Barbara Burns interviews Brigid Lynch, author of Horizontalism and Historicity in Argentina: Cultural Dialogues of the Post-Crisis Era.
BB. This book has grown out of your PhD thesis, and congratulations are in order as your work won the Annual Publication Prize of the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland, an award scheme which recognises the two most distinguished doctoral theses of the year. How did you become interested in Argentinian history and culture?
BL. Thank you! I’m so pleased with how the book has turned out. Legenda have been incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the whole publication process. The book is the result of a long interest in Argentina, and in Latin America in general, that came about when I started learning Spanish in secondary school, aged twelve. I went on to study Spanish at university and was always fascinated with Argentine history, especially Peronism. But I didn’t actually get to Latin America until after my degree, when I lived in Peru for a couple of years. During that time, I visited Argentina and my interest in the country grew from there, until I decided that the best way to explore it was to do some further study. So I did a Masters in Latin American Culture at the University of St Andrews, and then a PhD.
Throughout my studies, I’ve been very fortunate to have been taught and supported by some fantastic scholars of Latin America who have influenced my work in different ways. What has really sustained my interest in Argentina over the years, and what I learned from these scholars, is how engaging with another country’s history and culture opens up new ways of seeing and relating to the world at home. I think this is one of the central motivations of my work.
BB. The title of your book refers to the ‘post-crisis era’. Some of us who know relatively little about Argentina might associate the country with numerous crises in relatively recent decades, thinking of it as a place of military coups, instability and civil unrest. Can you unpack the title a bit for lay readers and explain both the historical context of your study and the meaning of the term ‘horizontalism’?
BL. Of course! The post-crisis era that I refer to in the book’s title is the period, roughly a decade, that followed the December 2001 civil unrest in Argentina when hundreds of thousands of citizens came out on the streets to voice their dissatisfaction with a failing economic system and an ineffectual government. While economic restrictions, like government legislation that limited withdrawals from bank accounts, were a big mobilizing factor in these protests, it was the declaration of a state of siege on 19 December 2001 and the restriction of civil rights in a democratic era, that galvanized public discontent. The imposition of these draconian measures caused many Argentines to draw parallels between the current crisis and the dictatorship of 1976-1983, and what they saw as the continued failure of state institutions throughout recent decades.
In the months following December 2001, and in the absence of state support, Argentines began to organize themselves in order to ameliorate the impact of financial precarity on their everyday lives. Often, they did this through ‘horizontalidad’, or horizontalism: in organisations that rejected conventional systems of hierarchy, where decisions were taken collectively within the community. British readers are probably most familiar with horizontalism through reading about the ‘Occupy London’ protests that took place outside the London Stock Exchange in 2011. In Argentina, from 2001 onwards, in local areas barter networks and district assemblies were set up. Workers, who had lost their jobs when their employers went out of business due to the financial crisis, returned to their workplaces and ‘recuperated’ them, starting again without managerial hierarchies. What the book explores is how horizontalism, this new form of living and organizing, and a new sense of the legacy of the past, historicity, emerged in Argentina after the seismic events of December 2001, and the influence of these twin forces on cultural representation.
BB. How important was it for you to spend time in Argentina for this project, not just working in archives, but also engaging with writers and activists?
BL. I don’t think I could have carried out the research for this project without this. Coincidentally, in one of the novels I look at in the book, The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez, the protagonist is a North American PhD student working on the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, who initially feels that he knows Buenos Aires so well through these texts that there’s no need for him to physically visit the city. And the novel kind of hinges around this character eventually going to Argentina and discovering how wrong his initial approach was! In an academic context, I had to go to Argentina to access archives and conduct research. But I also felt it was key to the project to go and see for myself what it’s like to participate in a collective enterprise that functions through horizontalism.
BB. How does that work in practice? What are the challenges of working together outside established hierarchies?
BL. This is why I visited the magazine ‘Mu’ and spent time there. ‘Mu’ is a monthly magazine produced by the autonomous media collective ‘Lavaca’ and the publication has its origins in the protests of December 2001. Disturbed by the inaccuracy of much mainstream reporting on the protests and the violent response of police and state forces to the demonstrations, a group of journalists put together an email bulletin with on-the-ground reporting of these events. This small group evolved into the ‘Lavaca’ cooperative, and the first issue of ‘Mu’ was published in December 2006.
It’s a very innovative magazine, particularly in the way it uses images from and references to the recent past to build parallels with the social inequities of the present and the state terrorism of the past. Lavaca has an office and cultural centre very close to the Argentine national congress, in central Buenos Aires, and I spent quite a bit of time there, going to talks and other events and speaking to people who work on the magazine. Doing this gave me a sense of what it’s like to work collectively, and the benefits and the challenges of this alternative form of organization, in the workplace and beyond.
