American Studies Program
University of Bucharest
Familiar Perpetrators: On the Intimacy of Evil in Contemporary American Literature and Popular Culture
October 8, 2022
Workshop Program [please scroll down for abstracts and speakers’ bios]
Please note that all the times below are CET.
Online access will be provided through Google Meet (link available for all panels):
9:00-9:15 Opening remarks
9:15-10:45 Reading Perpetration in and beyond Holocaust fiction (chair: Dana Mihăilescu, University of Bucharest)
Joanne Pettitt (University of Kent). Holocaust Perpetrators in Fiction: Monsters, Myths, Humans
Sue Vice (University of Sheffield). ‘A Nazi in the Family’: Perpetrator Descendants in North America
Roxana Oltean (University of Bucharest). “Your Humble Typesetter and Biggest Fan.” The Familiar Perpetrator in James McTeague’s “The Raven” (2012)
10:45-11:00 Coffee break
11:00-12:30 Graphic Variations of Familiar Perpetration (Chair: Roxana Oltean, University of Bucharest)
Dana Mihăilescu (University of Bucharest). Familiar Perpetrators and the Holocaust Archive in Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
Dragoș Manea (University of Bucharest). Mythology and the Ethics of Punishment in Nina Bunjevac’s Bezimena
Mihaela Precup (University of Bucharest). Perpetration and the Logic of Familiarity in Drawing Power (ed. Diane Noomin)
12:30-13:15 Lunch break
13:15-15:15 Representing Perpetration in Popular Culture (chair: Mihaela Precup, University of Bucharest)
Evelyn Mohr (University of Konstanz). Unlikely Villains, Ghosting, and the Evolution of Evil in Fargo
Isha Singh (independent scholar). Romanticising the Serial Killer: Hollywood’s Obsession with Perpetrators of Violent, Gendered Crimes
Cathy Dondelinger (Royal Holloway, University of London). Clashing Narratives, Blurring Lines: Contradicting Narratives in Guantanamo Diary
William W. Wright (Colorado Mesa University). The Problem with Clowns: Parody and Familiarity in Comedic Responses to Perpetrators
15:15 Closing remarks
ABSTRACTS and BIOS
JOANNE PETTITT. Holocaust Perpetrators in Fiction: Monsters, Myths, Humans
Abstract: This paper will argue that there are two primary modes of representing Holocaust perpetrators, both of which rely on a particular form of familiarity: 1. As paradigms of evil; and 2. As human beings subject to the same motivations as the rest of us.Like depictions of the Holocaust, representations of Nazis proliferate. Perhaps as a consequence, their image has reified into a series of recognisable patterns and images: Nazis are evil, inhuman, other; their alterity is assured by their ‘facelessness,’ their sexual deviance, their affiliations with uniforms and swastikas, and by their propensity for extreme violence. This coded version of Nazism is adaptable to depictions of the far-right in other contexts and as a means of commenting on contemporary concerns.; it is this aesthetic model that I mean to invoke with the idea of the Nazi paradigm. Other forms of representation move away from this stock image, focusing instead on the humanity of the perpetrators involved. This raises questions about what we – as readers and as human beings – would have done and how we would have acted under similar circumstances. By deconstructing the notion of evil and returning it to the level of human motivations (psychological, social, political), we uncover an unavoidable likeness between the perpetrators of the Holocaust and ourselves. These processes force the reader to confront urgent questions about the incremental steps – both social and psychological – that led to the genocide, and that could do so again, should the necessary conditions recur. The aim of this paper is to elaborate on the categories outlined above, thinking particularly about issues of normalisation, relativisation and trivialisation.
Bio: Joanne Pettitt is Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Kent. She is the secretary of the British Association of Holocaust Studies and a member of the executive board of the European Association of Holocaust Studies. She is also co-editor-in-chief of Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History. Joanne’s work focuses on representations of Holocaust perpetrators in literature and her first monograph – Perpetrators in Narratives of the Holocaust: Encountering the Nazi Beast – was published by Palgrave Macmillan (June 17). Her article, ‘What is Holocaust Perpetrator Fiction?’ was published in Journal of European Studies. She is currently working on a comparative study on the uses of Nazism in representations of the British far-right.
