Witness and the Call to Action
Personal reflection and action are vital and necessary components of the social work for change that must take place - and be maintained - to answer social injustice. But just as personal reflection does not necessarily result in more ethical action, crisis alone does not insure, or even necessarily call for, action. In fact, the deliberate provocation of crisis to overcome student apathy may simply foreclose the trauma narrative's complexity as students ever more urgently seek "the truth about what happened." Bringing students through such a crisis is as likely to give students a facile, self-congratulatory certainty that they "know all about" whatever trauma is addressed as it is to spur the students to action.
And action is not, of course, in and of itself a good. In the wake of September 11th, the clearest call to action was the call to make war: the more complex call for peace, a call to resist both action and repetition, to wait, reflect, mourn - in short, to bear witness to the event - was easily vilified as passivity. (This was, as always, a highly gendered critique. Indeed, outside of any specific example, we might be wary of the opposition between good action and bad passivity itself, given the consistent alignment and valorization of masculinity and strength with activity versus the excoriation/enforcement of weak, feminine passivity.) The Bush Administration's generalized "war against terrorism" has worked to keep the initial crisis - and the mandate to rule with a free hand - fresh with a series of "alerts" and warnings that allow the populace to feel poised for action at the shortest notice even as they are paralyzed by exactly that position of crisis.
Clinicians have long noted that trauma seems "infectious," that it has an uncanny virus-like ability replicate itself. Those caught up in its field often find themselves acting out variations on the roles of perpetrator or victim. Bystanders who find the "passivity" of witnessing unbearable, who wish to leap into action, too often leap into repetition instead. When we disarticulate trauma from crisis in the literature classroom, we open up the possibility for seeing the potentially endless processes of reading and reflection, the repetitive forgetting and relearning, the writing and re-writing, the slow acceptance of ambiguity, ambivalence and relativity, and the rejection of simple truths and transparency, as one way to practice performing this unbearable task. Without denying the great need for social action, we can make explicit the valuable ways in which learning and teaching can help us to resist action, the ways in which they invite us to trade that need to act for a kind of reading and reflection that increases the possibility of bearing witness when we do act.
Most teachers are familiar with a kind of faith that is fundamental to taking up the burden of witness: the faith that teaching has an effect, and that learning works, subtly, deeply, over the long term. We are rarely able to track out students for any great length of time, and even when we can, the "results" of any change in political philosophy or actions taken can hardly be attributed directly to any one class or person given the complexity of such thinking processes, even when the students themselves make the attribution. In fact, the insistent rhetoric that links social action to crisis may point less to the necessity for such a method in the classroom than it does to a crisis of faith: a desire for visible proof within the brief time span of a semester that something has happened - some kind of action/activism has taken place, the teacher has achieved her or his aim of transformation through learning.
Perhaps most importantly, such "proof" salves the double bind teachers of literary testimony and other social justice driven courses find ourselves in when we try to serve the twin imperatives that govern our work: to bear witness to truths that are actively repressed by mainstream discourse; and to honor both the complexity of the texts we teach, and of our students, who are often deeply allied with mainstream discourse. When we teach through crisis we throw our weight to the side of heroic simplicity. Students reeling from shock don't look to their subject as much as they do up at the teacher, waiting for direction, an answer. (That is, when they don't personalize the debate and make that teacher the target of their anger.) In addition to limiting students' freedom and their power to think for themselves, such a strategy depends almost wholly on an individual teacher's time and energy, valuable resources only occasionally equal to the task of single-handedly raising the consciousness of an entire class.