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Divine Violence: Spectacle, Psychosexuality, and Radical Christianity in the Argentine "Dirty War."

This book is one of the first efforts to grapple with the extremely delicate issue of repression, torture, and disappearance of thousands of Argentines during the last dictatorship (1976-83). It would be hard to exaggerate to brutality and sadism of the Argentine military and their henchmen. The horror alone will make the dictatorship a much-discussed but little-analysed chapter in Latin American history. Graziano's approach is not to describe what happened, but to explore the symbolic expression of violence through a deconstruction of the main texts, testimonials, rituals, in sum the multiple discourses of extreme human rights abuses.

This is not a book for historians, though there may be material here which some historians might find useful. Graziano owes much to recent trends in literary theory, borrowing especially heavily from Lacan, Derrida, Bakhtin, Foucault, and so on. What concerns the author are the symbolic forms which lend meaning and justifications (almost always hypocritical in Graziano's view) to these acts of violence. Since symbolism reorganizes reality into set discursive structures, it transforms these forms into "performative" acts which can be studied as such. After a chapter overviewing the main components of the atrocities, Graziano looks especially at four manifestations or principles around which symbols of violence were organized, each constituting a chapter. Chapter two looks at the theatrical and role-playing dimension of violence in which torturer, tortured, and even the "disappeared" occupied set roles and expressed common tropes of an unfolding drama. This theatrical (re)enactment empowered and legitimated the military's acts. Chapter three unravels the "mythology" of violence, exploring the military's obsession with "Natural Order," heroism (in this case their own acts to save the republic from Armageddon or communism), and recurring reference to eschatological imperatives to eliminate the antichrist ("subversives"). Through self-created assaults on a mythological "other," the military rehearsed narrative structures of cosmic battles between good and evil. Chapter four, borrowing explicitly from Lacan, looks at the psychoanalytic dimension of torture, the use of rape, infanticide, physical humiliation, and the obsession with the picana (electrified cattle prods shaped like a phallus). Torture prolonged a drawn-out ritual murder of the father-figure (the enemy), allowing the son (the military) to usurp the father's power with his own phallus (the picana) empowered. In this fashion the son's status shifted to that of a Lacanian "Name-of-the-Father." The final chapter looks at the extended and twisted uses of necessary sacrifice as cleansing and extirpating processes. Here Graziano reaches back to medieval and Aztec human sacrifice as rituals rehearsed by the Argentine military. Whether Orpheus, Christ or Aztec "sacred terror," ritual sacrifice gave religious benediction to torture and disappearance. All told, the military wrapped themselves in a complex and multilayered culture of violence.

Graziano takes the reader a long way from more common functionalist accounts of violence and dictatorship. Indeed, strictly speaking there is no function at all - simply deep irrational performances of transhistorical human pathologies. He has marshalled impressive evidence from tracts and testimonies of torture, as well as secondary sources, though historians will grow quickly impatient at his liberal tendency to cite theoretical or general works when making a specific point about Argentina. Unfortunately, without a full bibliography, Graziano does not tell readers how many or which cases were consulted.

More problematic is the method. Those with any aversion to deconstruction should stay well away from this book. But even those with a mild sympathy or curiosity (such as myself), will wince at the stretched metaphors and transhistorical leaps. For instance, in long passages about Christian or Aztec sacrifice - to take only an example - it is quite unclear whether these are meant as analogies or are themselves the origins of discourses of violence. Lack of respect of time and place-specific cases and sequences poses serious problems for historians. It does not help that great leaps in, time and space are all stitched together with a stubborn propensity to jargon - which will only confirm to many the downright negative promises of this approach.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of this book, though it is not clear whether this will apply to any effort to come to some kind of analytical terms with the horror of the subject, is the treatment of tortured, raped, maimed and disappeared Argentines as "tropes," "discourses," or "actors" - as if the victims had some kind of say in all this. To be sure, Graziano is trying to grapple with the justificatory language and culture of the military's acts. But the shifting back and forth from personal human testimony to abstract and very aggregated social motives leaves the actual victims behind. One is left wondering whether Graziano needs the evidence at all. This book will no doubt be at the centre of any future discussion about the meaning and causes of the "Dirty War." Unfortunately, it does only very partial justice to its subject.
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Author:Adelman, Jeremy
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 1993
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