Neoliberalism in Mexican Cultural Theory: Reading Irmgard Emmelhainz and Sayak Valencia (ARTMargins Print 7.3)
Irmgard Emmelhainz. La tiranía del sentido común. Mexico City: Paradiso, 2016, 260 pp.
Sayak Valencia. Capitalismo Gore. Barcelona: Melusina, 2010, 238 pp. Translation: Sayak Valencia. Gore Capitalism. Trans. John Pluecker (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2018), 330 pp.
Cultural theory in Mexico is one of the most vibrant and innovative intellectual scenes in Latin America. This in itself is remarkable if one considers that Mexico remains a country where the borders of academic disciplines are tightly enforced, and where most public intellectuals are self-identified liberals who resist both the languages and the ideologies of left-leaning theory. Against the grain of institutional doxa, a new generation of theorists is emerging, in part as a response to Mexico’s contemporary experience of capitalism and necropolitics. Mexico is, today, a country in which neoliberal economic and social agendas remain very much at the center of governance. The country was one of the few in Latin America to not have a “Pink Tide” government in the line of Evo Morales in Bolivia or Néstor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, and it looks unlikely that the recent electoral victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador will be able to fully reform the neoliberal consensus. In addition, Mexico is immersed in a situation of deep violence, misleadingly branded “The Drug War,” in which fights for trafficking routes, the exploitation of migrants, domestic criminality and the struggle for control of territory and natural resources have cost an estimated number of 300,000 lives in the 21st century(Discussing the reasons why the “Drug War” is an improper name for this reality exceeds my purposes, but readers can refer to the work of Oswaldo Zavala in this regard. See particularly Zavala, Los cárteles no existen. Narcotráfico y cultura en México, (Mexico: Malpaso, 2018), where he argues that the idea of narcoculture and the Drug War are discursive maskings of a more complex situation defined by the securitary discourse of the Mexican State and the fights for natural resoruces.). This is the reality that is referred to as “neoliberalism” in Mexican public discourse: political and economic policy combined with changes in culture and social subjectivity, which in turn has ramifications for both policy and culture in the arts and the lived experience of Mexicans.
This review engages with three books by two authors who, from the perspective of visual culture, critical theory and interdisciplinary research, have sought to account for different aspects of Mexico’s neoliberal experience. Valencia and Emmelhainz have been central to new ways of thinking through Mexican neoliberalism at the intersection of economics, politics and culture, and not just as a matter of economic policy. It must be said that their work does not constitute a turn against historical approaches, but rather complements them. Indeed, their books are part of a larger conversation that has recently brought the history of neoliberalism both at large and in Mexico specifically to the center of critical discussions. In this regard, both studies could be read side by side with Historia mínima del neoliberalismo by Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo, the first history of global neoliberalism from Mexico (even if, puzzlingly, it does not engage directly with Mexican neoliberalism), or with María Eugenia Romero Sotelo’s groundbreaking Los orígenes del neoliberalismo en México, which tracks the deep historical connections between the Austrian school of economics and Mexico’s business and technocratic elites.(Fernando Escalante Gonzalbo, Historia mínima del neoliberalismo. Orígenes intelectuales de una revolución cultural, (Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2015). María Eugenia Romero Sotelo. Los orígenes del neoliberalismo en México. La escuela austriaca, (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2016).)
Emmelhainz and Valencia share a few interesting traits. Neither one of them is an academic in the traditional sense. Although both have doctoral studies and academic appointments (Emmelhainz as an adjunct in various institutions, Valencia as a full-time faculty member in El Colegio de la Frontera Norte), they write in a diverse set of textual genres. Emmelhainz is a prolific scholar who regularly publishes essays in different electronic and print venues in Spanish, French and English, including Horizontal and e-flux, and her most recent book, El cielo está incompleto, gathers personal diaries, essays and reflections around her life and time in Palestine.(Irmgard Emmelhainz. El cielo está incompleto. Cuaderno de viaje en Palestina, (Mexico City: Taurus, 2017).) Valencia is, beyond her academic persona, a poet and performance artist, with publications in verse and prose across different countries and a respectable trajectory in gallery exhibits. In their respective ways, both Emmelhainz and Valencia advocate for a theoretical tensioning of neoliberalism and late capitalism from feminist perspectives, noting the ways in which gender is a particularly apt stance from which to render visible the inequities and violence of neoliberalism both as an economic model and as a kind of sensibility.
