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Telecapita (2020) [Part 1/Part 2/Part 3]

Originally published on Telecapita. Teoría y distorsión, in August 2020. 

Illustrations intervened from archive photographs, by César Cortés Vega. Edition by Alejandro Flores Valencia.

To Fausto Zerón-Medina and Gonzalo Altamira

They don't know I am the first man

who has talked to a fish.”

Santiago Genoves, El mar, los peces y yo

Some works precede the appearance of craft. With the institutionalization of deconstruction and postmodern philosophies, the written humanities have tended to concentrate their reflexive exercise in the spaces and times demarcated by the academy. Exploration –understood in territorial and introspective terms– is relegated to supposedly auxiliary disciplines [1] such as ethnology or paleontology; or to the trades associated with art, which is its object of study, but which is usually discredited as gnosis[two]. In recent years, this condition has been confronted with increasing determination, driven by the incursion of theoreticians into the praxis and vice versa, as well as by the tending valorization of the multi-,trans-and interdisciplinary efforts. Today it is accepted, with reasonable probity, that the descriptive arts and humanities contribute to the knowledge of the sciences. The consequence has been the adoption –sometimes rigorous– of the laboratory, a space generally associated with the biological and exact sciences, as a model for the production of knowledge for the expanded arts and, ultimately, as a space for research into human nature.


Our character anticipated these notions by overcoming them. He returns to us after several decades of a pitiful editorial silence, with the Fondo de Cultura Económica, the Institute of Anthropological Research, and the UNAM University Museum of Contemporary Art as co-editors. Santiago Genovés: Collected Works (Mexico: 2020) is a compilation, indeed, but it is also a reinterpretation of the work of the once renowned physical anthropologist, writer, and researcher on issues of aggressiveness and violence. And it is because its compiler, Catherine Leguillou, gathers her texts not based on his scientific career but on what she values as a “dramaturgy in progress”. She writes in the introduction: “Repetitions of articles that have appeared in different publications and languages (common in scientific bibliographies) have been omitted, favoring the thematic unity of the different sections of the book, giving them a chronological order and presenting them as a thought in a constant process of transformation and whose concretion, as work, is in the experiences it refers.” (p.1)


We appreciate this, non-without controversy, on the basis that before this publication Genovés's works were practically nonexistent for the Hispanic publishing market. This absence does not disguise its strangeness. Genovés was one of the most prominent physical anthropologists of his generation. Born in Spain and of premature Mexican nationality, he rose to international celebrity in the 1970s for participating in expeditions Ra I & II with Thor Heyerdahl, as well as for directing the experiment Acali –in both cases crossing the Atlantic on a raft–. He had a prolific career in film, radio, and television as a science communicator and participant in talk shows. He carried out unorthodox investigations into the violence, not only on the aforementioned vessels, but also interviewing kidnappers in Mexico and members of ETA in the Basque country. He would become a definitive public figure by the end of the century, promoting the UNESCO statements on violence and on scienceand being a diligent activist in favor of caring for the environment. Then his figure would be diluted, perhaps partly due to age, partly due to the loss of prestige in the eyes of his scientific colleagues; partly because of his own silence.


Until now posterity has treated him unfairly. None of his books have been reprinted since his death, although his stock was out of print. The audiovisual products in which he participated are canned in the warehouses of some television stations – which deny the rights of reproduction to those who request them [3] – and his archive seems to have vanished. In 2016 I located 40 specimens of his Expedition to violence in a warehouse belonging to the Fondo de Cultura Económica library of Guadalajara, with a sale price of ten pesos. After requesting all the copies for myself, I was notified that the report was due to an inventory error and the items did not exist. Similar experiences have happened to me —along with other colleagues— with other solitary titles in various bookstore chains and some libraries. The latest news in his memory lies in the premiere, a couple of years ago, of the unfortunate documentary TheRaft (2018), by Marcus Lindeen, about the 101 days of the Acali experiment, where the facts of the experiment are openly distorted and Genovés research and biography are entirely blurred. In such a scenario, this book constitutes an opportunity and a break.


Now, it is impossible to abstract ourselves in our review from the thesis of the one who compiles here: Collected works, more than a sum of texts, understand a sum of experiments and experiences that transform the author's conception of science and research, of nature, of human beings and of himself. This invective is risky: it could result –as in the case of the aforementioned documentary– in a distortion of Genovés's work. That's not the case.


The two volumes show us the transformation of a 'conventional' physical anthropologist with a marked interest in anatomical and evolutionary questions, his gradual transition to the study of historical issues and human behavior, and finally, his particular turn to 'environmental' themes (a definition that will deserve a later commentary) from an introspective –and therefore prosaic– approach.


