270 72 947KB
English Pages 256  Year 2009
Presents a discussion of the many facets of mass communication. Coverage of the complex issues facing all the mass media
235 83 658KB Read more
People make media, media takes up two-thirds of our waking hours, media impacts our lives; it is critical to understand
214 39 43MB Read more
The #1 introduction to mass communication text, Media & Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age, is at the fore
150 44 77MB Read more
264 92 26MB Read more
212 65 2MB Read more
Communication, like the atmosphere itself, is ubiquitous and essential for humans and with the development of new techno
165 30 5MB Read more
179 77 4MB Read more
Michael Parenti explores the rational and political nature of Western news media. Exposing their lies, deceit, and clich
259 69 5MB Read more
This is the first issue of an annual on Mass Media in India. It contains general information relating to the development
257 99 65MB Read more
Also by Paul Frosh THE IMAGE FACTORY: Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry (2003) MEETING THE ENEMY IN THE LIVING ROOM: Terrorism and Communication in the Contemporary Era (with Tamar Liebes, 2006)
Also by Amit Pinchevski BY WAY OF INTERRUPTION: Levinas and the Ethics of Communication (2005)
Media Witnessing Testimony in the Age of Mass Communication Edited by
Paul Frosh Senior Lecturer, Department of Communications and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Amit Pinchevski Lecturer, Department of Communications and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Introduction, selection and editorial matter © Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 2009 Individual chapters © contributors 2009 All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No portion of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, or under the terms of any licence permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. The authors have asserted their rights to be identified as the authors of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. First published 2009 by PALGRAVE MACMILLAN Palgrave Macmillan in the UK is an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited, registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS. Palgrave Macmillan in the US is a division of St Martin’s Press LLC, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010. Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies and has companies and representatives throughout the world. Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries. ISBN-13: 978–0–230–55149–7 hardback ISBN-10: 0–230–55149–1 hardback This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully managed and sustained forest sources. Logging, pulping and manufacturing processes are expected to conform to the environmental regulations of the country of origin. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Frosh, Paul. Media witnessing : testimony in the age of mass communication / Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978–0–230–55149–7 (alk. paper) 1. Mass media—Influence. 2. Reporters and reporting. 3. Mass media—Audiences. I. Pinchevski, Amit, 1971– II. Title. P94.F76 2009 302.23—dc22 2008029917 10 18
Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne
Notes on the Contributors
Introduction: Why Media Witnessing? Why Now? Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski
Part I Perspectives on Media Witnessing 1 Witnessing John Durham Peters
An Afterword: Torchlight Red on Sweaty Faces John Durham Peters 2 Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers Paul Frosh 3 Mundane Witness John Ellis
4 Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication: Historical Roots, Structural Dynamics, and Current Appearances Günter Thomas 5 Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes
Part II Performances of Media Witnessing 6 Witnessing as a Field Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 7 From Danger to Trauma: Affective Labor and the Journalistic Discourse of Witnessing Carrie Rentschler v
8 Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation Joan Leach
9 Witnessing Trauma on Film Roy Brand
Acknowledgments This project has been long in the making, emerging from intermittent but continuous discussions (and disputations!) between the individual authors and many other scholars at a number of different gatherings over several years. There are many to thank for their (sometimes unwitting) contributions to the spirit, if not the letter, of this project; those who, while they have not contributed essays to this volume, have kept us enthused and intellectually alert to the many dimensions of media witnessing and who have read and responded to previous versions of the work presented here: Elihu Katz, Daniel Dayan, Paddy Scannell, Shoshana Blum-Kulka, Zohar Kampf, Eva Illouz, Sandrine Boudana, Tally Gross, Louise Bethlehem, and Nick Couldry, to name only a few. In addition we would like to thank Becky Feinberg for her diligence, efficiency, and heroic meticulousness in preparing the manuscript for publication. The Hebrew University Authority for Research and Development and the Smart Family Foundation Communications Institute both made generous financial contributions towards our editorial costs. Finally, we would like to thank Sage Publications Ltd. for permission to reprint John Durham Peters’s article ‘Witnessing’ from Media, Culture & Society, Volume 23, Issue 6, pp. 707–23, 2001, and Taylor and Francis Ltd. for permission to reprint Paul Frosh’s article ‘Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers’ from Critical Studies in Media Communication, Volume 23, Issue 4, pp. 265–84, 2006 (www.informaworld.com). Paul dedicates this book to his parents, Sidney Frosh and the late Ruth Frosh. Amit dedicates this book to the new family, to Iris and Ilai.
Notes on the Contributors Tamar Ashuri is a Lecturer at Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Communication Studies and in the School of Communications at Sapir Academic College, Israel. The Arab Israeli Conflict in the Media is forthcoming from I.B. Tauris in 2008, and her new book on the history of media technologies will be published in 2009. Menahem Blondheim is a Professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism and the Department of American Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He serves as Director of the Smart Family Foundation Communication Institute. His research interests include the history of communication and communication in history and communication technologies, old and new. Among his publications are News over the Wires (1994); Copperhead Gore (2006); and The Toronto School of Communication Theory (2007), a volume edited with Rita Watson. Roy Brand is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College, USA. His main areas of interest include media studies, critical theory, and contemporary European philosophy. Currently, he is working on a book entitled The Art of Experience: Films and New Media. John Ellis is a Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Seeing Things (2000) and Visible Fictions (1984) and has recently contributed to New Directions in Documentary (eds. J. Corner & A. Rosenthal, 2004) and The Television Studies Reader (eds. R. Allen & A. Hill, 2004). Between 1982 and 1999 he ran the independent company Large Door Productions, making documentaries for British TV. He is currently working on the history of television and the nature of the present moment. Paul Frosh is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Journalism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. His research interests include visual culture, consumer culture, media and nationhood, and communication theory. The Image Factory: Consumer Culture, Photography and the Visual Content Industry was published in 2003, and Meeting the Enemy in the Living Room: Terrorism viii
Notes on the Contributors
and Communication in the Contemporary Era (with Tamar Liebes) appeared in 2006. Joan Leach is currently convener of the science communication program at the University of Queensland, Australia. She has taught at Imperial College, University of London, and the University of Pittsburgh. She is editor of the interdisciplinary journal, Social Epistemology, and has published on communication ethics, public scientific controversies, and rhetorical theory. Tamar Liebes is a Professor of Media and Journalism and holds the Carl and Matilda Newhouse Chair in Communication at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her books include American Dreams, Hebrew Subtitles: Globalization at the Receiving End (2004); Reporting the Arab Israeli Conflict: How Hegemony Works (1997); The Export of Meaning: Cross Cultural Readings of Dallas, with Elihu Katz (1992), and two edited volumes Media, Ritual, Identity (with J. Curran, 1998), and Canonic Texts in Media Research: Are There Any? Should There Be? How About These (with Elihu Katz, John Durham Peters, and Avril Orloff, 2002). John Durham Peters is an F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Iowa. The author of nearly 50 articles and book chapters and over a dozen book reviews, his books include Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999) and Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (2005). He is the co-editor of Canonic Texts in Media Research: Are There Any? Should There Be? How About These? (with Elihu Katz, Tamar Liebes, and Avril Orloff, 2002) and Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919–1968 (with Peter Simonson, 2004). Amit Pinchevski is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of Communication and Journalism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. His research interests include communication theory, philosophy, and ethics. His book By Way of Interruption: Levinas and the Ethics of Communication was published in 2005. Carrie Rentschler is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. She has published on media activism in the U.S. victims’ rights movement, feminist self-defense, the gendering of public safety campaigns, private security industries, and models of injury in
Notes on the Contributors
discourses of U.S. citizenship. She is writing a book, Victims’ Rights and the Counter-Publics of Crime Victims, that examines how ‘victims’ rights’ developed into a powerful media discourse on crime and terrorism. Her current research investigates the emergence of trauma as a strategic news discourse. Günter Thomas is a Professor of Protestant Theology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany. His books include Medien-Ritual-Religion: Zur religiösen Funktion des Fernsehens [Media-Ritual-Religion: The Religious Function of Television] (1998); Implizite Religion: Theoriegeschichtliche und theoretische Untersuchungen zum Problem ihrer Identifikation [Implicit Religion: Historical and Theoretical Studies of the Problem of Its Identification] (2001); Das Symbol der Neuen Schöpfung [The Symbol of New Creation] (2006); and, as editor, Religiöse Funktionen des Fernsehens? Medien-, kultur- und religionswissenschaftliche Perspectiven [Religious Functions of Television? Perspectives from Media, Cultural, and Religious Studies] (1999); together with Andreas Schüle, Die Rezeption Niklas Luhmanns in der Theologie [The Reception of Niklas Luhmann in Theology] (2006).
Introduction Why Media Witnessing? Why Now? Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski
‘Media witnessing’ teeters on the brink of tautology. On the one hand, every act of witnessing implies some kind of mediation: most fundamentally, putting an experience into language for the benefit of those who were not there. On the other hand, every act of mediation entails a kind of witnessing, particularly the use of technology as a surrogate for an absent audience. Yet the compound ‘media witnessing’ implies more than the equivalence of its two terms, capturing something central to the practices of contemporary media as well as to recent scholarly interest in the aesthetics, ethics, and politics of representation. We might begin with a simple definition. ‘Media witnessing’ is the witnessing performed in, by, and through the media. It is about the systematic and ongoing reporting of the experiences and realities of distant others to mass audiences. But this in turn requires further specification since ‘media witnessing’ collapses a number of different semantic alignments among its two components. It refers simultaneously to the appearance of witnesses in media reports, the possibility of media themselves bearing witness, and the positioning of media audiences as witnesses to depicted events, configurations that are amenable to handy summary through a tripartite distinction (with apologies to Abraham Lincoln) between witnesses in the media, witnessing by the media, and witnessing through the media. In conﬂating these three strands, ‘media witnessing’ not only speaks to the complexity of their interactions (a television news report may depict witnesses to an event, bear witness to that event, and turn viewers into witnesses all at the same time), but it also appears as a ‘problematic’ in communications theory: ‘a term that organizes a field of phenomena in a way that yields problems for investigation’ (Abrams, 1980, p. 9). Media witnessing, we contend, offers new ways of thinking through some abiding 1
problems of media, communication, and culture that were previously addressed by terms such as ‘representation’, ‘mediation’, ‘reception’, ‘dissemination’, and ‘effects’. But why now? Why is ‘media witnessing’ not only a useful ‘problematic’ term but also a timely one, whose increasing visibility in contemporary scholarly discourse itself bears witness to deeper processes at work in the cultural, political, and technological contexts of media? Answering this question in a full and adequate manner is beyond the limited scope (and space) of this brief introduction. Clearly one way of approaching the timeliness of media witnessing is to understand it in a narrow sense, in relation to the development of the figure of the journalist and to journalism as a kind of testimony. Media witnessing in this narrow sense can be traced back to the emergence of professional journalism and journalistic norms in war correspondence from the nineteenth century to the present day, especially in relation to crises in the reliability of reporting in situations where, as Phillip Knightley (2004) famously put it, truth is ‘the first casualty’. However, as our opening paragraphs suggest, there is much more at stake in the concept of media witnessing than the focus on journalism allows. This focus – which puts the journalist’s professional practices center stage – makes it difficult to give full weight to contemporary developments in media technologies and audience participation. Let us take the example of so-called ‘embedded journalism’, the term used to designate the practice of war correspondents accompanying specific army units during the Second Gulf War. Seen through the prism of journalistic norms, this practice is a contemporary manifestation of roles fulfilled within traditional war correspondence (where journalists were once designated as ‘camp followers’): accompanying the troops as they go into battle and writing (or photographing) appropriate accounts. Understood through the framework of media witnessing, however, fundamental shifts have occurred as a result of technological changes. In addition to their traditional journalistic tasks, the embedded journalist is increasingly a vehicle for audiovisual media technologies that provide nonstop feeds to global news outlets on a multitude of media platforms. Moreover, the embedded journalist is also an operational model for audiences themselves. The same or similar technologies – cellphone-based cameras and recording devices hooked into immediately accessible distribution networks – are available to ordinary individuals ‘embedded’ in their everyday lives, as dormant potential journalists ready for ‘activation’ when events (and an internalized sense of newsworthiness) require. It is through a more expansive concept such as media witnessing that one
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 3
can glimpse the underlying connections between the phenomena of ‘embedded journalism’ and ‘citizen journalism’. Rather than confining the contemporary relevance of media witnessing to developments in journalism, we brieﬂy consider its emergence in relation to two intersections between media and witnessing: the Holocaust and the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Those two events can even in some ways be understood as antithetical limit cases of media witnessing. Whereas in the former the ultimate, authoritative witnesses are generally understood to be those who were there, in the latter we are haunted by the possibility that it is the distant television viewers – and not those at Ground Zero on the day – who were the event’s true witnesses.
The Holocaust and the crisis of witnessing The rise of what we call ‘media witnessing’ parallels what Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub (1991) have dubbed the ‘crisis of witnessing’ in the wake of the Holocaust. Indeed, to speak of witnessing in this day and age is inevitably to invoke the discourse of the Holocaust witness, which has come to constitute a paradigm case for witnessing in general (see Agamben, 1998; Caruth, 1996; Hartman, 1996; LaCapra, 2001; Langer, 1993). At the core of this paradigm is the impossibility of bearing witness: the traumatic event that has left its survivors speechless, not because they did not witness it, but rather because they did so all too overwhelmingly. When words fail or are unavailable, trauma itself bears witness to the black hole of experience through displaced repetitions and the acting out of unconscious conﬂicts. Taken to its logical extreme, this would mean that the Holocaust is an event without witnesses: no outside witnesses, neither those from nearby (bystanders or neighbors) nor those from afar (Jews worldwide or the nations of the world), were able (or willing) to report about the catastrophe. Moreover, no inside witness was capable of sufficiently removing him or herself from the contaminating power of the event so as to remain unaffected by it. But more devastatingly, the Nazi system succeeded in extinguishing the internal witness of its victims, convincing them that their experiences were indeed incommunicable even to themselves, never mind to others. To finally bear witness, the survivor has to reestablish an inner witness and build a discourse with an interlocutor (in Laub’s case, a therapist), who bears out the traumatic process with the survivor, allowing him or her to bear witness – possibly for the first time – to his or her experience.
It is instructive to note that these and other insights on the nature of witnessing were the result of interviews conducted for the Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale. The project was first undertaken in 1979 in New Haven, Connecticut by Dori Laub, a child-survivor and psychiatrist, and Laurel Vlock, a television journalist and documentarian, who premised that the medium of video could be used successfully to document the personal memories of Holocaust witnesses. This was chieﬂy due to the pressing concern that ‘time is running out and that every survivor has a unique story to tell’ and that ‘the living portraiture of television would add a compassionate and sensitive dimension to the historical record’ (Yale Library, 2007). Recording testimonies was thus undertaken in order to perpetuate the narratives of survivors, capturing each singular testimony for the benefit of future generations. Yet the function of media technology in this project was more than the establishment of an audiovisual archive: video cameras effectively constituted a technological surrogate for an audience of the witnessing process underway. Any act of recording implies an unlimited potential of reproduction, circulation, and broadcasting. This was all the more crucial in this case, for what media technology provided here, and with abundance, was precisely what precluded bearing witness before the project – the existence of an audience as addressee. In this sense, recent speculations on Holocaust witnessing such as Felman and Laub’s are inherently predicated on what we call here ‘media witnessing’. The unstated yet integral premise of Holocaust witnessing as pursued at Yale is the inexhaustible potential of reiteration, dissemination, and reproduction supplied by media technology. Media technology was utilized from the inception of Holocaust witnessing, bearing witness on camera to the recovery of survivors’ repressed narratives. It is in this respect that media witnessing can be said to be the ultimate goal and primary justification for Holocaust witnessing. The Yale project and many others that followed (most famously Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation) have contributed to the popularization of the figure of the survivor and the genre of Holocaust testimony and, in so doing, to the ‘audiencing’ of the Holocaust in mass media. It is somewhat ironic that the discourse of ‘that to which no one can bear witness’ has recently become the benchmark of witnessing discourse in general. More than 60 years after the end of World War II, various forms of testimony and representation of the Holocaust now fill the mass media. If the primary concern before was that the catastrophe should not be forgotten, it is safe to say that oblivion is no longer an issue, rather the contrary – the
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 5
ever-growing visibility of the Holocaust in various texts and contexts and the ever-expanding forms of its assimilation in popular culture. Geoffrey Hartman (2000) recounts the reproduction almost verbatim of a Yale videotaped testimony in a Harold Pinter play which dealt with violence and loss but had nothing to do with the Holocaust. According to Hartman, this repetition is indicative of the ways that the Holocaust affectively inﬂuences a wider public, to the point of becoming the deep structure of contemporary depictions of trauma, loss, and suffering. Perhaps the ultimate embodiment of such transference is the case of Benjamin Wilkomirski, the so-called child-survivor who turned out to be a false, if not fake, witness. Many have written about this peculiar story, yet only a few have noted the fact that Wilkomirski was an avid consumer of films and books about the Holocaust (Hartman, 2000; Lappin, 1999). Wilkomirski’s personal motives aside, this story is possible only in a media-saturated world, where everything – including the Holocaust – is rendered fully visible. Only when survivors’ experiences are made accessible to the rest of the world can someone assume a false memory of the Holocaust. Beyond being raw material for fabrication, though, Holocaust representations circulating in the media are also a repository from which to judge how a Holocaust testimony should sound. This might account for the success of Wilkomirski’s book, which seems to have spoken to the popular image and expectations of child testimony. It may be said that Wilkomirski recycled what was already out there, evoking the deep structure of witnessing already in place, which in turn enabled the ‘correct’ encoding of his text but also explains the outrage at the discovery of its falsification. Wilkomirski is a product of the age of media witnessing, and as such his overidentification with survivors can be interpreted as a fateful leap from media witnessing to Holocaust witnessing. No one can better attest to the imperative of witnessing than Primo Levi, arguably the paradigmatic case of the Holocaust witness. His reﬂections on the role assigned to him by history or fate reveal the complexity of the charge of bearing witness. Levi insists that those who survived the Holocaust are not the true witnesses of the catastrophe precisely because they were somehow saved. The true witnesses, according to Levi, are those who will never be able to bear witness, those who reached rock bottom never to return to tell the tale – the Muselmanners. As Giorgio Agamben (1998) notes, the value of Levi’s testimony lies in what it lacks: its center contains a lacuna that bears witness to the missing witness, thereby making Levi and other survivors witnesses by proxy. It is an exception to the rule testifying to the rule. Yet what prevented someone
like Primo Levi from becoming a true witness – that is, a Muselmann – was precisely what enabled him to finally bear witness, even if partially or vicariously. Levi’s testimony occupied a narrow bridge of being removed enough but not removed altogether. A precarious combination of distance and proximity kept him from being consumed by the event but still affected enough so as to testify about it. As such, Levi meets the conditions of a moral witness stipulated by Avishai Margalit (2002): speaking against evil in the name of humanity while being exposed to the evil thus witnessed. In speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, Levi’s testimony undertakes limitless responsibility towards the Other (Pinchevski, 2005). In this respect, Holocaust testimony can be said to bear the mark of the silence of those who were infinitely close – the Muselmanners – as well as infinitely distant – God. In his afterword to If This is a Man, Levi expresses the moral charge extending from the period of Nazism to the contemporary world: The world in which we Westerners live today has grave faults and dangers, but when compared to former times our world has a tremendous advantage: everyone can know everything about everything. Information today is the ‘fourth estate’: at least in theory the reporter, the journalist and the news photographer have free access everywhere; nobody has the right to stop them or to send them away. Everything is easy: if you wish you can receive radio or television broadcasts from your own or any other country. You can go to the newsstand and choose the newspaper you prefer . . . In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door (Levi, 1987, pp. 382–3, 386). Implied in Levi’s commentary – which also serves as the epigraph for a key media witnessing text, Luc Boltanski’s Distant Suffering (1999) – is the belief that in a world of mass media where all is visible, excuses like ‘we did not know’ will no longer be acceptable; with media proliferation, ignorance can never be used as justification for inaction. Contrary to the time of the Holocaust, when restriction and censorship were
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 7
the rule, the media today supplies what was unattainable then: distant witness. Thus, for Levi the media are entrusted with the momentous task of ‘never again’ by undertaking to forewarn against future catastrophes. In this sense, media witnessing is essentially the continuation of Holocaust witnessing by other means, bearing out the imperative of speaking against evil and misfortune wherever and whenever they might occur. Levi’s view is admittedly naïve in assuming that knowing necessarily leads to acting and in presupposing that information entails involvement. If anything, the question today is not how violence takes place without us knowing about it, but how violence takes place when it is almost impossible not to know about it. Indeed, similar concerns have accompanied media studies as early as Merton and Lazarsfeld’s discussion of narcotic dysfunction (1948) and more recently in a wider context under the heading of ‘compassion fatigue’ (Moeller, 1999). Nevertheless, what Primo Levi’s words attest to is the profound commitment entailed by witnessing in a post-Holocaust world. Media witnessing is inherently post-Holocaust witnessing, and that black horizon is what informs its undertaking.
9/11 and the ubiquity of witnessing In the seminal essay on witnessing which opens the first section of this volume, John Durham Peters makes the following claim: ‘ “Being there” matters since it avoids the ontological depreciation of being a copy. The copy, like hearsay, is indefinitely repeatable; the event is singular, and its witnesses are forever irreplaceable in their privileged relation to it. Recordings lose the hic et nunc of the event.’ This argument echoes a similar point made by Derrida (2000) about the event being witnessed and the event of witnessing: ‘the event’ as an instant – a singularity, a unique and unrepeatable irruption in space and time that escapes full encapsulation in discourse – and the event as an instance, repeatable and designed for reiteration. According to Derrida, testimony necessarily implies both instant and instance, both the singular and the universal, and irredeemably so: ‘The singular must be universalizable; this is the testimonial condition’ (2000, p. 41). This latter notion of ‘instance’ approaches the idea of the ‘media event’, an occurrence created and staged not only on behalf of its own singularity, its ‘un-depreciated’ ontological standing, but precisely in order to be represented, repeated, and recognized over and over again – in short, to be communicated. The Holocaust would appear to constitute ‘the event’ par excellence and to be as far from a ‘media event’ as is possible. Its horrific uniqueness is
borne out by the ultimate impossibility of its representation, by its traumatic irreducibility to discourse. In its extreme incarnation as an instant that resists transmutation into discourse, the Holocaust is the event that produced no witnesses. What, however, of ‘the mother of all events’ as Baudrillard (2002) calls it – the attack on the World Trade Center of September 11, 2001? This was an event that was designed as an act of communication, as the ultimate media event. In fact, it became identifiable as a particular instant (planes being ﬂown one after another into the Twin Towers) at the very same time that it became meaningful as a symbolic performance staged for global television audiences. Its nature as an instance, an image to be distributed, repeated, and symbolically transmuted, is precisely the reason for its occurrence as an unrepeatable and unique instant. And what of the ‘hic et nunc’, the here and now, which according to Peters distinguishes the event from the copy? These space–time parameters have been utterly transformed, distended across space to the ubiquitous point of viewing, extended in time beyond the transitory chronology of news (here today, gone tomorrow) and into a historic temporality which Chouliaraki, borrowing from Heidegger, calls ‘ecstatic’ – a minute that lasts a lifetime (2006, p. 158). The ‘here’ of the planes’ impact upon the towers, the location of the event’s ‘being’ as an instant, occurs at the site of its symbolic decoding by viewers; its experiential ‘now’ occurs as viewers recognize such an attack as an epochal, world-changing fact, a historic ‘now’ which subsists far beyond the instant. This explosive spatial and temporal extension means that television viewers are always already interpellated by the event as its witnesses in ways that those physically present at the horror of ground zero are not and cannot be. Not only are they better informed about what is going on – as journalists manage, despite the immense confusion, to piece together a remarkably accurate interpretation of what is happening as it is happening (Scannell, 2004) – they are also those for whom the event occurred, its goal and its justification, the necessary condition for its existence. The instance is internal to the instant, and mass-mediated witnessing at a distance underpins the very ontology of the physical event. This radical reversal of the conventional relations of dependence between event and media event – irreducible singularity and reiterable representation, real and symbolic, being there and not being there – means that, in contrast to the Holocaust, 9/11 is the event that cannot not produce witnesses. This logic of media witnessing, this inclusion of the instance within the instant and the representation within the event, is embedded in the communicative structures and aesthetics of audiovisual media
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 9
themselves. Photography, cinema, television, and video are technologies that, notwithstanding their reliance upon cultural conventions of production and interpretation, nevertheless produce an indexical or ‘referential excess’ (Baker, 1996) that cannot be entirely controlled. That is why, for Barthes’s, the photograph is the ‘absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency’, a unique material trace of its referent in an irredeemable context that nevertheless – and here is the key paradox – ‘mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially’ (1981, p. 4). The singularity of the instant, what Benjamin (1931/1980, p. 202) called ‘the spark of accident’, is integral to its infinite repeatability and is in fact what is represented and relayed. Rather than ‘ontological depreciation’, might it not be that contemporary audiovisual media are perpetually open to the emergence of unique events, that they enable the recuperation of the singular? This is a new kind of witnessing, one that is radically inclusive since it equally registers the principal subject and the extraneous detail in the scene before the camera, this being the real point of Barthes’ punctum. John Ellis makes this one of the central tenets of his thesis, that witnessing has become a generalized mode of relating to the world in the age of mass media, since what is true for photography is no less apposite for cinema (and later on, television): ‘The most astonishing thing was that everything in the picture moved, “even the leaves on the trees” as one observer put it . . . . It was the sudden ability to witness the incidentals of life just as they were that produced the effect of witness’ (2000, pp. 19–20). The radical inclusion of the incidental by contemporary audiovisual media is at the heart of the repeatable singularity of 9/11. Tourists taking conventional video footage of the World Trade Center on a beautiful Manhattan morning just happen to also register the ﬂeeting but clearly visible outline of a plane as it approaches the towers – filming it entirely by accident but also through the inexorable referential excess of the camera. Seconds later, they record the explosive moment of impact that casts off the plane’s marginal, incidental status and retrospectively makes it the principal subject of the preceding images. The plane only gains our attention at the moment of its destruction, just as the image of it repeats mechanically what can never be repeated existentially, thanks to technologies of media witnessing whose referential excess records and relays the singularity of all incidents and all events as immanently significant. 9/11 thus marked the deliberate use of the referential inclusiveness of modern media to interpellate its audiences as the ultimate witnesses. You could not but see the planes hitting the towers (see them because
they hit the towers) and could not but know that it was done in order to be seen by you. This unexpected, overwhelming event, engendered in the act of being witnessed, was the result of media witnessing in its most mundane, everyday, and yet extraordinary incarnation: a worldwide complex of relations between media organizations and ordinary people that has turned anyone into a testimony-producer. More and more of us create testimony not only because we appear in media (‘I was there; this I what I saw’) but because we can bear witness by media, thanks to the proliferation of cell phone and other miniature cameras that we carry around with us as basic equipment. It was this ubiquity of media-witnessing devices and their everyday deployment in perfectly unremarkable contexts (tourists on holiday) that fed into the reports of national and global television channels and provided them and their viewers with much of the footage of the impact. The intersection between mass media witnessing and ubiquitous everyday media usage is not restricted to 9/11. The Asian tsunami of 2004, the bombs in London on 7 July 2005, and many other ‘unexpected’ events are now at least partially witnessed through the cameras of ordinary people. 9/11 is therefore more exemplary of contemporary media witnessing than its exceptional symbolic qualities and historic political effects would suggest. It participates, in fact, in a system of perpetual vigilance that takes the recurrence of catastrophe as a historical given and which involves both media organizations and ordinary people. Vigilance is clearly a key term derived from the ‘never again’ imperative of Holocaust witnessing. One bears witness in an attempt to make its repetition impossible. Yet witnessing post-9/11 is not only perpetual, but also generalized across multiple, unpredictable threats that take the whole world as their arena. In an age of globalized risks (nuclear disasters, climate change, epidemics, terrorist attacks) we simply do not know where the next catastrophe is coming from or what it will be (Beck, 1992). Moreover, a fundamental assumption underpinning such generalized vigilance is that the acts of media witnessing of which it is composed – whether performed by professional broadcasters or a tourist’s cell phone camera, whether in New York or Sumatra – represent a shared world: shared, that is, by both viewers and those depicted. Media witnessing thus helps shape the creation of supranational ‘cosmopolitan risk publics’ (Beck, 2006) who can perceive their own commonality through representations of shared existential threats. The intersection between ubiquitous everyday recording technologies and mass media organizations is often seen in purely Foucauldian terms as a contemporary incarnation of the panopticon. Indeed, the border
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 11
between vigilance and surveillance can be dangerously thin, and the perception of commonality may simply be the consequence of a shared apparatus of subjection. Moreover, media organizations and everyday cell phone camera users are by no means equals. Television channels are the gatekeepers of the airwaves – not all footage will reach their audiences. They are also the guardians of the event’s repeatability: they can reproduce the footage and broadcast it again whenever they want – or not, as the case may be. There is clearly an institutional politics of contemporary media witnessing that informs how witnessed worlds are represented as shared and who may depict them and appear in them. It is no accident, of course, that the most globally televised live ‘news’ event of recent years, 9/11, happened in the United States, which is in any case the most widely reported country in the world (Wu, 2000). Indeed, this is precisely what its perpetrators were relying on. It is also no accident, but a direct result of global inequalities in wealth-distribution and in the dissemination of new media technologies (as well as the traditional bias of national broadcasters in favor of culturally ‘proximate’ protagonists), that around 40 per cent of the Western news coverage on the 2004 Asian tsunami focused on the Western tourists who made up about 1 per cent of the victims (CARMA Report, 2006). This is the same 1 per cent whose video cameras and cell phones were so central in furnishing Western audiences with footage of the disaster in the first place. Nevertheless, media witnessing should not be reduced to either its panoptic or political–economic characteristics. For media witnessing as we have described it – a perpetual, generalized apparatus that welds together singularity and its ceaseless representation, the exceptional and the routine, specialized communication bureaucracies and ordinary people with their everyday gadgets – has become autotelic. Unlike traditional notions of judicial or scientific witnessing, and unlike the panopticon, it does not only serve an instrumental purpose (to enable a judgment, furnish a replicable result, discipline bodies and behavior). Contemporary media witnessing serves as its own justification, putting society permanently on view to itself for its own sake, as the audience perpetually witnesses its own shared world because this is what mass media do. Finally, putting society on view to itself might imply that media witnessing is simply a continuation or transmutation of ceremonial media events as analyzed by Dayan and Katz (1992). This is true only to a limited extent. Ceremonial media events can be seen as a modern, secularized incarnation of traditional forms of religious witnessing. Whereas
the latter brought the community together to testify to the transcendence of divinity beyond historical time, ceremonial media events affirm the continuity of the collective from one extraordinary occasion to another by means of vicarious participation. Media witnessing, we suggest, represents a third phase: it casts the audience as the ultimate addressee and primary producer, making the collective both the subject and object of everyday witnessing, testifying to its own historical reality as it unfolds. It is the emergence of this collective performance of mundane, perpetual self-affirmation – in, by, and through the media – that makes media witnessing not only analytically useful but also culturally significant. ∗
The moral and historical urgency in recording survivor testimony of the Holocaust; the sense of the inadequacy of that representation; the mass-televised trauma of 9/11 and the enormous shifts in media practices, technologies, and audiences it exemplified: these are just some of the factors contributing to the rise of media witnessing as a topic of increasing attention in the humanities and social sciences and its emergence as a ‘problematic’ for thinking anew about the aesthetics, ethics, and politics of representation. This book is an attempt to focus that attention and to explore new directions of thought. Its articles take as axiomatic the fruitfulness and timeliness of media witnessing as a way of enabling reﬂection upon a range of historical and contemporary concerns: the epistemology of communication, the sociology of knowledge, media ethics, the authority of journalism, technology and agency, the depiction of suffering and the challenges of humanitarian intervention, the representation of otherness, and morality and political action among many others. The book is divided into two sections. The first, ‘Perspectives on Media Witnessing’, groups together five chapters that probe the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of media witnessing. The second, ‘Performances of Media Witnessing’, includes more case-specific studies. The first section begins with a reprint of John Durham Peters’s essay ‘Witnessing’, originally published in 2001. Along with John Ellis’s book Seeing Things (2000), to which it is in many ways a critical response, Peters’s essay lays the groundwork for much of the subsequent discussions of media witnessing, providing them with a vocabulary of concepts and claims, and – occasionally but inevitably – serving as the target of their criticisms. The essay sets out the complex historical
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 13
dynamics and high philosophical stakes of witnessing as a form of mediation, outlining the perpetual fragility of witnessing and the enduring moral centrality of its foundation in embodied experience, no less in the age of media replication and simulation than in any other. Unpacking the various aspects of the veracity gap inherent in such traditions as law, religion, and epistemology, Peters finally sketches out four modalities of witnessing: ‘being there’ (presence in time and space), ‘live transmission’ (presence in time, absence in space), ‘historicity’ (presence in space, absence in time), and ‘recording’ (absence in time and space). Of the four, he argues, the last is least likely to sustain the act of witnessing, while the remaining three form a gradation of witnessing, with full presence as the paradigm case. In addition to this reprint we publish ‘An Afterword: Torchlight Red on Sweaty Faces’, especially written by John Peters for this volume in the light of the debates sparked by the original essay, which serves not to end the discussion but to further lay open its terms for reﬂection and disputation. Peters’s article and afterword are followed immediately by an essay by Paul Frosh, which is one of the most explicitly critical published engagements with Peters’s views on witnessing and media (some readers may prefer to read Peters’s Afterword after they have read Frosh’s chapter). Frosh’s main area of disagreement is with Peters’s emphasis on ‘being there’ as the paradigm case of witnessing. The logical extension of this emphasis is that media audiences are not the witnesses of the events they see, but the recipients of someone else’s testimony. Frosh takes issue with this view, claiming that contemporary witnessing has become a general mode of receptivity to electronic media reports about distant others. Replacing the ontological primacy of the witness with the interpretive encounter between audiences and ‘witnessing texts’, Frosh uses the example of the Passover Haggadah to outline these texts’ world-making properties and the imaginative demands they make of their addressees. He then argues that mass media witnessing situates this imaginative engagement with others within an impersonal framework of ‘indifferent’ social relations, creating a ground of civil equivalence between strangers that is fundamentally linked to the social production of moral universals in contemporary societies. In the next chapter, John Ellis develops his take on the position of television audiences as witnesses, arguing that their role intricately combines the direct interpersonal hearing of testimony, the observing role of the bystander, and the necessity for judgment. Modern audiovisual media give audiences the possibility of seeing almost directly any aspect
of the action. Yet ‘seeing through the camera, hearing through microphones, is always already a position of analysis’. Against the assumption that audiences are naïve dupes of media representations, Ellis maintains that viewers can see televised events in the knowledge that their view is partial and circumscribed. In addition, audiences are the addressees of a form of witnessing that is ‘complexly discursive’: unlike eyewitness testimony in a courtroom, televisual witnessing is assembled from many fragments of information, footage, diverse viewpoints, sources by a large number of people working in organizations subject to discursive rules and power relations. Audiences therefore also potentially sit in judgment of the witnessing acts of the broadcasters themselves, an analytical mode of reception which has itself been thematized within media output as ‘the forensic attitude’ shared by interrogatory news reporting and crime lab television dramas. This attitude of judgment, however, is constantly mixed with the social dynamics of media witnessing’s mundane, everyday nature, which unceasingly permeates the lives of viewers with an awareness of themselves as historical actors, sharing their present with others beyond their immediate experience. A defining characteristic of contemporary civilization, ‘mundane witness therefore gives us a responsibility to know about the actions of others almost as a precondition of knowledge about ourselves’. Günter Thomas posits witnessing as a distinctively ‘successful’ cultural form that has endured a complex process of evolution and adaptation. Tracing the historical roots of witnessing within religious and legal practices from antiquity to modernity, Thomas proceeds to analyze the dynamics of witnessing in terms of its structural attributes, its stability as well as its adaptive plasticity. While acknowledging the discursive and performative aspects of witnessing, his perspective seeks to place witnessing within the broader context of communication systems, cultural forms, and formats. This allows for the re-conceptualization of concepts such as confession as a ritualized form of witnessing, the diary as an introspective form of self-witnessing, and the modern novel as an outgrowth of the two. Furthermore, Thomas identifies the latest transmutation of the religious and legal forms of witnessing in contemporary media genres. Journalists and newscasters are heirs of legal witnessing in that their undertaking ‘relates to and transforms disputed, unstable, conflicting, or transitory realities and makes accessible the inaccessible’; the confessional genre, so popular in various entertainment television formats and talk-shows, is heir to religious witnessing in that it allows ‘individuals the chance to articulate their miseries, their wrongdoings, their conﬂicts, their “sins”, and their moral status’. Witnessing
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 15
thus arises as an exceptionally resilient cultural form of communication, successfully shifting from the medium of speech to audiovisual media. Like Thomas, Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes also hark back to the early roots of witnessing in an ancient past. Likewise, their analysis deems the archaic constructions of witnessing relevant to contemporary trends. However, their recourse to biblical witnessing challenges the prevailing modern notions of testimony, which, according to them, are predicated on legal concepts and rationale. In contrast to the mediating function of witness, Blondheim and Liebes invoke an understanding of witnessing as a collective experience, unfolding either through the public recognition of a transformative event or a transformation enacted through public recognition. In either case, the witness is cast as an addressee, not a medium; it is the collective that does the witnessing, directly and without mediation. Such is the meaning that arises from the biblical text (as revealed by the various inﬂections of the Hebrew word ‘ed), which positions the collective as both the audience and the agent of bearing witness to the covenant between God and the congregation. This model of witnessing serves to reexamine the different modalities of witnessing produced by modern media technology. If archaic witnessing is always about ‘here and now’, television approximates the archaic mode with ‘there and now’, producing a contemporary form of the collective, public undertaking. Perhaps the biggest challenge for this approach is new media and the multichannel distribution they promote, which the authors deem inimical to the prospect of collective witnessing. In the opening chapter to the book’s second section, Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski attempt to rethink the stakes in media witnessing by analyzing witnessing as a political struggle. In contrast to previous speculations by others, Ashuri and Pinchevski see the ontology of witnessing as dependent upon the specific event rather than an abstract model. Furthermore, they understand witnessing as subject to contestation, as something to be earned, not simply given. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of the field, they designate witnessing as a field of special power–knowledge configurations. The field of witnessing accommodates all the key agents of media witnessing – eyewitnesses, mediators, and the audience – each with their own interests, goals, positions, and resources. While among the agents the mediators are the most dominant, the inbuilt hierarchy of the field is tempered by the agents’ interdependency, from those closest to the event to those most remote. What is at stake for each actor is the ability to gain his or her addressee’s trust (and thereby render the competition untrustworthy).
It follows that witnessing is a conﬂict-ridden practice, part of life’s struggles and ordeals – a far cry from both the elevated, transcendental model of religious witnessing and the rational–logical model of legal witnessing. The essay concludes with a case study analysis of two documentaries about the contested events in the Jenin refugee camp during the clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinian fighters in March 2002. The two films serve to further exemplify the competing attempts at dominating the field of witnessing with respect to the event of Jenin. Carrie Rentschler’s essay also concerns the practice of media witnessing by examining the framing of journalism’s witnessing role in professional training manuals and programs as well as in the self-descriptions of journalists themselves. In particular, Rentschler examines how the concepts of ‘witness’ and ‘testimony’ as well as the experiential dimensions of ‘trauma’ are being reworked through depictions of journalism as a wounded, affective practice of observation. Rentschler critically analyzes this reworking by focusing on two particularly conspicuous images of journalism in contemporary North America: the endangered war correspondent and the traumatized domestic journalist covering major catastrophes and crimes. The dangers of war reporting are depicted most directly in news stories of reporters killed in Iraq and other war zones and in first-person accounts of combat by correspondents. Such depictions typically construct the reality of reporting through a discourse of risk in which journalists are situated as witnesses to militarized states of insecurity. The perils facing domestic news reporters are portrayed in contexts as varied as training manuals and courses addressing post-traumatic stress disorder in journalism education, psychological studies on noncombat reporters, and first-person reports by journalists on their experiences of psychological trauma after covering major crises. Trade journals and training protocols are, according to Rentschler, increasingly foregrounding the concept of trauma in journalism as a concomitant of journalism’s witnessing imperative, often drawing on the language of emergency service personnel to define domestic news workers as ‘first responders’ and news reporting as being on the frontline. By critically analyzing contemporary portrayals and professional self-depictions of journalism, the essay pries open the practical and organizational intersections between reportorial witnessing, risk, and trauma, providing a unique vantage point from which to evaluate changes in the status of journalists as key agents and subjects of media witnessing. Joan Leach presents a different take on the mediation process involved in media witnessing by addressing the question of the scientific
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 17
witness. While media scholars have often resorted to trauma discourse when thinking through the prospects of mediated witness, Leach follows an alternative trajectory drawing on the epistemological tradition, in which witnessing is regarded as a practice that combines observation, corroboration, and the diffusion of knowledge. Testimony is at the heart of many scientific procedures, as very few actually witness the experiments, results, or data that support scientific postulations. Scientific testimony is therefore doubly mediated, involving ‘reports of others’ reports and of machines and instrumentation’, thereby locating science at the junction of social communication and technological mediation. Tracking the intellectual roots of scientific witnessing in the seventeenth century, Leach demonstrates its reliance on rhetoric to produce a ‘scientific author’ as a figure of knowledge and authority. This puts scientific witnessing alongside other forms of witnessing – particularly of the religious kind – which proceed as a social process that engages various audiences. Leach observes the historical coincidence between the rise of machine testimony (and its depictions in popular culture in television shows like CSI) and the prevalence of the traumatic witness in various realms of culture. These seemingly unrelated forms of witnessing bespeak the power of mediation in contemporary culture. Finally, Roy Brand approaches media witnessing from the precepts of trauma theory. Designating witnessing as a pragmatic mode of relating to trauma, Brand departs from the ontological and epistemological legacies of witnessing to recast it as deeply paradoxical: ‘To witness is to stand in for the absence of experience, but in so doing, witnessing recalls the very absence it attempts to resolve.’ Thus witnessing is predicated upon a certain absence; it is about what it lacks rather than what it can capture. At the center of the discussion is Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant (inspired by the events surrounding the high school massacre in Columbine),which, according to Brand, enacts cinematically what Walter Benjamin called the loss of communicable experience. The film evokes a kind of media witnessing that is ever so vigilant of what it cannot fully narrate. Contrary to other attempts to explain or describe what happened on that day (such as Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine), this film opts for an affective impact; neither factual nor fictional, it performs the loss of experience rather than articulating it. The audience thus comes to inhabit a precarious position that defies convenient deduction, bearing witness to the impossibility of bearing full witness. Through this experiential limbo a more profound sense of media witnessing is said to emerge: the acknowledgment of our involvement when watching and ascribing meaning to what we see.
