Notes on State Repression and the Labors of Memory, Elizabeth Jelin

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring (1943)
The persistence of the past in the present is a main theme of Elizabeth Jelin’s State Repression and Labors of Memory (2002)[163pp].  For Jelin, memory is not a passive process, but rather it is produced by active subjects negotiating meaning between rival memories (68).  Memory requires the active "work" of participants in these struggles.  She discusses how memory is not really about memory versus forgetting, but is more complicated and involves multiple memory narratives, each with its own forgetfulness.  In this book Jelin examines extreme cases of repression where substantial research has been carried out including the Southern Cone dictatorships, the Shoah and the Spanish Civil War.  At the same time, Jelin stresses that her discussion transcends particular contexts.

In “Memory in the Contemporary World” Jelin describes the memory culture of today as an “era of collectors” in which individuals become passive archives of memory, collecting everything or remembering through metaphor.  For example, instead of real historical places evoking anthropological memory tied to identity, there is a culture of archives, museums, commemorations and monuments that have come to replace the actual places that trigger memory (See Pierre Nora for a discussion of the end of milieux de mémoire and the emergence of the lieux de mémoire).  In a similar fashion, the constant calling up of the Nazi extermination has made it a metaphor for other traumatic histories instead of emphasizing its uniqueness as a specific historical event.  This is a key point of Jelin’s book; she argues for a culture of memory that is more active and involves “labor.”  Instead of collecting everything or accepting metaphors of memory she talks about the active working through of memory.  Memory should be active and involve interpretation, active public debates, and reflection on its meaning.

In “What Memories are We Talking About?” Jelin distinguishes between habitual memories, narrative memories and traumatic memories.  Habitual memories are passive in daily rituals, repeated routines and non-reflective patterns of behavior.  People may do things that have a memory that they are not even aware such as the Marrano populations that were forced to practice Judaism clandestinely and over time have lost an understanding of some of their practices.  For example, Marranos in a rural Brazilian village do deep cleaning of Fridays without “remembering” the original meaning of the practice.  Narrative memories are the memories that find or construct meanings of the past, such as collective and official memories.  Sharing is necessary in order for a memory to narrate the past.  Finally, traumatic memories are private memories that cannot be represented publically.  “One of the characteristics of traumatic events is the massive character of their impact, creating a gap in the capacity “to be spoken” or told about.  This provokes a hole in the ability to represent the event symbolically.  There are no words, and therefore there cannot be memories” (23).  There is no space for these memories in the collective and thus the memories remain disarticulated, fragmented, and overall, traumatic.  (**Here Jelin argues that traumatic memories cannot be represented, but I am wondering about using art as a way to “work through” traumatic memory.  How do people represent trauma in spite of the gap in representation that she mentions?  Or maybe she is only talking about representation in language??) 

In “Political Struggles for Memory” Jelin argues that memory is often tied to national processes such as state formation, liberalization and transition.  New political groups deploy alternative narratives and meanings of the past to legitimize their own political positions.  However, often multiple political groups need to coexist within the new democratic rules following dictatorship, so memory is crafted in a negotiated way even while a certain narrative may privilege a particular political party.  In this chapter Jelin also discusses commemorations and memory sites as points of contestation.  When ideologies clash, conflict and tension can surface around these events and monuments.  Jelin also examines the authority to remember.  Is it only the direct victims that have this authority?  Is it the state with the power to craft memory?

In “History and Social Memory” Jelin attempts to articulate the relationship between history and memory.  She references Alessandro Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli (1989) to argue that the relevant historical event is not what actually happened, but the memory of the event.  She argues that the relationship between history and memory can be understood by studying the fractures and lapses between two camps paying special attention to the multiple narratives that are constructed around a particular event over time.  Scholars’ focus should be on the tension between memory and history instead of on finding “truth.”

“Trauma, Testimony, and Truth” focuses on the testimonial genre as a labor of memory that may be cathartic or therapeutic.  Jelin discusses the importance of the dialectic between the speaker and the listener in the testimony.  She uses the example of Rigoberta Menchú and discusses how Elizabeth Burgos is an active listener who asks questions.  Jelin also discusses some of the debates that emerged about the Rigoberta Menchú testimony such as her position as a plural “I”.  Jelin asks, if these events were not witnessed directly by Menchú herself, does this invalidate her testimony?  What level of truth is being demanded of her? Is it factual or symbolic?  Where does the boundary between “reality” and “fiction” lie?

Chapter Six “Engendered Memories” examines how repression is shaped by gender and how women are particularly impacted by state repression.  Sexual violence, for example, is a standard part of torture.  It is a way for the military to establish its own “virility.”  Female fighters take-on masculine behaviors and reject femininity in order to be taken seriously (79).  Women are also often indirectly impacted when men are exiled or imprisoned. 

In “Transmissions, Legacies and Lessons” Jelin examines the intergenerational transmission of memories and takes up the controversial issue of when it is time to forget the past.  The next generation may feel burdened by the already worked through memories of the previous generation.  Jelin gives the example of a child who is bored with the cautionary tales and moral warnings of the Holocaust taught in school.  “The appropriate responses were already culturally scripted and programmed…no ambiguities; moral stances were crystalized and fixed” (99).  Jelin offers the possibility that transmission of memory may be an intrusion into another world.  On of the main points of her book is that memory should be an active process, and if one generation just passes on memory then there is no active engagement with the past.

In her conclusion, Jelin ends with the issue of democratic citizenship and transition.  Jelin emphasizes the relationship between memory and national identity and how the state uses memory to build national identity.  She argues that instead of aiming for social reconciliation, a democratic order implies that there is a tolerance for conflicting memory narratives.  Finally, Jelin calls for an opening of spaces to debate the past with the goal of attaining justice.  (**Her ending is a bit abrupt.  I would like to know how there can be social justice without coming to an agreement on what actually happened since it seems that the entire point to a tribunal is establishing what happened.)