Sensitive Witnesses
Feminist Materialism in the British Enlightenment
Kristin M. Girten



IN THEIR 2008 BOOK Material Feminisms, Stacy Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman posit and seek to help foster a “‘material turn’ in feminist theory, a wave of feminist theory that is taking matter seriously.”1 As Alaimo and Hekman acknowledge, this turn coincides with the advent of feminist “new materialism,” which also emerged in the early twenty-first century to encourage a newly invigorated reckoning with matter in the face of poststructuralism’s privileging of discourse. Sensitive Witnesses shows that such feminist materialism has a deep history. Each of the female philosophers we have here explored share with feminist new materialists the goals of taking matter seriously and of finding “a way to talk about the materiality of the body as itself an active, sometimes recalcitrant, force.”2 They also similarly push back against the “nature/culture dualism,” denying an “epistemology [that] is grounded in objective access to a real/natural world” while at the same time nevertheless seeking to access nature as they bear witness to their own materiality.3

In her influential book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, which develops an ecologically oriented theory and practice of “vital materialism,” Jane Bennett calls for a “newish self” constituted by “the oxymoronic truism that the human is not exclusively human, that we are made up of its.”4 Bennett recognizes that there are significant, because deeply rooted and felt, barriers to cultivating such a self:

Even if, I as [sic] believe, the vitality of matter is real, it will be hard to discern it, and, once discerned, hard to keep focused on. It is too close and too fugitive, as much wind as thing, impetus as entity, a movement always on the way to becoming otherwise, an effluence that is vital and engaged in trajectories but not necessarily intentions. What is more, my attention will regularly be drawn away from it by deep cultural attachments to the ideas that matter is inanimate and that real agency belongs only to humans or to God, and by the need for an action-oriented perception that must overlook much of the swirling vitality of the world.5

However, Bennett insists that so important is the cultivation of a self informed by the vitality of matter that we me must be determined to take on such challenges. Not only is vital materialism more accurate than its conventional alternative, which wrongly perceives matter as humanity’s inert opposite. It is also more equipped to preserve ecological health, which is of course an increasingly pressing need as we have only just begun to witness the devastating effects of our centuries-old compulsion “to produce and consume in . . . violently reckless ways.”6 Vital materialism is, for Bennett, a “truism,” and the sooner we acknowledge it as such, the better:

Admit that humans have crawled or secreted themselves into every corner of the environment; admit that the environment is actually inside human bodies and minds, and then proceed politically, technologically, scientifically, in everyday life, with careful forbearance, as you might with unruly relatives to whom you are inextricably bound and with whom you will engage over a lifetime, like it or not. Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman. Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate.7

We must, according to Bennett, “start to feel [ourselves] as not only human. . . . [A]n affective, speaking human body is not radically different from the affective, signaling nonhumans with which it coexists, hosts, enjoys, serves, consumes, produces, and competes.”8

But how? How can we experience ourselves as “made up of its” when there is so much preventing us from doing so?9 The “buffering” that Charles Taylor attributes to the modern self finds its apotheosis in the masculine modesty that Bacon, Burke, and Kant presented as necessary for empirical and aesthetic philosophical practice.10 Even though their philosophical observations and principles often challenged such modesty (as in the case of Boyle’s corpuscularianism), British Enlightenment philosophers nevertheless regularly performed, and promoted the perception of, a fundamental distinction between active man and inert matter. The vital materialism that Bennett promotes challenges precisely such a binaristic distinction—such a buffering—instead registering “the force of things” or what she calls “thing power.” According to Bennett, materiality is, itself, a “creative agent.”11 Inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bennett argues that such “universal creativity requires a special sensitivity.”12 It is precisely such “sensitivity” that the author-philosophers we have here explored model and promote. To be a sensitive witness is to recognize matter as an agent and also to appreciate one’s own entanglement—as well as one’s continuity—with the material world. The polemic that Bennett presents expresses sentiments that several prominent female author-philosophers also expressed in the Enlightenment era. Sensitive Witnesses has sought to recover their reactions and contributions to “Enlightenment subjectivity” as a means of recognizing that, in the Enlightenment era, there were those who insisted on bearing witness to the vitality of matter and the continuity of humanity with nonhuman nature—who rejected the binarisms that helped substantiate the modern self’s buffering.

