Narrating Evil

Narrating Evil: A Postmetaphysical Theory of Reflective Judgment

María Pía Lara
Amy Allen General Editor
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 244
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  • Book Info
    Narrating Evil
    Book Description:

    Conceptions of evil have changed dramatically over time, and though humans continue to commit acts of cruelty against one another, today we possess a clearer, more moral way of analyzing them. In Narrating Evil, María Pía Lara explores what has changed in our understanding of evil, why the transformation matters, and how we can learn from this specific historical development.

    Drawing on Immanuel Kant's and Hannah Arendt's ideas about reflective judgment, Lara argues that narrative plays a key role in helping societies acknowledge their pasts. Particular stories haunt our consciousness and lead to a kind of examination and dialogue that shape notions of morality. A powerful description of a crime can act as a filter, helping us to draw conclusions about what constitutes a moral wrong, and public debates over these narratives allow us to construct a more accurate picture of historical truth, leading to a better understanding of why such actions are possible.

    In building her argument, Lara considers Greek tragedies, Shakespeare's depictions of evil, Joseph Conrad's literary metaphors, and movies that portray human cruelty. Turning to such philosophers and writers as Jürgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin, Primo Levi, Giorgio Agamben, and Ariel Dorfman, Lara defines a reflexive relationship between an event, the narrative of the event, and the public reception of the narrative, and she proves that the stories of perpetrators and sufferers are always intertwined.

    The process of disclosure, debate, and the public fashioning of collective judgment are vital methods through which we make sense not only of new forms of cruelty but of past crimes as well. Narrating Evil describes the steps of this process and why they are a crucial part of our attempt to build a different, more just world.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51166-7
    Subjects: Philosophy, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-22)

    Why has evil become such a hot topic these days? Although there could be many reasons, it seems to me that the most important one—the most interesting—has to do with our growing concern with how this age-old problem has entered more and more into our consciousness. In other words, in spite of our failure to cope with human cruelty, we possess a clearer, more moral way to analyze what we call “atrocities.” Our last century was plagued by horrific actions of human cruelty; nevertheless, something about our understanding has been transformed. This book seeks to explore what has...

  5. Part I: The Concepts and the Tools

    • CHAPTER 1 Why Do We Need to Create a Moral Image of the World?
      (pp. 25-42)

      Kant was well aware of humanity’s propensity for evil. Much has been written on the subject, yet we hardly understand it. That humans are capable of harming other humans, and of choosing to do so, is still one of the most puzzling questions—dramas—that we must still confront. This problem has lately been addressed by several philosophers who have reexamined previous attempts to consider these issues.² I, on the other hand, will employ a different view as my point of departure. As I explained in the introduction, I wish to address the problem of evil as a moral problem...

    • CHAPTER 2 Storytelling: {The Disclosive Dynamics of Understanding and Judging}
      (pp. 43-56)

      One of my previous books develops a narrative theory.¹ I would now like to focus on Arendt’s narrative perspective in order to show how she used narratives to understand evil. It is worth noting that Arendt believed storytelling provided her a better way to cope with crisis and with concrete problems than did the use of abstract and systematic theories of the political. Narratives provided her with an original method for political theory, which is why I wish to revisit some of her ideas on the subject.

      Hannah Arendt pioneered the use of literature and storytelling as important devices for...

    • CHAPTER 3 Reflective Judgment and the Moral Imagination
      (pp. 57-80)

      Stories perform many functions for those who read them and those who write them. In this sense, we should first focus on what makes a story an important model for reflective judgment. I will argue that processes of aesthetic apprehension are created by the work of the productive imagination of some moral experiences. This makes stories important vehicles of reflective judgments. Through their written expression, moral stories have demonstrated that, in spite of many theorists’ skepticism, they capture the “ineffable” characteristics of evil actions.¹ In works of fiction as well as in historical stories about evil acts, the “ineffable” seems...

