A Post-Mortem Cavalcade
Laced with Chisme that Purports to Show How Postmodernity Was Born
in the Turbid, Fecund Waters Dividing Laredo, Texas, USA, and Nuevo Laredo,
by William Anthony
the post, and the multiple combinatorial possibilities of these terms have
held much of our academic discourse in thrall for some time now...Ultimately,
however, our explorations of the issues implied by these terms must countenance
the ambiguous question I posit here at a moment we identify as postmodern,
in this era we designate as postcolonial: what are we after.
This ungainly missive from me to
you will not resolve any polemic regarding the origins or legitimacy of
the Postmodern. I assume that it exists, having run across the tired beastie
in classrooms, textbooks, coffee-houses, anthologies, academic conferences
and literary journals. As Postmodernity has entered the market-determined
arena of concept dissemination (publishing, the university, the media),
it seems a waste of time to consider if it exists or worse, if it is legitimate--it
is there moving paper, moving some minds, and as intellectuals working
in a nation that generally echews matters and issues intellectual, we ought
to be glad it is lurking about, whether we fancy it or hate it.
Neither will I discuss in any
precise detail just what the Postmodern is nor, for that matter, where
it came from. Beyond acknowledging it as the latest institutional slot
for a new wave of specialists in the Humanities, one knows little of the
thing. It seems fruitless to begin here an inquiry into its legitimacy,
origin, or hermeneutic. The Postmodern is like Modernism, at least in the
terms of our institutional history. Today it is. Someday (soon)
it will pass into being was.
Should we be living through its
death throes, there is still no reason for any disturbance, no need to
call in the editorial equivalent of 911 to administer life-saving measures.
The death of the postmodern should be viewed for what it is: an employment
opportunity. Literary critics retooled as cultural studies pathologists
will gather about the corpse to mull over its demise, draw conclusions,
and invent its biography--historians, architects and popular culture referees
(in the U.S. and abroad) will also have a say.
Loading the Instamatic©
What remains, however, beside
the essential enemy (the bourgeois norm), is the necessary conjunction
of these two enterprises: no denunciation without an appropriate method
of detailed analysis, no semiology which cannot, in the last analysis,
be acknowledged as semioclasm.
--Roland Barthes, 1970
Now if there is anything that radically
distinguishes the imagination of anti-imperialism, it is the primacy of
the geographical in it. Imperialism, after all, is an act of geographical
violence through which virtually every space in the world is explored,
charted, [catalogued], and finally brought under control.
--Edward Said, 1988
The crisis of the grand narrative
and the rise of micro-narratives are ultimately the crisis of the "grand"
as well as the "little," the advent of disinformation in which disproportion
and incommensurability are to postmodernity what the philosophic resolution
of problems and the resolution of the image (pictorial, architectural)
were to the birth of the enlightenment.
--Paul Virilio, 1984
Contemporary critics of postmodern
architecture and city planning have focused their attention on trendy centers
of cutting-edge design--New York, Toronto, Milan, San Francisco, Hong Kong,
Miami, Tokyo, Berlin--without ever considering the provocative landscape
of domestic U.S. bordertowns. Urban enigmas developing on the fringes of
national geography, bordertowns represent sites of cultural identity and
cultural non-identity, the margin that contains mutating versions of both
the self and the other. Perched as they are on the boundaries between cultures,
bordertowns represent fractured biospheres where rivaling essences of contrasting
national myths come into direct conflict.
In the humble view of your somewhat
biased guide, if you want to survey the epitome of the postmodern city,
then Laredo, Texas, U.S.A. and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas E.U.M are the place
to be. As one drives dirt roads on the way to concrete interstate highways,
bourgeois, Mexican American-piloted imported British Jaguars revving
their way past vaquero Mexican American-piloted imported horses
(bourgeois, vaquero and horse alike tracing at least part of their
ancestry back to Spain), one encounters the bizarre reality of urban/rural
entropy on the margins, on the very border, of national, existential and
economic legitimacy. What happens to the architecture and the financial
and semiotic economy of the urban landscape, what happens to the social
relations and cultures of the borderzone’s urbanaut inhabitants when they
are divided by and formed through the geographical reality (the Rio Grande/Bravo
river) and historically manufactured reality (the peripatetic line separating
the U.S. from Mexico) of this site? In order to capture some of this alleged
chaos--without totally domesticating it--we will be using pictures to focus
on the cultural architecture that has developed amidst two distinct nations
and two distinct, if symbiotically determined, border cities.
Literary critics and would-be
cultural studies aficionados lacking credentials to speak to the
complexities of photographs would do well to return to the underrated findings
of Susan Sontag to underwrite their course of action. Opening On Photography,
asks what is "the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise[?]"
Her response: it "give[s] us the sense that we can hold the whole world
in our heads--as an anthology of images." Sontag’s words here act as augury
talismans, warding away the totalizing hubris that might allow us to mometarily
imagine the pictures in this essay hold the truth that would give the lie
to the prose that cozily surrounds them. For the span of this essay, neither
word nor image shall reign sovereign: each reveals the lack of the other.
Let us now turn to some recent
jottings by Paul Virilio on the ubiquity of the photographic; Virilio writes
specifically of war, cinema and culture but more wide-ranging applications
are not without some use here: "The problem is . . . no longer so much
one of masks and screens, of camouflage designed to hinder long-range targeting;
rather, it is a problem of ubiquitousness, of handling simultaneous data
in a global but unstable environment where the image (photographic or cinematic)
is the most concentrated, but also the most stable, form of information."
