Contemporary transnational times are characterized by renewed struggles over the meaning of democracy. In this postdemocratic moment, political and cultural practices and popular mobilizations and demands have exceeded, and ultimately questioned, some of representative democracy's core conventions, from the mass feminist demonstrations and strikes, to the rise of populist politics both in Europe and the Americas. Importantly, these struggles attest to the tension between failing democratic institutions and the heightening of increasingly authoritarian and cruel forms of social precarization and exclusion. Against these murderous trends, which this article characterizes as marked by an aesthetics of cruelty, some of these struggles foreground the vulnerable character of life and the embodied dimension of politics and its affective domains. This article focuses on the social movement Ni Una Menos to examine the ways in which vulnerability has been mobilized by some contemporary feminist popular struggles, focusing on the current investment in cultural activism opposing the curtailment of bodily life along gendered, sexualized, and racialized lines. Ultimately, this intervention seeks to ponder the emancipatory potential of a political aesthetics that weaves vulnerability into the gendering of democratic claims.
In recent years, we have borne witness to the emergence of what could be characterized as an unprecedented, transnational feminist revolt. The international women's demonstration against an emerging global right-wing hegemony in January 2018 and in response to Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017; the spread of the #MeToo movement on social media in a number of cities, assuming myriad meanings and agendas as it has crossed geographical borders; and the International Women's Strike on March 8, 2019, mark some of this revolt's most memorable instances. This panorama is also shaped by the sustained women's struggles and demonstrations against femicide in Latin America, and by the marches and collective actions to denounce violence against women and to call for rights for women and so-called gender and sexual minorities in India, Russia, and other parts of the globe. In Europe, it would be difficult to ignore the Polish “Black Protests” taking place since 2016, with their powerful demonstrations against restrictive abortion laws, and the popular rallies that accompanied Ireland's vote for the legalization of abortion in 2018. Before that, the sustained women care workers' strikes in Spain, taking place since 2012, were also an indication that some of the lessons of women's and feminist social movements' hard work throughout the years had been learned, and that these movements had done some important, transgenerational work. Indeed, all of these occurrences picture a vibrant resurgence of a plurality of feminist movements and claims across the world.
It is not a banal detail that this feminist revolt, which we have been witnessing at a transnational level in recent years, has surged in the context of the rapid, global success of neoauthoritarianism, the increasing visibility of violence—wielded emphatically and with remarkable transparency—and the institutional crisis of representative democracy. The crisis of representative democracy (organized around liberal values, later recast by neoliberalism) has led to what some authors have described as a postdemocratic moment,1 one that in part explains the increasing popularity of neofascist leaders and parties; the electoral victories of Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini, and Jair Bolsonaro, among others; and the rise of the global right more broadly.2 In light of a sense of despair and frustration that led to the extension of politics onto the streets, in both democratic and antidemocratic manifestations, it seems pertinent to ask: why have both feminism and women's claims become so popular now? What does the resurgence of so many feminist movements at this particular historical conjuncture tell us about the limits of the language of sovereign individual rights? What ideas of democracy, freedom, and justice do their modes of struggle articulate in this postdemocratic moment? What is the relationship between the time opened up by the feminist revolt and the steady, albeit intensified, vulnerabilization and precarization of populations? In sum, what is this feminist moment symptomatizing?
In order to address these questions, here I examine some emerging feminist debates that have arisen along with this “feminist moment,” with a focus on the social movement Ni Una Menos (NUM). NUM was born in Argentina in 2015, but its impact has been felt far beyond this specific context, not just because NUM has rapidly spread to other cities throughout Latin America and beyond, with increasing presence and networks developing in other cities across Europe, but, more importantly, because some of the movement's strategies and challenges are shared by a number of contemporary feminist collectives and activists working transnationally.3
Arguably, one key aspect of the current feminist resurgence relates to a contemporary feminist politics of vulnerability, that is, a politics that foregrounds the embodied vulnerability to which we are all relationally and differentially exposed.4 I suggest that it is by paying attention to the political aesthetics that current feminist and women's movements are mobilizing—an aesthetics that resonates with the exposure and critique of vulnerability—that one can shed light on the political work these movements effect, and therefore find some clues that can explain their renewed popularity and its potential. Looking in particular at the political aesthetics embedded in the popular engagement with NUM, I argue that it is by attending to the aesthetics that is in keeping with, and that contributes to, the making of transnational feminist demands against manifold manifestations of violence, that we can decipher some of the reasons for the movement's current success, while also hinting at a promising, albeit disputed, horizon. If this is so, I claim, it is partly because this aesthetics develops in an agonistic manner, working against the renewed visibility of cruelty in current forms of expression and in justifications of violence and efforts to make or let us and others suffer.
My argument takes the following thesis as its point of departure: that the rise of the global right and of neoauthoritarian logics of governmentality, which has resulted from our postdemocratic condition, has led to what I would define as an aesthetics of cruelty. I understand the aesthetics of cruelty as a political aesthetics characterized by a partition of the sensible that has made possible new ways of witnessing and engaging scenes of violence, namely ways of witnessing and engaging that uphold a generalized pleasure in causing suffering and harming oneself and others in both deliberate and disavowed ways.5 Against the backdrop of this landscape, then, one can perhaps understand why an alternative aesthetics organized around vulnerability might resonate so vividly among feminist and women's movements. However, the politics of vulnerability within feminist movements does not have a univocal horizon; nor does it mobilize vulnerability in a uniform way.6 Further, it might not necessarily oppose cruelty either; proof of this is the intensification of certain punitivist tendencies within some feminist movements. My consideration of different approaches to vulnerability within current feminist debates frames my analysis of NUM's intricate politics. In this way, I ultimately ask whether the aesthetics that this movement has developed can give us some hints for reflecting on feminism's ability to counter the complex of fascination and indifference toward violence in these threatening times.
