Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Crisis and Community
·Survival and Literary Witness
·Felman's Call to Crisis
·Witness and the Call to Action
·The Everyday vs. "The Normal"
·Speed, Action and Democracy
·Pedagogy, Survival and the Permanent Emergency
·Works Cited

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Alyssa Harad, "Resisting Crisis: Trauma, Pedagogy, and Survival" (page 2 of 7)

Survival and Literary Witness

Of course, for many teachers and students, the apposition of urgency and literature is a familiar one, and doesn't require a terrorist attack to make itself felt. This can be true even for courses in which literature explicitly bears witness to legacies of trauma and oppression; to the lives of those for whom living in crisis is all too familiar. In her 1993 essay, "Queer and Now," Eve Sedgwick reports she has come to expect "plenty of sleepless nights" when she teaches her gay/lesbian courses. She describes the "jolting" "level of accumulated urgency" students bring to a course that finally "addresses them where they live." But though she grows accustomed to this urgency, Sedgwick remains surprised that the most controversial thing about the courses "has been that they were literature courses, that the path to every issue we discussed simply had to take the arduous defile through textual interpretation" (Sedgwick 5; italics in the original).

What I offer here are reasons to ground a pedagogy of witness in precisely this kind of arduous defile, one that turns away from crisis and toward a rhythm of reading and re-reading that takes into account the human rhythms of forgetting and remembering, and gives the ordinary repetitions of learning a chance to help us resist, or replace, trauma's far more dangerous and compulsive repetitions. My thoughts are drawn in part from a larger project in which I examine how literature makes visible the long-term effects of historical traumas such as multi-generational working-class poverty, genocide and slavery, and in turn reveals trauma's quotidian aspect. For that project, I turned to the rich implicit testimony and work on trauma in the work of Dorothy Allison, Sherman Alexie, and Patricia Williams, authors working in seemingly disparate canons that, like gay and lesbian literature, bear witness as much to survival as to crisis. [1]

Indeed Sedgwick opens "Queer and Now" by framing queer studies as, in and of itself, a practice of bearing witness. Its practitioners, she tells us, are haunted and compelled by the suicides of queer adolescents. Queer women and men who survive adolescence, she notes, "survive into risk," their work and lives a testament to both survival and ongoing threat. It is this kind of survival, a long-term way to live with and learn from trauma's effects, that concerns me here.

It is in the afterwards and the echoes that the difficulty of trauma lies, for both its survivors and its bystanders. For survivors, this effect is made explicit by the clinical diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The longstanding effects of trauma on bystanders are not as well quantified, but the literatures of oppression and resistance have long invited their readers to see the ways in which trauma structures the lives and laws of those who consider themselves mere bystanders. When we teach in order to (or how to) bear witness to trauma, we must teach for the long term. To do so we must sometimes work against our fascination with crisis - the shock or wound that penetrates a witness' apathy or false reality to compel their attention - and work toward the more subtle work of articulating the haunting presence of trauma in everyday life.

S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.