Imagination: A New Politics of Resistance

 

There is the real and there is the fantastic. The aggregation of those things we perceive to be real comprises our ‘ontology’. Ontology may be understood as a perceptual architecture. Thoughts, ideas and experiences that fit inside this architecture are perceived to be real, while those that fall outside are deemed fantastic. This ‘architecture of the real’ governs the shape, direction and purpose of action.

To illustrate this, imagine I am leaving my house and I hear thunder breaking in the distance. I am not motivated to kneel on the earth, construct a shrine and make an offering, because an angry thunder god does not exist in my ontology, nor does the thought of one fit with my perceptual architecture. I am motivated to fetch an umbrella however, as rain exists in my ontology, along with a rudimentary understanding of the science of storms.

Political practice is rooted in a distinct ontology, a perceptual architecture that structures motivation and action in the political arena. This ontology defines the boundaries of meaningful political discourse; it directs what is portrayed in the media and what is discussed by analysts; this architecture is reflected in the decisions of the electorate and is championed by parties across the political spectrum.

The premise of this essay is that our global politico-economic ontology has come to be defined and dictated by capitalist globalisation and its political supplement, liberal democracy, to the consequence that opposing ideas are excluded entirely from the political arena. Mark Fisher articulates and explores this idea in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism. He describes the title as referring to “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it”.[1]

The argument I put forth in this essay is that a radical restructuring of our political ontology is urgently needed and that this can only be achieved in the first instance through a reconquest of our collective imagination, which, as Fisher states, has become enfettered within the paradigm of capitalist globalisation.

The imagination is vital. It may be understood as an intercessor, the mediator that stands between our ontological architecture and the unbounded realms of new experience. The imagination arranges all the contradictory and bewildering information we receive on a daily basis and argues for the inclusion of foreign ideas and alien notions in our categories of the real. The imagination searches the fantastic realms for new ideas and thoughts and presents them to the perceptual architecture for consideration. In short, the autonomy and independence of the imagination is of the utmost importance. In an individual, subjugation of the imagination before rigid ontological categories leads to a closed mind and to actions and projects that lack insight or compassion. In global politics, subjugation of the imagination lies at the heart of the continued domination of a political paradigm that breeds inequality, impoverishment and disenfranchisement, while wreaking unending ecological and cultural devastation.

If the imagination is to be our battleground, then it is to our artists we must turn for guidance, to our writers and musicians, to those who have spent centuries honing the creative crafts. In their hands we find an armoury of subversive techniques by which we may liberate the enfettered imagination. It is they who may teach us of how to infiltrate the bastion of the capitalist real with fantastic alternatives. Our project is to identify these subversive techniques and to harness them in the service of resisting the dominant political ontology.

We will open this sphere of enquiry through an examination of ‘magical realism’, a literary genre that rose global attention out of Latin America in the 1960s, most prominently in Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. We will identify the devices that authors writing within this genre employ and what they reveal about the structures of human perception. We will then translate the modern politico-economic situation into the framework of magical realism to see how the borderline enclosing the global capitalist real may be infiltrated. The techniques of magical realist writers will lead us to propose a new form of political activism, which I name ‘guerrilla ontology’. We will articulate how this practice could operate in modern society and we will illuminate its subversive potential through an account of the Zapatistan uprising of Chiapas, Mexico, which embodies a kindred ethic. This will lead us to recognise the poignant position that indigenous peoples hold in the counter-globalisation movement and we will come to an understanding of how their worldview may inform our resistance.

We live in a time of transformative potential; Immanuel Wallerstein calls the present era a ‘transformational timespace’. This is time wherein the reconfiguration of state and society may be achieved. This transition however, cannot occur unless it is first articulated and then instigated; he calls this an exercise of ‘utopistics’.[2] This then is the aim of our project: to articulate a new politics of resistance against capitalist globalisation, a politics informed by the techniques of artists. This politics of resistance will seek to penetrate the perceptual architecture of the dominant paradigm and unfetter the social imagination, transforming that way in which resistance may be conceived.

INFILTRATING THE REAL

Every journey conceals another journey within its lines: the path not taken and the forgotten angle.” (Winterson, The Passion)

Erich Auerbach saw all literary history from Homer to Proust as progressively defining a realistic mode of narrative.[3] This mode, understood simply as ‘realism’, consists of a set of shared conventions that act to guide the reading of a narrative in accordance with its construction. This is the perceptual architecture of the novel; it can be thought of as a literary ontology.

Direct and deliberate transgression of these conventions gives birth to alternative, sometimes ‘fantastic’ literary genres. Magical realism is unique amongst non-realist modes in that it displays an overt adherence to realist conventions, which are instilled and made patent to the reader only to be immediately subverted. The fantastic elements of magical realist fiction are expressed and embedded in the realist idiom – the magical realist writer may imitate a non-fictional mode, such as journalism or history; or provide excess real-world detail while adopting a dead-pan tone – the fantastic elements are therefore not inherently fantastic, but become perceptible as such only in the context of the literary conventions in whose midst they arise.

The boy who had helped at Mass took him a cup of thick and steaming chocolate which he drank without pausing. Then he wiped his lips with a handkerchief he took from his sleeve, stretched out his arms and closed his eyes. Then Father Nicanor rose six inches from the ground. It was a convincing strategy. For several days he went around to different houses, repeating the proof of levitation through stimulation by chocolate.” (García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

The boundaries of magical realism are not easy to delineate, but the writers at its forefront may be named. These include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, and Julio Cortazar in Latin America; Toni Morrison and Robert Kroetsch; Haruki Murakami in Japan; Ngugi wa Th’iongo, Abdelkebir Khatibi, Ben Okri; and Salman Rushdie and Jeanette Winterson in Britain.

