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Other People’s Pain

Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics


Edited By 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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Susannah Radstone - Trauma Studies: Contexts, Politics, Ethics -63


Susannah Radstone Trauma Studies: Contexts, Politics, Ethics Trauma is often associated with the stripping away of agency and the ren- dering helpless of victims of catastrophe and disaster. The psychologists van Der Kolk and van Der Hart state, for instance, that ‘[m]any writers about the human response to trauma have observed that a feeling of helplessness, of physical or emotional paralysis, is fundamental to making an experience traumatic […]: the person was unable to take any action that could af fect the outcome of events.’1 While these attributes are most usually associated with those who have survived catastrophe at first-hand, the sense of there being nothing that could have been done, of impotency, of lack of agency extends to those close-up against, but not immediately imperilled by disaster as well as to those whose witnessing takes place on safer shores. In her essay on documentary films about Hurricane Katrina, Janet Walker, referring to one instance of situated testimony in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke (2006), describes the moment when a survivor ‘looks straight into the lens […] with her remembered helplessness’ as she witnessed a neighbour f loating in the f loodwaters.2 Much more recently, a searing account from a witness to the shipwreck of a boat carrying asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq to the Australian territory of Christmas Island reported hearing the screams of children as the boat broke up in the crashing waves. Her voice faltering, the unnamed witness related that ‘it was terrifying to watch and...

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