A Conversation with Michael J. Lazzara

On my flight to Costa Rica in March, I had the fortunate opportunity to be seated next to Michael J. Lazzara, a professor of Latin American literature at the University of California, Davis. Michael shared about his fascinating new book, Civil Obedience, which investigates a taboo subject—civilian complicity and complacency under Chile's Pinochet regime. It's a timely theme that highlights a “crisis of truth“ using personal testimonials as the raw material for his study. Scroll down to read my complete interview with Michael!

Michael J. Lazzara is a professor of Latin American literature and cultural studies at the University of California, Davis. His several books include Chile in Transition: The Poetics and Politics of Memory and Luz Arce and Pinochet's Chile: Testimony in the Aftermath of State Violence.

His new book, Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet, dives into a taboo subject: the role that civilians played in supporting General Augusto Pinochet's regime and its imposition of unbridled neoliberalism. Since the fall of Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990, Chilean society has shied away from the subject of civilian complicity, preferring to pursue convictions of military perpetrators. But the torture, murders, deportations, and disappearances of tens of thousands of people in Chile were not carried out by the military alone; they required a vast civilian network. Lazzara boldly argues that today's Chile is a product of both complicity and complacency.


How did you first become interested in Latin American literature? You evidently had enough passion to devote your life to the study and teaching of it!
Before I went to high school, I didn’t know a word of Spanish. But wonderful teachers attuned my ear to the beauty of the Spanish language and showed me that learning languages expands our worlds! It broadens our communities. It fosters intercultural understanding and empathy. It allows us to see the world from the perspective of another. And most of all, it opens possibilities for deep, meaningful friendships with people from around the globe.
Learning Spanish, however, was just the beginning. When I was a sophomore in college, I traveled to Chile for the first time and fell in love with the country. I quickly came to learn how tumultuous and traumatic the country’s recent history had been. I had been studying Latin American literature as a student at the University of Notre Dame, but really solidified my passion for exploring the deep connections between Latin American literature and politics during my time abroad. After college, I knew I wanted to purse a Ph.D. in Latin American Literature and Cultural Studies, so I set out on the journey to become a teacher, a researcher, and a student for life. That journey led me first to Princeton and later to UC Davis. Here I am, more than twenty years later, still passionate about introducing new generations of students and scholars to the beauty and pain of Latin America.
What brought you to focus in on the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime in Chile?
On my first trip to Chile, in 1995, I lived something of a schizophrenic experience. Chile’s transition to democracy was only five years young. My Chilean host family had staunchly supported Pinochet and believed that his regime had brought “order” to the country and eliminated a “Marxist cancer” from the body politic. During that same trip, I did an internship in a poor, urban neighborhood of Santiago that introduced me to radically different perspectives: many of the people with whom I worked back then had believed fervently in Salvador Allende’s “Peaceful Road to Socialism” (1970-1973). Listening to their stories was formative! Allende’s nationalization of important industries and expansion of the social safety net brought hope and empowerment to millions of Chileans whose voices had long been excluded from politics. Pinochet’s September 11, 1973, coup, backed by the United States, put an end to Allende’s project and unleashed seventeen years of rampant human rights abuses: torture, forced disappearances, exile, and censorship. As a result, memories of the 1970s and 1980s vary radically depending on who is doing the remembering. Siding with the victims of history, I have spent more than twenty years working through the complexities of Chile’s memory battles and those of other countries in the region that also suffered at the hands of dictators or that were immersed in civil conflicts derived from the Cold War.
Informed by these personal experiences, my new book, Civil Obedience: Complicity and Complacency in Chile since Pinochet, dives into a taboo subject: the role that civilians played in supporting the Pinochet regime and its imposition of unbridled neoliberalism. We know that military dictatorships are always supported by a wide cast of characters that aids and abets the regime’s dirty work behind the scenes or that simply turns a “knowing blind eye” to the human rights violations that are happening. Fear and weakness breed silence, as does tacit or active ideological support.  My book dissects this vast array of complicities and unpacks the contrived memories of myriad figures including artists, intellectuals, economists, journalists, politicians, bystanders, and even some former revolutionaries who underwent radical ideological shifts and wound up embracing the regime’s legacy. All of these civilian figures have become “obedient” either to Pinochet, his economic legacy, or both.
How did you go about culling the research?
I have been studying Chile’s recent history and cultural production for a long time. My previous books focused mainly on the victims’ construction of posttraumatic narratives in art, literature, and testimony. They required extensive interviewing and on-the-ground research over many years.
