Tag Archives: Argentina

Why silence is key to understanding the past

In postdictatorship Argentina, insight into what remains unspoken

We spoke with Nancy J. Gates-Madsen about how the role of silence in postdictatorship Argentina is essential to understanding the crimes of the past. Gates-Madsen is an associate professor of Spanish at Luther College. She is the cotranslator of Violet Island and Other Poems by Reina María Rodríguez, and author of Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling: Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina, recently published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

How did you become interested in the topic of silences and taboos in postdictatorship Argentina?

I was reading a lot of novels and plays written after the return to democracy, and I kept noticing the prominent role of silence: characters who would or could not speak, unspecified yet sinister horrors, and a fragmented or indirect language that called attention to the difficulty of expressing crimes against humanity. While existing scholarship alluded to the importance of silence, few critics had attempted to unpack its meaning. At the same time, the rhetoric of human rights was often couched in terms of speech versus silence: one must break oppressive silences in order to voice the crimes of the past. Yet it seemed to me that the myriad silences in cultural production were more than simply negative states to be broken. The strong silence of fictional torture victims who refuse to offer information to their captors, for example, belies any interpretation of silence as unequivocally negative. The more I began to explore fictional and testimonial narrative with an ear to silences and taboos, the more I realized that understanding the interplay between silence and speech (in particular, paying attention to which stories are not being told) was critical to understanding the complex postdictatorship period itself. I also discovered that taboos do not pertain solely to the realm of the military and its apologists; the rhetoric of human rights organizations also perpetuates certain taboos regarding the portrayal of victims and perpetrators.

It sounds like a sensitive topic to study.

It certainly is. This came out particularly in the review period of the manuscript. One chapter in the book analyzes stories of babies born in captivity and appropriated by families sympathetic to the military regime.

Many of these individuals have grown to adulthood with no knowledge of their biological origins or the crime committed against them during their infancy. The chapter explores which aspects of the complicated questions of identity that surround these youngest victims of the dictatorship come to the fore and which remain taboo. Of all the chapters, this one generated the most commentary from UW Press’s peer reviewers, due to its discussion of the rhetoric employed by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a prominent human rights organization that has been searching for these missing children for decades. Given the delicate nature of identity restitution, the readers’ responses did not surprise me, but it was a constant reminder of the way in which as a researcher I needed to be sensitive to the admirable work of human rights organizations yet unafraid to signal the limits that seem to govern the tales of the postdictatorship. In many representations of the trauma of torture or appropriation, unpalatable truths regarding victims and perpetrators remain consigned to the shadows, but a more complete picture of the legacies of the dictatorship only emerges when one examines both the stories that are being told and also those that remain taboo.

Listening to silences offers unexpected insight regarding postdictatorship Argentina, for even stories that struggle against forgetting may conceal as much as they reveal.

Any final thoughts?

Listening to silences offers unexpected insight regarding postdictatorship Argentina, for even stories that struggle against forgetting may conceal as much as they reveal. The overt silences of the military (such as the refusal to account for the fate of missing victims) are complemented by more covert silences in tales of victims of human rights violations (such as questions of complicity or betrayal in the torture chamber). Although the insights gained by exploring silences may prove troubling, identifying and unpacking the lingering taboos can help articulate the depth and breadth of the painful legacies of the dictatorship.

Trauma, Taboo, and Truth-Telling: Listening to Silences in Postdictatorship Argentina is published in the University of Wisconsin Press book series Critical Human Rights, edited by Steve J. Stern and Scott Straus. Find all of the books published in the series to date here.