My argument unfolds as follows: I start by pondering NUM's particular work in relation to gender violence; I then consider the politics of vulnerability embodied by the feminist movement in the context of a renewed attention paid to body politics in times of precarity. Then, I turn my attention to the political aesthetics enacted by NUM in these cruel times. I conclude with a set of questions that address the different meanings of feminism in this feminist moment. I highlight the promising politics, but also the perils with which NUM is confronted as it becomes a mass movement, while calling attention to the importance of the political aesthetic register for interpreting the orientation of the feminist revolt in light of the reasons for its current popularity.
1. Ni Una Menos and the Question of Violence
NUM emerged in Buenos Aires in 2015, when a group of journalists, artists, activists, and academics gathered and organized the first march with the motto “Ni Una Menos” (Not One Less), a march attended by hundred of thousands on June 3, 2015. After that, the NUM collective was formed, and manifold groups adopted the name as they felt included in what rapidly became a mass movement—within Argentina, Latin America, and beyond. One could even posit that NUM has become transnational, with their vision and some of their actions incorporated in more than fifty cities.
In 2016, after the femicide of Lucia Pérez, a spectacularized case that brought to mainstream media attention the systematic murder of women in the country (where one woman is murdered every thirty hours), NUM organized one of its most significant actions, the National Women's Strike on October 19 of that year, inspired by the Polish Women's Strike in favor of the legalization of abortion held some weeks earlier. The slogan, “NUM, Vivas Nos Queremos” (We Want Ourselves Alive), was meant as a call for a public vigil aimed at turning the individual act of mourning into a collective political force.7 (I will come back to this point in the next section.) The NUM collective has also organized marches on March 8 since 2017 and the International Women's Strike, beginning that year. They were instrumental in the Campaign for Free and Safe Abortion for all in 2018.
NUM is plural and heterogeneous, and it is democratically organized; it has no formal leader and has developed its goals, strategies, and actions through regular assemblies, gathering hundreds of people. But NUM is also a social phenomenon that has permeated Argentina's everyday culture and its awareness about gender, equality, and freedom. NUM has become part of youth culture, and it is present in chants and symbols, in everyday conversation, in every school and household, and at every cultural gathering, be it a concert, a public talk, or a dance club. Now, if NUM has become so powerful in articulating a number of feminist struggles, this is due not to the result of a spontaneous activist outburst. As they affirm, they are the heirs of The National Encounters of Women—held every year since 1986, and since 2019 renamed as the Plurinational Encounter of Women, Lesbians, Travestis, Trans, Bisexual and Nonbinary people8—and the Campaign for Free and Safe Abortion for All, a federal alliance of feminist activists across the country active since 2003.
In fact, the green scarves that have become a transnational symbol for the struggle against cis-hetero-patriarchy originated in this campaign, with the idea of recuperating the resonances of the scarves of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo as a way to articulate the legalization of abortion with human rights. NUM also acknowledges the inroads made by the Madres and Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, and they recognize themselves in the revolutionary women who were their daughters, in the syndicalist women and piqueteras, in migrant, indigenous, and Afro-descendant women. They are part of that history, and at the same time contemporary to a new popular and transversal women's movement.9 In this spirit, the NUM collective rearticulates their own struggles internally and externally with other struggles: those of casualized and informal workers, sex workers, and marginalized communities as well as struggles against police impunity and against neoliberal extractive logics. The collective assumes an anticapitalist stance.10 As a social movement, NUM carries out, joins, and is claimed in myriad actions in slums, prisons, workplaces, and neighborhoods, forming what they understand to be “an unstoppable tide.”11
The collectives and radical activists who identify with NUM link gender- and sexual-based violence together with the abandonment of those whose lives are precarious, and they call attention to the insufficiency of recognition and individualistic laws that privatize violence or detach it from its social conditions. In so doing, they challenge ideas of democratic progress that glorify some ideal citizens who are recognized as deserving protections, while shoring up unequal relations that further the exclusion and erasure of others. They pose demands that differ from mere liberal punitive measures, and make those demands by other means than just legal claims to the state, means that, in addition to the strike, include direct action, street politics, and forms of cultural and media activism aimed at raising awareness of the situation. Along with the assemblies and the organizing process of the strikes, this form of cultural politics on the street foregrounds the vulnerable character of life while contesting its unjust and violent exploitation, and through it NUM has contributed to the development of a sensibility that condemns gendered manifestations of violence in their multiple articulations.
It is important, however, that femicide as an extreme manifestation of gender- and sexual-based violence keeps interpellating the mass social movement that organizes under NUM's name. In this regard, the mobilization of vulnerability might not necessarily lead to the most progressive politics. For some, it may lead to the idea that femininity is defined precisely by its particular relation to vulnerability, or even that women are essentially (by definition) vulnerable, an idea that can lead in turn to pernicious forms of self-victimization. Furthermore, this essentializing link between gender and victimization may well be related to the resurgence of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists. This anti-trans reaction is, in my view, part of renewed essentializing views of gender and related conservative impulses within feminism.
