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 beyond.
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?
13.09.2018 - 15.09.2018
Freie Universität | Friedrich Schlegel Graduate School | Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195, Berlin | Room JK 33/112