Complicity [ACLA 2020]

Anirban Gupta-Nigam's picture
September 23, 2019
United States
Subject Fields: 
American History / Studies, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Cultural History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, Popular Culture Studies

In recent years, subtle discussions of beneficiaries (Bruce Robbins), bystanders (Robert Meister), spectators (Luc Boltanski), and implicated subjects (Michael Rothberg) have drawn attention to the political, ethical, and aesthetic imperatives emanating from occupying positions of complicity in structures propped up by historical injustice. While much of this scholarship zeroes in on atrocities and events of historical significance, Robbins and Meister, at least, also wedge open space for considering complicity at the level of everyday life. What does it mean for someone to feel depressed by diagnosis of climate catastrophe? To feel overwhelmed by capitalism? To desire escape routes in the face of resurgent racist nationalisms around the world? That people are affected in this way, we know from any number of media reports; if not from our own (occasional?) feelings of dread, fear, and anxiety about a world seemingly out of control. This seminar is interested in exploring the grammars of such experience without offering properly “woke” political solutions to them.

Commenting on the psychology of beneficiaries and bystanders, Robbins and Meister gesture to the necessity—or possibility—of thinking complicity beyond mere condemnation. This seminar would like to hold on to that possibility; to depart from the comforts of ‘radical piety’ (Ackbar Abbas) and consider how ‘states of [national] fantasy’ (Jacqueline Rose/Lauren Berlant) take hold in the minds and lives of beneficiaries, bystanders, and implicated subjects. Instead of adjudicating the “best” political, ethical, or aesthetic responses to conditions of historical injustice, can we put those very terms—politics, ethics, aesthetics—into question by anatomizing the psychic mechanisms (and costs) of living with knowledge of complicity? Here, the challenge is not “how does one look at an atrocity unfolding elsewhere?” but “how does one go on living knowing that many of one’s actions multiply injustices that ought to be undone?” Part of the wager is, therefore, to take forms of individual action (ethical consumption, for instance) seriously—not as a panacea for capitalist wrongs, but as an index of consciousness about those wrongs.

From the complex psychodynamics of George Orwell’s recognition of his own curtailed agency as a colonial official in “Shooting an Elephant” to reports about climate-induced-depression, and films like Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, there exist preponderant cultural archives for considering the psychic wages of complicity in a sexually and racially unjust global system. Rather than propose politically acceptable forms of solidarity or alliance, the seminar invites papers that grapple with the difficulty of acknowledging complicity without having exit strategies.



Individuals interested in participating in a particular seminar are encouraged to be in touch with the organizers over the summer; paper submissions through the ACLA portal will open August 31 and close September 23. [Details here.]

Contact Info: 

Anirban Gupta-Nigam | UC Humanities Research Institute

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