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Photopoetics at Tlatelolco

Photopoetics at Tlatelolco
Afterimages of Mexico, 1968

Drawing on diverse photographic, cinematic, and literary artifacts, this critical study reinterprets the 1968 massacre of student-populist protesters in Mexico City, examining both the effects of the violence and the subsequent state-sponsored manipulation of cultural memory.

Series: Border Hispanisms

January 2016
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266 pages | 6 x 9 | 16 b&w photos |

In the months leading up to the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City, students took to the streets, calling for greater democratization and decrying crackdowns on political resistance by the ruling PRI party. During a mass meeting held at the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the Tlatelolco neighborhood, paramilitary forces opened fire on the gathering. The death toll from the massacre remains a contested number, ranging from an official count in the dozens to estimates in the hundreds by journalists and scholars. Rereading the legacy of this tragedy through diverse artistic-political interventions across the decades, Photopoetics at Tlatelolco explores the state’s dual repression—both the massacre’s crushing effects on the movement and the manipulation of cultural discourse and political thought in the aftermath.

Examining artifacts ranging from documentary photography and testimony to poetry, essays, chronicles, cinema, literary texts, video, and performance, Samuel Steinberg considers the broad photographic and photopoetic nature of modern witnessing as well as the specific elements of light (gunfire, flares, camera flashes) that ultimately defined the massacre. Steinberg also demonstrates the ways in which the labels of “massacre” and “sacrifice” inform contemporary perceptions of the state’s blatant and violent repression of unrest. With implications for similar processes throughout the rest of Latin America from the 1960s to the present day, Photopoetics at Tlatelolco provides a powerful new model for understanding the intersection of political history and cultural memory.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Archive and Event
  • 2. Postponed Images: The Plenitude of the Unfinished
  • 3. Testimonio and the Future without Excision
  • 4. Exorcinema: Spectral Transitions
  • 5. Literary Restoration
  • 6. An-archaeologies of 1968
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Los Angeles, California

Steinberg is an assistant professor of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Southern California.



We have not been defeated . . .

José Revueltas

In filming El grito (1968), Leobardo López Arretche could not have known that he was performing a task that would become fully archival, much less that its very circumstances would change, that our world would return to its habits, and that his name would become the signature of a film that was, in fact, collectively produced.¹ That destiny of working, living, thinking, and being-in-common is precisely what is at stake in the present book. Composed of diverse materials (moving images, photographs, sounds, communiqués, speeches, and testimonies transmitted both diegetically and extradiegetically), El grito offers a certain archival coordination, edited, as it was, not long after the end of Mexico’s 1968 student-popular movement.

That, too, is what is at stake here: reflection understood as secondary revision, reflection always in the “uncertain light” of what we might properly call afterlife, for the final production and appearance of El grito is ruled by the violence that ended the student movement.² Each moment of protest, of excitement, of experience, or of experiment that El grito captured can only lead to the grisly moment that organizes it; I would, like the film, prefer to linger for as long as possible on that moment-before. Yet the film announces a central inquietude—which is also to be our own—from the very beginning: How are we to think of such a moment-before?

El grito begins with moving images of students who have not yet entered the time of crisis. Their lives are as they were: young people walking to class, resting, conversing with their friends. A voiceover narrates the origins of the student movement even as these students seem unaware of what will come. And yet, the footage is interrupted by a series of still images of the initial acts of repression that partially instigated the uprising, set to the extradiegetic sound of marching and then that of typewriters clacking. The opening sequence thus forecasts what is to come, for it knows what is to come.

What is to come: toward the end of the documentary, an intertitle reads “octubre,” and thus the film begins its narration of the act that rules it. Moving images capture the beginning of a meeting on the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, where it is decided that the intended itinerary of the students’ march has become too dangerous, for the protesters have found themselves surrounded by military forces. The leaders ask the students to return home—reports the voiceover—as the sound of helicopter blades rises. The documentary then returns to still images to document the fall of the flares dropped by helicopters that were to signal the beginning of gunfire.

The massacre as such is not seen or made visible: only its preparation, its surroundings, its aftermath. A division is presented between the moving image and the photograph on which it is based. As John Mraz puts it: “The moving footage often appears to limit itself to simply presenting events, a result no doubt of the participation of so many different cameramen with greatly varying experience. However, the edition of still photographs and the soundtrack are a searing indictment of the army and police, as well as the president and ruling class, for their role in the repression.”³ On this account, the still image becomes a critique of the continuity and consensus of the moving image. What happens on the square is thus, as Georges Didi-Huberman suggests in the context of holocaust photography, “only imaginable.” The images we have are somehow “deficient,” for which reason, as Didi-Huberman puts it, we must “try to understand their necessity through their very function of remaining deficient.”⁴ The place of the still image in reflection on 1968 is thus to hold the viewer at a critical distance, to submit the event to the standstill (the Benjaminian “zero-hour,” or Stillstellung) required by imagination and critical thought.

