Michael Householder, PhD. Wednesday, 10 December 2014, 4:00-5:30pm. Crawford Hall, room 618.. Title: Doing Ethics in the Dark: Narrative, Drama, and Ethical Judgment. Michael Householder is Associate Director of SAGES and Adjunct Instructor of English at Case Western Reserve University.
Abstract: It has become common practice for medical education and bioethics programs to use literary texts to teach students how to be ethical clinicians and researchers. In the fields of literary studies and the cognitive sciences, however, the questions of whether and how a reading experience produces a reader who acts ethically are hotly contested. Proponents of literature’s value have attempted to articulate the interaction between narrative and ethical judgment (Booth 1988; Nussbaum 1995; Phelan 2007). Their work draws attention to the ways in which the act of reading “demands both immersion and critical conversation, comparison of what one has read both with one’s own unfolding experience and with the responses and arguments of other readers” (Nussbaum 1995). In this paper, I consider the question of whether these immersive and conversational aspects of reading exist strictly (or at least more richly) in longer fictional narratives, as Nussbaum contends, or if they apply equally to other narrative forms, for example case studies, or other modes of reading experience, such as viewing a dramatic performance. As an illustration, I examine the Cleveland Play House production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Informed Consent, the dramatization of a true story about a genetic researcher whose drive to find scientific truth causes her to violate the cultural beliefs of her Native American research subjects. In specific, I identify the script’s and production’s strategies for immersing the audience in the narrative’s storyworld, as well as how it invites audience members to assume various ethically-conflicted cognitive stances within it. I also consider how reading the narrative as a member of a flesh-and-blood theatrical audience reconfigure the conditions and effects of an immersive reading experience, as well as the impact that audience members’ reactions (e.g., laughter, applause, tears) have on the formation of ethical judgment.