References P. Abrams (1980) ‘History, Sociology, Historical Sociology’, Past and Present, vol. 87, 3–16. G. Agamben (1998) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). G. Baker (1996) ‘Photography between Narrativity and Stasis: August Sander, Degeneration and the Decay of the Portrait’, October, vol. 76, 72–113. R. Barthes (1981) Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang). J. Baudrillard (2002) ‘L’Esprit du terrorisme’, Harper’s Magazine, vol. 304, no. 1821, 13–18. U. Beck (1992) Risk Society (London: Sage Publications). U. Beck (2006) Cosmopolitan Vision (London: Polity Press). W. Benjamin (1931/1980) ‘A Short History of Photography’, in A. Trachtenberg (ed.), Classical Essays in Photography, 199–216 (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books). J. Derrida (2000) ‘Demeure: Fiction and Testimony’, in Blanchot & Derrida (eds), The Instant of My Death/Demeure, 13–104 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press). L. Boltanski (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). CARMA International (2006) The CARMA Report on Western Media Coverage of Humanitarian Disasters, www.carma.com, date accessed January 2006. C. Caruth (1996) Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press). L. Chouliaraki (2006) The Spectatorship of Suffering (London: Sage Publications). D. Dayan and E. Katz (1992) Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). S. Felman and D. Laub (1991) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York: Routledge). G.H. Hartman (1996) The Longest Shadow: In the Aftermath of the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). G.H. Hartman (2000) ‘Memory.com: Tele-Suffering and Testimony in the Dot Com Era’, Raritan, vol. 13, no. 3, 1–18. P. Knightley (2004) The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-maker from the Crimea to the Gulf War II (London: Andre Deutsch). D. LaCapra (2001) Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press). L.L. Langer (1993) Holocaust Testimonies: The Ruins of Memory (New Haven: Yale University Press). E. Lappin (1999) ‘The Man With Two Heads’, Granta, vol. 66, 9–65. P. Levi, Afterword to If This is a Man, in If This is a Man and The Truce, tran Stuart Woolf, intro. Paul Bailey, London: Abacus/Sphere, 1987, pp. 382–3 and 386. A. Margalit (2002) The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). R. Merton and P. F. Lazarsfeld (1948) ‘Mass Communication, Popular Taste and Organized Social Action’, in L. Bryson (ed.), The Communication of Ideas (New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies).
Paul Frosh and Amit Pinchevski 19 S. D. Moeller (1999) Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death (New York: Routledge). A. Pinchevski (2005) By Way of Interruption: Levinas and the Ethics of Communication (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press). P. Scannell (2004) ‘What Reality has Misfortune?’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 7, no. 26, 573–84. Yale Library (2007), http://www.library.yale.edu/testimonies/about/history.html, date accessed December 2007. H. D. Wu (2000) ‘Systemic Determinants of International News Coverage: A Comparison of 38 Countries’, Journal of Communication, vol. 50, no. 2, 110–30.
This page intentionally left blank
Part I Perspectives on Media Witnessing
This page intentionally left blank
1 Witnessing John Durham Peters
Witnessing is a common but rarely examined term in both the professional performance and academic analysis of media events. Media institutions have enthusiastically adopted its rhetoric, especially for nonfiction genres such as news, sports, and documentary. Such titles as Eyewitness News, See it Now, Live at Five, or As it Happens advertise their program’s privileged proximity to events. Media personae such as correspondents and newsreaders can be institutionalized as witnesses. Cameras and microphones are often presented as substitute eyes and ears for audiences who can witness for themselves. Ordinary people can be witnesses in media (the vox pop interview, ‘tell us how it happened’), of media (members of studio audience), and via media (watching history unfold at home in their armchairs). The media claim to provide testimonies for our inspection, thus making us witnesses of the way of the world. As a term of art, witnessing outshines more colorless competitors such as viewing, listening or consuming, reading, interpreting, or decoding, for thinking about the experience of media. What is the significance of this pervasive way of talking? In this chapter, I propose to untangle the concept of witnessing in order to illuminate basic problems in media studies. Witnessing is an intricately tangled practice. It raises questions of truth and experience, presence and absence, death and pain, seeing and saying, and the trustworthiness of perception – in short, fundamental questions of communication. The long history of puzzlement and prescription about proper witnessing that developed in oral and print cultures is a rich resource for reﬂection about some of the ambiguities of audiovisual media. Hoary philosophical issues (such as the epistemological status of the senses) often show up in media practices in surprising ways; in 23
turn, media practices can, if seen in the proper lighting, also clarify old philosophical worries. An important step in this direction has been taken in John Ellis’s Seeing Things (2000), whose lucid arguments I wish to extend and nuance. Witnessing, for Ellis, is a distinct mode of perception: ‘we cannot say we do not know’ is its motto. To witness an event is to be responsible in some way to it. The stream of data ﬂowing through the unaided senses already exceeds our explanatory schemata. The present moment supplies enough sensory information to outlast a lifetime of analysis. Audiovisual media, however, are able to catch contingent details of events that would previously have been either imperceptible or lost to memory. A camera can reveal the impact of a bullet in an apple; the tape recorder can fix an off-the-record comment. Such mechanical, ‘dumb’ media seem to present images and sounds as they happened, without the embellishments and blind spots that human perception and memory routinely impose. We thus find ourselves endowed with a much amplified and nuanced record of events, a ‘super-abundance of details’ rich with evidentiary value. Though photography, sound-recording, film, and radio have all expanded the realm of sensory evidence, Ellis singles out television in particular. ‘Separated in space yet united in time, the co-presence of the television image was developing a distinct form of witness. Witnessing became a domestic act . . . . Television sealed the twentieth century’s fate as the century of witness’ (Ellis, 2000, p. 32). Liveness is a key characteristic of televisual witnessing, including the morally problematic witnessing of violence and carnage. He advances witnessing as a key term for media analysis that, he believes, is freer of ontological baggage than other more commonly used concepts. For Ellis, in sum, witnessing has to do with complicity; owes much to modern media of inscription; is an attitude cultivated by live television, particularly nonfiction programming; and a valuable resource for media analysis. I would concur with Ellis in everything with the exception that witnessing actually carries weighty baggage, if not ontological, at least historical. Yet this baggage is not only a burden, but also a potential treasure, at least since it makes explicit the pervasive link between witnessing and suffering and shows the degree to which media problems with witnessing are built upon venerable communication problems that are inherent in the witness as a kind of signifying act. The ‘baggage’ has three main interrelated sources: law, theology, and atrocity. In law, the notion of the witness as a privileged source of information for judicial decisions is ancient and is part of most known legal systems. In theology, the notion of witness, especially as martyr, developed in early
John Durham Peters
Christianity, though it has resonance for other religious traditions as well. The third, most recent, source dates from the Second World War: the witness as a survivor of hell, prototypically but not exclusively the Holocaust or Shoah. These three domains endow ‘witnessing’ with its extraordinary moral and cultural force today, since each ties the act of witnessing, in some deep way, to life and death. The procedures of the courtroom, the pain of the martyr, and the cry of the survivor cast light on basic questions such as what it means to watch, to narrate, or to be present at an event. Witnessing, as an amazingly subtle array of practices for securing truth from the facts of our sensitivity to pain and our inevitable death, increases the stakes of our thinking about media events.
Analyzing the term As a noun, witness is intricate. The term involves all three points of a basic communication triangle: (1) the agent who bears witness, (2) the utterance or text itself, (3) the audience who witnesses. It is thus a strange but intelligible sentence to say: the witness (speech-act) of the witness (person) was witnessed (by an audience). A witness can also be the performance itself. Thus we speak of a Holocaust survivor’s witness against fascism. In African-American churches when preachers ask ‘Can I get a witness?’, they invite audience affirmation and participation, the witness as a public gesture of faith. In religious contexts, witness can also have a more private meaning as inward conviction of religious truth, which in turn may motivate the activity of ‘witnessing’ (evangelizing). In law, literature, history, and journalism alike, a witness is an observer or source possessing privileged (raw, authentic) proximity to facts. A witness, in sum, can be an actor (one who bears witness), an act (the making of a special sort of statement), the semiotic residue of that act (the statement as text), or the inward experience that authorizes the statement (the witnessing of an event). As a verb, to witness has a double aspect. To witness can be a sensory experience – the witnessing of an event with one’s own eyes and ears. We are all, constantly, witnesses in this sense simply by virtue of finding ourselves in places and times where things happen. Most of what we witness is insignificant in the larger scheme of things and vanishes into oblivion. But witnessing is also the discursive act of stating one’s experience for the benefit of an audience that was not present at the event and yet must make some kind of judgment about it. Witnesses serve as the surrogate sense organs of the absent. If what we have witnessed is
crucial for a judgment, we may be summoned to a formal institutional setting: a court of law, a church, or a television studio. A witness is the paradigm case of a medium: the means by which experience is supplied to others who lack the original. To witness thus has two faces: the passive one of seeing and the active one of saying. In passive witnessing an accidental audience observes the events of the world; in active witnessing one is a privileged possessor and producer of knowledge in an extraordinary, often forensic, setting in which speech and truth are policed in multiple ways. What one has seen authorizes what one says: an active witness first must have been a passive one. Herein lies the fragility of witnessing: the difficult juncture between experience and discourse. The witness is authorized to speak by having been present at an occurrence. A private experience enables a public statement. But the journey from experience (the seen) into words (the said) is precarious. Witnessing presupposes a discrepancy between the ignorance of one person and the knowledge of another: it is an intensification of the problem of communication more generally. It always involves an epistemological gap whose bridging is always fraught with difficulty. No transfusion of consciousness is possible. Words can be exchanged, experiences cannot. Testimony is another’s discourse whose universe of reference diverges from one’s own. Like somebody else’s pain, it always has a twilight status between certainty and doubt. A parent may bear witness to a child that a stove is hot, but getting burnt may be more persuasive. Witnessing is a discourse with a hole in it that awaits filling.
The unreliability of witnesses Witnesses, human or mechanical, are notoriously contradictory and inarticulate. Different people who witness the ‘same’ event can produce remarkably divergent accounts. Though awareness of the poor epistemological quality of witnessing is ancient, twentieth-century social science has explored it in detail. Eyewitness testimony, for instance, has been subject to intense social–psychological scrutiny (for example, Ross et al., 1994). We now know that errors in identifying people and faces are common, with potentially devastating consequences for justice. In reports by different eyewitnesses, moustaches ﬂy on and off faces, blondes morph into brunettes, and clothes change color like chameleons. Hats have major effects on recognition, because of the role of the hairline in identifying faces. Post-event tampering, both from inside and
John Durham Peters
outside, can also alter testimony. From within, the psychological process of dissonance-reduction has the paradoxical effect of increasing confidence in accuracy of recall even while the memory of the event is fading; from without, testimonies can be shaped by the schematic constraints of narrative structure and altered, perhaps even created, by the way they are probed (‘refreshed’) by others. Social science methodology has noted the dubious evidentiary status of statements about even one’s own attitudes and opinions. From polling, we know about acquiescence effects (the tendency of people to agree), the huge effects of phrasing on reported opinions, and the divergence between front-door and backdoor measures (Webb et al., 1981). Fabrication seems inherent in the loose coupling between sentences and the world; witnesses are evidently a fallible transmission and storage medium for sensory experience. The legal theory of evidence is also a compendium of reﬂections about the (un)reliability of witnesses. There is a long history of excluding people as incompetent witnesses on various grounds. Non-Christians, convicts, interested parties, spouses, children, the insane, or those standing in a relationship of professional privilege with the defendant have all been considered hindered in truth-telling or as possessing special motives to fabrication. As in survey research, the law has an acute awareness about the ways that modes of interrogation (for example, leading questions) can manufacture, rather than elicit, testimony. Since the transformation from experience to discourse lies at the heart of communication theory, witnessing entails many of the most fundamental issues in the social life of signs, especially how the raw, apparently private, stuff of sensation can have any input into the public world of intelligible words (also a fundamental question in empiricist philosophy since Locke and Hume). The forensics of the trial, the pains of the martyr, and the memoirs of the survivor are all attempts to overpower the melancholy fact that direct sensory experience – from the taste of pineapple to the pains of childbirth – vanishes when put into words and remains inaccessible to others except inasmuch as they claim to share similar experiences. Sensation is encircled into privately personal ontologies. Only words are public.
Pain and the veracity gap A variety of answers have been offered to cope with the fallibility of witnessing. Devices to compensate for its inherent dubiousness are ancient. One can vouch for veracity by an oath promising to trade death or pain for truth, a practice that persists in the children’s line, ‘cross my heart
and hope to die’. One may appeal to ultimate authority: ‘God is my witness’. According to Aristotle, witnesses in a court of law testify at risk of punishment if they do not tell the truth; he considers dead witnesses more trustworthy, since they cannot be bribed (Rhetoric, 1376a). To witness as if you were as dumb and indifferent as the dead is the obvious ideal, since you would be free from interest, interpretation, care, and spin. A signature is a testimony: ‘in witness hereof . . . ’, and like all forms of witnessing, it founders on the reef of forgery. The requirement of swearing on a Bible before testifying in court is yet another device to enforce truth-telling, presumably by instilling the specter of eternal consequences. A reminder of the ancient worry about corrupt testimony is the ninth Mosaic commandment forbidding false witness (not the same thing as simple lying). From the ancient Greeks to ‘modern’ intelligence-gathering, the effort to assure the transition from sensation to sentences in testimony has involved torture – a perverse but illuminating fact. As Page duBois (1991) argues, the ancient Greek word for torture, basanos, originally meant a touchstone, against which you could rub golden artifacts to test if they were genuine; if so, a bit would rub off and leave a mark. From there, basanos came to mean any test of truth or authenticity (for example, of friendship or fidelity), and eventually moved specifically into torture, which served as an instrument of proof in ancient Athens. In Greek ideology, torture served as a cultural line dividing slaves, who respect only bodily pain, and citizens, who speak the logos in freedom. Since slaves supposedly lie compulsively, torture exposes the truth by extinguishing the power to invent. (Here again we see the snobbery about who can be expected to be a truthful witness.) Torture enforces the claim that slaves are ruled by necessity (anangkê). A slave could not appear in court, but a slave’s testimony obtained under torture was admissible as evidence. Even so, there were already doubts about the notion that pain produces truth. Aristotle (Rhetoric, 1377a) thought testimony obtained under torture ‘inartistic’ and generally distrusted testimony in any case. The shift toward the confession as a source of legal proof in thirteenth-century Europe reintroduced judicial torture. It was not understood as a kind of punishment, but, cruel as it may sound, as a kind of data-gathering; that innocent people might suffer and even die under interrogation was considered an unfortunate by-product of legal investigation (Langbein, 1977; Peters, 1985). Pain was supposed to be the midwife of authenticity. Judicial torture was an attempt to assure the validity of the confession, a rather nasty way of coping with the veracity gap. In our grisly age, torture is both a method of punishment and
John Durham Peters
of extracting intelligence, a fact signaled in the French term la question, which means both torture and interrogation, or the English phrase, ‘put to the question’. Even a polygraph test – a ‘lie-detector’ that circumvents discourse to tap ‘direct’ physiological indicators – shows the retreat to the body as the haven of truth. Deathbed confessions possess special legal status, since the incentive to deceive is thought minimal. As one judge wrote, ‘they are declarations made in extremity, when the party is at the point of death, and when every hope of this world is gone; when every motive to falsehood has been silenced, and the mind is induced by the most powerful considerations to speak the truth . . . ’ (Cross, 1974, p. 472). Here again is the sense that death or pain impels the mind to forego the temptation to embellish. The bodily basis of testimony is seen in a strange etymological complex. Testimony stems from testamentum, covenant (testis plus mentum). Testis, which in Latin means both witness and testicle, itself stems from tertius, meaning third (party). In ancient Greek, the word for witness is the word for testicle: parastatês, which literally means bystander. In German, Zeugnis means testimony, and zeugen means to testify as well as to procreate. The explanation of this pervasive and odd system of metaphors is obscure, but one may conjecture that the testicles, as physical bystanders to the act of procreation, were thought witnesses of paternity or virility in Indo-European culture. That knowing first-hand should be associated with the testicles may suggest an ancient preference for the testimony of men over women. This curious web of metaphors, whatever its significance, attests to some deep assumptions about the physicality of witnessing. The body serves as a sort of collateral to justify the loan of our credence. The whole apparatus of trying to assure truthfulness, from torture to martyrdom to courtroom procedure, only testifies to the strange lack at its core. Witnessing is necessary, but not sufficient: if there are no witnesses, there is no trial, but witnesses do not secure a conviction or acquittal. A witness is never conclusive or final despite the most militant attempts of martyrs or torturers to make it so. Another ancient attempt bodily to bridge the gap between inner conviction and outer persuasion is the tradition of Christian martyrology. As Paul Ricoeur argues: The witness is capable of suffering or dying for what he believes. When the test of conviction becomes the price of life, the witness changes his name; he is called a martyr. But is it a change of name? – Martus in Greek means ‘witness.’ . . . Testimony is both a manifestation and a crisis of appearances (1981, p. 129).
To judge from appearances is the fate of all who have to rely on communication for access to others’ experiences. The martyr’s death proves nothing for certain, but demonstrates the limit-case of persuasion, the vanishing point at which proof stops and credence begins. Saints Stephen or Sebastian, or their secular equivalents, the many political martyrs whose legacies are so powerful today, may impress bystanders with their composure under the most gruesome abuses, but their deaths alone will not convince anyone of the truth of their faith: one needs internal grounds for believing. To bear witness is to put one’s body on the line. Within every witness, perhaps, stands a martyr, the will to corroborate words with something beyond them, pain and death being the last resorts. Since the Second World War, new kinds of witnessing have been forged in the furnace of suffering. The Holocaust has generated deep thinking about the nature of witnessing (Felman and Laub, 1992). It is striking, by the way, that Ellis (2000), despite his incisive comments on psychoanalytic working-through of trauma and the complicity of the bystander, hardly mentions the Holocaust – perhaps because it is too obvious. In any case, from ashes and hell have emerged witnesses whose task, paradoxically, is to proclaim experiences that cannot be shared and to immortalize events that are uniquely tied to the mortal bodies of those who went through them. Elie Wiesel, for instance, has made his career reﬂecting on the privilege and loneliness of the survivor. One’s responsibility to bear witness, he argues, cannot be delegated: testimony is unique to the survivor. It is impossible for the witness to remain silent; but it is also impossible for the witness to describe the event. The militancy in the survivor’s voice owes to the battle against oblivion and indifference. Such militancy is found no less in the martyr, who likewise uses his or her body as spectacle of pain to convict the conscience of the observer. Already having cheated death, the survivor seeks to save his or her experiences for others who can never have them. Specifically, the witness has become a literary genre growing out of the Second World War. Primo Levi, Anne Frank, Victor Klemperer, Wiesel, to name a few, have the cultural authority of witnesses of atrocity. As survivors of events, they in turn bear active witness which we, at one remove, can in turn witness passively. There is a strange ethical claim in the voice of the victim. Witnessing in this sense suggests a morally justified individual who speaks out against unjust power. Imagine a Nazi who published his memoirs of the war as a ‘witness’ – it might be accepted as an account of experiences, but never as a ‘witness’ in the moral sense: to witness means to be on the right side.
John Durham Peters
Václav Havel, Jacobo Timerman, Rigoberta Menchú, Martin Luther King, Solzhenitsyn, Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi – those who have languished in jail – all stand as witnesses against inhumanity. (Testimonio is a recent genre of Latin American writing which records the cry against oppression.) The prison (or prison camp) is the house of witness, a maker of moral authority, just as prison literature has turned out to be one of the great forms of twentieth-century writing. The moral privilege of the captive and martyr is a founding narrative in European civilization, as in the case of both Socrates and Jesus. Not surprisingly, there has been something of a scramble to capture the prestige of the victim-witness, and media who speak of their role as witnesses are not immune. (A recent book on the making of Schindler’s List is pretentiously called Witness, confusing the film and what the film was about.) Witnessing places mortal bodies in time. To witness always involves risk, potentially to have your life changed. The Roman poet Ovid bemoaned his banishment to the Black Sea for seeing something in the emperor’s court he was not supposed to. You can be marked for life by being the witness of an event. The FBI runs the evocatively named ‘witness protection program’ providing personal security and sometimes new identities for those willing to turn state witness. Abraham Zapruder is famous (and his heirs are now rich) for a few seconds of home-movie footage of a presidential parade in Dallas on 22 November 1963. In Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, the gangster Pinky marries the only witness to a murder he committed in order to make her, as a wife, an incompetent witness, but of course, as usual in Greene, a sort of redemption occurs via the corruption. That simply seeing can mark your bodily fate is a suggestive way of getting beyond the idea of mere spectatorship. In sum, the indisputables of pain and death can serve as a resource to persuade others of the truth of one’s words of witness. Witnessing is a mode of communication intimately tied to the mortality of both the one who bears witness and the one who in turn witnesses that act. As Jorge Luís Borges writes: Deeds which populate the dimensions of space and which reach their end when someone dies may cause us wonderment, but one thing, or an infinite number of things, dies in every final agony . . . In time there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ; the battle of Jenin and the love of Helen died with a man (1964, p. 243). Witnessing, as we will see, not only turns on the mortality of the witness, but the contingencies of the event.
Objectivity and the veracity gap A different tradition seeks to secure the validity of statements without the metaphysical and moral conundrums of pain. Very roughly speaking, the effort to put testimony on a sound footing is a project of the Enlightenment, both in the effort to minimize violence and to secure trustworthy knowledge. Indeed, one of the major tasks in the rise of modern science generally, with its need for cumulative observation from many eyes and ears, was to overcome the low repute of testimony. This was first achieved in seventeenth-century England with the creation of a genteel class of scientists, whose shared social status and norms of civility established a basis for trusting each other’s reports (Shapin, 1994). As one scholar quips of the epistemology of testimony in early modern English science, gentlemen prefer gentlemen (Lipton, 1998). Without trust in others’ statements about sensory experiences, science as we know it would be impossible. Further, the use of scientific instrumentation was motivated in part by the desire to bypass the stains of subjectivity, fallibility, and interest that attach to our sense organs. Scientific instruments such as the microscope or telescope were thought thinglike, and hence credible, in their indifference to human interests. The camera and microphone inherit this tradition of objectivity as passivity. John Locke exemplifies these transformations. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1975, book 4, chapters 13–16), Locke inverts the medieval notion of testimony: he maintains it is not the authority of an ancient text (such as scripture) but the report of the senses. Few things, he argues, in human knowledge are demonstrably certain. As social creatures with limited time to gain knowledge of a world in commotion, we rely on the reports of others but must find ways to test their trustworthiness. Among the various standards he offers, key is a hierarchy of testimony determined by the witness’s proximity to the event: ‘any Testimony, the farther off it is from the original Truth, the less force and proof it has’ (1975, pp. 663–4). Eyewitness accounts lose truth (but may gain color) as they pass from mouth to mouth: A credible Man vouching his Knowledge of it, is a good proof: But if another equally credible, do witness it from his Report, the Testimony is weaker; and a third that attests the Hear-say of an Hear-say, is yet less considerable (1975, p. 664). Locke notes already the infinite regress in witnessing: to be an active witness requires another to witness your testimony (a passive witness).
John Durham Peters
Locke reﬂects the low legal status of hearsay: the reporting of statements made by someone else outside court without the opportunity for cross-examination. Any statement not made in court under oath is of dubious admissibility. Hearsay is quotation, testimony at secondhand. Each sentence is supposed to be funded by direct sensation, and in reporting another’s reports, one is a passive witness of an active witness (instead of the reverse), which is dangerously derivative. The low esteem in which hearsay is held signals not only the hierarchy of the senses (the precedence of eyes over ears) but also the working epistemology of the courtroom: the act of linking experience and discourse must be done in a controlled setting in which speech is subject to cross-examination and penalties for perjury are in force. In this the law still maintains respect for death or pain as truth-serums. Witness is borne under sanction – whether of pain or death or legal charges and dishonor. One testifies quite literally sub poena – under threat of punishment. Witnesses can find themselves bodily compelled to appear in court. It does not take a Foucault to see that today witnessing is policed at its boundaries by an apparatus of pain. Legal rules prefer a mechanical witness. A witness, for instance, may not offer an opinion (about culpability, for instance) but may only describe the facts of what was seen. The blanker the witness the better. Things, after all, can bear witness – the biblical stone of witness, trophies, or other sorts of material evidence (bloodstains). The ideal human witness would behave like a thing: a mere tablet of recording. The structure of address in testimony should be radically open and public, not varying the story for different audiences. (‘Estoppel’ is the legal principle that prevents altering testimony previously given.) Since a dumb witness does not know what is at stake, there is no motive to lend comfort to one party or the other. In the preference for the dumb witness lies a distant origin of both scientific and journalistic ideas of objectivity: the observer as a mirror, dull as the microscope to human concerns or consequences. The objective witness is very different from the survivor, whose witness lies in mortal engagement with the story told. The objective witness claims disembodiment and passivity, a cold indifference to the story, offering ‘just the facts’. The hearers have to compose the story for themselves. In one sense, the claim to objectivity is simply passive witnessing idealized, that is, the dream of an unadulterated and public record of events as they ‘really happened’. The cultural authority of mechanical recording lies in the claim to document events without the filter of subjective experience. Since witnesses were supposed to be like machines, machines
are also held to be good witnesses. The conventional wisdom about film and photography today, however, is the inescapability of interest in all representation. What most irks the friends of science and reason – Locke’s heirs – about this position is not so much the notion that a consensual and objective document of events is impossible, but rather its darker corollary: that pain serves as the default measure of reality and authenticity. We were, they say, supposed to have graduated from all that!
Broadcasting and the veracity gap Distance is a ground of distrust and doubt. We waver about another’s testimony because of our distance from the experience they narrate. In the same way, reports from distant personae are more dubious than those from people we know and trust. The communication situation of broadcasting is analogous to that of witnessing: experiences are mediated to an audience which has no first-hand acquaintance with them. The legitimation of the veracity gap in media followed the same path as in witnessing: using pain and the body as a criterion of truth and truthfulness. The body is authenticity’s last refuge in situations of structural doubt. Perhaps the best single thing Walter Cronkite ever did for his reputation of credibility, besides the years of steady service, was to shed an unrehearsed tear on camera when reporting the news of President Kennedy’s assassination. In the Gospel of Luke, Christ’s disciples ‘were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost’ (Luke 24:37). The resurrected Jesus assures them, ‘Handle me and see, for a ghost does not have ﬂesh and bones as you see that I have’ (Luke 24:39). Modern media – which resurrect and transport phantasms in optical and acoustic channels – both place us in the situation of doubting Thomas and attempt a similar reassurance: handle me and see (Peters, 1999). One of the most daring things in media events theory (Dayan and Katz, 1992) is the question: just when can media be agents of truth or authenticity instead of prevarication and ideology? In other words, can the media sustain the practice of witnessing? The notion that home audiences could be witnesses is one of those apparent category mistakes whose elaboration the media events movement has made its task. It is easy to mock Ronald Reagan for confusing newsreels and his own experience: he claimed to have witnessed the liberation of the concentration camps in the Second World War when he had never left the United States. He believed in false presence: that he had really been there when he had only watched films. But presence-at-a-distance is
John Durham Peters
precisely what witnessing a media event claims to offer. Critical theory has rightly highlighted the veracity gap in mass communication, the hermeneutics of suspicion, but media events studies seek the conditions in which the willing suspension of disbelief is justified. In media events, the borrowed eyes and ears of the media become, however tentatively or dangerously, one’s own. Death, distance, and distrust are all suspended, for good and evil. Singularity is key to the communication economics of witnessing. President Clinton came to my hometown, Iowa City, Iowa, for example, in February 1996, on a campaign stop, and spoke in an indoor arena. The whole event was to be televised locally, but the tickets were snapped up within two hours. Why the excitement to attend when one could get a better view on television at home? Because at home you cannot be a witness to history. If Clinton were to be shot, or make a major announcement, people could say, ‘I was there.’ That would be a witness forever thereafter restricted to 14,000 people (if they are honest), whereas we home viewers, a much larger and potentially infinite group, would only be able to say, ‘I saw it on television.’ There is no comparison in the authority or cultural capital of the two statements! Clinton’s goal after the speech was to touch as many people as possible, to spread the charisma of the king’s body by working the crowd, in the apt idiom of ‘pressing the ﬂesh’. A live witness can shake hands with the great man, receive the torch of contagious magic, in the same way that Clinton shook JFK’s hand as a teenager (luckily for him on camera). ‘Handle me and see’ said the man we know mostly as a TV persona. ‘Being there’ matters since it avoids the ontological depreciation of being a copy. The copy, like hearsay, is indefinitely repeatable; the event is singular, and its witnesses are forever irreplaceable in their privileged relation to it. Recordings lose the hic et nunc of the event. The live event is open to unscripted happenings, chance, and gaffes. Accidents are a key part of media events – going off script. That so much of live coverage involves some sort of trauma suggests the draw of the unpredictable and of those occurrences that leave a mark in time. Media events are not always the happy social body celebrating its core values, but also the nasty stuff of degradation and disaster (Carey, 1998; Liebes, 1998). Presence is fragile and mortal; recordings have durability that survives in multiple times and spaces. Billions of dollars in the entertainment industries turn on this apparently minute distinction. Why will people pay high prices for music performed in concert whose quality and polish is often better on the CD-player at home? Obviously extra-musical values shape concert-going: party, spectacle, noise, dance. Even so, live
music is different. A concert is an event, not a record. A homemade bootleg tape is a souvenir, a marker of time and place, but a CD made from the tape is a commodity, even if they are musically identical. In a concert, one’s mortal time-line on earth is spent. Touch and eye contact with the artist are possible. So is imperfection: in the concert one may hear strains edited out in the studio and witness the labor of the performing body. What post-production adds musically (for example, overdubbing) it subtracts from eventfulness, since those sounds never could have occurred in time as we know it. Recording media can do time-axis manipulation, stopping, slowing, speeding, or reversing time – one reason why audiovisual media, despite aptitude in recording, are dubious witnesses. The body, however, lives only in real time. Singing, dancing, and live performance all engage time’s passage. Music can reveal the meaning of, and sometimes even provide a brief escape from, growing older.
Why liveness? The love of liveness also relates to the power of real time. If one sees it live, one can claim status as a witness present in time if not in space; if one sees it on tape, one is no longer a witness, but rather the percipient of a transcription. Sports fans, in the case of big games, will remain glued to the television screen, even though they know that any key plays will be shown ad nauseam in the game’s afterlife as reportage and video. They must be there as it happens. To see the big moment with even a slight delay is to be placed in a derivative role, a hearer of a report rather than a witness of an event. The fan wants to be involved in history (the happening), not historiography (the recording). The few seconds between occurrence and replay open up a metaphysical gulf in the meaning and quality of what is seen. As far as the electromagnetic tracings are concerned, the live event and its instant replay are identical, but in the psychology of the fan, one is history, the other is television. One is a window to the event, the other is its representation. Liveness serves as an assurance of access to truth and authenticity. The hard-core sports fan sweating the seconds actually offers a profound lesson about the nature of time. Why should liveness matter? It does matter, to the tune of billions of dollars in bids for live rights, because events only happen in the present – in a word, gambling. As Walter Benjamin noted, gambling is a phantasmagoria of time. No one knows what the future holds, and the gambler infuses the present with the diceyness of the future. There is absolutely no point in betting on
John Durham Peters
a game or a race whose outcome is already known. A classic con-job, as in the film The Sting, is to institute a small time lag in publicizing race results so that punters think they are betting on an uncertain future when in fact they are wagering on an already determined past. A few seconds do matter, and profoundly. The past, in some sense, is safe. The present, in contrast, is catastrophic, subject to radical alterations. In a single second a swerve of the steering wheel or a pull of the trigger can change history forever. Possible futures come into being and vanish with every act. In a brief moment the penalty kick is made or missed, a life conceived or taken. All history culminates in the present moment. Of course, the present is rarely so dramatic, but without a live connection its explosive possibility – its danger – is missing. Nothing quite excites like an event about to take place. In Raymond Williams’s phrase, one waits for a knock on the door. Fortuna, goddess of history and gamblers, reveals her face only in the present. In the past she veils herself as necessity, in the future as probability. The contrast between the live and the recorded is a structuring principle of broadcasting. It replays the contrast of fact and notion, so central to modern historiography, a field, like law and theology, whose enterprise rests on the evaluation of sources and documents – testimonies. Though theorists justly remind us of the factuality of fictions and the fictive character of facts, this contrast stubbornly resists total resolution. The division of fact and fiction, so central for historians and sports fans, as well as the structuring principle of media and literary genres, turns on witnessing. An event requires witnesses, a story only needs tellers and listeners. A fiction can be heard or told, but a fact is witnessed. Some kinds of events (baptisms, marriages) legally require witnesses. Testimony assures us, as children often ask about stories, that it really happened. Historicity (or historical authenticity) has a similar logic to live coverage. If in visiting the Tower of London I am told that a block of wood is the one on which Henry VIII’s victims were dispatched, I will act and feel differently than if I learn the block is a replica, even if it is physically identical or equally old. The block hovers in a limbo between reality and fake, its metaphysical status depending on something so slight as a caption. The caption ‘real’ ties it to a tradition of testimony passed across the generations, an accumulation of time that links the block historically to the event. If it has the right label I can ponder edifying lessons about overweening power and look for traces of martyr’s blood; I will have to work a lot harder if the caption announces that it is only figurative. Live broadcasting, like objects certified as historical, offers the
Table 1.1 Sorts of Witnessing an Event Presence in time
Absence in time
Presence in space
BEING THERE Assembled audience For example, concert, game, theater
HISTORICITY (dead not ‘live’) Serial mass audience For example, shrine, memorial, museum
Absence in space
LIVE TRANSMISSION Broadcast audience For example, radio, TV, webcast
RECORDING Dispersed, private audience Profane, witnessing difficult For example, book, CD, video
chance to witness, while recorded material stands at one remove as a representation (replica) of events. It takes about a sixth-grade education in our post-modern age to puncture the idea that history is free of representation, so that is not the point. Rather, it is to read small distinctions about what is real in cultural matters, distinctions too often written off as neurosis or fetishism, as insights into structures of history and experience. Between the historical and the verisimilar lies a small but gigantic gap, that of testimony. Of four basic types of relations to an event, three can sustain the attitude of a witness. To be there, present at the event in space and time is the paradigm case. To be present in time but removed in space is the condition of liveness, simultaneity across space. To be present in space but removed in time is the condition of historical representation: here is the possibility of a simultaneity across time, a witness that laps the ages. To be absent in both space and time but still have access to an event via its traces is the condition of recording: the profane zone in which the attitude of witnessing is hardest to sustain (see Table 1.1).
Fact and ﬁction, pain and time Ultimately, the boundary between fact and fiction is an ethical one before it is an epistemological one: it consists in having respect for the pain of victims, in being tied by simultaneity, however loosely, to someone else’s story of how they hurt. We may weep in reading of the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod, but we owe them nothing besides remembrance. ‘Live’ pain is different. Simultaneous suffering forms the horizon of responsibility: liveness matters for the living. Facts
John Durham Peters
impose moral and political obligations that fictions do not. This is the ancient ethical problem of tragedy: why people take pleasure in sights that would terrify or disgust them in real life. Aristotle’s Poetics starts the debate about why we take pleasure in depictions of violence and human suffering. In tragedy, the representation of pain (and pain is definitional for the genre) is not supposed to excite the spectator to humanitarian service but to clarify through representation what is possible in life. The drama offers terror without danger, pity without duty. The awareness of its unreality releases us from moral obligation to the sufferers we behold. Fiction lacks the responsibility or complicity that Ellis makes definitional for witnessing. As David Hume remarked (1987), ‘It is certain, that the same object of distress, which pleases in a tragedy, were it really set before us, would give the most unfeigned uneasiness.’ Factual distress calls for our aid, not our appreciation; our duty, not our pleasure. Death is meaningful in fiction: it marks the passage of time, punishes the wicked, gives closure to events. But in fact, death is a blank, completely beyond meaning. ‘Nothing brings them back, neither love nor hate. They can do nothing to you. They are as nothing’ (Conrad, 1921). The contrast of fact and fiction has less to do with different orders of truth than with who is hurting and when. Living people’s pain is news; dead people’s pain is history. It is easy to make fun of the obsession to keep up to date with the news. Kierkegaard suggested that if we treated all news as if it had happened 50 years ago we would sound its true importance. He is right about triviality, but misses what he is so lucid about elsewhere: the present moment as the point of decision. We have to keep up with the world because we are, in some complicated way, responsible to act in it, and we can only act in the present. We feel guilty about hurt people in news, not in fiction films. Pain separates facts from fictions. Facts are witnessed, fictions are narrated. Fictions may indeed inspire us to action, but the beholders’ responsibility is diffuse. ‘Live’ coverage of global sorrow is ethically recalcitrant: because it is fact, we are not protected by the theater’s ‘teleological suspension of the ethical’ (Kierkegaard); because it is spatially remote, our duty to action is unclear. We find ourselves in the position of spectators at a drama without the relief of knowing that the suffering is unreal. Hence the ‘unfeigned uneasiness’ (Hume) we face in watching the news. We feel a gruesome fascination for trauma without the exoneration of knowing it is all an experiment in mimesis. We are witnesses without a tribunal. Finally, the curious thing about witnessing is its retroactive character, the jealousy the present has for the past. The present may be the
point of decision, but it is always underinformed about what will come after. Most observers do not know they are witnesses when the event is happening: they are elected after the fact. A vast quantitative difference separates what we experience and what we are summoned to witness. There is a lot more sensation around than stories. In testifying we must take responsibility for what we once took little responsibility for. We must report on events, the details of which have assumed as massive an importance as they were once trivial. What time did you catch the bus? What color was the car? What kind of shoes was the defendant wearing? In witnessing we look backwards on events we did not realize we were observing, restoring deleted files from memory. We do not know that what we notice or neglect may be the key to prison and liberty for someone. The present is blind to what the future will value. We did not notice the butterﬂy that started the typhoon. Hence the notion, found in liberalism, existentialism, and Christian theology alike, that it is the duty of everyone to be vigilant – to be ready to stand as a witness at any time or place. Testifying has the structure of repentance: retroactively caring about what we were once careless of. A later moment revisits an earlier one in which consciousness was not fully awake. The witness’s attitude to sensation (radical vigilance) goes together with the future anterior attitude to time (treating the present as if it was being witnessed from the future). To witness is to wish that the record of the past were more whole, and to grasp this lesson now is to live vigilantly, to make the present worthy as we imagine contemplating it from a future point. To cope with our fixity in the present, we can at least be awake. Every act puts one in the witness box, both seeing and saying. In Christian eschatology this attitude is dramatized by the notion of a Last Judgment that calls up the whole history of the world as judge and witness. In Nietzsche’s thought it is the notion of the eternal return, acting in the present so that the action could be eternally repeated (and witnessed) without regret. In everyday civic ideology it is the idea that citizens have a duty to be informed about the events of the day. In a phrase all broadcasters would endorse, and with apologies to Matthew 25:13, the motto of witnessing should be: ‘Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour wherein the event will come’.
