Research Projects: Familiar Perpetrators

This is the web page of PCE grant 101/2021, “Familiar Perpetrators: On the Intimacy of Evil in Contemporary American Literature and Popular Culture,” offered by UEFISCDI.

Project Description

This project, titled Familiar Perpetrators: On the Intimacy of Evil in Contemporary American Literature and Popular Culture, explores what happens when perpetrators become familiar figures, either because their representation is well-circulated in works of American literature and popular culture, in ways that make the audience feel intimately connected to them, or simply because they are represented by their own family members and friends. By “perpetrators” we refer to “those who had a hand…in the physical destruction of other individuals” (Strauss 2017), but this project also attempts to expand this definition, which does not cover certain other more insidious acts of perpetration, like those that led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement or the “genocide by default” produced during the current global pandemic (Gonsalves qtd. in Moran 2020). Additionally, this project begins—but also departs from—an understanding of “evil” that follows Hannah Arendt’s interpretation of the concept as an act performed by people engaged in a system of everyday systematic oppression, whose interpretation of the world is not profound, but shallow, and who are willing to erase their own personhood by claiming that they are mere cogs in the system (Arendt 1963; Eaglestone 2017).

Noted attempts have been made to understand the motivations of the perpetrator, such as the controversial Milgram experiment (1961, Yale University) and Zimbardo’s Prison Experiment (1973, Stanford University), which used role play to show that the subjects were influenced by both their environment and their assigned social roles in their decision—however reluctant—to obey orders and inflict pain upon other human beings. However, it was only recently that American literature, popular culture, and academic life witnessed a veritable boom in the production of texts about perpetrators, perpetration, and what facilitates them. Narratives about perpetrators and their deeds tend to follow the pattern of detective “whodunit” fiction, but with an underlying “whydunit”  motivation. Perpetrator stories, even when detailed and well-researched, retain an aura of mystery. This arises from the difficulty of fully solving the riddle of how it is possible for human beings to do often unrepresentable things to other human beings. This project begins from the assumption that this aura of mystery—which sometimes glamorizes perpetrators—contributes to the creation and circulation of a marketable figure of the perpetrator. 

Perpetrators and their crimes are often sensationalized and even turned into figures of fun, romance or adventure in contemporary American literature and popular culture, in a recent boom of productions that both rely on and fuel the public’s appetite for extra-ordinary stories. One of the paradoxical effects of this process is the public’s enhanced familiarity with these figures of evil, which can often make them appear not only banal (as Hannah Arendt famously put it), but also intimately close to the public that consumes cultural products about their deeds. This trivialization is often denounced by survivors and victims’ families; however, it remains an important component of perpetrator portraiture in the public space. It is, thus, not the purpose of this project to examine the more historically-minded representations of famous perpetrator figures like Adolf Hitler, but rather to inquire what happens when the very iconicity of someone like Hitler as a transcultural figure of memory makes him a familiar (even anecdotal) figure whose everydayness draws attention away from his considerable crimes. At the same time, it is this familiarity—through the representation of perpetrators of various kinds in popular culture—that may both offer and block access to important questions about how evil becomes possible.

This project is extremely important from a socio-cultural point of view because it can generate answers about why and how acts of evil become possible, but also how we as citizens can work towards preventing them, even as they enter the realm of everyday familiarity. By examining acts of perpetration from genocide to sexual assault and other, more pervasive contemporary forms of perpetration, this project will also attempt to enrich the still developing vocabulary of perpetrator studies, a recent discipline with roots in memory and trauma studies, as well as moral philosophy, history, and cultural studies. At the same time, the project will engage with important questions such as: What are the implications of a perpetrator becoming familiar, intimately close to the public, either because they are portrayed by a family member, or because they are the subject of a TV series, film, or documentary that presents them in such a light that inevitably draws the audience into their intimate space? What happens when acts of perpetration become so familiar that we no longer identify/read them as such because they have already moved into a realm of inevitability and everydayness? How can we employ heavily theorized and emotionally laden terms such as “trauma” and “postmemory”—terms that originate in the study of the experience of Holocaust survivors and have generally been applied to victims of violence—in order to better comprehend the aftermath of perpetration and the effects of perpetration upon the families of the perpetrators? What can humor and satire contribute to the current conversation about the proper representation of perpetrators? How does the examination of the perpetrator shade new light on what it means to be human, as the quality (being human) is usually mobilized either as a descriptive for the victim or the perpetrator?

The elements of difficulty of this project largely stem from the fact that perpetrator studies is a relatively new discipline, which has been developing over the past 30 years, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, followed by the end of apartheid in Africa, the Rwandan genocide, the war in Yugoslavia, 9/11, the wars in Iran and Afghanistan (to name only a few events in which the United States was more or less directly involved; see Critchell, Knittel, Perra, and Ungor 2017), but also from the high degree of interdisciplinarity it entails. In other words, it will be necessary to frame our research very rigorously at the intersection of memory and trauma studies, literary studies, popular culture studies, and other related disciplines in order to produce relevant results. It will also be quite difficult to identify and manage a relevant and coherent corpus of texts that will allow us to make substantial contributions to the field. Last, but not least, we need to consider the fact that the vocabulary of perpetrator studies is in flux and “underdeveloped” (Rothberg 2019), and that this will pose its specific set of challenges.