In Praise of the Terrorist
Heriberto Yépez’s polygraphic dispersion
Hace veinte años yo era un obrero de la maquila en Tijuana y planeaba poner bombas en esas fábricas y en el edificio del PRI frente al muro que puso Estados Unidos.
— Heriberto Yépez
Poet in two languages, first-rate essayist, second-tier novelist, translator, editor, anthologist, video artist, canceled newspaper columnist, Twitter troll, keeper of prolific and ephemeral blogs, art critic in equal parts brutal and thoughtful, working-class philosopher, theorist of empire, loving cartographer of Tijuana, scholar of Nahuatl lexicography and the Maya calendar, licensed Gestalt therapist, purveyor of self-help, scourge of the right (and of the portion of the left that’s part of the right without knowing it), the preeminent expert on American poetry south of the border, the most hated (and most feared) figure in Mexican letters, a man with many enemies and ever-fewer friends, a thinker with too many insights, coiner of neologisms, black-pilled pessimist (or secret optimist?), committed ethicist, self-serious self-parodist, ironist, trickster, joker, hater, killjoy, flamethrower, slinger of shit, Latin America’s last avant-gardist, a victim of his own genius — all these terms apply to Heriberto Yépez, but if I had to describe him with a single word, I would call him a terrorist. I would mean it as a compliment.
Yépez began publishing early. His first book appeared when he was 26, and by the time he was 30 he had no fewer than seven titles to his name. The prizes and accolades came quickly: Evodio Escalante, a leftist critic, called him one of the two “most powerful literary minds” working in Mexico; Christopher Domínguez Michael, an editor at Letras Libres, the right-wing literary magazine founded by acolytes of Octavio Paz, wrote that he was “one of the most protean writers of his generation.” This vertiginous ascent culminated in 2011, when Yépez was 37 years old. That year Milenio, a widely read Mexico City newspaper that counts many celebrated writers among its contributors, invited Yépez to write a weekly column on any subject that interested him — an important consecration in a country where the opinions of writers are taken seriously even by those who don’t read their books.
The problem was that the subject that most interested Yépez was the ethical, political, and intellectual corruption of most other Mexican authors. This would have been fine — there’s a long tradition of pugilism in Mexican letters — except that Yépez broke the unspoken rule that requires writers to pick a side: If you are aligned with Paz’s reactionary ghost, you don’t attack your fellow Pazians; if you are close to the left-leaning Juan Rulfo Foundation, you decline to criticize it; if you write for a given magazine, you refrain from writing negative reviews of your fellow contributors’ books. Yépez refused to abide by this etiquette and instead went after anyone who had power, including those who considered him an ally. “I was critical in all directions,” he wrote in his final column for Milenio, which fired him in 2015, in all likelihood because other contributors complained about his antics. “If I failed to critique someone, I apologize for the oversight.”
One could say, anachronistically, that Yépez was canceled, but cancelation did nothing to deter him. Consider the open letter he published on his blog in 2017 to protest the induction of Christopher Domínguez Michael — the same writer who favorably called him “protean” — into Mexico’s version of the Collège de France, a lifetime appointment that comes with a large stipend funded by taxpayers:
I’m not surprised you wound up becoming a bureaucrat-critic, a state-owned opinionator, a subsidized reactionary. That’s what you’ve been from the beginning, in one way or another: You oppose the welfare state that supports the majority while benefiting from the one that pampers the rotten elite to which you belong, and of which you are proud to the point of kitsch, that central feature of your prose. . . . Reading your work is boring; listening to you read it aloud, truly unbearable. Do you even realize the number of times you mentioned Sainte-Beuve [in your acceptance speech]? What makes you think Sainte-Beuve is relevant in 2017? That you take such a writer as a central reference evinces the depth of your ignorance; and the same can be said about your appreciation for conservative and patriarchal critics that have long gone out of fashion, such as Harold Bloom and George Steiner. For you, the literary critic is nothing but a highbrow journalist-reader, an admiring satellite orbiting around gentlemen-writers that became anachronistic in their Nordic countries of origin ages ago. Your dilettante’s concept of the critic amounts to an auto-colonized Grand Amateur.1
Yépez has leveled similar vitriol at Nexos, the magazine where I work, which he accused of harboring a “neoliberal mafia” that wields all-but-dictatorial power over Mexican literature; at publishing houses ranging from international conglomerates to the state-funded Fondo de Cultura Económica; and at a nearly endless list of writers, including Carlos Fuentes (“You and Paz and your ‘successors’ applied presidentialism and one-party rule to literature”) and Juan Villoro (“You reiterate your cretinous attitude toward people who aren’t the children of intellectuals, politicians, or captains of industry, and who therefore have no choice but to seek out [the help of] people as full of prejudices as yourself”).
He has paid the price for his omnidirectional critique: today most of Yépez’s many books have gone out of print and are impossible to find. His more recent work has appeared in editions of two or three hundred, often under the auspices of publishing houses so marginal that the term small press proves inadequate. Such a fate would be devastating to most authors, especially those who, like Yépez, tasted something like fame before falling from the graces of the gatekeepers. But one gets the sense that Yépez revels in his own marginality; that he cultivates it with the same energy with which lesser artists apply themselves to careerism. Sometimes this insistence on standing apart from the herd becomes a little overstated. In 2014, for instance, he declared that henceforth he would be known as
Heriberto Yépez, a gesture that he said signaled the end of his authorship.
Is Yépez in on the joke? Is he playing a metaliterary game at our expense? Or does he believe, sincerely, that he has overcome the vanity of the artist to such an extent that he no longer feels ownership over his words? That this is a genuine question, rather than a rhetorical one, is precisely what makes him so interesting: he is, as the poststructuralists might say, an undecidable, a locus of ironic ambiguity. If Nietzsche is right when he says that the artist’s most important work is their own self, Yépez has created one of the most compelling artworks of contemporary Mexico.
