of Violence and Aggression
2002 NEMLA Convention
indication of the absent, is fundamental to the structure and employment
of language and yet is deemed unethical at root by some 20th century
ethical philosophers. Yet it is in the 20th century, when one can
stand before piles of shoes in holocaust museums and architects
are planning to project with lasers an enormous and ghostly Twin
Towers onto the New York skyline like an amputated limb, that the
question of representing the deceased or dispossessed has taken
on new urgency: how can we present the dead ethically, especially
if our instruments are deemed unethical? How can we say Nagasaki,
Dachau, or slavery in the U.S. without feeling as if we are disinterring
the dead for our own petty purposes?
For recent French ethical philosophers (I will speak to Levinas, specifically, as his work comprises the most fully developed ethics, though theorists such as Heidegger, Deleuze and Derrida voice similar complaints), the problem with representation is simple, if damning: Levinas argues that it is impossible to represent, to speak for, an other without claiming to know him -- to understand him in his totality (an act of narcissism, suppressing that which makes the other unique -- "totalizing" him, to use Levinas' term). This totalization results in part from the use a representer necessarily makes of his object: representation of one by another is cooptive insofar as the representer has rhetorical goals. (Think of the recent commercials by Chevrolet, wherein we are advised, in the wake of September 11th, to show patriotism and to "keep America rolling" by purchasing a Chevy. Suddenly, the New York deaths are memorialized, honored, when we ride over obstacles in our gleaming SUVs.) I don't disagree with these theorists: representation is rhetorical by nature. In fact, esthetics itself is inseparable from rhetoric. Rhetoric is a set of esthetic decisions made in order to most effectively engage and interact with a reader, to capture his accord. Or, to state it in a manner which takes into account the unconscious or involuntary aspects of creation, a rhetorical position is the result of any esthetic decision -- each grammatical sentence is a vote for the agreed-upon rules of communication; each exploded Faulknerian sentence questions those conventions and the ideologies behind them. Conversely, insofar as an author's esthetics is by definition an attempt to present beauty, it is rhetorical in nature, as it must convince its audience that a nude, a heavily impastoed or unprepared canvas, or a man with both eyes on one side of his face is beautiful. Additionally, it must convince us that the episteme encoded in any esthetic decision represents the world in a recognizably "true" manner.
Because Harriet Jacobs' rhetorical goals are stated clearly in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and because her rhetorical tools are the classic literary representational ones -- as opposed, say, to Ashbery's multitude of voices, which is a novel and too-easily-misunderstood rhetorical device -- Jacobs' work makes for a clear introduction to the relationship between esthetics/rhetoric and ethics.
To begin, here are Jacobs' goals, as defined by herself:
I have not written my experiences in order to attract attention to myself.... But I do earnestly desire to arouse the women of the North to a realizing sense of the condition of two millions of women at the South, still in bondage, suffering what I suffered, and most of them far worse. I want to add my testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free States what Slavery really is. Only by experience can any one realize how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations. (Jacobs, 1-2)
Reader, it is not to awaken sympathy for myself that I am telling you truthfully what I suffered in slavery. I do it to kindle a flame of compassion in your hearts for my sisters who are still in bondage, suffering as I once suffered. (Jacobs, 29)
professed purpose is to convince an audience of Northern white women
of the monstrous nature of slavery in the U.S. In fact, her book
is a call to arms: it intends to mobilize its audience to do what
it can toward the abolition of slavery. Its means? The instillation
of compassion in the reader by placing her in a sympathetic relation
to slaves. Given Jacobs' intentions, let us note some moments wherein
her esthetics succeed in eliciting this sympathy.
you happy free women, contrast your New Year's day with that of
the poor bond-woman! With you it is a pleasant season, and the light
of the day is blessed. Friendly wishes meet you every where, and
gifts are showered upon you. Even hearts that have been estranged
from you soften at this season, and lips that have been silent echo
back, 'I wish you a happy New Year.' Children bring their little
offerings, and raise their rosy lips for a caress. They are your
own, and no hand but that of death can take them from you.
presentation seems wrought, typical of the then-popular Sentimentalist
style, but the underlying structure is still affective in our time,
when sentimentalism seems mawkish. First, Jacobs gives her reader
a sense of similarity: the slave, like you, is a mother. This invites
you to consider how you yourself would feel if you lived in fear
of your children's being taken away. You are placed deftly into
her shoes by a manifestation of what Charles Bernstein calls in
his A Poetics art's "absorptive" qualities. Yet at the
same time the reader is not permitted to see the slave as another
version of herself: as the slave's sorrows are "peculiar"
to her situation, the reader can't know her. By mapping the slave's
life onto the reader's, Jacobs engenders a moment of cathexis: in
the reader's mind, the slave becomes another I. Jacobs at once recalls
a reader to the unbridgeable lacuna in the experience of the slave
and the reader, an example of the "antiabsorptive" in
art. It is in this moment, wherein Jacobs, having hooked a reader
into a relationship with the slave, tugs on the line, that a reader
can be pulled out of herself: a sympathetic moment is created wherein
a reader is forced to leave her own position and attempt (with the
knowledge that she will fail) to inhabit that of the depicted slave.
