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April 13, 2012

***Announcing a new video link to short documentary by Christopher Chung! See ‘Videos’ menu on right and scroll down***

***Announcing a new video link to short documentary film by Clay Venetis! See ‘Videos’ menu on right and scroll down***

This blog accompanies an international, interdisciplinary seminar sponsored by the Guestbook Project and the Institute of Liberal Arts, Boston College 2011-2012. It is designed as a forum in which seminar participants, affiliates, and online guests may interact and discuss themes pertaining to issues of narrative, empathy, and hospitality. Seminar readings and other links may be found by navigating this site. Please feel free to initiate, and/or respond to, discussion topics.

Directors:
Richard Kearney (Philosophy, BC)
Sheila Gallagher (Fine Arts, BC)
Robert Savage (History, BC)

Associate Directors:
Fanny Howe (Visiting Chair, Lannan Center for Poetics & Social Practice, Georgetown)
Martin Melarkey (Nervecentre, Derry),
Sarit Larry (Jerusalem-BC)
James Taylor (Mitrovica-BC)
Petra Belkovic (Mitrovica-Harvard)
Chris Yates (Webmaster-BC)

Schedule for Joint Meetings at Boston College:
October 11: Narratives in Divided Cities
Devlin 101 (6:30-8:30pm) with Richard Kearney:
View Divided Cities videos
Read/Discuss: “Narrative Matters,” “Where do Stories Come From?”, “Exchanging Memories”

November 3: Narratives in Northern Ireland 
Gasson 216 (BC) (12-2pm) with Robert Savage:
View: The Crying Game (clip)
Read/Discuss: “Guest of the Nation”

December 5: Narratives in Contemporary Art
BC Fine Arts Department (5:30-7:30pm) with Sheila Gallagher:
View: TBA videos on Contemporary Art Work
Read/Discuss: “A Theory of Narrative Empathy”

PLEASE NOTE:
The discussions afoot in the ‘comments’ to this post have been wonderful. But in an effort to focus these conversations we have set up topical posts below. If, for example, you would like to participate in the conversation concerning Jerusalem, please post your comment under that post. If you have more general comments/queries you may continue to note them here. Thank you!

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33 Comments leave one →
  1. hayyim (kevin) permalink
    October 12, 2011 1:17 am

    I just wanted to post the question I posed in tonight’s class, my understanding of Sarit’s reply, and my response.

    I suggested that part of (most of?) the problem, as I see it, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict concerns the problem of imagination. I thought of Husserl’s notion of the neutralized (as opposed to the negated) image by which he accounts for my ability to distinguish btwn an image and its referent. I neutralize the real quality of the imaged object and thereby perceive it as an image and not the thing it depicts. Failure to do this is, in essence, a form of madness, an inability to distinguish fiction from reality and, parallel to this, an inability to use fiction as it actually presents itself; namely, as a means of re-visioning the real. In like manner, the narratives represented by Israelis and Palestinians… any national narrative… are essentially fictional reworkings of historical events. To collapse the difference between the narrative and the events they reconstruct, to concretize narratives, is to create a rigid situation in which (in my view) very little leeway is open for dialogue – when nationality becomes concretized, the political becomes the only means of resolving conflict. And, personally, I have very little faith in political solutions… particularly in this area insofar as both “national” groups put forth narratives that – as it pertains to the political – are mutually exclusive. If national narratives could be re-suspended I think much better work of resolution could be done.

    I pointed to the Brit Shalom version of early Zionism (they were a group that conceived of Zionism as a cultural, not a political, revival and envisioned a binational state, not a specifically Jewish state) as an example that could be revisited.

    Sarit responded (and Sarit, please correct me if I misunderstood) that the reason that Brit Shalom was unable to exert a lasting influence is because they had no political power and, therefore, the question of the political is unavoidable.

    I would say in response that to return the question to one of political power isnt really addressing the problem but restating the question from the ideological position of the political zionists. From the beginning it was a matter of interpreting the Jewish situation in Europe, Hertzel interpreted it politically – i.e. that Jewish suffering is a result only of political disenfranchisement – and (intentionally or not) recast Jewish messianism along purely political lines in the tradition of Spinoza. Others interpreted the situation culturally – i.e. that while there is a political problem, a larger problem is exilic culture – and recast Jewish messianism along Hasidic/kabbalistic lines of spiritual renewal, a renewal open to the voice of/creative collaboration with the other. It is the political interpretation that lead to the problems we are currently looking at. How could this interpretation heal a rift that it itself is the substance of? Wouldn’t it be necessary to adopt a different tack? And, furthermore, on a purely pragmatic level… personally do not see how either a bifurcated Palestinian state or an indefensible Jewish state is possible. Continuing to insist on nationalistic solutions (on either side) is just saying “let us continue our war”; I see no workable option but a bi-national state.

    • -timo- permalink
      October 13, 2011 12:54 am

      “18”, you wrote that “to collapse the difference between the narrative and the events they reconstruct, to concretize narratives, is to create a rigid situation in which (in my view) very little leeway is open for dialogue.” This indeed is “the evil inclination” (yetzer hara) of a narration.

      If a narrative is too good, too capturing, too healing, there is no need to try to maintain a critical distance to it (as a re-construction). Instead, it turns to a totalized ideology which asks for staying submerged to it — and finding the other (and consequently also the ethical level of “narrative hospitality”) becomes quite impossible. How to avoid this end and to pursue rather the proper level of narrative “therapeutics” is still an open question.

      However, an example from yesterday night proposes that it is possible: “I didn’t shoot you, because when I was listening to your story, I realized that it was my story.” Could it be thought that an opening to the other (i.e. hospitality) takes place when a “metanarration” is formed by bringing together “my/our story” and “your/their story”? But this would require that there already is willingness to acknowledge that there is “another” story.

      Thus, is it by some structural affinities of those stories that hospitality becomes possible? As if I first take your story as mine but come to realize that it was not mine because it was yours? But how does one make this leap from “mine” to “yours” — by virtually “changing positions”? This would, again, presuppose willingness to take distance from my situation and to adopt someone else’s. The question of reaching the ethical level is still unresolved.

      Or does hospitality rather take place by recognizing the “pain” of being a human being (which is expressed in those stories, both yours and mine)? This would seem plausible. However, how to differentiate between meaningful stories and those which do not “speak”? If the person who waited to be executed (the one who shared his life story – supposedly – in the very last moments of it) would have spoken only about trivial things such as “I cannot get my laundry done then?”, would the execution have taken place? Maybe. But not getting one’s laundry done does speak of the pain of being a human being. We need to struggle with everyday matters and we need to try to find life’s meaningfulness despite of it.

      Lastly (if there’s a need to find the reason why stories of the pain of being a human being are either meaningful or trivial), is it by some kind of “gut feeling”, primal affections, that hospitality and the beginning of intersubjective/intercultural ethics is opened? But isn’t this primordial feeling something ineffable, something utterly non-verbalizable? This reduces the role of a narration only to a (peculiar) mediating function, to a mere spoon that it somehow able to stir our primal emotions — and there are many spoons on the kitchen table.

      Still, how is it that the executioner was able to resist the temptation of his own story being the (only) true one — to resist the “yetzer hara” of a narrative — and to leave the man alive just because his story was also “his” story?

    • sarit permalink
      October 13, 2011 5:56 am

      Hi Hayim, thank you for your comment. I am answering below to both your historical and philosophical claims. I will begin with history:

      Bi-national state was Brit Shalom’s offer. So I am not sure how bringing Brit Shalom forward as a non-political alternative is sitting with your disbelief in a bi-naional state.

      second – Brit Shalom sought political support and failed. so again – I am not sure if this example really works for the path you want to take since Brit Shalom definitely sought to establish itself politically and hoped to solve the problem through political channels.

      lastly – I would argue that Israel is more than defensible in the 67 borders. As we all know Israel conquered Sinai, the West Bank, Gaza and the Gaglili from these very borders that are now called indefensible. Historically its a problem to call them indefensible since they were so outstandingly defended (and more than that in mere 6 days) quite recently. Palestinian geographical bifurcation is also solvable and it is not really considered a core issue blocking a solution by either side (core issues are: refugees, settlements and the status of East Jerusalem).

      On a formal rather than historical level: I again respectfully disagree. I think that a political solution is the only way to go. Politics and openness to the other are not mutually exclusive (See: Egypt ’79, Jordan ’94 and too a certain extent the Oslo Accord). Politics is the arena where openness to the other can and does at times become a stable reality. This is where it matters. The fact that it sometimes fails to happen should not be confused with an incompatibility in principle of the two. It should definitely not serve as a damnation of politics in general as redundant, ideological and/or national. Politics is also that – but not always or in essence that. Politics is where imagination of the other can become a reality. why would one want to imagine welcoming the other if one isn’t intent on concertizing that image into a political stable reality? To me this containerization is the whole point. Imperfect as it is – it is life that we want to make better not the imagination of life. To you – if I am reading you right – containerization is the source of all evil. I would ask what the goal is for you and how do you suggest we go about achieving that goal. I am not sure I am clear on what you are actually suggesting one should do and to what end.

      thank you!

