- Reanimating the Domestic Still Life
This article considers descriptions of vacant interiors in postdictatorial Southern Cone literature and film as self-reflexive memory work that, in evoking the horrors of political violence in conjunction with ostensibly tranquil domestic scenes, reinscribes the domestic sphere in historical time. Focusing on the work of Patricio Guzmán, Paz Encina, and Juan José Saer, I argue that the practice of describing empty homes serves not only to underscore the absence of their disappeared occupants but also to question the political dimensions of nostalgia. For survivors of the military dictatorships in Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina, the desire to longingly reconstruct a more innocent time and space before politics intruded upon domesticity plays all too easily into the nationalistic nostalgia key to the conservative ideology of these regimes. This article contends that, in film as in literature, the objectivist technique of pausing the narration to reproduce photograph-like [End Page 51] still images can critique this tendency by calling attention to the unnaturalness of plucking images from the flux of time to capture them perfectly. As the still life is reanimated and the precision of the preserved memory sacrificed to reveal forces of historical change, so too is the domestic space revealed to have been always already political. By incessantly performing the shift from stillness to motion, from silence to voice, from description to interpretation, the works analyzed model civic work indispensable to democracy: that of continuously revisiting the past to prevent its ossification.
The so-called descriptive turn of recent years has drawn renewed scrutiny to long-held beliefs that the literary and critical practices of description are politically inert if not reactionary. In Marxist aesthetics—dating back to GeorgLukács's 1936 essay, "Narrate or Describe?"—description has been seen as reinforcing the bourgeois order, as "capitulation to a reified world" (Love 2010, 382). Against the idea that description is merely ornamental or ideologically complacent as compared to narration and interpretation, recent studies have championed the ethical potential of description as a tool to "make us more attentive" (Marcus, Love, and Best 2016, 14). This possibility has been taken up in Latin American literary studies by Francine Masiello, who notes that though description has often been treated as secondary and inconsequential, it invites "another kind of thinking beyond the linearity of plot" (2018, 211). Masiello identifies this other kind of thinking with what Frederic Jameson describes as the cultivation of affect (2018, 212). For Jameson, the affective pedagogy that takes place in the nineteenth-century novel amounts to the ideological formation of the bourgeois reader; however, in The Senses of Democracy, Masiello traces a multitude of ways in which such an education of the reader's attention may open up more politically radical possibilities. For example, she reads Juan José Saer's Nadie nada nunca, a novel that obliquely depicts the political violence of Argentina's last military dictatorship, as training the reader to register social and political realities that lie just beyond the threshold of what can be openly expressed in a climate of fear and self-censorship.
Taking as its point of departure the possibility that description might invite critical reflection rather than mere complacency, this article ascribes a specific form of politics to protracted descriptions of domestic spaces in postdictatorial literature and film. I posit description as a tool for memory [End Page 52] work.1 Though an exhaustive treatment of the field is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth signaling a common premise shared by the approaches to memory work on which I draw: that the point of remembering is not simply so that crimes not be forgotten, perpetrators not go unpunished, and history not be repeated. Revisiting the past is also necessary to combat the presentism of the neoliberal era (Poblete 2015), to allow collective values held in other periods to critique the current cultural climate (Blaine 2013), to create dialog in the present and thus reconstitute the public sphere (Casey 2004), and to break with what Walter Benjamin calls homogenous empty time and allow the past and present to interpenetrate one another (Richard 2006). To model memory as a dynamic and...