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Haley Stewart (University of California, Berkeley)

Haley Stewart

Haley Stewart
Image Credit: Private

Fellow in Research Area 2: "Travelling Matters"

January – June 2023

Human Matters: Material Memory Projects of and in the Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile is one of the driest deserts in the world. Its extremely low levels of precipitation and high solar irradiance make its skies perfect for astronomical research and its soil an excellent preservative. While astronomers in the Paranal Observatory, the flagship facility of European astronomical research in the Southern Hemisphere, look to the skies to study the history of the stars, other researchers look earthwards at the human histories told by the Pre-Columbian petroglyphs, artefacts and human remains found in its landscape. While these climatological and chemical conditions concentrate testaments to human cultural and scientific achievement in the desert, they also convert it into a palimpsestic record of human violence. Alongside the astronomers and anthropologists who work in Atacama are the Mujeres de Calama, a group of women who have combed the Atacama for 40 years looking for the remains of loved ones and political prisoners killed under Pinochet’s dictatorship and buried in the desert.

This project calls upon media studies, memory studies and ecocriticism to look at a number of works that use the Atacama Desert as a medium to memorialize the human histories of violence and loss found in its space. Included among these are Patricio Guzmán’s documentary Nostalgia de la Luz, Raúl Zurita’s Escritura Material (1993) and poems in Purgatorio (1979) and INRI (2003), Paula Allen’s photographs in Flores en el desierto (1999)Mario Irarrázabal’s sculpture Mano del desierto (1992), and Andrew Rogers’ land-art installations (Ancient Language, The Ancients, Rhythms of Life, 2004). These works, which demonstrate a troubled and self-questioning engagement with post-anthropocentric perspectives, attempt to synchronize histories of political genocide with cosmological and geological histories of a vastly different scale, to sometimes disquieting effects. This project attempts to situate these works as early experiments in non-anthropocentric forms of telling history that can tell us much about the opportunities, advantages, but also potential political dangers of expanding our storytelling beyond the human.

Haley Stewart is a PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, where she primarily works on Latin American literature, film and art of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. She holds two MPhil degrees in European Literature and Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge. Her transnational work engages with the theoretical concerns of ecocriticism, environmental humanities and Anthropocene studies from the local, postcolonial and ch’ixi experiences of a region long identified with and exploited for its natural resources, and home to non-Western, Amerindian cosmologies and ontologies. During this fellowship, she will begin to work on her dissertation, which looks at the emergence of post-anthropocentric memory cultures in the Andean and Southern Cone regions from the 1970s onwards.