A conversation between Marissa K. López, author of Racial Immanence: Chicanx Bodies Beyond Representation (NYU Press, 2019), and Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado (ISP): Marissa K. López’s book Racial Immanence: Chicanx Bodies Beyond Representation is in my view a major contribution to the study of the question of race, form and the politics of representation in contemporary art. I am very pleased to have this conversation with Marissa. I think there is a growing imperative to break the institutional divide between Mexican Studies and Mexican American/Chicanx Studies, to have wider and more organic dialogues. In this spirit, Marissa, how would you introduce the book to readers?
Marissa K. López (MKL): Nacho, I’m so glad to be breaking down divides with you! As you know, the western half of the US used to actually be Mexico, and the people, politics, culture, and economies of the two countries have always depended upon and migrated through each other. The same historical fluidity and continuity that condition US-Mexico relations underpin my argument in Racial Immanence.
Racial Immanence is about how and why artists use the body in contemporary Chicanx cultural production. In this book I try to make sense of the attention to disease, disability, abjection, and sense experience that I see increasing in Chicanx visual, verbal, and performing arts from the late-1980s to the early 1990s. This attention to the body is, I argue, a way to push back against two distinct modes of identity politics: first, the desire for art to perform or embody an idealized abstraction of oppositional ethnicity; and second, the neoliberal commodification of identity in the service of better managing difference and dissent. While these two modes seem mutually exclusive, the resistance the artists in my study exert towards both suggests a core similarity. By contrast, the cultural objects I examine in Racial Immanence assert human bodies as processes, as agents of change in the world rather than as objects to be known and managed.
Of course, artists attended to the body before the 1980s. Racial Immanence, in fact, grew from a paradox left unanswered in my first book, Chicano Nations (NYU 2011), the first third of which dealt with the nineteenth-century in the U.S. The paradox was this: race emerges, in literature and often in scholarship, as an abstraction or an index of geopolitical power; yet, race is a bodily fact and part of a material interaction with the world that often resists abstraction. In Chicano Nations, for example, I write about people like the Mexican politician-in-exile Lorenzo de Zavala who, in the 1830s, critiques Anglo discursive constructions of Mexicans at the same time he pays keen attention to popular health movements in the US and describes political conflict in epidemiological terms. Such bodily meditations increase significantly by the end of the twentieth century, so much so that, in addition to establishing a genealogy of corporeal musings, Racial Immanence asks what about this period prompts such marked attention to physicality in Chicanx arts.
ISP: I find that one of the most intriguing contributions of your book is the way in which you deploy the theoretical paradigms of new materialism and object-oriented ontology, and the work of thinkers like Karen Barad, Graham Harman and Bruno Latour. In particular, you cut through the binary aesthetics/identity binary to expand upon the political centrality of race and representation, challenging both the identity imperatives that sometimes emerge from ethnic studies and the idea that representation in itself is the ultimate goal of art from minoritized communities. Can you elaborate on your theoretical framework and your idea of “bodies beyond representation”?
MKL: You know how we tell our students that ultimately all research is me-search? Well, Racial Immanence – and even my first book, Chicano Nations, which I used to joke was about the “problem children” of Chicano literature that nobody wanted to claim – they’re both tools I made to grapple with being a white-passing Chicana. I move through this world protected by white privilege, and yet I carry my family’s history and experiences with me. People see me as white, but I see the world through brown eyes, which is not to say that I know the precarity of inhabiting a visibly brown body, but I know something. It means something to BE brown, even if one does not look it. Conversely, visible signs of race have to do more than simply index a set of racialized experiences legible to white power.
The fundamental theoretical question I pose in Racial Immanence is whether or not it is possible to think of race as something other than a human quality. Scholars like Paula Moya and Laura Gómez, for example, read race as legislatively enacted and imposed upon disempowered subjects. But, what if, instead, race is something real and material that nevertheless eludes language? Can we think of race without subjection? Can we imagine the body not as indexing a racially managed subject but as an object among objects? How does Chicanx cultural production help us think of race as something that transcends individual people, and what are the implications of that imagining?
These broad theoretical questions participate in four interrelated conversations, the descriptions of which illuminate what is at stake in my readings. First, there is the idea of what Walter Benn Michaels calls “neoliberal aesthetics.” Like Michaels and like Jodi Melamed, I am thinking about a resistance to representation, by both creators and consumers of cultural products, as a resistance to capital. Resisting a reified subjectivity, though, is not analogous to disavowing the significance of race and ethnicity, which contemporary theories of the posthuman tread dangerously close to doing. A second conversation in which Racial Immanence participates, then, is that around the status of race and ethnicity in these critical discourses. Taking a methodological cue from Jane Bennett, I take a vital materialist approach to race. Beginning from the premise that human flesh is simply matter existing in relation to other matter, I read race as important in so far as it conditions those material relations. From Graham Harman, I borrow the idea of form as that which conditions relations between, and can be thought separately from, objects.
