Political Memory and the Aesthetics of Care
The Art of Complicity and Resistance
Mihaela Mihai



ON A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, in a French town, two friends, Bérenger and Jean, sit and chat on a café patio. Bérenger is a misfit, who cannot “get used to life” and who resorts to alcohol to alleviate his spleen, while Jean is the perfectly adjusted citizen. He loves his job, is cultured, and takes pride in his integrity and rationality. As various townsfolk go about their daily business in the two friends’ vicinity, unexpectedly, a rhinoceros gallops by, raising a cloud of dust and momentarily alarming everyone. After a minute of shock and awe, things slowly fall back into place. Everybody returns to what they were doing before this bizarre apparition, when suddenly another animal passes by, trampling a cat. Although this second incident triggers general outrage, and a clerk suggests that the authorities should intervene, the conversation gradually derails into a dreamlike, obsessive exchange, full of clichés, over the correct species of the animal: was this an Asian or African rhinoceros?

This is the opening scene of Rhinoceros (1959), a play by French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco (1909–94). As it progresses, we understand that humans are turning into rhinoceros. More and more people get green skin and grow horns, and Ionesco intimates that the transformation is not entirely outside one’s control: it is nothing like an accident but more like a choice one makes from within one’s social situation. Personal ambition, class mobility, political commitments, certain modes of thought, a corrupt sense of solidarity, and cowardice gradually push various people to embrace the transformations: rhinoceros begin to appear beautiful, strong, noble, and harmless. If you are not a rhinoceros yourself, you only need get out of their way when they crisscross the town in herds at great speed. Everyone has a friend, a colleague, or a relative among the rhinoceros—which makes it difficult to take a joint position on their destructive presence: social allegiances and identities feed rhinoceration and render it normal. Complicity and accommodation emerge as relational phenomena, underpinned by the destruction of a plural space of meaningful dialogue and the replacement of speech by animal roars. As Bérenger realizes in act 2: “Everyone’s in the same boat!”1

Whereas most residents get used to these massive animals galloping around, Bérenger grows fearful, anxiously observing his friends either turn into rhinoceros or become excessively tolerant toward them. He is berated for his intransigent insistence on the distinctions between “normal” and “abnormal” and “speech” and “trumpeting” and his refusal to adjust to the situation and “be happy in spite of everything.” His urgent desire to “do something about it” is insufferable and so is his feeling of responsibility: “Sometimes one does harm without meaning to, or rather one allows it to go unchecked” (act 3). He “spoils everything” with his “bad conscience”; he is a “neurotic with no sense of humour.” He is afraid yet stubbornly repeats that he will not accept the situation, that communication is impossible with the animals because their guttural noises are meaningless and their trumpeting silences dialogue.

He is told “rhinoceritis” is a temporary epidemic and that those transformed “will get over it.” Crucially for this project, Bérenger remarks: “But it’s bound to have certain after-effects! An organic upheaval like that can’t help but have . . .” (act 3). By the end, he is the last human in town. He experiences intense ambivalence and despair: he tries to convince himself that the animals are indeed beautiful and unsuccessfully attempts to imitate their trumpeting. Eventually, he “snaps out of it.” His lonely cry “I’m not capitulating!” ends the play.

Rhinoceros captures a society’s ideological contamination and gradual slide into complicitous accommodation to systemically violent regimes, characteristic of the twentieth century’s authoritarianisms. It offers an account of how a society’s plural space of meaning and the relationships underpinning it are destroyed, gradually replacing political conversations with incomprehensible noises—a reference to the intolerant proclamations of authoritarian ideologies. Nobody is perfectly immune, and, most importantly, such transformations have aftereffects that make clear and sharp discontinuity with the past impossible. However, even though everyone but Bérenger becomes a rhinoceros, Ionesco hints at how certain class, professional, and interpersonal aspects of subjectivity render some individuals more vulnerable than others: while there is a relative uniformity of result, the timing of when and the reasons why people get “infected” are different, depending on who they are and where they are located within the social fabric.

Rhinoceros is autobiographical: Ionesco was born to a Romanian father and a French-Jewish mother, whose family converted to Calvinism to avoid French anti-Semitism. He emigrated to Paris in 1942, when a military dictatorship ruled Romania and fought the war on Germany’s side. Before leaving, Ionesco witnessed the increasing popularity of the extreme-Right party, the Iron Guard, whose nationalistic hallucinations infected part of the intelligentsia to which he belonged.2 The play is a direct comment on being seduced by exclusionary and violent ideologies and becoming a perpetrator of, an accomplice with, or a bystander to political regimes underpinned by exclusionary, violent visions. Slowly but surely, large parts of the population slide into conformism and accommodation to systemic violence in a climate of monovocal, deafening trumpeting. Later in his life, Ionesco hinted that the play spoke to the twentieth century’s extremes of the Left as well. He referred to the French under the German occupation, but also French intellectuals’ fascination with Stalin (Quinney 2007). Moreover, and very interestingly, at some point in the play Bérenger provocatively wonders if the epidemic originated “in the colonies” (act 3)—thus pointing toward imperial ideologies of domination.

