A Poetics of Resistance

My book, A Poetics of Resistance: The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency, came out from AK Press in July, 2010.  Here’s what some have said about the book: 

“Conant has an ear for story, poetry, and wonder; his new telling of the Zapatista struggle is full of delights.”

—Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved and The Value of Nothing

“Ivan Illich once said: ‘Through arguments you can only come to conclusions. Only stories make sense.’ Near the end of his life, Ivan also said that only a poetic language can express today what we need to say. Considering the current challenges and risks, a fresh, poetic look at the Zapatistas, to clear our vision, is badly needed. This is a useful book for those looking for sense in these dark times.”

—Gustavo Esteva, founder of Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca, Mexico

“Conant’s engrossing book distills critical lessons about the Zapatistas’ use of storytelling, spectacle and truly revolutionary marketing. Whether you’re already deeply immersed in Zapatismo or new to this profoundly important social movement, A Poetics of Resistance is essential reading.”

—Patrick Reinsborough, cofounder of SmartMeme Strategy and Training Project

The Zapatistas’ famous “Ya basta!”—enough already!—was the first uttering of a new story: a story about unbinding the ties of official history, uncovering buried seeds of popular resistance, and revealing the glimmerings of a truly insurgent modernity. Combining narrative history, literary criticism, ethnography, and media analysis, A Poetics of Resistance provides a refreshing take on Mexico’s Zapatista movement by examining the means, meanings, and mythos behind the Zapatista image.

The first “postmodern revolution” presented itself to the world through a complex web of propaganda in every available medium: the colorful communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos, the ski masks, uniforms, dolls, murals, songs, and weapons both symbolic and real. By proliferating a profound and resonant set of myths, symbols, and grand historical gestures calculated to reflect their ideologies, organizing methodologies, and cultural values, the Zapatistas helped set into motion a global uprising, and the awareness that behind this uprising is a renewed vision of history. Jeff Conant’s engaging and innovative examination of the Zapatistas’ communication strategies will be an important tool for movements everywhere engaged in creating a world where many worlds fit; in demolishing History in order to construct histories; and in unseating not only the powerful, but Power itself.

From the Introduction: A World Made of Stories

The poet Muriel Rukeyeser said, “The world is not made of atoms, but of stories.” Emerging at the very tail end of the twentieth century in remote jungle enclaves deep in the storied outlands of Mesoamerica, the Zapatista rebellion has had the force of an atom smasher, reinventing what makes the world. Poetics, the making of meaning through language, is central to the Zapatista project. My purpose in A Poetics of Resistance is to examine the narrative of the Zapatistas, to look at what it means, to unravel its poetics, and to discover, in part, by what means it makes its meaning.

As if it’s not clear enough when thousands of women, men and children cover their faces, raise their machetes in the air, and shout “Ya basta!”

The Zapatistas’ famous “Ya basta!”enough already!is one of many ways into their narrative, a prelude to a set of stories they tell, stories of historical resistance and contemporary re-existence. Stories of resistance, of course, help to strengthen resistance, rooting it more deeply in belief and in practice, and thus sustain it. It was Ivan Illych, that great nomadic thinker, who pointed out, “Through argument you can only come to conclusions. Only stories make sense.” And what revolution has not been built on stories and sustained by poetry? And, without revolution, what is poetry but dry sustenance in a prosaic world?

Amid the vibrant and oftentimes desperate cacophony that is contemporary Mexico, a plenitude of social movements raise their voices ceaselessly, demanding work, land, justice, dignity. But somethingmany things, in facthave made the Zapatista movement distinct, and have “attracted the world’s attention” to a set of demands that “the world” would generally prefer to ignore. By meeting at the crossroads of European tradition and Mesoamerican native history, and by inhabiting the language and the mythistory of both, the language of Zapatismo serves as a gateway for outsiders into indigenous methods of resistance, revealing to the outside world “what the Indians want.” Of course, “what the Indians want” is based on profound, historical cultural values and often has little to do with categories of modern power like the nation-state, access to the free market, or “social services.” The eleven demands that the Zapatistas articulated in The First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle“work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace”are not easily delivered in a government aid package; they are also not easily understood, as words such as “democracy,” “peace,” and “education” carry dramatically differing meanings in varying cultures and contexts. As Flavio Santi, an indigenous Quichua/Shuar activist from Ecuador, says in regard to his village’s struggle to maintain access to forest resources, “We don’t want a piece of land like a piece of bread. We want territory. It is not the same thing.”

To read more, get the book!

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