“The Idea of a Moral and Reparatory History of New World Slavery”: Lecture by David Scott (Columbia) – Response by Grazzia Grimaldi (Anthropology)

[On Thursday, February 27, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Nicholson Distinguished Scholar Lecture “The Idea of a Moral and Reparatory History of New World Slavery” by Professor David Scott (Anthropology, Columbia). Below is a response by Grazzia Grimaldi (Anthropology).]

Written by Grazzia Grimaldi

What is the conceptual story of the past of New World slavery that ought to come into the present? What story should the present demand of the past? Opening with these questions, David Scott proposed a reorientation towards a moral and reparatory history of the past of New World slavery. As part of his upcoming book manuscript, this historiographic project responds to shifting temporal orientations of blackness. While slavery produced radical modern futurities for blackness, the organization of late modern black lives has interrupted these promises of the future. Responding to the loss of concepts to describe contemporary worlds, Scott offers a moral and reparatory history that refuses the demands of a progressive history. While recognizing the moral debt that the slave present owes to the slave past, this project acknowledges that some pasts are nevertheless irreparable.

Scott started his lecture reflecting on the collapse of the political narratives of revolutionary black redemption. He explained how traumatic pasts of slavery are anchored in futures of redemption, or liberationist expectations of black socialist futures. The intelligibility of black futurity derives from a progressive conception of time, where the suffering of the past is redeemed in the future. As revolutionary futures were brought to the present, Scott argues that black futurities have evaporated. It is no longer clear how to reimagine the horizon of black freedom, nor how to activate the political momentum to transform the past into the future. We are facing what he calls “a loss of concepts,” a loss of the forms of life embedded in the scripts of revolutionary emancipation. The background conditions securing their intelligibility have vanished. It is precisely the loss of black and socialist revolutions that inspired his book: Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (2004).

Building upon this critique of the teleology of modernity, Scott offers a moral history of the past of New World Slavery, which he distinguishes from a history of ethics. This project responds to a “moral turn” in the social sciences and humanities. It is a late twentieth-century post-Cold War phenomenon that emerged in the wake of global capitalism. This moral turn is also situated in the transition from the modern age of social revolutions, to the age of global humanitarianism, under the aegis of U.S. imperial power and hegemony. Scott uses the concept of “evil,” as part of the idiom of morality, to capture the depth of morally significant injury. Evil is an inexcusable action that destroys moral life and the fabric of moral relations. In the case of New World slavery, it is a systemic wrong, deliberately institutionalized, and inflicting harm on successive political generations.

He also proposes the notion of a reparatory history. This project is disentangled from reconciliatory concerns and is rather animated by the exhaustion of progressive histories. A reparatory history is not interested in futures beyond the present, nor redemptions of the past. Instead, it is attuned to irreparable damages and founding social ruptures, precluding the return to certain forms of life. The tragic finds a place here to express the irreversible human actions in the context of historical capitalism. A reparatory history produces an alternative temporality to the modern teleology: it is a history of an unrepaired harm in the present, but it claims certain pasts as irreparable in a non-progressive story of reparation.

Black reparations are not a future-oriented call for compensation to alleviate disadvantages. In fact, what is owed to black people cannot be ever compensated. Reparations, on the contrary, are backward-looking. It doesn’t depend on progressive futures, where the settler present protects itself from unresolved claims, or where retrospective claims of dignity are constantly transgressed by the continuing neglect of repair. A reparatory history is built upon the following paradox: it examines the past of New World slavery, disavowed by the perpetrators of historical wrongs, as unrepaired in a racialized present. But it has a commitment to a repairable orientation that embraces the fact that unrectified evil remains evil.

With a moral and reparatory history, Scott rethinks the historiographical framework of New World slavery. Examining how the present urges a reorientation towards a moral history, he focuses on the institutionalization of slavery as a catastrophic past that might be irreparable in a transgenerational perspective. A reparatory history embraces a contradiction, affirming the moral debt of the slave past in the present, but refusing reconciliatory histories complicit with settler arrangements of power and property and cheerful senses of futurity. Moving away from old progressive models of black liberation, he proposes to consider disenchantment more seriously, as an impetus to think of pasts that won’t go away and inseparable from the presents they help to make.

