This blog has been neglected for too long. I hope to remedy that situation soon. In the meantime, here is a talk I gave a couple of months ago at the Vancouver Institute for Social Research. Not exactly on my area of expertise, and title stolen from my friend Gareth Williams:
Steve Stekeley’s 1948 Noir The Scar (also known as Hollow Triumph) is perhaps most notable because its leading man is Paul Henreid, who six years earlier had played the part of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. Beyond that, The Scar is at first sight an eminently ephemeral movie, easily forgettable. But it’s interesting in so far as it problematizes the very process of memory and recognition.
Henreid’s character in Casablanca is a Czech resistance hero who is strangely both the center of the plot and utterly marginal. For though the film ostensibly revolves around Laszlo’s efforts to flee the Nazis and seek asylum in America, what we remember is the tension and romance between Ingrid Bergman (playing Laszlo’s wife) and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, the bar-owner who has the letters of transit that would make Lazslo’s escape possible.
Similarly, in The Scar, Henreid again plays a character who fades from view… the difference being that in this film Henreid also plays the character who replaces him. Moreover, this is a film about the replacement itself, and the effect that it has (or, oddly enough, doesn’t have) on the audience.
Ursula Biemann’s Performing the Border is an exploration of the gendered space of the high-tech maquila zone on the US/Mexican border. It focuses particularly on the murders of young women committed in and around Ciudad Juárez, arguing that this serial sexual violence is of a piece with the serialized assembly work performed within the factories themselves.
The film also examines the notion of the border and the ways in which it is represented. It opens with the notion that the border is portrayed as a wound that has to be sutured, not only by the construction of physical obstacles (fences, walls, and so on) but also through constant electronic surveillance. Yet the film further suggests that were it not for its perforations, the multiple crossings to and fro, then the border would not exist as such: it would be no more than the sum of its physical obstacles.
Hence the notion of the border’s performativity, by which Biemann means a conjunction between material space and discursive space, as well as the tension between the two. The border as metaphor depends upon and is in some sense parasitical upon the gendered bodies that traverse it.
The space of the border is highly gendered in that it draws and exploits a migrant female labor force that works either in the factories, or in domestic employment, or in prostitution. For Biemann, these three placements of female labor and sexuality are complementary, not least in that the low wages paid in the factory system practically compel many women to turn to prostitution to supplement their income, but also more generally in the highly sexualized spaces of entertainment (bars, nightclubs) that have sprung up around and about.
Ironically, some of this sexualization is a result of the ways in which the maquilas’ remapping of gendered relationship allows also for the expression of women’s desire in new ways: it is women who are now the bread-winners of the family, or these are women who have been disconnected from the families that they have left behind in the migration north.
Overall, Biemann suggests that in the border zone a series of fundamental distinctions become blurred: the boundaries between self and other, subject and space, city and country, inside and outside, nature and artifice are also questioned as robotic, repetitive assembly work fragments women’s bodies, making them disposable and marketable components.
Finally, these are the conditions in which a new kind of serial killing emerges. Serial murder is traditionally connected with industrialization and urbanization. It echoes the repetitious dehumanization typical of the assembly line. Biemann implies that this new mode of postmodern industrialization, outsourced to the fringes of the nation state, also enables a new type of serial murder in which the killer is as anonymous and interchangeable as the object of his violence. There is no one serial killer in Ciudad Juárez; there are many, perhaps a majority of whom have themselves killed only one women but who insert themselves into a standardized pattern established for them by an economic and technical logic of outsourcing.
In the border zone, as all boundaries are in flux but gender is insistently performed and gender relations brusquely refashioned, dispossessed men who find that their identity has been reduced to statistical quantity, or to the simulation of patriarchy, violently seek to demarcate the one fundamental difference that remains, that between man and woman.
YouTube Link: the film’s opening few minutes.
I just saw Eugenio Polgovsky’s Los herederos. It’s a quite remarkable film.
The movie’s topic is, essentially, child labor in rural Mexico. With no voice-over, no interviews, no title cards, and no framing or explanation, it follows a series of campesino children from diverse parts of the country as they go about their daily tasks. These range from domestic duties such as fetching firewood or water, making tortillas or feeding the family’s animals, to artesanal, industrial, or agro-industrial enterprises such as carving and painting handicrafts, making bricks, helping to plough and sow a field, or working in the harvest for tomatoes or beans.
The children involved in these activities are of all ages, from (literally) babes in arms, who are on their mothers’ or sisters’ backs, or set down to sleep in a row of crops, to young adolescents. On the whole, however, the focus is on kids of around seven, eight, or nine years old.