SUE VICE. ‘A Nazi in the Family’: Perpetrator Descendants in North America
Abstract: The title of this paper is borrowed from Derek Niemann’s 2015 memoir of uncovering, in the unexpected context of a Scottish family, his grandfather’s secret SS history. My focus here is on the North American literature of this kind which has appeared since 2000. I will ask if these accounts, in which the implications of a hidden family history of perpetration are worked through by the American-located descendants of former Nazis, constitute a discrete genre. I will analyse the aesthetic and psychological elements of these texts, by descendants for whom living in a North American setting and writing in English has enabled this personal and public confrontation with an atrocious past. By contrast to those memoirists who remained in Germany with their families (Sahrakorpi 2019), for writers like Irmgard Hunt and Barbara Cherish only relocation to the USA enabled the distance necessary to address a disavowed family history. Accounts by Rita Gabis, Silvia Foti and Nora Krug use distinctive strategies ranging from poetry to graphic memoir as a way of representing both the separation from and closeness to their European forebears. Finally, Angelika Bammer, Martin Puchner and Roger Frie each enlists their own specialism to examine the repercussions of a Nazi family heritage, through literary history and psychology. In all these cases, the writer or artist in the present reflects, through this intimate focus on a family unit, on the ease with which individuals can be overtaken by pernicious public discourses. This reflection has a cautionary relevance for the present precisely because it is unearthed in a North American context where that was not the norm.
Bio: Sue Vice is Professor of English Literature at the University of Sheffield, UK, where she teaches contemporary literature, film and Holocaust studies. Her recent publications include the BFI Modern Film Classics volume on Shoah (2011), Textual Deceptions: Literary Hoaxes and False Memoirs in the Contemporary Era (2014), the co-edited volume Representing Perpetrators in Holocaust Literature and Film (2013) with Jenni Adams, and Barry Hines: ‘Kes’, ‘Threads’ and Beyond, with David Forrest (2017). Her latest book is Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah’ Outtakes: Holocaust Rescue and Resistance (2021).
ROXANA OLTEAN. “Your Humble Typesetter and Biggest Fan.” The Familiar Perpetrator in James McTeague’s “The Raven” (2012)
Abstract: This paper focuses on James McTeague’s 2012 “The Raven” to tease out the complex strands of relatedness connecting the victim and the perpetrator, complicated by the intricacies of the relationship between the writer and the disgruntled fan, as well as the overlaps between writing and detective work. Either hailed as an (at least) moderately successful attempt at bringing together strands of Poe’s biography and writing while augmenting the renown of an already familiar figure of popular culture or dismissed as an ambitious film that fails to live up to viewers’ expectations, “The Raven” nevertheless puts forth an intriguing image of a perpetrator-reader-artist who also showcases the perpetrator’s familiarity troubling intimacy with his victim. Reading the film alongside some of Poe’s works in view of shared tropes of uncanny exploration (building on Paul Hurh), familiar evil and American gothic traditions (Robert Tally, Mark Edmundson, Lawrence Buell), the paper looks at the contemporary reverberations of Poe’s heritage while also investigating how issues related to the question of perpetration engage the ethical dimensions of the acts of reading and/or viewing, which bind artist and fan in an inextricable complicity.
Bio: Roxana Oltean is a Professor in the English Department and American Studies Program at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches classes on nineteenth-century American literature, transatlantic relations, and utopia in American culture.
DANA MIHĂILESCU. Familiar Perpetrators and the Holocaust Archive in Nora Krug’s Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home
Abstract: My presentation builds on the features of third-generation literature identified by scholars such as Alan Berger (2010) and Victoria Aarons (2016, 2017). While these scholars’ studies have primarily focused on the writings of grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, I will address a less explored path and examine the representations of German and Jewish identity and the Holocaust archive in a graphic narrative by a granddaughter of perpetrators. This will extend the findings of Erin McGlothlin (2006) and Caroline Schaumann (2008) on the legacies of perpetration in second-generation literature. I will investigate if Krug’s quest for details and concept of home (heimat) rely on similar or divergent tropes as those from third-generation survivors’ narratives. I argue that Krug’s graphic narrative is meant to intervene in the public memory of the Holocaust in Germany by a dialectical montage of photographs, archival documents, texts, and illustrations for children’s books, showing how the artist uses juxtaposition to focus on the micro-level approach to the Holocaust via two main visual narrative strategies: the retrospective coloring of black-and-white photos of familiar perpetrators and the juxtaposition of these with fiction, artefacts, archival documents, etc. She does that to be able and contemplate the need to acknowledge one’s family’s implication in World War II in a country in which the macro-level acknowledgment of perpetration and complicity has been thoroughly taught and assumed. Overall, I propose that Krug does not level the distinctions between perpetrators and victims but finds them inadequate for her self-reflective endeavor. She therefore reconfigures her discussion of her family’s engagement with World War II from the perspective of the “implicated subject” position as developed by Michael Rothberg.
