Neo-Luddism in a Mexican Novel:

¿En quién piensas cuando haces el amor? by Homero Aridjis


Hélène de Fays

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill



One of the most often debated issues at the end of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first has been technology. In the 1980s and 1990s, it surfaced as a controversial issue in all areas of public discourse. Generally speaking, participants of this debate have taken one of two sides: they are either in favor of technology, and its socio-economic implication, or opposed to it in one form or another. Despite a lack of uniformity among its members and their "antitechnological biases," this latter group abides by the Neo-Luddite concept that Kirkpatrick Sale explains as the view that "a world dominated by technologies of industrial society is fundamentally more detrimental than beneficial to human happiness and survival" (xi). At the end of the twentieth-century, Neo-Luddism gained many adherents and its echoes became increasingly loud in the literature of countries undergoing rapid socio-economic change due to industrial and technological development. This is the case of many Latin American countries and of Mexico in particular. Indeed, in the past decades, Mexican authors seem to have become aware of the issue of technological progress and its implications for their countries. Thus, novels written by these authors provide unique examples of Neo-Luddism as it appears in Mexican literature at the end of the twentieth century.

Although not explicitly associated with the Neo-Luddites, Homero Aridjis, a Mexican writer known for his novels, is famous for his ecological activism. The ecological movement has been considered subversive because of its criticism of "the consequences of uncontrolled growth associated with capitalism, technology and progress" (Merchant xvi). These are precisely the ideas that dominate Aridjis' novel ¿En quién piensas cuando haces el amor? (1996). Its author warns of the dangers of continued and uncontrolled development in Mexico by presenting an apocalyptic view of the country in the year 2027. The novel is a dystopia in which Aridjis portrays Moctezuma City, a metaphor for Mexico City, as a megalopolis in which technological progress, social decadence and ecological disasters have made life practically impossible. Through the words of his female narrator, Yo Sánchez, the author describes and criticizes the monstrous city as it lives its last day. Nonetheless, despite the apocalyptic destruction of Moctezuma City that ends the novel, Aridjis does not predict the end of the world but rather the end of the era of the Fifth Sun. That is, echoing Aztec mythical beliefs, Aridjis announces the end of an era and the beginning of another.

In The Plot of the Future, Dragan Klaíc uses the term "dystopia" to refer to the "pessimistic type of predictive drama" he analyzes. As Klaíc explains, he prefers the term "dystopia" to "anti-utopia" or "counterutopia" because "'dystopia' conveys the withering away of utopia, its gradual abandonment or reversal" (3):

an unexpected and aborted outcome of utopian strivings, a mismatched result of utopian efforts-not only a state of fallen utopia but the very process of its distortion and degeneration as well. If dystopia is a condition that appears on the ruins of misfired utopian schemes, it nevertheless implies utopia as a subverted or suppressed desire, an initial impulse left unfulfilled. In other words, even dystopian drama is in fact utopian; it involves utopian ambitions while describing their total collapse. Utopia is the deeper, disguised infrastructure of dystopia, the hidden premise of dystopian vision, and dystopia has become in our times a via negativa to express utopian strivings. (Klaíc 3-4)

Although Klaíc writes about drama, his definition of dystopia is applicable to ¿En quién? because the novel tells such a "pessimistic," predictive story. Thus, adhering to Klaíc's explanation, Aridjis' novel presents the process of destruction and degeneration of the technologically-advanced Moctezuma City while echoing the utopian dreams of its inhabitants.

In ¿En quién? Aridjis shows Moctezuma City as a labyrinth in which chaos and decadence reign. The narrator observes that "Ciudad Moctezuma era . . . un colectivo de la vida humana donde la densidad encubría la delincuencia, la escatología, la pobreza, el sexo y la muerte" (27). The city is an ugly and dirty place. The historical buildings have been destroyed and replaced by skyscrapers made of concrete, metal and glass. Yet, the overgrown city is seen as a sign of technological progress. This, however, is not surprising since, as Pascal J. Thomas explains, "the notion of urbanism was born at the turn of the [nineteenth] century, at the same time as futurism" (147) and cities are the birthplace of technological development. As a modern megalopolis, Moctezuma City echoes the futuristic dreams of its founders and represents the progress of the Mexican nation. Ironically, while people from other cities admire it as an example of daring technological advancements, Yo points out that, for its inhabitants, the city is a nightmare: "en la Ciudad Moctezuma el laberinto era una suma de desórdenes pretéritos. No era un sueño futurista, era un delirio actual" (¿En quién? 27).