Ionesco’s play constitutes a good starting point for thinking through the complexity of complicity with systemic violence and resistance to it. First, it provides lucid reflection on violence’s societal underpinnings, the breakdown of communication and meaning, and their replacement with oppressive mystifications. It skillfully reveals how widespread complicity with violence is mediated by ideology (“trumpeting”), power structures, institutions, intersectional positionality, and forms of sociality that normalize wrongdoing. Routinized, unreflective patterns of complicity or series of complicitous acts turn structural violence into a resilient “ecology” (Celermajer 2018). Individuals’ social embeddedness renders them vulnerable to their world’s ideological hijacking—that is, to the colonization of their political and hermeneutical space by rhinoceros. Through rhinoceritis, abuses against certain groups become permissible, part of the everyday repertoire of social interaction (Crawford 2007; Z. Miller 2008; Pankhurst 2008; Afxentiou, Dunford, and Neu 2017), allowing violations to go on unhindered for long periods, often transgenerationally.

This picture is in stark contrast to the idea of complicity that usually dominates public and certain academic debates about systemic violence, ideas that are dominated by a legalistic paradigm, which individualizes guilt and focuses on discrete acts of violence. The relational and structural nature of complicity is foregrounded in the play—in Bérenger’s words, “Everyone’s in the same boat!”—in ways that highlight the high levels of social implication by a variety of groups. However, more often than not, postrhinoceration master narratives of refounding and reconciliation strategically obscure the uncomfortable fact of generalized complicity, purging it from a “people’s” or a “nation’s” past because of a much desired “fresh start” or a “clean slate.” This desire triumphs despite the fact that, as Robert Meister (2011, vii–viii) put it, “Political transitions are not just new beginnings; they are also what I call ‘survivor stories’ that reflect a non-neutral judgment on the history that preceded them. In this respect, they are always about what the past will have been now that ‘we’ have changed.”

Second, the play provides us with an account of resistance that eschews the exceptional, masculinist, moral, patriotic, resolute, and courageous “hero elect,” a model that generally overdetermines national mythologies—discursively, institutionally, and aesthetically. Ionesco sketches the portrait of an unlikely resister: Bérenger is far from being an exemplary, virtuous, and upright citizen, who unwaveringly fights injustice in the service of the community. Prior to the rhinoceros’ arrival, it is Jean who appears to fit the hero script. Bérenger is a maladjusted, scruffy man, a social failure, a drunkard. And yet, while Jean succumbs to the epidemic, it is Bérenger who resists it against all odds. It is Bérenger the marginal, the man who sees through the artificiality and repressive elements of comfortable, bourgeois, provincial life, who understands the animals’ advent for the catastrophic event that it is. His location outside the boundaries of respectability provides him with a good position and the necessary resources to avoid infection. He is alienated—emotionally and epistemically—from both rhinoceros and humans: he can understand neither the animals’ trumpeting nor his friends’ willingness to do away with morality and meaning. He correctly senses, moreover, that such radical changes are bound to have aftermaths. He is the last man standing, trapped in his home, surrounded by hundreds of rhinoceros who stare at him through the windows.

However, throughout, Bérenger has moments of hesitation: he tries to join the chorus of rhinoceros and waivers in his refusal, petrified with fear. His state of mind evolves in response to the interactions he has with his colleagues, friends, and the woman he loves. At the height of his despair, he even attempts to persuade himself of the rhinoceros’ beauty and nobility. Therefore, how should we think of heroic resistance when Bérenger himself is no stranger to ambivalence and cowardice? How can we make space for resisters’ silences, hesitations, and even complicities in the community’s political master narratives? How can we enrich our political imagination about what counts as resistance given that the Bérengers of this world never make it in mythologized accounts of valor?

These two themes foregrounded in the play—pervasive complicity and impure resistance—make the object of a double erasure in many communities’ political memory and its aesthetics. The complexity, relationality, and temporality of complicity that Ionesco captures dramatically is rarely—if ever—tackled institutionally in the aftermath of violence. Widespread complicity with violence is one of the thorniest challenges for memory-making projects, almost always pushed under the historical carpet. In obscuring it, national refoundation mythmakers operate a first erasure. To the extent that institutional measures are taken to deal with participation in violence, a victim–perpetrator dyad structures them.3 As we shall see in the case studies included in the second half of this book, a legalistic, individualizing imaginary has historically dominated these measures with highly constricting consequences: both the scale of public involvement in violence and the complex social determinants at play have been obscured. This first erasure thus has an absolving effect but, most importantly for this project, it leaves untouched the social underpinnings of violence: naturalized ideas, relationships, practices, forms of sociality, institutions, and socialized affective registers. This misdiagnosing of the past enables the continuation of certain systemic exclusions and violent habits. I suggest that this continuation can be grasped both ideationally, because intolerant political visions are reproduced over time, and formally, because institutionalized practices of imposing certain visions of the past in an absolutist and intransigent manner on the community’s space of meaning—its colonization—are firmly located within a rhinocerotic mode of doing politics. Ionesco thus warns us about the enduring repercussions of widespread involvement with violence and its aftereffects: hegemonic memory tropes are deployed—trumpeted—to occlude shameful episodes and aspects of the nation’s past and to silence dissenting memories of “what happened.” Bérenger’s cautioning his fellow citizens about the epidemic’s sequelae could not be more appropriate because what Meister calls “the intertemporal aspect of justice as a struggle against the ongoing effects of bad history” (2010, x) is rendered impossible by this first erasure. Needless to say, it does not operate only ideationally but gets reflected in concrete, material patterns of exclusion and violence in the present.