Yépez’s undecidability presents an obstacle for the critic who wishes to attempt a thorough assessment of his literature. Part of this problem is philosophical — isn’t reading the so-called body of work of a writer who insists that he is not “an author” a prime example of missing the point? — but another part is practical. When I set out to write about Yépez, I resolved to read his complete works, but after spending several months in Mexico City’s legendary secondhand bookstores and trawling the depths of Mercado Libre — Latin America’s answer to eBay — I was forced to conclude that I’d never find all or even most of his books. What follows is a brief account of the Yépeziana I did manage to collect, excluding his translations and introductions to others’ books. In chronological order:
1. Todo es otro [everything is something else]. A collection of essays on “the anticivilizational nature of language,” hip-hop, MTV, Paul de Man, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, UFOs, pornography, and the concept of “light” (as in diet soda or superficial literature), among other things. Published by Tierra Adentro (a state-funded press) in Mexico City in 2002.
2. El matasellos [the stamp killer, the killer stamp, but also the Spanish term for the rubber stamp with which a postal officer — Yépez is fascinated by mail and all things postal — cancels a postage stamp once a letter has been mailed]. A novel about the mysterious death of a group of obsessive stamp collectors. Published by Editorial Sudamericana (part of Random House) in Mexico City in 2004.
3. 41 clósets [you can probably figure it out]. A parodic “anti-novel” that at times reads like an essay, a collection of aphorisms, or a series of poems, about a queer professor who lives near the US-Mexico border. Also about a well-known historical incident in which forty-one gay men were arrested during an orgy in Mexico City in 1901. Also about literary theory. Published by Conaculta (a government agency), in a small edition, in Tijuana in 2005.
4. Here Is Tijuana! [originally in English]. Coauthored with Fiamma Montezemolo and René Peralta, a coffee table book of photographs of Tijuana accompanied by a collage of quotes about the city. Nice to look at. Published by Black Dog (a press I know nothing about) in London in 2006, in part with funds from the Mexican government.
Using state money to criticize the state and its scribblers isn’t contradictory—it’s punk.
Using state money to criticize the state and its scribblers isn’t contradictory—it’s punk.Tweet
5. El imperio de la neomemoria [the empire of neomemory]. A book of “poet’s theory” in which Yépez reads the biography of the American poet Charles Olson as a microcosm of American imperialism. Published by Almadía (a well-regarded midsize press) in Oaxaca in 2007, in an edition of two thousand copies. Much more on it later.
6. El órgano de la risa [the laughing organ]. A collection of poems, some better than others, about the embodiment of humor, genetically modified corn, birds, and other subjects. Winner of the 2006 edition of the Raúl Renan National Prize for Experimental Poetry. Published by Aldus (a very small press) in Mexico City in 2008, in part with government funds.
7. Transnational Battlefield [originally in English]. A collection of poems, most of them excellent, about the US-Mexico border, Rilke, Wittgenstein (again), Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Goldsmith, and writing in English as a second language. Published by Commune Editions (a small press for communist poets) in Oakland in 2017. Much more on it later.
8. Mexiconceptual. A collection of essay-poems, originally published online over the course of a month on a website that was deleted upon the completion of the project, about the political and aesthetic deficiencies of contemporary Mexican conceptual art. Quite good, though the central scatological metaphor — namely, that the “neoliberal museum” “excuses” the artist from serious thought and political commitment, the pun being that, in Mexican Spanish, “excusado” means toilet, which makes “el artista excusado” something like “the toilet artist,” i.e., a receptacle for capital’s shit — is a little puerile. Published by Satélite (a diminutive press: the book lacks an ISBN), in a handsome, full-color edition of two hundred copies, in “Mexico City, Tijuana, and the Internet” in 2016.
9. La colonización de la voz [the colonization of the voice]. A fascinating and impressively erudite meditation on the political and literary implications of early Nahuatl-Spanish dictionaries. Published by Axolotl Editorxs (again without an ISBN), under a Creative Commons license, in “Tijuana, Mexico City, and the Internet” in 2018.
As if all that weren’t enough, a good portion of Yépez’s work exists (or rather existed) exclusively as internet ephemera: I count at least three blogs, one since-deleted; at least two Twitter accounts, one since-deleted; and a YouTube channel where works of video art commingle with lectures and readings. I am also told, though I have not bothered to confirm it, that at one point Yépez was quite active on Facebook. It is an expansive oeuvre, an iterative one, whose scale is perhaps best captured by Yépez’s own 2010 introduction to the first Spanish translation of a series of lectures delivered in English by José Vasconcelos in the late 1920s:
José Vasconcelos’s Complete Works . . . do not gather the totality of his books, documents, and loose texts. To come to know Vasconcelos one must track down his polygraphic dispersion, that involuntary self-portrait of the globe-trotting impulsivity which he attributed to mestizos in general. To this day, Vasconcelos remains dismembered.
Vasconcelos was a fascinating and contradictory figure who commissioned the murals of Diego Rivera, single-handedly created Mexico’s public education system, and wrote the best autobiography in Mexican literary history — and was also a committed admirer of National Socialism. This makes Yépez’s apparent identification with him — elsewhere in the piece he calls Vasconcelos the “first post-national writer” and the first “fronterizo,” terms that Yépez often applies to himself — a somewhat scandalous gesture.
But beyond the half-joking attempt to épater le bourgeois, Yépez’s voluntary self-portrait in a Vasconcelian mirror suggests that the “dismemberment” of his own body of work is not an accident, but rather the product of a conscious choice to resist definition and interpretation. The term polygraphic dispersion describes Yépez’s own output as well as or better than Vasconcelos’s in at least two senses. First, polygraphic could mean “plural, dispersed writings” and refer to the fact that much of Vasconcelos’s written production is accessible only to those who go through a great deal of trouble to find it — as indeed is the case with Yépez. Second — and more importantly — the adjective naturally calls to mind a polygraph test and its connotations of deception. Vasconcelos’s Complete Works are notorious for including self-censored versions of his books: toward the end of his life, racked with guilt, the writer deleted the passages of his autobiography where he’d discussed his adulterous affairs and other forms of godless behavior, as if by rewriting his account of his life he could rewrite his life itself. The result is that the “definitive” account of Vasconcelos-the-author is not definitive at all. So with Yépez: any edition of his Complete Works will be necessarily incomplete. Nobody will ever “come to know” him; he will remain forever undecidable.
