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Hypatia 18.2 (2003) 197-204

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Evil and Testimony:
Ethics "after" Postmodernism

Ewa Ziarek

Two different books share the same concern about the relation between ethics and postmodernism. As its title suggests, the collection of essays, Evil after Postmodernism (2001), edited by Jennifer L. Geddes, approaches this question by focusing on the problem of evil, while Giorgio Agamben's Remnants of Auschwitz (1999) investigates this relation through an ongoing ethico-political commentary on the holocaust survivors' testimonies.

Taken as a whole, Evil after Postmodernism, an interdisciplinary collection engaging philosophy, history, sociology, literature, and sociology, asks not only whether postmodernism has changed our thinking about evil, but more importantly, whether it can provide resources for approaching evil beyond the opposition between fundamentalism and moral relativism. Conversely, it explores the ways in which historical experiences of evil challenge postmodern thought. The essays are grouped into three sections: "Histories," which explores the implications of the postmodern break for moral reflection, "Narratives," which explores the ways stories form the cultural understanding of evil, and "Ethics," which focuses on the dilemmas and redefinitions of moral judgment in postmodern culture.

The "Histories" section opens with Berel Lang's essay, "Evil Inside and Outside History: The Post-Holocaust vs. The Postmodern," which focuses on the place of the holocaust in the moral history and on the genealogy of the ethics in postmodern thought. Although the importance of the essay lies in the acknowledgment of the importance of the holocaust for postmodern ethics, the essay ultimately contests the postmodern break by inscribing the holocaust within the continuous history of evil. What is at stake in this rejection of the historical and epistemological rupture of postmodernity is not only a call for the historical and moral reflection on the significance of the holocaust but [End Page 197] ultimately an attempt to rescue a coherent sense of moral history, historical evidence, and "a causal or explanatory material history" (17).

This ethos of recovery of the categories contested by postmodernism also permeates the next essay in this section, Larry D. Bouchard's "On Contingency and Culpability: Is the Postmodern Post-Tragic?" Bouchard wants to rescue a tragic paradigm as an enabling context not only for witnessing suffering and evil but also for safeguarding religious imagination. By revising tragedy in the context of postmodern fragmentation, he argues that tragedy can again become compelling as a mode of inquiry "into areas of contingency that bear upon religious imagination": such as the contingencies of mystery, communities, and grace (33).

Opening the "Narratives" section, Roger Shattuck's "Narrating Evil" is the strongest indictment of postmodernism from a high moral ground. Not surprisingly, in this essay, the film Pulp Fiction (1994) becomes an emblem of the postmodern "cool" in complicity with criminal violence, a complicity that has been anticipated, however, by modern narratives that transform evil into a seductive category of transgression. After such a predictable rejection of postmodernism, it was a relief to read a thoughtful and complex article, David B. Morris's "The Plot of Suffering: AIDS and Evil." Combining cultural specificity and theoretical originality, Morris's essay is one of the highlights of this collection. The essay inquires into the ways the pandemic of AIDS has reshaped postmodern notions of evil, suffering, illness, and sexuality. By exploring the multitude of conflicting narratives that either blame the AIDS patients or present them as helpless victims in the grip of a hideous disease, Morris examines the complex intersections between medicine and ethics, between the biological and cultural practices structuring the meaning of illness and suffering. In response to these narratives, especially those that blame the patients, Morris explores the possible ethical resources in a postmodern transformation of the meaning of evil: instead of regarding evil as the cause of suffering, Morris, after Emmanuel Levinas, suggests that suffering, especially the suffering of the other, is itself evil and calls for a response. There are two implications of this postmodern revision of evil. On the one hand, it means that suffering no longer appears as a private but rather as an "interhuman" phenomenon, constructed by the proliferation of public "talk." Yet...


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pp. 197-204
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Archived 2009
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