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  • Editors' Preface:The Narrative Imperative and the Ethics of Listening
  • Maura Spiegel and Rita Charon

"I commend these words to you . . ."

In this issue, perhaps more than any in recent memory, the farthest-reaching implications of this project of bringing together the worlds of literature and medicine are realized. This issue widens the lens beyond the medical sphere of suffering to encompass narrative imperatives regarding torture, human rights abuses, Holocaust testimony, and more. These contributions are studies in "social suffering," a term belonging at least in part to Arthur Kleinman, Veena Das, and Margaret Lock. Social suffering recognizes that none of our disciplinary resources alone can be adequate to identify and respond to the sources or scale of misery in our times, so we must continue to break down the boundaries between disciplines. Medical, moral, and political matters cannot be kept separate because they are not separate.

Each of the articles in this issue explores, in one way or another, the ethical demands that narratives of suffering make upon the world, what must be told and what must be heard. And each examines the (multiple) dynamics between suffering and narrative, both with their imperatives; suffering makes its demands, and telling does too. Giving voice to suffering too often means speaking to indifference, especially, as Mary Marshall Clark observes, where the "speed and scope of the media" and the "overload of images of suffering and violence" contribute to "a new and insidious indifference" in ourselves, making us "bystanders in history."

Listening, really hearing out others' accounts of trauma or loss, entails a commitment "to presence, to knowledge, and to shared pain"; [End Page vii] the "duty incurred in the listener" is how, Clark observes, we combat our own indifference.

And yet, as Sidonie Smith observes in "Narrating the Right to Sexual Well-being and the Global Management of Misery: Maria Rosa Henson's Comfort Woman and Charlene Smith's Proud of Me," when we narrate our suffering, we subject it to issues of genre. Subject to plot and other formal elements of story, even the most personal account is complexly mediated. (What genre does your suffering belong to?) As in much of her important work, Smith here explores the mediations active in autobiographical accounts of even one's own suffering. In her treatment of two recent autobiographies, one from the Philippines and one from South Africa, she reflects on how "postviolence" narratives that are delivered in the context of human rights commissions or as part of a discourse of reparative justice can limit ways of telling, holding the writer or speaker to a set of generic conventions that can lock the teller in a static role of victimhood or assign him or her a role in a "spectacle" in the "global commodification of suffering." Smith points out how the human rights model of subjecthood is based on the premise of the legal equality of the rights-bearing citizen; this rights-based identity can inadvertently erase crucial differences based on race, class, religion, and nation. This erasure can strip an autobiographical account of its cultural specificity and of its potential to offer a "structural analysis" of the sources of suffering. Smith explores these two autobiographies that belong to human rights literature but are not framed by the potentially reifying narrative conventions of that model of subject-formation. In these generically hybrid autobiographies, Smith finds narratives of violence and suffering that embed the individual in the larger matrix of culture, history, and political economy, allowing for, as Smith quotes Wai Chee Dimock, the "stubborn densities of human experience" to come through in order to expose the "interlocking systems of radical inequality" that produce the conditions of immiseration.

Narrative and suffering are exposed to a different slant of light in Schuyler W. Henderson's "Disregarding the Suffering of Others: Narrative, Comedy, and Torture." By examining the grins of American servicemen and women captured in snapshots of scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib prison and analyzing how narrative contexts for these scenes of torture have been generated by military spokespersons, media figures, and elected officials, Henderson reveals how genre or narrative mode has effectively rendered these unspeakable images less controversial. "Torture begins," in George Annas...


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