At the heart of the genre is the tension experienced at the point of collision between two conflicting worldviews. A dominant worldview arises from the conventions of literary realism, and is typically ‘Western’ and rational-scientific. This constitutes the perceptual architecture by which the realist text is constructed and in which it is intended to be read. In magical realism, this worldview is then infused with any number of marginalised perspectives who take the place of the fantastic within the bounds of the novel. In Latin American literature this marginalised perspective is usually that of the ‘native’ mythos, which is presented as magical and offered up against the realist paradigm as a form of anti-colonialism. Seen through a postcolonial lens, magical realist fiction undertakes to recompense the cultural hierarchy imposed by the coloniser by offering a supplemental non-Western worldview.[4]

He had not stopped desiring her for a single instant. He found her in the dark bedrooms of captured towns, especially in the most abject ones, and he would make her materialize in the smell of dry blood on the bandages of the wounded, in the instantaneous terror of the danger of death, at all times and in all places. He had fled from her in an attempt to wipe out her memory, not only through distance but by means of a muddled fury that his companions at arms took to be boldness, but the more her image wallowed in the dunghill of war, the more the war resembled Amaranta. That was how he suffered in exile, looking for a way of killing her with his own death.” (García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Salman Rushdie interprets this as a broad conflict of old against new. In the introduction to García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, he writes, “magical realism, at least as practiced by Márquez, is a development out of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new.”[5]

This abstract idea is given concrete embodiment in One Hundred Years of Solitude in the person of Melquíades, “the impossibly old” and literally dead, who returns to life to chronicle Macondo’s history, foreshadowing the reawakening of buried beliefs that proceed to rise in seemingly magical fashion to challenge the “appallingly new” realities of contemporary life.

Jeanette Winterson’s distinctive rendering of magical realism is quite different to the post-colonial Latin American mode, but is nonetheless also rooted in the confrontation between marginalised worldviews and a dominant paradigm. In Gut Symmetries, Winterson takes up marginalised sexual, scientific and artistic perspectives against the prevalent, linear and positivist worldview of classical mechanics.[6] The opposing mode of understanding is embodied in the fluid, interconnected world of the “new physics”, which she relates to arcane systems of alchemical knowledge and to the Kabbalah.

If you want to know how a mistress marriage works, ask a triangle. In Euclidean geometry the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees and parallel lines never meet. Everyone knows the score, and the women are held in tension, away from one another. The shape is beguiling and it could be understood as a new geometry of family life.
Unfortunately, Euclidean theorems works only if space is flat.
In curved space, the angles over-add themselves and parallel lines always meet.
His wife, his mistress, met
.” (Winterson, Gut Symmetries)

Let us understand magical realism as a subversive literary form that adopts the perceptual architecture of literary realism in order to sabotage it with fantastic elements. This artistic rebellion is motivated by a sense of dissatisfaction felt towards the dominant paradigm and is rooted in the realisation that any social ontology is only ever ‘half made’. Magical realist writers reject the monopoly of truth claimed by the dominant literary mode and work to undermine it by infusing an alternative worldview into the architecture of the real.

AN UNCONDITIONAL IMPERATIVE

Before we explore the techniques that magical realist writers employ in their rebellion and identify how they may inform our politics of resistance, let us first take account of our political ontology in action.

Before we explore the techniques that magical realist writers employ in their rebellion and identify how they may inform our politics of resistance, let us first take account of our political ontology in action.

The first decade of the twenty-first century saw the deepening of various international crises: crises of poverty, of hunger, crises of Aids, of lack of water and global warming. The reaction of the international community to these exposes the structures that underpin perception in the political arena. To each of these, the international reaction has been one of postponement; world leaders have consistently found space to delay decisive action, to debate and reflect, no matter how urgent or vital the problem. This is because a crisis may only motivate action to the extent to which it impinges upon the real, which is defined according to the priorities of neo-liberal expansion. In 2009, world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to seek a solution to the climate crisis facing the planet. For some nations this was literally a matter of life and death, for the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati, all of whom face submersion beneath rising sea levels in the next 100 years.[7] While the leaders and peoples of these nations pleaded, the grand conclusion of the summit was that leaders should reconvene two years later for further discussions.

We may compare this to the international community’s reaction to the financial meltdown of 2008, where the urgency was unconditional. An extraordinary sum was immediately found in the face of absolute global panic; a transnational and non-partisan unity was immediately established and all grudges amongst world leaders were momentarily forgotten. The US alone spent $700 billion on stabilising its banking system; this may be compared to the $22 billion pledged by richer nations combined to help poorer nations cope with the food crisis.[8] This inconceivably large sum of money was not spent on any clear tangible task, but for reasons of belief and perception, to ‘restore confidence’ in the markets. This is proof of the perceptual architecture of global politics. The demands of starving children, of biodiversity and treatable disease, these are fantastic requirements that lie outside the perceptual architecture of capitalism and consequently fail to motivate a response. ‘Save the Banks!’ however, is an unconditional imperative that demands and receives immediate action.[9]

BROKEN PROMISES 

The story of neo-liberal globalisation is the story of broken promises: The promise was that the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s signified the triumph of the Enlightenment and the beginning of a new global era rooted in the Western ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. The promise was that the unfettered liberalisation of the free market would ensure these ideals through the fair and equal distribution of wealth, a stable global environment, and universal human rights. The promise was that the imposition of financial deregulation and trade treaties on developing nations would be instrumental in bringing about these benefits.