As the previous commentary prefigures, the book is divided into three sections: the first, “Perspectives on the origin of man: 1954-1970”, includes a representative collection of articles published in national and international academic journals, with a marked emphasis on anthropometry and evolution. Highlights include the works on "the man of Tepexpan" (1960) that Genovés discovered was, actually, a woman, as well as his disruptive articles on the definition of the sex of prehistoric remains (1954, 1956, 1959g, 1960c, 1963). Of special interest will also be his reviews on evolutionary issues (1959b, 1960b), not common for anthropologists of his time. The second part is titled “Views on human nature: 1966-1993” and is the largest. It collects the results on raft expeditions across the Atlantic and investigations of another nature, such as those already mentioned during the hijacking of a plane in which he was a passenger (1972a, 1972b) and the interviews with ETA members in the Basque country (1980d, 1984c). It rescues controversies little known to the Hispanic sphere, such as the debate held in Science in the early 1960s on racism (1961a, 1961e, 1962a), which prefigured his interest in the study of violence and aggressiveness. Concludes the collection Gazes over the sea: 1969-2013”, which includes, from texts on possible transatlantic contacts in prehistoric times (1969a), to later works, of an uncertain historical character.


Between these sections, two others alternate, in the form of apostilles and in a differentiated role, which are intertwined between those already described: "On the Method" and "On Science and Philosophy", without temporal delimitation. The first focuses on the design of research activities, the design of the tools of measurement and comparison of prehistoric bone remains (1961, 1962, 1965h, etc.), the design of the ships that would cross the Atlantic, or the experimentation strategies on human behavior (1971b, 1977b). Also included are those texts on the preparation of introspection processes in their late stage (1983c). It contains images, sketches, as well as descriptive tables. The second of these sections includes some texts aimed at dissemination, which here take their dimension of proper theoretical conceptualizations in the light of the dilution of disciplinary boundaries. Statements of collective drafting are also included. The edition concludes with a Critical Bibliography linked to digital repositories (from which this text sorts its references).


The book presents a panoramic view that Genovés himself would find debatable [5], but that is consistent with his career. Following the development of this transformation helps us to understand the coherence and radical nature of his last proposal, and in part, the reason for its subsequent oblivion. But it also opens a new window into his work in light of current research definitions. By defining Genovés as a dramatist, Leguillou not only reinterprets his career but also reveals his continuous search for a methodology (or the lack thereof) like the elephant in the room of contemporary culture: the pachyderm goes on a raft that is wrecked.


This provocation forces us to reflect on the trajectory of Genovés, like the scientist he was, and as the artist we now recognize in him.  On the roads he opened, with his last revisions, and especially on the routes that, once opened by him, no one else has traveled yet. On his contributions to the multi-, inter- and transdisciplinary, and also on his warnings.




His colleagues conjecture as the cause of the oblivion to which Genovés has been relegated, his own reluctance to form disciples. Young physical anthropologists would find it difficult to encourage their hunger for novelty in their osteometric tables, not so in the case of officiants from other disciplines seasoned in the study of bodies.


"It is common for students in different branches of science to exert themselves in the effort to obtain new and positive results from their researches; and misconceptions often arise precisely because of the deep-rooted idea that they ought to be ‘proving’, or giving a definite status to, something, whereas in reality they can only state what they have found and not what they may have set out to find." (1954)


The paragraph that opens his work already intuits its unforeseen uses. The cautionary tone with which a young physical anthropologist approaches his first study becomes scholarly advice for the discipline that has most widely influenced his early studies of the origin of man: forensic criminology.


Historical paradox more than epistemic. Searching for the genesis of ancient human remains, Seeking the genesis of ancient human vestiges, Genoese ends up finding the most efficient model for the identification of remains in the specificity of the Mesoamerican context (1967a). It distinguishes an anomaly: Mexican women have the longest bones relative to their height. He reviewed hundreds of corpses obtained from the National School of Medicine belonging to poor and indigenous population strata and intuited the correlations between social and ethnic status. Recently, an interdisciplinary group attached to the BUAP developed the Forensic Anthropology BETA mobile phone application, tool that identifies skeletal remains of the disappeared in Mexico. The application is based on the estimation model proposed by Genovés (et. al.), differentiating its algorithm from other similar programs due to its adaptation to the Mexican context.


