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Review of  What We Remember

Reviewer: Laura Filardo-Llamas
Book Title: What We Remember
Book Author: Mariana Achugar
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 20.4035

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AUTHOR: Mariana Achugar
TITLE: What We Remember
SUBTITLE: The Construction of Memory in Military Discourse
SERIES: Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2008

Laura Filardo Llamas, Department of English, Universidad de Valladolid, Spain


In this book Mariana Achugar explores the discursive construction of a traumatic
past in Uruguay. The context is set in the last dictatorship in this country
(1973-1985), although the author not only approaches this topic from a
synchronic perspective, but also from a diachronic one so that we can understand
how this traumatic past -- and how to remember it -- ''is debated and negotiated
in the Uruguayan political arena'' (p. 1). In order to do this, she attempts to
answer three basic research questions, namely how the military constructs a
discourse that allows the justification of the violation of human rights, its
own military identity, and ''the other'' as a group.

The book is organised in eight chapters and two appendices. The first two
chapters explain the theoretical background of the book, chapters 3 to 7 involve
the analysis section, and in the final chapter we can see the conclusion. The
analysis chapters are organised chronologically, which allows the reader to
understand the socio-political and discursive ''evolution'' of discourse about the
Uruguayan dictatorship, together with the context in which they are produced.
The appendices are interesting because the author includes in them a historical
chronology of the period under analysis and some sample texts from the corpus.

In the first chapter we have a review of the processes that contribute to the
construction of memory. The main emphasis of the chapter is placed on the role
of language, and how language interacts not only with the past, but also with
the present and future, and the social context in which we are embedded. This
approach, which departs from the connection between language and society, is
particularly important, as we cannot forget that memory is textually constructed
through language, and therefore the linguistic analysis of the discursive
constructions of memory may help us establish ''connections between social and
cultural structures and processes on the one hand, and properties of the text on
the other'' (Fairclough & Wodak 1997: 277). In this chapter we can also find a
review of the different types of memory -- individual, collective,
institutional, and memory and counter-memory -- that can be found (p. 10-18).
This distinction is later applied throughout the book, where we find an analysis
of how collective and institutional memory are constructed, and the relationship
that is established between them and individual and counter-memories. The
distinction between several types of memories depending on how they are
constructed and the function they have can be closely connected to Van Dijk's
identification of different types of knowledge, and how they evolve from
different experiences (2005: 77-80), a description which could be applied in
further research about the discursive construction of memory so that a ''taxonomy
of memories'' can be created.

In chapter 2, the author presents the methodological approach upon which the
book is based, focusing mainly on how memory is discursively constructed.
Although it is not explicitly stated, Achugar closely follows one of the
principles of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), the multidisciplinary approach
she adheres to because it allows researchers to establish a connection between
power and society. Underlying this choice is also the principle that discourse
(analysis) is a form of social action (Fairclough 1989: 34-5; Wodak 1989: xix).
Therefore, Achugar not only undertakes an analysis of linguistic patterns, but
she also explores how language collaborates in the construction of memory, hence
connecting language with the action it performs. In her analysis we can also see
some criticism of the way in which the state behaves in relation to the
discourses that have been produced about the dictatorship, something that is
explained if we take into account that she carries this research from a given
position, that of a ''Uruguayan, and daughter of Left-wing exiled parents'' (p. 37).

One of the key aspects of CDA is that two levels of analysis have to be
identified in order to get a unified picture: a macro-level and a micro-level
(Van Dijk 2001: 354). Achugar also describes the analysis in relation to those
two levels. On the one hand, she does a macro-analysis of how texts are
circulated, i.e. which representations are transmitted through them (p. 26). In
order to do this, she uses intertextuality (Fairclough 1992) as a tool, so that
the texts in the corpus can be ''read in relation to other texts that belong to
the same discursive formation'' (p. 27). On the other hand, the micro-analysis of
the texts is carried out from a socio-semiotic perspective which is based on the
Systemic Functional Model (SFL), and its understanding of ''situational context''.
Once both levels are described, the author explains the different linguistic
categories she has used in the analysis, and summarises them in relation to the
chapter in which they are employed.

We can also find in this chapter a description of the corpus of analysis, which
includes texts belonging to six main groups: historical accounts, editorials
from a monthly military publication, confessions, press releases, articles of
periodicals and a commemoration speech. The texts are produced by the military
-- as the institution who tries to construct an institutional memory -- and also
by other social actors so that interrelationships between different groups can
also be uncovered. The corpus amounts to a total of 21 texts, which have been
chosen by relying on a set of criteria, including genre variety, different type
of consumption (both internal and external), representation of an authorized
voice, and periodization, i.e. the key moment at which they are produced.