Masculine philosophical modesty is a fiction created and perpetuated to preserve the “purity” of empirical and aesthetic experience. However, in spite of philosophers’ attempts to normalize and universalize it, we must recognize masculine modesty as a historical development and a privileged experience. The truth of the matter is that our self is itself a fiction, particularly if defined as a solitary individual, separate from the world around it. Whether we like it or not, we are always touching nature, though it takes a certain bravery and resilience to acknowledge it. Touching nature is, after all, sublime. But even as such, it flies in the face of tradition because the sublime it entails is dangerous, physical, highly palpable. Rather than keeping that which is overwhelming at a remove, it invites the astonishing, overwhelming, annihilating in. Touching nature, the sensitive witness communes with, rather than simply rationalizing, the sublime.

In chapter 4, we conclude with Charlotte Smith’s ethic of care. Such an ethic has been expressed as well as complicated by recent feminists.13 I would argue that neither Smith nor the other authors that Sensitive Witnesses studies are essentialist and, therefore, that the ethic of care that Smith advocates, inspired by her practice of sensitive witnessing, is as important for men as it is for women. In fact, she recommends such an ethic to girls and boys alike in her works for children. The author-philosophers that Sensitive Witnesses studies seek to harness characteristics that have become associated with femininity—sensitivity, vulnerability, openness—but they do so with the hope of encouraging all, both women and men, to adopt such characteristics. Their argument is that such characteristics will promote better philosophy. However, for Charlotte Smith, the final author-philosopher Sensitive Witnesses studies, they will also promote a healthier public good. The ethic of care should not simply rest on the shoulders of women, according to Smith. Rather, it should be shared by all who are in a position to care for others. Equipped with an ontology of kinship, the ethic of care knows no bounds.

In 1818, Mary Shelley anonymously published the first edition of Frankenstein. I would argue that the feminist philosophical practices Sensitive Witnesses studies set an important foundation for her “hideous progeny.”14 In Frankenstein, Shelley directly challenges the modest witness with her portrayal of Victor, “the modern Prometheus,” who is so self-involved—so buffered—that he has absolutely no sense of how his actions and choices will impact others. Victor is oblivious, and in portraying him as such, Mary Shelley challenges the obliviousness of modest witnessing more generally. More attention needs to be given to how Mary Shelley’s masterpiece is reminiscent of earlier works by Enlightenment female authors. Though Clerval and Elizabeth are, in certain respects, evocative of the Enlightenment sensitive witness in their embodiment of poetic sensibility, neither of these characters is a philosopher per se. The Creature himself perhaps comes closest to the Enlightenment era sensitive witness in the novel’s central story, particularly in his pursuit of education through boundary-defying empirical practice (as is evinced by his painful “examination” of fire), the emotional transport (“reverence”) he experiences as he encounters the De Laceys, and his harnessing of the sublime (most spectacularly, when he sends the De Laceys’ cottage up in flames).15 However, the one true philosopher central to Frankenstein—namely, Victor—determinedly refuses to embody a sensitive witness, as is illustrated in his initial responses to the Creature’s “birth”:

“Why do you call to my remembrance circumstances of which I shudder to reflect, that I have been the miserable origin and author? Cursed be the day, abhorred devil, in which you first saw light! Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you! You have made me wretched beyond expression. You have left me no power to consider whether I am just to you, or not. Begone! Relieve me from the sight of your detested form.”

Here, as he refuses to feel for or with the Creature, Victor Frankenstein seeks to distance himself from his own creation and, thus, I would argue to purify himself of matter by, as was typical within British Enlightenment science, denying his own entanglement with it. The remainder of the novel dramatizes the tragic consequences of such a masculine and modest refusal of sensitivity. Moreover, through the incessant doubling for which the novel is known, Shelley criticizes Victor’s refusal and the purification it attempts to achieve as delusional. Try as he might to deny it, Victor cannot help but be entangled with the Creature. After all, he is himself a material being with a touching nature. That Shelley emphasizes the abject materiality of Victor’s act of creation as well as its tactile intimacy—“Cursed . . . be the hands that formed you!”—only accentuates Victor’s entanglement with matter. So too does the doppelgänger relationship that Shelley establishes between Victor and the Creature. If Victor had chosen to recognize his own kinship with the Creature and thus been inspired to care for him rather than to abandon him, it is likely that the novel’s many tragedies would have been avoided. Of course, in the end, Victor’s desire to achieve immortality is revealed to be not only tragic but also profoundly ironic because it perpetuates death rather than life.

