- Border Bodies:Dagoberto Gilb’s Phenomenology of Race
Because something serious was going to happen. He knew it, knew it in his bones.Dagoberto Gilb, The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña
In Dagoberto Gilb’s short story “The Death Mask of Pancho Villa” (1993), an unnamed narrator is roused from bed in the middle of the night by his friend Gabe. The narrator, who has not seen Gabe for a while, is surprised by Gabe’s visit and wonders at the mysterious stranger Gabe has with him. Román Ortíz, Gabe explains, possesses one of three existing death masks of Pancho Villa, whose memorabilia the narrator collects.1 Ortíz plans to take the mask to Moscow, where the journalist John Reed, who wrote Insurgent Mexico (1914) about his four months traveling with Villa, is buried. Gabe wants the narrator to come see the mask, but the narrator, who must work the next day, declines. Before leaving, Gabe and Ortíz drink some beers and smoke a joint with the narrator, who, at the end of the story, is left wondering why Gabe really came to see him and why he, the narrator, refused to play along.
Like much of Gilb’s fiction, “The Death Mask of Pancho Villa” is short on plot; it has no clear conflict and no resolution, circulating [End Page 601] instead around questions concerning the relationship between the human body and historical narrative. The painfully self-conscious narrator wonders about his vulnerable, aging body in relation to Villa’s mask and the history it symbolizes, while the story itself posits the corporeal trace of the mask against the textual trace of Reed’s history. “Death Mask” asks us to consider whether body or text conveys greater historical truth, or whether, like Villa’s mask, body and text operate as congruent forms of knowledge.
The whole of Gilb’s oeuvre can be read as an extended investigation of this relationship between body and text, yet it is not common to read Gilb as making interventions in philosophical debates about meaning and ontology. He is certainly well-known and well-received as a Chicano chronicler of Mexican American lives on the border, having published two novels and several short story collections. Bridget Kevane’s very favorable review in The New York Times of Gilb’s most recent short story collection describes a narrator’s “struggles with his Chicano identity.” Peter Donahue reads The Last Known Residence of Mickey Acuña, Gilb’s 1994 novel, as the drama of Mickey Acuña’s coming to terms with his own cultural identity (33). Readings of Gilb tend to follow this pattern, paying scant attention to Gilb’s philosophical explorations of the body, time, language, and what it means to know.
But that is exactly what I am interested in here. In particular, I am interested in how, for Gilb, knowing is not opposed to feeling, and what that nonopposition means for reading Chicana/o literature and writings by people of color more broadly. Embodied experience is a chief concern in Gilb’s writing, but he does not depict it in antagonistic relation to language or cognition. Quite the contrary, affective experiences, like those of the narrator in “Death Mask,” have value for Gilb, but that value is neither ideological nor post-ideological. That is, Gilb’s fiction seems to argue that physical feelings do not represent some truth about racial experience, nor do they offer a way to transcend the ideologies of race.
Feeling is not the domain of a postracial utopia in Gilb’s writing. His work foregrounds ethnic experience and is characterized by an intense, almost playful attention to language. Yet stories like “The Death Mask of Pancho Villa” do not suggest that feeling exists apart from language or that race is discursive. Conversely, we might read [End Page 602] Gilb as suggesting that race constitutes language. Such a view relies on an understanding of feeling far removed from theories of affect articulated by Brian Massumi and his followers, anti-intentionalists who believe that our feelings are precognitive and can thus potentially liberate political subjects from their ideological confines.2...