CFP: Between Contestation and Convergence: Multidirectional Memory of the Holocaust and Colonialism in Comics

"Eine Woche Zeit" in co-operation with the Alfred Toepfer Foundation and the Deutsche Zeitschrift für europäisches Denken MERKUR
Gut Siggen
October 9-13, 2023
Stichtag: 2023 08 01

The notional chasm in German consciousness that separates Holocaust remembrance from the legacy of colonialism is arguably deeper today than ever before. In his 2009 volume Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (first published in German in 2021), the cultural critic Michael Rothberg coined the term ‘competitive memory’ to characterize the dominant conceptual framework of remembrance culture. According to this logic of competition, the space for collective memory in the public sphere is ‘at a premium,’ meaning that resources are both scarce and contested. If remembrance culture amounts to a zero-sum game, public remembrance of the Holocaust blocks other genocides and histories of violence from view, just as efforts to commemorate the victims of slavery and colonialism potentially overshadow the memory of the Nazi genocide. But remembrance culture need not be based on a struggle for limited commemorative capital. Instead, Rothberg urges us to adopt a ‘multidirectional’ understanding of memory, where dialogue, cross-referencing and productive negotiation outweigh competition.

Beginning in the 1980s, the publication of Art Spiegelman’s seminal graphic novel Maus proved to the world that comics can engage with the subject of the Holocaust. Indeed, recent critical work has highlighted the extent to which this medium has historically been drawn to the representation of atrocities, from Auschwitz to Hiroshima and Palestine. While images of extreme violence captured on camera provoke reactions of horror and disgust in the viewer, the ‘human’ quality of the drawn line in comics establishes a degree of aesthetic distance that enables readers to engage with the matter at hand. Or so the Israeli comic book author Rutu Modan claims in a recent lecture on spectatorship and mediality that recalls Aristotle’s discussion of horror in his Poetics. Modan explains how the medium of comics is further characterized by a non-linear relationship between the order of images and temporality. Beyond the fact that images are generally more readily intelligible than written language, the particular spatiality of comics, i.e. the arrangement of panels, means that disparate episodes or elements can co-exist on the page, freed from the ordinal regimes of language. In formal terms, then, comics sidestep the chronological structure that underpins the sequence of words and sentences in written narrative. Recalling Lessing’s distinction between the spatial and temporal arts in “Laocoon,” comics are therefore multidirectional in their articulation of potentially incongruent spatial and temporal dimensions. Present, past and future can feature simultaneously within a single panel, yet they need not align. For Modan, these formal qualities account for the propensity for multivocality, irony and satire in comics. By giving the eye time and space to roam over the image, comics guide us toward realization that there is no ‘one single truth’.

The 2022 comic The Humboldt-Animal: A Marsupilami Adventure, by the German author known as Flix, proves the point that Holocaust and post-colonial remembrance cultures need not remain mutually exclusive. Drawing on the imaginative world of the Franco-Belgian comics author André Franquin (Spirou), Flix’s slim volume retells German history via two intertwined narratives, distinct in time and place: the South American jungle at the time of Alexander von Humboldt and Berlin in the early 1930s. The comic subtly draws together narratives of colonial exploitation and the persecution of the European Jews without suggesting an equivalence. At the same time, the ostensibly boisterous romp of the fictional ‘Humboldt-animal’ through Berlin’s Natural History Museum contains a latent topical critique of museal institutions and their logic of representing lifeless bodies. Flix’s interest in multidirectional memory resonates with current academic discourse, such as the London’s German Historical Institute’s November 2022 bulletin ‘Memory Cultures 2.0: From Opferkonkurrenz to Solidarity’. Further volumes in the Marsupilami series including The Beast by Frank Pé and Zidrou as well as the Spirou adventure Operation Bat and The Leopard Woman by Olivier Schwartz and Yann draw further connections between National Socialism and colonial history. Decolonial narratives in the work of authors such as Sarnath Banerjee, Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie are likewise gaining increasing prominence in the global consciousness.

The conference invites speakers to present papers of max. 25 minutes for subsequent publication in a collected volume, either in the form of a special issue in a peer-reviewed journal such as ‘Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies,‘ or as a stand-alone volume.

Please submit abstracts of max. 300 words and a short CV in English or German to and by 1 August 2023.