PN-III-P1-1.1-PD-2019-0460, no. 85/2020, The Representation of the Perpetrator and the Ethics of Empathy in American Graphic Narratives, offered by UEFISCDI.

Principal Investigator: Dr. Dragoș Manea

Project Members: Prof. Rodica Mihăilă (Postdoctoral Mentor)

Brief Project Description

This project, titled The Representation of the Perpetrator and the Ethics of Empathy in American Graphic Narratives, analyzes a corpus of little-discussed contemporary comics that offer unique insight into the mind frame of the perpetrator and contemporary (mis)perceptions about what causes the repeated proliferation of evil deeds, with particular focus on the role of empathy for the perpetrator that such texts might generate.

As such, this project is extremely important not only from a socio-cultural point of view—as it can provide a better understanding of the crucial issue of perpetration, its definition, contributing social and cultural factors, and how its decline might become possible—but it can also be relevant from an economic perspective, since the primary sources discussed here draw specific attention to the dynamic between perpetration and the economic factors that produce it, particularly in the context of acts against humanity and severe human rights violations. By drawing attention to the mobility of “perpetrator” as a category, as demonstrated by the verbal-visual representation provided in a selection of contemporary American graphic narratives, this project attempts to give answers to essential questions such as: How can graphic narratives contribute to a more nuanced understanding of perpetration? How do they contribute to the cultural memory of perpetration, particularly when the depiction of well-known historical figures is mixed with elements of fantasy? What is the benefit of producing an ethics of empathy, wherein the perpetrator is both humanized and even made to appear endearing or comical? How can stories that offer perpetrators a platform, thus positioning their audience in intimate proximity to the (largely imagined) workings of their psyche, negotiate the risk of being co-opted by extremist ideologies and their proponents?

Thus, the elements of difficulty of this project, somewhat foreshadowed by the abovementioned questions, are as follows: a) identifying a manageable yet relevant corpus of primary sources (see the bibliography in section D7 of this proposal) that might provide a complex understanding of perpetration, from various angles and during different historical periods; b) being able to provide a transcultural understanding of perpetration without making universalizing claims; c) gaining a nuanced understanding of the reception of some of the more problematic representations of perpetrators in graphic narratives, particularly when these are made to appear sympathetic; d) avoiding the oversimplified interpretation of perpetrators as monsters and providing a better understanding of the fact that “ordinary men” can be capable of extraordinary evil (Arendt 1963; Browning 1992; Waller 2002; Mohamed 2015); e) considering the gendered dimension of perpetration without simply reiterating a critique—however valid—of traditional masculinity and femininity.

  • This project has several specific objectives:
  1. The creation of new and productive connections between comics studies, memory studies, perpetrator studies, and ethics. As a medium that allows for easy self-identification with the various subjects drawn on the page (McCloud 1993), comics can offer unique opportunities for identification with subject positions—including that of the perpetrator—that readers may be unfamiliar with. This is important particularly in the context of the recent theorization of the category of “implicated subject,” which poses specific challenges of over-identification with victims from disadvantaged communities by subjects from privileged environments (Rothberg 2019). It is here that the empathy sometimes generated for the perpetrator by these graphic narratives can help produce a performative identification of readers with an unwelcome other, whose rejection can bring readers closer to communities of suffering outside of their purview;
  2. Attempting to identify the conceptual surplus suggested by political scientist Scott Strauss, who, following his nuanced examination of perpetration in the Rwandan genocide, confesses that, even though he does not consider perpetrators monsters (a popular approach that has been largely discarded in the academia), there is something about the figure of the perpetrator that continues to elude him. He speaks in the particular context of repeated and heinous crimes such as, for instance, the repeated murder of children by people who cannot themselves provide a full explanation for their actions (Strauss 2017);
  3. Identifying the advantages of the diachronic and synchronic model offered by comics that both reinterpret established historical events and offer an understanding of perpetration in a particular present moment, as Rothberg suggests might be advisable in this context (2019);
  4. Determining how certain legacies of the visual vocabulary of graphic narration—such as the fetishized representation of hegemonic masculinities (Connell 2005) and stereotyped versions of femininity (Sabin 2001), as well as the marginalization of racial and ethnic others in mainstream comics—contributes to a layering of contemporary representations of perpetrators;
  5. Pinpointing the multivalent role of humor in the representation of perpetrators and their acts;
  6. Producing a critical paradigm on perpetration that can also be usable outside of the field of comics studies.

Current outputs:

“‘Who are you crying for?’: Empathy, Fantasy and the Framing of the Perpetrator in Nina Bunjevac’s Bezimena” (with Mihaela Precup). Accepted for publication in Studies in Comics, 2021.