- The Ruins of Experience: Scotland's "Romantick" Highlands and the Birth of the Modern Witness
In August 1934, Detective Pat Patton was thinking of giving up his career with the police. Frustrated by his lack of skill in detection, his inability to see the big picture of the criminal enterprise he was sworn to take down, his existence as mere comic relief for the other plainclothesmen and officers in his station, Patton was ready to resign. On the third Sunday of that month, August 19, his partner Dick Tracy advised Pat that rather than quitting he should take up the study of "scientific criminal investigation."
What is evidence, and how does it differ from experience? How did our world of evidentiary argument come to be—a world in which forensics overshadows eyewitness experience? If, as the saying goes, fifty thousand Elvis fans cannot be wrong, how does it come to be that this statistical preponderance of evidence is authoritatively meaningful, and how does it weigh against, and romanticize, anyone's actual eye-witnessing of the pelvis, the sneer, the voice? What is objectivity, and how does it relate to the romance of experience?
Matthew Wickman's The Ruins of Experience charts the emergence of this model of legal evidence and decision-making and its continuing impact on contemporary life and critical theory. Playing on one of the key tropes of Raymond Williams's Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977), Wickman divides the book into two sections, "Structure" and "Feeling." The first is comprised of four chapters, the second of three. The launching point for Wickman's argument is the trial of James Stewart for the murder of Colin Campbell of Glenure in 1752. Named for its locale, the Appin Murder opens Wickman's exposition of shifts in the British common law system of evidence and witness experience during the eighteenth century. "The Trial of James Stewart," Wickman argues, "brings into compelling relief the parallel logic of evidence, experience, and Highland romance" (p. 24).
As Wickman presents it, there are three keys to this emerging logic. First is a shift in the makeup of juries, such that over time, juries were expected to be "objective," in the sense that they would judge evidence according to expected norms. That is, juries would have no prior knowledge of the case or of the principals involved in it. Their task was to weigh evidence. Tied to this shift in the composition and avowed task of juries was a parallel change in the nature and notion of evidence. Increasingly throughout the eighteenth century, "fact" was defined as something other than witness testimony. Forensic evidence and statistical norms came to represent a quality of evidence that supposedly resisted the exigencies of "multiple and contested interpretation" (p. 31). Witnesses were increasingly of the "expert" kind, with its added value of probabilistic believability. The third key to the emerging logic of evidence and testimony is Wickman's central argument, "that the cultural disavowal of witness experience at one level merely served to empower it at another—the level of . . . Highland romance" (p. 34).
While Wickman does not set out to write a history of folkloristics, that he locates the twinned emergence of evidentiary expectations and romance of personal experience in the Scottish Highlands of the eighteenth century is clearly resonant for folklorists interested in the history of the discipline—the emergence of the folk, the fascination with the customs of people untouched by progress, the collection of tales [End Page 226] and traditions. To be sure, this story has been told before, and well (see, notably, Richard Bauman and Charles L. Briggs, Voices of Modernity, Cambridge University Press, 2003; Regina Bendix, In Search of Authenticity, University of Wisconsin Press, 1997; Simon Bronner, American Folklore Studies, University Press of Kansas, 1986; Burt Feintuch, ed., Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, University of Illinois Press, 2003; Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, American Folklore Scholarship, Indiana University Press, 1988). But Wickman's...