Book Review: Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile Since Pinochet

Michael J. Lazzara. Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile Since Pinochet. The University of Wisconsin Press, 2018.

Michael Lazzara’s Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet will find its audiences among academics and students dealing with the topics of human rights, memory, and cultural studies, but also among a wider public with a general interest in the South American region, its history, and politics. The book will also be appealing to those with an interest in relationship between democratic transition and postdictatorship trauma. In this sense, the argument of the book, highly interdisciplinary in nature, extends well beyond Chile and serves as an invitation to think how the production of obedience and the concomitant creation of complicit and complacent subjects serves to sustain the global neoliberal order. The author is a professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Davis. His other notable books include Chile in Transition: The Poetics and Politics of Memory and Luz Arce and Pinochet’s Chile: Testimony in the Aftermath of State Violence.

The main thesis the book brings forward is that Pinochet’s Chile represents a “joint project” in which the past dictatorship’s violations of human rights paved the way for the contemporary inequality-generating neoliberal model of state and society. Following Jaspers (2001:61), Lazzara argues that “one cannot accept the outcome of a violent regime without also accepting the violence that gave birth to that outcome”. In line with this, the author critically examines the state of human rights in post-dictatorial Chile, arguing that there are limits to what law and procedural justice can achieve. The author calls for a more comprehensive approach to human rights that would directly confront moral and ethical responsibility of complicit and complacent subjects and their memory. Conversely, Lazzara portrays contemporary Chile as a product of complicit and complacent memories that uphold the wider legacy of dictatorship and, while continually producing violence, inhibit opportunities to reconstruct community in Chile.

After establishing this historical and political argument, Lazzara proceeds with one that is literary and philosophical in nature, and thus more novel and methodologically significant for his approach, which is based in cultural studies. Most particularly, keeping his gaze on first-person reality-based literary production, the author explores autobiography, testimony, documentary films, and interviews made by complicit and complacent artists and intellectuals of both political left and right, but also material created of marginal figures and regular bystanders. In this way, the author treats his subjects as cultural icons and social theorists through which he interrogates the contemporary market of dictatorship-related memory in postdictatorship times. Here, Lazzara approaches the issue of civil obedience by investigating narrative dynamics present in the configuration of complicit and complacent subjects.

The main finding of Lazzara’s work is that both complicit and complacent subjects proffer “fictions of mastery” – self-defensive narratives that avoid critically confronting their roles in perpetuating the legacy of dictatorship, thus failing to meet an ethical standard. While putting on a mask that covers their complicit or complacent roles within the ideological justification of neoliberal state, subjects under investigation embody the “new” ideal Chilean citizen that the author defines as “homo neoliberal”. The complicit subjects, primarily represented by the neoliberal economists explored in the Chapter II: Spectres of Jaime Guzman (Pablo Longueira Montes, Sergio de Castro, Ignacio Santa-Cruz), are essentially marked by subjective splits that compartmentalize human rights violations from wider socio-economic project. The complacent ones, represented by remnants of the radical left from the 1970s in Chapter V: Complacent Subjects (Max Marambio, Eugenio Tironi, ME-O), are characterized by depoliticized subjectivity that, blindly believing in the overall efficacy of the neoliberal model, accepts the premise of the “end of history” without a question. Disconnecting human violations from the larger project of imposing a contemporary socio-economic model, both of them refuse to problematize the fundamental philosophical underpinnings upholding neoliberal status quo in Chile.

Furthermore, while posing the question of what might ideally constitute justice in postdictatorial times, Lazzara offers a utopian conceptualization of memory and human rights that goes beyond the limits of legal justice and consensus-based neoliberal politics. Here, the author introduces the concept of radical (social) justice, one that does not only reckon with the naked face of past violence but that is also accompanied by commitments to mitigating social inequities and endemic discriminatory practices. Here, Lazzara claims that a radical approach towards human rights in times of postdictatorship trauma needs to be concerned with present injustice and understands this as connected to, or derived from, past forms of violence.

The author concludes by arguing that past violence is exemplified in the contemporary destruction of dreams and life-worlds that dictatorship wrought on radical political subjectivities. He calls for a serious conversation between eras and temporalities in Chilean memory work, and challenges citizens of this country to look themselves in the mirror and ask if they are really exempt from sustaining the model which supports the neoliberal lifeworld. At the same time, the author reiterates the need for challenging the fictions of mastery that regulate the life of Chilean nation through retrieving the prerevolutionary aspirations and memories based on unbounded narratives from the preterit time. Lazzara affirms that such critical tackling of human rights would ultimately promote memories that could strengthen democracy, precisely because such memory culture would promote a personal introspection based on the notion of vulnerability and responsibility before the other, society, and history.

Notwithstanding my great appreciation for Lazzara’s outstanding book, my major concern has to do with the Lazzara’s interrogation of the figure of the passive accomplice or “bystander”, one predominantly investigated in ‘Chapter 3: Boundedness and Vulnerability’. Mindful that an important focus of the work lies within the scope of “bystander” as a specific societal and cultural icon, it is my feeling that the elaboration of this figure remains incomplete. Tobe fair, this issue was acknowledged by the author himself, who explicitly recognizes that the figure of bystander is the most difficult to locate and assess within the universe of postdictatorial cultural production. Nevertheless, due to its importance within the creation of contemporary neoliberal subjects in Chile, a more in-depth interrogation of culture produces such a popular subject remains an important intellectual prerogative. Taking into account the keystone position this subject occupies within the production of the obedient, complicit, and complacent Chile of today, the “shopkeeper” deserves to be much more than a side note or a mere reference point of investigation. Still, having in mind the methodology used in this work, one that is much more able to find voices among the higher echelons of society, the resolution of this question remains a challenging task for any future intellectual endeavor.

In conclusion, I find it important to reiterate the enormous contribution and novelty of this work which provides a distinct and more nuanced understanding of interconnections between human rights and memory regime in postdictatorship times. For this reason I highly recommend this book not only to its most obvious audience composed of students and academics interested in memory studies, cultural studies or human rights, but also to any scholar interested in the problematique of democratic transitions in those parts of the world deeply affected by the legacy of state-sponsored violence. In this sense, the book serves as a serious call to interrogate contemporary political era by thinking not simply against but more importantly between epochs, remaining attentive in critical manner to the ways in which the past events, temporalities, and structures continue to shape present realities and social configurations.

Igor Stipić
University of Regensburg

Jaspers, K. (2001). The Question of German Guilt (trans. E.B. Ashton with a new introduction by Joseph W. Koterski). New York: Fordham University Press.