Post-memory and phytopoetics: When the past becomes physical movement and record

As we approach the 50-year anniversary of the coup d’état, we speak with the philosopher Ángel Álvarez-Solís, who reflects on the relationship between memory studies, phytopoetics and plant critique. The need to articulate narrations from a sensory perspective as a mourning process, as well as the memories of extracted nature from the dictatorship are some of the topics addressed.

Post-memory seeks to mobilize narratives that might make sense to generations that haven’t necessarily lived through an historical trauma directly. From this premise, philosopher Ángel Álvarez-Solís reflects on the need to think of constructive and disruptive mechanisms to confront the painful past of a nation. Records of survival and physical consequences of trauma can be observed from the perspectives of art and sensoriality –and not just from the human perspective–, says the director of research of the Institute of Aesthetics of the Universidad Católica.

“It is necessary for history not to be a monument, but movement,” says the researcher, who recently published an article on plant critique, which points to new ways of thinking about nature. What can plants teach us about healing and not repeating the past? It is one of the topics that we address in this conversation, which seeks to open possibilities of bringing to the present records and learnings of experiences that continue to collectively affect Chile, following September 11, 1973.

Fundación Mar Adentro: How do you connect post-memory with the sensory dimension of a painful past for Chile?

Herbario de Chernobyl

Ángel Álvarez-Solís: Post-memory is a term coined by researchers who are dedicated to studying the Holocaust, and who observe how memory –as a mechanism to narrate a political past– became something very distant to some generations. It was common for these studies to speak of the need to narrate the experiences of deceased fathers, mothers and grandparents, or the ones who had lived through the horror of the concentration camps, in the voice of new generations. Thus, post-memory emerges when confirming that there are persons who suffer the consequences of violent events that were not directly experienced.

In this sense, post-memory begins a work of mourning that, in the case of Chile, contemplates everything that is thought, created and written on the coup d’état in a temporal context: from the end of the dictatorship. This is where the sensory appears, considering that the States have built a narrative of historical events, which have collective physical effects. The official memory of the end of the dictatorship, for example, contains that idea of starting over or of justice where possible, which isn’t necessarily accepted by the social body.

Post-memory demonstrates that there is a physical dimension to memory, as I’ve said, as there are vivid effects, mental health consequences, or even pathologies that cannot be explained by temporal experiences of the present. The body experiences the consequences and, because of this, there is a need for sensory work to make the hidden or not manifested visible. This is where post-memory dialogues with aesthetics, and not just history, at a transdisciplinary level. Post-memory is worked on from the perspectives of art, film or literature, because it is creation that makes the invisible emerge.

Post-memory could therefore be a way of circulating voices, creations and narrations in the face of the ‘official’ memory. How does this back-and-forth operate in relation to a constant revisiting of historic memory during the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état?

The past is never closed; that is, it goes beyond the historical versions that narrate events or state an immovable stance, such as “this is how the Unidad Popular was, or this was the dictatorship.” The past opens up and is disputed, because it never stops being problematic. At the same time, this implies that the past cannot be appropriated; that is, it does not belong to anyone. By opening it up, it is politicized, but in a way that appeals to sensitivity, to being attentive to the echoes of yesteryear that can still be very present.

In this sense, commemoration as an historical mechanism can also be conceived as a way of forgetting, in the event that this commemoration crystalizes or turns into statues those experiences of people who lived with death on a regular basis. It is necessary that history is not a monument, but a movement.

Bosque Pehuén, Araucanía Andina

In the figure of the temporal commemoration, there is an idea of categorization of time. It is the human view of the meaning of half a century…could we approach a non-human or more-than-human post-memory to resignify the past?

Although it is somewhat complex, I do believe that is where the future of critical thought lies. I mean that, if there is something that is worth thinking about, it is where these non-human and more-than-human forms are going, in order to restore and live in a different world. For that matter, we can resort to the plant memory, as Umberto Eco would say, which is longer term.

How to explain the past in plant terms? First, we must understand politics in an abstract sense, in relation to the control of historical time or, in other words: whoever controls the way of narrating the present and past, controls politics…Why, then, leave time from the human scale? Because when we change our perspective, we change our politics.

Plants have a very different scale and temporality. It is necessary to decenter, deanthropomorphize, and think, for example, of the natural history of the coup d’état, and the natural history of the Unidad Popular. What does that imply? That those who do not have a voice –such as plants or animals– also suffered from the coup.

Sometimes we are human –too human– and we forget that the dictatorship established, for example, an extractivist way of relating to nature; or that the shape of our cities changed rapidly. The natural environment has life, but it is hard for us to think of ourselves as living beings within other living beings. Vegetation and phytopoetics help us build an idea of a world where we are not the superior species, but that we coexist with other forms of life that also have memories.

Bosque Pehuén, Araucanía Andina. Crédito fotografía: José Carrasco.

In an article on plant critique that you recently published, you ask whether a plant can write. Along those same lines, how does a plant remember?

Plants have memory and the way they do it is in the same way that Artificial Intelligence works: by learning patterns and data training fed from simultaneous sources, in part. It is no coincidence that there are plant neurology laboratories or research centers financed by magnates like Elon Musk.

In terms of humanities and social sciences, it is also thanks to plant thinking that we observe reality rhizomatically. Plants remember where there is danger, where there is light, and –to say it metaphorically– where there is shade. It is this ability to remember that allows them to live longer.

