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.