Strange Political Meetings in the Necropastoral: The Sleepwalkers

by on Mar.21, 2011

1. Last year, the (Mexican-American) fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte collaborated with MAC to introduce a ‘Juarez’ line of cosmetics, featuring blush, eyeshadow, lipstick and nailpolish with names such as ‘Juarez’, ‘Factory’, ‘Ghost Town’, ‘Sleepwalker’, ‘del Norte’, ‘Quinceanera’. The line was inspired by a visit by the Mulleavy’s to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.


2. The women of Ciudad Juárez suffer two notorious distinctions which are not unrelated: they are being murdered at the despicable rate of at least 500 raped, mutilated, murdered, and tossed in the desert over the last 10 years, plus another 500 missing; and they are employed at foreign-owned factories known as maquiladoras, jobs for which they are atrociously underpaid ($55 for a 45 hr workweek, according to Amnesty International). Their work at the maquiladoras leave the women vulnerable to murderer(s); many are snatched and murdered commuting to and from work, walking across the desert to and from bus-stops. The corporations have declined to provide protection for these women or screen busdrivers.

3.The Mulleavys have said that they were inspired by the women they saw in the (dangerous) early hours crossing the deserts or at the busstops; they called these women ‘sleepwalkers’ and made them the focus of their line and< the accompanying fashion show.

4.Upon release of the Juarez line, Rodarte was immediately attacked for their insensitivity to the plight of the women of Juarez and the line was withdrawn.

5.But is it possible that Rodarte’s gesture was political, a making visible of a class of women at once unprotected and ignored, whose tidal murder rate has not ebbed in over a decade? Is it possible that their act could be seen as activating the terror of the sublime, which simultaneously occupies the heights and depths of what humans can imagine, and is thus beyond imagination, for political purposes? The Juarez line collapses the heights of luxury into the depths of poverty and misery, performs an act of paradoxically ghostly solidarity, dressing up first world women as the ghosts of their murdered and sleepwalking third world counterparts, suggesting that first and third-world women might even be counterparts, twins, ghosts of each other. To put it more pointedly, who are the true sleepwalkers, the murdered women, the women made into spectres by their exploitative jobs, or the women sleepwalking through firstworld lifestyles exported from ‘twin plants’ in the third world—just across the border?

6. What kind of border can a sleepwalker cross?

7.What kind of border can’t a sleepwalker cross?

8.According to Wikipedia, the maquiladoras, or ‘twin plants’, supposedly get their names from the practice of a miller charging a fee to grind other’s grain, an analogy to special tax status under which foreign (often U.S.-based) companies manufacture goods in Mexico and then reimport them across the border. However, it is hard not to see the word’s similarity to the one that follows it in the dictionary, ‘maquillage’, make up, itself derived from the Old French ‘to make up’ or ‘to work’. The Spanish word for makeup is also ‘maquillaje’.

9.Makeup is a factory. Art is factory work. It makes ghosts.

10.Synonyms for ‘maquillage’: cosmetics, makeup, paint, war paint.

11.War paint.

12.Ghost paint.

13.The sleepwalker seems to lack political agency (and all agency); it is an asthetic remnant, an automaton, and it literally embodies the irrational, aestheticized power of Art. It is outside the law. But in just this lawlessness it wakes up the community to its own vulnerability, agitates the complacent to action, even if that action and violence becomes turned against its own person. Paradoxically, then, the sleepwalker, a site or drain for aesthetic intensity, is a site of revolutionary intensity itself.

14.In the essay ‘Queer Times, Queer Assemblages”, the critic Jasbir K. Puar conceives of a state of “becoming beyond beings”, embodied by the suicide bomber, who entails “an assemblage of the organic and the inorganic; a death not of the self or the other, but both simultaneously. […]This body forces a reconciliation of opposites through their inevitable collapse—a perverse habitation of the contradictory.” Rodarte’s sleepwalkers mount just such an assemblage, a contradictory co-habitation of the ghost and the living, the dead and the deathly, the first world and the third world, the luxurious and the exploited. The entire project is a suicide mission which deployed itself, shredding damage through the mediascape, and could not survive its own launch.

15.Baudelaire envisions the necropolitical nature of aestheticism when he writes of Dandyism as “an institution beyond the laws,” but one which “itself has rigorous laws which all its subjects must strictly obey,” a excessive aestheticism to which they submit “Perinde ac cadaver”—as if a dead body. This formula, a Jesuit formula describing Jesuit submission to the commands of god, thus renders the Dandy a flamboyant yet dead body, a sleepwalker, a “declining daystar,” “glorious, without heat and full of melancholy”. Yet all these Dandies, all Art’s sleepwalkers, “partake of the same characteristic quality of opposition and revolt.”