The truth has been quite different: The truth is that unlimited accumulation and expansion are the insatiable aim of globalisation. The truth is that the rewriting of geographical space through terra nullius and Manifest Destiny are the essence of growth. The truth is that the dispossession of indigenous lands and the destruction of their ways of life are directly locatable within the logic of this process. The truth is that structural oppression and increasing inequality are inherent to ‘free trade’ economics; and that debt and dependence are the secret aim of deregulation. The truth is that the exploitation of the vulnerable and the destruction of the environment are the footprints that fall under the capitalist march of progressa href=”https://tetrahension.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=2&action=edit#_edn10″>%5B10%5D

Our modern politico-economic structure has its roots in the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 that created the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. This conference laid the foundation for the modern paradigm whose explicit aspiration is for unbounded expansion and accumulation. Henry Morgenthau expressed as an “elementary economic axiom… that prosperity has no fixed limits.” In his opening address to the conference, he stated its intention for

the creation of a dynamic world economy in which the peoples of every nation will be able to realize their potentialities in peace… and enjoy, increasingly, the fruits of material progress on an earth infinitely blessed with natural riches.”[11]

This earth (“infinitely blessed”) today endures its sixth era of mass extinction;[12] this earth (“infinitely blessed”) holds 1.1 billion people who lack access to drinking water, and 2.6 billion without basic sanitation;[13] this earth (“infinitely blessed”) sees 80% of its natural resources consumed by 20% of its population. The blessings of a system that seeks infinite accumulation in a world of finite resources are those of inequality, destitution and impoverishment. The final frontier of an insatiable hunger is to be found in the landscapes of the mind, with the yoking of the imagination, with the subjugation of the soul.

MAGICAL DEVICES 

Walk with me. Hand in hand through the nightmare of narrative, the neat sentences secret-nailed over meaning.” (Winterson, Gut Symmetries)

In counter-offensive against this subjugation we turn to our artists for guidance. Magical realist writers present us with a set of texts that are the battleground for a campaign of guerrilla warfare waged against the perceptual architecture of literary realism. This campaign is rooted in the realisation that ordinary realism cannot represent certain realities, that the dominant ontology claims a false monopoly. The devices employed in this literary war will inform our politics of resistance.

The essence of any guerrilla campaign is that outright assault is withheld in favour of continued subversion; in magical realism this is undertaken through a campaign of linguistic and conceptual violation. Integral to this is a broad process of literalization by which the abstract is endowed with material actuality. This process can take a number of forms.

It can be applied to metaphor. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie allows the environment of racial prejudice to bring about physical alterations in his characters. Saladin is considered a “fucking Packy billy” and subsequently transforms into a goat. In Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Creta Kano is a “prostitute of the mind” who has sex with people in their dreams in order to relax their mental states; and in Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, India’s business men “turn white” as they follow in their colonisers’ footsteps. By moving from abstraction to literalization and rendering metaphors ‘real’, magical realist literature illuminates the power that such constructions hold over human perception and the influence they exert over thought and action.

The same technique is applied to abstract nouns, which are endowed with materiality. Rushdie presents us with a world in which emotions give off smells like material things and words inflict physical wounds. In One Hundred Years of Solitude a “web of tenderness” must be physically pushed aside from the bed before the beloved can leave, and Ursula searches longingly for memories in literal corners. Such violations arise spontaneously throughout the text, with the overall effect being the dissolution of the predominance of the physical world as a criterion of value. Through this guerrilla campaign against the perceptual architecture of literary realism, the conceptual and non-material worlds are shown to be just as immediate and just as influential.[14]

This process of literalization is counter-balanced by an inverse technique whereby perfectly ordinary events are portrayed in a way that makes them appear incredible. Not only is fiction presented as fact, but fact as fiction. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, technological and natural ‘miracles’ such as ice, magnets, telescopes, a magnifying glass and steam-engines are presented to the characters in a fantastic manner by hordes of gypsies and magicians. Likewise, the most basic facts of the story are given as fables.

Colonel Aureliano Buendía led thirty-two armed uprisings and lost them all. He had seventeen sons by seventeen different women, and they were killed one after another on a single night before the oldest had reached the age of thirty-five. He escaped from fourteen assassination attempts, seventy-three ambushes, and a firing squad.” (García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Alejo Carpentier calls this “lo real maravilloso”, the marvellously real.[15] The technique finds full embodiment in the character of José Arcadio Buendía, who, having become “fascinated by an immense reality which then became more fantastic for him than the vast universe of his imagination,” consequently, “lost all interest in his alchemy laboratory.” Having witnessed the wonders of ice and magnets, reality for José Arcadio Buendía is more fantastic than the world of his imagination. José Arcadio is not a realist, even when it comes to reality.

The effect of this technique is to disrupt the perceptual architecture of the novel and dislodge the dominant paradigm from its monopoly over the real. The writer’s aim here is not to replace one overarching ontology with an opposing one, but to illuminate the extent to which all perceptions of reality are fictional constructs and are influenced by social and cultural factors.

In this sense magical realism can be understood as being primarily concerned with unveiling and harnessing the processes through which human beings individually and collectively perceive their world. Competing modes of knowledge production are presented and demonstrated to all be akin to fictional narratives. Magical realism simultaneously redeems fiction as an important mode of knowledge production while also deconstructing all knowledge as fiction.

I know that the earth is not flat but my feet are. I know that space is curved but my brain has been condoned by habit to grow in a straight line. What I call light is my own blend of darkness. What I call a view is my hand-painted trompe-l’oeil. I run after knowledge like a ferret down a ferret hole. My limitations, I call the boundaries of what can be known. I interpret the world by confusing other people’s psychology with my own. I say I am open-minded but what I think is.” (Winterson, Gut Symmetries)

This process is underpinned by the use of self-subversive truth claims; with these the narrator further loosens the reader’s perceptual structures by admitting that the tale they are telling sounds improbable. Jeanette Winterson is frequently to be found admitting that she is, in fact, ‘only telling stories’. The consequence is the opposite of what might be expected, for these anti-truth-claims serve to reinforce our confidence in the narrator. They suggest that there is more than one way of telling the truth and that the real is no less a story than the fantastic. Winterson’s exclamation in The Passion, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me”, is the concise embodiment of the magical realist project: the simultaneous deconstruction of the bastion of the real enacted through the restoration of magical perspectives.