Simultaneously, a second erasure is at play: mythmakers usually fabricate and celebrate the category of the “hero elect”—unwavering, singular, usually male resisters, whom the community should worship and honor for generations to come. This canonization—which, as we shall see, features aesthetic elements—purifies all resisters of their vulnerabilities and uproots them from the very relationalities and structures that make their actions possible, while concurrently occluding the contributions of those who cannot be easily subsumed under this predominantly masculinist, exceptionalist blueprint. Resisters’ moments of cowardice, betrayal, and ambivalence, their silences and complicities, and their flaws of character but also the violence and abuses they commit in their struggle are purged from inventories of honor. This erasure is enabled by the way in which national myths normally capture political violence in antagonistic, dichotomic terms, of “us” versus “them,” reducing history’s cast of characters to “perpetrators,” “victims,” and “heroes,” to the exclusion of those who do not neatly fit any of these reductive roles.

The effect of this second erasure is complex. First, the community’s political imagination contracts in terms of what they can conceive of as possibilities and modalities of resistance. This image of the hero elect crowds out the multiple historical experiences of resistance, which depart from this idealized vision and which might, however, serve as more plausible, more tangible, and thus more inspiring exemplars: the fearing, wavering, impure Bérengers of the world rarely count as embodiments of national bravery. The absolute hero colonizes political memory, thus impoverishing collective visions of political agency and contestatory politics, devaluing and potentially disabling alternative practices of resistance and critique. A “metaphysics of purity” (Shotwell 2016, 16)—that focuses on separability, exceptionality, standing outside and above the community—is operative here, simultaneously disavowing human relationality and misrecognizing effective action by tainted and not-so-nobly motivated resisters. Second, the second erasure purges the struggle of all its sins and allows revolutionary excesses, betrayals, and violations to remain unchallenged. Because of their dogmatic obduracy, such mythological visions maintain the community’s hermeneutical space closed and thus facilitate the reproduction of not only the habits of trumpeting but also the very practices and relationships—economic, political, and cultural—that led to violence in the first place.

This book does not deny the existence of exemplars of virtue, commitment, and courage, whose sacrifices have served to reinvigorate and sustain political struggles in moments of doubt or despair. Nor does it seek to dilute resistance to such an extent that problematic equivalences are established between life-threatening acts of courage and minor gestures of dissent. In inviting the reader to embrace the ambivalent, wavering, sometimes cowardly or complicit aspects of resistance and to honestly reckon with resisters’ own violence and cruelties, I aim to dislocate strong demarcation lines between the good and the bad, to reveal the relationality that underpins even the most exemplary practices of resistance, and to excavate figures which, though imperfect, have contributed to antirepressive struggles and, exactly because their shortcomings, can inspire others to resist. Moreover, as the historical analyses included here will confirm, the heroes who do make it in communities’ pantheons are often defined along strict ethnic, racial, and gendered lines, which gives us yet another reason to be cautious about their sanctification.

These two, interrelated erasures lie at the center of this book. I approach them driven not by a punitive or moralizing impulse but by a desire to understand and problematize their mechanisms and effects and to unearth and recover what they bury in the depth of oblivion: socially complex and temporally dynamic practices of involvement with violence across a large spectrum of actors, as well as alternative, messier resistances.4 As I hope to show throughout the book, the impetus of this project is to offer a nuanced cartography of the “in-between” that can help us better grapple with the protean shadows of the past in the present. Such a cartography is, I suggest, a stepping-stone for thinking through the shape that a politics of solidarity might take in the aftermath and the obstacles it might face.

The decision to start this book with a reconstruction of Ionesco’s play is meant to redeem one other key argument I hope to make—namely, that the epistemic-political value of artistic engagements with the thorny issues of complicity and resistance can play an important part in political efforts to undercut resilient patterns of habitual “trumpeting.” Rejecting both romanticized views of art’s revolutionary potential and elitist celebrations of the avant-garde and formal innovation, the book proposes that, by virtue of specific characteristics, certain artworks might help untie memory knots (Sanyal 2015; Milton 2014) and thus open the space of meaning to more complex accounts of historical agency, both complicit and resistant. I argue that such artworks can problematize the double erasure at the center of most national mythmaking by enabling readers and spectators to travel into the world of both the complicit and the resisting and, in the process, have their affective and intellectual investment in reductive national mythology undermined. Encounters with certain literary and cinematographic works open up the possibility of inhabiting imperfectly, without mastery, the muddy waters of systemic violence, giving us an insight into the forces at play and how they both constrain and enable action. Alison Landsberg (2004) coined the term “prosthetic memory” to refer to engagements with artistic works—including highly popular forms—that get the viewer to see the world from a different point of view, that is, a different embodied positionality and emotional horizon. Critically elaborating on Landsberg’s idea of prosthesis and thematizing the mediated nature and hedonic charge of artworks, I argue that certain works can seductively sabotage our attachments to dominant—comfortable and reductive—narratives about the past. In this project, I look in particular at film and literature for their status as established art forms in the countries of interest included in the second half of the book—France during the German occupation, Romania during its Communist dictatorship and South Africa under apartheid—in terms of the strength of their tradition, their reach, and their popularity. I do not dispute that other forms of art can be just as useful for troubling the double erasure,5 but I focus on these forms for the sake of illuminating the case studies of interest here, where literature and cinema enjoy long and rich histories. I suggest that literature and cinema can create what José Medina calls “epistemic friction” (Medina 2013b) between shared, entrenched, exclusionary mnemonic habits, on the one hand, and alternative visions of historical temporality, on the other. As I show in the chapters that follow, their power to unmoor the ideational, emotional, and sensorial anchors of political memory makes them valuable tools in interrupting self-serving, reductionist, and redemptive hegemonic narratives about past violence.

