Dispatches from the War Against Oblivion

Here’s the news: a specter is still haunting Europe (which has, since Marx’s time, expanded its geographic boundaries and morphed into the “global North” in the age of transnational capital). Communism as Marx envisioned it (at least before the spontaneous eruption of the Paris Commune), it is not—or not exactly. Nor is it really a single, unified, totalizing specter of any kind. But the North is haunted. From its fringes to its core, it is beset by ghosts. And the faster and more frenzied its race, via technologically mediated existence, ever-increasing wealth disparities, and compensatory empty spectacle, toward erosion of meaningful identity and the perfection of alienation in human life, the more these ghosts multiply and crowd the edges of its political space and invade the minds of its bewildered inhabitants.

“Haunting” is a fashionable literary term that is often used to describe how a thing that has become absent can retain some effects of its former presence; it has ramifications in personal psychology (neurosis can be seen as a kind of haunting) and in some of the strains of contemporary critical thought that issued from or have been influenced by that questionable source.

But it is apt for describing a socio-political phenomenon as well: all systems of rule seek to make their holds more complete by attempting to erase any evidence that they were not eternally pre-existing, benign, and inevitable. The haunting of the human mind, and the corners of empire, by ideas of prior (or potential future) states of being that contradict this idea, and the effects that this haunting has on our individual and collective life, are fundamental aspects of our contemporary experience.

Literature has some nice examples of haunting as a political trope: like the struggles of Animal Farm’s denizens to recall the original wording of their manifesto of liberation as it is invisibly and relentlessly revised by the new elite, or the thousands of vanished corpses, evidence of a government massacre, that only one inhabitant of the mythical town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude can ever seem to recall having seen.

The EZLN or Zapatista resistance movement that sprang from invisibility into world view from the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994, to protest the consequences of the new neo-liberal world order (represented by Mexico’s official absorption on that date into the North American Free Trade zone) has now existed publicly for more than fifteen years. Its international (and Mexican) profile has ebbed and flowed in that time. Arguments about its current relevance beyond a small, isolated population in rural Mexico flare up from time to time in left-wing discourse. It might seem that the vast, world-reshaping events of the last fifteen years have relegated it, along with many other popular uprisings, armed or not, to a relatively minor role in determining how the 21st century world will be experienced by the billions now entering it.

Why then, would it be of interest, even pleasurable, to read a book-length analysis of this movement from the seemingly even more marginal perspective of its “poetics,” its creation of symbols and messages and imaginative use of them to support and maintain its political project?

Here is one reason: this is a place where the whole evocative issue of the haunting of the North, and what it means on a personal and a societal level, comes in.

A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency, a new book by Jeff Conant (AK Press, 2010) is, in fact, laudable for a number of reasons, but one of the suggestive ideas it contains is that the EZLN’s imaginatively expressed and widely disseminated communiqués, and in fact its whole political project, were designed to counter the factitious aura of inevitability of neo-liberal capitalism (and to forestall the extinction that it threatened for Mexico’s indigenous communities) rather than to overturn or replace it.

Seen through its poetics, the Zapatista project is fundamentally one of re-membering and re-articulating (as opposed to the dismembering, disarticulating project of capital towards its alternatives) other ways than the dominant one. And that work is performed through the carefully crafted symbolism of the Zapatistas’ public statements, actions, and displays. One of the resonant names they give their struggle is “the war against oblivion.” In Spanish as in English, oblivion means both unconsciousness and non-existence.

The book is a substantive, scholarly, but never tendentious or obscure look at Zapatista as a kind of literature, or more comprehensively, a created mythos, that serves to inspire and catalyze diffuse efforts to counter the steamroller effects of capitalism’s post-Cold War play for full-spectrum global dominance.

Jeff Conant examines everything from the Zapatistas’ chief spokesman Subcomandante Marcos’ storytelling to the little masked Zapatista dolls in the markets of the Chiapanecan tourist center San Cristobal from this perspective, and brings in an erudite and historically-grounded understanding of the umbilical link between revolutionary social movements and symbol-making.

