The Darkening Nation


The Darkening Nation: Race, Neoliberalism and Crisis in Argentina, published by University of Wales Press in May 2018, is a monograph by CLACS member Ignacio Aguiló. In this post, he briefly tells us about the contents of the book and its relevance within and outside Latin American Studies.

At the turn of the twentieth century, and after a decade of drastic neoliberal reforms, Argentina experienced the worst economic crisis in its history. At the time, half of the population was living in poverty, the unemployment rate was 25% and job precarity was widespread. In December 2001, the freezing of bank savings was met with social unrest which led to the fall of the government. Subsequently, the country declared a default on its public debt – the largest in history at the time. While there has been a large body of scholarship examining the economic and political implications of this crisis, few have analysed its cultural dimension. The Darkening Nation aims to fill this lacuna by reading the crisis across cultural productions such as novels, films, artworks and songs produced during this period of national emergency and showing how the country’s economic collapse was experienced by sectors of the population as a crisis of national and racial identity.

During the 20th century, dominant templates constructed the nation of Argentina as a sort of regional exception: a white Europeanised country in Latin America. This exceptional whiteness was, allegedly, the result of both massive European immigration and the extinction of pre-existing indigenous, black and mixed-race people at the turn of the twenty century. Although in reality non-white groups did not wither away but were instead invisibilised through a complex series of cultural and social strategies, the idea of a ‘white Argentina’ became a powerful articulator of nationness, both internally and abroad. Mexican poet Octavio Paz summarised this by stating that, ‘[t]he Mexicans come from the Aztecs, the Peruvians from the Incas, and the Argentinians from the boats’. Through the analysis of cultural expressions, The Darkening Nation demonstrates that the 2001/2 financial meltdown was experienced by those sectors of society that had embraced and sustained the notion of ‘white Argentina’ as a traumatic process of national ‘Latin Americanisation’ and ‘darkening’. In so doing, it exposes and problematises the often overlooked link between economic crisis, national identity and race, in Argentina.

The feeling of national blackening also led to a rise of racism, which was particularly targeted at immigrants: Peruvians, Bolivians and Paraguayans were blamed for the economic decline of Argentina and portrayed as ‘contaminating’ the country’s historical whiteness. In this sense, The Darkening Nation shows how many processes currently affecting the Western world in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial meltdown had already taken place in Argentina at the beginning of this century. In both contexts, reactions against impoverishment and precarisation were expressed through the embracement of anti-immigrant and nativist sentiments, and a call to return to an idealised national past of cultural and racial homogeneity. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote are seen as paradigmatic examples in Anglo-Europe of conservative responses to the failures of neoliberalism.

Lastly, The Darkening Nation charts the ways in which, during the Argentinian crisis, certain cultural producers challenged dominant narratives of whiteness and their exclusionary nature. They exposed that, rather than extinct, indigenous, black and mixed-race populations had been systematically expelled symbolically from the nation throughout the twenty century. By looking at how culture became a platform for the critique of restrictive ideas of national belonging and racism during the country’s economic collapse, this book contributes to the study of the usually sidelined yet enormously influential cultural dimensions of the crisis. Yet the book’s impact goes beyond Argentina and Latin America; it explicates how the current pressing issues in the United States and Europe were navigated years ago by Argentinian society. As such, The Darkening Nation can also cast light on strategies to respond to the growth of racism manifested as a reaction against the negative socioeconomic impact of neoliberalism.


PG Symposium: Research Trends in Latin American Studies


On 26 April, CLACS organised a symposium for PhD students working in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool. The event was funded by the North West Doctoral Training Centre. The event built on previous symposia organised in Manchester and provided PhD students with the opportunity to present papers on their research in a friendly and constructive environment, and to get feedback from peers and staff.

Linda Avendano (HCRI) kicked off the symposium with a presentation on child soldiers and miners in Colombia. Linda discussed the current academic interpretation of ‘child soldiering’ and its implications in terms of human rights violations and policy interventions. She argued for a wider comprehension of the multiple roles performed by children in current conflicts and outlined a theoretical framework that can help address gaps in theorising and practice.

