Universität Bielefeld

Politics of Memory

← Back to contents


The term “politics of memory” makes its debut in North America after World War II, deriving from a social and political necessity to cope with the legacy of the Holocaust (Hodgkin & Radstone, 2003). Divergently, in Latin America, its use was strengthened through the restoration of democratic regimes in the 1980s and 1990s (Jelin, 2002; Rabotnikof, 2007). Subsequently, to speak of “politics of memory” refers particularly to institutional modalities of dealing with a violent past, specifically the numerous manifestations adopted by state terrorism in countries such as Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil during the dictatorships taking place between the 1960s and 1980s.

Employing the recent proliferation of oeuvre on memory and its fruitfulness as a creator of identity and a mediator of experience, some authors underpin that we are facing an “epoch of memory” (e.g. for Latin America: Calverio 2006, Casullo & Schmucler 2009). Such an epoch would be identified by a will to highlight its relevance in the construction of social experiences through its discursive nature, which always requires imagination in remembrance, as well as its narration (Ricoeur, 2004). It is here that two elements should be taken into consideration: foremost, the difference established by Tzvetan Todorov (2002) between literal memory (the faculty of remembering and the remains brought over to the present) and exemplary memory (the political claim of guiding the future through remembrance). Secondly, the distinction which has started to be established by several authors in the last decade (De la Peza y Rufer 2009) between the concepts of “politics of memory” and “the political in memory”.

The politics of memory makes reference to “methods of management or coming to terms with the past through acts of retroactive justice, historical-political trials, commemorative instaurations, dates and places, symbolical appropriations of different nature” (Rabotnikof, 2007:261). One of the main politics of memory (besides the devices for commemorations like memorials –e.g. the recently created Memorial de 1968 in Mexico—or Spaces for Memory and Promotion of Human Rights (Ex ESMA in Argentina), was the creation of Truth Commissions in different spaces of Latin America (Official ones in Chile, Argentina, Peru, El Salvador; and created by social/civil organizations in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and recently Guatemala). Simultaneously, the politics of memory adopt a narration of past events which imply a strong position in face of temporality: events are administered, some are shown and highlighted, others are left in the shadows, epochs are stitched in accordance to narrative ways. They build an archive of the memorable according to contemporary formulation, political urgencies and socio-historical necessities of vindication, compensation or exemplarity. In this sense, no politics of memory can be neutral. First, because it institutes a will to the past (different from the record produced by the historical discipline which intends, always agonizing, to synthesize the processes in agreement with fixed written operations). Secondly, because it is achieved through different loci of enunciation having asymmetrical possibilities of positioning in the public sphere.

A necessary separation must be made between state politics of memory from institutional politics of a wide-ranging nature. The former acquired diverse forms in the judicial-political administration of past events and were particularly ambivalent in Latin America up until the beginning of the past decade. At least in Argentina and Uruguay (and in a less programmatic form in Brazil and Chile), since the beginning of the 21st century states have been facing precise formalizations to deal with the violent past from recent history: annulment of amnesty laws, resumption of oral and public trials, the establishment of a public agenda to discuss the violent past, formalization of public commemoration rituals, constitution of museums, memorials and spaces for remembrance.

The non-governmental institutional politics, instead (propelled by NGOs, Human Rights agencies, and international cooperation agencies) usually strive for the recognition and visibility of collective processes of underground remembrance, rarely perceived in the organic agenda of the state or the academy. This case approaches what we will call the political in memory. We understand the political in memory as a dimension where memory effectively irrupts into the order of daily repetition, destabilizing the strategic will of its administration (Rufer, 2010: 88-100). This conceptualization siphons on the post-foundationalist difference between politics and the political, taking the latter as the power to create through contingencies, dealing with the unexpected and disruptions in the heart of that which is established (Marchart, 2009). In other words, it acts as an irruptive moment which tries to break with vertebral and stabilizing forms of all dominant practices that deal with the past. In this sense, memory is an action of occasion (De Certeau, 1980:92-98) emerging in the construction that becomes productive as a resistive force up against the stabilizing impulse of politics. In this sense, memory acts in opposition to the archive, fissuring the discourse of history (without deactivating it), discomforting the institutional force of the politics of memory.

