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Dementia, Violence, and the Politics of Memory in Contemporary Literature, Film, and Comics

13.09.2018 - 15.09.2018

In public discourse and the day-­to-­day provision of health care, Alzheimer’s disease and
 other forms of dementia are predominantly regarded as illnesses afflicting individuals. Although diseases of memory can have great impact on relatives, caregivers, and
 communities, stories of dementia are not necessarily understood as entailing any wider
 political meaning and it seems common sense not to hold individuals with dementia
 accountable for their affliction. At the same time, however (in Western societies at least),
 memory loss is not always viewed purely as a contingent, ‘neutral’ neurobiological process 
but can tie into political debates, especially in the context of WW II and the Holocaust but
 also in other experiences of racial/ political violence and trauma, e.g. in the contexts of
 colonialism, slavery, genocide, and forced migration in or across Europe, the Americas, and

In perpetrator societies, dementia­‐induced amnesia can be interpreted to be a wilful refusal 
to remember (the neurobiological equivalent of repression), and sufferers might even be
 blamed for strategically ‘giving in’ to their disease at a specific point in time in order to avoid
 confrontation with their past. This happened in Germany when Walter Jens, rhetorics 
professor and influential post­‐war public intellectual, succumbed to dementia at the very 
moment the media uncovered the fact that he had applied for membership to the NSDAP
 and published anti‐Semitic essays whilst still a student of literature (see Tilman Jens’ 2009
 essay Demenz: Abschied von meinem Vater). In the case of both victims and perpetrators of
 traumatic injustice and violence, dementia may reveal previously buried or hidden 
memories. Dementia and amnesia, in these cases, paradoxically reveal rather than conceal
 uncomfortable truths. In the context of forced migration, demented protagonists may return
 to their childhood language and re-­enact (traumatic) memories, challenging their successful 
integration into the countries of destination.

Memory theorists and cultural studies scholars have raised the fact that our memory culture 
will change once the last eyewitnesses of 20th century catastrophes have died –
 communicative memory will turn into cultural memory, to put it in Jan Assmann’s terms.
 Should the increasing focus on protagonists with dementia in recent books and films be 
understood as related to this development? Is dementia in these contexts a simple plot
 device, is the illness depicted realistically, and/ or is it used as a metaphor to raise larger 
cultural and socio-­political issues? How do literary texts, films, or comics conceptualise the 
dynamics of remembering and forgetting and the interrelations between ‘real’, repressed,
 re/imagined memories, or those (un)covered by screen memories? What are the political
 repercussions and the larger cultural impact of these works? What kind(s) of ‘truth’ do they
 propose? What is at stake when dementia meets history and politics?

Zeit & Ort

13.09.2018 - 15.09.2018

Freie Universität | Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School | Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195, Berlin | Room JK 33/112