- Unburying the SpecterPostdictatorship Memory in Ricardo Piglia's The Absent City (La ciudad ausente)
Ricardo Piglia's The Absent City (1992) Is An Excavation Site crowded with the specters of Argentina's violent history. Bringing together elements of detective and science fiction, the novel explores postdictatorship culture on a dystopian landscape where state violence comes to surface through the narrative constructions of a cyborg. While mostly celebrated as an inventive reworking of the testimonio genre, the novel has been criticized for its (phal)logocentrism. This article explores the constitutive tensions of The Absent City. Conflicting epistemologies inhabit Piglia's avant-garde experiment, revealing the aporias of postdictatorship culture. While problematizing testimony, the novel nevertheless subscribes to the idea of a buried and identifiable truth that closes off future readings of the past. Similarly, memory remains firmly grounded in human voice despite being displaced from the sphere of private experience. The Absent City thus oscillates between, on the [End Page 85] one hand, a desire to ground memory on first principles and, on the other, to do justice to the indecipherable demand of that past's specters.
If in Respiración artificial (1988) Piglia offered a literary reflection on Argentina's long history of political violence, in The Absent City the focus is more on the last dictatorship, dubbed by its military leaders as el Proceso (The Process of National Reorganization). Seizing power with the coup d'état of March 24, 1976, the military junta targeted a large range of dissidents it considered "subversives," including guerilla members, journalists, academics, artists, union members, priests, social workers, lawyers, and students (Marchak 1999, 4). The victims were often held in illegal detention centers established throughout the country, where they were subject to systematic torture and death. Near 30,000 are believed to be "disappeared," their bodies buried in unidentified graves or pushed out of military aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean (Marchak 1999, 156). Since the junta lifted the ban on political parties in 1983 after increasing pressure due to economic problems, corruption charges, and the country's defeat in the Falklands War, the struggle to document the human rights abuses and identify the remains of desaparecidos, which civil rights groups like Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo had been demanding since the first years of the dictatorship, gained momentum (Marchak 1999, 163–68). Mass graves of the disappeared, which The Absent City alludes to at several moments, are still being unearthed today, more than three decades after the dictatorship.
Archaeology and the Archive
To rethink excavation and, more broadly, archaeology as a scientific and epistemological practice, I will now turn to Jacques Derrida's philosophical works, which deconstruct systems of thought grounded on first principles (arkhē logos). In Archive Fever, Derrida identifies a tension within Freudian psychoanalysis: while the Austrian's idea of a psychic apparatus with various planes of inscription (e.g., the unconscious) amounts to a truly prosthetic archive, there remains in his thinking a desire for self-explanatory arkhē that would, in their immediacy, render the archive useless. Freud still aspires for that moment of archaeological discovery when the excavated origin speaks [End Page 86] for itself, without mediation or delay (Derrida 1995, 91–93). A similar aporia characterizes postdictatorship culture. Archaeology, understood as scientific practice and epistemological model, becomes a pressing issue in the aftermath of a violent political regime: there is a need to excavate the buried truths and make the disappeared present. Yet this ethico-political injunction often leads to investigations that disregard the ambiguities and disjunctures of the historical archive, which guarantee its openness to future readings.
Derrida lays out the stakes of this tension for hermeneutics and gestures toward a more open reading of the archive in Specters of Marx. The philosopher here problematizes the common gesture of "returning" or "going back to" Marx as an arkhē, or an unequivocal point of origin, by a rethinking of the concept of inheritance and a deconstruction that brings out the disjointed voices in Marx's text—voices that demand to be heard, yet can never be subsumed under a unitary meaning (1994, 18–21...