Dementia, Violence, and the Politics of Memory in Contemporary Literature, Film, and Comics
CFP for an edited volume or peer-reviewed special journal issue, preceded by a workshop at Freie Universität Berlin, Germany (Sept. 13-15, 2018)
In public discourse and the day-to-day provision of health care, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are predominantly regarded as illnesses afflicting individuals. Although diseases of memory can have great impact on relatives, caregivers, and communities, stories of dementia are not necessarily understood as entailing any wider political meaning and it seems common sense not to hold dementia patients accountable for their affliction. At the same time, however (in Western societies at least), memory loss is not always viewed purely as a contingent, ‘neutral’ neurobiological process but can tie into political debates, especially in the context of WW II and the Holocaust but also other experiences of racial/ political violence and trauma, e.g. in the context of colonialism, slavery, genocide, and forced migration in or across Europe, the Americas, and beyond.
In perpetrator societies, dementia-induced amnesia can be interpreted to be a wilful refusal to remember (the neurobiological equivalent of repression), and sufferers might even be blamed for strategically ‘giving in’ to their disease at a specific point in time in order to avoid confrontation with their past. This happened in Germany when Walter Jens, rhetorics professor and influential post-war public intellectual, succumbed to Alzheimer’s at the very moment the media uncovered the facts that he had applied for membership to the NSDAP and published anti-Semitic essays whilst still a student of literature (see Tilman Jens’ 2009 essay Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater).
In the case of both victims and perpetrators of traumatic injustice and violence, dementia may reveal previously buried or hidden memories (as is imagined in Elie Wiesel’s L’oublié, 1989, Irene Dische’s The Doctor Needs a Home, 1995, Nicole Krauss’ Great House, 2010, or Cécile Wajsbrot’s L’hydre de Lerne, 2011, and David Chariandy’s Soucouyant, 2007). Dementia and amnesia, in these cases, paradoxically reveal rather than conceal uncomfortable truths – in our current cultural moment, given the amount of time that has passed since WW II and the Holocaust, they may do so for the last time. In the context of forced migration, demented protagonists may return to their childhood language and re-enact (traumatic) memories, challenging their status as survivors and their successful integration into their countries of destination (see e.g. Bernlef’s 1984 novel Hersenschimmen).
Memory theorists and cultural studies scholars have raised the fact that our memory culture will change once the last eyewitnesses of 20th century catastrophes have died – communicative memory will turn into cultural memory, to put it in Jan Assmann’s terms. Should the increasing focus on protagonists with dementia in recent books and films be understood as related to this development? Is dementia in these contexts a simple plot device, is the illness depicted realistically, and/ or is it used as a metaphor to raise larger cultural and socio-political issues? How do literary texts, films, or comics conceptualise the dynamics of remembering and forgetting and the interrelations between ‘real’, repressed, re/imagined memories, or those (un)covered by screen memories? What are the political repercussions and the larger cultural impact of these works? What kind(s) of ‘truth’ do they propose; what is at stake when dementia meets history and politics?
We invite previously unpublished papers from scholars from various disciplines, such as literary, film and comics studies, history, cultural studies, at all career stages, from postgraduates to senior academics. Contributions should be written in English and focus on literary texts, films, or comics (from any cultural context). Workshop participants will receive funding to cover travel and accommodation expenses. The 2018 workshop may be followed by another meeting of contributing authors in 2019.
We hope that the workshop discussions in September 2018 will incite resonance in speakers’ papers to result in the production of a high-quality publication. The final articles should be about 7000 words long and will be due in spring 2019.
Workshop convenors/ volume editors: Irmela Marei Krüger-Fürhoff (Freie Universität Berlin), Nina Schmidt (Freie Universität Berlin), Sue Vice (University of Sheffield).
Please send your English-language abstract of max. 300 words by May 13, 2018 to:
The workshop is organised by the PathoGraphics research team at Freie Universität Berlin, Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School of Literary Studies: www.fsgs.fu-berlin.de/pathographics