Certainly, questions of violence have historically defined the terms of feminist debates about sexual justice and freedom to a great extent. Therefore, the question of how feminisms have been addressing violence is central to the effort not only to address the current emancipatory tones of contemporary feminist movements, but also to underscore the conflicts within feminism around conservative framings that have also iterated in time. Indeed, the history of some strands of feminism tells us that sexuality was understood in certain restricted ways, in many cases depending on (cis-)hetero-normative presumptions; it was understood as the vector of women's oppression, and therefore too directly associated with harm, and subsequently informed a negative approach to sex.12 Thus, if questions of violence and vulnerability are most salient now, they are questions that not only need to be addressed, even while we honor the complexity of the phenomena, but, most crucially, resisted in the terms in which they tend to be framed.
This is precisely what NUM tries to do, and this accounts, in my view, in part for the movement's unprecedented traction as well as promising potential. As far as NUM's conception of gender violence is concerned, the movement does not conceive femicide as separate from feminicide, and it works with an approach that encompasses the feminine and nonnormative gender in all its manifestations.13 As for the implicit, albeit profound, disdain for the sexual and the antisex impetus—which, in turn, might partly explain the force that abolitionist feminists have acquired in the last couple of decades—NUM says: “Nos Mueve el Deseo” (Desire Moves Us). Furthermore, NUM's intersectional and transversal approach seems to indicate a rejection of a notion of vulnerability defined as essentially linked to unqualified femininity. As Malena Nijenshon argues, the social movement represented by NUM takes as its point of departure the “differential distribution of precarity, a politically induced condition that produces some lives as more vulnerable than others.”14 I agree that the precarization of life and social bonds activated by neoliberalism produces the sites for many of NUM's alliances and the engine for its collective struggle; in this sense, NUM has the potential to radicalize democracy while countering contemporary neoauthoritarianism.15 However, it is also true that, in the popular social movement, the circulation of an insufficiently critical understanding of “women” haunts the collective's more critical views.
How is gender and the sexual domain produced in feminist and transfeminist movements today? How do they conceive the gendered sexual dimensions of social life, which traverses every aspect of the social, including not least transnational relations of power? It is important to problematize our understanding of the relationship between violence against women, gender- and sexual-based violence, and sexual freedom and justice more broadly, insofar as these questions point to the ways in which the sexual continues to emerge, always aligned with forms of intense policing, along gendered, racial, classist, and cultural lines, while also being articulated in ways that continue to condition the sense we have of ourselves. Indeed, this is an urgent task. Across Europe and the Americas, we are witnessing a backlash against women's self-determination; gender and sexual justice and freedom are under attack to the extent that they have become a central vector through which neoauthoritarian politics is moving forward. Renewed forms of feminist moral conservatism live together with the neopuritanism unleashed by the hegemony of far-right politics and allied institutions such as the Catholic and the Evangelical churches, currently campaigning against so-called “gender ideology.”
It is in light of the pressing demands imposed by this grim panorama that NUM has undertaken to address the challenge of problematizing these articulations, in their assemblies and in their embodied claims. And to the extent that any politics is aesthetic—that is, to the extent that any politics is enacted and communicated by stylistic and formal means—this problematization can be most saliently seen in the aesthetic dimension of the politics they mobilize.16 The future is uncertain, and yet feminist, queer-feminist, and transfeminist mobilizations and movements have become dense sites of condensation, where discontent with the present situation, especially the normalization of violence and the heightening of state-sponsored violence that goes with it, is contested. As I show later on, despite the heterogeneity of views, at the level of the aesthetic environment that constitutes and is constituted by the political actions of movements like NUM—including the aesthetic expressions of their claims, the paraphernalia they use, and their style of presentation, but also the sensible dimension of their experience when participating in gatherings, collective activities, and marches17—there is a critical mobilization of vulnerability against violence that promises the foregrounding of a radical democratic sensibility to counter these cruel neoauthoritarian times.
