Confessions: Confounding Narrative and Ethics is a multidisciplinary anthology that aims to show how narrative(s) can reveal, confuse or otherwise mingle the ethical aspects of various practices, e.g., medical, psychotherapeutic, political, educational and artistic. The volume's purpose is broad, in competition with many books in the field of narrative studies that focus on the topic of the uses of narrative in health care. There are some unique contributions in this book, the originality of which stems from the fact that these are written by artists rather than theoreticians. The most striking of these is the essay and enclosed audiovisual DVD by Margaret Haselwood that documents her 30 metre painting and soundscape that tells the story of her artistic return to her experiences of childhood sexual and physical abuse. The reader/viewer is swept into an overwhelmingly powerful visual experience of this art installation, which in itself evokes the sublime, or Burke's "delightful terror." (1757) Haselwood does not make this philosophical connection. Rather, she invites the reader/viewer to an encounter or engagement with her artistic vision; the burden of hermeneutic engagement is on the reader/viewer. This is the overall point of the anthology. The articles that are about narrative's role in the disciplines consistently agree on the tenet that storytelling is the art that confounds Enlightenment rationalist, scientific, objectivist presuppositions of research, caregiving, and/or other practical agendas. To this end, all the essays argue that narratives of the human others encountered in such practices will confuse the tidy clarity offered by abstract ethical principles or the normative conventions prescribed by traditional disciplines. This is the message of Naomi Sutherland's and Andy Arthur's dialogue about the emotional narratives of music and its quashing by educational institutions' definitions of musicality. Another example is Libby Woodhams' caustic commentary about the politics of the sheep business in Australia that accompanies the art exhibition The Art of Sheep in her essay "We don't Ask Enough of Art -- Sheep, Art and Ethics."
Of the contributions that supply the theoretical framework just described, the most effective are those that show the implications of the analysis in a specific practical context. Scott Fitzpatrick's essay, "Toward a Narrative Understanding of Suicide" demonstrates how the psychological autopsy, the widely used clinical method of understanding instances of suicide, is a narrative method that is embedded in networks of meaning, cultural attitudes, and medical models of mental illness. He raises the intriguing possibility that, by studying suicide narratives from a broadened interpretive perspective, a suicidal "cognitive style" might be decoded and used for preventative purposes. Similarly, Richard Matthews' essay "Torture and Narrative: An Absolute Violation of the Self," notes the almost total absence of victim and/or torturer narratives from defenses of torture. This, he claims, is indicative of the reliance by torture apologetics on myths of torture, to defend torture's usefulness for extracting information from victims or deterring terrorist acts. Although Matthews is correct that the level of ignorance regarding the effects of torture on individuals and societies is bleak, he overstates his case when he claims that there exists no analysis of the ways that torture damages the self of the victim. Matthews ignores the seminal texts on the subject by Elaine Scarry (1987) and Franz Fanon (2005).
Some of the weakest contributions are those that skim the surface of a theoretical framework or try to demonstrate new methodologies by poetic example. Examples include Eleanor Milligan's elucidation of the uses of Gilligan's "Listening Guide" in pre-natal screening interviews and Andrew McKie's exposition of the implications of Ricoeur's theory of narrative for health care education. The latter also refers to several complex literary works to exemplify the exercise of literary imagination, but superficially so. Similarly, Peter Isaacs' exposition of Charles Taylor's phenomenological and narrative ethical theory is ambiguous as to the theory's practical applications.
Out of thirteen contributors, five are affiliated with the University of Queensland, Australia, and all are Australian professionals or artists. Perhaps it is this strong affiliation and common national context that lends to a certain homogeneity of the theoretical essays. There are several bibliographic redundancies in the collection that creates the impression that the papers are all the product of a graduate seminar or a research colloquium. A particularly obvious redundancy is Jennifer Jones' essay "Configuring the Researcher's Identity through Narrative Research: A Researchers Story" that reiterates exactly the same schema of "identity pragmatics" proposed by David Massey in "Identity Pragmatics: Narrative/Identity/Ethics." Although Jones applies this schema to offer a counter-story about conventional social narratives of motherhood, it is too expository, replicating the material in Massey's essay.
Overall, the anthology's scope is too broad, for it attempts to cover art installations, narrative theory, and the uses of narrative in health care and other professional practices. Yet its pool of contributors is too narrow. However, the turn to narrative in the arts, health care, social sciences and philosophical ethics is a dynamic theme. There is plenty of room for this anthology's contribution to the broader multidisciplinary conversation.
Burke, E. (1757). A philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and the beautiful (5th ed.). London: Pall-Mall.
Fanon, F. (2005). The wretched of the earth. (Trans. Richard Philcox) New York: Grove Press.
Scarry, E. (1987). The body in pain: The making and unmaking of the world. USA: Oxford University Press.
© 2011 Kate Mehuron
Kate Mehuron is Professor of Philosophy and Department Head of the History and Philosophy Department, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI 48197. Correspondence: [email protected]