BB. In the book you examine a variety of cultural outputs as narratives of historical authenticity, including literary texts, TV drama, film, journalism and photography. How did you go about selecting and approaching this material?
BL. When I started my PhD project, I had only planned to look at literature, mainly historical fiction, and maybe a few films, but over time I started to realize the importance of a broader approach. The British cultural theorist Raymond Williams was a big influence on me. He stresses the ordinariness of culture, as something that we interact with hundreds of times every day, in fiction of course, but also through music, television, advertising, buildings, clothes, etc. So I felt it was important to look at a range of cultural texts from the years that followed the 2001 crisis, and at how they represent the past, because our conceptions of history are not shaped by one cultural medium in isolation but by multiple depictions of the past.
'Lo que el tiempo nos dejó' (What The Past Has Left Us)
In Chapter Four of the book, for example, I look at a television mini-series from 2010, the year that Argentina celebrated its bicentenary. Across the six episodes, the series dramatizes pivotal events of the twentieth century, and it builds connections between the viewer and these past histories in multiple ways, from its use of costumes, material objects, camera shots, and music, to name just a few. Fortunately, the entire series was available on YouTube, but some of the other texts I look at in the book were only available in Argentina, so this is another reason why it was so important to do research there.
BB. Argentina is the eight-largest country in the world, with a rich cultural heritage. To what extent do you think readers in the UK and Europe are aware of Argentina’s complex history and identity? How does your study help to address our understanding of Argentina?
BL. I think sometimes, in the UK in particular, Latin America, and specifically Argentina, are portrayed in terms of fixed tropes or stereotypes, such as football, tango, and the Falklands/Malvinas war. Obviously, these are all important elements of Argentine identity and of the country’s history. But there is a lot more to be aware of beyond these things and there are so many connections between the UK and Argentina to uncover and explore. For example, while horizontalism has not had anything like as wide an impact in the UK as it has in Argentina, one of the first recorded examples of horizontalist activism happened here. In 1971, workers at the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, which was facing bankruptcy, staged a ‘work-in’, running the yards themselves without management involvement in order to prove the business was still viable. It was there that shop steward Jimmy Reid made one of his most famous speeches, telling the assembled workers that ‘there will be no hooliganism. There will be no vandalism. There will be no bevvying […] because the world is watching us’. Many people in Scotland would be able to quote from this speech, but I think fewer are aware that, thirty years later, similar ‘work-ins’ took place across Argentina in the recuperation of factories and workplaces, and many of these businesses are still operating successfully twenty years later. It seems important to make these connections, and to think about what we can learn from doing this.
Working on this study also helped me to think more clearly about how, here in the UK, we engage with our history. In Argentina, over the past two decades, the way that the country reckons with its past has changed irrevocably. In analysing these changes in the book, I hope that this might encourage UK readers to draw comparisons with current debates here about public history and memory, and to think about the radical potential of historicity as a social and cultural force.
BB. Has this material provoked interesting reactions?
BL. One of the most exciting things to come out of the book’s publication so far is a discussion event that I’m organising at the Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the University of London. It’s going to take place in May and will look at some of the issues that the book raises, and the legacy of the 2001 crisis in Argentina. The Argentine author Carlos Gamerro, whose work I discuss in the book, will be speaking at the event, along with Dr Cara Levey and Dr Ignacio Aguiló, two fantastic scholars. So I’m very excited about this, and thrilled to be talking about the book in such illustrious company!
BB. What is next on your research agenda?
BL. At the moment, I’m a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Modern Languages Research at the University of London, where I’m working on a fascinating new project about the history of state-funded theme parks in Argentina. The project also looks at how successive Kirchner governments in Argentina, from 2003-2015, used themed and immersive spaces in public leisure attractions to shape popular ideas of citizenship and belonging. I came up with the idea for the project during a trip to Buenos Aires, when I visited Tierra Santa [The Holy Land], the only religious theme park in Latin America. It’s an amazing place!
BB. Do you manage to find some leisure time?
BL. During recent lockdowns, I got into walking around Edinburgh, where I live. Although I’ve been in Edinburgh for most of my life, there are so many parts of the city to rediscover and I really enjoy coming across places that I haven’t been to for years. I also read a lot, especially detective fiction, and I have a predilection for watching repeats of old TV detective shows like ‘Columbo’ and ‘Murder She Wrote’.