On Sensitive Witnesses

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Sensitive Witnesses is the thought-provoking name of a new book by Kristin M. Girten—with the subtitle Feminist Materialism in the British Enlightenment. The title caught my attention because I wondered who these “sensitive” witnesses might be and because I have been writing in this blog space recently about feminist rhetorical practices, which include—now that I think of it—sensitive witnessing as well as being sensitive to witnesses of all kinds. 

Girten, who has co-edited an earlier book, British Literature and Technology, 1600-1830, is Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, and while I love 18th century literature, this is not a book I would have ordinarily run across since I do not regularly read scholarship on that area. So: serendipity!

In this book, Girten is at pains to insist that there were writers in the 18th century who did not follow the “scientific method” of Francis Bacon and fellow philosophers who espoused distanced and “objective” observation and eschewed any embodied connection to what they were observing. And who were these writers who resisted such distanced, and disembodied, observations? All women (philosophers), including Aphra Behn, Margaret Cavendish, Eliza Haywood, Lucy Hutchison, and Charlotte Smith. 


Portrait of Aphra Behn, by Mary Beale (17th c.)Portrait of Aphra Behn, by Mary Beale (17th c.)


These women, according to Girten, were purposefully “intimately entangled” with whatever they were observing; their observations were “profoundly embodied.” Girten dubs this form of feminist materialist practice, of intimate and embodied observing “sensitive witnessing” and thus implicitly argued for a broader, more inclusive version of science and of scientific endeavors. 

Girten sees these women as foremothers of today’s feminist materialists, and it seems to me that she makes a very persuasive case. But I could also see these 18th century sisters as foremothers of today’s feminist rhetorical critics such as Jacqueline Jones Royster, who argue strenuously for the embodied nature of the research that they do and who also seem “intimately entangled” with their subjects, and very purposefully so.

I feel even more encouraged, then, in recommending that we teach the feminist rhetorical practices I wrote about a few weeks ago to all our students, thus making the research we do more inclusive and more able to report accurately and fully the full nature of what we are studying. 

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.