THE BRITISH ELECTION

The perceptual architecture of capitalist globalisation is not restricted to influence over a powerful elite, but is embraced by the masses and is embodied in the media. Witness the media coverage of the 2010 British prime-ministerial election. Leading TV pundit Nick Robinson could be seen heckling Liberal Democrat negotiators, jeering, “Are you not in danger of playing both sides while the country waits and the markets quake?” Meanwhile, Peter Riddell of The Times can be found musing, “The main challenge [for a Labour-led coalition] would be financial. Could [it] gain and retain the confidence of the financial markets?” This pre-occupation with the markets lies at the heart of the capitalist ontology and dominated every aspect of political analysis, to the exclusion of pressing humanitarian and ecological concerns. The Daily Mail’s City editor warned ominously as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats sought an alliance, “The markets have no appetite for political horse-trading. Instead, they are demanding decisive action.”[16]

The apparent comfort with which the governmental alliance was subsequently formed betrays the common core of these two supposedly opposing parties. This core resides in a shared commitment to the ideals of ongoing neo-liberal globalisation. Though the Liberal Democrats claimed the position of radical opposition in the run up to the election, they have proved to be Janus-faced. Their politics remains locked within the same perceptual paradigm as the Conservatives and the choice they offer the electorate is therefore nothing more than another face dressed up in a different coloured tie. The Green Party, the closest thing to a genuinely radical alternative in Britain, the only party offering opposition to continued neo-liberal expansion, received less than 1% of the total popular vote, less than the fascist BNP.[17]

‘TELL ME A STORY, SILVER.’

‘What story?’
‘The story of what happens next.’
‘That depends’.
On what?’
On how I tell it.’ (Winterson, Lighthousekeeping

GUERRILLA ONTOLOGY

In the literature of magical realism, fantastic elements arise spontaneously and independently throughout the text, they are not put forth systematically. Each magical happening has the effect of carving open a small space into which an alternative perspective enters. These individual intrusions into the ontology of the text weave together in the reader’s perception to form a web, a magical network, which constitutes an overarching worldview that undermines the perceptual architecture of literary realism.

A politics of resistance informed by this methodology must adopt a similar, non-systematic approach. It must also operate within the established bounds of political realism, as defined by the perceptual architecture of capitalist globalisation. It must therefore operate within the bounds of the neo-liberal state. In this our politics finds itself in opposition to traditional Marxist programmes that advocate the abolition or overthrow of the state, as do all manner of other factions on the political left. Ours will be a guerrilla war, and as such the vertical hierarchy of state power may remain intact. Our focus will be on carving open spaces within the state structure, spaces of independence from the state. Our politics will therefore focus on opening up the horizontal interstices of power.

An interstitial space is simply a gap or empty space between other structured spaces.[18] These may be found anywhere – in city centres, in the workplace, in council estates and schools, in universities, festivals, in hospitals and squats. These are everyday spaces. Our resistance will be rooted in localities, in the situation.

In these spaces spontaneous acts of dissent will constitute the fantastic intrusions that arise spontaneously in magical realist writing. Aggregations of these acts of dissent amongst like-minded individuals will entail the formation of alliances of self-determination that stand removed from the state structure and associated ontology. In this our politics is almost anarchistic, at least in the sense articulated by Colin Ward in Anarchy in Action. Ward states that anarchy is “far from being a speculative vision of a future society,” but instead, may be understood as “a descriptive mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life, which operates side by side, with, and in spite of, the dominant authoritarian trends of our society.” Our politics will embody this ethos by rooting resistance in the situation. As Ward states, “alternatives are already there, in the interstices of the dominant power structure. If you want to build a free society, the parts are all at hand.”

Through a process of literalization politically fantastic ideas will be enacted practically in these spaces, giving rise to alternative ways of living. This can be implemented between neighbours and colleagues, in the forming of professional co-operatives and of local alliances, in any social or professional relationship that involves individuals working together in a situation to commit to a plan, a place, a space, a process, the consequence of which is the crafting of an opening between the ontological structures of state power. Satire and direct forms of protest play an instrumental role in dislodging the dominant narrative; these have the effect of unveiling the ruling mode as “lo real maravilloso”, itself fantastic, thus displacing the capitalist claim to fact and illuminating it as fiction.

I name this form of political activism ‘guerrilla ontology’, a term I borrow from Robert Anton Wilson.[19] Guerrilla ontology (in our usage) is the act of carving open spaces within the state in which there may arise activities and thoughts normally rejected by the perceptual architecture of global capitalism. Karl Marx identified these interstitial spaces as the root of “wahre Demokratie“, ‘true democracy’.

Such spaces are already being opened, as shown in the Transition Town movement. Transition Towns, of which there are now over 300 globally, are community projects that seek to develop alternative local infrastructures that support sustainable energy production, health provision, education, economy and agriculture. With the prime focus being on ‘peak oil’ and climate change, Transition Towns do not seek to overthrow the vertical state structures in any of the aforementioned areas, but to evolve sustainable alternatives and implement the reorganisation of society about loci that are radically divergent to those put forth by the state. This is done voluntarily, and is founded on the nurturing of cooperative relationships. In Britain, the towns of Totnes, Stroud and Lewes have introduced their own currency, designed to support local agriculture and food production, while other towns have sought to implement Bob Hoskins theories of ‘permaculture’, integrating food production with the natural environment.

In these spaces ideas and activities can occur that are in direct opposition to the perceptual architecture of capitalist globalisation. This is guerrilla ontology at work, and in this sense, we should understand guerrilla ontology as not just prescribing a new form of activity, but as descriptive of certain types of activities that are already taking place. The usefulness of guerrilla ontology as a descriptive mode is its ability to identify these activities amidst myriad others and reframe them in the context of competing perceptual paradigms. With the roots of guerrilla ontology residing in magical realism, these activities may be understood according to their relation to the dominant ontology, as subversive elements within an emergent network of resistance. The project of a politics of resistance is to be found in weaving these isolated and disconnected acts and ideas into a united front, into a collective will that may some day stand opposed to the dominant political mode. This process is already underway, and it is occurring on a global scale.

