The spectacle of a national trauma: Gaze, space, national identity, and historical memory in democratic Spain

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As a consequence of the movement for the recovery of historical memory, in the last few years Spain's cultural sphere has produced a resignification of places that relate to the Spanish Civil War and the Franco period. It is a resemantification that mythologizes, consecrates and monumentalizes spaces that were essentially pragmatic-that is, spaces that until now had been considered important for their economic value and purpose (Tuan 17). This phenomenon is related to a desire to memorialize, which, according to Pierre Nora, characterizes our contemporary societies that are continually searching for places of memory. In Spain, there has been a memory boom of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco period. The current status of the problem of space is also due to the tension and subsequent malaise caused by urban development speculation beginning in the years immediately prior to the entry of the euro, and particularly since 1999-2000. The restructuring of spatial memory also stems from the real estate crisis in Spain and its influence on the serious economic crisis of 2008. The debate surrounding the complete demolition of the Carabanchel jail, an emblem of Franco repression, in order to build apartment buildings, or whether to preserve its dome as a place of memory, is an example of the confrontation between a vision that places a premium on land's economic value and one that defends the humanistic dimension embedded in the space. 1 The digging up mass graves has also highlighted how in Spain places linked to the repression of the traumatic past have ceased to be anthropological-places where history is lived-and have become historical-places where history is made. In fact, mass graves paradigmatically embody the problem of placing symbolic value on spaces and places, given that in the dilemma over whether to leave the exhumed remains in a grave that for some have acquired a sacred status or bury them in a place that has traditionally been considered more dignified, lies the symbolic value that is imprinted on the place. This revalorization of place is at the heart of the films analyzed in this essay. In contrast to the sense of indifference toward places and places of memory, these cultural productions succeed in becoming the memory of specific places-instruments that re-create what took place-as they themselves stand in places of memory that are unavoidable referents of what took place. Moreover, in notable contrast to the repression of the gaze caused by the pragmatic nature of the loss of memory concerning the Spanish Civil War and the Franco period that dominated the first few decades of the post-Franco democratic period in Spain, these works develop a gaze that forces us to look at what we were unwilling to see. The revalorization of space is especially important in a country in which places of memory are both scarce and space-negating constructions: failed attempts that, instead of memorializing a place, negate it and instead of building history, resist it.2 It is not only that places of memory, such as monuments or museums, that serve to dignify and keep alive the memory of the vanquished in the Spanish Civil War have not been built during the first few decades of democracy. It is also that the iron-fisted discriminatory memory of the victors-preserved in cemeteries, churches, street names, and commemorative monuments-has repeatedly tried to prevent the exercise of symbolic justice that the dismantling of Franco statues entails. The monument in the Plaza de la Lealtad (Allegiance Square), the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), the Alcázar de Toledo (Toledo Fortress), and the Parque García Lorca (García Lorca Park) illustrate the paradox that the most paradigmatic places of memory in Spain are places of non-memory.3 If the monument to all of the fallen in the Plaza de la Lealtad in Madrid is the epitome of a lack of memory, given that it is sadly unknown by the vast majority of Spaniards (Aguilar Fernández, Memoria 283-84), the Alcázar de Toledo, the Valle de los Caídos, and the Parque García Lorca are also failed places that exemplify how in Spain the transformation of political realities, historical conceptions, and cultural representations of the Civil War has not been matched by the conflict's monumental representations, thereby leaving us with a landscape that is dominated by historical anachronism (Cartwright-Punnet 5). In keeping with Baudrillard's notions in Simulacra and Simulation, we can say that these are monuments behind which there is nothing original nor any origin since what they refer to has disappeared thus obscuring the difference between the real and the imaginary. At its root, the resignification of space promoted by the sociopolitical movement to recover historical memory, like the movement itself, is a search for sense and individual, social, and national identity, since the collective reference points have never been so fluctuating as in our contemporary period. Given that space is an expression of group identity-the roots, the telluric-it is therefore that which most needs to be defended from external threats or internal uncertainties so that the discourse on identity does not become meaningless. Space, despite being along with time the most universal category, has also become a subject of dispute due to the relationship that exists between space and power. As scholars of space have indicated, space and place do not have a unique meaning but are subject to interpretation by individuals and communities, thereby giving rise to a plurality of meanings that may be the cause of strife or consensus and harmony. Space is therefore political: "Place is also political because the way it is constructed means that it is occupied by some people's stories but not by others" (Sheldrake 20). This political dimension of space explains the confrontational nature that the current debate on memory in Spain has acquired, since what is at stake with regard to the country's past and its places of memory is what we understand Spain to mean. On the one hand, we advocate a pluralistic and multiple resignification of spaces as the solution to the monolithic ideological constructions of the past, and propose accepting and moving beyond the fact that there is a lack of any basic national agreement on the meaning of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. On the other hand, historical manipulation is denounced in a society that is still divided as a result of the different senses of nationalism and the problem of the different versions of history.4 As demonstrated by the "archival war" that has been waged since 1995 over the civil war documents of the National Historical Archive located in Salamanca and claimed by Cataluña, "the Spanish Civil War's field of memory continues to be a minefield with regard to the difficult question of Spain's identity" (Ehrlicher 286). It is an identity that protects the union of the nation's monumental body from any internal claim that threatens its political dismemberment. We are also in a period in which the ashamed and inferiority complexladen national sentiment that characterizes the young Spanish democracy has given way to an "intento de recuperación del patriotismo español y de renovación del discurso nacionalista procedente tanto de la derecha como de la izquierda españolas" (Castiñeira 70) (attempt at recovering Spanish patriotism and renewing the nationalist discourse coming from Spain's right and left), from which the discourse on the Spanish Civil War and the Franco period is not spared. The resignification of space must also strike a delicate balance between defending the political virtues of remembering the past (Margalit) and the dangers of victimization, since all stories about victims report the suffering by affrming the victims' undefined moral and political privilege (Todorov). In the area of film production, the hyperrealism that characterizes the dominant mode of portrayal runs the risk of endorsing films on the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime that replace the self-glorifying memory of Spain during the Franco period with a mere Republican martyrology on the victims of the repression.5 This is why a critical, metafictitious self-reflection on why and how the creation of certain fictional places of memory that fulfill this purpose, yet at the same time denounce the perils of victimization and nostalgia for the past, is so important.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSpectacle and Topophilia
Subtitle of host publicationReading Early Modern and Postmodern Hispanic Cultures
Number of pages22
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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