“Tetanus of the Imagination”: Violence, Imagination and Memory. Soldiers’ Testimonies of the Algerian War of Decolonisation. 1954-1962, in Les Temps moderns and Esprit
FLN soldiers (photo in public domain)
For this week’s seminar, Hugh McDonnell presented a paper on the testimonies of soldiers during the Algerian War of Decolonisation, 1954-1962. In this paper, Hugh seeks to capture the relationship between violence, imagination, and memory, with a particular focus on how imagination helps make sense of violence, but also how it is impeded, breaks down, and facilitates violence. He draws on two influential journals of the time, which reproduced these testimonies and played an important role in providing an alternative narrative to the general French disengagement with the cruelties committed in Algeria. For this, Hugh identifies two central strategies, firstly, mobilisation of imagination by connecting the occurrences in Algeria with the painful memory of German occupation for the French population during World War II. Secondly, the production of imagination, by actively analysing and challenging the institutionalisation of a culture where violence became normalised. Hugh is thus able to build a complex picture of the various instances of imagination surrounding the Algerian war on the French side, and thus the limitation and potential of imagination and memory in responding to violence.
The ensuing discussion covered a wide variety of topics and drew attention to many of the insights this paper provides. Questions focused among other things on the broader context of the testimonies considered in the paper and the role of testimony more generally. Further, on the story about imagination it may provide beyond the concrete context of the Algerian war. Lastly, the discussion considered wider methodological questions about approaches to history and the value of comparative analysis.
Written by Gisli Vogler
Hugh McDonnell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, working on the Greyzone project.
In this week’s meeting of the Political Theory Research Group, we discussed a draft on “Judging violent resistances: Camus, Fanon and the grey zone of rebellion” by our group member Maša Mrovlje. In this paper, Maša sets out to discuss two things: first, she criticises current transitional justice scholarship for failing to attend to the complexities of violent resistance that cannot be understood in terms of victim-perpetrator dichotomies. In order to make sense of this ‘grey zone’, she introduces the reader to the ‘artistic inside’ the works of Albert Camus can offer. In contrast to Frantz Fanon for whom violence is needed — and justified — to counter the violent system of colonialism, Maša argues, Camus emphasises that this violence is necessarily an “involvement in the very injustice that needs to be overthrown” (9). In a second step, and with this perspective in mind, the paper turns back to questions of transitional justice by looking at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Through the analysis of three artistic examples — the novels David’s Story (Zoe Wicomb) and The Innocents (Tatamkhulu Afrika) as well as the film Homecoming (Norman Make) –, various problems of the judgment of violent resistance regarding the Apartheid regime are pointed out. Continue reading
How are we to judge actions, inactions and rationalisations of people who find themselves in a murky grey zone of complicity with violence? What does ethics demand of us in dreadful, even impossible, situations? The film series explores cinematic depictions that bring the thorny issue of complicity to the fore, focusing on Nazi-occupied France, apartheid South Africa, Argentina’s Dirty War and Communist Romania. In selecting these four critically acclaimed films, we aim to provoke reflection on ambiguous aspects of violence and human rights abuses. A guiding premise of the event is that reckoning with such experiences is essential to learning from past atrocities and preventing future catastrophes.
On 21 October, the Just World Institute (with the support of Social Responsibility and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh) organised an Ethics Forum with the title ‘Should Universities Revisit their Colonial Legacies?’. Four speakers presented their views: Dr Nuala Zahedieh (History), Dr Emile Chabal (History), Dr Hazel Gray (African Studies), and Dr Hugh McDonnell (Politics). Read Dr Hugh McDonnell’s talk below:
“The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward.” So announced former student in the history department here at Edinburgh – Gordon Brown. Speaking in 2005, his remarks chimed with a growing trend of revived imperialism, enlisting a range of opinion from Tony Blair’s advisor Robert Cooper, historian Niall Ferguson, Michael Gove, and even travel presenter Michael Palin.
What is to Be Done? Political Ontology, Critique and Democratic Politics Roundtable, University of Edinburgh, 18th November 2016
(L-R: Mihaela Mihai, Oliver Marchart, Aletta Norval, Lois McNay)
On 18th November, the University of Edinburgh hosted a roundtable entitled What is to Be Done? Political Ontology, Critique and Democratic Politics. The roundtable investigated the exciting linkages between inquiries into the ontological underpinnings of politics, and the possibilities and limitations of critique at the present historical juncture. It brought together three renowned scholars on the topic – Aletta Norval (University of Essex), Lois McNay (University of Oxford) and Oliver Marchart (University of Vienna) – who were invited to address three interrelated questions:
Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 30 Mar 2016
In contemporary political philosophy, particularly in transitional justice debates, narrative has been taken to play a prominent practical role. Thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum, Richard Rorty and Paul Ricoeur have argued that narrative-inspired imagination is able to facilitate our capacity of critical and reflective political judgement and public deliberation. Critics, meanwhile, have questioned this ability of narrative. Continue reading
Political Theory Research Group seminar series: 9 Mar 2016
Photo: MILNER MOSHE
“To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, doing away with oppressor and oppressed at the same time”. This provocative defence of violence as not only compatible with but essential to the liberation of the colonial subject – made in the Preface to Frantz Franon’s Wretched of the Earth at the height of the Algerian war of independence – has long coloured the reception of Jean-Paul Sartre’s conception of Europe. On the strength of this Preface alone, critics have charged Sartre with irresponsible Third Worldism, a wilful ignorance of the achievements of Europe, and a failure to care for his own continent. Whilst not denying that Sartre’s oeuvre contains imprudent and reckless judgements, Hugh McDonnell attempts to rehabilitate this image of Sartre through a skilful reconstruction of his wide-ranging statements about Europe throughout the course of his life. For McDonnell, Sartre’s idea of Europe is best understood according to the metaphor of a knot, bringing together four related but interweaving elements around a core, existentialist philosophy of freedom. Continue reading
As the recent controversies surrounding Cecil Rhodes’ statues in South Africa and the UK have shown, public constructions attest to political regimes’ desire to imprint their version of history on the country’s landscape and, more importantly, on the memory of citizens. Statues, memorials and monuments set in stone a certain view of the past, usually in glorious and heroic terms. Hierarchies of all kinds (political, social, racialised, gendered) are reflected in – and reproduced through – public art, one of the many ‘voices’ through which the state speaks. What is celebrated or commemorated is as significant as what is forgotten: defeats, reprehensible deeds by the nation, as well as marginalized groups are usually omitted from the material representation of the official story.
The Voortrekker Monument, South Africa