The analysis is included in chapters 3 to 7, which are chronologically arranged.
All of them are organised around the same issues, with minor differences
depending on the genre that has been analysed. Therefore, they all begin with a
description of the socio-historical context where the analysed texts were
produced. This is a positive aspect of this book, as the reader gets to
understand some of the contemporary history of Uruguay, while getting the
necessary background to understand the analysis. In relation to the elements
that are covered in the analysis, genre occupies the key space, as it is covered
in all the chapters. Likewise, intertextuality is also an important aspect which
is always considered. Variation is related to the textual analysis, as, even if
it is included in all the chapters, emphasis shifts depending on the generic
conventions of the texts that are analysed. Nevertheless, in all the chapters
the proposals of SFL are followed, as all the texts are described according to
the three variables of the ''situational context'': field, tenor and mode
(Halliday 2002: 283).

In chapter 3, the author explains how historical accounts of the dictatorship
period are constructed between 1976 and 1978, i.e. at the first stage, or the
policing phase of the dictatorship (p. 40). Thus, she performs the analysis of
three introductions and the last chapter of some historical books, all of them
produced by the Armed Forces, so they can be considered historical accounts that
share certain functional constituents. The author argues that all the texts are
intertextual, and they reproduce some similar means for relating with other
discourses on the ideational or content level. The textual analysis pattern that
can be found in most chapters is established in this one, where ideational
meaning -- or how experience is represented -- is analysed by relying on
transitivity (Halliday 1994: 106) and participants, whose orientation towards
the message is also taken into account. In order to analyse interpersonal
meaning, Martin's (2000) appraisal system is followed. Finally, the analysis
includes an overview of the argumentative strategies that are common in these

The findings in chapter 3 are quite interesting, as they not only show how
military identity and the dictatorship are justified and remembered, but also
that ''the representation in these texts of the order that the Armed Forces have
to preserve is characteristic of the representation existent in the military
discourses of the Armed Forces in South America'' (p. 74). The author argues that
the double discourse that is reproduced, and the dichotomy that it reflects may
have also influenced the political discussions taking place about the
dictatorship. In this way, discourse not only shows a communicative function but
also a political one.

In chapter 4 a wider time range is covered, as it focuses on the editorials that
were published in the military magazine ''El Soldado'' between 1986 and 1996. The
objective is to understand how ''the Armed Forces' beliefs and conception of
itself are manifested in one of its organs of communication'' (p. 77). Hence, a
comparison is established between official and dissident discourses. Given that
the temporal scope is quite ample, three key historical events are chosen for
the analysis: the passage of the ''Law of Expiry of the punitive aims of the
state'' (p. 80) in 1986, the call for a plebiscite to repeal the law in 1989, and
the demand for truth about the past in 1995. The analysis is similar to the one
explained before, and what is interesting in this chapter is the emphasis on the
use of intertextuality to appeal to different audiences and on diachronic
changes, which show how arguments used at the period of the dictatorship are now
recontextualised. It is interesting to note how the position of the military at
that time is legitimized in relation to the role of other groups.

There is an interesting generic change in chapter 5, where ''a letter of
confession by a retired captain of the Uruguayan navy'' is analysed. We have a
focus on individual memory, which is also used to explore its connections with
institutional memory by relying on three main aspects: the manipulation of a
testimonial genre, how responsibility is assigned or evaded, and the role of
discourse in the construction of collective memory. Given that confessions are a
special type of genre in as much as the author assumes most responsibility, the
analysis of linguistic structures changes slightly in this chapter, where frames
of self-presentation and the use of personal pronouns as a sign of
responsibility are considered, for the first time in this book. The analysis
shows how the objective of the text -- ''to create tolerable self-presentation of
the confessor and [...] legitimize the official discourse about the period'' (p.
122) -- determine the linguistic and generic choices which can be manipulated,
in such a way that this confession ''produces an effect contrary to the desired
one, instead of apologizing, the confessor inscribes his guilt'' (p. 123).

In chapter 6, Achugar looks at ''the conflict of interest that arises in 'what'
and 'how' to remember'' (p. 125), and she analyses press releases coming from
different ideological sides. The analysis in this chapter, and particularly the
focus on intertextuality, shows how different groups are aware of the discourse
of ''the other'', and they use it -- and often reconstruct it -- in their own
discourse. The author emphasises the importance of the socio-historical context
in which the press releases are produced as they are characterised by an opening
of the public space to the opposition non-military groups, which results in the
creation of ''new spaces for negotiation'' (p. 164). Moreover, it is interesting
to note that the author also identifies the influence of non-political discourse
types such as religion; an aspect which could be further developed and analysed
not only in Uruguayan political discourse, but also in political discourse being
uttered in other places where religion-based conflict is still maintained,
mainly because of its ability to create a ''totalizing vision'' of the world (p.