An opportunistic reading of Virilio’s statement allows us to imagine an
encounter with images within the context of an essay where they function
as a means to knowing, not as supplements begging for captions but as legitimate,
if visual, paragraphs in the strict sense, "lines drawn in the margin,"
no less a player in the masque of syntax than the commas, periods, and
quotations marks that wend there way through this narrative.
Barthes’s, Said’s, and Virilio’s
assertions positioned as section epigraphs above, emerge as uncanny amulets
for our journey, and as keys to this very anthology called The B/order
of Things--where a collection of words and images proxy for what might
have been called in the past a correct understanding, where an anthology
functions as a means to a representation of ontology, a border ontology--or
perhaps, better put, to an anthology that negotiates warring versions of
ontologies vying for the status of the generic.
Something To Say
As the Negatives Develop in Lieu of Whistling "The Streets of Laredo"
One might preface this tour of
Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas with a return to the term,
Postmodern. Let us do so in the form of a dialogue. Assuming the role of
antagonist in the following exergue will be Guillermo Nericcio García.
Guillermo Nericcio García:
Are we living through a moment of Postmodern criticism?
William A. Nericcio: There seems
to be no doubt about it. Unfortunately most of the criticism using the
term is trendy and uninfluential--the more attractive the presentation
the less innovative and informing the piece seems.
GNG: Is an analysis of Postmodern
characteristics a Postmodern analysis in and of itself?
WAN: Of course not. An analysis
of Postmodern tendencies, practices or theories could be the most clichéd,
conservative, reactionary piece/article/section/chapter ever conceived.
To be Postmodern there must exist a melange of styles and ideas, even as
there must devolve an understanding that said melange is in and of itself
suspect--in this regard, the Postmodern is a facile cousin of continental
deconstruction, of Poststructuralism.
GNG: Has it come to the point
that there exist recipes for the Postmodern?
WAN: Of course. The Postmodern
began somewhere--though where that may be is a controversial subject. We
know at least that disciplines like architecture, industrial design, advertising
and, perhaps, literary theory, were at its forefront. That one can specify
a recipe for such a practice does not endanger its disruptive potential.
If anything, it cautions prospective practitioners to enlist some lively
skepticism into their practice. Said skepticism allows one to keep one’s
practice away from the "Postmodern Cheerleading" that undermines the critical
discipline and to move one’s practice towards "Postmodern critical inquiry,"
which might potentially revitalize literary and theoretical practice by
creating heretofore unthinkable interdisciplinary projects. Such revitalizations
might change the ivory tower and modify disciplinary traditions. As we
move within the new spaces of a third millennia, we are witnessing the
changes postmodernity has had on Academe--some of it good, some of it quite
awful. Innovation has meant a change in the way critics approach their
analyses, prompting some critics to see Postmodern critical practice as
pop-historicism in lieu of archival professionalism, allegiance to form
rather than the documentation of content, and the valorization of contradiction
over that of "simple" understanding. Such conclusions reek of oversimplification
and, if anything, unprofessionalism--rank and file reactions to an innovative,
if slightly controversial, practice within the critical disciplines. It
would be wished that more conservative practitioners within the academy
in all the disciplines would seek to investigate Postmodernity rather than
ignoring it or running shrieking from it in fear. In this view, one should
not fear demolishing the ivory tower. Rather, critics and designers should
rush to construct something else in its place. In this new "wooden" tower,
perhaps, access to the university would not be based on connections, rank,
bank statements, patriarchy, or lineage, but on the willingness of the
participants to question continually the boundaries and categorizations
intrinsic to academic practices.
GNG: Is such a practice possible
WAN: Of course not--at least not
in practical terms.
GNG: Why not?
WAN: One finds two standard answers:
(1) This is not the best of all possible worlds; and (2) Postmodern practice,
once normed, becomes as repressive as any other bureaucracy. So the key
would seem to be to some sort of rigorous and continuous assailing of all
that has become rigorous. We underwrite change so as to undermine static
method, understanding that this "change" is never essential change but
only some sort of supplementation, to use Derrida’s word, or "shoving"
to be entirely practical. Whether that shoving becomes progressive or not
depends on the goals and desires of its practitioners and bureaucrats.
There is nothing really new or disconcerting about this outlook.
First Frame, Wherein the Semiotic Ineptitude of a Young Voyeur Leads to
Misreading the Bull
It begins with this bull, the
Bordertown bull. Waking up after nineteen years in a small South Texas
bordertown--Laredo, Texas, USA, to be exact. Throughout my childhood I
thought that the mural featured on the Bordertown Drive-In was of a giant
mutant bull, terrorizing the countryside and being attacked by U.S. Air
Force jets as a giant cowboy heatedly pursued from behind.
I was wrong, of course.
That is, I had read it wrong.
The giant bull was merely a personal idiosyncratic creation, a misreading,
owing to a mistake in perspective. Without the tools to understand the
concept of perspective in an illustration, I had taken the mural at face
value: giant drawing of bull = giant monster, mutant bull. That the animal
was merely foregrounded and thus larger than its surroundings was, at the
time, a concept as abstract as quantum mechanics or multilateral arms-control
The painting was misread.
The mural in question faced out
on the main strip leading out of and into Laredo and adorned the back side
of a projection wall for the local drive-in called the Bordertown Twin
Drive-In Theater. Some fifteen years ago, the Bordertown was a booming
two-screen haven of movies, alcohol, and sexual abandon for auto aficionados,
raucous families, and young adults on both sides of the Rio Grande River.
