Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art

by Juliana Martínez*

Juliana Martinez’s Haunting Without Ghosts, recipient of the 2020-21 William M. LeoGrande Award/ University of Texas Press

Colombian literature, film, and art are haunted by violence. Analyzed through the optic of “spectral realism,” these works yield a richer understanding of the country’s diverse historical, social, and geopolitical challenges. The thousands of people lost to the decades-old ideological, political, and social conflicts as well as the country’s infamous narco wars, haunt its rivers, mountains and towns, as much as its literary, cinematic, and artistic production. But if Colombia is a country of missing people and silenced stories, it is also a country of survivors and storytellers who for decades have been grappling with the question of how to address such violence without simplifying, exoticizing, or commodifying it. 

My recent book, Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art, combines a comparative and cross-media approach with in-depth analysis to examine select works of contemporary Colombian novelists, filmmakers, and artists who I claim use spectrality as a productive mode of storytelling to tackle the ethical and aesthetic challenges that violence poses to artistic representation. (Spectrality is primarily concerned with relations between modes of production and violence. It asks destabilizing questions about the erasures underlying dominant ways of producing goods, knowledge, affect, history, and time and seeks to mobilize alternatives, primarily from within the cultural and academic realms.) The theoretical corpus on spectrality, scholarship on literary realism, and recent Colombian studies on literature, film, and art provide a foundation for “spectral realism”, an original, multi-disciplinary analytical concept that can assist scholars in examining and understanding ethically oriented cultural production that addresses historical violence. 

Spectral realism should not be confused with the fantastic, or with its famous “magical” predecessor. Rather, it is a mode of storytelling that takes the ghost seriously but not literally. It formally assumes the disruptive potential of the specter, shifting the focus from what the ghost is to what it does. Spectrality is in the form, not in the plot.

  • The works analyzed are not “ghost stories”; they do not speak of ghosts, at least not literally. However, in the disruptive force of spectrality, they all find a way to explore the unresolved absences and truncated histories that haunt them. The language of the specter is then justified not by the presence of ghosts in these works but by spectrality’s potential to highlight the violence that underlies hegemonic processes of economic, social, symbolic, or epistemic production. It provides the tools through which symbolic, physical, and sexual violence can be not so much seen, but intensely felt
  • Spectral realism points out common ethical concerns about the representation of violence and highlights similar modes of addressing them. It offers a broad but recognizable critical grammar that brings together the apparently unrelated works of various cultural practitioners. Also, like all things ghostly, spectral realism knows no boundaries. Hence, the questions explored, the theoretical framework proposed, and the methodology used can serve as a productive analytical blueprint to address literature, film, and art about violence in diverse socio-historical and geopolitical contexts.

Spectral realism is productive because the specter does not want pity; it wants action and demands that its story be taken into account in the name of justice. As the ghost of his father tells Hamlet, “Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing.” In moments of profound national soul-searching, spectral realists’ works stand as powerful symbols of the yearning for mourning, remembrance, and justice that resonate with many Colombians, particularly when extreme violence truncates such processes or when powerful political and economic interests actively discourage or thwart them.

  • In a world plagued by technologies of hypervisibility ready for consumption, the exploitative and exoticizing gaze of many works that deal with historical violence in and about Colombia often prevails. Spectral realism explores the ethics, limits, and unreliability of visibility and proposes alternate modes of perception. Ethical issues cannot be separated from representational ones, and we need to ask questions about the varied and often intersecting forms of violence that underlie processes of appropriation and distribution of lands and resources in late capitalist modernity.

April 27, 2022

Juliana Martínez is Associate Professor at the Department of World Languages and Literatures at American University. Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art was published by the University of Texas Press, in the Border Hispanisms series. It is winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2020–2021.

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