  2. hayyim (kevin) permalink
    October 12, 2011 2:17 am

    I meant to add: that bi-national state would be dependent upon the return of de-neutralized/concretized/real-ized narratives to their proper narrative status where they would be open to re-narration/re-institution of narration as an ongoing, as opposed to a truncated, impermeable process.

  3. October 12, 2011 8:39 pm

    To ask for a re-narration, or for a different narration, is to ask for a narrator who views the meaning of the narration (as it constitutes the narrator’s self) differently. Can the thing be looked at so that it no longer corresponds to any immediately recognizable object? Sure. Can a life-story be seen from a different point of view–better still–by a different self? Maybe. Some say, that life-stories are constantly changing veils. Selves, by implication, are continuously undergoing metamorphoses.

    If there is an openness to narrating the same story, but from a different vantage point, that means there is an openness for allowing a distance from the familiar view of the self. When the familiar lets way to the foreign, the other can be invited into the opening space and can be seen–imagined–as being closer to the self (although the opposite scenario can take place). What brings one to being open: to imagining a place of an other and the self in place of an other (let us leave the other side of the equation–the other as the self–aside for now)? A conversation (exchange–not necessarily verbal–purported to welcome) does the trick.

    Those who are conversing engage in narrating that brings closer. What do those who remain silent hold close and refuse to let go?

    One suggestion–Sarit’s–is pain. Narratives of victimization–of having been wronged and victimized–are definitive of one’s identity in a different way than the stories which are not rooted in pain. It is foreseeable that narratives, which define the self in such a radically traumatic manner, will not be parted with easily. But they can be parted with, by those who are not immediately imagining themselves through these same stories of pain.

    Can the stories of parents and grandparents, of friends and beloved be told in a way that would become liberating for the very people held hostage to them? If one views the story of an other in such a way that it does not petrify the self, can one tell the tale for an other so that the story now–differently narrated–lets the grip of pain subside, making way for a welcoming of the stranger and of a different self?

  4. October 12, 2011 10:03 pm

    Hi! I am posting as part of Media and Modern Ireland

    What I found interesting in regards to the films on the divided cities is the similarities the two conflicts share. Londonberry’s conflict derived from the fighting between Protestants and Catholics that finally came to a boil in the 60s. The symbol for that hatred and struggle became the walls that separated more or less the Protestants from the Catholics. While the riot in the 60s caused numerous issues and hostility, once peace was achieved the wall lost some of its power. There are still people in the city who obviously still see the walls as a symbol of oppression, however among the younger generations it is more of a place for school field trips and the subject of old stories their grandparents share. Most of them see the importance of learning about the history of Londonderry and the Protestant and Catholic fighting, but it is not a major part of their lives anymore. Thanks to efforts to unite both sides and create understanding between the two, the wall is just a symbol of what once was.

    In the Jerusalem film, there is also a wall that separates the city . Like in Londonderry, there is the issue of religion, however it is also it is an issue of nationality. The main combatants may appear to be Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians, yet there are Muslims and Jews on both sides as well as Christians. Just like in Londonderry there was conflict before the wall was created, however that wall became a symbol for all of the fighting. It is a physical division between the two sides just like the Derry walls were a physical division. In both cases the walls lay heavily on the psyche of the people and it is unfortunate that it has had major physical repercussions in Jerusalem.

    The conflict in Jerusalem is so intense that it does seem that the fighting may never end, however there is some hope. In Londonderry, Catholic and Protestant relations were mended by conscientious efforts especially focusing on the youth. As seen in the film, the same kinds of efforts are being made in Jerusalem with the younger generations. The participants said that they learned a lot from each other and about their countries by actually talking to the “enemy.” Perhaps if more people are brought together from both sides overtime the conflict can be resolved. By instilling understanding in younger generations, there will no longer be the same hostility between the sides when they become the leaders of their countries. It will take a very long time to achieve such understanding, however if effort is really made future generations of Palestinians and Israelis could look at the wall and conflict as Londonderry youth look at their wall today: a symbol of what once was and what has been overcome.

  5. Ryan O'Malley permalink
    October 13, 2011 1:33 am

    Hello, posting for Media and Modern Ireland

    What I felt was interesting after having watched the films about Londonderry- Derry and Jerusalem was that the conflict seemed much more part of a daily life in Jerusalem compared to that of Londonderry-Derry. I am not trying to downplay the fact that there are definitely still tensions present in Northern Ireland but from the interviews conducted with the Israeli and Palestinian, they all seemed to have a lot more to say about the issue. From what I took from the films is that the root of many of the tensions present day, (I am going to leave off the past religious tensions over Jerusalem for the time being) is the involvement of military forces makes individuals more upset and opinionated over the issue. In the Irish segment, most of the young people felt that there are still some tensions over the history but present day it is not as bad as it had previously been such as in 1969 when the British government actually occupied the city. This is in stark contrast to the Jerusalem film where there is still a military checkpoint to pass through. Subsequently the young adults interviewed in this film appeared to have more to say on the issue. I felt these opinions, were directly brought on but a resentful feeling of the military being involved in their daily lives.
    From this, I also noted that in Jerusalem they had the program that was meant to bring Israeli and Palestinian kids together so they could interact and see that the other kids were not the enemy. There did not seem to be any effort being done specifically in Londonderry-Derry to create dialogue between the Catholic and Protestant sides other than they mentioned that the schools had begun to be integrated.
    It seemed to me that the general attitude of the young adults in Londonderry- Derry that the conflict for the most part is slowly making its way out of their daily life. Not that it will be forgotten completely any time soon considering the symbolism the wall has to the people living below it. Yet because the conflict is not directly in their faces, it might be able to release tensions between the two religious sides as the years come to pass.
    On the other hand, the people from Jerusalem did not seem particularly optimistic that the conflict would be resolved by peaceful means in a timely manner. The continued violence in their city is a constant reminder that there are ideological differences that people still feel deeply about. To me it seems like the effort to create dialogues between the Israelis and the Palestinians is particularly important because unless there is a shift in the current cycle change will be increasingly hard to come by.

  6. Dan Sheehan permalink
    October 13, 2011 4:05 am

    Hi, also posting for Media and Modern Ireland.
    I think Ryan brings up a great point that I feel may have been over looked in the discussion last night or cut out due to lack of time. I feel the stark differences between the conflict in Derry and the ongoing conflict in Jerusalem may make narrative exchange from one divided city to another more complicated, if not slightly difficult. Unlike Jerusalem, the conflict in Derry is not necessarily an active one or something that could be called a war. The wall in Derry still stands but Northern Ireland has been relatively peaceful since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Therefore, the narratives among the children of Derry have the possibility of being almost completely different than those of the teenagers from Jerusalem. Most of the children interviewed in “Beyond the Walls” would have been too young to remember any type of violence in the city between Protestants and Catholics, and in some cases they may have been born after the agreement. The teenagers from Jerusalem on the other hand live the city’s military conflict firsthand, everyday. The students from Derry have a secondary understanding of the conflict and the reasons for the wall in their city, while the Palestinians have a primary and lived understanding of the conflict. This difference in primary narrative and secondary narrative may prove to be a difficult bridge to cross for an effective or useful exchange to occur between these two divided cities. The difference could also end up being something that is a useful tool for both the teenagers of Jerusalem and the children of Derry to spark an effective narrative exchange within their respective cities. I guess only time will tell.

    Both films were extremely well done, informative, and eye opening. The discussion following, although at times confusing for an undergrad history major, was extremely interesting and intriguing. I am fascinated to see where this project goes.