What Yépez’s “polygraphic dispersion” means in practice is that some of his most urgent — and morally searing — work is no longer accessible. The better part of his critique of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for example, appeared on a Twitter account he has since deleted. Yépez was one of few people on the left who saw through AMLO’s bluster from the beginning. After going through several old hard drives, I could find only a single screenshot documenting his prescient warnings about the trap we were walking into:
El presidente @lopezobrador_
es otro proxeneta político
Eres un perro neoliberal: eres
un perro neoliberal
Sabemos cuál es tu verdad
El nuevo capataz del capital
Por eso te protege
Todo perro micro-similar
El presidente es parte
del fascismo de tu personalidad
Here’s my attempt at a literal translation:
is another political pimp
You are a neoliberal dog: you are
a neoliberal dog
We know your truth
[You are] the new overseer of capital
That’s why every other
micro-similar dog protects you
The president is
an important part
of your personality’s fascism
The most interesting aspect of this tweet is the final stanza, with its suggestion that our love for AMLO is the product of a psychological complex that deforms our personalities and makes us desire fascism. Yépez is a licensed therapist — he has said in interviews that he saw patients for four years but no longer practices — and his curative methods are harsh: how can we be sure, given the tweet’s syntactic ambiguity, that the “neoliberal dog” is AMLO and not the reader? Still, I’m convinced that his goal, even or especially when he hurls insults, is to help us heal from the wounds fascism inflicts on us, particularly when fascism manifests as neoliberalism rather than totalitarianism. Part of Yépez’s frustration with other writers seems to stem from the fact that so few of them are willing to avail themselves of their capacity for reinvention.
Part of Yépez’s frustration with other writers seems to stem from the fact that so few of them are willing to avail themselves of their capacity for reinvention.Tweet
In this sense, and for all his vanguardist bravado, Yépez turns out to be a surprisingly old-fashioned writer. In contrast to most modernist poetics since Baudelaire, he seems to think of literature not as an aesthetic game beyond the realm of morality, but as an edifying practice. Consider a few fragments from Transnational Battlefield, his English-language book of poems:
What kind of poet
Can you make
You were made
[. . .]
“You must change your life”
An invitation for
A new science of poetics
To occur, a science
On how writing relates
To particular methodologies
In individuals and groups
Who exchange texts.
[. . .]
Imagining a language
Means imagining a form
Who probably didn’t rewrite his life
If language games
When they make situations
One question is this:
What situations are we
Through our postlanguage
Here Yépez reintroduces agency to the closed circuit of historical determinism. We may not be able to change the poet we were made INTO, he suggests, but we can “make” a different poet OUT OF those scant materials. In Rilke’s famous line, Yépez finds not only an ethical imperative but also a philosophical anthropology: “You must change your life” implies that you can change your life; that you are not condemned to live the life you were given; that you can become someone else, someone new. Part of Yépez’s frustration with other writers seems to stem from the fact that so few of them are willing to avail themselves of their capacity for reinvention, preferring instead to persevere in their corrupt ways.
If poetry is the expression of a life-form, writing a truly different poem is a method of radical “life-change.” “Man,” he tells us in Battlefield, echoing Nietzsche, “is / the / greatest / work / of / art / man / has / not / yet / developed / and probably / ‘man’ / and / ‘art’ / are / the / obstacles / for / the / work / to / be / done.” Perhaps, Yépez suggests, one way to go about remaking ourselves, a possible method to imagine and inhabit new forms of life, is to write a poetry that does without the notions of man and art — a new kind of literature that strikes through the name of its “author” and thus emancipates not just the text, which can now mean far more than what its writer sought to express, but also the human being formerly known as the “author.” (Here we are confronted, again, by Yépez’s undecidable ambiguity: much like Nietzsche was at once a megalomaniac and a critic of the notion of “self,” Yépez’s critique of authorship derives its authority from philosophers who were quite attached to man and art.)
Yépez takes the “death of the author” not as literary theory but as the starting point for an ethical and political praxis. Rather than inviting us to play around with signifiers, Doctor Yépez’s prescription is that we learn to seize the modicum of freedom available to us — which in the context of literature means the liberty to invent new forms, new syntaxes, new vocabularies — and use it to pursue the vita nuova: the new life, the one that comes after we give up authorship and realize that, contrary to what we’ve been told, we need not remain identical to ourselves. Unlike Pessoa, who was committed to the project of being multiple people at once, synchronically, Yépez seems more interested in diachronic evolution. He appears to want to refute the psychological fatalism endemic to Mexican culture best exemplified by José Alfredo Jiménez’s famous ballad:
Nada me han enseñado los años
Siempre caigo en los mismo errores
Otra vez a brindar con extraños
Y a llorar por los mismos dolores
The years have taught me nothing
I always fall into the same mistakes
Once again I toast with strangers
And cry over the same old pains
If you want to get free — if you want to outgrow your inner fascist, if you want to stop hurting yourself and those you love, if you want to be cured of the illness that makes you desire oppression, the compulsion that leads you to worship neoliberal dogs and reactionary frauds as if they were your personal saviors — you could do worse than trying to embody the central proposition of radical poetics: that “I” is someone else.
But what kind of poet was Yépez made INTO? The poet was born in Tijuana in 1974 into a working-class family. According to a biographical sketch by the Catalan writer Lolita Bosch included in an anthology of new Mexican writing, Yépez didn’t know his father — though he was told that he was an agricultural worker in California — and, in an effort “not to defame him,” prefers to go against Mexican custom and use the last name of his mother, whom Bosch describes as a “beautiful light-skinned campesina” who emigrated from rural Michoacán to Baja California. This handful of facts is crucial: as Yépez never tires of pointing out, most people who make a living writing or editing in our star-crossed country are products of the haute bourgeoisie of Mexico City. Being born on the border to a family without a famous last name irrevocably marked Yépez as a noncitizen of the Mexican Republic of Letters. The pride he takes in his own marginality is perhaps survival strategy as much as artistic gesture.
