Author: Jessica

Black Poetry Day

In honor of Black Poetry Day, we’re more than pleased to share a few poems from Black poets on our list.

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try to silence the loud. the overly proud. the preacher. the
shroud. the sprung and the plowed. try to leaven the low so
the children can grow but the neighbors won’t know, unbossed
but still bowed. try to open the hope with braids and with
rope and with water and soap try to truss out the truth. try to
piecemeal the peace stitch together some sleep and relax for the
reap for the road for the real stuff. try to sap out the stay and
partition the play it is better that way someone whispered once.
try to grow out the grout, groan when you should shout, you
know what it’s about, you know you know you know you know
you know you know but you don’t hear me though.

-Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Spill

 

b jenkins

just so you know, no one could have told me you didn’t want to go
outside. this exercises phonograph to take the receiver and call you
for something we hear together, some of the same stories, some of the
same things. to stretch repeat so thin it fades to various is the aim of
the phone call. the phonograph is also a photograph of movement and
what it bears. you found dances waiting for dancers. your silhouette is
patient form. I know you can cant. I know you can make it if you try.

I’m getting along alright. I say a little prayer. mama’s baby sadie mae
ms. davis’ blue and red. at the duck inn mighty lions roar. you and
bobby bradford run away together. this earth tone air is b.c. marks’s
pine bluff arkansas, asleep in new pajamas at the desert inn, to walk
joe williams pieceway home to waycross, you and me against the world,
every time we say goodbye. I’ll be seeing you in all the unfamiliar places
where they till our long advance. this is the cluster song of our romance.

-Fred Moten, b jenkins

 

And When I Write the Muscles in My Chest Move as if in Flight

Sometimes the eye of the bird
is a sky that is moving
among the molecules and over
twenty different landscapes
someone has crossed, even lived in,
perhaps longing for the soil of at least
one to wear in her pinions in those
high-necked altitudes that see
the endless couplings of man and
woman and woman and man and
man and woman like a garland
circling the broken globe.

-Yvette Christiansë, Castaway

 

Be sure to check out civil rights poetry collection Words of Protest, Words of Freedom as well, and keep an eye out for consent not to be a single being, an upcoming trilogy by Fred Moten, and M Archive, coming in March from Alexis Pauline Gumbs.

National Coming Out Day: New Books in LGBTQ Studies

Today is the 29th annual National Coming Out Day, a celebration of the visibility of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. We’re happy to contribute to the occasion by sharing our newest scholarship in LGBTQ and sexuality studies.

978-0-8223-6914-1Developed in the United States in the 1980s, facial feminization surgery (FFS) is a set of bone and soft tissue reconstructive surgical procedures intended to feminize the faces of trans- women. In The Look of a Woman Eric Plemons foregrounds the narratives of FFS patients and their surgeons as they move from consultation and the operating room to postsurgery recovery. He shows how the increasing popularity of FFS represents a shift away from genital-based conceptions of trans- selfhood in ways that mirror the evolving views of what is considered to be good trans- medicine.

art1In the 1970s a group of pioneering feminist and queer entrepreneurs launched a movement that ultimately changed the way sex was talked about, had, and enjoyed. In Vibrator Nation Lynn Comella tells the fascinating history of how feminist sex-toy stores raised sexual consciousness, redefined the adult industry, and changed women’s lives. Comella describes a world where sex-positive retailers double as social activists, where products are framed as tools of liberation, and where consumers are willing to pay for the promise of better living—one conversation, vibrator, and orgasm at a time.

978-0-8223-6367-5The contributors to The War on Sex, edited by David M. Halperin and Trevor Hoppe, document how government and civil society are waging a war on stigmatized sex by means of law, surveillance, and social control—from sex offender registries to the criminalization of HIV to highly punitive measures against sex work. By examining how the ever-intensifying war on sex affects both privileged and marginalized communities, the essays collected here show why sexual liberation is indispensable to social justice and human rights.

In Disturbing Attachments Kadji Amin challenges the idealization of Jean Genet as a paradigmatic figure within queer studies to illuminate the methodological dilemmas at the heart of queer theory. Pederasty, which was central to Genet’s sexuality and to his passionate cross-racial and transnational political activism late in life, is among a series of problematic and outmoded queer attachments that Amin uses to deidealize and historicize queer theory.

