Justice for the “Restless Dead”
By Adela Pineda FrancoAugust 23, 2021
The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation by Cristina Rivera Garza
Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza endorses Benjamin’s confidence in technology’s democratizing aspects yet grows cautious about sheer literary experimentation as the adequate way to bring the lonely novelist out of the ivory tower and circumvent reactionary politics. In the 21st century, demystifying and decentering the authorial figure as the consciousness behind the literary work is no longer a radical stance. It has become an historical consequence of information processing. Hence, the main challenge posed by the digital age involves rethinking the way we envision and recreate identity and community.
Rivera Garza’s goal is to bring the individual writer back into the commons-based workforce of today’s writing by moving from European-based notions of community to Mesoamerican understandings of mutual belonging in language and in collective work, or, what she calls communality. “[C]an communalist writing be formally bold and aesthetically radical while simultaneously demanding an organic connection with the community that has grounded it and gives it meaning?” Rivera Garza’s resounding affirmative response to this question opens up manifold reflections on the task of writing in the 21st century in The Restless Dead: Necrowriting and Disappropriation, a collection of essays originally published in Spanish as Los muertos indóciles: Necroescrituras y desapropiación.
Most of the compiled texts in this volume were originally written as journalistic pieces that appeared in Mexican newspapers between 2006 and 2013. Marked by the War on Drugs, which brought about overwhelming violence to civilians in Mexico, these years were also decisive for Rivera Garza’s writing career in the United States, as she became a key figure in the establishment of Spanish creative writing programs in the North American academia. The English version of Los muertos indóciles, then, entailed not only a close collaboration between Rivera Garza and the translator, poet Robin Myers, but also a thoroughgoing recontextualization to meet the requirements of new readers and circumstances. Through revision and rewriting, Rivera Garza also developed a peculiar vantage point, which she herself defines as that of “a migrant of color on the US-Mexico border.” Benjamin’s concern with the imperative to politicize writing resurfaces in The Restless Dead. Rivera Garza does not confront mechanical reproduction and Nazi annihilation, but rather the unprecedented digital revolution in the era of punitive anti-immigration policies, neofascism, and a permanent state of crisis.
If the novelist was the logical consequence of the marketplace inaugurated by print culture, as Benjamin argued, then the crowdsourced creativity of networked communities is the result of the continuous and flexible flow of information inaugurated by the internet era. In this regard, closing the loop between Benjamin’s image of the lonely novelist at the beginning of the print era and Rivera Garza’s idea of communal writing at the moment of print culture’s technological obsolescence seems logical. How can we reconnect in a world in which meaning is constantly displaced by a Babelic multiplicity of languages and an incessant deluge of “content”?
The verbal excesses of modern literature broke through the power of speech-inaction that used to characterize oral address. Modern literature revealed its multiple related senses the same way fossils bore evidence of a defunct era, according to philosopher Jacques Rancière, who also considered this lack of referentiality a sign of democratization, since readers were set free to appropriate the meaning of texts in many different ways. Yet, in our hypermediated cultural environment, permanently governed by screens, new challenges arise. Rivera Garza points to transkrit as the opaque form of communication beyond voice, a lost-in-translation dialogue, based on constantly transcribing the experience of others from one media form to another. It is from within this multilingual, fossilized screen environment that Rivera Garza aims to restore a will to act beyond living speech, in writing.
Less focused on the antisocial dynamics of corporate technological infrastructures, and more optimistic of new media’s capacity to circumvent digital monopolies and democratize writing, Rivera Garza brings to the fore diverse scenarios in which such creative potential manifests itself. In the chapter “Brief Missives from Pompeii,” she relates the verbal sobriety of the tweet message to previous forms of literary writing, such as the haiku. But more importantly, she characterizes Twitter as a medium in its own terms within a virtual economy of total presence. The multidirectional circulation of “real-time” tweets across social networks is at odds with print culture’s forms of communication that lack immediacy, such as the authorial canon of Western literature. Throughout the eight chapters of The Restless Dead, Rivera Garza points to the audacious use of digital media by manifold writing communities as well as individual authors, such as Eloy Fernández Porta, Agustín Fernández Mallo, Vicente Luis Mora, Graciela Romero, and Alberto Chimal. The implication of this perspective is that new media has perfected one of the aspirations of 20th-century literary experimentation: depriving literature of the legal authorial copyright by cannibalizing all sorts of writings.
