ZiF Research Group

'Felix Culpa'?

Guilt as Culturally Productive Force

October 2018 - July 2019

Convenors: Matthias Buschmeier (Bielefeld, GER), Katharina von Kellenbach (St. Mary's City, USA)
ZiF Workshop

Impurity and Guilt

14 - 15 March 2019
Convenors: Meinolf Schumacher (Bielefeld, GER), Katharina von Kellenbach (St. Mary's City, USA)

Ideas of purity and impurity as well as practices of purification have become the subject of interdisciplinary discussion in recent years, often drawing on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas. Despite considerable scholarship and publication, there remain significant areas of controversy, particularly involving the social and political relevance of impurity and its close cognate hybridity. Mixing and mingling of different types and classes is perceived as threat to social orders and danger to familiar (and well-known) structures. Nevertheless, scholars of migration call for a politics of impurity, and suggest practices that embrace mixing and mingling as fundamentally positive phenomena. But political discourses that frame migration policies as approval of "impurity" appear increasingly embattled because they failing to generate popular support. The rejection of impurity and dirt and the quest for purity are too deeply rooted in the history of religions and culture, even as they often remain unexamined. The politics of purity and impurity are problematic for other reasons: all too often this rhetoric is tied to violence – as ideology is implemented into politics – and justifies and legitimates discrimination and exclusion, including massacres and genocide. The language of "political purges" and "ethnic cleansings" belong here, as well as of the politics of apartheid, campaigns to remove "trash and filth" from libraries, "degenerate art" from museums, "heretics" from religions, and ethnic-political aliens, sexual deviants and gender queers from society. National Socialism employed all of these terms: public burnings of books, houses of worship, and people have always been understood as rituals of purification, acts of violence that were supposed to liberate the community (state, people, church) from the polluting presence of bodies defined as dirt. In the aftermath of such atrocities, criminal trials and economic restitution are, once more, legitimated as a form of purification. The logic of purification invokes and justifies exclusion and separation. It is therefore not surprising that the rhetoric of purification causes unease and demands a search for alternatives. While some plead for acceptance of impurity and that/those who have been defined as "dirt" (i.e. the earlier mentioned politics of impurity), others suggest the use of ecological metaphors of composting and recycling as alternative means of purification. There is urgent need for further discussion to clarify whether such alternatives are viable and realistically capable of changing linguistic conventions and cognitive structures that are arguably, centrally and deeply rooted, in human nature.

This workshop proposes to examine this cluster of questions through the lens of guilt, which has traditionally been linked to material, ritual, and metaphysical impurity. In the Christian religious tradition, penance was understood as processing and erasing guilt as a form of purification; other religions similarly implement practices of purity and impurity involving rituals and performances of atonement. In modern, secular societies, the goal and value of purity has shifted and turned questionable and problematic. What discursive and political alternatives emerge that can facilitate individual and collective processes of atonement as culturally productive? Is it possible to envision rituals of guilt that do not invoke the imagery of impurity and purity? Are new discourses found in religion, culture, or art? How do we retrieve alternative traditions that can generate "positive", i.e. non-violent cultural dynamics?

To summarize: The workshop examines the conditions in which metaphors of purity and impurity are invoked to articulate processes of guilt and forgiveness and to ask whether the imagery of purity can be (and should be) redeemed or retained. It is possible, for instance, that the rhetoric of purification draws attention to the presence of "moral remainders", those "left-over" burdens that cannot be erased by either religious ritual or criminal justice. Hence, the conference aims to answer whether the imagery of purity and impurity can be used to generate creative approaches to coming to terms with guilt, or whether the rhetoric of purity should be abandoned altogether as irredeemably tied to coercive force and destructive violence.

Conference Programme

Please direct any inquiries about the research group 'Felix Culpa' - Guilt as Culturally Productive Force to the coordinator Dr. Saskia Fischer.

Email: productiveguilt@uni-bielefeld.de
Phone: +49 521 106-12836