Featured Member shines a spotlight on the diverse research interests of, and the exciting projects undertaken by, those affiliated with the Cultural Memory Studies Initiative. In this fourth instalment of the series, we speak to Evelyne Ledoux-Beaugrand, who works on contemporary French and Québecois literature, women’s writing, kinship, community, the legacy of feminism, the dialogue between psychoanalysis and gender studies, and the transmission of traumatic memory. Her current project, which grew out of her work on postmemorial narratives of the Holocaust, explores the discourses and representations of vulnerability and how this concept intersects with in/visibility and the category of humanity.
How did you develop an interest in memory studies?
My longtime interest in different forms of personal writing, particularly testimonial narratives of traumatic events, and the research I did for my PhD brought me naturally toward memory studies. In my doctoral dissertation and my book Imaginaire de la filiation. Héritage et mélancolie dans la littérature contemporaine des femmes I studied the legacy of second-wave feminism in women’s writing published in France and Québec since 1990. I was interested in what is passed on consciously and unconsciously to the next generation and how authors are accepting, transforming, or sometimes rejecting this inheritance in order to make it their own or make something new out of it.
It was also during my doctoral studies that I came across second- and third-generation Holocaust writing. I found these postmemorial narratives fascinating for the way they deal with an incomplete inheritance and partial family narrative as well as for the aesthetic, ethical, theoretical, and social questions they raise. They clearly fell out of the scope of my doctoral research on the feminist legacy and melancholic forms of affiliation. Moreover, the study of postmemorial narratives demanded another methodological and theoretical framework: because these narratives tend to refer to and borrow from testimonies from the camps, they must be placed in the broader context of narratives of the Holocaust and the Second World War. My interest in these narratives became the starting point of a postdoctoral project that examined the legacy of the Holocaust in contemporary French and Francophone literatures by second- and third-generation authors who are either the official heirs and heiresses of this traumatic memory or maintain an affiliative link with it.
Could you tell us a little about the project that you are currently working on?
My current project is entitled “La vulnérabilité au miroir des politiques d’in/visibilité. Regard sur les productions littéraires et culturelles de femmes,” which translates as “Vulnerability in the light of politics of in/visibility in women’s literary and cultural production.” It relies on an observation I made while working on postmemorial narratives of the Holocaust. In these narratives, written by men and women who did not experience the Holocaust themselves and were not even born during the Second World War, I noticed that references to the racial persecution and the extermination camps in novels and poetry written by women often bring forward others’ situations of vulnerability, such as those of women, indigenous people, and migrants. Unexpected alliances between different minoritized subjects via histories of pain and injustice emerge from these works. This observation led me to become interested in the various discourses on and representations of vulnerability.
I consider vulnerability a performative concept and examine the complex power relations between vulnerability, in/visibility, and the category of humanity. Far from being solely descriptive of a natural or pre-existing state, narrative on vulnerability does something, and it can serve various and radically different purposes. Discourses on vulnerability can be simultaneously used for purposes of domination, rejection, and confinement as well as for transformative purposes, social justice and the creation of solidarities and alliances. For instance, we can think of Marine Le Pen’s attribution of a disputable vulnerability to the French state and the French citizen in order to justify the anti-immigration policies of her party. In another but related register, we can think of the multiple discourses, whether medical, philosophical, or religious, on the supposedly natural vulnerability of women that historically served to confine them to the domestic space or deprive them of agency. We may now find funny discourses such as the theory of the wandering uterus in Greek antiquity or the myth of female frailty promoted by the medical discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to keep middle-class women at home. If they have (hopefully) disappeared, it is only to be replaced by other, sometimes equally insidious, narratives that have similar effects, such as the discourse on rape prevention that tends to restrict women’s access to public space. On the other hand, the recognition of a shared and politically induced vulnerability can allow the creation of unexpected solidarities, and some public performances of vulnerability, for instance the interventions of the feminist activist group Femen who expose their bare breasts in public, contribute to untying certain bodies – namely the feminine body, but also any other non-normative bodies – from the idea of an essentially and eternally vulnerable subjectivity.
At the heart of my project stand the dynamics of visibilization and invisibilization that bring these two paths together. I ask not only what vulnerability does, but also how vulnerability is made, assigned or denied to certain people or groups, more specifically by what language and visual processes, and how women’s literary and cultural production responds to vulnerability. Womanhood and vulnerability are closely tied together as a result of long histories of violence and representation, and one of the questions that fuels my research concerns the complex relationship between femininity and vulnerability: does women’s writing solely repeat this association, or does it use the concept of vulnerability for other purposes? If so, what effects does it have, and what risks are involved? For vulnerability is, in my view, a double-faceted and potentially double-edged concept that risks turning against those claiming it, whether for themselves or for other people. It can always be used by those in power and serve as a tool for confining or excluding the most powerless instead of having transformative or emancipatory effects. While women’s vulnerability is overexposed, the vulnerability of others, precisely considered in the light of their otherness, is denied, minimized, rendered invisible.