During the Q&A, the first question raised by the audience was in relation to Caribbean reparations claims to the U.K. Along with this question, a member of the audience asked about the notion of “redemption.” Scott explained that redemption was referring to the ways in which the past was redeemed in a possible future in radical or liberal imaginaries. He argued that the narrative of redemption was part of a twentieth-century black cultural preoccupation, but that he was interested in the ways in which it harnessed a certain teleology shaping orientations to the political.

The second question raised during the talk addressed the “post-time”: what happens when we pause the progressivist futurity? What kinds of pasts saturate that moment of pause, and what embodied experience of “fleshiness” emerge from damaged pasts? Another member of the audience considered the registers of tragedy that are often voiced by statist developmentalism: who can talk about tragedy without it being distorted? Scott explained that the question of fluency was valid for tragedy, but also for other literary forms, such as the comic or the satirical. He argued that all moral categories are vulnerable to appropriation by all forms of power. The tragic was a way of reattuning us to the contingency in human action. Another question addressed the dangers of universalizing notions such as the notions of the moral, the human, and the evil. Scott explained that his project aimed to return to the possibility of features of human life without which human lives could not exist. He reconsiders ontology, life, and the problem of the human, but outside of a progressive universalization.

Finally, a member in the audience asked about his use of “repair” and “freedom.” Scott explained that repair and freedom constituted elementary ideas of progressive political thinking. What is important is to recognize the role of these scripts in the temporal organization of what we think we should do in the present for the future. Freedom-making is a metaphysical abstraction that shapes a demand in the ways in which we tell the story about the relationship between the past and the present. Today, it has been foreclosed by the dismantling of social movements in places that we presume to be the heartland of freedom-making. He argued that he is not necessarily making a claim to abolish radical futurity, but rather to examine the ways in which metaphysical categories organize modern subjectivity in politics. He asks us to consider what happens if we move away from the metaphysical effects of these categories and think instead of pastness and the ways in which we live in the present.

Screening of Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha by Moinak Biswas (Jadavpur University) – Response by Susmita Das (Institute of Communications Research)

[On March 7, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a film screening of Ritwik Ghatak’s Subarnarekha (1962) by visiting scholar Moinak Biswas (Film Studies, Jadavpur University). Below is a response by Susmita Das (Institute of Communications Research).]

Thinking (and Teaching) History through Film Form
Written by Susmita Das (Institute of Communications Research)

As we settled into our seats in the Armory theater, the movie was paused on the film’s certificate of exhibition. Subarnarekha or Suvarna Rekha was released as an “A” film in 1962, meaning the film was intended for Adult audiences. But what mature content could a Bengali film set against the Partition contain? I wondered.

Image taken by the author at the film screening

“This is one of the most violent films that people had seen in Indian cinema,” Prof. Moinak Biswas began.

Pic 2
Image of Ritwik Ghatak

Ritwik Ghatak (1925-1976), the director of Subarnarekha, was a visionary of Bengali and Indian cinema whose films responded to the Partition of India in 1947 through a trilogy of which Subarnarekha was the third and final part. Ghatak’s films were misunderstood by film critics and attacked for “professing despair” at a time when his leftist contemporaries believed that a socialist utopia was right there (as Prof. Biswas explained in his lecture the next day). Ghatak responded to his critics in 1966 with two essays in Bengali. In these essays (translated into English by Prof. Biswas), Ghatak not only mourns his critics’ gross misinterpretation of Subarnarekha’s message, but also the death of film criticism:

“There was not the slightest intention in my mind to profess ‘despair.’ I have tried to capture the great crisis that… has come to take on monstrous proportions. The first casualty of that [crisis] is our sensitivity. It has been gradually benumbed; and I wanted to strike at that.”

Indeed, Subarnarekha strikes. In the final act of the film, Ishwar lands at his sister Sita’s house after years of separation as a customer for paid sex; the magnitude of political and social violence impregnating this moment is overwhelming.

