Nonhuman Collectives

— a blog by Craig Epplin —

Gabriel García Márquez

The first short story I read in Spanish was “La luz es como el agua.” I was in high school and my teacher passed me a photocopy of it. I remember underlining, looking up all the words I didn’t know, learning words like brújula, which made little sense in my landlocked childhood but which, I remember observing, sounded like the word for witch and rhymed with esdrújula.

I remember reading Cien años de soledad in college while abroad in Venezuela. I remember buying El general en su laberinto in a Caracas bookstore. I remember where in the bookstore it was and that it was wrapped, as is so often the case, in plastic. I later wrote an honors thesis about that novel. It was the first time I engaged seriously with some the questions I teach about today: the relationship between literature and history, literature and politics, Latin American intellectual culture and my life.

Over the years I somewhat lost interest in García Márquez. His sentences and paragraphs are too perfect, too resonant and pouring forth: bubbles in the air blown not by children but by some fantastical machine. It’s a dumb reason to lose interest, maybe, but it’s true. Still, I taught “La luz es como el agua” in a class the other day and grew nostalgic for the high school kid who first pored over a dictionary trying to understand that story. And I’m nothing short of delighted to discover, today, this profile of Shakira that he first published in 1999. (I learned lots of Spanish from her CDs also when I was in high school.)



I’m very happy to announce that a project that’s been in the works for a while is now public. It’s called Furniture in Motion, and it’s a pamphlet series that I’m editing for Rattapallax. Here’s the official description:

Furniture in Motion is a pamphlet series published electronically by Rattapallax, with an emphasis on visual culture. The titular image is borrowed from the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra. Against the majesty of trees, Parra’s classic antipoems give us instead a world of home furnishings, tables and chairs in perpetual circulation. This is poetry as carpentry. Similarly, the entries in this series do not seek a return to roots. Rather, they take up ideas in flight, images in flux.

The first volume is a brief, beautiful treatise called The Oyster. The authors, Dejan Lukic and Nik Kosieradzki, take the oyster as the occasion for a meditation on form and chaos. In eight manifolds, they unfurl the oyster in its various modes of existence: a plastic form, a pulsating thing, a culinary delight, an object of representation, a factory of pearls…

In other news, I’ve been reading more than blogging lately. A couple books I’m deep into: Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Graywolf, 2014) and Óscar Martínez’s The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso, 2013). In very different ways, both authors integrate themselves into the prose in really effective ways. Both books come highly recommended. I also just heard that Sergio González Rodríguez has won the Anagrama essay prize for his new book on global war. I’m excited to get my hands on that once it comes out.

More soon.


A relevant note from Alexander von Humboldt’s book on his travels to South America:

The great problem of the physical description of the planet is how to determine the laws that relate the phenomena of life with inanimate nature.

Necroescritura, cont.

I want to offer some more extensive thoughts on Cristina Rivera Garza’s book Los muertos indóciles (2013). As I mentioned in my last post, the central concept she advances is the idea of “necroescritura,” or “necrowriting.” This term has a clear correlate outside the realm of literature: necropolitics, which is Achille Mbembe’s name for the sort of politics whose “expression of sovereignty lies in the power and capacity to dictate who can live and who must die” (19). (That’s a translation of Rivera Garza’s own translation into Spanish; I don’t have the original on hand at the moment.) Necropolitics thus refers to the politics exercised by states and other entities that care little to guarantee conditions of welfare, but care much to regulate the terms of death. Together with its conceptual mirror image (biopolitics), necropolitics represents the horizon of the neoliberal state.

It is no coincidence that Rivera Garza, writing part of her book from San Diego and another part from Oaxaca, would hone in on death. Her home country, Mexico, has witnessed, particularly since 2006, extreme violence from both state actors and narco-mafias, violence that has caused between 60,000 and 80,000 casualties. Hence the focus on necropolitics and hence also the regular surfacing, over the various essays that make up this book, of the voice of Juan Rulfo, whose Pedro Páramo (1955) is set in Comala, a city of ghosts and ghostly language.