Given this, the studies of the first stage of Genovés seem –without having proposed it then– more related to the emergencies of the present than to the investigation of human genesis. “Few are the data that the bone remains themselves can provide us”, he concludes in "Problems Concerning the Origin of Man in America"(1965g). In any case, we notice here the beginning of a displacement, both thematic and methodological, in his interests. In 1967(b) he writes for Current Anthropology a somewhat conclusive text on the topic:


"Until a few years ago, we collected metrical data, mainly on skulls; we realize today that this was not very rewarding, to say the least. It has recently become more fashionable to go into the field better equipped, at much greater expense, and collect all sorts of biological data (from PTC to β-aminoisobutyric acid excretion); up till now this has not been very rewarding either. What we need now is the kind of research that can be carried out with no more tools than a good library, a pair of eyeglasses, and a pen and paper. Scientific research is not the accumulation of facts, but to understanding through the interpretation of facts. To understand the history of our origins, we must return to a more humanistic and integrative approach” (1967b)


The author then adheres to the not-yet accepted theory of the population of America by successive migratory waves. His conclusions provoke broad correspondence. He discusses the subject in an elementary way, but his final words already lead his genuine interest:


"We will never discover the remains of the ‘original’ settlers in America, just as we will never discover the very cradle of humanity anywhere in the Old World; but through a better knowledge of human variation in the past and in the present, we will come closer to the understanding of the biological affinities of our forefathers, here or there, and hence a better understanding of our ways and cultures. ” (Idem.)


Henceforth, Genovés will move away from anthropometry. He will continue to show some interest in the diffusionist hypothesis about the cultural development of pre-Columbian America —that of its prehistoric contacts with African and European peoples—, and will delve into studies of aggressiveness and violence. He will delve into his rebuttal of eugenics and social pseudo-Darwinism, and denouncing the racist bias of some academic institutions, advocating for a systematic study of the cultural and biological causes of these problems.

However, its most resounding overturn will be methodological.




In his introductory study, Leguillou relates the genovesean works of his first stage to two groups of current research related to art. Forensic Architecture (United Kingdom), a multidisciplinary group that investigates cases of state violence and human rights violations in various parts of the world, and The Solar. Object Detective Agency (Mexico-Spain), whose work explores the poetics of objects and their scenic articulation (pp. 13-14).


This association seems abusive to us –because it is premature–, however it is mentioned in order to present the fundamental thesis that occupies this edition.




At what point does etiology become psychology? At what point does the aggressiveness of a biological organism end up organizing a war? Anthropologists know that no deontology is sterile. In the evolutionary tree from which we come with the other hominids, it is impossible to define when we can start talking about human beings and accurately characterize the unique features of the species. The doubt evades definitive answers but imposes ethical considerations. Analyzing the vestiges of human activity of all ages involves deepening a terrain where the natural and the symbolic intermingle.


Now, how to study this diffuse field without falling victim to environmental conditioning? Genovés proposed something unusual –although not unprecedented– for humanistic studies: an experiment. Even more extravagant was his approach: a drifting ship. We suspect that the design did not correspond to purely theoretical questions: the influence of his previous experiences prevails.


In 1969 and 1970 Genovés carried out the two Ra expeditions-experiments with Thor Heyerdahl and five crew members. To do this, they focus on the construction of a papyrus raft based on the iconography and technological possibilities of the ancient Egyptians. Archaeological orthodoxy maintained – it continues to do so – that the Nile civilization was incompatible with transatlantic voyages fundamentally for two reasons: ideological – all estrangement is depravity and oblivion, “only what remains and flourishes within its territory has, and had, true and positive value” (1972g)—and the material— they did not have the necessary boats for it. The project consisted of refuting this last prejudice by showing its fortuitous possibility: building a raft with the technologies of antiquity and letting the ocean current take it to America. In a first attempt, the boat succumbed in the waters of the Caribbean after traveling 5,017 kilometers. It had been built in imitation of the boats in the Cairo Museum by a group of Tchadians belonging to the Buduma tribe of Bol in central Africa. A second attempt was made in a ship, also made of papyrus, built according to their tradition by a group of Aymara Indians from Lake Titicaca in Bolivia. About them Genovés writes:


"Despite this being the first time the Aymaras came into contact with an urban and sophisticated world, in contrast to the simple rural life they lead on the beautiful but small island of Suriqui, they did not exhibit much interest in knowing Morocco in general or the city of Safi in particular: perhaps this is, we think, the normal attitude of men who 'are', in contrast to those who, with more culture, we are always concerned with 'being' because we move a lot and have been in many places. Our lack of security and clear meaning in our lives despite appearances contrasts with the security and clear sense of observable life in Aymaras outside their country." (Idem)


The second vessel had clear advantages, including maintaining its unity and solidity despite the strong Atlantic swell and the constant effect of saltwater on the papyrus. The detail in the description of both ships and the praise of the Bolivian indigenous building system –which simulated a keel by strengthening a reed cord– show detailedly how the anthropologist, without any maritime experience, had become after more than 100 days in the Atlantic, a crew member seasoned in nautical techniques (1969c).


