|Berry's Kosher Village|
Kelly Oliver (2004) argues that contemporary debates on multiculturalism and justice have focused on the notion of ‘recognition'. This is evident, for example, in the work of Charles Taylor and Axel Honeth. By exploring what such ‘recognition’ might mean, Oliver questions whether the struggles of marginalised or oppressed peoples, groups or cultures, or, more generally, those who have been ‘othered’ by a dominant culture, are indeed struggles for ‘recognition'.
Oliver suggests that testimonies from the aftermath of slavery and the Holocaust insist upon more than being ‘recognised', i.e. as ‘being seen’. Such testimonies bear witness to a pathos beyond mere visibility. Those who have suffered oppression, slavery and torture, and, more widely, processes of othering and exclusion, do not seek recognition solely in the form of visibility. They are also seeking to initiate, instantiate or constitute, through recognition or beyond recognition, witnesses to horrors that are beyond processes of seeing or perceiving.
In short, while seeking to overcome the processes whereby they are rendered invisible, those who have suffered oppression, exclusion or othering are seeking recognition in the form of retribution or requital and compassion. To adapt the insights of Eve Sedgwick (2003: 67-91), those who have suffered oppression, exclusion or othering are seeking to constitute a ‘they' of witnessing, an ‘independent' grouping or court of opinion, by means of which it becomes possible to pass judgement upon the events they have undergone and the experiences they have suffered.
In so constituting a ‘they’ of witnessing, it becomes possible to disavow any potential complicity with the oppressor, excluder or otherer, while also establishing the obligation to ensure that such oppression, exclusion or othering does not recur.
Oliver argues that such ‘recognition beyond visibility’, which implies constituting a ‘they’ who can equally bear witness to the events and experience to which those who have been oppressed, excluded or ‘othered’ have been subjected, means rejecting those conceptions of recognition which rely upon the Hegelian master-slave relationship.
For Oliver, if recognition is conceived as a process whereby it is conferred on others by a dominant group, then it simply repeats the dynamic of hierarchies and privilege and prolongs the domination. If oppressed, excluded or othered people are simply making demands for recognition, as visibility, from a dominant group, as those who are empowered to confer it, then the hierarchy of domination is simply re-enacted, re-instated and sustained.
As Oliver summarises: if the processes of recognition require a recogniser and a recognisee, then this reproduces the master-slave, subject-object, self-other, included-excluded, superior-inferior hierarchies in a renewed form.
Furthermore, Oliver suggests, the need to demand recognition from a dominant culture or group is itself a symptom of the pathology of oppression. In this pathology, a need emerges in the oppressed, excluded to othered to be recognised by their oppressor, the very people predisposed to fail to recognise them, binding all (oppressed and oppressor) in a repeated, cyclical relationship of oppression: oppression oppresses oppressors and oppressed, although differently experienced, through the processes of 'failure-to-recognise’, as 'inability-to-recognise’: to be unable to bear witness to, and to validate, the other’s experience.
Through the internalisation of stereotypical figures of inferiority and superiority, the oppressed develop a sense that they are lacking something that can only be given or granted to them by their superiors/oppressors. In this way, struggles for recognition, and theories which embrace those struggles, may presuppose, and thereby perpetuate, the very hierarchies, domination and injustices that they seek to overcome.
|Views from the Light Railway|
A question may arise here, which concerns the relation of Oliver’s characterisation of conflict, e.g. that between oppressor and oppressed or that between the dominant and the marginal, and Lyotard’s notion of ‘the differend’. Is the process of seeking ‘recognition', as Oliver defines it, analogous to a ‘litigation’ in Lyotard’s sense? For Lyotard,
“As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy” (Lyotard, 1988: xi)
The relationship between the oppressed, excluded or othered and the dominant cannot be settled to the satisfaction of the former groups in terms of the dominant perceptions and judgments, both because those perceptions and judgments fail to ‘see’ the oppressed, excluded or othered; and because those dominant perceptions and judgments cannot, therefore, do justice to the experience of the oppressed, excluded or othered. While the dominant perceptions and judgments do not accept the legitimacy of the oppressed, excluded or othered, this does not mean that such groups do not have legitimacy.
Does domination complicate the situation defined by Lyotard. While each side may have a legitimate argument, the dominant group does not recognise the legitimacy of those who have been othered. It is not simply a case of incommensurability. Where is the forum that would allow the othered to articulate their case ‘outside’, so to speak, the field of domination? Does Oliver’s conceptualisation permit the constitution of such an impossible place through the processes of ‘bearing witness’?