2. Vulnerability and Bodily Politics
Before exploring what I call the political aesthetics of vulnerability enacted by NUM, I want to clarify my understanding of vulnerability—or, more specifically, bodily vulnerability—and consider in some more depth the implications of such a conceptualization for understanding feminism's recent popularity. The explanation for renewed mobilization of vulnerability politics and its entanglement with the critical interest in vulnerability is twofold. On the one hand, it is due to the democratic deficit that results from processes of precarization and securitization, which have entailed the heightening of certain populations' vulnerability. In effect, the decimation and impoverishment of entire peoples and the assaults on increasingly vast sectors of manifold populations' well-being are in keeping with processes of securitization, militarization, and the criminalization of social protests and other forms of resistance. We could understand the backlash against migrants along these lines as well.18 Their mutual association is easy to understand, for the more different groups are exposed to varied forms of destitution and hindrance in life, the more subsequent measures are required to impose these conditions and prevent these groups from effectually protesting against them. These two political trends differentially induce vulnerability across gender, racial, colonial, sexual, classist, ageist, and ableist lines, to name some of the more salient ones, and target the embodied vulnerability of both the citizenry and the citizenry's others.19
Mirroring this overarching politics of precarization, we have seen, on the other hand, renewed forms of resistance and social protest that foreground bodily vulnerability, including cultural activism and activist artistic work focusing on visual and especially performative forms of expression. In this way, these enactments not only highlight the vulnerable character of bodies; drawing on Judith Butler's conceptualization of the performative dimension of collective political performances, one can argue that these public actions also perform their claims by exposing the bodies on behalf of which those claims are made.20 Putting the vulnerability of the gendered and sexualized body at stake in the first instance, feminist and women's social movements of different sorts have been denouncing by different means a number of instances where gender- and sexual-based violence take center stage. In recent feminist mobilizations, for instance, bodies—especially the vulnerability of bodily integrity, the dependency to which all bodies are tied, and the right to self-determination—have been at the forefront. First and foremost, bodies appear here as the objects of a number of claims against gender- and sexual-based violence, and of demands based on the vulnerability produced by the gendering of bodies; but they also figure as the means and support of forms of resistance and mobilization in the streets, making themselves present in the public space—including the media and digital spaces defined as part of this public sphere.21
Insofar as the body appears to be at the forefront of the contemporary articulation of grievances and demands, and is also pivotal to the consideration of vulnerability as a critical concept, linked as it is to our biopolitical regimes and the murderous logics that run parallel to them, two interrelated areas of inquiry emerge. The first is concerned with the implications of the embodied dimension of this feminist politics of resistance for my argument about the centrality of aesthetics in interpreting the traction and orientation of this politics. The second is concerned with the way in which these embodied political enactments elicit a critical notion of vulnerability, more specifically, one that challenges neoliberal ideas of sovereign mastery, and in particular, the cruelty to which these ideas lead, as is attested by contemporary neoauthoritarian politics. (I will come back to the link between sovereign mastery and current manifestations of cruelty in the next section.)
As far as the first question is concerned, to the extent that in these mobilizations bodies “speak” politically, that is, to the extent that they produce both cultural and political meanings, it seems pertinent to ask what they might be telling us about freedom, justice, and, most importantly, the struggle over the meaning of democracy. To address this question, I take as a point of departure one of the main arguments developed by Judith Butler in Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, where she points out that bodies acting in concert in the form of plural action speak prior to, or independently of, any verbal demand that might be made.22 The thesis is significant, for it opens up the possibility of reformulating the space of the political, that is, the range of expressions that could be considered to be legitimately part of the grammars of doing politics. More concretely, it allows us to interpret the political productivity of NUM's mobilizations at their embodied level and the cultural work they do, while questioning certain narrow versions of politics that rely on liberal democratic or otherwise well-established scripts to determine what constitutes a proper political demand—where this is usually understood in terms of demands clearly articulated and addressed to governmental institutions.
This formulation marks the direction of my argument for underscoring the political dimension of the aesthetic work of this feminist politics. By focusing on the question of what is said by doing, as W. J. T. Mitchell proposed when analyzing the Occupy movement at Zuccotti park, we can bring to light the important political and performative work done by these aesthetic expressions.23 This is a key point in the context of the current crisis of representation and liberal democracy, given that popular feminist mobilizations have flourished precisely against the backdrop of the heightening of this crisis.
This observation leads me to my second question, concerned with certain mobilizations of bodily vulnerability that run counter to sovereign ideas of agency and mastery. This challenge to sovereignty revolves around two aspects of vulnerability in association with relationality, and my account of these is indebted to Butler's. As I have argued elsewhere, first, we are radically dependent on others, and on the material and social conditions in which we come into being; these conditions, in turn, are unevenly distributed to the point that they might fail us, generating different modalities of precarity. And second, vulnerability, defined as the capacity to affect and be affected, involves a constitutive openness in the subject, regardless of whether this openness is wanted or not.24
As Veronica Gago, a scholar, activist, and key member of NUM, points out in reference to the conception of, and marches that accompanied, the women's strike: “We took precarity to be a shared condition, but one differentially distributed along classist, sexist, and racist lines.”25 And in reference to vulnerability understood as the capacity to affect and be affected, particularly in embodied ways, she continues:
We shouted, ¡Ni Una Menos, Vivas Nos Queremos! (Not One Woman Less, We Want to Stay Alive!), and we heard this common shout resound in houses and neighborhoods, in assemblies and streets, in schools and workplaces, in markets and power stations, on social networks and in trade unions. We formed a collective body and connected ourselves with the body of the land, in the words of the feminists of Abya Yala. . . .
A sound of vibrations, not the sound of words, was what brought together the massive, vibrating collective body under the rain when we organized the first national women's strike on October 19, 2016. It was the kind of cry that's made by a blow to the mouth. A howl from a herd. With a warrior disposition. In a conspiracy of pain. In a quagmire that disorganizes the body and moves it. A cry at once very old and brand new, connected to a way of breathing.26
These brief paragraphs give us a sense of the role that corporeal life is acquiring in contemporary women's and feminist political struggles. The way in which the strike has been reappropriated by NUM and other feminist movements on a transnational scale shows that claims made on behalf of the corporeal life of feminized and nonnormatively gendered and sexualized bodies disobey conventional scripts that presuppose the model of liberal democracy, and challenge both individualistic and state violence and forms of sovereignty. As Gago remarks, the meetings, assemblies, and marches “have already produced new images of counter-power, of a popular sovereignty that challenges faith in the state, of insurgencies that have renewed the dynamics of decision and autonomy, and of self-defense and collective force.”27
As I have suggested, contemporary struggles such as NUM's reveal and question different democratic imaginaries, foregrounding in different ways the vulnerability of bodily life, expressed through alternative means and countercultural forms in media, online, and in the streets. By pointing to a change in sensibility, we can see how the form in which these claims are articulated might contribute to a radicalization of democratic imaginaries and to the production of enhanced and more egalitarian understandings of bodily freedom and justice.