Yet beyond its democratizing potential, the digital age is also marked by a global economy based on uneven development. Globalized financial capitalism engulfs all sorts of activity at the expense of local communities, which are constantly displaced by forced migration. In this regard, Rivera Garza provides a critical perspective on Western writing traditions, drawing them from the once-safe confines of humanism to the fluid on-off screen scenarios of the posthuman moment, highlighting their complicity, even if unintentional, with colonialist legacies.
Her empathic reflections on the life and work of American experimental novelist Kathy Acker — particularly with regards to Acker’s uncompromising collage-style aimed at debunking established hierarchies between pop culture, literature, and critical theory — finds their outer limit in Tijuana, where Acker came to face her real tangible death. Written in a suggestive prose, and not deprived of subtle irony, Rivera Garza puts into perspective the radicalism of those 1970s North American writers who developed anti-establishment, appropriative aesthetics under the tutelage of David Antin in San Diego, yet remained inflexibly oblivious of the world unfolding on the other side of the border. The exceptional case of Acker serves as a paradigmatic example of what I consider the central argument in The Restless Dead. As Acker’s health collapses, a more complex view of life on the brink of death takes place. Rivera Garza writes:
I’d like to think that home is also wherever we stop breathing […] that it’s also the language that heard our final whimpers. If this is true, then Kathy Acker — or at least the Kathy Acker who leapt into the void […] when she had nothing left to lose — is at least a little bit at home in Tijuana, too.
These lines bring forward an image related to the concepts that give the book its title: disappropriation and necrowriting.
What is “the language that hears our final whimpers” if not the final social manifestation of a life in common, an experience of collectively belonging in language, the language of others, beyond literature? In the chapter titled “Disappropriation,” Rivera Garza develops this idea by engaging with worldviews alien to the Global North, such as the Mixe people of Oaxaca’s highlands in southern Mexico. Through strong forms of unpaid, service labor, known as tequio, as well as other material communal practices, the Mixe, observes Rivera Garza, have been able to resist the state of permanent crisis and relentless privatization brought about by neoliberalism. The Mesoamerican thinker Floriberto Díaz’s understanding of communality as a mutual belonging with the earth, based on the material practice of common labor, allows Rivera Garza to read against the grain of the literary institution. It allows her to question isolationism and the egotistical disposition behind appropriative literary strategies of cannibalizing other writings only for the sake of self-gratification and prestige.
The concept of disappropriation, then, entails a double move: experiencing writing as a communal endeavor and exposing the uneven exchange of labor that looms behind any authorial claim. It is from this angle that she approaches the work of certain contemporary writers, such as Sara Uribe, Gerardo Arana, and Eugenio Tisselli, whose strategies of disappropriation aim not only to potentiate wide open access in the digital era, but also to promote activism in search of social change. Hence, Rivera Garza’s reassessment of the task of writing in the 21st century goes beyond a desire to redeem literature from its institutional moorings. Writing should confront the sweeping horizon of death produced by violent forms of capital accumulation.
Today, the mythical resonances of imaginary ghost towns in literary fiction simply spell out the embeddedness of death that governs our times. “Seldom […] have the relationships between text and cadaver been as close as they are now. […] [T]here are shortcuts between Comala and Ciudad Juárez,” Rivera writes, convinced of the need to stop considering literature as the exclusive realm of fiction.
