Culture Machine, Vol 15 (2014)

CM2014 Article: Etelvina Bernal Méndez

The Flood Is Elsewhere

Etelvina Bernal Méndez

Mediating 'Putting Community Under Erasure: Derrida and Nancy on the Plurality of Singularities' by Marie-Eve Morin from vol. 8 (2006) Community

Towards the end of October 2007 an extraordinary rainfall took place in Tabasco. Five times the historic record of rainfall was registered in only 24 hours. This provoked the most significant rise in river water levels in the last 50 years, as well as the most catastrophic floods in Tabasco’s modern history, leaving more than a million victims. (Cristian Solorio, Tabasco Today)

Up until this moment it is not possible to speak of dead people. International networks ask themselves: ‘if Tabasco’s tragedy is as great as that of New Orleans, why is it that human losses do not figure in the first assessment of damages?’ Well, that is because we, the people of Tabasco, are used to living with water… (Andrés Granier Melo, governor of Tabasco)1

History can be neither a decidable object nor a totality capable of being mastered precisely because it is tied to responsibility, to faith, and to the gift. (Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death)

In 2007, I witnessed a catastrophic flood in the Mexican state of Tabasco, to which the rest of the Mexican Republic (and the world) were looking expectantly.2 After the immediate and inevitable rescue operations, and well after the progressive reactivation of social and economic activities across the region, there persists an urgent interpellation arising from that event. Hence, it is not only the overflowing of waters in a place called Tabasco that I want to provide with a testimony. I find it necessary to recognise a collective debt toward memory, to thinking through that which was said and decided, which was given and taken, in the face of disaster. Amidst the devastation and uncertainty, for example, the state’s governor insisted that the people from Tabasco were up on their feet because they were used to dealing with heavy rainfall. A denial of what he himself (paradoxically) called ‘the tragedy’ could be identified in declarations such as: ‘There was no loss of lives because the people from Tabasco have a great water culture’. Perhaps we should ask, first of all: who are ‘the people from Tabasco’? In what follows, I offer my thoughts on these questions as a response to Marie-Eve Morin’s article, ‘Putting Community Under Erasure: Derrida and Nancy on the Plurality of Singularities’ (2006). While this essay was being published in volume 8 of Culture Machine, I was conducting a critical investigation of the subjective aftermath of Tabasco’s great flood.

For those of us who once lived in Tabasco or who keep biographical, emotional or moral connections with that land (and with those waters), the event instils the desire to speak from within an intimate exteriority; it makes us want to communicate and think the future togetherI cannot say that ‘the contingency’ (as the great flood was called in those days) generated a perfect sense of community, or that selfishness did not take place. The words that circulated in the aftermath of the event cannot be tied down by a single proper name, since their very circulation dislocated the rational capacity of a single ego, and instead revealed the magnitude and diversity of links that usually constitute the history of each subject, of each life, one by one. At any rate, one would often hear both assertions and interrogations of collectivity throughout the emergency. In the midst of hurried evacuations, rescue operations, massive exodus and refuge-seeking, one would hear talk of ‘everyone’ through an insistent use of the first person of the plural: ‘us’. Moreover, it appeared that there was no one who would not think of another whom they imagined to be on the verge of death. Despite uncertainty and disbelief, individual identity seemed to dilute in the effort to take care of the life of others, in the sense that one took it upon oneself to think about others as well as with them. At the same time, that was not entirely the case. What would be the point, then, of trying to enclose the diverse stories within a single frame? What would be the point of speaking of ‘the people from Tabasco’ as a given category that can be applied equally to everyone alluded to?

It is important to keep saying that the floodings in Tabasco effectively took place and, in many senses, continue to take place. Doubtless because of that, a desire emerges to appropriate the experience, to become able to receive it if only to let it go, to put it into words if only to keep a distance that makes it possible to transform it. Though not without interrogation, it became an imperative to set up a dialogue around the multiple meanings, beyond the real ‘facts’ of the event, of what took place for each one of ‘us’ who witnessed it. We, ‘the people from Tabasco’, still had to tell our stories, listen to ourselves and make ourselves accountable for what we said. Beyond the many possible categorizations that can be applied to them, ‘the people of Tabasco’ are, for me, those who embody a desire to enunciate, from the vantage point of a singular experience, what the flood meant to each of them. I can testify that this was not the only desire; there was also a desire to keep quiet, to erase, deny or forget that which took place. For this reason, as much as it would be a mistake to privilege the speech of experts in natural catastrophes, scientists, state officials, politicians or religious leaders, it would be a mistake to privilege the speech of those born in Tabasco and perhaps even of those who suffered the most dramatic situations during the flood. A debt persists today towards that which is still waiting to be said, to be decided and to be given for the sake of memory, and above all for the sake of the continuation of life.

