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Forms of Narrative (media/arts/internet)

October 19, 2011

Please continue and/or initiate conversations pertaining to Forms of Narrative here. For context and initial exchanges please see the comments appended to the ‘Welcome’ post above.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Frances permalink
    October 20, 2011 1:23 pm

    In response to Marina – what marvelous pictures! And all depicting episodes or characters from the great stories… but not themselves stories? (Or, maybe some of them are, like the one of Pygmalion?) Perhaps any art (form) can call out to us to change our lives, but aren’t we talking about narrative as something specific, something that does so in a specific way? Something that, perhaps, doesn’t just call to us but opens a path along which we might begin to go? Thats probably a bad way of putting it – so what is it we’re looking for specifically in narrative?
    The photographs which depict the story of the trackers are each powerful images, but there is also something about the way they are put together to make a story (not absolutely explicit, of course, not “the beginning”, “the reversal”, “the end”). As we’ve said, trauma isn’t healed by looking at isolated pictures, even if they very obviously are part of a story, or show crucial moments of a story – because this “very obviously” isn’t accessible to the victim. Which is not to create a hierarchy for art with narrative at the top, but to say – here, when we’re talking about narrative particularly in terms of its healing peace-bringing possibilities, what forms are available, how far can we push them and play with them?
    The distinction I’m pushing for is more one of form vs context than form vs content. When I say “bad post-modern literature” I suppose I mean content, as Marina points out, but also a form which renders us helpless to DO anything – an anti-narrative, a narrative that denies catharsis, manipulates its reader and turns mimesis into a sick and scary joke.
    But Marina’s examples – the Arabian Nights, the Greek myths – these are our most fundamental narratives and also they are NOT the narratives Aristotle is talking about in his analysis of tragedy: the same story, of course, but a different form! So – is there something we can say about the epic as opposed to the epyllion, for instance? A long oral narrative or a short ironic written one? About the myth as opposed to the tragedy? Or a set of photographs that present a story as opposed to a journal article describing the same men?
    And can we start to describe ways in which the form is less “totalising” – in which it still helps, holds together, opens paths, but is less likely to get them stuck, closed off, self-justified…?

  2. Alex Gilman permalink
    October 24, 2011 8:55 pm

    An interesting point came from one of our readings in Prof. Kearney’s class on the problem of truth as it relates to historical narrative. The reading was by Hayden White. As it relates to this discussion of exchanging narratives, one point stuck out to me, namely the idea of the “intransative” voice. He compares it, using Lang and Barthes, to the familiar active and passive voices. The intransative voice is the “middle voice,” neither enforcing agency or eliminating it. Instead, intransative writing “denies the distances among the writer, text, what is written about, and, finally, the reader.” The writer is immersed in the narrative not as omniscient author or passive observer but as the facilitator of memory, and, importantly, as part of the narrative process. White uses Barthe’s explication of modernist literature as intransative, especially the stream-of-consciousness work of Virginia Woolf where narrator merges with character. My take-away for the blog was that in the work of narrative exchange it is important to ensure that one writes (or speaks) intransatively, that is, as immersed in the narrative seamlessly. One should not take a posture of absolute truth claims nor an outside observer. What is so special about these exchanges is that they are from the voice of youth immersed in the circumstances, and from the films we watched, we already see them speaking intransatively, speaking themselves into the narrative. They show an intuitive circumspection and respect for the ethics of narrative. This momentum should be explicitly encouraged.

    However, White’s article brought up some questions for me. The purpose of the article was to explore the possibility and impossibility of representing events such as the Holocaust. He ended with intransative writing as the best possibility for not doing violence to the event by misrepresenting it, or at least being open and clear about the fact that I, the writer or storyteller, am immersed and thus change the story by telling it. It is a necessary caveat, perhaps. Here is my question: if intransative writing is typically attributed to modernist literature, what does this mean for a narrative’s truth claim? Does this turn everyone’s perspective into fiction? Does this end in relativism? How can we be historical while being intransative? I think there is indeed a way do so, but it needs some fleshing out.

  3. October 26, 2011 10:33 pm

    I wanted say a quick word of gratitude to Prof. Kearney and to the class for hearing my presentation last night; I look forward to hearing the insights and reflections from the rest of the class in our upcoming discussions. (And may I add, well done, Reham and Matthew!)

    What follows is a bit of a change of pace from where the online conversations have headed thus far, but I wanted to take a moment to elaborate and respond a bit regarding the questions that I asked at the end of my presentation, particularly by responding to Prof. Kearney’s comments about metanarrative: I must admit from the outset that as an aspiring theologian, I have something of a stake in metanarratives!… but despite my bias, although I sincerely doubt that any of us want to promote a universalizing (homogenizing) universal narrative to which everyone must acquiesce, that we all have, or desire to have, a way of understanding who we are as individuated selves, as persons-in-community, and as persons-in-world…. all of which can be expressed through “grand-narrative(s)” (grand, in the sense of scope). If we or our community seek answers for the timeless questions “What is my/our purpose? Who are we in relationship to the world/universe? Why are we here?”—the “answers” proposed will undoubtedly be expressed or at least implied in some sort of narrative, and in all likelihood, a narrative shared w/ some sort of community… and this, if not expressed in some mythological-allegorical way, then by other means and symbols. This could be seen as a kind of metanarrative, as it is universal in the sense that it is how we primarily engage the universe, whether it is consciously evoked or not.

    This is narrative in the form of tradition, which Ricoeur mentions…and this is what how I process Prof. Kearney’s statement last night, when he said last evening that that while there is no singular, homogenizing metanarrative, nor is there the endless derivations of micronarratives a la Lyotard. There are communities of traditions that contain countless narrative-forms and structures within themselves, that overlap with each other (especially in the contemporary Western world), but nevertheless have some overarching structures and symbols (that constantly evolve and are expressed through new prefigurations) to them that help give definition to each particular community’s communal memory, attention, and expectation, and which give its members a sense of greater purpose and meaning. These become more difficult to discern in a world where the ‘bounded self’ (a la Taylor) is the norm, but they are (or perhaps, can be) nevertheless powerful entities that we shape and are shaped by, the dialectic between the two constituting the core of our identity.

    So in regards to my questions, particularly regarding how our identifying stories are told and by whom, and how might we understand our ‘authorship’ of our stories, I do not mean merely our personal, individual stories, neither our personalized “grand-narratives” (i.e., my purpose in life) nor our smaller stories of life events, but primarily the stories in a community that connect and bind a tradition, within which our individual stories inevitably find greater intelligibility… for better or for worse. We indeed cannot be more than narrators of our own individual stories, but there is a second-order way that we can understand ourselves/our lives as being intentionally leaving one’s indelible mark upon a community’s tradition, and thus as an author, among countless other authors. This is a reversal of typical thinking, where and individual’s personality/story/life is seen as within ‘my control’ and thus an expression of ‘my freedom,’ while community-stories are seen as restrictive and debilitating to individuality. Might we imagine a possibility where a conceptualization of tradition can be rehabilitated in our world so that (virtue-imbued) traditions are the place of freedom, and the pursuit of pure individuality is a prison?

    The seemingly-insurmountable barrier at this point is the world history of narrative-traditions used for hegemonic, homogenizing, and abusive purposes… but while I am no expert in philosophy, I would like to posit that it is not meta-narratives (so conceived) that are the issue per se; the issue is how ALL narratives, big and small, are USED; i.e., there must be an ethics to narrative-identity and identity-formation. This is in line with what Riceour says in “Memory and Forgetting,” pp.8-9, although he is mostly focused on the negative uses of memory and narrative, yet he also invokes “good use[s] of commemorative acts”, the importance of “letting others tell their own history, especially the founding events which are the ground of a collective memory [i.e., a tradition]”, and by attempting to “extract the ‘exemplarity’ of” traumatic events, i.e., the ways to pass on memories of events (which can be experienced as a kind of redemption for those who suffered abuse, beyond merely the therapeutic quality of testimony, to also its capacity to make demands; yet those demands are understood within the context of a community or tradition!)