Picture 43
Sita in Subarnarekha Movie Poster

Sita throws herself on a boti (a vegetable cutter) and ends her life. Sita’s suicide is what Prof. Biswas describes as one of the most violent acts shown in Indian cinema and which earned the film its A
certificate. The sequence is an achievement in blocking and staging that film and media scholars will recognize in the use of unconventional camera placements, movements, and focuses to visually depict the act through implication rather than through dramatization. Ghatak, with his cinematographer and editor, stage the sequence using oblique angles, extreme close ups, harsh shadows, in-focus and out-of-focus shots, peculiar pans and tracks, non-diegetic score, and – my favorite – asynchronous sounds, to jolt us out of our numbness. [Start time: 1:45:30 (6330s) – End time: 1:49:56 (6596s)]

Revealing the climax of the film at the start of his lecture, Prof. Biswas instructs us to watch for Ghatak’s use of different conventions in narrative transition, stating that this is what makes Ghatak a modernist while qualifying, “but not in the European sense.” Prof. Biswas explains that Ghatak employs three different conventions to intertwine linear storytelling with historical time. In Subarnarekha, Ghatak uses “scrolls,” a simple technique borrowed from English chronicle plays to convey the passage of linear time in the characters’ lives. The scrolls break up the narrative into three episodes; the episodes are brought into conversation with historical time through unlikely “coincidences” and odd insertions of mythic characters, verses, words and phrases lifted directly from the Upanishads (ancient Sanskrit texts), Sishutirtha, a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, and the words uttered by Mahatma Gandhi at the moment of his death. In the above clip, the source-less “hey Ram” (1:48:20 or 6500s) is one such example.

While Subarnarekha is renowned as part of the Partition Trilogy (a term better suited to the economics of film promotion, perhaps), it is not about Partition only, Prof. Biswas contends. The “great crisis,” taking on “monstrous proportions,” was homelessness, a crisis so great in magnitude that it cannot be shown as one event alonewhich, Prof. Biswas argues, Ghatak works out in Subarnarekha with film form and content, convention and technique. Sita’s suicide, therefore, is only a sublimation of the complete derailment of lives that occurs as an effect of multiple historical tragedies.

Prof. Biswas presents Ghatak’s Subarnarekha almost as a didactic text that teaches us to think history when we think of what constitutes “ordinary lives in the wake of Partition” (or a loss of home) and what makes up “the epochal resonance of homelessness in human experience.”  Ghatak’s Subarnarekha advances a dialect to speak of that experience, working out a form that can visualize a violence of monstrous proportions.

“Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”: Lecture by Lilya Kaganovsky – Response by Erin Cheslow (English)

[On February 3, 2020, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Distinguished Faculty Lecture “Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe” by Professor Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Cinema and Media Studies). Below is a response by Erin Cheslow (English).]

Memory’s Gaze: Lilya Kaganovsky on 1960s Soviet Film, Trauma, and Memory
Written by Erin Cheslow (English)

Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”

Lyolya and Dimitry attempt to comprehend the consequences. (Nine Days of One Year, Kaganovsky Presentation)

“Cut Off.”That is how Lilya Kaganovsky described the lives portrayed in 1960s Soviet cinema in her Unit for Distinguished Faculty Lecture on February 3, 2020. Opening with an image of Lyolya and Dmitry – lovers in Mikhail Romm’s 1962 film, Nine Days of One Year  – facing away from one another as they attempt to comprehend the consequences of nuclear testing, Dr. Kaganovsky argues that Romm’s cinema “raised questions of science, technology, memory, and forgetting” in an attempt to work through the Soviet past.



As Kaganovsky will show, Lyolya is the most able to see the effects of the past in the present. Her gaze humanizes those she sees, complicating nuclear progressivism by locating it alongside the traumas of the past. In Nine Days of One Year, Romm broke with the conventions of Soviet cinema to work through the trauma of previous generations who lived through Stalinism and World War II. Unable to understand or recreate the events of the past, those born after the war still feel a responsibility for the past. Kaganovsky borrows Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory,” “a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation,” to describe the fragmentation that “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narrative that preceded their birth.” One of only a few films to address atomic power and nuclear annihilation, Nine Days of One Year enacts postmemory to locate the past firmly in the present. Lyolya, though in many ways a flat character with no last name or clear job description, sees what others cannot—the horror that underpins scientific study and an incessant drive toward an imagined future.