  7. Jordan D permalink
    October 13, 2011 5:55 am

    (for Media and Modern Ireland)
    Something I saw in “Beyond the Walls” was an attempt at the transformation of community narrative to a supra-community narrative. Easing of tension seems to come with a broadening of the narrative. For example, instead of focusing on singing ‘Derry’s Walls’ and marching on the 12th with pictures of ‘King Billy’ (not to mention the Peace Process and post-Peace Process conflicts with marching routes), the Apprentice Boys’ spokesman promotes ideals of democracy and liberty, in the Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights. [An aside would be to ask, to what extent does this reflect wider sentiment, both in the particular group and among Orangemen and in the wider Unionist community of L-Derry.] This narrative is a great deal less confrontational, but it is somehow less powerful (for better or worse). That is, few—if any—would contest this desire to respect and to protect democracy, but in its very unanimity, the narrative is obviously flawed (i.e., if it were so universal and so universally accepted, there would be no issue; therefore, how can it be meaningful?). It risks sacrificing meaning if it becomes too abstracted, too artificial. It is remembrance (and even celebration) of history, but it involves a certain forgetting and perhaps an obfuscation. Tensions are eased at the expense of something else, yet perhaps given the circumstances, this is for the best.
    To what extent should historical realities be ignored to bring about reconciliation? [Why also does the historical seem so contemporary? Will this diminish with the passing of the generations that lived through the Troubles? As Dan points out above, is this something that will come to make Derry-Jerusalem comparisons and narrative exchanges more difficult, as primary experience becomes secondary in NI?] Is there a tendency to make forced moral equivalencies between competing narratives? What role does the truth play in this exchange of narratives? In the film on Jerusalem, Avigael expresses a recognition that she doesn’t know what the truth of the situation is, but says she wants to know the truth, whatever it might be. She seems to hit on something quite admirable, albeit something difficult for someone not already liberally (which is only to say, freely) minded. No one narrative may be correct, but should that then mean that no narrative with meaningful specificity can be more correct than others? Is it more important simply to exchange narratives among the widest possible group of people or to facilitate the construction of better narratives (if it’s proper to speak thus)? Are these the only choices/Are they even mutually exclusive? Is the narrative exchange necessarily limited by the extent to which the most moderate voices are the ones most likely to participate in the first place?

  8. richard kearney permalink
    October 13, 2011 6:45 pm

    So many great comments posted already before a single day has passed. I am intervening here with some remarks in response to the first existing 13 postings ( thurs, Oct 13, 1.30 pm) – so no reflection of those which come after.
    I will try to say something about each comment in turn, beginning with Kevin’s and working down.
    Kevin fears the ‘madness’ that may result from confusing imagination (the realm of narrative) from reality (the realm of politics). By ignoring the difference between telling it as it happened (history) and telling it ‘as if’ it happened (story), ideologies close and congeal. The imaginary and neutral nature of our narratives are abandoned in favor of concretisations which confine the free play of narrative invention and reinvention – the proper role of culture – into fixed and inflexible identities: the result being a clash of national narratives (which have forgotten their own narrativity). This can lead to war. At least in the case of Jerusalem. Kevin invokes Brit Shalom as a potential model of cultural-spiritual-messianism which might have led to a re-visioning of national narratives such as to permit the possibility of a bi-national, shared state: something made impossible by the actual preference for a purely political zionism based on real politik of congealed and mutually exclusive ‘national identities’. The solution, if there could be one, might be a return to bi-national narratives at a cultural level which might in turn inspire new models for bi-national co-existence between Jews and Palestinians. I hope I got most of this right Kevin?
    Sarit replies that the goal in Jerusalem (I use this as shorthand for the entire conflict zone) is to find a new way of living in a real, concrete world not in some utopian imaginary. What’s the point in imagining solutions if we don’t put them into action? What good are cultural narratives of peace if they cannot be translated into politics?
    Let me begin with this opening exchange before moving on. I think there may be some common ground here, despite the evident differences. Sarit began her talk last night by referring to nations as ‘imagined communities’ (in Benedict Anderson’s phrase). As such, there seems to be a recognition that if all national identities are constructed identities they can also be deconstructed. In fact Sarit uses the notion of political imagination in her posted comment today. So might Kevin and Sarit not meet on this point? Namely by concurring that we cannot change reality until we have first changed our images/imaginings of reality (especially when it comes to national narratives that define political identity).
    Kevin is right, I think, to suggest that national narratives are to some extent fictional reworkings of historical events; though one might add that they can also involve historical reworkings of fictional events (think of how many nations invoke some foundational ‘myth’ of a great beginning: this is as true in Jerusalem as it is in Derry and Mitrovica). It is actually difficult to separate out historical narratives (telling it as it happened) and fictional narratives (telling it as if it happened), for most of our stories involve history and most of our history involves stories. (This is Ricoeur’s notion about ‘overlapping reference’ between history and fiction). Given this ‘mixed’ nature of narrativity is it always necessary to choose between fictional narratives and political ones? Beyond this either/or might we not find ways of loosening up our political narratives (which often deny their narrative character in favor of literal or fundamentalist readings)? And so begin to re-imagine new ways of re-incorporating them into new political institutions and constitutions? The 1998 Peace Agreement in Northern Ireland, for example, could never have worked if it had not involve radical revisions of the inherited British and Irish notions of unitary sovereignty (United Kingdom versus United Ireland). And such re-visions were greatly based on re-visionings of traditional myths, histories, legends and identities. The historians, poets an artists were hard at work! I will come back to this below when attempting to respond to the more specific postings on the Derry situation by Julienne, Ryan, Dan and Jordan.
    Marina and Timo also make very helpful contributions to the above discussion.
    Marina raises the crucial issue of pain and therapy (already mentioned by Sarit). She seems to suggest some kind of healing might occur if we can open the ‘familiar’ to the ‘foreign’ thereby allowing the self to become an other (different) self – be that a) another, freer more imaginative version of my own former self, or b) a form of empathic identification with the self of another person altogether. I hope I have this right? ‘Conversation’ with an other seems a crucial part of this, as against the tendency to close oneself off in silence. The latter is often, it is true, a symptom of trauma where the pain freezes the self in a sort of ‘timeless’ zone – traumatic symptoms are precisely the inability to separate one’s present situation from the original experience of terror. One literally cannot speak or relate to anyone outside of oneself. One’s pain paralyzes. So when we are dealing with trauma victims, the problem of victimisation (touched on by Marina and Sarit) becomes very real: as is obvious from even a quick glance at the victimisation narratives of opposing sides in Jerusalem and Derry (‘we are all victims now!’)
    In view of this, I think Marina is right to suggest that we need to find ways of telling our stories differently, with more distance and freedom (Kevin would say neutrality), so that we can retelling ourselves differently. But this requires us recognising that our real experiences of past pain (our history as it really happened) is also and at the same time an ‘interpretation’ of this pain, and therefore a narrative patterning and editing of the trauma itself (something ‘real’ we can never fully regain though we are always aiming at it). In this way, we might be released from paralysing immediacy that traumatising passions provoke and acknowledge the ‘gap’ between now and then – the Battle of the Boyne was three hundred years ago! Our narratives of it ‘now’ are not as bound to the violence and terror of that moment as our national histories might suggest. The recognition of the mixed or crossed character of history-as-story and story-as-history may indeed allow us to take a distance, allowing other stories and histories (those of the enemy or of other conflicting groups elsewhere: Derry/Jerusalem/Mitrovica) to give us a comparative perspective from which to re-view our own. That is the task of our current Guestbook Project as I see it. Exchanging narratives across divides, telling or hearing the story of your enemy/other/stranger ‘as if’ it were your own. Or to use Marina’s language (and Gadamer’s) re-telling your most familiar stories as if they were foreign and vice versa.
    If the students protrayed in the three GB documentaries could invent ways of doing this might something begin to move across the rivers and walls that divide their cities? However infinitesimely and modestly? Pain makes time freeze (trauma is timeless as Freud realised) while healing takes time, by taking time apart and setting us apart from the immediacy of the mute wound. Giving us historical distance through the ‘talking cure’ (itself a form of narrative exchange between two persons in a therapeutic setting).
    Which brings us back to Marina’s point about ‘conversation’ (openess) rather than ‘silence’ (closure). I agree for the most part. But some might object that in cases of extreme trauma (genocide, holocaust) the only suitable form of witness is silence. As when Adorno asked, ”After Auschwitz who can write poetry?’ After all, ost visitors to Genocide or War Memorials, or common funerals, observe a ‘moment of silence’. Respectful testimony is sometimes wordless, and perhaps even timeless. But is that the end of it? Is the last word ever the last word? Don’t we have to go on telling the story of the holocaust, as Primo-Levi says, so that we keep the historical memory alive and so ensure it never happens again?
    Must run to class. More in response to Timo and the others later.
    Richard Kearney

  9. Clay Venetis permalink
    October 14, 2011 3:28 am

    Great site!

    I’d like to contribute by bringing up Ricoeur’s notion that ‘the shortest route from self to self is through the other’ in relation to the conference this tuesday and to exchanging narratives in general.

    At this conference, Sarit was answering a question about safe places for narratives to be shared, and told the group that the U.S. is indeed one of them. This came as a bit of a shock to some of us, as we are saturated with criticisms of our country and government as Americans. The face on that coin has certainly been rubbed flat. It thus took Sarit’s outside perspective to remind us of what we may have forgotten.

    In a similar situation, I was just recently speaking to a stranger from Ireland, and shared a story of my one experience in Belfast which involved a burly cab driver with bullet scars in the back of his neck talking about the heart of the Troubles. I then pointed out that the term ‘troubles’ doesn’t quite have the same weight for Americans, and that it the conflict in Ireland seemed like more of a civil war and less like mere troubles to outsiders who have watched the news. He then looked at me funny and contemplated I don’t know what.

    Narratives we grew up with become soft and we forget why we first grasped on to them until the other reminds us of how sharp they once were.