But in the year 1988, that monument was slowly falling apart. No longer
a haven for movie-goers, it was home to a flea market open on the weekends,
where one could find various used articles, recycled furniture and a huge
assortment of deserted, dated consumer artifacts that could have passed
as trash in any dumpster. In the half-decade before the current period
when the North American Free Trade Agreement and individuals associated
with its passage were heralding the arrival of the New World Order, the
Bordertown Drive-in was an icon for Laredo itself--a depressed market selling
trash in various disguises as merchandise. But then again even
is not trash in and of itself; trash is not a generic designation
(trash for one may be treasure to another). Given the depleted economic
resources of the city, even trash might be repackaged in some way so as
serve a purpose or garnish a profit. Even the Drive-In had been repackaged
as a pulga, as a flea market
But let us not allow the caress
of nostalgia to blind us from the present for I must report that the Bordertown
Drive-In/pulga is no more.
The Godzilla-esque bull has been
erased from the space of Laredo--my photograph must proxy for the structure
as a kind of ersatz visual relic.
The structure was torn town and
sold to the Wal-Mart corporation. On the site of the giant cow arose the
specter of what is known as Sam’s Warehouse--a discount marketer of groceries
and other assorted sundries. Gross sales of Laredo’s Sam’s Warehouse and
Wal-Mart were so huge that just before his death in 1992, Sam Walton flew
to Laredo to celebrate his profits. Walton was visibly weak and ailing
as he greeted cheering workers and shoppers like some latter-day vision
I would have included a picture
of the store if I didn’t miss that old bull so much.
A Disclaimer as
the Author Mourns the Loss of a Precious Bovine
This section, as one will have
noticed already, represents less a cohesive analysis than a leisurely tour--a
pictorial travelogue or post-colonial safari. Some will view such an approach
as critical eclecticism.
So be it. As Stuart Durant concludes,
"eclectics have never been strong on theory. Eclecticism seems essentially
the mode of practitioners." Though Durant speaks here of collectors of
furniture and their tastes, he may have struck upon something useful to
would-be theorists of Postmodernity: one may have to focus, like it or
not, on either theory or practice in order to accomplish anything with
one or the other--one must select a fetish and stay with it lest the fetish
devolve into a dalliance, a whim.
If this travelogue adds nothing
to the current debate in Postmodern theory, it would at the very least
like to be considered a bastard example of Postmodern critical practice--bastard
in that it feigns no interest in and makes no claim to legitimacy in any
way, shape, form, or species.
This approach asks much of its
readers/spectators/tourists: that they suspend common, even enlightened,
understandings of Postmodern design and architecture; that they consider
how intriguing architectural fracture and cultural production go on outside
the metropoles, those cities that represent the headliners, the core, the
cream of the crop, the advance guards of capital, production, and consumer
But what of the backroads? What
of the border? If one isolates a core, one must also have a periphery to
isolate that otherwise abstract center.
As bizarre a periphery as any
one is to find in the global safari one calls urban criticism, architectural
inquiry, or textual analysis. Laredo is eccentric; it is, to signal this
author’s debt to Canadian theorist Linda Hutcheon, "ex/centric": both outside
and inside, in short, deliciously and uniquely marginal.
The Second Frame,
Where The Hunt Is On for More Jobs
we pass into the next century, Laredo is beginning to emerge from one of
its periodic crises of economic turmoil--the upturn in the Mexican economy,
spurred by then President Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s (most often cited
then as the "Harvard-educated President of Mexico, now a criminal of international
proportions) policies had a favorable impact on the prosperity (at least
for parts of select classes) of both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo.
The economies of these sister
cities are bound intimately to each other. When currency values plunge
so goes the fate of the two cities. So while United States tourists reap
the rewards of cheap Corona beers and ridiculously underpriced Mexican
leather goods, Laredo, Texas, USA, downtown merchants shake their collective
heads and wonder where the business went. Recall here that the eighties
was the decade when oil-price futures went bust in Texas and that South
Texas, Laredo included, is one of the richest oil and gas regions in the
fifty states. Now one begins really to understand why "the hunt is on for
more jobs" in Laredo. These savage and elusive beasts are just too scarce
for the standard safari, so Laredo’s largest financial institution, The
Laredo National Bank, has come in on the project as sponsor of this semiotically
disturbing series of billboards and TV commercials (television spots featured
footage of ferocious lions roaming green, dangerous jungles and grass strewn
The lion, incidentally(?), is
the trademarked icon of the Laredo National Bank. Do you hunt the lion?
Or does the lion hunt you?
LNB’s latest semiotic enterprise,
their online banking service illustrates that when it comes to transnational
Capital, banks on the border must speak at least two languages: dollars
and pesos, English and Spanish, Washington and Juarez.
The Third Frame,
Wherein It is Shown that Even Appliances Have Cages on this Safari
theoretical/rhetorical level of this essay has yet to ascend to the ethereal
heights of the bona fide analytical, and there is good reason. Before one
can analyze "los dos Laredos/the two Laredos," one must first get a taste
of its dusty unpaved avenues and blazing relentless heat. Those who look
down upon such travelogue narratives or safaris may graze elsewhere till
we return to further critical analysis. The rest of us are on a "safari,"
but the hunt, here, is not on for jobs, as in the advertising campaign
just cited, but for commentary on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of Laredo
as Postmodern city.
And what beast do we have here?
