Visual Evidence, Historical Memory, & the Production of Knowledge in Post-Franco Spain

Exhumation in NavarraThe application of forensic science to the study of political violence in contemporary Spain has become an integral part of national and local attempts to recuperate and re-narrate an aspect of the country’s history that has often been ignored or simply forgotten: the political violence and forced disappearance of persons both during the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Fascist dictatorship led by Francisco Franco.  Focusing on the intersection of forensic science, photographic practice, and memory discourse, I began my research in Madrid by contacting anthropologists, photographers, and art historians to discuss the different ways in which visual representations of exhumations of mass graves have been deployed as a strategy for making memory politics and once-silenced experiences with violence more visible within everyday Spanish life.  Many of these discussions revolved around a sense of urgency that was characterized by the need to collect the stories of an aging generation as well as an awareness of the reticence on the part of some to revisit the country’s violent past.  This tension between attempts to remember and desires to forget often became the backdrop to discussions about the role of visuality in present-day negotiations regarding the political and social functions of historical memory in Spanish society.

Recently assuming a more visible, public space, exhumations of mass graves have become sites in which personal testimony, private experience, and the politics of narrating the nation’s past have begun to overlap and coexist.   In fact, the acts of unearthing unmarked graves and exhuming the remains of fusilados have become the conceptual, as well as literal and physical, processes through which narratives about experiences with political violence during the Civil War and the dictatorship are produced.   As material, osteological, and biological evidence of violence is uncovered and made visible, the fosa has become a key site for the production of knowledge regarding Spain’s violent history.

Soon after arriving in Madrid, I accompanied a group of forensic specialists, archeologists, and anthropologists to observe the exhumation of a mass grave in a long-abandoned town located a few miles from the city of Tudela, in the northern region of Navarra.  A continuation of a previous forensic investigation, the excavation consisted in the location, exhumation, and recuperation of ossified remains of three republicanos who had disappeared from neighboring towns in or around 1936.  With seventeen bodies having already been identified, this exhumation would concentrate specifically on the collection of the three skeletons that had remained interred at the site.  Throughout the excavation, participants – including specialists, families of the disappeared, and volunteers – shared a concern for how the exhumation could potentially make visible limit experiences with disappearance.  This concern for visibility was accompanied by a wide range of practices that focused on the collection of scientific, visual, and testimonial evidence and on the visual, textual, and oral documentation of the event.

The concern for the visibilization of past violence and prolonged suffering plays an important role in the debates over how and to what extent Spain should revisit – or in fact remember – its violent past.  At the exhumation, images were produced as a mode of methodological, scientific record-making, as a mode of collecting testimony, and as a mode of documenting the event.  As an observer, I felt that it became increasingly difficult to tell the difference between the kinds of images and therefore the kinds of knowledge that were being produced.  Blurring the boundary between scientific, historical, subjective, familial, and social types of knowledge, the production of images – as well as the production of other forms of evidence – appear to be the key processes through which memory politics manifest themselves.  In the coming weeks, I hope to be able to more closely examine the role that evidence collection and the production of knowledge play in making violence visible in places far removed from the actual sites where desaparecidos are exhumed.

Posted by Lee Douglas – PhD Student in Anthropology at NYU

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