The documentary turns then to the opening of the Olympic Games (through, to be sure, the Games’ representation in the moving image) as the film’s double ending set to the tune of yet another kind of march. That march is once more suggested by the extradiegetic sound of a dissonant funereal procession, which then modulates itself to the triumphant tones of Mexico’s achieved modernity, which now can only be read as sadly ironic. In a second ending, the closing credits play to Oscar Chávez’s passionate rendition of the song “Mexico ’68” while they are intercut with footage—moving images of a still pose—of a child facing the camera and making the “V” with his fingers.

It thus bears underlining that despite its having been organized retrospectively by a catastrophic still image, we find no visual account of the massacre as such, only its suggestion or index in the photograph of the flares that precede it. A more complete account would only come to light in time for a later, forensic, and thus even more highly archaeological documentary, Tlatelolco: Claves de la masacre (dir. Carlos Mendoza, 2003), which uses newly available footage shot on the square that day by government photographers and cinematographers in order to prove beyond all doubt the state’s responsibility for the mass crime.

I argue here that Tlatelolco is itself the site of a photo-graphy, a making with light that I call “photopoetics.” The recovered footage of the massacre on which Tlatelolco: Claves de la masacre centers makes visible the terrifyingly literal nature of my suggestion. As the students run about, panicked, on the ground in front of the Chihuahua Building, where it all took place, there reads the sign of a local business, a lapidary statement for the present volume: “Foto estudio.” This study should be read in the light of that coincidence.

The thing we call 1968 has until now been bound to reflection in a hegemonic key: finding or discerning its points of unity, discussing, cataloguing, and, too often, hastily resolving its contradictions, producing—finally, we are always promised—its definitive archive, the better to arrive at its truth. In the present study, while I have learned from previous work, I hope to proceed differently by occupying 1968 as itself a theoretical practice of a piece with and perhaps in some ways even anticipating the so-called posthegemonic turn: posthegemony, as Alberto Moreiras puts it, “establishes itself, as theoretical practice, in the place of indifferentiation between theory and practice.”⁶ José Revueltas, perceived intellectual architect of the student-popular movement, comes closest to such a conception when he writes of the uprising as the site for a new university whose guiding principle would be the form of thoughtpraxis that he called “autogestión,” which we might translate, though quite insufficiently, as “self-management.” In “autogestión,” argues Revueltas, “the collective consciousness is expressed.”⁷ That notion of “collective consciousness,” however, would be fundamentally agonistic, without consensual claim, without hegemonic demand or hegemonizing desire. As Revueltas puts it: “Collective consciousness does not mean uniformity or regimentation, but, rather, the freedom of tendencies, confrontation, self-confrontation.”

Yet as an unintended illustration of the very difficulty of producing and sustaining autogestión, the volume containing Revueltas’s writings on 1968 reproduces the text “Nuestra bandera,” signed by the Comité de Lucha de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras and dated 26 August. The text bears a striking resemblance to the response (of 3 September) of the Consejo Nacional de Huelga (CNH) to President Díaz Ordaz’s rather threatening Informe Presidencial of 1 September: “It has been said that the Student Movement (Movimiento Estudiantil julio-agosto) lacks a flag—that is, clear objectives or ‘high sights’ . . . They’re trying to create a smokescreen that obscures not only the real content of our proposals but their root and reason.”⁹ Remarkably, the text reproduced in the Revueltas collection does not coincide directly with the way in which the movement is named in the CNH’s own direct response (“el movimiento estudiantil comenzado en julio”), nor do the two texts follow the same itinerary for more than a few paragraphs. Above all, the CNH’s text responds to the state’s claim that the movement is somehow illegitimate, and does so in the mode of marking its reasonable demands. Revueltas’s text, however, mounts a rather passionate diatribe and concludes, returning to the question of the “bandera” with which both texts begin: “We are a Revolution! That is our flag.”

Such a decision in favor of some “regimenting” instance, symbol, or signifier partly belies the posthegemonic practice that Revueltas invokes in the writings on autogestión, and yet, it also resolves it without resolution: the movement’s flag, its image, is something yet to come. From the beginning of the struggle its very thinkability is framed by the tension between what one might call, however provisionally, the anomic constituency on the street and the nominalism that would like to claim it and claim for it some demand.¹¹ However, despite Revueltas’s own proposal, as if to introduce yet another spiral, he himself seems to most often refer to the movement as the “Movimiento Estudiantil julio-agosto,” quite contrary to its reduction to any pragmatic “flag,” or its bequeathal, in a more radical reading, to the project of its own futurity (“a Revolution”). For our purposes, this reductive procedure assumes its final form through the name of the date (2 October 1968) on which the massacre occurred or in the name of the place (Tlatelolco) where it occurred.