The political in memory problematizes the notion of “collective memory” and “social frames of memory” taken from the work of Maurice Halbwachs (2004a & 2004b). These concepts of Durkheimian tradition highlighted the cohesive and reproductive force of memory in the collective processes of identity construction; conversely, the dimension of the political aims to focalize on the most subversive moments in memory, where acts of remembrance unease the social order. It is here where the mediations that shape cultural practices are debated: the role of mass media and cultural industries, the visibility of underground or subaltern memories, the authorization of certain discourses on memory and experience that have remained hidden. A clear example is constituted by diverse demands from native peoples from Argentina and Chile searching for the acknowledgement of their disappearance to be considered as genocide and their invisibility as an excluding strategy from memory itself by the national political community (Rufer, 2010: 281-303; Lenton & Del Río, 2007). Positioning themselves as social actors within the politics of memory planted the seeds which led to the search for the truth of genocide in recent history and to advocate for Human Rights, the native peoples burst into the tactic of occasion demanding larger uncovering of signifiers of the common, collective temporality and what “should be remembered”.

The “politics of memory” and “the political in memory” are therefore two differentiated but inseparable concepts. The former signifies a process of management, institution and administration of the “actions of memory” in a precise moment. The latter points to the process exceeding any form of stabilization, and struggles for the emergence of what has been violated, excluded, omitted or concealed by the regimes of memory.

Mario Rufer

Please cite as:
Rufer, Mario. 2012. “Politics of Memory.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/p_Politics_of_Memory.html.


Calveiro, Pilar. 2006.“Los usos políticos de la memoria”, in: Caetano, Gerardo (Ed.) Sujetos sociales y nuevas formas de protesta en la historia reciente de América Latina. Buenos Aires, CLACSO.

Casullo, Nicolás; Schmucler, Héctor et al. 2009. “Memoria y política. Narración, acción, representación”, in De la Peza, Carmen (ed.) Memoria(s) y política. Experiencia, poéticas y construcciones de nación, Buenos Aires, Prometeo.

De Certeau, Michel. 1980. La invención de lo cotidiano I. Las artes de hacer. México. Universidad Iberoamericana.

De la Peza, Carmen; Rufer, Mario. 2009. “Introducción: otro libro sobre memoria”, in De la Peza, Carmen (ed.) Memoria(s) y política. Experiencia, poéticas y construcciones de nación. Buenos Aires, Prometeo.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 2004a [1925]. Los marcos sociales de la memoria. Bacerlona. Anthropos.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 2004b [1950]. La memoria colectiva. Zaragoza. Prensas Universitarias de Zaragoza.

Hodgkin, Catherine; Radstone, Susannah. 2003. “Introduction: contested pasts”, in Hodgkin, Catherine; Radstone, Susannah (ed.) Contested Pasts. The politics of memory, London & New York, Routledge.

Jelin, Elizabeth. 2002. Los trabajos de la memoria, Buenos Aires, Siglo XXI.

Lenton, Diana; Del Río, Walter. 2007. “Huellas de un genocidio silenciado. Los indígenas en la Argentina”, in Revista Sociedad Latinoamericana, 7 (1).

Marchart, Oliver. 2009. El pensamiento político posfundacional. La diferencia política en Nancy, Lefort, Badiou y Laclau. México. Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Rabotnikof, Nora. 2007. “Memoria y política a 30 años del golpe”, in Lida, Clara; Crespo, Horacio; Yankelevich, Pablo (comp.): Argentina, 1976. Estudios en torno al golpe de estado. México. El Colegio de México.

Ricoeur, Paul. 2004 [2000]. La memoria, la historia, el olvido. México, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Rufer, Mario. 2010. La nación en escenas. Memoria pública y usos del pasado en contextos poscoloniales. México. El Colegio de México.

Todorov, Tzvetan. 2000. Los abusos de la memoria. Barcelona. Paidós.

← Back to contents