Untangling Sociocultural Trauma
In his new book, Argentina Betrayed: Memory, Mourning, and Accountability, the Dutch scholar Antonius C.G.M. Robben seeks to establish a conceptual thread that will lead us through decades of recurring violence, repression and failed recoveries to fragile democracies. I find this book provocative in its thesis and careful in its development. It is a book for specialists, part of an ongoing conversation about anthropological practice, the dynamics of testimony, and, of course, the fascinating and painful enigma that is Argentina.
His major focus is on the dictatorship of 1976-83 (with attention paid to lynchpin past events such as the 1955 bombing by the Navy on Peronist crowds gathered in Plaza de Mayo, and the assassination of former president General Juan Carlos Aramburo by the leftist Montoneros).
Robben squares off against the “violence begets violence” theories that go back to the Greek tragedians and extend, as he asserts, to contemporary thinkers such as René Girard, Martha Mino w and Michael Taussig. He argues that violence begets trauma, which begets further violence, which makes for further trauma, in cycles that are hard to break. He further argues that every level of Argentine society has been affected by trauma and that past studies of the country’s violence have—often willfully, from political bias—left unconsidered that the military has also been traumatized. Robben has, for about thirty years, interviewed military officers directly involved in the last dictatorship and, early on in this book, he affirms that this aroused suspicion among survivors and relatives of desaparecidos. That over this same time period he interviewed widely in human rights circles speaks to his having proved his ethical bonafides.
Robben’s governing term is sociocultural trauma, which stems from prolonged difficulties of mourning mass deaths and cumulative shattering events. Disturbing memories are relived in the present… The traumatic past becomes indelible when people or groups cannot reconcile themselves with their losses and fail to integrate them into a shared narrative. Unexpected revelations… are disturbing because they cannot be accommodated…. [S]ociety is traumatized, not in a medical or pathological sense, but as a result of complex historical and sociopolitical processes.
Robben acknowledges that his use of the term trauma invites critique, since as a moral construct, trauma is generally associated with victims, rather than perpetrators. He notes, “Our human compassion for the tortured and subjugated should not make us blind to understanding dictators and perpetrators—to seeing them not as unilineal evildoers but as people with human contradictions and vulnerabilities, including psychic traumas.”
Robben’s interview with General Díaz Bessone, with whom he’d been speaking since 1989, and who in 2004 was indicted for crimes against humanity, is a case in point. Truth, said the general, is hard to find, because it “exists in the testimonies of people [and historians] who have their own values and write… accordingly.” To Robben, he never admitted that the disappearances were premeditated; but he did cite reasons that might have explained such a practice. Later, to a French journalist, who was secretly recording him, the general said that disappearing people let the military off the hook with the Vatican, which would not have condoned executions. When Robben subsequently spoke to the general’s wife while her husband was under house arrest, the woman complained bitterly about the betrayal of the French reporter.
Betrayal is a through-line in Robben’s study, whose chapters address Memory, Testimony, Denial, Sovereignty, Accountability, Guilt and Mourning. He stresses an ongoing expectation of treachery not only between such groups as the armed forces and popular resistants; but also within the various survivor and family support groups; and among human rights actors whose priorities and strategies differ. Robben cites internal betrayals in the Peronist Party (when, after leading on the leftist factions, Peron sided with the hard right); in the leftist guerilla groups, such as Montoneros, which sent its leaders into safe exile while leaving grass-roots militants unprotected in spite of a war chest of US $100 million; among soldiers who carried out illegal orders (kidnapping, torture, death flights) and who were then abandoned by their officers who claimed ignorance, and/or their own betrayal by “rogue elements.”
Survivors of clandestine detention centers who came forward to testify were initially charged with collaboration by none other than certain Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo whose own children were lost. Over the years, investigations, truth commissions, trials, exhumations and confessions have presented new evidence that upset or demolished previous narratives: Exhumations of identifiable remains undermined the mythic figure of the desaparecido, causing the schism in the Mothers of the Plaza; the confession of Naval Captain Adolfo Scilingo made denial of the death flights impossible; evidence of rampant corruption nullified the claim that the military was the country’s “ultimate moral reserve.” None of this is new information: Robben’s contribution is to examine such events through the optic of social trauma’s hermetic bounds.
Since the 2006 nullification of Alfonsín’s amnesties, hundreds of former repressors have been tried and convicted of crimes against humanity. On a day when I was in the courtroom, the stylish wife of (the eventually convicted) Lieutenant Adolfo Donda ridiculed witnesses who testified that her husband of forty years had raped and tortured scores of prisoners, then arranged the murder of his own brother and sister-in-law, whose baby he took home for them to raise (and who, as an adult, testified against him). In defense of their own “heroic victims,” defendants’ daughters and wives created a movement that appropriates the forms of resistance pioneered by the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo. This blurring of narratives and trading of protest modes is a further sign, Robben argues, of sociocultural trauma. Having witnessed these trial s and interviewed defendant wives and daughters who shouted obscene insults to survivor witnesses and made jokes about torture, I tend to think their protests are canny expressions of rage—they learned from their adversaries (on whom they literally spit in the courtroom) that family values play well, as they might phrase it, in the marketplace of protest. And markets they have had— television, radio, social media. Yet no violence has come to them for the trauma they have sought to inflict— a tiny break in the terrible cycle.
What do the living owe to the dead? How do the dead exert moral force over the living? To what extent can these reciprocal debts be joined in public space—in courtrooms, congress, or sites of memory? These essential human questions—at once intimate and at the root of public order—are yet troubled, indeed traumatic, in Argentina.
Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture and four volumes of literary translation. She participated in the 2014 Memory and Democracy conference at DRCLAS. She currently teaches at Bennington College.
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