For Oliver, witnessing has a double sense. It is both a process of perceiving as eye-witness to that which can be seen in what has happened and is happening; and a process of bearing witness to what cannot straightforwardly be ’seen’ but can be understood to have happened and be happening. From this assumption, Oliver develops a model of subjectivity, or more properly inter-subjectivity, based on the addressee-response, i.e. dialogic, structure of witnessing in its double sense: eye-witnessing the ‘seen'; bearing witness to the ‘phenomenal'.
Oliver argues that oppression and victimisation undermine subjectivity, i.e. inter-subjectivity, by diminishing the capacity for address-an-response, i.e. dialogue. The structure of address-and-response, for Oliver, is key to the processes of subjectivity, i.e. inter-subjectivity.
Thus, in its double sense, witnessing can be judged according to the register of accuracy to (commonly agreed) historical facts of the event or situation, i.e. to the question of truth and eye-witnessing, on the one hand; and according to the register of adequacy to the existential, experiential or phenomenological dimensions of the event or situation, i.e. the question of justice and bearing witness.
There exists, then, in witnessing, according to Oliver, a tension between eye-witness description of what has happened or is happening, judged within the frame of being true to an historical resort, in whatever form, and bearing witness to an phenomenological experience, judged in the frame of doing justice to that phenomenological horizon.
Oliver poses this distinction as a contrast between a subject position, in an historical field of inter-subjective relation, i.e. in a determinate world, a subjectivity, as a field of experience, articulated through a phenomenological engagement with that historical world (or worlds).
Through witnessing, the subject, i.e. as inter-subjectivity, is doubly constituted: first, in the inter-subjectivity of finite historical situations or contexts, i.e. as inter-subjective positional relating; and, second, in the structure of infinite addressability and response-ability, i.e. as inter-subjective experiential or phenomenological relation. In this chasm of positional relation and phenomenological relation, although Oliver does not concern herself with this dimension, the body stands as vehicle (for agency) and as medium (for inter-corporeity or inter-corporeality).
Oliver elaborates her sense of subjectivity and subject position in the following terms. By subjectivity she intends a sense of self as an ‘I’, as an agent. By subject position, Oliver intends a position in society and history as developed through situated social relationships. [Aside: Here we may need a more fully developed account of the actantial character of (situated) agency, on the one hand, and of the (inter-corporeal) psycho-dynamic ‘I’, on the other hand].
The (dialogic) structure of (inter-)subjectivity is that which makes taking oneself as an agent or a self possible. The structure of subjectivity, for Oliver, is founded on the possibility of address-and-response, as a dialogic structure.
A question which arises here is the extent to which this dialogism is to be understood in Bakhtinian terms. As Readings (1996: 155) interprets Bakhtin, dialogue would not be merely the exchange of roles between a first sender who sends a message to an empty receiver and, in (re-)turn, becomes such an empty receiver for the respondent message. Both sender and receiver, addressor and addressee, are already ‘full’ of words, language, discourse. The phenomenological experiences of addressor and addressee, their apperceptive backgrounds, exist encoded in their inner and outer speech and action. The address-and-response structure alluded to by Oliver is inter-discursive inter-subjectivity.
The structure of inter-subjectivity, in other words, is founded on the obligation to do justice to the other’s experiential, phenomenological consciousness. As Readings (1996: 162) explains,
“No individual can be just, since to do justice is to recognise that the question of justice exceeds individual consciousness, cannot be answered by an individual moral stance. This is because justice involves respect for the absolute Other, a respect tat must precede any knowledge about the other.”
To the extent that this accords with Oliver’s characterisation of the constitution of subjectivity, as inter-subjective, Readings concurs that “respect for an absolute Other” in inter-subjectivity, precedes “any knowledge about the other”, as subject position in a field of socio-historical relations, i.e. Oliver’s ‘subject position’.
Thus, Readings (1996: 162) continues,
"To be hailed as an addressee is to be commanded to listen, and the ethical nature of this relation cannot be justified. We have to listen, without knowing why, before we know what it is that we are to listen to. To be spoken to is to be placed under an obligation, to be situated within a narrative pragmatics.”
Thus, one aspect of Oliver’s witnessing, the attending to what cannot be ‘seen’ in the form of bearing witness is understood by Readings in the form of an obligation: bearing witness is an obligation that founds subjectivity as inter-subjectivity.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The Differend: phrases in dispute. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.
Oliver, K. (2004). Witnessing and Testimony. Parallax, 10 (1), 78–87. Available at http://www.dx.doi.org/10.1080/1353464032000171118 [Accessed 28 December 2014].
Readings, B. (1996). The University in ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sedgwick, E.K. (2003). Around the performative: periperformative vicinities in nineteenth-century narrative. In: Touching feeling: affect, pedagogy, performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 67–91.