While the photo in question might be a representative offering from a MOMA
exhibition in New York or MOCA exhibit in Los Angeles, that it comes from
a backyard in Laredo, Texas, is entirely significant. The result of the
scarcity of jobs in Laredo, Texas, is a numbing increase in the crime rate
in the city, particularly burglary and armed robbery. In times of economic
despair and growing unemployment, one either sucks up one’s gut, tightens
one’s belt, joins a job safari or deals drugs and steals. Hence, the air
conditioner in the photograph has been placed in a cage of black wrought
iron to help guarantee it will stay in place--without benefit of its protective
wrapper, it might have ended up at the old Bordertown pulga.
Even at the height of the economic
bust of the mid-eighties in Texas, Laredo had a larger number of prospering
banking and saving institutions than many other cities in the Lone Star
state. Then again, perhaps this is not as surprising as one might think
at first. The DEA has shut down much of the Miami cocaine connection, but
Latin American drug barons continue to move with relative freedom through
Mexico. With one avenue of distribution cut off, the drug-mules have turned
more and more to South Texas and Southern California to export these tasty
narcotic goodies. The profits from these transactions don’t end up usually
in the proverbial grimy bus-station locker. In fact, with growing frequency,
drug captains are turning to legitimate financial institutions to shelter
their wealth. One has a better idea now of exactly whose money finances
part of the Laredo National Bank’s "hunt for new jobs" in Laredo.
For the rest of Laredo, though,
belt-tightening is the only recourse. With 117ûF temperatures during
Laredo’s summers, air conditioners are as valuable as water in the desert,
and the best one can do is encage the house and hope for the best. The
air-conditioner in a cage may well serve as an icon of Laredo’s periodic
economic crises, trapped as it is behind the bars of economic inertia.
On this safari we’ve reached what may well be a point of despair--Laredo’s
two icons are a flea market recycling yesterday’s refuse and an appliance
ensconced in a black iron cage.
The Fourth Frame,
Wherein George Washington Meets Pocahontas and Has a Peculiar Fiesta in
A total of seven flags have flown
at one time or another over the lands presently designated Laredo, Texas,
USA. This has led, as one might imagine, to a bit of schizophrenia, loosely
speaking, in the cultural identity of the community and in its celebrations,
which are, after all, the best reflection of the complexion of a community.
If one is what one eats, then it might just as easily be said that a city
is what it celebrates.
How decidedly strange and "postmodernesque,"
then, that Laredo’s largest celebration each year is The George Washington
Birthday celebration. Apparently started by a group of nostalgic Anglos
and outsiders living in Laredo after the turn of the last century, the
celebration continues to prosper in Laredo’s largely Mexican American community.
Each year the haves and the have-nots line the famous streets of Laredo
for a week-long celebration that includes a colonial ball(!), debutantes,
parades, cook-outs, and a carnival; also, said extravaganza includes Pocahontas.
It taxes the imagination to wonder
how a celebration of the United States of America’s first president and
noted slave-owner, George Washington, ever got caught up in a beauty/popularity
contest for the role of Pocahontas in the annual George Washington’s Birthday
Parade--an award whose chief distinction is parading on horseback for the
better part of a morning. One imagines the founding fathers (of the yearly
celebration, not of the country) thought that since both Pocahontas and
George Washington could be found within a certain number of pages in a
high-school history book, why not link the two together--or something like
that. In any event, every year during the celebration one lucky (popular
and politically well-placed) young woman gets to don a leather outfit and
become Pocahontas, riding her decorated horse up and down Laredo’s avenues
with marching bands in front and festive floats and street sweepers bringing
up the rear.
Let us move to the snapshot in
question. Pocahontas, horse, mountains, sky and all, adorns the front wall--a
mural commemorating the yearly ritual--beside a money-exchange house where
tourists may, ala MacDonalds, drive up and exchange there dollars for pesos
at the latest going rate before driving across the Juarez-Lincoln International
Bridge. The conflation of murals, Pocahontas, money-exchange, George Washington,
and debutantes provides a succinct example of the narrative/festival pastiche
riturals informing the matrices of Laredo.
The Fifth Frame,
Wherein It Is Announced, and Not For The First Time In Hermeneutic History,
That Celebrities Are Commodities
a town as predominantly Mexican-American as Laredo, Texas, one might imagine
that the idea of bilingual or wholly Spanish advertisements would have
been a fixture of the community for quite some time. The fact is, however,
that these campaigns have gained in popularity only recently in this border
city. That said, one can move now to an analysis of the picture. Here,
Rozenda Bernal a, cantadora (singer) popular both in northern Mexico
and the Southwest United States, hawks pre-measured tortilla mixes. Bernal’s
star status and signature sombrero assure us that "The White Wings Flour
Company" knows its way around a Mexican tortilla, while her celebrity status
reassures her audience that the product is of value. The logic here is
familar: both utterly banal and powerful: go with the product which celebrities
use, and you will a. look like them; b. act like them; c. at the very least,
trust them not to steer you wrong. As celebrities go, so goes the market.
John Berger has described it as a "process of manufacturing glamour," and
glamour, of course, sells. There are some nasty side-effects, however,
as advertising contributes to the process of alienation and the "progress"
of assimilation, and may even contribute, in Berger’s view, to political
alienation and disenfranchisement, where advertising "turns consumption
into a substitute for Democracy"(149). Alienation of the citizenry occurs
simultaneously as dissemination of products prospers in the by-now overdetermined
marketplace. In short, beware of Rozenda Bernal.
Why dally here with a billboard?