Thus ends the search upon which Revueltas set out for the production of the name of what happened or what might happen, the hegemonizing impulse to consign it to a classifiable body, or legible image, and produce its archive. The student-popular movement raises the flag on a most dramatic posthumousness, which would impose itself following the massacre of 2 October and the movement’s official dissolution, decided by the CNH, that December. If representation is a kind of repression or mortification, 1968 in Mexico assumes the mortifying form of its own mortification. Photopoetics at Tlatelolco is nothing more than an attack on that legacy of double mortification, along with a modest proposal that we do things a bit differently.

For his part, Mark Kurlansky begins his popular world history of the year with the assertion that “there has never been a year like 1968, and it is unlikely that there will ever be one again.”¹² Rather than writing, as perhaps he intends, that 1968 is a unique, unparalleled, seemingly unrepeatable world-historical experience, Kurlansky betrays a deeper, more symptomatic, and also more interesting way of approaching 1968. The statement is as ambiguous as the year it describes: “There has never been a year like 1968,” he writes, curiously omitting or forgetting the “another”—“There has never been another year like 1968”—that would assure the statement’s reference to a kind of repetition, reenactment, reactivation, or return that has not occurred, that perhaps will not occur. Rather, as it stands, the reader faces the possibility that there has never been a year like 1968, that 1968 was not like 1968, that 1968 did not occur. “There has never been a year like 1968,” that is, a year like the 1968 that we think of when we think of 1968, like the 1968 that is invented in the unfolding of Kurlansky’s book, or, indeed, in the unfolding of any thought that hopes to encounter 1968 in the cinder we call its afterlife. Kurlansky points thus to the singularity of 1968 and also to its nonexistence. The year stands not only as a youth rebellion on a global scale, as he puts it, “a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world,” but also a youth rebellion that turned on unlikely alliances and, most important, on a student-worker alliance “of temporary convenience. . . quickly dissolved.”¹³ For Kurlansky, as for many others, 1968 hinges on this singularity and its nonexistence—a spontaneous combustion and a quick dissolution, the seeming impossibility of its own event. On this account, 1968 stands now as the time preceding a fall (and, in Kurlansky’s seasonally organized book, also an autumn), the time of hope before today, when, as Kurlansky puts it, “even the idea of new inventions has become banal.”¹⁴ After 1968, we can be sure that nothing else will happen. It is the hinge of a certain history, just at the end of a politics that would seem to have deserved that name, before our “disoriented” present.

Kurlansky’s observation offers an accidental citation of Gilles Deleuze, who writes, in a brief essay with the same title, that “May ’68 Did Not Take Place.” Writes Deleuze: “There is always one part of the event that is irreducible to any social determinism, or to causal chains. Historians are not very fond of this aspect: they restore causality after the fact. Yet the event is itself a splitting off from, or a breaking with causality; it is a bifurcation, a deviation with respect to laws, an unstable condition which opens up a new field of the possible.”

At times, I am astounded at the simplicity of the task I claim as this book ’s endeavor, which is precisely the demarcation of an absence of the thing that did not take place, even as that thing—in the guise of something else—is constantly unburied and covered over in archival dust, as it is submitted to perverse lamentations and melancholy sciences, as it is explained, imaged, retrieved, and reterritorialized. In the face of that archaeology, of that archive, I can only follow Deleuze: Mexico, 1968 did not take place (or, again, as Kurlansky puts it, “There has never been a year like 1968”).

Yet, to be sure, something did take place, and it took the place of what did not take place. On 2 October 1968, only ten days before Mexico City was to host the Summer Olympics, a helicopter dropped flares over the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, cuing paramilitary forces to open fire on the square, where several thousand participants in the Mexican studentpopular movement had assembled. The regular military forces returned fire, and in the ensuing battle a still uncounted number of people fell. Because the movement did not fizzle out—or, put more cynically, because it did not live long enough to betray itself—2 October 1968 marks both a tragic act of state-sponsored terror and a moment of unrealized possibility for the birth of a new world. It marks this possibility and recalls this hope globally (Paris, Prague, Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, and so on) by witnessing the formation of a new politics and also the proliferation of oppositional cultural formations and alternative approaches to social being. The present reflection thus sets out in the ruins of Tlatelolco in order to think—today—not what remains of that past, but how it has passed. In these pages I attempt not so much to catalogue as to read symptomatically the ways in which the Mexican student-popular movement of 1968 and its violent crushing at Tlatelolco are remembered, forgotten, betrayed, and avenged in contemporary political thought and aesthetic production.