3. The Aesthetic Work of Ni Una Menos
In this section, I push forward my suggestion that NUM's forms of activism may well have the potential to radicalize democracy to the extent that they manage to make a claim against violence that foregrounds the intersectional and relational conditions of vulnerability against sovereign ideas of individual agency. To this end, I focus on the aesthetic dimension of NUM's claims against manifold manifestations of violence and an aesthetics of cruelty.
Although some of NUM's views align with the conceptualization of the pedagogy of cruelty developed by Rita Segato—who highlights that women's bodies are the pivotal locus of the alignment between patriarchal and capitalist violence, thus equating the appropriation of bodies and territories—my interpretation of the aesthetics of cruelty differs from hers.28 For Segato, the pedagogy of cruelty is structured by the symbolic economy of sexual difference proper to a “masculine mandate.”29 I appreciate Segato's proposition that there is a “pulsional,” structuring link between colonial and capitalist modes of subjectivation and gender. However, in my understanding, the aesthetics of cruelty does not rely on sexual difference and does not assume that the exercise of cruelty's expressive dimension is restricted to the confirmation of a masculine subject; nor is the exercise of cruelty the exclusive province of a masculinist, sovereign position.30
My view relies on the notion that cruelty is irreducible in psychic life, attached as it is to the death drive and the constitutive role that aggression and the pleasure of/in suffering have in the formation of the subject.31 Along these lines, I consider the aesthetics of cruelty to be haunted by the phantasm of sovereignty and mastery. This phantasm, according to Jacques Derrida's reading of Freud, not only structures the fantasy of a sovereign “I”; it also informs the drive to power and possession as it manifests itself in politics. The question that Derrida poses is thus: if cruelty is a psychic force that always finds its way in, then politics can only ever “domesticate it, or differ and defer” it?32 At moments when the phantasm of state sovereignty trembles, cruelty can assume new and ever more destructive forms. Our postdemocratic condition could arguably be read in this way; this would be a moment, by this account, in which the reassurance of sovereignty against a fantasized threat, which cannot be contained by the usual democratic means, gives way to a reconfiguration of cruelty, and especially its visibility, and to a terrifying renegotiation of its politically acceptable forms. It is in relation to this last dynamic that we can then think about the aesthetic dimension of this political shift, for it presupposes, in effect, a reconfiguration of the sensible domain. Proof of this can be found in the massive exposure of, and intensified fascination with or indifference to, the spectacle of vulnerable, suffering bodies reduced to states of helplessness, or what Adriana Cavarero defines as horrorism.33
If NUM manages to counter this aesthetics, it does so through its modes of struggle, which, as I have suggested in the previous section, are embodied in ways that are beyond the explicit claims that are made. That is, these are modes of struggle that produce affectively invested sites that exceed “what can be said” about them; they point to a register of the sensible that resonates with forms of subjectivation that exceed interpretative logics, contesting the forms of subjectivation that the political aesthetics of cruelty promotes. To consider the organization of the sensible that emerges in the political work of NUM, I propose to look into aesthetics, following the work of Jacques Rancière.
In The Future of the Image, Rancière makes a distinction between different regimes of “imageness.” For him, the image is an operation, one that emerges as the effect of a negotiation between visibility (which is a partition between the visible and the invisible) and the effects of signification and affect associated with it, coupling or uncoupling the visible and signification, creating and/or frustrating expectations. Rancière's scheme for interpreting the recent history of artistic images is based on a distinction between the force of the image as stubborn presence and the image as a mediation of social meanings, a device through which we can decode the social world.34 As a way of illustrating this distinction, Rancière takes up Roland Barthes's classic distinction between studium and punctum, which Barthes develops in reference to the photographic image in Camera Lucida.
The studium refers to the information transmitted by the image and the meaning it conveys; it opens up the work of interpretation, revealing something of our social world, our ideologies, or our imaginaries. The punctum, on the other hand, is that other dimension where the stubborn presence of the image is said to break in with all its force. The punctum signals the potency of the “thereness” of the image and its capacity to affect us; the point at which, despite its being the effect of an operation, the interpretation of the image might fall short. Rancière writes: “The punctum immediately strikes us with the affective power of the that was: that”—there, a body exposed.35 The punctum and the studium describe two image-functions that we can see in different trends within the work of art: between the unfolding of the social inscriptions and meanings carried by bodies, and the interruptive function of their presence, their capacity to affect us precisely because of their presence or lack thereof.