Bio: Dana Mihăilescu is an Associate Professor of English/American Studies at the University of Bucharest. In 2021-2022, she was the Edith Kreeger Wolf Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Crown Family Center of Jewish and Israel Studies, Northwestern University. Her main research interests and publications focus on Jewish American Studies, Holocaust studies, trauma and witnessing, ethics and memory.
DRAGOȘ MANEA. Mythology and the Ethics of Punishment in Nina Bunjevac’s Bezimena
Abstract: My paper explores NinaBunjevac’s Bezimena (2019), a dense, deliberately estranging graphic narrative that raises important questions regarding the representation of perpetration, complicity and punishment. Drawing on Greek mythology, the aesthetics of BDSM, and Bunjevac’s own experiences with sexual violence, Bezimena chronicles the story of a woman transformed into a deeply disturbed young man by Bezimena the Old—an Athena-like figure—as a form of punishment for her past transgressions. Deeply allusive and ambiguous, the graphic narrative overtly rejects—even as it invokes—the language of empathy in favor of a puzzle-like approach to representation, which often demands that we interrogate our own affective engagement with narratives of perpetration, victimhood, and complicity.
Bio: Dragoş Manea is a lecturer in the American Studies Program at the University of Bucharest, where he teaches courses in contemporary American literature, cultural memory studies, perpetrator studies, and media studies. His main research interests include the adaptation of history, cultural memory, and the relationship between ethics and fiction. Relevant publications include Religious Narratives in Contemporary Culture: Between Cultural Memory and Transmediality (edited with Maria Sabina Draga-Alexandru, Brill, 2021) and Reframing the Perpetrator in Contemporary Comics: On the Importance of the Strange (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). He is a recipient of the Sabin Award for Comics Scholarship (2017).
MIHAELA PRECUP. Perpetration and the Logic of Familiarity in Drawing Power (ed. Diane Noomin)
Abstract: This presentation examines Drawing Power, a collection of autobiographical comics about “sexual violence, harassment, and survival” with contributions from more than 60 comics creators from a variety of racial, sexual, cultural, and social backgrounds, edited by American underground cartoonist Diane Noomin and published by Abrams Comicarts in 2019. I am particularly interested in examining the ways in which the contributors represent their attackers as familiar figures, either because they are family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers or because their acts of perpetration occur in familiar environments whose apparent safety is revealed to be false. A third layer of disturbing familiarity is added by the sheer accumulation of sexual violence within the space of the collection itself, where the similitude of some of the plot lines may, as the reading experience unfolds, create an anticipation that also relies on the logic of familiarity. Considering all this, in my presentation I also examine the strategies meant expose—in a variety of styles and techniques, as well as from multiple perspectives that reflect the artists’ respective backgrounds—how dangerous the acceptance of this kind of familiarity can be. For this purpose, I am in conversation with feminist scholarship on the gendering of violence and intimacy (Bates 2015, Berlant 2008, Sjoberg and Gentry 2007), with work on how perpetration is facilitated by “implicated subjects” (Rothberg 2019), as well as scholarship on monstrosity and femininity (Langsdale and Coody 2020)
Bates, Laura. Everyday Sexism. London: Simon & Schuster, 2015. Print.
Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2008. Print.
Langsdale, Samantha and Elizabeth Rae Coody, eds. Monstrous Women in Comics. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2020. Print.
Rothberg, Michael. The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. Print.
