- Autonomy in a Time of Terror
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. xxvi + 301 pp.
Early in Fires on the Border, Rosemary Hennessy proposes that “feelings are the daily medium in which concepts come to matter and organizing efforts are lived” (xii). The rich, suggestive analysis this book provides is the product of more than a decade of research on—and participation in—organizing efforts in those export-zone exemplars of neoliberal capitalism, the maquiladoras. Weaving the testimony of maquiladora laborers and organizers together with affect theory, queer studies, and historical materialist feminism, Fires on the Border offers a compelling account of unusually brave organizing efforts and raises crucial questions about the affective dimensions of collective alternatives to neoliberal violence.
But violence is where the book begins. Hennessy lays the groundwork for what comes later with an arresting examination of the daily terror that makes these organizing efforts all the more courageous. Drug cartels dominate daily life on the US-Mexico border, a region economically bifurcated into “an official market and its narco supplement” (xxii). Both the cartels and the maquiladoras are local [End Page 673] manifestations of neoliberalism’s encroachment, free trade zones facilitating the cross-border movement of narcotics. So workers who already face threats and intimidation from bosses also confront what Hennessy calls a civil experience of “narco-necro sovereignty” (6) in which cartels control the informal economy on which much of the local population depends.
Workers’ cognitive and affective maps of this environment, meanwhile, often involve feelings like fear and shame, and forms of knowing as well as unknowing. Repurposing one of queer studies’ most established tropes, Hennessy reveals that these maps are conditioned by a range of “open secrets,” including the narco terror of everyday life, the long colonial history that continues to inform the experience of immiseration, and local anxiety about the entrance of large numbers of less expensive, and ostensibly more flexible and docile, women and gay men into the workforce. The sexual insulting and scapegoating of rebellious laborers is routine, and sexuality frequently becomes the medium in which workers experience and articulate their own exploitation. The book makes a revealing intervention in critical scholarship on the “feminization of labor,” capital’s international, thoroughly gendered search for the most disposable labor it can find. “As the pace of capital expansion outstrips the time required for regeneration, life is increasingly deregulated,” and “this deregulation impinges on the very conditions of survival” (152): maquiladora workers are usually young and their time on the job tends to last only a few years, their bodies worn out by numerous ailments including carpal tunnel syndrome and herniated disks. Hennessy recounts an incident in which one worker suffers paralysis, and another a miscarriage, after a boss who wants to accelerate production gives them “vitamins” that turn out to be amphetamines. Superexploited, scapegoated, “feminized” laborers exemplify the “second skins” that help construct specific laboring bodies. “If you are culturally marked as abject or potentially worth less, this second skin will justify a lower price—or none at all—for your labor power” (142).
But Hennessy demonstrates that organized resistance can also form, and be formed by, “capacious and unspeakable passionate attachments” (100): sexual “open secrets” can hover around the edges of organizing campaigns in more productive ways, consolidating surprising and powerful social bonds. In this account, organizing is a process of affective disorientation and defamiliarization that illuminates the social and historical limits of one’s own relatively isolated position and can produce a stark break with routine, normalized emotions and knowledges. Indeed, a sophisticated dialectical reflexivity about her own affective and epistemological relation to what she analyzes—as, again, both researcher and participant—informs Hennessy’s argument at every step. Fundamental to this analysis is [End Page 674] a commitment to contemporary discourses of the commons, of “the cooperative relationships that exceed what capital can harvest” (xvii). One of the book’s most compelling chapters recounts experiments with radical forms of social autonomy, organizing efforts that moved far beyond the factory walls. Inspired by a series of encuentros with the Zapatistas...