Telling Ruins in Latin America, edited by Michael J. Lazzara and Vicky Unruh

Telling Ruins in Latin America. Eds. Michael J. Lazzara and Vicky Unruh. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. 288 pages; $90.00 hardcover.

In October of 2010—and amidst global media frenzy—33 Chilean miners were excavated from the earth. After two months of entrapment, the paradigmatic figures of the working class emerged triumphant, much to the glee of the neoliberal protégé and virulently anti-labor president Sebastián Piñera. Meanwhile, another less newsworthy national episode involving “people of the land” was unfolding. Protesting ongoing colonial practices, and most directly the “anti-terrorist” laws imposed since the time of Pinochet, a coalition of Mapuches dramatically performed an 82-day hunger strike.[1] However this movement did not garner nearly the same degree of international acclaim nor could it be so easily co-opted in the service of consolidating capital and the nation.

I begin with these two uneven scenes of figures rising from the earth—and the distinct political and cultural projects for which they are mobilized—as a means to introducing Lazzara and Unruh’s compelling new collection Telling Ruins in Latin America. At the dawn of the twenty first century, the authors argue, the ruin emerges as a salient figure and optic that is highly charged with contemporary cultural, political, and historical relevance. Locating the ruin in the now, they suggest that it “returns with fervent intensity at the turn of the millennium as a measure of the era’s own structure of feeling and as a new interpretive path for visiting earlier manifestations of the ruins in Latin American cultural discourse” (3). Accordingly, the collection is fused with an air of reflexivity and contemplation and essays are positioned to engage the more recent “collapse of artistic, political, and ideological projects” of the late twentieth century in dialectic interplay with an earlier round of ruin-inducing projects of modernity and state building (3).

In the introduction to their well-known edited volume, Loss, David Eng and David Kazanjian argue that “at the turn of this century (melancholia) has emerged as a crucial touchstone for social and subjective formations” (2002, 23). Telling Ruins fills out the historical purview of this claim, pushing the conversation past a stagnant melancholia or flat nostalgia of a singular past. One of the key interventions that the editors pose is to position the ruin as a creative site in which heterogeneous economies of meaning are shaped through dynamic cultural exchange. For example, in María Rosa Olivera-Williams’ excellent essay, she skillfully reads the tango as a cultural form that “flashes up” both local and distant histories of cultural loss. This is embodied in lyrics that lament loss of rural life in Argentina as well as in the field of sound where spaces and imaginings of Africa, Cuba, and Europe converge. In Rubén Gallo’s reading of the multiple etchings of violence condensed in Tlatelolco, he argues that the plaza architecturally encodes multiple temporalities, revealing the ruins of colonial genocide, modernist destruction, and brutal projects of state repression of which the 1968 student massacre played a key part (3-4).

The ruin hence takes on a diversity of forms—as architectural site, filmic and poetic text, as body—, and another main strength of the volume is this engagement with the ruin’s corporeality. Diana Taylor’s essay anchors her reflections on witnessing Villa Grimaldi, raising quandaries about how “oversized” issues of human rights settle intimately in the body, and how acts to give body (dar cuerpo) to trauma push up against the overwhelming enormity of “criminal violence has spread so uncontrollably that walls cannot contain it... nor (can) guides explain it” (21). Contributions by Jill Lane and Sandra Messinger Cypress brilliantly examine formal qualities of performance and poetry respectively, reading for the gaps and fissures in the production of national space and time, creating a vantage point from which “new strategies against forgetting” and “solidarity with the wounded and dead” might emerge (135, 172).

In the beautiful essay that closes this volume, Sandra Lorenzano argues that in the face of the detritus of a ravaged landscape of neoliberal globalization, memory emerges as one of the only remaining spaces of resistance (251). With Telling Ruins, Lazzara and Unruh offer forth the archive of Latin American cultural criticism into an urgent discussion about the ruinous projects of racial capitalism and colonialism – projects which decades “after truth” continue to result in carnage and despair. I would thus locate it in dialogue with a recent spate of work in the fields of African American, postcolonial, queer and feminist theory that has taken a turn (back) to questions of affect and the intimate dimensions of the geopolitical order.

It is at such intersections, that I leave off with some questions: How might the ruin serve not only to give “new shapes of artistic and intellectual inquiry,” but also as a force to galvanize transbordered movement building (4)? How might we read the ruin as a critique not only of recent legacies of state terror, but also of the deeper racial and sexual legacies that both leftist revolutions and rightwing backlash have failed to address? As the opening scene of this review suggested, the symbolic power of the ruin can be mobilized in the service of state power’s re-fortification and capital’s advancement. How instead, might we mobilize the ruin to advance unfinished projects of decolonization and emancipation that linger on a hemispheric scale?

Tamara Lea Spira (PhD, UC Santa Cruz) is a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in Cultural Studies and Spanish. Her research examines the intimate politics and affective economies of neoliberalism, militarization and empire through the lenses of Feminist, Ethnic, and Hemispheric American Studies, with an emphasis on the Southern Cone and United States. Dr. Spira’s work has appeared in publications including Radical History Review, The International Journal of Feminist Politics, and anthologies, such as Sustainable Feminisms and Transnational Resistance. She is currently completing a manuscript entitled Movements of Feeling: Affect, Neoliberalism and (Post)Revolutionary Memory in the Americas.


 [1]Mapuche means people (“che”) of the land (“mapu”).

Works Cited

Eng, David, and David Kazanjian. 2002. “Introduction.” In Loss: The Politics of Mourning, edited by David Eng, and David Kazanjian, 1–25. Berkeley: University of California Press.