A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency — Book Excerpt
Revolution By the Book (AK Press)
Branding Popular Resistance
“No space has been left unbranded.”
Digging into the poetics of Zapatismo, analyzing the communiqués for their symbolic and literary content, seems a valid and valuable exercise, but it begs a question: if a story is told in the jungle and no one is there to hear it, is it still a story?
Introducing Gloria Muñoz Ramirez’s book The Fire and the Word: A History of the Zapatista Movement, Subcomandante Marcos has written the story of the Zapatistas’ early days: “According to our calendar, the history of the EZLN prior to the beginning of the war had seven stages.”21 Marcos goes on to tell of the events in the jungle during the early years, 1983 to 1993, from the first camp established in the Lacandon to the night of the uprising. The telling serves to build the myth of Zapatismo—but who has the ears to hear it? That is to say, while the Zapatista communiqués have been widely published in many languages, perhaps rivaling in our time the viral spread of older insurgent literature like The Communist Manifesto and The Declaration of the Rights of Man, and have been serialized in major Mexican periodicals, the numbers of actual readers, one can guess, is minimal. It would be disingenuous to suggest that the relatos of Old Antonio or of Don Durito serve to bring new sympathizers to the Zapatista cause, or to win them territory, either physical or psychological: by the time a reader has approached these stories, has taken the time to read and digest them, most likely she is already sympathetic to the cause. Still, the narrative itself has a certain intention and a certain promise. So how does the poetics of resistance, then, have its effect?
Aside from countless converging historical factors, what has drawn people in such numbers to a movement beginning in the most obscure corner of Mexico has been a web of stories and grand historical gestures: a ski-masked face and a rebel cry; a man on horseback, serenely smoking a pipe, with bullet belts marking a wide X across his chest; crowds of miniscule women in flower-embroidered dresses shoving and screaming at a ragged platoon of worried soldiers. Beginning in the mid-1990s, these images, seen worldwide, have evoked a global uprising against state and corporate capitalism, corrupt bureaucracy, and power wielded by the few against the interests of the many. Zapatismo, aside from creating a new kind of social movement that seeks to build local alternatives to power rather than to take the power of the state, has created an image and a mythic space that is unique among liberation movements, and that has allowed it to survive in the popular imagination, and therefore on the ground, for a decade and a half now.
By taking early and strategic advantage of the Internet and the news media, the Zapatistas have kept their story in the headlines, at least in their own country, and sometimes elsewhere. By using folktales, myths, jokes, and other ways of engaging an audience, they have filled what might be described as a psycho-emotional need for stories of resistance in the international left, and among those with a leftward tendency. By framing themselves as sympathetic characters—Subcomandante Marcos the charismatic and self-effacing wit, Comandanta Ramona the diminutive but persistent female presence who overcame illiteracy to speak before millions, and the rest of the Zapatistas, the unbending will of popular resistance—they have created a living history that wins them press, solidarity, and the attention of international human rights organizations, and that, generally, prevents the Mexican government from attacking them outright.
Dubious as it may at first appear, I’d suggest that the web of propaganda of which the communiqués are one piece—and perhaps the principal piece, the Rosetta Stone that allows us to decipher the meanings of the masks, the dolls, the encuentros, the public spectacles—goes beyond the means of literature, and certainly beyond the traditional limits of political pamphleteering, to function as branding.
To refer to the Zapatistas’ representation of a deeply marginalized multitude as branding might appear cynical or ill-considered, but it is fair to say that just as the Nike swoosh calls to mind not only athletic equipment but also athletics itself (and, for many, a supreme dog-eat-dog competitiveness, the fundamental ideology of predatory capitalism), and just as Starbucks represents not only gourmet coffee but yuppie comfort and conformity, the ski mask and other symbols of Zapatismo serve to deliver a dense package of information wrapped in a single visual icon—and to create name recognition for it. It is precisely this careful image management, along with a clear and consistent message, that prevented the Zapatistas from suffering the same fate as the multitudes slaughtered in neighboring Guatemala in the 1980s, and that has led them, instead, to inspire and represent global popular resistance.
As branding serves to expand the market of a product and broaden its market share by targeting a particular consumer profile, and as a national mythology serves to project qualities of authority, rightness and permanence—using such familiar advertising slogans as “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” “Como Mexico No Hay Dos,” “America the Beautiful,” “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” etcetera—the poetics of Zapatismo act as a portal to understanding the projected values, ideals, ideologies, and goals of the Zapatista movement.
Naomi Klein, in her era-defining opus No Logo, discusses the power of branded images, pointing out that “logos, by the force of ubiquity, have become the closest thing we have to an international language, recognized and understood in more places than English,” and describes them as a kind of magical shibboleth within “this global web of logos and products … couched in the euphoric marketing rhetoric of the global village, an incredible place where tribespeople in remotest rain forests tap away on laptop computers.”22
Indeed, just as Nike’s swoosh acts as a psychic trigger, urging the mind to recreate a set of relationships, feelings, urges, desires, there is a “magical” element to the way the ski-mask affects one’s perception of an indigenous woman, her face covered in order to be seen. The “magic” lies, in part, in what the mask implies through the Zapatistas’ manipulation of historical symbols, names, dates, and images. Just as “successful corporations must primarily produce brands, as opposed to products,”23 successful movements must engage in name recognition, guerilla marketing, and product placement, constantly opening “fresh new spaces to disseminate the brand’s idea of itself.”24 This is the cynic’s view, indeed, but it is fair to say that, just as the folk art of José Guadalupe Posada (you know the images even if you don’t recognize the artist’s name) in some sense brands a Mexican popular mythology at the turn of the last century—insurgent, satirical, redolent of class antagonism and the reclamation of native cultural symbols—the ski-masked face and the comical image of Don Durito de la Lacandona have branded Mexico’s grassroots rebellion at the vertiginous turn of our own century.
In the world of business, the objective of branding is, of course, to increase sales, or, put another way, to draw increased capital exchange. Since the Zapatistas are not a profit-seeking venture, the objective of their brand is not to increase revenue, but rather to encourage other forms of exchange: solidarity, reciprocity, material aid, human rights accompaniment, and so on. That is to say, the Zapatista brand attracts social and political capital. How else is it possible to explain that while impoverished people, rebel people, people demanding a voice exist everywhere, Zapatista rebel territory has attracted aid and accompaniment from so many since 1994? Human Rights Watch and the Red Cross, congressional delegations, cultural celebrities from Danielle Mitterrand and Oliver Stone to Rage Against the Machine, Manu Chao and the Indigo Girls, celebrated intellectuals, documentary film makers, boatloads of journalists and social scientists, educators, health workers, medical professionals, agronomists, organic farmers, collectivists, fair trade entrepreneurs, poets, community organizers, religious delegations, video artists, and scores of so-called “revolutionary tourists,” not to mention the steady stream of political visionaries, anarchists, and seekers and adventurers of all description. Where else on the planet do the likes of John Berger, Jose Saramago, and Susan Sontag chat with Catalan solidarity activists and peasant farmers in thatch-roofed huts?
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