But death is more than the expiration, violent or not, of a living body. It is also a key trope in literature and theory. Wasn’t Rulfo referring not only to bodily death but also to another sort of death: the eclipse of the authoritative, authorial speaker? “All his noise [murmullos],” Rivera Garza writes, referencing the way Rulfo links one and another sort of death (17). Writing is the graveyard of speech, and Rivera Garza cites numerous examples of its burial: in Camilla Roy, in Hélène Cixous, in Margaret Atwood, and in Roland Barthes. From Stéphane Mallarmé to contemporary displacements of the authorial voice, death works as a figure through which to understand language, particularly written language.

These displacements have become routine in contemporary writing. Conceptual poetry, one genre to which Rivera Garza returns at various moments, along with its related forms, is not exactly an outlier. It is read at the White House, regularly taught in universities, and debated in the Boston Review. Rivera Garza places it within a tradition of “dialogical processes,” which she defines as

those processes in which the empire of authorship, as producer of meaning, has been radically displaced from the uniqueness of the author toward the function of the reader, who instead of appropriating the material of the world that is the other, is disappropriated [se desapropia]. (22)

This definition relies on Barthes’s well known statement that the death of the author corresponds to the birth of the reader. The author appropriates the world, but in turning this material into writing, is immediately disappropriated by language.

However, it isn’t clear to me, upon a first reading, how Rivera Garza positions conceptual writing, in particular, in relation to this process. She contends that this genre is most often marked rather by the contrary of disappropriation—by appropriation, that is—and this is why I’m having trouble discerning how conceptualism (“extreme death of the author” (28)) relates to the aesthetics of necrowriting. After all, Rivera Garza further defines this sort of writing as encompassing “forms of textual production that seek that dispossession of the domain of one’s own” (33). And she goes on to assert that these forms distinguish themselves from “circuits of authorship and capital, aggrandizing rather than placing in doubt, the circulation of writing within the domain of one’s own” (33-34). What I find myself trying to piece together is where exactly, in relation to the abandonment of these “circuits,” to locate conceptual writing.

After all, Rivera Garza wants necrowriting, elaborated at the crossroads of war machines and word processors, to refer to a writing that relinquishes property. And to a certain degree, this desire certainly dovetails with certain strands within conceptualism, in as much as it erodes a traditional concept of originality. However, if I remember correctly, one point that Kenneth Goldsmith insists upon in Uncreative Writing is that uncreative actions like collecting, collating, plagiarizing, etc., reveal, rather than obscure, the self. This self is certainly different from the one imagined by, say, the Romantics, but it isn’t exactly a model of disappropriation either. The self, here, exults in its constructed nature, its collage-like becoming, and its ability to become incarnate in multiple media and material forms.

This self is prone to both appropriation and disappropriation. It steals and gives. But saying that isn’t saying much. To get to the politics of necrowriting and its affiliated forms, I’d like to return to a question I mentioned in my previous post, which is why or how we should link necrowriting to necropolitics. Kwame Anthony Appiah once asked if the “post” in “postmodernism” was the same “post” in “postcolonialism.” Let’s ask an analogous question about the “necro” in Rivera Garza’s two terms.

To start out, I don’t think she’s off-base at all, but I do think that understanding the connection she draws requires us to walk through some thorns. I still believe that part of the connection between necropolitics and necrowriting is the reductive character of both. The state reduces the administration of territory to control over death, just as certain forms of (mostly experimental) literature engage in the reduction of language to its basic materiality. Concrete poetry, an unmentioned antecedent of Rivera Garza’s necrowriting, would represent one example.

But at the same time, there are other, more complex linkages. I’ll try to establish one via a short excursus. In a project I’m working on, I discuss the way that certain writers mimic the structure of data in their works. I’m particularly interested in the way one of Rivera Garza’s compatriots, Mario Bellatin, uses techniques native to data processing to frame his novels, essays, and performances. One of those ways is via the production and circulation of copies, which are everywhere in his work. In generating them, and in other ways, he is in clear dialogue with some sort of conceptualism.