References P. duBois (1991) Torture and Truth (London: Routledge). J.L. Borges (1964) ‘The Witness’, Labyrinths Selected Stories and Other Writings (New York: New Directions).
John Durham Peters
J.W. Carey (1998) ‘Political Ritual on Television’, in T. Liebes and J. Curran (eds) Media, Ritual, and Identity (London: Routledge). J. Conrad (1921) The Secret Agent (New York: Doubleday). R. Cross (1974) Evidence, 4th edn (London: Butterworths). D. Dayan and E. Katz (1992) Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). S. Felman and D. Laub (1992) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge). D. Hume (1987) ‘Of Tragedy’, Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary, rev. edn (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund). J.H. Langbein (1977) Torture and the Law of Proof: Europe and England in the Ancien Régime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). T. Liebes (1998) ‘Television’s Disaster Marathons’, in T. Liebes and J. Curran (eds) Media, Ritual, and Identity (London: Routledge). P. Lipton (1998) ‘The Epistemology of Testimony’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 29, no. 1, 1–31. J. Locke (1975/1690) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press). E. Peters (1985) Torture (New York: Blackwell). J.D. Peters (1999) Speaking into the Air (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). P. Ricoeur (1981) ‘The Hermeneutics of Testimony’, in Essays in Biblical Interpretation (London: SPCK). D.F. Ross, J.D. Read, and M.P. Toglia (1994) Adult Eyewitness Testimony: Current Trends and Developments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). S. Shapin (1994) A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). E.J. Webb, D.T. Campbell, R.D. Schwartz, L. Sechrest, and J.B. Grove (1981) Nonreactive Measures in the Social Sciences (Boston: Houghton Mifﬂin).
An Afterword: Torchlight Red on Sweaty Faces John Durham Peters
The previous essay was first written for a conference on media events held at the University of Westminster in June 2000 and then published in Media, Culture and Society. Some of it was later integrated into the final chapter of my book Courting the Abyss (2005), where it served an argument about the productive place of passivity, inarticulateness, civil disobedience, and ‘body-witnessing’ in democratic theory and practice. Discussions at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2005), the National Communication Association (2005), and the International Communication Association (2006) have convinced me that witnessing deserves more thinking and study than I have given it so far. What follows here consists of a few brief responses to critics, some revisions, and wishes for future directions. I am grateful for discussions with friends and colleagues such as Tamar Ashuri, Menahem Blondheim, Lilie Chouliaraki, Daniel Dayan, John Ellis, Paul Frosh, Ian Glenn, Elihu Katz, Joan Leach, Stephanie Marriott, Carolyn Marvin, Amit Pinchevski, Carrie Rentschler, Paddy Scannell, Louis-Georges Schwartz, Robin Wagner-Pacifici, and Barbie Zelizer, though I cannot claim to have registered all of their points in this brief afterword. Perhaps the best thing about working on this topic is the remarkable network of people it has helped bring about. That being there in space and time is not necessarily the only position for a witness is a concession I am glad to grant. For both subjective and objective reasons, being present at the event might mean precisely not being able to witness. Subjectively, real attendance at an event might disable the witness from testifying. Trauma or shock rarely provides the conditions for producing coherent accounts. Though the testimony of a rape victim or child witness may be essential in a court case, the question remains whether testifying does not force the witness to relive the event 42
John Durham Peters
as if in a repetition of the abuse. Living through hell might disqualify one from testifying coherently—or at all. And yet, such incoherence is often part of the authenticating power of witnessing. A survivor’s witness of a shattering experience is often more persuasive by performing blockage than ﬂuency. The witness in this sense is both necessary and impossible, as Primo Levi, Eli Wiesel, Giorgio Agamben, and many others have argued. The failure of speech can dramatize the gap between experience and speech and thus underline the reality of the experience. Witnessing occurs somewhere between death and God, as Amit Pinchevski has said. Its home lies in the liminal space between the universal experience that knows no witness (death) and the being who knows everything in its most intimate details (God). Paul Frosh quotes an eyewitness named Olga, interviewed on Israeli television in 2003, who was injured in a terrorist bombing of a restaurant in Haifa: ‘Horror, something that is impossible to describe, little children wounded and blood and people. I can’t describe this horror, I can’t.’ The fractured syntax illustrates her point, and a witness who could calmly detail what had happened might ipso facto demonstrate distance from the event. (Such a position would be one ideal of the objective journalist.) Sometimes muteness can itself be a form of witnessing. As LSD guru Timothy Leary supposedly said: ‘If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there.’ The material wear-and-tear that peril exerts on the body and soul of the witness is always front and center in the semiotics of witnessing. Witnessing is a form of communication that is uniquely attentive to its own conditions of mediation. It is a performatively reﬂexive genre. The witness must enact how he or she came to be a witness: ‘And I only am escaped to tell thee’ (Job 1:19). Objectively, presence does not necessarily provide the best view of an event. The Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, the last supper of Jesus and his disciples, or the Hijra of Mohammad are sites visited again and again in the World Wide Web of history, but they each only happened or started on one night. (It is characteristic of the three ethical monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—to memorialize events that are claimed to be historical and yet also assume a mythic repeatability.) If through some kind of time machine we could transport ourselves back to the moments in question, we might be sorely disappointed by our piecemeal access to The Event. Historicist pilgrims present on one of those nights would need to worry about paying for inns, being at the right place at the right time, and fighting the crowds, not to mention dodging soldiers and angels of destruction. Being there, as any tourist
knows, sometimes gives a more limited view than one had in imagination, books, or movies. Being there can immerse one in the indelicate contingencies and limited points of view that narrative and remembrance conveniently erase. An eyewitness of the passion of Christ might only see ‘the torchlight red on sweaty faces’ (T.S. Eliot). One thinks of Monty Python’s uncanny knack for reducing mythic events to bathos by immersing them in plausible circumstantial necessities. With the line ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers?’, The Life of Brian puts the Sermon on the Mount in the auditory conditions of its delivery. Being there matters, but it does not necessarily provide access to the whole experience. The witness has access sooner to parts than to wholes. The event only comes into focus later—usually after all the eyewitnesses are dead. Events are messy; stories are coherent. Subjective inarticulateness due to trauma, objective partiality due to limited access—these are everlasting obstacles to witnessing. But they are also features that grant witnessing both power and distinctness as a kind of signifying act. Thus, I am hesitant to fully accept Paul Frosh’s argument that the Haggadah presents a form of witnessing across time and space. The Haggadah, like other forms of liturgical or dramatic transport across space and time, is a wonderful kind of medium and the sort of medium we scholars, too long dazzled by circuits and digits, should be studying. It enables a kind of identification both across time to a historical event and across space to an imagined community of co-participants in the Passover Seder. I am delighted that Frosh, like Menahem Blondheim, has used it to enrich our understanding of media, but I am not sure if should we call its unique communicative accomplishments witnessing. The crucial point is that each person is invited by the Haggadah to act ‘as if’ he or she were a witness. ‘As if’ is the sure sign of metaphor, and metaphor is the simultaneity of assertion and negation. The is of metaphor always means both is and is not. The participant in the Seder is both a witness and also not a witness. The Haggadah enacts the Exodus ritualistically, that is, by negation of the actuality. It gives us the convenience of well-ordered, tradition-packed signs rather than the chaos of the actual Exodus, with its packing up, forgetting to leaven the bread, and ‘borrowing’ jewelry from the Egyptian neighbors. We have a secure perch from which to witness the unfolding event—a luxury of position that would be impossible for a real participant in the Exodus. Belated celebrants can be grateful to time for removing all the dull bits—precisely the kinds of circumstantial details a witness would have known. Imagine the quarrel of interpretations if we had to hear testimony of the people who took part in the Exodus: we might learn a lot,
John Durham Peters
but such testimony would probably not be very useful for ritual purposes. Events are jagged and stories are smooth, and witnessing always involves some translation between the two; the Haggadah tilts toward the latter pole. Reality is under no obligation to be coherent, but our explanations of it certainly are. Witnessing in the passive sense of seeing, hearing, and being there is, to use Jakobson’s distinction, metonymic rather than metaphoric. Witnessing traffics in pieces, parts, and circumstantial details, not in stories with beginnings, middles, and ends (which are the province of active witnessing, of saying rather than seeing). Witnessing is a relatively primitive and fallible recording medium for gathering experience. It presents trophies rather than tropes—proofs of an experience not susceptible to copying. Such experience can be narrated, but it cannot be transmitted. It is the scar of Odysseus and his secret knowledge of the inner sanctum of the house that provides the telltale proof of his identity to his long-lost wife Penelope—much more than his prowess at battle, voice, or demeanor, things that might have been mimicked or learned by an impostor. Frosh’s critique rightly aims at a kind of brute positivism in my definition of witnessing and marvelously shows that a vital sense of participation is not necessarily attenuated but often enhanced by distance in space and time. Who is to say who is the ‘real’ participant in the Seder—the belated celebrant or the historic refugee? My aim is not to defend the rawness of experience in a kind of vulgar empiricist way, but to seek clarity of definition. I would be the first to praise the essential powers of imagination for human sociability and sense of history, and I see my book Speaking into the Air as a celebration of distance in communication. But I would not want to call imaginative reconstruction ‘witnessing’. Witnessing, in my view, remains tied in some fragile way to the mortal limits of the human sensorium. It is limited, weak, and fragile; it is also essential. Sometimes the meaning of the Passion can be caught in a passing glimpse of torchlight. Witnessing at second-hand, in contrast, is crucial to the human repertoire, but it is a derivative form. Perhaps the old contrast of reversible sacred time and profane irreversible time will help us analyze the varieties of witnessing. As myth, ritual, or memory, an event can resound forever and repeat without any exhaustion; the past is not lost forever but open to constant refreshment. Perhaps my definition of witnessing depends on a profane sense of time that once lost is lost forever. Frosh’s Haggadah presupposes reversible time. The event is not lost: it presents itself anew for our witness. Religious witnessing perhaps eliminates the need for the passive face of witnessing and puts all the emphasis on mediated ritual acts of
listening, speaking, eating, and drinking by which we bear active witness as adherents to the story. As we take part, we no longer dwell in the present; we are free to travel like immortals across time and space to history’s turning points. Release from the mortal bounds of sensation has always been the privilege of narrative. Rituals, novels, films, and television all provide a coherence of access that presence in the ﬂesh could never attain. If I want to experience ‘London’ as a totality, a film, novel, or newspaper will do a better job than walking its streets for several days. But walking its streets will yield a harvest of experience that such reconstructions will never afford. The overpriced meal on Leicester square, the pigeons and pickpockets on Trafalgar square, and the traffic and wind all mix with uniquely personal humors of mood and memory. I can bear witness of this experience in a way that I cannot of what I learned from secondary sources. The implicit positivism in my account of witnessing is partly a reaction against the privilege that the virtual receives in much post-modern theory. Distance is not dead; gravity still holds us down; the simulacrum has not swallowed up fresh sensory impressions. The grit and surprise of experience in all of its ‘uncopyability’ is a precious resource that communication scholars neglect at our peril. Which is it to witness: to narrate intellectually or to experience sensorially? Running the risk of barbarism for the sake of clarity, I give first rank to the second. We would be epistemologically incoherent if our only source of knowledge were witnesses, but we would lack ground altogether if we had no witnesses. In this, I think I follow the pragmatist (or neo-Kantian) principle that sensory evidence, though never determinative of any knowledge claim, will always be in some way a decisive ingredient. Even so, the notion of a witness stretching over time and space will never vanish from religious liturgy and cultural institutions that borrow from it, such as television, in part because witnessing is always a rhetoric of commitment. Christian theology no less than Jewish ritual is rife with this notion of witnessing at second-hand. Participants in the communion of bread and wine, itself of course first instituted at/as a Passover meal, are figured as witnesses. Latter-day disciples are to remember something they never experienced directly—the Last Supper. They are, in the classic position of active witnesses, sayers rather than seers: as a Mormon hymn has it, ‘partaking now is deed for word.’ Perhaps more fundamentally, Paul of Tarsus was the first apostle who could not claim to be an eyewitness of the mortal Jesus or of the resurrection. Paul’s claims to apostleship, in fact, explicitly downplayed eyewitnessing: he preferred the ‘testimony of conscience’ to ‘ﬂeshly
John Durham Peters
wisdom’ (2 Cor. 1:12). Paul had an apparent blatant lack of interest in the life or even words of the historical Jesus. To be a witness of Christ, in other words, you did not need sensory experience. A spiritual witness was unlimited by space, time, and body. In this radical claim, Paul de-parochialized Christianity by detaching faith from a cultural or experiential connection with Jesus or his historic setting. Paul is the archetype of the believer who encounters Christ at a distance, not as an apparently mortal human, but, as Alain Badiou argues, as an event. He was the first Christian believer without an empirical witness (and such a stance of commitment without sensory evidence is definitive of ‘faith’ in Christianity). Paul was an active witness who declared the Christ of faith without ever having been a passive witness of the Jesus of history. As Paul’s latter-day disciple Søren Kierkegaard said in Philosophical Fragments, an eyewitness of Christ might get stuck in sensory immediacy and thereby risk missing the meaning. The ‘follower at second hand’ in contrast can get the message in all its mediated completeness. Religious ritual thus gives us witnesses without experience and memories without events. The downplaying of the sensible in favor of the intelligible also occurs in the case of the expert witness. Expert witnesses do not narrate sensory experiences acquired by presence; they deliver intellectual opinions acquired by study. They deal in generalities of knowledge, not particulars of events; in probabilities, not actualities. The Roman rule that the witness is to testify de visu suo et auditu (what he saw and heard for himself) is suspended: an expert witness is supposed to be precisely objective, that is to ignore anything personal and only state professional opinion. A sensory witness in a court proceeding, in contrast, would be commanded by the judge to stick to the facts as they were experienced and avoid statements of opinion. Expert witnessing, moreover, is susceptible to debate in a way that personal-experience witnessing is not, which fits Daniel Dayan’s well-punned concern that subjective witnesses can engage in a certain form of ‘dictatorship’. A public sphere in which witnesses only spoke from experience, and not from reﬂection, would, he fears, make reasoned debate impossible. Witnesses are show-stoppers, and pain is always both the topic and the outer limit of the public sphere. In this, we are reminded that witnessing is not always benign, but often dangerous, and not only for the witness. Hence I would take distance from John Ellis’s notion that witnessing can become mundane via television; it is important for my definition that witnessing retains its peril and risk. To use a recently fashionable term, witnessing is always a state of exception, an emergency. It is something special, not something routine.
Finally, does my essay on witnessing betray the argument of Speaking into the Air by succumbing to a dream of full communication, as Frosh suggests? He is right that the veracity gap is central to my argument and that I make epistemological transmission perhaps too central to my story. If you read my piece as an effort to eliminate all the threats to the validity of witnessing, it is easy to see it as another version of the longing for communication without noise. In a fine cultural studies spirit, Frosh shows that witnessing is a property of texts and audiences as well as authors. But if witnessing becomes an attitude of reception instead of a hint of the real, something is indeed lost: transmission still matters. Knowing who is really your intimate friend, kin, or lover in this world of noisily friendly appeals is still something that matters greatly. We need some clearer criterion for the veracity of witnessing besides the phenomenology of audiences. A world without the rigor of some form of process of trial or judgment would be a paradise for con artists and seducers. A world without fictions would be an aesthetic wasteland; a world without a procedure to tell fictions from facts would lack justice altogether. I read Speaking as faithful to the spirit of William James’s pragmatism – renouncing the dream of a mental fusion between people without also abandoning the question of authenticity or fidelity. Witnessing is a form of communication that, to its credit, does not give up worrying about what is real and what is not, even if it can provide no final satisfying answer. Even though it is impossible in any strict sense to bring experience into discourse, witnessing happens all the time and continues to matter deeply for our knowledge of the world and our ability to change it. It is a mode of epistemo-discursive action that retains some link to the fragile stuff of reality, especially our ﬂeshly beings. If my essay has a deviation from Speaking, it might come in this phrase: ‘Living people’s pain is news; dead people’s pain is history.’ I strayed from the spirit of Speaking not by succumbing to the dream of communication, but by positing such a clear threshold between the living and the dead, thus illegitimately releasing us from our obligation to them. What seems like an epistemological conundrum, the veracity gap, is actually an ethical problem of how to witness experience that is not our own. And this is ultimately the point that Paul Frosh has, thankfully, invited me to reconsider.
2 Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers Paul Frosh
‘We are driving through a war zone.’ These words open a television documentary called State of Terror: A Dispatches Investigation, made for and broadcast by the UK’s Channel Four in May 2002. The documentary attempts both to explain the bloody intricacies of the Israeli–Palestinian conﬂict and to ascertain whether or not the Israeli army massacred Palestinian civilians in the Jenin refugee camp during ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ in 2002.1 Accompanied by shaky, handheld visual images of the inside of a car traveling through the West Bank, and featuring direct address to the camera by the film’s narrator and central character, the journalist Deborah Davies, these words signal a fundamental textual ambition at work throughout the film as a whole. They establish the presence of the journalist and her crew as witnesses of the depicted events, and, since the first word ‘we’ can refer to both those in the car and to the watching television audience, the co-presence of the viewers alongside them. Presence is thus discursively created, told verbally and visually, referentially and virtually, in space (the war zone) and time (the present tense). It putatively unites, in the same communicative interaction, the two faces of witnessing (Peters, 2001): direct experience of an event and discourse about the event to others who were not there. Presence is not just told. It is also telling – it makes a difference – since it anchors the discursive authority of the film as a source of testimony about an event which is removed from its audience in space and time. They (the journalists) are there, their bodily sensation and experience authoring and testifying to the knowledge they impart to distant others. 49
State of Terror belongs to an identifiable genre of ‘first-person’ journalism in which the present-tense narrative of the journalist’s search for the truth of an event becomes the central story of the film. Even if the film is ostensibly about Jenin or the Israeli–Palestinian conﬂict, its primary fabula is the filmmaker’s quest to bear witness. Traditional documentaries and television war reporting rarely work in this way. They are not narrated in the present tense, and are not focused on the journalist’s efforts to grasp and relay the truth. Nevertheless, the film’s conspicuous emphasis on its own testimonial immediacy exposes underlying questions which are pertinent not only to what Stam (1983) has called the ‘televisual metaphysics of presence’ in general, but to a large range of media genres, texts, and audiences – questions of knowledge, trust, and ethical response that arise from the phenomenon of media witnessing. How can we understand the vast number of events which do not happen to us personally, which are removed from us in space and time? What is the moral and epistemological status of the understanding we might gain of such events through the reports of witnesses – those who were ‘there’ – especially if those events involved great suffering? What are the social and cultural consequences of such reports and the kinds of knowledge they impart? Of course, witnessing is by no means a new phenomenon; it occupies a central position in legal, religious, and philosophical traditions of thought that long predate electronic media. Yet, the advent and expansion of those media do seem to have substantially augmented, if not transformed, what it means to witness. As Walter Lippmann (1922) noted long ago, we are all – almost whether we like it or not, as a condition of our participation in modern public life – the recipients of reports by others about the events they have experienced. The extension of media systems over the last two centuries, using new technologies of representation and telecommunication to connect different parts of the globe at increasingly fast speeds, has forced us to assess and digest with ever greater frequency reports of far-ﬂung and often horrifying events, related by people whom we do not know personally. This unremitting exposure to the discourse of strangers about their lives has perhaps become a defining characteristic of what it means to be modern (Thompson, 1995). Electronic media have multiplied the number of witnessed events reported to distant others, and multiplied greatly the number of those distant others. Most significantly, perhaps, electronic media have altered the relationship between the witness and his or her addressees through the intervention of a complex organizational and technical apparatus of audiovisual representation. Hence a fourth
Paul Frosh 51
question to add to the three already mentioned: What is the impact of the routine organizational and technological mediation of witnessing on its cultural and moral roles? John Ellis, in Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (2000), treats witnessing as one of the central communicative modes of modern media and suggests that electronic media have altered both the scope and nature of what it is to witness. John Durham Peters similarly emphasizes questions of mediation in ‘Witnessing’ (2001), in part a response to Ellis’s arguments.2 But although they ostensibly complement one another, their views of witnessing are in fact dramatically different. Building upon these differences helps to explain the significance of witnessing for contemporary conjunctions between personal experience, shareable discourse, and public representation. In what follows, then, I engage with these important meditations, beginning in the first section with a critique of Peters’s argument as an extremely sophisticated orthodoxy whose emphasis on problems of testimonial veracity unwittingly compromises attempts to think through the full transformative implications of media witnessing. The next two sections trace these implications through a reception-oriented account of witnessing. Focusing mainly on how ‘witnessing texts’ work with respect to their audiences, they accord particular significance to these texts’ world-making properties and the imaginative demands they make. The final section deals with the institutional organization of witnessing in contemporary media systems. Arguing against the grain of much thinking about media and the ethical response to others, I claim that mass media witnessing is routinized and depersonalized in a way that is morally enabling because it maintains a ground of ‘indifferent’ civil equivalence among strangers.
Witnessing and the veracity gap A recurrent motif of John Peters’s essay on witnessing is the ‘veracity gap’. This phrase refers to difficulties afﬂicting the practice of bearing witness: difficulties of memory (does the witness remember everything he or she saw?), honesty (is the witness being truthful?), presence (was the witness really there at the crucial moment?), perception (did the witness see and hear everything important?), and scale (was the witness traumatized and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the event?). Ultimately, however, the ‘veracity gap’ is about the problem of mediation. It designates that chasm of fallibility and potential misunderstanding
across which the experience of a person present at an event is transmuted into discourse about that experience for others who were not present. ‘The journey from experience (the seen) into words (the said) is precarious . . . . It always involves an epistemological gap whose bridging is always fraught with difficulty. No transfusion of consciousness is possible. Words can be exchanged, experiences cannot’ (Peters, 2001, p. 710). Peters traces the various religious, legal, scientific and – for want of a better term – cataclysmic histories of witnessing’s veracity gap, culminating with its relationship to broadcasting. The article reaches its schematizing zenith in a typology of witnessing positions – spatial and temporal relations to an event – which receives the following explanation: Of four basic types of relations to an event, three can sustain the attitude of a witness. To be there, present at the event in space and time is the paradigm case. To be present in time but removed in space is the condition of liveness, simultaneity across space. To be present in space but removed in time is the condition of historical representation: here is the possibility of a simultaneity across time, a witness that laps the ages. To be absent in both space and time but still have access to an event via its traces is the condition of recording: the profane zone in which the attitude of witnessing is hardest to sustain (2001, p. 720). According to this typology, much of radio and television broadcasting – because of its liveness, its temporal simultaneity with an event – is able to sustain a form of witnessing, although it deviates from the ‘paradigm case’ of being present at the event in space and time. Even the position which is furthest removed from that paradigm case, the transmission of a recorded film of an event that has already occurred, can achieve a kind of pseudo-witnessing. It can do this, of course, through the logic of broadcasting, whereby it is transmitted simultaneously to a large public, such that the broadcast itself becomes the witnessed ‘event’, at which the audience is co-present in time and is co-extensive in space. In addition, such recorded films can also achieve a kind of pseudo-witnessing through the deployment of a host of discursive and representational techniques that imply liveness, immediacy, and co-presence. Many of these are found in State of Terror: the use of the present tense and the first-person singular and plural; the inclusion of seemingly raw, unedited visual sequences; the presence of a dominant narrating voice
Paul Frosh 53
and persona – especially of the reporter ‘in the field’; the interviewing of eyewitnesses (in State of Terror mainly Palestinians, but also some Israeli Jews and ‘outside experts’); the dramatic reconstruction of events in the places where they happened; the prominence given to indexical signs – filmed traces of a real event, like bloodstains on the walls. Yet within such recordings, as well as within more paradigmatic cases of bearing witness, the veracity gap rarely disappears entirely. In State of Terror, for instance, virtually every technique designed to bring viewers closer to the event under investigation, the purported massacre in Jenin, also becomes conspicuous as a mediation, as a sign of our irreducible distance and separation from it. The physical reconstruction of a killing in the exact location of its earlier, unfilmed occurrence brings us spatially closer to the original happening while at the same time reinforcing our temporal remoteness from it. In another sequence, where a Palestinian woman shows home video footage she took of men being rounded up, the television set upon which the video is viewed by the journalist acts both as a window onto the event and as a screen which divides us from it, a marker of our layers of non-presence (we were not present at the filmed event, nor at its screening before the journalist). The multiplicity of languages and the use of a translator has a similar effect. The translator’s job is to make what we see and hear intelligible and accessible, but her very presence further emphasizes our lack of experiential and informational access to the testimony being given. Thus every step towards Peters’s paradigm case of ‘being there’ in space and time is also a step away from it, every open window an opaque screen, every bridge a frontier. Peters’s brilliant article is a kind of friendly but restraining hand placed upon the shoulder of John Ellis, who claims that photography, cinema, and broadcasting ‘brought citizens into a relationship of direct encounter with images and sounds: a distinct experience which I shall explore, the experience of witness’ (2000, p. 9). In the broadcasting age, Ellis argues, witnessing has earned a privileged place as a new way of perceiving the world beyond our immediate environment. Based upon the superabundance of details of an event recorded by modern audiovisual technologies, and television’s promise of audiovisual liveness, media witnessing places audiences in an unprecedented position: The feeling of witness that comes with the audio-visual media is one of separation and powerlessness: the events unfold, like it or not. So for the viewer, powerlessness and safety come hand in hand, provoking a sense of guilt and disinterest (2000, p. 11).
The moral resonance of this new modality of experience is our complicity in the often horrifying events we now know about yet cannot alter; the responsibility that such knowledge bestows. Its combination of involvement and passivity is summed up in the doubly negative appeal: ‘You cannot say that you did not know’ (2000, p. 11). Ostensibly Peters’s main disagreement with Ellis is historical (2001, p. 708). Peters eloquently shows how much of the apparently new modality that Ellis describes is actually very old, and how scholars of modern media need to take seriously the ‘hoary philosophical issues’ (p. 707) raised over many centuries concerning witnessing. However, Peters also implicitly challenges Ellis on two other interconnected fronts. The first challenge is to the idea that witnessing has become a general mode of receptivity to contemporary media. Despite his remarks concerning the spatial and temporal relations to an event which can sustain ‘the attitude of a witness’, for Peters, real witnesses are few (fewer certainly than the number of television viewers), and their lives are transformed by the burden of testimony: ‘Witnessing places mortal bodies in time. To witness always involves risk, potentially to have your life changed . . . You can be marked for life by being the witness of an event’ (2001, p. 714). The ontological principle underpinning this notion of witnessing is the individual’s corporeal presence at the event (Peters’s ‘paradigm case’), a presence vouchsafed by the potential suffering of the witnessing body: ‘To bear witness is to put one’s body on the line. Within every witness, perhaps, stands a martyr, the will to corroborate words with something beyond them, pain and death being the last resorts’ (2001, p. 713). This has the effect of greatly limiting the scale of witnessing. Its logical extension is that television audiences are not the witnesses of the events they see, but the recipients of someone else’s testimony. It is a far cry from Ellis’s sense that witnessing is a new, generalized mode of experiencing media, characterized by the powerlessness and safety of the viewer. Peters’s second, interrelated challenge to Ellis builds upon the ontology of presence to insist on the inescapability of the veracity gap. Witnessing, as we have seen, involves a recurrent impasse. Between the witness and the viewer stands the opacity of discourse; the fragile thread linking the event to its representation is always in peril. Yet making the veracity gap the central concern in the study of witnessing threatens to close off more avenues for investigation than it opens up, including avenues tentatively suggested by Ellis. It threatens to create a deadlock in which every analysis of media witnessing arrives at the same result: a lacuna between the necessity for witnessing and its impossibility,
Paul Frosh 55
between its performance and its inevitable deconstruction. Increasingly, it produces a sense of analytical déjà vu. There are two main problems with emphasizing the veracity gap, both of which seem central to the way in which we conceptualize witnessing intuitively, and which are hard to refute. The first is its implicit directionality. Peters (2001) notes that witnessing involves ‘all three points of a basic communication triangle: (1) the agent who bears witness, (2) the utterance or text itself, (3) the audience who witnesses’ (p. 709). However, in dwelling upon the infinite gap between experience and discourse, the techniques for bridging it and their fragility, and in setting out a hierarchy in which the ‘paradigm case’ of witnessing is the experience of spatial and temporal presence at the event, this triangle mutates into a line. The witnessing agent becomes a point of transmission and the audience one of reception (the utterance or text is the line itself, becoming increasingly fuzzy and broken as it approaches the audience). The second problem is that the veracity gap makes witnessing ultimately an ontological and an epistemological affair (what is it to be, what is it to know) rather than a communicative one. Peters has convincingly argued elsewhere (1999) that questions of communication are at the heart of ontological and epistemological concerns, and that if you scratch a debate about communication you will find an ontological or epistemological itch. But making the veracity gap so central risks reducing communicative capacities to – often insoluble – questions of being and knowing. It risks continually asking, ‘How can I know what it is to be you? How reliable is this utterance as testimony of your experience?’ rather than ‘What is it about this text that gives me an inkling of what it’s like to be you? What is it about this utterance and its performance that makes it work as testimony?’ In other words, it limits the way we can conceptualize and understand how witnessing works as a form of communication, because it primarily treats communication as full of ‘hoary issues’ to be overcome, rather than as a cultural achievement to be explored.3 And it is witnessing as a cultural achievement that most interests Ellis; not the referential fidelity of media reports, the truth of discourse to experience, or of appearance to reality. Discussing (and dismissing) the film theorist André Bazin on the question of audiovisual realism, Ellis states: Lost under the weight of all this confusion is the fact of witness: a particular modality of the experience of recorded images and sounds, rather than an inherent quality to be found within those images.
‘Witness’ brings a model of the viewer’s experience to the center of the definition of the audio-visual without entangling it with ontological arguments about the relationship between representation and its objects (2000, p.14).
Witnessing and world-making: The case of the Haggadah Standing with Ellis against the tyranny of the veracity gap is Shoshana Felman’s interpretation of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Lanzmann’s film, says Felman, is not only about witnessing a catastrophe such as the Holocaust. It is also: About the relation between art and witnessing, about film as a medium which expands the capacity for witnessing. To understand Shoah, we must explore the question: what are we as spectators made to witness? This expansion of what we in turn can witness is, however, due not simply to the reproduction of events, but to the power of the film as a work of art, to the subtlety of its philosophical and artistic structure and to the complexity of the creative process it engages. ‘The truth kills the possibility of fiction’ said Lanzmann in a journalistic interview. But the truth does not kill the possibility of art – on the contrary, it requires it for its transmission, for its realization in our consciousness as witnesses (2000, p. 105, original italics). This beautiful passage advances the notion that media can expand our capacity to witness. Much of this expansion has to do with the relationship between the structure of the text, its creative potentialities, and the audience. Exploring how the structure and creative propensities of media texts might enhance the sense of witnessing requires a shift of emphasis, away from Peters’s fixation upon the fragile relationship of discourse to an original event and experience. Two methodological tactics are of service here. The first is to ignore the veracity gap for as long as possible. The second is to ﬂesh out Ellis’s model of viewer experience by focusing upon the relationship between the audience and the witnessing text; to attack witnessing from the wrong end, so to speak, by assuming that testimony – and the presence-effect of the witness at the event described – is created in the interaction between audience and text, rather than between the witness and his or her own utterance. Such a hermeneutical and reception-oriented account of media witnessing might appear counterintuitive given the weight of physical presence attending the act of witnessing in legal and journalistic discourse. It
Paul Frosh 57
will involve making further counterintuitive propositions about the relationship between witnessing texts and audiences in the age of broadcasting media. However, to introduce these propositions I begin with another example, far older than radio and television, of how the creative intersections between witnessing texts and their addressees have long conjured up testimonial presence. The example comes from the Passover Haggadah. This text, whose name literally means ‘saying’ or ‘talking’, is one of the most popular and most published of Jewish liturgical works. Its reading structures the ‘seder’, the meal-ceremony held on the first night of the festival of Passover (and on the second night for many Jews outside Israel). Designed to enable participants to fulfill a principal commandment of the festival – to relate the story of the exodus from Egypt – the Haggadah contains the following injunction: ‘In every generation a person [lit. man] is obligated to see himself as if he went out from Egypt.’4 If we were to follow Peters’s typology of witnessing positions, we would need to make an immediate objection: whatever the Haggadah might tell us about how to experience the story of the exodus, and however realistically that story might be realized in the discourse, this is not a witnessing text. It does not place its audience in a relationship of either temporal simultaneity or spatial contiguity with the event described. Furthermore, it is neither a ‘recording’ in the modern mechanical or technological sense, nor does its surprisingly colorless and undramatic description of the exodus seem to be the discourse of someone who was there. ‘It doesn’t tell the story of exodus in full, let alone in detail. Moses is not even mentioned in the text’ (Blondheim, 2004, p. 4). The text’s source is collective and impersonal, its reception far removed in time and space from the event concerned. In terms of the veracity of discourse, the gap here seems to be so huge that the Haggadah cannot possibly have the status of testimony. Yet the tradition of witnessing goes beyond the veracity gap precisely in its religious resonance. ‘Witness, an Anglo-Saxon word of ancient religious usage, adopted again in our time, has been used to name our human, and therefore imperfect, attempt to impart to others the grace and perhaps the excitement perceived in the personal and partial experience of the divine’ (Dooling, quoted in Hebdige, 1993, p. 205). Linked etymologically to ‘wit’ and ‘wisdom’, witnessing concerns both the condition and quality of knowing. Its linkage to facticity and verifiability is by no means exclusive, especially since it is used extensively in traditions, as Peters himself amply demonstrates, where it is far removed from legal notions of proof or scientific standards of reporting. It is,
in part, about publicly confirming and conveying personal beliefs, and thereby sharing them: bearing witness to one’s faith. This idea is of course especially important in religions which rely on long traditions of public rather than domestic ritual display, such as Catholicism.5 In this context the Haggadah is also a kind of witnessing, an imparting of the grace and excitement of participation in ‘the divine’ experience of the exodus, especially if approached from the point of view of its performance and its interaction with its readers. The Haggadah is a discourse about a past event containing, as part of its own text, instructions about how the relationship to that event should be experienced: about how it itself should be ‘taken’. In fact, as Blondheim (2004) argues, the Haggadah ‘is a perplexing literary hybrid: a to-do list intended to structure the Seder rituals, merged with scattered references to the Biblical story’, whose effect is to make the participants themselves into the narrators of the exodus (p. 4). Those instructions tell participants that the past event should be envisioned (they are obligated to ‘see themselves’) as happening to them ‘now’, where that ‘now’ provides a link across and between the generations to the time and place of the exodus. The Haggadah opens up what Star Trek fans would call a wormhole in the space–time continuum, requiring the recipients of the discourse to become first-hand witnesses to the events it describes. It combines ‘envisioned’ experience of the event and discourse about the event, but in reverse order. Rather than the ontology of presence underpinning subsequent testimonial discourse, it is the process of relating the exodus – performing discourse through a witnessing text – that allows participants to make themselves imaginatively present at the event. This ‘now’ of the event created in the encounter with the Haggadah is not only successively experienced by each passing generation, it is also simultaneously experienced by the members of each particular generation, through both a physical collective performance (the Seder meal is a group activity) and a virtual collective performance (all Jewish people, or at least all those observing the Seder, do so on the same night).6 Much like the grand ceremonial of media events described by Dayan and Katz (1992), the performance of the Haggadah binds participants together, assembles and gathers them in a distributed but cohesive space in which they are all imaginatively ‘co-present’ at the same moment in another place and time. Yet notwithstanding the collective conditions and effects of this performance, the obligation to make oneself virtually present at the event described is an individual responsibility. The injunction is phrased in the third person singular: ‘In every
Paul Frosh 59
generation a person is obligated to see himself as if he went out from Egypt.’ By accepting the obligation participants also signal recognition of their place in the collective, of their definition as a ‘person’ who can be obligated. In Althusserian terms, the witnessing text interpolates a collectively established yet individually assumed subject-position. How is one to envision oneself in another place and time? The Haggadic injunction hinges on the ability to imagine a world into which one can be transported. This is the significance of the Hebrew word ‘ke’ilu’, ‘as if he went out from Egypt’: an ‘as if’ of imaginative worldmaking which is usually associated with literary fiction (Iser, 1993, pp. 13–8). However, the ‘as if’ of the witnessing text does not ask participants to suspend or ‘bracket’ their sense of spatial and temporal distance from the depicted world.7 Rather, it enjoins them to split themselves into two. For, by their very incantation of the commandment to envision themselves in the world of the exodus, participants also reiterate their location in the present tense of the Passover meal. This is the significance of the third-person formulation. The injunction does not say ‘I must envision myself’ or even ‘you must envision yourself’ but ‘every person [lit. man] must envision himself’. One is transported in the abstract, as ‘he’ rather than as ‘I’: one imagines oneself as another (Ricoeur, 1992). Participants are never wholly transported. Their envisioned journey into the distant event simultaneously requires that part of themselves stay in the performative present of the Haggadah recitation, as enunciator and envisioner. Witnessing is not full immersion into the witnessed world. It is an imaginative act of experiential construction that nevertheless remains in the here and now of discourse. This collective and (third-) personal transportation into a different place and time occurs within a hermeneutically regulating context. Such contexts attend all interpretive acts and communities (Fish, 1976). They constrain and guide interpretive strategies about what the text is asking us to do and what kind of text it is. In this case the context consists primarily of a regular but relatively infrequent (yearly) ritual and religious performance. Such a context makes it almost impossible to take seriously the as if injunction while also interpreting the world imaginatively created (the world of the exodus) as a fiction. For the acceptance of the obligation to imagine oneself in the world of the exodus, the performative raison d’être of the whole exercise, is underwritten by the same religious and cultural commitment which accepts the importance and reality of the exodus as a sacred event, and which also underwrites the design and purpose of the Haggadah as a text. It is the acceptance, among
other things, of the authority of an implied author (Booth, 1983), or more precisely an implied witnessing agency or intentionality, created by the regulated interaction of text, reader, and context, which guarantees the truth of the event and the text that gives us access to its world. Finally, this performance of imaginative world-making and witnessing is not undertaken primarily as an aesthetic exercise, but for a purpose ‘higher’ than that of the transportation itself, most obviously a religious or moral purpose regarding the welfare of depicted others. This is another key distinguishing feature between witnessing and fiction, for notwithstanding claims concerning the social and moral utility of fiction, such utility is not usually a primary reason for writing or reading it – although there are many fine lines and blurred boundaries here.8 The religious or moral rationale of witnessing is a key component of the witnessing intentionality of a given text, since such intentionality is the result of the reader’s conjecture that the text was designed to bear witness. Feeling that a text imposes an obligation towards the events or people it depicts is part of what enables readers to judge that it is a witnessing text.
Witnessing as receptivity, texts that bear witness ‘Bearing witness’, then, is an act performed not by a witness but by a witnessing text. It is the witnessing text which creates presence at the event, which produces experience out of discourse. ‘Witnessing’, following Ellis’s argument, is an expanded and generalized mode of receptivity to these witnessing texts by their addressees. As the example of the Passover Haggadah should make clear, this mode of receptivity is not passive, but the performative co-constructor of witnessing as a form of discourse and experience. Moreover, a major implication of the Haggadah for modern broadcasting is that while the audiovisual mediation of witnessing may be historically new, its structure as a type of communicative act is not. There are historical precedents for the expanded mode of contemporary media witnessing. Here, in brief, are some of its main features: Witnessing Modality and Intentionality. Witnessing texts invite us to engage them in producing imagined worlds. Like fictions, their textual cues (verbal narratives of events, utterances of anchors and journalists, affirmations of other ‘characters’ interviewed or depicted, photographic techniques of verisimilitude) combine to transport us ‘there’, and at the same time produce the text’s overall agency or ‘intentionality’. Here I refer to what Eco (1992) calls ‘intentio operis’, the reader’s
Paul Frosh 61
interpretation of the ‘purpose’ of the text based upon a conjecture about its dominant semiotic strategy and ‘topic’. However, unlike fictions, witnessing texts encourage the conjecture that the world to be imaginatively produced is or was an actual world, not just a lifelike one, that it was witnessed or is being witnessed by the agency producing the text, and that our engagement with this world (and hence our engagement with this text) is morally important. What linguists and semioticians call the modality of a witnessing text is significant here. Modality ‘refers to the semiotic resources we use for expressing “as how true” or “as how real” a given representation is to be taken’ (Van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 396). The question of modality is not ‘ “Did what we see in this image really happen” but . . . “are we to take it as something that has really happened or really exists or not?” ’ (Van Leeuwen, 2001, p. 396, original italics). Witnessing texts signal to readers that they are to be taken as reporting real events at which the reporter was present; they are, to use Doležel’s (1988) distinction, descriptive texts which ‘are representations of the actual world, of a world existing prior to any textual activity’ rather than constructional texts ‘which are prior to their worlds’ (p. 489). A witnessing text is one whose structure interacts with the audience to create not just an imaginative experience regarding the subject of its discourse (what it was like to be caught up in a tsunami, for instance) but also the conjecture that this text is a witnessing text, that the event described really happened, and that the text was designed to report it (for a religious or moral purpose). Therefore, under certain ‘felicitous’ circumstances (felicitous in Austin’s sense: 1962), texts produced by people who were not at the event can pass as texts produced by people who were at the event, because the emphasis is not on the ‘origin’ of the discourse but on the experience of the world we imagine through the text and the signs it gives of its own status as that world’s witness. Such ‘passing’ texts are obviously false witness or mere fictions if we judge them by the veracity gap and Peters’s typology of witnessing positions. In the reception-oriented version of witnessing outlined here, however, they are valid witnessing texts – again, under certain circumstances. Ideational and Interpersonal Ecology. Those circumstances are important because a text does not acquire its status as testimony on its own. What helps to secure an audience’s conjecture that a text does not just represent a world, but bears witness to it? What makes a radio broadcast or a television program such as State of Terror identifiable as a witnessing text? In semiotic terms, the capacity of a piece of discourse to be constituted as a recognizable type of text (such as testimony) is theorized under the ‘textual’ metafunction of language (Halliday, 1978).
