I am making a sudden thematic shift this month. Instead of talking about digital humanities and their potential, I am sharing the project that I will complete during the Spring semester. “Plotting Colombian Emblematic Memories,” the name of my project, comes from the necessity of discussing the violent Colombian past while making sure the discussion is more productive than destructive. A productive discussion about the problematic Colombian past is critical in the context of the obligatory “Cátedra de la paz” (Peace lecture) and broader initiatives of peacebuilding that started between six to five years ago in Colombia.  

I am proposing an application for diagnosing the cultural model individuals use to make sense of Colombian violence. By having a helpful tool to diagnosing the model, I am expecting teachers in schools and professors in universities will have an additional and very relevant way to know their students, and by doing so, to provide more insightful and transformative conversations about the past and about the challenge of building peace in Colombia. But there is a lot to swallow in these introductory paragraphs, so I am providing a brief context of the official Colombian policy of having a “Peace lecture.” I am also providing a brief conceptual justification for diagnosing cultural models individuals use to make sense of the Colombian violence and a brief technical description of what I plan to do.

A “Peace lecture” in Colombia

Promotional image. Universidad de los Andes.

Between September 2012 and August 2016, the Colombian government established a peace negotiation with the FARC guerrilla. The negotiation between the Colombian State and its main inner antagonist was celebrated worldwide. After all, it represented the authentic possibility of solving conflicts through peaceful means. In 2015, the government and congress approved the 1732 law, which made it obligatory for every educational institution to include a “Pece lecture.” Its objective is to strengthen Colombia’s peace culture by teaching “civil competencies.” However, educators and many representatives of the victims’ movement suggest a peace lecture cannot be restricted to a lecture on democratic behavior. This is not to say civic classes are worthless. On the contrary, lectures on democratic behavior are necessary for the survival of every democratic system. However, the particularities of the Colombian case demand attention to the past. Without that kind of consideration, it is impossible to establish how the Colombian society and its political order have failed to achieve a democracy where political controversies get a peaceful resolution.

The dissatisfaction of the victims’ movement and some educators with the “Peace lecture” prompted many institutions and individuals to reflect on how to give productive discussions about the past. I witnessed these efforts by volunteering with Embrace Dialogue and the Truth Commission in the “Co-creation lab of pedagogical tools with educative communities: declaring truth to war and oblivion.” The initiative gathered close to 100 Colombian educators via zoom to develop pedagogic tools any teacher could use for having transformative conversations with students about the violent Colombian past. By the end of the initiative, we had better-organized teachers’ communities and some very provocative ideas and projects. However, it was difficult to find acknowledgment of an uncomfortable fact: the truth about the past is not an absolute object.

The truth about the past is contingent on many variables. One of those is the loose and contextual set of memories that eventually produce more elaborated and shared understandings we could call emblematic memories by following Steve Stern’s insightful conceptualization. In other words, teaching about the past will never be something like teaching math. When teaching about the past, we are not talking about absolute objects or quantities. Instead, we are talking about contested and changing cultural objects. Talking about the past is always a negotiation between abstract emblematic memories and felt loose memories, and between loose memories and what anthropologist Alejandro Castillejo calls a social imagination of the future. That kind of imagination is no other thing than the collective set of expectations that social groups create after framing the grievances that make them wish and struggle for different futures. Unfortunately, many noble advocates of teaching the Colombian past in the context of the peace lectures seem to assume there is an absolute truth they can talk about or an absolute conclusion everyone could equally get to when exploring the Colombian past. I don’t think in that way, and I am sure any productive attempt to discuss in a transformative way the past must acknowledge the different possible places participants of that discussion are coming from.  

What does it mean to plot emblematic memories?

Reflections on collective memories or historical memory in contexts where human rights violations or other forms of abuse against specific populations have existed in horrific ways have led activists and scholars to demand recognition, truth, and justice in the face of oblivion, silencing, and impunity. A great example of this kind of rationale can be found in the powerful work of Anthropologist Michel Rolph Trouillot. He suggests power structures delineate the events individuals remember and history in its broadest sense, while silencing critical events and insightful interpretations of the past that could be talkative of present injustices. According to his interpretation of the relationship between silencing and power structures, he seems to believe a critical political agenda for the future is to fight against silencing operations powerful groups social groups support for the sake of maintaining their privileges.