Carole Myers (SALC) discussed elective cosmetic rhinoplasty in contemporary Brazilian women, focusing on the appropriation of cultural influences and their significance in contemporary Brazilian society.

Luis Eduardo Pérez Murcia (SEED) shared the results of his ethnographic work among displaced people in Colombia. He explained the multiple ways in which they construct narratives of home that are crucially shaped by the experiences of conflict and Displacement.

Nicola Astudillo-Jones (SALC) gave the first of two presentations dealing with cinema. She showed how British spectators of Latin American films at Manchester’s Viva Festival perceive Latin America-ness in terms of imagined cosmopolitan communities.

Nicola Runciman (SALC) continued with the topic of cinema, but moved from reception to film analysis, examining the narrative, aesthetic and socio-political functions of the Chilean landscape as it emerges in two recent films: El año del tigre (Sebastián Lelio, 2011) and Matar a un hombre (Alejandro Fernández Almendras, 2014). Nicola demonstrated how these films engage with nationally specific concerns about the social order while also articulating a troubling dimension of the body’s relationship to the external world, a dimension which connects the particular and the universal.

After lunch, Dr. Jon Beasley-Murray (University of British Columbia) gave a keynote talk on Latin American literature and infrapolitics as part of the day, entitled “What’s the Use of Literature?  Machinery and Mechanism in the Latin American Canon”.


The afternoon session was devoted to literature. María Montt Strabucchi (SALC) explored Colombian author Santiago Gamboa’s novel Los Impostores (2002) in dialogue with the work of Sara Ahmed, Homi Bhabha and Jean-Luc Nancy, in order to draw out the challenge of essentialist views as well as the understandings of community that the novel suggests.

Ailsa Peate (Liverpool) analysed Rogelio Guedea’s Detective Trilogy and demonstrated how the Mexican author presents an original interpretation of the genre, achieved in part by creating a distressing plot based on historical events, which draws our attention to the corruption currently at the heart of the Mexican political elite.

Finally, Rafael Argenton Freire (SALC) looked at Brazilian Romantic poet Gonçalves Dias (1823-1864). Rafael explored how Gonçalves Dias self-fashioned himself as a poet in relation to European models and as a poet writing within and against the ideology of a Romantic, post-independence Brazil. Moreover, he look at how and to what extent his role within the literary relations of production contributed to his literary success and public recognition as a poet.

Prof. Peter Wade closed the symposium with a talk on how to get published in Latin American Studies, which provided very useful tips.

In sum, it was a long but fulfilling day in which we all engaged in exciting and stimulating discussions and that demonstrated the excellent research being carried out by our PhD students.

Lights Out in Bogotá


James Scorer (james.scorer [at]

On a recent trip to Bogotá I was fortunate enough to get a ticket for the Concierto Binacional Colombia-Venezuela, a joint concert performed by members of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá and of La Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, the Venezuelan youth orchestra. Conducted by the famous Gustavo Dudamel, the performance was designed to deploy culture in a gesture of bi-national partisanship. In recent years relations between the two countries, often pragmatic at best, have been strained by disputes over the border activities of paramilitary and guerrilla groups, and over smuggling (Idler, 2015).

Holding such an event in the Colombian capital, former temporary home to the transnational liberator Simón Bolívar, now the figurehead of Venezuela and himself celebrated in musical form by Dudamel, seemed like an appropriate choice. Nevertheless, the Teatro Mayor Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a cultural centre built in the far north of the city, was a far cry from the downtown Quinta de Bolívar, let alone the impoverished neighbourhoods of the south-western stretches of the city. Built as a joint venture between the state and the vastly wealthy Santo Domingo family, the Teatro Mayor cannot help but serve as a reminder of the vast wealth divide evident in the city.

Before the concert began we were regaled with a welcoming speech given by the director of the Orquesta Filarmónica de Bogotá, a long, wandering introduction that eventually resulted in a cry from the gods that echoed around the hall’s excellent acoustics: ‘¡música!’ The call split the audience between those who tut-tutted with a frown and those who stifled chortles or began to applaud the forthright expression of their own inner thoughts.