Soon, Genovés' observations moved away from archaeological interest. Although he explains with exhaustive documentation the diffusionist thesis (1973c), he in no way commits himself to it. In response to the H. K. J. Cowan's letter refuting some premises of the Ra experiment, he replies:


"I am not rushing headlong into an argument that papyrus rafts came to America from West Africa or from the Mediterranean simply because that possibility has been opened by Ra I and Ra II. The possibility still needs to be proven to be a fact. But in the light of the data presented in my paper and in other of my publications, it is evident that papyrus rafts constituted a valid ancient means of transportation by river, lake, and sea." (1974f)


This hesitation contrasts with the position of Heyerdahl, whose participation in the experiment followed a clear agenda to prove his hypothesis of early overseas voyages [4], an interest that would prevail for the rest of his life. Perhaps this was due to the fact that, unlike the Norwegian, Genovés barely glimpsed the consequences that for himself it had the then called Expedition-Experiment. A note at the end of his report on the trip published in the Society of Americanists warns: “We have not said anything about the anthropological reasons that gave rise to these two expeditions. Nor will we talk about the study of human contacts lived by men of different ethnic groups, in difficult conditions, sometimes very difficult. Indeed, this raft constitutes a veritable laboratory for an anthropologist interested in problems of human aggression and communication” (1972g). Crossing the ocean, Genovés had found interests other than those that originally prompted him to embark on the adventure. Or maybe just the method.




Every authentic expedition reveals only new concerns. In the eyes of the scientific community, Ra did not prove the precepts it established. For Genovés this represented only its unappealable success:: “I believe that every day we are giving less scientific weight to the value of experimentation more or less similar to ours, which, without being, of course, definitive, leads us, however, to a better and more thorough understanding of some scientific problems of true human interest. This is due, in part, to the inapplicability of the method of the statistical technique to the experiment.” (Idem.). In opposition to this diagnosis, he imagined a descriptive science, where the exceptional –not to say the improbable– was the matrix of authentic knowledge.


Leguillou finds in this attitude the echoes of Jerzy Grotowski. The Polish director used to say that in order to do good theater the actor must take the 'long road', so he proposes to subdue him or her to systematic introspection processes and unheard physical efforts. This, which translates into its transformation into a kind of ascetic or shaman, causes the performance to move to a second term depending on the artist's abilities to become the vehicle of a revelation. Genovés assumes similar notions with the idea of finding knowledge about human behavior but tries to avoid the problematic field of fiction. Faced with the possibility of recruiting an actress for the new experiment he is preparing, he warns:


"Grotowski maintains that the motives that lead us to work in the theater are not pure [...]. The Acali experiment has something theatrical about it. During this time, I have seen many men and women who, I believe, wanted to come in order to achieve a more or less enviable position in exchange for their physical presence. I rejected them systematically. I do not want actors who identify more or less with their roles. We can give sense to our lives only by coming out of the shell in which conventionalism petrifies our existence. We harden ourselves more and more each day, ending up hating everything and everybody in which or whom there is a spark of life […]. We are trying to put our feet firmly on earth and to hold out the hand that is not clean. Clean or dirty, the hand transmits human warmth”. (1980b)


They suspect, the Polish and the Mexican, that their experimentation will not be replicable and even less quantifiable, so they grant him malleability. However, they differ in the spatial principle of procuring the unusual process. On the singular daily life of the raft, the anthropologist slips the concept of "unlimited work”: “the best source of understanding and communication between the participants” (Idem.). More than a methodology in aprioristic terms, the anthropologist adheres to the process of forming an ontological subject defined by adventure. Travel is essential for this. The science that he proposes to rescind laboratories as enclosed and controllable spaces; he opposes to them the Sea.




In November 1972, Genovés was traveling from Mexico City to Monterrey when his plane was hijacked for political motivations. The random-driven incident confirmed the wording of a long-intuited question: "Why and how does human violence originate?" Before boarding Acali, it is fair to review the other two research processes carried out by Genovés to resolve this issue.


Don't evade irony who considers a kidnapping a career opportunity. Kidnapped took then, an advantage of his context to conduct interviews and observe the behavior inside the plane, of which he hastens deductions –irritability by parental affiliations, universal fraternity in the aggressors– as well as new questions.


In 1980 the Spanish government commissioned a study on violence in the Basque Country. Genovés accepts, adhering to a treatment that is no less risk-free: to infiltrate. Regarding the doubts about this strategy, he answers: “science has its methodology, but when faced with certain problems or phenomena, it must either adapt to them or abandon the investigation, since a priori the circumstance cannot be changed” (1980d).


