Cruel Modernity

Cruel Modernity

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 6 photographs Published: May 2013

Author: Jean Franco

Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Latin American Studies, Sociology > Social Theory

In Cruel Modernity, Jean Franco examines the conditions under which extreme cruelty became the instrument of armies, governments, rebels, and rogue groups in Latin America. She seeks to understand how extreme cruelty came to be practiced in many parts of the continent over the last eighty years and how its causes differ from the conditions that brought about the Holocaust, which is generally the atrocity against which the horror of others is measured. In Latin America, torturers and the perpetrators of atrocity were not only trained in cruelty but often provided their own rationales for engaging in it. When "draining the sea" to eliminate the support for rebel groups gave license to eliminate entire families, the rape, torture, and slaughter of women dramatized festering misogyny and long-standing racial discrimination accounted for high death tolls in Peru and Guatemala. In the drug wars, cruelty has become routine as tortured bodies serve as messages directed to rival gangs.

Franco draws on human-rights documents, memoirs, testimonials, novels, and films, as well as photographs and art works, to explore not only cruel acts but the discriminatory thinking that made them possible, their long-term effects, the precariousness of memory, and the pathos of survival.


“Franco, an esteemed pioneer in Latin American studies renowned for her erudition, has created a remarkable work. Copious notes accompany each chapter of this outstanding, thoroughly documented opus . . . . A superb book—in fact a classic.” — F. Colecchia, Choice

“Transcending disciplinary genres of literary criticism or political commentary, Cruel Modernity is sophisticated yet raw, at once history, sociology, cultural analysis, and moral indictment. The result is haunting, elegant, and tough to read if one is not girded to deal with just how awful humans can be to others. . . . In the vast literature about atrocity and holocaust, Jean Franco is one of the few scholars whose prose connects the stories of victims, the artists and writers summoned to represent them, the author, and her reader. Some may find Cruel Modernity dispiriting. But there is no denying its majestic pathos.” — Jeremy Adelman, Public Books

“Impeccably researched and provocative in tone, Cruel Modernity is a significant addition to contemporary discourses on the brutality of totalitarian states and criminal gangs. Only by better understanding what leads individuals and governments to practise extreme cruelty can we hope to deter future atrocities.” — Lucy Popescu, TLS

“A tour de force on its own terms, thanks to its clarity of exposition, its empathy toward the victimized, and its commitment to understand unspeakable crimes.” — Jorge I. Domínguez, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

“This is a book as lucid as it is harrowing; it remains clear in its argument even as the extensive, exacting evidence it presents boggles the mind.” — Marguerite Feitlowitz, The Americas

“I consider this book as essential reading for all those interested in the field of human rights, especially those interested in the ways in which state terrorism remains too often unpunished. It is also fundamental to all who study Latin America, as I consider this book among the very best in Franco’s multiple writings.” — Marjorie Agosin, Human Rights Quarterly

"Demonstrates the need for an openness to pluralistic approaches to knowledge when one is trying to understand the larger transformation of Latin American societies, and the complex relationship between various forms and visions of modernization and the human rights abuses which have frequently accompanied them."  — Andrew Kirkendall, Human Rights Review

“Although it is a challenge to read the book and to become witness, through its pages, to cruelties from which we wish to turn away, it is precisely because of this that Cruel Modernity is an important volume destined to become a classic work for both professionals and the general public.” — Roger Davis, History: Reviews of New Books

“This book gives language to the unspeakable, in the name of a haunted and contentious justice.” — Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes, Bulletin of Latin American Research

"This is a brave and necessary endeavour to answer many troubling questions, and above all the role of violence in the formation of identities and subjectivities."  — Michela Coletta, Journal of Latin American Studies

"Jean Franco’s Cruel Modernity is wide-ranging and theoretically ambitious. . . . Cruel Modernity is a stunning achievement, brilliant and unflinching. Perhaps its greatest strength is Franco’s relentless pursuit of an ethical response to these acts of violence."  — Molly Geidel, American Quarterly

"Cruel Modernity is a tour de force by Jean Franco, the major figure in Latin American cultural criticism. Franco has an unfailing sense of the political and in Cruel Modernity she reveals a kind of madness in the nation-building business. The widespread perpetration of cruelty and gratuitous violence that she seeks to understand—killing, raping, maiming—are primary and archaic impulses of permissive masculinities gone berserk, precisely because of their failures in constructing the nation state." — Ileana Rodríguez, author of Liberalism at Its Limits: Crime and Terror in the Latin American Cultural Text

"In this impressively documented book, Jean Franco argues that modernity requires the establishment of borders that in turn require large sections of the population to give up the basic human taboo against harming others. Although focused on Latin America, Franco's argument about this cruel and hypocritical modernity can travel to globality. Franco interrogates many received ideas such as the banality of evil and the nature of cultural memory. Her look is fixed on the victim: tortured, raped, mutilated, disappeared, murdered. The question of gender is never absent. Modernity's relationship to narrative style, journalism, photography, and film is presented brilliantly. Great learning is worn lightly. Philosophical conclusions are offered with the casual elegance of absolute control." — Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, author of A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present

"Jean Franco indicts the orchestrated mass cruelty that has become a hallmark of late modernity. Incubated in modern militaries, kidnapping, torture, rape, and dismemberment became codified skill sets. Cruelty's trained agents disperse into society, staffing gangs, cartels, police forces, and militias, institutionalizing an extreme masculinity expressed in unspeakable brutality, especially against women. Drawing on vast testimonial archives, Franco unfolds the story case by case across Latin America, insisting on detail, rejecting resignation while confronting the possibility of a civilizational breakdown that makes extreme cruelty a condition of everyday life. A powerful, chilling book." — Mary Louise Pratt, author of Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation

"Nobody knows more about Latin American culture and politics than Jean Franco, and Cruel Modernity is a magnificent undertaking. A major study of cruelty as integral to modernity, it is required reading, sure to become a classic." — Diana Taylor, author of The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jean Franco is Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. She is the winner of the 1996 PEN award for lifetime contribution to disseminating Latin American literature in English, and has been recognized by both the Chilean and Venezuelan governments with the Gabriela Mistral Medal and the Andres Bello Medal for advancing literary scholarship on Latin American literature in the United States. Her previous books include Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico, César Vallejo: The Dialectics of Poetry and Silence, and A Literary History of Spain and Spanish.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1. The "Insignificant Incident" and Its Aftermath 23

2. Alien to Modernity 45

3. Raping the Dead 77

4. Killers, Torturers, Sadists, and Collaborators 93

5. Revolutionary Justice 100

6. Cruel Survival 152

7. Tortured Souls 172

8. The Ghostly Arts 192

9. Apocalypse Now 214

Afterword. Hypocrite Modernity 247

Notes 253

Bibliography 279

Index 297
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5456-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5442-0
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