“Comment,” Does Collective Remembrance of a Troubled Past Impede Reconciliation?, International Center for Transitional Justice, 31 May 2016. WWW.ICTJ.ORG
Robin Greeley & Michael Orwicz, “Comment,” Does Collective Remembrance of a Troubled Past Impede Reconciliation?, International Center for Transitional Justice, 31 May 2016. www.ictj.org.
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It is telling that this debate is visually anchored in an image of the Ojo Que Llora, a memorial to victims of the Peruvian conflict (1980-2000). Integral to constructing collective memory, memorials and their attendant commemorative practices provide memory with a concrete material form and a symbolic language of remarkable elasticity. Because of their potent symbolic power, memorials are widely recognized as a compelling resource for fostering reflection and public dialogue about the past. Yet how that symbolic power is produced is rarely addressed in human rights discourse.
Memorials, as David Rieff argues, have certainly been used to promote partisan ideologies or stoke thirst for revenge. But they can also be used positively in the difficult task of addressing past violations,
promoting reconciliation and transforming social relations in the service of non-repetition of massive human rights abuses. Like all acts of remembrance, whether a memorial functions to “help or hinder social reconciliation” (in Pablo de Greiff’s words) depends not simply on its overt meaning, but also on the “method for ‘producing’” it, i.e. the processes and contexts through which that meaning is generated and into which it is inserted. And – crucially – it depends on the memorial’s ability to promote constant renovation of that meaning through actively engaging its audiences in constructive dialogue.
As members of the Symbolic Reparations Research Project, we study the relationship of remembrance to artistic and cultural practices of memorialization in the context of integral reparations to victims of gross violations of human rights. We understand memorials not as
static objects or fixed mimetic monuments—just think of the traditional statue of the hero on a pedestal—which position the viewer as a passive receiver of a pre-constructed meaning. Rather, as in the Ojo
Que Llora whose very form invites collective participation, we see them as generating dynamic interpretive processes through which spectators become active constructors of meanings — experiences that can aid in social reconciliation. This responds to the US Institute of Peace Memorialization Working Group’s argument that “The process of determining what shape a memorial project should take and how memorial space should be used is essential – more important, ultimately, than the physical edifice itself. […] Memorial projects that encourage survivors to explore contested memories of the past, promote learning and critical thinking, and facilitate ongoing cultural exchange are more likely to advance social reconstruction.”*
Returning to de Greiff’s observation on the importance of the methods by which acts of remembrance are constructed, in the case of memorials the “method” is fundamentally aesthetic—a category rarely considered in transitional justice or human rights discourses. By “aesthetic” we don’t mean “taste” or “beauty.” Rather, it refers to the way that artistic forms, as aesthetic experiences, can disrupt codified norms of perception and destabilize sedimented habits of thought, thus opening up new meanings and redefining our potential for transformative action.
The Ojo Que Llora is a particularly good example of this. Rejecting any overt mimeticism, the memorial relies on a deliberately abstract labyrinth of stones, each stone inscribed with the name of a victim, to draw visitors into a bodily enactment of memory as they physically traverse the network of paths, stoop in search of names of lost loved ones, and lay personal tributes. The Ojo Que Llora thus gives visitors the means of connecting their personal experiences and memories to a larger collective memory in a way that neither coerces their memories into a singular narrative nor allows them to remain individualized, unconnected to the larger historical context of the conflict – however fraught and controversial that history might be.
Importantly, the Ojo Que Llora brought to light some very uncomfortable truths about the implementation of rule of law and who is characterized as the bearer of human rights in Peru. In complying with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ injunction to include among the victims the names of Sendero Luminoso members massacred by Peruvian armed forces in the Castro Castro Prison, the Ojo Que Llora opened up a fierce debate, rupturing fixed divisions in the popular mind about the very notion of the right to have human rights. The memorial lays bare the difficulty—but also the necessity—of addressing what de Greiff calls “the conditions under which different groups can be considered to be equal members of a shared political community.” Crucially, it is the very form of the Ojo Que Llora itself that allows for these debates, that enables multiple and conflicting narratives to co-exist in a necessarily dialogical manner that is productive for transitional justice objectives.
Robin Greeley, University of Connecticut
Michael R. Orwicz, University of Connecticut
The Symbolic Reparations Research Project
*Judy Barsalou and Victoria Baxter, “The Urge to
Remember. The Role of Memorials in Social Reconstruction and Transitional Justice,” Stabilization and Reconstruction Series No. 5 (United States Institute of Peace, January 2007): 2. https://www.usip.org/sites/…