The Risks of Representing Past Suffering

In Colin’s reply to my comment about how the idea of “worlds persisting” could be connected to what it means for readers to encounter a seemingly unfamiliar version of the story of slavery they thought they knew, he writes the following: “I’m a bit more cautious about making the same claim for readers of The Known World and their mental maps of slavery history, if partly because (as was touched on in class) I worry that the novel remains assimilable into sentimental genres of “moral porn” about tragic subjects/worlds. The “people down there just talked that way … they didn’t mean any harm by it” (382) that nearly ends the novel could well apply to liberal readers of (neo-)slave narratives, even if each aesthetic case that enters the genre has the potential to open a gap that doesn’t merely confirm for readers what they knew all along about slavery.”

Okay: I didn’t love The Known World. And I also think it’s dangerous when readers are getting off on some feeling that current humans (or they personally) are so good, in a position to cast judgment on those past humans who were so bad. But I think that, just as there are wrong readings of less politically charged works, there are wrong ways of reading books that fall into the neo-slave narrative genre. I think you exactly must focus on what’s going on in this book in particular in order to argue whether the work seeks to elicit that sentimental liberal reaction, or if that’s just the reaction any sentimental liberal would have when confronted with any book in the neo-slave narrative genre.

I actually think it’s useful to think about (some) Holocaust-related art and museums as a counterexample to The Known World. A lot of the photographs you see, of piles of bodies or shoes, elicit from the viewer a feeling of pity or disgust for the dead as dimension-less victims rather than as full people. (Many of those pictures were actually taken by the Nazis, which makes it very troubling that they are presently used in museums which seek to communicate the horrors of concentration camps.) I don’t want to go into this in too much detail, because one’s a picture and one’s a book and one’s real and one’s fictional etc, but I think the creator’s intent/ specifics of the work are crucial to understanding both examples. This seems obvious, but I think it’s important to reiterate because it’s really easy to go from “neo slave novels are moral porn” to “no one should write a neo slave novel because everyone is going to misread it”.

There is a real risk that comes with the representation of unthinkable horror — that people will understand it in a way that is actually politically/ morally damaging — but I think it’s unfair to Jones not to look into the things the book does which actively seek to combat certain types of sentimentality. I think the sheer number of characters, for example, prevents too strong an identification with any individual, such as one might have while reading Anne Frank’s diary or something. And to me, the revelation of the cause of death often right at the character’s introduction, meant there was no heightening of suspense and then resulting satisfaction. A lot of people said they felt like the book was sort of one note throughout, and were a little unnerved by the sense that nothing had happened by the end. I think that’s a really interesting piece of evidence when thinking about how the work resists representing the past as a drama into which we can throw ourselves (even if the book is immersive in other ways). But maybe I am just being too optimistic about what this book can and cannot do?

This also raises questions about the connection between the limitations of a genre and those of particular works. And, I think, questions about the connection between “genre” and “subject-matter” (as we started to talk about in class, between “slavery” and “its genre).

5 thoughts on “The Risks of Representing Past Suffering

  1. I don’t mean to shortchange Jones’ complex handling of slavery, its environments, and the ways that characters of various upbringings/races/religions/moral stances/etc. get implicated in it. (Hence my “even if…” qualification at the end of my sentence you quoted.) But I don’t think there’s any foolproof means by which artists dealing with such topics can (or should) avoid entangling themselves in charges of liberal sentimentality, even if there are obvious means by which they might wallow in such sentimentality. The difficulty is that any technique or series of techniques can always, with time, end up producing a kind of self-confirmation of horrors or suffering that readers might come to expect even before approaching a text that depicts them.

    • I realize now that my post seemed more like a specific response to your comment, and less like what I wanted it to be, which was an opening to discussion about what we should expect from art works on politically and morally charged topics. In my own reading experience, I’ve definitely felt less inclined to pursue a more subtle understanding of a work if it seems like I’m being hit over the head with the importance of slavery, or the Holocaust, or something, and I think that is crippling.

      I think the main thing I wanted to bring out is the difference between a work’s aiming to elicit “liberal sentimentality”, and the tendency of certain readers to read anything that deals with something horrible with that attitude. Also, your point that “any technique or series of techniques can always, with time, end up producing a kind of self-confirmation of horrors…that readers might come to expect” makes sense in a theoretical way (this might be a political way of thinking about how a work becomes “dated”) but I think that anticipating a work’s eventual futility discourages readers from having a conversation about how the creator thought of the work’s role at the moment he was writing it.

  2. Don’t have a ton to add here, but do want to follow up on your comment about lack of identification/a sort of glazing over when confronted with the density of the novel. I get your argument about why that might be a good thing in some respects, forcing readers to think about the novel as a whole without a simple story to latch on to. But I do think that technique, at least in part, can be used to convey the same sort of “moral porn” we’ve been wary of this whole time. My personal example of this is Crash, which is just a ridiculous movie/arguably the Girls Gone Wild of moral porn – in the movie, there are definitely characters who have arcs we’re meant to identify with, but it also seems like we’re supposed to take those many characters and their interactions (in a way reminiscent of network fiction) as building a world or network more important than any one character’s story, sort of the same way The Known World does. Not sure if that comparison is helpful or not, I also may just hate Crash.

    • Yeah, I think you’re right that just because a book is striving to create a “world” through a network doesn’t mean that it is necessarily less likely to become “moral porn” than something that follows an individual person’s arc the whole time. Maybe even having all of these narratives ends up producing shallow characters in the same way reducing a character to a victim would. I guess I’m just frustrated at the idea that we can describe any work which deals with suffering (real or fake) with this same “moral porn” name. I guess it can apply to a variety of styles/ techniques, but would you say that Crash is “moral porn” in a way very different from TKW, or is there something essential they share that justifies saying that they are both, in some way, the same thing? (Sorry, I never did end up seeing Crash…)

      • I’m actually not sure that The Known World would qualify as moral porn (if that’s the phrase we’re using) in quite the same way. It doesn’t fetishize “healing” in quite the same way.

        I do think that your frustration speaks to something important about this whole concept – it’s mostly dependent on the way readers/viewers react to the art, which means pretty much anything can be treated as moral porn by a given viewer. It’s probably a bit harder (though also more valuable) to identify a different set of criteria for knowing when the work itself is actually trying to do that.

        Don’t see Crash.

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