Human Life as Universal Currency: Film. Literature. Reality.

Every change that has occurred in the world has been fueled by death. Murder, genocide, martyrdom — all historical landmarks, turning points, and tragedies can be traced back to the end of human life. The Aztecs embraced human sacrifice in order to ensure their prosperity, American colonists went to war and wagered with their lives in order to ensure a better future for their children, Hitler gained power and a fearful following by systematically massacring Jews, homosexuals, and political enemies.

Now there are the women of Juarez, women who are brutally savaged and forgotten, fueling the engine of the maquiladoras and powerful corporations; an engine that runs on the blood of innocents. How has this trend of human sacrifice become such an integral part of our society, yet we refuse to acknowledge it? In the 21st century, we still see deaths that resemble those of the sacrifices practiced by the Aztecs, the deaths of the innocent are seen as a necessity in order for this global trend of capitalism to prosper. Death has become as integral to capitalism as supply and demand. As Bolaño writes in his masterwork 2666, there are three necessary “legs” to the table of life: supply, demand, and magic. The word “magic” is the best English translation of the Spanish word “maravilloso,” which can be explained as the inexplicable —  the magnificent. This magic of the world is mysterious, a double edged sword. Magic can be wonderful and magic can be terrible, it can bring about good but can also bring about evil, and the more one looks into the qualities of this magic the more it becomes apparent that death and magic essentially go hand in hand.

One work of artistic literature that can help us fully understand the scope of death’s influence on the events that have shaped the modern world is Codex Espangliensis, which is the product of a collaboration between Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. The Codex reads right to left, the style of pre-Hispanic codices, and uses intense, graphic, and intentionally ambiguous images in order to convey to the reader the ways in which bloodshed, death, and the violence of colonialism have all been the driving forces behind the political machine that runs our world today. The codex takes the opportunity to bring the past, present, and the undecided future all into one work.

One of the images of the codex displays a massacre of native villagers by European colonists. The exact location of the massacre is not specified, but the Europeans are amputating the hands of the natives, a method employed by Belgians in the Congo, among other Europeans in other colonies. This portion of the image is representative of the past; all of the unjust murder that America and the world of big business are founded on. The creativity of the codex comes into play when this image interacts with the other images on the page, specifically the ones that are representative of the blissfully ignorant present in which we live today. Two American pop-culture icons — Mickey Mouse and Spiderman (with George Washington’s head) — stand by with blood on their hands and feet. This image is representative of much of the idea of “the political force of death” expressed in Farred’s article. The killing of “others” can be traced back for centuries, and the world we live in today, the governments that we live under, and much of the racial prejudice and injustices that exist in modern society are a product of these killings. Mickey Mouse and George Washington/Spiderman may not be actively killing the natives in the image, yet they look on with smug smiles and enjoy the world that resulted from the massacre witnessed in the image. These two figures  are symbolic of the businesses, the governments, and the wealthy individuals that benefit from capitalism. They stand by, fully aware of what’s going on, yet they refuse to make any effort to change it because they like to keep their wallets fat. We, the readers of the codex, are also brought into this image as part of the symbolic present. The page is littered with bloody fingerprints — our fingerprints. This implies that we are as guilty as Mickey Mouse and Spiderman because we know what they’re doing, but we remain silent. In our silent state, we are guilty of the same crimes of both the villainous capitalists of the present, and the villainous conquerers of the past. As Martin Luther King Jr. said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

