Movement and Sacrifice. On Samuel Steinberg’s Photopoetics at Tlatelolco, Afterimages of Mexico 1968 (2016). by Gerardo Muñoz.

Photopoetics SamSamuel Steinberg’s Photopoetics at Tlatelolco, Afterimages of Mexico 68 (U Texas Press, 2016) is a timely contribution to the field of Mexican Studies. It posits itself as a sort of culmination of that field, and we would not exaggerate to say by saying that it is an archive of an archive that thrives to undo ‘Mexicanist ideology’ towards a different opening. Steinberg powerfully states at the end Photopoetics: “Mexicanism, in turn, is the name of the ideology that regulated the dutiful carrying-out of the relation between art and the people that the Mexican state organized until Tlatelolco…According to this procedure, one can constantly make art speak the name of Mexico as its truth, as the discontinuous thought, the spirit that haunts and must be revealed by thought” (182). This is a strong and devastating assertion that should also be strategically posited in whatever remains of ‘area studies’ structuration as institutional inertia as well as against its dominance over knowledge production of Latin America within the contemporary university. Photopoetics’ boldness lays precisely in this intersection within archive and reflection, between cultural inscription and disciplinary containment in the wake of the Tlatelolco massacre during the Mexican 68. This ‘event’ is symptomatic of the hegemonic haunting of principial Mexicanist reflection and of its multivalance inscription that continuously translates and archives itself as ‘defeat’ (37).

But Photopoetics is more than a book about the co-belonging between photography and literature, the image and life. Rather this very relation, and the limits thereof, is what is tested and taken to the edge in the different folding case studies that make up the book – from Monsivais to Poniawtoska, from Paz and Volpi to contemporary artist Francis Alÿs. The name of that operation depends largely on ‘photography’ as a medium but is not entirely reducible to it. Indeed, photopoetics is the term that establishes a transversal relation with the archival 68 without necessarily being a master trope that seeks to subordinate the archive to “photographic studies” or the “visual culture” discipline (in the W.J. T. Mitchell line or otherwise). The ‘photopoetic’ is not even a concept, but rather a dispositif that varies according to the object in question, allowing for a phenomenology of the onto-photographic effect on the Real and process of encrypting the event as event, as well as the indexical repetition of the archive (25-28).  

This has potent consequences for an analytical comprehension of the political, which fundamentally entails the displacement of hegemonic structuration (not only for ‘Mexicanism’ or the ‘global 68’). Indeed, for Steinberg, hegemony is the consignation of an archive, if by the latter we understand the reduction and principial limitation of the political to calculation (27). It is thus not surprisingly that Steinberg situates his own reflection within a post-hegemonic horizon primarily defined as the destruction of the differend between theory and practice (and throughout the book there is critical engagement with Moreiras, Williams, Yúdice, and Beasley-Murray) (8). This is the unsaid ‘althusserianist’ wager in Steinberg’s book, which is, at the same time, consistent with a politics beyond the subject and a defiant a-principial thought. There are two major and unexpected figures that support this general horizon: José Revueltas and Francis Alÿs. In fact, the book opens with Revueltas and closes with Alÿs; a double movement that although not fully developed, is preparatory for an atopic ground in relation to a post-Mexicanist horizon of reflection, a new form of thought, and a democratic (and communist?) promise.

The first two chapters – “Archive and Event” and “Postponed Images” – situate the general economy of the book, that is, the relation between archive and event and archive as the hegemonic force proper to the 68. The hegemonic phantasm is that of situating the 68 as a sacrificial horizon of history against what should be read as the contingent and democratic student movement that remains encrypted or translated into a reiterated and diversified figures of closure (victims, heroes, the people, or melodrama). Understood in a rancierean key, Steinberg’s post-hegemonic articulation rests principally on the contingent heteronomy of the movement:

“…What we call 1968: “an unforeseeable coming of the other, of a heteronomy; “the event of what or who comes” as incalculable exposure to that other and to the event that is other. […]. No: it is “the event of what or who comes”, that change encounter in which ‘students are confused with workers”, and in which the peasants are also present – absent from where they properly should be. Unconditionally”. (44).