    So my two aforementioned questions (#1 and #2 from last night) were both attempts to provoke myself and others to consider more intently the ethics of narrative identity, and to this end I would like to make a few comments:

    –There is an inherently relational component to identity. The Zulu concept of ubuntu (very loosely translated as: “I am because we are, and you are; my very live is inextricably caught up in the people around me”), a critical component of South African tradition that made the modern miracle of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission possible, highlights this very fact. Again, this is both restrictive and freeing: restrictive if we minimize open contact with others, particularly those different from us, but freeing if we can understand the beauty of our traditions while accepting their limitations, and thus becoming open (indeed, seeing the need!) to receiving new “others” into my circle, and me into theirs.

    –Implied in this is the necessary humility and openness required to hear other’s stories, whether from the margins of our own communities or from outside our communities… the “answers” that we presume to have, regarding how to understand the world, must be held loosely rather than tightly. I did not have time last evening to say much about Ricoeur’s point that narrative-identity can help prevent the narcissism inherent to an assumption of our “givenness” as subject (“Life in Quest,” 33), but I will say here that how a narrative-tradition provides both a unity and a creativity, the idem and ipse, is to the extent there are resources for humility and openness within that tradition.

    Relationship/relationality, and openness/receptivity, are in my opinion two critical pieces that make for the very possibility of empathic imagination, and to hear stories of the ‘other,’ such as what we are hoping to see occur on this website.

    –While Ricoeur may not call it “authorship” per se, he clearly advocates for the telling of one’s story; and so to state the obvious: However we understand our narrative traditions, there must be both the capacity to share my own articulation of the story of me-in-community and of the community-in-me… as well as the built-in desire to hear from the margins of my community. This obviously relates to the previous point, and ties back to what I said earlier about authorship. There must be a commitment to testimony within the tradition, including from the margins, so that it continues to “live” and expand, as well as outside the tradition, and as a tradition, i.e., communities themselves have a right to communally testify, and to be testified on behalf of by representatives.

    –Finally, as the very phrase “narrative identity” implies an authorship, ‘who’ the author is becomes a critical question, especially considering our invariably communal identity-markers; if a person or a culture claims authorship over a community, then we have dictatorship or colonialism; but if the community sees itself as each contributing in some way to the ‘authorship,’ in a sense, to the community’s future, by building upon its past, then we have a “metanarrative,” so to speak, that gives purpose and meaning that is beyond the self, yet the self-in-community contributes meaningfully to it.

    I would greatly appreciate any feedback or constructive critiques (or perhaps some suggested readings) from everyone— including but not limited to those with more philosophical expertise than myself.

  4. Alex Gilman permalink
    October 27, 2011 9:23 pm

    I think the question of authorship in one’s narrative identity is very interesting. I had a thought the other night during class that I want to share here. When I heard the idea that we can be our own narrator but never our own author I immediately thought of the existential limitations of finitude. It may be an obvious point, but it seems to me that we cannot be our own author because we are not in fact able to constitute our “end,” or in other words, our death. Our thrownness, as well as our finitude, disallows any true completeness to our narrative. We can never be our own author because we are truly in-the-world.

    Even with intransative writing, like Virginia Woolf, that subverts the authorial transcendence, the author of a literary narrative is still omnipotent. Once the work is released to the reader, however, that omnipotence fades. Since we not only cannot access our beginning and end, we are also subject to the aporias of time discussed in Augustine. This further disallows authorial power in our own narrative, especially since, while we can project into the future, we are always faced with the abyss of possibility and responsibility. Even if a novel can have a sense of surprise, its temporal unfolding is still fundamentally more circumscribed than human existence.

    What I’m getting at, perhaps, is that there is always an unsettling and anti-narrative rumble of our own finitude looming beneath our narrative identity. And since we cannot be our own author, cannot lay grasp upon our finality, is narrative a “machine for the suppression of time,” as Levi-Strauss called it? I think it is somewhat more complex than that. Narrative, although it is in opposition to our finitude, also is the very thing that allows us to experience death, as such. In another way, death gains its very meaning by cutting through narrative. Heidegger says in his lecture on “World, Finitude, Solitude” in 1929 that the animal does not die, as such, only Dasein can die, as such, because only Dasein truly has a world. Similarly, it seems that narrativity, a (let’s assume) uniquely human phenomenon, makes possible an understanding of mortality and death. If we did not have the inherent drive to narrativize our lives, death would not posit a problem. It is only since narrative strives to overcome finitude that it brings us face to face with finitude.

    So being non-authorial means being mortal, AND, being narrator mean being mortal. If, on the one hand, we were both author and narrator, we would not be mortal. If, on the other hand, we were neither author nor narrator, we would not be mortal. The distinct type of narrativity we experience while being-in-the-world, rather than on the page, is fundamental to our existence as mortal. This, perhaps, points the genesis of the written narrative (Mimesis 2) in the experience of Dasein and thus affirms that narrativity is not imposed on life but rather taken from it.

    • October 27, 2011 11:16 pm

      When you write “narrative strives to overcome finitude” do you mean that narrative itself has an intentional striving, or do you mean that it is though narrative that one strives to overcome finitude? Is it a form/concept that strives in the same fashion as a (human) agent, or is it a “machine for the suppression of time?”

      If it strives itself, if it comes face to face with finitude itself, how does it (narrative) relate to finitude without an instantiated (human) agent? Also, how does the opposition of narrative to finitude become open to individual agents?

      If, on the other hand, it is a machine or other instrument by which we confront our own finitude, is it one of a number of such machines? Even if it is the only instrument by which we confront finitude (a point which, I think, is not settled), is it not OUR finitude that we confront rather than finitude in general? If so, it seems that it is the agent/finitude (to use one formulation) that is the important relationship.

      In either case, it seems that one critical aspect of the discussion is marginalized. In the first case, the personal finitude is marginalized in favor of narrative confronting general (or perhaps communal) finitude. In the second case, narrative is marginalized in favor of the direct relationship of an agent to finitude.

      My initial inclination is that narrative borrows, so to speak, the confrontation with finitude from mortal agents. This inclination is not due to any formal description (although I can see one being possible) but rather the inclination that we donot want to describe a (human) agent in such a way that their confrontation with finitude is limited to one form, namely, narrative.

      • Alex Gilman permalink
        October 28, 2011 1:13 pm

        I think it is difficult to divorce narrative from the human agent. It is not as if narrative were some universal form or structure independent of human beings. Indeed that is my basic point. Narrative makes no sense without human agents who narrativize their lives or write narratives. Conversely, human existence makes no sense without narrative; narrative is, I was trying to say, more a symptom of our awareness of our own finitude than some sort of tool we use to suppress time. As a kind of historical analogy, I am imagining that man evolved self-consciousness and time-consciousness simultaneous with narrativity. I think it is a mistake to try and view narrative separately from its meaning in human life. To your other question about finitude, I think it is both. Because both narrative and finitude are universal or “transcultural” in human experience, I think their relationship can be view generally, but also personally. There is a relationship between “story” and “death” but also between “my story” and “my death.”

  5. October 28, 2011 3:29 am

    Before posting my questions from last Tuesday, I’d like to thank everyone who responded to my presentation. The questions and discussion you generated gave me plenty to think about. I believe that the discussions following all of the presentations were both fruitful and enjoyable. Below are some refined versions of my questions and my initial reactions.

    My first question, responding to the first section of Hayden White’s article “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth” was: Are all genres/types open to narrative historians if they execute a narrative history with appropriate fidelity to truth and fact?

    The examples that White provided, along with a great many other conceivable treatments of events like the Holocaust, seem to indicate that all types should be available to narrative historians. Of course, some may be easier to work with; however, the responsibility of a narrative historian seems to be to truth and fact rather than to the type and genre most would associate with truth and fact. Even if type inheres in facts/events at the level of truth however one wishes to (non- relatively) define truth, I see no reason why narrative must always mirror every aspect of fact/event, to include type, so long as there is a common access to the truth of the event. For example, humor may make light of the historical aspects of a plague (as in Monty Python), so long as the context of the narrative, including the audience, is able to recognize that the plague did, in truth, cause horrible death. Common accessibility, and the ability for artists to include common accessibility to the same facts in narrative, is of intuitively greater importance than type or genre. Put another way, a historical narrative of the appropriate type, such as tragedy for the Holocaust, would indeed fail as historical narrative if it was unrecognizable to its audience as referencing the corresponding history, while an ironic history, despite lacking the appropriate type, may succeed at narrativizing history due to expert use of common reference (fidelity) to truth and fact.