The codex then presents two alternate futures, a future of perpetual silence where Dr. King would argue that our lives never even get the chance to begin, or a future of change sparked by speaking out against these well-known evils. There are two images with text wrapped around them: one of a bloody christ-like figure kneeling in a pool of blood, praying, with the words “will Mexico become a mega-maquiladora nation or, as artist Yareli Arismendi has stated, ‘the largest Indian Reservation of the U.S.’” This presents the option of a silent future, where business runs the world into a state of unfathomable inequality. Next to the christ image is a futuristic spaceship over a gathering of onlookers who are terrified of what approaches them. The text around this image describes a “different America.” This America is “not described by the outlines on any of the standard maps. . . America includes different peoples, cities, borders, and nations.” The America described by this image is an America defined by equality, and it is represented as a bright future by the symbolic spaceship that approaches. The spaceship suggests that this equal America is a product of positive forward progress. Yet, the people observing the spaceship coming are all running away, pointing, and screaming. This is because the people in this image are the business men who feed off the scam of capitalism. This is even suggested in the colors of the two images, the spaceship being blue and new-looking, and the people being black sketches on a piece of old yellow paper. The people in the image are representative of the old world philosophies; the ones that have carried through from the time of murderous conquistadors and greedy Europeans to the time of Mickey Mouse. These are the people who want to live in a world that thrives off of the unjustified death of innocents, and they are no match for the potential “spaceship” that the younger generations can build if they are willing to speak out against these traditions of selfish brutality.

In this sense, the codex ends on a positive note as it suggests the possibility of a brighter future. However, when one looks into the facts, the overwhelming power of the “political force of death” (as Farred phrases it), and the extensive history of human sacrifice for societal gain, one realizes that the bright future of the codex is harder to attain than one might think, and that the tradition of paying for success and prosperity with human lives is deeply rooted in our world.  Since the times of the Aztec, human sacrifice has been “an instrument of political repression. . . a symbolic expression of political domination and economic appropriation and, at the same time, a means to [the Aztecs’] social production and reproduction” (Ingham 379). Most of the human sacrifices that the Aztecs practiced were done during festivals to appease the gods. Mostly the sacrifices would be captured warriors and enemies, but sometimes children would be sacrificed, and in other cases slaves (Ingham 383). These sacrifices were of immense importance in the eyes of the Aztecs, they believed that war and sacrifice were the very reason that the sun moved across the sky —  if the violence stopped, the Aztecs believed, so would the sun. There were three main ways that a person could fulfill his Aztec duty of serving the sun: “waging war, paying tribute, or giving one’s life” (Ingham 391). Blood was viewed as “precious water,” hearts were seen as honorable tribute, and dead soldiers were seen as sacrificed souls that could serve the God’s in the afterlife as “immortal warriors” (Ingham 391). On a strictly religious and traditional level, most people know that the Aztecs practiced ritualized sacrifice and cannibalism in an effort to appease their gods, but most people don’t realize the power of “sacrifice of slaves and war captives [as a] social production and reproduction of internal and external relations of domination” (Ingham 397). This is where the traditions of human sacrifice carry on into the modern day. In the 21st century, most people don’t believe in sun gods, cannibalism, or sacrificing children, but the idea of domination, the same crazed obsession with power that can be traced back to the Aztecs and even further, still plays a very prominent role in our society. This is because, while we might not recognize the sacrifice of human life as a way to keep the sun moving, we do recognize the power of death to change politics. We recognize, as Joseph Conrad phrased it, “ the merry dance of death and trade.” Sprouted from the seeds of the Aztec tradition, we now are living in an era where we all unwittingly indulge in the fruits that fall from the tree of the “scam of capitalism and death” (Farred 692). While the term capitalism is usually associated with the idea of economics, we must not forget that there is a heavily political overtone as well. Oxford Dictionaries defines capitalism as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit,” and when we look deeper into the machine by which these private owners make their money, we can see that it is, like the prosperity of the Aztecs, fueled by death.

