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Other People’s Pain

Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics

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Martin Modlinger and Philipp Sonntag

How do we approach other people’s pain? This question is of crucial importance to the humanities, particularly literary and cultural studies, whenever they address narratives of terror and genocide, injustice and oppression, violence and trauma. Talking about other people’s pain inevitably draws attention to the ethical dimension involved in acknowledging stories and histories of violence while avoiding an appropriation – by the reading public, literary critics or cultural historians alike – of the traumatic experiences themselves. The question of how to do justice to the other’s pain calls for an academic response that reflects as much on its own status as ethical agent as on literary expression and philosophical accounts or theoretical descriptions. This volume therefore explores the theoretical framework of trauma studies and its place within academic discourse and society, and examines from a multidisciplinary perspective the possibilities and limitations of trauma as an analytical category. A variety of case studies on individual and collective traumatic experiences as portrayed in literature and art highlight the ethical implications involved in the production, reception and analysis of other people’s pain.

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Martin Modlinger and Philipp Sonntag - Introduction: Other People’s Pain –Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics -1

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Martin Modlinger and Philipp Sonntag Introduction: Other People’s Pain – Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics In Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag opens a discussion of the photography of suf fering with a reference to Virginia Woolf ’s Three Guin­ eas, described by Sontag as Woolf ’s ‘brave, unwelcomed ref lections on the roots of war.’1 Woolf claims therein that the shock of horrific pictures cannot fail to unite ‘people of good will’; that photographs of war will invariably create a ‘we’ that is opposed to the atrocities before ‘our’ eyes. Susan Sontag begs to dif fer. ‘No “we” should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain.’2 In the last twenty years, a new ‘we’ seems to have emerged with respect to horrific histories and their deeply disturbing forms of representation: the unifying field of trauma studies. Other people’s pain has become one of the core interests of literary and cultural studies. While narratives of loss, oppression, marginalization, and physical and psychological trauma are by no means new to readers and viewers, the particular dedication of the humanities to these issues has reached a new quality. ‘[W]e inhabit an academic world that is busy consuming trauma […]. We are obsessed with stories that must be passed on, that must not be passed over’, writes Patricia Yaeger, and asks, ‘What happens when we “textualize” bodies, when we write about other people’s deaths […] as something one reads?’3 This new interest in pain...

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