“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).


Works Cited

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

Watching Television with a Critical Eye: An analysis of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit

By: Kathryn Hampshire

Many modern television shows engage in critical conversations without viewers realizing it. One such program is Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). This crime drama centered on sexually-motivated offences follows “the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies,” as the opening mantra states (“Merchandise”). “Special victims” include those who have experienced rape, domestic abuse, forced prostitution, kidnapping, trafficking, and slavery.

While telling these stories of trauma, SVU has become the center of a critical debate as to whether or not this show raises awareness about real-world issues like slavery, or if it is simply exploitative. Even though I am unable to answer this question here, I wish to draw attention to the various ways that one episode in particular, “Merchandise,” engages several issues relevant to discussions about contemporary slavery. This episode focuses on child enslavement for labor, reproduction, and prostitution. When an abused young girl named Carly becomes a traffic fatality, an investigation uncovers the dark truth behind a local farm that claims to give jobs to at-risk children.

At several moments throughout the episode, the show draws from relevant issues within the conversation about modern-day slavery, and here I will examine three of the most prevalent: misconceptions regarding who becomes enslaved, victims becoming victimized even further by the state, and traumatic narratives resisting a traditional linear story-telling format.

First, I wish to draw attention to one of the conversations in “Merchandise” that reveals deep-seated stereotypes many Americans hold about the issue of slavery. When Detective Odafin “Fin” Tutuola is talking to a farmer’s market manager, he points out how a farm that hires children can easily become exploitative:

“They’re paid less than minimum wage, charged for rides to the farm, food, even their drinking water. Pretty soon, they’re in debt to the farm,” he says.

To this, the manager replies skeptically, “You’re talking about illegals. Mission Farms hires at-risk American kids!”

“—who are just as vulnerable,” Fin finishes (“Merchandise”).

This conversation reveals a stereotype where members of the majority believe that only minorities can be slaves.

Later in the episode, the theme of victims being further victimized (also known as revictimization*) surfaces. First, I will examine how revictimization by the state is incredibly prevalent in reality. In an article for The Washington Post, special counsel on human rights Malika Saasa Saar recounts the story of Tami, a 15-year-old victim of forced prostitution who, when she finally escaped, was arrested instead of protected. “But should an abused child be incarcerated for the abuses perpetrated against her?” Saar questions, continuing that “[t]he people who rape these girls, the politely termed ‘johns,’ are rarely arrested for statutory rape, child endangerment or sexual assault of a minor.” Often, exploited and enslaved children who are trafficked for forced prostitution get arrested by the state and are treated like criminals, when they are actually victims of a much graver offense. The fact of the matter is that an under-aged prostitute, regardless of whether they are a slave or not, is the victim of statutory rape and should be treated as a victim and not as a criminal.

In “Merchandise,” this theme becomes prevalent through the character of Carly’s brother, Micah. Detectives discover that Micah has also been a victim of enslavement and repeated sexual assault—he has a record for prostitution, despite the fact that he is only 13 years old. Since Micah is paradoxically a victim of sex trafficking being charged with prostitution, here the show points to how the legal system is re-victimizing him by criminalizing actions that he was forced to perform. Instead of arresting the pimps, “johns,” or traffickers, officers have arrested their victim.

Later in the episode when the detectives take Micah in, this theme continues, only in a different light because the characters and the show itself re-victimize him. Fin poses as a john propositioning the boy while Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler, two other detectives in the show, forcefully capture him and put him against the car. During the struggle, Micah’s shirt tears, revealing a back covered in lacerations—a moment which puts the boy’s injured body on display for the viewers. This moment of cinematography is exploitative on many levels: it exposes the body of a victim, it shocks some viewers into a state of pity (which is problematic in and of itself, but that is a topic for another post) without the probability of productive action to take in response to this experience, and it capitalizes on other viewers’ desire to witness the physically painful results of torture.

When Micah repeatedly hits himself and bashes his head against the patrol car window, Fin then goes to restrain him for his own protection; Stabler protests, “You saw his back—they made him a slave. Are you going to treat him like one now?” To this, Benson states, “Maybe it’s the only thing he’s used to” (“Merchandise”). Here, Benson is making the argument that since Micah has been treated like a slave for so long, he has grown accustomed to it to the point where he cannot process anything else, which may explain his self-destructive behavior. However, regardless of what Micah is “used to,” these officers should not be subjecting a victim to further victimization. By putting him in handcuffs, they are doing exactly what the show accused other officers of earlier: they are creating a situation where the victim is being treated like the criminal. Benson’s comment may have been true, but that does not justify further victimization of a child who has already been forced into labor and prostitution, repeatedly raped and sodomized, and arrested and charged with crimes out of his control.

Conversely, the show continues in its efforts to engage in critical dialogue about slavery when Micah’s character later reveals the inherent non-linear nature of trauma in a way that can enlighten viewers into this aspect of a victim’s experience. Often, victims of extremely traumatic experiences face difficulties putting those experiences into a chronological, linear narrative that normal experiences generally allow; rather, they remember and recount their trauma in nonlinear flashes of memories and feelings, which is evident in Micah’s interview with psychiatrist Dr. George Huang. Micah begins his story in the middle, describing the sounds, smells, and feelings of the cellar in which he was held. He then says, “Do something wrong, make a mistake, and we all get a beating” (“Merchandise”). The rest of the conversation follows this nonlinear pattern. Huang attempts to put Micah on a chronological path with leading questions, but Micah’s narrative continues to push back. This conversation demonstrates how severe trauma like slavery is resistant to a linear narrative.

These themes of misconceptions, re-victimization, and non-linearity are all extremely prevalent within the critical analysis surrounding slavery. While the question still remains as to whether television shows like SVU are capable of productively engaging in an ethical discourse about slavery or whether they are simply exploitative, the show certainly engages in the conversations surrounding contemporary slavery in ways that raise awareness about these issues through its storytelling.


*For more information on revictimization


Works Cited

“Merchandise.” Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. NBC. 6 October 2010. Television.

Saar, Malika Saada. “There is no such thing as a child prostitute.” The Washington Post.  The Washington Post, 17 February 2014. Web. 23 November 2014.