‘Towards a Critique of the Representation of the Perpetrator’

John Heartfield, 'Reservations' (1939)
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?