978-0-8223-6365-1Critically Sovereign, a collection edited by Joanne Barker, traces the ways in which gender is inextricably a part of Indigenous politics and U.S. and Canadian imperialism and colonialism. The contributors show how gender, sexuality, and feminism work as co-productive forces of Native American and Indigenous sovereignty, self-determination, and epistemology.

The most recent “In Practice” section of Camera Obscura, “Queerness and Games,” seeks to expand the relationship between feminist film theory and practice and feminist and queer video game culture and criticism. It features essays exploring topics such as Adrienne Shaw’s LGBTQ Video Game Archive, the Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon), and queer performativity in mobile device–assisted interactive play.

ddsaq_116_3The essays in South Atlantic Quarterly’sAgainst the Day” section, “Unrecognizable: On Trans Recognition in 2017,” confront urgent questions regarding transgender recognition in the current political moment. Since Trump was elected, the trans communities in the United States have expressed fear and outrage at the possibility that the “transgender tipping point” might be about to tip back. However, contributors to these essays explore the complicated relationship of the trans community to the “transgender tipping point” and express that even if recognition is inevitable, trans people may not always want to be identified. These essays invent new terms to describe the impossibility and violence of recognition and speculatively suggest an entirely different relation to visibility. In relation to the backlash, too, they argue that we cannot do trans politics without an analysis of political economy, without an analysis of the history of racialization and the violence of liberalism, as well as of hetero and gender normativity.

David Garcia’s Listening for Africa Playlist

978-0-8223-6370-5DSC04996Today, David F. Garcia offers a playlist to accompany his new book Listening for Africa: Freedom, Modernity, and the Logic of Black Music’s African Origins. You can save 30% on the paperback with coupon code E17LISTN.

Taking on a topic like the discourse of a music’s origins entails following multiple artistic, disciplinary, and political directions. Of course, setting boundaries helps make such an endeavor feasible but no less massive. In Listening for Africa I look at a group of fascinating individuals, some well known and others not so well known, who from varying perspectives engaged the idea and nature of black music and dance’s African origins. Their reasons for engaging this idea were not merely didactical but rather to change their world. From the Great Depression, Jim Crow, and the rise of Nazism to World War II, the Cold War, and African decolonization, citizens of the modern world invested their place in it drawing from modernity’s promises of freedom through knowledge, art, and work. Only, the realization of freedom for many would be deferred by modernity’s discursive defaults.

The following audio recordings and films are explored in depth in the book. Listen and watch as you read about the individuals depicted in them and their journeys living in their shared modern world, turbulent though it was.

Chapter 1. Analyzing the African Origins of Negro Music and Dance in a Time of Racism, Fascism, and War

“Ag’ya,” Jamaica & Martinique Fieldwork, 1936, video clip #19, filmed by Katherine Dunham. Music Division, Library of Congress.

L’ag’ya, scene 3, the Katherine Dunham Company, Studebaker Theater, Chicago, 1947, filmed by Ann Barzel.

Chapter 2. Listening to Africa in the City, in the Laboratory, and on Record

“Tambó,” Gilberto Valdés y su Orquesta, recorded with Victor (V83315), Havana, 1940.

“Sangre Africana,” Gilberto Valdés y su Orquesta, recorded with Victor (V 83315), Havana, 1940

“Toitica la Negra,” Katherine Dunham and Ensemble, recorded with Decca (40028), New York, 1945.

“Abakuá song,” Harold Courland: Cuba, Eastern and central regions, Afro-Cubans (253.4), Guanabacoa, 1940.

“Elube Chango,” Harold Courland: Cuba, Eastern and central regions, Afro-Cubans (252.4), Havana, 1940.

“Elube Chango,” Casino de la Playa with Miguelito Valdés, recorded with Victor (V 82770), Havana, 1939.

Chapter 3. Embodying Africa against Racial Oppression, Ignorance, and Colonialism

Sanders of the River (London Film Productions, 1935) featuring Paul Robeson as Bozambo. Boat-rowing scene occurs at 1:07:00.

Nabonga (PRC Pictures, 1944). Modupe Paris appears at 14:23 and 15:45.

Chapter 4. Disalienating Movement and Sound from the Pathologies of Freedom and Time

Liberian Suite, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1947.

Film No. 4, Harry Smith, ca. 1950.