INDIGENOUS

The strengthening of international networks on indigenous peoples since the 1970s has seen the emergence of a new ‘politics of indigeneity’ as a critical component in the affirmation of indigenous peoples’ determination to reclaim their histories, their epistemologies and their political autonomy. Key strategies at both the global and local levels are political engagement and the development of counter-discourses.”[20] 

In 1988 Carlos Salinas de Gortari was elected president of Mexico under the shadow of an economic crisis that had forced the government to turn to the IMF for aid. Under pressure from the US, the new president introduced strict neo-liberal reforms, privatising the economy and deregulating national markets. These ‘structural adjustments’ meant that local agriculture became integrated into the international economy, with the consequence that locally grown crops ceased to be a vital right of the poor and became a commodity. Peasant farmers were thrown off their land to open it up for more lucrative export and found themselves forced into sweat-shops. The reforms constituted the large-scale reversal of the pro-peasant initiatives of previous decades and their abandonment led to widespread protest, which the army responded to by instigating a devastating crack down on peasant organisations. These included the repression, incarceration, intimidation and murder of hundreds of peasant activists. This led to an inevitable and sharp decline in activism, and the term ‘peasant’ ceased to grant an authentic voice to the dispossessed.

The suppression of peasant identity by neo-liberal policy was an act of disarticulation that stripped a people of its nascent political agency. In The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics, Courtney Jung identifies this as a transformative moment, for it was within this space of disarticulation that activists began to forge a new identity. The identity was that of the ‘indigenous’. Though this was a pre-existent cultural category, its articulation politically was a novel achievement. As the voice of Mexico’s indigenous communities gained in clarity, they joined the voices of hundreds of other communities worldwide, giving rise to an international chorus that was instrumental in the establishment of International Labor Organization Convention 169, which enshrines the collective rights of indigenous people in international law and provides the foundation for an indigenous political identity. It was Mexico’s ratification in 1990 that brought ILO 169 into effect.

The establishment of indigenous political identity was achieved through carving open of countless small spaces within the ontological structure of world politics, and through them forming a network of resistance in the shape of a new political identity. This identity was formed against the repressive actions of the neo-liberal state through the articulation of a new universal name – the indigenous. This is guerrilla ontology at work on a global scale; the entwining of thousands of independent voices into a web of resistance against the horrors of globalisation. This is real world magical realism.

The transnational alliances formed off the back of the indigenous emergence now form the leading edge of the modern counter-globalisation movement. Included in these is the People’s Global Action network that initiated the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. This group, and others, had their origins in the famous International Encounter for Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism, which took place in 1996 “knee-deep in the jungle mud of rainy-season Chiapas”, hosted by the Zapatistas.[21]  

The indigenous now hold a poignant position in the counter-globalisation movement. Courtney Jung argues they stand in the empty space where Marx’s proletariat once stood, as the prime revolutionary subject. She writes,

‘Indigenous’ is the new ‘proletariat’. Indigenous people sustain a powerful moral critique against neo-liberal globalization because they are constructed as the literal corporeal embodiment of its antithesis. The indigenous is ancient, communal, traditional and moral, able to draw on a wealth of inherited wisdom to operate in organic sympathy with the earth and its natural resources. Globalization on the other hand is atomising and amoral, leaving in its wake detritus of unemployed labour, depleted resources and degraded environments. Globalization threatens the indigenous idyll.”[22]

We must be careful here not to succumb to what Spivak calls the ‘revisionary impulse’,[23] we must not fall into the trap of appropriating indigenous concerns as our own, homogenising their cultures or commodifying their struggle. Nevertheless, the perceptual architecture at the heart of their identity stands in direct opposition to the twin ideals of expansion and accumulation that underlie globalisation. We shall see the significance of this for our politics of resistance below.

¡YA BASTA!

  

On 1st January 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. On the same day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and declared war on the Mexican government. The neo-liberal reforms at the heart of NAFTA signalled a deepening of the crises of poverty, death and destitution that already gripped thousands of indigenous communities in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. The Zapatistan response, the ‘war on oblivion’, was the culmination of ten years of covert planning and five centuries of resistance to colonisation, genocide, and exploitation.

An uprising of 5000 insurgents, predominantly indigenous Mayan, but also including Nahuatl and Zapotec factions, seized control of seven cities in the highlands of Chiapas and declared a new dawn of anti-capitalist politics. Careful to exercise tight restraint over violence and to avoid civilian casualties, the cities of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Altamirano, Chanal, Oxhuc and Huixtán fell under Zapatistan command.

The following day the army lauched a bloody counter-offensive, choosing not to exercise the same restraint over violence. Fierce battles in Ocosingo resulted in heavy casualties and the rebels were forced to retreat to the jungle. As tens of thousands of troops poured into Chiapas to eradicate the rebel uprising, a hundred thousand supporters mobilised and marched on the streets of Mexico City in a display of solidarity. Faced with overwhelming public support, the army were forced into a ceasefire, and on January 12th the Zapatistas were invited to negotiate.[24] What emerged from negotiations was a rebel movement without precedent; the Zapatistas had invented a new revolutionary form.

The traditional model of revolution, exercised in all uprisings from Russia in 1917 to Nicaragua in 1979, centres on the revolutionary faction seeking to overthrow the ruler or government and seize power of behalf of the people. This model is based upon the assumption that the revolutionary force represents the will of the people and may exercise that will through the power they seize. The Zapatistas rejected this in favour of a radical alternative.

It is not our arms which make us radical; it is the new political practice which we propose and in which we are immersed with thousands of men and women in Mexico and the world: the construction of a political practice which does not seek the taking of power but the organization of society.”[25]

Following the initial 12 day uprising, the Zapatistas committed to a strict ethos of non-violence and focussed on carving a space within the state in which the radical reorganisation of society could be achieved. In this, the Zapatistan project is attuned to ours. They sought to do this without overthrowing the vertical hierarchy of state power, rejecting the idea that a revolutionary faction could have the right to hold power on behalf of the people.