Before delving into the complexities of Romm’s work, however, Kaganovsky provided an overview of Soviet film in the Thaw period (approximately 1956-1967). Each of the films she mentions, meant to be representative of Soviet cinema of the period, is located firmly in the present. A series of images pulled from the films show scenes from daily life, with characters “seemingly caught up in the contemporaneity of the present.” One couple is caught in a rainstorm, while a man in another film sits in the background reading a newspaper and another stands relaxed at an airport. Although these scenes may seem everyday and relatable, they are so completely “unsaturated” by history that they project a kind anomie, or “a feeling that the characters live lives unconnected to the outside world, to history, or to the previous generation.” Indeed, as one character in the 1967 film, July Rain, tells another, “Yes, we are cut off, and the link with the outside world is broken.” Without links to history, Thaw cinema is characterized by loss; there is no closure, no comprehension, no memory.

Romm’s later films break with this kind of realism and the Stalinist Realism of his earlier work to explore the relationship between past and present, traumatic memory and postmemory. In a film released three years after Nine Days of One Year, Ordinary Fascism (1965), the gaze of children and of Auschwitz survivors provides a framework for understanding Lyolya’s gaze in the earlier film. Romm transposes images of children’s drawings and the faces of young children with images of violence to create a sense of traumatic disjuncture. In one scene, as described by Kaganovsky, a series of children’s drawings of cats and other “innocent” images is followed by images of Moscow mothers and their children. Suddenly, the camera cuts to a mother and child being shot by a Nazi soldier, accompanied by the sound of a gunshot. Yet another image is shown, that of a child in her mother’s arm, staring directly at the camera.

The child’s eyes, looking back at us, reflect those of the victims of Auschwitz,

A child gazes into the camera after the gunshot (Ordinary Fascism, Kaganovsky’s Presentation)

which paper the walls of the barracks that Romm walked through on the last day of filming. The halls, badly lit, do not afford a good view of the pictures, but each face holds something that Romm can’t identify. Each is defiant or scared, full ofhatred or submission, but that is not all. Everywhere, there are eyes, and each contains death. Romm recognized the need to transfer the death look to the screen, to create a cinematographic form of history through the gaze. For him, no one looking at those eyes could stay detached from history. “The eyes are still looking; the eyes are still looking at us.” The violence may be over, but it continues to resonate in the present. The gaze is a kind of postmemory.


Ordinary Fascism ends with more images of children, this time those of the peacetime generation. It remains unfinished, never showing any finalizing events like the death of Hitler or the end of the war. According to Kaganovsky, “Facism has not been defeated. The cancer has been cut out, but the metastasis is still spreading. The west is marked as genocidal,” linking the Holocaust with the threat of nuclear annihilation at the center of Nine Days of One Year.

Drawing on the French film, Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), which Romm found distasteful for its graphic imagery of the victims of the atom bomb but also described as a “magnificent lesson in montage,” Romm produced Nine Days of One Year to challenge the notion that science is politically neutral, an innocuous way into the future. The film features two male physicists… and the woman who loves them. Though she is engaged to one, when the other becomes irradiated, she marries the latter. Though she seems to be nothing more than an object of desire, Lyolya introduces a human element. The men push physics beyond human limits at the cost of human lives, and she watches it all happen. Her gaze comes to reveal and work against the cost of human “perfection” gained through science and technology.

There is no moment in which science could be turned back and used only for good. Nine Days, Dmitry explains that once an idea exists, it cannot be unthought. Even if destroyed, it will be discovered again. Cheslow_Kaganovsky_Image3Yet, it is Dmitry who is irradiated and dies for such ideas. The philosophical debate is made real when we see his eyes, gazing through the viewfinder during a test of the nuclear technology, anticipating those Romm will see at Auschwitz. Like the eyes of the victims, Dmitry’s hold death.

As Lyolya gazes at Dmitry gazing into the viewfinder, she sees death where he sees scientific advancement. Her eyes reflect the horror that underpins scientific study, bringing past and future into the present as a narrative of destruction. Like Ordinary Fascism, the film ends with a child’s drawing. The crude stick figures point to the inability to turn away from history and take comfort in fantasy. The present is always saturated with the past.

