The Femicide Machine: new book by Sergio González Rodríguez

I have just read a little book, an essay really, by the Mexican writer Sergio González Rodríguez, The Femicide Machine. He is one of a number of writers and journalists who have campaigned for justice for the hundreds of women murdered in Ciudad Juárez over the last two decades, or more. This is a subject that the geographer Melissa Wright has written extensively about, for example. Rodríguez’s book does not provide a load of background to this phenomenon – others, like Charles Bowden and Diana Washington Valdez do that – but it does provide a lite-touch theoretical contextualisation of what at first appears to be an almost incomprehensible level of misogynistic violence, and in particular, of the almost systematic failure of Mexican authorities to address the murders effectively. The language is Deleuzian, providing a sense in which ‘the femicide machine’ thrives in the spaces opened up by the concatenation between ‘the war machine’ (Mexico’s enrollment in ‘the war on drugs’) and ‘the criminal machine’, all in the context of the longer history of maquiladora-based industrial and urban development in northern Mexico (I think he might miss a theoretical trick by not connecting ‘assembly’-based manufacturing with ‘assemblages’, but that might not be the main point of the book). This is the ‘trasnlineal’ space of the US/Mexico ‘transborder’ zone, a space which  Rodríguez characterises by quoting Cormac McCarthy’s line that it is here that ‘the probability of the actual is absolute’.

I’m interested in this issue because 7 years ago now (7 years? Where did they go?), I was involved with some filming for an OU course which used the campaigns against femicide in Juárez as a case study for teaching students about the geographies of global responsibility. This was actually before things got really bad, since 2006, with the ratcheting up of militarised anti-drug trafficking on both sides of the border. It was at the time that Amnesty, the UN, Eve Ensler, and others were actively making the Juárez murders into an international issue – this is the issue that we focussed on (along with other issues, such as control of water along the border, the movements of people over the border, and work in the maquiladora – it’s not too late to sign up for the course). It was both a fascinating experience, and at times a very uncomfortable one, not least interviewing women involved in the femicide campaigns; and being detained by the Mexican army, for wandering across the Rio Grande (there was no water in it at the time; technically, we were trying to get into the USA, the U.S. Border Patrol just told us to go back, the Army weren’t pleased).

Actually, I think the most important part of Rodríguez’s book is not the analysis, interesting as it is, so much as the Epilogue, titled ‘Instructions for Taking Textual Photographs’. This consists of a ‘photographic mise-en-scene’ in which he narrates, in the first person voice of one mother, the circumstances surrounding the abduction, murder, and (non-)investigation of her daughter. The narrative here reaffirms the line of the preceding chapters, about how the perpetrators are known and hide in plain sight. This is followed by 20 pages of ‘photographs’; only, there are no photographs – just the captions, a line or a few sentences each, re-iterating the ‘scenes’ from the first person narrative, including ‘photos’ incriminating the perpetrators. It’s an interesting device with which to raise the question about the politics of representation of femicide and it’s victims, certainly. But by presenting the ‘photos’ (which presumably are both real and imagined, judging from their listed content) in this way, he is making the same point about the degree to which the real mystery here is not ‘who did it’ but why so little has been done to address the murders and the demands of victims’ families. The captions indicate the ‘truth’ of the case, the absence of the photos stand as a kind of accusation about a culture of institutionalised impunity – the book is, after all, a manifesto, an intervention.

Either that, or Semiotext(e) just can’t afford to reproduce photos in their books.

Local Politics VII: Coming soon to a place near you

Swindon is suddenly at the centre of a concerted right-wing attack on trade union rights in the public sector. The Tory-led council intends to put into practice the changes demanded by a concerted campaign orchestrated by the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and the newly formed Trade Union Reform Campaign, to attack ‘facility time’, on the grounds that this is a ‘scandalous’ subsidy by taxpayer’s of union activity. The TUC provides a corrective to the claims behind the campaign, and a nation-wide campaign to oppose these moves is quickly being galvanised, apparently.

And they say nothing ever happens here – just remember, they got rid of speed cameras first in Swindon, well before the idea caught on at national government level. What happens in Swindon…

Local Culture I: Life in a Museum

Should anyone out there be stuck for something to do in Swindon in the next couple of months, you might try a newly opened exhibition at the Swindon Museum and Art GalleryBack to Black… and White is the product of a project that involved local schoolkids, working in a dialogue with an archive of photos of the town from the 1940s to 1970s. The details and background to the project are here.