    My second question elicited little response (in the allotted time), so I’ve quite curious to see if and why people object to my initial answer. My question was “Can the pre-narrative context of a historical investigation (such as Hillgruber’s) justify bracketing, gerrymandering, and contrived genre selection?”

    My initial response was, and remains, that some pre-narrative considerations do indeed justify genre selection, and even bracketing-off or gerrymandering around certain aspects of history. When as a narrative historian undertakes an investigation into a certain aspect of history, rather than a period of history in general, they are justified in genre selection in order to narratives the particular aspect in requisite detail. A technologically focused narrative historian, for example, is justified in leaving the moral aspects of the Nazi regime unaddressed in order to present a clear and unobstructed history of the development of the jet engine.

    A reformulation and generalization of my third question: If a particular perspective or type of narrative becomes designated as “the correct” or the “most appropriate,” or even “the most effective” form for an aspect or period of history, is there an undesirable amount of calcification that will necessarily follow? In saying that there is a right way, or right ways, execute narratives on particular subjects, do we allow ourselves to become rigid and prescriptive, thereby potentially limiting the sphere of meaningful discourse?

    While it seems true that there will always be contrary reactions (revolutions) to prescription of form in narrative (or art in general), this does not excuse the imposition of a preferred type or form onto discourse. Put more lyrically, knowing that people will revolt in the name of freedom in the future does not excuse the establishment of tyranny in the present. Finally, to co-opt one of Marina’s statements, there should be an open space for narrative. However, I find that this open space should not itself be construed as a necessary form, voice, perspective, or genre.

  6. October 28, 2011 9:51 pm

    I would like to linger for a while with several things. Two things for starters: Francis’ sharp and fascinating observation about the seemingly obvious and simple distinction between narrative’s “peace-bringing possibilities” versus the petrifying effect of “an anti-narrative, a narrative that . . . turns mimesis into a sick and scary joke.” So how does this work? How, having been addressed by something (whether narrated or crystallized in an image) we sometimes undergo a metamorphosis which grants relief, which brings us into life and lets us attend to the gifts of peace? How, in other instances, the effect is that of suffocation, and blindness? What is being wished for is a change that brings us closer to the space in which the self can be seen differently, and, hence, an other understood better, brought closer, maybe even forgiven?
    Francis mentions context. I will turn to the topic of context by way of a recourse to myth and will look at the context of emotions, which frame the stories. Leaping forward, what I am searching for is the 1) affirmation, 2) rejection, or 3) qualification of the intuition that among other things, what separates the narrative that heals from the one that does damage is what Matt D. is stressing—namely, the difference between the space opened and the space constructed. The gap is between the space opening up to us and the constructed area into which we are being forced. The veil that conceals is the veil that lets one play with the many selves: the shroud that welcomes a change. Such veil—such opening of a space of the metamorphosis—is not the same as the straitjacket of a pre-conceived, constructed pen into which we ought to fit.
    Context of the tragic in the myths I am looking at is (among other things) a theme of jealousy and pride. Of course, these themes are integrated into the masterful tragedies regardless of the century in which they are written, remembered, played out, and told.
    Let us look at jealousy and pride as the emotions, which attach one to the traumatic experience; the affects that plunge one deeper into the dark waters of pain.

    What happens to Semele? She is burned to singes. Why? Because Zeus, having given an oath to keep his promise to her, makes love to Semele the same way that he makes love to Juno. How does Zeus make love to Juno? He does it as Zeus—as a thunderbolt. He tries to tone it down for Semele, but she still burns. Good thing Bacchus, whom she is already carrying is a god. Bacchus makes it. Semele dies. Why does she really die? Ovid says that it is because Juno “worked on Cadmus’ unsuspecting daughter” (Metamorphoses Bk. III, lines 270-318). Juno made Semele think that she, Semele, might have been duped; that a god was not a god at all, but a sly lad, who says he is a god. –Show yourself, Zeus. –Be yourself before my eyes is the voice of Semele’s jealousy, the whisper of her wounded sense of self-worth. More than that, words—Juno’s words, Zeus’ words—have to be set against each other and tested. What is the ultimate test for the conflicting narratives? God’s appearance before the unsuspecting eyes. The eyes are unsuspecting because Semele doesn’t have an inkling of an understanding that, for a moment, she will be staring at her own death. Zeus appears and confirms what ought not have been confirmed by appearance—the resolve has come too soon and too violently, the self—Semele’s in this case—is swallowed by fire. In view of this, how does the soothsaying girl of the Arabian Nights call to the tyrant’s imagination? She gives him images to be thought (but images in words, not images for sight), to be played with, the characters to be tried on and removed like cloaks, until the pain is stilled and jealousy subsides; until the pride is silenced. On the other hand, some images (not necessarily only images as pictures, as given to the eyes) petrify imagination.
    As a side note, it is peculiar that myth has Semele be Cadmus’ daughter—a daughter of a man who gave alphabet to Greece, but could not give words of warning to his child in order to save her from the violence of the desire to have confirmation through sight.
    Facing trauma “head-on,” the suggestion was made, might have the same effect on the traumatized individual as Zeus’ appearance on Semele. That not known remainder, which is the epicenter of the abyss of the traumatic event—the place in which light and memory cease and the time is non-existent—is to be left alone. If we are to call to it, we are to talk about it—we are to tread toward it, which is not the same as “it” appearing before our eyes. To try to walk toward the remainder of the trauma is to keep working through it, this can be good. To bid the traumatic congeal and confirm its existence by the immediate presence is to give way to the jealous, angry, vengeful self and that would be very bad. The self would—at best—be burned by the self at the center of the traumatic, by the void of unbearable pain.
    To take on a monster of the traumatic in the context of the clear light of the day—to look into the eyes of the Gorgon—is to die. To try and put a straightjacket of the bidding and the gaze onto the Gorgon that lives as the trauma within the self amounts to an instantaneous loss. To work through the trauma, to listen to the stories that bring the self closer to the monstrous, but not face to face with it, is to keep on the path of the propitious change. Still Theseus needs a thread to make it back and he needs Ariadne. He must have a labyrinth in the first place (a twisting and turning tunnel of words that ought be told in order to come in terms with the traumatic), in which to come to a monster.
    I keep thinking about the story that Professor Kearney told us. The story is about a change that saved a life. Something happens there while one man is smoking very slowly and another one is holding a gun. Was it dark in that barn? Could the man who was listening see the man who was talking? The narrator could not see. His eyes were blindfolded. He could not look. He could not have offended the listener with the audacity of examining, penetrating stare (that stare did not have to be either examining or penetrating, but something tells me, it would have been offensive to the murderer-to-be whatever the context of the looking). What effect on the one who listened did the blinds of the narrator have? The listener was left there (in the darkness?) with himself, a narrator, a story and no eyes to look into, no gaze with which to interlock his own.
    What, then, of the opening space? Can it be in images? In stories? What is the context? Is the space within us? How does that space—the one where seeing differently is enacted, where the metamorphosis lingers—open up? I agree, it is not a constructed space. If it is a labyrinth, it is the maze that is being built while one is traversing it, each step taken informing the direction of the new turn. What kind of space is this space that comes to be simultaneously with us entering it? The space is the crucial recognition. It ought be realized that not a pre-figured, but a special place is necessary. When the space is opening up (a place that makes itself available for being entered, but a place that cannot be mapped) the self, having remembered that the space has to be reckoned with, notices the unfolding and the lingering of the horizon and enters with care.
    (Stories in which the attempts of taking a leave from the terrifying place did not go so well for those who looked back: Orpheus and Eurydice

    When the words tantalize

    When to look is to be petrified:

    “But Lot’s wife looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26)

    When seeking confirmation in the looking, soul falls “in love with Love” (Graves, p. 118).

    The story is, incidentally, also a tale of jealousy, mistrust, loss, and forgiveness.

