“Breaking the Framework of the Class”: Reflections on Testimonial Teaching and Taking a Class on Slavery in the Time of Ferguson

By Esther Wolfe

In her book Testimony: Crisis of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, author Shoshana Felman describes the experience of teaching a class on Holocaust testimony. In the chapter, “Education and Crisis,” Felman details a key point of crisis that developed over the course of the class. As part of the class, students watched tapes from the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. The tapes, which featured survivors of the Holocaust narrating their stories, illustrated both the profound need for testimony and its simultaneous impossibility, showing “the endeavor of creating an address, specifically for a historical experience which annihilated the very possibility of address” (41). In this way, according to Felman, the tapes showed “the necessity of this impossibility of narration” (41).

Felman notes that upon viewing the first tape of Holocaust testimony, something strange started happening in the class. Initially after the viewing, the students were silent and dissociated, breaking from their prior expressiveness and engagement. However, the student’s silence soon transformed: “What was unusual was that the experience did not end in silence, but instead, fermented into endless, relentless talking in the days and weeks to come; a talking which could not take place, however, within the confines of the classroom, but which somehow had to break the very framework of the class…” (48). This “breaking of the framework of the class” through speech, described both how the student’s speech moved beyond the setting of the classroom, as well as the way this speech often ruptured the boundaries of language itself. Felman’s colleagues disclosed that the students spoke obsessively of her class sessions in other classes; at the same time, in their “manifest wish to talk about the session….they did not quite know what to say” (48). In addition, as one student describes, “this speaking was at best fragmentary, dissolving into silence: at moments, lapsing into long, obsessive monologues. It was absolutely necessary to speak of it, however incoherently” (59). Felman quickly realized that the class was experiencing a crisis, and that this crisis implicitly performed the crisis of bearing witness that the entire curriculum explored. The “breaking of the framework of the class” reflected the way testimonial speech exceeds its framing, with the student’s need to speak and the inherent impossibility and unsayability of this speech performing the paradox of testimony itself.

This year, in our DLR class, we focused on historical and contemporary representations of slavery. Much of the theoretical work of the class revolved around studying what could be understood as the testimonial literature of slavery, including slave narratives, as well as visual representations of slavery (including image and film), that could be understood as a kind of visual testimony. As a result, a key part of our study and discourse as a class centered around the inherent problem of testimony; the unspeakable irrecoverability of the memory of slavery and the impossibility of bearing witness to it. At the same time, the summer before the semester began, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was murdered by Darren Wilson, a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As more black men and women were killed by police, and a political protest movement emerged, we referred to the movement often in an effort to understand and connect the historical atrocity and trauma of slavery to contemporary systems of white supremacist, anti-black state violence.

As we grappled with the testimonial literature and images of slavery, the problem of its representation, and the events in Ferguson, we experienced a “breaking of the framing of the class” almost identical to Felman’s description. Many of us, after reading certain texts, watching particular films, or receiving news about the protest movement, felt unable to engage in discussion of what we had just read and seen, and became interiorized and withdrawn. This, however, alternated with an obsessive need to speak endlessly about the work of the class with virtually anyone who would listen- it often seemed to be all we could think of or talk about. Many of us, in private communications with one another, relayed stories of how the work of the class bled into other class discussions and papers, and ruptured into the personal dimensions of our lives. At the same time, this constant conversation was also born out of our inability to represent the experiences of the class and our own understanding of it- we often disclosed to each other our frustration at not being able to adequately express, to make others understand, what we were experiencing and how it made us feel. In this way, by studying the atrocity of slavery and the problem of witnessing and representation, we also inevitably performed the paradox of testimony itself. In this sense, our class became its own form of testimony.

Our profound experiences as a class studying slavery in the wake of Ferguson also did the work of thinking toward the teaching of testimony and the larger need for pedagogy constructed out of an understanding of trauma and violence. If the memory of slavery is irrecoverable and unrepresentable, how do we teach its testimony? How can we construct pedagogy that simultaneously teaches trauma and responds to its lived experience and felt impact? As a class, we worked to answer these questions together. The “crisis” of the class became a method, a critical framework for teaching testimony. It became clear that the teaching of testimony could only be delivered through this crisis, through the way the “breaking of the framing of the class” inevitably performed the paradox of testimony itself. The result was not a loss of language, but a class that had to, in the words of Felman, do the important work of “passing through its own answerlessness.” (50).

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Works Cited

Felman, Shoshana, and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

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