Learning to Gaze into the Abyss: An Interview with Rossana Reguillo

Wednesday, Feb 27, 2019

Thomas Matusiak, Princeton University

Associate Professor in Latin American Studies Javier Guerrero and Mexican Scholar Rossana Reguillo. Photograph by Pablo Domínguez.

Associate Professor in Latin American Studies Javier Guerrero and Mexican Scholar Rossana Reguillo. Photograph by Pablo Domínguez.

A leading voice in Latin American studies, Rossana Reguillo has given us a new vocabulary for understanding the ultra-contemporary forms of violence that shape not only her native Mexico, but which have come to condition global politics and visual culture in the twenty-first century. As research professor in the Department of Sociocultural Studies at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO) in Guadalajara, Mexico, she has published extensively on diverse aspects of youth culture, the symbolic production of urban space, social constructions of fear and disenchantment, and political communication from mass media to human rights discourses. Underlying her research is a commitment to telling the stories of Mexico's most vulnerable political and cultural agents. In this context, Reguillo observes-citing "Beto," a child soldier within Mexico's contemporary conflict-dying is not enough. This violence produces an epistemological threat and challenges us to coin new concepts if we are to understand it. Reguillo offers us her theory of the narco máquina to refer to the diffuse network of political, paralegal, economic, and criminal forces that delocalizes space and nourishes itself with symbolic forms of violence from executions to mutilations and beheadings.

A deeply original thinker, Reguillo crosses disciplinary boundaries with a sense of ease and rebellion at a time in which such indiscipline is urgently needed to give account of the most advanced and most horrifying transformations within politics today. Above all, she has taught us to look into this abyss no matter how terrifying; to look at the present in spite of all. I spoke with Rossana Reguillo on October 17, 2018, on the occasion of her visit to the Program in Latin American Studies at Princeton University. Drawing on eight years of research on violence and the crisis of the Mexican state, her lecture, entitled, "Ensayos y escenas desde el abismo: sobre el horror contemporáneo," addressed a new phase in her genealogy of contemporary political violence: the necro máquina that marks the expansion of this machine to new markets and its transformations following the most recent militarization of the US-Mexico border.

Mexican Scholar Rossana Reguillo. Photograph by Pablo Domínguez.

Mexican Scholar Rossana Reguillo. Photograph by Pablo Domínguez.


Thomas Matusiak: I'd like to begin by asking you about how you imagine your own disciplinary identity. You currently direct Signa Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory for network analysis and the study of cyber cultures. As an anthropologist, you also enter debates within cultural studies, performance, and visual culture in a very organic way. How has this indisciplinarity shaped your research on violence?

Rossana Reguillo: I think that from early on, when I began to work on such topics, which were nowhere near as intense as what we see today, I realized that a disciplinary gaze was insufficient. I am very comfortable circulating between different fields of knowledge-I like to think in terms of fields rather than disciplines. In order to understand violence, we have to work with the same ease at a structural level as we do at the level of subjective accounts. My whole career, I've forced myself to move between these two scales, not losing sight of an interdisciplinary approach. It's not easy because the academy still strives to preserve its power through a disciplinary structure. That's why I speak of undisciplining oneself. This still implies an indisciplinarity, which is itself a form of rebellion. More than anything, this means shedding the fear of moving between different fields of knowledge.

TM: Let's take this idea of critical scale to discuss the two recent anniversaries of Ayotzinapa and Tlatelolco in 1968. Within a month of the tragedy at Iguala you stated publicly that Ayotzinapa marked a before and after for Mexico. Has your understanding of '68 changed in this after, in post-Ayotzinapa Mexico?

RR: Undoubtedly. In both conceptual and empirical terms, Ayotzinapa inscribes itself in a genealogy of social movements. On the one hand, there is the horror of Ayotzinapa: the forty-three disappeared bodies. On the other, it's generated a social movement. I believe that we can only understand Ayotzinapa if we consider the legacy of #YoSoy132, which organized a broad dissatisfaction, which then turned toward the horror that was taking place. If one were to trace such a genealogy, it would explain how Ayotzinapa reconciled and transformed the memory of '68. The generation of '68, which failed in its struggle, closed off the channels of communication and modes of protest to subsequent generations. There's a post-'68 generation that suffers from amnesia. It seems to me that what's happening today is a recuperation of '68 by the youth as a key moment in the confrontation with the dawn of the neoliberal experiment. I do believe that there is a strong relation between these two movements and a vindication. There's a lot of energy among the younger generations to recover not only the iconography of the tragedy, but also the festive memory that the student movement of '68 represents.

TM: We're speaking also of contemporary social movements that go beyond the condemnation of violence framed only in terms of the narco. This includes, for example, #NiUnaMenos as a contemporary feminist movement that's achieved a transnational scale through social media.