In any case, Yépez’s youth featured none of the high-cultural bildung with which aristocratic Mexican families nurture the artistic vocations of their offspring. Instead he spent his formative years as a worker in Tijuana’s maquiladoras, light-industry sweatshops that bloomed like poisonous mushrooms in the Mexican borderlands after the passage of NAFTA. This is perhaps why so much of Yépez’s critique of the Mexico City literary establishment focuses on money: who gets it, who doesn’t, and who decides who belongs in each category. The postrevolutionary Mexican state has historically spent a great deal of money on support for writers, literary magazines, and publishing houses. This largesse has shielded Mexican high culture from the demands of the market and facilitated the emergence of a vibrant literary tradition, but it has also limited the critical impulses of writers and thinkers. Thus the country’s most visible intellectuals are often those who align themselves with the faction in power.
AMLO’s policy of “Republican Austerity” has dismantled much of the old corporatist cultural apparatus, but even today it’s easy to imagine what Mexico City’s state-funded literary world must look like from Tijuana, like a game the children of the rich play with other people’s money for the benefit of the “rotten elites to which [we] belong, and of which [we] are proud to the point of kitsch, that central feature of [our] prose.” Yépez himself has overcome the myriad structural barriers designed to keep artists of his background from receiving state money: he has been a member of the National System of Artists and published many of his books with government funds. (His enemies insist this is naked hypocrisy, but I disagree. Using state money to criticize the state and its scribblers isn’t contradictory — it’s punk.)
Besides working in the maquiladoras, the young Yépez was for a time a tourist guide for Americans in Tijuana. “One of my first jobs,” he told an interviewer for Asymptote in 2018, “was to talk to American tourists on the street and bring them down to the dance floor, where they could experience and unsettle their ‘desires’ (dance, drink, do the after-hours, break racial and cultural barriers).” This experience seems to have been as formative to Yépez as the factory floor, having introduced him to American imperialism in one of its purest forms — the one embodied by the vacationing gringo, that monster in sunglasses and shorts, for whom the colonies are not so much a real place as a psychosexual theme park where those protected by a blue passport and made wealthy by the exchange rate may shut down their superegos and surrender to their ids without fear of consequences. To speak (or write) in English as a Hispanophone Mexican is thus to trade on the foreign exchange, less a translation of the self than a conversion of pesos into dollars.
To speak (or write) in English as a Hispanophone Mexican is thus to trade on the foreign exchange, less a translation of the self than a conversion of pesos into dollars.Tweet
Yépez’s time as a tour guide also confronted him with English. To better understand his complicated, and at times quite painful, relationship to his second language, consider Voice Exchange Rates, a work of video art that Yépez made in 2002, when he was 28. The film, available on YouTube, is glitchy and pixelated. At the start we see the Mexican and American flags flicker and flash under the words SE IRAN AL INFIERNO: THEY’LL WIND UP IN HELL. The video then cuts to a screen capture from a computer running an old version of Windows: a frame within a frame, a screen within a screen, a metaphorical window that opens to another window. In the center of this mise en abyme we see a clumsily animated skull, the sort of thing an amateur might create with the editing tools available to PC users at the turn of the millennium. Icons from lotería, the strange Mexican blend of bingo and tarot, appear in columns on either side of the skull; in the background a jagged audiogram suggests infernal flames. The skull begins to speak in English, in the artificial, uncanny cadence of early computerized text-to-speech:
Hi, my name is Talk It! I am a software program designed to help poetry return to the righteous path of the avant-garde. I am a software program in which you can write and the machine can read for you — can read excellently. . . . I have different aural personalities, one for every type of poet or lyrical voice. I am easy to use and I have ideas on any issue, like Mexican art and why I think America is a melting nuclear plant .
The skull then tells us about its “most faithful client”: Heriberto Yépez, “a so-called experimental verbal artist and translator from a border town called Tijuana, the only American city ruled by the Mexican government.” Yépez’s dream, the skull goes on, “is to turn on his PC and go to sleep, leave a creative writing program running, and wake up the next morning to print the novel or poetry book that the computer wrote for him.”
Here we have an early instantiation of Yépez’s thinking about authorship: if the poet is indeed a machine that produces language, as the structuralists would have it, why not drop the pretense altogether and let literal machines write for us? The pun creative writing program condenses a critique of American literary institutions. The point of an MFA, Yépez tells us, is to transform you into a piece of software, an automaton that produces acceptable — inoffensive, marketable — literature with the same efficiency with which the maquiladoras produce television sets.
Moments later, however, the skull lets us know that Yépez’s interest in text-to-speech software also has roots in a far more personal, even vulnerable, concern:
Another reason why Heriberto decided to use me was to have no problems, none at all, speaking English. I have no accent, but Heriberto’s is strong, and, as everyone knows, having an accent in the US can be a problem. A huge one. So thanks to me, thanks to my great and merciful powers, Heriberto’s voice now sounds like an American’s, a white male voice. His voice is nearly perfect . Humans should worship a voice like that . A voice like that is better than God.
Underneath the video’s formal coldness and parodic humor, what we have is pure pathos: the embarrassment, the shame, the awkwardness that comes from the realization that no matter how well one speaks the language of empire, one will never speak it well enough. If, as the title of the piece suggests, a poet’s voice is a form of currency — cultural capital — then an anglophone voice will always be more valuable than one that speaks in Spanish. To speak (or write) in English as a Hispanophone Mexican is thus to trade on the foreign exchange, less a translation of the self than a conversion of pesos into dollars.
Because of his accent, Yépez’s anglophone voice will always be counterfeit money: not quite correct, not quite right, incapable of fooling anyone. And still, white Americans (the most “American” Americans, if one understands that the adjective signifies imperial violence) will never reciprocate: few of them will ever learn enough Spanish to order a margarita at the all-inclusive resort, let alone to write poetry in their neighbors’ language. This makes sense because, after all, dollars are worth more than pesos. The corollary of the unequal exchange rate is that to be a Mexican writer who works for a US audience is to be constantly reminded of your own colonization: you can’t help feeling that you aren’t so much an artist as a tour guide. As Yépez asks in a poem from Battlefield, where he further develops the metaphor of the bilingual artist as a financial trader: “Don’t you realize 🎶 / You will / become 🎶 / a / cultural / broker? 🎶”
The discovery that you have become a salesman of your own culture is disorienting and unpleasant. You feel it in the mouth, which must make an effort to form unfamiliar shapes. The synapses inevitably slow down, making you sound dumber than you know yourself to be. In one of the best poems in Battlefield, Yépez describes the “Language Event” that “Happens / (to us)” when “we / (‘The Mexicans’) / switch into English.” How to transform this event into something we make happen to the world? One option, Yépez suggests in Voice Exchange Rates, is to mockingly insist that the imperfections of your exophonic English are features rather than bugs. “If there are mistakes of meaning or syntax, technical problems,” the skull declares, “just attribute them to the great Western tradition of experimentalism. Call it L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing. Or, if you want to appeal to a different American crowd, call it Chicano Spanglish.”