Creatively building on the literature in care ethics, I then read certain artists’ work of seductive sabotage as a work of mnemonic care for the health of the hermeneutical space of memory—one that is delivered aesthetically. Artists who target problematic erasures and the investments they instigate and who are committed to muddying the waters of selective political remembering, to highlighting the ambiguity and viscosity of the in-between, and to pointing to the resilience of violent sequelae can be thought of as carers and nurturers of inclusive political and hermeneutical relationships. The openness, plurivocality, and “kaleidoscopicity” (Medina 2013b) of processes of memory-making—as opposed to their colonization by intolerant trumpeting—constitute important objects of hermeneutical care, which involves the sustained and risky labor of rejecting and combating certain occluding master narratives and their entrepreneurs. I suggest that artists aiming to patiently, self-reflectively, and consistently pluralize a community’s space of meaning by aesthetically short-circuiting socialized attachments to the double erasure can best be understood as caring refuseniks of national historical mystifications.

These theoretical arguments will be rendered concrete through the analysis of three cases that showcase a variety of contexts of political action, marked by authoritarianism, military occupation, colonialism, and white supremacy. My case selection is driven by certain thematic concerns, which I outline below, but the theoretical framework I advance in this book can illuminate a variety of other cases of systemic violence. The duration and temporal dynamism of the violent orders included here varies, influencing the scope and intensity of actors’ expectations. As the chapters in the second half of the book show, notwithstanding certain specificities that I will highlight in each context, very similar social dynamics and axes of identity influence how individuals navigate the spectrum of involvement. Moreover, all three countries experienced the double erasure this project focuses on. Lastly, in all three, the past is a privileged object of artistic production, enough time having lapsed to allow such production to flourish.

Historical and anthropological accounts of the nature of violence constitute the background against which visions of complicity and resistance from films and novels are discussed for each case. This book does not subscribe to an unreflective idea of the possibility of a complete and objective history that should underpin official memory: historical narratives are always imbued with ideology. Yet this does not imply that all perspectives on the past are equally true or equally conducive to inclusive politics. I rely on rigorous works that muster evidence to question certain aspects of national mythologies and pluralize the voices heard in the public space. Forgetting and omissions are inevitable and, some would argue, even necessary at the level of political memory-making. Not all forms of forgetting and not all omissions are equivalent, however, and it is the critical theorist’s mission to carefully judge which ones contribute to the reproduction of patterns of domination and marginalization. The political stakes are high: social imaginaries inform and are informed by constellations of power and the material configuration of a society—and that invites careful scrutiny. This book focuses on a specific double erasure, one that, via reductionism at the level of narrative and intransigent, univocal absolutism at the level of modality has important deleterious effects on the quality of the relationships and the institutions that a community can cultivate in the wake of violence.

The inclusion of historical and anthropological material is also meant to show how similar sociopolitical imperatives—of “fresh starts” and “clean slates”—led to the double erasure. Moreover, historians and anthropologists share with artists the labor of caringly refusing national mystifications and, in all three cases, books produced within these disciplines have kickstarted significant public debates. Yet, due to the aesthetic characteristics I introduced above—the capacity to provide a powerful prosthetic experience and to seductively sabotage exclusionary investments—cinema and literature are privileged here as media of political transformation.

In choosing the specific artworks for each case, I was guided by several criteria. Thematically, I looked for works that not only vindicated my theoretical arguments in variable and powerful ways but also enriched and extended them. Formally, I included both challenging and accessible works: while it tends to be the case that uncomplicated, didactic works have a stronger effect on the public, how impactful a work ends up being is also a function of the kind of public it faces, as well as the context where it is produced and consumed. Some of the works discussed here had a great deal of visibility via the economy of prestigious awards and prizes; others enjoyed commercial success. Still others are by lesser-known artists—and they have been purposefully included to balance my thematic and formal criteria with a concern for the ethics and politics of knowledge production in the affluent western academia, where this book is produced. While some canonized figures and their highly impactful works are examined here, I also showcase emerging or marginalized voices, in an effort to give a more encompassing vision of the artistic field in each country. Some of the novels covered in this book have not been translated into English or other languages that would give them international circulation, and some of the films have never been shown or only shown in art schools outside their country of origin.6 While some are the object of an extensive secondary literature—with which I engage—others have been neglected by exegetes. Certainly imperfect in accomplishing its political and ethical ambitions, the lineup proposed here will ideally facilitate exciting cross-cultural encounters and make a small dent in rigid hierarchies of artistic esteem. Moreover, in engaging with these particular texts and films, I aimed to live up to an ethos of hermeneutical care myself, seeking to foreground works that expand, without overdetermining or exhausting, an understanding of “what happened.” The hope is that this book itself can be partly read as a caring attempt to foreground lesser-known works and artists who have painstakingly and patiently troubled their communities’ mnemonic waters, often from the periphery of national and global cultural fields.