RR: Exactly. That's very important to keep in mind. On one hand we have this articulation of protest as subjective insurrection among youth actors. On the other, if we were to look behind the curtain we would see a landscape that is totally apocalyptic, in which any possibility for social organization is annulled by what I'm studying now in terms of a necro máquina. I pass from the narco tonecro to the necro máquina because I believe that precisely Ayotzinapa makes this jump. The narco máquina continues to be tied to a rational production of risk and the accumulation of capital. The necro máquina is the dissolution of life in a state of urgency.

TM: You've already begun to answer my next question, on the genealogy of the narco máquina. This has become an essential concept in understanding Mexico in the twenty-first century. How has your argument changed over the years? How do you respond to readings that oppose your argument and insist that the narco is a myth created by the State in order to justify its security strategy? This would be the inversion of your argument that the narco is parallel to the State by insisting that it is the State itself.

RR: I think such a reading is deceptive. Undoubtedly there is collusion, but it is on the part of the government, not the State. The government forms part of the narco máquina as I define it: the conjoining of economic power, political power, and the power over death. This speaks not just to the weakness of the State, but precisely to its transformation from a political body created for the administration of rights and the rule of law to an entity that is reduced to administrating diffuse supranational powers. I'm more concerned with this than with highlighting the weakness of the State. The narco invents the tertiarization of violence, which is an example of its commercial brilliance. While Los Zetas were forming an army that they had to maintain, to whom they needed to pay salaries, Juárez contracted this work to criminal groups. This isn't an example of a modern labor relation between factory worker and employer; these are contractors. The State doesn't invent this. It's a post-Fordist model that produces scenes of brutal violence in any space or time because it has the financial means to do so.

TM: Has your understanding of the narco máquina changed at all given the fact that over time, like any transnational corporation, these organizations need to search for new markets? I'm referring to the expansion towards extractivism, human trafficking, and other black-market activities. Is this related to the transition from narco tonecro that you suggest? Of course, the narco máquina continues to operate, but the power over death-especially in the case of murdered migrants-has a financial consequence that Sayak Valencia describes in her book Gore Capitalism.

RR: This is a fascinating development. In the case of Mexico, narco-trafficking groups-not necessarily cartels-have appropriated the market for counterfeit goods imported from China. This market is enormous, and it represents a remarkable amount of dark money. This speaks to a level of criminal sophistication that we cannot address by simply legalizing marijuana or cocaine. This requires a different kind of intervention. It's impressive how quickly this machine adapts. When I speak of a transition from the narco máquina to a necro máquina. I don't mean to imply that the former ceases to operate. I'm referring to a level at which formalized institutions and paralegal powers participate equally, and this is situated within the structure of free trade.

TM: How would you contextualize this discussion with the arrival of López Obrador? On one hand, he has promised a truth commission to the families of the forty-three disappeared students. On the other, he has declared that the military will continue to occupy the streets, guaranteeing a security state.

RR: I'll answer you in two ways: first as a citizen, and then as an academic. As a citizen, I trust that Olga Cordero, López Obrador's Secretary of the Interior, helps the president see reason and convinces him that a security state cannot continue to function in Mexico. Now, as an academic, I believe that the period between the presidential election in July and the inauguration in December is quite long. This gives plenty of time to form political pacts. There are three things that worry me. The first is López Obrador's adviser Alfonso Romo: a business man and neoliberal extractivist who undoubtedly was fundamental in López Obrador winning over the financial sector, which was worried about the arrival of a Mexican Chavismo. At the same time, Romo's presence is worrisome. Secondly, I'm profoundly concerned with the armed forces. I cannot let this one go: López Obrador should not have declared that he will continue his predecessor's security strategy by maintaining the military in the streets. My third concern is that López Obrador and his team have not adequately communicated their policy of amnesty, and this has led to an unnecessary confrontation with the victims of violence. The amnesty has nothing to do with forgiving feminicidas or sicarios: it's about offering the most vulnerable sectors of society a way out. For example, the kids who work as look-outs when the army enters the barrio. But López Obrador hasn't been able to communicate this. As a result, the victims are indignant, and that's a problem.

Rossana Reguillo's lecture, entitled "Ensayos y escenas desde el abismo: sobre el horror contemporáneo," addressed a new phase in her genealogy of contemporary political violence. Photograph by Pablo Domínguez.

Rossana Reguillo's lecture, entitled "Ensayos y escenas desde el abismo: sobre el horror contemporáneo," addressed a new phase in her genealogy of contemporary political violence. Photograph by Pablo Domínguez.


headshotThomas Matusiak is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Princeton University. His primary research interests include Latin American film and digital media, with a focus on contemporary Mexico. His dissertation-entitled The Visual Guillotine: Latin America and the Cinema of Cruelty -presents a theory of cinema grounded in an archive of experimental film that decodifies the violent image, arguing that cinema is underwritten by forms of symbolic violence that structurally depend on processes of cutting and disfiguration. An article based on this research is forthcoming from Cuadernos de Literatura (Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá). He holds an M.A. from Princeton University (2016) and a B.A. from Lawrence University (2013).