In this way, he moves to the Basque Country and publishes a public letter asking to be contacted. As it is, he arranges an encounter to be taken with his face covered to an undetermined place and to be able to interview alleged members of ETA. “I must talk to everyone, here, there, and everywhere. My study, so to speak, is aseptic, neutral, objective […]. What you find out can be read by everyone. It is not, it will not be, a report to anyone. It is, will be, an open investigation” (Idem.). After a few days, he is released and returns to Mexico, where he writes down his experience and conclusions.

More than his results, we owe attention to the replicability of his method. On the matter of it, the editor shares a personal anecdote. In 2015 Leguillou paraded at the newly opened Embassy in Afghanistan in Paris to apply for a visa to that country with the intention of conducting ethnographic research on opium brides, sex slaves sold by his parents to fund the plantings of this drug. Faced with the restrictions imposed by the Afghan government, his strategy was to pose as a journalist interested in camels. In the line of the offices, he met a Mexican playwright, Angel Hernández, who revealed an identical project but to write a play. Leguillou –inspired by Genovés and Hernández– concludes the uniqueness of the method in specific contexts or the suspicion of an impossible disciplinary segmentation in the approximation of certain topics.

In recent decades it is not rare the opening in theater for research processes involving infiltration and disguise skills to approach social problems [5]. Contingents are to the subjects that obsessed Genovés. Hernandez himself has described his program, The Violent Scene –which he develops in transit through different parts of the world– as a research laboratory. Before such a conceptual pandemonium, Leguillou speculates that theatre and anthropology are, actually, different texts of the same experiment.




Acali (in Nahuatl “water house”) consisted of a raft 12 meters long and 7 meters wide with 11 crew members – 6 women and 5 women of different nationalities and ethnic origins – which, propelled by the current, crossed the Atlantic from the Canary Islands to Cozumel over 101 days. Unlike in the Ra experiment, the raft, in this case, was not of feeble material such as papyrus, but of a steel pontoon with expanded polyurethane foam injected inside. The design of their cabin would make them sleep with no space between them, the location of their toilet in plain sight. A sail would be included, rather than as a tool as an irony, for as soon as it would confirm the frustration of its captain, the raft was not made to sail, but to float adrift.


No less extravagant to design the experiment were his relationships with the study of violence. Advised by a broad and multidisciplinary international scientific committee, Genovés had planned how to induce situations that were then inferred as causes of conflict: overcrowding, sexual competence, facing difficulties with no prior experience, exhaustion, stress. He assumed that being able to overcome them, his apprenticeships would be replicable on a larger scale (“We wish we could live in peace one day. We're not making it on earth. We may well rehearse in the sea, from which, after all, we emerged a few millennia ago”) —excessive conjecture in numerical terms, but enough to gain the support that the initiative needed.


Leguillou assumes about Acali, that by building a laboratory on behavior in the “total isolation medium” which is the sea and not in everyday life on earth, Genovés designed a heterotopic space. This is evident, despite the constant allegations of its promoter to defend the scientific nature of his project:


"[...] Of course, there will be those who will qualify the above as madness, or with more benevolence, of scientific imbalance. I think, however, that if in other fields, departing with passion and clarity of attempt, from the already known and experienced norms, it produces results (painting, poetry, music), Why, with our scientific research spirit deny ourselves of this venturous possibility? Because of its risks? Is there any adventure of thinking that doesn’t have risks? What are we going to find? I don’t know. The great biologist Szent-Gyórgyi understands research as going into the unknown in the hope of finding something new and valuable. If in advance, we know what we are going to do or what we are going to find, then we are not doing research at all, but only doing a kind of honorable work, more or less bureaucratic. The man of science is not made to roam wide streets or on already trite paths. His eagerness leads him –it must take him– to rummaging through the night of the unknown, of the doubtful.” (1974b)


This ongoing insistence on 'opening' the scientific methodology reveals his intuition about the epistemological limitations of the natural and human sciences by raising the doubts that haunt him and the feeling that artistic language offers him complementary strategies for the development of his concerns in formal terms. But in turn, it discovers the search for one or more models, knowledges, that allow him to talk about 'human experiences' in systematic terms. On how particular experiences 'change a life', how a group of strangers in the face of difficulty 'organize themselves; how sexual desire emerges in the daily coexistence, and from its inseparable tension with the instinctive pursuit of power.