We have seen the mobilization of this tension in some of the artwork produced in relation to traumatic pasts and the different politics of memory attached to them. But clearly, this is a tension that becomes apparent in the struggle over the sensible and in divergent political aesthetics in these times. In the case of NUM, the work they do in relation to the victims of femicido is salient, as is the way in which they avoid the temptation to fill the void left by the bodies whose stories we cannot quite tell. Here, the tension between punctum and studium becomes clear, for it is the force of the absence of these bodies, or the presence of their absence, that is at stake. Naming the dead, calling their names, holding onto their lives in a gesture of transposition, while at the same time evading reifying narratives, produces an image of these victims that affects us in the “thereness” of both the bodies at NUM's vigils and the bodies of those who were erased.
At a representational level, it is the story that we are told about their lives, and the demand for justice for what happened to them, that allow us to elaborate a narrative. But the work of transposition in the marches and the vigils—which nonetheless avoids the temptation of overidentification—makes the voids left by these bodies reverberate. This kind of work was particularly central in one of NUM's actions, carried out on March 21, 2015. On that day, accompanying the demonstrations against femicide, some activists organized a massive drawing of silhouettes on the streets, iterating the memorable silhouettes of the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in 1983. This visual echo is highlighted by the use of the green scarf as mentioned in the previous section; at the representational level, this scarf also produces an articulation with the violence entailed by the criminalization of abortion.36 Likewise, NUM's vigils achieve a dual function similar to the photographs that the Madres used to carry in their weekly marches. In these ways, NUM stretches temporality and works in embodied ways to reflect on the stubborn presence of absences, and the ultimate impossibility of completely filling in with an ultimate meaning the void left not only by innumerable femicides, but also by a much longer and wider history of violence. These moments are a reflection on how to represent that impossibility.
As in the political work of narration and other performances of memory carried out by the Madres, pointing to the different ways in which memory is materialized, NUM's demonstrations also draw our attention to the traces of the past and the continuity of violence, which is denounced in ways that are spatialized. This happens when the demonstrators take public spaces, but also when the scarves, attached to the bodies of hundreds of thousands of people every day, work as an embodied reminder of this violence, a reminder that interrupts the tranquility of a public space that otherwise would try to disavow it. The scarves point to wounds in every corner of the city. These myriad wounds that reverberate in every scarf tied to every neck, every wrist, and every bag, traverse public space in a way that could also evoke a breakage in representation, a fissure that is not from the past but that lives with us. This fissure of representation also points to the tension between studium—narrative and code—and punctum—where representation cracks.
But then, one question might be: what other forms of signification can we think about, beyond the model of representational discourse or verbal speech? What form of signification is made possible by the punctum? What is it that “the affective presence” of a body or an image may signify? And how are we to think about the process of translation by which those forms of signification that are nonverbal or nonrepresentational are translated into speech? At this point, the question of embodiment and relationality becomes relevant, for attending to the experience of the body as a relational matter works as a way to foreground a political sensibility that is not just elusive, but obscured, if not disavowed, by a discourse that associates freedom with extreme individualism and even isolation. The discourse mobilized by NUM's chanting and its members' moving together, dancing, senses its own fissures. It is also a discourse that seeks to reflect on the chiasm between self and other, as well as the chiasmic relation between matter and signification in the experience of embodiment. This, I would propose, is a political aesthetics of vulnerability that contests the cruelty of contemporary violence at its core.
NUM's embodied approach to violence, like the approach in other feminist demonstrations, challenges the antidemocratic trends today named neofascist or neoauthoritarian, logics that mobilize entrenched manifestations of nationalism, which, by the way, are more and more overtly violent in character. But NUM's approach also challenges the violence of those logics that are part and parcel of the neoliberal securitarian state and associated with longer histories of state-sponsored necropolitics. Both “antisystem” and securitarian political formations share an aesthetics of cruelty that seeks to reshape sensibilities and works in tandem with the decline of democratic imaginaries. It is precisely because of their potential to rally against the aesthetics of cruelty that I think current feminist mobilizations such as NUM have acquired such an unprecedented dimension. In other words, my argument is that the promising potential of this feminist revolt can be explained partly by its capacity to put forward a political aesthetics that counters the current aesthetics of cruelty. It is with this focus on their political aesthetics in mind that I articulate the emancipatory potential of some of these divergent women's movements. More specifically, this is a political aesthetics that, like the one mobilized by NUM's modes of struggle, can be linked to different experiences of bodies' vulnerability and claims to justice that counter efforts to circumscribe life along gendered, sexualized, national, and racialized lines, and that therefore has the potential to lead to an emancipatory and egalitarian perspective.
But beyond NUM, the international success of the marches against gender violence, abuse, and harassment in the last few years across a number of countries and cities signals the tone of our times, characterized by the deafening, cacophonous sound of multiple manifestations of violence. The heterogeneity of these movements demands that, together with the hope they produce, we also take into account the contradictory effects mobilized by the current work of some women's movements against harassment and sexual violence, making sure we do not contribute to the naturalization of uncritically punitive positions of the kind that have been matters of intense dispute within feminism for so long.
