[Duke University Press; 2020]
The late 2010s were a harrowing — and at times enervating — period for the political left in the Americas. Nevertheless, in response to the retrenchment of the far right from the United States to Mexico to Brazil, people’s movements have surged into view in novel form. In the US, notably, organizing against police violence has gathered new strength in the wake of their murders of Black civilians, most infamously those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In summer 2020, in the face of brazen acts of repression by the Trump regime, and as the Covid-19 pandemic raged, the presence of thousands of defiant bodies in the streets forced politicians and public figures to revise their stances on the long-standing norms that have governed racialized state violence.
Historically, to pose a meaningful response to state brutality has always meant placing bodies on the line, whether through the occupation of public space en masse, street theater, hunger strikes, or bearing silent witness. While the structural and organizational dimensions of such acts of political protest are the subjects of widespread and prolonged discussion, some scholars — performance scholars in particular — point out that this embodied dimension is all too often neglected: fundamentally, it is physical postures and performatic acts that enable such world-altering conditions of visibility.
As Diana Taylor explains in Presente!: The Politics of Presence (Duke University Press, 2020), journalists, postcolonial scholars, and artists have all played critical roles in shaping our collective, heterogeneous understandings of the horizons, demands, and experiences of social movements and oppressed peoples. Nevertheless, the strictures of syndicated journalism, formal confines of postcolonial scholarship, and institutional commitments of grant-funded artistic research place limits on each of these disparate approaches. And so, Taylor argues for an alternative: one that is participatory, interdisciplinary, and unapologetically personal. Here, her case studies of embodied practices throughout the Americas, which aim to “expand the range of political possibilities within performance,” extend from the camino largo of the Zapatistas in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, to the “para-histories” surrounding the violent disappearances of students and left activists in Mexico in 1968 and 2014, to the traumatized practices of remembrance of victims of the Argentinean and Chilean dictatorships of the 1970s. Along the way, she produces a richly researched work of storytelling that positions her not simply as an academic, but also as narrator and co-conspirator.
Diana Taylor’s personal background informs her approach just as much as her academic one; a child of Canadian parents raised in Cuba and Mexico, she has experienced a wide range of national and political contexts. She earned her master’s at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and PhD at the University of Washington, both in comparative literature, and now teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University. Taylor foregrounds her alliances with a wide variety of actors, from the activist Bread and Puppet Theater and the pro-asylum New Sanctuary Coalition in New York, to migrant shelter organizers in Mexico. However, she is also upfront about the economic and political privilege that often divides her from her interlocutors — in spite of her bilingual and transnational background — and is refreshingly forthright about the challenges such boundaries of difference entail.
Presente! extends the theory of embodied practice laid out in her germinal Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (2003), where she argued that the potency of grassroots protests, theater, dance, and song, all hinge upon memory, and traumas, contained within the body. Here, however, she follows a more porous approach: her latest work is not only a documentation of her practice-based research, but more importantly, itself takes the form of a peregrination, inviting the reader to accompany her across an expanse of geographic and cultural “scenes of encounter.” Indeed, these scenes, understood through an approach to symbolism and language that draws heavily on the work of anthropologists Erving Goffman and Clifford Geertz, are central to her methodology. Due in part to her desire to distance herself from the Western colonial legacy of anthropology, and in part to her effort to re-inscribe the terms of the debate in more interdisciplinary terms, she prefers to think of her research as a political practice and exchange, and a more dialogic undertaking: a “walking and talking with others.”
Her unifying concept of presente, she explains, is “a war cry in the face of nullification; an act of solidarity as in responding, showing up and standing with; a commitment to witnessing; a joyous accompaniment; present among, with, and to … a militant attitude, gesture, or declaration of presence.” It is the heuristic that bridges her explorations across vast boundaries of difference, a permeable totem that lends itself to a range of encounters, both archival and personal. True to form, Taylor takes cues from a wide range of scholars in an endeavor to “undiscipline disciplines.” On one hand, her latest book offers her own twist on the speech act theory of J. L. Austin, while drawing upon the iconic philosophies of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, and postcolonial scholarship of Frantz Fanon, Achille Mbembe, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. But, less obviously, this work also reaches beyond the traditional scholarly source to involve the viewpoints of artists like Regina Jose Galindo and Francis Alÿs. It is on this point that this book truly shines, and on which it will appeal to an audience well outside the academic remit.