In trembling in this precarious position, feeling at once the slave's
pain and recognizing her inability even to conceive of such pain,
a sense of responsibility for the suffering other is born in her.
Could you have seen that mother clinging to her child, when they fastened the irons upon his wrists; could you have heard her heartrending groans, and seen her bloodshot eyes wander wildly from face to face, vainly pleading for mercy; could you have witnessed this scene as I saw it, you would exclaim, Slavery is damnable! (Jacobs, 23)
course, the implication of "could you have" is "you
cannot." The reader, Jacobs makes clear, can sympathize, but
she cannot empathize, because, even though the slave and the reader
share a common humanity, the slave's experience is nothing like
that of the reader. And yet it is this fact, this alterior position
of the other, that draws the reader's care.
my childhood I knew a valuable slave, named Charity, and loved her,
as all children did. Her young mistress married, and took her to
Louisiana. Her little boy, James, was sold to a good sort of master.
He became involved in debt, and James was sold again to a wealthy
slaveholder, noted for his cruelty. With this man he grew up to
manhood, receiving the treatment of a dog. After a severe whipping,
to save himself from further infliction of the lash, with which
he was threatened, he took to the woods. He was in a most miserable
condition -- cut by the cowskin, half naked, half starved, and without
the means of procuring a crust of bread.
may react with sympathetic horror to this chillingly clinical account
of torture. Yet, unlike other individuals whose lives are depicted
in Incidents, whom Jacobs fleshes out with recognizable attributes,
whether physical or personal, James is given none in her description
of his death. By leaving only a vague sketch of his body and none
of his personality, Jacobs presents James as a mannequin, as everyslave.
Because the reader isn't permitted to experience the human aspect
of the situation, to feel with (sym - path) the slave or even with
his mother, she cannot experience the sympathy which leads to an
ethical encounter, which animates the slave as a living human other.
The slave, depicted as -- positioned rhetorically as -- an automaton,
a generality, is totalized; as such, a reader may easily read meaning
out of him: he is Slave physically tortured and consumed by the
machine that produces cotton. He is a Statement about the effects
of the institution of slavery on slaves' bodies. No longer an individual,
James is an archetype, a symbol. This universality means, however,
that to the reader he is not recognizably a particular, historical
person. By this presentation, with its esthetics/rhetoric, James
becomes generalized: a metaphor to manipulate, not a man.
The light that permits encountering something other than the self, makes it encountered as if this thing came from the ego. The light, brightness, is intelligibility itself; making everything come from me, it reduces every experience to an element of reminiscence. (Time, 68)
is represented is rendered intelligible, knowable; what is known,
totalized, is no more than my perception of it, what I think about
it: it is no more than my projection of myself onto the object of
perception, blotting out its alterity. Yet we have seen the way
in which successful representation may engender sympathy on the
part of a reader. Representation is not totalizing insofar as sympathy
implies the sympathizer cannot know, can only feel along with. As
Jacobs stated at the head of this essay, "I want to add my
testimony to that of abler pens to convince the people of the Free
States what Slavery really is. Only by experience can any one realize
how deep, and dark, and foul is that pit of abominations."
(Jacobs, 2) Her mission as author is to give her reader the "experience"
of slavery, which she recognizes is impossible. Instead, she opens
the reader up to thinking about, to imagining herself in, bondage:
the reader cannot literally experience slavery, but she may have
an experience of it; she cannot empathize with a slave, but she
can sympathize. It is the reader's sympathy that keeps representation
from totalizing, so representation must be convincing, gripping
to the reader in order to bring about an ethical encounter. That
is, ethics in representational art depends on the reader's response
to the text, her appreciation of its esthetics (which is at once
agreement with its rhetoric). While Levinas denies the possibility
that the ethical impulse may be brought about by interaction with
an absent other, as this demonstration attempts to show, this ethical
encounter is in fact possible through representation, which may
induce a reader to sympathy and a recognition of the unknowable,
unreachable nature of the other. These are the ingredients for ethics
-- the feeling of responsibility for the other. Additionally, the
means by which a reader comes to sympathize with a character (which
lead to ethics) are the same as those by which she comes to sympathize
with the text itself (which is enjoyment).