Felman's Call to Crisis
Disarticulating crisis from trauma in the literature classroom is not an easy thing. It may seem counterintuitive, even unethical, within a framework where trauma, crisis, truth, and action are irrevocably linked. In her oft-cited essay "Education and Crisis" for example, Shoshana Felman issues a call to teach through crisis. Indeed, she posits that without crisis, learning cannot take place:
I would venture to propose, today, that teaching in itself, teaching as such, takes place precisely only through a crisis: if teaching does not hit upon some sort of crisis, if it does not encounter either the vulnerability or the explosiveness of a (explicit or implicit) critical and unpredictable dimension, it has perhaps not truly taught: it has perhaps passed on some facts, passed on some information and some documents, with which the students or the audience - the recipients - can for instance do what people during the occurrence of the Holocaust precisely did with information that kept coming forth but that no one could recognize, and that no one could therefore truly learn, read or put to use. (Felman and Laub, 53)
Felman's proposal is drawn from her own classroom experience teaching literary, historical, clinical testimony about World War II and the Holocaust, and experience perhaps too specific to apply more generally to a pedagogy of witness. Certainly there are serious differences between, for example, the historical importance attached to the Holocaust and its literatures, and the much murkier and more marginal status of the queer lives and literatures I have made my own example. Too, Felman's call to teach through crisis runs counter to the methodology she models in the rest of her essay - a slow, careful textual and historical analysis that works through accretion and repetition.
But Felman's call is worth addressing, in part because one source of its authority is its common sense - the degree to which the call to teach through crisis is nothing new. Critics within and without trauma studies, for example, have consistently framed literary trauma narratives as the precursor to a call for action, or as the call for action itself. When this reading is not explicit, it is implicit in the rhetoric of "finding a voice/breaking a silence/speaking for those who cannot speak," a rhetoric in which giving testimony is itself a political act of representation (of both events and people), with the pedagogical intent to teach disbelieving others, enemies, and neutral bystanders the truth. Taken to the extreme, under this rubric literature is merely another form of testimony (though suspect for its commitment to the fictive), one whose purpose is to provide the shock necessary to penetrate apathy and bring to crisis feelings of outrage, guilt, and so on, and send the reader seeking relief into a/the "real world" - the world of social and political action outside the book, the classroom. Critiques of passive, apathetic readers/bystanders who are reluctant to engage with narratives of oppression and trauma abound, as do critiques of texts that are too "easy," that somehow pander to their readers, or "let them off the hook" of this kind of crisis-driven encounter.
In the field of education (a large and complex field which I can only gloss here) scholars often structure their studies of how to "teach race" or other "controversial" subjects and "ideologies" around the appearance and management of moments of crisis. Many of these studies have their roots in cognitive dissonance theory, a schema for predicting how people behave when presented with the shock of new information that fundamentally contradicts their world view, or in the normative clinical scale measuring steps toward successful integration. (See, for example the work of Elizabeth McFalls and Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, as well as that of Beverly Tatum.) The result - though cause and effect are difficult to untangle here - is a bias toward the management of white, heterosexual, middle class guilt, outrage, and resistance to learning about "others." This kind of management ultimately, if unintentionally, repeats the familiar stratagem of using the experiences of marginalized and oppressed groups for the self-enrichment of the oppressor. Additionally, it positions students as part of mainstream discourse rather than helping them to see the way it can never fully describe them. Finally, the emphasis on crisis management, especially when paired with normative integration, makes it difficult to recognize the degree to which the effects of trauma have been present all along, even when they are not, as Helen Brown puts it, "breaking out."
For the "shock" that students experience when they encounter stories of trauma arises as much from the ways these stories ask students to confront what they have always known and depended upon as it does from a confrontation with the new. Even the information students perceive as new is usually very old information that they, and the daily world they live in, work hard to forget. Learning to see and respond to this information, they are like patients in psychotherapy seeing for the first time what has been there all along or like - well, like students who discover their most recent epiphany was some fragment of a thought they wrote down in a notebook years ago and forgot about, until they learned enough to remember it. To take trauma's quotidian aspect seriously in the classroom, is to realize that no single crisis will ever be enough. Sometimes, it may be merely a distraction from what we knew all along.