“Manteca,” Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, recorded with RCA Victor (47-2860), New York, 1947.

“Guarachi guaro,” Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, recorded with RCA Victor (20-3370), New York, 1948.

Chapter 5. Desiring Africa, or Western Civilization’s Discontents

“Rareza del siglo,” Julio Cueva y su Orquesta, recorded with Victor (23-0677), Havana, 1946.

“José” as performed by Pérez Prado in the film Al son del mambo (Filmadora Chapultepec, 1950).

“Kon-Toma,” Pérez Prado y su Orquesta, recorded with Victor (23-1344), Havana, 1949.

“Qué te pasa, José” as performed by Amalia Aguilar and Silvestre Méndez in Ritmos del Caribe (Compañía Cinematográfica Mexicana, 1950).

Del can can al mambo (Producciones Calderón S.A., 1951). Mambo dancing displaying symptoms of el mal de San Vito occurs at 1:21:53.

Women’s Equality Day Reads

Saturday is Women’s Equality Day, and we couldn’t be more glad for an occasion both to commemorate strides in women’s rights and to renew the call for further progress. Today we’re contributing to the cause by sharing some of our most recent scholarship in women’s studies.

In the 1970s a group of pioneering feminist entrepreneurs launched a movement that ultimately changed the way sex was talked about, had, and enjoyed. Boldly reimagining who sex shops were for and the kinds of spaces they could be, these entrepreneurs opened sex-toy stores like Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland not just as commercial enterprises, but to provide educational and community resources as well. In Vibrator Nation Lynn Comella tells the fascinating history of how these stores raised sexual consciousness, redefined the adult industry, and changed women’s lives.

While news of the Rwandan genocide reached all corners of the globe, the nation’s recovery and the key role of women are less well known. In Rwandan Women Rising Swanee Hunt shares the stories of some seventy women—heralded activists and unsung heroes alike—who overcame unfathomable brutality, unrecoverable loss, and unending challenges to rebuild Rwandan society.

Developed in the United States in the 1980s, facial feminization surgery (FFS) is a set of reconstructive surgical procedures intended to feminize the faces of trans- women. In The Look of a Woman Eric Plemons foregrounds the narratives of FFS patients and their surgeons as they move from consultation and the operating room to postsurgery recovery. Plemons demonstrates how FFS is changing the project of surgical sex reassignment by reconfiguring the kind of sex that surgery aims to change.

In Politics with Beauvoir Lori Jo Marso treats Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist theory and practice as part of her political theory, arguing that freedom is Beauvoir’s central concern and that this is best apprehended through Marso’s notion of the encounter. Beauvoir’s encounters, Marso shows, exemplify freedom as a shared, relational, collective practice.

In The Labor of Faith Judith Casselberry examines the material and spiritual labor of the women of one of the oldest and largest historically Black Pentecostal churches in the United States. This male-headed church only functions through the work of the church’s women, who, despite making up three-quarters of its adult membership, hold no formal positions of power. Focusing on the circumstances of producing a holy black female personhood, Casselberry reveals the ways twenty-first-century women’s spiritual power operates and resonates with meaning in Pentecostal, female-majority, male-led churches.

wpj33_4_23_frontcover_fppIn “Interrupted,” a special issue of World Policy Journal penned entirely by female foreign policy experts and journalists, contributors imagine a world where the majority of foreign policy experts quoted, bylined, and miked are not men. The issue challenges the perception that women are not policymakers by showcasing the voices of female experts and leaders. Contributors to this issue address topics such as feminism in Chinaabortion laws across the Americascombating violent extremism by working with religious leaders, and women in media. The issue also features a conversation with Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritus.

In The Economization of Life Michelle Murphy provocatively describes the twentieth-century rise of infrastructures of calculation and experiment aimed at governing population for the sake of national economy. Murphy traces the methods and imaginaries through which family planning calculated lives not worth living, lives not worth saving, and lives not worth being born. The resulting archive of thick data transmuted into financialized “Invest in a Girl” campaigns that reframed survival as a question of human capital. The book challenges readers to reject the economy as our collective container and to refuse population as a term of reproductive justice.

