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Argentine Autofictions, Affect and the Subjective Turn

If the neologism “autofiction” is young, it is even younger in the Hispanic world. Very few theoretical texts, most of which are written in French, have been translated into Spanish, or even English. In the Anglophone world, scholars have preferred other terms, such as “new journalism” or “faction” to describe hybrid genres that combine fact and fiction or that present factual contents in the form of fictional writings.57 In the Hispanic world, Spain is unusual in the way that it has not only welcomed the use of the term but also offered its own theorists in the field, most notably Manuel Alberca, author of El pacto ambiguo: De la novela autobiografica a la autoficcion (2007). The general lack of attention that Hispanic academia has traditionally paid to the term, however, is quickly being redressed. In the last ten years, and most notably in the 2000s, scholars from different fields, mostly in Spain and Argentina, have turned to theories of autofiction to study new forms of writing the self. In the field of literary criticism and theory, Alberca (2007), Amfcola (2007), Casas (2014), Giordano (2006), Premat (2007) and Toro, Schlikers and Luengo (2010) have all analyzed marks of intimacy and self-reference in literary genres such as letters, memoirs and autobiographical fictions. They have mainly studied established writers such as Cesar Aira, Jorge Semprun, Luis Goytisolo, Antonio Munoz Molina, Javier Cercas, Cesar Vallejos, Ricardo Piglia, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Jose Saer and Javier Marfas, but also some younger ones, such as Felix Bruzzone and Laura Alcoba.

In anthropological studies, the theory of autofiction has also been useful for describing a new subjectivity and what Leonor Archuf has called a new “biographical space,” characterized by the hybridization and inter- textualities of traditional generic forms. According to Arfuch, this new subjectivity and forms of exhibiting the self emerged in the mid-1980s with the end of modernity and the crisis of historical actors such as “the people” and the party. Those years witnessed the appearance of microstories—stories of everyday life that celebrated the return of the subject. In addition, new technologies made possible access to private lives through social networks, closed-circuit television cameras and blogs, and defined the biographical as an intermediate space between the public and the private, the documentary and the fictional.58 Other scholars, notably Diana Klinger, have turned to theories of autofiction to highlight the borrowings between literature, anthropology and ethnography in the representation of the “other” in contemporary Latin American literature.59 This book establishes a dialogue with all these contributions on Hispanic, and more specifically Argentine, autofictions, and takes the discussions about the topic to unexplored paths, combining debates about autofiction and literary criticism with theories taken from trauma and memory studies, the so-called affective turn, ludology and the history of play/material culture of childhood.

One of the premises of this book is that the current autofictional turn can be inscribed in what some have called the “subjective turn” of postmodernity, provided that such a turn is understood as a complex phenomenon that cannot be described simplistically as the mere exhibition and spectacle of the (vain) self. In Argentina, some theorists have indeed criticized the emergence of certain subjective narratives of the dictatorship for considering them self-indulgent and more concerned with (the emotions of) the authors than with the political dimensions of the events taking place in the public sphere during the 1970s and 1980s. A paradigmatic example of such suspicion towards the narratives of the I can be found in Sarlo’s book Tiempopasado: Cultura de la memoriay giro subjetivo (2005). Sarlo examines the nature of testimony, reacting “not against the juridic and moral uses of testimony, but against its political uses. It analyzes the transformation of testimony in the icon of Truth or in the most important resources in the reconstruction of the past.”60 According to Sarlo, if the loss of experience marked the final years of modernity, then post-modernity is characterized by a subjective tone, a scenario demanding careful exploration of the epistemological and methodological nature of testimony.

Sarlo’s position is in line with a more general suspicion about the “memory boom” that has taken place not just in Argentina but also worldwide. Andreas Huyssen has said in this regard that “today we suffer from an hypertrophy of memory not from history” and also that “there is a feeling of excess and saturation in the marketing of memory.”61 For Huyssen, contemporary debates have replaced discussions of revolution and the future with discussions of memory and a preference for looking backwards rather than forwards. Others have offered a similar diagnosis of the so-called era of testimony,62 marked by a “cult of the past,”63 a “hipertrofia del yo,”64 an obsession with the past and even an “addiction” to memory.65 It is interesting to note, however, that although the word “memory” now appears constantly in cultural studies, the phenomenon is still a relatively recent one.66 Historian Jose Sazbon stresses in this vein that this scholarly boom was triggered by the publication of two emblematic books: Yosef H. Yerushalmi’s Zakhor in 1982 and Pierre Nora’s first volume of Lieux de Memoire in 1984.

Nevertheless, these past decades in which the word “memory” governed much of the field of cultural studies have often resulted in exhaustion, as proved by Sarlo’s book. A similar suspicion towards memory can be found in the work of Hugo Vezzetti, who has argued that historical knowledge is a mediated, controlled, provable and communicable entity, unlike the “fragile material of memory.” This, writes Vezzetti, “is the most important limit of many more or less fictional reconstructions of the past by those who lived the events (of the 1970s) and who narrate their participation in them as a guarantee of truth.”67 For him, written sources (“la lectura de las fuentes”68) are in this sense superior to testimonies and fictions as a means of accessing the past.

