home Interview Memory, a hinge between past and present. Elizabet Jelin is interviewed by Laura Mombello.

Memory, a hinge between past and present. Elizabet Jelin is interviewed by Laura Mombello.

Senior Researcher of CONICET and Professor of the Postgraduate Program in Social Sciences UNGS-IDES, Elizabeth Jelin holds a PhD in Sociology and was awarded in the Houssay Prize for a Lifetime Achievement in Social Sciences in 2013.  She has been Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin and member of the Academic Directory of that institution. Her main research focus lies on human rights, political repression memories, citizenship, social movements and family. Her book, “Los Trabajos de la Memoria”, the first of the series “Memorias de la repression”, originally published in 2002, was currently revised and reprinted in Lima (IEP, 2002). Furthermore, she is the autor of “Pan y afectos. La transformación de las familias” (2010, Fondo de Cultura Económica); “Fotografía e identidad: captura por la cámara, devolución por la memoria”, with Ludmila Da Silva Catela y Mariana Giordano (Nueva Trilce, 2010); “Por los derechos. Mujeres y hombres en la acción colectiva”, with Sergio Caggiano and  Laura Mombello (Nueva Trilce, 2011); “Las lógicas del cuidado infantil. Entre las familias, el mercado y el Estado”, with Valeria Esquivel and Eleonor Faur (IDES-UNFPA-UNICEF, 2012).

15 years after the Research and Training Program for young researchers “Collective Memory and Repression. Comparative views on the democratization process at the Southern Cone of Latin America”, organised by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and coordinated by Elizabeth Jelin, she analyses the road travelled since then, as well as the progress achieved on the studies on memory and the current epistemological challenges in the field.

Interview by Laura Mombello, PhD on Social Sciences. She is member of (the) Núcleo de Estudios sobre Memoria (IDES) and took part in the program “Collective Memory and Repression. Comparative views on the democratization process at the Southern Cone of Latin America” (1999). Originally published in Spanish in Clepsidra. Revista interdisciplinaria de Estudios sobre Memoria, ISSN 236-2075, Nº2, October 2014, pp. 146-157 (long fragment).

Laura Mombello: What is the origin of the Program?

Elizabeth Jelin: When we started to think about the project, back in 1996 – 1997, the main researches were mainly focused on the institutional questions of the transitions, such as: how to rebuild or build democratic parliaments, how do the legislatures work, which is the best electoral system, the political parties, etc. Attention was also paid to the executive powers and the State reforms, from the public administration to the public policies. At the same time, there was a “Social gap”; a gap in the study regarding what happened to people, what happened to societies during this transition process. Our first idea was looking into the meaning of building citizenship from the presence of the new and different social movements. Later on, following to the social movement logic and their claims, we started to work with the topic of memory. As I always say, I bumped into memory rather than choosing it, as during the study of the human rights movement, the concept used by their activists came up. That was the starting point.

Sometimes I feel institutionalist in front of those working with culture topics or culturologist in front of the political scientists of the institutionality. I think the lack of integration of those two dimensions is currently one of the issues missing.

It was interesting because some countries were more clearly worried than others in the memory questions. For instance, we found difficult to find colleagues in Brazil who wanted to place the emphasis on the dictatorship memory, because repression was a daily concept in the favelas; it was not a dictatorship related privilege, but repression was part of the daily life of poor people. The state repression had an impact on their daily life, and if that happened before or after a concrete date, if the regime was formally democratic or not, was a secondary fact against the institutional violence.

I think in the Research Program, the most social and symbolic side was particularly developed during its first years, such as the commemoration, the rituals; while the institutional dimension was not so much developed. Spite promoting institutional topics, such as the education system, archives, church or the military dimension, I have the impression that the institutional part was the weakest. We did not study the trials during the Program, neither the financial remedies, that is, everything the States were taking care about. The State was clearly not part of the Program. 15 years later, my impression is that other dimensions were developed.

During all this time, a field or a packet was formed under the name of “transitional justice”. It is neither a word nor a field I truly like, however, it exists, it has an institutional logic, counts with scientific legitimacy as far as there are magazines, university courses as well as a whole institutional system of assessment dedicated to this topic; the institutional leg we did not have was there developed. We mostly focused on the memory and less on the institutional transformation or how the institutions coped with the past. Sometimes I feel institutionalist in front of those working with culture topics or culturologist in front of the political scientists of the institutionality. I think the lack of integration of those two dimensions is currently one of the issues missing.

