In this episode of High Theory, Laura Wittman tells us about near death experiences. The central feature of these experiences is a vision and a story, which it turns out are a lot stranger than the “best seller” version. These narrative encounters with death often inspire people to make dramatic moves in search of a more meaningful life, from newfound religious faith or activist commitments to career changes and divorce.
In the episode, she talks about the changes in what makes a good death, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, and how the narratives of near death experiences reflect our desires for older forms of sociality around life’s passing. She references Oliver Sacks’s book Hallucinations (Random House, 2012) in regards to the visions patients experience in hospitals, and their desire for a witness in the moments of lucidity that often occur before death.
Laura Wittman is an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University. She teaches nineteenth and twentieth century literature, and her research focuses on what happens to religious experience in the so-called secular modern age. Her book, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body (Toronto UP, 2011) has recently been translated into Italian as Il Milite ignoto. Storia e Mito. (LEG, 2021) She also coordinates the Medical Humanities Working Group at the Stanford Humanities Center.
This week’s image is a photograph of the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier in La Jolla, California, taken by Kim Adams in November 2022. On the top of the pier is a research site for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
Merel Visse and Inge van Nistelrooij talk with Kim about Care Ethics.
Over the course of the episode, we discuss works by many care ethicists and other philosophically inclined thinkers. Prominent among these is Joan Tronto, whose book Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice (NYU Press, 2013) offers a political approach to the practice of care. Also discussed are Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard UP, 1982; useful excerpt available here) and Francois Jullien’s The Silent Transformations (trans. Krysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson, Seagull Books / Chicago UP, 2011).
Several of Merel and Inge’s publications are discussed in the episode as well. You can read their co-authored article, “Me? The invisible call of responsibility and its promise for care ethics: a phenomenological view” in Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy (2019) 22: 275–285. Full lists of publications are available for Inge here and Merel here.
Both our guests are members of the Care Ethics Group at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Inge van Nistelrooij is an Associate Professor of Care Ethics at the University of Humanistic Studies and an endowed professor of Dialogical Self Theory (DST) at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Merel Visse is the Director of the Medical and Health Humanities Program at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey and an associate professor in Care Ethics at the University of Humanistic Studies.
This week’s image is an undated painting titled “Resting” by Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-1941).
Music used in promotional material: ‘Peace of the Night’ by Crowander