Arguably, much of what is beguiling in Taylor’s approach lies in her refusal to be defeated by the negative dimension of critique; rather, she embraces a relationship with political failure, by focusing precisely on what such failure might produce. “What can we do,” she asks, “when apparently nothing can be done, and doing nothing is not an option?” One of the arguments at the heart of her approach is the idea that even “failed” social movements produce shifts in the political landscape, creating new spaces for movement building, advancing techniques that may cross-pollinate struggles yet to come. For instance, in the viral imagery of the portraits of disappeared loved ones borne aloft by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, she discerns an underlying “traumatic meme” that has gathered force to emerge in a variety of global contexts, including in Hong Kong and among the families of the forty-three disappeared Mexican student teachers in 2014. In this sense, she offers a useful way of naming a technique for making-visible — a way of accounting for strategies of consciousness-raising with no single origin. Rather than reach easy conclusions about the roles of these movements, or seek to strictly demarcate their historical moments, Taylor is interested in the ways they exceed those confines, inhabiting “para-spaces” that spill over into other times, other places. To represent these struggles, she affirms — following the lead of performance scholars Stefano Harney and Fred Moten — may verge on the Sisyphean, but it is all the more so an ethical imperative.
One of the encounters that takes center stage in her book occurs in Oventic, a town in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas that is home to one of the more internationally accessible communities, or caracols, of the land-based Zapatista struggle. She describes her journey there to lead a workshop with the Hemispheric Institute, an organization she co-founded that initiates regular encuentros between performance artists and a wide-ranging cast of scholars and political activists throughout the Americas. Taylor is up front about the awkwardness of hosting such an academically oriented workshop alongside the Zapatistas, whose very bodies and communities are on the line in an armed struggle — and the discomfort of de-centering herself in the process. Alive to the risk of a betrayal of her own cause, she nonetheless forges ahead, underscoring the importance of working within, rather than against, this backdrop of risk. Taylor offers a thoughtful presentation of the Zapatistas’ militant struggle, which began in the 1980s, and burst onto the global scene with its declaration of regional autonomy in 1994, on the heels of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); her reading combines fragments of scenes, dialogues, and archival materials to point to political strategies that made their movement effective, in protracted struggle for recognition amid enduring state oppression. In particular, she views their performatic responses to violent persecution — namely, the use of silence, masking, refusal, and absence — as a durational performance that has served to elevate the profile of their movement; their iconic masks, for instance, are both an existential necessity and a deft performatic maneuver that allows them to maintain spaces of political sovereignty, an absence of recognition that in fact enables a form of presente, a demand for collective political recognition.
For a work so theoretically rigorous, Presente! stands out for its wide legibility. By foregoing unnecessary academic jargon and taking pains to explain her own ethical entanglements in plain English, Taylor’s scholarship makes for a surprisingly smooth read, though it is at times heartbreaking: she does not minimize the grimmer aspects of her subject matter, which include devastating accounts of kidnappings, torture, and genocide. The uninitiated reader will find her writing clear and unpretentious, and may discover that her gloss of the postcolonial canon does much to demystify. Whether the self-reflexive emphasis of such practice-based studies verges on self-absorption, though, remains an open question. At times, one might raise an eyebrow at her choice of language to describe poor people in the places she travels (in one passage, mere “drug addicts”); moreover, her blind spots on queer and trans issues show themselves in one chapter, in particular. On the whole, however, Taylor has produced an extremely helpful and sensitive account, if vast in scope. It is remarkable that hers manages to simultaneously offer not only a sharp reflection on the state of performance studies, but also an accessible entry point into a performatic take on today’s most consequential popular political mobilizations. Her conclusions bear upon the prospects of present-day political campaigns for the rights of oppressed groups — from immigrants to Black and Brown people to LGBTQ people — against today’s most pugnacious political actors: Trump, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, and Mexico’s Obrador, alongside Monsanto, Nestle, and extractivist industry across the Western hemisphere. These connections are nontrivial. Indeed, if we are to seize opportunities to change the world for the better, we would do well to heed her call to explore them.
Sam Adrien Smith is a freelance writer and editor. They live in Brooklyn.