Frankenstein is regularly analyzed as a critique of modern science, and various scholars have pursued this analysis through an ecocritical interpretive framework.16 By studying the Enlightenment history of the sensitive witness, we acquire new ways of recognizing the meaning and significance of both the novel’s critique of science and its ecological dimensions and legacy. I would suggest that, contextualized by the history of the sensitive witness, Frankenstein becomes an elegy for philosophical possibilities that, by the time of the novel’s publication in 1818, appear to have been foreclosed upon. The march of progress—scientific and philosophical as well as sociopolitical and economic—has not been conducive to sensitive witnessing. Frankenstein portrays a confrontation between sensitive witnessing and modest witnessing in which, ultimately, the latter wins out. As it does so, the novel may be seen to narrate the historical success of patriarchal modernity, and the related ascendance of the buffered modern self, as a multi-pronged tragedy in which everyone seems destined to suffer.

If Shelley leaves us with any hope, it resides in Robert Walton and his “dear sister,” Margaret. In the novel’s epistolary conclusion, Walton tells his sister of two occasions in which he has been a sensitive witness. The first involves his bearing witness to Victor’s telling of his story, which culminates in his death. Walton responds to Victor’s story and death thus: “Margaret, what comment can I make on the untimely extinction of this glorious spirit? What can I say, that will enable you to understand the depth of my sorrow? All that I should express would be inadequate and feeble. My tears flow; my mind is overshadowed by a cloud of disappointment. But I journey towards England, and I may there find consolation.”17 The second occasion of Walton’s sensitive witnessing involves the Creature who has found his way into “the cabin where the remains of Frankenstein still lie.”18 Walton explains to Margaret that, instead of being repelled by the Creature as others throughout the novel have been, and in spite of his initial “impulses” to fulfill Victor’s “dying request” that he kill the Creature, he is “suspended by a mixture of curiosity and compassion.”19 He then proceeds to “approach . . . [the] tremendous being” and to listen to him tell his own story. When the Creature comes to a stopping point, Walton explains, “I was at first touched by the expressions of his misery.”20 Here, I would argue, Walton reveals himself to be a sensitive witness as he does not simply listen to the Creature with sympathy at a distance but, rather, allows himself to be “touched” by his “expressions.” Indeed, after so much alienation throughout the novel, the intimacy that immediately exists between Walton and the Creature is remarkable.

Even when Walton adjusts his initial reaction to the Creature, he nevertheless continues to listen carefully to what he has to say and to document it, as if word for word, for his sister. He acknowledges to Margaret, “when I called to mind what Frankenstein had said of [the Creature’s] powers of eloquence and persuasion, and when I again cast my eyes on the lifeless form of my friend, indignation was re-kindled within me.”21 Walton and the Creature then proceed to engage in a brief dialogue about the latter’s “misery,” but almost immediately Walton allows the Creature to continue his monologue without any additional commentary.22 In fact, Walton and Shelley allow the Creature’s story to conclude the novel, which has the effect of reinforcing both Walton’s and Shelley’s status as sensitive witnesses. In the final lines of the novel, the Creature envisions his own funeral pyre, imagining his “ashes [being] swept into the sea by the winds” and his “spirit . . . sleep[ing] in peace.”23 All that follows are two baldly descriptive sentences by Walton: “He sprung from the cabin-window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.”24 Thus, though he has been demonized throughout the novel, and has repeatedly been a vehicle for violence and death, the Creature is nevertheless given the last word.

Where does this leave the novel’s reader? I would contend that, ultimately, the novel invites the reader to occupy a position parallel to Walton’s and Shelley’s and to emulate their sensitivity as witnesses. Shelley encourages the reader to be, like Walton, “touched” by the tragic story while also being judicious in how they evaluate the story’s nuances and details. Like her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as Charlotte Smith, Mary Shelley promotes a combination of sensitivity (or sensibility) and reason whereby the latter both “deepens” and provides a check on the former.25 Like her mother, Shelley is suspicious of “mechanical instinctive sensations.”26 It is not enough, according to Shelley, to be “touched,” as Walton initially is when he first encounters the Creature. With the conclusion of Frankenstein, she encourages her readers to proceed, like Walton does, to engage in rational reflection so that they may learn how to revise their initial “mechanical,” “instinctive,” and purely emotional responses such that these responses become “deepened” in the terms Wollstonecraft outlines—more nuanced and more responsive to the broader picture (including both the Creature’s “expressions of his misery” and “what Frankenstein had said”).27 Walton thus ultimately serves as a sensitive witness who deserves to be emulated.