What’s striking first is how fully and unquestioningly these children are part of the labor process. There is very little discussion or conversation at any stage. At no point is there any protest. Equally, however, at almost no point does anybody have to tell them what to do: they already know, and simply get on with it. Moreover, with rare exceptions (a trio of young boys bringing home a mule, for instance), there is little if any larking around. Nor, on the other hand, is there much sign of boredom or even tiredness. The kids are almost entirely focused on what they’re doing.
This focused attention comes perhaps from the children’s sense of the importance of their labor. Or from their recognition of the risks that it involves. One young boy is carving what eventually appears to be a cat from a block of wood, first with a machete and then with a sharp knife. He cuts his finger, but continues until blood starts to get in the way of his work. He asks (what is presumably) his little brother to “get the tape.” He asks him to do it “quickly,” but there’s no real sense of urgency, and he carries on whittling in the meantime. The tape turns out to be regular scotch tape, which he wraps around the tip of his finger before continuing on.
In short, there’s a certain affectlessness that pervades the movie. It’s broken from time to time: we get the occasional grin, the occasional instance of self-consciousness in front of the camera. Sometimes the smallest kids stumble and fall, but almost none of them cry or scream. No wonder the director should state that he felt fueled by “rage and awe”, as though to supply an affect that was otherwise missing.
In watching his film, however, which steadfastly refuses any discourse of denunciation–indeed, any discourse at all–it is now we, the audience, who are compelled to bring to the experience the missing affect.
Following my recent post on Ryan Long’s Fictions of Totality… I suggested to a few friends that we could perhaps make this something of a “book event” or online seminar. Others are welcome to join in, of course. So people are getting hold of the book, and there should be some more posts and comments to amplify and develop the discussion.
I hope that at some later point we can organize similar online book events or mini-seminars on some of the other books I mentioned, such as Legras’s and Schiwy’s, and perhaps also, for instance, Erin Graff Zinn’s Wandering Signifier or Kate Jenckes’s Reading Borges after Benjamin.
In the meantime, however, it’s Ryan who’s the focus of our attention. I therefore asked him if he could write a short introduction to the book to help orient us. Here it is…
This is a guest post by Ryan Long, author of Fictions of Totality: The Mexican Novel, 1968, and the National-Popular State.
“Fictions of Totality”
First, thanks to Jon for taking a look at my book and for starting this discussion! Thanks in advance also to anyone else who’s interested in reading and discussing it. Now, a brief synopsis…
My book began as an effort to ask a very specific question: how did the Massacre of Tlatelolco affect the Mexican novel? I still feel that this is the question my book best answers, and thus its major contribution will probably be, if to anything, to Mexicanist literary studies. Of course it is also my hope that it addresses concerns that go beyond the historical context that limited, and thus defined, my analysis. A sub-purpose of the book is to provide analyses of well-known and lesser-known novels that merit further discussion. The former include La región más transparente, the only canonical novel in the book and the only to be translated into English, José Trigo, and Morir en el golfo. Con Él, conmigo, con nosotros tres has practically vanished from literary histories and criticism, which may have more to do with its author’s militancy in the PRI than with the book itself. Si muero lejos de ti, though fascinating and incredibly ambitious, is long, unwieldy, strange, and a little tiresome at times, so it has also flown under the radar, so to speak, more than it should have. (Though Rebecca Biron has done great work on it). In short, then, I think one of my book’s strengths is its literary analysis, organized in chapters that could stand alone to a degree.
But, there is an arc, which is the relationship between totalizing representation and the national-popular state, and this arc is what expands the scope of the book beyond the Mexican context and the novels in question. My argument is that the national-popular state provided a fertile context for a certain degree of optimism regarding the novel’s ability to render the social totality, and that this state form’s decline is registered in novels that begin to question totalizing representation more and more intensely. So, I posit a teleology both in terms of state form and novelistic structure, ambition, and desire (i.e., respectively, perspectivism, totality, and optimism). What I posit in order to avoid adopting an entirely teleological position is that the novel is always already undermining its own totalizing ambitions and desires. Teleology returns in my argument that the violent foundations of totalizing representation that, I argue, necessarily underpin any totalizing effort become more and move visible over time, as, in the Mexican example, state violence permeates the middle- and intellectual-classes in a way that it did not before 1968.
Accomplishments of recent authors, like Juan Villoro, and the recent fame of authors no longer writing, like Roberto Bolaño, raise interesting questions about the viability of my argument regarding the novel’s decline. Jon has raised these questions in his response to my first comment on his blog. I have to admit to not having read Bolaño yet, but it is my understanding that 2666, for example, goes far beyond the Mexican context in terms of its thematics. Juan Villoro’s El testigo does as well, though I am sure not to the same degree as 2666. Another recent totalizing novel, Porque parece mentira la verdad nunca se sabe, by Sada, focuses to a great deal on the US-Mexican border, a theme almost invisible in previous totalizing novels. The novels I analyze in my book are almost exclusively focused on Mexico, events that take place in Mexico and discussions of Mexican identity that still aim to define Mexico primarily on its own terms, as Ramos and Paz did so famously in their mid-century essays on Mexican identity.
