19 Mar 2010 - 20 Mar 2010 All day CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge



Christopher Geissler (Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge)
Martin Modlinger (Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge)
Philipp Sonntag (Ethik der Textkulturen, University of Erlangen, Germany)

Conference summary

Works of art — from Primo Levi’s If this is a Man to Anselm Kiefer’s Margarethe — are built up out of the destruction of human life and dignity. Drawing speci?cally on the horrors of history, they come to haunt us and question our understanding of the past, of ethics, even of the idea of ‘knowing’ itself. Yet, what is it exactly that these works of art can achieve? Medicine is able to heal or alleviate su?ering through the work of professionals observing, testing, and writing about patients’ physical and psychological pain. Human rights activists craft testimonies with the echoes of the victims’ howling cries; lawyers draft national and international laws and resolutions with a history of persecution, war, and genocide foremost in mind.

What are the implications of the meeting with violence and terror in scholarly engagement with texts of trauma? In which ways can art, literature and disciplines like medicine, psychology, sociology and law inform each other? All of these engagements seem to share a fundamental divide between the experience of the victim, the traumatic event itself, and the scrutinizing gaze of those who address it. How then are personal or collective traumatic experiences, maybe even the very ‘idea’ of violence, pain and terror, comprehended via narrative transmission?

Drawing upon other people’s pain to do their work, where do we discover the limits of the attempts to represent the events in their historical, biological, emotional, and political realities? In what ways do cultural manifestations of trauma, violence and terror — through textual, visual, political, medical or scienti?c media — re?ect on the ethical implications of the project? Assuming the work of these ?elds is to enact transcendence of the trauma, terror, and violence, at least by humanity as a whole if not for the original victims, those ‘other people’, in what ways are these works moral agents? If we believe in the value of our transcendence of other people’s pain, the end products seem to never be sullied themselves by the process that provided the material for their eventual coming into being. Or are they? 

When we construct narratives of trauma, what are the obligations and what are the dangers? Where does exploitation begin? Can appropriation of other people's pain ever occur without exploitation to some degree? Can works based on other people’s pain turn into sources of abuse, exploitation, and structural violence themselves?

Accommodation for Delegates (non-paper giving participants)

We are unable to arrange accommodation, however, the following websites may be of help.


Conference sponsors

The conference convenors gratefully acknowledge the support of:

The Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)
Ethik der Textkulturen, Universities of Erlangen and Augsburg, Germany
The Department of German and Dutch, University of Cambridge
The Gates Cambridge Trust


Administrative assistance: Anna Malinowska (Conference Programme Manager, CRASSH)


Tel: +44 1223 766886
Email enquiries@crassh.cam.ac.uk