Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: Witness

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Introduction: Witness

Article excerpt

Two young women sat in a café. Two who had met each other and interacted in a mainly social way years earlier as undergraduates now had their heads bent over a very different task: an analysis. An analysis of a complicated literary text that was supposed to constitute a dissertation chapter. But the argument wasn't clear yet, and the legal scholar, a fledgling academic with interests beyond her disciplinary ken, was helping the literary-scholar-still-in-training clarify what she was trying to say. Several hours passed. The legal scholar succeeded not only in assisting her friend articulate the most compelling aspects of her thinking on the text, but also in reviving her hope that one day, maybe even soon, she could complete the chapter draft, and another and another could follow.

There are at least three aspects of this otherwise mundane event that merit our attention. In an age of "postfeminism" it seems worth remembering that women completing advanced degrees and leading academic careers were not common occurrences until recently. When the two had first met at Harvard, there were only 13 tenured women on a faculty of 640. It also merits recalling that a mere twenty years ago intellectual exchange across disciplines was rare. The two women felt this: the one requested aid timidly; the other offered feedback gingerly. The third aspect is one that neither woman could have even fantasized at the time: that they were practicing for the future. One day they would be working together on an even more sustained intellectual project, and that project would take up some of the very themes at stake in the discussion in the café that day. For what the literary scholar eventually realized, with the help of the legal scholar, was that her interpretation of the structure of the text in question was the most interesting contribution she could make with her chapter. At the heart of that structure were acts of accusation, defense, witnessing, and what that scholar would eventually term literary cowitnessing, acts that shaped the relationships within the text, but also that implicated the reader of the text in its moral dilemmas. The work of literature in question was Günter Grass's novella Cat and Mouse (Katz und Maus); the rhetorical device was apostrophe; and as you may have guessed by now, the two women were Kathy Abrams and Irene Kacandes.

When we exchanged e-mail two decades later about whether we would guest coedit an issue of WSQ on the topic witness, we did not wonder whether the other person was up to the task, or whether our disciplinary differences would be fruitful. We knew the answers to those questions. In fact, we took them for granted. No, what we debated was whether an intellectually coherent issue could be crafted if we cast our net for submissions very broadly. Fairly quickly, we came to the decision that our call for papers would raise as many issues as we could fit on the page, and that we would take the temperature of current interest in this huge topic by seeing what would come back to us in the content of the abstracts. Those proposals would witness to us things that we maybe did not know about the state of current feminist scholarship on witness.

We were delighted, in the fundamental sense of the word, by what we received: the diversity of topics, especially in terms of geography and history, seemed promising, if not as wide as we'd dreamed of. Reflecting this breadth seemed in and of itself a worthwhile contribution that we could make, and we quickly determined to ask for shorter-thanstandard-length essays, so that we could include as many voices as possible. In a similar vein, we decided to use all parts of the issue, including the memoir, fiction, poetry, and book review sections, to illuminate our theme from various angles.

As diverse as the topics seemed, we were a bit surprised to discover the aspects of our call for papers to which prospective authors responded and, by the same token, the parts to which no one did. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.