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Writing Political Violence into History

From: Latin American Research Review
Volume 48, Number 2, 2013
pp. 175-183 | 10.1353/lar.2013.0023

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In contemporary Latin America the term historical memory is almost always shorthand for “historical memory of political violence,” especially that from the Cold War period. Usually, this type of historical memory is spoken of in ways that echo Walter Benjamin’s permanent “state of emergency”—under attack, at risk of erosion or obliteration, threatened by the flattening power of neoliberalism and the legerdemain of the perpetrators of past violence. To be a memory activist in contemporary Chile or El Salvador is to occupy a minority position; those who labor to prevent incidents and structures of violence from being normalized or forgotten are those who, necessarily, swim upstream.

Indeed, much of modern Latin American politics is waged on the battlefield of historical memory, as a struggle to control the production of historical narratives. From Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s war with the media conglomerate Grupo Clarín to the recent decision by Peru’s Supreme Court to reduce the prison sentences of the Grupo Colina death squad’s members, adjudicating past violence is a way for competing political constituencies to articulate and defend different visions of the present and future. The contest over how political violence is remembered—and punished—is never waged on equal footing, and it is a contest with terribly high stakes.

Scholarly works that contextualize and historicize narratives of past violence can thus make critical interventions. In analyzing the charged relationships between memory and history, the works reviewed here reject the notion that traumatic historical events are “unknowable” or “unspeakable,” as touchstone texts like Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain have suggested.1 Instead, they draw from historical, sociological, and ethnographic tool kits to give Latin American political violence the serious scholarly treatment that it is due, embedding it deeply in the history of power relations and social struggles in local, national, and transnational spheres.

Greg Grandin and Gilbert M. Joseph lay out an agenda for this field of inquiry in their coedited volume A Century of Revolution, which deprovincializes particular episodes of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence by situating them within a century-long epoch of what Grandin terms “revolutionary time” (3). Far from having been a long, torturous march of destruction and pain—though it was also that—the twentieth century’s arc of political upheaval in the Americas was, as Grandin argues in his introductory essay, a time of accelerated inspiration and imagination, powered by the momentum of “clash, contingency, and passion” (15). The volume brings the innumerable local conflicts of the century, bookended by the Mexican Revolution of 1910–1917 and the ever-sputtering civil war in Colombia, under the same magnifying glass, arguing, as Joseph writes, that collectively they constitute “the very birth pangs of the region’s modernity” (398). A Century of Revolution offers the field a new way to periodize and organize instances of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence: as points of light and heat within a larger constellation that Grandin and Joseph term the long Cold War, a “distinct historical period” (400) that exploded into being seven years before the October Revolution would turn the world on its head, and a period that has yet to be extinguished.

To make their case, the volume’s contributors draw on the work of Arno J. Mayer; the influence of his iconic work The Furies, which laid out a comparative analysis of violence in the Russian and French Revolutions, is felt on every page.2 Grandin and Joseph even close A Century of Revolution with an interview with the distinguished scholar, to highlight their commitment to a Mayerian vision of history that is open, contingent, dynamic, and multivalent. After 1989, Cold War triumphalists like Francis Fukuyama trumpeted the end of history, positing a teleological take on the century in which agency and contingency were only so much dust to be blasted out of the air lock of Western progress.3 It was “history as containment,” a framing of the past that silenced anew the Cold War’s “losers”—its land reformers, its indigenous peoples, its trade unionists, its intellectuals, and all the rest who dared to imagine a different outcome—by claiming that they were doomed from the start. A...

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