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Witnessing others : ethical responsibility in relational life writing Stumm, Bettina Marie


In this dissertation I examine the nature and significance of ethical responsibility for witnessing others in life writing, especially vulnerable subjects who have suffered racial oppression and/or personal crises. Drawing on the philosophical ethics of Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur, I argue that witnessing others is not simply a matter of testifying to truths about their lives but of responding to them as people beyond what can be seen or known about them. For Levinas and Ricoeur, the most ethical witness of others comes in responding, “here I am” to their humanity and alterity. This response begins in one’s reception to infinite alterity experienced as a trace in the faces of others or as a sense of otherness within oneself. Facing alterity, witnesses cannot remain self-directed in their responses, constitute themselves and others solely in terms of their identity markers, or narrate a monologue of another’s life. Instead, ethical witnessing is a responsive way of being with and for others that challenges one’s being for oneself and informs how one sees and tells the lives of others: in openness, existential generosity, and mutual responsibility. With this framework in mind, I explore the life narratives of three twentieth-century writers who bear witness to alterity and attempt, in their own ways, a “here I am” response to the suffering of others. In An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork, Etty Hillesum witnesses her life and responds to her Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Holland by encouraging a vision beyond victimization. In Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin struggles to witness his own otherness in passing for black as a response to racial oppression in the Deep South. And in Stolen Life, Rudy Wiebe witnesses Yvonne Johnson’s story of abuse and incarceration in Canada in the vexed space of narrative collaboration. In life writing, a “here I am” response takes on various forms and proves a complicated practice: these writers must constantly negotiate their self-interest, guilt, and positions of power with vulnerability and generosity. I trace how they grapple with the necessity and difficulty of witnessing others in such an existentially ethical way.

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