Memory Models that Move: Thoughts after the “Bajo Tierra” conference

Memorial plaque at Urzante exhumation site

At the end of June, I attended a conference in Madrid that addressed many of the social, political, historical, and ethical debates emerging in response to the excavation of mass graves and the exhumation and identification of victims of political violence in Spain.  Organized by anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz (CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicos), “Bajo Tierra” brought together a wide range of experts from across disciplinary fields in order to discuss the impact that forensic investigations of Francoist political violence have had – and are continuing to have – on contemporary Spanish memory politics.  For someone relatively new to the study of the Spanish historical memory movement, the three-day conference was an excellent opportunity to gain a more nuanced understanding of the social and political complexities that surround the application of forensic science to the study of the recent past.

For conference organizers, participants, and audience members, the symposium was also an opportunity to reflect on how different kinds of research protocols have evolved since the year 2000, when public support for exhumations first began to grow, thus breaking the long pact of silence put forth by an amnesty agreement made between political factions during the democratic transition.   In this sense, the conference was also an opportunity for those active in the historical memory movement to take stock of the different kinds of achievements made both within and without the realm of academia and to critically discuss new challenges that currently are emerging under Spain’s new, ever-changing memory landscape.  Although the exhumations occurring in Spain and the memory politics surrounding them were the main focus of the symposium, the conference also sought to situate the exhumation of “Franco’s graves” within a cross-national, comparative perspective.  Due to my own interest in the similarities and differences between post-dictatorship memory politics in Latin America’s Southern Cone and that of Spain, it was interesting to see the ways in which different strategies for historically, socially, politically, and judicially addressing violent pasts in Argentina and Chile have been situated as successful models for addressing Spain’s history of political violence.

Drawing comparisons between Chile, Argentina, and Spain is a complex task.  Political violence and dictatorial regimes emerged in each country within particular, often unique socio-political contexts.  However, as the conference illustrated, strategies for pushing personal experiences with disappearance into a more public domain of debate do, in fact, appear to be moving across national and cultural boundaries.  This aspect of the “Bajo Tierra” conference has helped me formulate new questions regarding my interest in the uses of memory in post-violence contexts:  Is it possible to speak of a emergence of a “successful” cross-national or cross-cultural model for the expression of memory politics, the pronouncement of a human rights movement, and/or the articulation of transitional justice?  To what extent are models for memory politics being shared?  How are local stakes being articulated within these models?

Moving this discussion of memory models towards my specific interest in the visual representation of personal and shared experiences with disappearance and political violence, it is interesting to think about the ways in which particular visual strategies also move in and across different political contexts.  For example, images of individuals – often the kin of desaparecidos– holding a photograph of a missing loved one has become an almost universal mode of representing absence and loss.  The work of Spanish photojournalist Gervasio Sánchez is an excellent illustration of how this visual strategy has been employed to represent lived experiences with disappearance in countries as varied as Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Afghanistan.  This type of visual representation is a highly effective one.  However, it also poses questions about the extent to which this “model” of representation can bring about more critical discussions regarding the intersection between politics, memory, and violence.  I am not sure if my dissertation project will include a close examination or comparison between types of memory tactics.  However, I do believe that the allusion to types of memory models – be they judicial, historical, political, or visual – is a useful starting point for thinking about and perhaps interrogating how the uses of memory travel across borders, thus losing a particular kind of critical specificity.

Posted by Lee Douglas — PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

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