Urban Flooding and Memoryscape in Argentina

A review of Watermarks: Urban Flooding and Memoryscape in Argentina, by Susann Ullberg.

At the confluence of two major Argentinean rivers, an incomplete embankment turns a flood into a disaster. Some of the affected people organise protests against what they see as a culpable and unaccountable government. Others go about their everyday lives as before, lives that are often characterised by social and economic marginality and precariousness. The event is remembered in different ways by different people, through different means, and with different ends – but all forms of memory are embedded within specific local, national and global contexts. This dissertation provides detailed observations of the practices of remembering and forgetting a disaster, and insightfully links these observations with current discussions about vulnerability, resilience, and memory in anthropology and beyond.

The dissertation provides an exploration of the role of memory in the shaping of disaster experience and emergency management, focusing on the afterlife of an exceptional flood in the city of Santa Fe de la Vera Cruz that occurred in the year 2003. The city, which is home to about 130,000 inhabitants, is the capital of the Argentinean province of Santa Fe, located where the Salado River enters the Paraná River. In clear and accessible language, Ullberg presents a richly peopled account of memory-making in Santa Fe, with numerous photographs and close descriptions of the situations, walks, drives and boat tours through which she encountered the place and its inhabitants. The sheer abundance of people’s names in the text seems to reflect a specific urban sociality: some characters are introduced only to convey a single quote, but their relations with each other, as much as other aspects of their personal lives, are nebulous.

At the same time, Ullberg eloquently elicits how flooding can be approached as what anthropologists have called a “total social fact” (although she does not use that term), i.e. a phenomenon that links to many, if not all other aspects of society, including economy, religion, history and spatiality. For this analytical strategy, the format of the dissertation – a monograph, as opposed to the ever more popular article-style dissertation – proves a clear advantage, as it allows for a detailed presentation and analysis of the multiple dimensions involved. Also the long process of fieldwork and writing of the dissertation, from an initial trip in 2004 to publication in 2013, appears beneficial for the text: not only does the long timeframe of empirical material collection convey interesting fluctuations and developments in people’s memory work, but the material is also well thought through and integrated with a large body of relevant literature.

The dissertation is structured into three sections. After an introductory section with a chapter about the theoretical and methodological background and one about Argentina and Santa Fe city, the second section (“Part One”) describes flood memory and forgetting from three different perspectives: that of the flood victims, that of the activists, and that of the government. The final section (“Part Two”) provides an analysis of other discourses and practices that shape flood memory in Santa Fe, as well as a conclusion.

The introductory chapter situates the dissertation at the intersection of anthropological discussions about disaster and vulnerability on the one hand, and about memory and forgetting on the other. Ullberg presents a clear outline of the relevant fields and convincingly bridges the two discussions through the concept of resilience: if humans and their communities are to learn from, adapt to, or cope with disastrous events, the dynamics of memory become crucial. Thereby, the dissertation is positioned as a contribution to the literature of both the social studies of disasters, their aftermath, management and preparedness; and studies of social, cultural or collective memory, its making, forgetting and strategic use. Throughout the dissertation, however, Ullberg also makes references to other key discussions in anthropology, firmly placing the text into an anthropological context. She introduces the concept of “memoryscape” to denote

“the situated and dynamic configuration of different memories in a particular social setting. These memories, which are recounted in narratives, materialised in artefacts, spatialised in places and embodied in rituals and in everyday social practices, are the path-dependent result of selective remembering, forgetting and transformation over time in response to the vicissitudes of social life in particular settings and at particular points of time. The memories are furthermore differently distributed over the various sections of society and scale of public life, which are linked to historical processes of social geography.” (pp. 14-15)

Ullberg thus points to the multiple and potentially conflicting modes, temporalities and forms of remembering and forgetting in the urban context of Santa Fe. The chapter continues with an outline of the “translocal” and “transtemporal” (p. 23) methods that were used in gathering the empirical material, which means that Ullberg visited several but interconnected places at various points in time from 2004 to 2011 to gain an understanding of the flood-memoryscape in Santa Fe. Most intensively, she conducted ethnographic fieldwork in 2005, with another period of several visits in 2008-09. Participant observation, interviews as well as walk-, drive- and rowabouts are listed in her methods toolkit, alongside archival and internet research and the use of a digital camera. In outlining the main body of the dissertation towards the end of the introduction, Ullberg explains that she found it helpful to distinguish three groups of inundados, i.e. people affected by the flood. She differentiates between victims of the 2003 flood, flood activists (which include only a minority of the flood victims, as well as some people who were not flooded), and flood-prone people generally (including those in areas that regularly flood in and around Santa Fe).

The second chapter describes the political and historical context of the particular processes and idioms of remembering and forgetting of the Santa Fe flood of 2003. These include the aftermath of the last military dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983) with its prominent human rights movement, a truth commission, and a debated amnesty for many of the cruel regime’s decision-makers, as well as the politics of regret that have characterised subsequent governments, Argentina’s economic history of glory and crisis, and the social geography of class-based neighbourhoods in Santa Fe. This chapter not only demonstrates that vulnerability – to floods as much as to other hazards – is distributed highly unevenly across the city, but also that memory work relates to very specific forms and idioms of remembering. Throughout the dissertation, Ullberg illustrates how protests, memory and oblivion concerning the 2003 flood relate directly to the wider processes of protesting, remembering and forgetting in relation to the military dictatorship, the financial crisis of 2001, and other societal events. However, she also shows that memories are not simply the direct result of an event, stamped out in a particular historical genre.  Rather, she emphasises that remembering and forgetting are dynamic and socially situated processes, to the extent that she felt that, through participating in numerous meetings and conversations with flooded people and activists, she had herself acquired memories of the flood to which she had not been witness. That memory is a social process was also brought home to the author when she realised that some of her own ethnographic material ended up being used as key artefacts in her research participants’ memory work. Generally, Ullberg is very upfront about her own situated and involved role as a researcher. Description and analysis follow her particular and often serendipitous journey of exploration during fieldwork, which also highlights the silences and impasses she encountered in the process.