Methodologically, this is an interdisciplinary, critical-hermeneutical exercise, reflecting on how we need to think about complicity and resistance and the public memory thereof. Throughout, the book moves back and forth between theory and the empirical case studies, with a view to cross-pollinating them in a productive and mutually illuminating manner. In this sense, at no point is theory privileged over the historical and artistic material: the conclusions to all empirical chapters reflect on how the theoretical frame is enriched, extended, and rendered more sophisticated by the specificities of the case studies. Moreover, I cross arbitrary disciplinary frontiers in search of concepts, evidence, and illustrations. Insights from critical theory, history, cultural studies, the philosophy and sociology of art, feminist thought, and literary studies are brought to bear on this project’s driving questions. Such crossings are risky because they involve giving up any idea of comprehensiveness or mastery. For example, in relation to the cases, I do not purport to contribute to the exciting debates about form in literature and film studies. While I do, to an important extent, discuss the formal characteristics of the works included here, Koleka Putuma’s definition of “storytelling” as “How my people remember. How my people archive. How we inherit the world.” (2017, 11) sits at the center of this project: it is through stories that communities organize their memories of violence, archive their wounds, celebrate their redeemers, and project themselves into the future—discursively and materially—and it is via an analysis of these stories that we can both identify the bodies marked for exclusion from official mnemonic regimes and estimate the cost of those exclusions to present relationships and politics.

Nor do I aim to offer a comprehensive engagement with the artistic production about past violence in each of my three case studies. Instead, I seek to offer a persuasive argument about how we should think about complicity and resistance, how official narratives fall short, and where we might look for counternarratives. The goal is to throw into sharper relief the complexity and temporal dynamism of implicatedness. To put it differently, the book aspires to provide an account of how most people are neither principal perpetrators nor outstanding heroes nor innocent victims, but always somewhere in the middle, responding to reality from within their own social island and temporal horizon, in more complicit or more resistant ways.

The structure of the book reflects the logic of the argument. The first two chapters constitute the theoretical core of the project. Chapter 1 provides some necessary ground-clearing. It begins by unpacking the double erasure at the center of redemptive historical mythmaking. While many scholars are concerned with the punishment of the guilty, the recognition of victims’ voices, and the celebration of the great, I zoom in on imposed forgetting about widespread complicity in past violence, which risks reproducing that very violence over time. Moreover, I also propose to examine the granularity of resistance—resisters’ ambivalent and complex motivations, violent abuses, cowardice, and complicities—usually occluded from master narratives and their centering of superlative heroes. To reiterate, the point here is to foreground stories of impure resistance, which may be more accurate and hence more plausible and more effective models for future political engagement.

A particular set of socio-ontological assumptions informs official narratives about the past, assumptions that appear to help communities draw that much-desired sharp line between the guilty, the innocent, and the brave but that end up constricting both the sense of the challenges that need facing and the imagination necessary to tackle them. These assumptions, I argue, emerge from an individualistic, sovereign understanding of agency and responsibility, an understanding that partially emanates from law’s empire and trespasses into the realm of political and historical judgment, overdetermining political actors’ and scholars’ imagination. Conceptualizing responsibility in highly individualized, intentional, and temporally static ways, these problematic views reduce history’s cast of characters to perpetrators, victims, and heroes, limiting the account we get of past violence, involvement in and resistance to it, its dynamics, and the agents involved. As I show in chapter 1, unfortunately, these assumptions are not exclusive to official narrative-making and institutionalized national doxas: certain academic literatures’ imaginaries—in political philosophy, transitional justice, and memory studies—are colonized by individualistic accounts of responsibility that distort our understanding of violent histories and erase agents and practices that do not fit neatly under perpetratorship, victimhood, or heroism.

The first theoretical chapter seeks to reveal the much more complex picture that obtains if we look at the past and its continuation into the present through a structurally attuned, relational, and temporally dynamic lens. Through this lens, complicity and resistance no longer appear as a dichotomy but as a continuum of positions individuals can occupy in the in-between that grows in the penumbra of state-sanctioned, exclusionary political institutions and ideologies. In critical conversations with several social and political theorists, I argue that these positions can only be accounted for by a reflection, first, on how being socialized in an exclusionary political common sense normalizes widespread violence and, second, on how a variety of axes of distinction—such as class, gender, racialization, or religion—mediate the effect of the common sense on differently positioned individuals. Thus, complicity and resistance can only be understood in relation to a political community’s doxa and its heterogeneous social positionalities, which both influence the nature of relationalities an agent is enmeshed in at a certain point in time.

It is important to note that one’s position on the spectrum of involvement is not fixed. Understanding patterns as opposed to acts of complicity requires an examination of the interplay between memory, imagination, and hope and of the horizons of expectations that they open, constrained both by changes in the context and in an individual’s location on the social map. Individuals’ situated hopes and fears and their temporally dynamic sense of their own agency determines how they navigate the muddy waters of systemic wrongdoing, individually and with others.

