Receipt: December 23, 2022
Acceptance: January 25, 2023
This commentary on Rossana Reguillo's article "Essays on the abyss: politics of the gaze, violence, technopolitics" analyzes the author's research on the ways of looking at violence and technopolitics in the history of anthropology and other social sciences in Mexico. How to combine diverse strategies to capture complexity? It also deals with the role of affects and electronic corporations in the segmentation and "totalizations" of material or symbolic goods and political opinions, as well as when they try to manage diversity.
Keywords: affectivity, sensitive knowledge, digital culture, journalism, politics of the gaze, technopolitics, violence
Beyond Binary Oppositions
This commentary on the article by Rossana Reguillo, "Essays on the abyss: Politics of gaze, violence, technopolitics," analyzes the author's investigation into the methods of looking at violence and technopolitics in the history of anthropology and other social sciences in Mexico. How to combine the various strategies to capture complexity? This also looks at the role of affections and electronic corporations in segmentation and totalizations of material or symbolic goods and political views, as well as when efforts are made to administer diversity.
Keywords: violence, politics of gaze, sensory knowledge, journalism, affectivity, digital and technopolitical culture.
Perhaps a first necessity of the commentary to Rossana Reguillo's article is to take charge of the questions that motivate it. I have followed her research, media action and networking endeavors, the books and articles in which she analyzed the changes in gazes, physical and technopolitical violence. That larger horizon frames the following reflections.
I share his grouping of changes in institutional deterioration, the breakdown of social pacts and the depletion of biological and socio-political systems. Recognizing how they affect our styles of thinking and production today weakens previous framings for those of us who -precisely because we continue researching- refuse to take refuge in theories or doctrines of the last century, or in the critics who heap everything they don't like in the multipurpose drawers of "neoliberalism" or "populism".
I am not sure that we inhabit "a reality that is not, at all, that which saw the emergence of ethnography or participant observation, the interview or the survey" (Reguillo, 2023). I agree with the suggestion of doubting these methods or tactics, rethinking jointly their practices, but I still find them productive. The "realities" of decomposition that studies of the last century have shown us anticipated the current disorder and the incapacity of institutions and old pacts to confront them. Mexico (to stick to the main universe of this article) has ancient antecedents of these overflowing violences, of the simulations with which institutions seemed to face them and how authoritarian arrangements were presented as sufficient. There is no lack of academic bibliography that has dealt with them.
Outside Mexico, I remember my learning that the philosophical and political hegemony of Antonio Gramsci, Jean-Paul Sartre or Louis Althusser in the fifties to seventies of the last century, in France, Italy and several Latin American countries, had complicity with our debates on subject formation, dialectical reason and ideological voluntarism. That is why I was attracted to Maurice Merleau-Ponty's discussion of these dilemmas, fifteen or twenty years before Sartre, when he assumed the joint crisis of liberal humanism and Marxist humanism in Humanismo y terror (1968) y Las aventuras de la dialéctica (1957) (this is one of the reasons why I chose this philosopher for my thesis). It is not by chance that the manuscript he left behind when he died, in 1961, was entitled Lo visible y lo invisible (1964), a crucial tension in authors such as Althusser and taken up again in this article by Rossana, knowing that there is still an abyss there.
When I arrived in Mexico, these searches existed in other formats in the anthropological polemics between Marxists and ethnicists. While doing fieldwork in Michoacán,1 I found in those Purepecha and mestizo communities, more peaceful than in recent years, conflicts between the colonizing structures -Spanish and national- and the attempts to autonomize or subordinate themselves in other ways. A vast bibliography, for example, the book by Victoria Novelo (1976), Artesanías y capitalismo en México, was aware of the unresolved violence. They became even more visible to me when in the trajectories of the artisans, beyond the communities, as they traveled to markets and fairs, they dealt with tourists who came to their festivals and with the merchants of the fonart who bought their works to sell for double the price, I began to understand how the exchange of their cultures with the national state was plotted. It enlightened me about what was going on beyond that deep Mexico, its pacts of inequality, why the devils of Ocumicho burst in as a resource to represent with that sinister and ironic iconography the trips of crowded buses to Laredo, the importance of public telephones and operating rooms, and rereadings of distant histories: the Taking of the Bastille and the anonymous engraving The executioner guillotining himself (García Canclini, 2001).
I admit the need to reformulate what I learned and wrote in those years in fieldwork, in conversations with Guillermo Bonfil about his texts and mine, and in collaborating with him in the council that accompanied the creation of the Museum of Popular Cultures. In the creative program of this museum, Bonfil conceived the contradictions of the "binarism" between the deep country and the real one in a different way from his texts,2 Arturo Warman questioned him at the presentation table of the famous book. Guillermo dedicated the first exhibition of the museum to the culture of corn, even the Corn Flakes boxes, and asked Victoria to curate the second exhibition on workers' culture: both spoke of how the cultures of the native peoples were inserted and relocated in the industrial development of modern Mexico.