Neoliberalism as a concept, economic model, and indeed lived experience is central to the culture and politics of contemporary Mexico. Neoliberalism is, of course, a contested concept that has been defined in different ways, but as a working definition I understand it as a program in political economy centered on the liberalization of markets, which extracts wealth from lower-class sectors and redistributes it to the top (this follows David Harvey’s classical definition). Neoliberalism also refers to the consequences of this political economy program in two dimensions: the definition of citizenship and the commons in political science (see for instance the work of Wendy Brown) and the redefinition of the cultural realm through values related to neoliberal economics and citizenship.(For a multidisciplinary study of the definition of neoliberalism, see Jeremy Gilbert, Neoliberal Culture, (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 2016).)
The program of neoliberal reform was implemented in Mexico beginning in 1985, and was tied directly to the process known as “democratic transition,” which refers to the gradual dislodging of the political hegemony of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) in the late 20th century.(For a discussion of this process, see Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, “Democracy. The Idea of Democratic Transition,” in Modern Mexican Culture. Critical Foundations, ed. Stuart A. Day (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017), pp. 166-83.)
The neoliberal experience in Mexico was thoroughly defined by its parallel history alongside democratization, and even today political freedom and the freedom of the market are interpreted in Mexico as mutually implied. If anything, one can say that the history of Mexican political and cultural critique in the past few decades is, in part, an effort to dislodge these two processes and to attend to the consequences of neoliberalism in Mexico beyond its democratic mask. For example, the 1988 “Informe sobre la democracia” (“Democracy Report”) coordinated by left-wing intellectuals Pablo González Casanova and Jorge Cadena Roa, identified neoliberalism as the way in which macroeconomics overran democratic politics and inaugurated processes of transnationalization and austerity.(Pablo González Casanova and Jorge Cadena Roa, comps. Primer informe sobre la democracia, (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1988), pp. 20-33.)
Later on, a document from the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) from May 1994 called neoliberalism “the new name that joins injustice, slavery and usurpation,” setting the stage for a left-wing critique that would identify the neoliberal economic program not only with the agendas of liberal democratization, but also with the new forms of subjection to capital that the Zapatistas famously denounced.(EZLN. Documentos y comunidados 1, (Mexico City: Era, 1994).p. 230.)
Neoliberalism in Mexico has gradually come to be read and understood not only as the application of neoclassical models of economics, but also as a structure of feeling, and as something that accounts for fundamental transformations in cultural production and subjectivity across the arts and the humanities.(In recent years, academic scholars in Mexico and the United States have produced studies that identify neoliberal processes as key to the evolution of concrete cultural genres and practices. One can think here of studies such as: Stuart Day’s Staging Politics in Mexico (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2004), which shows the ways in which public debates on neoliberalism were staged in theaters by some of the most important playwrights; my own Screening Neoliberalism (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2014), which studies the aesthetic and ideological effects of neoliberal reform in cinema, including the privatization of exhibitors and the rise of public-private partnerships in production; and Amy Sara Carroll’s Remex (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2017), a thorough study of the changes in the visual arts during the NAFTA period.) Looking at both the critical production within Mexico and the debates of Mexicanists in the United States, it becomes clear that the field has developed a notion of neoliberalism that goes above and beyond political philosophy and economic policy, that instead posits the term as one that also comprehends the aesthetics, affects and subjectivities of everyday life in Mexico.
Originally published in Spain in 2010, Sayak Valencia’s Capitalismo Gore has followed a remarkable trajectory.(Sayak Valencia, Capitalismo Gore, (Madrid: Melusina, 2010).) For many years, the book had a small but admiring following. Even if it was nearly impossible to find it in Mexico, it gradually trickled into conversations on the correlation between neoliberalism and violence. Capitalismo Gore finally reached mainstream publication in Mexico in 2016 when it was released by Paidós, an imprint of Grupo Planeta, with an introduction by Marta Lamas, Mexico’s best-known feminist intellectual.(Sayak Valencia. Capitalismo Gore. Contro económico, violencia y narcopoder, (México: Paidós, 2016).) The English translation was recently released by Semiotext(e), an event in itself since Mexican theory books are only rarely of interest to U.S.-based publishers.(Sayak Valencia, Gore capitalism, trans. John Pluecker (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2018). I will cite from this edition.) This rocky path of publishing and circulation is a consequence of the theoretical force and passionate argumentation in Valencia’s book, which is as much a conceptual exploration as it is a manifesto trying to stunt its readers from the complacency with the naturalized visual and cultural regimes of neoliberal violence.
