Marissa K. López
Racial Immanence: Chicanx Bodies beyond Representation
New York University Press, 2019
Reviewed by Bryanna Barrera
In a political climate of growing anti-immigrant and, specifically, anti-Chicanx sentiment, what are the social, political, and individual stakes of a Chicanx literary resistance to the oppression and conflation of racialized bodies? Racial Immanence: Chicanx Bodies beyond Representation, the second book by literary scholar Marissa K. López, pursues this question through contemporary Chicanx artists and writers whose work is often limited to “reading for representation.” Against this kind of reading, López argues for a ‘choratic’ reading of race in Chicanx works that have been distorted by the pre-conceived identities imposed by dominant White culture. López also wants Racial Immanence to foreground textuality: for the reader, these Chicanx works become sensory experiences that produce specific forms of chicanidad y latinidad materiality. At the center of these moments lies López’s nuanced conceptualization of race as an internal source of individual agency, rather than a social construct imposed from outside. Embodied as a form of volition, race mirrors literary form, which for López “emphasizes [. . .] both the matter and energy of text.” Where race can be reconceived as agency, literary form can be reconceived as Chicanx identity beyond the limits of “reading for representation” and prescribed identities.
López’s intervention in Chicanx literature is above all methodological. Drawing on object-oriented ontology, new materialism, and Rebekah Sheldon’s work on the Platonic concept of the “chora,” López theorizes texts as unique objects that interact in the performance of political struggle without offering a definitive solution or answer to these problems. For López, Chicanx texts can resist neoliberal conceptualizations of reading, race, and the body, which stubbornly reinscribe the stereotypes and misrepresentations of community that dominant culture expects of ethnic literature. López’s “choratic” reading opens up Chicanx texts as spaces that create a real, living chicanidad y latinidad. Plato describes “chora” as being “both the place in which and the stuff from which a supreme craftsman formed the universe.” Choratic reading thus functions for López as a strategy that “emphasizes form as both the matter and energy of text,” and in doing so, pursues the connection between the agency of matter that functions in the liminal spaces between actants but fails to be materialized through language.
López separates her argument into “Race,” “Face,” “Place,” and “Waste” as problematic sites of representational reading in Chicanx literature. In each of these four sections of the book, López replaces representation with some form of nonbiased reappropriation of racial stereotypes that allows for fresh presentation of chicanidad y latinidad. In the chapter titled “Race,” López focuses on the corporeality of time in three works by Mexican American author Dagoberto Gilb. For López, Gilb’s fiction corporealizes time through his Chicano characters’ use of their bodies as an “imbrication of words and feelings” that produces a physicality both inside and outside the narrative––like Plato’s chora, both here and now. This inside-outside becomes a space of otherness that is material but inaccessible, a physicality that gives Gilb’s Chicanx subjects a racial embodiment that resists familiar racialized stereotypes. For López, Gilb’s Chicanx characters occupy a now that perpetually refuses to be influenced or made legible by the past or the future.
In her second chapter, “Face,” López reads Cecile Pineda’s novel Face (1985) alongside the works of two contemporary photographers, Stefan Ruiz and Ken Gonzalez-Day. Across these works, López finds three modes of looking: looking as performance, looking as viewing images, and looking as reading text. For López, the novel and photographs try to engage an audience in all three forms of looking by taking them to the limits of reading for representation. At this limit, audiences encounter “the anxiety of not knowing.” It is at the threshold of this anxiety that López wants to show body, text, and other media as “a conduit for racialized communal connections rather than as an index of subjectivity.” At those moments of uncertainty where readers might lean on stereotypes as interpretive tools, López stages a choratic reading of Pineda, Ruiz, and Gonzalez-Day that invites the reader in, rather than excluding the reader as somehow other-identified. For López, there is no other more important ‘meaning’ in these works; their invitation or inclusion is all.
In “Place,” the third chapter of the book, López engages with disability studies to consider the relationship between race and the treatment of AIDS. For López, the work of Gil Cuadros and Sheila Ortiz Taylor challenges scientific understandings of AIDS and race by asking the reader to “reimagine the social through the materiality of the human body.” López argues that the bodies of the Chicanx characters in these works are transcorporeal sites of being and un-being. This collective making and unmaking of chicanidad y latinidad, like the here and now in Gilb’s work, becomes another of López’s formulations of the chora. By focusing on Chicanx AIDS fiction, López is able to demonstrate how such narratives illuminate “choratic networks of text, human bodies, and the natural world” that use race and ethnicity not as fact or object, but as “repeating patterns of connection and change.”
The final chapter, “Waste,” brings the reader into the contemporary political realm of wall-building and border-closing. The focus here is on the work of Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and his idea of a “participation platform,” which López examines alongside novels by Alejandro Morales, Rosaura Sánchez, and Beatrice Pita. Within this constellation of works, Chicanx bodies exercise power within “geographic, planetary, and political spaces.” López shows how Chicanx bodies are both determined by and determinant of three spatial categories, calling into question the notion of the individual, autonomous subject or actor. Rather than functioning as a symbol of ethnic identity, the body becomes a thing within a multitude of things, present in a community working together to communicate, through various forms of media, the necessity of explicit acts of care. “We all share the same body in the same space,” López says, “and that shared body is implicated in the infinite nexus of flesh and machine” for which we’re all held accountable. Throughout Racial Immanence, López wants contemporary Chicanx art and literature to help readers imagine the possibilities of such nexuses and intersubjectivities. But López also wants to validate Chicanx art and literature and the ways in which Chicanx communities are creating spaces that gesture towards a reading beyond—beyond dominant language and culture, into new spaces of intra-actional reading, writing, and making that become the proving grounds for ethnic literature in a political climate that, far from representing ethnicity, more often tries to obscure or erase it.
Racial Immanence takes on the looming question of representation in Latinx studies in an innovative, nuanced, and theoretical manner that begs for further scholarship on the topic through a focus on racial immanence and choratic reading. The way López foregrounds the utter necessity of Chicanx literature and art, while simultaneously attending to the imperfections in how we approach these creative forms, opens up a conversation around Chicanidad/Latinidad intersexuality and inclusivity that has the potential to change the ways in which we all consider race and representation.