Are there any specific texts, concepts, or methods from memory studies that you have found particularly useful?
One particularity of my work is that scholarly essays and articles not only provide a framework for my analyses, I also consider them the same way I consider fiction: I examine how they contribute and give shape to the contemporary imaginary of the Holocaust – following Castoriadi’s definition of imaginaries as ‘‘ways of understanding the social that become social entities themselves, mediating collective life.” Among them are concepts such as the “witness of the witness” and its numerous variations, for example, the witness by proxy, and the idea of “prosthetic memory” proposed by Alison Landsberg, who conceives modern technologies of mass culture as technologies of memory that are influencing and modelling how and what the generations after remember. They not only serve as a tool to understand the modalities of the preservation, transmission, and transformation of Holocaust memory, but give shape to the contemporary imaginary of a disembodied and therefore vulnerable memory in need of an anchoring point.
The concept of “postmemory” that Marianne Hirsch has developed in such a very generous way that it becomes possible to expand it to other contexts is certainly the most important one for my work on second- and third-generation French and Francophone writers. If this concept plays an important and rather obvious role in this work, it is also of great interest for my current project on vulnerability. As Hirsch puts it in the introduction of The Generation of Postmemory, “memory studies, and the work of postmemory, might constitute a platform of activist and interventionist cultural and political engagement, a form of repair and redress, inspired by feminism and other movements for social change.” Stories of vulnerabilities from the past and the forms taken by them are crucial to understand the current unequal distribution of vulnerability. Retracing genealogies of vulnerability throughout different times and cultures can contribute to the emergence of new understandings of the past and the present and help us find appropriate responses to a politically induced precariousness.
Your work is primarily in French. How would you describe the dynamic between Anglophone and Francophone memory studies? What are scholars working primarily in English missing?
From my point of view, memory studies is transcultural and by extension translingual, or at least it should be, for the same reason that I find it important to resist the pervasive pressure to publish research mainly or even exclusively in English: fixity and monolingualism tend to standardize thinking and ideas, and level out the tensions and distortions attendant on the migration of concepts and ideas from one cultural background to another one. In any case, Anglophone and Francophone memory studies are certainly not two tightly separated fields. After all, lots of important concepts for Anglophone memory studies come from the French-speaking world, and scholars working primarily in French are usually aware of, and are using, concepts developed in the English-speaking world and other linguistics contexts. The concepts and methodologies are continuously moving from one linguistic and cultural context to another one with all the appropriation and transformations that such movements induce.
For this reason, I do not think that scholars working primarily in English are missing something per se. Yet there are differences, mostly in terms of the rhetoric used by authors: each language has its own set of conventions for presenting arguments, and some concepts develop from their particular cultural background, which can sometimes lead to misunderstanding or appropriations and transformations of notions that may seem wrong or at least questionable for those who coined them. But we can also seize the creative and generative potential of misunderstandings and mistranslation.
You’ve written about the “quantitative” critical reception of women’s writing, arguing that flagrant sexism still persists in the way that academic culture “counts” (or rather, does not count) the contributions of women writers and literary scholars. Are there any specific writers in memory studies that you feel have been unfairly disregarded?
As a member of the board of directors of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA) for the last three years, one of the most important things I’ve learned is that we cannot trust our feelings or impressions when it comes to gender discrepancy. We may have the impression that women’s work receives as much attention as men’s work, that the media coverage is well balanced and, sometimes, that it even tends to favour women. The discourse on the equity supposedly achieved in the literary scene is certainly not new, nor is it more accurate now than it was a century ago, despite the greater presence of women and non-binary people in the literary world. To take only one significant example, in the first half of the nineteenth century in France, when the number of women writers started to increase considerably but was still far from equal, some critics were already talking about the “invasion” of the literary world by women and its potential negative effects: namely, the devaluation of literature. Not only did this already disputable “invasion” not translate into posterity (for literary history tends to retain only a very small number of women writers for every period of time), but inaccurate claims that equality in representation has already been reached are still very pervasive. We hear them more clearly when a woman (finally) wins an important literary prize that used to be awarded exclusively to men, or appears on the cover of a prestigious literary magazine. But the one-time prize and exceptional media coverage given to women writers must not fool us. The numbers gathered by an organization like CWILA, and its American and Australian counterparts VIDA and Stella, in conjunction with numerous experiments such as the one conducted by Catherine Nichols (who, after rejection or no answer, submitted the same manuscript under a man’s name only to get an immediate and positive response), and the work of historians of literature who study the mechanisms by which some works are deemed important enough to be remembered, all point to the fact that women’s work is systemically disregarded and suffers at best from an unconscious bias or what Lori Saint-Martin names “the paradox of innocence” (nobody does it on purpose but it happens and keeps happening nonetheless), and at worst from plain and open discrimination. While I always make sure that my own work reaches parity or puts forward women’s and non-binary people’s work and I note that women scholars coined some of the key concepts for memory studies, I do not see any reasons why the field of research would escape this system. But I do not have the numbers to support this statement.