Response and Q&A

In her brief response to Kaganovsky’s lecture, Brett Kaplan, a professor of Comparative and World Literature, brought together current events and French cinema to highlight the relevance of postmemory and the struggle to portray traumatic events. From German and Soviet death camps to the camps currently operating on the US/Mexican border, the resonances of fascism are undeniable, yet differences must be maintained. The past does not repeat; it moves. It lives, returning to us in the montage of traumatic flash back. As seen in films like Hiroshima Mon Amour and Nine Days of One Year, memory leaves a trace, but only a trace, as it attempts to contend with histories that burn away the very possibility of memory. These cinematic attempts to access the past align victimization and perpetration through the effects of the gaze. Evoking Jacques Derrida’s use of the trace, Kaplan showed how traumatic landscapes are embedded in history and in memory. The present contains the shadows of the past.

The first question in the Q&A followed on Kaplan’s interest in the intersections of victimization and perpetration, in the hopes of unpacking that alignment. Kaganovsky responded, “Ordinary Fascism is a film about forcing us to look, forcing us to see, forcing us to identify ourselves both with the victims and with the perpetrators. In Nine Days, the gaze that is joined in Ordinary Fascism is split by the man who is both victim and perpetrator.”

Most of the remaining questions focused on the contrast between Romm’s aesthetics and those of Hollywood films and other films that portrayed the Holocaust. Kaganovsky noted the distinct differences between a Soviet anti-bourgeois aesthetic and a Hollywood aesthetic targeted at a bourgeois audience, but she also pointed to the similarities with other Holocaust films that were coming from the same kind of impulse.

Toward the end of our time, one audience member asked Kaganovsky to speak more about the gendering of Lyolya’s witnessing. Though she is a seemingly flat character, she is also the only character given an interiority through voiceovers. Much like the children in Ordinary Fascism, she is removed from the events, but she is able to witness them, to remember them. Through the woman’s gaze, postmemory becomes possible. Only she can see history unfolding into the present.

“Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”: Lecture by Lilya Kaganovsky – Response by Brett Kaplan

[On February 3, 2020 the Unit Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a Distinguished Faculty lecture “Nine Days of One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe” by Professor Lilya Kaganovsky (Slavic, Comparative Literature, and Cinema and Media Studies). Below is a response by Professor Brett Kaplan (HGMS/CWL).]

Response to Lilya Kaganovsky’s lecture “Nine Days in One Year: Soviet 1960s Cinema and the Nuclear Catastrophe”
Written by Brett Kaplan (HGMS/CWL)

Loose hips, bare feet, a slight slouch, flashback, close-up, the long pan, the fish-eye lens: Soviet thaw cinema, as Lilya describes it, exercises bodily and cinematic means in the wrestle to bring to the fore the saturation by the past of the present. The new bodily freedoms reflect a kind of liberation in tension with the shackles to multiple traumatic pasts: the Holocaust, the Atomic bomb, the vast numbers of Soviet dead in WW II. The fragmentations, the montages, the temporal disjunctions that often accompany this cinema speak to the struggle to convey traumatic events. As Lilya phrases it, her story is about “the relationship between WWII, the Holocaust and nuclear catastrophe that has yet to be articulated for Soviet cinema.” By gazing back at the eyes of Auschwitz and the complicities of witnessing, Lilya’s work articulates those interconnections for this 1960s cinematic moment. “The eyes of Auschwitz,” she says, “implicated the viewer, reminding them that besides Nazi concentration camps there were also Soviet prison camps and besides the cult of Hitler, there was also the cult of Stalin.” We might add, taking our cue from Romm’s understanding of the persistence of the past in the present, besides Soviet prison camps there are also, on our Southern border, right now, camps to detain immigrants; off the coast of Cuba a Naval Base holds prisoners without trial; we witness extra-judicial killings of foreign generals; and our president has just effectively been absolved of all crimes, without a trial, without witnesses, without evidence. Indeed, we might now, again taking our cue from the persistence of the past in the present see with Romm how “despite the fall of the 3rd Reich, fascism as a concept has not been defeated.” We see everywhere, from the goose-stepping Heil Hitler saluting white supremacists at Charlottesville to the guy in California who filled his front yard with a massive concrete swastika to the adoration for Trump and complete absence of resistance from within the Republican party two days before he will doubtless be acquitted echoes of Hitlerian fascism. While as William Connolly and others have argued, these resonances are undeniable, important differences must of course be maintained.