Following negotiations, the Zapatistas were granted a partially-liberated zone of thousands of square kilometres. In this zone they have carried out a long running experiment in self-management, based upon direct forms of democracy and radical egalitarianism. Journalist Nick Rider visited in 2009 and explains the Zapatistan society:

More hairpins on, and beyond a sign announcing that ‘You are in Zapatista territory. Here the people command and the government obeys’, we dropped down into Oventic, a collection of wooden and corrugated iron huts around a few more solid buildings, with a central core ringed by a fence. In 2003 the Zapatistas … linked each of the 2,000 or so often tiny villages they controlled to hub villages known as caracoles (‘conch’ or ‘snail’), the concept being that contacts and ideas could spiral – in the manner of a snail shell – between the centre and the villages. Each caracol has a Junta de Buen Gobierno or ‘Good Governance Committee’, and the whole network operates outside conventional authority. Oventic is the most prominent caracol, and even has a sign declaring it the ‘central heart of the Zapatistas before the world’.”[26]

The Zapatistas have defined the aim of their project as “the construction of this space for new political relationships”, within this space there may arise “another way of thinking and acting.”[27]

We find that the Zapatistan project is closely aligned with our newly articulated politics of resistance. Both constitute a rejection of the traditional ideologies of the left, which have focussed on attaining or overthrowing state power. The Zapatistas recognise that they are widely criticized for this,

Intellectuals and political leadership, of all sizes, of the ultraright, of the right, the center, of the left and the ultraleft, national and international criticize our proposal.”[28]

Despite this, the Zapatistas have been instrumental in the emergence of the leading edge of the counter-globalization movement. In 1996 the Zapatistas organised an international encounter in Chiapas, attended by some 3000 activists from over 40 countries. The Encounter ended with the 2nd declaration of Reality, which asked, ‘what next, what is it that we were seeking do to do?’

A new number in the useless enumeration of the numerous international orders? A new scheme that calms and alleviates the anguish of a lack of recipes? A global program for world revolution?”

These rhetorical questions constitute a rejection of the traditional methods of the political left. Instead the Zapatistan project identifies itself as seeking a radical alternative:

 “That we will make a collective network of all our particular struggles and resistances. An intercontinental network of resistance against neo-liberalism, an intercontinental network of resistance for humanity. This intercontinental network of resistance, recognising differences and acknowledging similarities, will search to find itself with other resistances around the world. This intercontinental network of resistance will be the medium in which distinct resistances may support one another. This intercontinental network of resistance is not an organising structure; it doesn’t have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist.”[29]

THE TAPESTRY

Let us take stock of where we have come to. We began with the premise that capitalist globalisation and its political supplement, liberal democracy, have come to dictate the perceptual architecture of modern politics to the extent that no alternatives may enter the political arena. We have established that globalisation is based upon the twin doctrines of expansion and accumulation, of infinite hunger in a finite world. We have identified the imagination as the battleground in evolving a politics of resistance; we have stated that reconquest of the imagination will permit us to alter the perceptual architecture of modern society. We have identified the techniques employed by magical realist writers, and translated them into a form of political activism that we name ‘guerrilla ontology’. This is both prescriptive of new forms of action and descriptive of projects already underway. We have seen it at work on a global scale in the emergence of indigenous identity and we have seen it implemented in dramatic fashion in the Zapatistan uprising of Mexico. We have identified the transnational alliances linked to the Zapatistan uprising as comprising the leading edge of the modern counter-globalisation movement and we have taken our place amongst them. We understand guerrilla ontology as the uniting of myriad individual and spontaneous acts of dissent into a unified front; threads of subversion woven into a tapestry of resistance.

la lucha hay que buscarla

There are dangers inherent in our position and we would be wise to take heed of them. Speaking specifically of Simon Critchley’s anarchic meta-ethics, but with a criticism relevant to our project, Slavoj Žižek rejects the type of politics that seeks the reorganisation of society within existing power structures as “the obverse of accepting the triumph of capitalism.”[30] Žižek’s view is that without direct engagement and opposition to capitalist power structures, no amount of space-carving or magical subversion can bring about an overthrow of the current world order. Perhaps this may be true, but let us remind ourselves that our project is concerned with the first step of reconquering the collective imagination, with infiltrating the perceptual architecture of global capitalism. This does not preclude more direct forms of engagement, nor does it claim to be an end in itself, it is merely the necessary starting point in a wider transformation.

In addition, we would be prudent not to underestimate the innate capacity of capitalism to absorb and neutralise potentially revolutionary social forces. Frederic Jameson examines this in his essay, Periodizing the Sixties. According to Jameson the sixties revealed itself as “a properly dialectic process, in which ‘liberation’ and domination are inextricably combined.” In the sixties, the explosion of revolutionary social instincts led “to powerful restorations of the social order and a renewal of the repressive power of various state apparatuses.”[31] This is borne out in the commodification of revolutionary instincts. Witness the transformation of the sexual revolution into the culture industry of sex today. Witness the transformation of the psychedelic revolution into the trance-inducing phantasmagoria of the modern entertainment industry.

Even the most ancient and profound forms of resistance can become absorbed and neutralised by capitalism, as can be seen in the bastardised forms of Zen Buddhism that abound in the West. By this let us be clear that we mean not all Western Buddhism, but those forms of pseudo-spirituality embraced by cocaine snorting city-slickers, whose affect is the promulgation of an eyes-wide-shut attitude of passive nihilism that permits the individual to shed all responsibility for the destructive consequences of their actions – after all, what does it matter if children are starving and the rainforests being obliterated when it’s all just a veil of samsara?

