In this dissertation I ask: How can individuals and communities come to acknowledge practically meaningful connections to the suffering of distant others? I name such acknowledgment “the cultivation of responsiveness”, and my task is explain what this means, why it matters, and what tends to facilitate or obstruct it. In particular, I explore the role of narratives in facilitating or impeding the cultivation of responsiveness. I argue that the mimetic character of narratives, and our ability to abstract different things from different narratives, accounts for their capacity to promote or inhibit responsiveness. While the dissertation is written primarily in a diagnostic mode—what is the problem of responsiveness, and what is it about narratives that enable them both to facilitate and to impede it—I hope it is plain that I wrote it with a view to encouraging the cultivation of responsiveness in the face of suffering of others.
The dissertation consists of six chapters that culminate in my argument about narratives and responsiveness. In chapter 1 I identify the problem of responsiveness that has gone unacknowledged in some recent thinking about political responsibility for structural injustice, and I elaborate my conception of responsiveness as the acknowledgment of practically meaningful connections to the suffering of distant others. I highlight the problem of responsiveness as, in some sense, a problem of narrative: Certain narratives seem to facilitate responsiveness, while others seem to impede it. I argue that structural injustice is a difficult site at which to begin cultivating responsiveness, and so I suggest turning to political disasters, while observing that such a turn might simultaneously frustrate our efforts to cultivate responsiveness.
Chapters 2, 3 and 4 serve several purposes. First and foremost, each introduces a different barrier to responsiveness: Thoughtlessness (in conversation with Hannah Arendt), bad faith (in conversation with Jean-Paul Sartre), and misrecognition (in conversation with Pierre Bourdieu). Second, in each chapter I seek to contribute something to our understanding of each thinker: In particular, I show that Arendt, Sartre and Bourdieu help to identify both a pathological and an ordinary form of the disposition that each identifies. The latter has tended to be under-emphasized, and in bringing it to the fore I seek to highlight unacknowledged tensions in their thought. Third, in each chapter I emphasize the role of narrative in sustaining or undermining thoughtlessness, bad faith, and misrecognition. Chapter 3 also develops the claim that cataclysmic events might facilitate or frustrate responsiveness.
In chapters 5 and 6, I turn to narrative as such and ask what it is about the narrative form that enables narratives both to facilitate, and to impede the cultivation of responsiveness in the ways that the preceding chapters illustrate. In chapter 5 I argue that the mimetic dimensions of our practical engagements with the world, and with the narratives by which we try to make of that world, account for the ways in which our implication in the suffering of others can be either illuminated or obscured. In chapter 6 I illustrate this argument through readings of two literary works: JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and Ian McEwan’s Atonement.