Michael Rothberg

Michael Rothberg is Professor of English and Conrad Humanities Scholar at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is also Director of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Memory Studies Initiative. His work has been published in such journals as American Literary HistoryCritical InquiryCultural CritiqueHistory and MemoryNew German Critique, and PMLA, and has been translated into French, German, and Hungarian. His latest book is Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (2009), published by Stanford University Press in their “Cultural Memory in the Present” series. He is also the author of Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation (2000), and has co-edited The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings (2003), Cary Nelson and the Struggle for the University: Poetry, Politics, and the Profession (2009), and special issues of the journals CriticismInterventionsOccasion, and Yale French Studies. Together with Yasemin Yildiz and Andrés Nader he won a 2011-2012 ACLS Collaborative Research Fellowship for a project on immigration and Holocaust memory in contemporary Germany. More information

Abstract 

On Being a Descendant: Implicated Subjects and the Legacies of Slavery

To ask about the legacies of the Treaty of Utrecht and the abolition of slavery is to ask what it means to inherit a history. How has the contemporary world inherited the histories of slavery and colonialism as well as those of abolition and decolonization? In what ways are contemporary subjects descendants of these histories? I propose to explore such questions in this talk through the notion of the implicated subject. This deliberately open-ended term is meant to extend beyond the participants generally discussed in discourses on violence, trauma, and restitution: namely, victims and perpetrators. Instead, the notion of implication encompasses a range of differentially situated subjects, including bystanders, beneficiaries, latecomers, and others connected to pasts they did not directly experience and to contemporary contexts that might seem distant. A focus on implicated subjects opens up a broad and murky terrain in which we can locate many dilemmas of remembrance, responsibility, and reparation. This talk will consider the challenge of thinking redress at a (temporal) distance by reflecting on the legacies of Atlantic slavery. What can the history and memory of slavery teach us about problems of transnational memory and restitution? What kinds of implication in the history of slavery define contemporary subjects in the Americas, Europe, and Africa? How can we align the differentiated forms of implication of contemporary subjects with claims for justice emanating from the past? I will consider these questions with reference to a variety of materials, including debates about reparations and apologies for slavery and fictional and non-fictional explorations of the history of slavery by Black Atlantic writers such as Octavia Butler, Saidiya Hartman, Jamaica Kincaid, and Caryl Phillips.