Sjoberg, Laura, and Caron E. Gentry’s Mothers, Monsters, Whores: Women’s Violence in Global Politics. London and New York: Zed Books, 2007.
Waller, James. Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Bio: Mihaela Precup is Associate Professor in the American Studies Program at the University of Bucharest, where she teaches American visual and popular culture, contemporary American literature, and comics studies. She has co-edited (with Rebecca Scherr) three special issues of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics (on War and Conflict and Sexual Violence). Her monograph The Graphic Lives of Fathers: Memory, Representation, and Fatherhood in Autobiographical Comics was published by Palgrave Macmillan (2020).
EVELYN MOHR. Unlikely Villains, Ghosting, and the Evolution of Evil in Fargo
Abstract: Noah Hawley’s anthology series Fargo (FX, 2014–) has received critical acclaim for its equally humorous and violent depiction of small-town delinquency. Participating in a range of criminal conflicts in and around Fargo, perpetrators are at the heart of the series’ thematic interest. However, Fargo self-reflexively deviates from classic crime and detective fiction schemes and rearranges generic conventions into a bricolage of cultural references. Thereby, the series not only develops an idiosyncratic style, but also makes its audience aware of their own expectations that are based on generic and cultural conventions. As I will demonstrate in this paper, the series’ playful rearrangement of familiar elements also affects the depiction of perpetrators. While the series features classic criminal characters such as hitmen and gang members, it is also interested in portraying previously blameless characters that gradually develop criminal potentials – characters that evolve from ordinary citizens to murderers, from oppressed to oppressors, from victims to perpetrators. I will argue that the evolution of these unlikely villains is complemented by the choice of actors for the respective roles. The “recycling of the bodies of actors” is part of what Marvin Carlson has termed as ‘ghosting’ in theatre studies (The Haunted Stage 10). By interspersing reminiscences of some actors’ previous roles, Fargo deliberately activates the audience’s cultural memory to alienate them from established connotations and create new, uncommon villains. In this vein, the familiarity of stereotypical perpetrators is undermined not only on the level of characterisation, but also on the level of performance.
Bio: Evelyn Mohr is a doctoral student in the Department of Literature, Arts and Media at the University of Konstanz, Germany. Her dissertation project “Envisioning the End of the World: Ecocritical Readings of Complex TV” examines representations of the ecological apocalypse in contemporary complex serials and aims to widen the methodological field of econarratology in the context of the Anthropocene. Her research interests include TV and seriality studies, complex narrative, ecocritical theory, and the apocalyptic imagination.
ISHA SINGH. Romanticising the Serial Killer: Hollywood’s Obsession with Perpetrators of Violent, Gendered Crimes
Abstract: Hollywood is beset with a trauma industrial complex and often churns out films and series romanticising perpetrators of violent, gendered crimes. There has been a spate of films on the serial killer Ted Bundy, wherein Bundy is played by muscled, good-looking Hollywood heartthrobs like Zac Efron. Barely any screen space is given to the victims. By closely analysing films made on the subject, this paper seeks to shed light on the implications of this phenomenon. Films which eroticise perpetrators often leave no space for victims. By dubbing serial killers as ‘hot’, there is almost a whitewashing of their crimes as the audience forgets the violent, gory details and the number of victims. Victims get reduced to names floating on the screen, while the perpetrator is fleshed out in detail and made familiar to the audience, through various screen avatars. There have been more than five mainstreams films based on Ted Bundy alone, along with numerous tapes and series. What this fetishization and eroticisation of someone like Bundy does, is lead to the erasure of victims’ voices. Hence, to what extent is Hollywood and the audience complicit in the re-traumatisation of surviving victims and victims’ families? This paper will examine these questions on trauma and eroticisation of the male perpetrator through the lens of gender.
Bio: Dr. Isha Singh has recently completed her doctorate in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has worked on inter-generational trauma and memory of the Holocaust. She has also authored a book of horror short stories titled Where Do You Go in the Dark, My Love? published by Harper Collins India. She has published poems and short stories related to trauma and gender. Her research interests lie in the field of trauma studies, disability studies, Holocaust studies and postcolonial literature. She has taught briefly at the University of Lucknow and also at College of Nursing, Central Command of the Indian Army.