Bridging the divide between new materialism and object-oriented ontology, I say that race might not be an object, but it certainly is a form of material affective experience that we can trace through Chicanx cultural production. Divorcing race from subjectivity in this way invokes the third conversation Racial Immanence engages: what is politics about if not subjects, and, relatedly, how can literature be political if not representing subjective experience? Here I draw on William Connolly’s work to depict Chicanx bodies and texts as “things”, in the sense Bruno Latour uses that word to designate “matters of concern.”
Shifting both literature and politics away from subjects leads to the final, and defining, question with which Racial Immanence grapples: what are we talking about when we talk about Chicanx literature and cultural production? These objects illuminate experience, but, more importantly, they help us push beyond experience to see our way through to reimagining political issues and communities.
ISP: In your first book, Chicano Nations: The Hemispheric Origins of Mexican American Literature (NYU 2011), and in Racial Immanence, there is a noticeable use of the term “Chicanx” in a way that exceeds the historicity of the term. In the first case you locate it in the 19th-century, decades before the coinage of the concept as we know it. In Racial Immanence, you apply the term to a corpus that includes artists who may not identify themselves with it. How does the term Chicanx work in your book, and why do you choose to deploy it instead to the more generic term “Mexican American”?
MKL: This is really several questions rolled into one. Can you really describe 19th century people as “Chicana/o”? Why not “Mexican American”? What about “Latino”? Finally, what’s the deal with the “x”? Can I use the “x” if the book isn’t primarily about queerness or gender non-conformity?
Can we use “Chicana/o” to describe people in the 19th century for whom the term was not available and who likely, even if it had been, would not have used it to describe themselves? Yep. I’m no stranger to pushback on this position. Why cling to this term “Chicano,” asked Eric Zinner, who edited both my books at NYU, if what I’m really sketching out is a transnational latinidad? Why not call this book Latino Nations? Moreover, Eric wondered, doesn’t expanding the historical scope and breadth of “Chicana/o” diffuse its historical force as a marker of el movimiento? Nope.
To extend Chicana/o in the ways I do, in all my work, fills the term with history. What is “Chicana/o”? For me, it is the tension between the national and the transnational, the colonial and the postcolonial, born out of the particularities of Mexican American history, that is, nevertheless, part of a much larger and longer American story. In the 1960s, “Chicana/o” came to be associated with a very specific political and cultural subjectivity that has been critiqued and revised since. But to let the galvanizing moment of el movimiento (the Chicana/o civil rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s) determine for all time what Chicana/o can mean is intellectually dishonest. Even within el movimiento Chicanas/os debated the meaning of chicanismo. “Chicana/o” is a living, breathing term with a past, a present, and a future. To say that it can only ever mean one thing, refer to one historical moment, is to vitiate its political and cultural import for the present.
Why not “Mexican American”? Why not “Latino”? “Mexican American” is a flat, heritage descriptor, while “Chicana/o” signifies a range of political positions I seek to amplify. “Chicana/o” comes into use after 1848 to refer to Mexicanos who chose to remain in the territories Mexico ceded to the US after the Mexican American War. As we move into the 20th century, it evolves into an epithet referring to poorer, darker skinned, more indigenous looking Mexicans. Reclaiming “Chicana/o” was an important part of el movimiento proclaiming chicanidad’s explicitly anti-imperialist, anti-racist, pro-indigenous, working class solidarity. My scholarship attends to work that sustains and nurtures this active resistance to white supremacy. Why not “Latino”? Put simply, “Latino” facilitates Anglo American innocence and comfort by eliding the specific histories of the US’s violent, racist, mercenary, and opportunistic relationships with individual countries in Latin America. I want to keep history alive and kicking.
Lastly, the “x”, which I struggled with. I discuss sexuality in the book – queer, homonormative, heteronormative – but Racial Immanence is not about gender non-conformity, which the “x” was meant to make visible, despite the ways it’s currently deployed in the service of a bland inclusiveness. I didn’t want to contribute to the erasure of non-binary folx, but I felt my arguments about resistance and representation were structurally analogous to queer activists’ and I felt a strong intellectual kinship with the work being done in those circles. Ultimately, I took the risk and I hope my book is seen as part of a solution rather than a problem.
ISP: As someone who focuses on Mexican culture mostly from Mexico City and other regions in the center and south of the country, I am very interested to hear from you about how the idea of Mexico evolves in the work of the artists you discuss from the 1970s and 1980s to the present.
MKL: Chicano Nations was about Mexico as a dream emerging from the swirl of enlightenment idealism following Napoleon’s 1808 invasion of Spain and the subsequent power vacuum in the Americas. I traced the Pan-American debates of the early 19th century through and beyond civil-rights-era Chicana/o nationalism to establish an intellectual tradition that was simultaneously local and global. This allowed me to treat Mexico as both solid fact and fungible concept, something that the earlier writers in my study were making up as they went along, and which the later writers treated as a toolkit, dismantling and reconfiguring to strategically essentialize in the face of 20th and 21st century challenges.
