Attention: open in a new window. PDF

After Truth


With this multi-voiced title, we engage the subjects, social processes, and representational practices that both official and unofficial transitional justice projects—such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissions—have left in their wake. A generation after Latin America’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) and following decades of sustained activism, critical reflection, and artistic intervention around the politics of memory, this issue queries the status of the “truth” sought and produced through such projects. In his essay for this issue, Allen Feldman proposes the term “traumatrope” to name the formations of memory that follow historical conflict. Borrowing the term from botany, where “traumatropism” refers to the “reactive curvature of a plant or organism resulting from a prior wound,” Feldman suggests that whole communities can “reorganize their identities, histories, and projects around the curvature of a prior historical wounding.” In this issue, we query what he would call the unfolding traumatropes of post-conflict societies, asking about the changing shape and status of “truth” in the neoliberal aftermaths of transitional justice projects. If memory work was once imagined as a practice oppositional to hegemonic power, in what ways has such work been codified, institutionalized, or otherwise inscribed within hegemonic interpretations of recent pasts? What alternatives or new strategies of truth production and truth telling have these transitional justice projects set in motion? How has the “curvature” of memory changed as activist demands have been partially incorporated into regimes of neoliberal governance—often through TRCs themselves? How have these processes shaped the social, cultural, and political landscapes of post-war and post-dictatorship societies? What are the afterlives of the vast evidentiary archives that they have generated?

Peru’s Truth and Reconcialiation Commission (CVR) provides a trenchant site for such questions. The eight years since the completion of the CVR’s final report in 2003 illustrates vividly the dynamics of ongoing truth production and erosion in the public sphere. Analyzing the CVR’s celebrated photographic exhibit, Yuyanapaq, Deborah Poole and Isaías Rojas study the ways in which the photographs, which first functioned supporting evidence for the reconstruction of historical events, underwent a critical shift when transformed into a public exhibit that scripted viewers as explicitly nationalized subjects. Yuyanapaq prompts viewers to see often well-known images as if for the first time—and for the first time as newly re-constituted, post-CVR national subjects. The exhibit extends a signature process of many TRCs, where the testimony of any one victim is staged so as to allow the nation to hear a brutal history—in which they otherwise took part—as if for the first time, now with possibilities for a different, perhaps reconciliatory, form of listening and seeing. María Eugenia Ulfe and Cynthia Milton follow the fate of this same exhibit from its first two-year instantiation in Lima’s Casa Rivera Agüero to its controversial move to a temporary installation at Peru’s National Museum: in two short years, the exhibit’s claim to establish a reconciliatory national history had already eroded as many figures from the political right recast the exhibit as partial to the left—a critique not unrelated to ongoing efforts to prosecute military officials for human rights crimes during the conflict. The ensuing debates over the exhibit as a site of national memory illustrates the shifting temporalities associated with the project of truth: the CVR presented its findings under the imperative of “never again”—hence its epitaph: “a country that does not know its history is destined to repeat it”—; yet the political right placed a five-year limit on the exhibit’s presence in the National Museum, and—as analyzed by Ulfe and Milton—at first flatly refused an offer from the German government to build a  permanent museum of memory.  What does it mean, they ask, that the site finally chosen to house these memories is a former landfill—the detritus of the same wealthy Lima that stood by while the conflict seared in the Andes?

As founder and director of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF), José Pablo Baraybar and his project in the Andean town of Putis, site of a 1984 massacre of 123 civilians, provide both an extension and critique of the CVR’s project of truth-making through national reconciliation. Illustrated in the multimedio “Perú es Putis,” EPAF has, on the one hand, continued to work in the line of the CVR, excavating mass graves, identifying victims with the help of families, and overseeing collective funerals, all of which formed part of the CVR’s process. Unlike the CVR, however, EPAF’s work remains trenchantly material, refusing gestures to make any one excavation or burial metonymic for the nation as a whole. The labor of dusting bones, aligning small vertebrae, of connecting  “this tooth to that smile,” is itself the labor of post-war reconstruction. The related photographic projects in Putis by Domingo Giribaldi del Mar and Marina García Burgos similarly provide a counterpoint to the national interpellation of Yuyanapaq; their memory work, like that of EPAF, trenchantly focuses on the material remains of the conflict: the small sweater—”the weave, the yarn, the stitches, and the seams”—rescued from the mass grave that perhaps allowed an aging mother to identify her lost child; the neatly stacked cardboard boxes, filled with bones, that line an office wall, awaiting the final journey to a marked grave.