The final chapter in the analysis explains the shifts that have taken place in
the military construction of their memory about the dictatorship. In order to do
so, Achugar analyses a commemorative speech produced in the midst of a political
change marked by a new Left government. The analysis of this genre shows that
contemporary speeches are aimed at several audiences and they are strategically
designed in such a way that they address all of them simultaneously. An
interesting conclusion that can be obtained from the textual analysis is that
diversity of opinion is not only related to ideological positions, but goes
beyond them, hence showing the ''fragmentation'' (p. 193) that can be found both
in the right and the left discourses. This chapter shows ideological variation,
and also diachronic change, as looking at discourse produced over 30 years after
the beginning of the dictatorship shows the processes that are followed to
''rework memory'' so that a positive group identity of the military can still be

All the theoretical and applied issues covered in the book are summarised in the
conclusion, where we get more insight into the construction of memory and the
discursive practices that are associated to it. The author demonstrates how the
meaning-making process of memory-construction is influenced by previous
knowledge, experience, and the intimate relationship that is established with
the person remembering, hence becoming a social and cognitive process which is
not only individual but also collective. Achugar demonstrates the importance
that present -- and future -- interests have, as they become ''the frame through
which the past is interpreted'' (p. 197). This finding can be explained by Van
Dijk's explanation of the mediated relationship that exists between language and
society, which is influenced by the communicators' ''social cognition'' (1993:
357), i.e. the social representation shared by given actors.

The book shows how the process of memory construction is characterised by
certain discourse practices and linguistic resources. The author argues that
certain discursive patterns can be identified in the analysed military
narratives. Most of them are simplified into ''Maniquean tendencies that divide
the actors between us and them'' (p. 199), a finding that is also supported by
Van Dijk's argument that an ''ideological or political square'' (1997b: 28)
underlies political discourse, thus creating an in-group and an out-group. The
use and transformation of genres becomes a useful tool for remembering the past.

One of the most appealing parts of the conclusion is related to the author's
final reflections, and particularly to those aspects that have not been covered
in the book, as they are drafted as lines for future research that may also be
helpful for other researchers interested in the discursive construction of
memory and/or military discourse. Among them, some factors can be highlighted
such as the need to explore how the ''topic is negotiated by society at large''
(p. 206), how political dissent is legitimised or demonized both in society at
large and within the military, or how the Uruguayan case can be connected to
other international discussions that justify violations of human rights, such as
the case of Guantanamo Prison in the US context. All these elements will help us
understand the process of memory construction -- and its contradictions -- in a
more global context.


This book is thought-provoking for people interested in the study of memory
recollection, and/or the study of discursive practices. Both issues are
thoroughly covered -- and connected -- in the book. This is the key positive
aspect of this book, where we get some insight into the process of memory
construction, and its discursive connection with the context in which discursive
practices are produced and the common knowledge shared by social actors involved
in them. This may become helpful to understand Van Dijk's (1993) cognitive and
contextual approach to CDA, which establishes a connection between social
functions (memory reconstruction in this case), cognitive representations (the
shared institutional identity of the Armed Forces), and their discursive
expression and reproduction. The book looks at how this process of memory
reconstruction is achieved in different discursive genres, although all of them
have some kind of ''political'' tinge. Thus, by reading Achugar's book we also get
some insight into how the past is constructed in political discourse
--understood in its broadest definition (Van Dijk 1997b).

The book's organisation is worth praising. The diachronic study that is
presented in the analysis is not only useful in order to understand recent
Uruguayan history -- and its discursive representation -- but also to get a
grasp of discursive change throughout time. This is of particular interest, as
the book focuses on the linguistic and textual analysis of given instances of
discourse -- as some books devoted to the study of political discourse do
(Chilton 2004, Wilson 1990), and it also explains linguistic choices in relation
to the time at which they are produced. This emphasises how political discourse
may change over time, something which is important if we want to understand the
connection between discourse and context.

This book is not only an interesting reading because of what it offers and the
knowledge we get from it, but also because of the new lines of research it opens
up. The connection between discourse and memory, the importance of the context
in which they are produced, and the people to whom those recollections about the
past are addressed offers the possibility of creating a taxonomy of types of
memory which can be classified by taking the variables considered in the
analysis in this book, i.e. genre, situational context and addressees. Achugar
only looks at purely ''textual'' constructions of memory, but it would also be
worth looking at the connection between memory and other discourse types, such
as monuments and media representations. Finally, this book presents a line of
research -- the discursive construction of the past -- which can be applied not
only to other historical moments in Uruguay, but also to the discursive
construction of other dictatorships in South America -- hence offering the
possibility of comparing the strategies used in all South American countries --
or even other places in the world. Eventually, understanding how memory is
discursively constructed may help us understand how given socio-political
behaviours and policies are legitimated.


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Laura Filardo-Llamas is a lecturer of English at the University of Valladolid, Spain. Her main area of research is political discourse analysis, in particular from a linguistic perspective. She applied both topics in her PhD thesis, entitled