Memory vs. silencing, or truth vs. denial, is a common frame of reference to think about the production of the past and the relationship individuals have with the past-present continuum. Memory and truth are treated as liberatory and healing, while silencing and denial are a concert of interests and plotting of powerful social groups. I won’t be the person suggesting special interests don’t get in the way of remembering, especially when remembering means a menace for those interests. In Colombia, the absolute opposition some politicians and powerful individuals display towards the Truth Commission seems to be a good argument to believe memory vs. silencing is a good model to interpret the production of the past and collective conversations about it. However, this model represents a zero-sum political game that neglects the complexity of producing the past, making it hard to have meaningful and transformative conversations about it.

Suppose in the context of a discussion you can only be right or wrong, or you can only be a denier or a person who acknowledges the “truth about the past.” For instance, suppose that you get a failing grade in a peace lecture if you say the leading cause of the Colombian conflict was a terrorist menace coming from communist guerrilla groups and their civilian allies. Personally, I believe such a position deserves a failing grade. Still, if I provide it, I am inviting my students to have a strategic relationship with the contents of my peace lecture.  In that case, you cannot expect to have a meaningful conversation, much less transformative.    

Individuals have a particular understanding of their past and the past of the imagined community (or nation) they belong. Those memories are loose memories: a unique but contextual creation considering personal experiences and lore. Loose memories are schematic representations of an emblematic memory produced by multiple loose memories. I am saying that the usual division between truth and denial is reductionist and fails to acknowledge that what is usually depicted as denial is just another cultural model or emblematic memory to make sense of the past. But let me be clear about something, I am trying to open the doors for a sort of cynic or indifferent relativism when it comes to discussing the past, much less when that past is so delicate. I am opening the doors for an ethically motivated relativism working over principles of democratic discussion that I found in Iris Marion Young’s political theory. According to her, having a democratic discussion useful to solve problems while keeping alive the democratic spirit implies, among other things, to publicly acknowledge contradictors. I believe the peace lecture Colombia needs have to acknowledge there are different and sometimes contradictory registers of the truth about the past. If we believe this is a problem of truth vs. denial, we are only inviting some groups to dig burrows where to sleep until the next political tide signals the right moment to exit the burrow and enter public life without shame. If this is too abstract, think about the “sudden” explosion of racism that came in America after the election of Donald Trump.   

While acknowledging the existence of different models of emblematic memory for the sake of transformative dialogues about the past, Plotting Emblematic Memories project proposes to identify the type of cultural model an individual uses to make sense of the past.  As you may be thinking, you take the test, the application makes some calculations, and it provides you with a score associated with a particular emblematic memory circulating in Colombia. The score gets a visual representation in a Cartesian plane. If teachers and professors can better understand their students by using this application, they could be more effective in preparing and facilitating transformative discussions having a real chance of challenging familiar notions about the Colombian conflict producing identity and, in the last instance, behavior.

  Pseudo-Technical section

The application I propose implies intellectual work and technical skills. In the intellectual side of things, I will have to define a test that scores and classify its takers in different typologies. My first contact with a quiz of that nature was by taking the famous Political Compass quiz. It is similar to personality tests based on ranking questions. I also know the Pew Research Center political typology quiz. That quiz is different in its possible answers. You are supposed to choose statements that better represent your thinking. In any case, my emblematic memory quiz will have to work as any of those quizzes work. Another intellectual challenge is to validate what emblematic memories exist in Colombia. I use the work of Steve Stern to define three types of memory that can be found in my last year’s CHI project: Mapping Colombian Emblematic Memories. Still, I must go over the Colombian scholarship on the matter to produce more relevant categories for the Colombian case.

In terms of technical skills, I have to define what JS libraries work better for my idea. I looked into Survey JS, a JavaScript Survey and Form Library that allows to work with many types of questions with built-in functionalities, including rating questions. That library will enable me to produce the questionnaires I need, but at this stage I am not sure if it can classify results. If Survey JS does not classify or process in any way survey results, I think I could use D3 to produce a visual representation of the data by transforming it. The problem is D3 seems to be a very difficult technology to master. So I am thinking in exploring a more simple way to carry out this project. It is possible to produce a survey in Java Script changing positions in a Cartesian plane. I found a very interesting project doing that in Github I will explore further. I will also talk about it in my next blog entry while I also report on some news about how this project is evolving.