As Elaine Scarry brings to our attention in Thermonuclear Monarchy, Nixon, at the Watergate hearings, asked his lawyer to present him as “absolute a monarch as Louis XIV… and…not subject to the processes of any court in the land.” Scarry demonstrates in terrifying detail the absolute nature of the power a U.S. president has over mass nuclear destruction, the disinterest in listening to other nations who may argue against our vast nuclear arsenal and the ease with which it can be activated.

The past does not repeat. It lives and moves with its loose hips and bare feet and comes back at us through the indelible montage of the traumatic flashback.

Romm’s Nine Days of One Year appeared three years after a film that both influenced it and shaped it through reaction-formation. Both films tell the story of love triangles. In Romm’s text all the lovers exist simultaneously in the then-present whereas in Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour the love triangle evolves in multiple temporal dimensions. In the present of the film, 1957, Elle (Emmanuelle Riva), is a French actress who fell in love with a German soldier during World War II and Lui (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect marked indelibly by the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki. While in the present the actress and the architect have an affair in Hiroshima, the German lover becomes the third stretch of the love triangle. The backdrop revolves around Elle’s performance as a nurse in a film about the bombing so we see mediated reproductions of the victims of the bomb. Very much like the direct addresses Lilya discusses, Resnais includes scenes where “victims” (or rather, actors playing victims) stare directly at the camera, challenging us to see the effects of nuclear catastrophe, challenging us to not turn our gazes away in disgust.  The architect draws out the memories of the past story of complicity and love between the French actress and the German soldier as the current lovers play out their present through their pasts and superimpose one upon the other ceaselessly.

Kaplan 1

The very structure of the famous and enduring image of the entwined bodies of the lovers near the beginning of Hiroshima mon amour insists on a turning of victimization into something else: ashes into sweat, memory into stark present.  Cathy Caruth, through reading Derrida and Freud, locates “a history that burns away the very possibility of conceiving memory, that leaves the future itself, in ashes” (2013, 81). The stunning image of the ashed lovers functions as an apt metaphor for the “burning up” of memory itself in the aftermath of catastrophe and as the image threads its way through our imaginaries it provides a space through which to unpack the indelible nature of memory as trace.

The striking images of the couple’s embrace set the scene for the film’s exploration of memory and victim and perpetrator traumas by rendering the lovers as almost indistinguishable; race and gender disappears, initially, as they hold each other, encased in ash. As they embrace, something gently falls on them, encrypts them, isolates them from their surroundings but simultaneously embeds them in their respective histories. Even though Duras specifies that the two should be “racialement, etc., éloignés le plus qu’il est possible de l’être” (1960, 11) the racial difference between them remains unstable, and the ash visually erases their shared trauma. If, for Derrida, ash becomes the paradigm for the trace, we can see how this image becomes the paradigm for memory as Hiroshima mon amour unspools its threads and rejects an either/or memory or forgetting when it is a question of traumatic pasts. The film revisits this powerful scene by cinematically underscoring this very superimposition many times, including the catalyzing moment when a traumatic flashback metamorphoses the hand of the Japanese lover into the hand of the dead German soldier, and the intercutting of the traumatic landscapes of Nevers and Hiroshima.

Lilya points out that Romm found Hiroshima mon amour’s “juxtaposition of the burnt bodies of the victims of Hiroshima with those of the two lovers distasteful and offensive” but that he also adapted the films “magnificent lessons in montage.” The magnificence of the montage in Hiroshima mon amour happens through the temporal and aesthetic shifts between the present moment, saturated with coming to terms with the bombing, and the past, during the war, saturated with love for an enemy soldier, a soldier implicated in if not avowedly a supporter of the Nazi genocide.