Reflecting the physical state of the city, the cultural and social life of the megalopolis are also in deplorable shape. Similar to those of other large urban areas, the people of Moctezuma City reflect their environment; or, as Thomas argues: "their aggressively artificial environment molds their mental processes along with the possible forms of social organization" (181). Thus, the libraries, museums, concert halls, parks and gardens have all disappeared from the cityscape. The residents of Moctezuma City have lost all interest in the arts and humanities and have fallen victim to the images fed to them by the state-controlled media, the "Circe de la Comunicación." This technologically advanced interactive, television-like entertainment has all but destroyed the spirit of the Mexicans and serves to illustrate the moral corruption of the society presented. In Yo's opinion:

La Circe de la Comunicación había convertido a los seres humanos en puercos mentales. El prójimo puto y caníbal pasaba las horas y los años dormido con los ojos abiertos devorando las imágenes y los sonidos que la Circe le arrojaba a él y a su progenie sin cesar. . . . La Circe . . . había incomunicado a la gente entre sí y frente a sus cientos de canales había pocas posibilidades de defensa.

(¿En quién? 176-77)

On all accounts, then, the world depicted by the narrator is one far from being utopian and is best described as a dystopia.

With obvious irony, Yo sarcastically concludes that the city was nonetheless a very interesting place: "el laberinto mexicano era sumamente atractivo . . . para la fotografía, el cine vérité, la antropología social, el turismo sexual, y para aquellos interesados en realizar informes sobre violaciones a los derechos humanos, tener experiencias o elaborar dossiers sobre abusos a la mujer, al niño, al hombre, al árbol y al animal" (¿En quién? 112). This emphasis on the negative aspects of society points to the utopian substructure of the dystopian text. By showing Moctezuma City as a city living a horrible moment of its history, Yo hints at the existence of a past in which these things were not true, a past where the future and technology were still considered something positive. Furthermore, although Yo's comments denounce many of the evils of Moctezuma City, none seem worse to her than the abuse and violence committed against nature, or life itself. According to Yo, technological development and industrialization are threatening the natural and human life of the city, and the country at large.

This positioning of Nature versus Technology is not new in literature. It surfaced with the advent of the Scientific Revolution and changed the way human beings understood their relationship with nature. As ecologist Carolyn Merchant explains, prior to the sixteenth century, the earth and nature were both viewed as living organisms:

central to the organic theory was the identification of nature, especially the earth, with a nurturing mother: a kindly beneficent female who provided for the needs of mankind in an ordered, planned universe. But another opposing image of nature as female was also prevalent: wild and uncontrollable nature that could render violence, storms, droughts, and general chaos. (2)

While the first image of the earth dominated, it served as an ethical restraint on human beings, prohibiting the exploitation of its resources.

As the Scientific Revolution gained momentum in the seventeenth century, the concept of the world as nurturing mother was increasingly replaced by its opposite, the image of nature as disorder and violence. In turn, this second image allowed the emergence of the idea of "power over nature" which became a core concept of the modern world. Merchant observes that "as Western culture became increasingly mechanized . . . , the female earth and virgin earth spirit were subdued by the machine" (2). In other words, the ethical constraints against the exploitation of the earth and nature were slowly forgotten as man developed industries and machines which used the earth's raw materials and resources.

This new view of the world, however, was not accepted by all. At the end of the eighteenth century, as the effects of the Industrial Revolution were beginning to be felt in England, the Luddites rose up against this new machine age. This group of men, most of them employed in the increasingly important wool and cotton industry, has been seen as the first victims of industrial progress. As Sale explains, with the introduction of machines in the wool industry, "they saw their ordered society of craft and custom and community begin to give way to an intruding industrial society and its new technologies and systems, new principles of merchandise and markets, new configurations of countryside and city, beyond their ken or control" (3). Fighting to maintain their natural and traditional ways, the reaction of the Luddites to technology was a violent one: they took arms against the machines and the men who ran them. Their struggle, however, was not so much physical as a moral, "calling into question on grounds of justice and fairness the underlying assumptions of this political economy and the legitimacy of the principles of unrestrained profit and competition and innovation at its heart" (5).