In response to this capacity for absorption, ours must be a politics of palingenesia, a term mythologist Joseph Capmbell explains as meaning ‘recurrence of birth’.[32] The non-systematic grounding of guerrilla ontology is thus its greatest strength, for it must seek to eternally reform and reinvent itself; in the words Luis Hernandez Cruz, leader of the Chiapas uprisings of the 1970’s and 1980’s, “la lucha hay que buscarla” – ‘one needs to search for the struggle.’[33]

This struggle is found in inventing ever new ways of unveiling the perceptual architecture of capitalist globalisation, and in this we take guidance from the methods employed by magical realist writers. The efficacy of their techniques is to be found in the process by which the real is coaxed into revealing its inner mechanics. The word ‘real’ is a relational term, like extraordinary or fantastic. Its meaning is therefore dependent upon there being an other to contrast against, that which is unreal. Yet the real simultaneously has the deceptive property of denying its own relational status, of offering itself to us, whether in literature or politics, as something beyond relativism, as something beyond discussion or interpretation, the real itself. The real preemptively denies its opposite, therefore covering its own contingency.[34] Our politics of resistance stands against this by developing techniques that uncover the real for what it is: a perceptual construction that is open to reconfiguration. This is also the essence of the magical realist project, to demonstrate that all forms of knowledge and knowledge production are in fact forms of fiction, are narratives, and that narratives are open to revision.

Social narratives are most readily open to revision in the collective uncertainty that follows in the wake of a traumatic disturbance of normal events. The global financial crash has been one such traumatic event and we therefore live in a time of great potential, but it is also a time of great danger. Hegel put forth that history inevitably repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce.”[35] The terrorist attacks on 9/11 revealed the failure of capitalist globalisation as tragedy, and the financial collapse of 2008 showed it as farce. Despite this, politicians of all parties remain locked in the task of reconstructing the narrative in accordance with the ontology of neo-liberal capitalism. They claim that all that we need is tougher regulation, banking reforms and quantitative easing, and order will be restored. David Marquand calls this “an elaborate exercise in rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic,”[36] and he is certainly right, for the world will continue to sink under the weight of the West unless we succeed in revising the narrative. This would not be the first time that a financial crisis has allowed a destructive narrative to rise above the chorus of social uncertainty to direct the world deeper into tragedy. In the wake of the financial collapse of the Weimer Republic in the 1920s that voice belonged to a man named Hitler.

REVOLUTION

Our attention turns to the centre, to the point at which all lines meet; we have arrived at the crux.

Wallerstein calls the modern era a ‘transformational timespace’, a period of rich transitional potential in which we may bring about the reconfiguration of state and society. In this Wallerstein echoes Walter Benjamin’s writings on social awakening. Benjamin understood the act of waking to be a “dialectical moment” suspended between the dreamworld of the past and a tremendous reserve of transformative energy that is locked within the ever-present moment.[37] He held that during rare periods, entire societies managed to awake into this transformative moment and initiate a revolution of collective social consciousness.

It is this waking moment of transformative potential that is unlocked by magical realist literature, and in this is the most profound achievement of its writers. Characters, events, narratives, and entire novels are infused into a single waking moment; in García Márquez’s case, it is a novel that spans a hundred years. This is the secret of the “instantaneous”[38] nature of the writing, the secret of the spontaneous uprising of magical elements. Aureliano intuits this as he discovers the magic parchment, hidden “amongst the prehistoric plants and steaming puddles and luminous insects.” He finally understands its great secret, for the author “had not put events in the order of man’s conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant.”

Makere Stewart-Harawira, political philosopher and indigenous Maori, states that this ever-present moment of transformative potential defines what is distinctive about indigenous consciousness. She states that, cultural differences aside, the capacity to dwell in a waking moment suspended between the dreamworld of the past and the potential of the present is a “central principle of indigenous peoples’ relational ontologies and cosmologies.” For the Maori, every moment is rooted in Te Korekore, the world of potential being, and consequently, “time provides circuitous continuity in which the ancient past, the present and the future and indissolubly connected.” This is Wallerstein’s ‘transformational timespace’, the time that our society is entering into. This is the secret space of magical realism. The Maoris represented this idea with a double-helix spiral, “a motif for transformation,” Makere explains, that “represents all phases of coming into being, movement, growth, and transformation.”[39]

This illuminates the central role that indigenous peoples hold in the counter-globalisation movement. Not only are they its oldest victims and the most vulnerable recipients of the “infinite blessings” of globalisation, but their very being directs us to the source of transformative potential in which resistance must begin. Revolution is locked within every moment. Our politics of resistance may be understood as the practical activity of uncovering techniques to access that moment and the transformative potential that lies within. It is the subjugation of the mind that stops this from occurring on a societal scale, it is the enfettering of the collective imagination and the repression of free thought into ontological categories defined by accumulation and wealth. From the Zapatistas we may learn that unfettering ourselves begins in intimacy; that it is through human interaction, on the situational and local level that the seemingly unassailable forces of neo-liberal globalisation are to be met, contested and resisted. A better world is not imposed from on high, but rises from below and gives shape and meaning to social relationships. Resistance begins in everyday acts, by occupying and controlling the terrain on which one stands, the places where one lives, acts and thinks. Resistance is in carving open these places to establish a space set apart. Resistance begins here and begins now, in every moment. It begins with the unfettering of the imagination, a guerrilla war launched against the subjugation of the soul.