While he presents the complicated relationship between poetics and struggle in the Zapatista project with a full awareness of the dangers of romanticizing that it entails, and deals fairly with critiques of its limitations, there are still one or two questionable contentions here, and one of them is in the somewhat cavalier use of the term “public relations” to describe what is being done.

PR and Its Discontents: Public relations grew from the foundational idea that not only are humans not primarily rational beings but that their faint stirrings of rationality ought not to be encouraged—rather their fundamental irrationality and apparently infinite selfishness should be massaged and managed by a self-designated elite that constantly feeds them with the subconscious cues necessary to keep them submissive to it.

PR, other words, was designed expressly to keep people from knowing not just what they know, but what they are. It is not a tool that is well-suited to the purposes of widespread consciousness-raising to which Conant would like to see it put here. This is another subject of perennial debate on the left: to what degree can the master’s tools serve other purposes than the master’s? But at the very least, you can’t really put the public relations genie back in the bottle by simply inserting the “right sort” of symbolism, one that fits our political ideals. Real consciousness-raising, as Marx realized, comes out of direct experience, and is grounded in material conditions. This is why even a revolutionary poetics can trend towards emptiness when it is distanced from its source in direct experience.

And the limitations of Zapatista poetics as a transformative tool, whether you call it public relations or not, may have to do precisely with the meaning of symbolic representation in different cultures. Conant’s thesis is that the Zapatista “brand” does not alienate the subject from herself and her environment, like corporate branding, but functions to reconnect them. But such reconnection may only really occur in a meaningful way within a culture where symbol has not already been so successfully divorced from substance, where fetishism (the investiture of material objects or symbols with real, living presence) is not discredited as mystification (see “magical thinking” or the “fetishism of commodities”) or a dubious means of personal gratification but has an unbroken historical tradition as socially valuable and accepted fact.

In a ceremony described near the beginning of the book, seven objects are invoked and used to invest what would otherwise be merely a simple oath of allegiance into a binding statement of collective identity. This identity is not just informed by its relationship to what in our culture are called “abstract ideals:” peace, justice, truth, democracy; it is as inseparable from them as they are from the objects that are called to represent them. And it is the objects’ very familiarity, locality and participation in the audience’s long-standing traditions (the Mexican flag, corn, earth, for example) that gives this ceremony much of its power of connection. The seven object-ideals are then linked to the seven indigenous peoples joined in the Zapatista cause. The transformation is multi-layered and complete—for that constituency.

Their production of such vibrant and integral symbolism has indisputably been useful in profoundly transforming the lives and material conditions of the Zapatista bases. And more diffusively, their ideas and images have recurred in other contexts, many of which Jeff Conant cites, where opposition to predatory capitalism coalesces.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you are a conscientious, even socially engaged, but relatively comfortable reader who lives far from the mountains of southeastern Mexico, enshrouded in the Cartesian world of the North, body separated from mind, individual set against collective, society alienated from nature. Ten generations of your ancestors emerged from within that world, and reified it. You cannot significantly alter your reality merely by consuming someone else’s symbolism. The Zapatistas’ decades-long struggle for dignified survival, a real, daily path for them, dwindles in your world to a doll on your shelf, a poster on your wall. Your material existence is little if at all affected by it, and though the conscious reminder serves as a goad to some form of increasingly intermittent sympathy, as time goes by and, despite your efforts and the efforts of many others, no profound alteration of power relations or material conditions occurs in your private world, your immediate community or your society, the symbols of social transformation with which you may surround yourself are gradually (although never entirely) emptied of their agency—they become like ghosts.