Chapter 3 presents the flood and its memories from the perspective of some of the flood victims. Ullberg distils a canonised narrative of the disaster, a generally shared understanding of what happened before, during and after the flood, which establishes a disturbed moral order: the authorities should have protected the citizens, but failed. She then describes situations and conversations, through which she learned about the flood victims’ remembering and memorialisation of the flood, which all point to this moral dimension of memory-as-blame. Some of those memories are inscribed into the urban landscape, others expressed in written testimonials, music, documentaries, photos, and monuments. Ullberg refers to the social group involved in this memory work as an “accidental community of memory” (p. 110), adapting the term from anthropologist Liisa Malkki: these people share stories and experiences, but would under “ordinary” circumstances never have had anything in common.

In Chapter 4, Ullberg explores flood memory work that has a more directly political purpose. She calls the social group involved here a “polity of remembering” (p. 145), emphasising both the political dimension in the common cause of the activists, and a focus on remembering, i.e. memory-making as an active process. Again she starts off with a canonised narrative of the emergence and activities of the many groups that together formed a loose flood activist movement. Also here, the morality of the narrative is central – flood-affected people are presented as demanding fulfilment of their legitimate rights in the context of a reluctant state. Memory is a crucial tool to keep these claims on the political agenda. Ullberg describes in detail various forms of memory work, which simultaneously constitute political protests, including the celebration of anniversaries of the flood, visits to and rituals in particular places, graffiti, memorials, publications, technical and legal reports, songs, and posters.

The flood memory processes within the government that Ullberg traces in Chapter 5 are mostly characterised by what she calls “the logic of omission” (p. 183). According to this analysis, governmental institutions in Santa Fe city and county function in a way that inevitably leads to a loss of memory, not because of any explicit antipathy to any particular memories, but through the very everyday ways these institutions work. Ullberg explores issues like the exchange of staff in key positions after elections, the scarcity and selectivity of archives, the competition of memories with different political causes, the dynamics of city development, flood defence and emergency management projects, as well as legal codification and juridical practice. Furthermore, the chapter shows that because the government had become the declared adversary of the flood activists, the latter regarded any governmental efforts at remembering with suspicion.

In Chapter 6, Ullberg presents some dimensions of the wider narratives that frame the memories of flooding and the social category of the inundado in Santa Fe. These include the foundational story of the city, a colonial settlement which has been relocated because of floods, stories in schoolbooks and opinion pieces that reference indigenous myths, Atlantis or the Biblical flood, museum displays, and literature and art. Ullberg highlights an influential novela called Los Inundados, which was made into a blockbuster film that also featured a popular soundtrack; together they strongly shaped a common understanding of flood-prone people as poor but cunning Creoles, rather than as citizens marginalised into vulnerable positions by colonial and capitalist urban developments.

Chapter 7 focuses on the outskirts of Santa Fe, where flooding is frequent, and the 2003 flood one among many, if at all relevant. Ullberg demonstrates that here, too, floods have disastrous effects on people’s wellbeing and livelihoods, but that floods are only part of a larger set of threats and catastrophes that inhabitants have to cope with. Flood memory in this setting is neither the kind expressed by the “accidental community of memory,” nor that enrolled by the “polity of remembering” in the city. Rather, Ullberg suggests that the inhabitants of the flood-prone outskirts engage in an “embedded remembrance” (p. 245) that is tacitly integrated into people’s everyday lives. This remembrance includes such heterogeneous instances as watermarks in buildings, the procedures of applying for government flood assistance, trading donated goods at an informal fair, fishing and boating on a changing river, and community celebrations.

The concluding Chapter 8 summarises the dissertation’s main observations and arguments, focusing on the concepts of memoryscape and vulnerability. Ullberg emphasises that memory is always made and remade in a particular social, geographical, temporal and discursive context, which makes for a memoryscape of different if related processes of remembering and forgetting. In the case of the 2003 Santa Fe flood, social class (with its specific spatial and economic dimensions) as well as the particular moment in history (during an era of remembrance and regret regarding the past dictatorship) were particularly influential on the memoryscape. Ullberg also insists that in understanding disaster response, coping must not be confused with adaptation. The insights from the flood-prone parts of town suggest that the vulnerable population remains in this precarious situation not because of a lack of knowledge about flooding, but because of wider social and economic pressures. Therefore, neither a normalisation to a pre-flood status quo, nor a focus on the flooded communities themselves can improve their lot – flooding must rather be approached as a much wider phenomenon, including cultural categories, economic dynamics, and political priorities.

This dissertation is relevant for students and researchers in both fields of memory and disaster studies, as well as for those working on contemporary Argentinean politics, society and culture. For memory scholars, it highlights the multidimensional afterlife of a disaster, with particular political, economic and cultural trajectories of remembering and forgetting. For disaster scholars, it showcases the centrality of memory in the meaning-making after the event and for the drafting and implementation of contingency plans, as well as concerning more general issues around resilience. For specialists on Argentina, it demonstrates the intertwining of local and national events, politics and memories, and provides an intimate account of people’s everyday predicaments in Santa Fe.

Franz Krause
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology
Tallinn University

Primary Sources

Ethnographic fieldwork in Santa Fe de la Vera Cruz, Argentina, 2004-09

Dissertation Information

Stockholm University. 2013. 315 pp. Primary Advisor: Gudrun Dahl.

Image: Photo by Author.

Leave a Reply