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Juan Gelman’s Open Letters: Mourning and Mundo Beyond Militancy
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que pasó deshaciéndose/encontrándose/
desencontrándose de vos/en vos.
that occurred undoing itself/encountering itself/
unencountering itself from you/in you]

In 2006, the Argentine journal La intemperie published a letter by the philosopher Oscar del Barco in which he condemns the use of violence by Leftist groups in the 1960s and 1970s in Argentina. An avowed Leftist himself, del Barco proposes that the political Left should accept responsibility for the violence perpetrated by armed revolutionary groups in the 1960s and 1970s. He invokes Emmanuel Levinas’s appeal to the Biblical imperative “Thou shalt not kill,” and claims that this imperative forms the basis of every community: “No existe ningún ‘ideal’ que justifique la muerte de un hombre, ya sea del general Aramburu, de un militante o de un policía. El principio que funda toda comunidad es el no matarás” (No ideal justifies the death of a man, whether it be General Aramburu, a militant, or a member of the police. The founding principle of every community is “Thou shalt not kill”) (del Barco 2006, np). Del Barco singles out Juan Gelman as someone who has repeatedly denounced the perpetrators of state crimes without admitting his own responsibility for the effects of violence committed by the armed Peronist group known as the Montoneros, in which he was active in the years leading up to the military coup. Del Barco derides Gelman for assuming the posture of a “poet-martyr” based on his personal losses and his own persecution by both the Montoneros and the Argentine state, and proposes that he confess his crimes and beg his countrymen for forgiveness, so as to achieve the “salvation” that he seems to seek through his poetry and activism. A lively controversy ensued from the publication of this letter, in which critics, springing to Gelman’s defense, rejected del Barco’s letter as representing an “ethical turn” that would replace the practical goal of social change with a philosophical demand for individual responsibility.

In an essay titled “Memory Between Politics and Ethics: Del Barco’s Letter,” Patrick Dove considers del Barco’s appeal to Levinas as part of an attempt—however compromised by the Catholic appeal to absolution—to critique the sacrificial logic and totalizing ideals of militant reason: “To militant reason, the call and visage of the other is indistinguishable from the gaze of the enemy. Only the a priori adoption of the ethical principles of nonviolence and respect for the other in his or her alterity (that is, the other as other and not as a reflection of me) can guard against the proliferation of human constructs of domination” (Dove 2008, 289−90). Nevertheless, Dove proposes that del Barco’s positing of the ethical encounter as “the founding principle of every community” ends up mirroring the militancy he aims to critique: “Militancy presupposes the sovereignty of the political over all other spheres, because the political decision (friend or enemy?) comes before ethics … and determines it. By the same token, del Barco’s critique of militant reason posits ethics as the sovereign ground of community” (294). Dove suggests that Levinas’s understanding of ethics is based on a fundamental excess or disruption, including the disruption of the category of ethics as distinct from politics. He describes how for Levinas, radical exposure to the other exceeds and disrupts any integral sense of subjectivity, and this ethical relation of two is in turn disrupted by an implicit “third,” or what Jacques Derrida glosses as “other others.” The inevitable existence of these “other others” pushes the ethical relation out of itself, into the realm of politics. In other words both ethics and politics designate a “relation of nonrelation” with alterity, both singular and multiple.

In a chapter from his recent book Modern Argentine Poetry titled “Toward a Montonero Poetics? Or, The Melancholy Exile of Juan Gelman?” Ben Bollig frames his analysis of Gelman’s poetry with the controversy inspired by del Barco’s letter. Omitting any mention of Dove’s analysis of the polemic, Bollig describes Gelman’s work as a defense of militant reason against the “ethical turn” proposed by del Barco. Referring to Christian Gundermann’s...

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