(Re)Presentations of Violence and Aggression
2002 NEMLA Convention
Toronto, Ontario
12-13 April

Evan Willner
Boston University

Representing Violence and Violent Representation:
The Esthetics of Rhetoric and Harriet Jacobs' Use of Force

Do not cite without permission of the author.

Representation, 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)

And again:

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)

Jacobs' 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.

This passage is typical:

O, 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.
But to the slave mother New Year's day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns. She may be an ignorant creature, degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother's instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother's agonies. (Jacobs, 17)

The 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.
In a more apparent example of this giving-and-taking-back maneuver, we see Jacobs calling on a reader's sympathy by claiming that she can't possibly understand the degradation of slavery:

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)

Of 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.

Jacobs' mocking, exhorting tone plays on a reader's sense of guilt, asking her to perform the unpleasant act of making the relational move into the slave's world, trying but necessarily failing to imagine how it might feel to experience such a New Year's day. Emmanual Levinas claims that it is in precisely this movement, this "laying down by the ego of its sovereignty," seeing the other as unknowably other than oneself and then feeling subject to that other, sensing a responsibility for her, in which "we find ethics." ("Ethics," 85) According to Levinas' conception of the ethical encounter, it is within these moments, wherein a reader is pushed into a sympathetic relationship with the slave, that ethics is awakened; it is the very movement out of the self -- out of that which thinks about and knows -- into shifting and unchartable waters that constitutes ethics.
(For the sake of clarity, I am employing Levinas' definition of ethics: in Totality and Infinity, Levinas claims that "we name this calling into question of my spontaneity by the presence of the other, ethics" (43) -- that is, ethics is engendered in the moment when one realizes that he is and has always been responsible for the other, that he does not come into the world existentially free, cannot act spontaneously -- and, in "Martin Buber and the Theory of Knowledge," Levinas argues that ethics is not a set of moral precepts but is a responsibility to an other and to alterity in general.)

What we are witnessing in these passages, then, is the way in which the book's rhetoric, its esthetics, engenders its ethical affectivity. Jacobs' goal is here secondary: while by our moral standards undoubtedly in the right, the aim of her rhetoric makes no difference at this point. Rhetoric has two aspects to it: the final intention toward which it is employed (be it Jacobs' abolition of slavery or your purchase of a Chevy SUV), toward which rhetoric is mercenary -- any rhetorical tool may be employed toward any end. The second aspect of rhetoric is its need to convince its audience of the merit and goodness of the rhetoric itself, as well as that of the rhetor (the "ethos" of classical rhetoric). In order to achieve any goal, rhetoric must engender a sense of pleasure on the part of a reader in the rhetoric itself. It must cause esthetic pleasure, have an esthetics of its own. Therefore, no matter the final intention, the texts whose rhetoric pushes and pulls, absorbs and antiabsorbs, give their reader the opportunity to attempt to see the world from another point of view, to be sympathetic with the alterior in their very alterity, and thereby make possible an ethical encounter through literature. Because of this, the representation of a historical human being, the encompassing of him or her within rhetoric, is not necessarily cooptive -- it may, as in the case of the holocaust museum's pile of shoes, serve to confront a reader with the unassumable suffering of others.

But what happens when Jacobs' rhetoric fails? The effects of this can be addressed by attention to this description of a murder:

In 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.

Some weeks after his escape, he was captured, tied, and carried back to his master's plantation. This man considered punishment in his jail, on bread and water, after receiving hundreds of lashes, too mild for the poor slave's offence. Therefore he decided, after the overseer should have whipped him to his satisfaction, to have him placed between the screws of the cotton gin, to stay as long as he had been in the woods. This wretched creature was cut with the whip from his head to his feet, then washed with strong brine, to prevent the flesh from mortifying, and make it heal sooner than it otherwise would. He was then put into the cotton gin, which was screwed down, only allowing him room to turn on his side when he could not lie on his back. Every morning a slave was sent with a piece of bread and bowl of water, which were placed within reach of the poor fellow. The slave was charged, under penalty of severe punishment, not to speak to him.

Four days passed, and the slave continued to carry the bread and water. On the second morning, he found the bread gone, but the water untouched. When he had been in the press four days and five nights, the slave informed his master that the water had not been used for four mornings, and that a horrible stench came from the gin house. The overseer was sent to examine into it. When the press was unscrewed, the dead body was found partly eaten by rats and vermin. Perhaps the rats that devoured his bread has gnawed him before life was extinct. Poor Charity! (Jacobs, 48-9)

One 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.

Jacobs' generalized representation engenders the problems that Levinas claims representation is inherently heir to: totalization, deletion of the other's alterity in the name of the author's rhetorical goal. As the historical individual, James is generalized in order to make a point. No matter how morally right, in such a gesture the means are subsumed by the ends and ethics is surrendered in the name of morals. But this instance highlights the manner by which, when successful, when affective, Jacobs' rhetoric leaps over these pitfalls and, in fact, creates a site wherein an ethical encounter on the part of the reader can take place.

The corrolaries to this local argument are wide-ranging: literature, whether abstract, avant-garde, or a series of selected and presented historical experiences, is rhetorical in nature and all works share one intention in common: the will to affect the reader, to draw her sympathy to the work itself. It is the agreement on the part of a reader to a work's esthetics/rhetoric that is enjoyment. That is, each text uses rhetorico-esthetics to engender a reader's sympathy for the work itself -- to cause him at once to feel like it and to feel as if it cannot be known -- in order to enjoy it, no matter what other rhetorical program the text may adhere to. Enjoyment is tied up in rhetoric, whose absorptive and antiabsorptive tools engender the sympathy that at the same time opens the possibility of an ethical encounter on the part of a reader. Therefore, the ethical nature of the work -- the possibility of its broadening a reader's worldview, her ability to sympathize -- is wholly dependent on the success of its rhetoric -- i.e., its esthetic affectivity. In this vein, successful art causes an attentive reader to sympathize with an other (be it the work itself or a represented individual), while failed or flawed art lacks an ethical component.

Finally, the course of this argument puts me in a position to address head on Levinas' claim that representation necessarily totalizes the other. He argues that

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)

What 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).

I have described to you the rhetorical nature of representation, of esthetics itself as it appears to me, as well as the possibility of rhetoric and representation leading to an ethical encounter by their absorptive and antiabsorptive sympathetic means. Now, my sinister purpose: we have equated rhetoric with political, social or personal goals for a long time; I hope this presentation recalls us to the fact that rhetoric, insofar as it is tied to esthetics, also has as its goal a reader's enjoyment of the text. Whether or not its used for personal gain, social good, or product positioning, it also exists in order to effect your enjoyment. Once we understand the rhetorical nature of esthetics -- the affective presentation that draws the reader's care -- we are able to, as critics, approach texts on their rhetorical grounds, as esthetic, affective objects and understand how they function as esthetic works, how each aspect of a work's esthetic affects the reader, how it engenders enjoyment, as a measure of what it is. In Jacobs' esthetic lowpoints, we may see the problem of representation that Levinas assumed was universal: in these moments, she allows her zeal for her goal to lead her to use an other as a means, not as a living end. This is the rhetorical violence perpetrated on the represented by the representer, similar to Chevy's abuse of the September 11th dead for its own sales: it is in the cooptive gesture where rhetoric and ethics part and rhetoric gets its bad name. And yet violence is not endemic to rhetoric: the non-violent aspect of rhetoric can even lead a reader to an ethical encounter with an other, be it a historical individual or the work itself.