Lori Merish, in Archives of Labor, establishes working-class women as significant actors within literary culture, dramatically redrawing the map of nineteenth-century US literary and cultural history. Delving into previously unexplored archives of working-class women’s literature, Merish recovers working-class women’s vital presence as writers and readers in the antebellum era. She restores the tradition of working women’s class protest and dissent, shows how race and gender are central to class identity, and traces the ways working women understood themselves and were understood as workers and class subjects.

Among Arab countries, Egypt has witnessed the largest production of feminist writings as Egyptian women begin to write in the mainstream. A themed section on Egyptian women writers and feminism from the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies features three articles about Egyptian women writers and their novels, which investigate the role of gender assignation in late twentieth-century Egyptian society. These literary works interrogate assumptions about the ways in which men and women are seen and are expected to behave.

For more books and journal articles on women’s issues, check out our Read to Respond post on feminism and women’s rights. These articles are freely available until December 15, 2017.

Sneak Peek: Kristen Ghodsee, Red Hangover

We’re pleased to share the prelude, titled Freundschaft, of Kristen Ghodsee’s upcoming book Red Hangover: Legacies of Twentieth-Century Communism. In Red Hangover Ghodsee reflects on the lived experience of postsocialism and how many ordinary men and women across Eastern Europe suffered from the massive social and economic upheavals in their lives after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This text is not final, but we hope it gives you a taste of this impactful new book, to be published in late October.

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Two pairs of earrings, four bracelets, and a mixtape inspired me to write this book. I was in the Stadtmuseum in the German city of Jena, peering into the various display cases of an exhibit called Freundschaft! Mythos und Realität im Alltag der DDR (Friendship! Myth and reality in everyday life in the GDR [German Democratic Republic]). The exhibit ruminated on the official and unofficial uses of the word “friendship” in the context of communist East Germany between 1949 and 1989. In one case, the museum’s curators displayed the personal items of a teenage girl who had gone to a Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth) summer camp in 1985. There, accompanying some photos and a letter she sent home to her parents, sat a white cassette tape, some plastic bracelets, and two pairs of oversized, cheap earrings, the kind once fashionable in the mid-1980s when every girl’s hair was two stories too high.

Back in 1985, I spent several weeks of my summer at a camp in the Cuyamaca Mountains one hour east of San Diego. When I left home, I remember packing several pairs of the same horrible earrings, some plastic bangles, and a stack of mixtapes with my favorite songs recorded off the local Top 40 radio station. Standing in Jena thirty years later, I experienced one of those moments of radical empathy, and tried to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d gone to summer camp in communist East Germany rather than in capitalist California. This girl and I might have shared the same passion for similar material objects, but we would have been ideological enemies, surviving our adolescences on different sides of the Iron Curtain.

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A billboard for the Freundschaft exhibit in Jena. All photos by the author.

From the placard on the display case, I understood that this girl was born in 1971, one year after me. Somewhere out there, this girl was now a woman about my age, and I longed to talk to her, to ask her what she remembered about that summer of 1985, and how things had worked out for her since. This German girl would have been eighteen when the Berlin Wall fell, and nineteen when her country ceased to exist. She would have just graduated from secondary school, and probably listened to Madonna and Fine Young Cannibals as I did: “Express Yourself,” “Like a Prayer,” and “She Drives Me Crazy.” But where I had the luxury of geopolitical continuity in my personal life, this East German faced a young adulthood of dramatic social and economic upheaval.

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Items from the East German Freie Deutsche Jugend (Free German Youth).

When I left the museum, I wandered through the cobblestone alleyways leading off the main market square. I saw posters for two upcoming demonstrations in Jena. The right-wing, anti-immigrant political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) would organize a rally and a march in the Marktplatz while Germany’s left-wing party, Die Linke (The Left), in a coalition with other centrist and leftist parties, would organize a counterdemonstration in front of the church. The counterprotesters had plastered the small city with posters saying “FCK AFD” and “refugees welcome,” and I guessed that the center/left demonstrators would outnumber their right-wing counterparts.

(more…)

70th Anniversary of Indian Independence and Partition

Today is the 70th anniversary of British India’s partition into two countries, India and Pakistan, and of its independence from the United Kingdom. On this occasion, we suggest scholarship that offers insight into these events and their lasting effects.