    • -timo-. permalink
      October 14, 2011 3:39 pm

      Clay, thanks for your posting, which I take (partially) as a comment to some of the questions I had/have in mind. You are quite right that in relation to the formation of self-understanding, the other is always implied for Ricoeur. However, we must be careful in not jumping directly to a self (soi), which is already ethical. There is a movement from ego (moi) to self (soi) and the other is needed in this continuous process.

      Not only for the sake of dynamics of it, but also for being able to maintain the conceptual and existential difference between the two (“moi” and “soi”), it should be remembered that Ricoeur was deeply convinced that the meaning of being is never immediate but always mediated (in a continuous process of conflicting interpretations). A short quotation in which narrations take this role:

      “Allow me to say that what we call the subject is never given at the start. Or, if it is, it is in danger of being reduced to the narcissistic, egoistic and stingy ego, from which literature, precisely, can free us. – – In place of an ego enamoured of itself arises a self instructed by cultural symbols, the first among which are narratives handed down in our literary tradition. And these narratives give us a unity which is not substantial but narrative.”

      In short, for Ricoeur an authentic human being (self) is to have had recognized the other AND also to have been recognized (or, perhaps, “re-defined”) by the other (in this case, by literary narrations). In other words, to truly be a human being means to be (poetico-)ethical — cf. Time and Narrative, Oneself as Another, The Course of Recognition.

      My question, how to be able to acknowledge this “other” and hence to find the beginning to this ethics in the first place, can, or course, be answered in Ricoeurian terms in at least two differring manners. First, it is language that already asks us to mediate and thus to adopt a point of view of a necessary distanciation in symbolization. But – remembering Hume’s “no ought from is” – can we assume that there is a direct lineage from, say, ostensive meanings to ethics?

      Second, already in Le volontaire et l’involontaire – trans. Freedom and Nature – Ricoeur suggests that this opening can take place by finding out that my body (mon propre corps) is the other. In addition, “I am always after my birth, I am already born.” This expresses my dependence from others (that is, parents and ancestors): “I do not posit myself, I have been posited by others.” But ethical self-understanding is not necessarily implied in here either as this, however, can be just “brute existence” in need of cultivation.

      In The Course of Recognition Ricoeur suggests that there is a process from identity to self-recognition and furthermore to mutual recognition (the last of which the festive-celebrational gift-giving is a model). But he also maintains that this is not apart from the struggle for recognition. The Hobbesian-Hegelian-Sartrean claim is thus still valid for him — even though he hopes (!) that there is a possibility to re-read this from the point of view of apage and human “good will”. I personally, as a human being, would most certainly go with that hope, but also fearing a bit for the worst.

  10. richard kearney permalink
    October 14, 2011 3:44 pm

    So here goes my second attempt to respond to the first batch of comments.

    I’ll start where I left off: Timo Helenius on the therapeutics of narrative.

    Timo begins by defining certain narratives of closure which ‘captivate’ the receiver and ‘totalise’ meaning. This is the hatching ground of rigid and doctrinaire ideologies, whose dire consequences are familiar to us after two world wars and the more recent conflicts in our three divided cities.
    So what is to be done? Timo entertains two main options as I understand it:

    a) we overcome domineering narratives on both sides of a conflict by co-creating some kind of shared ‘meta-narrative’. Such a third narrative might emerge from a ‘structural affinity’ of opposing stories, a sort of mutual identification and empathy between enemies (what Gadamer calls a ‘fusion of horizons’). This option would stress the idea of a structural or formal shift of narrative perspectives, along the lines of what Frances Maegham Brown was suggesting at the Oct 11 seminar. Am I right Frances?

    b) the ‘gut feeling’ response. Here we would look for a reconciliation of narratives at the level of primary affections, emotions, feelings, dreams, desires, unconscious transfers. This kind of thinking was epitomised by the NI women’s peace movement (and Nobel prize team of Williams-Corrigan-McKeown which grew from this; and also to some extent the 2nd NI Nobel Peace team of Hume-Trimble: just think of them holding hands in the air at the U2 concert in Belfast for Good Friday Peace Agreement: the title itself having obvious Christian sacrificial connotations – from death to ressurection). These NI movements were in turn deeply related to other ‘revolutions of the heart’ such as we saw with Bishop Tutu (in shadow of Mandela), ML King and even Ghandi. This view runs: Deep down we all share the same humanity. Beyond hate and vengenge there is love and forgiveness. Or on a more philosophical note, this seems to be the kind of thing Aristotle was getting at when he defined the cathartic/healing function of narrative (mythos-mimesis) as a ‘purging of pity and fear’.
    But we may go on to ask: how do we know the difference between destructive and healing passions? How do we avoid the rise and return of extremist passions – atavistic, tribal, visceral, nationalist – when certain narratives come into play. Even the story of Christ’s passion may be understood in diametrically opposite ways by Derry Catholics and Protestants. One common answer is: We just know because we know – we feel it in our hearts, our guts. But is this a sufficient condition for the creation of a peace-making meta-narrative? The spectres of irrrationalism, emotionalism, irridentism, sentimentalism are never far away from nationalist narratives.

    So is the answer some combination of structural and emotional narratives? Some particular crossing of mind and gut? Reason and pathos? Conscious and unconscious?

    Either way, Timo’s question stands. In terms of the story I told in our Oct 11 meeting, why did the UDA executioner not kill his IRA prisoner? How did he decide his enemies’s story was his own? How did he ‘know’ or ‘feel’ or ‘imagine’ that his Other was himself? In short, the question of narrative empathy par excellence.

    A few words now on the very pertinent and timely questions raised by some of the Media and Norther Ireland (MNI) students.

    Jilienne Jaeger makes the point that the Derry Wall may now – post Peace Agreement – stand as a narrative of ‘past’ conflict overcome. As such, she suggests, they might hold out a promise to those on opposing sides of the Jerusalem Wall (or Mitrovica river): namely, if it could happen once in Derry it could happen elsewhere. The ‘symbol of what once was and has been overcome’, as Jilienne puts it, might thus invite those still engaged in bloody conflict to imagine things being otherwise also in their divided city. Thus we might, following the Derry story, offer some future to the past of other historic conflicts, frozen in time, endlessly recurring.

    Ryan O’Malley and Dan Sheehan add another important inflection to this question of different narratives. Here we find ‘Primary Narratives’ where enemies are still caught in an active cycle of violence (walls protected by checkpoints and army patrols) and ‘Secondary Narratives’ which can be told ‘after the event’, when the war is over, when the blood has dried and the dead are buried. The implication here seems to be that while the Wall of Derry has now moved from actual violence (Bloody Sunday, for example, and the British army occupation of the city in the seventies) to political peace, this is not yet the case in Jerusalem where the war goes on, and risks becoming worse. How then might we think of a possible interaction between primary and secondary narratives as a way of opening up new alternatives to on-going cycles of violence. How might the story of Derry help the history of Jerusalem? Which is not to deny of course, that cultural and religious divisions continue to exist in NI also, as Rob reminded us on Oct 11. But at least ‘politically’ Derry has taken a step from primary (hot) to secondary (cold) narratives – to borrow the terms of Levi-Strauss’s structural anthropology. Or to put it in somewhat more contemporary terms: from hard-core to soft narrations.

    Jordan D returns to the Derry film, raising the topical and critical question: how do we negotiate between the inclusivist/exclusivist forces of universal narratives? In other words, if we are to pick up on the Apprentice Boys’ invocation of the Walls of Derry (as shown in opening clip of film) as the story of Universal Democracy and Liberty who is actually included and who excluded on the ground, so to speak? If this is a dominant Protestant Loyalist narrative how actively can Catholic nationalists participate in it without feeling, once again,victims of British supremetism? The catholics are the ones, after all, who lived ‘outside the walls’ – the frontier zone which historically separated the civilized (gens-gentry) from the barbarians (de-gens-degenerates)? In other words, while seemingly universal and all-embracing, the Act of Settlement and Bill of Rights were actually perceived and lived by opposite sides of the conflict in opposite ways. One camp invoked these documents as the basis for trimphalist domination of the other.
    So do universalist meta-narratives always have clean hands? Or is there something about their very ‘abstraction’ which betrays acts of ‘extraction’ – the repression of divisive and messy bits. We have seen this often in post-colonial critiques of colonizing narratives displacing subaltern narratives of the colonised: the victor’s story displacing and replacing the victim’s history. The question of power once again. We return to the opening exchange beween Kevin and Sarit.
    In short, I take Jordan D’s questions to run something like this: can we ignore difficult historical realities for the sake of a supra-narrative of reconciliation? Is healing and catharsis really achievable if we elude or elide incorrigible resistances? Or do we simply need to practice a form of what Nietzsche called ‘active forgetting’: let the dead bury their dead and move on? This latter was the kind of attitude one witnessed after the Good Friday Agreement in the blossoming of various ‘cultural narratives’ with new kinds of images and symbols removed from the bloodshed of past – the bi-national Irish rugby team, the U2 concert mentioned above, post-nationalist and post-unionist retellings of shared ancient myths or future utopian dreams, sung by the ‘poets’ of both sides (think of Heaney, Longley, Hewitt, Montague and more…Even a certain return to a timeless Nature – the beautiful Irish landscape – beyond the ravages of history.)
    Finally Jordan raises the crucial and recurring question of ‘truth’. Are there not some narratives that are simply ‘truer’ than others?
    While we might want to avoid such conflicts of interpretation, evaluation and judgment, can we avoid doing so for the sake of a provisional ‘peace’. Does moderation not sometimes produce overall moderate stories – ones which moderate oppositions (no bad thing) but at the risk of modifying the real history of violence? Are we not thereby telling only half the story for the sake of reconciliation? Avoiding nationalism in the name of revisionism? Worse: might this denial mechanism not court the danger of a ‘return of the repressed’? Is it not important sometimes to take sides and declare one narrative more just and true than another?
    Leaving aside the vexed conflicts of our three contemporary cities, what of the conflict of ‘testimonial’ narratives of the Holocaust, of the Armenian genocide, of South African Apartheid? Is one side not telling more of the truth than another? And if we do not accept this, how avoid the danger of relativism and negationism?
    In short, is not reconciliation cheap grace if it sacrifices truth?

