DFG Network Complicity: Enfoldings and Unfoldings

Network description:

In 2000, Christopher Kutz opened Complicity: Ethics and Law for a Collective Age with the following words: “We live in a morally flawed world. Our lives are complicated by what other people do, and by the harms that flow from our social, economic, and political institutions. Our relations as individuals to these collective harms constitute the domain of complicity” (1). Instead of assuming responsibility for such collective harm, however, the tendency is to avert the gaze. Donna Haraway speaks of the Anthropocene as characterised by a pervasive “[refusal] to know and to cultivate the capacity of response-ability; of refusing to be present in and to onrushing catastrophe in time; of unprecedented looking away” (2016, 35). Thomas Docherty similarly observes: “We live in deeply irresponsible times” (2016, 28). According to Kutz, the widespread refusal to assume responsibility for collective wrongdoing is in line with common-sense individualistic conceptions of moral agency, according to which agents are only accountable when they have made an intentional causal contribution to a moral wrong (2000, 3) – a minimum responsibility threshold also established by common conceptions of complicity (cf. Lepora and Goodin 2013, 6). When it comes to structural wrongdoing, like racism or the causes of climate change, moral agents’ own contributions to this wrong or their attempts at resisting them may at least appear to make little discernible difference in the larger scheme of things. Docherty speaks of “[complicity] with an idea that the world is too big to fail, that it can’t be changed by my actions – and thus I become complicit with the refusal to accept responsibility for trying to change a bad situation. It is a position that abnegates responsibility, through quietism, which is the political correlative of silence” (2016, 19). At the same time, the need for moral agents to examine their own relation to collective harm could hardly be more pressing than in the face of the impending climate catastrophe. Indeed, accusations of complicity regarding individual lifestyle choices and their impact on the environment are gaining prominence in both scope and volume. Especially in the context of ecocriticism, complicity thus serves as a significant rhetorical tool (Reynolds 2017). And yet, as Joel Pfister and Docherty urgently remind us, criticism – including attributions of complicity in a call for anti-complicity – are always liable to remain within precisely the frameworks they criticise and to ultimately support the status quo (Pfister 2006, Docherty 2016). In Debarati Sanyal’s words, “[c]omplicity is a word typically used to mean participation in wrongdoing, or collaboration with evil, and yet it is also an engagement with the complexity of the world we inhabit” (2015, 1).

Whereas pointing to the relevance of exploring complicities in collective wrongdoing has a long tradition, the thorough scrutiny of the term has been a comparatively recent endeavour. Tellingly, Mark Sanders remarks in his preface to Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid: “Until recently, there has been no full-scale philosophical exposition of complicity on which to draw” (2002, x). Since then, several works within and beyond philosophy have explored complicity as a concept (e.g. Firat, de Mul, and van Wichelen 2009; Applebaum 2010; Lepora and Goodin 2013; Jackson 2015). In 2015, Sanyal still rightly attests to the “relative paucity” of theorisations of the term (10), but 2016 saw the burgeoning of what might be called the field of complicity studies (see, e.g., Aksenova 2016, Docherty 2016, Mellema 2016, Ziemer 2016, Afxentiou et al. 2017, Wright 2018, Wächter and Wirth 2019). Within literary and cultural studies, what Pfister terms complicity critique (i.e. the unmasking of authors’, producers’, texts’, readers’ and audiences’ complicity with dominant ideologies and structural injustice, had become a research paradigm by the end of the twentieth century (2000). It continues to figure prominently, especially as far as the ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ (Ricoeur) and identity politics are concerned. Complicity critique has, in fact, become so pervasive as to give rise to postcritique (cf. Anker and Felski 2017). Nevertheless, Pfister’s work remains an exception to a general lack of explorations of the concept as such, and complicity critique has not sufficiently been brought into dialogue with current work on complicity in other disciplines. What research exists, tends to have a very specific focus, such as the role of the intellectual in South African Apartheid (Sanders 2002), or the Holocaust in the French public imagination (Sanyal 2015).

