Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American Literature
    Book Description:

    The nineteenth century was a time of extraordinary attunement to the unspoken, the elusively present, and the subtly haunting. Quiet Testimony finds in such attunement a valuable rethinking of what it means to encounter the truth. It argues that four key writers Emerson, Douglass, Melville, and Henry James open up the domain of the witness by articulating quietude's claim on the clamoring world. The premise of quiet testimony responds to urgent questions in critical theory and human rights. Emerson is brought into conversation with Levinas, and Douglass is considered alongside Agamben. Yet the book is steeped in the intellectual climate of the nineteenth century, in which speech and meaning might exceed the bounds of the recognized human subject. In this context, Melville's characters could read the weather, and James's could spend an evening with dead companions. By following the path by which ostensibly unremarkable entities come to voice, Quiet Testimony suggests new configurations for ethics, politics, and the literary.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5480-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Arriving at Quiet
    (pp. 1-21)

    Testimony tends to be thought of as loud: it is associated with declarations, depositions, and confessions, issued from courtrooms and soapboxes, and charged with exhorting, proclaiming, establishing, and convincing. Nineteenth-century America produced no shortage of testimonies possessing these characteristics of loudness, especially within its several reform movements. Yet testimony also circulated, in texts of this period, as something subdued, muted, and elusive. This quieter strain of testimony could be as staggering and life changing as its louder counterpart, even without any fanfare. The premise of Hugh Miller’s 1857The Testimony of the Rocks, for instance, is that geology reveals theology....

  5. 1 Emerson: Testimony without Representation
    (pp. 22-56)

    The passage with which I begin will likely be familiar to Emerson’s readers, if only because of its proximity to one of his most famous and challenging images, the transparent eyeball. The paragraph that follows it inNatureis, I propose, just as unexpected and just as revealing of a major strand of thought in Emerson’s work—and therefore just as worthy of study. If the eyeball starts to sketch his complex idea of subjectivity, the next sentences point to his related but still distinct understanding of the natural world as communicative:¹

    The greatest delight which the fields and woods...

  6. 2 Douglass: Testimony without Identity
    (pp. 57-86)

    Frederick Douglass wrote three autobiographies,The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass(1845),My Bondage and My Freedom(1855), andLife and Times of Frederick Douglass(1881), and then he decided that he had more to say. His supplement expandingLife and Times(the new version was published in 1892) was, he writes, the result of a call: “I find myself summoned again … to come a second time upon the witness stand and give evidence upon disputed points concerning myself and my emancipated brothers and sisters who, though free, are yet oppressed and are in as much need...

  7. 3 Melville: Testimony without Voice
    (pp. 87-119)

    Melville’s later works begin quietly. They may describe momentous actions—such as Ishmael’s plan to join a whaling crew or the arrival of a mysterious ship in a lonely port—but rather than herald ensuing plots, the texts tend to focus on an observation of something or someone that does not speak. At the outset ofMoby-Dick, for instance, Ishmael reports, “Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries” (MD, 18).¹ The silence of the dreamy men recurs elsewhere: “Bartleby” begins with the note that the lawyer has no...

  8. 4 James: Testimony without Life
    (pp. 120-148)

    There is a dead woman in Henry James’s account of his visit to Charleston inThe American Scene. He introduces the image as a point of comparison, but it startles the reader nevertheless; it is as if James has stumbled on a corpse in the midst of the sleepy southern city. This corpse, it turns out, is quite extraordinary: it testifies to the city’s lifelessness, and on careful examination, it thereby turns out to be not quite dead, to have enough life in it to speak. Unlike Melville’s vision, in which the dead sink like stones from the text’s purview,...

  9. Conclusion: Staying Quiet
    (pp. 149-154)

    The narrative that this book’s chapters implicitly tell may initially have seemed familiar: while Emerson hails the testimony of all natural things, Douglass is more measured and limited in his optimism, and Melville rejects exuberance completely, resting instead in elusiveness. The figures become progressively less willing to assert that the world makes itself known in ways that may enter the realm of human speech. But then James appears, and in writing published more than fifty years after Melville’s, he reverses the course. Instead of further attenuating the limits of testimony, instead of moving us closer to the twentieth-century discourse of...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 155-178)
  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 179-190)
  12. Index
    (pp. 191-200)