Re-emerging Pasts: New Techniques and Forums of Truth Production in Contemporary Chile and Argentina


Funding Program:

Economic and Social Research Council Grant (ESRC) UK

Funding Amount:


With colleague Professor Vikki Bell (University of London-Goldsmiths) Professor Mario Di Paolantonio is undertaking a research project that adopts an innovative theoretical framework within which to study how – by what processes, according to what criteria, and subject to what kinds of verification – new truths emerge about the political violence that took place in the 70s and 80s in Argentina and Chile. Although that period of violence is now past, many facets of it remain unresolved; new truths and new accounts of it continue to emerge. The contemporary political climate supports greater attention to this past than the years of intervening decades. In the past five years, new memorials and museum spaces dedicated to memory have opened, their establishment protected by law. Here, crucial decisions about narratives and inclusion of objects and materials must be taken, especially where these become pedagogical spaces. Truths also emerge in other forums, i.e. in response to the uncovering of newly identified bodies and materials, whether these are literally unearthed (human remains and other materials) or newly understood (such as children of the disappeared rediscovering their ‘blood identities’ due to DNA testing). And new truths and accounts emerge through the process of law, most clearly in the post-transitional or ‘belated justice’ criminal trials that have been taking place since the lifting of amnesty laws that had attempted to limit such prosecutions.

The research will consider a range of these diverse sites, understanding them as “forums for telling.” Its premise is that the importance of telling the past is intimately linked with Justice, but that this “juris-diction” is not confined to legal forums, since the work of speaking justice (and justly) also takes place elsewhere. Our hypothesis, drawing on the work of Isabelle Stengers, is that truths about the past are of different kinds at different sites because they have to pass through different processes of hypothesising, conditions of “testing” and collective reflection before they are affirmed and allowed to emerge as true. Thus the production of truth at a museum of memory differs both in process and in terms of the truths it seeks and can affirm, from the production of truth by courts of law, or by the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team's attempts to establish identities through the testing of human remains or DNA.

We follow such processes not in order to argue a familiar stance that all truth is socially constructed, but to study more vigorously and closely what the specific processes of truth production are at different sites. Indeed, the “social” or human element in the processes of producing knowledge is not denied but is acknowledged and therefore has to be negotiated. But the different forums approach this task differently, and involve distinct material and human witnesses, different procedures and place different constraints on the objects of their interrogations. In studying these processes we ask:

  • What candidates emerge to tell the truth about the past?
  • Which truths are allowed to emerge at the different sites?
  • How are they understood as relevant to the forum that debates their status?
  • What ‘tests’ must they pass in order to attain their status as true?
  • How are emergent truths presented, arranged and mediated for consumption?
  • How is their status challenged?

The importance of these questions becomes apparent when one considers the pedagogic dimensions of the activities at stake. The project thus highlights the pedagogic and inter-generational dimension. What do the different forums understand as the relation between the production of truth and the presentation or pedagogical curation of the story of the past as a wider societal imperative? How do they agree to present their work domestically and internationally, including digitally? How do they seek to overcome the dangers of making a spectacle of the past, or else using it within a strategic instrumentalisation that insists that listening repeatedly to horrors of past violence will inoculate us from ever repeating the past wrongs?