In this regard, we can identify two or three different approaches and the challenges that attend them. The first approach focuses on legal cases against sovereign individuals, and suggests a feminist movement that mainly demands state prosecution or the heightening of punitive measures, aligned with the principles of the postliberal authoritarian state. This is a punitive vision that uses the model of the liberal contract, thinking in terms of a series of individuals rather than a collective body. The US #MeToo model is a case in point. But along the lines of this punitive approach, we have also witnessed the emergence of a demand for vengeance of sorts, which displays in social media a desire for the annihilation of the perpetrator, thus reenacting the cruelty that it is said to oppose. Such desire negates the shared character of vulnerability and relies on a fantasy of achieving invulnerability through the erasure of the other. Challenging these punitive trends, in keeping with the sensibility that NUM foregrounds in their embodied performances, is the following declaration in NUM's charter:
The impoverishment of life conditions worsens, and the cracks in the social tissue weigh on our bodies. Women working in the informal economy are persecuted, sex workers are criminalized, militants are prosecuted, and mobilizations and feminist activism are under the scrutiny of repressive forces. In the meantime, crimes increase, and the solution we are offered is being more tough on crime. . . .
Laws that exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in prison and propose tougher punishments worsen our situation. Not only because they avoid the development of integral public policies of prevention, care, and support, but also because these demagogic measures arrive when we are already dead. We will not allow . . . our deaths to be taken as an alibi to justify more institutional violence.
. . . We say: Not in our name.37
In this way, NUM and other radical feminist movements link gender- and sexual-based violence to patriarchal structures and the state, and to questions of social inequality and justice as well as transnational dynamics. Here we can see an emphasis on intersectionality, sometimes in a decolonial key. They work not with the idea of consenting sovereign autonomy, but rather, both in their vision and in the embodied politics they put forward, with the idea of bodies as territories, in a social-structural approach in which gender violence is linked to the capitalist system and neoliberal modes of accumulation and concentration of capital.
But the plurality and divergence that we can see within many feminist movements today, mostly as they gain widespread popularity, has started to mark NUM as a mass movement as well, with some voices arguing for the enhancement of the punitive state, and others targeting the state's patriarchal structures and imaginary. In this conflictual conjuncture, feminism has become the site of multiple investments, a signifier that different strands of feminists are trying to fix. My argument here has been that it is rather by looking at the aesthetics that NUM propounds that we can honor its democratic potential.
4. Conclusion: Multiple Voices, Unknown Futures, Aesthetic Hope
This political moment is revealing that the struggle over the meaning of democracy is playing out in other realms, outside so-called democratic institutions and most crucially in bodily and cultural ways. The feminist revolt is part of this trend, multiplying, as it becomes popular, the meanings attached to the struggle against gender violence, social justice, and democracy more broadly. In light of this panorama, I would caution against the effort to fix the empty signifier that “feminism” has become, blocking its plurality and potential alliances within the movement and with other movements. However, confronted with these quandaries, we need to be cautious, working to carefully understand what different feminisms are resisting, what kinds of vulnerability they are mobilizing, and what kinds of ethical-political visions they are advocating.
At different scales, and certainly transnationally, there is no articulation among different demands (either internally or externally). Rather, there is increasing heterogeneity as feminism becomes a political signifier attracting younger generations and multitudes. The same demand might even mean different things to different collectives, or in different contexts. It is clear that feminism is assuming different meanings, and there are now struggles within and outside it related to efforts to fix what the signifier “feminism” might mean.
These demands and the political practices that are attached to them, but that at the same time exceed them, are played out at various cultural levels and in various embodied ways. For a long time now, the feminist movement—in its different versions—has understood that (at least part of) its battles must be fought at the level of the sensible and the imaginary, in efforts to expand the space of what is conceived as political. These practices work in the service of elaborating a political aesthetics that, I argue, is key to understanding the democratic potential of the different feminist movements. In the contemporary moment, it is crucial, in my view, that such aesthetics counter the further hegemonization of a political aesthetics that revolves around both the pleasures and the disavowal of cruelty.
I have argued that NUM does part of this work, advocating a politics of transversal and relational vulnerability that challenges sovereign understandings of agency and mastery. NUM's approach to violence enables the politicization of sedimented practices, which entails the denaturalization of colonial-cis-hetero-patriarchy; the undoing of presumed ideas about what is public and private; the contestation of the hegemonic gender contract, which means the dismantling of the gendering work that differentially allocates vulnerability, that is, developing a new sense of vulnerability linked to relationality and interdependence against its essential attribution to femininity.
The popular transnational feminism that NUM envisions—as NUM insists, they want to make of feminism a popular movement38—entails an emancipatory element, apparent in some manifestations of the feminist revolt. In the case of NUM, their claim for justice is associated with the occupation of public space and with their scarves (with white, green, orange, and red signaling different demands). It is a claim for justice that simultaneously denounces impunity and links impunity to state violence and patriarchal structures, calling for a collective form of insurgency. Ni Una Menos makes present the absent bodies with their banners and pictures of the forcefully disappeared and the women and trans victims of femi- and trans-cide, embodying in this way, as María Pía López, a scholar and member of NUM, also highlights, a long tradition of popular demonstrations.39 In dialogue with other forms of activism, they also expose their bodies—painted, naked, juxtaposed to symbolic objects, photos, and paraphernalia—to make other demands, thus allowing a plurality of collective bodies to speak up. But together with its emancipatory potential, a popular feminism might also mobilize regressive visions; as Valeria Coronel and Luciana Cadahia reminds us, this is the nature of the popular, as Gramsci asserted.40 Hence, the sectors within the movement that are punitive in their orientation, craving the erasure of perpetrators, and those that are antisex and moralist seek to revive an essentialist and naturalizing conceptualization of women.