What is referred to in the texts I read as “Tlatelolco,” “1968,” or the “Mexican student movement” is the subjective figure of a process, real or imagined, after which this book situates itself, which frames the period from 1968 to the present; a rethinking of that process would be a first condition for understanding the contemporary forms of relation between art and politics in light of the seeming decline of the Mexican sovereign power’s historically immense capacity to explicitly organize that relation, as a result of the discredit it faced following 1968, throughout the major democratizing events that 1968 supposedly initiates, and through the neoliberal transition.¹⁷ Naturally, I will be taking none of that for granted, either, but such an investigation, I think, is central to accounting for the afterimage of 1968.

We are not really certain what is an event. The year 1968 teaches us that this uncertainty is, in effect, central to an apprehension of the evental or eventful. As Kurlansky correctly notes, in 1968, Mexican students, like their global counterparts, were in the process of forming alliances with workers. Their struggle has been read as a simple democratic challenge posed to decades of domination by Mexico’s “revolutionary” party, the PRI, as a youthful diversion, as a first opening to neoliberal freedom, as part of an unfolding toward the communist horizon, or as something more nameless still. In the light of its violent repression on 2 October 1968 at the hands of Mexican state power, the struggle’s legacy has been coded as a point of breakdown in the dominance of the PRI (and yet, has it broken down?), a watershed for the crisis of the Mexican state’s sovereignty, and also as the tragic point of origin for the overly celebrated participatory social form of Mexican civil society. Again, I will try to take none of that for granted here.

The indecision regarding the movement’s goals and its legacy suggests in what measure the forms of rebellion associated with the studentpopular movement have been particularly difficult to articulate in Mexico, where the party-state formation has held such broadly inscribed power that it has been difficult to merely forge lines of difference in the hermeneutic circle of Mexican politics. Kurlansky’s reading of 1968, while partially correct, is also, for this reason, insufficient, above all because it assumes the instrumentalization of tragedy and thus maintains the very form of historical thinking that has been the order of Mexican order. His account ends up repeating the gesture of so many other readings, beginning with what we might call the foundational reading offered by Octavio Paz, which I discuss at length in the first chapter. Accordingly, the massacre founds or continues a narrative of Mexican history, understood as progress through sacrifice: “Tlatelolco was the unseen beginning of the end of the PRI.”¹⁸ Such an appropriative reading inserts the violent crushing of a prodemocratic movement into the narrative of progress (toward democracy) and thus redeems the violence at its center. Violence is transformed into nonviolence by mere ideology: “The PRI was voted out of power, and it was done democratically, in a slow process over decades, without the use of violence.”

In a similar key, Mexican anthropologist Roger Bartra has written of the dual legacy of 1968/Tlatelolco along the following lines: “1968 has left us with two legacies: defeat and transition.”²⁰ The transition he refers to is, again, the slow, ongoing “democratic transition” in Mexico, once seemingly confirmed by the twelve-year ouster of the PRI from presidential power, from 2000 to 2012. Yet to assert the duality of this legacy as if there were some twin face of the coin at work conceals a rather disturbing homology: defeat is precisely transition. And, moreover, as recent events make even clearer, transition is not simply “democratic transition” but something that is still quite obscure.

Given, then, the extent to which this “transitional” process is both slow and also extremely violent (and that there seems to be ample reason to doubt the PRI’s exit from power), any link between the slow process of so-called transition to 1968 and the massacre should be read in a fetishistic register. Rather, one should consider the very slowness of transition as a result of the massacre: the PRI’s endurance benefited from the massacre, which is to say, against dominant accounts, not that “Tlatelolco was the unseen beginning of the end of the PRI” (a statement in which perhaps every word is now highly questionable) or that there was any miscalculation on the part of Mexican state power, but that the massacre itself was successful in protecting the state and the interests it represented from its real enemy: the student-popular movement.

One of the most significant scholarly studies of 1968 to have been published in English, Elaine Carey’s Plaza of Sacrifices, partially repeats this gesture, concluding that “the 1968 Mexican student movement was a window into the future of Mexico, and it continues to be a watershed event.”²¹ Carey’s study admirably combats the reductive field in which 1968 has been read by, on the one hand, insisting on how the 1968 movement proved decisive for the reconfiguration of gender politics in Mexico, and, on the other, producing the history of 1968 on the horizon of its longue durée and its broader territorial purview, emphatically constructing a constellation of social and political struggles from the late 1950s and into the 1970s and beyond the confines of Mexico City.²² Leaving aside the reductive field that might be suggested by Carey’s title, itself a return to the plaza, her book opens a certain unbinding of the movement’s existence from a hegemonic territoriality and temporality. Yet despite the book ’s cited insistence on the movement’s particular actuality in the present, it does not sufficiently open itself to reflection on what are here conceived to be the central theoretical categories that impinge on such an actuality: democracy, progress, transition, and, perhaps above all, neoliberalism.

