Embodied Engagement

Diana Taylor, ¡Presente!: The Politics of Presence

Duke University Press, 344pp, £22.99, ISBN 9781478009443

reviewed by Isabelle Bucklow

Last year Diana Taylor, Professor of Performance Studies and Spanish at NYU, published her contribution to Duke University Press’ Dissident Acts, a series on embodied politics and decolonial practices. ¡Presente!: The Politics of Presence is an urgent response to systematic projects of disappearance in the Americas. Tracing the history of disappearances from the Enlightenment to the present, Taylor explores the diverse ways by which a person — to use Franz Fanon’s term — is cast into a ‘zone of non-being’. Interweaving testimony, theory and praxis, Taylor examines the tactics enacted by America’s Indigenous peoples to resist ‘non-being’ and to ‘forge spaces of appearance out of spaces of disappearance’. ¡Presente!, as Taylor defines it, is ‘a war cry in the face of nullification; an act of solidarity as in responding, showing up and standing with; a commitment to witnessing; a joyous accompaniment; present among, with, and to . . . a militant attitude, gesture, or declaration of presence’.

I am of the opinion that scholarly books, unlike fiction, are best read over an extended period of time. When reading ¡Presente!, my month on month off rhythm suited it well, allowing complex ideas to settle and personal connections to form.

I began ¡Presente! in March 2021, a month haunted by disappearances. In London, a woman walking home at night was abducted and murdered by a policeman. While authorities sought to frame the event as a freak occurrence, women and non-binary people all over the country shared harrowing experiences of cis men abusing positions of power. The widespread coverage of this disappearance in the national press prompted other cases of missing people (otherwise not considered front-page news) to circulate on social media. The gendered and racially coded conditions of whose disappearance attracted ‘official’ attention were made plain. It became clear that certain people are more likely to disappear than others and, further, certain of the disappeared are deemed more worthy of being found.

Numbed by the relentless flow of news I buried my head in ¡Presente! This was not as an act of avoidance. Rather, faced with pangs of futility — what can I possibly do? — I sought from Taylor an example to follow. Indeed ¡Presente! is motivated by that same ethical imperative. Taylor asks: ‘what can be done when it seems as if nothing can be done?’

In ¡Presente! Taylor unveils the complex politics behind the documenting of disappearances. In Mexico 37,400 to 120,000 people disappeared between 2007 and 2018. Taylor points out the huge disparities in this statistic, exposing all manner of government strategies to warp the figures. Reading Taylor’s analysis, I was reminded of a report released in July 2020, the same month that ¡Presente! was published. The Yurok Tribal Court and Sovereign Bodies Institute examined 105 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in California. They found that 62 percent of cases were never included in any official missing persons database; 74 percent of cases had no public documentation related to manner of death, and 56 percent of cases did not mention or make public the victim's tribal affiliation.

As Taylor argues with reference to Mexico, whilst government statistics feign objective reliability, they are but potent manifestations of biopower. Biopower, a term coined by Foucault, is ‘the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of political strategy’. Therefore, as Mexican theorist Roberto Gonzalez Villarreal states, unexplained disappearance is ‘not an excess, not an error; it is a specific repressive technology’. Fanon’s ‘zone of non-being’ is thus twofold. It is official and literal, with the censoring of disappearance data often prefiguring and subsequently masking the physical absence of the missing. 

The protracted pauses in my reading of ¡Presente! continued to be punctuated by major news stories. With each trending article I found myself returning to Taylor’s theoretical analysis as a kind of digestif. By this I do not advocate the cowardly academic habit of retreating from the messy world for the dependable cushion of theory. No: Taylor seeks to unlearn such entrenched epistemic comforts. Rather, Taylor’s theory emerges from the world, and therefore, can be put back into it. Taylor stages her research as performance, as well as performing her research. By doing so, she enacts a statement made by the Bolivian decolonial thinker Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui: ‘There can be no discourse of decolonization, no theory of decolonization, without a decolonizing practice'. Taylor could be termed an ally — a now ubiquitous noun — but I prefer activist, for it contains within it the verb ‘to act’. Whereas the popularisation of ‘allyship’ has contaminated the term with smug passivity, Taylor’s writing is committed first and foremost to action.

Taylor walks, listens and talks with her subjects, who all use what Taylor terms ‘animatives’ to counteract state legitimised performatives. Animatives are ‘codified act[s] of noncompliance [. . .] embodied, communicative acts that refuse the performative utterance that tries to interpolate and frame them’. These range from parody and disguise to protest slogans or defiant silence, such as the Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo stood naked in front of a clawing excavator to draw attention to loss of land and forced migration. The sheer scope of case studies is vast. The tempo of each chapter is structured accordingly: sometimes slow and spiralling, other times disjointed.

Taylor’s embodied engagement with her subjects makes ¡Presente! a work of ethically committed scholarship founded on mutual recognition and responsibility. She does not participate in the extractivist techniques committed by many academics who explain away indigenous practice without context. Instead, her bibliography is indebted to indigenous ancestral knowledge systems. For example, Taylor makes reference to Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan creation text of the K’iche people, which includes reference to Ch’ulel. This can be defined as ‘spirit-consciousness’, the essence of existence that flows in everything. Ch’ulel has multiple meanings and forms, one of which, as Mayan researcher López Intzín explains is ‘our collective memory, knowledge that is transmitted and recreated from generation to generation’. This intergenerational knowledge includes the memory of injustices. Ch’ulel can and will fight back. I am reminded of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s caution in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study that ‘debt cannot be forgiven, it can only be forgotten to be remembered again’.

This May, 215 unmarked graves were discovered near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, located in the southern interior of British Columbia within the unceded traditional lands of the Secwepemc Nation. As of August, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been found near the sites of four more former residential schools. Between 1883 to 1996 at least 150,000 Indigenous children were sent to residential schools that were funded by the federal government and which followed a strict policy of forced assimilation and cultural genocide. Regularly checking in with this news as it unfolded, it occurred to me that these findings evidenced an undeniable instance of Ch’uel at work. The discovery of the graves affirms the idea that despicable wrongs ‘can only be forgotten to be remembered again’. The school children never wholly disappeared. Even now from under the earth they assert presence. The case of the residential schools shows how, as Taylor states, insurgent animative is ‘fought in and from the space of death itself, affirming the continuing presence of all those whom biopower has deemed expendable’.
It is October. Palestinians continue to suffocate under Israeli occupation, although pastel-coloured infographics don’t appear on my Instagram feed anymore. Afghanistan is under Taliban rule. Indigenous people are being stripped of their land, rights, and personhood at expeditious rates. To quote Taylor: ‘if there is a healing place and a regenerative practice, we need to find them now’. ¡Presente! is a proposition of what these regenerative practices — both out in the world and in academic writing — might look like: care, active unlearning, acknowledgment of responsibility and ethical research. For despair and cynicism are not options.

Isabelle Bucklow is a writer and researcher with an interest in film and performance practices. She is co-editor of Motor, a forthcoming journal of critical writing on dance. Isabelle lives and works in London.