    Cupid and Psyche I (Lucius Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass)

    “The sisters, not satisfied with this reply, soon made her confess that she had never seen him. Then they proceeded to fill her bosom with dark suspicions. “Call to mind,” they said, “the Pythian oracle that declared you destined to marry a direful and tremendous monster. The inhabitants of this valley say that your husband is a terrible and monstrous serpent, who nourishes you for a while with dainties that he may by and by devour you. Take our advice. Provide yourself with a lamp and a sharp knife; put them in concealment that your husband may not discover them, and when he is sound asleep, slip out of bed, bring forth your lamp, and see for yourself whether what they say is true or not. If it is, hesitate not to cut off the monster’s head, and thereby recover your liberty.”
    Psyche resisted these persuasions as well as she could, but they did not fail to have their effect on her mind, and when her sisters were gone, their words and her own curiosity were too strong for her to resist. So she prepared her lamp and a sharp knife, and hid them out of sight of her husband. When he had fallen into his first sleep, she silently rose and uncovering her lamp beheld not a hideous monster, but the most beautiful and charming of the gods, with his golden ringlets wandering over his snowy neck and crimson cheek, with two dewy wings on his shoulders, whiter than snow, and with shining feathers like the tender blossoms of spring.
    As she leaned the lamp over to have a better view of his face, a drop of burning oil fell on the shoulder of the god. Startled, he opened his eyes and fixed them upon her. Then, without saying a word, he spread his white wings and flew out of the window. Psyche, in vain endeavoring to follow him, fell from the window to the ground.
    Cupid, beholding her as she lay in the dust, stopped his flight for an instant and said, “Oh foolish Psyche, is it thus you repay my love? After I disobeyed my mother’s commands and made you my wife, will you think me a monster and cut off my head? But go; return to your sisters, whose advice you seem to think preferable to mine. I inflict no other punishment on you than to leave you for ever. Love cannot dwell with suspicion.” So saying, he fled away, leaving poor Psyche prostrate on the ground, filling the place with mournful lamentations” (trans. Thomas Bulfinch)

  7. Matthew M permalink
    October 30, 2011 1:50 am

    I came across this link recently and saw some connections to what we are speaking about in class, perhaps particularly to what we will be discussing on Tuesday.

    Here are a few more links of interest which may provide some context to the film, and to the discussion we are having with regards to narrative.

  8. Clay Venetis permalink
    October 30, 2011 10:51 pm

    Below is a great link to a series of graffiti art that Banksy created on the Israeli West Bank Barrier. Below it is a short dialogue that happened between him and a Palestinian man that went as follows:

    Palestinian man: You paint the wall, you make it look beautiful.

    Banksy: Thank you.

    Palestinian man: We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall, go home.

    Banksy was the first to publish and admit this; he could have never shared such a powerfully reticent exchange. This is a perfect example of the effect of art and narrative, which can do just as much harm as good when figuring/forming our cultural divides.

    Perhaps it embodies Banksy’s artistic motive in general: creating beautiful pop images that draw people to look which are endowed with satiric and uncomfortable values that force people to see.

    • Andrea Kisiel permalink
      November 1, 2011 4:08 am

      I found your post very intriguing, Clay. The pictures of the wall are very interesting, also. It reminded me of a pair of artists I learned about in my Art and Alternative Media class.

      Allora and Calzadilla are a couple who collaborate on works of art which tell narratives. For one of their projects, the couple created enormous pieces of chalk and placed them outside of a government building in Peru. Outside this government building, people constantly protested, marched, and chanted to make their desires and demands heard. When confronted with these huge pieces of chalk, the people were able to express their stories, needs, and wants in a different way. The government allowed the constant protests to occur, but when people started writing down their grievances, the government took action and “arrested” the chalk. Pictures can be seen on this site:

      This goes to show that the way in which a narrative is told is very important to how the narrative will be received. In this case, spoken word was less threatening to the government in Peru than was written expression, even when written in the easily-erasable media of chalk. Also, the scale of a narrative can evoke different responses. Had there been conventional, little pieces of chalk, people may not have noticed them and may not have taken that step to engage with the chalk in order to tell their stories. Had people written or drawn with the chalk on a large scale, the government may have had a less drastic reaction.

      An appropriate scale for a narrative must be chosen to evoke the intended response. As was the case with the wall from Clay’s response and with the large chalk, a large scale best suited the conversation at hand. I can think of many other works of art which use variation in scale to further the impact a narrative can have. One example which sticks out to me is Wodiczko. This artist projects cropped images of regular people in real time onto significant monuments around the word. These projections are accompanied by effective lighting, and audio of the person telling their story live. One local example of his work can be seen at this site: That image is from Wodiczko’s work in Charlestown, MA. Community members were able to voice their untold stories about the immense violence in Charlestown. The scale of this project made the narratives of these people virtually unavoidable. People were forced to confront within themselves, the issues that those who were projected onto the Bunker Hill monument in Charlestown were telling.

      Connecting all three of the above topics (the Wall on the Israeli West Bank Barrier, the large chalk of Allora and Calzadilla in Peru, and Wodiczko’s projections in Charlestown) illustrates how non-traditional art forms, by manipulating scale and media, have the power of not only telling narratives, but to have people experience narratives in such a way that they are impacted and driven to take action beyond the scope of the said project.

  9. Dorine Yang permalink
    October 31, 2011 3:07 am

    I find it so interesting how there at so many different ways to express narratives. In one of my Lynch School classes, I am learning about narratives and how students from Western cultures tell narratives in a single sense in that they are and should be the only main character of the story, while other cultures, such as Asian cultures, have a communal narrative in which there isn’t just one main character in the story. This can really change the way that a narrative is interpreted. Now with blogs and media, expressing and creating narratives is even simpler and easier than ever. It is definitely also extremely interesting and amazing to see how one reader can interpret one narrative completely different than how another would. The same goes for writing narratives as well. One person can write his narrative of the same event completely different than how someone else might write it.

  10. Catherine Howard permalink
    October 31, 2011 10:54 pm

    I found Professor Kearney’s article “Between Poetics & Ethics” extremely thought provoking. He addressed complicated issues of overcoming grief through the visual remembrance of historical trauma, while delving into the varied emotive implications and plurality of a memorial installation. The work of Tolle in New York City that brings materiality and life to the ruin of the famine in Irish tradition proves not only a work of nostalgia or revival of an Irish cottage, but an interactive and haunting “invitation to mourning.” As artists, we are taught to ‘show,’ not tell through the use of engaging and emotive visual tools. With audio and visual narrative set within an overgrown Irish cottage in empty disrepair, Tolle was able to create a “productive tension” between the usual implications of the romanticized, flourishing Irish country side and the vacant landscape after death and immigration. Without dwellers or the sense of kinship that a hearth would normally bring, the installation fails to use the sentimental iconography or stereotypes of typical traditional folk art, but brings the violence of famine history and the egregious death toll to light through the conspicuous void of all expected inhabitants. The viewers are disoriented and left to see the cottage as symbol of “a land without people” as its immigrants fled to New York, the very place where this monument was installed. Therefore key concepts of effective visual art arise as Tolle presents jarring tension in the plurality of interpretation of the visual and historical implications. He exemplifies the vitality of the act of visually proving through creating with a disoriented moment when the viewer experiences what the words of a history text book could never describe. What is absent, the metaphorical negative space, haunts the viewer more that what is expressed clearly, and therefore the expressed narrative becomes personal and interpretative in tune with the emotional experience of each individual.

    Kearney’s emphasis on the hermeneutic process of exchanging memories also interested me. I truly enjoyed his relation of the process of forgiveness and mourning directly to the experience of a memorial installation. He mentions the difference between mourning (allowing the realization that the dwellers are lost forever) and melancholy (the obsessive dwelling on the loss). The process takes patience, work, and active letting go. As the viewer experiences Tolle’s famine memorial, they, for one quick instant, bring history back to life through experiencing/viewing it. The narrative of the installation provokes the process of healing and forgiveness through the vital force of remembrance of the tragic past, as “amnesty can never be based on amnesia.” Also, when speaking of the “poetics of pardon,” the importance of justice, in addition to charity, is stressed. Though healing forgiveness and compassion is encouraged, justice must also be considered, which allows the “poetics of narrative fantasy” to compliment the “politics of historical judgement.” I truly agree that this balance, as created in the multi-media and multiplicity of Tolle’s memorial, is vital and proves effective in the emotional process of utilizing dynamic narratives in art or culture to overcome trauma and to ultimately find forgiveness and peace with historical or personal grief.

