Jeff Conant, A Poetics of Resistance – The Revolutionary Public Relations of the Zapatista Insurgency

IssueMarch 2011
Review by Virginia Moffatt

The poetics of the Zapatistas should have been a perfect read. I’ve been fascinated by the Zapatista movement, ever since they stormed into San Cristobel in January 1994, and my sister Lucy (who lived in Mexico at the time) has often enthused of the literary quality of Subcomandante Marcos’s writing. So why was this book such a let down in parts?

Part of the problem was, I think, the author isn’t quite sure who his audience is. The title and front cover (a masked Zapatista doll carrying a rifle) suggest an activist readership, but the content, particularly for the first couple of chapters, is overly academic. Another problem is, that the author is deeply immersed in the story of the Zapatismo, and assumes his readers are too. As a result, he dives into analysing writing, before he’s explained fully where it’s come from. And whilst he attempts to describe the history from 1994 to 2010, he does it in such a meandering way that I was frequently confused.

The latter half of the book is better. There’s a good analysis of how differences in language can make meaningful negotiation between the indigenous population and the State difficult. I also found some of the insights into the contradictions in the movement quite fascinating – preaching nonviolence whilst carrying guns; working collectively but creating a public figurehead in Subcomandante Marcos.

The final chapter gives an inspiring account of the successes of the Zapatistas, particularly in establishing an autonomous self-governed region in Chiapas (where “the people lead and the government obeys”), in spite of watered down legislation and regular crackdowns by the military. And the author makes useful comparisons with other South American revolutions, and the anti-globalisation movement.

But though this is an interesting read in places, the book is let down by a ponderous style that often obscures the heart and humour of Marcos’s wonderful writing. Which is a shame, because when the stories are allowed to breathe they are quite marvellous. I particularly liked “The Story of Words” (democracy, liberty, justice) and the character of Durito the dung beetle who provides witty and insightful analyses of neoliberalism. All of which makes me think that perhaps, the best way to understand the “Poetics” of the Zapatista movement is to read the original texts for oneself.