"Chile: 30 Years after the Military Coup"
Eltit spoke in the Geballe Room on February
18. Ms Eltit is one of Latin America’s
most daring and experimental writers and is highly
her avant-garde initiatives in the world of letters.
Author of nine novels, Eltit began her engagement
with literature during the years of Pinochet rule
when she participated in the neo-vanguard, staging
art actions against the dictatorship, and published
her first novels, Lumpérica (1983) and Por
la patria (1986), to universal acclaim.
“La memoria pantalla”:
Thirty Years Later, the Spectacle Continues
Sarah Moody, Department of Spanish and Portuguese
Thirty years after the military coup that marked
the abrupt switch from Allende’s social democracy to
a repressive dictatorship, the news media finally flooded Chilean
with images of the overthrow. But those long-delayed pictures
of the dead president, of streets thronged with demonstrators
and of victims of the military apparatus came too late, said
Chilean writer Diamela Eltit. Too late and too light.
Television channels competed to circulate the
most spectacular images in commemoration of the coup’s 30th anniversary,
but that should not be taken as a sufficient handling of past
national traumas. The delay of three decades distanced the viewer
from the images and robbed them of efficacy: black and white
images seemed fuzzy and oversaturated, strangely arrhythmic to
today’s viewers. In the end, the bacchanalian accumulation
served to obscure rather than reveal a past reality. Chileans,
said Eltit, could not see past the filter, the opaque surface
of the pantalla or screen.
Today’s mass media favors a quick series of polished fragments,
a frantic movement of rapid shots and frequent cuts that constantly
move on to the next polished sound bite. In contrast, the slower
black and white images of the 1970s now appear strangely dense,
alienating the audience from the image. This difference in the
denseness and speed of presentation is Eltit’s doorway
to a critique of Chile’s national memory — or lack
thereof. The problem of memory must be approached with these
aesthetic questions in mind, with an unrelenting eye toward the
speed and density of presentation. “There,” said
Eltit, “in that curious anachronism, the materiality of
a past is configured… and that is the technique that must
This continuing white-out in Chilean culture
is intentional, she elaborated, and the result of a sinister,
for silence. Economic interests, political forces and the market-oriented
aesthetic of the television industry have all cooperated to effectively
censor representations of the past. Critical details are replaced
with anecdotes that have removed political concerns from circulation.
In this way the exaggerated, weighty silence that characterized
life under dictatorship was not as different as it seems from
today’s overabundance of images: both techniques are stupefying
in their absoluteness and serve to empty public conversation
of real political debate, as well as to limit representations
of the past to closure rather than permit an awareness of continuity.
The goal is for Chile to finally get over its traumatic past,
to put an end to the issue. Period.
During the first hours of the military coup,
the Moneda presidential palace, Chile’s symbolic center of government and nation,
was bombed. Eltit pointed out that: “The coming bloodshed
does not burst forth in the documentaries. The wound appears
as narration of the wound in the survivors.” This distancing
of the experience of history avoids the real issues by leaving
the dead, those unable to narrate or otherwise express their
experience, out of the camera’s frame. Similarly, in regard
to the fleeting shots of political prisoners in the National
Stadium, which became a concentration camp during the dictatorship,
Eltit suggested we pause in the prisoners’ absolute precariousness
rather than quickly pass them over. “We should, yes, isolate
and freeze the face of that exact prisoner who, behind the bleachers,
shows an opaque shine of stupor in his gaze. We could project
his frozen image until it explodes. Provoke the explosion of
his gaze in order to repeat the drama in the stadium, the suffering
in the stands, the ignominy of a multitude of confiscated bodies
in a sports enclosure of the State.” What is needed was
an insistence on the singularity of the trauma, not its conversion
into just one more facile episode among so many sit-coms or dramas
on so many channels.
Eltit sees the effect of thirty years of national
coaching by the dictatorship in the streets of Santiago today.
and habit of silence has trained correct citizens to accept their
unstable working conditions and hurry obediently about their
errands. A conformist apathy hovers over the populace as the
media’s empty scandals —scandalously empty — provide
the citizen-turned-voyeur with the only vent for passionate explosions.
The role of the citizen today is to act as spectator in his or
her own society, to be a passive and uncritical voyeur of the
mass media images. Eltit insisted that something else is necessary,
something that pays real attention to the past and to alternative,
Eltit’s writing can be understood as an
aesthetic alternative to the spectacle that she criticizes.
More powerful than any
solutions she could prescribe, her novels offer a daring example
of that microvision, that space of the elusive and the domestic
that she suggests is so necessary.
Eltit is an acclaimed Chilean writer and the author of ten
books. On February 18, 2004 she presented
a talk for CLAS
titled “La memoria pantalla.”