Monday, March 12, 2012

Imagining and One Year Later

As I write this post on the 11th of March, (though by the time I finished writing it, it's now the 12th) I am reminded where I was a year ago when I first heard about the earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck parts of Japan and wrecked havoc with the Fukushima nuclear plant. I was sitting at my kitchen table trying to finish the last bits of my dissertation, when a friend called me and said, "check the news.": three words that shouldn't be so frightening, and yet when spoken in certain contexts, are deeply so. I remember asking "why, what's happened?" with my imagination already supplying several different scenarios, each worse than the one previous. He struggled for a moment to put into words what he had heard, and finally simply said, "tsunami in Japan. It's pretty bad." From his tone and lack of other words, I knew that "pretty bad" meant "indescribably awful."

He was right. As I watched the news unfold, I too could not find words, much less actions, given my geographic location on the other side of the world. Language failed me, and where language failed me, the ability to conceptualize what was happening and what I and my household could do in response was difficult. I instinctively felt the situation required a social response as part of an ethical imperative, but I was unsure what to do, and what it might mean, for example, to stand in solidarity with the people affected. Could I even do so, is such a thing even possible? How could we be part of, or support, a social response? What would such a response be?

We managed to work out what small immediate ways we could help, but they all fall flat in the face of what began as a natural disaster that triggered a human-made disaster (with the nuclear plant failure) becoming together, by the sheer breadth of their impact, a societal and environmental disaster.Over the past year, there has been dialogue and debate over how best to mitigate the effects of the radiation released, how best to help those in need, how best too rebuild communities that were wiped out--and along with the debate, there has been necessary action and material help. But the need for social response and the attendant ethical imperative is ongoing.

It's that ongoing need I wanted to talk about here--not, for once, on a practical level, since there are people far more expert than I, who can weigh in on the practicalities of getting food, shelter, and comfort to those affected, and I don't have the scientific or technological expertise to really put forward any suggestions on how to deal with the effects from a nuclear meltdown. I'm a philosopher, and one who deals with narrative and ethics and relationships and language. But I think that talking about just such things along with the practical necessities of support and clean up, are important too, because without such ongoing conversation, we're truly shooting in the dark. In a world where global relations are deepening, even practical considerations like supplying food and blankets are affected by abstract conceptions and ideologies. Part of being able to talk about social ethics (always grounded in a view of how to plan and act and put in place structures that allow positive social ethics to emerge) is being able to think about ethical action in the face of the unthinkable, whether that unthinkable is due to human action or not. And appropriate ethical action requires thinking and understanding, speaking and listening (and hearing) cross-culturally, before, as, and after one acts.

So how do we think the unthinkable, where does that begin?  Is it perhaps with imagining in order to sort out appropriate action?  And, since this is a question about social  ethics and not simply personal ethics, how do we undertake such imagining in a social setting, as a socially ethical response to situations of dire human and environmental need?


  1. Thanks for this Allyson. i haven't thought deeply enough about the philosophical concerns at work in your post, but at least a couple piqued my interest straight away:
    a. the relationship between narrative and the unthinkable
    b. the challenge of imagining together rather than imagining alone

    As regards (a) i wonder if there is a sense in which it is right to ask what it is we imagine may be unthinkable about the unthinkable? What are we intuiting with that category? The wreckage of history is unfortunately piled high with the very worst that can happen. But that is only to say that we have seen the unthinkable come to pass over and over again in objective or empirical terms. But what is 'unthinkable' seems to derive its traction in our usage from the subjective side of human experience. The unthinkable, in some important sense, is the incommensurable, and for that reason also in a peculiar way, unspeakable. This is of course precisely what makes it the business of narrative. But even here it seems both at home and yet not. For the moment of the arrival of the unthinkable is a uniquely cross-referencing field of subjective significances that can never be narrated beforehand. If this is the case, if narrative must both carry us toward understanding and preparing for the unthinkable, but also crucially fail us at its revelation, I wonder if at least one important issue becomes that of differentiating between thicker or thinner narratives... the more porous or more impermeable ones; identifying the ones that are commodious enough to exceed themselves in helpful ways, when the unthinkable comes again... and seeking to perpetuate them. This is just a preliminary shot at thinking about this question of narrative and the unthinkable... no doubt there are finer distinctions to be made and better approaches to it.

    1. I like your question about whether there is a sense in which it is right to ask what it is we imagine may be unthinkable about the unthinkable. I also like your point about which narratives are helpful when the unthinkable comes again. Narrative does fail us at times when we need it most. But it has been at least my experience that eventually, as we pull ourselves out of the rubble (whether actual rubble or emotional) narrative sets in again--both in terms of understanding and preparation. So my question is, how does one tell between thicker and thinner narratives? And how does does one build or find one's way into narratives that are helpful?