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Towards a Critique of the Representation of the Perpetrator

John Heartfield, ‘Reservations’ (1939)

The objective of the seminar is to explore a sample evolution of the representation of the perpetrator of mass atrocities in 20th and 21st century textual and visual works, fictional and non-fictional, and to identify a set of theoretical concerns pertaining to a critical reading of the figure.

In recent years, a significant body of scholarship has taken up the ethical question of whether we should – and if we should, how we can – engage with the perpetrators’ perspective of atrocity. This is particularly salient in the fields of memory studies and trauma studies, where testimonies and documents produced and where writers, filmmakers, artists, and museum displays increasingly make use of the works and accounts of perpetrators to challenge and disrupt the ways in which we approach catastrophic events.

This question has seemingly become more salient in light of the recent vogue for perpetrator fictions and documentaries, most notably Les bienveillantes by Jonathan Littell, and The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer and Duch, le maître des forges de l’enfer by Rithy Panh. Such representations – and their moral burden – have generated a diversity of conflicting ethical and aesthetic responses, many of which interrogate the question what historical, ethical or aesthetic truth can fictional and/or non-fictional perpetrator testimony claim to represent?

The seminar departs from the debatable hypothesis that the 21st century has witnessed a turn in the representation of the perpetrator that, aside from delving into his “ordinariness,” aims at promoting an identification with the reader/viewer – as if he were like us and we like him. We invite presentations that elaborate on this hypothesis, whether to expand, criticize or nuance it, from any theoretical framework that takes into account the dialectic of ethics and aesthetics.

Furthermore, and against this broad starting point, we invite participants to discuss any of the following questions from a comparative point of view:

  • Would it be possible to establish a genealogy or genealogies of perpetrator representations in literature, film and the arts? How would they compare?
  • What can perpetrator representations tell us about the historical specificities and/or developments of the societies in which it they have been produced?
  • Can a dialectic of perpetrator and victim (the strategy of choice for perpetrators) be sustained in light of the contention that the position of the perpetrator is the result of a moral choice while that of the victim is the consequence of a political action?
  • Is the perpetrator really the “other side” of the violent event, as recent works have suggested? What becomes of the victims in such representations, and of our responsibility to them?
  • How have representations of the perpetrator in literary, visual and artistic works influenced the creation of pedagogical tools, employed for example in museum exhibits, and other public materials?

Seminar presented at American Comparative Literature Association Annual Conference, March 18-20, 2016 at Harvard University.

  • Schöne Zeiten in Auschwitz: Christophe Busch, Kazerne Dossin, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands.
  • Representations of Perpetrators of Mass Atrocities Committed in the Great Lakes Region of Africa: Gerd Hankel, Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Germany.
  • The Ambivalent Grotesque: Tournier’s The Ogre and the Malign Inversion of Evil: Yasaman Naraghi, University of Washington, United States.
  • The Voices of Perpetrators: Sue Vice, University of Sheffield, United Kingdom.
  • Picturing the Perpetrator: Paul Lowe, University of the Arts London, United Kingdom.
  • Between Victims and Perpetrators, Approaching the Gray Zone: Mesnard Philippe, University of Clermont-Ferrand 2 – UBP.
  • Åsne Seierstad’s One of Us: Perpetrator and Victim in the Construction of National Innocence: Ellen Rees, University of Oslo, Norway.
  • The I-Narrator and His Foil: Identifying with the Holocaust Perpetrator: Gregor Rehmer, Universität Hamburg, Germany.
  • A Cambodian Eichmann? Visions of Khmer Rouge Perpetrators in the Global Context: Stephanie Benzaquen-Gautier, Erasmus University Rotterdam.
  • The Things We Bury: Confronting Atrocity in Tim O’Brien’s My Lai Writings: Iain Bernhoft, Boston University, United States.
  • Memory, Commemoration and the Politics of Representation in Post-Genocide Cambodia: Khatharya Um, University of California, Berkeley, United States.
  • Thoughtlessness and Skandala: The Trial of Duch: Benjamin Waterman, University of Waterloo, Canada.

Memory Loss

Babcia Okno (2009), Waleria Rogalska

“Memory Loss” is a cross-disciplinary research group at the Centre for Memory and Testimony Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. This project brings together people from diverse academic, artistic and cultural backgrounds and turns theory into practice by collaborating with experts from the fields of sociology, neuroscience and anthropology as well as with photographers, writers and directors who are interested in exploring the relationship between these fields when dealing with memory and memory loss.

This collaborative research, which spans the interface between community-led action research and academic theory, encourages cooperation between the different disciplines and leads to a deeper understanding of, and innovative approach for working with patients who suffer from memory loss — especially through arts and humanities-based methods, theory, and creative practices — thus improving the quality of their lives.

Traces of Memory

Traces of MemoryKitchener-Waterloo, a city in the province of Ontario in Canada, has approximately 320,000 inhabitants and each person has different experiences and memories of this urban space. For the Traces of Memory project, we interviewed eight people from different communities and mapped their stories to show the complexity of the city.

We present their stories as traces that evoke the layers of meaning in Kitchener-Waterloo.

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Marta Marin-Domine