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Complicity in Post-1945 Literature: Theory: Politics, Aesthetics

Kelly, Adam and Norman, Will, eds. (2019) Complicity in Post-1945 Literature: Theory: Politics, Aesthetics. Comparative Literature Studies, 56 (4). ISSN 0010-4132. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:78056)

The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided. (Contact us about this Publication)


This special issue will explore the relationship between post-1945 literature and the problem of complicity. Complicity, derived from the Latin complicare – to fold together – is a state of entanglement with harmful acts over which one has little or no direct control. We take as our starting point the proposition that complicity became a distinctive historical problem after 1945 in Europe, the United States and their colonial territories. Since that period, the problem of complicity has had increasingly significant implications for the practice of ethics, politics and law, as well as for literary and aesthetic production. The articles collected here all address the question of how states of complicity can be represented in literary and visual media, as well as how acts of representation themselves become entangled in complicitous relationships.

Public debate about complicity arose in the immediate postwar in response to questions of Holocaust guilt, wartime collaboration, totalitarianism and mass society. As Hannah Arendt argued in her 1945 essay, “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” the postwar subject faced a historically unprecedented dilemma: “if all are guilty, nobody in the last analysis can be judged.” The first four papers in this issue grapple with the intellectual and aesthetic implications of this proposition by engaging directly with the fallout from Nazism and the Holocaust in, respectively, the United States, Germany, France and Poland. In the second half of the issue, the remaining four papers take up the aesthetics and politics of complicity in more contemporary literary works in French and South African literature, as well as in digital media and cinema. These all address the ways in which historical questions of complicity persist into the present, whether in the context of anti-Semitism or colonial violence.

The study of complicity in postwar literature and the arts can be traced back to the work of Theodor Adorno, and his reflections in Negative Dialectics on the impasse facing scholars of culture after Auschwitz, when “whoever pleads for the preservation of a radically culpable and shabby culture turns into its accomplice, while those who renounce culture altogether immediately promote the barbarism, which culture reveals itself to be.” Adorno necessarily provides a shared point of reference throughout this collection, but our contributors’ argumentative strands take up the challenge issued by a more contemporary turn in literary scholarship on complicity, exemplified in the work of Mark Sanders (2002), Naomi Mandel (2006) and Debarati Sanyal (2015). This is the challenge of interrogating anew the perceived negativity of complicity and of reconceptualising it as carrying a latent positive charge. In these essays, complicity emerges as a polyvalent idea that may contain within it the potential for future forms of solidarity as well as new, insightful models of the relationship between the aesthetic and the political. Understood as a whole, the collection makes the case that not only is the analysis of complicity necessary for the understanding of a range of postwar literature and culture, but also that comparative literary study offers considerable new insights into the interdisciplinary topic of complicity in its legal, political and philosophical dimensions. The collection shows how literary texts, as well as certain works of cinema and photography, are distinctively attuned to the difficulties faced in representing and articulating complicity. These include complicty’s provisionality in relation to ethical judgment, its constitutively tangled structure, and its tendency to assume nebulous forms such as traces, residues, spectres or atmospheres. In this way, the collection makes a landmark intervention in the field of complicity studies, which reflects on its recent development and articulates its critical power for the future.

Item Type: Edited Journal
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN851 Comparative Literature
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Depositing User: Will Norman
Date Deposited: 29 Oct 2019 21:38 UTC
Last Modified: 01 May 2020 15:14 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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