Gore Capitalism is not so much a study of neoliberalism at large, but of a phenomenon produced by neoliberalism in countries such as Mexico and other areas of the global South. Valencia borrows the term “gore” from cinema, to describe “a phenomenon of extreme violence as a tool used against bodies by the global economy.” For Valencia, gore capitalism is a stage in the “becoming-snuff” of society, which she describes as the gradual totalization of violence. In these terms, Valencia argues that the current “situation fits well within the boundaries of gore, since it has retained the grotesque and parodic element of the spilling of blood and guns, which as it is so absurd and unjustified, would appear to be unreal, gimmicky and artificial, a shade below full fatality, a work in progress on the way to becoming snuff, that still leaves the possibility of being curbed.”(Valencia, pp. 31-32.) Throughout the book she uses examples such as the violent narcoculture that has become popular in Mexico, as well as exploitation cinema, to claim that these forms of representation are materialized in everyday capitalist relations. From this premise, Gore Capitalism unfolds into an impassioned argument that methodically traces the violent politics of neoliberalism in five chapters, devoted, respectively, to the breakdown of the State as political formation; capitalism as cultural construction; criminality, necropolitics, and the role of feminisms (in plural) in the engagement of the masculine identities which, according to the author, underlie gore capitalism. Valencia is not constructing here a base-superstructure argument, but rather a study in which capitalist economics and culture are mutually enforced in horizontal ways.
The author contends that gore capitalism has come through in two socioeconomic junctures: the liberalization of the monetary system between 1971 and 1973, on the one hand, and the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989, on the other. At these historical moments, Valencia argues, one notices “the triumphal inauguration of the other economy, the economy of organized crime, no longer understood as a local economic process but rather as a transnational corporation, organized according to the demands of the capitalist structure and the financial markets.” (97)
This point is important because Valencia is indeed arguing that neoliberalism arose in parallel to the dominance of alternative economic regimes capable of encompassing significant parts of the population, particularly but not exclusively in the Global South and in former colonial societies. From the Latin American perspective, this argument is particularly compelling as recent historical memory allows for the identification of various interlinked aspects of contemporary violence, from the rise of Colombian and Mexican variations of the Drug Trade to the reconversion of paramilitary forces like the Guatemalan kaibiles into criminal organizations and the intensification of immigrant trafficking, extorsion, and other practices of the shadow economy. But the most crucial point in this argument is that gore capitalism has ceased to be the province of organized crime (she says it is “simply crystalized and made evident in that realm). Rather, the major economic models in the contemporary era “use gore practices as economic engines.”(98) Accordingly, gore capitalism, according to Valencia, “is fed by a rabid neoliberalism that enforces its consequences, making them socially palpable. […] Gore capitalism derives from neoliberalism, yet it is not circumscribed or exhausted by it.” (96) Valencia concludes her account by describing two “paths” through which gore capitalism and neoliberalism follow each other: “On the one hand it remains under control, even if illegal, it remains a full participant in capitalist logic […]. On the other hand, it departs from the mandates of capitalism’s hegemonic colonialist masters even as it remains closely linked to hyperconsumption.” (96)
Privileging the experience of advanced capitalist societies like that of the United States might lead one to characterize neoliberalism as a regime of governance that undoes the demos, as Wendy Brown claims,(Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos. Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015).) or as a political-economic project of extraction of wealth from the bottom to the top in the way of David Harvey.(David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).) Both models are based on the notion that the Keynesian-Fordist world order of the mid-twentieth century achieved sociopolitical and economic gains that the neoliberal project set out to undermine. Valencia’s argument operates outside such nostalgia. She rather understands the shift as a change in the nature of violence as a tool of power and the state, and as a move away from the nation-state state project of the 20th century—which comes with its own brutal politics of violence as, for instance, in the colonies—towards a regime of hyperconsumption and transnationalization. The author notes that the process that Trotsky described as “combined and uneven development” is a factor in gore capitalism, too. The peculiar result is that the processes that kept violence outsourced towards colonized societies or towards the marginal spaces of modern societies have now become prevalent, as the decline of the State leads to the emergence of a “Third-Worldlized reality” that pervasively invades even the so-called First World.(Valencia, p. 37.) This, of course, is as much part of reality in the United States’s as anywhere else. We only need to look at the violent decline of the inner cities in the US or the terror inflicted upon undocumented migrants in detention centers to see third-worldization and gore capitalism in action.