On some level, one should regard such tendencies not as a theoretical failure of the Mexicanist humanities as such. While scholars in the social sciences have been writing about Mexico’s neoliberal and democratizing tendencies since at least the presidency of Carlos Salinas (1988–1994) and, depending on one’s periodization of those processes, perhaps even long before, the Latin Americanist humanities have largely failed to aver the kind of powerful theoretical speculation with respect to the Mexican transition that has for years been the norm in Southern Cone studies.²³ This is owed, as I intimate above, to the almost exaggerated illegibility of the historical trajectory that constitutes the so-called Mexican transition and also the obscurity with which those events have been received. Mexican dictatorship is itself never fully intelligible as a repressive regime utterly bound to the order of order, which, historically, maintains the only guarantee, however symbolic or strategic that promise appears to be now, of social reconciliation, racial equality, or economic justice. Indeed, the PRI held what remained of the legacy of the Mexican Revolution, and the 1917 Constitution’s demands for agrarian reform and the redistribution of wealth and justice, in near exclusivity. As Soledad Loaeza has noted: “Compared with other authoritarian regimes, the Mexican one had the advantage of revolutionary origins, which allowed it to claim a popular representativity at the level of the state, rather than in open elections.”

While it preserved the names of revolutionary figures like Emiliano Zapata in the pantheon of national heroes, however, the PRI did not generally pursue his demand for land and freedom beyond the mere capture of that rhetoric. This rhetoric, in turn, was deployed in order to assert the PRI’s claim to be the embodiment of popular sovereignty, which it alone commanded for some seventy years—until late 2000—as the ruling official party in Mexico, and which it now commands even more perversely following its reentry after twelve years of exile from the presidency, a period throughout which it nevertheless continued to dominate state politics.²⁵ PRI fashioned itself as the guarantor of the claims of the Mexican Revolution, in effect, asserting itself as an edifice that subsumed the plurality of political desires for which the various combatants in the Revolution (and, indeed, their enemies) struggled; that is to say, it represented the containment of Mexico’s profound social antagonisms, holding “together,” however tenuously and at great human cost, the war called Mexican society, sutured by the architecture of its twentieth-century state-form. As Gareth Williams puts it: “Modernity in Mexico was orchestrated by a total state that strived at all times to suppress the duality of state and society.”²⁶ The Mexican state, its dispersed institutions, its sovereign ethos and effects have long held as a principal razón de ser the mediation of such contradictions and the containment of such divisions, a logic Bartra once described as the Mexican Leviathan: “It would seem, then, that the Mexican state maintains within its ample bosom groups of the conservative bourgeoisie, socialdemocratic currents, Marxists, Catholics, unions, peasants and middle classes, populists and the military: everything fits in the Mexican Leviathan.”²⁷ Let us consider a recent and monumental attempt (to which I will turn again in the final chapter).

In Mexico City, in a museum housed in the former building of the Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, halfway down a long corridor, on the right-hand side, the Memorial del 68 displays a dozen or so books.²⁸ These are the books, so it is said, that were read in 1968 by the students and perhaps also by some of the other participants in the popular uprising that occurred in the summer months of that year. The books are on display: texts not to be read but now the surface of an object that is referential in a different sense, the very body of a secret now behind glass and physically inaccessible to the viewer—the body of the secret of 1968. These books’ selection, their appearance, their association, and the curatorial text that now binds them, however, all suggest that these tomes form a certain written archive of 1968, if in an unusual way. And yet their appearance under glass, their inaccessibility, must be made to stand in juxtaposition to books that are displayed in the Memorial, which are indeed legible, open, for at a point later in the exhibition (in a sense, after the exhibition) there is another hall, with tables and books chained to them. These are the books we will already have associated with 1968 in Mexico: volumes like Días de guardar, Los días y los años, La noche de Tlatelolco, and also the Memorial del 68’s large catalogue. These books are the books we can read; they are not guarded behind glass. Their disposition at the Memorial del 68 suggests that their relation to the world, to 1968, to life and to history, will always be clearer and more evident.

Thus the Memorial offers an archival coordination that not only links place to history, but also offers something like a total interpretation of that history. The student movement is associated with global cultural and political phenomena as they are filtered through their particular reception in the Mexican context. Global anticolonial war, the Mexican national-popular state, the railroad workers’ strike of 1959, and rock music are given as the diverse conditions of possibility for the student movement.²⁹ These books in the display case (in turn, largely divided between expressly radical political thought and writings of the Onda countercultural movement, of which José Agustín remains the most prominent accomplice) produce a contradictory image that is not easily resolved. This constellation of books offers, or is supposed to offer, the intellectual milieu of Mexican youth and perhaps obliquely suggests the very postpolitical aftermath in which the cultural field would in effect become the only site for what was properly political contestation.

