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.

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