It is necessary, then, to rethink the continuity and distance between the Mexico of half a century ago and the present, as well as the ways of studying it; how much of that difference is due to structural changes, observable through statistics and surveys, to what degree they affect the experience of the national, the common and the unequal, whose knowledge also requires ethnography and participant observation. If we were to take the articulation between social and methodological crisis, between knowledge and power further, it becomes necessary to find out how the political and academic agendas, since those years, condition each other. Perhaps the inertias in one field or the other lead governmental and university institutions to distract themselves from what was already nested in the ways of looking at society and attending to its conflicts?
As Rossana Reguillo (2023) says, in order to "restore complexity" it is necessary to understand research and action strategies as politics of the gaze. They are political, she states, because they open paths and close others. Or they mask them, make them invisible; they are procedures that, by assuming orders as natural, domesticate knowledge and "subdue the irruptive, the anomaly, the uncertain, the surplus of meaning" that does not fit in doxas or in the usual exercises of power.
The text dwells on ways of looking at atrocious images: the scenes of torture in the detention centers of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib. It knows how to look for the punctum, what punctures in the photos, in the sense that Roland Barthes detected it in order to find the meaning of the whole.The author uses the procedure of analysis to reveal -here the density of the qualitative work- the informative astuteness of the government of President Felipe Calderon to distort the tumultuous rape carried out by members of the Mexican Army in order to distort the meaning of the whole. He uses the analysis procedure to reveal -here the density of the qualitative work- the informative tricks of the government of President Felipe Calderon in order to distort the tumultuous rape of Ernestina Asencio by members of the Mexican Army in 2007, in Zongolica, Veracruz. Reguillo elucidates the "necropsy war" that took place between local experts, federal specialists and personnel from the National Human Rights Commission (cndh.).
The "technical" reports are so different that scientific reason is called into question, because they are two equivalent discourses in clear confrontation, where some see gastritis others see "presence of whitish discharge in the vagina", where some see anemia due to bleeding, the others diagnose "anal region with erythema, recent abrasions and tears, fresh blood". We are therefore faced with a severe dilemma, either one or the other, they are absolutely inefficient or liars. And the question arises as to how an inert body is capable of responding in such a contradictory manner to the questions that "forensic science" asks. With such conflicting reports, it is not surprising that "public opinion is divided" and once again, the body becomes a motive for dispute and political confrontation and the victim is fixed in that terrible image that freezes her and makes her human condition invisible (Reguillo, 2023: 11-12).
From this analysis of the Abu Ghraib and Ernestina bodies, he shows the strategy of photos as resources to turn victims into "lives that do not matter". Forensic and journalistic works reveal how an "interpretative vacuum" is constructed that contributes to normalize violence. It exhibits, in contrast, the capacity of a work by Teresa Margolles in which we appreciate the artistic reworking of images to break out of spectacularization or trivialization and "make the atrocious speak." "Art and performance are capable of penetrating areas of experience that traditional journalistic or academic approaches cannot access" (Reguillo, 2023: 14). I briefly mention an issue that Rossana deploys in other texts: "investigative journalism, documentary work, are also capable of producing and linking sensitive knowledge".
I think it is useful to point out that the analyses of certain chroniclers and journalists in Mexico are serving to broaden the field of academic research by dealing with the atrocity multiplied when we exceed one hundred thousand disappeared and the State fulfills very partially its public responsibility. Together with many books, scientific journals and theses, the printed, audiovisual and digital media contribute decisively -while the parties keep silent and invisibilize- to the astonishment and horror that continues to beat in the conformation of the "common sense".
It is this informative persistence and the subtlety of many analyses, which extends the resonance of what is hidden or routinized. It allows us to understand that attacks on journalists are also becoming more widespread. However, the astonishment and horror generated by the Abu Ghraib scene, like many equivalents in Mexico that move us (and sometimes modify) our doxas, our routines of thought in the face of cruelty, also generate mixtures of fatigue and impotence when the same media that publish the atrocious image offer overwhelming data on the expansion of situations of horror. We are overwhelmed by the multiplication of cases. Many of us are mobilized to protest, to demand investigations and justice. In cases such as Ayotzinapa they sustain persistent movements of reclamation, inquiries in another direction that produce the fall of officials responsible for the official truth-lie. The investigation stops again and again, as in this case, at the door of the barracks. In others, releasing or extraditing the capos and letting the cartel, with its fractions, continue. In more than 90 percent of the cases, the investigation is not carried out and the public perception spreads that the parties and governments are not interested or are complicit. The complexity of this process and the enormous difficulties of knowing its structure are well known: Mexico "is the second country in the world with the highest number of murdered children and adolescents, it is among the nations with the highest number of missing persons [...] it occupies the second place in the American continent with respect to femicide". Investigative journalists make reports, such as Ricardo Raphael, but they leave in suspense the question of how far to go, how many are willing to move forward if it is "the second most dangerous country in the world to practice journalism and, according to the unesco, 86% of the homicides committed against people belonging to this guild are never solved" (Raphael, 5-12-2022).
