Pop Culture and Mass Atrocity

I’m immediately drawn to the uneasy tension between these phrases.  Placed in juxtaposition, these ideas seem to stand on opposite ends of a spectrum stretching between the trite and the sacred, the humorous and the horrific.

And yet, the apparent incompatibility between large-scale human suffering and pop culture is, of course, largely illusory.   The more one looks for it, the more atrocity references show up in games, movies, television shows, music etc.   It seems that, despite our natural aversion, we have an unconscious desire to air humanity’s dirty laundry in the public sphere.

I begin this blog as a way to trace the myriad of ways in which pop culture negotiates atrocity as it continues to occur throughout the world.  To be sure, the formal study of atrocity owes much to pop culture.  In fact, it’s been argued* that a TV show–the much acclaimed 1978 mini-series “Holocaust”– actually served as the primary catalyst for scholarly and historical interest in the Holocaust in the US.  What this means is that Holocaust studies (as it exists in its current institutionalized form in US academia) would not be what it is today if not for the foresight of some eager beaver producers who predicted that the atrocity of the 20th century could be creatively mined for prime time entertainment.

Today, against the most damning attacks against pairing atrocity with anything aesthetic (think Adorno’s “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”), we have the growing popularity of taboo-flaunting games such as, “Cards Against Humanity.”   (I’ll be reviewing this game in a later blog, along with movies such as Cabin in the Woods, songs such as Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing,” organizations such a Campus Crusade.  I’m open to suggestions.)  My point is not to condemn–an easy move but one opposed to critical thinking.  Instead, I’d like to consider the political, ethical and socio-psychological functions of such cultural production.

This blog also serves a personal purpose, and that is to think about how my own study of atrocity interfaces with those I come in contact with.  My entrance into this topic is my PhD research on theories of testimony and representations of genocide in post-WWII literature.  In other words, I study the literature of suffering.

* See, for instance, the historian Saul Friedländer’s lecture “The Development of Public Memory and the Responsibility of the Historian,” published as “Im Angesicht der ‘Endlosung’: Die Entwicklung des offentlichen Gedachtnisses und die Verantwortung des Historikers.” In Das Judentum im Spiegel seiner kulturellen Umwelten.Symposium zu Ehren von Saul Friedländer. Dieter Borchmeyer and Helmut Kiesel eds. Neckargemund, Germany: Edition Mnemosyne, 2002. 207-223.

4 thoughts on “Pop Culture and Mass Atrocity

  1. Kris Wood says:

    This will be interesting series of reflections! It is so easy, as you said, for us as “people” to “air humanity’s dirty laundry”. IMHO, some people come off as little more than playground tattletales, but I like that this blog will focus on the topic more objectively (though pointedly!). I will be reading to see what our role may be to give comfort and a voice to those who’ve suffered…and may be suffering still.

  2. Kevin Knox says:


    I’m curious what you think about The Hunger Games. The author’s stated intent in writing was to “explore the effects of violence and war on those coming of age,” but I doubt her success given the story she chose. I wonder what you’d think of her attempt.

  3. parmanifesto says:

    Meryl Streep has said as a child she imagined growing up and doing something important. If there was any doubt, you’ve dispelled it.

  4. Interesting analysis, though i thought it was funny that the advertisement for this page was for a game about WWII where you are in a world where the Nazi’s won the war and you have to kill them all. i think that all of these films, games, and books that deal with such atrocities are a way of remembering the past, whether it’s wrong or right is a different matter, (a matter you’re addressing here in this blog i suppose).

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