978-0-8223-2494-2India’s partition caused one of the most massive human convulsions in history. Within the space of two months in 1947 more than twelve million people were displaced. A million died. More than seventy-five thousand women were abducted and raped. Countless children disappeared. Homes, villages, communities, families, and relationships were destroyed. Yet, more than half a century later, little is known of the human dimensions of this event. In The Other Side of Silence, Urvashi Butalia fills this gap by placing people—their individual experiences, their private pain—at the center of this epochal event.

Through interviews conducted over a ten-year period and an examination of diaries, letters, memoirs, and parliamentary documents, Butalia asks how people on the margins of history—children, women, ordinary people, the lower castes, the untouchables—have been affected by this upheaval. To understand how and why certain events become shrouded in silence, she traces facets of her own poignant and partition-scarred family history before investigating the stories of other people and their experiences of the effects of this violent disruption. Those whom she interviews reveal that, at least in private, the voices of partition have not been stilled and the bitterness remains.

978-0-8223-6289-0In Of Gardens and Graves Suvir Kaul examines the disruption of everyday life in Kashmir in the years following the region’s pervasive militarization in 1990. He explores Kashmir’s pre- and post-Partition history, the effects of militarization, state repression, the suspension of civil rights on Kashmiris, and the challenge Kashmir represents to the practice of democracy in India. The volume also features translations of Kashmiri poetry written in these years of conflict, as well as a photo essay by Javed Dar, whose photographs work together with Kaul’s essays and the poems to represent the interweaving of ordinary life, civic strife, and spectacular violence in Kashmir.

978-0-8223-4411-7Combining film studies, trauma theory, and South Asian cultural history, Bhaskar Sarkar follows the shifting traces of partition in Indian cinema over the six decades that followed in Mourning the Nation. He argues that partition remains a wound in the collective psyche of South Asia and that its representation on screen enables forms of historical engagement that are largely opaque to standard historiography.

Borderland Lives in Northern South Asia, edited by David N. Gellner, provides valuable new ethnographic insights into life along some of the most contentious borders in the world. The collected essays portray existence at different points across India’s northern frontiers and, in one instance, along borders within India. Whether discussing Shi’i Muslims striving to be patriotic Indians in the Kashmiri district of Kargil or Bangladeshis living uneasily in an enclave surrounded by Indian territory, the contributors show that state borders in Northern South Asia are complex sites of contestation.

ddCSA_25_1Generations of Memory: Remembering Partition in India/Pakistan and Israel/Palestine” from Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East considers partition’s memory across the national borders and regional distances of South Asia and the Middle East. The first part of this article reflects on the meaning of “partition” in each population’s collective memory. The second part examines how the state-building project in India, Pakistan, and Israel, and the emerging Palestinian national-liberation project, shaped dominant versions of respective “first generation” partition narratives. The third part analyzes how these dominant historical narratives have been re-envisioned by scholars within the second, “hinge generation” of Indians.

Progressives and ‘Perverts’: Partition Stories and Pakistan’s Future” from Social Text explores short stories on partition by Sa’adat Hasan Manto. By concentrating on Manto’s writings, this essay revisits Pakistan’s early history to demonstrate how, after the country’s creation, there was continued debate among intellectuals about what would constitute a national culture. Within this context, these short stories by Manto enables the author of the essay to offer a critique of Pakistan’s normative national history and to suggest a different path to understand the country’s past and, possibly, to envision its future.

Commemorating a Century of Land and Water Reform

Thank you to Mikael Wolfe, author of Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico, for today’s guest post.

Mikael Wolfe

En español: Conmemorando un siglo de la reforma agraria y del agua.

People celebrated the Constitution’s centennial with theater, music, dance, video, and self-congratulating speeches. One hundred years in, and it was still one of the world’s most progressive. It guaranteed not only civil and political rights but social and economic rights, like the right to unionize, an adequate minimum wage, retirement security, equal pay for men and women, and paid maternity leave. Of course, this wasn’t 1887 and it wasn’t the United States’ celebration. In February 2017, the United Mexican States (Mexico’s often forgotten, official name) were busy celebrating their constitution.

We may admire the ambition of the Mexican constitution, but even more important to Mexico’s poor rural majority in 1917 was the right to—and duty to conserve—land and water. Indeed, this was the principal raison d’être of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 for which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans had shed blood and the culmination of their constitution. How Mexico bestowed agricultural land and simultaneously tried to conserve natural resources, principally water, in the emblematic Laguna region is at the core of the story I tell in Watering the Revolution: An Environmental and Technological History of Agrarian Reform in Mexico.

