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Killing as Performance: Violence and the Shaping of Community
by Verónica Zebadúa-Yañez


Abstract (English | Español)

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Each slow turn of the world carries such disinherited ones to
whom neither the past nor the future belongs.
For even the immediate future is far from mankind.
Rainer Maria Rilke,
Duino Elegies


1

When I hear this Mexican city's name, a shudder goes across my back. Ciudad Juárez. Border town. City of maquila.1 Paradise of impunity. A polis of death. It has been more than ten years since the first female body was found there. The macabre events that followed were regarded at first as curious exceptions to the normal routine of the city. Years later, we can only conclude that that first body marked the very beginning of the situation in which we are now, where these exceptions are sadly becoming the rule. Since 1993, the lives of 400 young women, perhaps more, have been lost. The victims are usually poor mestizo women between 14 and 30 years old, pretty, thin. They have long, dark hair. Most of them are students, housewives, maquila or service industry workers; most of them are economically disadvantaged.2

It has been argued that the way the crimes are carried out in Ciudad Juárez have clear-cut, almost 'bureaucratic', characteristics. It always begins with the disappearance of a young woman, followed by a period of uncertainty. Then, in some cases, a tortured, mutilated, strangled corpse is found somewhere around the margins of the city, thrown into the desert. In other cases, nothing is found. Civil society groups become active, international attention is summoned. Scapegoats are chosen by local authorities and with this action, government officials say, the crime is 'resolved'. Attempts to understand the horror are made, explanations are sought. Corpses keep emerging, young women continue to go missing.3

A lot has been written about the murders of Ciudad Juárez. However, I believe that the search for a 'cause' or a 'motive' behind them has proved largely futile. How are we to understand the un-understandable? The negative effects of indiscriminate economic globalization, male resentment towards women's new role and economic power, radical socioeconomic inequality, and the dominion of drug cartels have been chosen as possible culprits. Probably they all play a causal part. Nevertheless, what remains missing in a great part of the analyses carried out so far is an investigation into what these murders signify. The symbolic aspect of these killings – the message they convey, the political shaping and reshaping they initiate – remains to be elucidated. In this essay, I hope to offer a starting point to such an exploration.

From my perspective, the events of Ciudad Juárez represent the enactment of a sort of performativity of the political community that is usually hidden or covered over, erased from public view. Let me explain what I mean by this. A 'performative' is usually defined as a type of utterance that through its very enunciation accomplishes or generates a particular effect (Parker and Sedgwick 1995: 3). In How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin argues that in order to be effective, performatives need a 'proper context', a context that allows for the appropriate interpretation of the utterance and through which the message can be rightly conveyed. The closure of such a strict context, Andrew Parker and Eve K. Sedgwick argue, "has opened, under pressure of recent theory, onto a populous and contested scene in which the role of silent or implied witnesses […] or the quality and structuration of the bonds that unite auditors or link them to speakers, bears as much explanatory weight as do the particular speech acts of supposed individual agents" (Parker and Sedgwick 1995: 7).

On this line, the classical definition of the performative – that is, when and how saying actually counts as doing, and doing as saying – can be opened up to aid our understanding of the political. Judith Butler's work, for example, offers a critique of the sovereign illusion implied in the traditional understanding of the performative, in which someone, a will-producing agent, is taken to be the initiator or original source of the action/utterance, the one that gives the performative its force. By contrast, Butler argues that every performative action echoes prior actions, and that the authority of the performative is precisely augmented by the repetition and citation of prior authoritative sets of social practices. In her words, "a performative 'works' to the extent that it draws on and covers over the constitutive conventions by which it is mobilized" (Butler 1995: 205). By downplaying the role of the agent and highlighting the role of citation, Butler renders the mechanism of the performative derivative and imitative; it is precisely the constant repetition of the (in reality) contingently founded act that constitutes and authorizes a set of practices and grants them with social and political meaning (Butler 1990: 145).