This metafunction does not apply only to testimony of course, but to all language; or, in the extension of Halliday’s scheme by Hodge and Van Leeuwen (1988), to all signifying practices. Furthermore, the recognizability of a text is in turn related to the two other semiotic metafunctions described by Halliday: ideational (the text creates representations) and interpersonal (it creates interactions between addressers and addressees). The ‘ideational’ ecology of a witnessing text refers to its echoing of and corroboration by other texts which purport to represent the same witnessed world. As ‘textually determined constructs, fictional worlds cannot be altered or cancelled, while the versions of the actual world provided by descriptive texts are subject to constant modifications and refutations’ (Doležel, 1988, p. 489). The witnessed world is a textually constructed representation; yet, since the text’s modality means that audiences are to ‘take it as’ the report of an actual world, it can be verified, modified, or challenged by other similarly taken reports: fictions attempting to pass as testimony will only do so if they can survive such challenges. Thus, the ideational ecology of a witnessing text is par-excellence the arena of symbolic and representational politics, in which questions of legitimacy, accuracy, and corroboration arise in the struggle between rival testimonies. This does not return us, however, to the ontological foundation of testimonial discourse in the physical presence of the witness at the event – although this is part of the currency of this struggle, the persuasiveness of each text’s construction of the telling presence of witnesses. It means rather that each witnessing text is itself an agent in a shifting field of relationships between diverse and often competing texts, performances, addressees, and institutional contexts (some of these manifested textually – the work-notes of reporters, the raw unedited film footage of an event). The veracity gap, if it appears anywhere in this reception-oriented model, is most relevant here: in the fissures and contradictions between versions of the same constructed actuality, rather than in the inevitable failure to bridge the chasm between experience and discourse. The ‘interpersonal’ ecology of a witnessing text refers to the norms and expectations audiences associate with particular types of text, and their comprehension of the institutional and technological settings of production and viewing. Genre is probably the most conspicuous and important element of this ecology, understood as the structured conventions and classificatory regimes that link viewers, texts, and producers in a common framework of meaning. Crucially, genre refers not only to categories of texts with shared formal or referential attributes, but also to
Paul Frosh 63
‘specific systems of hypothesis and expectation’ among addressers and addressees (Neale, 1990, p. 49). Generic expectations for witnessing texts include discursive effects of narrator presence in the depicted world and of a moral or religious obligation to that world, effects that are not necessary components of other non-fiction genres (such as historical writing). These ideational and interpersonal factors interact in routine but nevertheless complex ways to underpin the textual metafunction of a piece of testimony. Together they contribute decisively to the ordinary, everyday, and usually automatic conjectures audiences make about the witnessing intentionality of a text, its having-been-designed to bear witness – hence, for example, such unremarkable but far-reaching consequences as witnessing status being more easily granted to a BBC news program than to a narrative feature film. This is because news broadcasts are connected generically to the morally charged representation of actual worlds, and because the BBC is known among viewers as a more certain institutional site than Hollywood studios for the production of witnessing texts. And those BBC news broadcasts will be held to more stringent standards of referential comparison and moral significance with other reports on the same subject than would most Hollywood films.9 A concomitant of this claim is that organizations can be witnesses, or at least the originators and purposive agents of witnessing texts. Given the significance of first-person experience and discourse in traditional accounts of witnessing, this would seem unacceptable. The witness in a news report from India about the tsunami is surely the eyewitness interviewed, or the journalist, or the cameraman. A witness must surely be someone: testimony ultimately depends upon the body’s material presence as a guarantor of veracity. However, something needs to assemble this testimonial apparatus, to bring together all these separate utterances of witnesses (the journalist, the eyewitness, the camera) into a coherent purposive conjecture about the point of the text which encompasses them: this is precisely the implied witnessing agency or intentionality of the text.10 In fact, given the belated arrival of journalists at many events, news reports are frequently accounts of other people’s accounts (as in State of Terror), and the witnessing intentionality of media texts becomes even more important both as an agent and an effect of overall textual coherence. Such a textually constructed agency is conjecturally linked by the reader to the context of actual organizations and institutions which make such texts available: broadcasters, newspapers, news organizations, and so on. Beyond the eyewitnesses, journalists and cameras of the film about Jenin is Channel Four, an organization already
known by UK viewers as the author and distributor of other witnessing texts. Such knowledge can, of course, be deliberately manipulated: a viewer’s conjecture regarding the intentionality of a text is shaped not only by previous encounters with the texts made by media organizations, but with those organizations’ reputations and public images more broadly, by the paratextual paraphernalia of advertising and promotion. Not only then can organizations be witnesses: their status as such can be established, maintained, and enhanced by media branding. Impersonal and Personal. Like the individual experience of collective third-person injunctions found in the Haggadah, media witnessing usually intertwines the impersonal and the personal at all three points of the communication triangle described by Peters (witnessing agent, text, and audience). This intertwining has important implications for how we understand the social and moral consequences of media witnessing. To begin with, the witnessing agent is often presented in the guise of an identifiable individual personality, or in a manner that emulates interpersonal communication. This should come as no surprise, given broadcasting’s use of direct modes of address (Scannell, 1996; Tolson, 1996), its systematic and strategic invocation of forms of ‘parasocial’ interaction with viewers (Horton and Wohl, 1956), and the ways in which the monological, spatially extended and often non-synchronous characteristics of ‘mediated quasi-interaction’ (Thompson, 1995) are controlled to evoke the dialogical specificity of face-to-face engagements. All of these suggest that the bureaucratic and technical impersonality of the witnessing agency is usually articulated through encounters with the voices, faces, and utterances of individual witnesses (including reporters) and of figures who stand for the organization (such as news anchors). In State of Terror, for instance, the witnessing agency is tightly focused via the film’s narrator and central character, the journalist. Her physical and experiential journey through the dangers of the West Bank, and parallel epistemological journey to inconclusive knowledge about the events in Jenin (but deeper sympathy with the protagonists), come to exemplify both the testimony of others in the film and to represent the audience’s part as the attentive addressee of all this witnessing. At the textual level the witnessing discourse usually intertwines both ‘experience’ of and ‘information’ about the witnessed world. ‘Experience’ and ‘information’ are problematic terms because they are associated with ontological and epistemological issues surrounding the state of the witness at the event, whereas I want to emphasize the experience elicited by the text in the reader, and the information relayed to the reader by the text. One way of treating ‘experience’ and
Paul Frosh 65
‘information’ hermeneutically is through the narratological notion of ‘focalization’ (Genette, 1980; Bal, 1997): who is ‘seeing’ the world of the text at any given point in the narrative.11 Experience could be replaced very roughly by what Bal calls ‘internal’ or ‘character-bound’ focalization; it is elicited through techniques that ask us to construct a world through the eyes of someone within it. Information, in contrast, is more generally conveyed by ‘external focalization’ which constructs the depicted world from positions exterior to it. Experience suggests personal transportation into the world of the event; information is impersonally, and sometimes anonymously, observed from a vantage point outside of, or on the edge of, the event, and tends to connote factuality. Both are central to contemporary witnessing texts; both transform the imaginative construction of a private narrative into ‘something which, by definition, goes beyond the personal, in having general (nonpersonal) validity and consequences’ (Felman, 2000, p. 104).12 Lastly, media witnessing shares in the radical intertwining of the impersonal and the personal by which broadcasting addresses its audiences. Scannell (2000) describes modern radio and television broadcasting as a ‘for-anyone-as-someone’ structure. Television programs are not tailor-made for a particular individual, but for anyone who happens to be watching. They are oblivious to me as their particular addressee, their logic is one of impersonality. Indeed, I am so irrelevant as an individual viewer that, converted to a statistical unit, I can be sold to advertisers for money. At the same time, however, when I watch television I hear voices and see faces talking to me directly, quite often informally and with apparent intimacy, as though engaging with me as an individual. This almost never happens with films; it can happen with written fiction. This sense of being personally addressed is a concomitant of the ‘personality’ of the witnessing agent discussed earlier. And of course everyone else watching is also personally addressed; they are also treated simultaneously as part of an anonymous mass and as an individual. Hence, the mutual intertwining of impersonal and personal witnessing agents, and of experiential and informational textual mechanisms, meet up in broadcasting’s ‘for-anyone-as-someone’ audience dynamics. In fact, one could claim that the for-anyone-as-someone structure is a prerequisite of all modern public discourse. The ‘strategy of impersonal reference, in which one might say “The text addresses me” and “It addresses no one in particular”, is a ground condition of intelligibility for public language’ (Warner, 2002, p. 161). Scannell links the for-anyone-as-someone dynamics of broadcasting to what he calls, following Heidegger, the ‘care structure’ of modern
society. For Scannell, the broad moral point of witnessing texts (rather than their legal, theological, or historical purpose) is to make us care about the lives of others. Yet how can witnessing texts achieve this if they emanate from organizations, if they are mediated by a complex, routinized, and possibly manipulative technological and bureaucratic broadcasting apparatus, and if they treat their addressees, at least in part, as ‘no one in particular’? Surely only intimacy at a face-to-face level, personal engagement with the other and his or her direct self-disclosure, can create the conditions for genuine care for another’s welfare.
Witnessing, civil inattention, and stranger sociality Again, media witnessing is usually articulated through (mediated) encounters with individual others, as well as benefiting from forms of address that individualize the viewer and create intimacy at a distance. It can therefore elicit some of the intense empathetic responses that are assumed to be necessary for the creation of moral concern. Beyond this, however, are those impersonal, institutionally routinized, and systemically abstract characteristics of media witnessing only impediments to moral care, which need constantly to be overcome by personalization? Or is a form of ‘mass morality’, a primary mode of generalized moral response to otherness, at work in those very facets of media witnessing which seem so inimical to traditional emphases on the personal nature of both testimony and care? Such mass morality can be found by connecting the third-person qualities of contemporary witnessing, and the for-anyone-as-someone nature of broadcasting, to the phenomena of ‘civil inattention’ and stranger sociality within modern societies. Goffman (1963) describes civil inattention: What seems to be involved is that one gives to another enough visual notice to demonstrate that one appreciates that the other is present . . . , while at the next moment withdrawing one’s attention from him so as to express that he does not constitute a target of special curiosity or design . . . . By according civil inattention, the individual implies that he has no reason to suspect the intentions of the others present and no reason to fear the others, be hostile to them, or wish to avoid them (p. 84). Civil inattention, epitomized by the way individuals brieﬂy glance across the eyes and faces of physically proximate others in a public
Paul Frosh 67
space, is ‘perhaps the slightest of interpersonal rituals, yet one that constantly regulates the social intercourse of persons in our society’ (1963, p. 84). Zygmunt Bauman (1990) describes what he calls ‘civil indifference’ as an ominous symptom of our contemporary relationship to people who we do not know, as characteristic of the art of ‘mismeeting’ by which the other is relegated to the background of our attention. Crucially, for Bauman, mismeeting is primarily a modern (and largely urban) technique for de-ethicalizing the relationship with the other: ‘This is the realm of moral void, inhospitable to either sympathy or hostility’ (1990, p. 25). This pessimistic reading of Goffman would appear to leave not only civil inattention itself, but also media witnessing in a moral void. Routinized, conventional, generic, and impersonal, media witnessing seems to operate as a form of mismeeting, designed not to bring viewers into personal engagement with others but rather to transform those others into strangers: ‘Neighbourly aliens. Alien neighbours . . . That is: morally distant yet physically close. The aliens within physical reach. Neighbours outside moral reach’ (Bauman, 1990, pp. 24–5). Except that media witnessing apparently adds to civil inattention and stranger sociality the extra vices of virtuality, unidirectionality, and anonymity. The neighborly aliens it creates are not even physically proximate to an identifiable viewer they can see in return. Under these circumstances media witnessing would not seem to lend itself to any kind of moral mission. Yet, as Goffman implies, civil inattention (and by extension media witnessing) is not without its virtues. The apparent indifference it creates is not morally neutral. To begin with, inattention is ‘civil’. It recognizes strangers without singling them out as objects of special curiosity. While Bauman emphasizes that this recognition lacks sympathy and solidarity, Goffman stresses the absence of fear and hostility. Such absences may not be the most attractive or indeed passionate of ethical relations, but they are certainly crucial to encounters with a multiplicity of others in cosmopolitan societies. Their tremendous moral value is sometimes only realized when these subtle mechanisms of indifference are breached – for instance, in the paranoid suspicion of strangers in public places in the days following terrorist attacks – and civil inattention gives way to its semantic opposite: uncivil attention. Moreover, the relation to the stranger is, as Simmel noted, a positive relation characterized by a realignment of distance and proximity, a bringing closer of our general similarities with those who are remote.
The stranger lives among us, but ‘with the stranger one has only certain more general qualities in common’, similarities which connect us ‘only because they connect a great many people’ (Simmel, 1971, pp. 146–7). In this context media witnessing greatly multiplies every individual’s encounters with a constantly shifting sea of faces worldwide. It multiplies these abstract, general connections to others who are remote, maintaining the thin threads by which the most distant and different can be bound together. Like civil inattention, media witnessing habituates individuals to the otherness of others, to the alienness of aliens, and to the generality of our connectedness to them. Yet, whereas civil inattention does this by transforming the shared public ‘here’ into a space of non-hostile recognition and indifference, media witnessing does this by asking audiences to imagine momentarily what it is like for remote others over ‘there’. This indifferent extension to multiple others is also characteristic of the ways in which mass media make their audiences: television ‘gathers populations which may otherwise display few connections among themselves and positions them as its audience “indifferently”, according to all viewers the same “rights” and promoting among them a sense of common identity as television audiences’ (Hartley, 1999, p. 158, original italics). Such constant gathering and representation of different and dispersed populations makes TV a key promoter of civility and ‘neighborliness’ (Hartley, 1999). Bauman’s argument that civil inattention de-ethicalizes the other – and its application to media witnessing – is therefore open to a nuanced counterargument. In a sense the charge of ‘de-ethicalization’ is true, if, following Avishai Margalit (2002), one takes ‘ethics’ to refer to that which ought to guide our ‘thick relations’, our behavior toward those with whom we enjoy strong social bonds (family, friends, and so on). But the indifference of civil inattention and media witnessing is moral rather than ethical: it guides our ‘thin relations’, our behavior ‘toward those to whom we are related just by virtue of their being fellow human beings’ (Margalit, 2002, p. 37).13 As Natan Sznaider (2000) argues: ‘Indifference is not nothing. It is a very subtle something. It means treating everybody the same. It’s not corrosive of morality. It’s the basis of modern morality. And the institutional form of indifference – of treating everyone the same – is rights’ (p. 304).14 As a moral force, then, media witnessing – like civil inattention – is a routine and institutionalized social procedure for moralizing strangers by placing them within the framework of those whom we recognize as equally human. It extends to them through its very impersonality and generality the fundamental non-hostility
Paul Frosh 69
and equivalence that underpins both modern cosmopolitanism and the discourse of universal human rights. Media witnessing thus helps to maintain that unexciting but essential sphere of indifferent relations to strangers in which potential feelings of hostility are neutralized without requiring that individuals become personally acquainted or committed. Such non-commitment is often the object of criticism. It fuels the charge that audiovisual media technologies insulate viewers from any kind of ethical or emotional responsibility to those represented on the screen; the screen acts as a barrier as much as a window, allowing us ‘to maintain a considerable distance from what we see and thus to acquire an anaesthetised form of knowledge’ (Morley, 2000, p. 184). Yet non-commitment is as important a moral characteristic of media witnessing as is non-hostility. It avoids the exclusiveness of intimacy. Non-commitment makes possible a primary level of impersonal equivalence among individuals which is morally enabling, since its thin relations do not present some people as specially connected to us rather than to others (or more connected to others than to us). It also avoids representing strangers as incommensurably different, as too precious in their individuality, too unique for anyone else to understand. It therefore sidesteps the epistemological impasse of Peters’s veracity gap and of the translation of another’s experience into shareable discourse. Rather, it creates a social space of uncommitted observation and impersonal witnessing in which people are sufficiently the same – sufficiently interchangeable and equivalent – for each person to be able to imagine what it might be like to be in another’s shoes. Media witnessing produces and maintains a ground of civil equivalence among strangers, upon which it subsequently becomes possible to see through their eyes (because their eyes are like mine, even though their situation might not be). It acts as the social and moral prerequisite for more focused expressions of concern and responsibility. Ethicalizing strangers occurs only once they have been moralized. In line with the ‘for-anyone-as-someone’ dynamics of modern public discourse, the care structure of such a society is that to be someone you must first be anyone. Its unrealized ideal is that anyone can be someone.15 Witnessing in and for such a society needs to be generalized and depersonalized. This is why media witnessing in the age of electronic broadcasting is, according to Ellis (2000), the child of ‘mass society’. He does not use the term pejoratively. Being one of the masses means being one of the ‘ordinary people’, a statistical mean perhaps, an anyone, but above all enough like others to have an imaginable life, to inhabit an imaginable
world. This, I would argue, is the laudable, if limited, moral ambition of contemporary media witnessing. On a daily basis it extends and replenishes our ability to imagine what it might be like to be someone else – wherever they might be – and to care about them because we can care about anyone.
Notes 1. The film finds no hard evidence of a massacre of civilians. 2. Peters also discusses witnessing in Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (2005), as part of a broader argument about the philosophy of free expression. I focus on his earlier essay because it (conveniently) presents his views on witnessing in concentrated form. 3. Admirers of Peters’ Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (1999) may be perplexed by the way in which its eloquent call for renouncing ‘the dream of full communication while retaining the goods it invokes’ (p. 21) seems to be contradicted by the emphasis on the veracity gap. A renunciation that also retains constitutes an extremely delicate operation, as does giving ‘an account of communication that erases neither the curious fact of otherness at its core nor the possibility of doing things with words’ (p. 21). Yet, Peters’s work usually exemplifies this kind of account, which very few can pull off convincingly. In his discussion of witnessing, however, he retains just a little too much. 4. Although the injunction is phrased in the masculine, it is binding upon all adult Jews irrespective of gender. 5. I thank John Ellis for clarifying this point. Although ‘bearing witness to one’s faith’ is not a phrase native to Judaism, the retelling of the exodus during the Seder is treated as a collective affirmation of personal belief (specifically in what God has done ‘for me’ in bringing me out of Egypt). The Haggadah includes a parable about ‘Four Sons’, in which the ‘wicked son’ is rebuked for excluding himself from the community by rejecting the personal meaningfulness of its ritual witnessing of the exodus. 6. According to Blondheim (2004), ‘The Seder is observed by more than 80 per cent of Israeli Jews, secular as well as religious, and is also the most commonly observed religious ritual among contemporary identifying Jews of the Diaspora’ (p. 22, note 1). 7. According to Iser (1993) the ‘as if’ of fiction ‘brackets’ any references to reality that are incorporated into a fictive text – asks readers to treat them as fictions – so that ‘it is clear that we must and do suspend all natural attitudes adopted toward the “real” world once we are confronted with the represented world’ (p. 13). 8. For a compelling articulation of the public social value of literature, see Nussbaum (1995). 9. There are important exceptions. However, Hollywood films have to explicitly mark their witnessing status (‘based on a true story’) in ways that news broadcasts do not.
Paul Frosh 71 10. Insofar as we think of this implied agency in terms of Booth’s ‘implied author’ it is well to remember that Booth himself was unimpressed with the implied author(s) of television programming, especially commercial television (Booth, 1982). 11. As both Genette and Bal make clear, focalization (who is seeing) is not the same as narration (who is speaking), although in a witnessing text like State of Terror the two are often combined in the personage of the journalist-narrator. 12. The duality of experiential and informational focalizations in witnessing texts corresponds to what Peters (1997) describes as modernity’s capacities for seeing (and representing) the world ‘bifocally’, for representing both the ‘near-sight’ of the individual’s local experience and the ‘far-sight’ of (media) representations of the social totality that transcends our bodily location and personal knowledge. 13. Margalit is more interested in the ethical imperatives of personal and collective memory; his strictures regarding the physical presence and suffering of the witness are more severe than Peters’s. Hence Margalit might not accept my claims regarding media witnessing. 14. Here I am indebted to Sznaider’s article, as well as to Peters’s own discussions of ‘dissemination’ (1999) and ‘impersonality’ (2005). 15. This unrealized ideal is key to approaches that stress the importance of institutional media power and dominant ideological assumptions in the unequal representation of others.
References J. L. Austin (1962) How to do Things with Words (Oxford: Oxford University Press). M. Bal (1997) Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 2nd edn (Toronto: University of Toronto Press). Z. Bauman (1990) ‘Effacing the Face: On the Social Management of Moral Proximity’, Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 7, 5–38. M. Blondheim (2004) ‘Why is this Book Different from All Other Books? The Orality, the Literacy and the Printing of the Passover Haggadah’, Paper presented to the Institute of Advanced Studies, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, November 2004. W. Booth (1982) ‘The Company We Keep: Self-making in Imaginative Art, Old and New’, Daedalus, vol. III, no. 4, 33–59. W. Booth (1983) The Rhetoric of Fiction, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). D. Dayan and E. Katz (1992) Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). L. Doležel (1988) ‘Mimesis and Possible Worlds’, Poetics Today, vol. 9, 475–96. U. Eco (1992) Interpretation and Overinterpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). S. Felman (2000) ‘In an Era of Testimony: Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah’, Yale French Studies, vol. 97, 103–50. S. Fish (1976) ‘Interpreting the Variorum’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 2, no. 3, 465–86. G. Genette (1980) Narrative Discourse (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
E. Goffman (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings (New York: Free Press). M. A. K. Halliday (1978) Language as Social Semiotic: The Social Interpretation of Language and Meaning (London: Edward Arnold). J. Hartley (1999) Uses of Television (London: Routledge). D. Hebdige (1993) ‘Redeeming Witness: In the Tracks of the Homeless Vehicle Project’, Cultural Studies, vol. 7, no. 2, 173–223. D. Horton and R. Wohl (1956) ‘Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance’, Psychiatry, vol. 19, 215–29. R. Hodge and T. Van Leeuwen (1988) Social Semiotics (Cambridge: Polity Press). W. Iser (1993) The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press). W. Lippmann (1922) Public Opinion (London: Allen & Unwin). A. Margalit (2002) The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). D. Morley (2000) Home Territories: Media, Mobility and Identity (London: Routledge). S. Neale (1990) ‘Questions of Genre’, Screen, vol. 31, no. 1, 45–66. M. Nussbaum (1995) Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press). J. D. Peters (1997) ‘Seeing Bifocally: Media, Place, Culture’, in A. Gupta and J. Ferguson (eds), Culture, Power, Place: Explorations in Critical Anthropology, 75–92 (Durham: Duke University Press). J. D. Peters (1999) Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). J. D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. J. D. Peters (2005) Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). P. Ricoeur (1992) Oneself as Another (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). P. Scannell (1996) Radio, Television and Modern Life (Oxford: Blackwell). P. Scannell (2000) ‘For-Anyone-as-Someone Structures’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 22, no. 1, 5–24. G. Simmel (1971) ‘The Stranger’, in D. Levine (ed.), On Individuality and Social Forms: Selected Writings, 143–9 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). R. Stam (1983) ‘Television News and its Spectator’, in E. Kaplan (ed.), Regarding Television, 24–39 (Los Angeles: American Film Institute). N. Sznaider (2000) ‘Consumerism as a Civilizing Process: Israel and Judaism in the Second Age of Modernity’, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, vol. 14, no. 2, 297–314. J. B. Thompson (1995) The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of the Media (Cambridge: Polity Press). A. Tolson (1996) Mediations: Text and Discourse in Media Studies (London: Arnold). T. Van Leeuwen (2001) ‘What is Authenticity?’, Discourse Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 392–97. M. Warner (2002) Publics and Counter Publics (New York: Zone Books).
3 Mundane Witness John Ellis
In Seeing Things (Ellis, 2000, pp. 6–38), I asserted that broadcast moving images turn modern citizens into witnesses of the events of their time. Further, I claim that this process has produced a new and distinct form of perception which carries a sense of responsibility – however weak – towards those events, summed up in the telling words ‘they cannot say that they did not know’. The arguments outlined in Seeing Things may have unleashed a debate, but they now seem inadequate. Others have developed the concept (see Peters, 2001; Rentschler, 2004; Frosh, 2006; Scannell, 2004). Peters, for instance, has brought considerable clarity to the distinctions involved in the noun ‘witness’: The term involves all three points of a basic communication triangle: (1) the agent who bears witness, (2) the utterance or text itself, (3) the audience who witnesses. It is thus a strange but intelligible sentence to say: the witness (speech-act) of the witness (person) was witnessed (by an audience) (Peters, 2001, p. 701). However, his overall argument, which moves quickly from the act of seeing to the act of giving an account of what is seen, raises issues of trust. What escapes Peters’s argument, as Frosh shows, is the position of the people who hear this witness (Frosh, 2006). In much of the debate about the concept of witness, the position of ‘hearer’ is taken for granted and seen as relatively unproblematic compared to the problems of those who are forced, by terrible events in their lives, to bear witness. However, to be the recipient of such acts of witness indeed carries with it problems of its own. Jurors in particularly gruesome or traumatic trials receive counseling for the effects on them of the detailed accounts they 73
have heard. Empathy or ‘identification’ with both perpetrators and victims can be profoundly disturbing over the period of a long trial. Writer Nicci Gerrard, who as a journalist sat through the details of the abusive and murderous careers of Rosemary and Fred West in 1995, had this to say after time had elapsed: The couple gave us a collective wince of terror, as if their monstrous actions offered a glimpse into a hidden side of our psyche. We called them evil and unnatural to comfort ourselves, because we feared they were human, like us–though it was a humanity taken to extremes and unraveled before our eyes (Observer, 2001). Journalists and jurors alike are forced to be the recipients of the raw accounts of witnesses. Their emotional difficulties in coming to terms with what they hear are sometimes profound. To receive witness, to witness witnessing, involves difficulties which are now becoming increasingly apparent as therapeutic perspectives are more commonly employed in everyday life. There is extensive literature on the activity of bearing witness, of the pain that it involves. There is less, however, on what the rest of us are supposed to do about having received this witness. The activity of witnessing witness through the media has similarly become commonplace. Bad things happen, and we see them happen or, at least, the evidence of them having happened. At the same time, we witness many more happenings which are mundane. We see and hear people dealing with the everyday frustrations of life, with common illnesses or traffic wardens. We receive their accounts of petty injustices or successful challenges to arbitrary authority. We witness children arguing with parents; couples in the throes of divorce; strangers thrown together and deprived of outside stimuli; people challenged to change their behavior. Such is the nature of contemporary media witness: the monstrous and the mundane occupy the same space, and the mundane predominates. Modern media witness places citizens in the position of the witness, as the persons to whom testimony is directed. It is therefore important to understand this seemingly new and complex form of witnessing that broadcast media have brought about. It is by no means clear what is expected of the millions who view news events or witness authentic emotions nightly through the relatively new devices of broadcast sound and vision: radio, TV, and the internet.
John Ellis 75
In Seeing Things, my discussion of the peculiarities of moving image media (the surplus of meaning and the ‘reality effect’ that they carry) failed to draw a particular conclusion. Namely, I did not sufficiently emphasize the conclusion that the particularities of moving image media produce for the viewer a different kind of position to that of the jury member in a trial, the person who, in Peters’s words, ‘witnesses a witness bearing witness’. The viewer of a TV news bulletin or documentary or of factual footage streamed over the internet sees in a way that provides an impression of directness and objectivity that differs from the spoken or written account, however vivid or honest, of an eyewitness observer. This is not to argue for the superior ‘realism’ of the moving image over other forms of depiction. The viewers of audiovisual material do not see and hear for themselves: they are the persons to whom a particularly complex form of testimony is directed. The moral weight of such media witnessing is different. To hear the account of an individual implies a powerful interpersonal relationship: one of both belief and sympathy. Such is the power of the witness provided by Holocaust survivors to the generations of the future, an activity which is becoming rarer as the years go by as ageing takes its toll. There is also a direct interpersonal relationship between the formal witness in court proceedings and those who witness their witnessing. Judges and juries must assess for themselves the veracity of the person giving an account. This depends on the techniques of interpersonal judgment of truth and trust. Many TV courtroom dramas are concerned with the problem of how to seem to tell the truth, the problem of performing truthfulness in this most treacherous of theatrical spaces (see Clover, 2000). Witness carried by, and provided by, the audiovisual is altogether more complex. The moving image does not provide the same direct interpersonal relationship by which the veracity of a testimony may be judged; neither does it place the viewer in the position of being the bystander or direct witness of the events similar to that of an eyewitness. No one was ever summoned to court to bear witness to what they witnessed through TV footage. When necessary, the footage itself is called in as evidence. Media witnessing involves certain elements of both the direct interpersonal hearing of an account and that of the bystander, as well as something additional. Everyday media witnessing offers the possibility of seeing and hearing directly something of the events. It is possible, sometimes, to see and hear the shells landing, the moment when the interviewee cracks or the interviewer loses patience, when the contestant decides, or the
comedian retorts with the perfect comeback. Often, we see moments of elation, disappointment, or shame. If footage of such moments is unavailable, then at the very least we see the spaces in which the alleged action took place and the aftermath of these actions: Here is the blood on the tarmac, there are the severed limbs, the wounded being tended; Here is the family trying to come to terms with the row they have had; Here is the politician reﬂecting on his mistakes. TV and broadcast images provide viewers with the possibility of seeing almost directly an aspect of the action; there is the possibility of seeing the circumstances, of getting the lowdown. However, this is demonstrably not the same as being ‘on the scene’, of being an eyewitness. Seeing through the camera or hearing through microphones is always a position of analysis, of trying to understand a representation rather than experiencing a person or events in front of you. Different reactions on the part of the viewer are appropriate. Importantly, though, action is not possible. It is impossible to offer help or console with a hug. However, this position of distanced observation opens up the possibility of a second element of witnessing, an assessment unencumbered by the feeling that an appropriate form of action is required, which is the necessary problem for any bystander or participant. Instead, alongside an element of direct observation of fragments of an event, media witness implies the possibility of judgment. The portrayed events always already attest to something and act as witnesses whose veracity should be assessed from the position of the viewer of the screen on which they appear. Modern viewers characteristically ‘take things with a pinch of salt’, viewing with a degree of skepticism or incredulity. The viewer sees events, but knows that the cameras and microphones are placed somewhere by individuals and have a necessarily circumscribed view. The viewer can see the interviewees but knows that the circumstances of the interview are usually unclear. Many of the elements of being in a shared place are necessarily absent. A juror assessing an uncomfortable witness knows that the room is too hot or that lunchtime is near; the TV viewer does not. There exists yet a third element to the broadcast audiovisual in addition to this not quite direct, not quite interpersonal set of relations, namely the complexly discursive nature of any audiovisual representation. The viewer does not witness the account of one person or a series of discrete personal accounts as does the juror. The viewer witnesses an account drawn together from many sources and constructed by groups of people who work within organizations specifically devoted to this task. They work within organizations devoted to the construction of
John Ellis 77
such accounts within both discursive rules and a particular constrained relationship of interests and powers. The account that they produce is, as Dayan insists, an enounced account. It is a ‘monstration,’ to use Dayan’s term, a particular organized deployment of sounds and images that form an account which is the product and responsibility of both individuals and the organization for which they work. Here, the viewer is not addressed directly by those eyewitnesses who are interviewed on screen. What they say is addressed to, and constructed for, reporters and cameras. Nor are viewers direct witnesses to the events that seem to be unfolding before the camera. The viewer is addressed by the broadcasting organization, by the BBC or CNN or Fox News. Thus, viewers also relate to the attempts at communication that are made by that organization, as they simultaneously take part in a witnessing relationship to the events and testimonies that are displayed through that communication. As both Dayan and Meyrowitz have demonstrated, in a world of multiplying images, it is not enough that a sequence has been recorded (Dayan, 2006; Meyrowitz, 2007). If it is to acquire meaning and significance, it must be enounced by an agent. The recording has to be made to make sense, to become relevant or meaningful. This is precisely the task of discursive structures: to take a recording and make of it an attempt at communication. Discursive structures grant a recording, a channel, and a structure – in essence, an intentionality that it did not previously possess as an inert piece of footage. The filmed footage is endowed with a communicative intent through its inclusion (or ingestion) by the communicating apparatus of the broadcasting organization. It is included in a communicative attempt by that organization, and, importantly, this attempt might be greeted with a degree or two of skepticism, or even indifference, by the viewers to whom it has been addressed. Such is the third aspect of what I claim to be a new state of witness: the organization of aspects of direct-witnessing and testimony-witnessing into a further activity of enunciation, of attempted communication. There are two important implications of this new combination. First, witnessing becomes without exception structured and synthetic, and second, communication itself becomes a frequent subject of investigation and interrogation.
The discursive as synthetic From the beginning, a news event is already processed towards a discursive complexity, towards the drawing together of many accounts into a more definitive account. The event that occurs in front of the official
cameras or unfolds in the time and space of rolling news coverage is very rare: it has the status of a 9/11. Normally, reporters arrive on the scene after an event and search for eyewitnesses. Alternatively, they attend an event that has been predicted in some way, typically an event that has been partially pre-processed for them through press releases. Additionally, they may be reporting on an event that is the latest part of an already known story, perhaps one they wish to inﬂect in a particular direction. The reporter will then produce an account of accounts, bringing together eyewitness accounts, experts’ ideas, politicians’ comments, and a dose of speculation about the future. These synthetic reports are themselves compared to what other news agencies are generating. News editors have an eye on every channel. The eventual account that is broadcast is thus a complex structure of fragments, organized in relation to questions of veracity (‘How true is this statement?’), lines of relevance (‘How much does this tell us about . . . ?’), and interest (‘What questions need to be asked?’). The media accounts that we witness are always already processed. Even in the case of a live news event such as 9/11, events are quickly brought into narrative order through a continual process of ‘recapping’ for joining viewers. As Paddy Scannell has demonstrated, this constant structuring was able, by the end of September 11, 2001, to bring the incomprehensible events into a narrative order that has proved relatively durable. At first it was utterly incomprehensible but, by the end of the day, the situation had been accurately analyzed and correctly understood. Immediate action had been taken and future courses of action predicted and assessed (Scannell, 2004, p. 573). Thus, media witnessing is not that of encountering the brute fact, the feeling of participation, or the actual experience. It is witnessing from a privileged position; what we know is the discursive construction of a totality of an event. We know that a certain event is taking place or has taken place but not what it is like to be a part of it. As a result, news institutions strive to obtain the vivid individual testimony, the story that allows person-to-person empathy to become ‘part of the mix’. These eyewitness accounts are particularly important in making acceptable and grounding the discursive structuring of levels of discourse within a news broadcast. Viewers are well aware that this mix is a form of multiple seeing. It is constructed from different points of view and engagements with the events and has recently been enriched by a further category of
John Ellis 79
points of view as ‘citizen journalists’ provide their own footage of events that involve them or that they witness as bystanders with mobile phonecameras. Nevertheless, the contemporary media user is also painfully aware that this complex seeing is equally a partial seeing, constructed from fragments of larger testimonies and segments of longer shots and sequences. The viewer explicitly receives a construct whose terms are more or less familiar. This construct has levels of discourse and classes of speech. Distinctions are routinely made between the voice of the commentary and the voices of participants in a reality show. In the current fashion, the commentary tends to be ironic and the utterances of participants are seemingly sincere but may well not be. The viewer’s judgment is guided both by the commentary and by their own observations of body language, tone of voice, and so on. In the different genres of factual footage, images and sounds are combined and different people speak according to rules that are well defined and communally accepted (or at least tolerated). Though these genres are complex constructions, they are very far from fiction. Although these are constructed discourses with rules, narratives, and storytelling, they are distinct from the forms and discourses that are recognized as fictional. Those who are acting are acting in a defined set of roles (newsreader, reporter, correspondent, interviewer) under the requirements of being plausibly true rather than emotionally convincing. Those who present a performance are performing aspects of themselves and preserving and violating their personal privacy in ways that have become familiar, at least since Erving Goffman recognized the practice of dividing behavior into the front-stage and the back-stage. Hence, these complex discursive constructions of witness are recognized as distinct from fiction and are perceived as constructions in which questions of accuracy, completeness, truthfulness, and trust are centrally relevant. Yet they remain ‘stories’.
The forensic attitude News and factual information are still constructed as ‘stories’ even if they are not fictional. Their ‘storyness’ is a subject of particular concern, as it seems to be at odds with the need for accuracy and truth. This is not a new problem as it dates to the beginnings of the mass media. This problem, then, is perhaps the reason for the emergence, at the same time as the popular printed news press in the late nineteenth century, of a new genre of fiction which examined the habits of mind and the
discursive traces of the construction of news. This is the genre of detective fiction which, like news, depends upon the construction of a story (the crime) from the traces that have been left behind, in similar fashion to the news reporter who arrives after an event. Detectives examine physical evidence and the statements of witnesses. From Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes have descended fictions which interrogate fact, truth, and accuracy, and in doing so often ask questions about the details that are overlooked in the construction of a coherent narrative. The emergence of the two forms of the detective novel and modern news is perhaps more than a simple coincidence. The development of popular news in story form, the news-story, straddled the boundaries between fact and fiction and required a reﬂection on what it presented as evidence and the forms in which it presented this evidence.1 Newspaper news at least maintained its distance from fiction. Television news shares its space with fictions and is sometimes almost crowded out by them. In this relationship of close proximity in TV schedules, the linkage has tightened between fictions which are concerned with the process of detection and the approach of news reportage to the evidence that it deploys in constructing news stories. TV news has become more interrogatory, firing questions at its subjects, questions that can often seem banal but nevertheless spring from the need to seek out information rather than to simply receive it. TV news has also become more powerful in the picture and information resources that it can command and in the speed with which it can react to events. News stories now contain many more diverse fragments of events than a quarter of a century ago. Television fiction has responded with a new form of detective fiction appropriate to these new news circumstances. Forensic fiction abounds in the form of series like ‘CSI’, ‘Without a Trace’, ‘Waking the Dead’, and ‘Silent Witness’. These are fictions that emphasize the process of interrogation – gathering and sifting information in order to produce knowledge. As stories, they guide their viewers through a similar process of developing knowledge as do news stories. They assemble fragments of information, assess their relative veracity and/or usefulness, and seek to fit them into a larger framework of explanation. Significantly, these new forensic dramas offer visual reconstructions of events, some of which are true and some of which are merely hypothetical. At the limit, there are even some accounts which are completely untrue, reconstructing the false testimony of untruthful witnesses. These forensic fictions are there to be enjoyed as stories in their own right, of course, but they
John Ellis 81
have other significance as well. They continue the interrogation of the storyness of broadcast news by dramatizing the process of discovering events from the available evidence and including substantial elements of unreliable evidence which must be sifted. If newsrooms have become the forensic laboratories of reality by assessing footage for its evidential qualities, then forensic fiction is the training ground for its audiences.