LM: On which dimensions do you observe some progress?

EJ: There is a line which followed questions of art, commemoration rituals, the artist’s sense, literature, the aesthetic sense incorporated on the memorials. It is about the analysis of the cultural products, from cinema to photography through literature, theatre and performance in the tradition of culture criticism. The socio-political contexts and the social entities fights are often missing in these analyses.

There is another movement looking at things such as: the institutions, if a country implements reparations or not, how many trials are held in this place or the other. Kathryn Sikkink’s interesting work moves in this direction. One of her last publications is an award winning book called “The Justice Cascade”. The database for the international comparative analysis of the book is impressive. It proves how there is a cascade which started in Argentine upon launching trials and which greatly expanded around the globe. She proposes a way to measure the presence of human rights prosecutions in the recent past of each country and the world. It is stunning observing how this curve grows. It represents a whole institutional dimension precisely and deeply working. I also want to mention the Noemí Roth-Ariza’s works on the trials launched in several countries. There is also some more literature on the remedies and the truth commission working in different places.

Another line of work is more focused on the witness, on the subjectivity. There is an increasing number of testimonies and testimonial books, an increasing interest in taking testimony, but this does not need to be related with the treatment applied a couple of decades ago. Given the urgency of the transition, those working in mental health or trauma related issues used that approach to tackle the testimonies. Currently though, there are more first person testimonies, such as, what did I do or where was I. I believe it is more about a testimonial literature than researches analysing the subjectivities through testimonies.

What I want to point out is that this field is not currently a field, but it looks more like several lines having a reduced dialogue among them. I believe the tables specialised in artistic topics, meetings and conferences deal not so much with the institutional side and are hardly connected with people and what happens to them. I like to consider this topic taking into account the question of what happens to people where “people” makes reference to different groups, but taking that as a starting point. I wonder if that point is not put in the background. There are left proper studies on what part of the past currently takes part in our daily lives; that is, more ethnographic and sociological studies.

LM: The testimonial literature you made reference to, how is it related to the idea of victim?

EJ: The human rights movement focused on the victim; however, as researcher, it does not need to be so, since it is possible to distinguish between victim and witness. Primo Levi already made this distinction and in my opinion, it is an important distinction. According to the human rights movement, victim and witness were put together. For instance, I am a witness of the dictatorship, I lived it, it is part of my experience, but according to the definition of human rights violations, I am not a victim. Under the paradigm of the human rights and its interpretation, in order to be a victim, it basically counts the personal vexation. Those who could not be at the university nor at a trade union, those who spent sleepless nights and night full of fear, or who lost their jobs or had to accept miserable working conditions and salaries, but whose experiences (for good reasons) are not included when counting the direct victims.  Under the notion of “affected”, the definition is directly related to the blood ties, to the traditional notion of family. Socially speaking and in research terms, I believe that within the testimonial perspective, the idea of witness must be recovered, since it is wider than that of the victim.

If we accept the human rights paradigm, the victim lies on the centre, not the witness. And we must go back to Primo Levi to think the direct witness is not there anymore while you are a secondary witness. This is part of the problem, we must start to think bearing in mind the memories.

LM: What do the recent history studies contribute in this sense?

EJ: Those identified with the recent history study overlap at a great extent with those focused on the memory studies, since memory is part of the recent history. What happened in the different moments, both at a practical level and regarding ideas and subjectivities are subjected to studies. Recent history obviously includes the study of memories.

It took a lot of time to legitimize the study of the contemporary period for the history discipline. For the most traditional sectors of history, those focused on the recent history move inside a field not so much different to the work of an anthropologist or a sociologist or a political scientist. We must remember how difficult it was to accept the oral history and the usage of testimonies as sources in a historical research of the recent past.

In addition to that, at first, the definition of “recent” period was related to the periods of dictatorship, at the height of the violations. If you want to learn a bit more and interpret or make sense of the studied processes, it is necessary to take into account the previous period. In Argentine, you cannot leave out the previous affiliations nor the political disputes. As for Chile, we must understand what the peaceful means to socialism really meant and how did it fit within the context of the Cold War. During the Cold War period, as currently understood, the international context was very important.

