Understanding Slow Violence with Imagination and Art

«you need to imagine ways to make this reality a bit more liveable. A little bit better.»

Before she was a professor of Hispanic Studies at SUNY-Albany, Ilka Kressner was a journalist living, reporting, and writing in Europe. She used to write and publish at the fast pace the journalism field demands. However, Kressner thinks of the “slower” academic pace in different terms. “You set your own little deadlines”, she says over Zoom, “This week I must finish the literature review, next week I have to work on the historical setting or context of the novel or film I’m studying, the week after is the week I work more on the methodological approaches. You sort of build the essay working on weekly pieces”. Those “writing blocks” resemble the weekly deadlines in a journalistic context.

Kressner’s first research interest was in Space: strange spaces, spaces of deferral, spaces of emptiness in Latin American Fiction. Spaces that refer to historical contexts, to uneven distributions of power and to the impossibility of social mobility. “Spatial representations oftentimes tell us a lot about ideologies”; those realities in Latin American culture and history are very much present in its cultural manifestations. That interest eventually led her to dig into Ecocriticism and the representation of slow violence –the term coined by Postcolonial scholar Richard Nixon to describe a sort of gradual, expanding violence that is dispersed throughout time–. In Ecofictions, Ecorealities, and Slow Violence in Latin America and the Latinx World (2020), a volume she co-edited with Ana María Mutis and Elizabeth M. Pettinaroli, the collections of essays explore how a breath of cultural creators  from the region «document, conceptualize, and visualize this specific form of violence that so often resists representation».

 What led you to edit the volume Ecofictions, Ecorealities, and Slow Violence in Latin America and the Latinx World?

I loved Nixon’s idea of slow violence. It’s very thought provoking to think of this notion of violence that expands… that goes beyond the immediate, physical violence, and which particularly impacts those who are disenfranchised. Nixon is a scholar of postcolonial literature in an anglophone context, but we see many similarities in what he describes in the Latin American contexts as well. He talks about, for instance attritional violence, and how can this violence be represented? He comes up with examples and (those studying Latin American Cultural representations) we see other examples. If you want to convey this type of violence which is not spectacular, and which shows that the human being is not separate from the earth, you must be creative to show and to portray those forms of repression. So, we wrote this call for papers looking for examples of slow violence in Latin American art. We wrote it five years ago and we received very compelling and diverse responses that looked at very different media: film, theatre, literature, games, dance. We saw that the way of conveying this attritional violence is very creative. What we hoped to add to this new methodological approach to studies of violence is this Latin American perspective and to broaden this framework beyond one discipline. All these studies are interdisciplinary.

How do those products contribute to the representation of Ecological violence?

What we didn’t expect and what was important was that none of the essays or expressions wanted simply to convey or explain. We felt an underlying question: How can we make the unapparent become clear? Smantha Scweblin’s Distancia de rescate, for instance, is an example of agrochemical spraying of herbicides and pesticides and the effects this has in the whole habitat. I think the violence which is portrayed there is an invitation to understand the consequences in a broader sense but also in a shared corporeal way. With the senses. With the imagination. Because you need to imagine ways to make this reality a bit more liveable. A little bit better. Many of the authors described forms of collaboration as forms of creative activism.

How do you see the role of Latin American cultural activists in raising awareness to challenge ecological violence?

Among the obvious challenges are those related to very real threats activists face. This is really dangerous. This ecological activism takes place in very biodiverse areas that are coveted areas for exploitation that are also areas where maybe there are lucrative commercial routes… so we have different forms of violence that are intersecting. There is constant threat. I also think that Latin American Art is immensely creative and empowering. Art is a different venue than words. It’s a different venue for broadening the mind or expanding our perceptions and have us become more creatively aware of our challenges. Latin American art has been among the most thought-provoking avenues to contest certain ideologies.

The book’s introductory chapter discusses a harrowing image of Pedro Ruiz, Total eclipse of the heart, why does it exemplify what you wanted to tackle?

My colleague Ana Maria Mutis loves Ruiz’s very powerful work. You don’t see much in that picture. The tile is of a famous song that pilots listened to while they were spraying glyphosate over coca fields. But what you see is really a faint line, nothing more. They spray this over little villages. And we see the lush nature, and we see the poisonous line, but we only really understand it with more context. So, the eclipse of the heart is a sort of slow death. It’s very indirect. Its puzzling. In Spanish the word is “Acertijo”, the riddle of the image, the riddle of the text that you must solve for it to make sense. We are trained to immediately respond. But this is a form of violence that is so insidious precisely because it asks us to understand it differently, through different media. We need to change our daily mediatic interaction to understand it. It needs me to engage with it and it needs me to invest time and effort to engage with it. That is one of the reasons why we really loved this eerie and beautiful series of photographs.

Pedro Ruiz. Total Eclipse of the Heart. 


What advice would you give students who are interested in Ecological violence or ecocriticism in Latin America?

There are different scholarly venues. I love the Association of Literature and the Environment, for instance. That’s a start. It is a field that allows for collaborations. It’s a field that is very interdisciplinary and a field that is also rigorous. I think it is a good place, if that is your interest, to develop, to conceptualize research questions. I’d love to read those new approaches. I’d be all encouraging!

Good novels to create a reader

Distancia de rescate by Samantha Schweblin. It is very versatile to teach. There are so many works that work beautifully. Short stories by Rulfo.  I think there are many good introductory books for any reader. It’s not one for all. For me there’s not one book, but there are certainly ways of helping me slow down my perception and engage in discussion. And this would be a good first step to make good readers.

A book that every student should read in college

For students who say “I’m not into reading” I’d tell them to read “microficción” like Ana María Shua’s Botánica del caos. Read one, another, another and they will read the whole book and realize they read an entire book!

There’s one right now that I think is very important, but I am not sure I would say everybody should read it: Fernando Melchor’s Temporada de Huracanes. It is an example of a piece that forces you to radically change your perspective. And this is a very uncomfortable position to be in, but this is what good literature does. Or what learning a different language does with you. This is why we read fiction.

What are your working on now?

Working on three things. A new edited volume with the same editors of Ecofictions. It is going to be on Ecologies of resistance in Latin America. Looking at joint ventures, activism and points of contact between collaborative art and activism in Latin America. The second one is a new individual book project on Contemporary Film in Latin America looking at the representation of elements in film. How are water, air, fire and earth becoming agents that connect us with the inorganic. The third project I’m working on is a collaborative project at U Albany with colleagues from the museum, special collections, Latin American Studies, looking at arte-libros from Latin America. These ways of book making are empowering practices for many and they reflect many socio-cultural contexts.

*Ricardo Castro is a PhD Candidate at the Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese at UT Austin

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