    Finally, Clay Venetis’s personal example of the taxi man in Belfast. Citing Ricoeur’s hermeneutic maxim that the shortest route to one’s own truth is though the Other, he recounts how the different uses of terms ‘civil war’ (his view as an American outsider) and the ‘troubles’ (the cabman’s view as an insider) might serve as basis for a revision of these respective narratives of the NI conflict. How? By first realising that insiders and outsiders have different views and then opening up an alternative ‘safe space’ where a conversation may occur with a view to ‘exchanging narrarives’. My question to Clay: is the result of this i) a mutual acknowledging of opposite views – lets agree to differ – leading to ‘toleration’ of insurmountable differences, or ii) a hope that a third supra-narrative might emerge from the traversal of each other’s perspectives? Back to the drawing board. If that is indeed a ‘safe space’ in its own right!

    • Clay Venetis permalink
      October 16, 2011 3:19 pm

      Professor,

      In a brief response to your follow up question, I do believe this re-learning the origins of one’s own terminology through the bewilderment or curiosity of the Other can definitely lead to a third supra-narrative that holds within itself a greater understanding of the first two. I do not necessarily feel it is merely a mutual, “let’s agree to differ”, because one often sympathizes with a perspective that draws the self back to itself in a new light, and thus feels productive rather than stagnant.

      Clay

  11. Chris Yates permalink
    October 15, 2011 2:02 am

    These are excellent, thought-provoking comments. My head is spinning a bit. But Clay’s comment, together with the Derry film, in particular have put me in mind of what might seem to be a rather simple question: When we speak of ‘exchanging narratives’ do we want to emphasize (1) the mere ‘event’ of exchange as something that escapes the closures of catharsis and fulfilled reconciliation, or (2) a means to an ‘end’ that can ultimately satisfy a kind of determinable accomplishment? Or do we acknowledge (1) and hope for (2)? Obviously we want things like empathy, reconciliation, and possibly self-broadening to occur through an exchange of narratives, but I wonder if it is risky to get in the business of delimiting a kind of benchmark/criterion for saying ‘it worked.’ One of the things that is risked ‘in’ the very exchange would seem to be our own analytic frame of reference. I suppose I’m just wondering how to respect this possibility without getting lost in something like syncretism or blithe pluralism. I suspect Ricoeur and Kearney are alert to this sort of things when they speak of ‘life in quest of narrative’ – the sense that there is no concrete ‘closure’ to our stories, memories, and (potentially) sufferings. So how to we make a ‘practice’ of the exchange without overly anticipating the ‘end-game’ to which it might lead? How do I swap stories with my neighbor from Southern Sudan without subtly ‘categorizing’ the points of intersection in a way that might smother the distance between us?
    Chris Yates

  12. Alex Gilman permalink
    October 15, 2011 10:56 pm

    So many excellent comments here. It was really a great screening and I’m so glad the discussion has moved in full form over here. The question I raised at the screen is especially apropos here on the blog, because it relates to the new medium of the internet for narrative exchange. The question came to me when Sarit mentioned that when the Israeli youth went into the army (which is mandatory for citizens) they would no longer be able to speak openly with the Palestinian students as had during their 2-week workshop. Not that the internet use was necessarily censored, as it is in China, but their comments could create some issues, at the very least. So the solution, it was suggested, is that they could continue the conversation anonymously. This brought up a lot of questions about our contemporary ways of communication. Let us, for the sake of argument, exclude the case of China and assume relative freedom on the internet.

    The issue centers around anonymity. Certainly anonymity makes the internet a safe place for discussion. In the case of the Israeli youth going into the army, it allowed them to circumvent traditional walls that would have barred narrative exchange in the past. However, anonymity undermines the important topology of narrative exchange. Location and personal identity were so important in the films. It was important to the narrative exchanges that one always knew where the other person was speaking from, even if they attempt to the speak of the other side. In other words, it was essential that particular youth from Israel were speaking to particular youth from Palestine. The face, the name, the hometown, were all fundamental to the authenticity of the exchange. So, when the interlocutors become anonymous, what is lost? The is obvious gain, as I mentioned before, but certainly something is traded. What is at stake when the internet is the medium of exchange?

  13. hayyim (kevin) permalink
    October 16, 2011 1:15 am

    Sarit –

    first, ultimately i feel that I have to defer to your assessment of the strategic situation on the ground there as you were a soldier and I was not. However, I would question the argument that the ’67 borders were really defensible. Yes, the IDF won a spectacular victory, but it was also a high cost victory in terms of loss of life. I am also not disputing that Brit Shalom as a historical movement aimed for political power. My point really isn’t about Brit Shalom per se, nor is it about the defensibility/indefensibility of some border agreement.

    I was just using brit shalom as a model example of the type of thinking I am pointing to. Namely, that the way religious/nationalistic narratives have/had been constructed is not the only alternative. Yes, they had a political agenda, but I feel that this was motivated by a larger project of cultural renewal. It is this renewal/renarration (for both Jews and Arabs) that, in my view, is the necessary precondition for any real change on the ground. How is it possible to make peace if in my heart I think you are a thief and a murderer, if you have become my cultural paradigm of the enemy?… if I am unable to put my own stories into question? and why would i make myself vulnerable in this way if you were not doing the same so that i would always be fearful that you would simply pick up my reflections and use them as a rhetorical weapon against me to prove the veracity of your own narrative? From my own “side” of the conflict I have seen something like it; Jewish groups in this country hire Arab “defector” speakers to talk on the moral bankruptcy of the Palestinian cause. Likewise Palestinian groups hire members of the Neturei Karta to represent Jews. Neither example is perfect b/c neither represents a real “reflective” position from within the mainstream of either group, but they do represent alternatives to dominant narratives that are co-opted for rhetorical purposes in an unfair manner.

    I’m not opposed to a political solution, but i think its a big mistake to start there and I deeply mistrust any peace process that does start there. (though i suppose a fair counter-argument from a palestinian would be that he deeply mistrusts a process that doesnt begin with his political condition being dealt with…..) I also dont think that the only viable political solution is the creation of two independent national states…. and the refugee problem is only a problem when one starts with the assumption that there will be separate jewish and palestinian homelands.

  14. James Taylor permalink
    October 16, 2011 12:56 pm

    The above comments—offered from very different perspectives—have given me much to think about. I’m sorry neither Petra nor I were able to join you all for the screenings, but I’m grateful to be able to read these comments from afar.

    Just a couple of brief thoughts on narrative and conflict. When we were making the Mitrovica documentary, we were struck by a couple of things. First, the narrative that we had intended to tell didn’t stick. We were initially planning on focusing on the bridge-building work accomplished by the political conference. But it was soon clear that another story wanted to be told, namely that of the local youth’s daily effort to come to terms with (and move on from) what happened over a decade ago. This showed us that stories do indeed have a sort of autonomy to them, that although we “tell” them, they are, in a sense waiting to be told. “Life in quest of narrative” no doubt. Things in the world are not initially wordless, but want to speak, are waiting, in a sense, to be spoken or narrated. And we certainly don’t have the “freedom” to tell them as we would like. But neither do they give themselves to unilateral expression. A true story can head in a number of different directions and remain every bit as true, just not “any” direction.

