Witnessing

Much like Joe, I am going to reach back into the work that I did for our class on trauma and relate it to “Trauma: Theory” and Kind One. For a research paper that we did in that class, I focused on the idea of “witnessing” and it’s role in literature that relays traumatic experiences.  Toremans addresses witnessing on p. 345 of “Trauma: Theory” and he seems to portray the reader of the traumatic literature and the writer of the traumatic literature as the “witness” of the trauma, when he addresses “the crisis of witnessing (or, we might add, reading)” and says, “In the end, however, ‘the crisis, in effect, had been worked through and overcome and…a resolution had been reached’ resulting in ‘an amazingly articulate, reflective and profound statement of the trauma they had gone through and of the significance of their assuming the position of the witness.'” (De Man via Toremans 345). In this passage, the writer – the one who relays the trauma – is the witness. This is very much in line with the paper I wrote for my class on trauma theory, which dealt with the definition of witness. 

The article from which I drew my definition of “witnessing” is “Witnessing and Testimony,” by Kelly Oliver.  (Here’s a link to that article: http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/philosophy/_people/faculty_files/_oliver%20witnessingand%20testimony.pdf)

Here was my explanation of relevant parts of that article: 

In her essay “Witnessing and Testimony,” Kelly Oliver makes reference to her previous work Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, in which she enters a discussion within social theory about the “demand or struggle for recognition by marginalized or oppressed people, groups, and cultures”(Witnessing and Testimony 78).  She argues that oppressed social groups do not seek merely recognition, but rather witnessing.  Witnessing, she says, appeals to pathos to satisfy the oppressed people’s “demands for retribution and compassion” (78) in a way that recognition cannot do.  Recognition, she explains, merely perpetuates oppression by continuing to separate the “recognizer” (the oppressor) from the “recognizee” (the oppressed) (78).  Instead of helping the oppressor to accept and appreciate the otherness of the oppressed, recognition finds the similarity between the oppressor and the oppressed so that the oppressor may “assimilate difference back into sameness” (79).  In this way, the oppressor does not have to accept anything unfamiliar.  Oliver asserts that when the “struggles for recognition” and the “testimonies to atrocity” by the oppressed finally bring “justice” (78), it is the result of not only recognition, but also of the “pathos beyond recognition,” or “witnessing in its full and double sense” (79) (emphasis added).  The two senses of witnessing to which she refers here are “eye-witness[ing] and bearing witness to what cannot be seen” (79).   In this model, eye witnessing is reporting testimony correctly according to the events that actually occurred (83), whereas bearing witness is reporting or sensing something that cannot be seen (84).

In terms of Kind One, I think there are a few important points from Oliver to consider in regards to traumatic experiences, witnessing, and recognition.  

In one sense, Kind One addresses the oppressed social group of the African American slaves. But it also addresses the oppression of single characters and also of women. Regardless, there are plenty of examples of oppressed people(s) in this novel, and they all “struggle for recognition” and try to bring about “justice,” just as Oliver explains. I think that the many accounts that make up Kind One, along with the many stories within those accounts, demonstrate the power and effects of recognition and witnessing in relaying trauma and bringing about justice. For example, Ginny, Zinnia, Prosper, and Lucious all act as witnesses when they narrate their own accounts. Ginny relays much of the story, seeking the recognition and justice that might allow her to forget the past and forgive herself. Zinnia does much the same thing. Both of these characters seem to act as eye witnesses (while they relay the events as they occurred) and as bearers of witness (as they reveal their feelings and emotions to us). Prosper and Lucious, on the other hand, help to give us (the readers) complete knowledge of the events surrounding the lives of Ginny and Zinnia, and they thereby act as eye witnesses. 

I think it is also important to consider Alcofibras as a bearer of witness in this novel because he uses his stories relate aspects of situations that he senses but that could not be seen by others (this is exactly what Oliver explains). 

Finally, another aspect of Kind One that we might consider alongside Oliver’s theory has to do with Ginny and the slave narrative. In my explanation of Oliver’s thoughts on recognition, I wrote, “Instead of helping the oppressor to accept and appreciate the otherness of the oppressed, recognition finds the similarity between the oppressor and the oppressed so that the oppressor may ‘assimilate difference back into sameness’ (79).  In this way, the oppressor does not have to accept anything unfamiliar.” I think that by putting Ginny – a white woman – in the role as narrator of the slave narrative, Kind One at first enables its readers – who often (at least in the case of our class) come from the role of the “oppressor” (as white Americans) – to find the similarities between the oppressor and the oppressed (white Ginny as slave, and African American Zinnia and Cleome as slaves) and, thereby, to not have to accept anything unfamiliar. However, I think that as Kind One progresses, it becomes more and more clear that “unfamiliar” must, in fact, be confronted. 

Admittedly, I have come to no conclusions whatsoever, but I hope my thoughts have been even somewhat coherent!

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