Witnessing communication itself Alongside TV’s concern with the forensic lies a concern with communication. TV provides a vast repertoire of examples of attempts at communication. Much of the humor of situation comedy revolves around failures of communication, in which one character willfully or mistakenly misunderstands another. Sitcoms also display the futility of communicative attempts, the ways that people delude themselves, thinking that they are communicating their ideas or feelings but instead showing how little they know themselves or understand the world. Selfdelusion is one of the great resources of reality TV and documentary, placing the viewer in a position of superior or analytic knowledge, able to perceive the inadequacy of what is being said. TV allows us to witness a vast repertoire of communicative attempts and to become aware of their particular styles. The role of the impressionist has grown with this increasing awareness of communicative styling. It is no longer enough to capture the voice of a famous figure, whether politician or TV personality. Contemporary impressionists like Rory Bremner must imitate their entire styles of speech: their typical vocabularies and turns of phrase, their hesitations and speech patterns, their rhetorics, and their blindnesses. A further development of this tendency is fictional: the creation of behind the scenes series such as ‘The West Wing’ or ‘In the Thick of It’ which claim to present the forms of communication that take place beyond public pronouncements, in the backstage of politics. Through TV we witness communicative attempts rather than successful communication. In Peters’s view, this emphasizes the isolation of the individual (see Peters, 2000); in Scannell’s more optimistic view this emphasizes the constant everyday negotiations that constitute social life. We are equally aware of the performative aspects of communication, the fact that communication is neither a direct window into the soul, nor a means of bodying forth intimate emotions. Communication has its rules. Discourse speaks the person even as people utilize it to speak their thoughts and feelings. Linguists have known this for ages. Now,
however, it has become a common perception because of the emphasis that TV has placed upon communication and the everyday access that it provides to a vast gallery of communicative styles, both actual and fictional, along with a position of reﬂection, analysis, or superior observation of those styles in action. This awareness is an ingredient in the media literacy that is part of the equipment of the modern citizen. It extends to the media’s own speech: the attempted communications of news broadcasts and presenters. As a component of media witnessing, we are aware that individuals within institutions attempt to communicate a particular gathering and structuring of disparate material that is, for want of a more accurate term, ‘drawn from reality’. There is a constant tug-of-war between the known forms of communication, the rhetorics of news, and the elements of other forms of witness that are glimpsed through them. There is an instability within these complex attempts at communication which are coming to the fore as media literacy develops. The canny news organization appeals occasionally to this awareness by showing us individual members of staff making genuine attempts at sincerity. These will be temporarily successful until they themselves become a recognized rhetorical device. Equally, whole news organizations have to pay increasing attention to the trust with which they are regarded. One lapse of accuracy, one hasty distortion, can lead to major problems, as the BBC has discovered through a series of challenges to its news authority over the past decade.
The experience of mundane witness The synthetic nature of media witness has important consequences. First, it provides the TV viewer with an overview of communicative attempts and permits and encourages a more forensic attitude to the sifting of information. Second, it carries an awareness of the process of its own construction. Yet it does so by using the sincere utterances of individuals who themselves have an experience to recount. Thus, media witnessing is not a simple experience. Three elements of other forms of witness are combined into a new state of witness. There are elements of the eyewitness experience as well as elements of the experience of responding to and weighing the truthfulness of other eyewitnesses. These aspects are combined within a form that provides a third element within media witnessing: the complex discursive form of the audiovisual. Thus far, I have examined what is involved in the complex discursive form, but what of my original questions: What are we meant to do with this witnessing? What are the implications of this
John Ellis 83
state? How is it experienced socially, and what are the implications for this experience? The witnessing that we experience frequently through the media is an everyday state, a process of mundane witness. Television in particular produces a distinct experience of witness which in turn serves to ‘keep us in touch’ or keep us informed. Mundane witness produces an awareness of events around us and of the people who make up our society and wider world. As Peters points out, we keep up with the news because ‘the present is the moment of decision’ (2001, p. 722). The news along with the wider factual depictions of contemporary society that we witness do not themselves require our decisions, except for the infrequent moments of casting votes at elections. However, we do need to be aware of what they contain as they provide the present that frames our immediate decisions. This awareness does not necessarily have to extend to the detailed recall of news stories, even current ones. Recall of events witnessed in their complex televisual construction is often hazy at best. Nevertheless recall serves a purpose, enabling us to frame our individual actions within a far wider context than that of our immediate experience. Paddy Scannell provides a further account that teases out the social implications. Scannell sees the awareness of the current context not only as framing private actions and choices but equally as engendering a sense of sociality, of a connection with the wider world. In Scannell’s account, awareness of the world brings with it an active feeling of engagement with the concerns of everyday life which are common to most or all people. With awareness comes a sense that ‘we are all in it together’, which implies a place within a common history or histories. This sense of the historical nature of the moment is also expressed through another common reaction: ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’. Such reactions are intensified by the emotional appeal of witnessed personal accounts provided by the testimony of eyewitnesses or people directly affected and of the events that can be witnessed daily in factual programming. Awareness is the first element of the experience of witness. Its second element is perhaps less obvious. Witnessing induces a specific and possibly novel state of mind and involves a specific form of acquaintanceship that feels personal and yet is not. Its novelty can be traced in the many literary and popular references to a sensation of unexpected familiarity with that which cannot be familiar. One concrete experience of this state of mind is the spontaneous recognition of an actor or media figure as an acquaintance. This experience is becoming familiar to urban dwellers as the stock of everyday celebrities grows ever larger. The recognition
is spontaneous, and some will even step forward with a greeting, confident that they know the celebrity but are, just for a second, unaware of precisely how. This is the confidence of a direct, personal, and sensuous knowledge, the same feeling as meeting a real-life acquaintance in the street, and perhaps more intense given the emotions that may have been induced by that media celebrity, particularly by an actor. This initial recognition is usually, but not always, replaced almost immediately by a sense of embarrassment as the category confusion becomes clear. Actors and TV personalities rarely comment in interviews on the frequency with which this misrecognition takes place as it implies that they are not quite as famous as they would like you to believe. However, in private, performers will acknowledge that this is a fairly frequent event.2 From the point of view of the (mis)recognizing individual, this process is one of the unrecorded, un-researched aspects of everyday life which seems to have happened to most people. The sensation is that of the ‘double take’ as Draaisma defines it: We are in the middle of reading, somebody asks us something and as we look up – ‘what did you say?’ – we can still ‘hear’ the question and we reply to it. Or we let our eyes roam vaguely over a crowded outdoor café and only realize a moment later that we spotted an acquaintance. In these cases, now often referred to as ‘double takes’, there is a delayed assimilation of something already present as a sense impression (2004, p. 155).3 Draaisma describes a dislocation of understanding produced by a sense of inappropriateness. It is significant that Draaisma takes as one of his examples the ‘civil inattention’ that is both a necessary and characteristic posture of modern urban life (‘we let our eyes roam vaguely over a crowded outdoor café’). This civil inattention sees the multitudinous others who share our social space as proximate but unconnected, equally human in their rights and existence as we are, but with no necessary connection to us. Such inattention is necessary to deal with the impossibility or inappropriateness of making human contact with these other people. Frosh (2006) traces many of the connections between media witnessing and this civil inattention (see Frosh, Chapter 2). The people whom we encounter regularly through the media are familiar to us but in a particular way. If and when we encounter such a familiar person, the encounter breaks through this state of civil inattention. It provokes a ‘double take’ in so doing, a realization that our form of civil inattention has somehow not been the appropriate response to
John Ellis 85
the person whom we are seeing. We recognize someone we believe to be known to us and only subsequently realize the specific way in which we know them. The (mis)recognition is neither that of civil inattention nor that of real acquaintance but somewhere between the two. This (mis)recognition of a media figure as a real acquaintance is a specific instance of the effects of media witnessing. Media witnessing engenders a specific kind of familiarity with that with which we are not actually acquainted. We ‘know’ the city of Bazra as we ‘know’ Paris Hilton or Fiona Bruce. They are at once familiar and hard to place exactly within the realm of our own experience. The known events and faces of the media hover in an uneasy space between that of civil inattention and personal acquaintance. This is a new state of everyday knowledge which could be summed up as being ‘known unknowns’.4
Conclusion What, then, is expected (or can be expected) of such witnessing? It produces an awareness of the social and even global context that might frame individual actions. It involves an element of sociality. It moves us from civil inattention towards the engagement that is implied by acquaintanceship, but stops well short of actual acquaintanceship. It is the product of and contained within known complex, but economic, discursive forms of the news-story. However, sometimes, these discursive forms are not enough. Some events demand more than the particular engagement that mundane witnessing involves and the particular discursive economy of the short news-story. They become the object of a fascination that is sometimes personal but is just as often shared. Such events include both public catastrophes, like 9/11 or the Tsunami of 2002, and events with more personal resonances, like the death of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997 or the abduction of the 3-year-old Madeleine McCann in 2007. Events such as these may be traumatic in their implications for normal states of awareness or may bring up painful personal associations and deep fears. They are given and seem to require a multiplication of detail that spills out of the normal discursive forms. In this, they are helped by rolling news channels which are able to generate endless detail and speculation about further details. They seem to create a need for a multiple seeing that is more detailed than the normal discursive forms will allow. They involve a level of engagement that takes media professionals by surprise and is viewed by them as somewhat suspect. According to the vulgate of the media, the reaction to the death of Princess Diana was dubbed
‘an outpouring of grief’; the abduction of Madeleine McCann involved ‘a sophisticated media campaign’ on the part of her parents. Yet these news events are special moments, when the normal levels of empathy implied in mundane witness are exceeded. These are not events of which it seems enough simply to be aware, nor are they events in the elsewhere of the world beyond our immediate experience. They have resonance within our immediate experience and draw on the awareness of our human frailty, the fears of parenthood, or the anger that the world continues despite the death of someone you love. Mundane witness involves an awareness which does not require action. However, it does call on both empathy and analysis. It is constructed by known organizations into stories which are nevertheless factual and evidential. It enables us to be witnesses not so much to events as to our own times. We share in the unfolding of a complex and largely arbitrary world which we struggle to comprehend. In this process, we feel something of the emotion of others and have a sense that we are engaged in a difficult process of understanding that is shared by others. We are aware that we both know and do not know. Such awareness is a new phenomenon, born of mass news but sealed in the complicated constructs of the audiovisual. This awareness frames personal action, constraining it and socializing it and inducing degrees of anxiety or asociality depending on the degree to which it is accepted or ignored. Such framing of personal action is not simply of the kind that guides self-interested decisions in the way that an awareness of stock market rumors might guide decisions to buy or sell. It is rather an awareness of ourselves as historical actors, sharing our present with that of many others. The complex seeing, hearing, and narration that it involves provides us, through showing the ideas and actions of others played out over time, an awareness of ourselves within history and as part of specific histories. Mundane witness therefore gives us a responsibility to know about the actions of others almost as a precondition of knowledge about ourselves. As a result, we carry a sense of responsibility towards what we see on TV. This responsibility towards events is not that of the witness called to attest. Yet it has significant features in common with the position of a witness in court. Mundane witness also carries with it the sense that seeing brings with it a set of social implications and an emotional commitment. I call this ‘mundane witness’ to distinguish it from the strong (and sometimes enforced) obligations that come with being an eyewitness rather than a TV-witness to immediate events. I also use the term to indicate just how ordinary and everyday such an experience really is.
John Ellis 87
Although it is less than a century old, it has become one of the defining features of contemporary civilization. The experience of mundane witness is usually as close as we need to get to events. Its limits are rarely breached, and it is a significant social event when such a breach occurs.
Notes 1. Conan Doyle makes the co-emergence of news and detective procedures into a recurring theme. Holmes keeps all newspaper cuttings related to crime in his archives and learns the initial details about specific cases (such as in ‘Silver Blaze’) from newspapers while sometimes disparaging these reports for their superficiality. Watson only goes public with his account (in ‘The Final Problem’) of the events leading up to Holmes’s ‘death’ when locked in combat with Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in order to counter the misleading letters distributed by Moriarty’s family through the press. 2. The actor Teryl Rothery, a familiar figure from the sci-fi TV series ‘Stargate’ said in an interview, ‘I get recognized, but not necessarily from my name. I get a lot of people who will say I look so familiar to them. Some will know the show. But for the most part, no. I get recognized when I’m outside of Vancouver. In the U.S. I get recognized. And certainly in Europe a lot’ (GateWorld, 2006). Complete information provided in references. 3. Though this state of mind relies on having seen the person before, the literal meaning of ‘déjà vu’, Draaisma claims that it does not share the essential characteristics of that state: ‘There is no sense of repetition, no placing of an event into an indefinite past, no sense of knowing in advance what will happen the next moment’ (2004, p. 155). 4. The problem with this useful concept is that it has been devalued by its use in a widely lampooned speech by the discredited Donald Rumsfeld.
References C. J. Clover (2000) ‘Judging Audiences: The Case of the Trial Movie’, in C. Gledhill and L. Williams (eds), Reinventing Film Studies (Arnold: London). D. Dayan (2006) Lecture presented at the International Communication Association, Dresden, Germany, June. D. Draaisma (2004) Why Life Speeds Up as You Get Older: How Memory Shapes Our Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). P. Frosh (2006) ‘Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 23, no. 4, 265–84. Also in this volume, Chapter 2. GateWorld (2006) http://www.gateworld.net/news/2004/12/interviewwithteryl rothery.shtml, date accessed 25 February 2007. N. Gerrard, 7 January 2001, Observer. J. Meyrowitz (unpublished paper 2007) ‘Watching us Being Watched: State, Corporate, and Citizen Surveillance’, projected for End of TV?
J. D. Peters (2000) Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: Chicago University Press). J. D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. C. A. Rentschler (2004) ‘Witnessing: US Citizenship and the Vicarious Experience of Suffering’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 3, no. 26, 296–304. P. Scannell (2004) ‘What Reality has Misfortune?’ Media, Culture & Society, vol. 7, no. 26, 573–84.
4 Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication Historical Roots, Structural Dynamics, and Current Appearances Günter Thomas
Introduction Radio and television (audiovisual mass communication) at the beginning of the twenty-first century broadcast multiple forms of witnessing, confession, and testimony in a variety of genres ranging from journalistic forms of reporting, eyewitness news, the recollections of historical events, public hearings, talk-shows, magazine programs focusing on advice and support, to advertisements, and so on. In order to analyze and interpret these phenomena, this paper adopts a specific analytical and hermeneutical perspective: Witnessing is viewed as a historically and evolutionary ‘successful’ cultural form of communication that can be analyzed, at least in part, through comparative work. This paper proceeds in five steps. The first step will be an attempt to sketch out the specifics of cultural forms of communication vis-á-vis formats and genres. The second step will shed some light on the two, interconnected historical roots underlying the form of witnessing – the long-standing cultural heritage of witnessing and confession within the religious and legal social spheres. While there is no ‘original’ in cultural forms, the third step builds on these historical considerations in an attempt to develop the dynamic structure or texture of the cultural form of witnessing. Against the background of this analysis, the fourth step will then introduce some further historical dimensions and variations and will consider witnessing as confession, diary, and novel. Based on the description of the dynamic structure of the form (and phenomena) of witnessing in early modernity, the final section will examine witnessing in television under the conditions of late modernity. This move is tied to a 89
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
specific thesis, namely, that the religious traditions of confession seem to emerge predominately in entertainment formats, while the traditions of legal or forensic testimony appear more prevalent in informational formats. Hence, two ‘old’ cultural forms of communication have now shifted to the realm of audiovisual communication.
On distinguishing formats and cultural forms In cultural practices (and particularly in forms of communication) we are rarely faced with a totally new invention or an exact replication. In order to understand both the continuity and the changes in communication processes over time, we need a clear insight into two distinct cultural inventions which, despite multiple interpretations and readings, have emerged as relatively stable entities in many communication processes across various symbol systems: (1) genres or formats, and (2) cultural forms of communication. In an evolutionary sense, it is not a multiplicity of readings which is unlikely, but rather the emergence of relatively stable formats and forms. How are we to distinguish cultural forms of communication from genres and formats? Expectations solidified into patterns of consumption and reception do form and mould the communication process (formats, semantics, themes, and so on). Mutual expectations of expectations among communicators create feedback loops in which fairly ﬂuid forms harden, and fairly fixed forms are made more ﬂexible. As a consequence, in speech and writing as well as in audiovisual communication, we have ﬂexible formats with long histories. Without relatively clear genres (formats, conventions, expectations of expectations) most communication would be too risky, too unpredictable, too unforeseeable – in short, too stressful and too strenuous. In both news and entertainment formats, the media play with the covariance of secure expectations on the one hand and with surprise/irritation/novelty on the other. Being interlinked, they both need to be engaged at the same time. For example, the more surprising the content, the more structure is required: when novelty touches upon the uncannily unexpected (as on September 11, 2001), repetition reigns. Hence, in order to raise the degree of surprise/irritation/novelty, the media are in a constant search for stable and reliable formats which can be adapted to the media environment and which provide a security of expectation – which can then be playfully ‘deconstructed’.1 Embedded in diverse formats (yet still clearly distinguished from them) we find a variety of cultural forms of communication. In order
Günter Thomas 91
to unpack their complex interactions (such as the interferences and dynamics between law, religion, and media), it is ultimately important that so-called cultural forms are stored within shaped, relatively stable, expectation-steering, and thoroughly system-specific formats. Vital to note here is that they themselves are not system-specific, but rather extend across distinct symbol systems. While cultural forms of communication, such as ‘ritual’ or ‘witnessing’, cannot be fixed or set in an essentialist way, they are so ‘successful’ within the evolution of social communication that differing social systems fall back upon them. In this way, these cultural forms fuse relative stability with high plasticity and can therefore move ‘between’ systems: they may be copied, integrated and combined, treated with irony, quoted both implicitly and explicitly, or even operate quite effectively at a thoroughly unobserved level. While they may arise from diverse ‘origins’, their tenacity stems from their ability to adapt to their symbolic environments. Their presence or absence can also lead to an affinity towards or the adoption of specific motifs and specific media formations. In some cases, we may talk about religious, political, or legal cultural forms which reﬂect the historical fact that cultural forms generally have some primary field of cultivation and development. However, systemspecific cultural forms are not ones that appear only in religions, but those that are primarily (though not exclusively) related to cultural systems. For this reason, a dual ﬂuidity of cultural forms can be observed. The first is a basic evolutionary ﬂuidity which is required for stable forms in varying historical, social, political, cultural, and media-technology contexts. In the evolution of legal discourse, or in the evolution of religions or of political or artistic communication, only those forms that attain stability by sufficient adaptive plasticity survive. Without a doubt, cultural evolution resembles certain aspects of biological evolution: only a sufficient degree of plasticity works in favor of ‘endurance’. Cultural forms are not unchangeable or ‘eternal’. Only change and variation work in favor of stability over the course of history. For example, ritual is a cultural form which has ‘survived’ in many different stages of religious development and in sociocultural environments of religious communication. Similarly, witnessing is an extremely prevalent cultural form in legal systems; nevertheless, it shows a great deal of variety. One could call this intra-systemic fluidity. However, in order to come to terms with a range of cultural phenomena – such as the sacralization of media and the mediatization of religion or the appearance of ‘witnessing’ in television – one
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
must distinguish intra-systemic ﬂuidity from inter-systemic fluidity. This second type of ﬂuidity allows cultural forms to ‘travel’ from one social system to the other or from one cultural sphere to the other. This process allows for co-evolutions, parallel developments, conﬂicts, and subtle ‘competition’. For example, the cultural form of witnessing originated in both legal and religious practices and then moved into the media in journalistic as well as entertainment formats. This kind of ‘crossfertilization’ can lead to quasi-hybridized phenomena. For instance, what appears to be the progressive sacralization of the media can be seen, at least in part, as the increased importation of religious cultural forms into the media (leaving aside for the moment statements about the reasons behind such a development). In order to perceive the shifts, transformations, and recombinations of these cultural forms, we need a history of cultural forms of communication. This would be analogous to a history of the interpretation of specific concepts – tracing the movements of concepts across particular realms of discourse. Such a history of cultural forms of communication would assist us in observing the movements and mutations of forms of communication across the various realms of cultural practice and would open up research to synchronic and diachronic comparison. The following remarks on witnessing aim to present a preliminary contribution to such a history of cultural forms of communication.
Law and religion: Two interconnected historical roots of witnessing In the famous Ten Commandments, the eighth commandment (in Exodus 20:16) reads: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor’ . Rather literally translated, it commands that: ‘You shall not say/testify against your neighbor as a false witness.’ Interestingly, this ancient text sheds some light on the practice and form of witnessing (Philips, 1970; Simian-Yofre, 1972, pp. 1107–28). First, this religious text is not referring to a religious practice, but rather to a specific legal practice. In Leviticus 5:1, a witness ( ), `ed) is a man (in practice, women were not allowed to be witnesses) who has seen or heard something about which he must witness; the witness is a privileged observer, someone who saw something others could not see, who heard something others did not hear. Contrary to our modern use of the legal witness, the ancient witness could be both the witness in another’s case or the claimant or plaintiff who accuses (Stoebe, 1952, p. 119f.). This double aspect of witnessing is not specific to ancient Hebraic law
Günter Thomas 93
but is also evident in the oldest legal codex: the Babylonian code of Hammurabi (1760 BC). However, witnesses were not only required in courts – a witness might be needed for entering into contracts (Isaiah 8:16; Jeremiah 32:10–16). Important legal agreements with potential future conﬂicts required attestation by witnesses, for example, when purchasing property or at an engagement or wedding. However, appreciating the initial dual role of the witness – as a neutral observer or an accuser – is crucial to understanding the contemporary use of witnesses in regard to modern atrocities, such as the Holocaust or other crimes and violence in the twentieth century.2 From this perspective, the cultural invention of the ‘witness’ opens up a new path in legal procedures, since the requirement of a witness corresponds to a basic idea of the presumption of innocence. The introduction of multiple witnesses means that both the accused and the accuser have the opportunity to provide the necessary evidence. In cultures populated with various ‘non-humans’ (such as ancestral spirits, and so on) the invention of the witness is a significant step toward empiricism and objectivity. In a similar vein, later religious receptions of the trope of ‘witnessing’ called upon ‘heaven and earth’ as witnesses, thus signifying the highest form of objectivity (Deuteronomy 4:26). As the claimant or as the observer of an action, the witness (`ed) is not called upon to make a mere utterance, but rather to present a statement in the context of a conﬂict or dispute. The witness enters into a hotly contested and unstable reality. Moreover, this instability has resulted from some severe deviance from a (divine, social, legal, or political) norm or from a crucial transition (marriage, new contract, and so on). It is this complex situation of contested and unstable realities in which the knowledge of a privileged observer makes him or her a witness. When common sense reigns, no witness is required. Closely related to the feature of a contested and unstable reality is the issue of power and authority. If a person is called to witness, he or she is officially endowed with authority. The witness called forth is entitled to perform a specific speech act. It is this aspect of the power of witnesses which calls for guarantees, moral securities, and proof of his or her competence. While in the oldest biblical texts (such as Deuteronomy 19:16–19) only one witness was required, in later texts (and especially in cases of capital punishment) at least two witnesses were then required (cf. Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). In Deuteronomy 17:7, the witness is even required to participate in carrying out the punishment – in order to demonstrate his own belief in his testimony.
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
That the problem of false witnesses was included in religious codes points to an interesting fact: the sociocultural invention of ‘witnessing’ offers procedural support for the legal settlement of social conﬂicts. In this respect, it is a solution in a situation regarding an indeterminate reality: to the questions ‘What happened? What was the case?’ it affirms ‘This happened! This is the case!’ Yet this power for determining reality is also dangerous because it opens the door for selfish, destructive, and wrongful manipulations of reality. In short, witnessing can be a solution, but it is also a problem. Once seen through Deuteronomy the ‘witness of violence’, the false witness in 19:16, which refers to Exodus 20:16 becomes one who attempts to murder by means of such false witnessing. The false witness who testifies against his ‘neighbor’ is endangering social life in a fundamental way: veiled in the rhetoric of righteousness and using the law, he/she erodes trust in close relationships beyond kinship relations, a basic component in the evolution of any society. Consequently, in Deuteronomy, as in the Code of Hammurabi, a proven false witness was subjected to the same punishment he sought to inﬂict upon the victim of his witnessing. In these old legal contexts, the witness was risking his own life and limb – a false witness could accuse a truthful witness of being a false witness. In short, the legal speech act of witnessing demands honesty, sincerity, and faithfulness to the truth – at the risk of a destructive manipulation of truth and reality. The invention of ‘witnessing’ is intrinsically risky since the attempt to solve a social and legal problem can – through false witnessing – deepen and broaden the social problems by a rapid deterioration of trust. Without a doubt, there have been many legal attempts to limit the risks of witnessing. Demanding two or more witnesses is one measure (and according to the Mishnah, each witness was to be heard separately – if they contradicted one another on important points their witness was invalidated [Sanhedrin 5]); requiring eyewitnesses is another. Enforcing the lex talionis against false witnesses (inﬂicting upon the witness what he meant to inﬂict on the accused) was a rather drastic measure. And yet, the early religious discourses about legal witnessing document an attempt for religious support for the legal measure. However, the false and violent witness became such a distinct cultural topic that it reappears in religious texts such as individual Psalms of lament (for example, Pss 27, 35). In spite of the prohibitions, false witnessing appears to have been a very common crime (Proverbs 6:19; 12:17; 14:5; 19:5; 24:28; Matthew 26:60; Acts 6:13).
Günter Thomas 95
The transposition of this legal cultural form into the religious sphere becomes even more prominent in Isaiah 43:8–13, which portrays a lawsuit between YHWH and other deities in which YHWH asks for witnesses. This use of the cultural form of witnessing as a trope in religious discourse seems to have paved the way for types of specific religious witnessing closely linked to the Greek term martur . . . a ‘testimony’ (Beutler, 1972, pp. 106–18). Since the fourth century BC and then in Christian times, the term martyr (‘witness’) came to mean one who attests to the truth by suffering (Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13; cf. 1:9; 6:9; 11:3; 20:4; Hebrews 11; 12:1). Christian martyrdom continued the long tradition of martyrdom in Judaism, which was interpreted, with reference to Leviticus 22:32, as sanctification of God’s name (Kiddush Hashem). In the first and second book of Maccabees, narrations of martyrdom refer to Jews being executed for such ‘crimes’ as observing the Sabbath, circumcising their children, or refusing to eat pork or meat sacrificed to idols. In both Jewish and Christian traditions, martyrs were recognized due to the fact that in their public persecution of their faith, they personally preferred to die than to renounce that religious faith. However, martyr, as a technical term, has several meanings and only slowly did it become identified with those Jews or Christians who died for the faith – most of whom after being subjected to torture (Gleason, 1999, pp. 287–313; Glancy, 2005, pp. 107–36). In the pre-Christian era, the term was often used for anyone who was persecuted or suffering, even those who survived. Only gradually did martyr come to mean someone who actually died under persecution for her or his faith (Acts 22:20; Revelation 2:13; 17:6) as a culturally powerful witness (Castelli, 2004, p. 203) – though, in the New Testament, the Gospel of John already linked Christ’s witness to his death. While there is sufficient evidence to assume a certain continuity between witnessing in legal contexts and witnessing in contexts of religious persecution, there is also good reason to speak of two roots, or types, of witnessing, even though they may be placed at two ends of a spectrum.
General patterns of the cultural form of ‘witnessing’ If the stability of a cultural form of communication rests in its plasticity over time and its ability to adapt to specific contexts, then, strictly speaking, there exists neither an ‘original state’ nor an ‘original form’.
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
Instead, both the original and the copy constantly concur. However, in order to better observe variations and to use the form heuristically for the analysis of a given culture, we need a particular ‘ideal type’. For the heuristic purpose of analyzing late-modern media society, I aim to develop the ‘texture’ or ‘pattern’ of the cultural form of witnessing from the historical roots described above. Therefore, the following remarks are admittedly contingent and relative to a specific perspective; they must be reinvested into the analysis of present late-modern cultures. Both the legal and the religious witness are located in situations of conflicting realities: contested interpretations of what is real and what truly occurred (Assel, 2005, p. 1853). Any act of witnessing presupposes the instability, ambiguity, and actual indeterminacy of reality and a structural (legal or political) attempt to steer toward stability and determinacy. Any act of witnessing, confession, or testimony – even in ‘historical’ cases – relates to disputed, unstable, conﬂicting, or transitory realities. These aspects imply the eventual introduction or elimination of novelty. Against the background of this instability, every act of witnessing is tied to a ‘transformation’ that can be expected or even ‘triggered’. In the act of witnessing, something is added to the witnessed ‘event’ (be it either ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the witness), thereby changing the event itself. The witness becomes part of the event to which he or she is witnessing. In legal witnessing, the witness is called in to clarify what occurred, in order that the event might be perceived in an accurate way. The work of the witness comes in ‘changing’ the event – at least for the others in court. In religious witnessing, the act transforms the witness himself/ herself. The change can be reﬂexive in that he or she becomes, at least in the eyes of the community and the divine observer, a particularly faithful witness. Along these lines, the act of witnessing can become intrinsically intertwined with self-observation. For this reason, witnessing is a ‘contagious form of speech’, an ‘infectious act’ that affects the witnessing person – not just the transmission of information. The debates about the dangerously close relationship between martyrdom and suicide in the second century BC demonstrate that this transformation may be prompted in religious witnessing: when one actively seeks the experience of martyrdom it becomes almost indistinguishable from suicide. In any case, if the ‘event’ is aware of the possibility of such transformation, it may attempt to ‘trigger’ or elicit an act of witnessing. This transformation may be desired (as self-transformation in psychoanalysis), or it may be seen as problematic (as a change of reality in advocacy journalism).
Günter Thomas 97
Nonetheless, the two traditions represent almost opposite ends in the spectrum of witnessing. In the legal context, witnessing aims for the legal resolution of a conﬂict. In one way or the other—depending on the final judgment—the witness helps to overcome indeterminacy. The religious witness follows a different procedural logic: the martyr resists the unification of worldviews and convictions and keeps the ideological conﬂict explicitly open by witnessing to a counterfactual reality and resisting any harmonization. The legal witness assists in settling a conﬂict in (legal) procedure; the religious witness resists any such settlement. However, while the legal witness refers to an ‘outside’ and quite specific state of the world, the religious witness refers to a rather fundamental worldview with a peculiar understanding of reality which claims to see everything in a different light. These witnesses differ in terms of the scope and type of reality to which they witness. The legal witness seeks to testify to an empirical reality; the religious witness seeks to testify to what is ‘really real’ – which is by no means irrelevant for reality but at least potentially dangerous for those attempting to rule and manage the dominant political, legal, or religious reality. Historically, the witness to what is seen as an event and to what is unseen in the event might converge. The cultural form of witnessing involves a complex relation between presence and absence. In order to be a potential witness, the person must ‘be there’. Physical co-presence is central to witnessing, and the possibility of substituting such bodily presence with media is crucial for the development of the cultural form. A witness is, or is assumed to have been, either close to an event or even part of an event (in terms of space, time, social proximity, or subject matter). This event may have been a communication, an ‘extra-semiotic’ event, or a complex mixture of the two. Witnessing is not only related to the transition from experience to communication: from ‘seeing’ to ‘saying’ (Bernard-Donals and Glejzer, 2001, pp. 49–78; Peters, 2001, p. 709) or from ‘perception’ to ‘utterance’ since what is seen is interspersed with communication. Witnessing to a single act without the use of signs and communication is exceptionally rare. In most cases, witnessing serves as an interface between communications. However, when the time for witnessing arrives, the initial situation is absent. In both types of witnessing (legal and religious), the reality testified to in the very performance of witnessing is not just ‘at hand’ but, in a way, transcendent to the actual here and now. If the reality to which the witness refers is easily accessible, the witness would not
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
be necessary. Nondisrupted permanence does not require witnessing. Each act of bearing witness transcends what is immediate, obvious, and self-evident for the co-present audience. Since the performance of witnessing links past presence, the present past, and present presence, it is a prime mechanism for the communicative construction of public memory (Zelizer, 2002). It is currently heatedly debated whether there can be some form of ‘vicarious witnessing’ or ‘witnessing by imagination’ where the processes of witnessing are distributed socially, that is, no longer limited to a single person or generation (Friedman, 2005, p. 82f.; Rentschler, 2004). In a very subtle and recursive process, the act of witnessing contributes to the ‘construction’ of history and the preservation as well as an accumulation of collective memory (Felman and Laub, 1992). Again, one must keep in mind that the actual inaccessibility or transcendence of lost ‘presence’ can be temporal, social, spatial, or can occur in terms of subject matter. First, the situation in which the act of witnessing is elicited introduces a horizon of relevance. This horizon of relevance then imposes structures of selectivity onto the vast array of past events and guides the selectivity of witnessing. Not everything that happened is of equal importance. The selective recall of the witness – based upon his or her individual recollections – ‘constructs’ history as it exists in current communication (Esposito, 2002). It is epistemologically significant that the witness is a cultural ‘tool’ which distinguishes, within the medium of communication/narration, between fact and fiction, between what is more than communication/narrative and what is simply just a narrative (Weigel, 2000, p. 116). In the act of witnessing, there is no way to escape narrating since the reality perceived by the witness is no longer ‘at hand’. And yet, in the performative act of witnessing, this distant, otherwise inaccessible, reality is performatively made ‘present’ or ‘real’ – though empirical and experiential correctness may conﬂict with it (Oliver, 2001). In this act of ‘re-presentation’, material and rhetorical aspects of witnessing become relevant. In addition, the ‘private’ memory of the witness is made public in the act of witnessing. The public rendering of this private memory plays a significant role in the communicative construction of a collective memory—a memory in which people memorize events which they did not personally experience. The active witness, in his or her performance, functions as a medium, actively mediating between past presence and present presence, while at the same time guarding the past against attempts to ‘experience’ it, to confuse the event and its representation. For this reason, the act of witnessing is also an act of distancing the past from the
Günter Thomas 99
present. It is a way of preserving the irretrievable and inaccessible otherness or even the monstrosity of the reality witnessed to. The very act of witnessing makes known and stabilizes a distance and a notion of indisposability and unavailability. Consequently, any ‘secondary witness’ can only witness to the witness of a primary witness – nothing more. Seen in this way, to witness is to be an ‘event-generator’ in a dual sense. First, the very act of witnessing creates an event (the performance of the witness) – an event which can itself again be witnessed and become a historical ‘moment’. In some sense, this event must be ‘outstanding’. Second, in the act of witnessing the witness creates a past event – at least for the real or imagined audience and in the present moment. By making the transcendent accessible to communication, witnessing involves the social objectification of that to which the witness is testifying. As such, witnessing is an ‘identity-generator’ (Hahn, 2003, p. 14). For this reason, legal and religious witnessing are different in terms of the type of transcendence they imply and the nature of the transcendent reality, but both are pre-audiovisual ‘media events’. This observation exposes the relation between the act of witnessing and power. In a legal context, the temptation to be a false witness arises due to the considerable power the legal witness wields in shaping the course of events. In contrast, the martyr in the Jewish and Christian traditions is in a situation of utter powerlessness, at least regarding the political power exercised over him or her. While attempts to define oneself in such a situation as a ‘sacrifice’ (and not merely as a ‘victim’) might be an attempt to exercise a degree of religious power, this dialectic of power and powerlessness is central to religious witnessing.3 In its historical roots, witnessing was not an act that rested upon one’s will; it was not a voluntary act. In both legal and religious contexts, the witness was ‘forced’ to be a witness by another party. Determining who it is who has asked for the act of witnessing is a key question in both situations, even if the demanding power differs in terms of legitimacy, use of brute force, and so on. This aspect of force reappears in modified form in the context of witnessing to the Holocaust. While both types of witnessing result from greater social forces, they diverge in terms of the ‘acceptance’ or ‘rejection’ of their witness. Legal witnesses can generally rely on the acceptance of their witness – it is unusual that the testimony of a subjectively true witness (that is, one who appears to be convinced of what he/she witnesses to) should be rejected based on counter-witnesses. In contrast, the religious witness in the conceptual frame of martyrdom is rejected in principle – otherwise he/she would not be a witness.
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
Due to these aspects, the religious witness does not offer the same type or pattern of self-inclusion as the legal witness. In some respects, all witnessing is communication with strong ‘self-inclusions’. As we have seen, even the legal witness – at least the false witness – faces risks. The different patterns of self-inclusion become visible by distinguishing four dimensions of this concept: 1. Both types of witnesses present strong notions of self-assertion (strong convictions, authenticity, clear judgments, integrity, and credibility in terms of eyewitnessing, and so on). The exclusion of doubt corresponds to strong convictions and clear empirical observations. In the case that a witness has doubts, these doubts (as meta-communication) become a topic of the act of witnessing. 2. And yet the aspect of self-thematization is very prominent in forms of religious witnessing and all of its secularized successors. The personal experiences supporting one’s own convictions increasingly become a theme of the act of witnessing. This might be traced back to the inner nature of religious experiences or to the one-to-many/majority constellation of martyrdom. Self-thematization introduces a high degree of self-reference in the speech act of witnessing. In modern post-martyrdom contexts of post-religious witnessing, the self is the theme, content, and object of witnessing, seen for example in psychoanalysis, confessions, and diaries and, at times, empirical research in the social sciences. The reality to which the witness refers is not primarily an outside reality (as in legal contexts), but rather an inner reality. 3. Witnessing cannot be performed anonymously or be based merely on processes of social attribution. The demand to be a witness needs an active response. In the legal context, the act of being accepted, or called up, as a witness requires basic processes of self-attribution, of the self as belonging to something: to telling the truth and true observations, or in other terms, to the ‘exercise’ and ‘maintenance’ of the law. This basic self-attribution in the process of self-conscious witnessing can be extended in religious witnessing to the reality to which one is witnessing. Empirically speaking, the martyr threatened with death is not in the comfortable situation of having the freedom to doubt and to question religious reality. 4. The fourth type of self-involvement can be found in the mediatization of the body for meta-messages: to differing degrees, the body of the witness can itself become a ‘parallel’ medium for the performative act of witnessing. Moreover, the message of the bodily medium can become
Günter Thomas 101
the grounding or commenting meta-message of that message uttered in the linguistic medium, either in the form of pain as a means of self-authentication or as imposed pain (Peters, 2005, pp. 249–57). Interestingly enough, today almost all cases of legal witnessing still require physical presence in court. The body of any witness is part of human witnessing. Obviously, in situations of complex physical interaction, the trustworthiness of a witness can be better discerned than in other forms of communication. But the mediatization of the body also opens up the possibility of a double-bind which shows the power of the witness to define the situation. An ‘oppressor’ might accept the impossibility of changing another person’s religious convictions by nonviolent means and acknowledges the steadfastness of the religious devotee. If the oppressor does not respect the limits of nonviolence and seeks to use force, the devotee as victim can redefine the situation by being a sacrifice. Any bodily pain and suffering then counts as a powerful religious act of the utmost value. Suffering itself or even the bodily state (initially the result or implication of witnessing) becomes a message, a witness. The suffering becomes a ‘meta-message’ which confirms the truth of the original witness against the will of the oppressor. These four dimensions of self-involvement can vary according to the extent to which they inﬂuence the actual communication. However, any performance of witnessing implies self-inclusion which draws to some extent on all four of the layers. Since these aspects of self-inclusion are public, the performance of witnessing is always a self-presentation. Like any specific and event-related public self-presentation, witnessing is highly typified, rule-governed, or even ritualized. Only a culturally competent observer can immediately identify when witnessing is taking place. If witnessing is only seen as a specific form of perception, then these performative aspects cannot be sufficiently taken into account. ‘To witness something’ can occur exclusively on the level of perception, but ‘to witness to something’ implies a communication process. Only the latter understanding can be differentiated from perceiving events, even though this communication inﬂuences perception (Crary, 1999). What is considered in a given culture as worth being witnessed to inﬂuences its perceptions. As a result, the forms and types of witnessing contribute to a culture’s ‘economy of attention’ (Thomas, 2004). Any act of witnessing, either in the courtroom or as religious confession, implies a complex and combined pattern of an individual, personal
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
statement and a ‘real’ as well as ‘imagined’ public. No act of witness is merely a personal statement. In the situation of legal witnessing, the immediate public is the court, and yet the judge, the accuser, and the jury represent ‘the law of the state’ and ‘the people’. By means of a system of representation, the persons gathered in the court make up a specific local public and at the same time open up the space for the imagined public of the state and the people. ‘Imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1983) are part and parcel of witnessing. In a similar way, the religious witness/martyr is part of a specific local public and, at the same time, performs his/her witness to a heavenly public encompassing ‘the living and the dead’ as well as all heavenly creatures. This double-layered structure of two publics – a local/empirical and an imagined public – appears to be part of the cultural form of witnessing. How are the two publics related? As already mentioned, one link can be via a system of representation: the local public is representing a larger, only imagined community. If the local public is reduced to two persons (one witness and one listener), the performance of witnessing actually combines a very high degree of intimacy with an equally high degree of ‘publicity’. At first glance, the double public in witnessing allows for the performance of a paradox: an act of intimate publicity or public intimacy. Returning to the issue of ‘false witness’, we can now point out a final feature of the cultural form of witnessing: trust (Luhmann, 1979). The possibility of a false witness confronts social life with the problem of a regressus ad infinitum: since we cannot trust person x, we need witness y; yet if we cannot trust witness y we may need another witness to his/her witness (for example, God as witness). But can we trust this other second-order witness? Clearly, the performance of witnessing ‘solves’ the problem of trust while at the same time reproducing it. Yet without trust, the performance of legal witnessing fails. In the case of religious witnessing, the suffering body makes the issue of trust superﬂuous, and yet we have a deep suspicion that religious frenzy as a type of untrustworthy religious witness is a real possibility. Over the centuries, societies developed an entire array of techniques to test the ‘trustworthiness’ of the witness. These techniques or procedures range from torture, to lie detector tests, to displays of disaffectedness (or even the opposite: proper emotions indicating pain or contriteness) (Peters, 2005, p. 251). All of these can shift the issue of trust back one degree (by placing trust in one’s chosen techniques) but cannot eliminate it.