  11. November 3, 2011 2:52 am

    German and Russian/Nazi and Soviet WW II posters. The sense of identity and purpose is set against the other—against the representation of the other as malicious, as infested with malign spirit. Do these posters speak to us still? Do they resonate with an emotion of repulsion, which presents the ideologies of both warring sides to us, now, as fundamentally dehumanizing? Or have these representations been seeped of their significance and now stand as caricatures of themselves? The images were meant to serve as a reminder of the villainy of the enemy. The propaganda employs revolting images which combine spiders, wolfs, birds of prey, zombie-like figures. These monstrous characters, at times, amalgamate and blend into gruesome expressions of disgust somehow related to the canvas.

    • November 3, 2011 8:36 pm

      It’s interesting that the propagandists on both sides chose to stylize the villainy of their enemies. Rather than depict, or even photograph, the literal brutality of the Nazis and Soviets, the propagandists chose to combine easily understood references (the swastikas and red stars, among other common references to the real world) and generic “types” of “evil” (skeletons, spiders etc.). Aside from mundane factors (hesitance to depict graphic violence, difficulty in obtaining pictures of Nazi/Soviet brutality in-progress etc.) that would influence propagandists not to use exclusively photographic evidence of the villainy of their enemies, what influences the stylization of propaganda, and the cross-depiction of generic narrative “evil” with the real, brutal threat that the Nazi and Soviet militaries posed to each other? My initial reaction is that, in addition to de-humanizing the enemy, this stylization allows the contemporary struggles of the German/Russian people to be placed in a meta-narrative. Within this meta-narrative, the protagonists (in this case the citizens who propagandists wished to influence) see themselves as part of a historic, long-term (centuries or longer) struggle against a generic “evil.” Were the propaganda particularized to the contemporary conflicts of the 1930s and 40s, the potential protagonists (the German/Russian people) would only see themselves as engaged in a contemporary, particularized struggle. In other words, literal depictions would emplot the Nazis or Soviets as merely an enemy, whereas stylized propaganda linked to long-term types and meta-narrative allows emplotment of Nazis/Soviets as an instantiation of THE enemy. It’s not merely a dehumanization (although that was also effective), but the connection of a particular conflict with a fictional grand conflict between good and evil.

  12. November 3, 2011 5:00 pm

    I enjoyed how the class conversation developed this past Tuesday around the “Limits of Representation” readings, and out of a desire to keep that conversation going I wanted to offer three brief comments and/or further questions. As it happens, all three stem primarily from Prof. Kearney’s responses and questions posed to the presenters, but I would be happy to hear anyone else’s thoughts.

    First, in regards to Syberberg’s film and the question “Is it ethical [in narrative or art] to give equal voice to the SS Officer and their victims?”– Prof. Kearney at one point seemed to indicate that, in addition to the ethical responsibility ascribed to the artist, there is an ethics of receiving the art, a responsibility on behalf of those who view the movie/painting/etc. I think this is an important point: In watching Syberberg’s or Kubrick’s film, do people come with the willingness to ascertain the intentions of the artist?… Do they allow the possibility of the “space” that Marina mentions in an earlier post…or do they approach the art merely as that which serves “me,” or see any stimuli as confirmation/sameness, so that even stylized violence, intended to create dissonance, can only be received as consonance? It appears to me that this responsibility lies on the part of both artist and receiver, although the lines between the two are unclear. (This concerns Mitch’s question as well regarding artistic censorship.) For the artist, where is the line between art and pornography (broadly conceived), and to what extent does the receiver make it either art or pornography by means of Mimesis-3? Is it something more than the artist’s, or the receiver’s intentions? While there might be some graphic representations that we all (mostly) could agree upon having no artistic merit, there are certainly numerous, more nuanced examples of how one person’s art can be another person’s pornography, and vice versa. Simply put, my question is, to what degree can/should the artist compel the “openness” necessary for the receiver to receive the work as art and/or communicate the work’s intentions? Or is it up to the receiver, ultimately, to receive and interpret the work ethically?

    Second, there was a related conversation between Kevin and Prof. Kearney regarding Levinas and the possibility of a ‘pre-narrative ethic,’ where the face of the other is essentially un-historicized, unmediated, and yet we are still ‘held hostage’ by it… which was a really fascinating exchange. Again, the question Kearney posed is a valid one: Are we ‘held hostage’ to the SS Officer in the same way as the victim, if our responsibility is pre-interpretative…and is this itself ethical? It is true that Levinas said that the persecuted person is responsible in some way to their own persecutors, although he later nuanced this statement to primarily be, in my understanding, something of a prophetic injunction directed towards himself, while he had more generous expectations of others. Kevin was right to also point out that Levinas’ notion of ‘le tiers’ tempers his extreme rhetoric, as our responsibility to the other never exists in a pure binary, but exists within a world of relationships that requires our ethical response. I would like to add to this the possibility that, as I see it, responsibility to the other does not necessarily dictate that I respond to every other in the same way. My obligation to the other is interpreted according to context before a response is given. Perhaps the way in which I show my responsibility to the SS officer (or the contemporary version) is to ensure their crimes are never repeated which strip away their own humanity as well as their victims’, and to ask for their public confession and truth-telling which can began to restore their humanity by humbling themselves before their victims’ memories and families. This is obviously different from how I would show my responsibility to a victim of a trauma.

    Third, perhaps this is a minor point, but something struck me regarding Prof. Kearney’s example of Angela Merkel’s speech invoking “the guilt of Germany” referring to some sense of German identity that referred to those descended from the residents of the Nazi era, which implies a kind of ethnic identity that would not include Turk or other migrant populations. It is true that ethnicity and identity have long been historically tied, and this has not disappeared with modern society, not even in the United States. But I would like to posit the possibility that perhaps Merkel was invoking, whether she knew it or not (I have not read the speech, admittedly), an even older tie, between land and identity. The German land itself was a witness was proximate, to one of the world’s greatest atrocities. All who live in Germany now, whether their ancestors lived under the Third Reich firsthand or not, are living in Ground Zero. (I am aware that many, if not most, of the extermination camps were outside of present-day Germany, but the country is still the place where propaganda, ambivalent complicity, nationalism, hate and violence, suppression, fear, etc., served as the epicenter that made Auschwitz possible.) The people who live in Germany today have all heard the stories of the Holocaust, about “what happened here,” and as such are a kind of historic witnesses to the crimes and thus responsible to the world in a way that, according to Merkel, we who live elsewhere cannot be. Whether she is right or wrong, I doubt that Merkel meant to dis-include the migrant population by her definition of German identity as responsibility, no more than she wanted to dis-include those who were born in Germany after 1945.

    • Matthew M permalink
      November 4, 2011 12:04 am

      I apologize for my failure to expand on the points I attempted to make in class last session. I want to go further into what I [perhaps insufficiently] attempted to portray in my presentation in my use of the term “convergence of contraries;” a term I used from Friedlander, to expand the discussion towards, perhaps, more of a Derridean (or Post-Derridean) methodology, than a strictly Kantian framework (of “antinomies”); in fact I was more thinking about “antimonies” in a post-Kantian fashion—that is, I was in fact thinking about Kantian “antimonies,” but largely in a specific way (more in the fashion as the term is taken up in Marxian discourse, specifically in Lukacs). I apologize for not making that more clear. To avoid any more confusion, please think Derrida from here on in…