But these small acts of rebellion aren’t enough. The fact remains that “as a Mexican poet living in an American age, you need to work in English” because, as the skull reminds us, “the next Octavio Paz is going to write like the New York Times.” It is at this point that the video takes a darker turn that I at one point thought to describe, imitating Yépez’s neological prose, as mexicopessimist. Instead of the talking skull, the screen-within-the-screen now shows an elongated, egg-like, hairless face with a swastika drawn on the forehead. Around it are four black dildos and drawings of guns. The face speaks:
Hi, my name is Old Woman. Sometimes I am referred to as Gertrude Stein. I am Talk It!’s most popular voice. I am going to explain to you why I think poets and regular people around the world should switch into English their handling of daily business and transactions.
What to make of the fact that Yépez has drawn a Nazi symbol on a face that he tells us belongs to a Jewish writer? Given Stein’s fascist sympathies, one suspects that discomfort is the point. This video, he seems to be telling us, is not a fun guided tour; this is an act of poetic terrorism, literary violence, and it’s going to hurt you as much as switching languages hurts him. And then, right when we start to wonder whether we shouldn’t close the screen and watch something — anything — else, Yépez makes his “Gertrude Stein” speak an extraordinary poem:
Even though this is not my normal Stein-style
My neutral way of doing things
I think you must change
Why? Just because
Americans rule the world
Americans rule the world
Rule the world
Americans rule the world
Rule the world
Rule the world
Rule the world
Rule the world
Why do they rule the world?
Rule the world?
Why do Americans rule?
Why they rule
They rule the world
They rule the world
They rule the world
They rule the world
Americans rule their world
They rule their world
They rule their world
They rule the world
Americans rule the world
The line breaks here are my attempt to capture something of the terrifying, hypnotic rhythm with which the machine speaks the poem in the video, as well as the degree to which Yépez has mastered Stein’s stylistic procedures. Here Yépez seems to be challenging us to consider the ways in which American experimental poetry is indissolubly tied to American imperialism. How else to explain that even a tour guide from Tijuana knows — or better, is expected to know — Tender Buttons, if not by pointing out that Stein’s poetry is a central part of a hegemonic culture that imposes itself on all others; that Americans, to quote the poet, rule the word? What would happen if a worker at a maquiladora wrote a poem as nonsensical as “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso”? Would that worker be hailed as a genius, a renewer of language, a founder of an entirely new poetics? Or would the American audience simply assume he didn’t speak English?
In one of his columns for Milenio, Yépez had this to say about his transition from literal to literary tour guide, from factory worker to cultural terrorist, from one kind of marginality to another:
I don’t know if it was excellent or terrible luck, but the maquila where I worked that year happened to stand across the street from a public university. I applied for admission and I was accepted, and I decided to cross that bridge, which took me out of the assemblage and the cardboardland of eastern Tijuana, where I lived without access to public services and surrounded by drug labs. . . . Sometimes I wonder why I wanted to stop being a maquiloco, that miserable fucker who was so pissed off at every node of the system. . . . Before I was a stinking proletarian; today I am a stinking intellectual.
In other words, Yépez — who holds a doctorate in Spanish from UC Berkeley and now teaches at the University of Baja California — was made INTO a writer who bears the scars of class and nationality, of capitalism and colonialism. He is a poet from Tijuana, that no-man’s-land between — outside — the Mexican Republic of Letters and the American Literary Empire; a mongrel, a post-hybrid, a man who straddles all kinds of borders. An undecidable.
Yépez’s most important work, El imperio de la neomemoria, was published in 2007 and translated into English six years later as The Empire of Neomemory by Jen Hofer, Christian Nagler, and Brian Whitener. On the surface, the book is a critical biography of Charles Olson, a major American poet who developed an influential theory of “projective verse” in which the spatial placement of words on the page replaces meter as the poem’s unit of “breath.” His Maximus is one of the few 20th-century American masterpieces that bear comparison to Ezra Pound’s Cantos in terms of scale, erudition, innovation, and sheer linguistic force. That text and others by Olson served as a generational link between the modernism of William Carlos Williams and the postmodernism (a term Olson apparently coined) of the New American Poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Robert Creeley. Incidentally — or not: Yépez argues that this little excursion holds the key to nothing short of American civilization — in the early 1950s Olson spent six months in the Yucatán peninsula, where he drank, wrote long and annoying letters to his friends, and exasperated his Mexican neighbors. It was there that he also spent some time looking at Maya glyphs in search of a primal writing that could ground his ’istorin — Herodotus’s word for history and Olson’s term for his own poetry. One begins to suspect that, in order to free ourselves from empire’s iron grip on our societies and psyches, we’d have to destroy our own civilization.
One begins to suspect that, in order to free ourselves from empire’s iron grip on our societies and psyches, we’d have to destroy our own civilization.Tweet
Yépez spends a significant part of the book speculating about Olson’s psychosexual development, but the author of Maximus is merely the occasion for Neomemory. Over the course of 274 pages, Yépez writes about, among other subjects, Philip K. Dick’s notion of time, the theory of the author as servant of capital implicit in Melville’s “Bartleby,” a wild and somewhat implausible reinterpretation of the Sphinx’s riddle in Sophocles, the metaphysical and political aspects of the phrase going postal, the philosophy of Being and Time expressed in the Indigenous myths of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca, the Maya notion of kihn as calendar-made-law, Borges, Artaud, Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Lévi-Strauss, Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Walter Benjamin, Marx, Freud, Hegel, Nietzsche, Casablanca, Total Recall, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix, The Butterfly Effect, George W. Bush, al Qaeda, Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, and a number of neological concepts — Oxident, pantopia, neomemory, co-body — that form a theory of the imperial imagination as sophisticated as those of Edward Said and Frantz Fanon.
