23 August 2010

Genocide in the Neighborhood, Part II

Cross: You mention that the practice of escrache has been adopted in other parts of Latin America with markedly different results, and in the book, participants from both HIJOS and Colectivo Situaciones mention in passing the expropriation of escrache-like practices by formal political parties. What, in your opinion, makes the escrache practiced by HIJOS, Mesa de Escrache, and other organizers more effective (and I leave this purposefully open to interpretation: "effective" how so? as art? as a political practice?)? Certainly, by working so exhaustively in the community to build bridges with local residents, there's an implicit trust that's totally absent when a political group comes stomping through the barrio. Also, that participants have nothing to gain from the performance must put residents at ease. In watching the videos, however, I can't help but feel that a good portion of the local community must view the event as a total hassle! I wonder then if part of the performances' success can be attributed to the collective's relationship to consensus and consensus-building, one of the central themes of the book. Asking why and how decisions are made (and to what end) naturally leads to the question of how the opinions of collective and community members factor into this decision making process, and while some collective members seem to think consensus is crucial to the event's "success," others emphasize dissensus. Can you address the problem of consensus in these performances as it relates to the event's "success" (or "authenticity")?

Whitener: This is a complicated set of questions that I´m not going to be able to even begin to answer. Let me just say to readers of your blog that the book does a much better job of discussing all this than I could ever do. Three initial points and an addendum.

In my previous response, I referred to a dual movement that the book calls forth: grasping or inventing and reflecting or self-distancing. Your question of hassle touches I think on this second aspect. One of the reasons we decided to translate this book (and as well I think the reason that Colectivo Situacions choose the escraches for their first work of militant investigation) is that all of our experiences of reading it passed through difficult moments of reflection and self-distancing. I think one of the amazing effects of the book (and a reason that it's worth reading) is that it opens a space for this type of reflecting, which in my experience is so difficult to come by, a reflection on givens, on our responses to an object, and on the ideas we use to frame these responses. I think your question of "hassle" moves precisely into this area: what makes "hassle" a useful or adequate category for viewing or thinking the escraches? Where does thinking the escraches through this category get us?

Second, shifting topics completely, I don't want the reader of these posts to feel like we are setting up an opposition between the book and a set of youtube videos. There shouldn't be a relation of video as evidence which the book is being tried, tested, or judged against. This is not to say, of course, that the book (as an object) and the escraches (as a practice) shouldn´t be tested: obviously, every practice has its limits and it is very important to think them and be conscious of them (and this is a thematic that is discussed in some depth in the book). But I think this question of testing pushes us into another aspect of the book that we haven´t raised: the book is not only a discussion of a particular practice that took place in Argentina but also the exposition (and testing even) of a "new" practice of collective investigation of what Situaciones are calling militant investigation or research. I think your question brings us into the territory of discussing "objectivity" and the construction of truths. Situaciones would argue that objectivity is an ideological construction (one that both the traditional left and right are implicated in). What happens when objectivity is "discarded"? Is there another ground for thought, for action? Militant investigation pretends to provide an answer to these questions.

Third, the degree of cultural translation required to understand the escraches is enormous (and this was one of the reasons that we almost didn´t translate the book: it's too enmeshed in a specific cultural context). So the book is an experiment in cultural translation; it could be a failed one. But I think the most important thing to keep in mind when attempting to preform this translation is the following: over 30,000 people were "disappeared" by the dictatorship and these were (for the most part) militants or persons connected to the left. This has two consequences. The first is that given 6 degrees of separation, the disappearance of 30,000 persons means that the majority of the population in Argentina knows someone either directly or indirectly (someone's uncle, someone's mother's brother, someone in their neighborhood, etc) who was disappeared. The second is that this was a dirty war, waged directly against political opponents. As a result in Argentina to this day, there is a deep, unresolved sense of national shame, anguish, and anger that a state could possibly do something like this. As a result, it forms a political antagonism. (It's perhaps comparable in some way to how certain segments of the population feel about the pre-civil rights US: the good ole days or a biopolitical nightmare). This speaks to your question in two ways: the shame/anger over the dirty war is in some ways a hidden universal, something that the majority of Argentineans have access to, it provides the ground both for consensus and dissensus. Consensus and dissensus exist together because the escrache reveals and activates an antagonism: you can agree or disagree but you can't escape the structure of feeling, you can't escape responding. And, secondly, this addresses the first part of your question, the genius or importance or "effectiveness" or "success" of the escrache was, in part, finding a way to activate and address this unresolved trauma of historical memory. It´s not a practice that addresses class, race, sex, gender (as such or only): the importance of the escraches is that they are one of an emerging set of practices that are attempting to address the law itself, how to think of the law, and how it is institutionally put into practice. This I can´t help but see as an incredibly important political event.

One more thing re: consensus: as you note, that's a debate in the book. One of the great things about the way the book is put together (as a dialogue) is that it doesn´t paper over disagreement either between the members of HIJOS nor between HIJOS and Situaciones. In this instance, I would really refer people to the book itself: I don't think I can adequately represent the depth of these exchanges as they take place in the actual book, which are challenging and fascinating. Moreover, they demonstrate a really important fact of political movements today: that in any movement multiple positions both exist within and are taken up in practice by the movement/practice/group. What I took away from these discussions as being useful for a US context is a questioning of the terms that we hear so frequently and which have been taken over by NGO organizing: "consensus" and "community." Obviously, these terms paper over a lot, and the book can serve as a site for opening up a discussion of them.

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