Despite their early success, the Luddites lost their struggle against the Industrial Revolution but their ideas did not die with them. On the contrary, as Sales points out, Luddism has surfaced in practically every other society to which the industrial system and culture were subsequently spread. For nearly two centuries now, it has manifested itself as "a strain of opposition to the domination of industrial technology and to its values of mechanization, consumption, exploitation, growth, competition, novelty, and progress -- a kind of solid, indelible body of beliefs existing subaqueously as it were, refusing to be eroded by the sweeping tides of triumphant modernism" (16). Today, our world is undergoing a profound transformation, which, like the first Industrial Revolution, is driven by rapid technological and economic change and, also like the first one, has resulted in widespread social dislocations and environmental destruction (Sale 20). As a result, at the end of the twentieth century, Luddism has reappeared in the form of Neo-Luddism.

The Neo-Luddites are more numerous than one might think. As Sale observes:

They are to be found on the radical and direct-action side of environmentalism, particularly in the American West; they are on the dissenting edges of academic economics and ecology departments, generally of the no-growth school; they are everywhere in Indian Country throughout the Americas, representing a traditional biocentrism against the anthropocentric norm; they are activists fighting against nuclear power, irradiated food, clear-cutting, animal experiments, toxic wastes, and the killing of whales among the many aspects of the high-tech onslaught. (20)

And today, as was true in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Neo-Luddites' deep distrust of technology and the resistance to technological progress has had an impact on the intellectuals of our time and their work. In literature, this "technophobia" is often represented as the struggle of nature to survive the advancements of technology, or progress.

Although there has never been only one way to represent nature, Merchant considers the Arcadian image of nature, a benevolent and peaceful entity, as the one that has predominated in Western culture (8). In the Arcadian concept, an idealized nature was seen as the place where one could find "both material and spiritual food to enhance the comfort and soothe the anxieties of men distraught by the demands of the urban world and the stress of the market place" (8-9). In this bucolic image, nature is both submissive and passive: its sole purpose is to provide men with pleasure as they escape their reality. As the world progressed and life, particularly urban life, became increasingly complicated and stressful, nature's role as an antidote to modern life continued to be an important part of artistic representation. Thus, the idea of nature as spiritual healer is the one that has been presented in artistic constructs in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century. Yet, by the end of the 1990s, a noticeable change was taking place.

Cynthia Dietering observes that a new representation of nature has appeared in the literature produced over the past two decades. This view is what she calls the "toxic consciousness" of literature. Referring back to Martin Heidegger's 1953 article "The Question Concerning Technology," Dietering explains what she sees as a shift in Western culture's relationship with nature. Whereas prior to 1953 nature and material objects were seen as a "standing reserve" to serve the purpose of man and his development, after this date, there is an increasing awareness that the raw materials provided by nature have in fact been used up (Dietering 199). This awareness, or "toxic consciousness," appears in recent fiction in its many sustained and various representations of pollution and "offers insight into a culture's shifting relation to nature and to the environment at a time when the imminence of ecological collapse was, and is, part of the public mind and of individual imagination" (Dietering 196). This shift in consciousness is clearly visible in ¿En quién? and forms part of the novel's dystopic vision and its Neo-Luddism.

In fact, images of the pollution of Moctezuma City abound. Some of these images are colorful and ironic. For instance, while on a walk, Yo observes that it was a beautiful day, not because it was clear or sunny, but because of the aesthetic possibilities of air pollution: "El día era aromático, no por los perfumes del campo, sino por las combinaciones aéreas de sustancias innombrables. En ese mar elevado de partículas metálicas y gases, los edificios adquirían tonalidades insospechables y cambiaban de apariencia según la hora del día y el día del año" (¿En quién? 28). This vivid image of the pollution in the city displaces the traditional representation of a city and a pretty dusk and replaces them with their opposites, images that stand out for their irony. Other descriptions, however, are more realistic. The narrator tells of the yellow cloud that floats above the city and of the pollution of the rivers, which she calls "efluvios hediondos" (39). Some rivers have been "entubed" to allow for construction, while others have simply dried up due to the lack of rain.

A major consequence of the pollution in Moctezuma City is the death of all natural life in the megalopolis, which is also made apparent through vivid images. For example, there are no trees in the city other than the dry ones in the cemetery (¿En quién? 23). Also, the air is too contaminated to sustain vegetable life and the mayor has replaced the trees with artificial ones, painted gray or "color ceniza para ser realista" (116). Thus, Yo describes nature as she encounters it on her walk through Moctezuma City: "en el centro de la plaza surgió un árbol de metal. En sus ramas tubulares estaban cantando pájaros autómatas, que abrían y cerraban el pico y las alas a cada trino. Flores artificiales, iluminadas por dentro, fosforecían. Turistas y niños rodeaban ese novísimo árbol de la vida" (48). This description illustrates that, not only has vegetable life been replaced by man-made objects, but also has the animal life, an idea which is emphasized by the repeated mention of the extinction of all sorts of animals. All together, these images illustrate the "toxic consciousness" of the novel. The emphasis placed on the destruction of nature is an indication of the progressive deterioration of society typical of a dystopian text. More importantly, they also represent the effects of uncontrolled technological progress and industrial development on Moctezuma City and Mexico.

