Perpetrator Studies Network

Associated Conference: Perpetrator Hell – Images, Stories, Concepts

Perpetrator Hell: Images, Stories, Concepts
14 – 16 November 2017, Universitat de València, València, Spain.

From World War I onwards, the figure of the victim has almost become a synonym of memory, particularly of traumatic memory. Soldiers first; then, the civil population; last, survivors of national, religious, ethnic or ideological communities – all these came to be targets of systematic violence inasmuch as the practice of total war and irregular conflicts took the place of conventional warfare. Consequently, the survivors of those groups were the subject of narratives and images. This has changed considerably over the last few decades, for a number of reasons: first, the suspicion awakened by a sort of fossilization of memories that has resulted in repeated and sclerotized patterns; second, the generalization of victimhood with the inevitable consequence of victim competition; third, the vindication of victimhood in some religious, national and ethnic groups that has resulted in a sort of reactive violence. Hence, victimhood is currently far from offering an indisputable safe-passage.

It is no surprise that the questioning of this figure has been counteracted by the increasing attention drawn by another figure, more mysterious and with various faces: the perpetrator. Concepts such as the “banality of evil” (Hannah Arendt) or the “gray zone” (Primo Levi) show us that the origin of the interest in the perpetrator dates from far back and has some considerable history behind it; this being valid in philosophy and literature as well as in the social sciences. But wherever we go back to trace the starting point of this itinerary, we must recognize the close interaction between the decline of the victim as the embodiment of memory and the rising relevance of the perpetrator, both combining with the blurred identity represented by the figure of the bystander. The 21st century has seen an intensification of this concern, not only in regard to contemporary characters, but also to those from the past.

Accordingly, the perpetrator has emerged as a renewed subject of interrogation, and in so doing this appearance questions the instruments of our understanding. Deemed necessary to complete the scheme of the criminal act, the perpetrator’s gaze, look and narrative contribute to understanding an actor without whom any genocidal violence would be impossible. And certainly, this sometimes goes accompanied with a trace of fascination. The reason lies in the fact that the figure in question is no longer conceived as the external master criminal who ideologically or technically planned a massacre or the annihilation, but focuses above all on the rank and file executioners. These questions then put the emphasis on key points: under what ideological and psychological circumstances (brainwashing, group pressure, and so on) can an ordinary man or woman be transformed into a ruthless murderer and, to be more precise, how the acting outleading to this metamorphosis takes place. Other issues add complexity to the initial question: what degree of dissociation operates in human beings in periods of civil wars and political brutalization? Nevertheless, the reflection also addresses the aftermath of violence and destruction, as in the question: how and to what extent to incorporate some of the minor perpetrators into transitional processes that follow a period of violence, State terrorism or civil war?

Numerous matters stem from there: the price of reconciliation in societies ripped apart, the disproportionality between the crimes committed and the punishment, if any, of the mass murderers, the need for psychological treatment for those perpetrators damaged by traumatic experiences, since trauma has ceased to be a “privilege” of the victims. All these questions have become the arena of debates that involve disciplines such as psychology, philosophy of law, sociology or even anthropology and, what is more, demand an articulated or at least a collaborative response. As a consequence, facing the status of the perpetrator implies interrogating the relationship between human society and evil, call it diabolic or banal.

This conference aims to take into consideration this problematic figure –the perpetrator– as a problem or set of problems, instead of regarding it as an empirical protagonist. Is a change of paradigm in play? Or just a change of emphasis? Or perhaps it is a symptomatic shift in the observer’s perspective? Whatever our response might be, the debate as to the perpetrator needs to be elucidated in a dialectic relationship with victims and bystanders. Rather than a taking-over of the classic roles, we must contemplate it as a mutation in the constellation of concepts.


Conference Organizers: Anacleto Ferrer and Vicente Sánchez-Biosca

Sponsors: Alfons el Magnànim and Universitat de València


Guest speakers: Salomé Lamas (Filmmaker); Susanne Knittel (Utrecht University); Marta Marín Domine (Wilfrid Laurier University); Rafael R. Tranche (Universidad Complutense de Madrid), Gabriel Gatti (Universidad del País Vasco); Juan Alberto Sucasas (Universidad de A Coruña); Jesús García Cívico (Universidad Jaume I); Ana Carrasco (Universidad Complutense de Madrid); Francesc J. Hernández  (Universitat de València); Benno Herzog (Universitat de València); Javier de Lucas (Universitat de València), Cristina G. Pascual (Universitat de València), José Elías Esteve (Universitat de València) y Jaume Peris Blanes (Universitat de València); Arturo Lozano (Paris-Sorbonne. Paris IV), Ana R. Calero (Universitat de València) and Brigitte Jirku (Universitat de València).


Conference Publication:

El Infierno de los Perpetradores: Imágenes, Relatos y Conceptos. Edited by Anacleto Ferrer and Vicente Sánchez-Biosca. Barcelona: Edicions Bellaterra, 2019.