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Witnessing

Beyond Recognition

2001
Author:

Kelly Oliver

Witnessing

A new, ethically based theory of identity by a major scholar.

Challenging the fundamental tenet of the multicultural movement-that social struggles turning upon race, gender, and sexuality are struggles for recognition-this work offers a powerful critique of current conceptions of identity and subjectivity based on Hegelian notions of recognition. The author’s critical engagement with major texts of contemporary philosophy prepares the way for a highly original conception of ethics based on witnessing.

Magnificent in its breadth of comprehension, depth of, and originality of vision, Witnessing provides us with rich clues as to how ethics might be possible in a multicultural world. This work will be of considerable importance for those interested in rethinking the meaning of ethics in the context of issues of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Cynthia Willett, author of Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities

Challenging the fundamental tenet of the multicultural movement-that social struggles turning upon race, gender, and sexuality are struggles for recognition-this work offers a powerful critique of current conceptions of identity and subjectivity based on Hegelian notions of recognition. The author’s critical engagement with major texts of contemporary philosophy prepares the way for a highly original conception of ethics based on witnessing.

Central to this project is Oliver’s contention that the demand for recognition is a symptom of the pathology of oppression that perpetuates subject-object and same-different hierarchies. While theorists across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences focus their research on multiculturalism around the struggle for recognition, Oliver argues that the actual texts and survivors’ accounts from the aftermath of the Holocaust and slavery are testimonials to a pathos that is “beyond recognition.”

Oliver traces many of the problems with the recognition model of subjective identity to a particular notion of vision presupposed in theories of recognition and misrecognition. Contesting the idea of an objectifying gaze, she reformulates vision as a loving look that facilitates connection rather than necessitates alienation. As an alternative, Oliver develops a theory of witnessing subjectivity. She suggests that the notion of witnessing, with its double meaning as either eyewitness or bearing witness to the unseen, is more promising than recognition for describing the onset and sustenance of subjectivity. Subjectivity is born out of and sustained by the process of witnessing-the possibility of address and response-which puts ethical obligations at its heart.

Witnessing

Kelly Oliver is professor of philosophy and women’s studies at SUNY Stony Brook. She is the author of, among other works, Subjectivity without Subjects (1998) and Family Values (1997).

Witnessing

Magnificent in its breadth of comprehension, depth of, and originality of vision, Witnessing provides us with rich clues as to how ethics might be possible in a multicultural world. This work will be of considerable importance for those interested in rethinking the meaning of ethics in the context of issues of race, gender, and ethnicity.

Cynthia Willett, author of Maternal Ethics and Other Slave Moralities

In a tour de force, nourished by a host of thinkers from Levinas to Fanon, Kristeva, Butler, and Irigaray among others, Oliver works her way back behind the many philosophical anthropologies based upon the preeminence of recognition in the formation of a subject. Witnessing is a work of positive, exhortatory philosophy.

Continental Philosophy Review

Witnessing creates a philosophical arena where differences among thinkers grappling with the ethics and politics of subjectivity are clarified, respected, and critiqued. Kelly Oliver speaks of the forces at work in these atrocities and shows us how to work through and bear witness to, rather than repeat, the legacies of our family values.

Hypatia

Fans of Oliver’s ongoing work on love and witnessing will enjoy this complex and substantial elaboration of her interrogation into the failure of theories and recognition, and her exciting models for understanding selfhood and agency. As a result of Oliver’s masterful weaving of various theories of subjectivity and agency with careful analyses of concrete social and political concerns, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition has broad relevance and is an excellent text for courses and research in postmodern and poststructuralist ethical theory, philosophies of race and gender, and moral psychology.

SubStance

Witnessing

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Beyond Recognition

Part I. Recognition

1. Domination,Multiculturalism,and the Pathology of Recognition
2. Identity Politics,Deconstruction,and Recognition
3. Identity as Subordination,Abjection,and Exclusion

Part II. Witnessing

4. The Necessity and Impossibility of Witnessing
5. False Witnesses
6. History,Transformation,and Vigilance

Part III. Visions

7. Seeing Race
8. Vision and Recognition
9. Toward a New Vision

Conclusion: Witnessing the Power of Love

Notes
Works Cited

Index