Yet Latin America is a particularly important place to note this phenomenon because there are societies which, as is the case in Mexico, managed to achieve a revolutionary process and a successful nation-state. Mexico was the only major country in Latin America to not suffer a military dictatorship in the 20th-century and the welfare state, though limited in reach, brought many people to the middle class. At the same time, nationalist culture (like cinema, muralism, and the like) is so galvanizing that it remains a significant factor of social stability. After neoliberal reform, though, the Mexican nation-state morphed in ways that led Mexicans to inhabit the paradox described by Valencia: the co-existence of a regime of capitalist hyperconsumption (Mexico is one of the countries where indicators like box-office receipts for the cinema or the consumption of soda are amongst the highest in the world) with the logic of capitalism (Mexico has significant rates of economic growth, foreign investment, profit production) and, finally, gore capitalism (hundreds of thousands of Mexicans are killed both by the enforcement of neocolonial policies like the “Drug War” and by the fights for resource extraction between national and transnational actors).
Valencia’s point is that there is no such thing as the First or the Third World, but rather a cultural continuum visible through an aesthetic and ideological logic that cultural critics must identify and engage with. The cultural key to gore capitalism is, in Valencia’s account, the rise of the West and of Western capitalism as “the only reality and possibility,” while on the ground, uneven economic and development contradict this cultural ideology. Valencia describes this process as follows: “While the West lives under a pharmacopornographic and/or biopolitical capitalism of microcellular surveillance, immersed in a high-tech and high-speed modernity, subjects in other spaces live, theorize, and act based on their own realities. These realities are not disconnected from a West that they are in fact increasingly influencing and reconfiguring; when we get news of these other realities, they explode in our faces and we are horrified.” (113) Uneven development becomes thus a thoroughly culturized realm where the problem is not so much the economic difference between the so-called First and Third World (as the economic regimes of both basically coexist within all nations), but rather the dialectic between the utopian dreams of hyperconsumption and the dystopian representation of horror. Narcoculture is a key example here, as the imaginary of drug dealing or other forms of organized crime occurs at the intersection of a sophisticated lifestyle of wealth and commodity enjoyment and the violent underbelly that makes that lifestyle possible. This is visible not only in Mexican popular films that idealize the life of drug dealers (a phenomenon called “narcocine” that refers to low budget productions that circulate both on the counterfeit market in Mexico and, for Mexican Americans, on media sites such as YouTube or iTunes).(On this phenomenon, see Ryan Rashotte, Narco Cinema. Sex, Drugs and Banda Music in Mexico’s B Filmography, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).) It also emerges in U.S. films such as Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor (2013), which uniquely enacts the hyperconsumption and violence underlying the white collar side of the drug business. The study of this kind of material is by no means new, even in a global perspective. One can recall here Curtis Marez’s exceptional Drug Wars, a study that traverses the political economy of drugs and its cultural representation across not only the U.S.-Mexico region but also in colonial geographies of the Pacific.(Curtis Marez, Drug Wars. The Political Economy of Narcotics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004).) One could further expand this to the realm of art. The work of Teresa Margolles and the artist collective SEMEFO (named after the government’s forensic medical service), for example, filled galleries nationally and internationally, including hthe Venice Biennale, with images and objects related to the corpses of victims of violence, enacting (sometimes unwittingly) a tension between the hypercommodified world of art exhibits and trade with the fetishization of the imagery of violence generated in the global South. The originality of Valencia’s work is that for her the political economy of drugs and other forms of organized crime underpins neoliberalism in more nuclear ways, insofar as narcoculture is the name not for representations of drugs in the media, but for the representation of “a patchwork of Histories in which temporal tectonic plates interlock and crash against one another in the context of uneven development.”(Valencia, p. 113.)