      I believe that speaking about the Holocaust is certainly vital for us here in the West; it is something we need not forget, precisely because the problems underlying it are problems which we would be quite naïve to think we are simply gotten over (like a bad hang-over, or something of the sort). It is precisely on this point that I attempted to gear my discussion towards (i.e. that of the present). Here is, at the same time, where the opposite ‘corollary’ comes to view however—we need to speak about the Holocaust, but at the same time when we speak about it (especially in relation to its connection to narrative), we benefit from 70 years of back-breaking research and perseverance on the side of the victims (the Jewish people), and from something quite miraculous in turn—Power [namely power in Europe, post-Holocaust], and virtually Power unanimously, eventually coming to fully back the actual factual reality of the suffering of the Jews in what culminated in arguably the worst, most obvious and blatant, extermination modern man has seen (and hopefully, will ever see). However, what I want to ask is whether we do not have a certain responsibility to address historical instances (which nonetheless are not so clear, so blatant, so extreme {in their factual and/or narrative reality} and, perhaps most importantly, instances that do not benefit from so extensive a history of fact-gathering [but, that is not to say, instances which will not hopefully one day benefit from such]. [I might even want to argue that considering the Holocaust in the present, for us Westerners anyhow, may be the only way we can fully come to truly address the questions, and dangers, it poses to Western society today; nonetheless, that may need to be left for another discussion]. I think it might well be interesting to consider the case of Rwanda in this regard. Although we know much more about Rwanda now (although we might argue this premise itself on the semantics of the term ‘we’), than we knew while it was happening, can we not say (think of Gadamer here) that our background story as it was constructed during the conflict—the oversimplified version of perhaps, to be blunt, a bunch of ‘savage Africans killing each other in the jungle;’ a narrative in fact based on no fact, but nonetheless present in our minds by virtue of the fact of us being Westerns: growing out of Western society and all the specific “pre-judgements” underlying it [just as pre-judgments underlie any society], and present in our minds as good, or perhaps even better than fact—actually perpetuated (or to a degree even justified) our indifference to the event when our attention to it mattered most? After years of research, and through [a] film[s] like Hotel Rawanda, we now know that the context under which this ‘happening’ occurred did not fit our background notions (tribal conflict in ‘the jungle,’ etc…), but in fact actually occurred in the context of modern urban cities (for better or for worse) which looked quite similar to our own cities; machetes were used to hack people to death, who were patrons of restaurants and pubs very much like the ones we frequent; people themselves who went about their days very much like we do (I am hoping you see another coming together of [apparent, supposed] corollaries here.) We now also know that the massacre was much more one-sided as we would have hoped (in terms of who was being killed in the genocide). Let us not even go into the way in which the European (specifically Belgian) colonial context at best profoundly exacerbated any tribal conflicts, and at worst, even wholly created them in the first place, by solidifying identities between Hutus and Tutsis, even to the extent of enforcing separate identification cards and markers for the two peoples; identities themselves which, pre-colonialism, were incredibly loosely defined in the first place. All in all, what is even more frightening is that we had access to all this information not only while this genocide was happening, but even on the onset of the event, before this ‘happening’ even started; yet we did not even as much as probe into it. At the time—throughout the course of the genocide in fact—we, in the West, stuck to the simple narrative which comforted us most: ‘savage Africans killing each other in the jungle;’ for us, this was the truth…at that time anyhow. ‘Hindsight is 20/20’ I guess…it is always easier to determine what “fact” and “truth” is when we have some temporal distance from it; it is not so easy to settle on (due to it being so unsettling) when it matters most—in the present itself.

      When presented with two narratives (note, I am not simply speaking about the narratives of the two representative parties here, although there probably is some overlap in form) isn’t there always a predominant tendency for us to side more with one side; precisely with the one that does not make us feel so uncomfortable in the first place? And if narrative does not bring us to a place that we would tend to shy away from, isn’t it no different from the music which the Nazis used to drowned out the screams of their victims?

      Are “double genocides” theories like those propagated by the [supposedly] controversial, but yet blockbuster film in France, “Black Furies, White Liars (2005),” accusing Tutsis of committing counter-genocide against the Hutus, not the very proof of this very tendency of ours. We can also ask, are films like these actually controversial (and, artistic and aesthetically, genius), or rather are they not simply banal: cheap and sleazy depictions telling us exactly what we [as civilized Westerns] want to hear most?

      In light of this, it stands to question whether the person leaning towards [not simply accepting all narratives, but] all narratives as equally weighted, does not already (in some instances) wind up, in the end, accepting what actually turns out to be a completely bigoted stance which amounts to mere propaganda itself; cases in which we become enforcers exchanging in authoritarian demands to adhere to ‘Truth,’ in opposition to the facts buttressed by [physical] evidence?

  13. richard kearney permalink
    November 11, 2011 6:30 pm

    I wish to respond to the recent discussion about responsibility and forms of narrative.
    First, let me take up Joshua’s point that ‘those who live in Germany today are responsible’ (for what happened in the Holocaust). He includes here Turks and other emigrants who occupy the ‘land’ of Germany today even if they were not in any way part of the SS extermination campaign or indeed even alive during the war.
    This raises interesting questions of citizenship (in Germany it was traditionally a nationality of ethnic identity – le droit du sang – while in France it was civic identity – le droit du sol: if one was born on the territory of france (even in an airport during a connecting flight!) one had a right to French citizenship. But while these do have a bearing upon the ethnic understanding of German national identity – which, constitutionally, would ‘not’ include Turks and immigrants – the point I want to raise here is more that of ethical responsibility per se for the Holocaust.
    If we accept Joshua’s point that Merkel’s sense of German responsibility includes anyone who now resides in Germany (including those born or arrived after the war), then it seems to me we are relativising the moral culpability of the Nazis who carried out the holocaust. In an effort to embrace a political narrative that extends national identity to such a broad range of citizens, are we not coming close to the position (see Dostoyevsky in the ‘Devils’) that ‘we are all to blame’?
    I find something of this suggestion also in the suggestions by Matt (Clemente) and Kevin that we embrace a certain ‘pre-narrative ethic’ where we overcome the friend/enemy dualism (very reasonable)) by declaring that we are all equally responsible (unreasonable). ‘We are sinners’, to use religious language, so we are in no position to throw stones. Yes, I agree in the sense that no one is totally pure or faultless. But to embrace Zossima’s claim in ‘Brohters Karamazov’ (oft cited by Levinas) that ‘we are all responsibility for everyone else but I am more responsible for everyone else than anyone else’ is a hard call for any human being (Zossima himself is quasi-surhuman in his spiritual condition of ‘divinisation’).
    To put this bluntly: Is the innocent Jewish child really responsible for his SS persecutor (as Levinas’ logic leads us to suppose?) Do we expect such a victim to say ‘his flaws are my flaws'(Matt Clemente’s phrase with regard to the narrative exchange of forgiveness)? I am with Kevin and Matt most of the way, but part company here. Even Christ could not forgive his crucifiers; he has to ask God the Father to do so (‘Father forgive them for they know not what to do’). To expect us to forgive the torturer unconditionally is not only impossible and unreasonable – though it may be ‘commanded’ (would you go this far Kevin?) – but might not such a ‘hyperbolic ethics'(Levinas term) even lead to a certain sense of utter inadequacy or hopelessness? Are not most human beings simply incapable of living up to such an impossible ideal/command/summons?
    There are stones and stones. We may throw stones to defend ourselves (e.g. against the Nazis) or to punish (the Nazi’s after the war). The former is a common point; but the latter raises the crucial if vexed question about ‘forgiveness’ and retributive justice; and we might cite Mandela and the ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ tribunals in South Africa. But the main question I am trying to raise here is how ‘a pre-narrative ethic’ could actually justify a position where ‘every other is every other’ (Levinas-Derrida)? In that case, how do we distinguish between one kind of other (who comes to liberate us) and another (who comes to persecute us)? In other words, I don’t think we are all responsible for evil when it comes to specific historical instances, where context, intention, interests, power, background assumptions (Matt M), ‘attitudes’ (Kevin) all come into play. The Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, not the Jews. And there is no justification, in my view, for revisionist German historians like Nolde and Hillbruger, to say that the Nazi’s behaved as they did in response to the threat and violence of the ‘Asiatic’/Russian invasion from the East. Once again, more relativisation.
    So I repeat: It is indeed true that no human being is guiltless (hence we have to be wary of throwing stones) but some are manifestly more guilty than others in specific instances of crime and atrocity. How can we say to the innocent victims of genocides in Rwuanda, Screbernice, Armenia (not to mention the Holocaust) that ‘we are all to blame’? Or how can we reasonably promote the idea of unconditional forgiveness (which is not the same as amnesty in Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals where the ‘condition’ was that the perpetrators avow their crimes, speak the truth)? Such unconditional forgiveness is either ‘impossible’ (in Derrida’s sense) or ‘divine’ (in the sense suggested by Matt Clemente: God wipes away all sins by erasing them from memory). But my point is – it is not human: the only forgiveness we are capable of surely is one which acknowledges the different realities and responsibilities of different evil/criminal acts. In other words, one in which ‘attitudes’, ‘narratives’, ‘discernments’, ‘hermeneutic judgments'(Gadamer), ‘phronetic understanding’ (Ricoeur, Taylor, McIntryre) are all at play. Can we go without such narrative/historical/contextual frameworks of understanding as Levinas and Derrida suggest? It is a tough question.
    Lastly, I have much I would like to say on the whole question of a special fictional ‘space’ opened up by aesthetic narratives and styles (Frances, Marina, Matt M, Alex, Timo etc), but that will have to await another day.

