Testimony without Identity
How is it that Frederick Douglass did not find it necessary to foreground his racial identity until late in life, as he suggests in the 1892 supplement to Life and Times? This chapter proposes two ways to account for Douglass’s suggestion: one, antebellum legal culture was not invested in regulating the identities of its citizens, and so the meaning of identifying terms, such as “black man,” may have been contested, but was also left largely unspecified. Two, Douglass seems to rely on a thinking close to Giorgio Agamben’s reading of Emmanuel Benveniste, which suggests that the living body always remains silent while, in another register, the speaking body enters the world of discourse. Agamben reads the split between bodies as conditional for testimony; Douglass, however, consistently sought a vocabulary that would express his once-enslaved body and allow it to be recognized as, simply, that of a citizen. Douglass’s testimony looks toward an identity between living body and speaking body, and toward a legal climate that would instantiate the language that was always just out of his reach.
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