An opening epigraph to A Poetics of Resistance comes from the Nasa people of Colombia: “Words and action outside of the spirit of community are death.” Well then, we who were raised in and still live surrounded by the all-encompassing reality of Western Civilization, with its now “infinite number of ways to die” as one Zapatista puts it, are ourselves the ghosts and speak and act from the land of the dead. Because the spirit of community referred to here is as alien to us as the moon. The idea of “community” is a perfect example of Western conceptual haunting—a word that has been emptied of its significance in this society (the faith “community,” the black “community,” the online “community”—what do these mean?) but is used repeatedly because the remnants of a longed-for, though absent, reality still cling to it.

Here’s an example of how our popular culture captures conceptual haunting—by using the metaphor of real haunting. In contemporary horror movies like The Sixth Sense or The Others, the twist is that sympathetic, protagonistic characters with whom we are meant to identify, and who we actually believe are alive for most of the movie—occupying apartments or houses, having jobs, taking care of children—turn out to be dead. The terminally alienated are the dead, though they move and think and believe they are alive. Indigenous cultures recognize this difference. While their symbolizing is invested with organic, breathing life, ours has been emptied of it, and haunts us with our own longings for un-alienated presence and our confusion as to our own status among the living or the dead.

The Postmodern Romance: The other question I would raise has to do with what the author calls the Zapatistas’ “postmodernism,” which he maintains is a source of their vitality and continued relevance. He underscores their refusal to embrace a single narrative, a dominant ideology, a line of thought or march.

While postmodernism may possibly be a term as emptied by its use as “community,” it is possible to identify some qualifying precepts. The postmodern consensus is that rationalism and the Enlightenment, from which, among other things, Marxism and the idea of universally applicable qualities derive, are dead, and this is basically a good thing. Postmodern critical thought helped expose the toxicity of Western hegemony disguised as universal enlightenment, but in doing so it also left us with the vacancy of meaning, the incoherency at the heart of all communication, a triumph, not of the imagination, but of a kind of undifferentiated linguistic universe, the heat death in which humanism and rationalism dissolve.

In their place we are given the attractive Zapatista idea of “one no and many yeses,” and their struggle for indigenous rights becomes a call for “the recognition of difference.” But this is the conundrum at the very heart of any postmodern struggle: how can you call for rights that must be universally recognized to be meaningful at all with one breath and decry universals as oppressive and essentialist with the next? What standards will then apply? How will they be established? If your attitude towards contestation for power is to reject it, what means will you use to make potent those demands without which power concedes nothing?

It seems that another ghostly concept that continues to haunt the postmodern, post-Marxist world is the old Enlightenment idea that human history is actually progressive in a meaningful way: towards more human dignity, more harmony, more peaceful cooperation and so forth. This has produced the truism that no matter what else happens, as long as organized protest and resistance movements exist anywhere, they are unquestionable signs that we are still on that path.

But what if this is not actually true? What then would prevent “difference” from merely being division, fragmentation, incoherence, weakness?

What rescues the Zapatista communications project from these conundra is the real value and necessity of their war against oblivion, whether waged by indigenous peoples, industrial and technological workers or world-weary intelligentsia fighting against a persistent sense of death-in-life on the fringes of an oblivious dominant society.

Oblivion is the place where even the memory and the dream of human equity and solidarity, not to mention vibrant interdependence with the natural world, are gone. It is where “Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia,” where all are well-trained dogs who need no whip, where it is not only “easier to imagine the end of the world than a world without capitalism,” as the Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson said, but impossible to imagine that world at all. Where the ghosts of possibility no longer haunt the living.

In fact, another good reason to take the time to read this book, besides simply enjoying the wealth of vivid imagination and eloquent analysis it contains, is that the kind of long-form thinking this fifteen-years-in-the-making work presents and requires is itself essential to the war against oblivion it correctly understands as a project fundamental to the survival of alternative social movements in the 21st century. Oblivion is not merely a function of controlled space but of eliminated time as well.

The Zapatistas, as a force beyond the autonomous communities in Chiapas, remain bound by the postmodern conundrum, facing the abyss of marginalization that radical anti-authoritarian politics, however visionary and necessary, always risks collapsing into. And the communities themselves, where the real gains of Zapatismo are evident, still live on the knife-edge of extinction confronting land-based peoples around the globe. But the war against oblivion in which they played, and continue to play, a key role, rages on, in every house, on every street. It is one struggle in which there is a place for all of us, through which even the most alienated can regain a place in the nexus that sustains us, that brings us back into life.