In Spain, a huge amount of studies on different sides of the Franco Regime is still coming up. It was a period spanning several decades which were not studied and now they are. Under the analysis of the Franco Regime, the 70s in Argentine or the Cold War during the 70s, you must work with memories; however, using memory as a source with the aim to rebuild it by means of oral sources from those who experienced those situations.

Studying under a memory perspective implies understanding how that past still affects our lives after having passed through all that, even until today.

Therefore, there are several lines: one aimed to historicize the past through a historical sociology or an Ethnohistory, not only made by historians. Another line is aimed to follow the analysis of the memory works. In my opinion, the questions related to memory are so much tied to the victims of the dictatorship that it is more difficult to deal with memory issues in the longer term, which is precisely what ethnography does. Ludmila da Silva Catela speaks about short term memories and long term memories: there are long term memories passed on and therefore turned practically in structural dimensions. This can be observed at a local level, as Ludmila, Kimberly Tehidon or Ponciano del Pino did. These researchers carried out studies historicizing memories showing how those facts still have an impact in the current everyday life. These are works at a local level, and my question is if they are being carried out at this moment.

At a personal level, lately I am stating that I am “bored of memory” or that I want to “quit memory”, since I don’t like what it is being done. The memory issues have conquered the public space and the social sciences and humanities fields, however in a very unsatisfactory way; this topic is being trivialized. Anything can be considered memory under a concept of common sense more than from an analytic perspective. I witnessed this in a lot of tables in the last congress Latin American Studies Association (LASA) (Chicago, May 2014), where everything was considered memory and everybody felt they could present works with that word in the title.

On the other hand, in my opinion, among many researchers there is an easy way and not that interesting to work with memory. An event is studied to check what is remembered from that event, how did it happen, or what did not happen. This event is studied (a massacre) or it greatly increases the number of studies on repression sites: it is studied how site 1, 2 and 3 were recovered and who survived them, how did they meet with the neighbours, and so on. However, they are very closed events themselves. The intention seems to be rebuilding or helping “not to forget”, without going beyond the directly involved actors, without any analytical question bringing the event or the object to a different level which might be meaningful in wider terms.

LM: Which would be consequently the questions we could pose today on memory linked issues?

EJ: The field of studies on memories started 30 years ago. I speak in relation to the Western countries, not only Latin America. It took many years after the Shoah for the memory questions to come up. Firstly they were linked to the trauma and the testimony; the narrative capacity was at the centre of this view, the narrative was of utmost importance. The understanding and the meaning of the past was always narrated and the understanding of the trauma was more related to the semiotic inability to speak or by means of silences or narrative gaps. The artistic expression was added to these researches in a performative way. Through this view, it is not about remembering, but about acting, and past is integrated in the present intervention. Van Alphen makes this distinction and in my opinion is a valid and interesting one. Afterwards, it comes the rituals and commemorations, monuments and memorials. There are treated the questions on public memories and policies on memories.

A more recent movement, newly arising, is anchored to the integration of materiality. The proposal does not include starting from the narrative, though everything will end up with words, but working with the integration of objects and ruins, what’s left from the past. Those rests are studied according to their present meaning.

The Memory Studies Magazine includes interesting studies which do not make reference to memories of repressive or traumatic pasts related with political violence episodes. For instance, there is a very good article on how groups, different generations, remember the same school in a town. It proves how memories are linked to objects and materialities. Those who studied in the 50s were linked to the school, and those who came later were linked to different things. These links were related to the pedagogic offer of the time: for the oldest generations, it was linked to the punishment place, the corner; the younger generations remembered the orchard and the animals; while the youngest generations remembered the musical performances and the murals. Through the same building, different memory links were built. Through these materialities it is possible to build the history of the school. In the memory field, this is the type of studies currently proposed.

There are researchers working with displaced people from their place of origin where after many years those displaced or their descendant can come back. For example, in relation with the Armenian Genocide in Turkey, what happens to those coming back to the places where maybe their grandparents were victims? Which objects do they conserve, bringing them to the diaspora, coming back? This proves that for different generations and groups different objects might turn into different objects or the same but with a different meaning. The neighbour living next to a ruin might have a different opinion than the one coming back with the picture his grandfather took of that same place and with a story about it. This combination of materialities and narratives offer a possibility to escape from this kind of impasse in the study of memories. This view might considerably enrich, for example, the study of the sites, because if this does not turn into a lineal concept, it stays as a “this happened here” and the “duty of memory” must be included since it is more testimonial than analytical, which is dangerous.