The deaths that keep the monstrous scam of capitalism going today are the deaths of the women of Juarez. The killings have gone on for decades, yet little to no action has been taken to put an end to the crimes. Why is this? Because the same display of dominance and power that was seen in the Aztecs’ sacrifice of captured warriors can be seen in the way the companies with maquiladoras treat their factory workers. Companies like JVC, Hasbro, Ford, Hewlett Packard, Hitachi Electronics, Toshiba, Samsung, Motorola, Sony, and so many others have factories on the Mexican/American border (CorpWatch), and it isn’t feasible to think that they aren’t aware of the crimes that have been occurring in Juarez for at least the past couple of decades (if not longer). Yet, they continue to operate and make no effort to investigate the death of these young women. They simply replace them and continue to make money. Why worry about even three thousand dead workers when “despite the seeming harshness of life in Juarez, the young women keep coming at the rate of forty to sixty thousand a year” (Livingston 61). The maquiladoras have more than an adequate supply of female workers to meet their demand, so when even what we might see as a disturbingly high number of women being murdered is infinitesimal in comparison to the number of women that are moving in to replace them.

Just like the Aztecs, the companies’ concern to remain powerful and wealthy outweighs their concern for the loss of these innocent maquiladora workers. They’d rather let a woman die and figuratively brush it under the rug and replace her with another desperate young woman than risk the negative publicity of the media broadcasting that women are being abducted from their facility and being “tortured and sexually violated: raped, strangled or gagged. Mutilated, with nipples and breasts cut off, buttocks lacerated like cattle, or penetrated with objects” (Livingston 59). In a sense, the corporations adopt the same mentality of the Aztecs who chose to kill and rip the hearts out of people, sometimes children, in order to make sure that their gods would not be upset and take away their riches.

The perpetuation of this trend of death and sacrifice as a means for political and monetary gain and the acquisition of power can be attributed to a concept that is discussed by Roberto Bolaño in his highly acclaimed novel 2666. Bolaño describes what he names as “the human table,” and it is held up by three legs: supply, demand, and magic. Bolaño writes, “This is the equation: supply + demand + magic. And what is magic? Magic is epic and it’s also sex and Dionysian mists and play” (228). While death is not explicitly mentioned by Bolaño as a component of the definition of “magic,” it clearly plays a large role in the magical realm of our world. Looking specifically within the context of the maquiladoras and the corporations that run them, one recognizes that such companies are driven by the typical legs of business: supply and demand. But beyond that, what is the force that maintains the production of goods by these companies? The answer is death, establishing the fact that much of the “magic” that exists in the world can be explained by death, the power of death, its mystery, and its power.

Supply and demand have always existed in the world, as they are the fundamental bases of economics, but the question remains: what keeps these forces going? What feeds into the system that makes the supply in the first place? We know that the demand is supplied by the middle and upper class consumers, but who or what supplies the supply itself? The answer to this question is death. Death and mistreatment fuel the machine that produces the goods that we use and enjoy every day. It can almost be seen in scientific terms: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every commodity, for every luxury that we take for granted, there is somebody else somewhere far away that worked, suffered, and possibly died as a result of its creation. When you use an iPhone, there was a factory-worker in China who had to work all day to put thousands of iPhones together for basically no pay. If you drive through a city in the mid-west, know that Native American tribes were massacred, relocated, and mistreated so that American colonists could fulfill their “manifest destiny” and take their land in the name of America. When you buy an Avery binder to bring to class, know that some woman in a maquiladora put that binder together, and that it is a very real possibility that she is dead now, raped, murdered, and forgotten. Factory workers and employees low on the hierarchy of big businesses allow for corporations to increase their profit by sacrificing their own basic human rights, and sometimes even their lives. In 2005, after all was said and done, it cost a total of $144.40 to make an iPod. Of that total, the most expensive factor was the hard drive, which cost $73.39. Among the cheapest factors was that of “Insertion, test, and assembly,” the portion done by factory workers. This cost $3.86 (Linden 142). This was eight years ago, and it is almost certain that Apple has found a way to cut the pay of factory workers to increase their profit even by the smallest margin. That is the way of the world today, human lives and human rights are the first things to be sacrificed in order to make economic, political, or almost any type of progress.