Both ideological citations and changeable urban tattoos, Billboards reflect
like giant mirrors the taste of the urb they decorate, and, like mirrors,
also affect the tastes, appearance, and actions of the individuals and
communities who gaze at their reflection. Top bill performers, sharing
the stage with buildings, monuments, murals and historical sites, billboards
are beasts central to this safari.
The Sixth Frame,
Which Treats of the Bizarre Case of the Displaced Bordered Sentinel Lost
Somewhere Amidst Africa, Mexico, and the Plantation-Era Deep South
The object captured by the
An African American groomsman
statuette/hitching post stands behind a standard cyclone fence. A provocative
common piece of Americana, an outdoor-furniture design peculiarity, as
well as a pertinent historical artifact that speaks to a particularly "American"
form of racism, here the mute servant marks the modest domestic habitat
of a lower middle-class Mexican American family--unlikely to have slaves,
grooms, let alone horses milling about their 1 1/2-car outdoor garage.
Demographically as well as geographically, the statuette is out of place
here in the borderlands of the South Texas/Mexican border. Not that one
could not imagine a context where said statuette might be appropriate.
Surely Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s foyer cries out for such
Seventh Frame, Which Finds Us Pausing astride the Borderline Dividing the
U.S. and Mexico So As to Malinger and Witness an International Crime
On the left of this picture is
Los Estados Unidos de Mexico. On the right rests the United States of America.
In the middle (see speck) floats a Mexican national in an inner tube, rafting
his way down the middle of the Rio Grande river, which, incidentally, is
called el Río Bravo by Mexicans who reside on the left side of this
This image renders the split that
produces the heterogeneous peoples found on both sides of the river. This
is where it all happens: in history (border clashes and raids by armies
and bandits from both sides of the river); in the present (drug smuggling,
illegal immigration, illegal sewage and radioactive toxic-waste dumping
on both sides of the river. The explosion of maquiladoras--multinational
owned and operated factories producing goods for export on Mexican soil--has
accelerated this dumpage.
A few minutes after this picture
was taken, the subject in question, dressed only in underwear with a bundle
of clothing in his lap, floated under and past the bridge I was standing
on, shouting obscenities and choice epithets to friends and spectators
along the railing of the bridge. The last I saw of him, he was docking
his craft and scurrying intently up the banks on the U.S. side of the river.
Never before had the self-importance of an international boundary line
seemed so insignificant; never before had the autonomy of two nations seemed
so arbitrary and capricious. Never before, that is, until one minute later,
when horse-riding, gun-toting officials from the U.S. Border Patrol came
up and apprehended our aquatic boundary challenger.
What began as a significant displacement
of the now-not-so-abstract borderline, became an everyday, legally determined,
and quite common international incident. One expects the boundary crosser
will return at some point to the U.S., probably more sooner than later
as standard procedure in these cases is simple deportation--a handcuffed
two-minute walk across the International Bridge back to Mexico, freedom,
and, perhaps, more inner tubes.
Eighth Frame, Where a Photograph Leads Your Guide to a Dream of a New Berlin
The cropped portion of the boundary
marker reads "one for all and all for one" like a line out of a Three Musketeers
movie--and given the cinematically determined reality of the United States
during the Reagan administration (movie star/president, Star Wars
the movie and Star Wars, the Pentagon weapons initiative, etc.), such a
cooincidence is not altogether surprising.
Below this slogan are the important
words: "Boundary of the United States" and "Límite de la República
Mexicana" established in 1848 and "re-established by the treaties of 1884-1889."
This really is the borderline, the margin, the end of the frame,
the inside/outside boundary, the point where self and other differentiate
their particular identities--this is no metaphor, just ask the floating
speck in the last frame.
Alternatively, one can see the
border as the site that licenses all metaphorics--the border as autochthonous
agent for all concepts communicating difference, metaphors included.
In any event, this boundary marks
one of the many spaces where the United States of America and Los Estados
Unidos de México both begin and end. But in an age of Postmodern
sensitivities, we should be in tune with the fact that such an absolute
binary must be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. It is interesting
to note that as one looks in either direction, on either side of that boundary
marker, an ongoing process of salacious willed and unconscious intercontamination
prospers on both sides of the line.
The Ninth Frame,
Wherein Our Voyeur Holds Forth With Earnest Guilt as He Wrestles with Public
Spectacles, a Camera and Pan-Handling
Some are more innovative than
others. All of us have met them in one form or another--some of us have
them. They range in name from street performer to pan-handling bum. What
they have in common are the streets, passing strangers, and fear of the
authorities, whoever they might be. Here, in this photograph taken in Nuevo
Laredo, the dancer wears vestments akin to those sported by Mexica warriors
at the height of their imperial reign some five hundred years ago. He has,
however, exited the frame of that period (traditional vestments become
mere costumes once outside their particular ideological context) and entered
a very different cultural enclosure.
The street performer’s dancing
and chanting patterns derive from the theocratic, polytheistic ritual of
one of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Here, the ritual has been translated
from one of political and theological (theocratic) significance into one
of mainly economic significance--he’s dancing for money. One moves from
the interpretive economy of theocultural rite to to the interpretive economy
of the soliciting spectacle, the economy of the unique, individual act.
In addition, the dancer enters here, also, the very literal camera frame
of the safarist/analyst photographer and the critical frame of our ontology/anthology.
He has been translated once again--and
unwillingly (the dancer in question turned to avoid the camera several
times forcing me to slip inconspicuously across the street to seize [t]his
image away from him). He is now more than just a performer earning his
keep; he now becomes an interpretable image/text, an alienated object.
