Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative

Thomas W. Laqueur

in The New Cultural History

Published by University of California Press

Published in print March 1989 | ISBN: 9780520064287
Published online May 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520908925 | DOI:
Bodies, Details, and the Humanitarian Narrative

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This chapter shows the potential of new literary techniques in cultural history for enriching more traditional social history topics. It also argues that humanitarianism depended in part on the development of a constellation of narrative forms—the realistic novel, the enquiry, and the medical case history—which created a sense of veracity and sympathy through narrative detail. It then asks how details about the suffering bodies of others engender compassion and how that compassion comes to be understood as a moral imperative to undertake ameliorative action. Case histories and autopsies constitute humanitarian narratives. The systematic investigation of a particular patient's demise is paradigmatic of the sorts of narrative structures that make “humanitarianism” possible, even though these narratives are written in the icy language of science. Humanitarian narrative created dialectically its antithesis.

Keywords: humanitarian narrative; cultural history; humanitarianism; novel; enquiry; medical case history

Chapter.  11451 words. 

Subjects: Theory and Practice of Anthropology

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