México Noir

Rethinking the Dark in Contemporary Writing and Visual Culture

by Erica Segre (Volume editor)
©2020 Monographs XVIII, 374 Pages


These essays by critics, theorists and artists explore the allusive nexus of the dark in contemporary Mexican literature and visual culture. They chart the poetics of ‘negrura-oscuridad’ in creative media during decades of deepening crisis marked by the high-profile staging of atrocities, the re-emergence of an ironic noir aesthetic and the consolidation of forensically inspired art-making.
In the wake of Walter Benjamin’s ‘unfinished’ thinking structures, this volume operates through contiguous directions, transitions and regressions, incorporating images as part of the discussion of a ruinous visuality. Its polycentric mesh covers a wide range of art, writing, photography and film: from ritual uses of the ‘darksome’ and its legacies in pre-Hispanic cultures to colonial religious iconography of penitential blindness; from narco-noir in the novels of Roberto Bolaño and Yuri Herrera to techno-noir in dystopian border films; from the quotidian taxonomy of horror expurgated in art practice to the haunted ‘other darkness’ of the photographic blink. It also explores how we can contest the threat of dark ecology and ‘horrorism’ through sense expansion within new media and by positing fruitful blind spots in text and art.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Preface
  • Introduction: La negrura-oscuridad y su imagen: Rethinking the Poetics of Darkness and Noir Materials in Contemporary Writing and Visual Culture in Mexico
  • 1 Proscenium of the Dark: Darkness and Liminality in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica
  • 2 Blindness, Darkness and the Penitential Religious Experience: Practices and Imagery from Flagellant Confraternal Contexts in Italy, Spain and New Mexico
  • 3 Blink: A Path to the Other Darkness
  • 4 Los materiales ajenos: Re-escritura, comunalidad y desapropiación [Estranged Materials: Re-writing, Commun ality and Dis-appropriation]
  • 5 Escrituras comunalistas [On Communalistic Writing]
  • 6 ¡Basta de luz!: Noir Configurations and Revelatory Darkness in Twenty-First-Century Mexican Fiction
  • 7 Trabajos del poeta del reino: Dark Power and Art in Yuri Herrera and Octavio Paz
  • 8 Oscuro artefacto de la memoria: Huecos, pliegues y cortes en Amuleto (1999) de Roberto Bolaño [Obscure Artefact of Memory: Gaps, Folds and Cuts in Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet (1999)]
  • 9 A Monument to the Unknown Worker: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (2004) as Noir and as Installation
  • 10 De estupidez y oscuridad: La sujeción y subversión en el cine y la literatura en México [Of Stupidity and Obscurity: Subjection and Subversion in Mexican Film and Literature]
  • 11 Techno-Noir in the Borderlands: Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (2008)
  • 12 Narco-Noir: A Quotidian Aesthetic Taxonomy of Expressive Violence
  • 13 After Darkness: Sense-Expansion and the Aesthetics of New Media
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index


This volume emerges as a reflective expansion of the interdisciplinary symposium held in Trinity College, Cambridge in 2015, which sought to respond to an urgent predicament: how to rethink the spectrum of darkness in Mexican cultural studies dominated by the phenomenon of violence, tropes of the macabre, saturation of mass-mediatic horror, forensic impersonality and invisibilization as resources for contemporary strategies. As a multipart and constellated book, it owes its creative interplay across media and practices to that original gathering of writers, artists, theorists and scholars and the discussions that ensued. Together they negotiated the multiplying cartographies of noir in narrative, art, photography and film. The aim was to ascertain whether we could, in tandem, rethink paradigms deployed as discrepant creative engagements. To consider ways of evading the prescriptive discourse of noir motifs and the appropriative references to victimhood and culpability in others. To revisit the established narratives associated with the empire of darkness, that socio-political entity generated by the calamitous War on Drugs and its mounting death tolls. To explore the democratic deficit and institutional corruption alongside the persecution of an independent press and the co-optation of the mass media. To review the femicide in Ciudad Juárez, massacres of civilians and unchecked disappearances as well as the militarization of the South. To reconsider the ecological calamity of migratory displacements as well as extractionist occupation in the Narco-dominance of the North.

Could one retool the poetics of darkness and its recognized genres to escape from the sadly trite circuitry of diagnosis, mourning and parable, to unhinge and ramify its habitual connotations? Could one explore the deeper imaginary afforded by the effects and techniques of the dark as an intersectional domain? Could one in practice apply to the dark a perceptual, embodied and culturally determined material presence? Could horror and the macabre acquire an oblique and allusive recoding beyond the self-evident criminality of its manifestations? A spectrum of dark modalities might then be constructed that would afford a charting of literary and visual cultural expression predicated on self-questioning, irony and discrepancy.