I have to say that it was a complete accident that I found out about this. The Museum is just down the road from where we live, and it has recently come in handy as a place to spend half an hour with a 5-year-old and an almost-1 year old. But today I managed to drag the 37 year-old (oops) in, rather reluctantly. The Museum is in fact a terrible space – no lift, in a nineteenth-century house with multiple floors, which is no good for the pram-connected. You have to get the little one out and carry her – and she’s getting heavier by the day.

But, anyway, I didn’t know this ’til we (me and the two non-reluctant ones) wandered in just before Xmas, but it turns out that the Museum houses what is meant to be one of the best collections of twentieth-century British art outside of London. Who knew? It actually consists of one piece by just about anyone you might have heard of – a Lowry here, a Freud over there, an important Ben Nicholson, apparently. Another aspect of the town’s weird legacy of mid-century civic mindedness.

The art collection and the town’s public art (statues of Diana Dors, that sort of thing) have been the focus of projects by the local public-ish-private-ish booster organisation, Forward Swindon, to make more of these cultural assets – as I said, an effort that has to address the fact that the museum and art gallery is actually such a rubbish space.

The art gallery is not very big – the size of about three squash courts, so you don’t get to see the whole collection all at once. And this new exhibition is the first time I’ve seen them showing a range of the photos that they apparently hold – a few are pasted on the walls. The Council’s full collection is on Flickr. I’m not sure why old photos of Swindon are as fascinating as they are to me – I didn’t grow up here (lucky escape). I think it might be because Swindon is quite small, so that many photos of the town are of places vaguely familiar, already. It’s also that the historical geography of the place is quite transparent, ‘cos it’s not very old, so you can see ‘layers of investment’ quite easily as you walk/drive/ride (I have a new bike!) around. Whatever it is, it’s another worrying sign of a growing attachment I seem to be developing, at least to the idea of Swindon.

Is stupid really stupid

George Monbiot had a wretched little piece in yesterday’s Guardian, based on a paper in a psychology journal, Bright minds and dark attitudes, which purports to establish that there is a link between cognitive ability, right-wing attitudes, and prejudice. Monbiot took this as the basis for a general argument about how right-wing politics is a medium for stoking and sustaining general levels of stupidity (in so doing, he risks running together various things – the paper he cites is about cognitive abilities, about intelligence – not about people merely not knowing, but about some people not having the capacity to know stuff; and the reference point is prejudice, and a broader set of criteria basically derived from good old fashioned ‘authoritarian personality’ type arguments, but Monbiot extends this to attitudes to policy questions such as tax and spend, not supported at all by the paper).  

Now, Monbiot has always seemed to me to be the perfect epitome of a certain style of google-based journalism – that sort of newspaper commentary piece where you can almost see the traces of the google searches that the column is pasted together from. In this case, poor George gives a great deal of credence to a style of psychological research that, if you look at the paper, raises all sorts of methodological and conceptual worries – anyone for a little bit of ‘abstract empiricism’?

Of course, Monbiot’s piece might be self-refuting – it’s an example of crass stupidity, but from the left, which seems to undermine the claim that stupid = right-wing. On the other hand, it might inadvertently confirm its own claim – it’s a basically reactionary argument, based on a set of stupid suppositions and idiotic reasoning, not really an argument belonging to anything meaningfully ‘left’ at all, if that is to include basic precepts of democracy.

Anyway, I take the Monbiot piece to be one example of a broader strand of contemporary self-proclaimed Left ‘know-it-all-ism’ – epitomised perhaps by Ditchkins-style ‘new atheism’, but much broader no doubt. It’s a strand of thought that seems unable to imagine politics as having any other basis than knowledge – good, accurate, rational, critical, knowledge; or bad, manipulated, veiled, ignorance. Left thought suffers terribly from this way of imagining politics – as being all about ‘ideology’, basically, too much of the bad sort, and not enough of the good sort, often wrapped up in cmplex theories of subjectivity or, in this case, research about cognitive abilities and intelligence. 

Which is not to say that issues of truth and knowledge are not important to how we think about politics – a new book on Truth and Democracy, via the ever informative Political Theory blog, collects various essays together on this issue; it touches on broader debates about the epistemic value of democratic politics. At some level, the sort of position articulated by Monbiot, but shared I think rather more broadly, which seeks to explain the other side’s political successes by reference not just to the lack of knowledge of some constituencies, but by reference to their credulity, their gullibility, or in this case, their innate lack of cognitive ability, is deeply undemocratic at its very core.  

Just thought I’d get that off my chest before going to bed.