this point: “Gregorio said something in Spanish which included the words arrestar (to arrest) and nada (nothing).” At the later trial, Choate reported that what Cortez had said was “Now white man arrest me.” (Witnesses at the trial then informed Choate that his interpretation made no syntactic sense, so Choate changed his memory of Cortez’s wording, though he could not come up with a properly grammatical rendering). “Whiteness,” Paredes reminds readers, was, at the time a white conceit. Mexican-Americans did not think about nor refer to Anglo-Texans as “whites.” So we have here something like a fantasy of a fantasy.

Cortez probably had said: “You can’t arrest me for nothing.” But what mattered most, as Paredes emphasizes, is that “whatever he may have said, Morris apparently understood the words to be ‘No white man can arrest me.’” Immediately thereafter, Morris shot Cortez’s brother; tried but failed to shoot Cortez; and was then, in turn, shot and killed by him.

(***)

 A great deal of story followed these events (in infinite variations), the details of which can be easily found in books or online or imagined. What interests me most here is not the meaning of the larger narrative arc—the politics of Gregorio Cortez as an epic hero—but the wager that part of the enduring appeal of the story is this scene, this exchange of misunderstandings, this tragi-comic set of rebounding interruptions.

We might even go a step farther, and ask whether the corrido tradition is not as structurally oriented towards opening up the narrative space for such scenes as it is to preparing the ground for thrilling escapes or fugitive marathons, one step ahead of law and order (which is not to gainsay the importance of those typescenes). If that is the case, it might further confirm the status of “interruption” as a key term within the radical imaginary. We will surely have more to say about that in the coming weeks and months.


[1] Walter Prescott Webb, The Texas Rangers (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), quoted in Paredes 1958, 17.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ah, the pieces now start falling into place. Fascinating stuff, and I am to blame for my anti-Lacanian ways for not trying to grasp better what you were proposing in the last post. I really like the scanning versus scanding comparison, it helps bring clarity here. If I understand you well, in this comic tale of miscommunication, interruption becomes a form of negativity through which the subaltern “runs away” (I am playing of course with the word corrido, which is rooted in “correr,” literally “to run”). In terms of the theoretical argument, one thing that I wonder about is agency and subjectivity and what roles they play, if any, in your thinking of “the work” of interruption. Is this solely a structural phenomenon that pits together antagonistic fantasies? This question would tie with the politics of interruption.

    The post also made me think of the concept of liminality, but what we see here is, like you say at one point, a “border conflict.” I like here the use of conflict, it asserts that what is going on is not a mere “negotiation.” It is also interesting you are using the “halfway zone” between speech and text to reflect on an actual text that reinscribes orality onto the page. Is this also a form of interruption? Or does the text itself–I am thinking in formal terms and not the content–smoothly translate the oral? This last question brings up the issue of translation, which I think might also connect with what you are exploring here (i.e. how translation interrupts the original and resignifies it into another form. Hm, I need to interrupt this and buy that poster!

    • Thanks, Kahlil! You have given me a lot to chew on, and I am glad that at least a minimal level of method has become discernible in my madness. I should buy that poster for you as a reward for putting up with all my nonsense!

      • Glad to continue the dialogue and I look forward to how you develop this. To what extent are you incorporating Latino works into your project? Btw, I really appreciated your “interruptive” comment about BDS in this blog; it was nice to to read a voice sympathetic to the movement. About the poster, haha, that’s funny. I will buy it myself, no worries.

  2. Thanks, Kahlil! When I have a little more clarity I will do a proper BDS post, too. I have to prepare myself for a certain social suicide, but taking a firm stand is what the times demand. Hopefully, I will find a reasonable intellectual-historical hook for the essay.

    As far as Latina/o Studies and my research–it is a big big interest, growing every day, but probably will not be a huge part of my dissertation… possibly a major theme of book 2?

    I need to get my Spanish together, and I need to read a lot more. The world does not need another white dude writing idiotically about such things, so I am trying to give the engagement the necessary time and care…

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