16.Rodarte’s sleepwalkers fulfill the revolutionary promise of the suicide-bomber and the dandy. They disinter the disappeared bodies of the women of Juarez; they make them visible; they make holes; they reveal borders to be membranes; they distribute their mortality like shrapnel and like consumer products throughout firstworld bodies and would-be hygenic mediascapes; they are themselves maquillage, makeup, spectral, mobile factories which do not obey the border; they extract duties and pile up debts; they cake the face; they remake the ‘face’; they metastasize twinship; they are factories for fabricating doubles; for making more ghosts, more media, more death and more holes. <

12 comments for this entry:
  1. Kate

    Great post, Joyelle, thank you for this. I’ll post back to it tonight . . . traveling. Just wanted to thank you for this.

  2. Joyelle McSweeney

    Cool Kate– and I’d also like to belatedly thank Lucas de Lima for putting me on to Puar and through him to Achille Mbembe, whose ‘necropolitics’ is the direct political context for my concept of the necropastoral.

  3. James Pate

    Really fascinating…

    I’ve been writing an essay relating Genet’s maids to Deleuze’s war-machine, how Genet’s characters aren’t lodging a specific protest (which could be easily brought into line with the state) but rather, like the war machine, clearing a space through a seemingly senseless act of suicide, performing an act no state could ever incorporate…

    His maid makes death simultaneously glamourous and politically radical…

    The dandy as sleepwalker as revolutionary goes against what we usually think of as “positive” political categories (hope, utopian promise, community, renewal, human fulfillment as opposed to the spectral)…

  4. adam strauss

    I can for sure understand why people got upset: to me it smacks of PR bs and very much mirrors the fashion spread (tho perhaps this style was more in in the late 80s and early 90s) in which immaculate models wearing 10 to fifty grand worth of stuff are shot in ghettos. Personally, I think the secret to “deep” pop production is to play up the shallow/awesomely obvious (“pulled out the plug/the water was running out”… etc)and that the pvertly profound should be studiously avoided Now if Rodarte wants to stage its primary runway show in Juarez–that really would be profound; but something tells me that ain’t gonna happen. A really garish/gross staging at Bryant park or wherever could be nice too: expensive suits strutting past corpses and the models look and smile and maybe curse if mercurochrome gets on a stilleto and then a voiceover stating how people who aren’t pretty really ought to think of initiating a self-genocide movement. In other words: the less politically pretentious, the better.

    Note: I friggin’ love high fashion, but think it’s pointless not reveling in the glamor; this isn’t to say glamor has to be sanitized: fecal matter styled well and placed in an ace-chic location can be very happening I’m sure. Mm, I’m in west L A right now and love it!

  5. adam strauss

    Oops, misread: it’s only a makeup line, not clothing being “inspired.” I find it really unobvious how Juarez’ murders would inspire makeup: the dust-covered look? Is it a line–like Iman’s–meant for non-white women?

  6. adam strauss

    Is the makeup in the compacts meant to look like eyeballs? Cliff-face with its striations and marblings? I like the idea of many hues in one compact, seems like it could give a nice rich nuanced patina; but would one have to rub-blend it in with a super-special technique for the results not to be badbad? Or have I made-up that those are compacts and the marbly or spidery or veiny quality is a surface pattern but not reflecting the whole product?

  7. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi Adam,
    I love your analysis of hte compact– my first conclusions were much more cheesy– blood in the desert. But your ideas about marbling and striation are actually much more political– the compact itself, with its mirror in the cap, is a microcosm, perhaps a literally magical one, of the exchanges and striations and inseparability entailed by the project. To put this blush on you would have to damage it, mix it with a brush and apply it to your own face, cloaking your own face with this admixture and becoming part of its landscape… interring yourself in the sand, perhaps!

  8. Adam strauss

    I like how you describe using the product as damaging it, and how that wittily intersects with the act of making up or undamaging. Lots of products could be said to be damaged via use/fulfilling function, but it seems poignant when linked to a face product.

  9. Lucas de Lima

    This makes me want to reread 2666, in which Bolano sets up all kinds of transnational and cross-cultural assemblages through the horrific Juarez murders. They figure spectrally in the novel as the unspoken outcome of the entire 20th century. The murders, like a vacuum, suck everything else in the novel in. Genet’s The Maids, as James points out, would also make a great companion text to this. Maybe MV should have a summer reading club.

  10. Joyelle McSweeney

    OMG summer reading club YES.

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