The doubling and copying that populates his work forms the basis for what is perhaps his most directly political statement to date. In 2010 he published an op-ed in the New York Times, where he discussed the “art of renting” in Mexico—renting someone to spend a night in jail for you, to wait on your loved ones in the hospital, or, now in the context of drug violence, to kill or maim your enemies. He then suggests that he might “rent” someone to work for him:

I’ve often thought of renting another person to write under my name. Then someone else would have to address the drug-related violence, like the killing of an American consulate worker and her husband this month in Ciudad Juárez. Hillary Clinton met with our president, Felipe Calderón, last week to discuss a new counternarcotics strategy. Perhaps the writer impersonating me would be able to muster some enthusiasm about the results.

Of course, this strategy already permeates Bellatin’s work. What are we to make of the fact that he recasts it in terms of addressing violence in Mexico? I think that Rivera Garza’s joining of necropolitics to necrowriting can here be helpful. Bellatin wants (or performs wanting) to rent a double to write in his place. In this transaction, the author dies (something also performed elsewhere and incessantly in his work). And this death is what allows for a writing that can address violence in an adequate fashion.

What links the two together, at least in Bellatin’s case and perhaps implicitly in Rivera Garza’s notion of necrowriting, is the role that digital technologies play in both conceptual experimentation and in the administrative operations of the neoliberal, necropolitical state. After all, Goldsmith and numerous others seem to agree that contemporary conceptual writing reflects a sensibility, when not a direct materiality, of digital technologies. And it’s that same technology that allows the financial markets and the surveillance state to exploit and spy and kill. I don’t think this parallel is an absolutely necessary one, but I also think that it’s no coincidence and difficult to overlook.


I’m reading Cristina Rivera Garza’s newest book, Los muertos indóciles (Tusquets, 2013). I’ve just begun, but I wanted to offer a few words about the book’s organizing concept, which I’m sure gets refined and expanded upon as the chapters advance.

Thus far, it seems to me that the aim is ambitious. Rivera Garza wants to connect necropolitics to necrowriting–and then to underscore the ways that the latter elaborates new forms of community. Thus the idea is to carry out a discussion, simultaneously, of a politics premised on the management of death and of an aesthetics premised on the death of the author. Necrowriting, we read early on, corresponds to “dialogic” and reader-centered forms of writing, and it acquires its name, at least partially, because it is “carried out in conditions of extreme loss of life [mortandad]” and also, at least partially, because it is “carried out in media [soportes] that go from paper to the digital screen…” Death as a foundation of contemporary politics is thus associated with other sorts of death–of the author, of the subject, of the book, of originality, etc.

Whether each of these last entities has in fact died, or is in the process of dying, is an open question. We might append to each of the items in this list a parenthetical phrase: “(in some sense),” as a caveat for its continued life or afterlife. Nevertheless, many forms of contemporary writing do indeed challenge traditional authorship, traditional subjectivity, the tradition of the printed page, and the traditional idea of originality. Hence Rivera Garza’s focus on conceptual and digitally inflected sorts of writing, refreshingly couched in a pan-American and trans-Atlantic context.

It is another open question, a more open one in fact, how to relate these forms of writing to necropolitics. I’m still in the opening chapters, so I won’t weigh in just yet on this, but I have an intuition of an idea in gestation: both sorts of death reflect a common reduction of something fundamental–life or language–to a common denominator: not its bareness or zero degree, but rather its disappearance.

I’ll write more when I’ve read more.


One of the better parts of my job is the periodic obligation to read Juan Rulfo. I’ve recently gone back to the short stories of El llano en llamas, mostly looking for ways that the voice appears in his fiction. More specifically, I’m interested in how the voice is entangled with the elements, specifically the air. The air is, of course, the most common medium for the voice, but in Rulfo’s work it is so in a more palpable way:

For a while, the wind that blew up from below brought a tumult of accumulated voices, making the same noise as when the water’s swell rushes over rock beds. Suddenly, coming out of the same place, another voice twisted through the bend in the ravine, bounced off the face of the cliff, and arrived at us with still more force:

“Long live General Petronilo Flores!”