    Second, the willingness to listen to other’s stories, when they conflict with one’s own version and when they require a re-envisioning of one’s cherished narrative, requires a personal transformation. Without the willingness to be wrenched away from one’s own familiar versions of stories, even perhaps from some that are “foundational” or “sacred,” the exchange will lie stillborn. This means that the “neutral space” of a narrative is not entirely neutral, or at least it is composed of a neutrality of different kind. The very act of listening and considering, the willingness to empathize with the other, brings one’s own presuppositions to visibility for the first time (simply by showing their contingency), and in doing so reforms the person listening. Thus, although stories involve a neutrality that the political lacks, the telling of and listening to stories, does, of itself, affect life. It is a concrete event in which genuine change can take place even prior to its political application. We found that the Mitrovica youth were often willing to undergo this initial transformative event while the older more politically engaged persons often were not.

    Thanks again for all the insightful comments. We’ll look forward to the continuing discussion over the course of the semester.

  15. Rob Savage permalink
    October 16, 2011 3:02 pm

    Rob Savage posting for Media and Modern Ireland:

    Great to see so may thoughtful comments have been provoked by these films. For students in Media and Modern Ireland special thanks to Jordan, Dan, Ryan and Jilliene for contributing. As Richard points out narratives in Jerusalem remain complicated by the ongoing violence while the mayhem that traumatized L-Derry has cooled. However as these films illustrate both cities remain deeply divided by real and imagined walls. Trying to break through these barriers will remain a challenge for all concerned no matter what type of political peace might someday be realized.

    The challenges inherent in moving forward out of a difficult and painful past is playing itself out in Ireland at the moment. Martin McGuinness, a former leading member of the Derry IRA, has played a critical role in the peace process that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. Today he is a leading candidate in the race for the presidency of the Irish Republic. While campaigning McGuinness finds himself challenged to tell the truth about his role in the violence of the IRA not only by journalists and political elites but by those who lost loved ones at the hands of the IRA. He was recently confronted by David Kelly the son of an Irish soldier killed by the IRA along the border in 1983. The confrontation and painful exchange between the two men received widespread coverage in the national press suggesting that the trauma of the recent past will continue to challenge narratives of the present and future. See:
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/breaking/2011/1010/breaking39.html
    and
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/1011/1224305578426.html

  16. sarit permalink
    October 16, 2011 4:04 pm

    Hi Hayyim,
    Thank you for you comment. Israel has compulsory draft and I was a clerk in the army some 20 years ago – I doubt at all that it is relevant and I would bet that there are all kind of views all kid of current, future and past IDF soldiers hold. On a more matter of fact level: I think saying the 67 borders are indefensible is a very specific *narrative and I was trying to remind us all that it was defended wonderfully not that long ago. It’s a historical fact and I think it should be considered by those who claim the 67 borders leave Israel defenseless. Israel is far from defenseless within these borders. Costly – well – all war is costly and this is exactly why one must have political peace like the ones we have with Egypt and Jordan. The borders become much less costly that way.
    I think you are making a problematic dichotomy between imagination and politics. Your dichotomy to my mind isn’t wrong – but it is too strong and conceives of a linear relation between the two. In that it is missing very important dynamic between imagination and politics. To be clear – I think your view is linear and too harsh because it wants imagination *first and politics later. There is no such separation. You are indeed right that peace demands a recognition of the humanity of the other but I think that you are missing the fact that when political agreements are signed this exact recognition takes place in the politico-social imagination of the communities involved. People play down Oslo – but the shift in imagination that took place in the early ’90 on both national sides and the Arab world at large was incredible and to my mind extremely important. I agree with you that indeed the peace talks right now are empty. I ll go further to say that they are a manipulation. But I cannot stress enough how much I think it would be a mistake to loose faith in political such agreements and to claim that they come *after more cultural dialogues take place. Political agreements contribute for better and worse to the image one has of one’s enemy. They are dictated by these images *and create these images. It is not a linear process and the dichotomy is only a formal tool to help us talk about the events. We imagine Palestinians different after Arafat shakes the hand of Rabin and people cheer in the streets. The two are (fatally) intertwined. Grass-root activity is important. It is not more important than politics. Politics can be crude but it is not so in principle. Politics is the arena in which images are created and destroyed. It is the arena where images have the power to dictate reality. It is not a separate branch and it does not come after or before imagination.
    The issue of the refugees is too complex to go into hear – but I totally hear what you are saying nation wise – of course the question of Israel as Jewish state comes to the fore in this context – and that issue is not necessarily intertwined with the two-state solution. It is concerned with the tension between the idea of a Jewish state and a democratic state. That issue is alive and well regardless of the existence/non-existence of the Palestinian state. This is a problem of principle.
    Last year I led a graduate seminar on the One-Two state solution what I learned was that at the moment- much like at Brit Shalom’s time – the one state solution carries very little political weight and it thus impacts the imagination in a manner that is inconsequential. The idea of a non-Jewish state of Israel (medinat-kol-azrachaya) is slightly less marginal but still not central by any stretch. That of course does not mean that either is wrong. I don’t believe that they are. But politics is dictated by our imagining and our imagining is dictated by politics. In this circle – at the moment – the one state solution and Israel as a state of all its citizens (two separate issues mind you) are not central nearly enough to be feasible. I think feasibility matters.
    Thanks again for the conversation!

  17. sarit permalink
    October 16, 2011 6:20 pm

    while I’m at it here is something I wrote at another blog a year ago. It talks of the connection between dreams and politics and it’s point is: When peace talks fail us we need *better peace talks not to do away with peace talks. We should call it peace walks (so we don’t just talk the talk but also walk the walk) in any case here it is : http://www.envisioningpeace.org/discussion/featured/jerusalem-permission-dream-call-awakening-0

  18. October 17, 2011 11:46 pm

    From Sheila :

    Dear All,

    It’s wonderful to see that the blog really works! The level of engagement is impressive, so much so that it is clearly impossible to respond to all of the interesting lines of inquiry. In an attempt to hold up the art end, I will contribute a few thoughts and examples from the perspective of contemporary art practice, which I hope may open some ways of thinking about the interplay between identity, narrative, collective memory, and positive social change.

    First, I would like to touch upon Kevin’s entry : “How is it possible to make peace if I am unable to put my own stories into question? And, ( paraphrasing here), “What if you use my stories against me?”
    What allows someone to question their own stories? Clearly hearing (or seeing) alternative versions that mess with the neatness or puncture the seamlessness of the dominant narrative helps. That said, it is not enough to be exposed to or sympathize with another’s story. There must be a self-criticality and desire for mutability that enables one actually to change one’s own story.

    The artist Ahlam Shibli’s recent body of work takes a crack at representing alternatives to dominant narratives in a series (really a visual narrative essay) of photographs called “Trackers” that follows Palestinians of Bedouin descent who serve as volunteers in the Israeli Army. The project, which in its form fluctuates between “straight” documentary/ journalistic and more artistically formal pictorial strategies, (a double approach that I believe is trying to be honest and visually embody the “‘mixed’ nature of narrativity”, the realism/ historical and the constructed aesthetic ) raises very interesting questions about issues of minority identity and competing histories. I don’t think these representations (as opposed to the Arab “defector” spokespeople or the Neturei Karta to whom Kevin alluded) have been co-opted for rhetorical purposes, but I would be interested in what you other bloggers who know more about the conflict and players think. Okwui Enwezor described the agenda of “Trackers” as ‘polysemous’ “in so far as its narrative disposition speaks to a multiplicity of discourses simultaneously: testimony, witness, journalistic, documentary. It is both a social commentary and a political dramatization.” This ability of images to talk simultaneously – to have a kind of insta-layerdness of perspectives–is to my mind one of the great capacities of visual art.

    Below please find a few examples from Ahlam Shibli’ 2005 series “Trackers”:

    http://www.ahlamshibli.com/Work/Trackers.htm

    The same artist also made “Nine Days in Wahat al-Salam,” a 2003 documentary of a nine-day meeting in the Israeli town of Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom between 8 Palestinians and 8 Israelis in their 20’s . I haven’t seen it, but apparently in the film, the participants analyze their own roles and identities in the conflict through discussions with each other. I would be curious to see how one gives visual form to self-analysis of the kind that makes one change their story. I also want to see what changes in tone, content , and storytelling occur in those few short years between the teenagers in Sarit’s video and the young adults in Shibli’s work.

    Following on the heals of the Hayyim/Marina/ Sarit/Richard thread, I believe that the idea of the creation of re-narrations or different narrations, is key to the process of moving towards an imaginative empathy which might allow space for conflict resolution and political stability( and ultimately perhaps even something more creative and generative after that. )

    The big question is how? By what mechanisms? While I am very sympathetic to the fear of impotent imaginings or quaint cultural happenings that seem to go nowhere, that never get translated into on the ground political change, as an artist I have to believe in the efficacy of contemporary visual art and other creative cultural practices to at least be mechanisms for imagining the other and giving form to alternative narratives. (I think the blog is testament to our agreement that this ability to absorb another’s story is a precondition for social change.) As an artist, I find it difficult to make hard distinctions between cultural and political acts. For me, art, as well as politics, is a site where the imagination of the other can become a reality.
    Art that gives form to alternative narratives or even ‘just’ defamiliarizes the self might not be immediately recognizable as a political act, but on some level isn’t it?

