What knowledge can we derive from our understanding of precariousness? What can its intellectual and political import be? How do we move from a definition of precariousness to the sociopolitical and economic construction of precarity? What social and aesthetic responses do these terms demand and enable? These are our underlying questions this year.
Professor Gabriel Giorgi, whose undergraduate course at NYU on precariousness/precarity gave rise to the issue, provides in “Saberes de lo precario” the context for our questions. The precarious subject, Giorgi tells us, “declassifies repertories, identities, and languages.” By helping us reimagine the relationship between the body and vulnerability, this precarious subject rearticulates neoliberal economic, social, and political subjectivities. Against a discourse on precariousness controlled by the insistent images of absolute dispossession, exclusion, and serial production of victims, we are interested, with him, in cultural interventions that may turn precariousness/precarity into a radical politics.
Every life is fragile; this is the way our bodies exist. Natural disasters, disease, and violence remind us of the vulnerability of our existence and instill in us a common feeling of precariousness. Precariousness is common to all living beings; in precarity, Judith Butler tells us, there exists a valuation of life, and with it a particular vulnerability imposed on lives that have been deemed “ungrievable,” such as the poor, the disenfranchised, the sex worker, the woman, the gender non-conforming, the immigrant, the colonized, the homeless. It is no secret that we all exist in a precarious state of being; however, we may ask, in a neoliberal reality where the precariat is emerging as a class of its own, what are the governmental and economic forces that create conditions of precarity?
Many of our contributors illuminate the social, environmental, political, economic, and affective dis-protections that mark the state of precarity. In “Un retrato sobre la precariedad en América Latina,” María Cecilia Ghersi Picón examines how precariousness is experienced in different countries in the entire region and acquires a certain uniformity in its definition and social effects. She explains how subjects see precariousness as their common state as they deal with temporal jobs that make them invisible to people and social systems that ignore the paradoxes of having wealth side by side with ultimate poverty. Enrique del Risco’s “Nuestra hambre en la Habana,” a testimony about the Special Period in Cuba, narrates the various modes of dis-protection to which Cubans were subjected during the reordering of a society in crisis.
Hurricane María made visible just how much environmental factors can exacerbate the precarity that results from socio-political constructions. “Declaración por Puerto Rico,” written by Áurea Sotomayor-Miletti in collaboration with a group of intellectuals, responds to the survival needs of subjects in the island and demands an end to those colonial laws responsible for the underlying state of precariousness of the island and its people. Significantly, the poems by Tomás Urayoán Noel and Edgardo Caballero Núñez make clear that Puerto Ricans were already aware of their state of precariousness and possessed a “not yet determined determination” before the rain even started. In “Precariedad y el valor del cine empobrecido” José Morales explains the aesthetic drive of his documentary film Pogreso. He affirms that the very lack of resources that result from Puerto Rico’s colonial status create an aesthetic universe where all subjects and objects “appear to be insufferable fragments scattered in the curious harmony of chaos.” Adál, whose photograph is featured on the cover of this issue, very explicitly references in that and in his photographic portfolio individual responses to the precarity induced by the scarcity of resources in Puerto Rico before and after Hurricane María. The voices in all of these pieces present the realm of the aesthetic as the site of the political.
This volume includes a range of viewpoints on the potentialities of responses to states of precarity and precariousness. In “Variaciones sobre violencia y política,” Ana María Amar Sánchez reminds us of the essentially anti-political character of violence if, as she explains we should, we are to think about politics as the formation of a public sphere dedicated to the debate of issues common to society. Amar Sánchez’s focus is on how narrative has addressed continuous violence, beginning with texts that center on the dictatorship and question the ways in which we are to deal with political disaster. To narrate political violence implies a search that creates an intimate bond between ethics and aesthetics and forgoes “resilience” as an answer. Marie Bardet’s “Hacer frente con nuestras espaldas,” translated by Ellen Heaghney, explores the Argentine government’s murder of Rafael Nahuel, a 22-year-old Mapuche. Bardet posits the impossibility of appealing to vulnerability as a political strategy once the threshold into violence and oppression has been crossed. She suggests that the body can turn its vulnerability into its front: the body moves to produce strength in vulnerability and security in precariousness. Here, precarity becomes the lens through which diverse bodies and realities can be reimagined politically.
Precarity can stem from the lack of control that everyday citizens experience in relation to the decisions made by the institutions that govern our world. This inability to account for oneself can blur the lines between the human and the animal. Alyssa Ahn’s “Ni humano ni animal” explores stories and films where human and animal laborers lose fixed identities to become hybrid beings, both human and animal but also neither human nor animal. If this investigative piece suggests that modern laborers’ lack of economic stability contributes to the precariousness of human identity itself, Evan Neuhausen’s interview with Cimarronez, an autonomous cooperative in Mexico City, shows that a collective response and organization is the best way to provide an economic alternative to capitalism and to the instability of individuals. In its almost eight years of existence, the cooperative has opened branches to address health, land and crops, communication, and the recovery of languages for communities throughout Mexico.
Esferas Issue 8 contains several documents, manifestos, and original transcriptions related to the development and evolution of the #NiUnaMenos movement, a feminist movement born in Argentina that has gained traction in Latin America and has spread all over the world. The movement’s rallying cry, “not one [woman] less,” takes its name from a poem by Mexican poet Susana Chávez, who penned the line “Ni una mujer menos, ni una muerta más,” condemning the violence in her hometown of Ciudad Juárez. The movement makes a distinct demand against the continued machismo-grounded violence behind the alarming rate of femicides in Latin America. In this special section of the issue centered around Ni Una Menos, Marta Dillon, Verónica Gago, and Cecilia Palmeiro speak firsthand about how the movement seeks to eradicate machismo while bringing attention to issues such as femicide, the gender pay gap, and the rights of sex workers and transgender individuals. Esferas works with Ni Una Menos to move from the street to the page, to increase visibility with the belief that this motion is in itself a political act.
Precarity goes beyond individual bodies; it can become the basis for coalitional exchange. While the vulnerability of individuals is undeniable, it often indicates holes in the social fabric and the failures of socio-economic and political institutions—institutions that in theory should protect us from violence, but all too often are the perpetrators. Ni Una Menos can be seen as a response to these institutional failures; in a system that denies women access to individual protections, the only way their living conditions can be improved is through policies that defend their rights. Ni Una Menos presents the way forward to demand these new policies by encouraging women everywhere to demand change on the streets, to be present and take up public space in a similar way to Butler’s “body politic,” embracing the agency that comes with such exposure. No longer will these voices be silenced; no longer will this precarity be ignored. When the denial of a voice represents yet another layer of the violence committed against women, demanding visibility and accountability becomes an exercise of agency.
To borrow from Giorgi, this present issue works to define precarity as a way of reimagining the collective archive to include the narratives of subjects exposed to state, environmental, and other forms of violence. In doing so, we retire the label of “victim” and work to re-appropriate the circumstances that create “ungrievable” lives. Although awareness of the precariousness of life may strip the individual of the illusion of full control, it does not render us powerless. Butler’s use of grief can be interpreted in a double sense: to grieve, in English, means to suffer from loss, but to state a grievance is to protest against an act of wrongdoing. Thus, Ni Una Menos expresses a collective grievance for the women whose lives have not been properly grieved by political, judicial, and social institutions.
This volume highlights pieces from a range of geographies—Puerto Rico, Cuba, Argentina, Mexico, and beyond—to remind us of a certain truth: human beings still retain the ability to come together and challenge the institutions that threaten to consume us.