Beyond death

by craigepplin

A recent phone conversation got me thinking about how Octavio Paz’s take on death differs from Teresa Margolles’s. The connection is obvious, perhaps too much so. In fact, I think that one of the great things that Margolles carries out in her work is a displacement of the obsession with death in Mexicanist thinking. It’s a paradoxical displacement, for she works expressly with the materials surrounding death–water used to wash corpses, threads that stitch them up after an autopsy, body parts, and lots more. But that’s exactly why I say she displaces the theme of death: by immersing us in this material universe, she makes us dwell in the in-between space that mediates our relationship to the dead. There’s no idea of fusion or essence in this relationship. Rather, it is mediated through and through.

This is why Paz provides such a good counterpoint. His Labyrinth of Solitude represents Mexicans’ relationship to death as one of a primal, intrinsic fusion. And while this scheme of things lies in the realm of transcendence, he presented a similar view in his words on a more topical theme: the 1968 massacre of protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, or Tlatelolco. The government’s actions, he writes, were “an instinctive repetition that assumed the form of an expiatory ritual; the parallels with the Mexican past, especially with the Aztec world, are fascinating, overwhelming and repellent. The killing at Tlatelolco reveals that a past we believed to be buried is alive and erupts among us” (253). Death is an inherent aspect of Mexican identity, in other words, no matter how much it’s repressed.

To my mind, the most interesting aspect of this quote, taken from Posdata, which is a postscript to The Labyrinth of Solitude, is the relationship that the dead students and workers bear to the living. He compares the massacre to Aztec sacrifice. This was, in Aztec cosmology, necessary for the continuation of the world. The gods demanded human blood. If the Tlatelolco massacre reflects the persistence of this logic in the contemporary world, then the dead acquire meaning because the world demands their sacrifice.

It’s worth wondering what meaning this is. In one reading, the dead are sacrificed so that the new gods of transnational capitalism can make their way into Mexico. The massacre coincided with the 1968 Olympics, which would mark Mexico’s entry into the globalizing world. Just as Idelber Avelar has read the Southern Cone dictatorships as themselves marking the transition into neoliberal consensus, Tlatelolco would herald the end of national-popular integration as a governing strategy. (See this book manuscript in process for a more nuanced version of this reading.)

Paz does not see it that way. Rather, what Tlatelolco reveals is the essence of Mexican identity: the persistence of the Aztec in the modern Mexican.

This way of relating to the dead is nothing like the way that Margolles suggests we do so. In her work, violent death is not an indelible stain on Mexican identity. Rather, it is a contingent phenomenon, which can only be explored through the contingency of materials. This is why her works are explicitly composed of material mediations between the dead and the living. A room filled with steam or bubbles made from water used in the morgue is a work that is nothing but mediation: there is no representation to be contemplated, only an extended skin to be felt. How we relate to the dead, then, is to be explored through fragile and contingent architectures, not through the dialectics of identity and otherness.

In other words (brief, brief words), Margolles: not like Paz.