* * *

Endnote

The imagination is not well represented in modern society, it is dismissed as childish and fanciful, the domain of day-dreamers and romantics. Yet all human thought and action is inextricably tied up with the imagination. It directs motivation and aspiration; it underwrites decisions, beliefs and personal projects. French philosopher Henry Corbin asserts that harnessing the imagination is “the ultimate exercise in human freedom.”[40] Our politics of resistance understands the collective imagination as the battleground of modern politics, and seeks to be informed by artists on how to liberate this territory. In this essay I have examined the techniques of authors writing within the genre of magical realism, but this is only an opening step into an inexhaustible sphere of enquiry, a sphere that remains largely unexplored. There are countless other artists whose work might inform us. How did Wassily Kandinsky’s conception of humanity as a turning triangle inform his use of colour, and how might this inform our understanding of modern social dynamics? What was in the rhythmic score of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring that instigated crowds to riot at the premier? How the unusual sentence structure in Kafka’s writing tied up with his commitment to libertarian anarchism? This essay is but a drop drawn from a limitless ocean.

Bibliography

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana, 1993

Cowan, Bainard. A Necessary Confusion: Magical Realism. Janus Head, 2002

Cox, Robert W. Approaches to World Order. Cambridge University Press 1996

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding, Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, 2007

Faris, Wendy. The Question of Other: Cultural Critiques of Magical Realism. Janus Head, 2002

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. O-Books, 2009

García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper and Row, 1970

Hegerfeldt, Anne. Contentious Contributions: Magical Realism Goes British. Janus Head, 2002

Jung, Courtney. The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics. New School for Social Research, New York. 2008

Khasnabish, Alex. Zapatistas, Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global. Zed Books, 2010

Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Vintage, 1998

Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. Flamingo, 2010

Rider, Nick. Visiting the Zapatistas. New Statesman, 2009

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Penguin, 1991

Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. Consortium, 1998

Saul, John Ralston. The End of Globalism. Financial Review, 2004

Stewart-Harawira, Makere. The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization. Zed Books, 2005

Wallerstein, Immanuel. Utopistics, or Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century. New Press, 1998

Ward, Colin. Anarchy in Action. Freedom Press, 2008

Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger. New Falcon, 1988

Winterson, Jeanette. Lighthousekeeping. Harper, 2004

Winterson, Jeanette. Gut Symmetries. Granta, 1998

Winterson, Jeanette. The PassionVintage, 1987

Wood, Michael. In Reality. Janus Head, 2002

Žižek, Slavoj. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Verso, 2009

References


 

[1] Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism. O-Books, 2009. See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/25/caroline-lucas-deficit-neoliberalism

[2] Wallerstein, Immanuel. Utopistics, or Historical Choices of the Twenty-First Century. New Press, 1998

[3] See: Cowan, Bainard. A Necessary Confusion: Magical Realism. Janus Head, 2002

[4] See: Hegerfeldt, Anne. Contentious Contributions: Magical Realism Goes British. Janus Head, 2002

[5] See: Faris, Wendy. The Question of Other: Cultural Critiques of Magical Realism. Janus Head, 2002

[6] Hegerfeldt, Anne. Contentious Contributions: Magical Realism Goes British. Janus Head, 2002

[7] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/nov/10/maldives-climate-change

[8] See: http://www.lrb.co.uk/2008/11/14/slavoj-zizek/use-your-illusions

[9] Ibid.

[10] See: Saul, John Ralston. The End of Globalism. Financial Review, 2004

[11] Stewart-Harawira, Makere. The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization. Zed Books, 2005. p.100

[12] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/jul/28/species-extinction-hotspots-australia

[13] See: http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

[14] For discussion of literalization, see: Hegerfeldt, Anne. Contentious Contributions: Magical Realism Goes British. Janus Head, 2002

[15]See: Faris, Wendy. The Question of Other: Cultural Critiques of Magical Realism. Janus Head, 2002

[16] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/18/brain-food-markets-politics-religion

[17] See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/election2010/results/

[18] See: Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding, Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, 2007. p.111

[19] Wilson, Robert Anton. Cosmic Trigger. New Falcon, 1988

[20] Stewart-Harawira, Makere. The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization. Zed Books, 2005. p.114

[21] In the words of David Graeber. See Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding, Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. Verso, 2007. p. 107

[22] Jung, Courtney. The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics. New School for Social Research, New York. 2008

[23] Stewart-Harawira, Makere. The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization. Zed Books, 2005

[24] See: Khasnabish, Alex. Zapatistas, Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global. Zed Books, 2010

[25] “What makes us different is our political proposal” Marcos, August 30, 1996, http://www.struggle.ws/mexico/ezln/marc_to_cs_se96.html

[26] Rider, Nick. Visiting the Zapatistas. New Statesman, 2009. http://www.newstatesman.com/travel/2009/03/zapatistas-mexican-san-oventic

[27] Interview with Marcos – August 1995, La Jornada August 25, by Carmen Libra, http://www.struggle.ws/mexico/ezln/inter_marcos_consult_aug95.html

[28] “What makes us different is our political proposal” Marcos, August 30, 1996, http://www.struggle.ws/mexico/ezln/marc_to_cs_se96.html

[29] Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, January 1, 1996, http://www.struggle.ws/mexico/ezln/jung4.html

[30] See: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/slavoj-zizek/resistance-is-surrender

[31] Quoted in: Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. Flamingo, 2010

[32] Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana, 1993

[33] “The struggle is something one needs to search for; one needs to find the terms of the struggle. La luch hay que buscarla. There is no other way but to seek it out.” Quoted in: Jung, Courtney. The Moral Force of Indigenous Politics. New School for Social Research, New York. 2008

[34] Hegerfeldt, Anne. Contentious Contributions: Magical Realism Goes British. Janus Head, 2002

[35] See: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/slavoj-zizek/resistance-is-surrender

[36] See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/25/caroline-lucas-deficit-neoliberalism

[37] See: Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. Flamingo, 2010

[38] “Imaginative descriptions of the quantum world by science writers resemble the “instantaneous” world suggested by much magical realist writing.” See: Cowan, Bainard. A Necessary Confusion: Magical Realism. Janus Head, 2002

[39] Stewart-Harawira, Makere. The New Imperial Order: Indigenous Responses to Globalization. Zed Books, 2005. P42

[40] See: http://www.kheper.net/topics/imaginal/Henry_Corbin.html

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