After Truth signals an un-settling of the accounts produced in processes of transitional justice, a reconsideration (an after-math) of all that remained (of all that was remaindered) when the ledgers were closed, the final reports submitted, and the symbolic verdicts rendered. In our dossier on “counter-memory,” Elizabeth Jelin considers such belated accounting in the case of the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the National Socialist Regime in Berlin, a memorial added well after the creation of the far more famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Even the geographic position of the second memorial is proximate but adjunct to the first: what does this tell us about the changing architectonics of memory over longer temporal arcs? Esteban Paulón, leader of the Argentina’s national LGBT Federation, recounts the successful campaign for marriage equality, underscoring the influence of South Africa’s transitional struggles in the wake of Apartheid and pointing to the different temporalities of the search for social justice in post-transitional societies. Diane Nelson, in turn, traces the contours of the buried traumatrope of clandestinity in post-war Guatemala, where certain forms of political life seem permanently condemned to silence, a silence “so deeply assimilated that the body itself would not let one speak.” 

Anthropologist Clara Han invites us to think of memory as “experiments at arriving at the present,” rather than processes of assigning meaning, hegemonic or otherwise, to past events. Diana Taylor leads us on artist Pedro Matta’s arduous journey towards his own present through his guided walking tours of Villa Grimaldi, former torture and extermination camp in Santiago de Chile. Taylor asks what Matta’s repeated movements through the site—part commemoration, part healing ritual, part trauma tourism—might tell us about the critical affinities between trauma and performance.  In his essay, Allen Feldman instead takes direct aim at the very calculus of responsibility and the logic of individuated trauma at work in South Africa’s transnational justice project, both of which, he contends, masked the inherent racialization of state violence. This leads to a larger critique of the performativity of political violence and the ways it requires (rather than resists) the liberal humanitarian “traumatropology” that associates the identification of victimage with productivity and control.

Could the after of truth be described as a kind of “aftertruth,” a haunting remainder, much like the retinal afterimage glimpsed in the moment of darkness that follows Alfredo Jaar’s masterful La geometría de la conciencia? Several contributions to this issue focus on the work of visual art in the production of such aftertruths. Presented here as an interactive multimedio, Jaar’s installation for the National Museum of Memory and Human Rights works with drastic light/dark contrasts to illuminate the complex geometry—or traumatrope—of our memory. The iconic black and white photographs of national identification cards, so often used by human rights activists as claim for and proof of the existence of the disappeared, are here turned into a wall of dark silhouettes, backlit by a brilliant white light. Yet in Jaar’s work, only half of the silhouetted portraits belong to Chilean citizens that were disappeared during the military regime, with the other half-drawn from portraits of living Chileans taken on the streets of Santiago, indistinguishable from those of the disappeared. La geometría de la conciencia, in Adriana Valdés’ words “is not only a lament for the past; it implies the construction of an unresolved future as a task for the living.”

Jaar’s masterful work with these images is one instance of the trend analyzed by Andrea Giunta in her essay, which explores the fate of evidentiary photographs or images when transferred to the register of art, a feature common to much post-dictatorship art in Latin America. How might art loosen different meanings from images otherwise sealed in their role as evidence or political icon, affording them a kind of political and aesthetic afterlife? The work of Nicaraguan artist Ernesto Salmerón, studied here by Carla Macchiavello, provides a perfect case study for such reflection. His 2006 work Auras de guerra uses the literal remnants of war—a wall with Sandinista graffiti, which was carried in an IFA truck used to transport soldiers to the battlefront, and two actual ex-combatants from both sides of the war—to theatricalize the real and reveal the fictions that sustain the meaning and relationship between these remains. The two combatants, now unemployed veterans, are “reconciled” not through any political processes, but rather as paid representatives and guards of an art project at the Venice Biennale. Giunta argues that activating such iconic remains within the art field connects them to the “incompleteness” that art entails, thereby opening them to the “always pending nature of social and political demands,” through which art might serve to unsettle the ossifying traumatropes that may otherwise evacuate the critical efficacy of social memory.

Finally, Marita Sturken offers us the example of Emily Prince, whose vast “American Servicemen and Women Who Have Died in Iraq and Afghanistan (But Not Including the Wounded, Nor the Iraqis nor the Afghanis) (2004 until the present)” entails an ever-expanding geographic catalogue of US soldiers dying in our current wars. Placing a small portrait of each near their hometown, she creates a visual catalogue—an archive and a map—of the dead. Rather than reproduce their photographs, Prince carefully hand-draws a replica of each photograph, in a sense insisting on the labor and difficulty of re-producing a lost life. Sturken names this the “labor of remembering,” echoing the work of Elizabeth Jelin and other Latin American memory scholars. It is through such labors—the precise labor of Prince, Salmerón, Jaar, Matta, and the others represented here—that we too learn the ongoing labor of remembering in the aftermaths of truth. We invite you to engage such labor with us.