    Thomas Hirschorn, an artist known for his manic installations, makes an interesting distinction between doing art politically and making political art. I think he’s worth quoting here:

    I am concerned with doing my art politically .
    Doing art politically means using art as a tool .
    I understand art as a tool to encounter the world. I understand art as a tool to confront reality. And I understand art as a tool to live within the time in which I am living. I always ask myself: Does my work have the ability to generate an event? Can I encounter someone with my work? Am I – through my work – trying to touch something? Can something – through my work – be touched? Doing art politically means considering the work that I am doing today – in my milieu, in my history – as a work which aims to reach out of my milieu – beyond my history. . . . . That is the Political.”

    Some recent work by Hirschorn:

    http://contemporaryartlinks.blogspot.com/2010/11/thomas-hirschhorn-too-too-much-much.html

    Much more to say and many more images and artists that I would like to throw into the mix, but let me end for now. Thank you to everyone for making this such a thought-provoking site. Art students: post please!

  19. Matthew Clemente permalink
    October 18, 2011 12:51 am

    On Forgiveness and Narrative:

    In last Tuesday’s class, I raised the question of whether or not a “narrative of forgiveness” ought to play a role in this project. I do not know whether or not I clearly articulated what I meant to say and I am not entirely sure of the role that I envision this “forgiveness narrative” playing, but I hope that by putting my thoughts on paper—or, to be more accurate, in cyberspace—I will be able to give the subject a bit more credence. (I should also note that I have only recently given the idea of forgiveness any real consideration so my initial thoughts may evolve as the discussion progresses).

    Before we can discuss what a “narrative of forgiveness” would sound like, we must first ask: what is forgiveness?

    In my mind, true forgiveness (or what I would call “perfect forgiveness”) is outside of the realm of human possibility. That is because for forgiveness to be perfect, it must first be forgetful—it must forget entirely the wrongdoing that it has now forgiven. Perfect forgiveness is a calling away from the damaging act and the damaged relationship. It is a calling into a new and unharmed relationship. Thus, a forgiven man is a new man. He is not the man of his past transgressions. His past transgressions are forgotten and both he and the forgiver now share a relationship that is unhampered by their past. Just as forgiveness is given freely, it also carries with it a freeing effect in that it frees the transgressor from his past by erasing it completely. If this is true, then it would seem that only God can forgive perfectly because God is the only being with the power to erase entirely past wrongdoings by simply forgetting that they happened in the first. God’s memory (so to speak) has an ontological effect in that He lives in an eternal present. Thus what He remembers has existence and what He forgets never was.

    If only God can offer perfect forgiveness, then what type of forgiveness can man offer?

    As I attempted to assert in class, it seems to me that the only type of genuine forgiveness that man can offer is the recognition that he himself is in need of forgiveness. In order to forgive the other, I must first desire forgiveness for my own misdeeds. If I do not, then I will not be able to offer forgiveness to the other without seeing myself as superior to him: “I have not committed any wrongdoings but because I am such a kind and merciful person (the type of person that you are not), I will forgive you for yours.” This, of course, is not a forgiving gesture at all. If anything, it is dehumanizing in that it asserts that the other is incapable of my level of goodness and unworthy of my forgiveness, though I offer it anyway. He is less human than I am.

    On the other hand, if I see myself as in need of forgiveness, then I cannot help but to genuinely forgive the other: “If I have failed as badly as I have and I desire forgiveness for my transgressions, then how can I hold your wrongdoings against you? We are both sinners and we both require mercy.” This type of self-reflecting-forgiveness not only forces me to deeply consider my own actions but also causes me to see myself in the other: “He is like me in that we both need forgiveness.” This act has a clear humanizing effect. I believe that it also has a healing effect.

    We may never be able to forget the past transgressions of the other (or in this case, the other society); we are not God. But if we can see our own need and desire for forgiveness in the other, then we may be better equipped to move past his transgressions and into a new relationship.

    Thus my question for the group is this: how do we get those who share their narratives not only to reflect upon how their lives have been impacted by the conflicts that surround them but also upon their own transgressions (be it something as small as an argument with a parent that they now regret) in an attempt to shift the cultural narratives away from “they’re society has done this to ours” and toward “we have all made mistakes, we are all human beings”?

    (Thoughts and comments would be great! Thanks)

  20. Tony Anderson permalink
    October 18, 2011 3:07 am

    Hi Matthew,

    Your points about forgiveness seem extremely important as a first step toward peace. But as a first step, the kind of high forgiveness you are talking about seems incredibly hard! Forgiveness (toward others or myself) is hard even in everyday life when there is nothing much to forgive. This makes me want to ask: in really terrible situations, is there a kind of “low” forgiveness, or a bare minimum forgiveness? Or, said another way, are there bare minimum conditions in which forgiveness stops being impossible?

    For example, if my wife was murdered by someone or some group of people (maybe my political, religious, or ideological opponents), it is easy to imagine (for me at least) that I could become so blinded by anger that I would lose all sight and desire for anything but revenge; I might stop caring even about my own community and my own principles and devote my life to destroying the lives of the people who destroyed mine.

    But then if I eventually found the murderers, I can imagine myself suddenly being struck with a need to look them in the face and ask: “Why? Why did you do it?” I might not actually want to know… the “why” could be a “why” seeking revenge; I might hope to get a terrible answer so that I can carry through my revenge with full satisfaction. But the “why” could also be a “why” that has grown tired of anger and is hoping that somehow the enemy might say something that could finally turn me away from it and give me back my life. Or the “why” could be some of both?

    In either case, what kind of answer to that question would have the potential to turn me from my anger (with or against my intentions)? What is it about the other’s narrative that might make forgiveness stop being impossible and unthinkable to me — in the midst of my blind anger? Or the opposite: What kind of answers to the question would be so terrible that I could never forgive? Particularly for those of us who are citizens of a country at war, which murders people daily in the name of our well-being, these questions seem particularly pressing: Why are we doing it? And will the answers we give today make forgiveness impossible in the future, if we ever begin to wish for a new kind of relationship?

    It may seem like I am aiming too low. I am not asking about how an exchange of narratives can allow us actually to come to an agreement about historical events, ideological or religious questions, political programs, or anything like that. I am not asking how an exchange of narratives might make peace possible. I am just asking: between enemies, who remain enemies, do some narratives make forgiveness not quite impossible?

    • Matthew M permalink
      October 18, 2011 4:47 pm

      I really think this discussion on forgiveness hits on a crucial point. To Tony’s question here, I would have to say yes: there is something in narrative in itself which makes forgiveness not quite impossible. But to relate back to Sarit and Hayyim’s discussion of narrative and “Politics,” I am wondering if we can speak about this topic of forgiveness in just such a context; in thinking about the relationship between narrative (or perhaps art, poetry, etc…) and “Politics.”

      To approach the issue as an artist, I would have to say that, in response to Sarit’s point about “politics being dictated by our imagining and our imagining being dictated by politics,” are there not times when our imagination has to transcend “Politics” as such? Assuming a definition of “Politics” that follows from the practice of “Politics” as we know it, see it, and experience it (which we perhaps inherited from Hobbes, Schmitt, etc…), we really need to consider whether “Politics” itself, as such, can really be the answer for the political issues that face us today. In many circumstances I would have to say, at best, “Politics” greatly lags behind art, poetry, narrative, and at worst, even aims to fully oppose it.

      I would not argue that Politics cannot be imaginative; it surely can be. But what are its intentions; what are its aims? I think this is what can (although perhaps not always) distinguish it from actual narrative (art, poetry, etc…), which, in many cases does not even have an aim as such; certainly not any ultimate one. But that does not mean narrative (art, poetry) cannot be political; Bob Dylan has always stated that he had no political ambitions in his music, and yet it was hard for many (including many African-Americans at the time) to listen to “Blowing in the Wind” and not see it as being incredibly political in a profound way…one which actual “Politics” at the time [and perhaps even today’s time] got nowhere close to (Mavis Staples expressed her astonishment on first hearing the song, and said she could not understand how a young white man could write something which captured the frustration and aspirations of black people so powerfully). Many argue that it was the music, art, and narrative of the Civil Rights movement that allowed it to come into fruition, not merely any rationally calculated political solutions…not ‘political science.’ “Politics” proper—the profession of Politics; the “art” of politics—is something quite different from art, poetry, and narrative. It does not necessarily fully encompass political reality as such; in fact, the thought that it does may be the very founding myth behind “Politics” itself, as expressed by Hobbes, Schmitt, etc…something rapped in violence, war, and Empire; feasibility and decision making, instead of aimless discussion and question-making. Up against them, perhaps there is reason to hope otherwise; that there is a way to be “political” without having to rely on, [as I would agree with Hayyim, undependable] “Politics” as such, a way that is an even more genuine way to be political. The Republic itself is interesting to consider in this regard; we might interpret it as showing that when “Politics” comes to possess art and poetry (and perhaps, narrative, in turn), it necessarily limits it to its own particular purposes (specific purposes and aims which it indeed does have) and basically makes it art and poetry no longer. It is when “Politics” becomes imaginative—if you will, when it overruns poetry and engorges it—that we have the most to fear, I believe; it is at this point people like Milosevic and other such “poets” (the only “poets” left in the city at this point) come to power as “Poets,” and fully earn their right to be “expelled from the city.”

