“Ostranenie” in Mexico

In a news article on the election of López Obrador as president, The Guardian’s Tom Phillips describes scenes of joy and celebration in Mexico City. The festival atmosphere in the city center seemed to turn Amlo’s message of hope into an immediate political reality. But the political changes promised by the president-elect appear to be both more subtle and far-reaching. A close look at the journalist’s account of the evening suggests that the events of July 1 are bringing about a profound shift in human consciousness that portends a truly revolutionary movement on a global scale.

I still can’t believe it,” said Victor Gómez, one of thousands of Andrés Manuel López Obrador supporters who had descended on downtown Mexico City on Sunday night to toast their leader’s historic election victory. Gómez, a 47-year-old artist, had brought a date to the fast-growing fiesta on the Paseo de la Reforma, a wide avenue running through the Mexican capital: a papier-maché sculpture portraying the leftist president-elect as a caped superhero. (The Guardian, July 2, 2018)

By calling the Paseo de la Reforma “a wide avenue,” Phillips performs a subtle grammatical alteration of the described scene. The effect lies in his judicious use of an indefinite, rather than definite article. The word’s implications may well pass unnoticed by the average reader, as it appears in a seemingly innocuous and even superfluous phrase. But this sly deceptiveness suggests the word’s strategic role in a broader revolutionary movement of consciousness transformation, whereby the familiar is rendered strange, a process the Russian Formalists named ostranenie.

The Guardian’s Mexico City correspondent implies that the Paseo de la Reforma is not the one we are all familiar with, the avenue that runs through beloved Chapultepec Park, past the city zoo and the illustrious National Anthropology Museum; instead, as “a wide avenue,” it seems located in a different, somewhat unfamiliar place. In the same way, a person in a strange country may cross “a wide river” without knowing its name; an amnesiac might see “a large house” without realizing it’s the one he lives in; an idiot might look at the sun and not know it’s the same one as yesterday. But Phillips suggests that nothing is in fact the same as yesterday, before Amlo’s election; if the Paseo has now become “a wide avenue,” is not the Pacific ocean “a pacific ocean,” the sky “a sky,” and my husband “a man sitting at a table across from me”?

Accordingly, one is provoked, perhaps unconsciously, to imagine that these revolutionary celebrations are not happening, as Phillips says, in “the Mexican capital,” but some other capital also named Mexico City. Likewise, Amlo may not be “the leftist president-elect,” either, but just one such president among many. Of course, we should understand this apparent demotion as being part of a rigorous system of democratization that places Amlo on the same level as Gómez, “a 47-year-old artist” and even his date, “a papier-maché sculpture.” But the indefinite “a” also has a generalizing function, whereby the celebrations can no longer be thought of as local, specific, as if fatally bound to their particular place and time, but potentially everywhere and duplicatable.

This generalizing process, whereby the specificity of “the” becomes the duplicability of “a” is nothing less than the liberatory process of Formalist estrangement extended to its necessary global scale. In one of his late interviews Michel Foucault seemed to suggest as much. “The relationship between Russian Formalism and the Russian revolution should definitely be investigated precisely anew,” Foucault said.* But perhaps we should think of this estrangement not so much as an aesthetic intervention, such as the Formalists advocated, or even a surrealist subversion (like Gómez’s papier-maché president), but instead as a kind of delusion-producing infection, whereby all definites become indefinites, and all of social existence, rid of its uniqueness, thereby escapes all appropriation as well. In this way, reality, become the good of all, could also lose its ability to harm. One might then refer to “a city called New York” and “a president of the United States” residing in “a Trump Tower” – a building not located on Broadway, as we normally expect, but on “a wide avenue” like the Paseo de la Reforma.

Revolutions need the mass popular movements that only cities can breed. But liberation requires the everyday practices of space that can bring about what Henri Lefebvre called “the right to the city.” In Amulet, Roberto Bolaño has his heroine recount her life from the perspective of the roiling politics of 1968, a year of demonstrations and massacres in Mexico City. For Auxilio as for Bolaño, the right to the city is a labor of poetry, radical ostranenie and literally unearthly beauty:

“Off I went staggering through the streets of Mexico City,” says Auxilio, “… and although I was picking my way through craters illuminated by hundreds of moons, they were not the craters of planet Earth but those of Mexico.”**

*Michel Foucault, “How Much Does it Cost for Reason to Tell the Truth?” in Foucault Live (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), 234.

**Roberto Bolaño, Amulet, trans. Chris Andrews (New York: New Directions, 2006), 65.




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