Invited to make a feature-length film about the bombing of Hiroshima after his groundbreaking early Holocaust documentary Nuit et Brouillard (1955), which expanded the international scope of Holocaust memory, Resnais famously struggled; only when Duras agreed to write the script did the project soar. Duras was brought in to the scripting of Hiroshima in order not to remake Nuit et Brouillard into a film about the atomic bomb. Thus, as Lilya explains Romm’s stacking of the Holocaust with the bomb with the war, we see can just catch the nearly invisible trace of Nuit et Brouillard on Hiroshima. The ashes at the beginning of the film, then, metaphorize both the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and carry the trace of the ashes of the crematorium during the Nazi genocide. Becoming more and more convinced that one could not make a documentary about the bomb, Duras’s script was meant to be a “love story…in which the atomic agony would not be absent” (Armes, 1968, 66). This entwinement in ash gives way to the bodies covered in sweat that then yields to successively clear bodies. Lovers emerge from the ash as if filming Pompeii backwards. Resnais notes that “Dans Hiroshima, le début n’est pas seulement une représentation du couple, c’est une image poétique. Et la cendre sur les corps, ça ne se réfère à aucune réalité anecdotique, c’est une pensée” (1960, 938). The poetic image, the thought (pensée) that Resnais imagines here, is expressly not meant to refer to any identifiable “real” and yet it affectively carries the weight of the bomb, the Shoah, and the memoryscapes of impossible pasts. The intense proximity of the pair makes it initially impossible to separate the bodies because the film equally gazes at them through the ash as victims but this common victimization changes polarities throughout, thus visually underscoring the film’s eschewing of any simple assumption of innocence and guilt. Hiroshima mon amour thus employs the language of ash to demonstrate the aftereffects of war on those aligned with victimization and perpetration.

When Hiroshima mon amour was set the expectation would have been that everyone who survived the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would carry (literally) in their bones radiation and figuratively the ineradicable past nuclear catastrophe; but they might also be weighed down by the fear of a possible future apocalypse.[i] It remains unclear, because we are not granted much of his consciousness, whether the Japanese architect in Hiroshima mon amour suffers from PTSD or stoically moved on from his experience of victimization, perhaps because that experience was shadowed by his role in fighting with the Axis powers? This remains an open, intriguing question that the film staunchly refuses to answer.

The voice-offs that inaugurate the dialogue and dialectical nature of Hiroshima mon amour offer a long series of negations that speak to the impossibility of witnessing and/or fully remembering the experience of victimization. As Elle’s voice-off claims to see the hospital at Hiroshima, the image discloses people in the hospital looking directly at the camera so her claim on vision becomes deflected back at the unnamed hospitalized injured. She then asserts that she saw the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum four times, as if the layering of visits could turn her into a witness. But Duras also has Elle observe keenly the way that the visitors to the museum imbibe these reconstructions. By thus reminding us of the mediations of memory, Duras and Resnais underscore the memory of nuclear catastrophe that goes beyond individual psyches: thus, that Elle could not have remembered directly is evident—she was in France at the time the U.S. bombed Hiroshima, but that she remembers in a more global sense is also underscored. In other words, the structure of the negations explains the unstable nature of postmemorial witnessing. By issuing these negations Duras and Resnais highlight the inherent impossibility of true witnessing, all we can do is embrace under the rain of ash. As Primo Levi famously asserted “we, the survivors, are not the true witnesses”—only those who perished in the worst can be said to be witnesses and this assertion met by negation puts this truth into play (2004, 63).

Lilya argues that in Nine Days of One Year the differences between “the scientific methods of Nazi Germany and the development of the atomic and nuclear weapons (not only by the US but also by the USSR)” effectively dissolve and that there is “no moment in which science could be turned back or used only for good.” Lilya’s work powerfully illuminaties the shadows of the past as they emerge through the luminosity of Romm’s films and situates this temporal loosening within the larger questions at play: how can we adapt to the speed of our own scientific discoveries without destroying our planet and how can we find the traces of the past to avoid treading too closely with our loose hips and bare feet in its often treacherous pathways.

Professor Clara Boak-Schroeder (Classics) on Ecocriticism – Response by Mark E. Frank (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

[On November 26, 2019, Professor Clara Bosak-Schroeder (Classics) presented a talk on Ecocriticism as part of the Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response by Mark E. Frank (East Asian Languages and Cultures.)]

