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De-Commemoration as a Factor of Collective Memory Formation in South America

Kraev Oleg

ORCID: 0000-0003-3073-1763

Postgraduate Student, MGIMO University

76 Prospekt Vernadskogo str., Moscow, 119454, Russia






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Abstract: The article focuses on de-commemoration, i.e. the elimination of monuments and other objects with historical meaning, in South American countries. The goal is to analyse the examples of these processes found in different countries of the region, using a new typology of this yet insufficiently studied phenomenon, proposed by sociologists Tracy Adams and Yinon Guttel-Klein. There are examples of de-commemoration linked to democratization of socio-political and, consequently, cultural space in the region, as well as the revision of monumental heritage in the context of changing perceptions of society and some of its influential segments of the country's past or their transition from verbal rejection of certain objects to destructive actions. The novelty of the study lies in the use of the new typology, originally applied to the analysis of the Israeli experience, in the study of memorial objects in South America and the analysis of diverse memorial units and country-specific features of the processes of de-commemoration, namely desecration and reframing, primarily in Paraguay and Colombia. One of the main conclusions of the study is the possibility of de-commemoration in the studied region in relation to objects belonging to chronologically and essentially different historical periods and phenomena. The author also reveals the multifunctionality of de-commemoration. Finally, it has been found that the interest of the state in the implementation of memory policy in general and de-commemoration in particular often plays a decisive role in the implementation of projects in this sphere.


memory policy, de-commemoration, Paraguay, Colombia, Alfredo Stroessner, counter-monument, vandalism, desecration, reframing, planned obsolescence

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Introduction. Collective memory and commemoration. In recent years, the politics of memory has been at the center of numerous studies due to the growing practical and theoretical interest in it. Its suitability for manipulating public opinion and world perception through flexible interpretations of historical events, the legacy of individual figures, etc. has led to its active use to achieve political goals of an ideological and axiological order. The researchers note that the key functions of memory policy are moral comprehension and evaluation of the common past, strengthening of group and national identity, as well as increasing the legitimacy of power [1]. At the same time, one of the founders of memory research, M. Halbwaks, noted that collective memory is not universal it is always limited by the numerical composition of its carriers and certain time frames [2]. It is the evolution of society, its gradual temporal distance from the historical event that entails a changing composition of those who remember, which increases the likelihood of a change in the prevailing interpretation of what happened.

One of the formats of commemoration, especially important in the context of this study, is the construction of monuments. There are different points of view on the effectiveness of this method. On the one hand, monuments are perceived as the personification of the past, as an object that strengthens the identity of the group, the sense of belonging to it, emphasizing the heroic and glorious events experienced by its representatives [3, p. 3]. On the other hand, in the South American context, the point of view according to which "there is nothing more inconspicuous than a monument" acquires special force: for example, K. Wigem believes that in conditions when thousands of people disappeared without a trace due to the use of specific forms of repression by the state in the second half of the twentieth century, the most effective are just the intangible practices of commemoration (for example, theatrical performances and marches), because they make the problem visible: in contrast to the tactics used to kidnap and eliminate dissidents, members of armed formations, and other disloyal persons, they seem to give the repressed a "body" in the person of participants in such immaterial practices [4].

His view is shared by other specialists dealing with the problems of symbolic compensation: they noted that it often turns out to be ineffective due to a number of factors, one of which is a tendency to stereotypical approaches to commemoration in the format of installing a "bronze statue" of a hero or victim on a pedestal, in interaction with which the viewer inevitably turns out to be a "passive observer" [5]. Specialists who have studied the Paraguayan case of commemorative activity pay attention to the fact that memory rituals have different meanings for the two main groups of participants. The first group is the victims of terror, for whom the ritual is associated with emotions of anger, guilt and fear caused by the memory of the violence inflicted by them, and the second is all the others for whom participation in commemorative events gives a sense of social involvement, contributes to the formation of the collective memory of society as a whole [6].

The mentioned approaches to assessing the "effectiveness" of the monument echo the arguments on the topic of "hard" and "soft" memory of A.M. Etkind. From his point of view, the core of cultural memory is the "interaction of texts and monuments", since only through the realization of their interdependence is the memory of the event preserved, its transmission from one generation to another and its discursive transmission to the recipient of information [7].

I believe that it is not entirely fair to consider a monument as an object that inevitably entails the oblivion of the person or event to which it is dedicated. If the theme he personifies remains relevant to society (and this relevance does not necessarily have to be expressed in a positive attitude towards the monument, and even an act of vandalism in its own way testifies to the significance of the monument), then it retains meaning. At the same time, there has been no monument in history, but the fact of its liquidation played an important symbolic role.