Even in a non-economical and a non-political sense, it can be seen in essentially every aspect of life that something must disappear in order to make way for something new. For example, looking at the films Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth, we can see that bright and new beginnings come at the price of tragic sacrifice and death. Children of Men is filled with loss and martyrdom, as we follow Theo and Kee in their journey to deliver the pregnant Kee (and eventually her newborn child) to the enigmatic “Human Project.” The world in which they live is dystopian, one where all women — except for Kee — are infertile. The world has been free of babies for approximately two decades and has slipped into chaos. When Theo gets swept up into this mission to save Kee by his ex-wife Julian, initially he is skeptical and not entirely invested. However, when he is made aware that Kee is pregnant and sees for himself, he realizes that he is part of something much larger than he is, something worth much more than his own life: a fresh start for a ruined world. Kee’s baby is symbolic of a shard of hope for humanity in a time where all hope is essentially lost. Resultantly, people who are involved with the protection of Kee are willing to sacrifice their own lives and serve as martyrs for this cause. Julian dies, Jasper dies, and Theo dies as well. All for the sake of one life and the chance that it could be the impetus to save humanity and give the world a fresh start. This aspect of the film makes it evident that death  wields immense power, but it is a double-edged sword. The world in Children of Men falls into ruin once the entire population becomes infertile —  essentially resulting in the figurative death of hundreds of thousands unborn children. This is symbolic of the negative and evil force of death. Death can cause people to act in an evil way; it is one universal fear held by humanity and arguably the most unifying force in the world. We all must die, we all are aware of this, and this uncertainty can lead to great anxiety and evil in the world. However, death also has redemptive power. When Theo, Julian, and Jasper all realize what is at stake, they understand that to die in order to save Kee’s baby would be noble. Death has the power of salvation and the power of destruction.

This same redemptive nature of death can be seen in Guillermo del Toro’s 2006 film, Pan’s Labyrinth. After the faun charges Ofelia with the task of stealing her brother from Captain Vidal, she runs into the labyrinth with the baby and finds the faun waiting for her. When he reveals that his intention is to use the brother for his blood, “the blood of an innocent,” Ofelia refuses to give her baby brother up to the faun. Vidal then finds her, shoots her, and she dies in the labyrinth. Her act of self-sacrifice allows for two new beginnings in both the realm of reality and the realm of magic. Ofelia dies and enters the world of magic, where she is reunited with her true mother and father and is granted the gift of immortality. In the realm of reality, Vidal runs out of the labyrinth and is killed by Mercedes and the rebel guerillas. Mercedes and her brother Pedro take in Ofelia’s baby brother as her own, and the reign of the evil Captain ends. All of this occurs simply because of Ofelia’s willingness to sacrifice herself for the sake of the greater good.

Why does death have this power to cause change? One way to look at it is that death is a universal currency. Like all currency, and like Bolaño’s third leg of “magic,” death can be used for advancements in both good and evil directions. The power and value of death lies in the fact that all human beings can understand how much it is worth. We all know what a life means because we all have our own lives to use as a benchmark, and our own lives are perhaps the most precious concern that we each have as individuals. This is where the power of sacrifice lies, from the sacrifice of Ofelia to save her brother to the sacrifice of Theo to deliver Kee to the human project. These are all examples of the power of death being used to meet a positive end, or a positive beginning for that matter. However, this is not always the case. The sacrifice of an innocent life can also be used to meet a negative end. The relatable nature of death is a great cause for fear, and this fear that death produces is immensely powerful. When one sees innocents being killed by an evil force, one often fears that his life too could be taken as part of the build-up of evil power.  For example, when we look at the Holocaust, “the mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler’s Holocaust,” and that Jewish people, “like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand” (Ezard). Yet the German people feared that should they speak out against Hitler, their innocent lives would be added to the massive tally of those murdered by Hitler in an attempt to strengthen his regime by buying power with the true universal currency, the lives of innocents. The evil forces at work justify and carry out these mass murders and genocides of innocents by “shaping a dehumanized image of the victims in the minds of their persecutors. . . since the victims are not human, the inhibitions against their slaughter cease to be operative” (Kuper 85). This is the case of the evil men who carry out and issue orders for murder, but it is also true that members of society who understand that the victims who are sacrificed by evil powers in order to build up power are indeed human beings. However, there is a great degree of “othering” that occurs, and like units of currency, some human lives become worth more than others. In a way, we acknowledge that victims such as the Jews of the Holocaust, the Tutsis of Rwanda, and the women of Juarez are still human beings, yet we cheapen their worth by allowing them to be slaughtered.