    • CHAPTER 4 Hannah Arendt and Negative Exemplarity: {The Moral Paradigm of History and Its Particularity}
      (pp. 81-98)

      Much has been written about Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil and of the particular way she analyzed her two different conceptions of evil—radical evil and the banality of evil—in her works The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. I myself have explored some aspects of the theories within these two works in the introduction to my edited book Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives. I will not repeat those arguments here, nor do I wish to recall the many different and contradictory interpretations of her contributions on the subject of evil. Since...

    • CHAPTER 5 Learning from Catastrophes
      (pp. 99-114)

      I must confess that when I started writing about evil, in the summer of 1998, I was of the opinion that the work of Jürgen Habermas had not focused explicitly on the problem. Many critical scholars and colleagues would have agreed with that earlier opinion.¹ Since then, however, I have come to understand that Habermas has always been concerned with the problem of evil, but has done so from a strictly postmetaphysical view. It is for this reason that, in this chapter, I would like to develop my arguments on the ways Habermas’s contribution has helped change my mind. Not...

  6. Part II: The Judgments

    • CHAPTER 6 What Remains? Language Remains
      (pp. 117-134)

      In this chapter, I will use my model of reflective judgment to show that is it possible to connect the work and stories of Primo Levi to this moral type of judgment. I will then show the two different ways in which judgment is used—first, the reflective, then the determinant—the former in Levi’s work, and the latter in Giorgio Agamben’s Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. The reason to focus on Levi’s and Agamben’s work is to show what makes a judgment a reflective one, out of specific contexts and situations, whereas the determinant judgment in...

    • CHAPTER 7 Hearts of Darkness: {Political Judgment}
      (pp. 135-150)

      In previous chapters I have developed the idea of reflective judgment and used it to describe important tasks in the public sphere. I have been arguing, so far, only about moral judgments and their relationship to political and legal judgments. We must now focus on the specificity of political judgements, because of their connection to the creation of a model of reflective judgment.

      Hannah Arendt often spoke of beginning anew. This poetic way of saying that certain transformations are required in society refers to the need to understand what happened in the past. There is no doubt that she was...

    • CHAPTER 8 Death and the Maiden
      (pp. 151-162)

      Throughout previous chapters, I have insisted on the idea that narratives—that is, stories about evil—presumably provide the best illustrations or descriptions of the problems of evil. I have not yet defined why this connection is conceptually so important. I would like to argue in this chapter that moral wrongdoing is best described in actions wherein the characters are revealed in the complexity of their interactions, which are crystallized in plots. I have argued before that moral wrongdoing is one of the basic conditions for understanding evil because the perpetrator of evil actions causes permanent damage—that is, moral...

    • CHAPTER 9 The Place of the “Angelus Novus”: {Between Catastrophes}
      (pp. 163-178)

      Adorno claimed that, after Auschwitz, the moral imperative for the twentieth century was “never again.” It was through the use of a historical understanding of his experience that he arrived at this reflective judgment of what it meant to be alive after Auschwitz. His assessment pointed to a historical rupture between our traditions and modernity itself. Instead of founding the normative basis for morality on the positive use of reason, as Kant had done before, Adorno sought to recover the negative aspect of the categorical imperative through the notion that our experience of evil is the most significant historical knowledge...

    • Epilogue
      (pp. 179-182)

      This theory of evil has highlighted what we can learn from catastrophes. Such a statement, however, does not mean that I can claim there has been progress in history. Rather, it means, as was Habermas’s main intention when he coined the concept, that there always exists the possibility of creating another side to the story of evil. This dynamic dialectic should allow us to situate ourselves beyond the paradigm of total despair (the apocalyptic), and beyond the naïve idea that modernity can still entirely hold the pure promise of enlightenment without a critical examination of past atrocities. Moral progress is...

  7. Notes
    (pp. 183-212)
  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 213-218)
  9. Index
    (pp. 219-232)