When Sontag notes that the "photographer is not simply the person who records
the past but the one who invents it (67)," she reveals the determining
and objectifying logic of photography. The dancer has become a suspended
iconic signifier begging for description in the antiseptic pages of an
academically sanctioned intellectual safari.
The Tenth Frame,
Which Documents the Chance Rendezvous of Spain’s Don Quixote, Aztlán’s
Quetzalcóatl, and England’s Ozzy Osbourne
Walking down Nuevo Laredo’s main
street, La Guerrero, down a few blocks from the International Bridge, one
finds a beautiful plaza--a park with trees, swing sets, shoe-shine stands,
and running children. In the center of this park stands a small library
with a beautifully detailed mural gracing its front entrance wall.
The mural depicts Don Quixote
atop his steed charging toward Quetzalcóatl, a Mexica deity. The
mural in question does not depict a scene from the text of Miguel de Cervantes’
Quijote de la Mancha. Rather, the unsigned mural renders the complex
fusion of European Spanish literature and culture and indigenous Mexican
literature and culture. In it, specatators’s eyes witness the condensation
of elements from two sixteenth-century avatars, one Spanish and one Aztec,
into the medium of the public mural. Epic figures from mythology and literature
are given to our eyes as pictures. In the middle of Nuevo Laredo a story
from Spain meets a story from Mexico and both find translation in an instant
upon the wall of a public library--note how the mural shows both figures
rising out of the pages of texts, the European printed and bound book and
the Aztec printed codices. Textual denizens here become agents in the domain
of pictures, and the photograph of this image immediately becomes analytic
property--a semiotic artifact.
But there is more here than initially
meets the eye. Our tenth frame illustrates a troublesome semiotic development
as a Postmodern anomaly interrupts our analytical progress. Someone has
intercepted this mural. Someone has re-signed this mural and displaced
further the already complicated semiotic overdetermination of the original
mural combining as it does the literary and cultural peculiarities of two
disparate tribes, Euro-Spanish and Pre-Columbian Mexican.
Look again at the picture.
Down toward the bottom of the
mural and across the pages of the Aztec codices and Cervantes’ book lurks
the following readable autograph: "ozzys Boys."
Just who are these, "ozzys Boys?"
Ozzy Osbourne, late of "Black Sabbath" and currently a solo rock performer,
is a somewhat popular English "heavy metal" rock star. Aside from a few
scattered hits and appearances on MTV, he is known mainly for biting the
heads off live bats in concert to the delight of his adoring fans, one
of whom, it is apparent scrawl edhis graffiti autograph upon the scene
of this mural.
Interception. Ozzy meets
Quixote meets Quetzalcóatl. That the already complex depiction of
a meeting between Mexico and Spain, with all its imperialistic and exploitative
history, has been further complicated by a British autograph from a Mexican-American
hand leaves one with little if anything to add. More words would only distract
from the already eloquent testimony of the photograph.
Sometimes, the caption must shut-up.
Eleventh Frame Where We Witness as the Geographic Contours of a Nation
Proxy as a Spokesmodel With a Beerphallus
Walking down the Guerrero, just
past the intriguing signature of "ozzys Boys," we find a monument worthy
of Mexico’s rich history, a lighted, extravagant billboard extolling one
of the champions of Mexico’s export economy. "Corona, La Cerveza de
Mexico/Mexico’s beer," the sign bellows out for all to see. While the
message will be familiar to Unitedstatesians daily bombarded with beer
advertisements, it is the image itself that is most striking in this instance--a
detailed and geographically accurate rendition of Los Estados Unidos de
Mexico with a huge bottle of Corona Beer splashed across and jutting out
from it at a provocative angle. One might, if one wished, dissolve the
descriptive frame at this point and begin a Derridean, Lacanian, Freudian,
or Bergerian analysis of this lovely montage and document the overdetermined
iteration potential of this image, or one could, à la Barthes, wittily
pinpoint the connections between the image and the culture of the natives
daily whizzing past it only unconsciously conscious of the display’s influence.
One might, also, assume a Marxist bent and read this giant ad as an allegory
chronicling the incredible growth of Corona beer sales in North America.
Rather than explore these trails, this safari’s listless docent would,
instead, enjoy asking the following question: is nationalism (the prehistoric
grandfather of what marketers called branding) becoming implicitly the
most marketable means of expanding market share in the current period?
Twelfth Frame, Which Chronicles the Unlikely Marriage of a Tree and a Funeral
Still on the Guerrero, one comes
across Sánchez Funeral Home, a necessary if depressing commercial
enterprise situated on the main business strip. It is a sad, drab outlet
situated beneath a small apartment complex.
The striking feature here is the
live palm tree growing up through the first floor and out the ceiling of
the second floor balcony. From the first time I saw it, I did not doubt
what I saw. There are some places where one never doubts what one sees--Las
Vegas is one, the South Bronx another, and Nuevo Laredo yet another.
This was more than just another
visual oddity, though. The mating of human and natural architecture was
charming--as if the two architectures, not wanting to offend each other
and yet strapped in the way of space, had decided "what the hell" and taken
up residence on the same plot of land. Here again, travelogue spectators
and ideational safari enthusiasts are presented with much in the way of
semantic/semiotic conjecture--life meets death, tree meets mortuary. In
a symbiosis almost too rich for the inhabitants of an increasingly homogenized
reality to comprehend, one is immediately confronted with the seductive
contradiction of life breaking boundaries (the palm tree), versus the mundane
bureaucratic reality of death (local funeral laws in Mexico mandate the
internment of bodies within a twenty-four-hour period). Postmodernity cannot
claim the rights to such a sight--it was there and growing before Derrida
ever sent a post-card. It would be all right to contend, though, that a
dutiful worship of this semiotic tableau embodies a signature ritual within
the canon of Postmodern practice.