I deploy that same rasquachismo in Racial Immanence, beginning with a reading of the Piedra del Sol (sun stone), discovered by workers in 1790, which depicts significant figures in Aztec cosmology while gesturing towards Mesoamerican notions of cyclical time. This sun stone is popularly understood as a calendar, but it is not. Nobody really knows what it was for, but it definitely evokes the idea of time, even if it doesn’t actually mark it. It’s huge (24.5 tons), impenetrable, and will eternally resist interpretation; all we can do is trace its world-building interactions.
We find a similar example of material trace in Alejandro Morales’ The Rag Doll Plagues (1992), which I write about in my final chapter, where Mexican blood cures a mysterious disease, but nobody understands how or why. The bodies producing this blood, moreover, blossom from the toxic trash heaps that dot the “LAMEX” (as Morales calls the California-Mexico border region) landscape. Mexico is beauty-producing garbage, waste that refuses refusal.
To respond more directly to your question, though, the works I gather together in Racial Immanence trace a genealogy of chimeric Mexico, a political and cultural ideal whose complexity and opacity artists leverage against a long history of anti-brownness.
ISP: Although your book ostensibly presents itself as a book on “Chicanx bodies,” and even though you frame your first chapter on the idea of time, I find in your analysis that the category of space and the existence of bodies within spatiality is crucial, particularly in your discussion of visual artists like Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, or the work of Cecile Pineda and Stefan Ruiz, vis-á-vis, respectively, the stage and the television setting. How does your analysis rely on the idea of space?
MKL: I’m interested in metaphysical space, in how space is produced through cognitive and physical interaction with place. Space is intra-active performance, that is, to borrow Karen Barad’s word, just like “Mexico,” and space is inseparable from the body because it only has meaning for us insofar as we are physically in it. To put this in Merleau-Ponty’s terms, bodies are one manifestation of the flesh of the world that also constitutes space. We see this in Stefan Ruiz’s photographs, which I discuss in my second chapter: hyper-crisp, large format images that reveal two seemingly contradictory things at once. The pictures I analyze were all taken on the sets of telenovelas, and each depicts both staged fantasy as well as the labor underpinning that dream. Lovers kiss, for example, framed through the lens of a camera technician occluded in shadow. Set pieces, in some shots, lean against other sets, so that the viewer initially sees a jail cell, in one example, before realizing they are also seeing the back of another room. From Ruiz’s images we can extract the notion of space as layers of embodied place, race, and class. Ruiz has, moreover, spoken of the evolution of place in his telenovela images, noting that, over the decade he took the photos, he saw hacienda sets give way to prisons and other drug cartel settings. Space is fluid and fungible, then, evolving over time with varied, emotional resonance. Mexican spaces, especially in Ruiz’s photographs, are the both/and of mexicanidad that unravel the complexity of Chicana/o/x life.
ISP: As a final question, how do you conceive the audience for your book? As academics, we often address our professional colleagues and even our institutional peers and structures, yet Chicanx and Mexican American studies have a long genealogy of understanding scholarship as activism, as engagement with the community, and as political in a more immediate sense compared to other fields in the humanities. How you think the politics of your own work and the potential dialogues with the public that your book may elicit?
MKL: Tenure liberates you to take risks, to think and speak freely. Racial Immanence is my second book. I said what I wanted to say in my first book, but I said it in a very particular manner about objects strategically selected and framed in ways that felt innovative, but safe. I played my academic cards right, in other words, but also, I got lucky. The house always wins, and so after tenure I was less interested in playing by house rules.
Anyone who reads my acknowledgements in Racial Immanence will be able to gauge the net effect of that disinterest. It’s just hard for some people to wrap their heads around the fact that even though my last name is López and I teach Chicana/o/x literature, I’m capable of critiquing Kant’s distinction between noumena and phenomena. I have every right, moreover, to mobilize that critique through an analysis of the uses of accordions in contemporary Chicano punk rock.
The accordion brings me back around to your question about audience. One of the things I’m most proud of, a signal career achievement, is the relationship I’ve built with Álvaro del Norte, accordionist and lead singer for Piñata Protest and primary subject of my coda. I’ve been a fan of his band for years, and I realized about halfway through writing Racial Immanence that the book was really about him.
After we connected over social media and I sent him my book, Álvaro started Tweeting about it. All of a sudden, I had a bunch of punkero fans following me on social media and causing a tiny uptick in book sales. I respect my colleagues; I’m grateful they granted me tenure and promoted me to Full Professor, but I didn’t write Racial Immanence for them. I wrote it for myself, and the greatest measure of its success, to my mind, is that it’s being read by some angry, teen-aged punkera out there who’s going to grow up one day, burn everything down, and build it all anew.
Marissa K. López is Professor of English and Chicana/o Studies at UCLA, researching Chicanx literature from the 19th century to the present with an emphasis on 19th century Mexican California. She has written two books: Chicano Nations (NYU 2011) is about nationalism and Chicanx literature from the early-1800s to post-9/11; Racial Immanence (NYU 2019) explores uses of the body and affect in Chicanx cultural production. She just completed a year-long residency at the Los Angeles Public Library as a Scholars & Society fellow with the ACLS where she worked to collaboratively develop a mobile app, “Picturing Mexican America,” that uses geodata to display images of Mexican California relevant to a user’s location.