AHRC project on ‘Concentrationary memories and the politics of representation’, 2007-11

Directors: Professors Griselda Pollock (CentreCATH) and Max Silverman (Centre for French and Francophone Cultural Studies), University of Leeds

Adorno declared that, in the wake of the Holocaust, all culture fails before the reality of atrocious suffering, rendering obscene all pleasure-giving forms of representation. Yet he also admitted that suffering demands representation and that the aesthetic might be its only voice. This project will consider not the ethical implications of representing the Holocaust but rather the connections between aesthetics and politics in the formation of what has become known as the cultural memory of the Holocaust and what is not fully grasped through that term: namely the concentrationary which relates to the political event of totalitarianism.

The project is divided into two parts. The first part will move from David Rousset’s understanding of a ‘concentrationary universe’ and Hannah Arendt’s thesis on totalitarianism to a consideration of Jean Cayrol’s critical/political concept of a ‘concentrationary art’, proposed most memorably in the film ‘Nuit et brouillard’ by Resnais and Cayrol. The second part will consider ways in which a concentrationary (or totalitarian) imaginary has seeped into popular cultural forms and become normalized. If Cayrol and Resnais gave us a way of critically understanding the relationship between horror and the everyday, postmodern popular culture often presents us with an assimilation of one into the other with little or no cultural politics of resistance to its effects.

International Conference Concentrationary Memories, University of Leeds
The Politics of Representation 1945-1985 is part of a four-year AHRC-founded research project directed by Prof. Griselda Pollock1 and Prof. Max Silverman2 at the University of Leeds, in collaboration with the CentreCATH3 (Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History), and the CFFCS (Centre for French and Francophone Cultural Studies)4.

The conference will contribute to and extend this project’s investigation into aesthetic resistance to ‘the concentrationary’ between 1945-1985. It aims to expand an understanding of aesthetic responses to totalitarian terror beyond the specific forms of the concentration camps of the Second World War, to include, for example, colonial violence, the camps of communist-dominated societies of Eastern Europe, and those of right-wing and/or military totalitarian dictatorships outside Europe. The papers which will be presented in this international conference will consider the aesthetic strategies by which writers, poets, film-makers and all those involved in the cultural production of memory sought to represent and challenge the novel horror of totalitarianism; the different instances of political and racial violence in a broader understanding of the totalitarian as that which cannot be confined to ‘a single time and place’ (Cayrol) or be considered as a past episode, but was the perpetual menace to be monitored and resisted in all its forms (Arendt).

Research Framework

The non-representability of the Holocaust as an unprecedented event at ‘the limits of representation’ has dominated Holocaust studies in philosophy and historiography (Friedlander). In the aesthetic dimension, the focus has been on trauma (psychological unrepresentability) and ethics (who can speak and how should we look back? Fiction versus non-representation).Theodor Adorno declared that all culture fails before the reality of atrocious suffering, rendering any pleasure-giving representation obscene. Yet he also admitted that suffering demands representation and that the aesthetic might be its only voice. This project intervenes in the memory politics of aesthetic and cultural engagements with the Holocaust. Rather than focussing on what aspects of the horror and suffering can or cannot be ethically represented, the project examines politically the aesthetic strategies created as the event, only later known as the Holocaust, first emerged as an initial object of testimony and political analysis in the period 1945-55. We focus on the crime rather than on the ethnicities of its victims. The crime – totalitarianism – was not confined to ‘one time and one place’ but exists from that moment of its egregious realization within the realm of the politically possible: no longer unprecedented, it remains a constant menace, finding other moments and forms: Stalin’s gulags and dictatorships.’Concentrationary Memories’ identifies and analyses three inter-related configurations of politics and aesthetics in the cultural memory of the Holocaust and its long-term effects: concentrationary universe, concentrationary art/poetics, concentrationary imaginary. In all three, different configurations of the relations of horror and the everyday are identified.

This interdisciplinary study works in three parts:

  • An analysis of the relations between the emergence in France 1945-48 of a testimonial/memorial literature on the concentrationary universe by returning political and “racial” deportees from the concentration camps of Germany and the writing of the political study, ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’, by Hannah Arendt (1951). Arendt identified the concentration camp as the core laboratory and proof of a novel system in which ‘everything is possible’;
  • A critical reading of the first cinematic work of memory (not documentation) ‘Nuit et Brouillard’ (1955). Despite its renown and widespread educational use in Holocaust studies, the aesthetic effects of the collaboration between Resnais and surrealist poet-survivor Jean Cayrol has not been sufficiently explored (Silverman, 2006). The project investigates how Cayrol’s transformation of a surrealist legacy into the aesthetics of ‘un art concentrationnaire’ (counter-concentrationary) shaped the film’s political aesthetic and influenced succeeding generations of writers and film-makers in France.
    Resnais’s film has been studied in the context of Holocaust cinema (Hirsch, 2005, locates the film as the foundation of ‘post-traumatic cinema’) and Resnais’s oeuvre. There is, however, only one documentary monograph on the film itself (Raskin, 1987). A recent anthology of papers studies its international reception (Van der Knapp, 2006). Work by Hebbard and Mowitt indicate relevant directions of analysis of the film’s aesthetics of uncanny anxiety (linked with the familiar) and the fascism of cinematic technology itself.
  • Identification of a hitherto unacknowledged cinematic and popular archive that indirectly registers a ‘Holocaust effect’ (Van Alphen) which we define as a ‘concentrationary imaginary’..’ This appropriates, without direct historical reference, the core aspects of totalitarianism’s novelty and terror as a narrative premise. We analyse the concentrationary imaginary by tracking the seepage and normalisation of totalitarianism in diverse forms of post-modern popular culture that invert the political-aesthetic use of the relations of horror and the everyday (Resnais/Cayrol) to insert horrific violence into the everyday.

For a full programme http://www.centrecath.leeds.ac.uk/projects/conmem/conference-1/189-2/