This dizzying range of references, typical of Yépez, makes locating the central thesis of Neomemory almost impossible. For what it’s worth, here’s an attempt:
1. At the core of the imperial imagination — the conceptual apparatus with which empire justifies itself and exerts control over the psyches of individuals — there’s a notion of time-as-space that seeks to enforce a totalizing vision of reality as a singular universe governed by universal laws, when in truth it is a diversity of different worlds, each abiding by its own rules.
2. Olson’s travels in Mexico and the poetics he derives from them are a clear instantiation of this totalizing impulse. By traveling to the “underdeveloped” regions of the empire, Olson believes he’s also moving through time, advancing into the past in hopes of collecting the “lost” wisdom of “primitive” peoples, which he hopes, consciously or not, to incorporate into the imperial archive. This is the repository of cultural fragments that imperialist artists remix and recycle in order to control our historical memory.
3. The end product of this process is what Yépez calls neomemory, a cinematographic loop of decontextualized images that assimilates all that is foreign to the Oxident: the omniphagous West that, like oxidizing rust, slowly eats away at everything it encounters, in the process destroying it.
Yépez’s name for this time-as-space, which includes not only all locations but also all times, is pantopia, or every-place, or total-place. It is the illusion of a container — better yet: a continent — that can fit everything in existence. Here, then, is a fantasy of the world and its cultures as an empty, homogeneous extension that empire may conquer and claim as its own; that in truth is already its own, because empire is nothing other than the illusion of a pantopia transformed into a political order — it is already everything.
Yépez believes that Olson’s “expeditionary” poetics reproduce this imperialist-militarist vision. In the American’s notion of “projective verse,” he reads not just “projection” but also “projectile”; in “composition by field,” he finds a battlefield. Olson’s poet, Yépez tells us, is less singer than panzer; his poetry, less verbal music than linguistic blitzkrieg. Like Pound and Williams, Olson wrote incorporative poetry, collage-texts sewn together from scraps of diverse origin. His method is juxtaposition, setting images taken from Gilgamesh and Melville next to one another, placing the Gloucester of the 20th century and the Yucatán of the Classic Maya on the same plane. This, for Yépez, is a transparent expression of the empire’s pantopian imagination: by placing cultural artifacts of disparate provenance in close spatial proximity on the “open field” of the page, Olson’s poems erase the difference between radically dissimilar historical moments, thus creating neomemories that support the delusion that ancient Sumer and Tikal were always part of the United States — that the United States is the sum and culmination of the “human universal.”
I worry that in attempting to present a coherent précis of Yépez’s thinking in Neomemory I’ve domesticated a rather wild and even crazy text. I don’t mean this as a reproach. A substantial part of what makes the book compelling is the sensation that its narrative voice, like Nietzsche’s in Ecce Homo, is always teetering on the edge of lucid madness. This is clearly a performance: unlike Nietzsche, Yépez is sane and perfectly capable of producing traditional academic writing. But that’s not what he’s up to in Neomemory. Throughout the book he slips in and out of parody and makes bombastic claims presented with no supporting argument other than the sheer force of his language. His approach to philosophy is not the tenured specialist’s rigorous, often lifeless concatenation of logical propositions, but the feral synthesis of the autodidact with a library card; his psychology and anthropology, like Borges’s metaphysics, subgenres of speculative literature; his literary criticism less philology than bibliomancy. Indeed, Neomemory is best read not as a scholarly intervention but as a long poem in prose that appropriates the formal devices of Western scholarship to undermine its epistemology.
Neomemory was well received in Mexico, though it didn’t make a big splash. In the US, on the other hand, the book provoked surprisingly violent reactions. After the online poetry journal Jacket2 published a few excerpts from the English translation in May 2013, a handful of American poets, among them Amiri Baraka, Jack Hirschman, Ammiel Alcalay, and Benjamin Hollander, formed a collective — called, rather unoriginally, Il Gruppo — to defend Olson’s honor from what they said was Yépez’s willful misreading of his life and work. Most of Il Gruppo’s statements have disappeared from the internet, but their main complaint, published in Jacket2 in response to the excerpt, goes as follows:
If Yépez’s thinking on Olson is examined . . . it is clear that at no point does he let the salient facts and relationships of Olson’s life get in the way of his theory about Olson as the master poet of empire. . . . Does his “theory” not seem self-evidently backwards when two elder poets, Amiri Baraka and Jack Hirschman, known not only for their clear anti-imperialist politics but for being eyewitnesses to Olson’s life and poetry, come forward and find it necessary to critique Yépez’s suggestion that Olson and his poetry and prose reflect the impulses of a totalitarian and imperialist servant of empire?
The appeal to authority is flimsy and evinces a disconcerting ignorance of modern literary theory one wouldn’t expect from serious writers. What’s worse, Il Gruppo’s animosity toward Yépez soon began to sound a little imperialist itself. During a reading in Olson’s honor in 2013, Baraka had this to say about Neomemory: “‘In the land of plenty, have / nothing to do with it / take the way of / the lowest / including / your legs, go / contrary, go / sing.’ That dude who wrote that book in Mexico, whatever his name is, saying that Olson was an imperialist, he just had to read that passage.”
One wonders: Does Baraka truly think that saying in verse that one is aligned with “the lowest” is incompatible with being an (unconscious) agent of empire, or that Yépez was unfamiliar with one of Olson’s most famous poems? Were Yépez an American critic, would Baraka have remembered his name? A terrorist is a true believer, someone with moral convictions so strong that he feels compelled to destroy himself in an attempt to bring justice to the world — or rather, to the many different worlds.
