On Mourned Families and Dispossessed Hope

Sosa, Cecilia. 2014. Queering Acts of Mourning in the Aftermath of Argentina’s Dictatorship: The Performances of Blood. Suffolk, UK: Tamesis Books. 206 pages; $90.00 hardcover.

The transnational process that Argentina experienced following the end of the dictatorship in December 1983 transpired over a complex series of stages, both in terms of judicial process and in terms of the social modes of coping with mass violence. Recently, the aesthetic dimension of representations of that past, and their inevitable ethical and political consequences, have drawn particular attention from various spheres. Cecilia Sosa’s Queering Acts of Mourning in the Aftermath of Argentina’s Dictatorship: The Performances of Blood marks a new phase in these debates. Through an introduction, six chapters, a conclusion, and an afterword, she develops her main argument: the changes in collective mourning strategies deployed in recent years call into question the privileges of bloodlines and suggest that the new strategies to cope with the past, which Sosa analyzes, have generated a new experience of social bonds. She wisely chooses three theoretical frameworks to approach her subject: the study of performance, queer theory, and the so-called “affective” turn, which is to say, the theoretical tradition that focuses on emotion as a method of analyzing representations of the past. The Argentine scholar grounds her argument not in the idea of trauma—the most common approach to these questions—but in the notion of grief. This change in perspective proves crucial to the development of the book: unlike trauma, grief is not merely linked to melancholy, hate, or fury, but also to humor, hope, and enthusiasm.

An essential read both for those interested in memory studies and in performance theory, the book scrutinizes the idea of family relations or pedigree—relatives who are connected to the victims by blood, including their mothers, grandmothers, and children—that has long been central to memory studies debates. Over the last few years, however, certain suppositions underpinning this pretension have been revised both by activists and by the academy. This questioning of the importance of bloodlines emerged, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, when individuals boasted that their pedigree of blood bestowed them with the privilege to make reference to the past.

If Sosa concentrates primarily, although not exclusively, on artistic artifacts produced by the children of the disappeared, it is because these examples permit her to bring to light a recurrent question: to what extent are we “touched” by the past? The answers to this question unveil themselves through the author’s central argument and approach: Sosa analyzes the affective dimension of representations and performance in order to call into question the notion that a bloodline should serve as the only refuge of memory.

In order to conceptualize the transmission of trauma beyond the standardized forms of memory, Sosa focuses on unconventional intimate links that have been recently constructed in Argentina as a response to loss. She does this by focusing on the productivity of non-victimizing expressions of survival. In her terms the temporality of the fury and lament of the disjointed process of grief rejects linear historicism and forges anachronistic encounters with the past, constituting communities across time and using non-normative archives that generate an expanded notion of kinship that strongly questions established narratives of heroism, such as those deployed to vindicate the courage of the combatants. It is in this way that she analyzes Diario de una princesa montonera (2012), written by Mariana Eva Perez, an Argentine writer and daughter of two disappeared parents, which tells her story with cutting discourse laced with black humor, creating an alternative rendition of the more standard “injury card” by rejecting the alleged exceptional qualities of those directly affected by the crimes.

Another chapter of the book is dedicated to contrasting three films that explore the problem of memory in Argentina’s recent past. Two of the films were made by filmmakers who are also children of disappeared parents: Los rubios (2003) by Albertina Carri and M (2007) by Nicolás Prividera. The other, La mujer sin cabeza (2008) by Lucrecia Martel, does not have what Sosa would call a “pedigree” that links the filmmaker to the disappeared by family relation, although Martel does belong to the same generation as the other filmmakers. The three films push aside classic narratives and challenge the transparency and univocality of memory by showing how mourning exceeded the boundaries of the “wounded family” (65).

In chapter four, “The Cooking Mother,” Sosa examines a controversial performance by Hebe de Bonafini, president of the Asociación de Madres de Plaza de Mayo, that took place within the confines of the ex-ESMA, the largest Argentine illegal detention center. There, Bonafini presented “Cocina y política” (Cooking and Politics), a series of workshops that at once rejected fast food by teaching methods for cooking economical cuts of meat while also interweaving cooking with political discussions celebrating Eduardo Galeano and Karl Marx. When questioned about her performance’s provocation, Bonafini argued that ESMA should not be reduced to a mere landscape of horror: negative feelings should be transformed. Sosa notes that, in the context of these workshops, “an alternative community was created in that kitchen: family rituals around the dinner table and the collective affects involved in the process of grief” (82). In another chapter, Sosa focuses on Mi vida después, a play staged by Lola Arias, which premiered in 2009 and in which children of the disappeared and exiled relate their experiences of loss on stage. Sosa signals that Arias’ strategy “shows how a generation manages to deal with overwhelming memories to move on from family narratives” (113), while also demonstrating the mode in which the past functions over time. Here, there is a sociality of affect (118) that is constructed across a disjointed and nonlinear temporality.

But what concludes this brilliant trajectory is one of the most audacious moments of Sosa’s book. Sosa does not limit herself to examining artifacts that explicitly aim to express the complex link between past and present. Near the end of her text, she engages in a key turn that helps to argue her central thesis. Her analysis of collective grief following the unexpected death of former president Nestor Kirchner in 2010 illuminates the bridge between the past and the future by setting a stage for a “joyful community in mourning,” which established unprecedented social bonds that were mediated through affects of tension. In this turn we find the most original contribution of Sosa’s work. Her method of weaving together representations of the past as performance permits her to examine a pattern of social links not in terms of their effects or their conditions of possibility, but as a complex matrix in which presentation and representation, metaphor and object, past and present, contribute to a de-territorialization of the traces of trauma, destined to generate a new, displaced community.


Cecilia Macón holds a B.A. and a Ph.D. in Philosophy (University of Buenos Aires), and an M.Sc. in Political Theory (London School of Economics). She is Lecturer in Philosophy of History at the University of Buenos Aires. She has compiled Pensar la democracia, imaginar la transición (2006), Trabajos de la memoria (2006), Mapas de la transición (2010)—the latter in collaboration with Laura Cucchi—and, together with Mariela Solana, Pretérito indefinido: Afectos y emociones en las aproximaciones al pasado (2015). Her forthcoming book Rethinking Victimhood will be published in 2016. Since 2009 she coordinates SEGAP, an interdisciplinary research group dedicated to gender, visual, and memory studies, focusing on the issues stemming from the affective turn. Within this framework her research focuses on the issue of agency, particularly on its impact regarding approaching the past. Since 1996 she works as a journalist for several national and international media outlets.

Essays

Dossier

Book Reviews

Review Essays