Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Are We All (Still) Miguel ÁNgel Blanco? Victimhood, the Media Afterlife, and the Challenge for Historical Memory

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

Are We All (Still) Miguel ÁNgel Blanco? Victimhood, the Media Afterlife, and the Challenge for Historical Memory

Article excerpt

In current Spanish political discourse, claims to victim status are uniquely persuasive, particularly when they involve political violence. As such, victims constitute a paradoxical source of power. Configured as the site of noble and heroic resistance against assaults on democracy, victimhood has taken on the status of an "empty signifier" (in the sense of Laclau and Mouffe's now classic formulation1) which vying political factions scramble to define on their own terms and thus to use as a means of disqualifying opponents' agendas. Indeed, the figure of the victim is mobilized almost universally in Spain, not only by those claiming to speak on behalf of the victims of ETA, but also through the recent flurry of "victim testimonies" of the Spanish Civil War,2 the political mobilization of the recently excavated mass graves from those years, and even suspected ETA members' public denunciations of police torture and the self-victimization of convicted prisoners' high-profile hunger strikes. After the Madrid bombings of March 2004, the battle to assign a political meaning to the lot of victims (to scavenge the symbolic spoils of political violence) was so fierce that the visibly exasperated spokesperson for the Asociación de Afectados por el n-M, Filar Manjón, voiced an impassioned indictment against politicians and pundits for having "utilizado [a las victimas] como arma arrojadiza" and "con fines partidistas."3 What appeared to truly trouble Manjón was how the impression of compassion and goodness garnered from alliances with victims can sometimes be disingenuous, if not downright dehumanizing. She was right.

Still, the discourse of victimhood is so ubiquitous that a reasonable response to Manjon would be that, nowadays, one can only enter the political sphere by speaking through the victim of one form of political violence or another. For politics in Spain presents itself as an imagined dispute among victims, at times resembling a competition to pile up dead bodies and leave them at an opponent's doorstep, and other times a morbid theater of ventriloquists-or, in the words of the leader of Spain's right-wing Partido Popular, Mariano Rajoy, a "guerra de esquelas."4 Competing modes of enshrinement and moral traps built around victims seek to outdo one another in an ongoing negotiation of what Judith Butler, in a different context, recently called a public "hierarchy of grief" (32). This article does not purport to endorse a specific group of victims as such or to propose a more proper ranking based on academic argumentation. Nor do I wish simply to accuse an entire country of practicing "victimism" as Charles Sykes did in A Nation of Victims, his influential commentary on culture in the U.S. Instead, my goal is to interrogate the symbolic mechanisms by which, again following Butler, "a life becomes, or fails to become, a publicly grievable life," and to question how and why a victim is constituted as such and made to act as "an icon of national self-recognition" (34).

Since some of the lives that are becoming publicly grievable in Spain date back to the Civil War, this article inevitably touches on the hot button issue of "historical memory."5 Leftists as well as Basque and Catalan nationalists in Spain increasingly insist-and rightly so, I think-upon the need to unearth (sometimes literally) information and evidence about the atrocities committed and concealed by the Franco regime and, to a lesser extent, by the current constitutional monarchy. Important historical, archaeological, and forensic work has made great strides in this direction.6 Given that the project of historical memory has blossomed in the context of a media obsession with the "lucha contra el terrorismo," though, it is important to be conscious that those killed, wounded, tortured, and imprisoned by Nationalist violence and postwar repression, as they become publicly constituted as victims, implicitly enter into an imagined dialogue with the victims of ETA. …

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