Jeff Conant plays his part in that struggle admirably by giving us this thoughtful and impassioned book.

Christy Rodgers is a freelance writer, editor, and consultant living in San Francisco. She blogs at What If? A Personal Journal of Radical Possibilities. Read other articles by Christy, or visit Christy's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on August 26th, 2010 at 9:47am #

    I don’t see what this has to do with Europe. Practically nobody has ever heard of Chiapas, next to none could tell what country it’s in or find it on a map and most would take a guess that Zapatista was part of the World Cup team, since they’ve heard his name somewhere recently. To that the more intellectual ones would retort that that is because he’s prime minister of Spain. Conciousness would be marginally higher in the latter country, but not by very much. Europeans might get worked up if the US wanted them to send soldiers there but beyond that, nobody in Europe is being haunted by Mexican ghosts, friendly or unfriendly!

  2. Don Hawkins said on August 26th, 2010 at 10:40am #

    PR, other words, was designed expressly to keep people from knowing not just what they know, but what they are.

    Not me Christy and I went to your web site will send ideas from time to time. Am I completely immune from being kept not knowing what I know, and what I are not yet maybe never but I have these glasses and man don’t wear them to long what a headache but worth it.

  3. teafoe2 said on August 26th, 2010 at 3:05pm #

    very interesting review. I wonder what John Ross or/and Roberto Vargas might make of it and Conant’s book.

    Let me note that I’m one of those Ms Rodgers describes: I do have a Zapatista poster on my wall and a Zapatista doll made of yarn attached to a print of Guernica on another wall. As a piece of art, the poster in my judgment ranks up there with Picasso’s masterpiece, and with Rivera’s view of Kahlo’s back framed by lilies on the wall opposite.

    Every time I glance over at that poster, I’m astounded all over again. What could possibly lie behind such an improbable image?

    But I’m afraid I’ll never really understand it. Some things are just too much the product of a particular environment to ever be fully appreciated by those who will never find themselves part of that particularity.

    The review is interesting. Maybe on a second reading I’ll find something I can use here in Reagan Country? aka Arnoldlandia?

    Maybe my take on the Zapatistas is jaundiced due to my original over-enthusiasm; I did jump on it as soon as I saw those red bandana-covered faces on TV, and read “The Sup”s early “communiques”. I bought a pile of Anderson Valley Advertisers and gave them to friends. My rumbera amiga Miraglos refused to accept any reading material, on the grounds it was just more of the same, will come to nothing in the end.

    Miraglos is very hip, knows all the lyrics & arrangements of all the “salsa” classics & all the Yoruba chants. Bet if she saw this poster she’d find a way to beat me out of it:)

    Art is nice, makes life richer. Sometimes it may even contribute to changing something, but don’t bet on it.

  4. teafoe2 said on August 26th, 2010 at 3:26pm #

    Mr Kenny, I pity you, mired in that narrow Eurocentric outlook of yours.

    Mr K, there is great art and great culture native to every continent on the planet, with the possible exception of Antarctica.

    For instance, I’d guess you are familiar with “Der Glasperlenspiel”, a turn-of-the-(previous)century novel which speculates about the invention of an art form that includes/encompasses all existing European art forms, plus Indian Yoga?

    It may interest you to realize that while Hesse was letting his imagination roam, enslaved Cubanos had created an art form which combined: music, vocal and instrumental; dance; classic Spanish poetry, including the classic ten-line stanza known as Decima; and highly original visual arts, into a blend usually referred to nowadays as Rumba Folklorico.

    Variants of the form include Yambu, Rumba Colombia, Guaguanco, and a relatively recent jazz-influenced style called Guarapachangeo.

    Check it out, you’ll be glad you did:)