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Reparations and Forgiveness After COVID-19?

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Organizer: Darwin Tsen

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Following the U.S. government’s termination of the COVID national emergency on April 11th, 2023, the World Health Organization declared on May 5th that the virus no longer constituted a “public health emergency”. This was preceded by China’s declaration of a “decisive victory” over the virus as early as February 16th. Yet contrary to such official rhetoric, the scars of COVID-19 pandemic’s cultural, social, psychological, and political ramifications are still engraved upon us. Despite pinpointable losses, the pandemic’s unprecedented scale has made us all melancholics, per Freud’s insight: we know “whom [we have] lost but not what [we have lost in us].” This is also a melancholia stoked by a rage springing from the tragedies that cut across racial, gender, class, and national lines: to whom or what shall this call for justice and accountability be directed towards? Numerous states and their leaders? The ailing medical and healthcare systems? Fellow citizens who neglected to do their part? And what exactly would constitute the nucleus of such demands? For David Eng, the reparations movement is crucial for Black Americans because the “history and problem of reparations” indexes the “cleaving between civil and human rights, and between political and economic justice”. Reparations for the pandemic follows such lines on a global scale yet possesses the advantage and disadvantage of being too recent, too raw: we know what happened, but not yet what we can ask of it. A horizon’s reach further from reparations: who or what can be forgiven for the pandemic? And should such forgiveness remain “exceptional and extraordinary”, à la Derrida, if there is an exigency and possibility of seizing reparations in the present? Those who would prefer us not frame the pandemic under the frames of reparations and forgiveness are already fighting on the terrain of remembrance, and as Maximillian Alvarez poignantly asks, “[h]ow will we each see ourselves as participants in and shapers of this history? Will we forget all the things that mattered to us at the time – all the ways we experienced and felt about what was happening to us…Or will we carry with us the memory of something more…[and] use that memory to do good, and do better?”

The discipline of comparative literature ought to play a role in this remembrance and reckoning. This panel invites papers and presentations that consider how actions, ideas, and programs of reparations and reparations towards the COVID-19 pandemic – regardless of its particular site of intervention on the globe – can be imagined or mediated through popular culture, literature, visual art, film and multimedia, performance, protests, and other aesthetic forms. Because of the intense entwinement between personal and public experiences of the pandemic, we are open to expressions beyond the traditional essay: from autotheory and autofiction to other poetic, visual, and tactile formats; let the form and content find one another.

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