In 1946 French Trotskyist political deportee to Buchenwald David Rousset coined the phrase ‘concentrationary universe’ to describe the terrifying sociological experiment in total destruction of humanity in which, according to Hannah Arendt, ‘everything is possible’. Our question is: has anything of the concentrationary universe seeped into and been disseminated through contemporary culture? Going beyond the work of Agamben and Virilio who suggest that the camp and war are now the matrices of modern society, we want to enquire into cultural forms and subjectivities. Is there now a concentrationary imaginary? What would be its indices, symptoms, locations, tropes and affects? Where might we find it? Is the concentrationary a dimension of heightened violence, of fantasies of apocalyptic, end-of-time confrontations, of the manner in which ‘others’ are projected as both fascinating and deadly? Is it about thoughtlessness and amnesia? Has it been eroticised and stylized via fascist kitsch? Has it found a home or a counter-imaginary in science fiction? Is it linked with images of pestilence, viral contamination, deadly epidemics? What might resist its seepage and normalization?
Far from being contained as a one-off, geopolitically contained event, the Nazi-created concentrationary and its horrific extension, the exterminationary, initiated the political novelty that Arendt defined as totalitarianism. Totalitarianism was an experiment in the destruction of the human, which Arendt came to identify with spontaneity and plurality. Not confined to the Third Reich, the concentrationary was a feature of Stalin’s Soviet Union but also in differing guises is typical of racist societies and dictatorships. If the political lessons of the concentrationary universe led Hannah Arendt to seek to refound a basis for social life in the human condition, is the concentrationary imaginary continuing to put humanity, or our humanity, at risk?
International scholars and researchers are meeting on 13-15 April at the University of Leeds to discuss the often oblique manifestations of the legacies of the concentrationary in diverse forms of contemporary culture from literature, to cinema, and video games.