In those days of constant yet uncertain information, another great flood took place in Tabasco. More than the water with all the material losses it left behind, the words that jumped restlessly from mouth to mouth became a raging torrent that destroyed all possible serenity. Murmuring voices agitated around the possibility that many people had drowned, however insistently the government denied it through mass communication channels. The rumours were quickly identified by the government as a source of damage even greater than the water, yet the more the government insisted on denying fatalities, the louder and more uncontrollable the murmuring became. All parameters for assessing the damages were suddenly lost, shocked as we were by the extraordinary speed and proportions of the flood. Not even the wildest of rumours seemed impossible. At the same time, one could sense a sort of generalised stupor and even a resistance to verifying accounts of what was actually happening – which worked, it seems to me, as yet another form of overflowing denial. On the one hand, the bureaucracy of official communiqués was thoroughly surpassed by the rumours, revealing the absolute lack of social confidence regarding the ability of the authorities to react quickly and to adequately inform the citizens. On the other hand, the very wariness of the people’s response to the rumours seemed to operate as a privileged defence mechanism. At any rate, the routines of daily life were halted abruptly, without delay. All containment walls yielded, and regardless of both hesitations and hopes, the torrent burst into daily life with all its force and without respite. Yet even as words were abandoned to flow in the guise of viral contagion between ‘reality’ and subjective experience, a certain suspense set in silently in the middle of the torrent, like a gap it was impossible to fill in through elucidation.

The state of exception that installed itself during those days in Tabasco reminds one of the mechanism of communicating vessels: a transmission circuit in which the waters dam up to the same level, regardless of the shape or the size of the container. As if all of us could have the same perception of the event by focusing on the assessment of material losses, the simile can be expressed thus: ‘for all of us the flooding meant the same thing, since we all lost something, we were all affected and no one can cry more than another one except in proportion to the level reached by water in their homes…’.

Inside the shelters, rumours insisted that the flood was a divine message announcing the end of the world. There was always someone who would opine that the worst-hit areas were the most ‘sinful’. Such a response to the event left no space for discussing human responsibility. The only way to move on seemed to be moral repentance and religious faith, both of which appeal to divine will rather than human understanding. By contrast, the discourse of government officials pointed at ‘natural’ phenomena, such as climate change. The only thing to be done, for them, was to follow instructions derived from safety protocols, mechanisms and models. The media disseminated alarm to neighboring states and even distant countries, asking for their economic support for the victims of ‘a great tragedy’. As usual, television channels exploited sentimentalism and melodrama through the use of devastating images and interviews with people crying in order to ask for help. The spectacularisation of the tragedy was often palpable, unlike the more critical voices demanding accountability to the authorities, as if trying to find the reasons behind the event and the restitution of damages. Meanwhile, scientific experts searched for rational causes. Their methodologies were applied to archives and statistics, their efforts devoted to objective, sequential fact-counting. This was carried out with a sense of urgency, in order to set up new preventive measures which would tame both the catastrophe and its human victims. It was in such a scientific and academic discourse, in which the order of values appeared to be primarily mathematical or historical, that the anxious search for total rational understanding was most evident. In a different vein, communication was also projected through artistic or symbolic expression, wherein the point was not to understand but rather to transcend the event by means of collective, communitarian and indeed identitarian memory. Sometimes the expression was about showing beauty in the midst of horror, elaborating new symbols in order to represent the irrepresentable.

As information media would invoke reports, statistics and dramatic stories of human displacement and material loss, something remained invisible, inaudible, incomprehensible or perhaps unconfessable: something of the order of truth. Perhaps it had to do with daily life showing its particularities, which could not be assumed by a single voice or a single megaphonic dictation. For underneath the great catastrophe that was conveyed urgently by the media, there were the multiple little catastrophes of daily life, the loss of properties that are more than material… Here, besides the actual facts about water levels and material damages, there are the imaginary constructions of what took place. Each one can give an account by including his or her own particular inclinations, information, fantasies, past experiences, fears and desires. In this sense it is useless to try to call into question the subjective as something merely ‘interior’ or ‘personal’. Our ways of thinking and feeling are also our reality. In this regard, I find it interesting to place self-censorship (whether conscious or not) among all the other ways of explaining the event listed above. Self-censorship implies a cancellation of the first person, as if he or she who speaks would rather not think or know anything about what he or she is saying. Yet even there transmission takes place, in the guise of a symptom. Perhaps this is what rumours amounted to: they were an uncanny collective statement installed in the dispersion of names and messages said by ‘someone’, typically an acquaintance of another ‘someone’ whom we have never met personally and whose knowledge somehow became that of the majorities.