The orchestra opened and ended with Beethoven, the choice of the Choral Fantasy as the concluding piece, itself a musical fusion of different orchestral elements and a piece that sings of harmonious unification, a symbolic inclusion for a concert of cooperation. Dudamel’s own piece, however, the soundtrack he was commissioned to write for the film Libertador, a biopic of Bolívar, captured the spirit of the concert most eloquently with its romantic lyricism and sabre-rattling.

And yet the most dramatic moment of the night was when, mid-performance, the lights went out. Plunged into darkness, one couldn’t help but wonder whether this was a failure in state infrastructure, the beginnings of an incursion, or a blown fuse. Some suggested that it had been the spirit of Bolívar’s former general-turned-foe, Francisco de Paula Santander, returning from the grave to cast a shadow over the music that saluted his nemesis.

Others, however, speculated that it had been a reminder to one of concert’s sponsors, Gustavo Petro, the Mayor of Bogotá, of his immense unpopularity. Petro, former leader of the left-wing guerrilla movement M-19, has rankled some of the wealthier residents of Bogotá, not just because of his revolutionary past, but also because of his approach to reducing urban inequality, including, for example, his project to build social housing in some of the most affluent parts of Chapinero (Raskin, 2015).

Two nations united, then, but a city divided. The orchestra played on valiantly in the gloom.


Idler, Annette. (2015) ‘A Humanitarian and Diplomatic Crisis is Unfolding on the Colombia-Venezuela Border’ Online: [15 September 2015]

Raskin, Julia. (2015) ‘The Way Out is Through: Class Conflict in Bogota’. PopFront. Online: [accessed 31 August 2015].

Between the Medical and the Moral: Disability and Domination

Ignacio Aguiló (ignacio.aguilo [at]

In July 2013, the journal Nature announced that a group of scientists from Massachusetts University were in the process of developing a genetic therapy that could, in the medium term, erase Down syndrome. That the news was reproduced worldwide and celebrated as a great step in the definitive ‘correction’ of this condition is an indicator of the degree to which Down syndrome, and deficiencies in general, are still defined in public discourses as primary biological and natural phenomena in need of ‘eradication’, rather than as social constructions subject to diverse relationships of domination. In this post I aim to offer a political reading of disabilities, taking as a case study the different discourses constructed around Miguel Tomasín, drummer of Reynols (one of my favourite bands), who has Down syndrome.

reynols (1)

Compared to other historically subalternised identities, domination over individuals with disabilities still goes largely unnoticed and tends to be perceived as natural and common sense (Pothier and Devlin, 2006). While in Western countries the racist and hetero-sexist overtones of eugenic practices have been relatively extirpated from public discourses (or, at least, tamed down), this is not the case when it comes to disabilities.

The selective abortion of foetuses identified as disabled is a socially accepted procedure in many nations. The social consensus around this practice indicates that a disabled life is not worth living, which positions those who live with a disability as inferior.[1] In these discourses about disability, the importance of ideas such as dignity and compassion is central. The death of people with disabilities on the basis of humanitarian reasons usually generates empathy, as exemplified by the Latimer case. Robert Latimer, a Canadian farmer, decided to kill his disabled child in 1993, arguing compassionate motives. A poll by Ipsos MORI found that 73% of Canadians believed that he deserved a more lenient sentence and 41% felt that ‘mercy killing’ should be de-criminalised.

All of the above shows how the forms of exclusion and subordination imposed on disabled people are more effective than other apparatus for domination, like sexism and racism, since they continue to present disability as a personal tragedy and a natural fact. This also implies that all forms of disability are reduced to a single deviation in relation to the able body, also understood as a single, constant and fixed entity (Carlson, 2005). Michel Foucault (1989, 2003), among others, has extensively analysed the medicalisation of the social and the regulation of bodies according to productivity and ability as part of the establishment of modern biopolitical governmentality. Deborah Kaplan (2000) argues that, particularly in the case of disability, this medical model is intersected and supplemented by a ‘moral model’, articulated around notions such as charity and compassion. This implies that disabled people are not only presented as requiring regulation, rectification and eradication, but also as in need of sympathy and sensibility – all of which contributes to masking and naturalising domination by ‘normal’ society.

Now let us focus on the case of Tomasín and Reynols. Formed in 1993 in Buenos Aires, Reynols achieved cult following worldwide, releasing more than 60 records in Argentina, the UK, the USA, Germany, France, Italy and Japan.[2] They also toured extensively in all these countries. Reynols’ music, while highly unclassified, can be described as oriented to improvisation, droning and experimentalism. Reynols’ oeuvre is also influenced by the historical avant-garde: their first release, Gordura vegetal hidrogenada (Hydrogenated Vegetable Fat), consisted of a case (without a disc) and a booklet with the legend ‘This CD dematerialized fifteen seconds ago’. Other Reynols projects included a 10,000 farm chickens’ symphony, an album made with blank cassette tapes and a series of recordings of celebrities’ graves. They disbanded in 2004, the same year in which Argentinian director Néstor Frenkel released the documentary Buscando a ReynolsHere it is possible to listen to some of their music:

Reynols, Betley Welcomes Careful Drivers & Blackbean And Placenta Tape Club (1999) [Accessed 24 August 2015]

Due to Tomasín’s disability, Reynols attracted considerable attention from the Argentinian mainstream media. News reports were characterised by statements such as ‘Miguel Tomasín: A moving story’ and ‘A life’s example: In spite of his disability, Miguel is part of a group in which he can play the music he loves’.

From Buscando a Reynols, dir. by Néstor Frenkel (2004) [Accessed 24 August 2015]

The media’s coverage of Tomasín exemplifies the intersection of the medical paradigm, which marks the deviation (‘in spite of his disability’), with the moral model, which offers viewers a space for condescending perspectives which in turn reinforces their identification as ‘normal’.

Disability is an individual condition, which is entirely the individual’s responsibility, and hence Tomasín’s efforts to accommodate mainstream society should be celebrated. By presenting him as someone who courageously accepts his disability, the media transforms him into what Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell (2005) denominate the ‘super-crip’. In the case of Reynols, headlines and expressions such as ‘Integration and rock and roll’ and ‘It is so nice to see a group doing this good deed’ suggest that the only reasons for ‘normal’ people to interact with disabled people are altruism and compassion, since the latter do not possess any intrinsic value as individuals.

What happens when it is Tomasín himself who speaks about his disability? The following intervention in Hablemos claro – one of Argentina’s most popular talk shows of the late 1990sis interesting, in the sense that it suggests the possibility of a critique of power dynamics by means of an epistemological inversion that actually identifies the normal body as the problem.

From Buscando a Reynols [Accessed 24 August 2015]

Tomasín challenges the narrative of the talk show, articulated around the moral model that infantilises people with Down syndrome by presenting them as ontologically kind and innocent. He inverts the terms of the discourse, by stressing that a disabled person, like anybody else, can have and express selfish feelings. He is very much aware that his chances of gaining employment, particularly during the recession that affected Argentina at the turn of the twenty-first century, were significantly lower than those of normal people. His egoism also expresses a critique of the normal body, a body that is better prepared – and disciplined – to produce according to the demands of a capitalist economy. What this epistemological inversion in Tomasín’s discourse reveals is the political dimension of the hegemonic discourse on disability, hence de-naturalising the power relations between normal and disabled people.

In this post I have carried out a brief analysis of Down syndrome from a political perspective that highlights how this condition is defined by power relationships and discourses. By examining how the figure of Tomasín has been described in the media, I have shown the primacy of the medical and moral models in the ways in which mainstream Argentinian media understands disability. As the reference to Tomasín’s intervention exemplifies, the possibility of a critique of the discrimination of disabled people requires likewise a critique of the epistemological foundations of this paradigm. Considering recent welfare cuts for the disabled by the Tory government, it is needless to say that the discussion is very relevant to the British context.


Carlson, Licia. 2005. Docile Bodies, Docile Minds: Foucauldian Reflections on Mental Retardation. In: S. Tremain. 2005. Foucault and the Government of Disability. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. pp. 133-52.

Goggin, Gerard, & Newell, Christopher. 2004. Fame and Disability: Christopher Reeve, Super Crips, and Infamous Celebrity. M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture, 7(5). pp. 1-5.

Kaplan, Deborah. 2000. The Definition of Disability: Perspective of the Disability Community. Journal of Health Care, Law and Policy, 3. pp. 352-64.

Foucault, Michel. 2003. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976. Translated by David Macey. New York: Picador.

Foucault, Michel. 1989. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. Translated by A.M. Sheridan. London: Routledge.

Frenkel, Néstor. 2004. Buscando a Reynols. Argentina/A.C.Cine.

Pothier, Dianne, & Devlin, Richard. 2006. Introduction: Toward a Critical Theory of Dis-Citizenship. In: Pothier & Richard. 2006. Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law. Vancouver: The University of British Columbia. pp. 1-24.

[1] Contrary to this, sex-selective abortion, a practice common in countries such as India and China, is often presented as controversial and backward by the Western media.

[2] For the complete discography of Reynols, please visit their webpage at Discogs: [Accessed 24 August 2015].

Beyond Speech: Silence and the Unspeakable across Cultures

The international conference Beyond Speech: Silence and the Unspeakable across Cultures took place in the SALC Graduate School on 8th May 2015, thanks to generous funding from artsmethods@manchester, the Alliance Française, and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst. Organised by Mary Farrelly (Spanish), Eleanor K. Jones (Portuguese), and Joe Twist (German), the conference brought together speakers from a broad range of institutions, backgrounds, and disciplines to explore the ways in which silence, the ineffable, and the unspeakable are represented, interpreted, and subverted across different cultures and cultural media. The papers presented covered a diverse range of fields including literature, music, film, art history, and drama, and several papers were of specific interest to scholars working in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies.
Keynote speaker Dr Tom Whittaker (University of Liverpool) kicked off the day with ‘Listening to Silence in Contemporary Spanish Cinema.’ The talk explored Spain’s recent ‘cine de silencio’ with special attention to the films Las olas (2011) and La mujer sin piano (2009). While making use of these examples from the world of Spanish cinema, Whittaker’s rich and engaging talk also tapped into themes and ideas that spoke to a wide range of disciplines and cultures, creating a common ground for the papers and discussions that followed.
Dr Ignacio Aguiló chaired one of the first panels of the day, ‘Beyond Words in the Hispanic World,’ which specifically explored the limits of language and silence in Spain and Latin America. Dr Óscar Salgado Suárez (Birkbeck College, London) opened the panel with a discussion of Julián Ríos’s Larva (1983) and how this monumental novel works asliberature, a literature that plays with the limits of language to free itself from rigid narrative strategies. Dr Ricki O’Rawe (Queen’s University Belfast) followed with an illuminating paper on Borges and the potential of poetry. Ricki’s paper was followed by Emily Baker’s (University of Cambridge) ‘“Shaking Hands Can Be Like Disarming a Bomb”: Division by Language, Reconciliation through Touch in The Informers by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.’ The final speaker, Manus O’Dwyer (University of Santiago de Compostela) returned to poetry with his study ‘José Ángel Valente and the Limits of Silence.’
Representing lusophone studies were Anneliese Hatton (University of Nottingham) and David Bailey (University of Cambridge), who shared the panel ‘Unspeakable Subalternities,’ chaired by Professor Hilary Owen. Anneliese’s paper, ‘Overcoming the Insuperable: Strategies of Representing the Subaltern,’ drew on her doctoral research on Portugal’s ‘semiperipherality’ to explore the limitations and pitfalls of the notion of ‘subalternity’ as category of identity. Her study set the scene well for David’s paper, ‘Uttering the Unutterable: The (D)enunciation of Deviant Sexuality in the Naturalist Novels of the Portuguese Fin de Siècle,’ which made use of Foucauldian theory to examine Portuguese literary pathologisations of homosexuality.
The final two panels of the day, ‘Articulating Atrocity’ and ‘Beyond Page, Beyond Stage,’ featured three Hispanic-centred papers. Imogen Bloomfield’s (University of Hull) paper, ‘Ils ne sont pas: Spanish Civil War Photographs of Child Mortality,’ added to the conference’s interdisciplinary nature through its focus on the medium of posters. By bringing the images into dialogue with Marianne Hirsch’s writing on family photography, Bloomfield was able to theorise the affective response generated by these emotive images of child casualties and analyse how they function as propaganda. Manchester’s own Dr Esther Gómez-Sierra headed up the second of these final panels with her paper ‘Lope de Vega and Money: The Unspeakable Truth,’ which explored the relationship between love and money in Lope de Vega’s La dama boba. Her study was followed by Lucy Bollington’s (University of Cambridge) ‘Writing without Writing: The Aesthetic Philosophy of Mario Bellatin,’ an examination of the eponymous author’s use of narrative to generate silence.
The interdisciplinary nature and friendly atmosphere at the conference was productive for both attendees and organisers, providing a rigorous yet informal arena for the sharing and discussion of ideas. The organisers would like to extend particular thanks to Dr. Jérôme Brillaud, head of the SALC Graduate School, for his support of the event, as well as our sponsors, chairs, speakers, and other attendees.
For more information on the programme, and photographs of the day, visit

Guns, flags and words: ETA and the figure of the intellectual

David Jiménez Torres (david.jimeneztorres [at]

Since the 1890s, when the term ‘intellectual’ began to be used as a noun in the major European languages, the figure that is referred to with this term has become one of the most significant and polemical ones of the cultural imaginaries of Western nations. While there has been no shortage, over the past century, of analyses and even histories of ‘the intellectuals’ as a political, social or cultural phenomenon, Stefan Collini recently proposed that we also examine the intellectual as a discursive phenomenon.

Collini parts from the idea that since the very appearance of the term there has been a debate over what type of people it actually refers to, what their goals or means are, etc; he further points out how much the various definitions of the term ‘intellectual’ have taken place within contests for symbolic legitimacy among specific figures or groups. That is, defining what we mean by ‘intellectual’ has always been part of grander power struggles and we should therefore not accept any given definition as universally valid but rather as the result of a specific cultural or historical situation. The history of intellectuals should therefore not be a mere enumeration of culturally or politically salient figures, but also a reconstruction of the debates that have surrounded the attempt to define what is meant by referring to individuals as ‘intellectuals’. In doing this type of research, we could detach ourselves from the frequently tendentious debates that have surrounded the figure of the intellectual over the past century and analyse what these debates can tell us about the societies that produce them. These conclusions seem perfectly applicable to Spanish culture throughout the twentieth century. It is very clear, for example, that early-twentieth-century figures like Miguel de Unamuno, Ramiro de Maeztu or Azorín operated under different notions of what being an intellectual meant and what type of demands this status placed on them as public figures. Stephen Roberts’s excellent biography of Unamuno shows how much the latter’s output changed depending on the evolution of his idea of what an intellectual was or should be. Maeztu’s production during his London years is often motivated by a desire to make Spanish intellectuals behave more like their British counterparts (by which he often meant the Fabian Society). The distinction between a generación del 98, generación del 14 and generación del 27 also refers, in many ways, to different ways of exercising intellectual influence over society. Lastly, I published an article recently looking at the debate regarding the meaning of the term ‘intellectual’ that took place within the larger disputes between aliadófilos and germanófilos during the First World War. With this in mind, I have recently started to work on the different perceptions of the figure of the intellectual that have been held in Spain during the second half of the twentieth century. In particular, I have focused on pronouncements issued in relation to the long violent conflict in the Basque Country that has had the terrorist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (E.T.A.) at its epicentre. The choice of examining the figure of the intellectual in relation to E.T.A. has been based on the salience that the latter has had in Spanish politics and culture over the past fifty years, a salience that has turned E.T.A. into something which most figures of some cultural standing had to take some type of stand on (be it for or against). Furthermore, E.T.A.’s recourse to violence, and its links with the wider ideology of Basque nationalism, begs a number of questions that have often been asked of the figure of the intellectual: can the intellectual ever legitimise violence? What relationship should these figures have with the nation, and with nation-building processes? What should the intellectuals’ relationship to ‘power’ be, and how do we define ‘power’ –  is it just the state, or can it also include those who have the power and willingness to gun down a person in the street for thinking differently from them?

“Una cuestión de compromiso. ETA y la figura del intelectual”. 

Talk by David Jiménez Torres at the University of the Balearic Islands (31/3/2015)

Interestingly, the first important pronouncement in this regard comes from ETA itself, through its 1964 document entitled “Carta abierta de ETA a los intelectuales vascos”. Despite being published six years after the birth of the organisation, it is one of first instances of ETA breaking out of its customary secrecy and divulging a document about its aims and priorities. In the letter, ETA claims to be doing this because it is worried by the mounting social condemnation towards its use of violence. And it finds itself particularly concerned by “la posición de otros vascos que, por su mayor dedicación –dedicación exclusiva en muchos casos- a las cosas del espíritu y del arte, se diría deben estar más presentes que nadie en los problemas de su pueblo y que, sin embargo, no se toman las molestias de informarse sobre las causas y efectos de ese fenómeno que está desarrollándose en nuestra patria ocupada y que puede ser calificado de nuevo nacionalismo vasco.” It is in order to explain things to this group that the organisation claims to write “esta nuestra primera carta dirigida a los intelectuales vascos”. And the letter afterwards includes a list of occupations which merit being considered within this category: “poetas, profesores, pintores, escultores, músicos, sacerdotes, novelistas, periodistas, técnicos, investigadores, filósofos, dramaturgos, actores, cineastas, ensayistas, profesiones liberales…”. We thus see that ETA’s letter operated with an understanding of the “intelectual” as someone belonging to a broad category of people, to a stratum of society whose professions led them to engage primarily with the matters of “espíritu”. But we can see from the beginning the ambiguity and instability of this definition. For in order to be an intellectual, must one be a full-time poet, painter, sculptor or musician, or is it enough to partake in these occupations as a hobby? And what could lie beyond the final ellipsis of the list of occupations, especially once the entirety of the “profesiones liberales” has been invoked? Moreover, why is no definition provided of the “espíritu”, when this far-from-straightforward term seems to be the central criteria of intellectual-ness? And does that term not fit ill with the Marxist vocabulary that ETA employs throughout the rest of the letter, indeed throughout the entirety of its communiqués? ETA moved on to demand that intellectuals commit themselves to participating in their twin struggle to end capitalism and to liberate the Basque people from ‘foreign’ oppression. A commitment that was not heeded, if we are to pay attention to an article published by playwright Alfonso Sastre in 1980. Sastre, who has a long history of involvement in ETA’s political arm, Herri Batasuna, published a piece entitled “Carta a 33 intelectuales vascos” in which he condemned the recent criticisms of a number of intellectuals towards ETA’s use of violence. Sastre accused these intellectuals of “cobardía civil” and “colaboración con el Poder”, referring to them as “intelectuales cortesanos”. The image he provides of intellectuals is therefore of a group that is as frivolous as it is disingenuous, people who have not heeded ETA’s call for support, but have instead sold their commitment to the highest bidder. What is interesting is that this image of intellectuals as a social group that is either separate from ETA or in direct opposition to it is surprisingly similar to what appears in some writings coming from the anti-ETA camp during the 80s and 90s, and the image that they put forward of the role that intellectuals are playing vis-à-vis ETA. In his book Contra las patrias (1984), for example, Fernando Savater said that “los intelectuales” had been playing an important role in legitimising ETA’s violence (p. 126). A role that Savater critizised vehemently, arguing that neither “la prolongación de la lucha armada y aún menos su justificación” could be understood or forgiven. And in his work Sacra Némesis, author Jon Juaristi repeatedly employed the term “intelectual” when referring to specific ETA leaders and militants, describing the group of youths that founded ETA in the 1950s as “un grupúsculo de intelectuales en ciernes” (95). This is not a novelty as far as discussion of ETA goes, as we know that the youth wing of the PNV during the 1960s often referred (in a derogatory manner) to the group that had just founded ETA as “intelectuales”. We can thus see some examples of the instability that Collini pointed out in terms of how groups and individuals conceive and discuss the activities of ‘the intellectuals’. The fact that both ETA and Sastre, on the one side, and Savater and Juaristi on the other, could present “the intellectuals” as people who were working for the other side of such a dramatic dispute shows not an incongruity in terms of how we understand ETA, but rather a set of incongruities in terms of how we discuss “intellectuals” and their role in society. Further research will examine a wider array of documents produced in relation to ETA and will examine how discourse on “the intellectuals” from both the pro- and anti-ETA camps evolved during the 2000s and in the few years that have lapsed since the declaration of ETA’s definitive ceasefire in 2011.

