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Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile by Macarena Gómez-Barris

Gómez-Barris, Macarena. Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009. 240 pages. $24.95 paperback.

In Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile, Macarena Gómez-Barris focuses on select visual representations and physical spaces as a lens through which to study the residual traces of the Chilean dictatorship in the cultural realm, and to consider “what symbolics of memory tell us about its afterlife” (8). Her analysis unfolds around three areas: documentary film, political art, and physical space. Through archival, ethnographic, and participant research, Gómez-Barris asks how state violence helps to produce (inter)subjectivities, and how sites of representation of collective violence help these social identities to cohere and become more apparent. She argues that the cultural realm is a critical arena of struggle, engagement, and identificationwhere the past imbues the present with meaning for the present, making it a logical place to think through the relationships between collective violence, social identity, and temporality.

Her first site of research is Villa Grimaldi, an ex-torture site turned peace park and memorial site. In the second chapter, the strongest and most successful of the book, Gómez-Barris writes that a complete picture of the past is not a precondition for progress toward the future; to the contrary, she argues that the multiple modes of resistance and remembrance enabled in a space such as Villa Grimaldi are an essential component of the project of democracy in Chile. She writes that by creating a space where people reflect and dialogue about the legacies of violence and the imprint of power, Villa Grimaldi deepens the democratic process in multiple ways, ultimately serving to fill in the gaps in the narrative of the violence and silences of the dictatorship.

The second focal point of her research is the abstract artwork of Guillermo Núñez. In chapter three, she asks how art that is primarily about torture, as his is, can make visible what is concealed by national reconstruction, arguing that his work is a form of cultural memory that renders visible the links between bodies in pain and national concealments. In its fractured aesthetic, she proposes that his work portrays the pain and splintering experienced by individual and collective bodies under the torturing regime. From there, in chapter four, she turns to documentary film, namely the films of Patricio Guzmán and Silvio Caiozzi, arguing that they demonstrate an affective and bodily encounter with memory. She asserts that the politics of these films are as such that they in effect engage the hidden narratives of the past to reconstruct the possibility of historical agency in the present, and have the potential to create spaces for political memory to be meaningfully experienced. Her final chapter is on exilic culture and activism, especially that of La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California. She muses on how the transmission of memory of counterrevolution has shaped transgenerational identities, and while the chapter is a shift from the others, it in many ways poses the question that is at the heart of the book, as it flowers from her own personal and familial identity politics.

Her decision to situate her research within a more personal realm is unquestionably one of the book's strengths, especially as the specific position from which she writes is a relatively uncommon one in the literature on memory and post-dictatorship cultural politics in the Southern Cone. The book is interesting in the sense that it flows through the subject areas of visual culture (and through film, fine art, and place/space, all of which have their importantly distinct set of politics), memory, violence, trauma, and politics and reconciliation, and yet does not firmly privilege any one category. Given that her intent is a consideration of the effects of the afterlife of violence in the cultural realm, this is perhaps an appropriate diffusion, as her writing performs the very effects she is arguing for, filling in gaps and looking for traces of the interweaving of past and present in a multiplicity of ways. Her treatment of her subject matter is thoughtful and methodical, and her writing is fluid and quite enjoyable. Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile provides an extremely relevant and distinctive line of critical inquiry to the existing scholarly conversation, and is highly recommended for those interested in memory and the cultural effects of violence.


Kaitlin McNally-Murphy is a doctoral student in Performance Studies at New York University, and holds a masters degree in Visual Culture Theory from the same university. Her research focuses on the politics of desire and progress in Latin America, exploring intersections of visuality and embodied practice, memory, and futurity within the context of truth commissions and other projects of democratization.

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