"We are in the lack of that middle zone, the gloom. That identification area that occurs in football between the viewer and the player, and in cinema between the protagonist and the viewer. We need to humanize and extend that communication zone that identifies and makes us understand [...]. A creative attitude is necessary, from a state similar to that one of the artist, to extract man and science from the analytic limits that do not, unfortunately almost never, analyze the meanings that give meaning to science, and lead it to integrate with history, myth, philosophy, art, and religion." (Idem.)


For years and in a more or less disorganized way, Genoese presented the results of the experiment in different publications and languages. It is clear that the human factor in its development influenced the erratic results of this approach. The causes were diverse: external factors, such as the mediation of the experiment causing it to be referred to as "the raft of sex", or that funding sources –mostly Televisa, minority UNESCO, and UNAM– had less interest in the scientific results of the experiment than for their political use –both in their favor and to avoid harm.

The greatest achievement of Collected works resides in the pedagogical organization of these results, even if it sacrifices their integrity and chronological order.



The hesitation of Genovés himself about the nature of the experiment he carried out should not be underestimated. He affirms without hesitation its value, but fails to define the typology of his practice:


"I don't know if Acali will change the world or not; I guess not. We live in a world where the objectivity of the observer is what has been important. This has its limitations, and on the raft, I have been able to see it clearly. While I'm in the experiment, I can say 'extra-scientifically' (beyond what has been predicted from the outside) what was or not true, however much it may seem. I, who was in Acali, I can know, and I know what it was or not [...]. For me, it is perhaps the central point of Acali: to know that to understand qualitative phenomena, you have to be within it, even if you lose objectivity." (1975c)


Added to his 'extra-scientific' conclusions, there is the confirmation of what it milled around as a pre-notion on the development of the experiment:  “the artists showed better predictive capacity on the development of the trip than the specialists in social sciences and natural sciences” (1977a). The latter are granted comparable talents of prediction among themselves. The idea is still in his head, months after he returned ashore: “[…] I spoke with a distinguished French psychiatrist about the above. 'Of course, Santiago,' she told me. 'If we, psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists, had the intuition of the artists, we wouldn't be who we are, but we would be artists.' No comment." (1980b)

We should not confuse the predictive capacity of a phenomenon as epistemology, especially since it is an experimental phenomenon. The poets, musicians, writers, and painters interviewed by Genovés were able to predict the effects of 101 days at sea, but few would be their skills to sail it. Their intuition began to see the possibilities of a moving laboratory, the concerns arising about its extravagant rules and limitations, and its possible games. They imagined the sensations of those who, locked in their swell for several months with ten other strangers, would feel alone, wanting to jump into the water. But all that was, in the end, just an experiment... Or was it something else?


Leguillou deciphers in Acali the logic of a scenic device –carried to the extreme. In terms of Patrice Pavis, "a playful artifact, closer to the construction games for children [...], which presupposes an ideological conception of the transformability of social space and the human environment". He adds: “there is an exploratory will in it, in effect, but playful manipulation is its generating principle” (p. 23). Hence, he infers, that its investigative scopes are not limited to the purposes of the experiment on the raft, but to the interpretation that the relatives of the participants make about it, as well as to the follow-up given by the media. Hence, he concludes, “that the organizer finishes the journey sick, mad, or both”(p.24); impossible to obtain a better solution to the metaphor it intended.


"If the expedition-experiment proved one thing, it was the contagious faculty of symbols. Unable to be a statistically representative of humanity, Acali is built as an analogy of it. Its assembly is a constant appointment to archetypes rooted in our cultural history, specifically to the 'Ship of fools'. Without pretending it, its crew members suddenly became 'moral types': metaphors of humanity sailing aimlessly and without any leadership, dominated by its multiple impulses, unable to communicate authentically. But contrary to the moralizing desire that usually condemns them to the shipwreck (as in the works of Sebastian Brant, El Bosco, or Michel Foucault himself), Genovés insists on proposing that anarchist ship as possible heterotopia: the scientific quest to find peace." (p. 26-27)” (pp.26-27) [6]


It should not surprise us that in the epigraph that opens the chapter on “Roles, groups and cohesion” Genovés quoted Artaud (“Moi, Antonin Artaud, je suis mon fils, mon père, ma mère et moi.”). In that section, he recounts his desperate attempt to evade Acali's captaincy. With two previous raft sails as experience and in the context of the unpredictability of a Caribbean Sea full of hurricanes and sharks, it is because of the general pressure that he assumes the lead (1980b). Genovés recounts the assumption of its leadership as the intimate revelation of a complete failure.




Years after Acali, his friend Luis Buñuel would accuse him of actually having armed all that, for the mere capricious desire of wanting to go to the sea. Genovés does not deny it, continually citing it in his late works.

