Seminar with Cheryl Mattingly: Narrative, Suffering and Possible Selves: Moral Experiments in the Good Life

Venue: Center for Sundhed og Samfund (CSS), Øster Farimagsgade 5A, room 5.0.22.

Time: August 18th 2014 2.00 pm – 3.30 pm

Host: Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies and the Danish Association of Anthropologists


This talk concerns the cultivation of a subjunctive or “experimental” narrative self.  It is based upon long-term research among African American parents raising children with chronic or severe illnesses and disabilities.  These parents often find themselves propelled to imagine and try to transform their lives. The moral engine of their efforts is a crucial “ground project” (Bernard Williams 1981) that I am calling “care of the intimate other.” There is a temporality to such projects of care that strongly suggests an inherent narrativity to ethical practice and its self-constituting nature. However, the notion of a narrative self has been widely unfashionable in many quarters.  Challenges are the product not only of postmodern/poststructuralist “death of the author” declarations but also emanate from concerns that a narrative self suggests too much coherence and a simple linear life story. Drawing upon one of the parents in my study whose four year old daughter faces probable death, I complicate this coherence portrait by examining how she tries to cultivate uncertainty through the simultaneous nurturing of multiple and mutually exclusive life plots.  This is directly related to her moral concern to cultivate new forms of hope in the face of her child’s grim prognosis.    

Cheryl Mattingly, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology and the Division of Occupational Science and Therapy, University of Southern California.  Her primary research and theoretical interests include: narrative, moral reasoning and experience, phenomenology, the culture of biomedicine, chronic illness and disability, the ethics of care, and health disparities in the United States.  She has published extensively on these topics and has received several awards from the American Anthropological Association for her publications. Major books include:  Healing Dramas and Clinical Plots:  the Narrative Structure of Experience (Cambridge University Press); The Paradox of Hope: Journeys Through a Clinical Borderland (University of California Press) and Moral Laboratories:  Family Peril and the Struggle for a Good Life (University of California Press, Forthcoming 2014).