Günter Thomas 103
Historical dimensions and variations: Witnessing as confession, diary, and novel To date, we still lack a cultural history of witnessing. Nonetheless, before moving to late-modern cultures, I brieﬂy wish to point out an interesting development which took place within the religious system, a development highly relevant for current phenomena ranging from psychotherapy to television programming. At least in the Christian tradition of the medieval Church, one key form of institutionalized witness was the religious confession. It presented a very powerful variation and combination of the legal and religious performance of witnessing. The reality to which one witnessed shifted to the witnessing self. As highly ritualized performative acts, the confession of sins represents acts of self-thematization. They imply ongoing acts of self-observation. Compared with the legal model, the devotee has a double identity as both the transgressor and the witness who observed the transgression. Through this combination, the ecclesiastical institution of confession became a cultural technique which combined aspects of ‘the secret’ with ‘self-disclosure’ and ‘selfrevelation’ in a movement toward self-domestication. As a kind of selfthematization, the religious confession of sin belongs to the category of culturally powerful ‘Biography-Generators’ (Hahn, 1987, pp. 9–24; 1997, pp. 150–77). The confession of sins in front of a priest offers a specific pattern of combining the real and the imagined public. The tension between secrecy and publicity in the act of confession is solved by means of social distribution: the priest is such a small local audience that secrecy can be preserved, even though the public of the whole church, and even the heavenly public, are also being addressed as an imagined public. After the twelfth century, there was a powerful shift regarding the reality under observation. While the reality observed by the witness was still the self, there was a shift from the external deeds of sin to the inner intentions which led to sin. In other words, there was a subjectivization of sin. The observed reality was no longer the social person but the inner landscape of motives, intentions, and inclinations, accessible only by means of self-reﬂection. The witness thus became an even more privileged observer, since in principle only he/she (besides God) was able to observe the inner self. This shift dramatically increased the requirements for introspection and self-exploration. This form of introspection was not completely novel. Such amplified concentration on the inner self resembles movements already underway in the Hebrew
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
Bible, particularly in the so-called wisdom traditions. The Fourth Lateran Council (summoned by Pope Innocent III, 1213–1215 AD) introduced an annual, mandatory confession as a means of control over intellectual deviance. In subsequent centuries, contrition and penitence became increasingly crucial for the reception of grace. The practice of public repentance came in response to a need for making this witness to the inner reality outwardly trustworthy: the body became a medium of communication; to chasten oneself became an obligation. The Protestant Reformation did not abandon the practice of confession, though it did change its dynamic. Once again, it shifted the focus of religious attention. According to Alois Hahn, in pre-Reformation times the traditional confession was not necessarily linked to biographical coherence. As Max Weber would show, the Reformation shifted attention to the systematization of the whole of one’s life as being in accordance with God (Weber, 1968). The certitudo salutis must be mirrored in the whole course of life. As a consequence, the relation between the inner life of faith, intentions, motives, and inclinations, on the one hand, and the practical ethical life, on the other, became the focus of religious attention. It was particularly the Puritan traditions which connected self-exploration, self-control, and confession, thus fostering a sense of individuality which eventually manifested itself in the cultural tool of the diary. The diary as secularized religious confession solved the problem of shaping the double public in a rather radical way: the local public is reduced to the writer making an utterance. It is no longer the performance of communication. Private solitude became the location of witnessing. Through writing, the diary could temporalize the real audience and the imagined audience: a reader may exist later, perhaps the writer himself/herself. The unstable and contested reality requiring witness became life in modernity. Without an actual conﬂict, the writing of a diary has to become an ongoing practice of witnessing. During early modernity, the implications of confession – introspective self-exploration and self-control – became, together with writing, the cultural resources for the biographical novel. This sought-after coherence in the Protestant concept of life became celebrated biographical coherence. At the beginning of modernity, the novel reconciled the inbuilt tension in the performance of witnessing (in writing and reading) and publicity, or public intimacy, by offering a product of fiction. Again, there are precursors: Augustine’s Confessions represent a very exceptional and early mixture of confession, diary, and published record – public intimacy. (The Psalms are another exception, making
Günter Thomas 105
a public formula available for private use both in private as well as in public services.)
Old wine in new wineskins: Short remarks on the form of witnessing in television Major changes for witnessing in late modernity Legal and religious forms of witnessing still exist in the twenty-first century. In a world of religious conﬂicts and legal quarrels, a seemingly old form is still part of society’s current practice of communication. Nonetheless, the cultural form of witnessing shows up in unexpected cultural contexts. To understand the ‘traveling’ or the pluri-form contextualization of witnessing, one must keep in mind that late modernity is marked by three substantial changes, all of which ‘tickle out’ seemingly new types of witnessing which are, upon closer inspection, transformed versions of legal and religious witnessing. Against the background of the historical roots of witnessing sketched out above, I would like to propose the following thesis for analyzing today’s television programming. If we use the insights into legal and religious witnessing as a conceptual instrument for an analytical look at contemporary television, we observe a surprising phenomenon: The two historical traces of witnessing – law and religion – appear on two sides of the audiovisual media system. The fact-oriented forensic form of witnessing shows up in journalism, and the transformations of religious witnessing emerge in entertainment talk-show formats. Yet to understand this ‘traveling’ of a cultural form of communication, we must ask: What changes in late modernity have led to these two ‘appearances’? 1. The functional differentiation of systems of law, economics, art, politics, religion, and media no longer require nor enable the construction of a strong biographical coherence which would integrate all spheres of individual action (Luhmann, 1997). A person’s legal, religious, moral, political, and health communications need not form a coherent whole. The person is ‘liberated’ from the expectation of coherence. Particular, individual aspects of biography are only used insofar as they are relevant to systemic communication: only one’s credit history is relevant when applying for a bank loan; health insurance companies only ask for a health biography; and
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
in court, only the existence of a criminal record is of interest, not the number of religious conversions. For the individual, this process is simultaneously both one of devaluation and liberation. Inside society, there is no place for the ‘whole self, the unified individual’. At the same time, the actual opacity of a modern, functionally differentiated society creates a permanent impression of a contested reality. 2. Being an individual person becomes a project for the self, occurring mostly outside of distinct functional social systems. The individual is defined less by inclusion than by exclusion. For the human being, the project of ‘being an individual’ becomes more pressing and risky; for society, it becomes less relevant. There is a rising need to construct oneself by means of self-expression. 3. Foreshadowed by the many technological developments of the nineteenth century, and so far manifest in cinema and television, late modernity is also marked by a shift to the audiovisual over against textual and physical co-presence. von Goethe’s dictum ‘To see I was born, To look is my call’ (von Goethe, 1961, pp. 1128ff.) unintentionally prophesied a move to ‘seeing things’. As a consequence, the traditionally oral and textual witness is increasingly supplemented by highly mediatized, audiovisual forms. Keeping these three elements in mind, we may clearly see the place of a particular invention of late modernity. In late-modern societies, this cultural and technical invention provides a highly specific and effective response to the three aspects mentioned above. While in pre-modern times witnessing and confession were attributable only to individual ‘authors’, late-modern society ‘invented’ a social system for witnessing – predominantly in an audiovisual form: namely modern, audiovisual, mass media (Luhmann, 2000). Thus, within the new context of the social system of mass media ‘witness is a new form of social experience’ (Ellis, 2000) as well as an old yet transformed one. Based on the suggestion by John Ellis (2000), I would like to go just one step further. Inside the overall witnessing institution called television, we can see that both traditional forms of witnessing play an important role. Variations of legal witnessing appear in television journalism and news shows, while variations of religious witnessing appear in entertainment formats, particularly in talk-shows. An historically informed observer might be able to see ‘old wine in new wineskins’.
Günter Thomas 107
Heirs of legal witnessing: Journalist and anchor persons In what sense are journalists and anchor persons taking up the tradition of legal witnessing? People in late-modern societies face two problems. In a continuously changing world, the situation of contested reality is one of permanent instability and full of conﬂicting interpretations of reality. In addition, what people experience is a huge gap between what is known to exist and what parts of reality are accessible. It is in this situation that the journalist witnesses the events of the day, most of which would otherwise be inaccessible or in realities transcendent to the lifeworld of the audience. As a privileged observer, she finds out ‘what is the case’ in worlds beyond one’s own small world. In particular, negativism as a news factor (Schulz, 1976) promotes acts of witnessing geared towards actual endangerments and disruptions of reality. Yet the very act of witnessing an anchor person like Haim Yavin on Israel TV or Jan Hofer in Germany (or Karl-Heinz Köpcke in the past) presents reality not just as instable, catastrophic, and in constant ﬂux, but as something manageable. However, since the world of television is in permanent ﬂux, the daily performance of witnessing is without end, permanent. The need for witnessing is never ending. Compared with the classic legal witness, the journalist bears witness to a reality which is spatially distant but in terms of time quite close. Still, there seems to be at least one field in which the journalism profession, as the heir of legal witnessing (‘objective’, less selfthematizing discourse), needs to borrow from the religious root of witnessing and its long secular transformation: the field of credibility and trust. In a reﬂexive modernity, in which the selectively constructed character of reports seeps into public consciousness, the trustworthiness of the reporting person/network is used to attribute credibility to the reported message. For this reason, the management of trust becomes central to journalistic witnessing. While the standards of trust might vary from country to country, this necessary edification of trust requires specific public measures or ‘confessions’ – even though all know that these confessions may also be forged. In extreme situations (such as war), journalists risk their lives to become martyrs for the freedom of the press, thereby raising through their sacrifice the level of trust in the entire profession. Even in ordinary situations, strategies blending elements from legal and religious witnessing are becoming part of the professional routine: being physically ‘on the spot’, including the reporter in frame, having live witnesses confirm one’s own witnessing, at the same time staging emotions to communicate authenticity, offering
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
objective numbers and credible sources, and showing commitment. All of these are measures to ensure the factual trustworthiness of the person bearing witness to ‘real reality’. In short, since witnessing relates to and transforms disputed, unstable, conflicting, or transitory realities and makes accessible the inaccessible, the witnessing activity of journalism and anchor persons contributes to what Roger Silverstone called ‘ontological security’ (Silverstone, 1993).
Heirs of religious witnessing and its transformations: Individual confessions in entertainment genres Under the sociocultural conditions of a late-modern, functionally differentiated society, people face two seemingly paradoxical yet difficult tasks: (1) The construction of an individual identity becomes at the same time increasingly socially (for the function of the society) irrelevant and personally pressing. (2) People must learn to become individuals, learn to deal with the paradox of being a unique copy. One key stage for the performance and observation of this process are entertainment formats in television. Numerous entertaining TV-genres (talk-shows, contests, wedding shows, and so on) give individuals the chance to articulate their miseries, their wrongdoings, their conﬂicts, their ‘sins’, and their moral status (Herrmann and Lünenborg, 2001). They are allowed to act out their aggression and their longings; they are called to witness to their lives (Winterhoff-Spurk, 1999). These formats of ‘affect-television’ (Bente and Fromm, 1997) appear to blur the border between the private and the public and create a specific type of public intimacy. While for ‘early-modern people’ these forms of publicizing private matters appear utterly strange, they demonstrate that the latemodern self invents new forms of ‘absolution’ in response to traditional ‘confessions’. Such television confessions are not free from the search for absolution, namely the inclusion into a moral community. At the same time, their attractiveness results from the attention transgressions of moral boundaries can attract. Identity-forming processes freed from the search for coherence (which, while structurally encouraged, is not a necessary implication of late-modern cultures) result in self-perceptions which benefit from heightened emotional intensities. In audiovisual formats of ‘affecttelevision’ supporting ‘confessions’, intensity is more important than (textual) coherence. Confessions of public intimacy clearly search for resonance with the two publics characteristic of religious witnessing: not
Günter Thomas 109
just the conversation in the studio, but the (imagined) emotional resonance with the imagined audience creates repercussions that can be attributed to oneself. What can be ‘confessed’ in the framework of public intimacy becomes for the late-modern self symbolic capital which can be traded for the attention of this imagined public. The performance of the self in front of a TV audience is the preliminary ending point of the secular variant of religious witnessing. To observe this shift from coherence to ‘confessional’ witnessing to one’s own (seemingly unique) experience does not necessarily imply a pessimistic stance. Without any doubt, this shift is structurally supported by the constant need for attracting larger audiences and the fast pace of public discourse. However, this shift might dampen controversial exchange – because the more the authenticity of the utterance is emphasized over against the argument, the less the witness can be questioned without being offensive. ‘Confessional’ witnessing can endanger discourse. Depending on one’s theoretical stance toward the possibility for a rational integration of modern society, this can be seen as a problem or a solution. When ‘old’ institutions of witnessing incorporate television into their inner execution new hybrid types of witnessing emerge. This is the case at the intersection of law and media as well as of religion and media: the introduction of audiovisual journalistic witnessing into the core space of legal witnessing, the courtroom, something substantially changes. Accordingly, when the ‘confessional witnessing’ of television is blended with religious confession the latter one is transformed. These final remarks on witnessing in journalism and ‘affect television’ are short and sketchy. Nonetheless, they hopefully make visible how fruitful it can be to look at the present media system with historically informed eyes. The history of the cultural form of communication called witnessing is not yet over. It is the charm of cultural forms of communication helping to combine historical analysis, interdisciplinary exchange, and a fresh look at phenomena too well known.
Notes 1. In some special cases, the same format/genre can appear in different cultural systems: in European television, we find wedding shows in the media, while in some Christian parishes in the United States, we find talk-show-like communications in religion. On the format level, one may indeed find a surprising degree of proximity between media and religion. However, most formats are deeply system-specific.
Witness as a Cultural Form of Communication
2. Thus, bearing witness to atrocities is a not an independent field of witnessing, in addition to law and religion, but rather has developed out of both of these fields (Peters, 2001, p. 708). 3. However, it should be noted that due to the theologically motivated close connection between their religious and political communities, the Islamic tradition of religious witnessing includes the possibility of being both a religious witness and a political witness simultaneously. While these inter-religious differences can only be noted in passing here, and would require more detailed elaboration, they are crucial for an adequate understanding of religiously motivated terrorism.
References B. Anderson (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso). H. Assel (2005) ‘Zeugnis’, in H. D. Betz et al. (eds), Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, vol. 8, 1852–54 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck). M. Bernard-Donals and R. Glejzer (2001) Between Witness and Testimony: The Holocaust and the Limits of Representation (Albany: State University of New York Press). G. Bente and B. Fromm (eds) (1997) Affektfernsehen. Motive, Angebotsweisen und Wirkungen (Opladen: Leske + Budrich). J. Beutler (1972) Martyria. Traditionsgeschichtliche Studien zum Zeugnisthema bei Johannes (Frankfurt/M.: Knecht). E. A. Castelli (2004) Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making (New York: Columbia University Press). J. Crary (1999) Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle and Modern Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). E. Esposito (2002) Soziales Vergessen. Formen und Medien des Gedächtnisses der Gesellschaft. Mit einem Nachwort von Jan Assmann (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp). S. Felman and D. Laub (1992) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York and London: Routledge). R. M. Friedman (2005) ‘Witnessing for the Witness: Choice and Destiny by Tsipi Reibenbach’, Shofar, vol. 24, no. 1, 81–93. J. A. Glancy (2005) ‘Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel’, Biblical Interpretation, vol. 13, no. 2, 107–36. M. Gleason (1999) ‘Truth Contests and Talking Corpses’, in J. I. Porter (ed.), Constructions of the Classical Body, 287–313 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). J. W. von Goethe (1961) Faust, trans. W. A. Kaufman (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday). A. Hahn (1987) ‘Identität und Selbstthematisierung’, in A. Hahn and V. Kapp (eds), Selbstthematisierung und Selbstzeugnis: Bekenntnis und Geständnis (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp), 9–24. A. Hahn (1997) ‘Zur Soziologie der Beichte und anderer Formen institutionalisierter Bekenntnisse: Selbstthematisierung und Zivilisationsprozess’, in
Günter Thomas 111 J. Friedrichs, K. U. Mayer, and W. Schluchter (eds), Soziologische Theorie und Empirie (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag), 407–34. A. Hahn (2003) Erinnerung und Prognose. Zur Vergegenwärtigung von Vergangenheit und Zukunft (Opladen: Leske & Budrich). F. Herrmann and M. Lünenborg (eds) (2001) Tabubruch als Programm. Privates und Intimes in den Medien (Opladen: Leske + Budrich). N. Luhmann (2000) The Reality of the Mass Media, trans. by K. Cross (Cambridge: Polity Press). N. Luhmann (1997) Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp). N. Luhmann (1979) Trust and Power: Two Works, with an Introduction by G. Poggi, ed. by T. Burns (Chichester: Wiley). K. Oliver (2001) Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press). J. D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. J. D. Peters (2005) Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). A. Philips (1970) Ancient Israel’s Criminal Law: A New Approach to the Decalogue (Oxford: Blackwell). C. A. Rentschler (2004) ‘Witnessing: US Citizenship and the Vicarious Experience of Suffering’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 26, no. 2, 296–304. W. Schulz (1976) Die Konstruktion von Realität in den Nachrichtenmedien (Freiburg/München: Alber). R. Silverstone (1993) ‘Television, Ontological Security and the Transitional Object’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 15, no. 4, 573–98. H. S. Simian-Yofre (1972) ‘Art.: ( `wd)’, in G.J. Bottereweck et al. (eds), Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Alten Testament, vol. 5 (Stuttgart Berlin Köln Mainz: Kohlhammer). H. J. Stoebe (1952) ‘Das achte Gebot (Exod. 20 v.16)’, Wort und Dienst, vol. 3, 108–26. G. Thomas (2004) ‘The Cultural Contest for Our Attention. Observations on Media, Property and Religion’, in W. Schweiker and W.C. Mathewes (eds), Having: Property and Possession in Religious and Social Life, 272–95 (Grand Rapids: Michigan). S. Weigel (2000) ‘Zeugnis und Zeugenschaft. Klage und Anklage. Zur Geste des Bezeugens in der Differenz von identy politics, juristischem und historiographischem Diskurs’, in R. Zill (ed.), Zeugnis und Zeugenschaft, 111–35 (Jahrbuch Einstein-Forum 1999) (Berlin). M. Weber (1968) Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, ed. by G. Roth and C. Wittich (New York: Bedminster Press). P. Winterhoff-Spurk (ed.) (1999) Die Lust am öffentlichen Bekenntnis : Persönliche Probleme in den Medien (St. Ingbert : Röhrig). B. Zelizer (2002) ‘Finding Aids in the Past: Bearing Personal Witness to Traumatic Events’, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 24, 697–714.
5 Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes
As witnessing is becoming a key issue in communications and media studies, its understanding is proving more complicated and even controversial. In what follows, we attempt to simplify our understanding of the fundamental concept of witnessing by considering its meaning and role when it was a few millennia younger. We will use the biblical meaning of witnessing to trace the origins of the contemporary debate and try to see whether and how veteran notions have conditioned our understanding of the institution of witnessing. We will apply these insights to journalism, a social practice that over the last generation seems to have experienced radical shifts in its potential and practice of social testimony.
I. An essay by John Peters that is fast becoming seminal finds witnessing a central communicative concept in that it serves as a model for, and charts the limits of, any form of mediated communications (Peters, 2001). After all, the witness is a medium who bridges the ontological and epistemological by converting a real-world occurrence he/she experienced into an utterance. But further, this experience-cum-words is communicated to others at a different time, place, and, inevitably, in a different context. What makes witnessing special as a communicative act, beyond its bridging the essential discontinuities that communication is supposed to bridge, is the challenge of veracity – that events are communicated as they happened. Rather than focusing on the problem of a reliable conveyance of experience, John Ellis and Paul Frosh center on its consequences: the processing of testimony on the receiver’s end of the witnessing chain, 112
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 113
which connects real-world events with once-, twice-, or more times removed recipients. Frosh focuses on the potentially creative role of recipients and the ways ‘witnessing texts’ can generate involvement and transform their audiences. Rather than focusing on the creative potential of audiencing ‘witnessed texts’, Ellis returns us to a Peterslike suspicion of audiences in accepting the veracity of witnessed texts. The complete mongrelization of factual and fictional genres in broadcast media today, and the emphatically forensic nature of the latter, socializes viewers to seek the story behind the story – not to accept witnessed texts at their face value (Frosh, 2006; Ellis, forthcoming).1 However divergent, these two general approaches to witnessing – one focusing on the tellers, the other looking at their audience – share a common view of the fundamental process. It entails two steps: a real-world experience coded into a text, and a text decoded into a personal experience by its audience. The courtroom situation, in which the witness recounts, as a medium, an experience he/she sensed in the past to a formal gathering of people serves as the model for witnessing as a two-step process. In this model, which dominates modern notions of witnessing, the challenge of the witness is to successfully bridge what Peters calls the ‘veracity gap’. At the same time, what Frosh playfully calls the ‘telling presence’ of the witness (or her/his text) confers responsibilities on the audience to judge and ultimately implement that judgment, with the prospect (or specter) of transformative action or a transformed view of the world. This two-step model2 has impacted other arenas in which events are recounted at a distance. A prominent example is the migration of the notion of witnessing to journalism. The function of the news media is understood to be observing the world go by and keeping tabs on it on behalf of the public – in Ellis’s terms, ‘monitoring’ the world through the eyes of the journalist (Ellis, 2000).3 The journalist’s report is expected to call for, or even to shape, a response – at the very least, in the form of newly processed public opinion. In fact, the term ‘reporter’ as a tag for a practitioner of a certain kind of journalism may have had its origins in the court of law. Scribes who recorded proceedings in court, like all professionals responsible for transcribing official oral proceedings, were originally designated ‘reporters’ (hence, what they produced were known as ‘law reports’). Once newspapers began describing real-world occurrences first-hand to their readers, courts of law became a key ‘beat’ for useful and often dramatic new information on the world. Those who recorded court proceedings for newspaper readers assumed the same tag as those
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
who transcribed the proceedings for official purposes. Subsequently, all journalists who provided descriptions of real-world events of public interest – inevitably across time and space – came to be known as reporters.4 Not surprisingly, journalism too belies the two-fold problem of witnessing, corresponding to the two steps of its ﬂow. The problem of veracity emphasized by Peters’s approach may be associated with the long-standing debate on the ontology of journalism: its reliability, objectivity, and ethical standards. The reception side of witnessing, addressed by Ellis and Frosh, is lavishly elaborated in our contemporary debate on the ethics of audiencing, as underscored by Luc Boltanski’s deliberations on the responsibilities of mass media consumers.5 A puzzling aspect of the witnessing debate is the insistent linking of the two fundamental steps, or aspects, of witnessing. In both the debate over the institution’s essential meaning and the discussion of its implications for understanding mass media, the epistemology of witnessing and the very different issue of the consequences of testimony are fused, seen as a unit. This linkage would appear unnecessary, serving only to complicate and blur either aspect of the problem of witnessing, raising the question of why indeed they are understood as and discussed in unison. In other words, why has the law-court model of witnessing been so dominant in our thinking about witnessing and testimony? In what follows, we will suggest that, at its roots, the concept of witnessing combines changes in reality and their transformative recognition, seeing the two as simultaneous and inseparable; hence the lingering insistence on linking the two steps of witnessing today – in the courtroom, in scholarship, and in mass news media. At issue, then, is our fundamental conception of witnessing and its origins. Following de Tocqueville’s advice, ‘Go back, look at the baby in his mother’s arms’, we will be looking at the roots of Western thinking on witnessing. For a number of rather obvious reasons, references to witnessing in the Hebrew Bible would appear to be a good place to start. The Bible, as an ancient text, is one site for excavating an archaic – perhaps original – meaning of witnessing, particularly since one construction of the Bible itself is as a testament (to some: the ‘Old Testament’). But moreover, the Bible has made considerable impact on the evolution of the Western mind from a (perhaps) simpler past to its complex present. The Bible thus represents not only a point of origin, but also a significant inﬂuence on the historical evolution of ideas and sensibilities in the West – among them, the idea of witnessing.6
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 115
II. Even a cursory survey of the Bible would suggest that the term ‘witness’ is an exceptionally poor witness to its archaic meaning. When one considers the meaning of witnessing in the Bible, the law-court model is nowhere to be found. Rather, witnessing is related to what the shorthand of scholarly jargon calls the social construction of reality. Its meaning was two-fold: one aspect was the public recognition of significant change in the world, usually the recognition of a transformation, while the other was the act of transforming the world through public recognition. There is a degree of tension, however, between these two kinds of witnessing. In the first case, new knowledge updates the public’s view of reality, or catches up with a transformed reality. In the second case, public recognition is elemental to the transformation. To illustrate from the realm of news media – our contemporary registrars of change – when pictures like the atrocities of Abu Ghraib explode on the nation, they can effect change in the public’s perception of the war, the military, and the moral state of the nation. They can also lead, at a second stage, to change in actual social practices. This kind of witnessing represents the first type of transformative public knowledge. The media event genre can represent the second type of witnessing, that in which the public’s ‘being there’ is in itself transformative, with the audience giving the event a particular meaning. Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, conditioned by the Egyptian leader on its live broadcast to Israeli audiences, was a towering historical moment in that its witnessing by the Israeli public created a new reality of ‘no more war’. Similarly, staged events such as presidential inaugurations are effected through the collective’s witnessing the proceedings via media, thus tacitly sanctioning the change of power (Dayan and Katz, 1992; Liebes and Blondheim, 2005). In either construction of biblical witnessing, the witness is the addressee, not the medium. It is the collective which performs the witnessing. In other words, in the Bible, the two steps of witnessing, as we understand the institution today, are one. Biblical witnessing conﬂates experience and the transformed public awareness resulting from that experience, into a single step. This primordial construction of witnessing as a public experience of transformation may explain the seemingly unnecessary effort of modern scholars to link personal experience and the transformation of public consciousness.
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
Returning to the Bible, the Hebrew root of witness, ed, is y’ad or eda – assembly, and/or congregation, both as a noun and as a verb. The root thus hints at the public nature of witnessing, and points to the public sphere as the locus of witnessing.7 The verb-like connotation of the root of ‘getting together’, can explain, in turn, a second biblical meaning of the word witness, ed, which is ‘covenant’ (Lifshitz, 2002, pp. 180–2; G. von Rad quoted in ‘Edut’, Encyclopedia Mikrait).8 In a covenant, two parties become linked and bound together through that to which they agreed, but in covenanting the parties are not alone in congregating. In the Bible, entering into a covenant is usually an audienced, public event. And of course, by its nature, a covenant is a transformative event, changing the status quo in a significant way through a socially accepted new configuration of social relations and obligations. These aspects of transformation, publicity, and social sanction are underscored in the second occurrence of the word ed in the biblical narrative.9 It appears in the settlement of the strife between Jacob and Laban (Genesis 31). Following their confrontation and in discussing the possibility for a resolution, Laban says to Jacob:
44: Now therefore come thou, let us make a covenant, I and thou; and let it be for a witness between me and thee. 45: And Jacob took a stone, and set it up for a pillar. 46: And Jacob said unto his brethren, Gather stones; and they took stones, and made an heap: and they did eat there upon the heap. 47: And Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed. 48: And Laban said, This heap is a witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; 49: And Mizpah; for he said, The LORD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another. 50: If thou shalt afﬂict my daughters, or if thou shalt take other wives beside my daughters, no man is with us; see, God is witness betwixt me and thee. 51: And Laban said to Jacob, Behold this heap, and behold this pillar, which I have cast betwixt me and thee; 52: This heap be witness, and this pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm. 53: The God of Abraham, and the God of Nahor, the God of their father, judge betwixt us. And Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac.
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 117
In the Hebrew text of this passage, the meaning of ed as witness and as covenant are synonymous. The interchangeability of meaning is underscored in the name of the pillar and stone heap: Galeed, which could be read as both ‘heap of covenant’ and ‘heap of witness’. The covenant between Jacob and Laban transformed a state of belligerence and nearwar to a lasting peace. The covenant was entered into in the presence of ‘brethren’, who took part in the formalistic set-up of a ritual meal. But not only was there a public presence in the transaction; the ultimate authority for verifying and sanctioning human deeds, God, was invoked as present in the transformative event. God – the ultimate sanctioning and legitimizing presence – would reappear as witness in many other significant transactions and transformations in Biblical literature (for example, Joshua 22:22; Judges 11:10; Kings 3:5; Samuel 12:5; Jeremiah 29:23; Job 16). However, even with God’s presence, parties to biblical covenants sought additional publicity and recognition for their transactions. Thus, Jacob and Laban’s pillar and stone heap would indicate the place of their historical agreement – a location that was to serve as a boundary, too, according to conventional biblical commentary. Time, however, also enters into this spatial demarcation. Future passersby, by sight of the stone construction, would become aware of the covenant made long ago and, and in a way, retroactively witness it – namely, recognize it. In fact, it is God himself/herself who would show the way in providing physical evidence to future generations of his/her transformative acts and decisions – which in the case of a deity are one and the same. Thus, once it was decided that a second ﬂood would not happen, God created a physical ot (‘sign’) in the form of the rainbow, as evidence of this one-sided covenant: ‘I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth’ (Genesis 9:13). The bow reappears over the generations specifically when a deluge could be feared – after rainfall. Like the Galeed, its ‘place’ is also suggestive: It appears between cloud and ground, the locus of rain, but more significantly between heaven and earth – figuratively, between the parties to the transformative one-sided decision, which God nevertheless refers to as a covenant.10 These elements of establishing a new reality in a public arena, and recording its launching by a physical object, present themselves most clearly in the Sinai covenant, that is, the (Old) Testament. All of the people congregated at the foot of the hill, they entered into a covenant with God. They also witnessed the ceremonial transaction and were ultimately given physical evidence of the transformative
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
agreement – the stone tablets, known in Hebrew as the ‘tablets of edut (testimony/covenant)’. The tablets were to be placed in an ark, ‘the ark of edut’ which was to be placed in ‘the sanctuary of edut’, itself a transportable affair, testifying to the covenant wherever its terrestrial party happened to be. The other party was supposed to be everywhere anyway. God’s interactions with man were understood to have an overarching historical significance. The Hebrews’ god was to be dealt with not as a philosophical entity but as a shaper of history, for example, ‘I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage’ (Exodus 20:2). God’s acts in history were thus testimony to his powers and to his covenant with the Hebrews. Appropriately, they were reaffirmed in time – not historical but cyclical time. Great historical events were to be publicly reaffirmed by the Hebrews in this dimension of time – the mo‘ed – a holiday marking an anniversary. Mo‘ed of course includes the ed-witness element. Thus, witnessing – the public recognition of transformed worldly conditions – could be performed in three distinctive configurations: ‘here and now’, as when entering into a covenant; ‘here and then’, as when passersby see the Galeed and recognize its standing transformative power; and finally ‘then and there’, as when, for instance, Jews at the four corners of the earth remember the Exodus on its anniversary, millennia later, through performing the Passover seder. Children playing during Hanukkah have the ‘then and there’ configuration inscribed on the four sides of their dreidel: ‘A great miracle happened there.’11 Enter witnessing in jurisprudence. It is widely acknowledged that the legal sections of the Hebrew Bible are relatively late layers of the text. In them, witnessing gradually assumed a more specific meaning, which nevertheless carried the traces of its original, archaic connotation. These origins may be gleaned from the concluding scene of the story of Ruth and Boaz. In the story’s happy ending, Boaz receives public sanction to marry Ruth and acquire her real estate rights. This process underscores the fundamental meaning of witnessing as an act transforming reality through public recognition. 1: Then went Boaz up to the gate, and sat him down there: and, behold, the kinsman of whom Boaz spake came by; unto whom he said, Ho, such a one! turn aside, sit down here. And he turned aside, and sat down. 2: And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, Sit ye down here. And they sat down. 3: And he said unto the kinsman, Naomi, that is come again out of the country of Moab, selleth a parcel of land, which was our brother Elimelech’s: 4: And
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 119
I thought to advertise thee, saying, Buy it before the inhabitants, and before the elders of my people. If thou wilt redeem it, redeem it: but if thou wilt not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know: for there is none to redeem it beside thee; and I am after thee. . . . 6: And the kinsman said, I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I mar mine own inheritance: redeem thou my right to thyself; for I cannot redeem it. 7: Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbour: and this was a testimony in Israel. 8: Therefore the kinsman said unto Boaz, Buy it for thee. So he drew off his shoe. 9: And Boaz said unto the elders, and unto all the people, Ye are witnesses this day, that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, of the hand of Naomi. 10: Moreover Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of Mahlon, have I purchased to be my wife, to raise up the name of the dead upon his inheritance, that the name of the dead be not cut off from among his brethren, and from the gate of his place: ye are witnesses this day. 11: And all the people that were in the gate, and the elders, said, We are witnesses. (Ruth 4:1–11) As in the cases of covenant, the transformative formal change of status of persons and property requires witnessing, namely, recognition and sanction of the change by the public; hence, the elaborate set-up at the gate. Even the physical element embodying the public transaction has a residual presence here, the ‘plucked off’ shoe. However, the Ruth and Boaz episode exhibits signs of change. Rather than gathering the entire public, as in, for instance, the Sinai covenant, witnessing in this case is performed by representatives. The symbolic significance of the site of the transactions, however, is maintained: the city gates – the ultimate public sphere. With time, the court of law would become a mere symbolic shadow of the public and its function of transforming and confirming reality. The process of shifting the responsibility of public witnessing from the public in assembly to the courts (as a virtual public) is underscored by passages in the legal layer of the Bible which refer to the judge (!) as a witness. Traces of this process of change have been maintained all the way to the present: the principle of transparency of the legal process and its being open to the public hint at the residual presence of the community (eda) as the ultimate witness.
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
The closest the Bible comes to witnessing as we now know it is in the Ten Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’ (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20). Similarly, in Leviticus 5:1 we find the following: ‘And if a soul sin, and hear the voice of swearing, and is a witness, whether he hath seen or known of it; if he do not utter it, then he shall bear his iniquity.’ Nevertheless, according to biblical scholars, there is a significant difference between the conception of witness in these verses and our contemporary witness in court.12 The main role of the contemporary witness is to verify a known or claimed version of reality. In contrast, the witness of the Ten Commandments and Leviticus is a person bringing charges in court. He is therefore the medium breaking the news (of a murder, a rape, a transgression) to the public, introducing it to a new view of reality in the process. It is the witness as a prosecutor that transforms the public status of a person to a possible criminal, from saint to sinner, and accordingly changes the public perception of things, in the style of ‘Et tu Brute?’ With time, the nature of witnessing we constructed in the preceding section from biblical texts was effectively swamped by the law-court version, in which society’s quest for aligning the epistemological with the ontological constitutes the center of the project of witnessing. We posit however that the function that archaic witnessing has filled has remained deeply entrenched in Western culture. It forms the heart of our political processes, in which the public is understood as sovereign, and therefore its opinions and voice are fundamental to governing. Media have become a crucial agent in shaping public consensus and its definition of reality as well as in transforming it.
III. The archaic function of witnessing has thus come to be filled, today, through a joint venture of modern news media and its audience. Yet the ways media serve society in its function of witnessing are dynamic, and have undergone considerable change during the course of the modern era. It seems worthwhile to trace these vicissitudes in the way media take part in social witnessing for the purpose of a better understanding of witnessing, of media, and of the role of media in contemporary society. The evolving technological affordances societies could apply in shaping their media environment, and, inevitably, their ways of witnessing have been an important dimension of change. A reasonable starting point in reviewing the changing nature of witnessing via news media in the modern era is the printing press-enabled
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 121
newspaper. The newspaper dramatically expanded the reach and boundaries of a collective view of reality. It had the ability to unite people over vast expanses in recognizing meaningful transformations. Yet this sizable footprint came at the expense of the simultaneity of the collective construction of reality characteristic of the archaic model of witnessing. Unlike the unanimous, real-time – yet deliberate – public endorsement of Boaz’s taking Ruth as his wife, reports of marriages in the press were only able to recognize marriages after the fact. Moreover, this variant of witnessing – the recognition of significant change – cannot be complete until the newspaper’s partner in the process of witnessing, the public at large, recognizes the change. This is inevitably a staggered process: the newspaper is delivered and read at different times, and of course, reading it is a purely individual affair, separating the reader from the immediate social surroundings. Thus, reality as construed by the newspaper is inevitably ‘there and then’; it cannot recognize transformations simultaneously, ‘here and now’, as the archaic model of witnessing can. Yet, while only a feeble shadow of the collectivity and participatory nature of archaic witnessing, newspaper news could provide meaningful improvements in an important aspect of the biblical witnessing process – its legal dimension. As noted, the witness conceived by the Bible in legal proceedings was essentially a reporter breaking news. Institutionally, the legal witness functioned as a plaintiff or prosecutor. In this respect, the newspaper reporter could be a dramatically better witness. Experience, professional standards, institutional resources, and in most cases an ‘objective’ posture in uncovering and reporting change, were better credentials for disseminating public knowledge than those of the amateur biblical plaintiff, who was usually a ‘principal’ in the case. The newspaper reporter, as a dedicated, paid news chaser, could deliberately seek events transforming reality, and be there ‘at the kill’. In the event he missed, he had the perceived authority and occasionally the luck to find first-hand witnesses, ala the BBC journalist reporting on atrocities in the Belgian Congo who wandered through a refugee camp yelling: ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’ Journalists had in their arsenal professional tools, and usually, experience in perceiving and reporting the new reality, and reporters’ colleagues in the editorial department could help evaluate, frame, and give depth to the new aspects of reality, before bringing them to the public. Even Janet Cook’s style of witnessing, as in her 29 September 1980 Washington Post report on conditions of life in the ghettos of Washington, may have been an improvement in constructing reality over biblical legal witnessing. Cook’s story of ‘Jimmy’, a desperate
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
8-year-old junkie, which received accolades including a Puliter prize that was later withdrawn, was technically false witness: ‘Jimmy’ was fiction. But Janet Cook had intuitively grasped that in order to reach out and touch the public consciousness, one would have to connect with a ﬂeshand-blood sufferer, preferably the testimony of a child. A post-modern perspective, a generation later, would endorse the thrust of this kind of journalism, informed by the understanding that a constructed archetype may better capture the reality, in this case of the ghetto, than any actual living child. In fact, the journalistic practice of hanging an issue or a claim about the world on a specific human witness is the most effective way of enlisting public attention and thereby making change. It proves to be the best strategy for changing consciousness – the original function of witnessing. With all of its advantages, though, newspaper witnessing could do no more than reconstruct reality ‘then and there’. It could only provide building blocks for a scattered, staggered public to potentially witness the world – namely, to revise its view of reality. Journalism could not possibly perform the miracle of reconstructing reality here and now, as in the biblical real-time, oral, communal model. In this respect, a significant step forward – back to the archaic model – was inherent in the advent of electric communications. The telegraph provided a whole new dimension of technology-mediated communications – broadcasting. Employing the telegraph as a one-way medium, a single sender could have his message reach all points on the telegraph network simultaneously. Broadcast telegraphy thus introduced an entirely new mode of witnessing: ‘now and there’. The novelty of this variant, added to the ‘here and now’ mode of archaic witnessing and to the ‘then and here’ and ‘then and there’ modes of the courtroom and press, was rapidly acknowledged. With the launching of telegraphy, prominent New York editor James Gordon Bennett explained to his readers that the new departure was momentous, for the telegraph could ‘impress the whole nation . . . with the same idea at the same time’ (Quoted in A Journalist [Isaac C. Pray], 1855, p. 365). The telegraph possessed the potential to nationalize knowledge of the world simultaneously and ultimately bring about consensus. By utilizing the telegraph’s news broadcast mode, observed the editor of the New York Express, ‘The Union will be solidified at the expense of the State sovereignties.’ He went on to predict that: We shall become more and more one people, thinking more alike, acting more alike, and having more and more one impulse.