What finally underscores the richness of Valencia’s argument is the fact that she does not merely describe the violent engine of macroeconomic policy or the overarching imaginaries of global culture. She also argues that material practices in everyday life–from the consumption of media to one’s relationship to the state–form part of the microphysics of this process and that, in turn, one must pay attention to the ways in which neoliberalism produces its subjects. For instance, gender plays a significant role in gore capitalism, as masculinity is crucial to the understanding of the subjectivities that enforce it. Valencia coins the idea of the “endriago subject” to account for those in marginalized positions who nonetheless contribute to the enforcement of power and violence in gore capitalism. She advocates for discontinuing the use of “the concept of the marginalized subject […], for this contributes to a nebulous generalization that prevents us from delving deeper into these subjectivities.” (126) Thus, rather than understanding the neoliberal underclasses as a single class–a lumpenproletariat of the marginalized–Valencia notes that gore capitalism flexibilizes social strata, so that the violence that enforces the system may proceed from economically underprivileged subjects who, like a sicario, may nonetheless exercise power and authority. To describe this type of subject, Valencia reclaims the term endriago from Spanish medieval literature to describe a monstrous subjectivity defined by its belonging “to the realm of the Others, the unacceptable and the enemy” and by its “ultraviolent and destructive” nature (132-33). This is, however, not just a trope, but a description of a process of subjectification that is concrete, gendered and economic: “Endriago subjects have arisen out of a specific context: post-Fordism. This provides the evidence and a basic genealogy to explain the connection between poverty and violence.” (133) “Endriago subjects,” Valencia continues, “decide to utilize violence as a tool for empowerment and capital acquisition,” an operation which allows them to participate in the structure of hyper consumption and, at the same time, to respond to the “fear of demasculinization that haunts many men as a consequence of rising workplace precarity and their own subsequent disability to legitimately take on the role of the male provider.” (134)
Although not obvious due to the pervasiveness of this type of masculinity, it is nonetheless clear that Valencia’s theorization derives directly from Mexico’s experience with femicide, particularly in maquila towns like Juárez or Tijuana, where Valencia is from. As many scholars and critics have argued, femicide is a gender-inflected violence that results in part from the contrast between a female proletariat hired for low wages and poor working conditions in border sweatshops, on the one hand, and a disempowered and unemployed male population resulting from the failures to cross the border into the United States and the lack of formal employment in the border towns, on the other.(In my opinion the best theoretical discussions in these terms can be found in Charles Bowden, Murder City. Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy of the New Killing Fields, (New York: Nation Books, 2011); Rita Segato, La escritura en el cuerpo de las mujeres asesinadas en Ciudad Juárez. Territorio, soberanía, y crímenes de segundo estado, (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2013) and Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine, (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2012).) Valencia systematizes the gendered nature of these killings, in which male violence is not only a vendetta for demasculinization, but also a microphysical enforcement of the precarity of the women workers, which in turn constitutes the basis for their exploitation by transnational capital. Endriago subjects include not only poor migrants at the border but also middle-class internet trolls who enforce structures such as male supremacy in platform capitalism. It is essential to understand the material workings of neoliberalism and gore capitalism to account for the ways in which violent masculinities defined by “a capitalistic subjectivity filtered through increasingly precarious global economic conditions.”(Valencia, p. 138.) It is on these terms that Valencia concludes her diagnosis with a long chapter on feminism, gender and queer theory. She notes that gender revolutions, including the creation of masculinities that take into consideration “both becoming-woman and becoming-queer” lead to a critique that allows for a “physical resistance that avoids joining the ranks of the victims of violence enacted worldwide by the endriago subjects of gore capitalism.” (280)
Gore Capitalism makes for a frustrating read for those who identify theory with the theoretical edifices of philosophers with clear ontological foundations, such as Alain Badiou or Gilles Deleuze. Valencia traverses bibliographies and theoretical problematics in a way reminiscent of Slavoj Žižek, but with more commitment to conceptual definition. She is rigorous in defining individual concepts, and her theoretical genealogies are erudite and eclectic, ranging from theorists of postmodernity and hypercapitalism such as Jean Baudrillard and Gilles Lipovetsky to queer cultural critics such as Spanish Paul B. Preciado.