Tragic Thirteenth Frame from 1998, aka The End of the Postmodern Moment
in First World History
So I go back to Nuevo Laredo some
ten years almost to the day after I took my first photographic safari and
I see it . I see it in all its allegorical potential--the tree for me that
symbolized the domain of the ironic, the Sánchez Funeral Home that
for me embodied all I understood about the unsettled and turbulent, not
to mention comedic, dynamics of the Mexico/U.S. borderlands had been altered.
Some clumsy, unlicensed, would-be tree surgeon had, in the effort of trimming
this public, natural "sign," killed the damned thing.
Uncanny, how things change, how
the years fly by. Still uncannier, a van with a roof ladder figures prominently
in the right margin of two photographs divided by a decade of life and
Fourteenth Frame, Wherein a Laredoan’s Memories of the Cadillac Bar Drench
an Indulgent Reader Ready to Come Up for Air
No other site on both sides of
the river gathers more tourists than the Cadillac Bar and Restaurant pictured
here in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. "The Cadillac," as it is affectionately nicknamed,
serves also as a haven for alcohol-starved teenagers from Laredo and Nuevo
Laredo (the drinking age in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas varies in ways that
recall the logic of roulette wheels). Thirsty tourists out for a good time
or a rest (Nuevo Laredo is well known for its treacherous streets and sidewalks),
Mexican nationals stopping in for a quick lunch or dinner, and businessmen
and women from both sides of the river talking finances over a Ramos Gin
Fizz©, all make their way through this tavern’s history-rich double
Waiters bustle about in their
prim white jackets, tight black slacks, and audacious ties serving tough
steaks and warm nachos to their boisterous audience. At night and on weekends,
diners and drinkers find themselves treated to the piano-accompanied singing
of Mexican and United States musical standards by strong-throated Mexican
crooners. The Cadillac favorite is "New York, New York," a song guaranteed
to lift the spirits and delight the senses of tourists from all over the
fifty states. This watering hole certainly enhances the cultural topography
of the sister cities, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. When aging tourists from
the American Midwest make their way through here with their circa WWII
song requests, it is as if Glenn Miller never died, Hope and Crosby were
still a team, and Ronald Reagan was a harmless, affable, if insufferable,
B movie actor.
Sitting around, downing a Dos
Equis cervesa and surveying the local and visiting wildlife one
night, I was struck by the youth and abandon of the mingling throngs. Young
Laredo Catholic-school girls, some barely fourteen, sauntered and swayed
about in fashions out of Elle or Vogue, cigarette and drink
dangling from each hand. Young boys, dark or blond, moussed and arrayed
in the latest fashions by Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, or Giorgio Armani,
accompanied the young ladies, all partying gloriously to the strains of
"New York, New York" while patient waiters assisted them with their every
wish and need.
In Laredo, Texas, (on "the other
side" of the river) meanwhile, the have-nots or the unlucky were cruising
up and down Malinche Avenue trying to buy beer at some convenience store
down the way (that is if they were lucky or had an older sibling). As a
result of the vagaries of alcohol procurement, Laredo high-school students,
college-goers and other assorted fun-seekers spend most of their hours
on the Mexican side of the border where the favorable dollar/peso exchange
rate and unpredictable law enforcement create an urban night life as alive,
innovative, and dangerous as any other in Toronto, New York City, or Milan.
For 25¢ cents one crosses a turnstile and enters a heterogeneous oasis
where all things good and bad are possible. Crossing that line, Laredoans
enters another world.
Almost a Conclusion:
A Border Culture Primer
Laredo has a little bit of everything.
More international goods pass over its bridges than at any other inland
port in the nation. As such, many nationalities find themselves represented
here. For the most part, though, the community is Mexican-American. This
being a semiotic enterprise, the term "Mexican-American" is as good a place
as any to bring this safari to a close.
You will remember the International
Bridge referred to earlier. It would not be far from the truth to suggest
that Mexican-Americans carry a graphic signifier of that bridge wherever
they write their collective autograph, wherever the word Mexican-American
or Mexican American is written, spoken, or acknowledged.
Mexican [-] American
Estados Unidos de Mexico [-] United
States of America
How much imagination does one
need to see that hyphen as a bridge? The fracture of subjectivity (the
alienation) thus depicted, one might think that a further exploration of
alienation, anomie, or cultural schizophrenia might be in order. Unfortunately,
the demands of this almost denouement do not allow for it.
One could propose, in contrast
to that view, that the hyphenated interaction of these two rich cultures
across that bridge creates the generative space from which the semiotically
rich contradictions of bordertown culture are born. Determined by their
proximity to each other, Laredo, Texas, U.S.A. and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas,
EUM continue to manufacture their own brand of Postmodern urban reality.
While many would perhaps rest
content to catalogue the depressing alienation of such an economically
malaised and culturally marginal pair of communities, it seems just as
valid to view them otherwise: as representative contiguous constellations
enacting subversive metastrophic exchanges that produce continually new
versions of their contradicting and derivative identities.
