Memory and Social Imagination

Latin American Reflections
  • Fred Dallmayr
Part of the Culture and Religion in International Relations book series (CRIR)


Milan Kundera writes somewhere: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”1 These are powerful words, words worth remembering in our time of rapid globalization—a time when, attracted by the lure of technocracy and technopolis, humankind seems ready to plunge into global historical amnesia. Kundera stresses memory or memory-work—not in order to foster nostalgia, but to retrieve resources of empowerment and social imagination, resources enabling humans, especially the oppressed and marginalized, to “struggle against power.” Kundera’s words find an echo in the work of Herbert Marcuse who, in Eros and Civilization, wrote that “the restoration of remembrance to its rights, as a vehicle of liberation, is one of the noblest tasks of thought.” As in the case of Kundera, remembrance for Marcuse was not equivalent to nostalgic escapism; partly under the influence of Freudian teachings he argued that, through memory-work, the “forbidden images and impulses of childhood begin to tell the truth that reason denies.” With specific reference to Marcel Proust he added that, in opposition to a narrow empiricism, “the orientation to the past tends toward an orientation to the future: the recherche du temps perdu becomes the vehicle of future liberation.”2


Semantic Field Productive Imagination Social Imagination Nobel Peace Prize Death Squad 
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    Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York: Harper-Perennial, 1996).Google Scholar
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    Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (New York: Vintage Books, 1962), pp. 17–18, 212. Regarding memory-work, with a focus on Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Martin Heidegger, see my “Liberating Remembrance: Thoughts on Ethics, Politics and Recollection,” in Alternative Visions: Paths in the Global Village (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Little-field, 1998), pp. 145–165Google Scholar
  3. compare also Myrian Sepulveda Santos, “Memory and Narrative in Social Theory: The Contributions of Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin,” Time and Society 10 (2001): 163–189.Google Scholar
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    Compare Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 133–137.Google Scholar
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    Marguerite Feitlowitz, A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. ix. One should add that the crimes of the junta went basically unpunished. Despite some trials and convictions in 1985, all ex-commanders were finally pardoned in 1990 “in time for Christmas” (p. x).Google Scholar
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    Jo Fischer, Mothers of the Disappeared (Boston: Sound End Press, 1989), pp. 12, 18, 25–26. As Fischer notes: “The families never got the condemnation they were expecting from the Catholic Church. The ecclesiastical hierarchy had never hidden its identification with the social and political vision of the Argentina military and its close relationship with the state remained untroubled by the events following the coup of 1976.… It remained silent even as its own members became victims of the proceso. During the later 1960’s and early 1970’s the traditional conservatism of the Argentine church had been challenged by the growth of progressive sectors within its ranks, such as the group of Third World priests who expressed concern about social justice and the worker priests who lived and worked amongst the poor. At least 30 of these priests and nuns, together with those individuals who dared to speak out against the kidnappings, disappeared in the months following the coup” (p. 23).Google Scholar
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    Anderson and Garlock, Granddaughters of Corn, p. 67. The book is replete with similarly gruesome stories. One further detail: “What does it mean,’ signs of torture?’ Cadavers are found without eyes, testicles, or with hands out off. Bodies are found without fingernails, teeth, or nipples. Women’s bodies appear with chests burned, brands from hot iron on their skin, and with their scalp pulled off Amputated parts are placed on top of bodies. Now you know what’ signs of torture’ implies” (p. 62). See also Susanne Jonas, The Battle for Guatemala (Boulder: Westview, 1991).Google Scholar
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    Compare, e.g., Richard Kearney, Poetics of Imagining: Modern and Postmodern (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998)Google Scholar
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    See Michael D. Barber, Ethical Hermeneutics: Rationalism in Enrique Dussels Philosophy of Liberation (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998), pp. ix–x. As Barber elaborates: “One who lives out the ethos of liberation locates herself in the ‘hermeneutic position’ of the oppressed and takes on their interests. … Beginning with the poor (desde el pobre), the hero of liberation thereby discovers a whole new critical perspective, a new criterion of philosophical and historical interpretation, a new fundamental hermeneutics, typical of the Gram-sic-type ‘organic intellectual’” (p. 69).Google Scholar
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    For critical comments on Dussel’s work, inspired by such concerns, see, e.g., Ofelia Schutte, Cultural Identity and Social Liberation in Latin American Thought (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993), esp. pp. 186–190; also her “Origins and Tendencies of the Philosophy of Liberation in Latin American Thought: A Critique of Dussel’s Ethics,” The Philosophical Forum 22 (1991): 270–295. Some of these concerns are triggered by an occasional hypostatization of Levinasian “otherness.” In Barber’s balanced assessment: “Other-oppressive aspects of Dussel’s erotics, rightly criticized by Ofelia Schutte, may be traced to residual influences of his earlier natural-law position … or even to his uncritical assimilation of Totality and Infinity’s patriarchal erotics, which Levinas abandoned by the time he wrote Otherwise than Being.… Contrary to those critics who claim that he is a naïve populist, Dussel recognizes that ‘the people’ are not free from inauthentic-ity voices misgivings about popular religiosity, observes that the oppressed have often introjected the oppression they have received, and refrains from any uncritical endorsement of populist spontaneity.” See Ethical Hermeneutics, pp. 67, 73.Google Scholar
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    For a fuller account of her life-story see Elizabeth Burgos-Debray ed., I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1984). She has returned to Guatemala several times, but always had to leave due to continuing death threats. For some of the controversy surrounding her life-story seeGoogle Scholar
  29. David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchu and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999)Google Scholar
  30. Elzbieta Sklodowska, “Author-(dys)function: Rereading I, Rigoberta Menchú,” in Benigno Trigo, ed., Foucault and Latin America: Appropriations and Deployments of Discursive Analysis (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 197–207.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    Rigoberta Menchú, Crossing Borders, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1998), p. 221. As she adds: “I believe in the [indigenous] community as an alternative way forward, and not simply as a memory of the past.… It is something dynamic … not just nostalgia for eating tamales.… Identity passes through the community, it passes along pavements, it passes down veins, and it exists in thoughts.… Each day it provides the chance to be reborn, to flower again, to be rejuvenated. Identity is not studied in a dark room. It is like the nawaal, the shadow that accompanies you. It is the other, the one beside you” (pp. 223–226).Google Scholar

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© Fred R. Dallmayr 2002

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  • Fred Dallmayr

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