Decommissioning. Researchers of decommissioning emphasize: the destruction of memorial objects is a way, at least at the level of illusory perception, to break the connection with the past, to feel freedom from the prevailing ideology and restrictions, to designate new parameters and frameworks of collective and historical memory [8, p. 607-608]. Decommissioning, understood as a purposeful policy of elimination or significant, radical modification of memory objects, changing their meaning and message, deserves attention in view of the contradictory interpretations of this process. On the one hand, the demolition of monuments or the renaming of objects (geographical, infrastructural, etc.) can be perceived as a loss by society of the physically tangible and visible basis of their culture and self. It is appropriate to recall the parallel drawn by J. Le Goff between a medical memory disorder and metaphorical amnesia, in which the absence of collective memory in large groups, "conscious or unconscious loss of it", can damage their identity [9]. On the other hand, there are other alternative interpretations, considered further, according to which the act of decommissioning itself contributes to the formation of collective memory and, on the contrary, gives impetus to the strengthening of identity and draws attention to the current problems of society.

According to the new author's typology proposed by modern sociologists TracyAdams and YinonGuttel-Klein, there are three types of decommemoration. The first and most common is desecration (desecration; in the absence of a translation in the Russian language that is sufficiently close in meaning, I think it is appropriate to resort to the variant "enlightenment" proposed in the churchreligious environment, which accurately reflects the meaning of the concept in the context of memory policy [10]), including not only acts of vandalism, but also organized liquidation of objects of material memorial culture by the state. The second is the reframing of objects and spaces, involving, for example, the renaming of streets by a decision of an authorized authority, or actions organized by activists to symbolically change the content of signs with street names, as well as recontextualization, when a memorial object is supplemented with new characteristics due to a change in society's attitude to it. Finally, the third, most rarely encountered variety is the so-called planned obsolescence. In this case, this term borrowed from economic theory means the creation of a monument with a short period of use: because its appearance is oriented either to offend and humiliate the "perpetuated" person, or to provoke an acute reaction of society, which will not tolerate such a monument in public space, the elimination of such an object by one or another actor or group is guaranteed [8, p. 610-615].

It can be stated with confidence that the revision of the attitude towards monuments in recent years has become a truly international phenomenon, referred to as the "commemoration crisis". Researchers attribute this circumstance to the fact that, firstly, due to the intensification of memory research at the turn of the XX-XXI centuries, its presence in public life was strengthened in a short time, and, secondly, with the "strong" symbolism of monuments caused by their perception as a permanent object, the meaning of which goes against the changing ideas about historical knowledge [11]. In conditions when the authorities and a significant part of society are guided by the revision of their past, taking into account the priorities of the present, the elimination of monuments or their reframing is carried out on the basis of relevant laws and specialized institutions [12].

Experience of decommissioning in South America. Significant memory projects have been implemented in South America in recent decades. This is partly due to the fact that in the 1980s and 1990s, democratization took place in a number of countries in the region, accompanied by measures for the administration of transitional justice, prosecution of those guilty of crimes against humanity, providing material and symbolic compensation to victims of the repressive apparatus of authoritarian regimes. Decommissioning became one of the trends of this period. It remains a factor of memory processes in the countries under consideration to this day.

The most common and frequent practice of decommissioning in South America is vandalism. The mass protests that shook the international information space, which swept across the continent in 2019, became a catalyst for expressing in this way the attitude towards memory objects by individual groups. For example, in Chile at that time, 22 memorial objects dedicated to the victims of the Pinochet dictatorship were vandalized. This is evidence of deep disagreements manifested in local communities at the level of assessments of the past and the role of this leader in national history, existing despite the internationally recognized successes of the country in the field of human rights protection and the functioning of democratic institutions [3, p. 1]. These events have become a reflection of the polarization of Chilean society that has persisted for a long time, in which one group is convinced that Pinochet and his regime saved the country from leftist guerrilla, civil war and the reign of Marxist dictatorship, and the second part of society adheres to critical assessments of this regime and its methods; at the same time, a large mass of people are "in the middle" among the undecided or occupying an intermediate position [13, 14].

It seems that the most extensive material for the analysis of decommissioning practices in South America is provided by the example of Paraguay, where for several decades the dictator A. Stressner (1954-1989) was in power, who formed a personalist regime with a cult of personality, which was characterized by symbolic attributes characteristic of such systems, which underwent a radical revision in the democratic period [15]. After the change of power, a number of objects bearing the name of Stressner were renamed there, namely the international airport built in 1980, the city founded in 1957 as part of the campaign for the development and development of the east of the country, today called Ciudad del Este [16]. However, perhaps the most striking and creative variant of decommissioning carried out in Paraguay is the creation of a monument using the fragments of the statue of the leader. In 1991, by the decision of the Mayor of Asuncion, the five-meter statue of Stressner, which was located in the memorial complex dedicated to the heroes of the Paraguayan people built during his reign, was demolished, and in 1995 on the metropolitan Square of the disappeared (i.e. missing victims of the dictatorship) the monument "Counter-monument" (Contramonumento), created by the artist and sculptor K. Columbino, was erected, which is two heavy concrete blocks, between which what remains of the dictator's statue is squeezed, and which, as it were, do not allow him to escape from these "clutches" [17]. I note that there are other names of this object, such as "Statue of Liberty" and descriptive mentions (for example, "monument on the Square of the disappeared") [18-20].