It is not just that the archival event orders them into a grammar of visibility, but also the fact that it translates it (them: the students, or what is to come) into a principle. This is what in “Postponed images” Steinberg sees in Monsivais’ popular melodrama and “national unity” that reinserts “mexicanidad” within the general analytical economy. In a similar way, although folded, this is what is analyzed in the chapter on testimonio (“Testimonio and the future without excision”) taking Elena Poniatowska’s famous La noche de Tlatelolco as interchangeably positing the sacrificial structuration of history vis-à-vis civil society. La noche de Tlatelolco tames the democratic dis-order of the movement into one of the “People” within a broad ‘collective memory’ of the nation (112). We are not too far here from a ‘fictive ethnicity’ grounded in testimonio and its politics of truth. Again, an indexical photopoeticology is what guarantees – in Monsivais’ melodrama as well in Poniatowska’s civil society deposition – the encryption of 68 and its ‘afterlife’.

“Exorcinema” and “Literary restorations” are secondary moments of the 68 archival fantasies and unusual atopics for carrying out the lasting effect of this event. “Exorcinema” takes up films, such as Fons’ Rojo Amanecer and Raygadas’ Silent Light as resurrections of the photopoetic act, but it also has strong declinations that spill over Chris Marker monumental Grim without a cat (1967-77), as well as other figures of Mexican cinema. In “Literary Restoration”, the transition is folded from the ‘spirit of revolutionary sixties’ to the ‘neoliberal age of restoration’. Restoration here is not deployed lightly. Following Badiou, the staging of restoration announces an impasse in the face of historical nihilism, but also makes evident the fascination with the ‘past’ as melancholic repetition and restitution. In this sense, the work of Jorge Volpi centrally figures itself as the symptom of neoliberal restoration, and more specifically his pedagogic novel El fin de la locura (Seix Barral, 2003) sketches something like a narratological aleph of the sixties, revolving around “French theory”, Fidel Castro, psychoanalysis, the “Padilla Case”, and revolutionary ethos. This is an ‘after the fact’ historical novel that condenses – meant for a middlebrow public – major events of the leftist politization and heroic drives. Against Volpi’s own authorial intentions, however, Steinberg concludes that Volpi’s narrative halts at complete politization (hegemony) making possible an infrapolitical register. This is not to say that Volpi is an infrapolitical writer himself. There is no doubt that Volpi’s literary program – the Crack Manifesto, his novels, also his journalism – amount to literary nihilism in the wake of Mexico’s turn towards neoliberalism after NAFTA trilateral economic adjustments. Steinberg pushes for what I would call an infrapolitical interruption in Volpi as a secondary effect of what hegemony and counter-hegemonic literary depolitization cannot hold itself up to.

The last chapter, “An-archaeologies of 1968”, is the fleeing territory from the Mexican archive, and it does so with the help of contemporary artist Francis Alÿs. In this chapter, there are at least two major problems at stake for Steinberg: on one hand is the question of the de-territorialization of the Mexicanist disciplinary (and disciplined) boundaries of knowledge formation, and on the other, the possibility of rendering inoperative any ideal of emancipation (and resistance) based on history, subject, and work (192-93). The relational aesthetics piece “When faith moves mountains” is taken as a precarious negative community that exceeds national borders, as well as any possibility of subjectivation for the Mexican being. Alÿs is resistant to the resistance of Mexicanism. While this is true, perhaps some readers are left desiring further confrontation but this time not against the Mexican archive, but on the grounds of what I would call the transnational circuit of global contemporary art. Bourriaud and Claire Bishop’s theories on relational aesthetics make an entry into the discussion, but I am tempted to say that both of these critics, in different ways, are fully committed to hegemony theory, or at least to hegemony for contemporary art relations to the political, whether in consensual or antagonistic terms [1].

I am not arguing here that Steinberg endorses either Bourriaud’s or Bishop’s assessments or “contemporary art”, but that the an-archeology releasement opens to a critical assessment of the very machinistic operation of contemporary art in its very economical precocity, autonomous circulation, and so called “democratic inclusion” of extended practices and subjects. In this sense the problem of “faith” (189-91), is also about “the faith” of contemporary art: the “pistis” (credit) that in the aura of participation and immateriality ends up repeatedly bounded within a logic of exchange value through the practice of documentation.

Photopoetics at Tlatelolco inaugurates a post-sacrificial reflection on Mexican culture and its conditions of possibility. Making no concessions to ideological or locational authorities, Steinberg calls for a post-hegemonic desire that affirms the real movement of thought that is the concrete potentiality of politics beyond principles and idle chatter.



  1. I am thinking here of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (Les Presses du Réel, 1998) on the side of consensual political practice, and the article “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics “ (October, Fall 2004), by Claire Bishop on the side of antagonism.