Despite the prejudices that lie about it, the scientific results of Genovés' work are soberly correct. It does not reach eccentric conclusions but resumes previous postulates in contrast to its experimental results. He treats the evidence with objectivity, dressing it with its broad culture and unthinkable practicality.

More than on social violence –this is a personal appreciation– his research gives clarity on fields of knowledge that have been empirically developed, but with little theoretical development: navigation, adventure, and expeditions. He refutes prejudices and superstitions –such as that avoiding mixed crews, or against floating ships on Friday 13–, confirms long-debated certainties –such as the need for a chain of command in uncertain situations–, and suggests uninteresting developments –such as the desirability of sustaining transcendental ideas to overcome the difficulties imposed by the sea. In turn, he subscribes to the discussion issues that will become of paramount relevance in the upcoming decades: women's behavior in contexts of sexual freedom, and sea pollution.


With superficial need, it has been said that in his later years, Genovés abandoned the sciences to devote himself to literary matters. This interpretation –in our misleading view– illustrates two complementary concerns of his subsequent work: the promotion of the interdisciplinarity, and the humanism in science. This is understood not as a principle of ethical conduct, but from an empirical assessment of what is known about the human:


"Yes, if we are evolution, we can be nothing but an unfinished process," an experiment —it will never be finished as a process— no matter how megalomaniacal, egomaniacal, and anthropocentrics we are or want to be. If "nostalgia is a mistake", and if as Antonio Machado tells us, "there is no tomorrow —or yesterday— written" we are, 'a fortiori', an unfinished process." (1987)


Genovés understands a science that addresses and participates in this inadequacy. A discipline –supposedly already-non-anthropological– that through its aesthetic contribution, research, it contributes to the expansion of knowledge about the human condition: “Yes, science, distortions, is poetry. Science and technology bring life to life, make life more beautiful. What seemed impossible becomes possible." (1990)

This enunciation underlies an unprecedented radicality. In analyzing the overcrowding and stress they were subjected to in Acali, Genovés concludes that what has saved them from hostilities has been being surrounded by the sea. He glimpses on it –like experienced sailors – after long periods, the induction of altered states of consciousness. He suspects with poetic intuition that the real disturbance in human terms comes from his abandonment –from the sea, from his indirect violation through urban life:


“We have already seen how aggression due to lack of urban space leads us to violence [...] It is also true that true cooperation is indispensable for both individual and that of the species survival, is in a too much greater degree in rural areas [...]".(Idem.)


He has hinted in this an impossible project: to abolish industrial society. More appropriately, the invention that has more certainly exacerbated the spread of violence between human beings and with the rest of life on the planet: the city. However, it does not base its proposal –its proper dissent– on a specific design of the political organization, but on the effects of the city in environmental terms, that is, also symbolic and unconscious. Hence his answer is consistent with this enunciation: “There are three types of men: the living, the dead, and those who go to the sea" (1983c).




Confronted with his colleagues and delving into the new doubts that Acali had brought, Genovés seemed doomed to a tautological old age. His work at that time consists of brief texts of informative content and his continuous collaboration in UNESCO's international committees, works on which while he maintains his teaching and reflective capacity, they depart from the adventures of thought –and also physical ones– in which his previous works had consisted.


At that time, he writes a series of texts that the bibliographers have despised from his scientific work, but which Leguillou includes in the second volume with the following argument:


“So far, we have seen a well-defined line in Genovés’ research, which continually attacks the disciplinary boundaries of science by studying exceptional situations. There is a logic inherent in the design of his expeditions: if the unusual does not happen, it is provoked

“If any merit is looking for this edition, it is to check that such continuity is not interrupted. The experiences described above would follow one last experiment: Solo." (p.32)


Long interpreted as a mere literary digression with autobiographical tints, the last section of "Looks on the Sea" brings together the texts of the Solo experiment. The editor gathers little evidence about its realization – some plans, plane tickets, letters, and a couple of photographs – but located in the context of Collected works, its realization acquires a factual character barely debatable. Genovés' dramaturgy as a discourse that unstructures itself ends with a secret expedition to the most remote origins and the most resounding call of human nature: The Sea.

Solo, once again, consisted of a tiny boat equipped to drift across the Atlantic. His crew, however, would be this time smaller: one man.

Its name is, once again, constructed as an analogy of Genovés’s trajectory. Solo is not only the name of the experiment, it is its condition in it, and is also a character: the paleontological remains of a hominin found on the island of Java, in Indonesia, whose antiquity dates from 118 thousand years; the Homo erectus soloensis. It is the name of the river in which these vestiges were found, and in ancient Javanese –an exclusive language of poets– means "powerful". Genovés had studied these remains in detail in his early work, and in the aftermath of his career, he returned to them in an attitude that he calls Hamletian:  a dialogue.