I note that the obelisk, which served as a pedestal for the statue, remained untouched, and the absence of the dictator's representation in its updated structure is also symbolic. At one time, the researcher of the problems of commemoration A. Huyssen, using the example of the memorial experience of Berlin, pointed out that filling the meaningfully important voids of urban space with new objects, even of a commemorative nature, rather entails oblivion and loss of memory of the original event [21]. Therefore, the absence of the Stressner statue on the obelisk, installed primarily to honor the leader, and the preservation in its structure of other monuments to significant personalities of Paraguayan history is significant and meaningful, as it indicates, if not a renunciation of the problematic past and its reinterpretation, then that there was a period in national history when loud acts of decommissioning could be brought to life.

Taking into account what message was laid by the author when naming his work "Counter-monument", it is necessary to clarify the meaning of this term (the concept of "counter-monument" also occurs in Russian scientific discourse). Counter-monumentalism is a trend in sculpture that arose in the second half of the twentieth century due to the rejection of monumental forms of totalitarian art by part of the creative community. The works created within its framework are conceived as an alternative to the traditional monument, i.e. an artistic object with an understandable semantic content, and suggest the discussion of its semantic message [22]. In this regard, the work of K. Columbino, in my opinion, has not much in common with the described concept. Even a shallow knowledge of Paraguayan history, which makes it possible to recognize the Stressner in the composition of the monument, as well as his role in the life of the country and the legacy left by him, is enough to guess the author's idea, and the name of the square where this object is located leaves no doubt. In an attempt to decipher the meaning of the name "Counter-monument", I come to the conclusion that the author's intention was not to observe terminological accuracy, but to contrast the present with the past, and, by using the immediate fruits of the accomplished decommemoration, to create a new object a symbol of change, the antithesis of what was before.

At the same time, however, Paraguay has significantly less experience in memory politics than some of its neighbors, for example, Argentina. The fact that only in 2017 Law No. 5858 was adopted here on the removal from state institutions of artifacts expressing gratitude, honoring or otherwise dedicated to dictator Stressner, and their transfer to the collection of the Museum of Memory [23] speaks about some sluggishness of the processes of decommissioning in Paraguay. Four years later, in 2021, a group of deputies prepared an appeal approved by the lower house of parliament to the Vice-President of the country in order to remove a commemorative plaque with the mention of Stressner from the building where his office is located during the execution of this regulatory act [24]. Although this example, as a demonstration of the passivity of the state in relation to the assessment and analysis of the past, is quite eloquent, it also draws attention to the absence of any mention in open sources that this step of parliamentarians had any effect.

Finally, within the framework of this study, it is necessary to touch upon the topic of the South American decommissioning of the colonial heritage. In this regard, the story of the demolition of monuments to the conquistadors in Colombia and the subsequent reaction of society and the authorities deserves attention. In September 2020, Indian activists, seeking to draw public attention to the massacres of representatives of the indigenous population in Colombia, demolished a monument to the Spanish conquistador S. de Belalcazar in Popayan, accompanying these actions with an imitation of the trial of this historical figure and finding him guilty of illegal land acquisition, destruction of the Indian population and culture [25]. In 2021 during the mass protests, another monument to the same person in the nearby city of Cali also fell as a result of the actions of the Indians, after which the same thing happened to several monuments at once in the capital Bogota, including the conquistador and the founder of the city, G. Jimenez de Quesada. The approaches of the local authorities to what to do next with the monuments differed: if in Cali it was decided to return the monument to its place as one of the recognizable symbols of the city by installing a board next to it with biographical information about de Belalcazar (i.e. to carry out reframing), then the monument to Jimenez de Quesada after a long discussion with the involvement of civil society It was decided not to return the society to its former place, but to make it an exhibit of the metropolitan museum after restoration [26]. Thus, in this country case, desecration led either to a revision of the meaning of the monument, turning it rather into an artistic object of historical, but not memorial properties, or from one kind of decommemoration (desecration) there was a transition to another (reframing).

Conclusion. Summing up, it should be said that the "invisibility" of a monument, understood as a material or immaterial object filled with historical significance and an affective component, is very relative, since even its disappearance can have a deep meaning. Decommemoration, being a powerful tool for creating affect and influencing the processes of collective memory, thus performs a number of non-obvious functions. Among them are the dissociation of the new government from the previous one, the use of the object of memory to create resonance and draw attention to problems not directly related to the legacy of the immortalized person, as well as the revision of attitudes to the national past, the demonstration of changing priorities of society and assessments of historical events and personalities. Another of the general conclusions concerning the problems of collective memory is the dependence of the degree of effectiveness of the processes of decommissioning on the interest and will of the state authorities to revise the legacy of the repressive regime in the urban space, a kind of "rewiring" of the cultural meanings of the urban environment. Thus, the Paraguayan case shows that in view of the general passivity of official institutions in matters of memory, even the adoption of a legislative act is not a sufficient basis for decommissioning "from above". At the same time, the considered examples indicate the possibility of decommissioning in relation to monuments belonging to different historical periods and filled with different meanings, namely objects associated either with the repressive regimes of the second half of the twentieth century, or with the processes of colonization of the continent. Within the framework of the proposed typology, examples of two types of decommoriation were found in South America: desecration and reframing, while the planned obsolescence did not come to the attention of the author of the article.