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 123
Washington is as near to us now as our [New York City] up-town wards. We can almost hear through the Telegraph, members of Congress as they speak . . . Man will immediately respond to man. An excitement will thus be general, and cease to be local. Whether good or ill is to come from all this, we cannot foresee (Quoted in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, 1846). This new vision of public participation was both forward- and backwardlooking. To Morse, it was the dream of ‘making one neighborhood of the whole country’, a vision later paraphrased by McLuhan as the ‘global village’, juxtaposing the pristine village and the electronically, then digitally, shrunk globe. But this (literally) revolutionary prospect of archaic witnessing which was revived had its limitations. Unlike subsequent broadcast technologies – even unlike time-honored journalism – newsgathering by telegraph offered only a ﬂeshless skeleton of public news. Providing neither texture nor context, it was epitomized by the inverted pyramid technique of reporting, presenting the bottom-line first (supposedly, a precaution for the risk of lines breaking down before the ‘meat’ of the story was reported) (Mindich, 2000). The telegraph provided only choice ingredients plucked out of reality, recounted tersely and anonymously, not a living experience of the world personally narrated, to which people could relate and with which they could identify. Timeliness was achieved but at the cost of a shriveled picture of reality that could barely stand for witnessing as a deep and nuanced consensual public construction of a changed world.13 Moreover, the notion of communality generated by sharing news knowledge on the time dimension could not resurrect the unmediated ‘here and now’ experience of archaic witnessing. Although it may appear paradoxical, the mere act of instantaneously communicating with distant points appears to have accentuated the notion of distance rather than proximity. Numerous descriptions of early use of the telegraph record the communicators commenting on the great distances that separated them, while at the same time they marveled at the novel rapid connection. They spoke of communicating with ‘friends who seem so near but are indeed so far away’ (Quotation from the Philadelphia Pennsylvanian, 1846). The unity of communication and transportation, from prehistory to telegraphy, most likely helped make real-time meetings of minds across space accentuate the physical distance of bodies.14 Even today, people respond to an overseas call by exclaiming, ‘But you sound so near!’
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
IV. The capacity of radio and television to connect listeners and viewers to a changed reality, or to a reality that is being changed, in real time and in front of them, allows for a full ‘liveness’. These two electronic technologies that have dominated the media environment of the twentieth century facilitate connecting with reality ‘now and there’ far better than the telegraph, whose messages had to be modulated to another medium (the printed page) before reaching the public. In addition to cutting through the technical stages of mediation, radio and TV took one more step in the direction of the ancient form of witnessing by simulating the modalities of unmediated perception. The ability of the radio and television to provide authentic voice and image clips, preserving the modalities of the originals, shortens the process of reading and translating a script into sounds and sights of the imagination.15 Moreover, unlike the telegraph, they allow a robust view of reality with which one can identify or, alternatively, mobilize against. And like print journalism, they can provide a professionally reported, thought-out, and edited picture of reality.16 The familiar voices of the anchors and correspondents, with their idiosyncratic styles, convey continuity, credibility, and responsibility.17 Most significantly, perhaps, unlike the newspaper, radio and television provide a gratifying sense of communitas, in the awareness that other members of the community are also listening to the news in their cars or kitchens or viewing primetime TV news in their living rooms at precisely the same time.18 This workaday sense of continuity and belonging is dramatically intensified in the media events genre, which makes ‘there and now’ feel like ‘here and now’. The communal viewing of media events, promoted in advance as potentially transformative, plays an active, essential part in their success. Recall the enthusiastic ‘participation’ at a distance of the British public in Diana and Charles’s royal wedding, which was essential in endorsing the legitimacy of the institution of Royalty. Going beyond public recognition and sanction, the live broadcast of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral following his assassination, viewed by Israelis from both sides of the political divide, marked not only reunification, but also a renewal of the covenant on which democracies are founded – the commitment to operate according to the rules (Liebes and Peri, 1998). At the turn of the twentieth century, with the explosion of fiercely competing global news channels, television’s capacity to bear live
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 125
witness to what is happening ‘now and there’ at any given place or moment has taken a problematic turn. The live genre of media events, based on an implicit contract binding the trio of media, government, and public – all of whom pre-endorsed the event – has become marginalized. It is being replaced by ‘disaster marathons’ in which authorities temporarily lose power and media are coerced to convey death, destruction, and helplessness – live – to an anxious public. 19 In this version of witnessing, professional journalists are deprived of the tools to supply credible information and are reduced to watching recycled pictures on the screen with the rest of the public. In intentional man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks or violent individual rampages, the media, imprisoned by their competitive habits, may even act as agents of the instigators. The latter, well-versed in the rules of global media, may initiate the disaster precisely for its publicity, in order to gain fame, terrorize the witnessing public, and/or cause a mood of despair through the inevitable live broadcast of disaster. Instead of providing closure for a change that has taken place in reality, ‘then and there’, or giving public legitimacy to a covenant entered into ‘now and there’, the media can only serve their temporary master by endlessly replaying the dramatic images, speculating in the studio, 9/11-style, on ‘Who’s done it?’ and completely confusing their listless audiences in the process (Blondheim and Liebes, 2003).20 Still, in the daily news genres, as Ellis and Boltansky suggest, there is genuine public witnessing, archaic-style, taking place. Underlying their argument is the acknowledgment that in the new media environment ‘we can no longer say that we didn’t know’ (Ellis, 2000). Situated in the era of global news channels, this approach raises the issue of the limits of responsibility. True, what is happening ‘now’ is always ‘there’, some distance away. At what distance are ‘we’ viewers freed from being responsible? Atrocities seen from up close, as breaking news that is happening ‘now’, may be happening in ‘our’ community, ‘our’ country, ‘our region’ (for example, Europe), or, alternately, far away on the other side of the globe.21 Contemporary television, as does the biblical God, has the capacity to see (and show) a piece of reality in any part of the world, but it lacks God’s power to act. When the viewing public witnesses the suffering of people to whom they feel close (geographically, emotionally, and so on), public opinion may demand action. Some media scholars argue that it matters less whether seeing evil that is happening ‘now and there’ does or does not affect the viewing public; it is enough that the politicians in charge believe that it does so, for them to attempt to amend this reality. And there is evidence to show that this new kind
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
of public participation is affecting the ways in which armies and states conduct themselves. In routine broadcasting, the problem with national radio and TV news lies in their selective representation of reality. Their news-net is stationary, covering only the places where news is most expected – the White House, Wall Street, police headquarters, the courts. Only rarely do news crews venture into the field to investigate a reality which the establishment is not interested in reporting. Only rarely does an individual possessing knowledge appear before the public as the biblical legal witness – the plaintiff or prosecutor. Such was the case of Daniel Elsberg, who, guided by his belief that the U.S. should withdraw from Vietnam, mortgaged his future by disclosing a secret report he had written for the Pentagon. Another was the case of the tobacco company researcher who revealed to a ‘60 Minutes’ producer that his company was using addictive substances. Most importantly, media broadcast is unlike the experience of archaic witnessing in its oracle-like, one-to-many, top-tobottom nature. It does not allow a sense of participation, except, to an extent, in media events. Twenty-first century television is more democratic – a plethora of channels can now show practically everything from everywhere, live, through a combination of ubiquitous surveillance technologies and satellite broadcast. But even this new laterality cannot seem to revive the archaic experience of witnessing, for at least three reasons. One is fragmentation. In our era of segmented and splintered audiences – even local communities are split by what they view – no longer can any single channel assemble the entire collective to witness in the manner described by the Bible. Consider the paradigmatic case of biblical witnessing: Moses gathering the Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai for establishing the covenant between them and God (and the Hebrew ‘covenant’, it will be recalled, is synonymous with ‘witnessing’). The site for entering the covenant was carefully chosen based on its topography, and the experience of enacting (namely witnessing) it, featured dramatic audiovisual effects. But it was not over when these space-transcending signals were over. Television’s ﬂeeting signals replace each other in rapid succession, the later ones erasing, as it were, the earlier ones. The Sinai covenant was different: a text, etched in stone yet portable, was to serve as witness to the covenant, transcending time and space. From the perspective of future generations, the tablets were to serve as a witness to what was enacted ‘then and there’, yet binding always and everywhere.
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 127
Finally, in our era of ubiquitous recording, documenting, posting, and broadcasting, it is no longer necessarily significant events that are shared and recognized by the collective, but rather anything the cameras happen to pick up. The model of reality TV as continuous, unselective eavesdropping thoroughly undermines the archaic habitus of witnessing. Rather than a sacrosanct enactment or recognition of significant and transformative events, television programming has become the ongoing, live documentation of vanity fairs. From the vantage point of archaic witnessing, today’s television seems to proclaim that there is no longer a public, no longer a shared view of reality, and no more consensually significant transformations of it to witness.
Notes 1. Ellis’s position may be seen as a retreat from his previous, more trusting approach to mass-mediated news coverage in Seeing Things: Television in an Age of Uncertainty (2000) (London: I.B. Taurus). Based on trust in media-witnessed experiences, Ellis considers there the ethical implications of audiencing as tacit acquiescence with atrocities at a distance. 2. This wording invokes Elihu Katz and Paul Lazarsfeld’s notion of social mediation in Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications (1955) (Glencoe, IL: Free Press). In a sense, the two steps of witnessing correspond to the broadcast of information and the shaping of opinion inﬂuenced by opinion leaders. 3. Recently, however, Ellis upgraded the role of the audience from ‘monitoring’ to the more active role of ‘seeing’, just shy of ‘gazing’ – a focused, involved scrutiny of images, and through them, the world, as when viewing a movie. Ellis contrasts the gazing of the movie theater to the monitoring of television, a perfunctory, isolated glimpsing of the outside world to sustain individual safety from the crazy world outside, coupled with a sense of and moral superiority over the agents of chaos out there. 4. On law reporting as a staple of early active news gathering, see M. Schudson (1978) Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books); D. Schiller (1981) Objectivity and the News: The Public and the Rise of Commercial Journalism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press); and A. Tucher (1994) Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America’s First Mass Medium (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press). M. Blondheim (1994) News over the Wires: The Telegraph and the Flow of Public Information in America, 1844–1897 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press) p. 44, n. 66 traces the drifting of the term ‘reporter’ from official bodies whose transactions are oral to the practice of journalism. At first, early telegraphic news gatherers transmitted deliberations and resolutions of official bodies such as Congress in Washington, D.C. and the New York State legislatures and courts in Albany. Delivering official reports, the telegraph newsmen became known as reporters. As the telegraph became the main medium for gathering premium ‘fast’ news, the journalistic practice of
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media describing transpiring events of public interest assumed the name associated with telegraphic news professionals and became known as reporting. See L. Boltanski (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media, and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Relevant too is the Bible’s standing as a distinctively religious text, which inevitably presents an ethical point of view. That view may have impacted cotemporary sensibilities directly, or indirectly, through a lingering inﬂuence on the development of Western thought on ethics. An alternative possibility is that ed derives from the root od, additional, which in this context would point to other people present, as in the Latin ‘testis’ which derives from ‘tritos’ – third person. See Y. D. Zeligman (1992) Studies in Biblical Literature (Jerusalem: Magnes), p. 257, note 44, and cf. Peters’s fascinating discussion of the relation between the two meanings of ‘testis’: witness and testicle, ‘Witnessing’, p. 712. In both Aramaic and Greek, the same word serves for witnessing and entering into a covenant. The first appearance of the word is in the context of Abimelech’s recognition of Abraham’s right to the well he dug in Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:30). That episode, however, is too skeletal to provide much insight into the early meaning of ‘covenant’. Referring to these episodes as early does not imply, of course, that they were written before others in the scribing of the biblical testament. ‘I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth’ (Genesis 9:13). Indeed, the dreidel Israeli children play with is inscribed with ‘a great miracle happened here’. On this aspect of witnessing, see P. Frosh (2006) ‘Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 23, no. 4, 265–84; Also in this volume, Chapter 2. See Zeligman (reference information provided in endnote 7), p. 255, and the literature quoted therein. See, for example, J. W. Carey (1989) ‘Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph’, in Id., Communication As Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge), pp. 201–30; M. Blondheim (2004) ‘ “Slender Bridges” of Misunderstanding: The Social Legacy of Transatlantic Cables’, in N. Finzsch and U. Lehmkuhl (eds), Atlantic Communications: Political, Social and Cultural Perspectives on Media Technology in American and German History (Oxford: Berg), pp. 153–70. See M. Blondheim (1993) ‘When Bad things Happen to Good Technologies: Three Phases in the Diffusion and Perception of American Telegraphy’, in Technology, Pessimism, and Postmodernism, Sociology of Sciences Yearbook 1993 (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers), p. 79. There is a lively literature on the types of effectiveness of each of the options – pure voice versus image and voice. For more, see W. Booth (1982), ‘The Company We Keep: Self-Making in Imaginative Art, Old and New’, Daedlus, 111, 33–59; S. Chatman (1981) ‘What Books Can Do That Films Can’t and Vice Versa’, in W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.), On Narrative, 117–36 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press); M. McLuhan (1964) Understanding Media (New York: McGraw-Hill).
Menahem Blondheim and Tamar Liebes 129 16. Nevertheless, it can be argued that editing may smooth out the more complex picture of reality, telling it according to the reporter’s and/or editor’s pre-existing script. 17. To an extent, the newspaper too provided a measure of this effect by the familiarity of its format, design-templates and layouts, let alone recognizing by-lines and writers’ styles. See K. G. Barnhurst and J. Nerone (2001) The Form of News: A History (New York: Gilford Press); P. Frosh (2004) The Image Factory (Oxford: Berg Publishers). 18. This argument is based on our paper on ‘The End of Television News’, presented at the Second International Workshop on ‘The End of Television? Its Impact on the World (So Far)’, Philadelphia, 17–18 February 2007; forthcoming in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. James Carey did argue, quite convincingly, that the daily newspaper was the first to gather its readers, as members of the community, around shared news, thereby reinforcing their consensual perspective. However, reading the printed words lacks the emotionality that is aroused when listening to or viewing an event in real time, with the knowledge that one is taking part of a collective experience. 19. The nature of this coercion is analyzed in Tamar Liebes (1988) ‘Disaster Marathons’, in T. Liebes and J. Curran (eds), Media, Ritual, Identity (London: Routledge). 20. Naturally, in the edited news show, which summarizes the developing story, editors and journalists may recapture their poise and re-exercise their daily journalistic routines. 21. There are, of course, cases in which the viewer’s government is responsible for conducting atrocities in another country, in which case relevance remains.
References M. Blondheim and T. Liebes (2003) ‘From Disaster Marathon to Media Event: Live Television’s Performance on September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2002’, in A. Michael Noll (ed.), Crisis Communications: Lessons from September 11, 185–98 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield). D. Dayan and E. Katz (1992) Media Events: The Live Broadcasting of History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). J. Ellis ‘(Not) the End of Television: TV, Politics, and the new Emotionality’, paper presented at the Second International Workshop on ‘The End of Television? Its Impact on the World (So Far)’, Philadelphia, 17–18 February 2007, forthcoming in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. P. Frosh (2006) ‘Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 23, no. 4, 265–84. Also in this volume, Chapter 2. T. Liebes and M. Blondheim (2005) ‘Myths to the Rescue: How Live Television Intervenes in History’, in E. W. Rothenbuhler and M. Coman (eds), Media Anthropology, 188–98 (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publication).
Archaic Witnessing and Contemporary News Media
T. Liebes and Y. Peri (1998) ‘Electronic Journalism in Segmented Societies: Lessons from the 1996 Israeli Election’, Political Communication, vol. 15, no. 1, 27–43. B. Lifshitz (2002) Law and Action: Terminology of Obligation and Acquisition in Jewish Law (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik). D. Mindich (2000) ‘Edwin M. Stanton, the Inverted Pyramid, and Information Control’, in D. B. Sachsman, S. Kittrell Rushing, and D. Reddin van Tuyll (eds), The Civil War and the Press, 179–208 (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers). J. D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture & Society, vol.23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. A Journalist [Isaac C. Pray] (1855) Memoirs of James Gordon Bennett and his Times (New York: Stringer and Townsend). Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper, 17 June 1846. Philadelphia Pennsylvanian, 30 December 1846. G. von Rad, quoted in ‘Edut’, Encyclopedia Mikrait (Biblical Encyclopedia).
Part II Performances of Media Witnessing
This page intentionally left blank
6 Witnessing as a Field Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski
Witnessing has recently become a contested issue in media scholarship, constituting a complex practice midway between experience and agency. Occupying a distinctive place in contemporary media studies, witnessing combines the evolution of media technologies – production, transmission, and representation – with weighty questions of morality and audience responsibility. Arguably, the very definition of what it means to be a witness in this day and age has changed with the expansion of media technologies. This chapter is an attempt to rethink the stakes and implications involved in media witnessing. It is beneficial to open by outlining the main points to be developed in the following discussion. (1) Witnessing, we suggest, is subject to a constant struggle and is hence an inherently political practice. (2) We regard the act of witnessing as contingent upon the specific event witnessed; thus, the ontology of witnessing is dependent on its context, as different events give rise to different modalities of witnessing. (3) As a political practice relative to a specific event, witnessing transpires in what Pierre Bourdieu (1977) designates as a field. Thus, witnessing is regarded as a field comprised of various agents, interests, positions, and resources. (4) The field of witnessing operates on terms of trust, which is the basic currency among the agents and the object for which they compete. The final section of the chapter will be devoted to a case study, an analysis of the field of witnessing in two documentary films produced shortly after the clashes in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in March 2002.
Theorizing witnessing Recent scholarship has provided much insight into the history, practice, and consequence of media witnessing. At the risk of oversimplification, 133
Witnessing as a Field
it is possible to distinguish from the variety therein two central approaches: the vicarious witness and the implicated witness. The prototype of vicarious witness is arguably John Ellis’s discussion of contemporary media witness. According to Ellis (2000), the twentieth century is the century of witness and has brought audiences visual evidence of worldwide events through the media of photography, film, and television. The most striking result of this situation is that ‘ “I did not know” and “I did not realize” are no longer open to us as a defense’ (Ellis, 2000, p. 9). Similarly, Roger Silverstone (2002) claimed that regarding audiences as active and reﬂexive presumes that audiences inevitably assume a moral stance: ‘If audiences refuse to take that responsibility, then they are morally culpable. And we are all audiences now’ (Silverstone, 2002, p. 774). Both Ellis and Silverstone contend that a profound shift has taken place in the way we perceive the world beyond our immediate reach. We are all witnesses to what is taking place somewhere else, and this very fact implies that we are somehow responsible. The second approach offers a more restricted take by emphasizing the distinction between mere spectators and witnessing agents. The fundamental premise here is that one qualifies as a witness predominantly by virtue of being present at the event. In this vein, John Durham Peters (2001) specifies three types of relations to an event that qualify as witnessing: to be present at the event in time and space (the modality of ‘being there’); to be present in time but removed in space (the modality of liveness); and finally, to be present in space but removed in time (the modality of historicity) (pp. 720–21). For Peters, the first modality is the paradigmatic case of witnessing: ‘The witness is authorized to speak by having been at the occurrence’ (2001, p. 710). He nevertheless concedes that witnessing may transcend time and space specificities: being present-at-a-distance, as in the case of watching a live broadcast, allows for a sense of participation from afar. Similarly, absence in time but presence in place also constitutes a modality of witnessing, enabling participation across time, particularly through physical artifacts of the past. It is clear, however, that for Peters the latter two are derivates of the first paradigmatic case insofar as they retain the basic time/space determinants. This hierarchy of witnessing excludes a fourth modality – that of absence in both time and space – deeming it a situation ‘in which the attitude of witnessing is hardest to sustain’ (Peters, 2001, p. 720). The importance of presence is further explicated in Avishai Margalit’s (2002) conception of moral witness. Margalit supplements time and
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 135
space with the factor of risk: ‘The moral witness should himself be at personal risk, whether he is a sufferer or just an observer of the suffering that comes from evil-doing’ (p. 150). What makes someone into a moral witness is not merely the fact of being there but also the fact of being in harm’s way. These two approaches to conceptualizing witnessing draw from different sources and promote different understandings of witnessing altogether. The vicarious witness approach has spawned discussion on the audience’s engagement in distant suffering (Boltanski, 1999), on the moral stance of mediated experience (Frosh, 2006; Sontag, 2004), and on morality in a mediated world (Couldry, 2006; Silverstone, 2007). Nevertheless, the position occupied by the remote viewers of distant suffering was also credited with generating social indifference (Tester, 1997), producing an organized ‘state of denial’ (Cohen, 2001), and, more generally, coinciding with forms of moral distanciation (Bauman, 1990). The implicated witness approach, on the other hand, found theoretical explication in trauma theory and Holocaust studies, promoting questions of history, identity, and the social implication of traumatic experience (Felman and Laub, 1992; Caruth, 1996; Agamben, 1999; Oliver, 2001). As much as these perspectives differ, they nevertheless seem to share a common presumption about witnessing, which deems it a situation one simply inhabits, independently and discretely, irrespective of the specific event witnessed. In other words, witnessing is understood as a position one already holds, not something one must obtain. Much of the existing literature is therefore concerned with the ontology of witnessing as existing separately from its contextual specificities. Moreover, in contrast to other entries in media studies lexicon, witnessing, in a late-modern reincarnation of its theological roots, appears as an exceptionally pristine term, possessing a purity and wholesomeness incompatible with critical thinking (see Peters, 2001; Thomas, Chapter 4, in this volume). As such, witnessing seems to be both at odds with issues of power and politics as well as incongruous with struggle and domination. In what follows, we propose a different perspective for assessing witnessing, one which casts witnessing as contingent on the specific parameters of the event. We further posit that witnessing is a field in which various forces, resources, and agents compete. In other words, witnessing is to be regarded as subject to contest and struggle, and hence as a genuine political arena.
Witnessing as a Field
Witnessing as a ﬁeld The re-conceptualization of witnessing as a field is premised on the claim that witnessing is linked with and conditioned by the event witnessed. Whereas previous scholarship understands witnessing as the independent variable and the event as the dependent, we opt for the reverse – witnessing as contingent upon the event being witnessed. Of critical importance here are the contextual parameters (political, historical, rhetorical, technological, and so on) of the act of witnessing, that is, the specificities of the event under consideration. Thus, rather than looking at the different modalities of witnessing while bracketing out the event, we give priority to the event and the modalities of witnessing it promotes or restricts. One consequence of this perspective is that witnessing cannot be analyzed outside its specific context, apart from its conditions of possibility. Witnessing is always ad hoc and case-specific. Following Peters (2001), we regard witnessing as a communication triangle comprised of (1) the agent bearing witness, (2) the utterance or the text itself, and (3) the audience. However, this model is here supplemented by and contextualized within the parameters of the specific event in question. In this sense, what Peters takes as the three fixed components of witnessing, we take as three zones of contention: the first is to obtain agency, the second is to attain voice, and the third is to compel the audience to take notice. It follows that being a witness is subject to struggle, not privilege; it is something to be accomplished, not simply given. In positing witnessing as a field, we draw on the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1977, 1992). According to Bourdieu, a field is a social space consisting of interrelated positions – a configuration of relations between positions – within which social agents strive to operate and prevail. Put differently, a field is a social arena in which struggles take place over resources and access to them; a field is defined by the stakes which are at stake (Jenkins, 2006, p. 84). The social consists of many fields, each operating according to sets of rules and norms – much like a game in which players try to achieve their objectives. The field of witnessing may then be seen as populated by agents occupying different positions and holding divergent abilities, interests, and resources. Agents are equipped to play in this field by means of their habitual schemas or forms of know-how. This set of primary classifications and predispositions (which usually operate below the level of consciousness) is what Bourdieu calls habitus. Furthermore, each agent makes use of various resources available to him or her – political, symbolic,
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 137
social, technological, or economic forms of capital – which are unevenly distributed across the field. We propose that the game being played in the witnessing field is a game of trust in which agents compete to gain the trust of their designated audiences. Trust, however, is a tricky business: when someone gains trust, another might lose it. Agents utilize the capital available to them, as well as their habitual schemas, in order to operate within the field of witnessing with the aim of gaining the trust of those whom they seek to address. A preliminary condition for playing this game is, of course, being admitted into the field. One corollary to this condition is that there will always be those who a priori remain – or are kept – outside the field, those who are barred from entering. They are excluded from the field, but their exclusion is no less a political act, for in such cases someone is divested of the means to bear witness. Being outside the field of witnessing means being relegated to silence (see Lyotard, 1989). One way to imagine the field of witnessing is as the power-knowledge projection of an event, the epistemological map emerging from its specific arrangement. The field of witnessing is populated by various agents, not all of whom are witnesses. In a legal context, the field of witnessing is inhabited by lawyers, judges, juries, defendants, plaintiffs, and witnesses. In a historical context, the field is occupied by professional historians, agents and agencies of collective memory (official and unofficial), archives, and witnesses (see Assmann, 1995). Even when one acts as a corroborating witness in an official procedure (for example, co-signer on a contract or a witness at a wedding), one operates within a field that designates her or him by virtue of one’s qualities, affiliation, or availability as a bona fide witness. Our concern here is with the field of media witnessing. As stated above, this field is inhabited by various agents, not all of whom are witnesses, near or far. It is possible to divide this field into three zones: eyewitnesses, mediators, and audiences.
Eyewitnesses Eyewitnesses are those who appear in various media genres as individuals who were there and consequently give their accounts of the event. It is usually the case that there is more than one witness to an event, be it mundane or exceptional. Those who lived through the event are then asked to relate their experiences, and in doing so they draw on the resources available to them. First, of course, is their presence at the event
Witnessing as a Field
and their firsthand experience of it, which is the entry card, as it were, to presenting oneself as a witness. However, there are other resources as well. Rhetoric is often a consideration: someone must remember what happened, have a desire to report it, and translate what she/he saw into words. Presence and rhetoric thus form the basis for the witnessing discourse. Nevertheless, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions for bearing witness. In many cases, the identity of the individual bearing witness is important, particularly when witnesses are survivors of a man-made catastrophe. It is unlikely that the perpetrator of a mass murder would then serve as a witness; in such cases, witnessing seems to be the lot of victims. This means that insofar as the field of witnessing is concerned, being a victim may count as a resource, a form of capital in producing testimony. Who counts as a victim might be a simple or difficult question, depending on the field at hand. Once considered a victim, though, the path to be considered a witness is open. Technology might also be an issue in certain instances, for example, when one captures pictures of an event on camera or video. In this case, the technologically inclined would have an advantage over the merely verbal (say, someone who reports an encounter with a UFO but can back this up with filmed evidence). From this perspective, a professional reporter is a species of eyewitness, combining the traditional narrative or textual practices with technology of sound and/or image. There may be other conditions and requirements, which, in keeping with the framework suggested here, extend from the specific event in question. Resources available to individual agents might also vary from one event to another, making the task of gaining trust both specific and provisional. In short, presenting oneself as a witness implies presenting one’s habitus as certification for trustworthiness. As Bourdieu stresses, players’ success depends on their habitual schemas and the different forms of capital available to them (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992). To work in the field of witnessing, one must employ both habitus and capital, that is, operate in the field by taking advantage of a particular combination of circumstance and competence.
Mediators Beyond witnesses, the field of media witnessing includes another crucial player: the mediator. Mediators are the various agents and agencies that film, direct, edit, produce, archive, and broadcast testimonies. The
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 139
mediators are the producers, in the deep sense of the word, of media witnessing. As such, they correspond to what Stuart Hall (1980) designates in his encoding/decoding model as ‘technical infrastructure’ and ‘relations of production’ (the third component, ‘frameworks of knowledge’, partly correlates here with the input given by eyewitnesses). Indeed, it is possible to claim that media witnessing is encoded as a meaningful text, one which bears and reﬂects the dominant codes of its producers. The employment of eyewitnesses in the media is a practice that serves certain goals in certain situations, which suggests that this genre might better complement one set of preferred meanings than another. When the mediator presents an eyewitness, an unsaid statement is thereby conveyed: this specific person is an authentic eyewitness who has something important to contribute to the mediated articulation underway. This is a fairly straightforward yet crucial point. Insofar as media witnessing is concerned, mediators determine who qualifies as a witness. Their choice has to do with technical, professional, circumstantial, and ideological considerations that may differ from one report to another. A crude example is the BBC reporter in the Belgian Congo who wandered through a refugee camp yelling, ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’ (Behr, 1982). Although rarely presented so callously, this logic is at the core of media witnessing in general. Thus, the witnesses we see or hear on the media are the result of a selection process, a process that while contingent on the specific event bespeaks the dominant codes of the mediators. When producing a recorded account, mediators have more time and resources to locate appropriate witnesses who suit the overall statement they want to produce. In a live broadcast, where immediacy is of the essence, the selection process serves the objectives and restrictions typical of liveness (above all ‘being there’). Still, both cases involve some kind of selection, and so the eyewitnesses we see or hear are those whose profiles (that is, competence plus circumstance) meet the requirements of the mediators at a given time. Other potential eyewitnesses who, for whatever reason, are deemed unwanted, remain outside the field of media witnessing. As mentioned above, on-site reporters might be considered a subcategory of the eyewitness, as actors in an institutionalized practice of witnessing with its specific combination of competence and circumstance – in other words, professional eyewitnesses. Reporters are in this sense extensions and direct delegates of the mediators. In some instances, having a reporter on scene will prove beneficial, especially
Witnessing as a Field
in introducing new and exclusive information. However, in some cases using lay witnesses (in addition to or instead of the professional ones) may prove valuable, particularly when trying to recreate the impression of the event and its effects on the immediate surrounding. It is precisely the crude and unrefined quality of such accounts that make them an indispensable resource in the hands of mediators, providing them with a sense of authenticity no reporter can match. Mediators are therefore the gatekeepers of the field and occupy a pivotal position in it. An event can be witnessed through the media only insofar as it is constructed as ‘witnessable’ by the media. And the conditions by which an event will come to be witnessed are never divorced from ideology.
Audience The audience is the ultimate addressee of mediated testimonies; audience members are witnesses to the witnesses. The position they occupy is that of remote spectators, which is the opposite position of the eyewitness. For the former, remoteness means detachment and hence the ability to observe and reﬂect; for the latter, ‘being there’ entails proximity, which means involvement, and hence the annihilation of perspective.1 Yet the audience is not merely a witness by proxy, bearing witness through the media to distant events. Media audiences are also in a position to judge what they see – they are not simply observers, they are, at least potentially, judge and jury. The audience, then, inhabits a distinctive position in the field of witnessing, a position which comes with its particular modes of experience and discourse. Luc Boltanski (1999), in providing a detailed catalog of the status of watching ‘distant suffering’, has specified the emotional and discursive situations involved therein. Audiences respond to what they see in previously unexplored ways by means of denunciation, sympathy, or pity. Yet their privileged situation also enables them to watch others’ pain as a spectacle. A crucial point arising from Boltanski’s analysis is that while audiences share a common moral universe with the mediators and eyewitnesses, they inhabit a separate sphere within which they engage with images of suffering beyond their immediate context. The situation in which the worldwide audience watches the plights and misfortunes of distant others is certainly a novelty of the twentieth century. The challenges this situation poses are enormous, particularly the question of the audience’s responsibility and culpability (Ellis, 2000; Silverstone, 2007). Yet the impression arising from previous accounts
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 141
is that if the audience is a sort of judge and jury, then in many respects, the judge is faltering and the jury is out and may never reconvene. Still, the framework of the field of witnessing may help to better understand the possibilities and constraints implied in this situation, this by re-conceptualizing the act of witnessing itself. Rather than determining the ontological status of witnessing – the debate between Ellis’s approach and Peters’s – this perspective deems both as integral parts of the witnessing field. Eyewitnesses and audience occupy two different strategic positions in the field, each with its own distinctive circumstances and competences. Proximity and distance are therefore two key variables in the field which may be utilized in some cases by mediators as resources for producing trust.
Framework for analysis The purpose of the following framework is to specify the different elements that inﬂuence the way trust is produced and distributed across the field, given a specific event. There are three zones in the field: eyewitness, mediators, and the audience. The zone of eyewitness stretches between the event and discourse; the zone of mediators stretches between discourse and meaning; and the zone of audience draws on meaning in order to pass judgment. There are three spheres of negotiation in the field: discourse, meaning, and judgment. Discourse is the intersection of the eyewitness as addresser and the mediator as addressee; meaning is the intersection of the mediators as encoders and the audience as decoders of meaning; judgment is the intersection of audience as spectators on the one hand, and as moral agents on the other hand (see Boltanski, 1999). Originating from the event, the fundamental currency of the field is trust: the mediator’s trust in the eyewitness, which enables discourse and consequently the production of meaning, and the audience’s trust in the mediators, which enables meaning-making and ultimately passing judgment. An important consequence arising from this construction of witnessing as a field is that trust is a precondition for the audience to pass judgment. The figure below specifies the various elements in the field, followed by a brief definition of each. This catalog is by no means exhaustive, nor is it exclusive of additional or alternative items. Nevertheless, it serves to elucidate what we believe to be the fundamental components of the field.
Event Performative Circumstance Capacity Eyewitness Enunciation Status
Testimony Evidence Technology Mediators Authorship Narrative Genre Meaning
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 143
Standing between event and discourse, eyewitnesses make use of the following resources to substantiate their position: • Performative – The pronunciation of the eyewitness: ‘I was there, I saw’. While there may be different variations of this phrase, its gist is the same, that is, someone pronouncing herself/himself an agent bearing witness, even before and beyond what she/he has to say. This pronunciation may not necessarily be verbal, voluntary, or even conscious. Moreover, it might be diegetic or non-diegetic (for instance, when the mediator makes a claim about the eyewitness: ‘She was there and saw’). Yet, in every instance of witnessing there must be a performative assertion on some level. This preliminary yet necessary act initiates witnessing on the part of the eyewitness. • Circumstance – The circumstance by which one came to witness the event, thereby locating and binding the eyewitness in space and time (‘I was sitting on the porch across from X when . . . ’, ‘I was walking on street when . . . ’). Such circumstance is always in terms of and contingent upon the event. • Capacity – In what capacity one experienced the event (‘As a doctor, I arrived at . . . ’, ‘As a Jew I was sent to . . . ’). While circumstance is related to the event, one’s capacity is external to it (one is a doctor or a Jew before, during, and after the event, and regardless of it) (see Hutchby, 2001). The eyewitness makes use of the following resources to communicate the event: • Enunciation: The verbal communication and gestural cues by which the eyewitness enunciates his or her experiences for potential addressees. The eyewitness communicates not only his/her knowledge of the event (information, circumstance, and capacity) but also his/her emotional states (‘I was terrified’, ‘I was shocked’). Only through enunciation does the eyewitness come to finally bear witness to the event. As long as the event remains exclusively individual memory, it remains incommunicable. However, incommunicability might be considered a special type of enunciation, as in the case of the traumatized witness (‘I can’t describe it, it’s beyond words’). The inability to communicate nevertheless communicates something: the emotional imprint left by the event. While psyches are idiosyncratic, emotions are universal, and thus by resorting to a
Witnessing as a Field
description of emotions, the eyewitness provides a common basis for the participation and recognition of potential addressees. • Status: The social standing of the eyewitness. Status can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the event, the mediators, or the audience. Furthermore, status might change over time. The status of a soldier eyewitness might affect, for better or worse, the evaluation of his testimony; likewise for a layperson, journalist, doctor, and so on. Status might therefore confer credibility or fault, but in any case, it is a factor when someone presents himself/herself as an eyewitness.2 • Relevance: In order to render experience communicable, the eyewitness also employs cues of relevance to draw in potential addressees. These may vary from using familiar speech or slang to employing elements from collective memory, popular culture, or history. Together, these rhetorical resources are meant to evoke ‘experiential closeness’ (Bilandzic, 2006). Situated between discourse and meaning, mediators make use of the following resources to substantiate their report as pertinent to the event: • Testimonies: The input gained from eyewitnesses. Granting an eyewitness the status of testimony is the mediator’s prerogative. In terms of the field, one is an eyewitness only insofar as one is found qualified by the mediator. Hence, an eyewitness who fails to gain the status of testimony does not figure in the field and is consequently condemned to silence. As stated, the selection made by mediators speaks for their biases, agenda, and interests; moreover, it speaks for the ideological framework within which they operate. • Evidence: In addition to testimonies, mediators utilize corroborating evidence when mediating the event. Drawing on various sources unavailable to any individual witness, mediators utilize institutional networks (economic, governmental, and technical) to give a wider, more comprehensive overview of the event. Evidence and testimonies constitute the material on which mediators draw. In this way, mediators combine proximity and distance as two distinctive and equally beneficial resources. • Technology: Mediators utilize technology in order to convey the event, most frequently while on the scene. It is usually the case that mediators (or their delegates) arrive on the scene only after the event is in process or has finished. Mediators are, by definition, always late to the event. Thus, they must rely on those who were there to compensate for the time gap in their reporting on the aftermath.
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 145
Technology is an important resource here, as it substantiates mediators’ presence at the event, even if belatedly. In cases in which the reporter is also an eyewitness, technology and testimony converge into one enunciation. Still, additional testimonies are often sought to provide the more authentic perspective of the layperson. Mediators make use of the following resources to render the event meaningful: • Authorship: Every media report is the product of a media agency which has its own public standing, reputation, and profile. When mediating events worldwide, media agencies put forward their credibility and prestige as collateral, as if stating, ‘We vouch that this has indeed happened.’ In every act of mediating authorship is announced, either directly (‘This is the BBC’) or indirectly (‘We take you live to our reporter’). • Narrative: Through their authorship of the event, mediators provide it with a timeline, context, circumstance, and causality. In other words, they construct a narrative from a previously chaotic event. While their narrative may be provisional or fragmentary, it is nevertheless an attempt to create order by means of the resources outlined above. There may be an initial phase in which information is too scarce to construct a narrative, particularly in cases of disastrous events (for example, reports during the first hours of 9/11), but it is mediators’ top priority to shorten this phase and replace it as soon as possible with a narrative (see Scannell, 2004). • Genre: Mediators construct their narratives within genres. Two genres, for instance a live coverage report and a documentary, might both draw on testimonies but employ them differently. The use of testimonies serves different purposes in different genres. A live broadcast uses them to bridge the time gap between an event and the report on it, bringing the audience as close as possible to the occurrence. A documentary, on the other hand, might use testimonies to add an emotional dimension rather than concrete knowledge. Mixing genres is yet another resource available to mediators in certain cases. Situated between meaning and judgment is the audience. As spectators, their involvement is predicated on the fact of their absence at the scene of witnessing and, consequently, on their inability to bear witnesses themselves. Distance from the event and the perspective it provides are their main resources within the field. Following Boltanski’s
Witnessing as a Field
analysis of distant suffering (1999), it is possible to outline three ‘topics’ of involvement: • Denunciation: Identifying a persecutor whose figure serves as the object of the audience’s denunciation. • Sentiment: Identifying a benefactor whose figure serves as the object of the audience’s sentiment. • Aesthetic: Focusing on the spectacle itself, as an experience of the sublime, which is generated by aesthetic appreciation of the scene (see Chouliaraki, 2004). The framework presented here conforms to Boltanski’s typology, yet with one important qualification: here, the three topics are subject to the audience’s negotiation of meaning only insofar as they are oriented toward judgment. As such, the different modalities of displaced involvement above are understood as emotional routes leading from meaning-making to passing judgment. Before considering the case studies, one final observation on the field of witnessing is noteworthy. The foregoing discussion has suggested that competition is part and parcel of the field of witnessing; indeed, competition is what makes it a political arena. It is possible to distinguish in this respect two levels of competition: across zones and between zones. The former relates to the competition among eyewitnesses for the attention of mediators and among mediators for the attention of audiences; hence, horizontal competition. The latter relates to the discrepancies between eyewitnesses and mediators and between mediators and audiences; hence, vertical competition. Whereas horizontal competition consists of agents of the same kind, vertical competition involves unequal agents, among whom the dominant is the mediator. Indeed, the field of witnessing is anything but egalitarian, exhibiting a hierarchical organization with the mediator at the top. However, this hierarchy is not extensive, as agents in all zones – eyewitnesses, mediators, and audiences – are, respectively, dependent on each other. Thus, while the mediators are arguably the dominant agent in the field, their privilege is forever tainted by their reliance on eyewitnesses insofar as providing the one thing the mediator will always lack – presence at the event. The distinctive quality of ‘being there’ is therefore the eyewitness’s exclusive resource, which secures for them an integral, if limited, point of ascendancy within the field. Likewise the audience’s involvement, while relying on the mediator’s input in negotiating meaning and judgment, is conceivable only within particular cultural boundaries,
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 147
ideological settings, and power relations. Thus the audience’s moral engagement is not entirely determined by variables within the field but transcends its boundaries, outstripping both eyewitnesses’ and mediators’ implications. In this way, each of the three zones demonstrates both dependence and autonomy, together comprising a field whose construction is as structured as it is ﬂexible.
