Treatments, Ch 5: Between Two Deaths; Practices of Witnessing, Diablog Part 4

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In chapter five of Treatments, Diedrich questions the possibilities and impossibilities of illness narratives to write and read the body. She begins by asking a series of questions about the relationship between language and embodiment within illness narratives. Diedrich asks,
"Is the experience of embodiment determined and structured by language? What is lost in the attempt--the urgency even--to bring the body to language? Can we encounter the body outside of or prior to language? Can we tell stories and bear witness, not only about the body but also through the body?" (115)
The chapter centers on the "telling and listening" and "language memoirs" in Paul Monette's autobiographical accounts on HIV/AIDS and the mourning of his partner Roger Horowitz as well as John Bayley's writings on his wife, Iris Murdoch's, journey with Alzheimer's disease. These narratives offer a critical engagement with language(s) and embodiment.

"The experience and event of illness initiates a crisis of embodiment as well as a crisis of language" (116) Psychoanalysis is concerned with the ways language is negotiated, particularly in situations of crisis or trauma...Diedrich employs psychoanalysis as a theory that emerges out of "practices of witnessing" (116)
Diedrich is concerned with the intersubjectivity of those involved in "affective histories" (116) and the results of bringing them to language. Diedrich points out that to do affective history is to work through what Lacan called the "real."

"The Lacanian real is that which exceeds--is beyond the limit of--signification and cannot be brought to language." (116)

Similar to the way Lacan describes the real in relation to trauma, illness narratives also begin with traumatic experiences. The way illness disrupts time and locality. (117)
Lacan-ethical possibility, "between two deaths" (117) Zizek offers an explanation, "Lacan conceives this difference between two deaths as the difference between real (biological) death and its symbolization" (117). The inbetweenness that language cannot describe that is beyond symbolization (118). Monette and Bayley attempt to articulate this inbetween: for Monette the two deaths can be his and his partners and for Bayey they can be thought of as the 'death of the self" and subsequent "death of the body" through Alzheimer's. (118)
Diedrich writes, "Monette's and Bayley's works show the ways in which witnessing is not comprised of a single act of telling or listening, writing or reading, but is a practice that must be maintained even, or especially, as it appears to fail." (118)
Monette--
Monette's writing voice is described by Diedrich as an "ethical voice" ...a voice of witness connected intimately to his experiences of loss love, mortality (his own and others)" (119). See excerpt from Borrowed Time on page 119--
Diedrich asserts that her analysis aims to build on AIDS criticism by "reading Monette in relation to theories of witnessing that have developed roughly concurrently with the AIDS crisis." Diedrich's analysis is distinct in that it "diverges somewhat from the conventional literary critical reading of Monette's work toward a more phenomenological examination of its philosophical grounding and cultural context" (120).
Diedrich primarily reads these narratives through contemporary theories of subjectivity and the body by occupying feminist philosopher Kelly Oliver. Diedrich aims to question the "paradox of the eyewitness" that Oliver describes as the "paradox between the necessity and impossibility of testimony" (122). Oliver notes that we one must "cultivate our responsibility" to that which we "see and do not see, hear and do not hear, and know and do not know" (122).
Diedrich asks: "How does one become a responsible witness in Oliver's terms, and what kinds of personal and political transformations are enacted by this sort of witnessing?" (122) Diedrich pushed this further in pointing to the readers of these texts as already implicated in the process of witnessing and calls attention to our "response-abilty" to those that society has made "other."
"Where AIDS is concerned, bodies have been devalued and 'abjected' (reduced to vectors of disease and dehumanized) not just because of the way in which they are perceived as particular racial, classes and national bodies" (122).
Diedrich outlines her discussion of Monette's work through three key terms found in Oliver's work: History, Vigilance, and Working-Through.
History: the "impossible position" of having too much or too little knowledge about the illness (AIDS) and death. Also important to the history is identifying "time" and "place" for documenting Monette's AIDS narrative (123).
Diedrich points to Monette's discussion of "gay cancer" in 1981 as bearing witness to the knowledge of the self. Diedrich refers to Oliver's point that "it is through out relationship and our differences that I can begin to see something of myself...We experience our lives as flux and flow, full of surprises, even to ourselves" (124). Monette's realization of "gay cancer" and his subsequent question of " how is this not me?" point to a "movement outside of oneself toward the other or the not me" that is Oliver's next term: vigilance (124).
Vigilance: sleeping and waking for survival: see page 126 for passage form Dreaming of You" by Monette. "Monette's survival gives him an ethical responsibility to bear witness to Roger's death and his own and also to the death of a generation" (129).
Through Caruth's words, Diedrich urges readers of illness narratives to identify a "new kind of listening, the witnessing, precisely, of impossibility" (130).
Working-Through: Diedrich explains "working through" in Oliver's terms as "a profoundly ethical operation insofar as it forces us not only to acknowledge our relations and obligations to others--that is, the ethical foundations of subjectivity--but also thereby to transform those relations into more ethical relations through which we love or at least respect others rather than subordinate and kill them" (130).
See Monette's writings "Three Rings" and "3275" on page 131 to read his working through and bearing witness to his love and respect for others. Love is also a part of the bearing witness to the experience of his partner and countless others that lived with AIDS.