In direct contrast to the general state of nature in Moctezuma City, and despite the "toxic consciousness" of the novel, there is a strong link between the characters of ¿En quién? and nature. For instance, upon her death, Rosalba leaves her most valued possession, which is a collection of birds inherited from her mother, to her sister Maria. Their older sister Arira also maintains an intimate relationship to nature and her garden can be considered something of an Eden in the middle of Moctezuma City. As Yo observes, Arira's house is deceptive to the eye because behind its ruinous facade hides a beautiful interior, where nature and life thrive; or as Yo puts it: "palpita un organismo consciente" (¿En quién? 243). According to the narrator, Arira has created her garden as a memory of a utopian past: "desde este ombligo vegetal Arira había creído que la Naturaleza renacería un día en el valle de México" (245). As part of her effort to maintain nature in Moctezuma City, Arira allows María to bring Rosalba's birds to her garden. Thus, the birds and the garden can be seen as symbols of nature striving to survive in the technologically-advanced Moctezuma City. Futhermore, the presence of such an Eden in an otherwise chaotic world can be seen as an attempt to return to the Arcadian ideal of nature, one which provides "both material and spiritual food" to soothe the anxieties of distraught urban dwellers. This return to the past in the representation of nature also underlines the utopian ideals of the inhabitants of Moctezuma City who dream of a time, before the advent of the era of technology, when nature was still valued and respected.

In his study, Klaíc places much importance on the ideas of time and myth as central to the notion of dystopia. He observes that "the mythic corpus of a particular culture determine its concept of time, past and present, completed and incompleted" (11). For many ancient cultures, as for the Aztec, the idea of time was cyclical: time was understood as a movement from chaos towards order, which eventually collapsed into chaos only to begin again its movement towards order (12). Since myths told of collapsing orders in the past, they also established a precedent for the future. As Klaíc explains, "fires, earthquakes, falling stars, floods, famines-these occurrences were seen as cataclysmic symptoms within the existing eschatology that usually presented the ending not as a definite act but rather as an event containing the seeds of a new start" (12). The Aztecs believed that the end of the world could occur every fifty-two years and understood time as a series of eras they called suns, which ended because of some apocalyptic event such as a flood, the fury of men-eating tigers, or fire raining from the sky. The Aztecs lived in the era of the fourth sun, which ended when the wind took everything away (Krickeberg 23). Following their mythology, the present era, the Fifth Sun, is the sun of movement and has been predicted to end as violently as the preceding ones: "según dejaron dicho los viejos, en éste había terremotos y hambre general, con que hemos de perecer" (23). This myth and the beliefs of the Aztecs are particularly important when talking about ¿En quién? in which Aridjis predicts the violent end of the Fifth Sun.

The novel reflects the mythical beliefs of the Aztecs in a variety of ways. First of all, the fact that the megalopolis is named after the last Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, adds a mythical dimension to the text. After all, Moctezuma lost the war against the Spaniards and thus saw the end of one of the most powerful empires in the history of the Americas. The novel also echoes the myths of the Aztec culture through the many comments on the part of the narrator and the other characters. More importantly, Yo tells of many events that could be considered natural disasters or "cataclysmic symptoms" of the end of the world. For instance, Moctezuma City is plagued by a severe drought; and, the lack of water is a preoccupation for everyone. The pollution of the air and the lack of rain have created a situation that is exacerbated by the frequent earthquakes, as Yo adds: "Para empeorar las cosas ... caían tormentas de partículas suspendidas y se declaraban emergencias ambientales" (¿En quién? 112). Thus, taken with the references to Aztec myths, the images of the pollution of the city, the drought, and death of nature can also be considered warnings of a potential catastrophe. In other words, all of these "cataclysmic symptoms" can be seen as new additions to the eschatological repertoire of apocalyptic texts that predict the end of the technological era.