A terrorist is a true believer, someone with moral convictions so strong that he feels compelled to destroy himself in an attempt to bring justice to the world — or rather, to the many different worlds.Tweet
Part of what makes Il Gruppo’s response to Neomemory so troubling is that Yépez takes pains to admit that he too is implicated in imperialism — as are, for that matter, all Mexicans. Yépez exerts a great deal of erudite effort to show how the ancient Maya also harbored an imperial conception of time-as-space, albeit a very different one from Olson’s. The same, of course, is true for modern Mexico. After the North American colonies of Great Britain became independent, Yépez writes,
the United States, crazy young thing, represented the bifurcation of the Oxident . . . . The Co-Oxident had been born. Of course, the Mexican Co-Oxident had existed for some time already, though it played the role not of Quixote but of [Sancho Panza]:2 the two elements necessary in order for Co-Control to be established. . . . It was only in 1847 [the year of the American invasion of Mexico] that the United States finally developed its essence and body. This genesis, likewise, is altered memory: the United States took form thanks to the rending of Mexico. Since that time, the United States and Mexico are, clandestinely, co-bodies.
Yépez’s use of the prefix co- serves different functions across his text and is therefore difficult to parse, but in general I take it to mean that two entities stand in a supplementary relationship. They sustain, uphold, and define each other; they cannot exist independently; they are locked in a fatal embrace. This does not mean that the two entities are similar, never mind equal: the United States is Quixote, the madman living out his fantasy; Mexico, that madman’s faithful (or rather, enabling, co-dependent) squire.
The Cervantine analogy is rich. Sancho is the knight’s servant, but he’s also saner than his master — sane enough, at least, to realize that Don Quixote’s aggrandizing notion of himself, and the wild antics with which he acts it out, is grounded in nothing but fantasy. The paradox of the character, what makes him so compelling, is that Sancho nonetheless continues to follow the knight’s orders, because without the knight he’d be nothing. So with Mexico and the United States: Mexicans know the Americans are deranged, deluded, dangerous — and yet the fascism of our personality makes us desire our own subjection and continue to obey our imperial masters. The relationship is embarrassing for both sides, which is why everyone involved goes to great lengths to repress it. But if we set aside such self-delusions we’ll see that the border is just another Oxidental fantasy. In every sense that matters — the American economy’s material dependence on a permanent underclass of migrant laborers stripped of rights and subjected to a regime of police terror; the American imagination’s symbolic dependence on a subaltern “other” against which to flatteringly define itself — Mexico is an essential part of the United States. The result, Yépez tells us, is that “all of us are Olson. Each one of us constitutes an avatar of the United States.”
Later in the book Yépez holds his project to the same standard as Olson and finds it doesn’t pass muster. He tells us that critique itself is just another machine for “the production of a neomemory.” One begins to suspect that, in order to free ourselves from empire’s iron grip on our societies and psyches, we’d have to destroy our own civilization. But even this seems impossible. The only exit from the labyrinth of neomemory that Yépez can envision is not a revolutionary uprising or a messianic apocalypse, but a slow, gradual decline in which the active force is not a counter-Oxident but the Oxident itself: “When I imagine how to exit the generalized film-loop, the only thing I can see in my mind is a bonfire that burns itself out.”
Yépez closes Neomemory with an unorthodox interpretation of Stephen Hawking’s since-retracted “paradox of information” — the notion that not even data can escape the gravitational pull of black holes. Yépez takes this to mean that “the universe forgets”; that the very laws of physics are subject to change, that nothing is permanent, and therefore that freedom exists. “So that I might be Sovereign,” Yépez goes on, “we must let go of all General Laws. I know negating the existence of the Universe is absurd but however absurd, I assert it.” Here I disagree with the translators. The original reads: “Sé que negar la existencia del Universo es un absurdo; por ser absurdo, lo asevero.” Yépez is not saying that he asserts the nonexistence of the universe despite the absurdity of the proposition, but because of it. It’s a powerful thought, similar to Kierkegaard’s notion of Abraham’s faith. But what makes Abraham astounding is that such faith is almost impossible, inhuman. I feel compelled to ask Yépez-the-ethicist: How are those of us who wish to resist empire but lack Abraham’s commitment to the absurd supposed to live? What is to be done? Are we meant to wait for the bonfire to burn itself out, for the wreckage of history to be swallowed by a black hole?
Upon finishing Neomemory it’s difficult not to feel fatalistic. This is why I spent a great deal of time trying to get my hands on a copy of La increíble hazaña de ser mexicano, “The Incredible Feat of Being Mexican.” My friend and fellow reader of Yépez, the filmmaker Santiago Mohar Volkow, once described that book as Yépez’s attempt to write a “popular” work of self-help destined to reach a mass readership — a goal not entirely unlike Nietzsche’s ill-fated designs for Zarathustra. “The joke,” Mohar said, “is that it’s just as incomprehensible as the rest of his work.” Yépez himself has said in interviews that La increíble hazaña is a “therapeutic” work, born from his clinical experience, that sought to give Mexicans a practical method for overcoming the psychopathologies of their society.
And yet, though La increíble hazaña had a much larger print run than Yépez’s other books when it was published in 2010, as of early 2022 it was nowhere to be found. I visited no fewer than twenty bookstores; I inquired with rare book dealers; I polled my friends and acquaintances. Mohar used to have a copy, but the apartment building where he lived collapsed in the 2017 earthquake and Yépez’s book, like the rest of his library, was lost in the rubble. This struck me as oddly appropriate: what better emblem for Mexican fatalism than the fact that the only known copy of a critique of Mexican fatalism was destroyed in an earthquake?
After much fretting, I wrote to Yépez to ask if he had a PDF of the book. He replied in uncharacteristically cordial terms and sent me the file, though he also said that he disagreed with my interpretation of his work as mexicopessimist. And indeed: La increíble hazaña is far more optimistic than Neomemory. Consider a passage where Yépez, addressing the reader in the familiar tone of a slightly condescending therapist, anticipates critiques accusing him of writing an excessively sunny and accessible work:
Do you know what . . . a typical Mexican intellectual . . . would say to me if he read this book? “You’ve sold out!” . . . And he’d say it because writing a book like this one means betraying the following dogma: “You shall not speak up thinking that things could improve. You may only speak about how everything is going to get worse.” And he’d say to me: “You are an idiot, an optimist — the Mexican will never change! Stop fucking around. This is a self-help book!” It’d be useless to remind him that today the wisdom of Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Seneca, or Marcus Aurelius would be classified as self-help and all but certainly dismissed. I bring this up because Mexican intellectuals’ mockery of self-help is an extension of a typical feature of Mexican popular culture, which believes — forgive me but it’s true — that self-overcoming is impossible.
