July 30, 2007

On Dictators, Carnival and Funny Animals

Text by Stéphanie Benzaquen

Invited to comment upon Argentine comics related to the Dirty War, I decided to write about the work of Martin Favelis. There is an instinctive somewhat childhood-anchored attraction to his funny animals: something visual, at first sight not concerned with the content of the dialogues. At least, that was my first explanation for this choice. Nevertheless, while reflecting my status of double outsider (neither well informed on the Dirty War, nor familiar with the medium of comics – enough to hamper the fulfillment of the task of commenting), I came to think that this attraction was rather generated by the genre of these cartoons. The reversed zoology used by Favelis obviously belongs to the wide and old tradition of fables. For the uninitiated such as myself, this is more solid ground – a place from where I may formulate a questioning concerning the connections of such form and mode to the Argentine context and the Dirty War.

This is the question that I will attempt to answer now, through a twofold interpretation. One relates to the recent Argentine aftermath and the forms taken by the remembering that impregnates society. The other has to do with the past – the nature of the Junta and its dictatorship as well as the transformation accomplished within Argentine society during the Dirty War.

Contemporary Argentina has gone – still goes - through a complex process of national reconstruction and reconciliation, intensified as new generations get involved. Within a society eager to come to terms with the tragic years of the Dirty War, remembrance has become a cultural imperative (‘Remember! So as not to repeat’: ‘Recordar! Para no repetir’), running the risk of dictating the memory carriers as well as their mode of visibility and reception, especially when culture has been one of the victims of that period. (1)

An interesting case is Nunca más, the report of the CONADEP published as a book in 1984. (2) It quickly became a best-seller. The scholar Frank Graziano (1992: 50) points to the disconcerting consequences of this success:

This overwhelmingly monotonous tale of systematic cruelty became the favorite reading of hordes of Argentine tourists who converged on the Mar del Plata during the summer, making copies of the ‘Informe’ as much a part of the beach scenes as bottles of suntan lotion.

The importance of this report in the elaboration of Argentine collective memory is undeniable – it revealed what people could not see. As a corollary, one cannot refrain from wondering about the relation of this form of disclosure to some ambiguous curiosity, namely the willingness to discover the underground spectacle, however painful or repulsive it is to look at. It is within a critical perspective toward such kind of remembrance that the zoology of Martin Favelis can be understood. His voluntarily lighthearted representation appears as a reaction to the trivialization based on titillation and horror. By refusing dramatic representational effects and rejecting a black and white picture of the Dirty War, Martin Favelis offers an alternative to more official, canonized, and popularized versions.

In contrast to this first interpretation, the idea of an animal universe embedded in the Dirty War arises. Behind the “redemption” proposed by the Junta lay the attempt to transform Argentine society: a “purification” process implemented by the most brutal repression and radical dehumanization. (3)

It was something generated by and within the system itself, as a denial of identity: every person (that is, the whole society) ran the risk of being categorized as ‘subversive’ regardless of evidences or offences. All the specific elements that build and signify an individual were emptied of value. Dehumanization, so contagious, affected each and everyone. The desapaceridos (‘disappeared’) were the first targets. Stripped of human attributes, they became mere signifier bespoken by the discourse of the State, an element in the chain of communication established by the Junta: an object. (4)

This process did not concern only the prisoners:
Just as the victims of torture were set ‘outside of the pale of humanity’ (thereby providing the mytho-logic for their deprivation of human rights) in the same gesture by which they were set outside of Argentine nationality as apátridas (‘countryless’), so too were the torturers socially ostracized and ‘dehumanized’ once they had been ‘deprived of their personalities’, through training (Graziano: 95).
The position of bystander was not allowed in this situation. Individuals were raised against their own will and opinion. Terrified by their possible fate, and forced psychologically to cope with the circumstances through allying with the Junta, even symbolically (“It must be for something”), Argentines were silenced and muted, sometimes at the cost of their soul. Human figures could hardly suffice in this mockery of humanity, so proxies had to be found. In this sense the animals of Martin Favelis testify to the radical rupture that befell Argentine society. At the very core of the zoology, the question ‘What if it are humans?’ remains.

