Reading the suffering of others: The ethical possibilities of ‘empathic unsettlement’
Journal of Literary Theory , Volume 4 - Issue 2 p. 235- 251
How can literature trigger us to take a critical attitude towards our own position in watching the other suffer? This essay explores the issue of what could constitute an 'ethical' response to literary representations of suffering, and which features in the literary work itself could be most conducive to such a response. This issue is explored using a poststructuralist perspective. Within trauma studies, (poststructuralist) critics have typically claimed that trauma or suffering can only be represented, insofar as it can be represented at all, by the 'gap' or aporia, by language that defies referentiality. The question with aporetic narratives, however, is to what extent they still invite an empathic response. While it could be said that radically aporetic narratives carry some inherent dangers when it comes to evoking an ethical reader response to suffering, this does not mean that the use of disruptive techniques like aporia should be relinquished altogether. On the contrary, distortion and disruption within a narrative can incite readers to start challenging normative ways of thinking and being. What is called for is a balance between disruption and engagement. Indeed, 'empathy' may mediate in not letting the aporetic text escape our understanding completely. LaCapra's argument for the notion of 'empathic unsettlement' can help point the way to a fruitful middle ground. J.M. Coetzee's novel Disgrace functions as a case in point of empathic unsettlement. Disgrace simultaneously evokes and obstructs a desire to know more about Lucy's rape, forcing readers to use their imagination but simultaneously addressing the limits of using one's imagination in feeling, and especially in understanding, the suffering of the other. The novel thus functions as an implicit inquisitor, asking us why we want to know about Lucy's suffering. The other is there, inescapable but unintelligible, bearing her wounds; and we are called upon not to look away, while also not allowed to indulge in this other's suffering. Ultimately, what literary fiction like Coetzee's can accomplish lies within its capacity to confront us with our desire to watch the suffering other while questioning this desire.
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Koopman, E.M. (2010). Reading the suffering of others: The ethical possibilities of ‘empathic unsettlement’ . Journal of Literary Theory, 4(2), 235–251. doi:10.1515/JLT.2010.015