978-0-8223-6374-3This story changes our understanding of Mexican agrarian reform, Latin America’s longest and most extensive, distributing nearly half of the arable land to millions of campesinos (peasants) from 1917 to 1992. Ostensibly, land reform was the goal, but to the campesinos land was worthless without water. Unlike land, however, water—in all its fascinating, frustrating fluidity—refused to bend to official decrees or be bound by surveyor lines. It still does, and not only in Mexico. The recent controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) only proves the importance of water access and the fights over it. Through mass protest, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe helped popularize the motto that—just as, if not more so than land—“Water is Life.” After all, the DAPL doesn’t actually cross into Sioux land, but goes under the nearby Missouri River on which the Sioux depend. Interestingly, much of the politics, conflicts-of-interest, and corruption involved in building the DAPL resembles the story of hydraulic infrastructure-building in the name of the Mexican Revolution.  Though some still believe otherwise, then, as now, water rights and land rights cannot be separated.

This basic fact is illuminated by an envirotech history of water management. Envirotech’s premise is simple: Nature and technology not only impact one another, but become so interdependent that the boundary between them dissolves. A dam is an obvious example. An artificial, invasive structure, a dam creates new ecosystems upstream and down. In short, the envirotech perspective reminds us that people don’t just act on or react to nature, they also recreate it.

Envirotech is a new term in Mexican history but not necessarily new to Mexico. As I show in my introduction, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was attuned to envirotech long avant la lettre. From the 1920s Rivera celebrated in many of his murals motifs of putative harmony among humanity, nature, and technology. He depicted scenes in which engineers, or técnicos, adroitly executed land distribution and installed hydraulic infrastructure while a grateful nation applauded.

Brilliantly aspirational, Rivera’s murals didn’t reflect the complications and conflicts Mexicans incurred in making their Constitution’s mandate a reality. This is abundantly clear in the north-central Laguna region watered by the Nazas River, the focus of my book. The locals, or Laguneros, revered the Nazas as their “Nile” and “Father” for the rich sediment it brought to their fields from the Durango Mountains, yet it was a fickle patriarch. Some years it brought a trickle only to be followed by several years’ worth of torrential flows. This extreme irregularity was a source of constant recrimination among the farmers who relied upon the river for their livelihoods. As early as Porfirio Díaz’s presidency (1876-1911), a few water-deprived farmers, including the future president Francisco I. Madero, and government officials agreed upon an envirotechnical solution: damming the Nazas.

The Mexican Revolution, which overthrew Díaz, transformed the social and political landscape of the region and nation, and, with it, the social purpose of the dam, especially during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940). If before the Revolution, the dam’s purpose was to make water distribution more equitable, after the Revolution water redistribution had to complement land redistribution. This made the dam appear to many large landowners as a facilitator of land redistribution, which they vehemently opposed.

Large landowners had good reason to oppose the dam. In 1936, Cárdenas decreed Latin America’s hitherto largest land reform in the Laguna, but the dam never actually delivered on its promise of providing a bountiful supply of water. Campesinos found living off the land as difficult after the land reform as before, largely because of insufficient water. Instead, quite literally, the fight went underground. Anyone with enough money to drill a well and install a motorized pump could withdraw groundwater, which meant richer farmers disproportionately benefited while weathering drought. Less controversial didn’t mean less problematic, however: Today the Laguna’s aquifers are among Mexico’s most overexploited and contaminated.

The real tragedy, however, as I argue in the book, is that Laguneros and government officials knew what was happening and had regulations in place to address the problem. Mexico had the authority to regulate surface water as early as the 1917 Constitution and the power to regulate groundwater by 1947. (By contrast, U.S. federal legislation regulating groundwater, primarily for drinking, was passed in 2006.) But despite this power, the government lacked the will to enforce these laws and water users the restraint to comply. People ignored laws and regulations even though they understood—to varying degrees—that they were only harming themselves in the long run. Campesinos, landowners, and even—if only in reputation—the técnicos all suffered from the collective refusal to regulate water use. How and why this happened and its consequences are at the heart of my story.

Save 30% on the paperback edition of Watering the Revolution using coupon code E17WATER, or read the introduction before buying.