This is a point that is brought to the attention of readers of Bolaño’s 2666. In the fourth segment of the book, “The Part about the Crimes,” the reader is subjected to what are essentially crime scene investigations. Each brief summary of each woman’s murder reads something along the lines of “Her name was Claudia Pérez Millán. The body was found on Calle Sahuaritos. The deceased was dressed in a black sweater and had two cheap rings on each hand, plus an engagement ring. She wasn’t wearing a skirt or panties, although she did have on red imitation- leather flats. She had been raped and strangled and wrapped in a white blanket, as if the killer had planned to move the body elsewhere and had suddenly decided, or being obliged by circumstance, to leave it behind a dumpster on Calle Sahuaritos (Bolaño 449-450). The relentless torrent of descriptions like these both establish the value and the human life and draw attention to the way that so many lives are cheapened and forgotten. We realize that this woman is a human being, just like we are, because Bolaño describes the little details that make her an individual. Her cheap rings, her red shoes, the fact that she is engaged — all of this contributes to our idea of who she was. Then we see the way that she was treated; raped, killed, and left to decompose. This is when we as readers realize the way that this woman and all of the women or Juarez have been cheapened. We realize that they continue to be murdered in this fashion and they continue to be forgotten. The void left by them in the maquiladora is simply filled by one of the tens of thousands of women that flock to the city looking for employment.

We see the power of human life as a unifying force that all of us can understand, yet we allow for certain lives to be wasted and thrown away by the evil in the world, such as the lives of the women of Juarez that are so often thrown away. We see the power of one life, take Ofelia’s life in Pan’s Labyrinth as an example, and how her life alone is enough to spark all kinds of positive change in two different worlds. She is restored to her place as an immortal princess and her self sacrifice results in the death of the evil captain and a blank slate for her infant brother. All this power is wielded by one young life, yet thousands of women are killed each year in Juarez for no reason except for the fact that the murderers are able to get away with it. How has this happened? How have some lives come to be worth more than others? Looking at the 2006 film Babel, there are many deaths that occur over the course of the plot, which is focused around three intertwined plots in Morocco, Japan, and The U.S./Mexico border. In Morocco, one of the brothers suffers perhaps a fatal gunshot wound, but that is deemed so insignificant that it is even left unanswered in the film whether or not he lives or dies. Yet, when Susan Jones is shot on a tour bus, the potential for her death causes an uproar in the media. Foolish young boys are labeled as terrorists and they eventually meet a punishment that outweighs what was truly an innocent mistake on their part. Clearly, the life of one white woman, who didn’t even die, is worth more than the lives of any other characters in this film. Clearly, there is a trend in the world where the lives of white, American, European, or wealthy individuals are seen as having lives that are worth more than those who are non-white, impoverished, or live in third world countries. This is clear in the media, and the metaphor of human lives as currency translates very well here, as it seems that there is almost a certain monetary total that a story must add up to in order for people to care about it. Taking examples from the news coverage of recent tragedies, we can look at the Newtown tragedy and the Bangladesh factory collapse. In the factory collapse, the death toll is estimated at 1,119 deaths (CNN). The Newtown shooting resulted in the death of 26 people (20 of which were children) (Candiotti). Both of these events were absolutely tragic, and it is impossible to say that one was more devastating than the other, but strictly looking at the numbers and the scope of the tragedy, the Bangladesh incident resulted in over forty times the number of deaths as the Newtown incident, yet it has received much less publicity and has already essentially been forgotten by many. There is the undeniable factor that this incident did not occur on American soil, but still there is a clear difference between how much the American public values the lives of American citizens and European citizens in comparison to the lives of third-world factory workers who live underprivileged lives and are responsible for the production of many goods that we enjoy. Referring back to the idea of the idea of a numerical “value” that the deaths in a tragedy must add up to to be news-worthy, it is clear that the life of a Bangladesh factory worker is worth an infinitesimal amount in comparison to the life of any American citizen.