Some of your forthcoming work attempts to destabilize the normative category of the human by examining how Olivia Rosenthal uses the category of the animal to construct queer identities in her writing. What brought about this change of focus in your work, and what intersections do you see between memory studies and animal studies?
Rather than being a change of focus, my recent work on the normative category of the human prolongs and expands the two main orientations of my research that are the question of legacy and the politics of subjectivity in the light of gender. Working on vulnerability and on gender leads me necessarily to question our relationship to animals and, more broadly, to every living creature. Though maybe not always central, the question of the norms and discourses that determine who is considered human enough to receive care and protection and who is deemed not worthy frequently recurs in postmemorial narratives of the Holocaust. Some works in Holocaust studies such as Charles Patterson’s Eternal Treblinka have traced a genealogy that links mass killing of animals for consumption purposes to human exploitation and extermination. These questions that pertain to memory studies certainly intersect with issues examined by feminist and gender studies and animal studies – let’s just think about how historically women, but also every subject whose desire or identity did not fit the gender norms, have not always been regarded as fully human. In my current project I suggest that the dual and double-edged concept of vulnerability can shed light on the complex power relationships that shape the category of humanity and decide who or what we see as human or worthy of living.
In an article on Linda Ellia’s Notre Combat, you explore the author’s project to transfigure Hitler’s Mein Kampf into a dynamic, multivalent mixed media art piece by enlisting the help of numerous collaborators. Had you been given the opportunity to help destroy and transform Hitler’s text as one of Ellia’s collaborators, what would you have done, if anything?
When I first encountered Notre Combat, the book had already been published. At that moment I thought the project had achieved its definitive form and didn’t think much about what I would have done if I had been given the opportunity to be one of the participants in this collective endeavour to transform and re-signify Hitler’s text into an artistic project. I only tried to imagine what would have been my reaction if I had suddenly found, as Linda Ellia did, a copy of Mein Kampf in my basement. Like many others, I used to think that the book had been censored; if the possession of Hitler’s book is strictly regulated in Germany, every country has its own regulation regarding the circulation of Mein Kampf, which is, in any case, easy to find online from anywhere in the world. In order to analyse Linda Ellia’s book, I read a large part of Mein Kampf: maybe because of the aura surrounding this book and, of course, because of the historical consequences we now link to this programmatic text. I was surprised to discover a very boring book, badly written and very confused.
It is only when faced with the very materiality of the book at the exhibition Notre Combat presented in Liège at La Cité miroir in 2014-2015 that I started thinking about what I would have done with the pages of Mein Kampf. The exhibition displayed some of the works that could not be included in the book because of a lack of space (more than 1000 pages have been made; the book contains only 300, and the exhibition presents about 600 pages). Notre Combat can be a never-ending project: because of the exhibition that prolongs and completes it, and because of its collaborative nature, Notre Combat leaves open the possibility to keep responding to hate speech, if necessary. After all, if Mein Kampf – Mon Combat in French – is endlessly reproducible, so too is Notre Combat. For this very reason I think I would have gone against my first impulse – which was to cover the page entirely or even to destroy it – and tried to divert and give another meaning to the words on the page. For example by reframing the text with excerpts of survivors’ narratives, with which I would only partially cover Hitler’s words. Censorship does not appear to me as a solution, even though it is often our primary reaction towards something unpleasant, violent, and scary. This applies, of course, to Hitler’s book, whose recent entry into the public domain has stirred debates in Germany especially. We should also rethink the impulse to censor in the current context of the #metoo movement. Effacing the perpetrators, erasing their words or presence, may be a temporary response, but it runs the risk of granting them more power if or when the repressed comes back, like a repressed memory that returns to haunt you.
Interview conducted via email by River Ramuglia.