The Hypervisibility of Violence in Mexico

Rielle Navitski, author of the new book Public Spectacles of Violence: Sensational Cinema and Journalism in Early Twentieth-Century Mexico and Brazil, brings us today’s guest blog post.

Photo by Dina Canup

The epidemic levels of violence affecting Mexico made international headlines this past month when a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies declared it the deadliest nation in the world after Syria, with a toll of 23,000 homicides in 2016. While the report’s critics called for greater nuance than this headline offers, there is no question that the conflict poses a profound threat to the very fabric of public life in Mexico. Criminal organizations challenge the government’s control of territory and its exclusive privilege to exercise physical force (its monopoly on violence, in sociologist Max Weber’s terms), although widespread corruption makes any sharp distinction between state and criminal actors difficult to sustain. Violence’s capacity to terrorize is amplified by unspeakable displays of cruelty—the staging of victims’ bodies in public spaces, the circulation of images of torture and murder online—even as forced disappearances and clandestine mass graves mask the conflict’s true extent.

As I observe in my book Public Spectacles of Violence, the proliferation of graphic images of violence and the blurring of boundaries between state and criminal aggression are far from a new phenomenon in Mexico. During the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920—arguably the twentieth-century’s first social revolution—novel forms of visual culture like illustrated newspapers and magazines, postcard photographs, and film offered a flood of images of combat, executions, hangings, and ravaged bodies. Sparked by opposition to the thirty-five year dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, the revolution claimed an estimated 1 million lives in a country of 12 million, drifting away from democratic ideals and rural demands for economic equality. The character of the conflict—marked by prolonged struggles between military factions defined more by their charismatic leaders rather than by their ideologies—continually threw into question the legitimacy of the deadly use of force and attacks on private property.

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This crisis of political legitimacy is evident in the earliest box-office success of Mexican cinema, a 1919 crime film entitled El automóvil gris (The Grey Automobile). Based on the exploits of a criminal gang who traveled in the grey automobile of the film’s title and committed robberies dressed as soldiers from the army of Venustiano Carranza, El automóvil gris was shot by cameraman Enrique Rosas in an effort to mend the reputation of General Pablo González, who was suspected of complicity in the crimes. Patterned on popular crime films produced in France and the United States, El automóvil gris also drew on Mexico City’s sensationalistic press, which presented acts of robbery, kidnapping, and murder as signs of local modernity, since they demonstrated that the capital suffered the same social ills as industrialized metropolises like London, Paris, and New York. Implicit in these accounts of criminality was an acceptance of industrialization and urbanization’s social costs as the price of progress, measured by the standards of Europe and the United States.

As I hope to show in my book by examining parallel developments in the early mass cultures of Mexico and Brazil, the profound impact of violence on public life in modern Latin America cannot solely be attributed to failures of state formation or economic development in individual nations. Instead, it must be understood in light of the global dynamics of the capitalist economy, its role in the circulation of commodities and images, and its production of inequality. Commentators note that present-day criminal organizations in Mexico—whose ranks are swelled by young men with few opportunities in the formal economy—borrow and extend the business strategies of multinational corporations. In his book Narconomics, journalist Tom Wainright notes that Mexican cartels benefit from outsourcing select activities to Central American countries where operating costs are cheaper, and expand rapidly by lending their names and reputation to locally rooted criminal groups in a process akin to franchising. Observing the role of conspicuous consumption in cultures of organized crime in Mexico, Ed Vulliamy wrote in 2011 that “the greed for violence reflects the greed for brands, and becomes a brand in itself.” Observing that drug trafficking exemplifies the free flow of commodities underlying the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, he provocatively describes the accompanying violence as “the inevitable war of capitalism gone mad.”

In their response to the IISS report mentioned above, Mexico’s foreign and interior ministries stressed the transnational character of the current violence, fueled by demand for narcotics north of the US-Mexico border and the flow of illegal firearms south from the United States. (A 2014 study found that arms purchased in the United States account for at least 70 percent of the weapons used in the conflict). Rather than remaining as spectators of this horrific conflict—or worse, turning away our gaze—it is essential that we examine our own position within the flows of narcotics, weapons, and images fueling it. Attending to its historical echoes can better attune us to the national and transnational forces that forge public spheres profoundly marked by spectacles of violence.

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