By casting Walton as a sensitive witness, Mary Shelley takes a strong anti-essentialist position, explicitly recognizing that there is nothing natural about the binaristic separation between masculine modesty and feminine sensitivity. If a brave explorer like Walton can be a sensitive witness, surely it is possible for any man. In fact, I would argue that Walton and Margaret’s relationship serves as a foil to Victor and Elizabeth’s. The latter expresses the patriarchal polarization of modest men and sensitive women, which found expression in what has become known as “the separation of the spheres,” while the former represents Shelley’s progressive hope for a more integrated, less binaristic, and more egalitarian relationship between men and women.28 As she juxtaposes these relationships, she also juxtaposes Victor and Walton. In so doing, she implicitly calls for a revision to scientific practice that entails a shift away from modesty to sensitivity—or, in the terms of Haraway, a “queering” of the modest witness.29 We have already recognized how Frankenstein challenges the ethics as well as the authority of the masculine modest witness, as embodied by Victor. I would argue that, with her favorable portrayal of Walton, particularly at the conclusion of the novel, she presents a strong endorsement of the ethics as well as the authority of the sensitive witness while also insisting that men may—and should—embody it as well as women.

Ultimately, then, though the main story of Frankenstein functions as an elegy for philosophical possibilities foreclosed upon, with her portrayal of the peripheral characters of Walton and Margaret, Shelley nevertheless holds onto hope for a different future. The future she invites her readers to help envision is one in which science and discovery will be guided not by masculine modesty that entails an alienation of man from matter but, rather, by an androgynous sensitivity that combines feeling and reason while acknowledging instead of denying humanity’s entanglement with the material world. Such is the future that the author-philosophers throughout Sensitive Witnesses sought, and we have never needed such a future as much as we do now. As we have begun to experience, firsthand, the devastating effects of anthropogenic ecological degradation such as devastatingly rampant forest fires, flooding that displaces large populations, disrupted weather patterns that put many people in harm’s way, etc., the fiction of modest man’s ability to separate himself from matter is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain as truth. Few have recognized this difficulty more profoundly than climate scientists. As a recent study by Lesley Head and Theresa Harada shows, “emotional management is an important part of dealing with climate change knowledge in both the professional and the domestic spheres” of climate scientists.30 Though the climate scientists in their study continue to strive to “compl[y] with the scientific norms of the doing of climate science . . .—which requires an objective standpoint,” the act of repressing their emotions, and thus denying their sensitivity, requires significant emotional labor, which threatens not only to hinder their scientific work but also to perpetuate the relative lack of diversity amongst climate scientists.31 Moreover, within climate science, emotion can have salutary effects. As Head and Harada’s study demonstrates, “emotions associated with the challenges of climate science helped to inspire and motivate scientists to ‘keep on going.’ . . . [T]his fortitude to persevere was one of the ways that emotions worked to bind them together.”32 Head and Harada conclude their study with the following claim: “Discussing how we feel about climate change will at the very least broaden our thinking and give us more options for effective action.”33 Surely, this is true not only for lay people but also for scientists themselves.

I would argue that the time has come for us to adjust our scientific methods to recognize, along with the several pioneering Enlightenment era author-philosophers we have here explored, that emotion and empiricism need not be mutually exclusive and, in fact, may even be mutually supportive. As climate catastrophes remind us of the undeniability of our entanglement with matter, we simply no longer have the luxury of achieving objectivity by “purifying” ourselves of matter. To combat climate change and the environmental injustices that it has already begun to inflict, we would all do well to develop a practice of sensitive witnessing that is supportive of an ontology of kinship and ethic of care, as is the case in the final work that Sensitive Witnesses explores—Charlotte Smith’s Beachy Head. In the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer—moss scientist, member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, and twenty-first-century sensitive witness—“[t]he story” of our material world is “about relationship.”34 How different our present and our future would be if we were all to “come to see the world” not at a distance but, like Kimmerer does, “through moss-colored glasses.”35