The relation of these books “read in 1968” to the actions of 1968 is therefore more obscure if also deeper (deeper, because it is buried and protected, but not only for that reason). Naturally, these books could never have told the story of 1968, could never have produced its archive in the same sense that many of the texts I will engage here—Ramón Ramírez or, in a different way, Elena Poniatowska, or, in a fashion more removed still, Carlos Monsiváis—all sought to do. There is, from the beginning, the problem that the books were all published before 1968 was going on. They can never bear witness (or so it would seem) to that story for they necessarily anticipate its moment. These books can never exactly, faithfully tell the story of the times to come. So what is their story? There are twelve books here, Carlos Fuentes’s Cambio de piel, Salvador Elizondo’s Farabeuf, José Agustín’s De perfil, and Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s Los relámpagos de agosto among them. And yet one also finds here Ernesto Guevara’s Bolivian diaries wherein we find collected the archive of a failed war. The first communiqué to the Bolivian people, as treatise or tract, but not as artistic formalization, convokes the subject of that struggle: “In publicly announcing the first battle of the war, we are establishing what will be our norm: revolutionary truth.”

The display case produces a relationship among twelve books that would be almost impossible to satisfactorily verify, and yet it would be perilous to ignore the suggestion it opens, for these diverse texts all foster a novel way of being, an experimental disposition. These principles of experimentation might be unified, emblematized, or archived in the body of Elizondo’s Farabeuf; indeed, Elizondo’s text perhaps more than Guevara’s stands before these other texts as the secret code of their reading; this future archive was always what Farabeuf awaited. Or, rather, Guevara’s text is not quite as different from its novelistic counterpart as it should be. Like Farabeuf, the Bolivian diaries produce in excess the logic of an archivization. Both texts, finally, could be said to pursue the retelling of a singular death and thus to explicate the relation between archive and mortification that is at stake here.

Those open books, on the other hand, the books chained to the tables in the hall at the end of the museum, offer something like an ekphrasis, understood according to the terms of Alberto Moreiras’s reading of Farabeuf as a “postponement of meaning,” which here achieves a spatial inscription, standing as the books do at the very end of the memorial exhibition.³² Farabeuf is in this sense the key to interpreting the ekphrastic moment of so many books on 1968. Such postponement of meaning results from the faithfulness to its object that the work of ekphrasis proposes to carry out: too much fidelity, perhaps, even if the faithful will only have stared into the mirror image of the novel they are reading. Farabeuf, the reader will recall, begins with an “undeniable fact”: “Remember . . .? It is an undeniable fact that precisely in the moment in which Farabeuf crossed the door’s threshold, she, seated at the end of the hall, shook three coins in her cupped hands and then let them fall on the table.”

Through a series of nonchronological scenes, Elizondo explores a disturbing photograph of a man who is undergoing (who has just undergone) a grisly public execution during the Boxer Rebellion. Indeed, the photograph is said to capture the very instant of his death. It depicts the appalling scene of the Hundred Pieces, the death by torture of FouTchou-Li, convicted of regicide. It is Dr. Farabeuf, Elizondo tells us, who has committed the event to film; Farabeuf, we learn, studied with Étienne-Jules Marey. In keeping with the scientific, kinesiological, and medical approach to optics that drove Marey, the narrator notes that photography is quite similar to surgery: they are both sharp.³⁴ They are both forms of cutting, of mutilating—the body, the visual field, the time of the event captured.

Just as the work posits its own duration through the repeated interrogative that opens, closes, and reappears throughout the novel— “Remember?”—a remarkable homology obtains between photographic means of impression and the horrifying act captured. Photography is surgical, as is the disturbing mutilation it commits to film. Mutilation describes both photography’s formal procedures as well as, in this case, its object. The novel reproduces this image in the seventh chapter, when the event is said to take place, and this image evokes memory’s surgical quality. In consignation to oblivion and also to the archive, the instant that concerns memory must be severed from the surrounding instants that do not.³⁵ Such capture proposes to be the event of photography. This procedure is a kind of repression or censorship that occurs even in advance of an institutional censorship.

Precision becomes necessity: “It is necessary to evoke everything.”³⁶ The short novel turns on the relationship between some unquestionable fact to be extensively remembered, recounted, faithfully transferred from the imprint of memory or the imprint of photography (the two surfaces are, in Elizondo’s text, contiguous) onto the place on which the novel is written. There, in the site of its narration, begins the demand also for “evocation.” Beyond memory, it is necessary to summon or to conjure something more than what is in memory, indeed, all that is in memory, and all that one might conjure in its name. The certainty of incontestable facts shifts, in this instant, as it were, to the shadow of the event: “In fact, it is not even possible to clarify the exact nature of that act.”³⁷ Thus from “undeniable fact” the narration turns toward conjecture, a shadow or “uncertain light,” to again borrow Elizondo’s phrase.

