Oliver, Kelly

Assigned: Oliver, Kelly. “Witnessing and Testimony” (2496-2505). Also read the editors’ introduction (2494-96).

“Witnessing and Testimony” (2004)

1. On 2496-97 (“Contemporary debates in social theory…”), on what basis does Kelly Oliver challenge what she says are multicultural theorists’ and activists’ claims that they are primarily engaged in “struggles for recognition” (2496)? Why does she think the deeper struggle is over something more than that, and what is that “something more”? What is the first risk that Oliver sees in demands for “recognition”—what might make them result in more harm than good?

2. On 2497-98 (“Additionally, the need to demand…”), what additional problem does Oliver identify with “the need to demand recognition from the dominant culture” (2497)? Why do demands for recognition from an oppressor risk psychological damage and dependency on the part of the ones making the demand? According to Oliver, in what sense is the oppressor (i.e., the “subject,” in the present context) often put in a position of privilege that resembles the initial position from which the oppression was perpetrated?

3. On 2498 (“Some contemporary theorists seem to think…”), why, according to Oliver, is it not advantageous to concentrate on misrecognition as a way of coming to terms with oppression against vulnerable people? What does Oliver suggest such theories are in fact very good at explaining? All the same, what detrimental effects does normalizing the “neo-Hegelian model” of struggle have on any subsequent attempt to develop a more positive relationship amongst various groups, including those who have mistreated others and those who have been mistreated?

4. On 2498-2500 (“In Witnessing: Beyond Recognition, I associate…”), Oliver says that she prefers to “associate the pathos beyond recognition inherent in struggles for recognition…” with “witnessing in its full and double sense” (2598). What “double sense” of witnessing is she referring to, and what advantages does it confer on those who are searching for a model of subjectivity that opens up the best path to addressing grievous wrongs? What “tension inherent in the notion of witnessing” (2498) does Oliver refer to, and how does she suggest this tension may be dealt with in the most constructive way? In particular, what distinction does she make between different models of subjectivity; i.e., between the “phenomenological subject” and the “psychoanalytic subject” (2499 middle)?

5. On 2500-01 (“Any theory of subjectivity must also…”), how does Oliver define and explore the key concepts “subjectivity” and “subject position” (2500 top), and how does she present the relationship between them? How does she employ architect Frei Otto’s discussion of the Brooklyn Bridge’s suspension system to help her illustrate this relationship? (2500-01) Whenever the concept of “subjectivity” is mentioned, there is likely to be some attempt to grapple with the relative degree of freedom or agency that an individual has. What is your assessment of Oliver’s explanation of subjectivity and subject position in this regard?

6. On 2501-03 (“An example recounted in Dori Laub’s…”), what insight about the “productive tension between subject position and subjectivity” (2501) does Oliver draw from psychoanalyst Dori Laub’s analysis of a Holocaust survivor’s recounting of an act of rebellion in the concentration camp at Auschwitz, Poland? Why did historians dismiss the woman’s testimony, and what value did psychoanalysts like Laub assert against the historians’ assessment? According to Oliver (following Dori Laub), what did the psychoanalysts understand about the value of the woman’s story that historians looking for “just the facts” simply could not see? What did Laub apparently mean by his term “inner witness” (2501 bottom), and what is the difference between “eyewitness” and “bearing witness” (2502-03)?

7. On 2503-04 (“Consider the recent controversy over…”), how does Oliver try to convey the complexity of any reasonably adequate model for appreciating what witnesses to history offer? Why is it vital to consider both “subject position and socio-historical context” (2503) whenever one is talking about subjectivity in connection with historical truth? Why, too, is it important to acknowledge that “‘an experiential connection between self and others exists right from birth’”  (2504), as Oliver indicates by way of quoting Gallagher and Meltzoff on the early formation of subjectivity?

8. On 2504-05 (“At the most fundamental level…”), how does Oliver apply the insights of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to her analysis of subjectivity and witnessing? In particular, in what direction does she take Levinas’ idea that we must be responsible not only for our own “feelings and actions” (2504) but for those of other people as well? How does Oliver tie this notion to recent violence and hatred directed against America by people from certain other parts of the world? What additional burden does Oliver place upon this “hyperbolic ethics” (2504 bottom)—what does “accounting for the unconscious” (2505) add to the potential in such ethics to ground an appropriate understanding of and response to anti-American sentiment and actions around the world? Confronted with extreme anger and sometimes with violence (9/11, etc.), what, according to Oliver, should we do instead of almost immediately resorting to a violent response?

9. General question: In “Witnessing and Testimony,” Kelly Oliver suggests that the United States should, in so many words, “look within” before attacking those who do us grievous harm, as did Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda in 2001. This piece was published in 2004, so the obvious context is the “War on Terror,” the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan (still ongoing today—it is by now America’s longest war), and the Second Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. How do you assess the relative success or lack of success of these intensive efforts? Moreover, how do you assess the political means of justifying them to the American public? For example, President George W. Bush (aka “43” to distinguish him from his father, “41”) notably said of the people we were fighting, “They hate us for our freedom.” Is that an adequate explanation of what happened? Why or why not?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake