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Humanities and Human Rights in the Southern Cone

July 6, 2017

Still from movie, featuring a girl in a white dress looking at a large painting in a museum

Still from movie, featuring a girl in a white dress looking at a large painting in a museum
Still image from La Leyenda del Ceibo (dir. Paula de Luque, Argentina, 2010)

Ana Forcinito wants to change the way you see post-dictatorship Latin America.

The professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies has served as the College of Liberal Arts’ Ohanessian Chair for the past four years. The chair is designed to address the consequences of inhumane actions that are motivated by racial, cultural, or national differences. Forcinito challenges assumptions about those differences by building cross-cultural understanding.

Forcinito grew up in Argentina and was a college student when Raul Alfonsin became president after the last military dictatorship (1976–1983). She studied literature and philosophy under professors who were returning from exile, bringing with them a palpable sense of excitement to campus. They taught her about culture’s essential role in maintaining the new democracy. She became fascinated by the idea that art and literature were intertwined with what was happening politically, and was particularly drawn to the role that artistic and testimonial practices can have in dismantling the effects of post-dictatorships and human rights violations.

Seeing the past

Professor Ana Forcinito smiling in front of a bookshelf
Prof. Ana Forcinito

Forcinito has worked diligently to bring attention to visual representations of post-authoritarian societies in the hopes of undoing—or at least beginning to undo—some of the damaging and long-lasting effects of living under authoritarian regimes. Many writers and visual artists—many of whom are survivors of torture and degrading treatments—place the gaze as the locus that embodies memory, as a labor and a struggle. That suggests that battles related to vision play an important role in the reconstruction of the visual fields that were demolished by state terrorism, as well as in the creation of new repertoires of images.

For Forcinito, the study of testimonial production is also vital for the understanding of the culture of the post-dictatorships. Testimonies in truth commissions and in human rights trials are instrumental to the process of transitional justice after military regimes.

Furthermore, she argues that literature and artistic productions also play a crucial role in this process. Not only do they denounce human rights violations and situations of violence and oppression, but they articulate an alternative history of past abuses, including the disputes over the meaning of the past. They also promote the understanding of the past and the present, while making visible some of the gaps and silences of those aspects of the past that will remain opaque—and that will resist representation—but that nevertheless are to be taken into consideration as those traumatic silences that cannot be articulated into language.

The aesthetics of memory

The intersectionality of cultural practices and human rights is anchored in the “never again” and the advocacy for justice, democracy, and respect of dignity, as well as in the role that memory struggles play in post-dictatorship societies.

While some people understand memory as the reconstruction of something that has been disassembled, or as the recovery of something that has been lost, that’s not how Forcinito sees it. For her, memory is a process of struggles and constructions, where it is a poetic act. That poetry is present whether you’re expecting to see evidence of the past, as in photography or testimonial literature, or whether you’re viewing more artistic, or even abstract, gestures. Thus, she studies both testimonial and aesthetic models to approach memory in Latin America.

She also teaches undergraduate classes and a graduate seminar on memory’s complicated relationship to testimonial writings, photographs, and documentary evidence in the aftermath of traumatic events and human rights violations. The courses are designed to study the aesthetics of memory in a different array of cultural productions and the way in which art and literature represent and respond to the legal and political aspects of the transitional justice processes.

Gendered visions

Gender is another important lens that Forcinito uses to examine the culture of the post-dictatorships. She is particularly interested in gender studies in a Latin-American context. Her research about Latin American cinema focuses on the use of sound by women filmmakers to subvert a visual field that is dominated by masculine and heterosexist visions. It is precisely in the intersection between sound and image that feminism is revealed and articulated in Latin American cinema.

Feminist theories are vital in her research, both in relation to state-based violence and to domestic and intimate forms of violence. She notes that we cannot effectively approach the study of colonialism and authoritarianism without understanding how those discourses intersect with the construction of gender in general and, in particular, with the representations of the female body.

She teaches an interdisciplinary course on Latin-American women and gender violence, which places a strong emphasis on cinema, and examines feminist theories on sexual violence in dialogue with some visual and literary representations of particular forms of violence: state-based violence, human trafficking, and femicide. She can count on that class to create fruitful discussions not only about gender violence in Latin America, but also about narratives of gender that globally promote violence against women and marginalized groups.

Forcinito is excited about her current research project, which revolves around theories of gender violence in Latin America and the importance of teaching about these vital issues at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Through her research, publications, and teaching, Forcinito's work will continue to have an impact on the groups she is working with, because protecting human rights and women’s rights is important for all societies.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.