A book mediates and archives what occurred, for there is always something in it that will have been extrinsic to it. Elizondo’s text thus vacillates between event—a secret future that voids any possible calculation or determination in the name of its own unfolding—and ekphrasis—a past that is hidden from us in the moment of its telling. To make things more difficult still, a mirror, or a pane of glass that we cannot see through or beyond, has already consigned us to the present of our own reading and thus distorts any possible relation to a world, encrypting our relation of or to any truth. In other words, can we even tell that we are in the “foto estudio”? As Elizondo puts it: “Do you see? The existence of a huge mirror, with gilded frame, raises an essential ambiguity in our narration of the events.”

It is too clear now that even the most diligent or obsessive collection of facts (“unquestionable” though they are) cannot disclose without effacement, without destruction, the event it documents. At best it sets the stage for an imaginative re-creation or reenactment that once again merely proposes a representation, understood as the substitution of something by its likeness. The photograph at the center of Elizondo’s narration (also Bataille’s photograph) is thus both evidentiary and artistic; it both renders visible the torture and execution of a man who has participated in the Rebellion and presages the photo-graphic violence to unfold in Mexico just a few years later.³⁹ Hidden in the museum, Elizondo’s novel offers a secret habitation, pushing the archival principle to its limit.

Photopoetics at Tlatelolco likewise inhabits the narration of Mexico, 1968 in order to unravel its order, to push it toward its limit, to establish against the archival principle an an-archival reflection. The study operates within the obscure legacy that 1968 has bequeathed: so often the standard-bearers of 1968 have imagined themselves to be speaking of a political event or emancipatory mobilization, but have, rather, ended up thinking about a massacre, for that is the “flag,” to return to Revueltas’s word, that we continue to raise to mark its event. The line of critique that runs through these pages traces how even the survivors and legatees of 1968 have submitted to the possibility that this crime itself might well open some new political formation. By means of a reflection on the sacrificial narrative that encrypts an event that took place around 1968, I will read the very work of memorialization as the second-order repression that followed the Mexican state’s criminal violence, acts of literal and also symbolic encryption. In Photopoetics at Tlatelolco I thus hope to begin the task of a secularization, a reading against sacrificial reason and toward a more operative and open thinking worthy of 1968. In so doing, I pursue the critique begun by Gareth Williams of what he calls the “essentially Christian narrative of 1968 as inescapable martyrdom, sacrifice, and social trauma.”

The book roughly follows a chronological order in addressing the representation of 1968, for the story it tells is also that of the so-called Mexican transition. Mine is a highly selective account; its selectivity not only is necessary, but also hopes to serve as a corrective to the archival madness that I read symptomatically throughout the study. I do not aim to be exhaustive in this endeavor, for to do so would not serve my broad aims toward the development of something like a theory of the Mexican present founded in the symptomatic reading of 1968’s afterimage. Put otherwise, the book ’s principle of organization is straightforward: each chapter takes up the genre (in order: essay, chronicle, testimonio, cinema, the novel, the plastic arts) that most forcefully expresses its particular juncture of the so-called democratic transition. With each chapter I will further displace the photo-trace and the object it indexes.

I should also note here that the book ’s theoretical engagement is likely susceptible to charges of a certain promiscuousness, and that is possibly justified. I will take the word “posthegemony” as the orienting horizon of the book ’s theoretical operation, because my book seeks to prolong the torsion between theory and practice. At the same time, it is no coincidence that the proper names that appear in my citations—if perhaps the theoretical sources more so than the so-called primary texts (though that is a ruse that I hope to expose as what protoposthegemonic thinker Carlos Monsiváis would call “emotional blackmail”)—are largely thinkers engaged with or bound to the signifier 1968, if, most frequently, in another geographical context.

The first chapter reads the literal and figurative encryption of the student-popular movement at Tlatelolco through its topo-nomological registration. The term “topo-nomological” comes from Jacques Derrida in his discussion of the conflation of law and place in an archive that, once formed, will gather to itself the traces of 1968.⁴¹ Reading 1968’s reception in the work of writers as ideologically different as José Revueltas and Octavio Paz, I will begin to establish an alternative account of what occurred around the signifier 1968. As an alternative, this version of 1968 will try to be an-archival, that is, anomic and atopic. Hopefully, by the end of the present study, the trace of that 1968 will remain, somehow, for the reader.

The second chapter reads Carlos Monsiváis’s reflections on 1968 and focuses on the collection Días de guardar, one of the first books published on 1968, as a photo-aesthetic writing that preserves the days it marks—frozen in time, against mourning and against redemption. A somewhat inaugural text, Días de guardar remains one of the few that offers the tools to think critically about both sacrifice and democratic consensus as they become bound together by the long trajectory of reflection on 1968.