After the Freudian invention and its appraisal by Lacan, we can think of another possibility for the transmission of experience besides religion, the State, the media, science, art and rumours. At stake in such a possibility is a singular speaking position which entails enunciation from another place. In that other place, speech is given as a confession that keeps forever the possibility of re-writing. We are dealing indeed with a kind of writing, a speech produced in the collapse of speech. To speak from within the impossibility of speaking is the experience of showing the trace, the remainder, the residue. Such is also the experience of the inevitable lack in testimony, which includes the contingency of being received by others who may or may not be able to suspend their need to understand, their indifference or their erudition. After all, before that which has been lost, before that which is no longer there, each one of us can only respond in our own ways of speaking as the subjects of language that we are. We are an effect of difference, of the signifier that ceaselessly refers to another signifier without ever achieving a total meaning. And this implies that each one of us can give a singular testimony – something of the order of the secret, of the radical difference that we share.

After the flooding of Tabasco, I was interested in generating spaces for the reception of testimonial voices. Such spaces do not emerge spontaneously; they have to be constructed with the desire to read and to listen, from the vantage point of one’s own difficulty at understanding, to something else beneath rumour, complaint or rationalization. I found it necessary to make space for the desire to share intimate experience, first of all by putting on hold the usual reading parameters coming from the sciences, religion, art, politics, media and rumours. Such reading parameters are sediments of particular histories, traditions and habits of perception, and they generally refer to notions of ‘cause’ within a totalizing explanatory frame. Beyond the totalizing ambition of explanations, I found it necessary to pronounce the text that was being displaced by the urgency of the catastrophe. I set out to dive into the exteriority of explanations and to interrogate the intimacy of the event, in order to show that, as in the Möbius strip, a small twist reveals that exteriority and intimacy are one and the same thing.

Mine was perhaps a fragile bet: to listen to and thereby receive the testimonial word as that which links ‘us’ above and beyond all social categories, whether they are regional, professional, ideological, economic, religious, sexual, generational or otherwise. While there is something of the order of the impossible in the event of giving testimony, it is precisely in the fact that not everything can be said that omniscience and omnipotence collapse and reveal the inevitable lack in total explanations, the blind spot in each singular narration, the crack in knowledge through which the truth is able to emerge. It is precisely by virtue of the impossibility to say it all that there is a call on us to say something about memory, to decide and to give. Such a call merits wording, a gesture of transmission that would take place as a gift, and more forcefully so when the attempt to speak wants to be dissolved into denial or forgetfulness.

My project involved a series of encounters in which each one of the participants talked freely, while I listened to their struggle to express what they had gone through. I listened to that which they could hardly (and only painfully) put into words. At some point, several people asked: ‘What is the point of speaking when there is nothing to be done?’ Upon hearing this interrogation I assumed a risk, namely, the contingency of the future. I discovered that listening to each one of the testimonies would not yield a meaning of the flood but would rather introduce new and surprising possibilities in the face of history. My task was to listen and take note, to transmit by means of writing that which was already there: an interrogation of community, tragedy and the future.

When I started interviewing various witnesses of the flood in mid-2008, I expected them to speak in the past tense. I was disappointed; many people were only just returning to their homes so their experience of the flood had not settled as a memory. In fact, only days after the first interviews there was another great flood that required a new massive evacuation of southern areas of Tabasco. The story repeated itself in 2009 and 2010, suggesting it never really ended: in Tabasco we are still before a sign of reality as well as subjective commotion – the latter being, in my own reading, the most pressing.

Nevertheless, one of the phrases that was repeatedly articulated in the interviews was ‘water has memory’. What appeared to be a constative utterance resonated like an ethical imperative: we should also have memory of the water and remind those to come about its passing. While many people clearly expressed the desire to remember, I also witnessed a desire to be required to remember, a desire to be interpellated in order to be able to remember, for example, that ‘there is another who had it far worse than me.’ My intention was to account for the possibility of weaving passages from rumour to testimony, links and reflections firmly established in one’s own voice (la voz propia) and in the recognition of the other’s voice. It was about accepting the demand of memory and undertaking transmission as a kind of gift, as a delivery of something one does not very well know what it is, and not even why it has to be delivered in precisely such a way. The purpose of transmission cannot be altogether anticipated or tamed. Its acceptance is not an academic job, a moral imperative or a political task. Perhaps it is more like a commitment to singularity.


1 A speech given by the state governor during the third meeting for damage review after the floodings in Tabasco, published on the official state website in 2007.

2 The Flood is Elsewhere (La inundación está en otra parte) is an edited fragment of the author’s book of the same title, published by 17, Instituto de Estudios Críticos.