Her book, in my estimation, is innovative in three ways. First, by bringing to the fore the experience of a liminal area such as the U.S.-Mexico border, she offers an important corrective to the narrative of neoliberalism as undermining the perceived achievements of the Keynesian welfare state and the Fordist mode of production. In doing so, Valencia fills important gaps in the accounts of canonical theories of neoliberalism, particularly in relation to the role of violence in neoliberal policy and the material structures of subjectivity underpinning shadow economies and geographies that are either historically subjected to colonialism or Third-Worldized by processes of precarization. Finally, her argument is a testament to the core importance of gender theory, particularly the study of masculinity as a power structure, in accounting for the structures of symbolic capital and of social enforcement in the neoliberal era. All of these strengths certainly override the limits of the book. Some readers will find the theoretical eclecticism to be no rigorous enough at times, and the essayistic tone of the book, which contributes enormously to its readability, does leave some arguments underdeveloped and undefined. Yet, the book is written with such strength that it is easy to overlook those issues.
If Valencia’s Gore Capitalism is an excellent account of parts of the neoliberal experience neglected by theorists, Irgmard Emmelhainz’s La tiranía del sentido común (The Tyranny of Common Sense), published in 2016, is hands down the best book on neoliberal governance from the perspective of Mexican cultural theory.(Irmgard Emmelhainz, La tiranía del sentido común. La reconversión neoliberal de México, (Mexico City: Paradiso, 2016).) La tiranía del sentido común remains in the same place initially earned by the first edition of Gore Capitalism: an admired volume that reflects on Mexico’s contemporary culture with unusual depth and is published by a marginal press.(In this case a press specializing on publishing psychoanalisis that has little distribution but nonetheless publishes major works such as the Spanish translation of the work of Alenka Zupančič.) However, and thanks to the translation of some of her essays into English and French that show the strength of her critical voice to growing readerships, Emmelhainz has emerged as a key thinker of contemporary Mexico and as a scholar who has already gathered a following beyond the Spanish-speaking world. If Valencia is interested in accounting for gore capitalism as a process from below, born out of the social praxis of hyperconsumption and endriago violence, Emmelhainz centers her analysis on understanding the hegemonic structures that turn neoliberal economic policy and its sociopolitical effects into what she calls “common sense,” or the social naturalization of economic policy into cultural aesthetics and social praxis.
According to Emmelhainz, neoliberalism is indissociably linked to the introduction of subjective and affective sensibilities. Therefore, she contends that neoliberalism is not only the economic program for the distribution of wealth to the elites, but also a form of “apprehending the world and generating knowledge about it,” which operates by “working out our most intimate desires, colonizing our dreams, cannibalizing our ideals of liberty and regurgitating them with strategies of social control.”(Emmelhainz, La tiranía del sentido común, p. 40. All translations of Emmelhainz’s book are mine.) Emmelhainz deploys some of the most influential arguments on the workings of neoliberalism, from the previously cited work of Brown and David Harvey to recent studies by scholars such as the likes of Eva Ilouz who comments on the role played by the ideas of happiness and love play in the naturalization of late capitalist dynamics.(See Brown, Undoing the Demos; Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism; Eva Ilouz, Cold Intimacies. The Making of Emotional Capitalism, (Cambridge: Polity, 2007).) In addition, contemporary art plays a central role in the book, as Emmelhainz explores the ways in which iconic cultural institutions such as the Soumaya and the Jumex Museum, as well as the type of curatorship and exhibits they foster, have contributed to the naturalization of neoliberal subjectivity and the construction of urban space under neoliberal premises.
Emmelhainz’s discussion of the connection between affect and neoliberalism does not follow the work of theorists more familiar in U.S. academic circles, such as Lauren Berlant or Sianne Ngai, but rather takes its cue from the work of Italian post-autonomist theorists. Here, her main theoretical interlocutor is Franco “Bifo” Berardi, who also wrote the preface to La tiranía, and his notion of “semiocapitalism.”(See Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Precarious Rhapsody. Semiocapitalism and the Pathologies of the Post-Alpha Generation, (London: Minor Compositions, 2010).) Bifo defines “semiocapitalism” as the fusion of media and capital, which in his view results in a “capital-flux that coagulates in semiotic artefacts without materializing itself.”(Bifo, p. 34.) As Bifo notes in his preface, Emmelhainz is particularly illuminating in her study of the “necrocapitalist hell” and its conversion into “everyday business.”(Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Prólogo: Necrocapitalismo y sensibilidad,” in Emmelhainz, La tiranía del sentido común, p. 9-13.) Influenced by Bifo’s exploration of cognitive labor, and semiotic flows of capital and meaning, Emmelhainz confronts the paradoxes of Mexican neoliberalism. She describes a system in which economic reforms were intertwined with the reconfiguration of Mexican one-party rule, the aforementioned narrative of “transition to democracy” and new forms of authoritarianism, paramilitarization and political repression.