The third chapter continues to a reading of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco, a testimonial work notable for its attempt to inscribe a new form of collectivity through the nascent civil society movement and thus announce a new kind of political and social being. Here I argue that Poniatowska’s text, rather, constructs a restitutive narrative of Mexican peoplehood following the massacre at Tlatelolco, and that this narrative is of a piece with that of the state to which it is ostensibly opposed. The text no longer fears doing some injustice to 1968 through its very representation, but, rather, assumes the seemingly graver and more properly political injustice of the massacre at Tlatelolco. It takes up the massacre as a political duty and thus as a point of departure for a different politics of the nation under the avatar of civil society, which formalizes a compensatory political space in anticipation of the Mexican state’s retreat from many of its former responsibilities.

The cinematic representation of the massacre emerged with the full-fledged onset of Mexico’s neoliberal transition in the late eighties. While the fourth chapter reads a number of attempts to film Tlatelolco, it centers on the most significant and, indeed, the best such film, Jorge Fons’s Rojo amanecer (1989), which I read as the symptom of its historical juncture; as cinematic reflection, Fons’s film condenses the very process of postpolitical forgetting that is the requirement of its moment (that of Salinas’s political transition). Cinema (as technology) brings the viewer through a continuous visual realization of transition in the rather literal, temporal sense that organizes the moving image as such.

The fifth chapter studies the relative lack of a “novel of ’68” in Mexico. I argue that Jorge Volpi’s 2003 El fin de la locura constitutes the final writing of such a novel, to appear some decades, now, after the events of that year. The double renewal pursued by Volpi’s work is explored both as an intended restoration of the literary to a place of social privilege following the period of its perceived decline and as a conservative restoration of police order in the neoliberal era following the revolutionary sequences of the twentieth century. However, I argue, Volpi’s novel cannot commit to artistic renewal without also confirming the madness of the century. The text thus forges the future of the necessary return to 1968 as the site of an experiment in art and politics that is vital today. The literary renewal pursued in Volpi’s text thus becomes the very political renewal that he seeks to avoid. Emancipatory politics returns, accidentally, through the literary, to what was set aside both by the original repression at Tlatelolco and in the subsequent photopoïesis of its representation, which guides the critical operation of my book.

The final chapter takes as its point of departure the museum-based reflection on 1968 that emerged in the 2000s and that found its first significant expression in Olivier Debroise and Cuauhtémoc Medina’s reperiodization of late-twentieth-century Mexican art. Opened at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in 2008 and titled La era de la discrepancia: Arte y cultura visual en Mexico, 1968–1997, the exhibition took its name from UNAM rector Javier Barros Sierra’s defense of the university’s autonomy during the 1968 upheavals (“Nos atacan porque discrepamos. Viva la discrepancia” [They attack the university because we differ. Long live discrepancy, for it is the spirit of the university. Long live discrepancy, because it allows us to serve]).⁴² Studying this periodization as a statement on the possibilities for art and politics after 1968, the chapter proposes a critical affirmation of the possibilities of the political (artistic and otherwise) in the works of BelgianMexican artist Francis Alÿs, centering on his 2002 project, When Faith Moves Mountains, a collaboration with Medina. Reading the work as anomic and atopic, unbound from law or place, I compare When Faith Moves Mountains to Alÿs’s Cuentos patrióticos (1997), an earlier and more directly referential piece on 1968, which is on display at the Memorial del 68. I engage the work through both recent theory and recent art criticism (primarily the discourse around so-called relational aesthetics) in order to read it, somewhat against the grain, as a kind of immaterial monument to 1968, or, rather, the erasure of its monument in practice, an an-archive of its past, a nonsite in which to rehearse and reactivate an experimental being-in-common after Tlatelolco.

As Ryan F. Long puts it: “The shots the flare cued, intended to close the book on a period of social conflict, instead initiated a process of interpretation of that conflict and its revelations about Mexican politics that continues to reverberate almost 40 years after the shots were fired.” The pages that follow capture this reverberation, allow it to intone and resound. Despite its having been consistently awaited by Mexican writing and visual culture (not to mention Mexican society) over the last half century, the future that any representation of Tlatelolco promises will refuse to arrive, or will refuse to arrive on time. The object here is thus the unraveling of that story, an an-archival approach to 1968, which establishes itself between the archive and what escapes it, holding to a trace of what did not properly take place, to the possibility of the event, its limits, and also its futures, in order to, as Deleuze put it, “keep it open, hang on to something possible.”


Photopoetics at Tlatelolco will be the fundamental contribution of Latin American studies to scholarship around the global 1968, a field that encompasses a vast group of researchers and students in a wide array of disciplines. This is a revisionist book in the best sense of the word, a challenging, polemic, well-thought, and thoroughly researched cultural history of Mexico in the wake of Tlatelolco. It is truly a major work of scholarship.”
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado, Associate Professor of Spanish and International Studies, Washington University, and author of Screening Neoliberalism: Transforming Mexican Cinema, 1988–2012