Craft Capsule: Witness vs. Withness

Will Harris

This is no. 70 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

Poems express a relationship between a subject and an object, but they don’t just say, Here’s a subject (“I”), here’s an object (“you,” a “tree”), this is how they relate (“I saw a red leaf”). They express something about the nature—and possibilities—of the subject-object relationship. 

One model for the subject-object relationship can be found in the poetry of witness, a term coined by Carolyn Forché. The poetry of witness, Forché writes, is “the literature of that-which-happened and its mode is evidentiary rather than representational—as evidentiary, in fact, as spilled blood.” Her most famous poem, “The Colonel,” begins “What you have heard is true,” before giving a gruesome account of her meal with a Salvadoran military leader who spills a sack of human ears onto the table in front of her. 

The poem derives power from its “truth,” its objectivity. Reading it, however, makes me wonder how active—or troublingly passive—a witness is in what they see. In bearing witness to spilled blood and writing about it to what extent does the poet participate in that violence? Think of the phrase bear witness. “Witness” might sound abstract and legalistic by itself; “bear” gives it weight and physicality. It gives the witnessing “I”/eye presence in the world, like a rain-buffeted journalist clutching at their notepad. It establishes a relationship that is simple—however difficult it may be—in the sense that there is a clear “I” (the subject) that goes out into the world to witness something (the object) and bring back an account of it.

In my own work, I’ve always been uncomfortable with how subjects and objects relate—maybe this comes from the experience of being objectified through race, and from my perennial uncertainty as to my own subject position. (What am “I”?) Recently I was thinking about the amazing simplicity with which John the Baptist’s relationship to Jesus is described in the Bible: “He [John] was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light” (John 1:8). A few lines later, the gospel author uses an unusual past form of bear: “John bare witness of him, and cried” (1:15). Though the pun is probably unintentional, that slide from bear to bare derives such power, for me, from the implied metaphor of witness as a physical act: It is a weight you can carry and sometimes a weight you can throw off, leaving the subject (yourself) bare and exposed. Perhaps this idea of baring witness is the logical extension of Forché’s position, offering a beautiful—if impossible—possibility: That of a subjectless perspective, an act of seeing that obliterates the self. 

In Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997), Saidiya Hartman claims that there’s an “uncertain line between witness and spectator.” Accordingly, she refuses to reproduce the graphic account of Aunt Hester’s beating from the first chapter of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, first published in 1845. It’s too easy to put such horror into words and so think that you’ve faced up to it. Accounts of extreme hurt may prompt indignation, but Hartman argues that they eventually “immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity.” That in some sense, to demand “suffering be materialized and evidenced” is more “obscene” than the original torture.

The refusal to type out an act of violence again—to re-witness it—points to a different subject-object relation. It acknowledges that the subject is implicated in what and how they see. And if we care about respecting the suffering of others this needs to be taken into account. Witness carries no moral imperative in itself; the act of seeing is not inherently virtuous. Or you could say, its moral charge lies less in the “evidence” it provides than in how it’s rendered in language. The viewing “I”/eye is a fiction, inasmuch as it cleanly separates the subject from the object. So the job of the writer is not just to choose what to look at, but to work out how to represent the complex relationships embedded in the act of looking.

In an endnote at the back of her book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (Routledge, 2000), Sara Ahmed argues for a particular reading of Heidegger’s notion of Mitsein (being-with or with-ness): “I would argue that ‘with-ness’ could be theorized as pre-ontological, that is, before one ‘is,’ one is ‘with.’ In other words, with-ness could be theorized as prior to being.”

Reading that makes me think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s bleak and beautiful poem “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.” In it, the speaker—or subject—is depressed, crying, cut off from someone he refers to only as “dearest him.” The problem is that though the object of the speaker’s affection isn’t present he isn’t fully absent either. He’s as visible as if he were in front of him, his absence texturing the world. Subject and object are no longer distinct from one another. In such a state, the self is implicated—emotionally and ethically—in the other. It’s impossible to conceive of “being” without “being-with.” Hopkins writes: “With witness I speak this.” In my head that line always reads: “With withness I speak this.”


Will Harris is the author of the poetry collection RENDANG (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), which was selected as a Poetry Book Society Choice and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. He has worked in schools and led workshops at the Southbank Centre and currently teaches for the Poetry School. A contributing editor at the Rialto, he lives in London. 

Thumbnail: Nazar Sharafutdinov