Civil Obedience looks at the flip-side of the story: the voices of those who allied themselves with the perpetrators. Because these people would likely have been reluctant to speak to me, I decided not to do any interviews and to focus instead on their published self-renderings. Perhaps not so surprisingly, people, no matter what their beliefs, like to talk about themselves, so there was plenty of published material for me to dissect critically. Complicit figures are essentially storytellers who engage in complex narrative rationalizations of their experiences and actions hoping to emerge intact as ethical subjects in their readers’ eyes. Everyone wants to believe they are good, so they’ll spin their stories in whatever way is necessary to make themselves appear magnanimous and altruistic. But something breaks down in that process when the “I” who speaks his or her truth fails to recognize that saying “I” is always also an act of responsibility toward another: a responsibility toward truth, justice, the ethics of speech, and the social good. I scoured libraries, watched documentaries, dug through newspapers, and did anything I could to find certain emblematic and representative voices that, when juxtaposed in the pages of my book, would self-incriminate through the meanderings of their ethically-flawed speech acts.
What was your writing practice like, especially with a full-time career and family? How long did it take you to write the book from start to finish?
Balancing the academic life with family life is challenging! My kids are now 8 and 11 years old, and this book took me almost 8 years to gestate from first concept to publication. So, I guess you could say that the book grew up right alongside the kids. I certainly couldn’t have written it without the daily support of my amazing wife, Julia, and my wonderful kids, Ana and James, who remind me every day that the world is a beautiful place despite the dark themes that undergird my writing. I am grateful to them for putting up with me when, on family weekends away, I would distractedly grab a hotel room pad of paper and jot down my latest ideas for the “Table of Contents” or a chapter outline. The book was always on my mind, and they accepted that lovingly as part of who I am.
What was the biggest challenge for you in the process?
My biggest challenge was figuring out how to talk about complicity responsibly. Complicity is a thorny subject because the spectrum of complicity is vast. One can be criminally complicit to an extent that warrants legal prosecution—though most accomplices, I would add, have not been prosecuted in Chile—or one can be morally complicit with a criminal regime simply by speaking out in favor of it or by keeping silent about its crimes.
After the dictatorship, many Chileans were happy with their socioeconomic situation. They saw their lives as materially “better” because Pinochet and his Chicago-schooled economists had set the country on the right path toward “progress.” These complacent subjects, as I call them in the book, are happy to maintain the status quo and embrace the General’s legacy even if, in another breath, they affirm that human rights violations are wrong. But the fact is that the neoliberalization of the economy, which benefitted some, only occurred as it did because thousands of people were killed and tortured! Violence was the means through which the economy was changed, and that economy has continued to do violence to many others who live precariously and in debt. This is undeniable.
The question then becomes: To what extent are complacent people also complicit? It’s a tough question to answer. It was therefore challenging to write a book that treats such a vast spectrum of positionalities. One kind of complicity, I acknowledge wholeheartedly, is not the same as the next; but all forms of complicity (active or passive) can be situated on a matrix that fuels the status quo, continues to stoke violence against society’s “undesirables” and perpetuates endemic socioeconomic inequality.
What strikes me is that you are using personal narrative as the raw material for your study; however, the testimonials you include are not reliable. So how do you know where to find the “truth,” so to speak. Or is the “truth” even what you’re after?
Instead of fishing for truths in accomplices’ contrived words, my book “outs” the fictions of mastery they invent to assuage their troubled consciences. Accomplices speak publicly hoping their voices will convince people of their moral rectitude and of their interest in the common good. But complicit and complacent memoirists’ stories are full of rationalizations, half-truths, and vital lies that they must tell themselves to survive. This is, in fact, what makes them so complicated to read! For those of us interested in debunking their accounts, it would be easier if everything that accomplices said were patently false. But unreliable narratives can also contain certain reliable utterances. Those versions of the “facts” are then spun to put forth a particular vision of the self and the world that the narrators hope others will believe.
You are in fact the only voice who is reliable! We (the readers) are relying on you to connect the dots for us and to land us somewhere solid and satisfying. Can you share a bit of your process and approach as a storyteller?
I like your idea that academic writing can also be viewed as a form of storytelling. Lots of academic writing shies away from the first-person. I embrace it!
First and foremost, my main job as author was to sketch the landscape of complicity for my readers. I therefore carefully chose a cast of characters that, I thought, could speak metonymically to some of the different forms of complicity that arise under dictatorship. These characters—many of them publicly well-known, others not—are simply examples that allow us to start thinking about a phenomenon that is crucial to understanding how power works. My goal, in that sense, is to illuminate the gray zones that authoritarian regimes inevitably generate and to show how they breed a crisis of truth.
I do all of this, of course, recognizing that I am also implicated in my own narrative. Every author speaks from a particular place. He or she is situated in space and time and sees the world through lenses of race, gender, ethnicity, ideology, education, family, community, etcetera. To speak about Chile as an American when the U.S. was deeply complicit in the coup is indeed an act of responsibility. I obviate my speaking position in the book and recognize the intersubjective dimension that my own writing entails: I see my book as act of responsibility toward the victims of history and toward those against whom the neoliberal order discriminates daily. My own biographical trajectory situates me “in between” two worlds: my life in the U.S and my life living and working in Chile for significant periods of time over the past twenty-plus years. Being of these two places—Chile and the U.S.—allows me to tell the story with a certain degree of complexity but also demands that I acknowledge my own complicities as a writer.