  14. hayyim (kevin) permalink
    November 13, 2011 5:36 pm

    ok. so first, i think that a certain blurring has been introduced between responsibility and forgiveness. In his entre nous, levinas has an essay in which he makes it abundantly clear that “forgiveness” as such, is impossible for man or, at the very least, it is something that exists only within the immediate relation between two people. given, however, that activity always extends beyond the immediate intention of the actor (as he argues in totality and infinity) – even the one i immediately wrong cannot “forgive” me for the infinitely expanding ramifications of my wrongs…. i would need to obtain forgiveness from everyone who has been effected and this is impossible. only god can give this forgiveness and, even then, it is clear that such divine forgiveness is altogether empty given that, as levinas makes clear in the talmudic readings, the one wronged must be the one to forgive… presumably god cannot forgive in their place either. going back to entre nous, levinas ultimately turns to the principle of jewish law that, beyond forgivness, there is restitution – I must make restitution for what i have damaged. this does not obtain my forgiveness for the reasons enumerated above, but i have, at least, put my money where my mouth is and done all that lies within my power to do.

    responsibility is a different matter. as i said in class, the responsibility of the jew to the nazi lies primarily in taking on the nazi’s own responsibility. not in impotently absolving him of his guilt, but in doing and taking responsibility for what he has neglected – that is, making the care of those whom he victimizes my business. this is not, in my view, equating the victim with the victimizer, but recognizing the moral failure of the victimizer and not waiting around for him to realize it insofar as he may never do so. In this regard i would say that if civil society believes it must delay its constitution until uncivil people become civilized then it will never be constituted.

    obviously in dealing with a victimizer any response that simply further enables his violence is unacceptable, but that is not what we (or at least I) are talking about.

    the charge of relativism here is, in my view, more rhetorical than substantial

    i just think that the whole question of forgiveness in this context is senseless. who forgives? who is being forgiven? the tragedies we are talking about extend beyond any one individual and it is not as if anyone can rightly stand up for his whole people and either offer or accept forgiveness. a discussion that focuses on this notion is just, in my view, an exercise in futility.

    and even if forgiving was possible, what good would it do? would it bring restoration? no, it couldnt possibly. beyond that, who would it benefit? it would benefit young germans, but for myself personally and with respect to my own community, i dont see how it would be of any benefit at all… the difficulties I see are not really connected to germans or germany and much more connected to the possibility of judaism after the holocaust… it really has very little to do with germany at this point and everything to do with how we move on from within how we continue to live as a community in the robust sense, not as nostalgia for a world that is dead and gone….. that nostalgic mourning has lead to either the dissolution of judaism and jewish communities or their radicalization, neither of which are good, livable, or sustainable options – they are more forms of slow cultural suicide.

    maybe, as dr. kearney suggests, the solution is a fictional space, but a fictional space is also a neutral space and it also invites a sort of relativism because it demands the suspension of the real, which is a forgetting. to enter the space of fiction and allow it to do its work we just cant hold onto realia as tightly as ethics demands.

    i just dont think that healing, that a future, is possible without some form of forgetting, however repugnant that feels.

  15. November 15, 2011 12:19 am

    Regarding your point second from the bottom, specifically the threat of relativism, I would like to reiterate a point that I tried to make, however unclearly, during my presentation. The open space which I wanted to set against a rigid concept of modernism (or any type/genre preference) is one in which a discussion with “the real” as its object takes place. The space is itself the discussion, rather than a defined area, whether fictional or real. Perhaps, then, it would be better described as an “opening” space rather than an “open” or “opened” space. This space is not predefined in order to facilitate discussion and dialogue (it could then be pejoratively labeled “open-ism”), but it whatever space the discussion occurs in. A cosmological analogue would be the physical universe, which itself has no boundaries save those in which the physical universe occurs. Prior to “the big bang,” the entire physical universe was a point, and then it expanded, but it did not expand to fill boundaries, and it did not expand from a center. Similarly, I think that any functional opening narrative space is that which does not fill boundaries, and does not admit of a central point to which one may appeal.

    Indeed, the revelation of points of commensurability and “truth,” is the purpose of such a discussion, and its corresponding space. While this does not eliminate something akin to relativism, I think it shows it in a more natural way and therefore in a less pernicious way. This relativism is natural, because it is the same absence of an authority (such as particular truths) to which one may appeal that occurs in any pre-epistemological discussion. There must be un-centered, boundless discussions in order to reveal and define the center and any possible boundaries. The same opening space operates in all pre-epistemological discussions. For example, prior to the establishment of Newton’s laws, there was a long (centuries long) discussion in an opening space concerning the physical laws of the world. Once Newton revealed and communicated certain laws, a center and functional epistemological truth was established. The advent of quantum mechanics threw this center into doubt, and (at least as far as I know) there is an important discussion taking place in the scientific community whose goal is to reconcile Newtonian physics with quantum mechanics and thereby reestablish a centered, defined space for science. This discussion is taking place in an opening space, a space that is open because of the discussion. This space also contains relativism and issue-specific agnosticism, as do all pre-epistemological discussions. Such relativism is, by its nature, unsettling, however, I do not see it as something which ought to be avoided, if only because I see it as having a natural place in our endeavor to understand (to understand the world, history, each other, etc.).

    • November 16, 2011 3:35 am

      I have to ammend my post- the current discussion is one of finding commensurable ground between quantum mechanics and Einsteinian relativity. Especially considering that it’s easy to see relativity as the heir to Newtonian physics, I believe that my example still holds. In any case, it is easily modifiable to demonstrate the point I wish to make.

  16. Alex Gilman permalink
    November 16, 2011 2:38 pm

    I was listening to “This American Life,” an excellent show on NPR, and came upon an extremely interesting clip about a TV show from the 1950’s called “This Is Your Life.” The host brings people up onto stage and, without them knowing it beforehand, tells their biography in front of a live studio and TV audience. In general, this is an interesting take on narrative. Literally your narrative is given to you, even thrust on you, in front of thousands of people. The clip that interested me the most, though, was about a Holocaust survivor. Her story is told, and despite the host’s awkward approach to the story, it ends up being healing to her and she plays a recording of it to herself and friends throughout her life. It was soon enough after the end of WWII that there was no official narrative of the Holocaust so it has this rawness and awkwardness in it. Very powerful. The clip I’m thinking of starts at 4:30 for the whole game show and 7:55 for the Holocaust story. Here is the clip:

    P.S. Watch out! You’ll get addicted to “This American Life” very quickly!

    • -timo- permalink
      November 20, 2011 1:29 am

      Alex, really powerful stuff! Although the narrator is totally right in admitting that “there is something undeniably strange” in the TV show, there are also some deeply penetrating elements that are really interesting. I’m mostly thinking of the episode title “love thy neighbor,” and especially the role of her friend who was in the audience (or was it only a record of her voice?). It appears to me that it was the reunion (also with her brother) that turns the experience of being thrown back into the horrors a healing and not a destroying one. Could it be thought that the narration of the past was overcome by the narration that opened itself up in the very present? That although the past was not annulled by the present, it was covered with a certain perspect of healing – by an experienced “love thy neighbor” if you will?