As the title indicates, the research in the intended network follows, e.g., Sanders (2002), Sanyal (2015), Wächter (2019) and Storey (2019) in exploring complicity, based on its etymological roots (from Latin complicare, com “together” + plicare “to fold”) as a form of ‘folded-together-ness’ (com-plic-ity). In countering the widespread refusal to assume responsibility for collective harm, Sanders advocates the promotion of a sense of “folded-together-ness of being, of human-being, of self and other” (2002, 11). The underlying assumption is that in the recognition and acknowledgement that both self and ‘other’ are (human) beings, the suffering of the ‘other’ cannot but be of concern. This resonates strongly with, for instance, Judith Butler’s recent work, whose “argument against violence […] not only implies a critique of individualism, but an elaboration of those social bonds or relations that require nonviolence” (15; emphasis added). The promotion of a sense of a more general foldedness-in-being is particularly pertinent from an environmentalist perspective. Contrary to this ideal of an enfolding which includes all (human) beings, most collective enfoldings conceive of the self (both in individual and in collective terms) as bounded: “Without that overarching sense of the interrelational, we take the bodily boundary to be the end rather than the threshold of the person […]” (Butler 2020, 16). Complicity-as-foldedness thus, secondly, points to collective enfoldings into purportedly bounded identities and corresponding othering processes. Relatedly, complicity-as-foldedness can refer to ideological enfoldings in a constructed reality or TINA – “the coercive language that states baldly that ‘There Is No Alternative’” (Docherty 2016, 19). TINA operates as a virtual ‘blind-fold’. In Storey’s words, “complicity folds us into what we might call the taken-for-grantedness of the here and now” (2019a, 109). This taken-for-grantedness has significant affective and embodied dimensions that complicate matters of complicity. To quote Sara Ahmed, “spaces are not exterior to bodies; instead, spaces are like a second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body” (2006, 9; emphases added). A socially constructed reality affects affects; it inscribes itself into the skin, and it constrains both the envisioning and the desiring of alternatives. Even when alternatives are desired, ideological enfoldings often preclude a position outside complicity, as is the case, for instance, with racial privilege (e.g. Applebaum 2010). Such enfoldings moreover provoke complicities against the self, such as internalised racism. In this respect, research in the network aims to expand upon conceptions central to literary and cultural studies which emphasise that social oppression relies on the complicity of the oppressed, notably Gramsci’s hegemony, Butler’s performativity or Bourdieu’s symbolic violence. Complicity-as-foldedness allows us to think of complicity and resistance as being folded into one another in that “complicity and solidarity may be two sides of the same coin” (Sanyal 2015, 1). These entanglements also have a historical dimension: Sanyal speaks of complicity as referring to “our place in the historical fold, but also of the folds that bring diverse histories into contact […]” (2015, 1). This includes enfoldings in colonial legacies which manifest, for instance, at present-day European borders. In Germany in particular, this pertains to a continuing historical enfolding in its Nazi past. The unmasking and acknowledgement of complicities is the first and necessary step in contesting harmful structures; promoting a sense of foldedness-in-being, however, as several of the contributors to this network emphasise, can also have unintended, not least of all affective, corollaries that require further attention.

The impetus for this network derived from the 2017 academic and student conferences on Complicity and the Politics of Representation at the Ruhr-University Bochum, as well as the subsequent work on the edited collection of the same title and the special issue of the onlinejournal kultur & geschlecht. While conference and publications answered many of the questions which organisers and delegates brought to the table, it opened up even more, and it demonstrated both the complexity and the urgency of the issue. The network takes its cue from part two of the collection Complicity and the Politics of Representation (2019) to expand upon the book’s research on (especially collective) enfoldings and unfoldings in cooperation with renowned scholars already working in the burgeoning field of complicity studies.

