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  • The Consolation of Unsettling Accounts
  • Jennifer L. Culbert (bio)
Leigh A. Payne. Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2008. 374. $23.95 (pbk). $84.95 (hc). ISBN 978-0-8223- 4082-9.

Leigh Payne suggests the literature of transitional justice and reconciliation rests on the cliché that confession is good not only for the soul of the sinner but for the soul of society. When the sinner, who has perpetrated state violence under an authoritarian regime, admits what he has done in some public forum, he discloses painful truths about a past that has been denied or intentionally misrepresented to protect supporters of that regime and/or to preserve the fragile democracy that has succeeded it. The details he recounts may confront competing sides with difficult information that upsets their self-perceptions and contradicts the stories they have told themselves of the past. However, this information may also be used to resolve past quarrels and may lead to reconciliation.

In her provocative Unsettling Accounts: Neither Truth nor Reconciliation in Confessions of State Violence, Payne breathes new life into this cliché by significantly complicating it. In a series of close readings of “confessional performances” she shows that confessions do not actually settle accounts with the past but, on the contrary, move audiences of victims, survivors, and human-rights activists to assert their own, often conflicting interpretations of events. Most importantly, however, these performances spur people to act politically. They do so by giving people the impetus to compete for interpretive power, creating the space to argue whose interpretations will shape the political agenda and determine the terms (if not the outcomes) of public debate (2). Payne warns repeatedly that confessions do not “heal” democracies but rather engender democratic processes with ambiguous results. Nevertheless, she argues that confessions help put democracy in practice. Indeed, if we take Wayne Booth’s definition of reconciliation as “how to avoid meaningless and destructive conflict of all kinds, verbal and non-verbal,” Payne suggests that reconciliation is achieved: the conflicts that ensue from performances of confessions are neither meaningless nor destructive.i

Payne observes that confessions have the power to “advance a political project for democracy” because they not only say something, they do something. Specifically, confessions participate in a “political drama” that “transcends personal stakes in the past and shapes the meaning of the past for contemporary political life” (15). To study the unique power of confessions given by perpetrators of state violence, Payne approaches these confessions as self-conscious theatrical performances. In her analyses of particular confessions she focuses therefore not only on the perpetrators themselves (the actors) and what they say (the script), but also on where they speak (the scene or stage), when they speak (timing), and to whom they speak (audience). According to Payne, each of these elements contributes in one way or another to the power of confessions and to the consequences that follow from them. And as performances are well known to register shifts in settings and audiences, a dramaturgical approach allows her to capture and account for the subtle variations between performances of the same kind of confession when it is presented in different contexts with different actors to different audiences under different conditions.

The empirical chapters of Unsettling Accounts focus on specific confessional performances that occur in four countries emerging from authoritarian state violence (Brazil, South Africa, Chile, and Argentina.) Each chapter examines a particular confessional form—remorse, heroic confessions, sadism, denial, silence, fiction and lies, amnesia, betrayal—through the lens of a particular act of confession. In the chapter on remorse, for instance, Payne focuses on the 1995 confession of the retired navy captain Adolfo Scilingo in Argentina. According to Payne, Scilingo hoped to restore the dignity of the armed forces by acknowledging with sorrow and regret that he had, among other things, participated in death flights. (He admitted to taking drugged detainees, stripping them, and dropping them to their deaths from an airplane flying over the ocean on two separate occasions.) However, confessions have a life of their own. In her analysis of Scilingo’s confession, Payne demonstrates that no single actor or...

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