CATHY DONDELINGER. Clashing narratives, blurring lines: contradicting narratives in Guantanamo Diary
Abstract: ‘In the Army, soldiers who do not think and do not question are the most useful to accomplish a mission.’ (Holdbrooks, Traitor?, p. 27) Soldiers ‘weren’t trained to give much attention to our feelings, or even to critical thinking. […] It was a privilege to wear the uniform of the American military and fight for your country. You put it on, conducted your assigned mission, and went home.’ (Saar, 2005, p. 108) In a place like Guantanamo Bay, which houses the ‘worst-of-the-worst,’ but where, at the same time, interrogation methods were later recognised ‘as potential war crimes,’ who is the perpetrator? (Holdbrooks, Traitor?, p. 27) (Bravin, Terror Courts, p. 316) As part of my research on Holocaust and modern-day US camp literature, I am doing an in-depth analysis of one specific piece of American literature written by a detainee in Guantanamo Bay, Guantanamo Diary. Mohamedou Ould Slahi who spent 16 years detained without trial in indefinite US detention, initially wrote Guantanamo Diary in the form of letters to his lawyers. The first edition of the over 300-page book was published in 2015, ahead of Slahi’s release the following year. It turns out that due to the way this publication came to be, Slahi was not the sole author of this text. It is littered with redactions, a mark left by the US government itself, suggesting that there are in fact two narratives at play. The first Slahi’s, the second, the US government’s, whose redactions not only obscure but often also change the meaning of the text. Slahi has since been released from Guantanamo and has ‘restored’ his work by filling in the redactions. Rather than necessarily just filling in the missing pieces however, this restoration is simply one more layer in the fight over the narrative and authorship of this story. Victim and perpetrator narratives clash and the lines between the two become remarkably ragged and indistinct.
Bio: Originally from Luxembourg, I have spent the past 8 years living in the UK where I did my BA and my MA and am now in the third year of my PhD studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. I am currently spending a year abroad, studying at Yale University in the United States. My research focuses on the connections made between Holocaust and modern-day US detention camps as told within the literature from camp victims and perpetrators. My research is informed by Holocaust theorists such as Giorgio Agamben, Michael Rothberg, Primo Levi and Hannah Arendt.
WILLIAM W. WRIGHT. The Problem with Clowns: Parody and Familiarity in Comedic Responses to Perpetrators
Abstract: What does the Putin-in-drag meme or the Trump diaper balloon do to them in terms of collectively policing their actions or to us in terms of providing productive responses to their crimes? Not much, I’m afraid. They and other perpetrators remain public and powerful. How has the accumulation of derision and clowning on late night television undone the destructive, racist discourse of the far right? It hasn’t. Instead, we viewers are reduced to spectators (see Graham Murdock on Habermas) and retraumatized via parodic repetition. As the call for papers for this workshop suggests, our contempt for these dangerous, political clowns leads to a resigned familiarity with their persistence and inevitability. The focus of this presentation/workshop is on how this process of familiarization works and what we can do about it. The presentation has three sections and a discussion. Part 1 discusses how public commentaries on far-right perpetrators both keep them in the public eye and excuse their actions as a joke. Part 2 discusses how parody specifically repeats the discourse of perpetrators and retraumatizes their spectators. Part 3 examines how perpetrators employ self-clowning to invite derision and to delegitimize critique. The presentation will point to a bibliography on the would-be powers of parody as well as to qualifications of those claims, but I would also like to inspire discussion about the uses of clowning to ascribe responsibility and to bring perpetrators to just and productive attention.
Murdoch, Graham. “Refeudalisation Revisited: The Destruction of Deliberative Democracy.” Javnost: the Public, vol. 21, nos. 1-2, pp. 43-50.
Tang, Amy. “Postmodern Repetitions: Parody, Trauma, and the Case of Kara Walker.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 142–72.
Waller, J. Michael. “Weaponizing Ridicule.” Military Review, vol. 97, no. 5, Sept. 2017, pp. 49–59.
Bio: William W. Wright is a Professor of English and a Fulbright Scholar at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. His research interests include the history of rhetoric, public discourse, contemporary theatre, and American poetry. He teaches courses in rhetoric, literature, and professional writing. He is also an accomplished poet.