18 August 2010

Genocide in the Neighborhood

I’ve recently finished reading the newest Chain Links project, Genocide in the Neighborhood, a book so rich and compelling I don’t know where to begin. Edited by community wunderkind Brian Whitener, Genocide in the Neighborhood takes as it’s central theme the conceptualization of a super knotty and deeply fascinating aesthetic/political practice called the “escrache,” what Whitener provisionally defines as “something between a march, an action or happening, and a public shaming.” This first stab at describing the event admits its provisionality given that the book’s project in toto is an effort to make sense of this “performance” in terms of its political, social, and aesthetic significance.

Originally edited by the Argentinean “militant research” group Colectivo Situaciones, Genocide in the Neighborhood is organized dialectically around a set of hypotheses that are tested in public conversation, revised, and tested again. According to Whitener, Colectivo Situaciones “works with other collectives and radical groups, both in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America, to collaboratively produce new types of knowledge about current political practices and the social and political environments in which those practices take place.” In the case of the project at hand, Colectivo Situaciones takes the human rights organization HIJOS, or “Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Forgetting and Silence” (that is, the children of the disappeared) as its subject, a group “work(ing)…to revindicate the lives of those disappeared under the Argentinean dictatorship and to fight against the systematic cultural forgetting which has been the legacy of post-dictatorship Argentina." By studying the HIJOS and their preferred method of engagement, the escrache, Colectivo Situaciones hope to investigate how aesthetic practice can help to “make justice.”

Most readers are probably by now familiar with the cultural significance of the “disappeared,” those 30,000 or so Argentinean citizens who “vanished” under the dictatorship of General Videla from 1976 to approximately 1983. However, once democracy was restored, the process of reparations became complicated. Here’s Whitener working through the kinks of this particularly complicated history:

“In 1984, the newly-installed democratically-elected government commissioned a report to detail the repression under the dictatorship…However, the report also advanced for the first time a theory which came to be known as “theory of the two demons”…a politicized interpretation of the historical experience of the dictatorship…(which) attempts to cast the political struggle of the 1970s as a confrontation between two irrational demons: on the one side the militarists and on the other the left (guerillas), whose struggle held “normal society” hostage.”

In response to this theory, the democratic institution progressively extinguished any trace of the disappeared by first halting investigation and prosecution of militarists involved in the genocide while later pardoning all involved for acting in “due obedience” with the then-recognized government.

HIJOS began the escrache as a practice to address this government-sponsored collective cultural forgetting by “creating justice” through collective aesthetic practice. The result is always different because the performance is staged around a particular subject, but each escrache begins with the same set of concerns: HIJOS isolates a “target,” a militarist living among the community in anonymity who once participated in the disappearances in a significant way. They then partner with the local community to execute a performative shaming. Often this performance includes canvassing of flyers, graffiti, musical performances, theatrical engagements, etc., all aimed at educating the local community about this particular person’s role in the disappearances, in effect rekindling interest in the political consequences of the 1970s.

Needless to say, these performances raise a number of provocative questions around the notion of justice, the value of public shame, and the praxis of aesthetic performance, each so deeply imbricated with the concerns of contemporary poetry that I don’t quite know where to start. As such, I’ve asked Whitener to join me in a public conversation of our own around the book’s concerns as a way to open up the discussion. I hope to post our interview here in real-time as he responds to my questions. In the meantime, I invite readers to submit their own thoughts/notes about this project here. If you haven’t read it yet but have been planning to pick it up, I invite you to do so now, as this book demands the kind of community engagement it so beautifully promotes.

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