Bayley--
Diedrich begins discussing Bayley's "tragic and comic witnessing" of his wife's Alzheimer's by touching on "experience" as written by Joan Scott. Scott's articulation of experience calls attention to the way that experience is constructed. Diedrich highlights that it is not simply about "making visible that experience...and to reveal the ways that experience is not a reliable or self-evident source of knowledge" (135).
This notion of "experience" is significant to Bayley's rendering of his wife's disease Before and After. What is curious about his memoir about his wife's illness is that Diedrich suggests that the memoirs are more about Bayley than they are about Murdoch and her life with Alzheimer's. Diedrich notes that like Scott, she aims to problematize memoir-writing and its relationship to experience (138).
Iris Murdoch's "unselfing":(138) assists in witnessing the comic and the tragic as an ethical practice. Murdoch's description of a tragedy was that "must break the ego" (139).
Diedrich asks: "is it possible for Bayley's memoirs to put into language Murdoch's experience as she transgresses the limits of the self, and becomes a self unselfed, beyond itself?" (139) Diedrich states that she is interested in the failed attempts to "make sense, give form and offer consolation" within illness narratives and she asks "what might this failure signal in terms of ethics?" (140)
Bayley attempts to relate to Murdoch through what Diedrich refers to as "surreal way" through unconscious communication (145)
As Diedrich wraps up she points to Murdoch's disease as an "epistemological crisis" and asks through Bayley's voice, "how can I know?" Diedrich asserts that "this is what all communication is: we can't hear--and know--the thing (the 'experience,' the real) itself in the moment, we can only listen for its echo, its effects in time" (146-147).

Questions: What do you make of the vigilance of professing to "only sleep when dead" by Monette? (127)
Do you agree that the moan from three rings is beyond speech/language...the "real" as suggested by Diedrich? (132-133)
How does Scott's "experience" relate to "speaking for another"? What can "experience" (ours? Others?) teach us? Can it teach us?
It seems that Bayley himself was "transformed" by his wife's disease. Is this reason enough to center himself in her illness narrative? (138)
Does Bayley accurately portray Murdoch's Alzheimer's as tragedy in Murdoch's sense of the word? Or is this all about him? (141)
Bayley is on the outside of "experience", as a spouse, but definitely not within. What is at stake for him to assume this role?
What does Jackson tell us about Murdoch's "experience" with her disease? (143)
What do both memoirs tell us about bearing witness? Is it always possible to bear witness in illness narratives?
How does the hierarchical relationship of the caregiver and person receiving care play out in these memoirs?
Where do Karma Chavez and Lisa Marie Cacho fit in these discussions of illness/death narratives, bearing witness and "experience"?
What are the new forms of public and private language that Diedrich urges us to find?

3 Comments

This may be too much, but Chavez names the case of Victoria Arellano "tragic" ( i believe this was an issue for some people when we discussed in class...) can Murdoch's definition of tragedy teach us something new about the choice to name this case "tragic"? or, does Chavez's study speak more of the ethical representation and "experience" of another? What about Cacho's article? Where does it fit in the illness and death memoirs?
Could Foucault's biopower have been useful in Chavez's discussion of Arellano's life?
Sorry if this is too far reaching, Diedrich just made me think a lot about our past readings.

Lots of excellent questions there, Reina. They'll be great for class discussion!

For now, I'd like to comment that I'm not entirely sure, without actually reading Widower's House, that it's all about him, or more about him than it is about Murdoch, and even after reading it I don't know if I would know (how can I know? I can't! haha :D). The discussion of the unselfing of both Bayley and Murdoch makes me think about Judith Butler's discussion of when we are undone, or beside ourselves. For Butler, I think, the death of someone, especially the death of one with whom someone formed most of their life, who them self transformed who the other was, blurs the distinction between Bayley and Murdoch. While Diedrich's critique and analysis of Bayley is well taken, I feel almost as if she grazes at "judging a person" rather than "judging a work" as she speculates on whether Bayley is just getting "mileage" out of Murdoch's death and illness, or if it really is something he's doing for personal therapy. Again, I'm apprehensive about this approach to Bayley. Perhaps I would respond in a similar way as Diedrich if I'd read the book, but I cannot be sure.

I totally get that she was "judging" Bayley! haha! good call! I think she did such a good job of it that I soo bought into it as well. The mileage comment comes to mind and also her mention of him as a "sexual athlete"! (WTH?!? baha) I can see where you are going with the unselfing as becoming undone...I guess I am really interested in this blurring of caretaker and person receiving care. I was also thinking of Murdoch more as having her own voice, especially with all her publications and Diedrich's "reading" of her work. So would you say the unselfing blurs the distinction of Bayley and Murdoch enough for him to claim the "tragedy" as his own? is this even what he is doing? will/can we ever know?

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