Journalist Peniley Ramírez observes a change in violence, information and discussion about it: "More than half of the journalists who have been assaulted in Mexico in the last year were covering political corruption" (2022). He cites Ciro Gómez Leyva, Lourdes Maldonado, Armando Linares and Flavio Reyes. Their distribution speaks of the many territories in which they occur: Mexico City, Tijuana, Michoacán and Chiapas. "Between January and June, 331 aggressions against journalists were registered in Mexico. Of these, 168 were against journalists covering corruption and politics. The slogan is clear: if you investigate corruption in Mexico you risk being killed. Every day" (Ramírez, 2022).
I will now turn to another question raised by this panorama of some of the transformations that have occurred during this half-century in Mexico and in contemporary times. We have talked about it at length with Rossana: there is no such thing as a single theory on the painful contemporary disorders. We are left with the perplexity that social disorganization generates in our ways of inhabiting the world and, therefore, with uncertainties about the resources that our disciplines have built to understand worsening conflicts.
It is striking that, among so many existing forms of affectivity, much of the research in Mexico and other countries focuses on hatred, social and political polarization, indignations and irreducible confrontations - the socio-political forms of binarization. What is happening so that negative modes of relationship prevail? Hatreds towards foreigners, towards those who within the country itself belong to other parties, other religions, other cartels, another gender or social class. It is enough to read the newspapers and messages in networks to find confrontations that did not exist before or did not have the virulence, the destructive eagerness, that they exhibit now. I am also thinking of the youth movements that call themselves indignant, to which Rossana Reguillo has dedicated hundreds of pages.
Since the 16th century philosophers gave importance to the affections in the construction of power: Machiavelli and Hobbes recognized the role of love and fear of the subjects. Modern philosophers, from Bergson to Sartre, from Kuhn to Feyerabend, included emotions in the analysis of knowledge processes. But now sociologists and economists point out that post-Fordist social organization reduces the role of the national state and transnationalizes the economy, culture and the administration of power. It thus alters affects and renders the previous forms of social regulation and disciplining insufficient. We are faced with a form of biopower and governmentality that fragments social life and appears to "empower" subjects by giving them the responsibility of being entrepreneurs of themselves. Michel Foucault and Nancy Fraser, David Harvey and Frederic Jameson, among others, show that the ways of distributing power among subjects and valuing local and autonomous movements (gated communities, privatization of security and technologies of the self that would help manage us in this new stage) generate other affective modes of disciplining. Numerous studies exhibit how the promises of democratization of communications brought by the internet end up diluting free individual accesses and illusions of self-management, subjecting users to corporations that steal our data, induce behaviors, generate frustrations and uncontrollable confrontations (García Canclini, 2019; Márquez and Ardévol, 2015; Reygadas, 2018).
The uncontrollability is also due to the absence of a vision of the totality or totalities in conflict, their interconnections greater than in the past. In the postwar period, the capitalism/communism opposition, or the current reduction of the complexity and variety of conflicts to the neoliberalism/populism polarization, leave out the multiple processes of disintegration and death. This brings us back to the analysis of photographs.
Targeting and punctum are resources to avoid becoming absorbed in an impossible comprehension of the totality. In a certain way, finding the punctum restores the expectation of finding the key to the whole; and, as we know, although the message -the photo- contains ordered information with a meaning, the uses of that image and the interpretations of the receivers may disagree with that key vision, with the line of flight found by us. "[...]domination is not total and this reintroduces the dominated subject into the relation of domination" (Reguillo, 2023: 11).
How is it reintroduced? In very diverse ways, notoriously more heterogeneous in the younger generations. It has been evident since the end of the last century with the development of a vast bibliography in Mexico and many other countries on the variety of identities, ways of belonging and of being excluded: those who manage to insert themselves in their rural or urban communities, those who have to migrate, those who adhere to belongings where the lack of jobs, informality and music show them in the worlds of rock, ska, hip-hop, track and many others.
In the greatest systematization of "juvenology," the book Los jóvenes en México, coordinated by Rossana Reguillo in 2010, she tried to group them together:
[...]there are clearly two youths: one, majority, precarious, disconnected not only from what is called the network society or information society, but disconnected or disaffiliated from the institutions and security systems (education, health, work, security), barely surviving on the bare minimum, and another, minority, connected, incorporated into the security circuits and institutions and in a position to choose (Reguillo, 2010: 396).