  21. Frances permalink
    October 18, 2011 6:08 pm

    Any old narrative on a shelf or in a heart won’t help just because its a narrative. At any rate, won’t help open up possibilities of ethical action at a political level. There are at least two ways of identifying narrative as ethically constructive: the one is in the telling, in the exchanging, the listening, the hearing another’s story as one’s own and learning to tell one’s own story better; the other has to do with the structure of the story itself.
    Yes, I’m concerned about the form of the story in relation to Timo’s analysis of some narrative as totalising. But if we’re going to try and fix this by making a new narrative (rather than just telling the old totalising narratives in different contexts, with different awareness etc) then we want to make something that isn’t quite as susceptible to the totalising problem.
    Not all narratives have the same form. As Sheila Gallagher says, Ahlam Shibli’s response to “dominant narratives” is a kind of narrative itself – but a peculiar one: its made of photographs. The work the viewer has to engage in to hear the narrative she is presented with is perhaps the kind of work that might make totalising more difficult.
    (Narrative healing sometimes is called for in the opposite situation though – not in the face of grand but stagnant and harmful political narratives that need to be replaced, but rather in the case of fractured personal narrative that needs to be carefully re-built. Perhaps making form an explicit concern would be as helpful in the latter case, but I’d expect the forms to be fairly different in response to the different troubles).
    One of the questions for me is how far we can push the form, to what extent we can make it jump about, before narrative disappears and we are left with something else: poetry, photography, bad post-modern literature… ?

    • October 19, 2011 2:29 pm

      I am pleased to see Frances’s emphasis on hearing and listening. This calls attention to our responsibility to receive narrative as well as share our own. Her remarks also remind me of Sarit Larry’s sentiment that “not all narrative is good narrative” (i.e., healthy). I am also reminded of Richard Kearney’s remark that “narrative is the cure for the narrative”. Each observation brings to light the notion that narrative has the potential to both heal and injure (a veritable “pharmakon”, see Derrida). As a therapist, I witness similar phenomena on an individual level when clients arrive at my office with harmful self “narratives” (e.g., negative thought patterns) which— in turn—contribute to toxic projections and repetitions in their life. I find that individuals can begin to heal when they are able to discover newer and healthier ways to both understand (internally) and project (externally) their story. I would argue that every culture too has a narrative identity (i.e., a cultural thought pattern) and when conflicts are not properly negotiated (internally), issues all-too-easily become projected (externally) upon “the Other”—via scapegoating. Given the frequency of certain world conflicts, how is it is possible not, at various intervals, to bear witness to a “repetition of the same”?

      It is obvious, that for many people, these repetitions are a matter of life and death. With those practical implications (real dangers) in mind, I pose the question, “what represents a safe space when it comes to exchanging narratives both internal to a given country (such as China) and between countries/cultures (such as Israel and Palestine)? Is it the internet? Is it the internet only?

      • Tony Anderson permalink
        October 23, 2011 8:56 pm

        Hi Andrew,

        Your way of saying that “narrative has the potential to both heal and injure” is succinct and helpful. Over in the “Forgiveness” section of the blog I have made a few further remarks about this, which are related to the second to last paragraph of your post.

        Regarding other points in your post: I have been chronically ill for my whole life, and the problem you raise — of conflicts not being properly negotiated internally and leading to projection — seems very much to the point for me. In particular, since the violence done by illness is done by “nobody,” it is hard to avoid projecting the resulting anger onto any faint appearance of injustice in the world, near or far. Talking to a therapist seems helpful.

        I do want to ask though: what should be done when anger or the desire for revenge is not mere scapegoating — when the Other really has done something terrible (I will abstain from giving examples)? This is something I struggle to understand. It seems kind of weird to go to a therapist and work out projections… when one is angry about real abuse. I know that most projections do attach to a likely target, someone who has plausibly embodied some kind of repressed desire, etc., so therapy might help. But still, to treat the victim in such cases seems like adding insult to injury.

      • Tony Anderson permalink
        October 23, 2011 9:02 pm

        (by second to last paragraph I meant first! I was imagining a paragraph break where there wasn’t any)

  22. Marina Denischik permalink
    October 19, 2011 5:12 am

    Frances, your reply is thought-provoking. Thank you. I am captivated by your closing remarks, specifically, by the worry that you express about the “narrative form.” I agree, if the form is bad, the content is probably suffering. But is it the form that we are referring to when we speak of expression—literary expression—as not being up to par? “Bad post-modern literature,” is a comment on the content; not form. Isn’t poetry and the poetics of good—i.e., well executed and artful—images a great way to narrate? Poems and images—do they not possess that brilliance of best narratives—of the stories very well told? The brilliance I have in mind is the sounding, the spilling over of metaphors. Don’t pictures and written images—pictures in verse—narrate so well as to welcome a change in the mood, a change in the affects, a change in the point of view? Aren’t we taken far and away by the great works of poetry and visual arts? In this space—the distance we attain through listening, even as we watch, to the story that the image tells, isn’t the self forgotten for a time, and then remembered with a new fore—recalibrated?

    On the topic of images . . . I was thinking about the representations of the petrified characters and the conditions of their loss of being. I post the references here. Although not all of the accounts will be useful, some images might assist in thinking through the freezing effect of trauma. Specifically, I am attempting to interpret the instances of unbearable pain—the pain which devours time, annihilates being and lies outside of experience, while thoroughly permeating the being of the one who saw the viscera of horror and pain.

    Interestingly, the “freezing effect,” at least as much as is reflected by this collage is brought about by the gaze or by the touch.

    Of course, you’ve got the opposite effect of the touch, but in this case:

    the touch is a runner-up to the words–the impassioned plea to Aphrodite. Then, we have this “talking business.” A king (as I understand it, a tyrannos, not basileus) is talked out of another murder and marries the gal who is chatting him up instead (1001 Nights). Things get even better with the myths that talk about the transformations of Cicadas.

    The visual and the tactile has that arresting power, so does the poetic. Yet, it is the stories and novels and tales that resemble and contain captivating images that affect us the most. Yes, I fully agree Frances, the question of form is an important one.

  23. Fanny Howe permalink
    October 19, 2011 3:08 pm

    In response to some of the postings above:
    My class at Georgetown and I (Exchanging Narratives) are experimenting with approaches to self-revelation in a chronological and personal set of weekly writings. The students are going out this week to interview people in DC and to make short videos out of the results. This is only one of the experiments and seemingly the least personal. My hope is that the expressive end of narrative exchange will help broaden what is meant by the project there at BC. I am hoping to look at the current state of things from every angle beginning with subjectivity and childhood.

  24. October 27, 2011 9:09 pm

    I’d like to follow up on a comment that I made after the film screenings at BC a few weeks ago regarding cuisine as a practical way for people to exchange narratives.

    It seems intuitive (to me at least) that any fruitful exchange of narratives between cultures and personal experiences requires an easily agreeable starting point. From such starting points the discussion can incrementally broaden and deepen. As subsistence is common to everyone, and because almost all cultures feature food and shared meals as significant aspects of culture, in ritual, and even directly in narrative, cuisine may be a way to “get people talking to one another,” so to speak. Food is a relatively safe, unobjectionable, and (relatively) accessible common ground. For instance, it is easier for individuals of different cultures to talk about what foods they like and why they enjoy their favorite foods than it is to discuss religion or nationality. Once people begin talking about food—sharing recopies, discussing difficulties in finding ingredients, converting Celsius to Fahrenheit etc.— the discussion would (with some patience) broaden to the place of certain dishes in an individual or culture’s narrative. If nothing else, sharing stories of making new dishes for the first time could serve as a look into the supposedly mundane experiences of different cultures.

    While I think that food is a candidate for facilitating dialogue, I’m also curious to see what others think could serve as effective common points around which fruitful exchange could crystallize.

    Additionally, I’m curious if there is even a need to start a discussion at such an everyday level. In other words, is the premise “exchange of narratives between cultures and personal experiences requires an easily agreeable starting point” an unnecessary one, and can we begin immediately exchanging narratives on the level of cultural and personal difference?

    • Tony Anderson permalink
      November 6, 2011 8:56 pm

      Hi Matthew D., I just mentioned your post over in the “forgiveness” section, in my response to Matthew C.

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