What can be done to change this sad fact of our world? The answer lies in the Codex Espangliensis that was mentioned earlier. We must, as a world, forget our borders; this much is clear. And by forgetting our borders we must recognize that a human life is a human life, it is worth the same no matter where one is in the world, no matter what color skin the person has, and no matter how much money that person makes. If each person in the world was able to recognize the power of a human life, the “magic” that a human life has, and the power of a human life to drive the economic machine of supply and demand, then the world would be a place overwhelmed with a desire for justice and equality. If all human lives were seen of equal value, then the murders in Juarez would be put to a halt, conditions for factory workers would be improved, and we wouldn’t go to war based on what often seem like whims. The difficult truth is that we must recognize the ways in which the power of human life, death, and sacrifice has been used for evil and capitalism and harness this same power to move towards equality and peace. This is no easy task, but if we look at Bolaño’s benchmark of the year 2666, a year where we will either destroy the world and humanity or save it and live in a utopia of peace and equality, then it is clear that humanity has adequate time to make a change. The first step that must be taken is to forget the tradition of using human lives as a tool, to forget the “political force of death,” and instead remember the intrinsic and equal value of all human lives. The selfish mentality of capitalism has been ingrained in our brains, it is in the foundation of Western ideology that we must conquer all in our path and reap all possible benefits from all of our surroundings. This is reflected in almost every facet of our lives: the way we treat other humans, the way we treat the environment, and even in the way we treat and think of ourselves. We must evolve from selfish creatures into selfless creatures. We must stop seeing fellow humans as rungs in a ladder or fingers to step on as we try to climb to the top of the capitalistic totem pole, but rather as companions — individuals with unique qualities and talents that make them valuable and worthy of being at the top with us. We have lived too long in a world where those with power are able to move, manipulate, and kill those beneath them like pawns in a chess game. Rather than viewing humanity as a pool of competitors, we must view humanity as a pool of cooperators. Once we can adopt this new mindset, we will be able to recognize human life as a positive force, and rather than killing a person and benefiting from the power of death, we must move past this tradition of brutality and death and help each other thrive and prosper together, embracing the power of life.

Works Cited

Bolaño, Roberto, and Natasha Wimmer. 2666. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

Candiotti, Susan, and Sarah Aarthun. “Police: 20 Children among 26 Victims of Connecticut School Shooting.CNN. Cable News Network, 15 Dec. 2012.

CorpWatch : Maquiladoras at a Glance.CorpWatch : Maquiladoras at a Glance.

Ezard, John. “Germans Knew of Holocaust Horror about Death Camps.The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 16 Feb. 2001.

Farred, Grant. “The Impossible Closing: Death, Neoliberalism, and the Postcolonial in Bolaño’s 2666.Modern Fiction Studies 56.4 (2010): 689-708.

Gómez-Peña, Guillermo, Enrique Chagoya, and Felicia Rice. Codex Espangliensis: from Columbus to the border patrol. City Lights Books, 2000.

Ingham, John M. “Human Sacrifice at Tenochtitlan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 26.3 (1984): 379-400. JSTOR.

Kuper, Leo. Genocide: Its Political Use in the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press, 1983.

Linden, Greg, Kenneth L. Kraemer, and Jason Dedrick. “Who captures value in a global innovation network?: the case of Apple’s iPod.Communications of the ACM 52.3 (2009): 140-144.

Livingston, Jessica. “Murder in Juarez: Gender, Sexual Violence, and the Global Assembly Line.Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004): 59-76.

Staff, CNN. “Death Toll Rises from Bangladesh Building Collapse.” CNN. Cable News Network, 12 May 2013.

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