Further reading:

Collini, Stefan. 2006. Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Elorza, Antonio (ed.). 2006. La Historia de ETA (Madrid: Temas de Hoy)

Juaristi, Jon. Sacra Némesis: nuevas historias de nacionalistas vascos (Madrid: Espasa)

Maeztu, Ramiro de. 1911. La revolución y los intelectuales (Madrid: Bernardo Rodríguez)

Roberts, Stephen G. H. 2007. Miguel de Unamuno o la creación del intelectual español moderno (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca)

Savater, Fernando. 1996. Contra las patrias (Barcelona: Tusquets)

Fieldwork as déjà vu: writing up to give up familiarity*

Sofía González-Ayala
(sofia.gonzalez-ayala [at]

The subject of my PhD in Social Anthropology with Visual Media at the University of Manchester is the exhibition Wakes and living saints: Black, Afro-Colombian, Palenquero and Raizal communities or Velorios y santos vivos: Comunidades negras, afrocolombianas, raizales y palenqueras, which was open for three months in 2008 at the National Museum of Colombia, in Bogotá, and began travelling around the country since 2009. I got initially involved with that exhibition project as a research assistant for its temporary version at the Museum. Then, during the two following years, I was in charge of its travelling version, a set of 21 banners with printed text and photographs and a few objects that worked as a structure used to organize local versions of the original exhibition.

In my PhD research project I proposed to follow this moving display, which still travelled in 2012 and 2013. Therefore while doing ‘fieldwork’ for my PhD degree in Manchester I would not be away but ‘at home’—fieldwork was like a déjà vu. This implied that, although I met new people with whom I had to gain rapport and familiarity, perhaps it meant even more that I had to de-familiarize myself from my previous knowledge and expertise as a museum employee, local anthropologist, colleague and friend. This had implications not only during that year back in Colombia, as my colleagues, friends and even myself became my informants, because when I started writing up my ethnography I realised that they might also become my audience and this has triggered feelings of betrayal and guilt. I have felt ‘anti-social’ (Mosse, 2006) in relation to that possible audience as, precisely because of the roles I used to play while I worked for the Museum, there were things I did not talk about, I was not aware of or simply did not know.

In the paper I used the distinction made by Strathern (1987) between writer and author to discuss my position, showing also how as much as time and distance, the archive material produced in the exhibition research has helped me de-familiarize and deal with those feelings and thus be able to write. Furthermore, that archive has become an ethnographic source that has revealed traces of the public and academic character of the endeavour that made it possible. I see myself thus as an ‘insider ethnographer’ (Mosse, ibid.) who understands the exhibition Wakes and living saints, as a local ‘ethnographic genre’ (Strathern, ibid.) in the sense that it was the product of the work of locally legitimized anthropology practitioners, framed by museological, official and institutional practices.

*The paper I read in the CLACS seminar series on the 22nd of October 2014 was a similar version to the one I presented at the RAI conference at Brunel University on the 3rd of September 2014.


Strathern, Marilyn. 1987. ‘The limits of auto-anthropology’. In Anthropology at home. Edited by Anthony Jackson. Association of Social Anthropologists, Cambridge.

Mosse, David. 2006. Anti-social anthropology? Objectivity, objection, and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 12, 935-956.