Voices are an indistinguishable hum, until one cuts through the rest, ricocheting off the walls, gaining speed and volume with each bound, until the soldiers hear it. These voices become something we can imagine in very visual terms, as if clouds and lightning. I think that this emphasis on the physicality of the voice–its clear figuration–is an important part of the sonic paradigm in Rulfo’s fiction.

And it matters for lots of reasons. For one, representing the voice in this manner makes it impossible to see sound in neutral terms. Sound, voices, speech…: all of them are propagated by concrete media. Rulfo’s focus on the brute physicality of this transmission reminds us, if we turn our attention to the sphere of state politics, that official speech works like this too. I was recently reading a book chapter by Joy Elizabeth Hayes, which begins with a description of a state-sponsored radio program in the early 1930s. The Ministry of Public Education (SEP) had disseminated a number of radios to rural locales. The radios were set to receive only the SEP’s transmissions. When an audit was performed, the inspector discovered, however, that in almost all cases the devices had been jailbroken and were being used to listen to other radio programs. The state wants the people to hear it speak, and they will provide the devices necessary for it. Whether people will listen is another story.

I think that these people’s indifference to the state radio broadcast is mirrored in some parts of El llano en llamas. Like, for example, in the story “Luvina,” when a group of peasants asks a government official about the mother of the government. It is the Patria, he responds, but they just shake their heads and laugh, amused by the assumed transcendence of the state’s narrative.

But beyond this encounter and others like it, I think that the way Rulfo treats voices in general in his fiction makes it clear that there is no transcendent speech. All voices rely on some sort of transmission, a conduit or amplifier, and modifying the nature of this conduction is one sort of ecological politics.


The other day, someone very dear to me sent me a little music video to cheer me up. It did the job, but I didn’t initially get much out of it.


That is, I didn’t really get it until I watched another video by the same filmmaker. (I believe his name is Roy Alte):


The point of the second video is pretty clear: we are “packaged” by all sorts of extra-corporeal appendices: clothing, electronic technologies of the self, even our skin. Worth noting, on the last of these, is Alte’s idea that our skin might even suffocate us. This latter phenomenon is only possible, though, if we have something inside of us, a core self that isn’t made of packaging. The video is clearly ironic on this point, and it ends with the narrative voice saying that he’s afraid to look inside himself because he might find there’s nothing there.

In light of this video, the first one’s representation of naked, dancing human bodies, wearing papier-maché masks and slightly animated by computer graphics, becomes a sort of puppet show. There are even strings that both seem to control and be controlled by the dancers.

The idea isn’t his alone, though I’ve never seen it rendered in a beautiful stop-motion, partially animated film. It reminds me of Peter Sloterdijk’s reading of the biblical creation story in Bubbles. In that reading, Adam is a state-of-the-art technology: a clay vessel, literally. He becomes animated when god breathes life into him. He’s made of the earth and becomes human when he’s filled with divine breath. He’s a bubble, in other words, and the inside of a bubble is precisely what we can’t see: pure, transparent air. Alte gets at a similar point when he’s afraid to look inside his skin. I think he’s afraid he might see the hollowness that Sloterdijk describes.

And it isn’t just Sloterdijk. Marcel Duchamp’s work Paris Air (or however it’s usually translated into English) performs a similar operation, capturing the air of the French capital in a little bubble. The work is pure packaging, its ruse the idea that the air of Paris might be significantly different from the air of anywhere else–Philadelphia (where the work is currently housed), for example. Even more abstractly, Jorge Luis Borges’s map that is coextensive with the territory it represents, as well as his projection of a self in flight (“Así mi vida es una fuga y todo lo pierdo y todo es del olvido, o del otro.”) from representation, both express similar ideas. In this case too, the packaging (the exterior representation of something) looms large, obliterating–possibly–the stability of what’s supposed to be represented.

In short, I think it’s a powerful idea, and I really like the way Alte puts it in audiovisual terms.

(If you’re reading this in the United States, have a happy Thanksgiving tomorrow. Enjoy the bird or soy-bird or whatever you feast on.)


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