This temporally dynamic, structurally sensitive cartography of the spectrum of involvement loses the precision displayed by both national mythologies and individualizing, temporally static academic approaches to systemic violence. I propose that the losses in moral and political clarity that this messier picture produces are compensated for by what we gain in terms of understanding and grappling with the complexity of our social reality and the multiple ways in which it can engender violence. Adhering to the alternative—relationally, structurally, and temporally sensitive—ontology proposed here also helps us better estimate the political costs involved in institutionalizing the double erasure at the level of official memory. To the extent that we are more aware of the positionalities and relationships that fuel complicity with systemic violence and those that nurture practices of resistance against it, we will be better able to work politically on averting future violence, whatever new forms it might take.7

So how can we tackle the messy aftermaths of violence, given the emotional, cognitive, and embodied anchoring of exclusionary ideas not only in institutions but also in people’s minds, emotions, and bodies? How can we trouble the double erasure that prevents a more thorough and more honest reckoning with the past? Who can help pluralize the space of meaning-making, given the official shoring up of reductive official narratives?

Relying on insights from social epistemology, memory studies, and the philosophy and sociology of art, chapter 2 proposes that certain artworks can seductively sabotage reductive narratives about what happened by prosthetically enabling audiences to see the world of systemic violence in its complexity, from different points of view, and as it changes over time. Such works can trigger productive forms of perceptual hesitation and disrupt the automatism of socialized memory, opening a space for remembering differently, imagining alternative forms of relationality, and hoping for better futures. I suggest that, due to their hedonic elements and mediated nature, artworks are better positioned than historical and anthropological accounts of the past to interrupt cognitive and emotional investments in reductive mythmaking about the past. In terms of their content, I foreground artworks that illuminate and problematize the double erasure at the center of this book and that provide a more nuanced, temporally sensitive picture of the spectrum of involvement, of its inhabitants’ subjectivities and their position-takings. Artworks that feature “unlikely” resisters as well as resisters’ ambivalent motivations, silences, cowardice, betrayals, and violence might expand communities’ resistant imaginaries and help cultivate lucidity about the costs of opposing a repressive order. Films and novels that thematize the public yearning for a heroic past and for obscuring widespread complicity—that reveal memory’s artificiality and its vulnerability to self-serving machinations and distortions—are also valuable for clarifying what is at stake in the double erasure.

Last but not least, the chapter makes the case that, beyond such artworks’ effect on their immediate readers and viewers, as interventions into the hermeneutical space of the nation, they can be read as instantiations of an aesthetic labor of care for the health of that very space. Leaning on feminist theorizing in care ethics, I argue that artists who, through their work, chip away at dominant mythologies by uncovering their blind spots care for memory via aesthetic means. I propose to conceptualize the refusal of “grands récits” that operate the double erasure discussed in chapter 1 as the expression of a commitment to nurture, sustain, and protect the plurality and openness of the hermeneutical space of memory. The artists who take responsibility for the epistemic environment they share with others provide what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (2013) calls “patient epistemological care,” which presupposes a dedicated effort to eradicate “monocultures of the mind,” counteract the reproduction of intolerant trumpeting, and nurture the flourishing of honest and complex visions.

Chapters 3 to 5 offer a series of empirical and interpretive analyses that seek to demonstrate the utility of the theoretical framework introduced in the first part of the book but also enrich it in light of the insights emerging from each context. Chapter 3, dedicated to France under the German occupation, begins with a historical reconstruction of the context’s key elements, highlighting moments that shrunk or expanded agents’ horizons of hope. I introduce a series of positions on the spectrum of involvement, complicit and resistant, and outline the main parameters of the official politics of memory as it changed over time, with a view to tracing the occlusions at work in it.

This historical preface prepares the ground for a discussion of several works that target the French version of the double erasure. First, I propose an examination of gestapistes8 and legionnaires9—of men who joined the repressive institutions of Vichy and the occupier. I discuss a novel and a film that—in focusing on some of the most reviled collaborators—were received as assaults on the pieties of postwar memory making. Louis Malle’s 1974 Lacombe, Lucien and Jacques Laurent’s Le petit canard from 1954 are analyzed for their revealing the complex positionalities from within which people glide into and move within the spectrum of complicity. In particular, I zoom in on how their classed and gendered habitus constitute individuals’ horizons of hope and the decisions they make against the background of an anti-Semitic, conservative doxa, a repressive political order, and its institutions. Moreover, both works cast doubt on the moral intransigence of the legal purges that marked the end of the war by revealing the complex situatedness and ambivalence of all human actions, which make difficult any cut-and-dried assessment of individualized responsibility.

The section that follows takes us into treason territory. Patrick Modiano’s 1969 La ronde de nuit and Brigitte Friang’s Comme un verger avant l’hiver (1978) foreground a double agent and a traitor, respectively. Modiano’s protagonist, the Swinging Troubadour, is caught between two camps: a morally righteous yet calculating cell of resisters and a scrupleless yet compassionate bunch of criminals recruited by the French police to do their dirty political work. In foregrounding a double agent anguished by the inability to identify with either of the two worlds claiming his allegiance, Modiano points to the implausibility and reductionism of the cast of characters that national mythologies often consecrate: moral heroes and monstruous wrongdoers. Friang’s novel, in contrast, powerfully reveals resisters’ investment in heroic mythology and their own participation in forms of monovocal trumpeting: it shows how institutionalized silences about the underbelly of resistance help keep a glorious image in place, ensuring a variety of privileges for resistance veterans. Moreover, in foregrounding a devout woman resister, the book challenges the emphasis of virile salvific violence that postwar French mythologies consecrated.