In the end, Laredo and Nuevo Laredo
are not representative of the Postmodern moment. They are where it was
Final After Frame
The final shapshot I will show
you is a shop sign in Tijuana, Mexico where the word "Aztec" appears in
Japanese. I think it provides a fitting final allegory for the borderlands
as we enter the third millennium--Pacific Rim multinationals lacing the
U.S./Mexico borderlands with both language and Capital. The shop sign makes
it all that more difficult to imagine borders as simple lines dividing,
hence shaping, two entities. There are always more than two players afoot,
and the transnational semiotic Babel provided us by this Northern Baja
California emporium disabuses us from our old habit of relying upon thoroughly
logical and utterly misrepresentative binaries.
With the changes exploding across
the boundaries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in recent
years, many of the self-evident notions about the order of things have
been blown out of the water. It is not just the union of associated mapmakers
in, say, the former Soviet Union or Germany who will profit from these
metastrophes--these changes in the name and constitution of various political
and national bodies. Border theorists are having a ball--those of us who
pontificate and prognosticate on the dynamics of border interaction can
also gain much from a careful scrutiny of this late twentieth-century happening:
border checkpoints come, border checkpoints go as the Berlin Wall comes
down and Checkpoint Charlie files for unemployment insurance; meanwhile,
the United States militarizes its Mexican border, soldiers in camouflage
supervising as a new iron curtain springs up, forged from unused metal
instant runway sheets used in the Persian Gulf War. Elsewhere in another
isolated border precinct, a Cuban American U.S. Marine screams with glee
as his Pentagon-issued carbine rips the life from a nefarious drug smuggler--that
this agent of narcotic malfeasance is an innocent U. S. teenage, herding
his family’s goats, well, that’s....well that’s just the price we pay for
freedom blah blah blah blah blah... So as the walls come tumbling down,
with or without the melodrama of Jericho, other new structures are going
up in their place. Theses barriers, much like the carbon-based organisms
that erect them, are always evolving. One of the tasks for those of us
curious about the Border is to document the latest line of barrier fashion,
the latest trends in border checkpoint accessories--drug-sniffing dogs,
moonlighting Special Forces troops, pilotless reconnaissance aircraft etc.
This fetid interlude of reverie
has led me to think through the impact of Late Capital and the advance
of a global multinational economic New World Order on the site called the
border and to the writings of Karl Marx. It is not without a certain bit
of nostalgia that I have returned in recent days to a patient if haphazard
reading of Das Kapital. With the championed victory of Capital,
the introduction of a corporate culture industry to Eastern Europe (and
who wouldn’t want to trade in their scowling politburo chieftain for a
smiling, young, and nubile Ukrainian simulacrum of Vanna White), with all
this it seems worth the effort to re-survey the pages of a startling writer
who the masses seem to regard as passé or, worse yet, a fool.
There in those pages, working
through the chapter on the production of relative surplus value, reading
through the section on "The Division of Labor in Manufacture, The Division
of Labor in Society," I stumbled across Marx’s extended quotation from
the writings of a British Lieutenant Colonel/Orientalist/anthropologist
stationed in India--thankfully, Edward Said has made it damn near impossible
for us to forget the subtle links tying the repressive state apparatus
of the militia to the social scientist and the university. Anyway, here
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Wilks in Historical Sketches of the South of
India, 1810-1817 describes the peculiar economy of a small communal
socius. Marx via Wilks notes various activities doled out among the member
of what he calls a "self-sufficing asiatic society."
The land is tilled in common...[A]longside
the mass of people thus occupied in the same, we find the chief inhabitant
who is judge, police authority and tax gatherer, we find the bookeeper
who keeps accounts of tillage, another official who prosecutes criminals...[and
a] boundary man who guards the boundaries against neighboring communities.
There I stopped reading and was jolted
out of my nostalgia-induced analytic adventure. To think that a community
would designate an official to guard borderlines, frontiers, territories,
and that that was his sole vocational/ontological/existential task--there,
I thought to myself, was an avant-garde culture--even with our border militia,
our observation balloons, our night-vision scopes, our trained-to-smell-Mexicans
border patrol attack dogs, we’ve got nothing on the group Wilks visited
and that Marx took space to entertain.
These "boundary man" inspired-thoughts
did not end there. I called to mind the self-rightous bogey men of the
intellectual conservative Right, boundary men like William Bennett, Irving
Howe, E.D. Hirsch, and Allan Bloom--and their peculiar neo-Fascist bedfellow,
Pat Buchanan--guardians and cultivators of a facile and ideal cultural
inheritance. At the same time, my mind drifted to the Left, to those of
us who think ourselves specialists not of "guarding intellectual borders"--but
of studying them, which if we follow Deleuze/Guattari means much the same
Even those of us who understand
frontiers as geological/national/social sites of conflict--where binaries
like self/other, subject/object, and citizen/alien find their most eloquent
deterritorialization--can fall prey to the ontology of the boundary man.
The more naive of us who propose no boundaries at all are merely the more
sophisticated in their dissimulation. I mean to speak frankly. I’ll take
the checkpoint in lieu of internalized colonization any day of the week.
If bordercultural studies are
the latest rage and pundits on the right and the left sing the praises
of some utopian construct named multiculturalism, the fractiousness of
border regions whereever they may be will continue. The subtle and overt
subterfuge of the border is beyond total containment. We should worship
its diastrophic rumblings without which there would be no Subject to deconstruct,
no subject to speak of.
Almost like Laredo. I almost like
Laredo. I am almost like Laredo.
Amidst these three phrases lurks
a version of the two of us: you and me.