What would be the purpose of this new adventure? “I built a buoy not to go anywhere. To be with the fish underwater and on the surface, and with the birds of the sea. I am like a fishbowl, in which, this time, the fish is me.” (1983c) There is no need for enormous suspicion to see us now in the face of a mutable and, at the same time, experimental methodology. A treatment that in turn, offers its particular conclusions:


Eureka! That's it! I don't know if this is very scientific, but it's a starting point. It is all about the capacity for madness. What I'm doing in Solo, whether I finish it or not, no animal, no fish, could have done it. It is only clear here that the paths of freedom, of truth, are solitary. They are rarely found. That's why man invented madness! Universal madness to live on the slopes of time [...]. To be crazy, like me, now, is to do, the most normal thing for me: to find myself out of time, space, and from the mass" (Idem).


It is surprising about the experiment, its scant documentation, and the nuances that Genovés himself makes to confuse it with a literary creation –warning us that the buoy may have broken before setting sail. But even the latter being the case, the gnoseological progression of the genovesean work is evident. It will conclude in an object-subject of study that, after recreating itself with a collectively induced madness, he attaches to his own. It is, therefore, necessary to keep the exercise secret, to ensure behind the description of the process the suspicion of a suggestion: the possibility of the public to find out the mystery on their own.


"Look no more inland

go to the sea.
land of men
Who Can Only Walk therein.
” (Idem.)



In the end, Genovés proposes isolation. But not as he once intended, to deal with social problems, but as an introspective solution. Hence his experience becomes incommunicable unless he uses allegorical language. A stream of recent anthropologists –the so-called ontological turn– identifies the same problem in the scientific language –let’s call it, modern objectivism– when communicating intimate experiences with natural subjects –as talking with fish, having sex with waves, shipwrecks, etc. (1997b) – which induces the call of poetry. In this textual form –poetry–, they suspect the existence of initiate’s faculties.


It is for the above that any claim by Genovés to generate a school within the university academy would have been sterile, even if –as Leguillou suggests– his work was linked with the genealogy of contemporary performing arts. "Impossible to investigate any madness that is not the one of your own", would warn me once the creator of monobiographical plays, Marco Norzagaray. The discursive strategy to make such an experience –madness– communicable, requires literary talents.


"I never understood –reading the newspapers– to those who define themselves as ‘international men’; only stupidity solemnly expressed. Only being a seaman is to be something. Something like a thoughtful sea is what I want to be. […] Hamlet, Don Quixote, Sancho, Telemachus, Ulysses, they never wrote a single line. They are more than those who created them." (2001)

The method is the poetry that saves us.



Faithful to the intention of its compiler, Collected works finds multiple echoes in the searches of several generations of contemporary artists. It also finds a way to rejoin the concerns of its author in the current debate on anthropology. The documentarily brilliant compilation is also a rewriting.

The book concludes with unpublished material that will lead us to reconsider the textual body at hand: the testament of Santiago Genovés. Not without genius, the researcher solved the greatest of the artistic works: faking his own life. Maybe one day we'll find out what kind of archetype he was.

Genoves, Santiago (2020) Collected works. Compilation and translations.

Catherine Leguillou. FCE-UNAM: Mexico.



[1] Due to its predominantly descriptive character.

[2] Due to its predominantly aesthetic character.

[3] José Luis Espinosa Piña writes about his experience as director of the Latin American Institute of Educational Communication:“More than 4 years ago I requested Televisa's authorization in writing to retransmit the series "Expedition to Violence"; over which that company owns the rights […]. I had recovered that material and I considered that it should be widely distributed […]. After many months of waiting, I finally received a dry answer: without giving reasons, the company did not consider it convenient to grant authorization for the retransmission of the series.” MADRID SEIE 2 October 2015.

[4] He had made Kon-Tiki (1947), crossing the Pacific from Peru to French Polynesia by raft, and would later make Tigris (1978), in the same format to go from Iraq to India. The first trip was recorded in an Oscar-winning film of the same name (1951); the latter was set on fire as a protest against the war in the Persian Gulf.

[5] Two recent examples in Mexico: Gabino Rodríguez was a maquila worker to create “Tijuana” (2015), from Lagartijas tiradas al sol; In “Deux ex machina” (2018), Teatro Ojo staged a call-center to interview Mexicans about their experience of political violence in Mexico. According to Leguillou, for Genovés both archives would be the source of serious anthropological analysis.

[6] At this point, Leguillou refers to some of my own expeditions. It is not for me to quote her assessment. This analysis seeks a modest answer.

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