Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Memory struggles

Review by Joel A. Blanco
Steve J. Stern, Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004)

Steve J. Stern, Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006)

Memory studies have become an emerging field of research from a diverse number of disciplines including social sciences, cultural studies and psychology. In archives, the study of memory is also gaining ground with increasing research done by archival theorists, academics and students. Indeed, the word “collective memory” is constantly used by archival institutions when explaining their mission and functions. Therefore, it is essential for archivists and records professionals to not only look at what archivists are writing about memory, but also what people in other disciplines are discussing and debating, and more important, how do these discussions relate to the archival profession.

Steve J. Stern’s research about memory in Chile during Augusto Pinochet’s rule offers an excellent example of these memory complexities. In the books Remembering Pinochet’s Chile: On the Eve of London 1998 and Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, 1973-1988, Stern argues against what he calls the “memory-against-forgetting dichotomy,” which he considers “too narrow and restrictive” (Remembering Pinochet’s Chile, p. xxvii). Stern calls for a “study of contentious memory as a process of competing selective remembrances, ways of giving meaning to and drawing legitimacy from human experience.” Political ideologies, and economical and societal status, among other aspects, influences the way people remember specific events. So it is too simplistic to just define the struggles for memory as a fight between those who want to remember and those who want to forget.

In the first book of the series, Stern presents human stories of Chileans that experienced Allende’s government, the coup and the Pinochet dictatorship to develop a theoretical framework of memories in Chile. Stern’s main purpose, in his own words, is to “offer a human portrait of Chile’s memory division and drama” (p. 2). To help understand these narratives, Stern used the concept of “emblematic memory,” a framework in which different kinds of memories reside. Stern explains that the Chilean experience has been constructed by four main emblematic memories: memory as salvation, memory as an unresolved rupture, memory as persecution and awakening, and memory as a closed box (p. 104-113) People who recall memory as salvation see the period of Allende’s government as the real trauma which causes economical and social crisis. So the advent of Augusto Pinochet to power was seen as the salvation of the country. Memory as an unresolved rupture sees the Pinochet regime as a brutal dictatorship that used violence and torture as a mean to try to destroy the opposition. For those who see memory as an unresolved rupture, the experience of suffering repression from the government, or the lost of a relative or friend, is still latent in their lives. Memory as persecution and awakening recalls the military rule as a period of repression, but that eventually led to a social awakening against the regime. Finally, memory as a closed box offers a framework for those who choose forgetting because remembering this tragic past would destroy the potential of reconciliation.

The second book, Battling for Hearts and Minds, expands the analysis of these four emblematic memories, providing a historical analysis of the period between 1973 and 1988 to explain how these memory struggles developed. It is also in this book where we see events that are closely related to records and the construction of memory. For example, the Pinochet regime used records found after the coup to develop a misinformation campaign in which they revealed an alleged plan from the Allende government to kill military officials, citizens from the Right, and establish a dictatorship (Chapter 2). This revelation, called Plan Z, proved later to be false. On the other hand, victims of repression, relatives of the victims, and human rights advocates among other groups in the Chilean society, incorporated symbolism, commemoration, and culture as part of their struggle against the regime. Stern summarizes these memory struggles by stating: “It was as if Chileans lived in a house whose living room was dominated by a giant truth box… The truth box was a memory chest, filled with scripted photo albums (“emblematic memory”) and scattered prints and messages (“lore”). These served as guides of understanding and misunderstanding, reminder and revelation, debate and agreement, that explained the destiny of everyone who lived in the house. Those who opened the box sometimes found themselves pulled into agreeing or arguing with an album, pondering a stray picture, perhaps contributing a picture or a message” (p. 245).

Another excellent contribution from Stern is his “Essay on Sources” at the end of each book. Here Stern explains his own experience doing research, the archives he visited and other documentation he consulted. It is interesting to point out that he had limited access to the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Although this work focuses in the Chilean experience, Stern’s analysis of memory struggles provides an interesting framework to study other cases. One of its main contributions is that it shows that there’s not only one collective memory, that different communities construct different memories of the same period of time, and that these memory constructions are part of social, political and cultural struggles. Archives, with its power to preserve, destroy and/or restrict access records, also become part of these memory struggles.