Does my book fit into Jon’s arguments about posthegemony? Perhaps not that easily: I contend that the debt crisis of the early 80s and 1968 indeed mark key critical moments in a progressive decline in the national-popular state’s hegemony, if not necessarily the PRI’s. De la Madrid’s and Salinas’s fiscal and monetary reforms dismantled social programs and political structures that had long been the pillars of the national-popular state. Thus, the PRI’s tenacity can be separated from the national-popular state ideology that once defined it. Regarding the decline of the novel, I contend that the totalizing novel with an almost exclusive, if not obsessive, national focus, is a thing of the past. So, there is a post- to a hegemony that once existed.
Let the discussion begin!
This has been a guest post from Ryan Long.
It’s exciting to see books published by old friends and classmates. A whole number have just come out or will appear in the next few months: Horacio Legras’s Literature and Subjection or Freya Schiwy’s Indianizing Film, for instance. It feels as though the field of Latin American cultural and literary studies has been in the doldrums for, what, perhaps a decade or more?
At the last LASA Congress, in Montreal, it felt as though the theme was generational: a changing of the guard. John Beverley was offering himself up as now no longer critic but subject of testimonio (we who have seen so much…). Alberto Moreiras had moved increasingly outside US Latin Americanism (to Aberdeen’s Centre for Modern Thought). Bruno Bosteels was playing a complicated game of self-positioning (beware the old masters…). And the rest of us were feeling just that little bit older.
The hope, then, might be that among these new publications are some indications of new paradigms or common projects. Or perhaps, for better or worse, we’ve moved beyond such things; perhaps 2001 really was the end of alliances (see Trigo, “The 1990s,” 367).
The latest book to arrive in the mail is my old friend Ryan Long‘s Fictions of Totality: The Mexican Novel, 1968, and the National-Popular State.
There’s no doubt that Fictions of Totality is a landmark in the study of the twentieth-century Mexican novel. Long offers close readings of a series of important texts from Carlos Fuentes’s La región más transparente (1958) to Héctor Aguilar Camín’s Morir en el golfo (1986), tracing their relation with the concurrent gradual political transition from the national-popular state to neoliberalism. In each case, Long argues that the novels he analyzes are total novels–or, rather, totalizing novels–that both claim to represent the social and at the same time expose, wittingly or unwittingly, the necessary limits to such a totalizing project.
This same story has, of course, been told purely within literary history: in terms of the transition from modernism to postmodernism, grand narratives to skepticism, (say) Ulysses to Finnegan’s Wake. Long’s innovation is to map this postmodernization (delayed, in Mexico’s case; for which see Gerry Martin’s Journeys Through the Labyrinth) to an account of what he terms “the gradual decline of the national-popular state’s hegemony” (47). He recontextualizes (and seeks to explain) literary history in terms of its posthegemonic determinants.
Now, in the spirit of kick-starting some kind of discussion, for a couple of quick questions.
The first is obvious, but none the less pressing: what precisely is the relationship posited here between novel and state? At times, Long suggests that novels reflect upon and even expose the state in so far as they “respond to their historical context” (9). At other times, the sense seems to be that novel and state share a parallel trajectory, each mirroring the other as they share “common ground” in that “exclusivity is at the same time foundation and limit of their privileged positions” (5). At still other times, presumably the novel is part of the putative hegemony of the national-popular state, one of the mechanisms that help to produce the state as, Long claims, “in large part, an ideological construct” (8).
Second, it should be no surprise that I think that Long could push the posthegemonic aspect of his narrative further. There are many indications that the notion of a fall from hegemonic grace is ultimately unconvincing. For instance, there’s a problem of periodization: Long tells us that 1968 and the massacre at Tlatelolco were the crux in that “the traumatic events of 1968 were [. . .] the source of an ideological crisis” (120) revealing the violence that ultimately anchored claims to hegemony. Yet this crisis comes to seem more a prolonged and unremitting agony than the response to a punctual event. For Long also shows that Tlatelolco was simply one more of the many episodes of violent repression that punctuated the PRI’s long regime, from the Cristero war of the 1920s and early 1930s to the counter-insurgency campaigns of the 1970s and on (we might add) to the repression of the Zapatistas in the 1990s (6). And equally, even at the end of the period that Long surveys, i.e. by the 1980s and a new set of (primarily economic) crises, the totalizing narrative continues, albeit as parody. After all, it was not until 2000 that the PRI finally gave up power, some thirty years after Tlatelolco.