In the last section, I look into artworks that dispute a form of complicity that the French were all too keen to address—moralistically and abusively—namely, the so-called “sentimental” or “horizontal” collaboration. I investigate the social constitution of a form of collaboration that aligned with and ensured the reproduction of the patriarchal national order—including the consecration of its patriotic manly heroes by both the Right and the Left of the postwar political spectrum—and discuss two illuminating, nonreductive visions of romantic encounters across enemy lines: Marguerite Duras’s La douleur from 1985—in particular, the section titled Ter le milicien—and Hiroshima, mon amour, a 1959 film directed by Alain Resnais on a script by Duras.

Symmetrically to chapter 3, chapter 4 begins by outlining the horizons of hope and despair that framed how various categories of Romanians navigated the authoritarian Communist order that lasted over four decades. I highlight several specific forms of complicity and resistance and then move on to a discussion of the past’s mystifications by key memory entrepreneurs after 1989, aiming to contour the shape that the double erasure took in this context. Then, as in the French case study, I introduce several films and novels that proposed unassimilable visions of the past.

I begin with a novel and a film created in the 1980s, for their highlighting the impossibility of remaining morally and politically uncontaminated given the long-term closing of the horizon of hope. They both foreground temporality and the role hope and fear play in how individuals navigate the muddy waters of complicity over time. Complicity is presented as interstitial and anchored in a series of practices, relationships, attitudes, and institutions. The novel Plicul negru (The Black Envelope) was written by Norman Manea and published in a heavily censored version in 198610 and integrally only in 1996. I analyze the uncensored version both for its shedding light on the complex in-between and for its bringing to the fore the continuities between subsequent forms of systemic violence—Fascist and Communist—without, however, demonizing the “ordinary beasts in the swamp called the present.” Alongside this novel I explore Dan Piţa’s film Concurs (Orienteering), from 1982, as an allegory that problematizes “percepticide”11—a complicitous practice of unhearing and unseeing things that might place a burden of responsibility on hearers and seers. Piţa reveals percepticide’s catastrophic effects when it is practiced on a large social scale, against the background of quotidian surveillance and authoritarian harassment.

The following section tackles the fragile underpinnings of hope and human relationships’ erosion by fear and proximate instances of betrayal. I select two novels by Herta Müller, the 2009 Nobel Laureate for literature, and read her work as yet another contribution meant to caringly disrupt the monocultural political memory assiduously cultivated in Romania after 1989. Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet (The Appointment; Astăzi mai bine nu m-aş fi întâlnit cu mine însămi [1997]) principally deals with a lover’s betrayal, while Herztier (The Land of Green Plums; Animalul inimii [1994]), with a cherished friend’s. These works foreground the relationality of hope and the crucial role of proximate relationships in scaffolding resisters in adversity—thereby subverting the image of sovereign heroes that nations tend to canonize. Simultaneously, the novels show how fear corrodes these relationships just as they become more important in nurturing the individual. Interestingly for this project, both books thwart any temptation to pass harsh judgments on even this most painful type of betrayal: in revealing hatred’s failure to completely replace love, Müller seduces the reader away from reductive, self-righteous, punitive fantasies.

Last but not least, I look at two films that tackle the artificiality of political memory and its mystification for the needs of the present. Medalia de onoare (The Medal of Honor) (2009) by Călin Peter Netzer reflects on the pliability of both individual and collective memory: as we shall see, its protagonist brings together the figure of the traitor and of the fabricated hero-elect in ways that can productively disorient the viewer’s moral and mnemonic compass. In contrast, A fost sau n-a fost (12:08 East of Bucharest) (2006) by Corneliu Porumboiu focuses on a provincial community’s investment in a political illusion, that of their own participation in the revolutionary events that led to the end of communism on December 22, 1989. Porumboiu refuses the trap of glorious revisionism and injects a dose of healthy honesty by including multiple contradictory voices and perspectives on the past. Thus, both films threaten intransigent, heroic narratives and open up the hermeneutical space to alternative, though less consoling, truths.

As in the previous two chapters, I begin the chapter on South Africa with a reconstruction of the main modalities of inhabiting and refusing the hierarchical racial order of the apartheid state. In doing so, I mark watershed moments and try to provide a dynamic cartography of the spectrum of involvement—both resistant and complicit. I then move on to a discussion of the official story of “rainbowism” and its supporting male martyrologies, joining the critics who have identified the various erasures it institutionalized. The second half of the chapter discusses several artworks that, I suggest, have the capacity to seduce readers and viewers away from the official narratives parsed out by the convenient operations of the political-mnemonic scalpel.