Thanks to the original interventions of Cristina Rivera Garza, Gerardo Suter, José Luis Barrios, Geoffrey Kantaris and Elsa M. Treviño it became possible to expand the current study to include subsequent probing contributions by Steven Boldy, Andrew Chen, Robin Adèle Greeley, John Kraniauskas, Debbie Nagao, Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra, and Marcos Rico Domínguez so as to range over contexts and case studies. It is also due to this responsive correlation of poetics and critical strategies across literature, film, art and photography that the present volume has undertaken to explore the allusive textures of darkness as an existential predicament.

In Nagao, we witnessed the mythopoetic constructions of oneiric interiority and liminal states in pre-Hispanic perceptions of body, visibility and darkness. Chen covered how rituals of dark investiture used blinding hoods in penitential collective and individual acts, linking the metaphysics of vision during the colonial period with corporeal imagery or its absence. Through Boldy we explored how the all too ostensible criminality and trafficking assigned to dark lords and their patronage was linked to a complicitous literary poetics, to a subtle palimpsest of textual collusion. Suter, by contrast, sought to problematize the interjection of the visual and spatial continuum in his photo-based art through conceptual and optical ‘blinks’ in multimedia construction. Using art practice (understood through analogies to Aby Warburg’s tableaux), Suter posited ways of rethinking migratory flows as a return of the ‘neo-Tropic’ phenomenon of imperial legacy worked through a transgressing of disciplinary frontiers. Kantaris intensified his focus on the reworking of techno-noir in film amplifying its ‘futuristic’ provocations to expose how urbanism and sustainability are in crisis in the borderlands. Kraniauskas sought to explore the complex interplay between installation, noir and dismantling in Bolaño’s 2666, with an emphasis falling on narco consumption and exhibitionary reflexivity. Rico Domínguez articulated how gaps and suppressive moments developed in Bolaño’s Amuleto as a foreshadowing of absence and a negation of linear historicity. Barrios aimed to recodify how recent films of the Northern deserts have interrogated the status quo, narrativity as a ‘framing’ strategy and the resonance of noir legacies, reclaiming ‘stupidity’ as an ironic subtext for parallel readings across period and contemporary iconography. Treviño tackled the interpenetrated thematization of darkness and vision in twenty-first-century narrative fiction by Ignacio Padilla, Jorge Volpi and Cristina Rivera Garza with reference to noir-inflected films as part of metafictive play and embedding. Greeley’s contribution on visual art explored how retraction, obscurity and omission might serve to fictionalize atrocity and testimony in a critique of ‘horrorism’. Polgovsky Ezcurra explored the impact of post-human systems of night-vision surveillance, sonority and alterity on innovative art practices situated on the margins of perception and sound. Rivera Garza contributed two important interlinked essays exploring communality and ‘disappropriation’ as counter-practices to the reification of victimhood. My own episodic contextualization of darkness aimed to calibrate and update its shifting modalities through coverage of writing, fiction and visual culture. Each section of my introduction seeks to frame, interrogate and reveal currents that may have informed the approach of individual contributors without depriving the volume of its divergent trajectories and constellated intersections.

I am greatly indebted to all of these thought-provoking colleagues for their generosity, rigor and adventure. An important number of artists have also embraced the opportunity for open debate by allowing the reproduction of their work. Gerardo Suter, who generously provided the cover image, Mariana Yampolsky through Arjen van der Sluis and the Fundación Cultural MY, the Estate of José Chávez Morado, Ariel Guzik, Joana Moll, Mario de Vega, Rogelio Sosa, Jenny Holzer, Moris (Israel Meza Moreno), Abraham Cruzvillegas, Arturo Hernández Alcázar and Daniel Guzmán. Their powerful work has transformed the reflective possibilities of this volume and its readers.

Without the support of Trinity College and the Centre of Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge, the research that underpins this project and the research-led events that gave rise to the book would not have been possible. Special thanks must go to my enduring interlocutor Simon Carnell. Nothing can replace the sound of my father discussing ideas in the long debate that was our life together and that continued to the brink of silence. The volume, shaped by a period marked by personal loss, served as a reminder of the undeniable potency of the language of darkness when expression confronts actuality.

This book is dedicated to the memory of our friend Eugenio Polgovsky and his inspirational documentaries.


XVIII, 374
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
Mexican Visual Culture Mexican Noir Darkness in art and writing
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 374 pp., 47 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

Erica Segre (Volume editor)

Erica Segre is Senior Lecturer in Latin American and Hispanic Studies and a Fellow of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge. She specializes in nineteenth-century Latin American literature, art and thought and twentieth-century and contemporary visual culture. She is the author of Intersected Identities: Strategies of Visualization in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Mexican Culture (2007) and the editor of Ghosts of the Mexican Revolution in Mexican Literature and Visual Culture (2013).


Title: México Noir
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394 pages