Later, the author herself records other differences:
[...] of gender, of class, of instances of inscription of the "youth self" (in organized crime, in the labor and consumer markets). Although he tries to construct the open concept of "youth condition" in order to examine as a whole the various ways of being young, the whole book adds up diversities: employed and unemployed youth, indigenous, rural, gang members, rockers, punks, emos and many more (Reguillo, 2010: p. 396).
I was also astonished in that volume to "find" what we do not know: "what percentage of Mexican youth participate in activities controlled by drug trafficking; what is the economic amount of Mexican educational investments lost in young migrants who go on to use their training in the United States." (Reguillo, 2010: p. 397)
Reguillo reported at the time that in 2001 and 2008, despite the fact that the Transparency Law guaranteed the right,
[...] in 2007 and 2008 he was unable to obtain statistics on the age and gender of those executed and imprisoned for so-called "crimes against health". His monitoring of 650 newspaper articles in four national dailies allowed him an approximation: in 70% of the cases linked to organized crime, young people under 25 years of age are involved, and in 49% of these cases, the bodies found lifeless are young people (Reguillo, 2010: p. 397).
What is visible and what is hidden is poorly documented.
This tension between the diversity of knowledge and the various modes of concealment becomes more complex as it takes over the public sphere on the Internet and then concentrates on social networks. These operations of reconfiguration of the social fostered, as we read in Reguillo's article (2023), the transit from partial and self-contained approaches to "an open and necessarily relational thinking". Images, memes and emojis incorporate more actively into the circulation of knowledge, questions such as "What color is a tragedy?" or the role of faces and inanimate planes. In part, they can work "in favor of the democratization of public space by destabilizing legitimate places of communication and changing the rules of content production and circulation of communication."
Agreed. The examples of the graphs produced by Signa_Lab in many situations of loss and recomposition of meaning (I am 132, Ayotzinapa, feminicides) contribute to see, measure and analyze the meanings dispersed in the socio-digital networks, the resistances and the possibilities to build them. We see and they offer us occasions to make us see.
I want to underline, however, how the proliferation of bots, fake news and other simulations are also favored by the internet and networks. Is technopolitics allowing us to reduce the partiality of our visions of the social? Does it make it easier to counteract the cover-ups and deceptive appearances of totality supplied by the classical powers, to develop more open thinking, or does it engender many fleeting and competing perspectives, fundamentalist loyalties, biased, detonators of passions that prevent us from reasonably inhabiting heterogeneity?
As soon as we try to elucidate this opposition, we stumble upon the electronic corporations, which carry out "totalizations" through algorithmic articulations. They erode and reduce the role of states, independent initiatives to reassemble the public. They are not, as was believed in the first formulations of media studies, homogenizations of the social and cultural, but tend to work with the fragmentation or segmentation of markets (of material and symbolic goods, of political opinions) to group them in order to control and manage their diversity. The scientist who recognizes the multidirectional behaviors and associations of the actors, in the manner of Bruno Latour (2008), will not try to impose "an order, to teach the actors what they are", but his knowledge will be used by the corporate powers to impose restrictions on this arborescence of subjects, on their dispersion and their trials of associations for political ends. These corporate powers conceive our connective wefts as resources for new forms of social engineering.
Neither capitalism vs. socialism or autonomous associations. Nor neoliberalism vs. populism. We live in the disintegration of state actions, corporate strategies or tactics, competitions between six or seven global electronic corporations, local or local-international community organizations that are briefly empowered, sometimes linking into networks, multiple foci of reflection and action, care of others, of oneself, of making bodies and precarious solidarities visible. Even the graphs leave me with the conclusion of how difficult it is to draw maps. In order for the collectives and collectives, the caudillos or protean individuals, the changes and regressive inertias of the institutions not to be illusory, it is indispensable to see that power is both dispersed and concentrated. We also need to include the movements of reconstruction, together with those of self-destruction, for example necropolitics. For the social sciences and for the collapsed system of parties and institutions of social representation it seems to me decisive to relocate in this landscape.
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Néstor García Conclini is distinguished professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana de México and emeritus researcher of the National System of Researchers. He has taught at the universities of Austin, Duke, New York, Stanford, Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo. He is also a consultant to the Organization of Ibero-American States and a member of the Scientific Committee of the World Report on the Culture of Peace. unesco. He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Casa de las Américas Award and the Book Award from the Latin American Studies Association for Hybrid cultures. In 2014 he was awarded the National Prize for Sciences and Arts in Mexico. His most recent books are The whole world as a strange place and the research he coordinated under the title Towards an anthropology of readers. He is currently studying the relationship between anthropology and aesthetics, reading, creative strategies and cultural networks of young people.