The coup d’état of the Junta was staged during Carnival week, the most appropriate period for a regime fond of spectacular showiness, masks, ‘operating theaters’ (as were called the detention centers, the quirófanos), dramatic speeches, and mythical constructions: a surrealistic parade that is, at the same time, revealed and undermined by the zoology. Indeed, by opting for parody, Martin Favelis discards the tragic representations that would have “confirmed” the self-perception of the Junta members as heroes carried by a messianic mission.

Emptied of its holy accents, the whole eschatological lie of the Dirty War - the reorganization of the Argentine society around values of dignity, beliefs, civilization – is brought back to its dry reality: an absurd world whose actualization, unfortunately, took the most horrible forms.


1. Protest songs, avant-garde theatre, statements of artists, clothes, or free spectacles for students groups or popular districts were all declared elements of a process of cultural subversion aiming at the dissemination of extremist ideologies. First targets of the massive ‘disinfection’ led by the Junta were intellectuals and students. Haroldo Conti (editor of the literary magazine Crisis), Raymundo Gleyzer (filmmaker), Miguel Angel Bustos (poet), Carlos Pérez (editor), Antonio Di Benedetto (writer, journalist) were amidst the first ‘subversives’ to be abducted and ‘disappeared’. The psychiatric, psychology and psychoanalytical departments of universities were shut down. 44.3 % of the desaparecidos were under the age of 25. 1976-1983 were years of cultural asphyxia.

2. In December 1983, President Alfonsín created by decree the CONADEP (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas / National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons), which conducted a nine-month research. It resulted in 50.000 pages report whose summary was presented to the President on 20 September 1984. The report was then published by the University of Buenos Aires Press as Nunca más in November.

3. In other terms, the Process of National Reorganization whose main pillars were ‘Christian morals, national tradition, and dignity of the Argentine being’…

4. The prisoners were “reduced to assuming the lumpish posture of a piece of troublesome trash to be disposed of” (Graziano: 104). To such extent that the prisoners selected for execution were referred to as ‘packages’.


Frank Graziano, Divine violence: spectacle, psycho-sexuality, and radical Christianity in Argentine ‘Dirty War’, Westview Press, Boulder, San Francisco, Oxford, 1992, 328 p.

Commission Argentine des Droits de l’Homme, Argentine: dossier d’un génocide, Textes, Flammarion, 1978, 344 p.

Elizabeth Jelin and Susanna G. Kaufman, ‘Layers of memory: twenty years after in Argentina’, in Genocide, collective violence: popular memory – The politics of remembrance in the 20th century, Ed. David E. Lorey and William H. Beezley, SR Books, 2002, 258 p.

Stéphanie Benzaquen (° 1971, France) is a researcher at the Theory Department of the Jan van Eyck Academy.

July 29, 2007

At Home They Are Tourists: Picnic & Panic

On Sergio Langer’s Drawing "Clase Media"

text by Armando Andrade Tudela


An image by the Argentinean cartoonist Sergio Langer depicts the following: a middle class couple walking with their two children, all wearing summer clothes, all connected to their mobile phones, while all wearing a (protective?) helmet. The father is pushing a supermarket trolley stuffed with intestines and meat, which could be either human or animal - or both.
Following Argentinean traditions we suspect they’re animal and that the family is on its way to a sort of apocalyptic barbecue or picnic. Yet, considering Argentina’s recent history, we might consider this reading as manifestly misleading and deceitful.


To quote Sergio Langer:

Revisiting my drawings, comics, cartoons we can find, with little effort, a common denominator: my total resistance and opposition to all/any system of oppression and subjugation, this being religious, economic, sexual or racial. I stand against any system that cancels human rights and suppresses cultural traits.

Langer continues to state how he searches, and finds, his subjects in the detritus of culture.


Considering Argentina’s recent history, and specifically the "Dirty War" and the horrors of General Videla’s Junta, one can argue that Langer’s drawing tries to suggest to the viewers:

a. The systematic destruction of the domestic and therefore of all (our) basic and natural channels of communication.

b. The permanent awareness of danger and the stable presence of horror.

c. The disruption of conventional patterns of collective behavior and interaction. An increasing corruption of traditional molds and therefore, an essentially fractured relationship with the past, with the historical.