The future of the movement is unknown. But hopefully alliances to come will favor the abandonment of the fantasies of sovereign and narcissistic authority associated with rigid investments in solipsistic selfhood, fantasies aimed at safeguarding an entrenched self. These can be abandoned in an exercise of detachment from what we think we already know. As some feminist movements like NUM show, there is space for embodied articulations ready to open up relational bonds that might point to the limits of defensive, bounded selves. Far from sovereign, the aesthetics of these feminist politics call on us to reimagine freedom and justice in more radical democratic ways.
I thank Elena Tzelepis, Natalia Brizuela, and Judith Butler for their comments on an initial version of this essay, and the anonymous reviewers for their truly insightful comments, which helped me to articulate my inquiry more pointedly. Thanks too to Ramsey McGlazer, whose editing of the text enriched the conceptual precision and fluency of my thoughts.
NUM has established networks of collaboration with Women's Strike Britain in the UK; in Italy, Non Una di Meno gathers a number of activist collectives and groups, adopting NUM's name and organizational style; and in Spain, Ni Una Menos became a majoritarian motto to address gender based violence. These are just three among many examples of NUM's contagious effect in Europe.
I take the concept of political aesthetics as a partition of the sensible from Jacques Rancière. See Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics.
In NUM's call to participate in the First International Women's Strike to be held on March 8, 2017, a call issued on January 23, 2017, they write: “Against machista crimes and their pedagogy of cruelty, against the media's intent to victimize and terrorize us, we turn individual mourning into collective solace, and rage into shared struggle. Against cruelty, more feminism.” Ni Una Menos, Amistad política, 39 (my translation). NUM's references to their “collective potency” in the face of mourning is present throughout a number of documents and declarations. See, for example, their manifesto, “Ni Una Menos: Fuerza política, callejera y popular,” and their declaration “Contra la violencia machista y la reforma macrista.”
In Spanish, Encuentro Plurinacional de Mujeres, Lesbianas, Travestis, Trans, Bisexuales y No Binaries.
See, among other initiatives, Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, who have jointly developed a manifesto calling for an anticapitalist and popular feminist international movement, published as Feminism for the 99% ; Gago et al., 8M—Constelación Feminista: ¿Cuál es tu lucha? ¿Cuál es tu huelga? On NUM's critique of neoliberalism and racial-capitalism, see Cavallero and Gago, Una lectura feminista de la deuda; and on this critique's links to NUM's take on the feminist strike, see Gago, “Critical Times/The Earth Trembles,” and NUM's call to participate in the Second International Feminist Strike, issued on November 22, 2017, “La marea no se detiene: #NosotrasParamos.”
A decisive referent for this line of thought is Catherine MacKinnon. See for example, MacKinnon, “Sexuality,” 137.
The notion of feminicide, coined by Marcela Lagarde, highlights the political dimension of femicide, while pointing to the lack of appropriate response by state authorities. In this sense, feminicide redefines femicide as a state-sponsored crime. See United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Latin American Model Protocol, 13–16.
On vulnerability understood as an induced condition, see Butler, “Rethinking Vulnerability”; Nijensohn, “Vulnerabilidad y Resistencia.” For a detailed study of the differential distribution of vulnerability in the UK under conditions of austerity, see Gibbs, The Politics of Vulnerability.
Among many others, relatively recent examples of this articulation between performance art activism and the feminist politics of resistance in the Southern Cone are the works of the Chilean collective Yeguada Latinoamericana, formed around 2016, whose name recalls the important legacy of the converging artistic practices and gender and sexual resistance of Las Yegüas del Apocalipsis; and the Argentine collective Fuerza Artística de Choque Comunicativo (FACC), also created in 2016, which has carried out more than ten actions in just one year. Decades before them, Mujeres Creando, the Bolivian collective created in the early 1990s, was a landmark example of the articulation between activism and cultural practices, centering on a transversal claim for social justice seen through an intersectional feminist lens.
While not explicitly cited in their official documents, Segato's work is included in NUM's online library, and there are references to the “pedagogy of cruelty” in some of their statements (see note 7, above). Together with a number of Latin American feminist movements, NUM has taken up the motto “Our Bodies, Our Territories,” and in keeping with Segato's thought, they foreground this metonymic movement when strategizing actions that link sexual and neoliberal modes of appropriation and exploitation, and when conceptualizing different manifestations of violence. On the resonances of NUM with Segato's vision, see the interview with NUM by Alfredo Aracil, “‘Ni una menos,’ contra la violencia no solo de género.”
For a psychoanalytic analysis of the relationship between cruelty and sexuality that foregrounds the destructiveness inherent to the “maternal” position, see Mignotte, Cruelty, Sexuality, and the Unconscious.
See Bleichmar, La fundación de lo inconciente, 31–44; and for an analysis of Jean Laplanche's interpretation of Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, see Gutiérrez Terraza, “Más allá del principio del placer.”
On the history and feminist uses of these emblematic silhouettes, as well as the cultural expressions that form part of NUM's actions, see López, Not One Less.
Ni Una Menos, Carta orgánica (my translation). See also NUM's document in response to the bill to reform the Argentinean Criminal Law 24.660, presented to the Senate's Commission of Justice and Criminal Issues on April 20, 2017, “No en nuestro nombre.”