The idea of necrowriting runs throughout The Restless Death. It refers to the poststructuralist “death of the author” in experimental fiction; the most illustrative case is that of David Markson, for whom writing is a ceasing-to-exist in language and life at once. Necrowriting, in Rivera Garza’s reflections, also inhabits the spectral reality of our technologized era and is at home in the zombification process of neoliberalism, a topic further developed in Rivera Garza’s previous volume of essays, Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, translated by Sarah Booker. Yet, she also pledges for another kind of necrowriting: an ethical stance that demands a total abandonment of the ego to let the dead speak for themselves against violence and impunity. This perplexing call for a restitution of life in death becomes politically meaningful through the verses of Salvadoran poet and revolutionary Roque Dalton, which also resonate in Rivera Garza’s book: “The dead are getting more restless every day / […] I think they’ve started to notice / they’re outnumbering us.”
What sort of autobiographical gesture is implied in this kind of necrowriting, deprived of authorial intent in the era of algorithmic affect and proxy humans? How can necrowriting shake off the obsessive temptation of personal exhibition and instant gratification afforded by social media and corporate capitalism? How can necrowriting become an effective weapon against femicide, the unbearable reality that afflicts Mexico and the world today? Throughout the book, Rivera Garza resorts to myriad Western and non-Western sources in order to reflect on such questions. In the particular case of necrowriting as autobiographical writing, she relies on German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s proposal to self-expose the indelible marks of our lives, those primordial tattoos that set language in motion beyond egotistical purposes.
As I was reading Rivera Garza’s The Restless Dead, two other books came to my mind: Jorge Aguilar Mora’s Una muerte sencilla, justa, eterna: cultura y guerra durante la Revolución Mexicana (1990) and Juan Rulfo’s novel Pedro Páramo. The former is an extraordinary reflection on the meaning of life at the brink of death, which, unfortunately, has not been translated into English yet. In it, Aguilar Mora takes on a singular approach to autobiographical writing as well. He writes:
The theme in our life is not a fact, nor an image, nor an idea, nor an obsession; we know that it is a position of our body, like the position of a planet with respect to the sun or the world, and we also know that the fact or image or idea that we accept as the governing principle of this theme is a simulacrum of a deep and essential operation of our body with the outside world and with time.
Through a well-documented inquiry into the singular, affirmative ways in which the anonymous fighters of the Mexican Revolution faced the firing squad, Aguilar Mora exposed the indelible mark of his own life: the disappearance and murder of his brother by the Guatemalan army in 1965, whose body has never been found. Searching for the words to let his brother speak his unbearable absence allowed Jorge Aguilar Mora to restitute the silent, insurgent voices of the 1910–1920 Mexican Revolution, well beyond the revolution’s grotesque institutionalization by the Mexican state.
In Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, the restless dead likewise take over life, turning the protagonist Juan Preciado into one more ghost: “Murmurs seemed to ooze out of the walls, as if they were filtering through the cracks. I heard them; they were voices of people, not clear voices but secret, as if they were whispering something…” In the 21st century, the murmurs that ooze out the walls of our decrepit polis, buzzing close to our ears, belong to a great contingent of women.
In many works, encompassing a variety of styles, forms, and genres, Rivera Garza has written, without fear, on behalf of them. “While women’s voices throughout the world continue to be silenced and those in power still argue for the irrelevance of gender equality,” Rivera Garza writes in the introduction of the experimental novel The Iliac Crest, “characters in this book understand that gender […] can be lethal.” This year, Rivera Garza published in Mexico El invencible verano de Liliana, a journey into public and personal archives to bring to life the murmuring voice of Liliana, her 20-year-old sister, who was victim of femicide 30 years ago. The process of writing this book will only conclude, Rivera Garza declared in an interview, if it contributes to bring to justice the man responsible for Liliana’s murder. Joining the contingent of restless dead in the name of justice is, I believe, the most vital, urgent call of Rivera Garza’s necrowritings in the digital age.
Adela Pineda Franco is Lozano Long Endowed Professor in Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
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