Looking at the drawing, Langer’s style may strike us as compulsively grotesque. Nonetheless, the drawing presents itself with clarity and direction. The white background makes the image iconic and leaves no room for confusion or metonymy; as if early camouflage tactics had been interiorized and dissolved inside a kind of post-camouflage reorganization of image and meaning. Langer’s (anti-)iconic drawing states, amongst many other things, that we can only respond to the detritus of culture with more necessary detritus and that the domestic as such needs (demands?) to be illustrated as alien and gross.

He goes as far as picturing the true popular icon Ernesto ‘El Che’ Guevara on the kid’s T-shirt making it evident that the difference between (the presence of) a representation of ‘utopia’ – as evinced by the incorporation of Guevara into the image - and the decay of the present is nil and void, for both are byproducts of a broken present and a fractured symbiosis of the past.

Likewise, the seemingly grotesque depiction of Guevara might also store another critical dimension; in coordination with Langer’s overall image, we can say that for Argentineans the grounds for projecting utopias (Guevara as the eternal revolutionary) and symbolic meta-structures (following the model of the family as the center of society) has collapsed and nosedived: its repair is only possible via a thorough and savage reconsideration of recent history. The ideas of place and being, exemplified by context (family) and ideological models (Guevara), have cast away and left Argentines in an insufficient reality. At home, they’ve become tourists.


Let’s return to the drawing. In the image, only two colors are added to prolong our confusion. In the supermarket trolley, intestines and meat are dyed red and pink. Despite the obvious gesture, this unfriendly move might suggest the following questions: tracking Argentinean traditions, the barbecue - nicknamed 'asadito' - symbolizes collective values as it refers to deeply ingrained notions of land, heritage and identity. Likewise, it also signs the ‘domestication’ of the savage mind, by turning an early Gaucho act into a familiar, ‘harmless’ ritual. Langer’s powerful refrain is triggered when the colored intestines and meat collide with the unnecessary use of helmets.

So, we’re left with two options: to consider the possibility of apocalyptic barbecuing becoming a new trend of picnic in the days of stable violence or to agree that old traditions have been modified and/or utterly reshaped by Argentina’s recent history of barbarism. Is it possible that a renewed history of violence has displaced a history of traditions? Can any sign of domesticity and collective participation survive after years of systematic horror? How long does it take - to paraphrase Michel de Certeau - to exile panic from history?


If Videla’s Dirty War conditioned cartoonist to deploy tactics of counter-censorship and camouflage, what happened after the (decline and) fall of the Junta can be seen, through Langer’s drawing, as a re-processing of anti-censorial strategies. Like a permanent hang-over, what is left in the image is a feeling of overall mnemonic disgust seeking not to indoctrinate the past but to stage the present as a condition of Argentina’s recent history. In other words, Langer’s recognition of today’s reality is equivalent to the act of acknowledging the panic(s) of the past. He does so by chaining together a series of symbols that have acquired, through the passing of time, a condition of in-temporality inside the Argentinean imaginary.

By using the notion of the ‘family’ as a representation of domesticity, as a metaphor of non-barbaric behavior and non-barbaric behavior as a fundamental requirement for political, social and cultural stability, Langer is able to exemplify the deterioration of this (partly symbolical, partly real) chain inside everyday life after the Dirty War. By the same token, the use of Che Guevara’s image and the ambivalent reference to barbecuing can also be seen as Langer’s stake on the vulnerability of both collective and global utopias and national traditions, both of them presented - after such a high degree of historical degradation- as impossible realities.


If counter-censorial strategies tested the gaps between meaning and image in the anchoring of direct messages, in Langer’s drawing even quasi-iconic images are stained by the pollution of a history of violence that demolished any form of transparent communication.

Confronted with such opacity, I can only think of how one image can stand in direct opposition to itself; this is a bifurcation of sorts. Just like the two words that in the process of my writing of this text have almost become synonymous:

Picnic and panic

Sergio Langer was born in 1959. In the midst of Videla’s barbaric dictatorship, Langer published his first comics. From then onwards, he has become a major representative of Argentinean comics.

Armando Andrade Tudela (° 1975, Lima, Peru) is researcher and visual artist.