LM: Why? Where lies the danger?

EJ: Because it makes you recover the singularity of the memory and it might seem the more singularity you have, the better. However, you cannot generalize nor get away from the situation, and it will never end, because you can always integrate more and more details and so we reach Funes the Memorious, the Borges’ character who could remember every single detail, but who was unable to think.

This is where the danger of policies on sites lies on. The National State erects a monument with the words “Memory, truth, justice” and the name with bigger or smaller letter depending on the space left. That’s what is universal, it is a brand. For the one passing by this monument, this place is basically reduced to that, only a sign stating “here happened something”, and that’s it, he keeps on going. However, for that one with an special relation with that place, this is worthless and looks for the specifics, the singularity. The place must be marked, but it must be marked with his mark, not with the mark of the Ministry. How many marks and how much mark proliferation can you allow? You are having a collection of singularities, but who summarises or configures something with a wider sense? I am quite worried about the sites topic and I certainly don’t know how to tackle it, since researches so far are more linked to singularity and specificity paying less attention to what those marks mean for people, for certain groups of society.

LM: There are two problematic questions you are posing; on the one hand, what to do with the marks, and on the other, how to tackle the studies of those brands?

EJ: In the first place, I don’t know if it is necessary for marks to stay where events took place for them to be significant. One of the most significant memorials in my opinion is the memorial in homosexual victims’ honour of the Nazism raised in Berlin.  It is placed in a park, it is not very big, it is not monumental, but the message is an important model which links past with present. It represents the discrimination and the gay rights violation during the Nazism as a trigger of a call of responsibility of Germany towards the contemporary world in terms of gender identity violation today. Past and present are therefore linked with all the conflicts and controversies around questions such as if the commemoration includes only gays or also lesbians. The conflict between memories, senses of the past and its updating or crystallisation in the present did not take long to show up, as in all cases I know. In my opinion, the memorial acknowledges and celebrates the diversity of options, expressing its opposition to the disastrous sexual policies implemented by Nazism. However, the true reality shown is much more related to the present than with the Nazism, and the liaison among both concepts is what makes it significant. Therefore, it is not of utmost importance that the integration of the past in the present is done or not in the place where events took place, neither that it is real or not. The integration of materialities referring to the past to think about today must be a path to explore.

LM: If you would have to draw up the “Memories of repression” Program today, how would you do it?

EJ: If I had to draw up the program today, I would leave all the cultural products part to those who analyse cultural products. They are specialised in that field, and they have it developed autonomously.  I would mainly focus on what happens today to people whose past is present, and how people use the institutions, how do they work with their daily lives. Where memory begins and where it is not an open-ended question?

Nowadays, the concerns would not be considered in terms of countries, but of topics. In that case, the link with the judiciary depending on the collective matters would come into play. If you are going to study the young related issues, you will tackle the young people’s problems; therefore, it is not as relevant nowadays the place or the country where they are. I think I would draw up a beautiful program, but different. At the time where the Southern Cone was passing the transition period, that approach made a lot of sense, but the reality of that region is completely different now.

Currently, it could be more interesting to create a collective research program more depending on the problematic fields than country related. When saying “people” I mean specific actors, such as the young people or the native people, for example; I think about their connection with the institutions, memories, ways to deal with conflicts, etc. There you have a field.

LM: If you would have to assess the “Memories of repression” Program, which would be the most significant results? What do you think it delivered?

EJ: The aim of the program was to make up a critical mass of young people, that was a success. Those still active are still in contact among them, delivering works, participating even in management places related with memory questions at the different places, and promoting exchanges.

SSRC Program

The “Collective Memory and Repression” Program: comparative views on the democratization process at the Southern Cone of Latin America” at the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) kicked off on 1998 and came to an end in 2002. Its aim was to make progress on knowledge and analytical debate on the relations between the transformations and the historical memories senses in societies.  The proposal was an interdisciplinary and multinational work project aimed to boost the strengthening of a new generation of researchers at the region with a domain of the state of the art technologies in order to carry out compared researches on this topic, of utmost importance to build more democratic and fair societies.


In this experience participated three groups of young researchers from Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Chile, Argentine and Peru.  A significant part of the productions created under the framework of this Program was published in the “Memories of Repression” collection led by Elizabeth Jelin and printed by Siglo XXI between 2002 and 2006.


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