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Monday, 24 June 2019

Generational memory and the resurgence of the past in Southern Europe and Latin America

The Santander conference “Generational Memory and the Resurgence of the Past in Southern Europe and Latin America” took place at the European Studies Centre on 18 June 2019. It focused on the varying ways in which the memory of the transitions matters for society and politics today in Southern Europe and Latin America. Post-authoritarian societies currently face serious political complexities, chief amongst which is the fact that the second or third post-authoritarian generations demand a different social and political contract than the one concluded after the mid-1970s. In Spain, young Catalans challenge the 1978 Spanish constitution, claiming that Franco is back from the grave. In Portugal young people complain that the political class has “betrayed” the values of the 1974 Revolution. The past is returning with a vengeance also in Latin America: in Argentina new generations protest against wrongdoings of the dictatorship period, rejecting the idea of “national reconciliation”, while in Chile the political transition and its masterminds have come under serious attack by students who regard them as a generational breakpoint.

It is precisely on such complex political battles between official and unofficial memory, established history and counter-history, but also various generations defending different versions of the past, that the conference focused. How do political generations in post-authoritarian societies in Southern Europe and Latin America remember the past, and how is this memory constructed? This is one of the key questions that the conference tackled, going back to the initial use of the term “political generation” by Karl Mannheim and its connection to social change. It featured three panels with specialists in history, sociology, anthropology and cultural studies who tackled these issues, focusing mainly on Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal and Greece) and Latin America (Argentina and Chile).
The first panel looked at the ways in which generational identities can be constructed and deconstructed over time. Sally Alexander (Goldsmiths, University of London) introduced the big picture of generational memory in times of crisis and transformation, through a general overview of the connections between memory, history and psychoanalysis. Then Nikolaos Papadogiannis (Bangor University) focused on the Greek transition to democracy by examining the relationship between the unmaking of generational identities among young left-wingers and the post-memories that figured prominently in their collective action in the initial post-dictatorship era (1974-early 1980s). He argued that the collapse of the Colonels’ dictatorship heralded an era, during which young people who became politically active both during the Junta but also after 1974 became reluctant to employ “generation” as a marker for their political identity. Kostis Kornetis (St Antony’s College) examined current political uses of the memory regimes during the economic crisis, by looking at the changes in the way in which lieux de memoire regarding the transitions to democracy in Spain, Greece and Portugal are perceived by new political generations – arguing for a change of paradigm regarding the celebratory narrative of the 1970s after the Great Recession began in 2008/9.

The second panel dealt with intergenerational memory transmission and in particular the complex role of “postmemory”. It looked at how memory can be not only about the traumatic past, but also whether it could provide a means of using the insights of the past to construct new visions of the present and future. Niall HD Geraghty (Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London) discussed the central role occupied by family members of those killed during the last Argentine dictatorship of 1976-1983 in both the struggle for justice and cultural production. One such generation unit, with a specific though radically different bloodline tie with the crimes of the past, he argued, is formed by the children of perpetrators of systematic torture and disappearance who nonetheless repudiate and condemn the actions of their forebears. Alison Ribeiro de Menezes (Warwick University) argued in her paper that the past remains a strong focus in much contemporary Spanish fiction, but whereas it was previously viewed in terms of conflictive narrative engagements with history, it is now more frequently approached through emotive and affective narratives of memory. Leigh Payne (St Antony’s College) shifted attention to confessions by the armed left as a way of building a different kind of post-authoritarian memory politics (with its own difficulties in terms of intergenerational transmission). The paper examined two generational memory moments in which former guerrilla and armed left revolutionaries confessed in Argentina, to consider how timing affects responses to confessions to violence.

The third panel looked at how museums deal with memory, beginning with the curatorial attempts to deal with the repressed past. Carolina Rito (Nottingham Contemporary) aimed to revisit the 1974 Carnation Revolution and reposition it in the liberation movements in Africa, the socialist solidarities, and the long-standing war waged by Portugal against the independence movements in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau since 1961. Finally, Valentina Infante Batiste (University of Oxford) moved on to look at generational negotiations in constructing a museum of memory and human rights after dictatorship, using her own auto-ethnography as a second-generation member in the “Museum of Memory and Human Rights” in Santiago, Chile.

A photography project by Marton Magosci (Reuters Institute of Journalism, University of Oxford) followed the panels: it was anchored around a personal family story narrated through faux found images, expanded on expired film. His take shifted the focus to Eastern Europe, and in particular to generational memory in Hungary since 1989.

Finally a roundtable discussion opened up the debate to the general picture of the impact of generational memory on politics today, going beyond geographical limitations. It was introduced by Othon Anastasakis (St Antony’s College). Leigh Payne focused on the backlash of reactionary movement in Latin America. Robert Gildea (Worcester College, Oxford) focused on the continuing impact of intergenerational memory of 1968 in France, especially with regards to violence. Martin Conway (Balliol College, Oxford) focused on the plurality of memory and the inevitability of bringing to the fore particular forms of memory while suppressing others in contexts such as Belgium. Finally, Sally Alexander commented on generational memory in Britain and the fact that in her view it has no relation to Brexit.

Kostis Kornetis (Satander Visiting Fellow (2018-19)

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