11 September 1973 and the Atacama Desert: Human, In-human, non-human temporalities and Nostalgia for the Light

by on Sep.11, 2012

On this anniversary of the Pinochet coup, I’ve been thinking about Zurita, the Atacama Desert and the recent film, Nostalgia for the Light (which is available on Netflix streaming).

In this lyric documentary, three human endeavors are juxtaposed in the non-human vastness of the Atacama Desert: astronomers studying the Big Bang, archeologists exhuming bodies of 19th century mine workers (whose camps and mining-towns were converted to concentration camps during the Pinochet regime) and Mothers of the Disappeared combing the desert for the minutest possible bone shards which will give clues to the disappearance (and, hopefully, current gravesite) of their loved ones.

This is harrowing stuff. There is no removing yourself from the affect of this film. I found myself wondering: is affect always human? Is it in- or non-human or is it the stuff of humanness? To me it feels non-human. It grips me from the outside like a thing, not a person. It doesn’t want anything but to spread.

I also began thinking about human/inhuman/nonhuman temporal scales. The astronomers see the non-human scale of the universe as a kind of relief from human/political temporalities. The mineralized bone shards in the desert are made up of calcium created in the Big Bang, and these bone shards seem to be in secret non-human communication with both the desert and the stars. But the Mothers want desperately to tug these bits of mineral back into historical human time, to be able to locate and reassemble the bodies of their murdered family members. Their action is clearly heroic, and clearly ultra human in the humanist sense of the word. But it is also powered and fueled and impelled by grief- by affect. The force of grief. These women are in the desert, combing the desert with little spades. Are they superhuman (and therefor, non- or beyond- human?) Or merely human?


Then there’s the archelogist who points out that we are contemporary humans are not even cognizant of the 19th century as part of our human history. He works to exhume the bodies of laborers who built and toiled in the mines and mining towns which were so easily converted to concentration camps by the Pinochet regime.  The implicit inhuman and erasing nature of capitalism which converts so easily to the inhumanity of the military regime and perhaps also to our contemporary inhuman forgetting of even recent political history all seem to belong to a register which is inhuman, which to my thinking might be just humanity to the ‘nth’ degree, in its most mendacious form. Meanwhile the ultra or superhumanity of the Mothers counter this inhumanity like the inverted double, yin and yang.

Finally there is the post-humanity of the Disappeared themselves. They are Disappeared, and disappeared, but wink back into presence so easily and yet so dissatisfactorily as photographs, bones, shoes, exposed marrow. What about this shredded post-humanity– minerals plus a spectral mediumicity plus a nothingness- a cipher that will not make an account of itself or be entered into the account books as a final resting place, a final figure?

These competing and paradoxical models of humanity and in humanity and non-humanity and post-humanity with their arcing and oscillating temporal scales are piercing and debilitating and with me today as I navigate the 39th anniversary of 11 September.




3 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    It might be useful to think about Brian Massumi’s distinction between affect and emotion. Affect being something external and often contradictory, while “emotions” are sort of domesticated affect, affect made more recognizeable and interior and, as a result, “human” in the context of this post.


  2. Erin Lyndal Martin

    Thank you for this post–I’d never even heard of the documentary but have watched most of it and hope to finish it soon. (I was engrossed; I just had to stop it to do other things!)

    You have answered this question somewhat in your post, but I would really love it if you elaborated a bit. How successful do you think the film is at fusing the two stories? They seem to use the concept of time to do so. I honestly don’t know if I’m convinced or not, though I am loving the movie.