  17. November 24, 2011 12:49 am

    Regarding the identity question, I admit that I had ambivalent feelings about my own post after I re-read it post-submission, at least in regards to my flippancy and my un-confessed lack of understanding of how nationalism and identity has manifested itself in Europe. To tell the truth, I am most likely conceiving of national identity through American eyes (and specifically as an Air Force brat, without much ability to relate to, and thus a romanticization of, the identification with a “homeland” and/or a “home” in general). That said, I think that despite traditional German understanding of citizenship, on the question of ethics I still wonder if there is not more than one way to speak of one’s “German-ness”?….and if not one of those ways, could be in the sense of historical-geographical witness? I imagine myself growing up in Germany (indeed I did, but only for three and a half years) and hearing the stories of the Holocaust… in school and media, and perhaps also through parents and grandparents giving of their own accounts (whether they be accurate or not), all throughout one’s life, all giving explanations as to “what happened here.” I also think of the weight that I feel when I have traveled and stepped on ground of some historical significance (particularly if related to some kind of trauma) and I wonder how those who might live in a territory that has come to be identified with some kind of grand injustice feel—I wonder if, whatever that “weight” might be, there might be an ethical responsibility to witness to “what happened here” in order to keep those who might just walk past monuments, graves, significant structures, etc., recalling that “weight” and prevent the ones who live on the hallowed ground from becoming jaded or apathetic to its holiness. As I intimated, I don’t necessarily even find my own argument overly compelling (I don’t know if I even managed to articulate it better this time!) but either way, I hope I at least demonstrate that this is not a relativistic argument, as if one’s demand to witness necessarily means an “equal” witness to what perpetrators of crimes are compelled to give… it simply means that they must give “a” witness, whenever they hear the blood cry out from the soil.

    There is tension here in the difficulty of understanding national identity in a globalized society increasingly without borders, but apart from merely using ‘legal citizenship’ as the entire meaning of one’s national identity (which refuses to take origin into account at all), this is the best that I can do to understand it at this point, using some imprecise categories, to be sure. But this is an area of study in which I am particularly interested in sharpening myself. As I am now somewhat shifting the question to in what sense or to what degree are we responsible, “geographical witness,” or rather, some kind of meaningful proximity to historical trauma, is certainly only one way to consider how this responsibility develops or manifests—and it may not even be the best way to conceive of it (perhaps “ethnic/tribal witness” or something like it is a more compelling way to describe this ‘second-order’ responsibility) but nevertheless my experience tells me that there is something to interaction between proximity and responsibility.

  18. December 7, 2011 3:48 pm

    I’ll go ahead and attempt to quickly summarize my question from class last night in the event that anyone has any thoughts: Does neuroscience and its relationship to narrative hold the possibility of reconciling, in part, the aporia that Ricoeur leaves us with regarding ipse identity? Or is there a danger in reducing this tension too quickly through such physicalist means?

    Based on the little bit that I have studied about this, I am personally fascinated by the possibilities here. Our brains constantly search to make connections; connections are the means to knowledge, not the generation of matter or the “filling storage units” with some kind of matter/energy that contains data. It is similar to how narrators manipulate symbols into sentences and plots that creates meaning beyond the mere words themselves, yet cannot be separated from the words. These connections are how we determine “sameness,” but it is also where our history is stored–the patterns of life via synaptic connections that are reinforced, renegotiated, or remain latent. As I mentioned in class, I would imagine that genetics plays a (at least initial) role in determining how we make these connections, but as connections are constantly renegotiated over time through both experience and mental agency, which can determine and be determined by what is already stored/connected, there is an irreducibility between ‘nature’ and ‘nurture.’

    However, I do think it’s important to not rush into a materialist notion of the self. While I am not a dualist, I do think that we are more than the sum of our parts (or the sum of our synaptic connections)–and new insights in neuroscience and science in general, particularly emergence theories and the relationship between energy and matter, actually leave open the possibility for a “spirituality” of the self, however you might understand that. Ricoeur’s leaving us in aporias regarding ipse identity are important to retain. However, is it possible that one legitimate answer to the question “Who am I?” might be “I am my story/stories” – that can then be told, although it/they cannot be told in entirety—and that this is not merely a metaphysical but a physical truism? (Note that I say ‘one’ answer– it is not a sufficient answer in itself.)

  19. Joe Manning permalink
    December 9, 2011 1:32 am

    After reflecting upon my in-class presentation, I believe it is necessary to revisit a few concerns that I may not have originally considered during my initial readings of Ricoeur’s text, ‘Narrative Identity’. First of all, I find it imperative to purport the notion that the term Science Fiction within this chapter is not necessarily to be understood as the genre that would include the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, or Aldous Huxley. Rather, we should replace this term with that of ‘thought-experiments,’ as this may elucidate the distinction in which Ricoeur is drawing. I find that the term Science Fiction itself connotes a story that is already inherently ‘narrative,’ and ultimately a story that is ‘tethered’ to our existential condition within the world-at-hand. Upon replacing the term Science Fiction with that of “thought-experiments,” we move from the realm of narrative rooted-ness to that which is devoid of all connections with the world-at-hand.

    With this in mind, we may revisit the scenario of a brain in a bucket as introduced by Matthew. In this example, Matthew outlined a situation in which there was a brain in a bucket, in such a position as to have been elevated to the status of another sentient being. This brain interacted with other (human) beings, had a name, and was even described as having been administered aspirin during a time of pain. At this moment it becomes rather clear that the situation in which we are dealing with is one that transcends the notion of a ‘thought-experiment’ and enters into the realm of narrativity. Once this brain becomes a quasi-character through the simple process of being ‘named,’ we abandon the thought-experiment and reconnect with the world. This brain becomes an embodied ‘who’.

    I would also like to emphasize the point that Prof. Kearney touched upon during my presentation–that the affirmation of Parfit’s position is one that leaves us in the position of a “pure Cartesian ego” or that of a “pure spiritual substance.” The latter determination can be understood as the “adoption of a sort of quasi-Buddhist self-effacement of identity” (P. 193). I mention this distinction as it carries forth important moral implications. I am wondering how ‘one’ could be considered ethical in light of these determinations.

    Moving beyond this consideration, I am wondering how others read the first two notions of Identity as Sameness featured on page 189. I suppose my main concern is at the point where Ricoeur reflects upon Identity in the numerical sense and Identity as the idea of extreme resemblance.

    For your convenience, I have provided the way in which Ricoeur explicates the following ideas of identity.

    Identity in the numerical sense: Two occurrences of a ‘thing’ designated by an invariable name–think of X1 and X2–Two occurrences of X does not constitute two ‘different’ things, but rather one single and same thing. It is merely a re-identification of the same. This can be understood as uniqueness, with its contrary being plurality.

    Identity as the idea of extreme resemblance: Two ‘things’ are so similar in appearance that they are unnoticeably interchangeable. Think of X and Y wearing the same costume. Its contrary is understood as ‘difference’.

    These two ideas of identity are not exterior to each other, as in certain cases the second notion of identity serves as an indirect criterion for the first. An example of this may be when the re-identification of the same is the object of debate.

    At this point Ricoeur states that “one has to try to show that the material marks, or, more problematically, the memories of a single witness, or the concordant reports of many witnesses, show such a great resemblance.”

    I suppose my question is why does Ricoeur opt to privilege concordance in this relationship? I am wondering if the “concordant” reports of the many is to be understood as the collective/centralized narrative account of the many? If so, I am wondering what happens when we only look for similarities in such narratives, are we simply covering over difference? What are the ethical implications? What happens when we seek the ‘common thread’ of the many? Can this lead to the artificial creation of concordance?

  20. richard kearney permalink
    December 10, 2011 9:32 pm

    Joe, Interesting reflections on Ricoeur’s analysis of identifying the same in diverse ways. I think your question as to whether this might be another instance of Ricoeur’s tendency to privilege concordance (similarity/sameness) over discordance is well taken. Let us see how this question is confirmed or otherwise by our readings from ‘Time and Narrative’ vol 3 at next two seminars.
    Point of clarification re Parfit on Cartesian ego and spiritual substance. As I understand Ricoeur, he is objecting that Parfit reduces the notion of self to these two caricatures of selfhood (which Ricoeur equally rejects). What Ricoeur terms Parfit’s quasi-Buddist view is one which rejects all notions of selfhood (these and others) in favor of no-self.

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