The memory of plants is never individual, which is the most important aspect. It is collective and occurs between species. I like to think of gardens, because you might see these separate little plants or a dry tree, but under the earth they are all connected; there is a collective and interrelated world.

 Obra: Animitas- Christian Boltanski, San Pedro de Atacama

For these underworlds to be connected, the memory of plants is necessary –phytopoetics. Here we see the idea of mutual support, because memory is the construction of a common narrative that does not belong to anyone individually. The more narratives and approaches we develop from the sensory, poetic and artistic realms, the more closeness and understanding we will have of historical events.

In your recent texts and presentations you address phytopoetics. How would you link that concept with critical studies on memory?

As an approach, it is important to think of the distinction between philosophical reason and poetic reason. The former is at times very masculine and easy to domesticate through the traditional university discourse; while poetic reason is a form of writing that avoids the more neoliberal way of doing things, and has a wider reach and contact with more generations. This is how a poem can become philosophy.

This, from phytopoetics –or the poetics of plants–, extends to memory in the ways of bringing to the present the creations of another time. For example, the Mistralian herbarium has just been reedited, as well as the writer’s writings on nature. The fact that plants are fashionable have allowed an author from the canon, such as Gabriela Mistral, to be read again. The same happens with Pablo Neruda, although he is discredited, and his texts on the mountains, about vegetation or animality, which begin to circulate again.

In tune with post-memory, there are ways for a new generation to read reedited archives or new narratives that might give meaning to their present and future. And since great works of art are timeless, they can be reinterpreted. There is a very strong link between post-memory and phytoaesthetics, because they turn forgotten lesser subjects that are invisible –such as plants– into more present elements that remind us that they were also there; that they lived alongside history.

In that sense, you call on aesthetics as a discipline that brings to light that which doesn’t appear in traditional or normative thinking. How to think about a natural history based on aesthetic creations associated with the memory of the coup? 

Lotty Rosenfeld, una milla de cruces en el pavimento.Aesthetics has never been seen as a priority discipline when thinking of political movements, but if we look at the history of Chile, perhaps one of the most relevant groups in aesthetic-political terms was the Escena de Avanzada. Aesthetics was a way of posing political problems through painting, cinema and literature, and was how the Escena de Avanzada spoke of human rights.

Although it was an avant-garde movement carried out by a group of elite artists, it now constitutes information that anyone can access. Today, aesthetics is not just an elitist discipline that is distant from people, but also a way of consuming series, music and digital content. Aesthetics is a privileged place from which to think of catastrophic phenomena when we don’t want history to repeat itself. That is where narratives begin to circulate and, through post-memory, become linked to plant critique.

In Chile, a paradigmatic case is that of Manuela Infante, who is very inspired by plant thought and, lately, mineral thought, to pose a political issue that represents unresolved symptoms from the dictatorship. On the other hand, in terms of film, it has been said that it focuses too much on the dictatorship, as if it were a genre. This is false, because the fact that successful or more international films deal with this theme is due to the consumption trends of those abroad, who are interested in learning about what happened here. At the same time, they are films made with such sensitivity that they can successfully change people’s minds. To put it more precisely, it is not that too much cinema has been made about the dictatorship, but that the best cinema of late has been that which portrays that period of time.

You’ve said that post-memory transgresses versions that tend to crystalize and repeat. If we think about less common ways of narrative from post-memory, what comes to mind is the potential of the women who embroidered burlaps, for example. How to observe or construct other types of narratives about the trauma of a polarized country?

The repetition is in condemning everyone to the same thing. How many times will we see interpretations of the coup from a visual or sociological perspective? La Moneda will continue to be the space where the coup took place; but even so, what if we decenter ourselves and think of the other places where it happened?

There are stories that tell us about other ways of living through catastrophe and also, in a way, how to get out of it. Remembering so much is painful, which is why it is important to work through grief. The embroiderers you mention weave and embroider experience; they spin together a bond, a link with others. They remind us that fibers have a scent. Sometimes it might be useful to pay more attention to that which is not spoken or seen, as we always tend to focus on the images of the coup. There are also the flavors of the coup, the sounds, feelings, smells. Maybe if we touched –and didn’t just look at– one of the walls of La Moneda, we might create physical contact in movement with a past that opens up again and again.

Ángel Álvarez-Solís is research director of  the UC Aesthetics Institute. Doctor in Philosophy, Master in Political Philosophy and Graduate in Philosophy from UAM, Mexico. He also has a Master’s degree in Comparative History of America from the University of Huelva, Spain. He has been a professor at the U. Iberoamericana in Mexico and at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in the Writing Department. He was Director of Artificium, Ibero-American Journal of Cultural Studies and Conceptual Analysis. His main lines of research are colonial, classical and pre-Hispanic aesthetics, contemporary political philosophy, critical memory studies, fashion and food criticism, as well as Baroque and neo-baroque aesthetics.


Violeta Bustos Vaccia

Violeta Bustos, Head of Communications at Fundación Mar Adentro. Journalist, graduate in Data Visualization and Master in American Aesthetics from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. She has experience in various areas of communications: creation and foundation of written media, teaching, research and development of content for multiple formats. She specializes in digital strategies, cultural and academic management.