Cary Wolfe has argued that posthumanism “comes both before and after humanism.”36 On the one hand, it is a “historical moment,” marking a shift away from humanism, “in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore.”37 However, less obviously, it also precedes humanism because, according to Wolfe, “it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world.”38 I argue that the Enlightenment era sensitive witness evokes this pre-humanist dimension of posthumanism. As it does so, it offers a historical precursor to forms of witnessing and ethical practices that ecologically minded posthumanist philosophers like Wolfe have developed in recent decades. We therefore have much to learn from Enlightenment era sensitive witnesses—from their accomplishments as well as the challenges they faced. A central lesson is that, if we are to learn how to adapt sensitive witnessing to the twenty-first century so that we may become better prepared to face and address the devastating ecological consequences of centuries of modest witnessing, we must develop a new, more capacious perception of ourselves that includes rather than excludes others, both human and nonhuman. Furthermore, we must accept, and even learn how to appreciate, knowledge-making as a sublime endeavor, though one that is predicated not on distance, but rather on physical and emotional intimacy. So profound is such intimacy that we will be required to lose ourselves (including our egos, expectations, ambitions, etc.) as we seek to know and to act on our knowledge. We can no longer afford the arrogance of modesty. It is time for a new, sensitive, “great instauration” in which we learn how to touch and be touched by nature, with a sense of continuity, relationality, gentleness, and care.


1. Stacy Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman, Material Feminisms (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 6.

2. Ibid., 3–4.

3. Ibid., 2–3.

4. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 113.

5. Ibid., 119.

6. Ibid., 113.

7. Ibid., 116.

8. Ibid., 116.

9. Ibid., 113.

10. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 37–38.

11. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 65, 4–17.

12. Ibid., 117.

13. See for instance Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal Political, and Global (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); Joan C. Tronto, Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care (New York: Routledge, 1993).

14. Mary Shelley, introduction to Frankenstein, 3rd ed. (1831), Frankenstein, ed. J. Paul Hunter, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 169.

15. Shelley, Frankenstein (1818), ed. J. Paul Hunter, 71, 74, 97.

16. See for instance Helena Feder, “‘A Blot upon the Earth’: Nature’s ‘Negative’ and the Production of Monstrosity in Frankenstein,” Journal of Ecocriticism 2, no. 1 (Jan 2010): 55–66; Timothy Morton, “Frankenstein and Ecocriticism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, ed. Andrew Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 143–57; Shalon Noble, “An Uncertain Spirit of an Unstable Place: Frankenstein in the Anthropocene,” in Romantic Ecocriticism: Origins and Legacies, ed. Dewey W. Hall (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 123–38; Paul Outka, “Posthuman/Postnatural: Ecocriticism and the Sublime in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein,” in Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Stephanie LeMenager, Teresa Shewry, and Ken Hiltner (New York: Routledge, 2011), 31–48.

17. Shelley, Frankenstein, 157.

18. Ibid., 157.

19. Ibid., 159.

20. My emphasis; ibid., 159.

21. Ibid., 159.

22. Ibid., 159.

23. Ibid., 161.

24. Ibid., 161.

25. Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Men (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 54.

26. Ibid., 54; Shelley, Frankenstein, 159.

27. Wollstonecraft, Vindication, 54; Shelley, Frankenstein, 159.

28. On the “separation of the spheres” in the era of Enlightenment, see especially Amanda Vickery, “Golden Age to Separate Spheres? A Review of the Categories and Chronology of English Women’s History,” The History Journal 36, no. 2 (1993); Karen O’Brien, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Robert B. Shoemaker, Gender in English Society, 1650–1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London: Longman, 1998); Harriet Guest, Small Change: Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750–1810 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

29. Donna J. Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience (New York: Routledge, 1997), 24.

30. Lesley Head and Theresa Harada, “Keeping the Heart a Long Way from the Brain: The Emotional Labour of Climate Scientists,” Emotion, Space and Society 24 (2017): 40.

31. Ibid., 37. As Head and Harada (“Keeping the Heart”) acknowledge,

It is important to emphasize here that the sample is already skewed towards personal resilience and the ability to survive and succeed in a competitive academic environment of limited resources. Anyone working in a university science context would recognize this male-dominated sample. The number of opportunities shrink at each career stage, creating a funneling effect, with even the early career participants here already survivors of such a system. This perhaps reinforces how emotional management strategies have contributed to attaining their current positions. (39)

32. Ibid., 39.

33. Ibid., 40.

34. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2003), vii.

35. Ibid., vii.

36. Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xv.

37. Ibid., xv.

38. Ibid., xv.