In other words, it’s not clear that the PRI’s regime was ever, in any meaningful sense of the term, hegemonic. Long claims that 1958 marked “the height of the national-popular state” (9). But he also shows that Fuentes’s La región más transparente, published that same year, both exposes the limits of the state’s hegemonic project and, precisely for this reason, attempts to construct a “compensatory totality” (41) to make up for that political failure. Moreover, even when he describes the PRI’s presumed pre-1960s hegemony, it is in terms of its “aspirations” or its “promise” (8).
Long shows not so much the decline of national-popular hegemony, as the disappearance of any promise to achieve hegemony. It is not hegemony that fades (for there is no hegemony and never has been), but the hegemony of hegemony that comes to an end: the project to build a future hegemony is abandoned, as everyone comes to recognize that it would be both impossible and ineffective. Moreover, this second-order hegemony can come into crisis in 1968, and yet everything carries on much the same. Almost fully half of the PRI’s regime is still to come. 1968 marks the death of the national-popular state only in the sense that he not busy being born is busy dying. It was always in its death throes.
Read in terms of the decline not of hegemony but of its promise, Fictions of Totality becomes fully posthegemonic. And maybe then we might be able to rethink the problematic of the novel, no longer in terms of its relation to the state as such, but rather in terms of its relation to constituent power. In other words, not so much as a vehicle for representation, but as a (perhaps rather less totalizing) project to mould affect and habit.
Parallel to the struggle between PRI, PAN, and PRD for votes in the upcoming (July) Mexican presidential elections, the Zapatistas are conducting what they term an “Other Campaign”. They launched this campaign last year with their “Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona” (Spanish text here).
In the midst of all the regional excitement about the Left’s victories in successive elections–Venezuela, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile–here, then, is one group that is continuing, and indeed stepping up, its extra-parliamentary activism.
Not that this is any coincidence. The Colectivo Situaciones hit the nail on the head when they write:
In effect, the Sixth Declaration is a much-needed text that aims to interrupt a definite tendency [deriva]: a tendency that orients the energies and victories of the past few years’ struggles towards a revitalization of forms of sovereignty that are still trapped within traditional modes of representation, and that has succeeded, in line with the movement of the times, to construct a hypothesis appropriating the potential of the present situation by means of an affirmation of and from insurgent movements. (Bienvenidos a la selva 22-23)
In other words, if Chávez, Lula, Morales, and Bachelet are, in their different ways, instances of the conversion of constituent into constituted power, a constituted power that by definition blocks an analysis and critique of the form of power itself, the Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration is intended to derail that mechanism, and to rethink a politics that would extend rather than halt the process of constitution.
Hence the Zapatistas’ stress on autonomy, self-government, and even their self-critique, suggesting that they themselves had subordinated grassroots empowerment to the politico-military structure of the EZLN.
Rather than vertical consolidation, the Sixth Declaration insists on the importance of undoing all residual or incipient transcendence. It envisages, indeed, the dissolution of the EZLN itself, its subsumption into a plane of immanence: “perhaps it would be better with nothing below, just completely level [puro planito todo], without any military, and that is why the zapatistas are soldiers so that there will not be any soldiers” (332). Instead of building up, the Zapatistas are expanding outwards.
And John Holloway is right to note that this expansion is not envisaged in terms of solidarity, though “this has always been an element of the response to the Zapatistas: admiration for them, solidarity with them” (317; emphasis in original). Holloway continues:
The pro-Zapatista movement has always included two elements: the element of solidarity with an indigenous struggle, on the one hand, and taking on the struggle for humanity and dignity as our own struggle, on the other. My feeling is that with the Sixth Declaration and the abandonment of indigenous rights as principal focus of the EZLN’s struggle, they are telling us “We’ve always said that behind the ski-masks we are in fact you, but perhaps you didn’t understand this so well, so we’ll say it to you more directly and in another way.” (317)
The Zapatistas make this point playfully, joking with the conventions of solidarity. They promise to send a lorryload of maize to Cuba, in a lorry called “Chompiras,” so long as a convenient place can be found for the transaction, and so long as the Cubans can wait until harvest. They suggest sending crafts and coffee to Europe. They debate doing more:
And perhaps we might also send you some pozol, which gives much strength in the resistance, but who knows if we will send it to you, because pozol is more our way, and what if it were to hurt your bellies and weaken your struggles and the neoliberals defeat you. (345)
The Zapatistas seek to expand and intensify their network, playfully, creatively, and performatively. And despite certain populist resonances in their vocabulary, it’s this deterritorializing and excessive (because symbolic?) tendency that marks their break from such state fetishism.
(Crossposted to an ungrammatical multitude.)