William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As you are writing about history, do you agree with him?
I agree with Faulkner! The past continually haunts the present. If one goes to Chile today, it barely takes a few minutes for the dictatorship or its consequences to surface in everyday conversations. Writers and filmmakers continue to address the past in their works. The Constitution that Pinochet ratified in 1980 still rules the country, despite many amendments and attempts to change that fact. The families of the disappeared still fight for truth and justice, even in the face of political impediments and lack of will. In short, all it takes is a word, a phrase, or a chance event to cause the past to come rushing back and for old wounds to start bleeding again.
For memoirists, there is often a risk in sharing our personal stories and a potential backlash. So even though you are not sharing your personal life story, you are exposing others - many of whom are still alive. Was this a concern?
I am certain that no one I write about will like what I say about them very much. But I guess that’s the very nature of speaking truth to power.
I made a conscious decision not to interview any accomplices directly so that none of them could later accuse me of twisting their words. Instead, I simply evaluate critically the configurations of their published, public narratives. In other words, I let the accomplices self-incriminate through their own acts of self-representation. Consequently, at most, the figures I discuss (if they are alive) could accuse me of misinterpreting their words. But those accusations would likely devolve into further fictions of mastery that any keen reader would be able to debunk.
Do you have a sense of how the book is being received so far in your academic community? In Chile?
So far the book has generated excitement among colleagues, but it is really just finding its way now into readers’ hands because it was just published. People seem to agree that the moment is ripe for talking about complicity because the theme is timely and relevant not only in Chile, but also in the United States and other parts of the world. I think that that’s why they are so excited!
My biggest hope is that this book will fuel debate in Chile (and beyond) on a subject that hasn’t been thought through systematically, particularly from a literary and cultural studies perspective. It’s a book that will definitely not leave readers indifferent and that is likely to turn heads among Chileans—some in a good way, and some perhaps not in such a good way. But speaking truth is important, and the truths that most need to be spoken are perhaps those that hurt the most. The book will likely find more readers and become better known in Chile once the Spanish translation is finished. Editorial Cuarto Propio, my Chilean publisher, is working on that now, and we hope to launch the book in Santiago next year.
What connection do you see in the United States currently?
We are living in tumultuous political times in which the polarization between left and right is as palpable as it has been at any point in my lifetime. Signs of authoritarianism are all around us, as is the proliferation of discourse about society’s “undesirables”—just as occurred in the early 1970s and 1980s in Chile. In Latin America, too, we are seeing a resurgence of right-wing regimes that are challenging the worldviews of leftist governments engaged in anti-capitalist political projects (which in certain cases have also become staunchly authoritarian). Just about everywhere, truth is under fire, and lots of people continually prove themselves unwilling to think beyond the self in the interest of the community, which is probably one of the most toxic symptoms of the neoliberal era. So, yes, my book is primarily about Chile, but it’s also a book about the times in which we’re living, times in which the matrix of complicities grows ever-more complex and thus requires diligent thought and resistance. 
You suggested earlier that the victims, their families and other concerned citizens have to “fight for memory.” I find this phrase fascinating, as this is essentially the work of memoir - to capture our memories on the page and what matters most to us. Can you elaborate on this point?
The Argentine sociologist Elizabeth Jelin, one of the pioneering thinkers about memory in South America, once said that after dictatorships societies become battlefields on which different versions of the truth vie for power in the public sphere. To make these truths heard requires capturing the imaginations of readers and listeners. The voices that speak most loudly are the ones that usually wind up shaping the “collective memory.” To ensure that the victors’ history doesn’t always win the day, common citizens must fight arduously to be heard. They do it in court, they do it in the press, and they do it in books; they do it in every breath and action of their lives. When these voices form a critical mass, they can win the fight!
Curiously, it’s sometimes a voice that gets overlooked at first or that gets lost somewhere deep in the archive that can ultimately change the historical narrative if it manages to surface in just the right place and at just the right time to break through the noise and contradict the naysayers. Memory and societal battles adhere to temporalities. Timing matters a lot—as much as to whom and how one tells one’s story. An audience has to be ready to hear a message, and the person who bears witness to the truth has to find just the right form in which to say it.

If this perfect constellation of factors comes together, a voice in the wilderness can become the voice that changes history.


To buy the book, visit the University of Wisconsin Press site

See all author interviews