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Other People's Pain: Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Daniel Jonah Wolpert.

Conference, 2 days

Other People’s Pain: Narratives of Trauma and the Question of Ethics Friday, 19 March to Saturday, 20 March Location: CRASSH , 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

|Works of art — from Primo Levi’s If this is a Man to Anselm Kiefer’s Margarethe — are built up out of the destruction of human life and dignity. Drawing specifically on the horrors of history, they come to haunt us and question our understanding of the past, of ethics, even of the idea of ‘knowing’ itself. Yet, what is it exactly that these works of art can achieve? Medicine is able to heal or alleviate suffering through the work of professionals observing, testing, and writing about patients’ physical and psychological pain. Human rights activists craft testimonies with the echoes of the victims’ howling cries; lawyers draft national and international laws and resolutions with a history of persecution, war, and genocide foremost in mind.

|What are the implications of the meeting with violence and terror in scholarly engagement with texts of trauma? In which ways can art, literature and disciplines like medicine, psychology, sociology and law inform each other? All of these engagements seem to share a fundamental divide between the experience of the victim, the traumatic event itself, and the scrutinizing gaze of those who address it. How then are personal or collective traumatic experiences, maybe even the very ‘idea’ of violence, pain and terror, comprehended via narrative transmission?

Drawing upon other people’s pain to do their work, where do we discover the limits of the attempts to represent the events in their historical, biological, emotional, and political realities? In what ways do cultural manifestations of trauma, violence and terror — through textual, visual, political, medical or scientific media — reflect on the ethical implications of the project? Assuming the work of these fields is to enact transcendence of the trauma, terror, and violence, at least by humanity as a whole if not for the original victims, those ‘other people’, in what ways are these works moral agents? If we believe in the value of our transcendence of other people’s pain, the end products seem to never be sullied themselves by the process that provided the material for their eventual coming into being. Or are they?

|When we construct narratives of trauma, what are the obligations and what are the dangers? Where does exploitation begin? Can appropriation of other people’s pain ever occur without exploitation to some degree? Can works based on other people’s pain turn into sources of abuse, exploitation, and structural violence themselves?

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