The first subsection is dedicated to unassimilable events, practices, actors, and voices concealed by the double erasure. Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story from 2001 tackles women’s resistance and the sexual violence committed against them in armed resistance’s training camps. Through a variety of narrative and stylistic devices, Wicomb highlights the incompatibility between the sacralized struggle and its patented male heroes, on the one hand, and the erasure of women fighters, their experiences, and their voices, on the other. In the hands of a woman narrator, David’s story becomes one that recognizes women’s knowledges, actions, and suffering, knocking the male armed fighter off his pedestal. I then read Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor—also published in 2001—as an account of what must be denied in the new political dispensation for rainbowism’s martyrs to remain unscathed and firmly established within the national narrative of forgiveness and reconciliation. A former resister fighter, Silas, is struggling to reconcile his public image as a virile, tough Umkhonto weSizwe (MK)12 operative and African National Congress (ANC) politician with his wife’s rape by the apartheid police. His triple investment—in his own virility, past heroism, and successful political career—sits uneasily with the fact of the rape, which is also erased by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) emphasis on male gendered victims and perpetrators.

The two works discussed next help us reflect on the functioning of a regulative ideal of masculinist heroism, both at the level of the everyday practice of resistance and at the level of political memory. The Innocents (1994) by Tatamkhulu Afrika sheds light on the costs this ideal imposes on those who internalize it and relentlessly aspire to live up to it, as well as on their relationships with others. In choosing as protagonists three young Muslim men who long to be recognized as trustworthy allies in the antiapartheid political struggle while simultaneously staying true to their religious commitments, Afrika highlights the tensions the ideal triggers when it clashes with other dimensions of identity—affecting both those who uphold it and those who fail to do so. Meanwhile, John Kani’s film Nothing but the Truth (2008) sheds light on how this ideal colonizes the hermeneutical space of memory in ways that, first, turns real, messy, and impure political biographies into hagiographies and, second, renders other, less heroic forms of resistance invisible. The film also thematizes hermeneutical care for the space of meaning in the wake of white supremacist apartheid as central to the task of refounding the community on more equitable bases.

The chapter ends with the analysis of a novel and a film, both set in Johannesburg and both using the city’s material texture to reflect on the afterlives of apartheid. Moreover, both vindicate the ontological sketch introduced in the first part of the book, as well as Bérenger’s warnings about violence’s sequelae. Published in 2001, Ivan Vladislavić’s Restless Supermarket draws the portrait of a rhinoceros—a retired proofreader, Aubry Tearle—whose reveries in 1993 betray a deep nostalgia for a glorified, colonial past that never was. Vladislavić masterfully shows the recalcitrance of colonial doxas and the habitus they underpin, as well as the obstacles they pose for democratic refoundings. The novel is juxtaposed with Ralph Ziman’s Gangster’s Paradise: Jerusalema (2008), which problematizes a different type of aftermath: the generalized disappointment about the betrayal of the revolution. In the gangster film genre, Ziman undermines any unwarranted dreams of “clean slates” by tackling naturalistically the indisputable reality of ongoing systemic poverty, racial segregation, and disproportionate white affluence, all reproduced beyond the “new dawn” of 1993.

Lastly, the concluding chapter summarizes the book’s key findings, sketches the broader theoretical and ethical implications of the main arguments, and reflects on the paths not taken—methodologically and theoretically. Moreover, it kick-starts a conversation about the role of responsible and responsive theorizing about systemic violence and its social and relational underpinnings. More precisely, it invites scholars of political violence and its memory to carefully—and caringly—consider the ethical and political dimensions of putting pen to paper on such complex matters.

With this map in place, let us now turn to the task of conceptual ground-clearing.


1. Quinney (2007, 48) remarks that both in French (rhinocéros) and English, the plural of rhinoceros is identical to the singular. This feature symbolizes, as I explain later, the social relationalities underpinning ideological mobilization: one never becomes a rhinoceros in isolation.

2. For an account of his work as a journalist in Bucharest in the 1930s, see Lupaș (2014).

3. For some recent critical accounts of this aspect, see Meister (2010); Forti and Hanafi (2014); Shotwell (2016); Robbins (2017); and Rothberg (2019).

4. In this sense, my project is different from Bruce Robbins’s reflection in The Beneficiary (2017): while his project is driven by a strong normative thrust and delineates ethical prescriptions, I am more interested in tracing critically the sociology and politics of complicity and of its misremembrance.

5. For recent work on other artforms in relation to political memory, see, for example, Asavei (2019); Garnsey (2019); and Rothberg (2019).

6. Unless otherwise specified, the translation of passages and titles from French and Romanian is mine.

7. Entrenched exclusionary imaginaries are ever-changing and so are the forms of violence they underpin. Excluding complex complicities and impure resistances from official memory enables systemic forms of violence to continue unchallenged and evolve in new, sometimes unexpected directions, as we shall see from the analysis of the case studies.

8. French people who joined the Nazi secret police, the Gestapo.

9. Members of the Légion des volontaires français contre le bolchévisme ([LVF] Legion of French Volunteers against Bolshevism)—a collaborationist militia not officially connected to the Vichy government, whose members volunteered to fight against the Soviet Union in the East.

10. The novel’s meandering trajectory to publication is recounted in Manea (2013).

11. The concept was theorized by Diana Taylor (1997) in relation to the most recent Argentine dictatorship.

12. The armed branch of the African National Congress.