LITERATURE AND THE MEMORY OF CATASTROPHE: A SYMPOSIUM
29-30 May 2009
Academy House, Brussels
"Hypothesis to be verified: all responsible witnessing engages a poetic experience of language."
At the beginning of the twenty-first century we live in the wake of the atrocities brought by war and genocide, and in anticipation of further catastrophes like environmental breakdown, viral pandemics, and nuclear annihilation. This conference aims to highlight and investigate literature as a mode of understanding and responding to catastrophic events and histories and the extreme human suffering they cause.
The notion that literature has a significant role to play in the ways societies commemorate major historical traumas is hardly self-evident; indeed, it has often met with scepticism and mistrust. Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” set the tone for an overwhelming suspicion of literary responses to historical catastrophe, which are regularly accused of diminishing and trivializing the singularity of the victims’ experience by transfiguring it. While his declaration tends to be interpreted as a ban on representations of the Holocaust and an exhortation to silence, Adorno later clarified that “literature must resist this verdict,” as “it is now virtually in art alone that suffering can still find its own voice, consolation, without immediately being betrayed by it.”
This more positive assessment of literature as — potentially — a unique way of keeping faith with suffering has gained currency in recent years following the rise of trauma theory, a vanguard area of cultural inquiry that emerged as a product of the ethical turn affecting the humanities in the 1990s. According to trauma theory, literature enables us to bear witness to events that cannot be completely known and attunes our ears to experiences that might have otherwise remained unheard. Literature is approached as testimony of a crisis of representation brought on by trauma; the literary text’s ambiguities, resistances, and aporias are seen as signs of what Cathy Caruth has termed “unclaimed experience,” a form of historicity that simultaneously demands and defies our witness.
Organized in the context of a collaborative research project on new directions in trauma studies hosted by the Flemish Academic Centre for Science and the Arts (VLAC) and funded as a “contact forum” of the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts (KVAB), this conference will explore the manifold ways in which literature preserves, shapes, and summons the memory of catastrophes ranging from slavery and colonial oppression to the Holocaust, apartheid, and 9/11.
For further information and to register, please visit the conference website at http://www.lmc.ugent.be/.
Belgium Visit the website at http://www.lmc.ugent.be/
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