As has been argued for the question of gender identity (see Butler 1990, 1993), I contend that political communities are also constituted and acted out by and through performative practices. These practices at once delineate the contours of community – turn a certain collectivity into a community – and also engage in a constant shaping and reshaping of its own borders by negotiating inclusions and legitimating exclusions. My claim is that by analyzing the case of Ciudad Juárez from a standpoint informed by both political philosophy and performance theory, we become aware of a very particular, but perhaps not entirely exceptional, way of creating community and granting identity.

A key characteristic of the performative, Butler argues, is its 'citationality', that is, "the operation of that metalepsis by which the subject who 'cites' the performative is temporarily produced as the belated and fictive origin of the performative itself" (Butler 1995: 203). Citationality gives the illusion of a clear 'source' of agency, of a subject as the sole originator of the utterance. By a similar mechanism, the notion of a substantial and unified political community can only arise after the community has been already instituted, after its practices and beliefs have been sufficiently cited, after the inclusions and exclusions that shape it have been decided. It is in and through the repetition of the practices that make a community out of us that its arbitrary foundations are covered over and reference to an Absolute – a source of sovereignty, for example – is initiated. In a way similar to citationality, the function of this Absolute is to give stability to a human-made creation by signaling to an outside referent that can grant a stable meaning to the political community, a meaning that seeks to answer the question of the 'why' of collective human existence. By granting meaning, the Absolute also serves to legitimate and naturalize certain practices of dominion and subjection.

If we accept the importance of the deployment of citationality, it follows that the performative practices that aid in the construction of communitarian identity are not to be considered a single, originating act of creation, but instead must be regarded as a constant doing and redoing that does not have a static or permanent effect, but instead functions like a repetition with a difference (Roach 1995: 46)  –or, we could say, as a repetition within a difference.4

On this line, it is important to point out that, while the citationality of the performative is what grants it its authoritativeness and relative stability, this does not mean that it fully determines its future effects. In our case, the community could appropriate the norms conveyed by the citationality to subvert their meaning and communicate a message that would counter the original motives. As Butler argues, "the appropriation of such norms to oppose their historically sedimented effect constitutes the insurrectionary moment of [its] history, the moment that founds a future through a break with the past" (Butler 1997: 159).

 With this in the background, let's examine our case a bit closer. The liberalization of the Mexican economy and the arrival of the maquiladoras to Juárez during the 70's and 80's attracted thousands of women and men from all over the country with the promise of work and the lure of economic freedom. Juárez, by virtue of its strategic location just across from El Paso, Texas, had always functioned as a transit city offering temporal shelter to people trying to immigrate to the United States. With this constant flux of people, the identity and the character of the community were altered: the force of the ever-growing margins of Juárez started to dominate its urban center. Soon, the precariousness of the margins reached deep inside the city. Now, 40 percent of its inhabitants live in conditions of extreme poverty (Gonzalez Rodríguez 2002: 29).

Death, poverty, drug and human trafficking. When confronting Juárez we seem truly to stand before a 'death zone' (Balibar 2002) in which the politics of civility and democratic conflict have been erased and the public space has become a realm of violent performance – a place in which public acts take the form of rape, torture, and murder. It is a fact that the identity of this community of death is being reshaped, and its borders reworked, by femicide.

I propose to understand these killings themselves as a performance, a political performance, and to regard the killers as political actors par excellence. By the precise and highly ritualized repetition of these femicides – the sequence of abduction, torture, rape, strangling, disposal of the body in a public place is to be found in almost every account of the crimes – the community is constantly reshaping its borders. In consequence, inclusions and exclusions are being clearly and explicitly delineated, and a political message is sent. Each killing seems to 'cite' the other, previous one, and in itself constitutes a mere rendering of the next. In their performance, the pseudo-sovereigns of the community, without being truly aware of it, convey something which they do not dare to publicly utter: the responsibility of actually saying it is something they cannot handle. The horrific performance screams: you women are nothing! See, no one cares about you! You are not really a part of our society; at most you belong to its fringes; you live in a threshold area in which everything is possible (and as Hannah Arendt explained, the belief that 'everything is possible' led humanity to the concentration camps). You may be killed, but your death is not punishable. We deem your life, a life that inhabits the actual and symbolic margins of the community, a sacred life

 

 

 

 

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