- Memory and Autobiography: Explorations at the Limits by Leonor Arfuch
Leonor Arfuch, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Polity Press, 2020, 180 pp. ISBN 9781509542185, $22.95 paperback.
Leonor Arfuch is one of the most eminent and innovative Argentine thinkers in the field of memory studies. She has been recognized for a dozen original books in which she explores the meaning of interview and biography as genres, looks at expressions of collective and individual memory in autobiography, and ponders the politics of subjectivity in the writing of life stories. She is a pioneer in studying vital questions related to the construction of the self in (auto)biographical forms. In this long-awaited first English translation, Memory and Autobiography: Explorations at the Limits (originally published in Spanish as Memoria y autobiografia: Exploraciones en los límites in 2013), Arfuch investigates the world of language and visual arts—testimonials, autobiographies, fiction, poetry, films, debates, performances, multimedia installations, monuments, memorials—and reflects on the goals and interests of the remembering subject. She traces the paths inscribed by individual trauma and identifies damage to the collective self, thus charting a tenuous distance between the I and we. In dialogue with Bakhtin, Barthes, Benjamin, Butler, Derrida, and Levinas, among other critics, Arfuch explores the configurations of individual and public inscriptions of trauma, as well as expressions of pain and ethical responsibility.
If you are, like me, a reader who searches for elliptical moments in which hidden meanings are revealed, for omens that linger in the back of the mind waiting for the right narrative to carry them forward, a reader who senses that a sentence’s meaning has been created just for her, who cherishes the serendipitous coincidence between the paragraph just read and the scene her window unexpectedly frames in that moment, then Arfuch’s book is written for you. The Argentine cultural critic draws the reader into her argument, unraveling and reasoning her way through the text, pointing out that, together with dialogue, digression is her preferred method of theorizing. Her corpus is arbitrary and random in its selection of survivors’ testimonies, comprised of unforgettable encounters with works by the French visual artist Christian Boltansky, with Polish interrogative designer Krzysztof Wodiczko’s public art projects, with the multimedia installations of the Chilean Alfredo Jaar and the Spaniard Antoni Muntadas or readings from the German writer W. G. Sebald, conversations among Argentine women torture-camp survivors, cultural debates—such as the debate on extreme violence by leftist guerrillas that shook the Argentine intellectual scene in the first decade of the twenty-first century—and the (not so) silent memorials to the victims of authoritarian regimes. The reader will arrive at the close of this unconventional volume both transformed by it and infused with its meaning. Though she is free to find her own way and to create her own interpretation of the disguised forms of repression and of the disguises themselves, the world around her will no longer quite resemble that which existed before she encountered Arfuch’s stimulating and wide-ranging reflections on the dynamics of auto/biographical genre and the universality of victimhood. [End Page 810]
The volume opens with a concise introduction from Michael J. Lazzara, a well-known scholar in the field of Latin American human rights, who aptly conceptualizes Arfuch’s life work for English-speaking readers. Christina MacSweeney’s seamless English translation preserves the rhythm of Arfuch’s playfulness in Spanish, while accurately mirroring her ideas. The edition also contains a comprehensive index and a rich bibliography of (mostly Spanish) sources that Arfuch relied on for the volume; for the many sources that have not yet been translated into English, the translator also provides approximate translations of the titles.
Arfuch’s text, divided into seven chapters, opens with an incursion into certain literary and visual scenes in her personal memory that prompted her mind to embark on an analytical journey through the unforgettable. While furthering the notion of biographical value posited by Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin and also developing her own concept—memory value of the biographic space—she traces subjective, self-referential narratives from the recent past...