CfP | Literature, Democracy and Transitional Justice | Oxford | 7 jan. 2018

GDRI Literature and democracy (XIXth- XXIst centuries) : theoretical, historical and comparative approaches


18, 19, & 20 MARCH 2018


An international colloquium
This CALL FOR PAPERS is restricted to the members of the GDRI


Transitional Justice is a relatively new phenomenon, which may have seemed to emerge
suddenly at the end of the 1980s, at the end of the Cold War. The massive emergence of
transitional justice at the international level has, for this reason, been described in terms
of “justice cascade” of both cultural and political nature (K. Sikkink, 2011). While its
juridical origins, according to scholars, are to be found in the post war Nuremberg
(imprescriptibility of crimes) and its historical origins in Argentina (1983) (with
precedents in Greece and Portugal), it has been applied more to former colonies and
emerging democracies, in Eastern Europe, South Africa and parts of Africa and the
Middle East. It was first implemented after the fall of the military dictatorships in
Argentina, then in Chile, in the context of what has been called “the third wave of
democratization” and as part of the reflections aimed at organizing the transition from
dictatorial regimes to democratic regimes.

The relationship between democracy and Transitional Justice is better understood by
decoupling the two. Indeed, there is a wide range of cases where the two do not
necessarily meet. We have democratisation without transitional justice (Spain, parts of
Eastern Europe, for example); transitional justice without democratisation (attempts in
Algeria and Morocco, whereby aspects of transitional justice such as amnesty and
reconciliation have been implemented but democratisation has not accompanied them;
or in the case of Taiwan, a desire to do justice that comes to light long after the
transition to democracy). In addition, there is the danger of overgeneralisation by which
successful cases (parts of Latin America) are taken as models for the idea of transitional
justice as a whole regardless of the specific nature of each national situation (S. Vieille,
2012; K. Andrieu, 2012; S. Buckley-Zistel, 2014).

Transitional justice has been conceived as a tool for societies to achieve sustainable and
just peace and democracy. It is first and foremost a response to the systematic and
massive violation of human rights. More than punishment, it aims at national
reconciliation, a term that is also part of the new vocabulary of transition (K. Andrieu,
2012) and has as horizon the reconstruction of a political society after the violence. It is
based on the right to justice and the right to the truth. It is a confrontation with past
crimes, looking back at the past and shaping the memory of that past, a central element of a successful political transformation. The effective practice of transitional justice has nonetheless provoked strong criticism at the local level, when setting up processes. The CONADEP for example, has been criticized (particularly from the literary field) as an abusive political normalization of victims (teoría de los dos demonios) (J. Commaille, 2007).

The relationship between justice and literature – this “staging of the human
interlocution”, where men accuse, plead, testify and judge – is old. Considerable thought
has been put into understanding the linkages between writing and authoritarianism
based on research on specific case studies in Europe, Latin America and South Africa,
in particular. In situations when a society emerges from authoritarian rule and monopoly
on truth claims, everyone feels entitled to their own truth. M. Pensky argues that
literature/writing becomes an avenue to pursue truth and justice. Writing and the desire
for writing become essential – as forms of representation of rights, of making the case
for justice, staking truth claims, or arguing counter-claims. Writing is seen as a
contribution to the effort to prevent a return to dictatorship. It also testifies to abuses.
Writers seek justice in the sense of directing collective remembering, contributing to the
construction of a new collective memory and resisting against amnesia.

The testimony and the narrative have been at the heart of the various truth and
reconciliation commissions that have existed (inquiries into the past, revelations of
facts, openings of the archives, identification of the disappeared, narratives of lived
experiences). Narratives and narrative reconstruction of the crimes were meant to
establish the facts, to contribute to the establishment of the truth as well as to do justice
to the sufferings of the victims. They also aimed to put people in agreement on a
narrative of the past, to articulate new representations of past violence in the public
space, at the same time as they asked the question of rewriting an official and
manipulated history. Finally, a literature is born, which deals with these questions
according to a temporality which belongs to it, and of the stakes which are its own,
outside the walls of the transitional justice strict sense. It should also be remembered
that the first truth and reconciliation CONADEP was chaired in Argentina by a writer,
Ernesto Sabato.

In addition to the much-studied therapeutic function, or writing as a form of coping,
research on this kind of literature points to other salient roles. Writing can be viewed as
a way of fixing and condensing memory into a concrete representation, that is, as a form
of temple (in museum terms) (Rosanne Kennedy, 2014). Literature can be a remnant
(like what is called “memory objects”, objects on which memory is inscribed: a musical
instrument (a personal diary, family photographs, etc.) (Magdalena Zolkos, 2014). It
can also be “a portable monument” and works with, and often is, “ruins” (Kennedy on
Sierra Leone). Scripts etched on a prison cell tell stories; scribblings on cigarette paper,
on napkins, in margins of textbooks and school notebooks, are perhaps closer to ruins
which testify to attempts to mount resistance against forgetting. In addition, writing
serves as a forum, a place where ideas and memories are exchanged, debated and
interpreted, but not necessarily fixed. In this case, it would be closer to history where
the interest is in avoiding what is called a “committed perspective” (J. W. Wertsch,
2002). But literature can also be an optic into forms of violence and reflection on
concepts of forgiveness and justice.

This colloquium will be focused on the comparative study of literatures written in the
wake of violence and on their role in the aftermath of conflicts. It will address the way
literary texts inform broader discourses around transitional justice, historical reckoning
and political and social reconciliation as well as the way in which literature has also
criticized the normativity of the “humanitarian narratives” produced in the context of
transitional justice and even the ideology of reconciliation, or sought to restore, in
literary discourse, the ineffable dimension of extreme violence or torture. The colloqium
will explore these roles from the perspective of related disciplines and in specific
situations. It aims to achieve a multi-disciplinary perspective by putting in dialogue
scholars from the fields of literary studies, history, politics, law and philosophy as well
as writers and other cultural practitioners. In addition, we plan to focus on case studies,
including Spain, Argentina, Tunisia, South Africa, Cambodia, Algeria and Columbia.
The significance of this project lies not only in its comparative dimension but also in
engagement with the extra-literary contexts (rhetoric, law, sociology, politics, and
history). It assumes an interdisciplinary vocation. The colloquium is part of the second
phase (2017-2020) in the activities of the international research network, “Literature and
Democracy (XIXth-XXst centuries): Theoretical, Historical and Comparative
Approaches” (“GDRI Literature & democracy”) funded by the Centre National pour la
Recherche scientifique in France. Partners in Oxford include St John’s College, Oxford,
Maison Française d’Oxford and Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation
network (OCCT).

Presentations may be delivered in French, in English or in Spanish.


Scientific Committee :
Agnès Delage (Aix Marseille Université), Mohamed-Salah Omri (St John’s College,
Oxford) and Philippe Roussin (CRAL, CNRS-EHESS)
Since this is a colloquium, we plan to give each participant the appropriate time for
presentation (30 minutes) to be followed by debate and discussion. Papers will be
published as one collection of essays.


Please send a title and a 300 word-abstract of your paper to:
Mohamed-Salah Omri (Oxford):
or Philippe Roussin (Paris) :
or Agnès Delage :
Deadline for abstracts: 07 January 2018 (sunday)
PDF of the call of papers (french & english version) : Appel à communication Colloque Oxford 18-20 mars 2018

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