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  • “From the Slave’s Point of View”: Toward a Phenomenology of Witnessing in Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative
  • Jennifer Lewis (bio)

Aunt Hester’s whipping, which is inflicted by Aaron Anthony, witnessed by a young Frederick Bailey, and narrated by an older, self-named Frederick Douglass, has become a hypercanonical scene in the hypercanonical text, Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Douglass presents this incident as an initiation, for himself directly and for the reader vicariously, into “the hell of slavery.”1 And, consequently, critics have reproduced it countless times in their own narratives; it has become, as Saidiya Hartman has written, “one of the most well-known scenes of torture in the literature of slavery.”2 Douglass describes this passage as “the blood-stained gate” through which both he and the reader must pass to access, in complicated ways, slavery’s “terrible” scenes (N, 18). Yet in the Narrative and its surrounding criticism, Hester’s whipping stands apart from other violent episodes rather than leading toward them. It is exceptional rather than typical: a darkly specific “vivid … image” with remarkable power to “endur[e].”3

The question of what this scene’s power rests upon, and what it achieves, forms a controversy that has troubled critics for at least thirty years. In 1991, Deborah McDowell first drew attention to the scene’s difficult and complex sexual politics. [End Page 257] She argued that the way Douglass “looks on” while Hester is stripped and whipped is sexualized and vicariously violent: while “he watches,” he “becomes voyeur.”4 Critics such as Jenny Franchot, Gwen Bergner, and Lindon Barrett have followed, reading Douglass’ witnessing as a form of collusion with the abusers of slave women. Barrett, for example, argues that Douglass’ “rendition” of Hester’s whipping “reinstates” the Master’s violence, and places Douglass in what McDowell describes as “symbolic complicity with the sexual crime he witnesses.”5 More recently, Hartman has raised the stakes, arguing that scholars should no longer analyze or even reproduce such scenes because reading them means entering into the same “symbolic complicity” as Douglass: “At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator” (S, 4). This “uncertain line” lies at the heart of these critiques. All are concerned with how viewing might be a form of exploitation.6

Douglass himself seemingly acknowledges such an “uncertain line,” ending the passage with an ambivalent declaration that draws attention to this precariousness. He writes that such scenes make him “doomed to be” both “a witness and a participant” (N, 18). Douglass’ statement simultaneously establishes two distinct roles available to him in this violent scene and collapses this distinction; he makes otherwise passive witnessing active and otherwise active participation passive. He creates narratorial uncertainty here, and it is my contention that in doing so he discloses a difficult, unstable, embodied experience. The difficulty of the passage is therefore Douglass’ own, as he struggles both to manage and convey a witnessing that effects violence on his own body. Douglass’ ambivalence, therefore, forms my essay’s central focus. I reevaluate his difficult statement and reconsider what it means to be “doomed to be a witness and a participant.” What emerges is that Douglass’ struggling, unstable narration questions what it means to witness, especially from a slave’s point of view.7 [End Page 258]

Section one begins by exploring different kinds of witnessing and their relation to empathy, and reveals how Douglass distinguishes his witnessing and empathizing from others’ in his abolitionist circle. My interest here is not so much in the spectacles Douglass portrays, but rather how he describes his own seeing, what kind of empathic experience these descriptions engender, and what they tell us about what it means to see and to feel. To develop a vocabulary for discussing these experiences, and to uncover their complexities, in section two I introduce some principal concepts of Hans Jonas’ phenomenology of sight. Jonas analyzes visuality as an embodied experience and focuses on the responses to the world sight enables. This discussion leads, in section three, to my phenomenological analysis of Douglass’ witnessing, which argues that a focus on how Douglass sees, rather than on...


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pp. 257-291
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