¿En quién? ends as an earthquake tears through Moctezuma City. For Yo and her friends, there is no doubt that this earthquake is the one that will end the world as they know it. Indeed, the house comes crashing down, the streets are torn open, buildings and bridges collapse as the city meets its end. Yo is looking for her friends as the city is falling to pieces around her, but can only find Baltazar, her boyfriend, with whom she leaves. Thus, as this ending indicates, all of the predictions and foreshadowing of the coming of the end of the Fifth Sun were correct. Yet, it also points out that it is not the end of life itself. This is made abundantly clear by Yo's last words: "Lo más curioso de todo es que en ese momento de destrucción masiva, de confusión general, de estremecimiento y estruendos, animados por las luces confundidas, todos los pájaros se pusieron a cantar, creyendo que era el alba" (¿En quién? 273). This final comment reminds the reader of the cyclical concept of time in the Aztec culture. Although the era of the Fifth Sun has ended, the singing of the birds announces the dawn of the Sixth Sun. And although no mention is made of Yo and Baltazar's future life, the fact that Yo narrates events that occurred in the past is an indication that at least the birds and she have survived the disaster.

When all is said and done, the apocalyptic ending of the novel is a representation of the end of the world as we know it -- a world dominated by technology. Homero Aridjis' ¿En quién piensas cuando haces el amor? is a dystopian view of Mexican society in the twenty-first century. According to Klaíc, the view of the future portrayed by dystopias is often a "polemic, cautionary, or admonitory gesture, a provoking and shocking rendering of what our future might turn out to be" (5-6). This is precisely what can be said of this novel. The author presents a city that has turned into a nightmare for its inhabitants because of its technological advances: Moctezuma City is a dirty, polluted, corrupted and degenerated megalopolis. And its citizens fare no better. In consequence, the life of the city is threatened. Moreover, dystopias, like utopias, have a performative function: they are meant to push the reader to action. In the case of ¿En quién?, it is against the crimes committed towards nature and life in the name of progress against which the reader is pressed to act.

This, in turn, is in keeping with the ideals of Neo-Luddism that reappeared at the end of the twentieth century. For the Neo-Luddites, the world is presently undergoing a second Industrial Revolution, which they see as an "impending catastrophe" (Sale 21). They denounce the fact that technology has become a powerful religion in the modern world and criticize the ideas of comfort, longevity and dominance made possible by technology that have seduced humankind. In short, Neo-Luddism deplores the ignorance of the looming catastrophe that technology represents in the modern world. According to Sales, this is due to the fact that, as a society, we are ignorant about the past -- "particularly the past that engendered the first Industrial Revolution, the human and environmental traumas it caused, and the pain, the tragedy, of its decades of immiseration" (22) -- and, as a result, we believe that technology can only be good for our future. It is precisely this kind of collective forgetting of the past that Aridjis seems to want to remedy by presenting a society in which progress has turned nature into a "used up" resource. Signs of the exploitation of nature and violence committed against natural life abound in ¿En quién?; and the inhabitants of Moctezuma City have come to accept garbage as part of the their lives. Furthermore, by including Yo's reflections on the strange aesthetic qualities of such pollution in the novel, Aridjis is actually warning against the phenomena.

Finally, Aridjis resorts to Aztec myths in ¿En quién? as a warning to Mexicans. The violence and decadence of Moctezuma City and the cataclysmic events narrated throughout the novel are an indication of a rapidly deteriorating world. Fulfilling the myth, the ending of the novel predicts the end of the Fifth Sun -- the technological era -- by showing the destruction of Moctezuma City. Yet it also points to the creation of a new era. In other words, Aridjis reasserts Mexico's heritage and future through the use of Aztec myths.

Paradoxically, ¿En quién? is a novel that ends up representing Neo-Luddism's worst fear and biggest dream. Technology has destroyed nature. This way, Aridjis exposes the dangers of the path of rapid industrial and technological development that the Mexican nation has chosen to follow, while at the same time reminding the rest of the world that, despite its many benefits, technological progress comes at a dear price. At the same time, however, nature has destroyed the technological world. Thus, adhering to his ecological convictions, the author presents a world in which nature ultimately overcomes technology and survives the apocalypse. But, most significantly, by emphasizing the survival of nature, represented by Yo, Baltazar, and the birds, Aridjis echoes the Neo-Luddite warning that technology cannot save the world and that the next era -- the post-technological era -- will have to be very different from the old one. It will have to spring from nature.


Works Cited

Aridjis, Homero. ¿En quién piensas cuando haces el amor? Mexico, DF: Alfaguara, 1996.

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Klaíc, Dragan. The Plot of the Future. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994.

Krickeberg, Walter. Mitos y leyendas de los Aztecas, Incas, Mayas y Muiscas. Mexico DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1971.

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