Diversity in Ecocriticism
Written by Mark E. Frank (East Asian Languages and Cultures)

Toward the beginning of Professor Bosak-Schroeder’s talk on ecocriticism she put a sort of “who’s who” spread of UIUC leaders in the environmental humanities up on the projector screen. “What do you notice?” she asked.

“English rocks!” yelled someone in the audience. And true, three of the five figures on the slide were listed as English faculty. A silence for further reflection.

“They’re all white?” came another, more tentative voice. And true, five of the five figures on the slide appeared to be white.

Bosak-Schroeder, herself white, was deferential toward the senior scholars yet receptive to the comment: EH (the environmental humanities) has been dominated by white people, she acknowledged, and has been identified with whiteness. Browsing the titles of recent faculty publications, she pointed out another quirk: EH tends to be dominated by modernists.

Dr. Clara Bosak-Schroeder is an environmental humanist who is also decidedly not a modernist (“I was impressed that they invited me to give this lecture,” she remarked). She is an assistant professor of Classics whose faculty page specifies “a focus on Greek and Roman historiography and technical literature.” Her forthcoming book, Other Natures, of which we got only a brief glimpse, considers how human-nature interactions figure in the ancient ethnographic writings of Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus, and other Greek writers. She is a member of the IPRH Environmental Humanities Working Group on campus.

Ecocriticism, explained Bosak-Schroeder, can be understood as a “tool/subcommunity” of the environmental humanities.

A tool/subcommunity?

That strategic elision of tools and communities ran throughout the talk, beginning with the speaker’s overview of the environmental humanities. She noted that EH is such a broad umbrella that, while it necessarily involves humanistic approaches to human relations with the non-human environment, it might best be defined as “whatever people who identify with [EH] do.” Her description of ecocriticism was only slightly more specific: If Cheryl Glotfelty defined ecocriticism as “the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment,” Laurence Buell appended that it ought to be “conducted in a spirit of commitment to environmentalist praxis.” I imagine that in the present era this involves combatting climate change, but the speaker devoted little time to walking the audience through either methods or environmentalist praxis. Instead, she focused on who writes ecocriticism, who is represented, and how we as readers ought to approach the literature.

Here I might mention that in my own conversations with graduate students and faculty at UIUC, I have found that, while interest in environmental issues is growing, some of my fellow humanists view EH with skepticism as a “white cishet” (cisgender and heterosexual) escape from more inclusive fields like postcolonial studies, critical race studies, and queer studies. Bosak-Schroeder seemed attuned to that critique. She recommended that those interested in ecocriticism avoid going straight to one of the conventional ecocrit companion readers, of which there are a great many, in favor of indigenous ecocriticism, black ecocriticism, queer ecologies, or other intersectional approaches.

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The cover of Black on Earth, one of several intersectional works of ecocriticism that Bosak-Schroeder highlighted during her talk.


The “conventional” approach has been to focus on modern white, anglophone writings on nature, but recent scholarship points out that such writers—like Thoreau and Emerson—commonly appropriated indigenous understandings of the cosmos, or “cosmovisions”. Inviting the audience to take indigenous cosmovisions seriously on their own terms, the speaker quoted Joni Adamson and Salma Monani in saying that:

“Indigenous understandings…suggest a cosmos of relations that speak to complex entanglements of the human with the more-than-human that must be creatively and thoughtfully negotiated.”

The speaker gave nods to several exemplary texts, including Black on Earth: African-American Ecoliterary Traditions by Kimberly N. Ruffin and the edited volumes Queer Ecologies and Queering the Non/Human. To instructors looking for ways to introduce their undergraduate students to environmental literature, she recommended William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” (Cronon is an environmental historian) as well as the nearly four-thousand-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh. Bosak-Schroeder also highlighted the value of non-textual engagements with the environmental humanities: “I think there is a space for art and activism related to the environmental humanities on this campus,” she remarked, “although the boards that evaluate faculty work don’t necessarily value it.”

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This photograph of Apocalyptic Woodland Child by artist Naomi Bebo at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts was one of the many images featured in Clara Bosak-Schoeder’s talk and is on view at the Krannert Art Museum as part of the exhibition Hot Spots: Radioactivity and the Landscape on view until March 21, 2020