Emmelhainz’s theorizations are based on the experience of the reconfiguration of the Mexican state from the beginning of the implementation of neoliberal economic reforms in 1988 to the rise of new forms of authoritarian rule during the administration of President Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) when the Drug War became a cover for new forms of state power. In addition, Emmelhainz traces the sensible sphere of neoliberalism, its realm of affects, to the reconfiguration of the field of cultural production in Mexico.
Her book is divided into six chapters that render visible the different dimensions of the common sense. The first chapter focuses on the “neoliberal reconversion” of Mexico, and on the tension between two narratives that tend to occupy any analysis of the country in domestic and foreign policy and press circles: first, the idea of an “emerging economy” that is in a process of economic growth and of reaching its potential through targeted development policies, and, second, the notion of a “failed state” where nearly 300.000 people have been killed and that seems unable to curb the collapse of the rule of Law on its territory. This second point is further discussed in chapter two, where Emmelhainz discusses the relationship between life, labor and governmentality. The chapter gathers topics familiar from the critique of neoliberalism such as the Taylorization of the self; the notion of entrepreneurialism; or the idea of self-branding for the labor market. Chapters three and four move on to the question of culture itself and the ways in which neoliberalism deactivates forms of political culture established in the 20th century. Chapter three also discusses the penetration of neoliberalism into the art world and the way in which neoliberalism’s “cultural turn” has pre-empted the politics of autonomous radical art. Emmelhainz here studies the way in which art, during the neoliberal era, becomes indisociable from regimes of labor and economics and thus becomes territorialized as a tool for neoliberal narratives, including development, self-improvement, and commoditization. In chapter four, the author moves to analyze another significant aspect of cultural agency in Mexico: the culture of mourning and victim recognition emerging in response to the violence of the state and drug cartels. In one of her more polemic arguments, the author critiques the politicization of culture towards pain and victim recognition, discussing the ways in which this form of thinking continues appealing to a state that in some cases has committed these crimes in the first place, or is complicit in them. Emmelhainz contends that, just like in the case of the cultural turn, the political art of Mexican neoliberalism, focused as it is on violence, contributes to the invisibility of the socio-structural causes of victimhood, tied to economics and to sovereignty. The author concludes her book with two chapters that argue for a programmatic agenda that considers questions of common sense and cultural mediatization. The first of these, chapter five, offers a reflection on the technologies of configuring civil society and public space. Chapter six, slightly less developed than the previous ones, calls for a new anti-capitalist feminism that Emmelhainz does not quite delineate, but that would be based on dislodging the way neoliberalism has coopted female liberation and the “super woman” who can participate both in labor and motherhood at the same time.
There are three points I would highlight in order to better grasp Emmelhainz’s eclectic and meandering conceptualizations. First, she writes against the grain of a fairly conservative Mexican intellectual field where this kind of engagement with Euro-American lines of political thinking and with post-Marxist forms of capitalist critique is quite rare. Mexico’s key thinkers are for the most part either liberals who sustain the agenda of democratization that Emmelhainz attacks, or philosophers who stick fairly closely to heterodox forms of Marxism. La tiranía gives an unusual amount of visibility to forms of critique of capitalism and autonomy that rarely appear in the work of Mexican thinkers born before 1975. This is in part due to the fact that continental theorists, neomarxists, and US academic thinkers are rarely and unevenly translated, while key Latin American thinkers operate in the obscurity of regional university presses and poorly distributed books. Along with Valencia, Emmelhainz is one of the few figures that reads Mexico’s contemporary politics and culture without resorting to mainstream liberal narratives or orthodox Marxist terminology.
If Emmelhainz has quickly become a key reference in Mexican cultural criticism, it is because her books richly discuss from within Mexico’s experience a series of thinkers that, even as they are common currency in English and French, have only recently begun to be translated and read in Mexico. Even though Mexico has had an important and complex experience with neoliberalism, there is no other book that covers the economic, political and subjective territories of this experience. Emmelhainz’s unapologetic traversing of different paradigms of critical theory engaged with radically different dimensions of neoliberalism shows that Mexico is a key site for the intense confluence of the diverse flows of neoliberalism. Indeed, the fact that her work engages and problematizes so many seemingly mutually exclusive theories of neoliberalism, from economic to cultural, is in itself a demonstration of the importance of neoliberalism as an analytical category of contemporary Mexico, and in turn of contemporary Mexico as a site to think through neoliberalism.