In drawing upon the arts as epistemological tools, in line with the turn to narrative in moral philosophy, the network aims to add to recent research on complicity by emphasising the relevance of positionality and intersectional enfoldings in matters of complicity – i.e. taking account of the fact that moral agents are frequently not the unencumbered white male that has long been tacitly been assumed as the ‘universal subject’. We, moreover, deploy the arts to shed light on previously largely unexplored issues in the study of complicity, such as the relevance of embodiment and affect, not least of all to gain more comprehensive an understanding of affective dimensions of resistance to the recognition and acknowledgement of one’s own complicities. In this respect, the network benefits strongly from the close cooperation between philosophers and scholars of literary, cultural and media studies. We are, secondly, concerned with exploring ways in which readers and audiences can be enfolded by narratives in the sense of being rendered complicit – again also considering the relevance of affect in processes of becoming complicit. Rather than simply denouncing texts, authors or producers, as traditional complicity critique has frequently been accused of, we are predominantly concerned with the processes of enfolding. In turning to the relevance of affect in this regard, we aim to bridge the gap between critique and postcritique. With regard to complicity and reception, the network benefits in particular from being able to include an empirical dimension (Schneider). Last but not least, we intend to explore ways of rendering complicit enfolding visible and of facilitating what Storey calls “a radical unfolding of what complicity seeks to fold together” (2019a, 114). One of the objectives of the network is to develop strategies of deploying the arts in the higher education classroom as a means of rendering structures of complicity visible and especially with a view to tackling affective resistance against students’ recognition of their own complicities, e.g. with racism, sexism or the causes of climate change. In this regard, we draw predominantly on the expertise of the members and experts working in the fields of didactics (Gilbert), the philosophy of pedagogy (Applebaum) and social work (Teram).

Works Cited

  • Afxentiou, Afxentis, et al., eds. 2017. Exploring Complicity: Concept, Cases and Critique. Rowman & Littlefield International.
  • Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Phenomenology. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Anker, Elizabeth S; Felski, Rita, ed. 2017. Critique and Postcritique. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
  • Butler, Judith. 2020. The Force of Nonviolence: An Ethico-Political Bind. London and New York: Verso.

  • Docherty, Thomas. 2016. Complicity: Criticism Between Collaboration and Commitment. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

  • —. 2016. ‘Complicity, Law, Responsibility’. In Exploring Complicity, edited by Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford, and Michael Neu, 19–34. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

  • Firat, Begüm Özden, Sarah de Mul, and Sonja van Wichelen, eds. 2009. Commitment and Complicity in Cultural Theory and Practice. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Lepora, Chiara, and Robert E. Goodin. 2013. On Complicity and Compromise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Mellema, Gregory. 2016. Complicity and Moral Accountability. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

  • Pfister, Joel. 2000. ‘Complicity Critique’. American Literary History 12 (3): 610–632.

  • —. 2006. Critique for What? Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies. London: Routledge.

  • —. 2016. Surveyors of Customs: American Literature as Cultural Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Reynolds, Paul. 2017. ‘Complicity as Political Rhetoric: Some Ethical and Political Reflections’. In Exploring Complicity, edited by Afxentis Afxentiou, Robin Dunford, and Michael Neu, 35–52. London: Rowman & Littlefield.

  • ―. 2019. ‘Complicity: Narratives, Articulations, and the Politics of Representation’. In Complicity and the Politics of Representation, edited by Cornelia Wächter and Robert Wirth, 121–38. London: Rowman & Littlefield International.

  • Sanders, Mark. 2002. Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid. Philosophy and Postcoloniality. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Sanyal, Debarati. 2015. Memory and Complicity: Migrations of Holocaust Remembrance. New York: Fordham University Press.

  • Storey, John. 2019. ‘A Radical Unfolding: Utopianism against Complicity’. In Complicity and the Politics of Representation, edited by Cornelia Wächter and Robert Wirth, 107–20. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield International.