Skip to main content

Complicity: A Crisis of Participation in Testimonies of Totalitarianism in Contemporary German-language Literatures

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - COMPLIT (Complicity: A Crisis of Participation in Testimonies of Totalitarianism in Contemporary German-language Literatures)

Berichtszeitraum: 2019-09-01 bis 2021-08-31

Complicity is a subject of fascination in popular fiction and, at the same time, an eminent challenge to the democratic maxim of participation and in the role of the individual as responsible actor in political, economic, and ethical communities. Complicity is conventionally used as a legal term to describe the way a crime is committed, namely by aiding or abiding wrongdoing. A broader notion of complicity as being involved in complex structures has become a common feature in critical and public discourse, mostly in the claim that remaining inactive or continuing a certain habit renders the subject complicit in wrongdoings of humanitarian, political, ecological, moral, or other natures. While pervasive structures of complicity without explicit consent indeed pose the question of what participation and individual responsibility means in a world of globalized markets, conflicts, climate change, and electronic media, the criticism of complicity raises the same question: Is there a point of view that is not involved in any social contexts? How would such a position communicate, given that languages rely on the participation in pre-determined structures of grammar, semantics, etc.? In how far is the assumption that the positions of analysis, critique, and opposition can be untouched of all wrongdoing itself an instance of complicity by ignoring the complexity of involvements?
The interdisciplinary project relates recent research in law and social sciences to testimonies of totalitarianism in contemporary German-language literatures by Herta Müller, the late Aglaja Veteranyi, and Elfriede Jelinek. The objective of the project COMPLIT is an interdisciplinary transfer of knowledge that leads to a deeper insight into how complicity enfolds: First, the project reads literary texts as genuine contributions to a general understanding of complicity that expound the comprehensive role of language in structures of participation and involvement. In portraying conflict and wrongdoing, literature relies on the complicity of the audience, be it the imagination of the reader, or the gaze of the spectator. Second, COMPLIT employs the insights of law and social sciences to highlight complicity as a pressing concern in contemporary German-language literary testimonies of totalitarianism that have, so far, been interpreted mostly with regard to memory culture, trauma, and (transnational) identity discourses. The concern of these texts, however, is just as much for the present as they outline modes of partaking in institutional violence that draws on heritage, culture, gender, social, and other distinctions. The modes of complicity stand out more clearly – and are acknowledged more readily – in dictatorships of the past. They are more complicated, but just as active, in the globalized world of the present. The outlook onto the broader academic discussion and current societal problems strengthens the stance of humanities research by demonstrating its relevance to citizens at large.
The manifest crisis in European integration, and the backlashes onto democratic freedom by what appear to be resentments and beliefs from Europe’s violent past, make it urgently necessary to address those structures of public discourses and institutions that – even if unwillingly and unknowingly – foster rather than oppose antidemocratic, populist, and extremist discourses.
I have worked on the project for seven months out of the originally granted 24 months, 09/19 - 03/21, before accepting a position as Professor of Comparative Literature at Ludwig Maximilian University Munich, Germany. The project period has led to the following results:
- September 13, 2019, I have presented elements of the project in the talk “Complaining as Speech of ‘the East’: Discourse Geography and Complicity in Populism” at the ECREA Communication History Section Workshop "Jeopardizing Democracy Throughout History: Media as Accomplice, Adversary or Amplifier of Populist Discourses and Radical Politics," Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna
- October, 24, 2019, I have presented elements of the project in the talk “Defacement der Person. Zur Unterminierung einer Rechtsfiktion im gesichtslosen Schurken“ at the conference "Faceless Figures of Evil in Popular Culture in the 20th and 21st Centuries," Luxembourg University.
Both events have targeted an interdisciplinary audience of peer researchers in literary studies and media studies.
- January 24, 2020, I have co-organized, together with Benjamin Lewis Robinson, PhD, the interdisciplinary workshop "Critical Concepts in the Anthropocene: Rethinking Guilt" in the Department of German at Vienna University, which assembled scholars from literary studies and philosophy to address the issue of complicity, guilt, and responsibility with regard to the ecological crisis. This event targeted an audience of scholars and students, and has been co-sponsored by the City of Vienna and the Vienna Doctoral Academy (VDA) Theory and Methodologies in the Humanities. Results of this event are disseminated in a special issue of the journal The Germanic Review, forthcoming in 2021 (in open access).
- I have prepared the journal article “Guilt-tripping the ‘Implicated Subject’: Widening Rothberg’s Concept of Implication in Reading Müller’s The Hunger Angel.” Response to: Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators (2019), Journal of Perpetrator Research 4.2020 42–66, This is an open access online journal targeting scholars and students in the humanities, social sciences, and the law.
The project has moved research discussion beyond the previous state of the art in outlining that literary texts reflect on problematic involvement and call for more than singling out, and judging, individuals guilty of complicity. It has shown that legal and historical research alone do not suffice for understanding complicity with wrongdoing, and that the medium of language is a good model for approaching the complication of complicity, that is: individually responsible participation in a communal structure. The project has expounded that complicity is an ambivalent charge as it is hardly functional within and too general outside a legalistic framework. Complicity can, however, be analytically productive if used not as a charge but as a marker for complexity. Documentary fiction is of particular interest for this issue because texts or films portraying historical events in fictitious plot or dialogue work within the ambivalent stance of complicity. Documentary fiction performs those practices and speech acts that bring about and justify mass violence and is, therefore, a useful medium for understanding how the representation of violence relates to its replication and transmission: It creates attention for the issues of participatory violence, and of complicity in the transmission of justificatory discourses, by making the audience participate in this very complicity.
As the project period has been cut short by 17 months, not all of the envisaged projects for public and societal impact could be realized. However, with my transition to LMU Munich, the project has merged into a larger, cooperative interdisciplinary research project that analyses discourses transmitting the heritage of mass violence.
image of the scholar