Emmelhainz’s academic training is in the fields of art history and visual culture. Her first book, Alotropías en la trinchera evanescente focuses on topics as disparate as the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard (to whom she has devoted her latest book, her first in English); the policies of Mexican museums; the art of Santiago Sierra, and the work of photography theorist Ariella Azoulay.(whom she has devoted her latest book, her first in English); the policies) As per Emmelhainz’s own description, the common denominator of all of her essays is the exploration of the relationship between cultural expression and the new world order, as well as the ways in which the arts represent the life of people who live in states of exception.(Emmelhainz, Alotropías en la trinchera evanescente, p. 10.) La tiranía del sentido común is, in its core, defined by the same preoccupations, to wit, the creation of a new Mexican order defined by neoliberalism and the democratic transition. While the book is amazingly thorough and can be read almost in a one-stop reading, it is particularly strong where it engages the correlation among the arts and cognitive capitalism, on the one hand, and the changes in notions of citizenship and the state, on the other.
For instance, the author’s account of “neoliberal Mexico City” goes beyond the populist policies of the administrations of center-left mayors Andrés Manuel López Obrador (2000-2006) and Marcelo Ebrard (2006-2012)—which included free concerts in the city’s main square, or the development of bike lanes—to make visible the reordering of public space. She ties Mexico City to global trends in gentrification by focusing on the so-called “Special Zones of Controlled Development” (or Zedecs) that are designed to cater to the elites, contrasting as such with post-Fordist industrial cities like Ciudad Juárez or Guangzhou, territories that are more accessible to an analysis that uses the idea of “gore capitalism.”(Emmelhainz, La tiranía del sentido común, p. 82.) Emmelhainz for her part focuses on architecture as a strategy for classifying social spaces, noting the difference between self-enclosed, luxurious neighborhoods for the upper class and the simultaneous construction of standardized low-income housing projects for the reserve army of labor. The point is that architectural aesthetics has become a tool for the development of “social laboratories that normalize the violence inherent to these spaces, determining the terms of subjectivity, survival and quality of life of its citizens.” This, Emmelhainz concludes, is the material working of neoliberalism, which in her account equals not so much the withdrawal of the state or the privatization of the market, but rather the development of an “insulting dependence on the State, corporations, and other forms of subjection (like indebtedness)” in the name of a politics of global zoning that “adjust the political space to the demands of global capital.” (87) A key element of Emmelhainz’s work is the subsumption of art under this dynamic, at the expense of committed and autonomous forms of artistic production. Through this lens, her book articulates scathing critiques of Mexico’s contemporary art scene. A notable case is the proliferation of exhibitions on resistance, dissidence, and insurgency between 2010 and 2012, which took place in spaces that were thoroughly developed from within the neoliberal logic of exhibition and gentrification, such as the Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MUAC), or the Centro Cultural Digital Estela de Luz, which was subject to a major controversy regarding the significant amount of money and alleged corruption that went into its construction. (123)
In the articulation of culture, we can see how Emmelhainz’s book complements Valencia’s. Culture in Gore Capitalism is essentially located in the realm of popular culture and the media. In Emmelhainz’s book, the regimes of high art, applied design, and other forms of neoliberal engagement with visual culture become technologies for the cooptation and ordering of capital. It is thus not surprising that for her, feminism serves a critical role, even though this happens on different terms from Valencia’s. Where Valencia sees in queer feminism a critique of the masculinity that engenders neoliberalism from below, Emmelhainz is interested in the different ways feminism can critique neoliberalism from above, trumping the way in which women’s liberation has emerged into a “new conformity.” Emmelhainz concludes her book by calling for a feminism that would merge the distinct spaces of gender injustice (including economic space, the body, subjectivity, and others) in order to articulate an integral critique of neoliberal capitalism. (258) In this, we can see the thrust of Mexican theory today: a critique of the complexities and brutalities of neoliberalism both as an economic system and as a system of subjectivity that the country has been facing for the past three decades, as well as a call for finding a path forward that can account for gender, class and social inequalities.