I’d like to discuss Diana Tietjens Meyers’ look at the edifying value of victims’ stories in her 2016 Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights in comparison to José Medina’s suggestion of ‘resistant imagination’ in his 2013 The Epistemology of Resistance. I suggest Medina’s concept has the potential to facilitate how victims’ stories can be morally motivating narratives.
Meyers explores the importance of listening to and understanding victims’ stories, and explains this merits changes not just to theoretical accounts of what exactly such stories are and what they do morally, but also to their legal and political use. I’ll focus on the former, and Meyers’ proposed update to our concept of narrative structure.
In traditional accounts of such structure, narratives with moral urgency must begin with a “steady state” of morally neutral (or acceptable) circumstance that’s disrupted and then repaired. Meyers shows, with vivid examples, that the “very conditions that others regard as legitimate and ordinary are the cause of their victimization.” In distinction to those traditional accounts of structure, their stories ex vi termini begin and end morally fraught.
As Meyers points out, the change to our theoretical account of narrative structure must include a form of narrative closure that isn’t a resolution but “a moral void” and “a moral demand.” These stories are morally complete narratives, and the sort of moral completion they involve is a response of “moral self-examination,” where readers are lead by the all-around fraught narrative toward a “clarion moral appeal.”
Medina explores the serious imperative of our “need to reimagine our categories . . . so that our reconceptualizations redirect our ordinary practices and our ways of relating to each other.” The personal and political effects of injustice and oppression merit more than merely working within the common and accepted practices of knowledge creation and production, but going further, so as to leave open the possibility of an effective and proactive response to the experiences of others who live (let alone work) within those practices that are not common or accepted.
Medina offers various concepts we might use to better understand this need from the point-of-view of someone who is outside those othered experiences, with the key concept being the imperative for resistant imagination.
If we are to critically examine and morally improve how we engage with others, if we’re to look closely at our daily practices and what we habitually recognize as permittable and unacceptable possibilities of social growth and melioration, one area that can be relevant to opening up latent conceptual space is our imaginative sensibilities. Medina directly positions his account of resistant imagination as direction for this potential.
Exploring the concept of imagination, he begins in the context of fiction, a common area for such exploration, and initially asks a question drawn out of the work of Tamar Szabo Gendler:
Why do we experience such resistance when invited to entertain fictional scenarios that violate our moral intuitions and values, and not when asked to imagine fictional worlds that violate our factual sense or the laws of physics? (Medina, 254)
We have a difficult time with the invitation to imagine a moral world different than ours, especially if that world conflicts with our own, or even causes us to imagine ourselves with more culpability than the ‘real’ moral world we feel comfortable and live in.
This causes us to develop what Medina calls imaginative resistance, where rather than the usual hypothetical reasons we use in other forms of reasoning (“cold counterfactuals”), we’re presented with scenarios where our affective and sociopolitical realities are put into serious question (“hot counterfactuals”).
Presented with a fictional scenario that implicates us in moral harm, our imagination itself becomes resistant, and places us further away from the possibility of that world to sustain our individual ‘real’ world stability.
Steel Wool spinning, Ballarat East, 2012 by Peter Thurgood
This sort of response is exactly what Medina suggests we switch out: imaginative resistance for resistant imagination. Instead of our allowing our imagination to control how we react to moral scenarios that are uncommon or harmful to our sense of stability within our real “positionality and relationality,” we can instead use these fictive differences to instigate what he calls “epistemic counterpoints,” where the difference we experience itself becomes a cause for moral education and the possibility of better understanding what we have yet to experience ourselves.
The resistance of our imagination not to the transgression of its limits but, inversely, to the limits of our transgression where “what is to be avoided is letting one particular imaginative horizon or frame rule the day and become hegemonic . . . and making the subjects who grow under their influence become insensitive to the blind spots of the frame.”
Medina suggests this sort of resistance can move beyond our engagement with fictional worlds, and expand into our engagement with the real experiences of others who live lives we can only imagine, so as to be vigilant towards and repair “the circulation of ways of imagining collective subjectivities (e.g., racial or sexual identities) that demean them and prevent their inclusion in the community or their equal standing within it.”
“communication” by Chris Garcia
Medina’s concept of resistant imagination, then, seems relevant to and useful for Meyers’ account of how we might better approach and engage with victims’ stories.
To reimagine our categories, as Medina suggests, in order to include those different than us, one (admittedly rather small) part of this is to reimagine our category of narrative structure.
Victims’ stories can be both complete narratives and morally motivating accounts. An explanation of how to imaginatively resist the thought that narratives must begin and end with morally positive (or neutral) circumstances, the idea that motivation can come from a story’s ending morally fraught rather than morally resolved, is located within a combination of Meyers’ and Medina’s insightful books.
If the victim’s story ends with implicating the reader themselves, even, that reader can realize this as a chance they have to imagine what it’s like ‘on the other side’, to realize sometimes it doesn’t get better, that it still hasn’t, and that there’s a need for their work towards a real world that matches up morally both with their own experiences and those of others, even and imperatively when such a possibility seems unimaginable.
Diana Tietjens Meyers. Victims’ Stories and the Advancement of Human Rights. Oxford UP. 2016.
José Medina. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford UP. 2013.