Both Sarlo and Vezzetti echo Pierre Nora’s nostalgic opposition between memory (doxa) and history (episteme). For Nora, memory is the emotional, sentimental side of life; history, on the other hand, is a rational, critical and intellectual reconstruction of what was and is no longer. From this perspective, unlike memory, history does not retain a vital tie to the past. But this position ignores the fact that, as Dominick LaCapra has pointed out, “memory is a crucial source for history and has complicated relations to documentary sources.”69 At the same time, “a critically informed memory is crucial in the attempt to determine what in history deserves preservation in living traditions. ... Once history loses contact with memory, it tends to address dead issues that no longer elicit evaluative and emotional interest or investment.”70

LaCapra’s conception of (subjective) memory and (collective) history understood not in opposition but in dialogue is in line with current studies on the role of affects and emotions in the approach to the past.71 These studies ask, for example, how a body can affect and be affected by historical events and how those bodily reactions become in turn (experiential) memories of those events. For scholars working in this relatively new field (which emerged in the mid-1990s, especially within gender and queer studies), passions, affects and emotions are not mere subjective expressions but have a powerful cognitive dimension and help us to better understand and reconstruct a past that has touched people in different manners. As Carloyn Dinshaw has argued, the way in which Roland Barthes, Jules Michelet and Michel Foucault read and write about history (looking for some sort of “contact” with the past and the dead) are only a few examples of this approach.72 The affective turn, Cecilia Macon and Mariela Solana have pointed out, has thus questioned traditional dichotomies such as emotions/reason, public/private and action/passion, and homologations between suffering and victimization, trauma and passivity.73 From the point of view of these scholars and others such as Lauren Berlant, affects such as love, fear, happiness and hate can be political in the sense that they can, for example, help to create or destroy organizations. Thus they classify certain affects or emotions (e.g. envy and shame) not only as “ugly” or “pretty” (e.g. happiness and love) but also as conservative and progressive.74

In contrast to what Sarlo and others think of subjective accounts of the past, therefore, the affective reconstructions of the dictatorship by the implicated subjects are not necessarily apolitical or opposed to historical reconstructions of the events in question. Instead they simply allow us to “feel” history from a less distant perspective, to understand it not only rationally but also emotionally without necessarily falling, however, into what Macon and Solana call “the naive celebration of emotions.”75

In addition, factual accuracy is sometimes less important than what memory has to say, even when it fails factual truth. In this sense, child survivor of the Shoah and psychiatrist Dori Laub criticized a group of education professionals who dismissed the videotape of a testimony of a survivor of the Holocaust because she misrepresented the number of chimneys in her camp destroyed by the Nazis. “The woman was testifying,” Laub pointed out, “not to the number of chimneys blown up, but to something else more radical, more crucial: the reality of an unimaginable occurrence. ... That was historical truth.”76

As Alejandro Moreira has explained, the views of Sarlo and Vezzetti create a form of nostalgia for a world in which historians used to have a monopoly over history.77 In the case of Sarlo, her nostalgia is directed not only towards the role of history in relation to the past but also towards a notion of politics that has lost its meaning for the present generations. Indeed, in relation to the memory of the post-dictatorship generation, Sarlo criticizes Los rubios for its excess of subjectivity/memory and its decision to use animation with plastic Playmobil figures to recreate the kidnappings of the director’s parents, all to the detriment of politics and history. Instead, Sarlo eulogizes the testimonies of other children of the disappeared gathered by Juan Gelman and Mara La Madrid in their book Ni el flaco perdon de Dios: Hijos de desaparecidos (1997). She argues that they respond to a search for truth that does not exclude the public figure and the political commitments of their parents.78 Thus Sarlo is not uncomfortable with all memories, only with those that do not make explicit references to the politics and history of the 1970s.

In his work on artists of the second generations of the Shoah, theorist James E. Young, against whom Sarlo argues, anticipates criticisms such as those made by her when he writes: “No doubt, some will see such work as a supremely evasive, even self-indulgent art by a generation more absorbed in its own vicarious experience of memory than by the survivor’s experiences of real events.”79 He insists, however, that “as the survivors have testified to their experience of the Holocaust, their children and their children’s children will now testify to their experience of the Holocaust.”80 For Young, the subjective gaze and the “misrepresentations” of the facts are the logical result of the memory of second generations of traumatic events. In this vein, Young posed the following question: “How is a post-Holocaust generation of artists supposed to ‘remember’ events they never experienced directly?”81 All they remember, Young says, is what the survivors have passed down to them. Second-generation memory, he argues, is thus a hypermediated experience of a vicarious past. In addition, these generations see history as “a composite record of both events and these events’ transmission to the next generation.”82 Theirs is, then, “an unabashed terrain of memory, not of history, but no less worthy of exploration.”83

While I agree with Young’s call for the need to make space for, legitimize and listen to the cultural memories of second generations of traumatic events, the texts studied in this book are somewhat different from the ones he examines since many of the authors of my corpus have not only vicarious memories but also memories of their own, even when these are fragmentary and hybrid. Thus the use of autofiction and playful devices in their cultural memories does not merely respond to the absence of memories but to other causes too, including the need to stress the “science-fictional” nature of their violent childhoods or the confusion between their bedtime stories and the real villains hunting them, both topics that I address in Chapters 4 and 5.

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