Yépez opens the book with a discussion of the ways in which pre-Columbian Mexican cultures were “methodologies” for the creation of “a superman.” These methodologies, Yépez tells us, were lost in the Conquest, giving rise to “the Mexican”: a personality type characterized by an atavistic attachment to the past and contradictory drives to dominate and be dominated. The result is a psychological and political fatalism, reproduced across generations through unhealthy family dynamics, that celebrates defeat and considers success a moral failing. In Yépez’s schema, Mexicans who remain beholden to their traditional worldview fear the acute pain of growth — which always implies loss, a metaphorical death. In their effort to avoid it, they take refuge in the chronic suffering of stagnation:
The old Mexican does not want to forget . . . . The old Mexican sees the world through his wounds. That’s why he never lets them close: He believes that without his wounds he’d be blind. Refusing to ignore the past, he ignores the present . . . . The old Mexican is but a set of specific sufferings.
This diagnosis has much in common with Freud’s concept of melancholia and Nietzsche’s notions of slave morality and the life-denying effects of excessive memory, but also with the sorts of things one hears from motivational speakers. Like all moralists Yépez walks a thin line between insight and banality: You must change your life is a fine way to end a sonnet about an archaic torso of Apollo, but it’s easy to imagine a Jordan Peterson tract with that title.
What saves La increíble hazaña from becoming a tropical cousin of 12 Rules for Life is that the project is also an intervention in one of Mexican literature’s most storied traditions. Yépez’s use of the general singular typical of old-fashioned theories of national character — “the Mexican” — suggests that he’s writing his version of what we might call The Big Book About What’s Wrong With Mexico (BBAWWWM). The most famous example of the genre is Octavio Paz’s The Labyrinth of Solitude, but there are hundreds more. Ever since Independence, most of Mexico’s major writers have at one point or another felt compelled to produce a long essay explaining our country’s curse, usually through philosophical speculation and armchair anthropology rather than empirical research or journalistic reporting. Yépez’s insistence that he’s writing self-help rather than high literature is something of a red herring — and also, I suspect, a secret joke: he dislikes Paz so much that he’d rather be associated with The Power of Positive Thinking than with a winner of the Nobel Prize.
But for all his playful disavowals of the great poet’s legacy, Yépez’s diagnosis of the psychopathologies of Mexican life has much in common with Paz’s. Take his interpretation of gender and family relationships. Denied self-fulfillment by men addicted to domination, Yépez tells us, Mexican women devote themselves to their sons with a domineering abnegation that conceals a desire to prevent them from growing into men like the ones who hurt them. This overbearing, infantilizing love in turn causes the sons to develop a guilty conscience that eventually leads them to resent their mothers. But because the profound idealization of the mother is a central characteristic of Mexican culture, men are prevented from admitting that they resent her. Displaced from its original object, their hatred mutates into a generalized misogyny that later in life leads them to punish their wives and girlfriends and deny them self-fulfillment — which restarts the cycle. Consciously or not, Yépez has rewritten the chapter of The Labyrinth where Paz describes the archetype of La Chingada: the Mexican Mother as long-suffering Victim-Saint, in equal parts idealized and hated by her children.
The difference between Paz’s and Yépez’s BBAWWWM — and it is a radical difference — resides not in the diagnosis but in the proposed cure. Against the grain of Paz’s nationalism, which celebrates Mexican culture even as it criticizes it, Yépez believes that Mexico’s suffering won’t end until Mexicans are no longer Mexicans. “The new Mexican,” he writes, “will be one that no longer has a fixed definition [or] an identity.” Divesting ourselves from our past will hurt a great deal, yes, but the delusion of Mexicanness consists precisely in the fantasy that suffering is preferable to pain.
Here Yépez is once again fighting an uphill battle against the spirit of the times. To say, as Yépez does, that identity is fundamentally “conservative,” that “all nationalities are forms of control,” is to flirt with heresy. Perhaps being allowed to be the person you were made INTO — a person designed for suffering — isn’t what brings about liberation. Perhaps it can only be found by making a new person OUT OF the ruins of your oppression.
Though Yépez is a master of polygraphic ambiguity and a congenital ironist, he can also be disarmingly earnest. Such is the undecidability of Yépez. He is at once an avant-gardist — an enemy of nostalgia, in love with the future — and a revivalist invested in resurrecting a long-lost conception of literature as a means for teaching how to live. It’s no wonder he’s obsessed with calendars. He’s untimely, like Nietzsche, out of joint not just with his country but also with his age. In a time when the thinking left is socialist and collectivist, he’s an anarchist and an individualist; in an era when doubt and anxiety are understood to be the marks of intelligence, he’s not afraid of confidence and certainty.
For many of us, late imperials beholden to neomemory, morality has become a dirty word — almost an antonym of politics, anathema to art. It’s no wonder that Yépez, who’s first of all a moralist, has made so many enemies. A terrorist is a true believer, someone with moral convictions so strong that he feels compelled to destroy himself in an attempt to bring justice to the world — or rather, to the many different worlds. “The Universe,” Yépez writes in the last line of Neomemory, “will never happen.” I’m not sure I agree, perhaps because I remain Mexican. Still, I’m glad that somewhere in Tijuana there’s a former factory worker willing to plunge headfirst into the absurd to demonstrate that, contrary to all appearances, we are free.
Unless otherwise specified, all citations from Yépez’s work appear in my translation. Yépez also writes in English — I’ll note when I quote anglophone originals — but as far as I know, only one of his Spanish-language books, The Empire of Neomemory, has appeared in translation. ↩
Here the translation has the noun Sánchez where the original has the adjective sanchezco — Sancho-like or pertaining to Sancho. Given the context, I suspect this is a misprint : Yépez is clearly referring to Don Quixote’s sidekick. ↩