The case of Jenin On 3 April 2002, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major military operation in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin, home to some 14,000 Palestinians. The aim of the Israeli operation was to capture Palestinian militants responsible for suicide bombings and other attacks that had killed more than 70 Israelis since March of that year. The incursion into the refugee camp was carried out on a much larger scale than other military operations mounted by the IDF since the second Intifada broke out in September 2000. At least 140 buildings were destroyed, rendering around 4000 people, more than a quarter of the camp’s population, homeless. On 9 April, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in an ambush in one of the most densely populated districts of the camp. The operation ended on 12 April. The Israeli army enforced a strict media blackout during the operation. After clashes subsided, rumors of a massacre in Jenin began to spread across the West Bank, reaching the local and international press. The Israeli government denied these allegations. Consequent media coverage was largely based on eyewitness accounts of Palestinian residents, international aid workers, journalists, and in some cases also soldiers and army officials. The testimonies that appeared in media outlets presented different views and interpretations of what transpired in Jenin. Here we focus on two documentary films which were produced shortly after the IDF withdrew from the camp: Jenin Jenin (2002), produced and directed by Mohammad Bakri, and The Battle of Jenin (2002), produced and directed by Noam Shalev. Both films are based, by and large, on testimonies of eyewitnesses who experienced the occurrences in Jenin firsthand. Yet, while employing similar means and format, the two films represent two different attempts to dominate the field of witnessing. Soon after the battle in Jenin had quieted down, Mohammad Bakri, an Israeli actor and director of Palestinian origin, entered the refugee camp with a filming crew. Bakri took upon himself the role of a mediator. Having appeared in various roles on stage and in films, Bakri has been
Witnessing as a Field
a known face in Israel for the last 20 years. His long-standing career has afforded him a unique form of cultural capital. In Israel, Bakri is especially known for playing Arab roles in many films and plays dealing with the Israeli–Palestinian conﬂict. His on-screen credentials made it possible for him to position himself as the representative of the Palestinian misfortune spawned by Israel. Being a Palestinian by origin and an Israeli by circumstance allowed Bakri to take the role of a spokesperson for the community under attack. His Israeli citizenship proved most valuable in this case. In contrast to the Palestinians featured in the film, who reside in the West Bank, Bakri could (in most cases) travel freely and enjoy some civil liberties. This double status provided him with a distinctive resource when it came to telling the story of Jenin. Bakri appears in person in the second sequence of the film, where he is shown walking amid the ruins of the camp and speaking with residents. By appearing in name, face, and voice, as well as at the place of the event, he claims authorship of the field. However, Bakri’s position as an author is by no means straightforward, as the resource that enabled him to produce the film is also that which eventually jeopardized its release. The Israeli Film Board banned the film from being shown in Israel, claiming that the director presented a distorted version of the events. By banning the film, the board strived to disqualify Bakri as a mediator and exclude him from the field of witnessing.3 Bakri utilized the documentary genre to produce a stand-alone 50-minute film, suitable both for cinema screening and television broadcast. The documentary genre, which is nothing less than an attempt to produce and represent the truth on screen, comes with a heavy responsibility (Corner, 2000, 2001, 2002; Ellis, 2000). Bakri employed two main forms of documentation: interviews with witnesses and archival footage of the camp taken on-site immediately after the Israeli army withdrew from the area. Since all eyewitnesses in the film speak Arabic, English subtitles are used throughout, which in this context might be considered a technological resource available to the mediator. Accompanying individuals who endured the event, Bakri declares his intention to unveil Israeli cover-ups and tell the true story of what he calls a ‘massacre’, which allegedly took place in Jenin. The narrative Bakri tells is that of trauma and victimhood. It should be noted that all the testimonies collected are those of Palestinian victims. By providing a space for victims to recount their traumatic experiences, Bakri effectively facilitates a reenactment of the greater Palestinian trauma – the Nakba.4 Thus, the trauma of Jenin is narrated as a metonymy of and as the latest catastrophe in the history of the
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 149
Palestinian people. Bakri’s choice of testimonies attests to the traumatic narrative he sets out to unfold. The first witness to appear is a verbally impaired young man who uses excessive gestures and pantomime to express an occurrence he saw. Bakri’s decision to open the film with a witness who is unable to verbally express himself is telling, not only of the loss of lives and property but also of the loss of voice. A wordless testimony thus serves to symbolize the collective trauma of Palestinians. Other testimonies used by Bakri also conform to the traumatic narrative. The following sequence introduces two children who, like their parents, testify to the destruction of their land: ‘Everywhere in the camp you find someone looking for a relative, looking for their home or a missing body. There is not a single person at the camp who did not suffer.’ Utilizing testimonies by children, Bakri seems to be suggesting something about the passivity, and possibly the naiveté, of the Palestinian people. Alongside these testimonies, Bakri features the testimony of a Palestinian physician. Filmed in a hospital, which further emphasizes this eyewitness’s social status, the physician recounts his experiences of the battle: ‘The hospital was bombarded at 3 a.m. on the 4th of the month by Israeli tanks which fired 11 missiles. They destroyed the oxygen tanks, the water pipes, the sewage pipes, the hospital wards, the doctors’ rooms, and the infirmary.’ As a physician, his enunciation carries more weight than an identical witnessing discourse made by, for instance, a nurse, orderly, or patient. All would bear witness under the same circumstances but would do so in different capacities and draw on different social statuses – and hence exhibit different habituses. However in this case, the doctor – the epitome of authority – appears vulnerable and powerless, thereby producing an enunciation that further stresses the severity of the situation, as if saying, ‘Even a doctor was helpless in Jenin.’ Bakri also includes testimonies of Palestinians who were absent from Jenin. By incorporating testimonies outside the event, Bakri further demonstrates the link between Jenin and the original Palestinian trauma – the Nakba: ‘We were displaced before and our fathers have been through the same ordeal. Where do you expect us to go now? . . . We’ve had enough. We’ve been through three or four Nakbas. That’s enough.’ Such enunciations produce a sense of extended capacity, that is, of extending the event being witnessed both temporally and spatially so as to suggest that all Palestinians have been and still are, in one way or another, witnesses to the Nakba. It is important to note that all testimonies in this film were shot on-site. This use of cinematic technology provides the filmmaker – in this
Witnessing as a Field
case the mediator – with a means of producing a sense of ‘presentness’ (similar to what Peters calls ‘historicity’), which in turn complements the overall narrative of trauma. This formation of victimhood is repeated in the last sequence of the film. The final eyewitness is a Palestinian resident of Jenin who is holding an old sandal like a telephone, making an imaginary call to the U.S. president and the Chairman of the U.N., asking them to come to Jenin: ‘Hello, Mr Bush? Is it possible to speak to Mr Kofi Annan? Hello Kofi Annan, how are you? Listen, why did you cancel the investigation committee that was supposed to come to Jenin? Was it a request from Israel? Why not speak to the U.S. or Bush, maybe they can solve the problem?’ Here, too, the witness is chosen for his enactment of despair: a poor inhabitant of an easily forgettable camp, pleading to deaf ears about his plight and hopeless situation. It is in this sense that Mohammad Bakri, as a mediator, takes upon himself the task of being a ‘telephone by proxy’ through which Palestinians can ‘call’ the outside world and voice their grievances. Most of the eyewitnesses appearing in the film are Palestinians who experienced the catastrophe firsthand. Upon examining their accounts, it becomes clear that they do not simply communicate knowledge, but rather express emotion and pain. This enunciation of a personal experience is manifested in all of the testimonies. One witness, for example, says, ‘I was sleeping when, at midnight, I heard the loudspeakers ordering us to gather in the school courtyard. I dressed and went outside. On my way, from about one and a half meters away, a sniper shot my hand, from a window. I fell to the ground in shock.’ Another declares, ‘All my efforts of 45 years were destroyed in 5 minutes. They burned down the whole of the third ﬂoor where I kept some canary birds.’ That such enunciations, which emphasize the experience of shock and horror, found their way into the film is indicative of the kind of enunciations sought by the mediator. Yet in order to ‘play’ the field, as it were, a necessary connection between the experiences testified to and the event depicted had to be demonstrated. Hence, the eyewitnesses point to the circumstances by which they came to witness the occurrence, emphasizing their presence in both space and time: ‘I wanted to save myself so I ran down. I found myself amongst the tanks and bulldozers which were demolishing this area. They turned one house into a sort of courtroom and they called people one by one. They killed some and spared some.’ All of the eyewitnesses testify to the destruction they endured and to its aftermath, thus presenting themselves as victims. In this case, their weakness serves as a key resource in securing their place in Bakri’s
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 151
narrative. Their victimhood becomes ever more salient in the manner they discuss the capacity in which they came to be at the event. The eyewitnesses highlight first and foremost their Palestinian nationality and in many cases point out their Arab affiliations: ‘Every young Palestinian like myself is armed to defend peace, both our freedom and theirs. There are certain Israelis who want neither peace nor freedom.’ Another witness testifies, ‘I was nine when the occupation of 1967 started. There has not been one good day since. I am 44 today and have not lived one normal day. They interfere in everything we do.’ By emphasizing their national origins, the eyewitnesses tie the tragedy they have suffered to the general fate of Palestinians. In binding their personal stories to collective history, they re-establish a common frame of reference with their addressees and produce a sense of closeness with the potential audience. Some cues of relevance seem to strengthen this effect. Many references are made to the Palestinian tragedy and more specifically to the Arab–Israeli conﬂict: ‘In 1948, we went through the same suffering, but it’s worse this time. All the achievements of a lifetime, a house, children, disappeared in an hour. Let Bush rejoice with his friend, the murderer, the criminal of Sabra and Shatila.’ Another person recounts the hardships of daily life: ‘Let the Jews come and see the camps and experience the bombardment we endure for just one day. They would immediately forget their idea of a great Israel and of Jerusalem as its capital. If only a Jew could experience what we’ve been through for one day! They would abandon their conquest of Jerusalem.’ In addition, several references are made to contemporary episodes: ‘When a Jew dies, Bush wails and accuses us of being tyrants, accusing us of killing the Jews. When 100 million Arabs are murdered, it doesn’t matter, that’s life. No one in the world has committed such atrocities. They demolished the houses over the children’s heads.’ By integrating collective memories, firsthand knowledge, and popular beliefs in their testimonies, the eyewitnesses evoke ‘experiential closeness’ and call potential audiences to act upon the event mediated, to make judgment, to take sides. In the spring of 2002, a few days after the Israeli army had withdrawn from Jenin, Noam Shalev began collecting information on what took place in the refugee camp. Shalev, an Israeli director and producer in his early forties, served – like many Israelis his age – in an IDF reserve unit. The two milieus of which he was a member – his professional sphere as well as his military background – granted him a distinctive form of cultural capital.
Witnessing as a Field
Drawing on exclusive testimonies, Shalev produced another claim upon the field of witnessing as a mediator. Like Bakri, Shalev intended his film for both Israeli and foreign audiences. Again like Bakri, his biography is also of importance; having been involved in the production of documentaries on the Israeli–Palestinian conﬂict for over a decade, Shalev’s films have been broadcast worldwide, earning him standing within his professional milieu both locally and internationally. Yet this distinctive combination of filmmaker-cum-soldier may in fact be a mixed blessing, as it could easily give the impression that Shalev is representing the Israeli army’s version of what happened in Jenin. This might explain why the Israeli director, in contrast to his Palestinian counterpart, decided to position himself, literally, outside the frame. Throughout the film, Shalev never appears on the screen in face, body, or voice. The eyewitnesses filmed are speaking directly to the camera, directly to the viewers. No voiceover or any kind of narration is provided to supplement their testimonies – the author/director is actively constructing his authorship through his own absence. It is precisely this absence that substantiates his position as the author of the narrative of Jenin, for in contrast to Bakri, who produced a narrative of trauma, Shalev produced a narrative of vindication. To that effect, he posited the two parties – the Palestinian fighters and the Israeli soldiers – one against the other. Again in contrast to Bakri, who featured a cast of camp residents, Shalev featured the testimonies of five Israelis and three Palestinians. The Palestinian eyewitnesses are presented as determined fighters who stalwartly resist the Israeli violent occupation: ‘The Islamic Jihad’s military wing was, of course, ready with the guys who prepared the bombs, like Mahmud Tawalbe may he rest in peace. Mahmud Tawalbe, the martyr, was ready with the explosive devices.’ To highlight this effect, Palestinian fighters were filmed near the location of the battle wearing uniforms and dark masks. On the opposite side, the Israeli soldiers, wearing civilian clothes, are continuously portrayed as moral, law-abiding citizens who found themselves in an immoral situation: ‘My job is to save lives. If I were to kill a child, it would leave a mark inside me, the kind of mark you don’t want, because your mission in life is completely different. I have no problem with having to defend my country, but against soldiers or an army, not children.’ By featuring both sides and by placing the different testimonies one against the other, Shalev simulates a courtroom wherein the opposing parties explain and justify their deeds. This explains his use of distance and proximity, which is the opposite of Bakri’s. While Bakri seeks minimal distance in constructing a narrative of trauma, Shalev
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 153
utilizes distance in constructing a narrative of vindication. His technique of presenting the Israeli eyewitnesses against a neutral setting, outside the battlefield, effectively removes their testimonies from the event witnessed, as if saying, ‘Fighting is not what Israelis usually do; they are sometimes forced to fight.’ In contrast, by filming the Palestinian eyewitnesses on location, he produces a sense of juxtaposition whereby the Palestinians are presented as inherently and purposefully violent. The opposite tactics used by the two filmmakers demonstrate that distance and proximity possess no inherent significance when it comes to generating trust in the field. In some cases, such as Bakri’s film, proximity is an asset, whereas in other cases, such as Shalev’s film, it is a liability. The same is true for distance, depending on the various agents’ agendas, chieﬂy the mediator’s. Shalev’s absence from the film further emphasizes the overall judicial setting, effectively issuing a call for the audience to act as judge and jury. Indeed, in this film, eyewitnesses are ‘called to the stand’, as it were. All eyewitnesses refer, first and foremost, to their presence at the event and to what ensued. In their testimonies, they make references, both explicitly and implicitly, to the capacity by which they came to be at ‘the battle of Jenin’, frequently highlighting their role as soldiers and fighters. The first eyewitness to appear is an Israeli reserve soldier who immediately states his ideological allegiance to the IDF: ‘You say to yourself, “I gave the people of Israel the greatest gift on Passover by stopping a terrorist. No explosion today.” ‘ In the testimonies that follow, other eyewitnesses express a similar sense of purpose and commitment. Moreover, they stress their Jewish affiliation by inserting a number of significant cues of relevance: There’s a custom of searching for leavened bread on Passover eve, and the following morning the leavened bread is removed, and that’s what we did . . . We stopped the Jeep, performed the ceremony of removing the leavened bread, got back in the Jeep, drove onto the main road and we see an ambulance rushing towards us, without the siren going, without ﬂashing lights, driving very fast. Some kind of intuition tells us to stop it. We try to get them to stop, they won’t stop. By marking his Jewish background, this eyewitness ties his experience from Jenin to the collective sentiments of those he is addressing, thereby minimizing the experiential distance with the potential audience.
Witnessing as a Field
While the Israeli eyewitnesses proclaim their civil, national, and religious associations, the Palestinians eyewitnesses claim their religious and rebellious commitments: In the name of Allah the merciful and the compassionate, there is no voice greater than the voice of the almighty God. We, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the military wing of the Fatah movement, will operate with all our strength and might and by any means that we possess to stand in the way of any attack that Sharon and his gang of criminals plan to carry out in the Jenin area. Both Palestinian and Israeli eyewitnesses attempt to secure their position in the field by pointing out the circumstances by which they came to witness the event. All eyewitnesses provide a detailed account of the battle in which they participated and in doing so underline their presence in time and space. As one Israeli soldier recounts: The D-9, unlike a tank or other armored combat vehicles, has a wide field of vision, a huge window all around it. You can see everything. It’s unreal. The other vehicles look through a periscope, they hardly see a thing and we feel like we’re in a movie like ‘Saving Private Ryan’, we can see everything that is going on. You see them sticking their riﬂes out the windows, sparks of fire, smoke, enemy running outside next to you with Kalashnikovs, guns, terrorists running between the houses, jumping from house to house, shooting, that’s what you see, the whole time. I was there for four days. All they do is shoot and shoot and throw bombs from the rooftops, more shooting, more bombs, to the right, to the left. On the other hand, one the Palestinian fighter recounts: Despite Sheikh Riad’s old age, he insisted on being one of the vanguards of the fighters from the Jenin refugee camp and was wounded in combat. The fighters wanted to take him back because he was wounded, but he insisted on staying and died in the house where he was positioned. We found him crouching down, holding a riﬂe in one hand, with the Koran open in front of him. The bulldozer demolished the house on top of him. Both testimonies offer exclusive knowledge of the event, providing details and nuances available only to someone who experienced the
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 155
occurrences firsthand. Interestingly, the Israeli eyewitnesses made no references to their military service prior to their time in Jenin. The Palestinian eyewitnesses, in contrast, link their involvement in the battle to their overall contribution to the struggle against the Israeli occupation. As one Palestinian eyewitness states, ‘When a person wants to defend his child, his land, and wants to return to his village and to his wife, he fights brutally without any fear whatsoever. The guys welcomed the idea of sacrificing themselves as martyrs.’ In sum, mediated events may be viewed as interventions in the field of witnessing, a field through which reality is discoursed, meanings are produced, and audiences are called upon to pay heed and pass judgment. The two films present two attempts at dominating the field of witnessing, each following a different path in obtaining audiences’ trust in the mediators’ claims about the truth of the event. What is revealed thereby is witnessing as a practice entangled with conﬂict and power, itself attesting to the contested ground of experience.
Notes 1. Taken to the extreme, ultimate involvement would amount to being consumed by the event, that is, death – infinite proximity and no perspective. Conversely, infinite distance and total perspective can be attributed perhaps to the ultimate witness, God. Hence witnessing takes place between God and death, and although never coming close to either extremes, retains something from both (see Peters, Chapter 1, Afterword). 2. In certain cases, status and capacity might converge. For instance, a doctor can be both a status and capacity (another example is a child). 3. The ban was ignored by many who watched the film privately. Furthermore, the film received intense attention in mainstream media and elsewhere. In 2004, Israel’s High Court reinstated a ruling which overturned the ban, saying that the Film Board did not have a ‘monopoly over truth’. Despite rejecting the ban, the court described Jenin Jenin as a ‘propagandistic lie’ which falsely accused Israeli soldiers internationally of killing children, women, the disabled, and the mentally ill. 4. Al-Nakba refers to the Palestinian catastrophe marked by the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the dispossession of hundreds of thousands that became refugees as a result.
References J. Assmann (1995) ‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity’, New German Critique, vol. 65, Spring/Summer, 125–33. G. Agamben (1999) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
Witnessing as a Field
Z. Bauman (1990) ‘Effacing the Face: On the Social Management of Moral Proximity’, Theory, Culture and Society, vol. 7, no. 1, 5–38. E. Behr (1982) Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? A Foreign Correspondent’s Life Behind the Lines (London: New English Library). H. Bilandzic (2006) ‘The Perception of Distance in the Cultivation Process: A Theoretical Consideration of the Relationship between Television Content, Processing Experience, and Perceived Distance’, Communication Theory, vol. 16, no. 3, 333–55. L. Boltanski (1999) Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). P. Bourdieu (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). P. Bourdieu (1992) Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge: PolityPress). P. Bourdieu and J.D. Wacquant (eds) (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology (Cambridge: Polity Press). C. Caruth (1996) Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press). L. Chouliaraki (2004) ‘Watching September 11th: The Politics of Pity’, Discourse and Society, vol. 15, no. 2, 185–98. S. Cohen (2001) States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (Cambridge: Polity Press). J. Corner (2000) ‘What Can We Say about Documentary?’, Media Culture & Society, vol. 22, no. 5, 681–8. J. Corner (2001) ‘Documentary in Dispute’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 4, no. 3, 352–9. J. Corner (2002) ‘Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions’, Television & New Media, vol. 3, no. 3, 255–69. N. Couldry (2006) Listening Beyond the Echoes: Media, Ethics and Agency in an Uncertain World (Paradigm Books: USA). J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). S. Felman and D. Laub (1992) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (London, New York: Routledge). P. Frosh (2006) ‘Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers’, Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 23, no. 4, 265–84. Also in this volume, Chapter 2. S. Hall (1980) ‘Encoding/Decoding’, in S. Hall, D. Hobson, A. Lowe, and P. Willis (eds), Culture, Media, Language (London: Unwin Hyman). J. Hutchby (2001) ‘Witnessing: The Use of First-Hand Knowledge in Legitimating Lay Opinions on Talk Radio’, Discourse Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 481–97. R. Jenkins (2006) Pierre Bordieu (London: Routledge). J.F. Lyotard (1989) The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). A. Margalit (2002) The Ethics of Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). K. Oliver (2001) Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). J.D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1.
Tamar Ashuri and Amit Pinchevski 157 P. Scannell (2004) ‘What Reality Had Misfortune?’, Media Culture & Society, vol. 26, no. 4, 273–84. R. Silverstone (2002) ‘Complicity and Collusion in the Mediation of Everyday Life’, New Literary History, vol. 33, no. 4, 761–80. R. Silverstone (2007) Media and Morality: On the Rise of the Mediapolis (Cambridge: Polity Press). S. Sontag (2004) Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Penguin Books). K. Tester (1997) Moral Culture (London: Sage Publications).
7 From Danger to Trauma Affective Labor and the Journalistic Discourse of Witnessing Carrie Rentschler
‘The journalist becomes a victim too.’ —Roger Simpson, Director of the University of Washington Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma ‘Reporters are victims, too.’ —Reporter Charlotte Aiken in Nieman Reports, Fall 1996 According to recent reports on violence committed against journalists, journalism is a dangerous, fear-inspiring job. In the wake of Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder in January 2002 and the less-publicized but equally brutal killings of journalists in Bangladesh, the Philippines, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other locales around the world, the international community of foreign correspondents has become particularly concerned for its safety in zones of conﬂict. Yet, outside of war zones, and in U.S. newsrooms in particular, reporters and news photographers who cover domestic beats and work on general assignment are also being represented, through risks to their safety and mental health on the job, in ways that depict what John Durham Peters calls ‘the weighty baggage of witnessing’: the ontological and historical weight of paying witness to events that ‘makes explicit the pervasive link between witnessing and suffering’ and ‘what it means to watch, to narrate or to be present at an event’ (2001, pp. 708–9). Currently, some profession-specific discourses portray journalists as traumatized witnesses, linking the putative pained feeling of witnessing (for example, Berlant, 2000) to the meaning of journalistic observation. They do so within an industrial context in which news companies continue to cut back on investigative reporting and foreign bureaus while increasing the workloads of those reporters still on the job. This 158
Carrie Rentschler 159
means that the profession’s own portrayal of the dangerous conditions in which news workers labor comes at a time when the U.S. industry is putting less people into the field overseas and investing less in research. Like the reﬂexive turn in anthropology which accompanied the move away from field research toward writing studies (for example, Clifford and Marcus, 1986; Clifford, 1988), the emergence of a discourse of journalistic witnessing also represents a reﬂexive turn in reporting, in which decreasing industry investment in research-intensive and field-based reporting coincides with a proliferation of in-profession communication about the potential traumas of the job. The discourse of journalistic trauma recodes the labor of journalism in terms of its personal psychological costs on individual workers across different conditions of potential danger. Danger here signifies the possibility to be psychologically injured as an effect of the job, only the job itself is positioned both more locally and more concertedly around accident coverage and manufactured news events. Thus, covering war zones, the police beat, car accidents, or doing interviews with the survivors of house fires and other catastrophes all represent the potential to be traumatized from what one sees on the job. The discourse of trauma re-signifies ‘danger’ away from the field, the people being reported on, and the physicality of journalistic work on the scene, locating it more squarely in the psychological and emotional dimensions of the work experience of individual reporters, where traumas, despite their different sources, share similar effects and diagnoses in the psychological realm. This chapter examines recent profession-based reports and training films on journalistic trauma in order to explain the distinction between discussing journalism as a dangerous profession (signified through physical injuries and the mortalities of journalists) and defining it as a traumatizing one (signified through bodily signs and the emotional language of psychological injuries). As I argue, ‘bearing witness’ becomes a language for describing the work of journalism in affective terms and a means for indicting some of the conditions of journalists’ labor as potentially traumatizing. In the process, it critically refigures the cultural work of ‘trauma’ in a post-9/11 and post-Columbine world by examining the conditions of witnessing that create it as work, but not, as Michael Hardt suggests, as an immaterial form of affective labor (1999, p. 94). The affective dimensions of reporters’ work lives, framed through the discourse of journalistic witnessing, portray this labor as deeply material and the work process and product as particularly embodied. Hardt suggests that affective labor, like service industries and primarily communication-based work, is ‘immaterial, even if it is corporeal
From Danger to Trauma
and affective, in that its products are intangible’ (1999, p. 96) because they are affective. However, reporters’ own articulation of their work as an affectively experienced form of witnessing – at times as trauma – suggests quite differently that the ‘intangibles’ of journalism are actually highly tangible at the level of embodied experience, whether that experience is pleasurable and exciting or injurious and painful. Feminist scholarship on ‘care work’ is instructive here, for feminists have examined the gendered aspects of caring labor as a form of work ‘in the bodily mode’ that they claim, contra Hardt (and despite his use of their work to argue otherwise), is quite materially located in social relations of capitalist dependency and the sexed and gendered bodies of its providers (for example, Sargent, 1981; Kittay and Feder, 2002). By following in the footsteps of the feminist claims asserted above, my analysis of the work that discourses of journalistic witnessing describe, addresses the affective dimensions of their labor as embodied, material practices (see also Rentschler, 2007). Unlike other forms of journalistic practice that challenge the dominant professional norms of objectivity and cast news-making in advocacy-based terms, the current articulation of ‘traumatized journalism’ emphasizes not only the reporter’s agency and involvement in the events and issues on which he/she reports in an implicit critique of objectivity; it goes one step further to identify and recode journalistic practice as primarily affective, and in some cases extraordinarily so. Several backchannel texts in the field currently aim to cultivate the unmaking of journalists as distant observers in order to remake journalism as an act of witnessing. These texts use the concept of trauma to redefine news work through the codification of workers’ wounded psyches, from their observation work, as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They include one of a recent set of training films used in U.S. journalism education, a documentary film called Covering Columbine that was produced in the journalism program at the University of Colorado-Boulder. The film portrays the events of the 20 April 1999 shootings by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris through reporters who are visibly disturbed by their professional obligation to cover what University of Toronto trauma researcher Anthony Feinstein describes as the ‘consequences of death’ on its survivors (2003, p. 27). While Covering Columbine deploys trauma as an apparatus for training reporters how to better prepare themselves to perform their jobs, psychological studies and reports on combat and non-combat reporters authorize the discourse of journalistic witnessing on which the film draws by medicalizing the symptoms of trauma through which
Carrie Rentschler 161
witnessing is most visibly brought into representation. The studies codify the litany of horrors reporters have seen as generative conditions of PTSD, the seed concept from which trauma’s broader cultural authority has grown. They then use journalists’ self-reports to translate the experiences of what they have seen into a diagnosable medical condition: PTSD. Studies of journalistic trauma authorize the truth of journalistic witnessing by turning its affective dimensions into a medical condition, ‘making medical’ (Conrad, 1992, p. 210) those self-representations of journalism that until recently had been largely understood within the post-Vietnam War rubric of masculine tales of danger, adventure, and heroism in covering war zones (for example, Knightley, 1975; Pedelty, 1995, 1997; Loyd, 1999; Hedges, 2002). PTSD, in other words, ‘evidences’ the practice of journalistic observation and ‘proves’ its veracity in the pained bodies and minds of the reporter. The training film Covering Columbine and psychological studies on journalistic trauma give form to and mobilize the discourse of journalistic witnessing (for example, Gal, 2003) in ways that achieve broad circulation in the profession’s interpretive communities (for example, Zelizer, 1993). They also transform it into a profession-specific discourse of what it means to see others suffer as part of the work of journalism and be made a ‘victim’ of the job – as Simpson and Aiken suggest above – through the medical language of trauma, the ‘most powerful proxy for speaking pain’ (Scarry, 1985, pp. 6–7; see also Starr, 1982).
PTSD: Generalizing journalistic witness from the war zone to the domestic beat The texts on journalism and trauma examined here describe the work of reporting in affective terms by generalizing the labor of journalism from the war zone to the domestic beat, much as psychiatric diagnoses of traumatic stress disorders have generalized from combat stress to other stresses. According to Wilbur Scott, the codification of PTSD that emerged through the advocacy work of anti-war psychiatrists and Vietnam Veteran groups recognized that ‘soldiers disturbed by their combat experiences are not, in an important sense, abnormal; on the contrary, it is normal to be traumatized by the abnormal events typical of war’ (1990, p. 308). Rather than treating psychologically disturbed veterans as ‘mentally weak’ men, the diagnostic criteria for PTSD depicted war as a set of overwhelming conditions that cause trauma. The criteria also brought into recognition as ‘normal’ traumatic reactions beyond the
From Danger to Trauma
war zone to include man-made or ‘naturally’-made disaster zones. PTSD studies have since generalized its symptomology across a diverse class of patients and contexts, from combat veterans to victims of rape and car accidents (for example, Scott, 1990; Herman, 1992; Young, 1995). In fact, the DSM-III definition of PTSD from 1980 generalized the sources of trauma away from the specific experiences many Vietnam War veterans had of being both ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ of the war and thereby codified their combat stress as one caused by being a witness to it (see Scott, 1990; Turner, 2001). Witnessing became the generative source for traumatic conditions, enabling definitions of trauma to generalize across various life experiences and contexts of violence. War, then, becomes the barometer of ‘traumatic likeness’ in Covering Columbine and other trauma texts in journalism, in part because the discursive apparatus of the PTSD criteria uses the traumatizing conditions of war as the point of comparison for non-combat traumatic encounters. Their portrayal of journalists as traumatized witnesses follows from PTSD’s generalization of trauma, portraying a traumatic reality for beat reporters sent to cover school shootings and other crime scenes that compare covering them to covering war. As such, the traumatic experiences of foreign correspondents are scripted into discourses of journalistic trauma through the category of experience reporters as a class share: witnessing. Journalists articulate additional forms of traumatic experiences through collections of ‘trauma stories’ in which journalism is defined by its potential risks for psychological damage over and above that of physical injury. A recent report from a Freedom Forum Center symposium ‘Risking More than Their Lives: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Journalists’ addresses the current state of ‘frontline journalism’ through the rubric of trauma. The title alone suggests that traumatic experience is a more serious risk than death itself, or in another interpretation, that the risks to journalists on the job extend beyond those already identified as threats to their lives and include other forms of injury and danger that are less openly addressed in the profession. The report includes testimony from several correspondents who describe the effects of their jobs through the discourse of trauma. One, Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, who was nearly killed after being hit by shrapnel while covering the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers in their war against government forces, is quoted from her hospital bed saying, ‘My job is to bear witness.’ Another foreign correspondent, John Sweeney of Radio5 Live, speaks of breaking down while shopping in the dog food aisle of the grocery store because he involuntarily recalled the people he had
Carrie Rentschler 163
seen hacked to death. Allan Little of the BBC speaks of telling friends who invited him over for dinner after he spent 2 years in Burundi and Rwanda that their five-year old child was the only living child he had seen in a year (Freedom Forum European Center, 2001). When collected in professional reports, anecdotes such as these build an archive of horrors tied to the profession that further link the potential traumas of combat reporting to non-combat reporting. ‘Risking More than their Lives’ portrays journalistic traumas from war zones as haunting experiences that travel beyond the time and place of reporters’ assignments – the ‘literal return of the event against the will of the one it inhabits’ (Caruth, 1995, p. 5). Literary theorist Cathy Caruth (1991) describes trauma as ‘unclaimed experience’, the inability of the traumatized subject to bring traumatizing events into consciousness and narrative memory so that they languish in piecemeal, involuntary behavioral specters that, if representational, are often non-referential. Caruth’s work on trauma addresses the relation between traumatic experience and the telling of history, suggesting that histories of violence are narrated through metaphor, fantasy, and sensorial traces that do not directly reference the past event being remembered, but instead reference the teller’s affective and bodily relation to the event and its telling and re-telling. Caruth’s (1991) argument is that trauma is and can be expressed, but its expression does not signify direct correspondence between the representation of it and its reality. Trauma is ‘not a pathology . . . of falsehood or the displacement of meaning, but of history itself’, the mark of having borne witness to an event in the recent or distant past (Caruth, 1995, p. 5). The traumatized, accordingly, ‘become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely process’ (p. 5), carrying trauma – ‘the hauntingly possessive ghosts’ (LaCapra, 2001, p. xi) – in their bodies because they cannot process it in their minds. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III, the 1980 version of the diagnostic text for defining mental disorders within the American Psychiatric Association that first codified PTSD, the survivors of traumatizing events are unable to process their experiences through the normal channels of cognition, so they remember it in involuntary, bodily form: as nightmares, quick startle responses, and other haunting physical signs. People who suffer from PTSD re-experience traumatic events through intrusive thoughts and nightmares. They also avoid stimuli associated with the traumatic event by detaching from others and avoiding thoughts about the event that traumatized them. Many are unable to sleep and are easily startled. These physiological
From Danger to Trauma
and involuntary bodily behaviors are corporeal evidence of traumatic memories that, because they are not accessible to normal consciousness and recollection, are expressed through other means. The disorder’s symptoms mark in medical form what journalist Bruce Shapiro (1995) describes as a ‘profoundly political state in which the world has gone wrong, in which you feel isolated from the broader community by the inarticulable extremity of experience’.1 Interestingly, Caruth’s (1991) article ‘Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Impossibility of History’ begins with an epigraph from war correspondent Michael Herr’s (1977) Vietnam War autobiography, Dispatches: It took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes (quoted in Caruth, 1991, p. 181, emphasis added). While the Vietnam War was not the first war to be addressed by psychoanalysts and psychologists as ‘traumatizing’, it did provide the historical and political background against which PTSD was defined as a medical condition (for example, Scott, 1990; Shay, 1994; Leys, 2000; Turner, 2001).2 To set the stage for Caruth’s argument on the non-referentiality of trauma’s representation, she not only turns to the war that helped frame the medical codification of trauma into PTSD in the DSM-III. She also turns to a journalist, Michael Herr, who could utter precisely the problem of representing the atrocities reporters have seen when those experiences and the tools for their representation are not easily harnessed by the ritualized routines and writing practices of journalism, or for that matter, history. In ‘Risking More than their Lives’, the dog food cans and the images of dead children described by reporters function as symbolic forms that, while perhaps not direct references to traumatic events according to Caruth, nonetheless carry with them the literal imprint of the things reporters have seen and the eyewitness accounts they have heard, but cannot fully process in and through their memories or their professional practices. They lack an ‘account’ that can be used to represent trauma that films like Covering Columbine and the Freedom Forum Center step in to provide (for example, Davis, 2005). Thus, what journalists also risk in this formulation of their work is the loss of the very foundation on
Carrie Rentschler 165
which news representation depends: the referentiality of trauma’s reality in the words and bodies of both news subjects and journalists. As professionals increasingly diagnosed with PTSDs, according to trauma specialist Dr Frank Ochberg, a member of the psychiatric team that constructed the diagnostic criteria for PTSD in the DSM-III, journalists become surrogates for news audiences, bearing in bodily form the traumas of the events they have witnessed so that others, presumably, do not have to so. ‘Those with daring fight the tigers. Those with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] preserve the impact of cruelty for the rest of us’ (Ochberg, 1996, p. 22). Ochberg’s statement moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from the depiction of PTSD as the bodily sign of bearing witness to recent and past violence to the intimation that sufferers of PTSD should sacrifice themselves as ‘bodily media’ in order that others might receive the wisdom to be gained from their wounded psyches. In Ochberg’s construction, PTSD signifies a martyr. His or her value resides in the ability to serve as the medium of exchange between the traumatized person’s experience of an event and the abstraction of that experienced event in the form of representation, in which the traumatized witness stands in as ‘the paradigm case of a medium’ (Peters, 2001, p. 709). Ochberg and Caruth assert that trauma is a form of repetitive possession, a record, as Dori Laub states, ‘that has yet to be made’ (1991, cited in Caruth, 1995, p. 6). This does not mean that traumas never come into representation; quite the opposite, in fact, as training films like Covering Columbine demonstrate (as I discuss later). Without reducing the film and other texts like it to ‘merely a social construction’ of journalistic trauma, I suggest that that training media help articulate the lived reality of trauma by giving an account of it through journalists’ own first-person statements that are ‘collectivized’ in the film and other profession-based documents. Accounts, as Joseph Davis defines them, are ‘ “story-like constructions”, with a plot structure that ties together attributions of responsibility, reported memories, description, and emotional expression. Like stories more generally, they reconfigure the past, endowing it with meaning and continuity and projecting a sense of what might or should happen in the future’ (Davis, 2005, p. 17). As Wilbur Scott again suggests, ‘each new narrative about the disorder [PTSD] reaffirms its reality, its objectivity, its “just thereness” ’ (1990, p. 308). In training films, symposium reports, and other profession-produced documents, reporters discuss their traumatic experiences covering human catastrophes as if they were simply waiting for their experiences
From Danger to Trauma
to be recognized and affirmed as trauma. These documents facilitate the formation of a trauma-based interpretive culture within journalism that brings into representation journalistic trauma as a way of demonstrating the disorderly nature of reporters’ working conditions and the realities of their work as witnesses. As Ann Cvetkovich (2003) argues in The Archive of Feelings, if we begin to see trauma as producing public cultures that form around the struggle to represent it, then we may escape the conundrum of having to categorize traumas as either ‘representable’ or ‘un-representable’. If we see trauma as something produced and recognized in and through representation, and witnessing as a practice of bringing representations of experience into depiction, then professionspecific texts contribute to journalistic witnessing being a potentially traumatic practice around which professionals-in-training are asked to rally. ‘Risking More than their Lives’ and Covering Columbine not only represent journalistic trauma, they also organize its representation into training tools. They are instrumental texts whose audiences are not the news-reading and viewing public, but rather news editors, producers, journalists, journalism educators, and students. Their task is to redefine the work of the profession in terms of what journalists see and the traumatic reactions they may have to this act of seeing in order to produce a different explanation for the tense relationships that develop between reporters, their professional ideologies, and the industries for which they work. While Tony Bennett argued in ‘Useful Culture’ that many forms of cultural production should be examined for the ways they are mobilized by and into policy discourse, training texts like Covering Columbine are produced specifically to be used programmatically and are ‘directed toward practical deployments’ (1992, p. 397). The first-person accounts in ‘Risking More than their Lives’ do this by linking journalistic trauma to the profession-building norm of presence to events – to be present is to witness, and to witness is to be subject to trauma. In other words, to pay witness signifies bodily presence at an event; to be traumatized by it provides proof of that presence.
PTSD and the metaphor of ‘ﬁrst response’ Proof of presence in the form of trauma has also spawned a new moniker for photojournalists and reporters: ‘first responders’. Some journalists and journalism educators have taken to describing the work of beat reporters and news photographers as that of ‘first responders’, drawing on the lingo used to describe paramedics, police officers, and other
Carrie Rentschler 167
emergency service personnel, who, since the early 1980s, have also been classified as sufferers of PTSD. The label of first responder reinforces the value of reporting with being the ‘first on the scene’ – first to see and record the sights of disarray and carnage at car accidents, and the devastation left in the wake of tornadoes and house fires, among other things. Reporters, and photojournalists in particular, get close enough to the consequences of others’ death and misfortune to physically feel it, smell it, and otherwise engage in it as a vivid sensory experience. The language of ‘first responder’ turns reporters into what Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle (1998) refer to as ‘death touchers’ – people who get close to other people’s deaths and who often must literally or figuratively sacrifice themselves, and their psychological health, in the process. As a name for an occupational position premised on proximity to others’ lives and deaths and the responsibility for responding to them, the language of ‘first response’ embodies the news value of being first on the scene. It also suggests, though, that journalists suffer from PTSD as other first responders do, functioning as a means of classification for journalistic trauma alongside that of emergency service personnel. Just after September 11, 2001, Director Roger Simpson of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington-Seattle published a ‘Note from the Editor’ on the Center’s website in which he, too, refers to reporters using the moniker of ‘first responder’. His editorial opens, ‘Journalists are first-responders today in New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh. They, like emergency aid workers, have witnessed scenes and situations that sear and assault their emotional systems’ (Dart Center, 2001). On 12 September 2001, Robert Frank of Newscoverage Unlimited, an organization devoted to helping journalists deal with traumatic stress, also described reporters as ‘just like a doctor working in a hospital emergency room’: they need to ignore their overwhelming emotional reactions to others’ deaths and suffering in order to do their jobs well, as those first on the scene (Dart Center, 2001). Both Simpson and Frank situate reporters as professionals positioned to and responsible for paying witness to events like emergency service personnel – that is, professionals whose jobs obligate them to assist others in need. Journalists have no such obligation, and yet calling them ‘first responders’ describes what they do, and what they see, as if they should occupy an observer position homologous to emergency service workers (see for example, Sharp et al., 1995). The homology Simpson and Frank draw above between reporters and paramedics or police officers is meant to capture not their similarity of purpose or task, but the experiential likeness of being first on the scene to witness it.
From Danger to Trauma
Today the burden of first response is defined in primarily psychological terms. Over the past ten years, research teams of psychologists, psychiatrists, and journalism scholars have surveyed journalistic reports of post-traumatic symptoms in order to codify news workers as a class of trauma sufferers (for example, Simpson and Boggs, 1999; Pyevich, 2001; Feinstein and J. Owen, 2002; Himmelstein and Faithorn, 2002; Feinstein, 2003). While many of these studies compile data on the incidence of post-traumatic stress symptoms among a range of journalistic assignments, they also hint at a broader narrative of journalistic post-traumatic stress that can be documented in a litany of potentially traumatizing events that news photographers and reporters have witnessed. This litany of horrors may do far more work in defining journalism as a potentially traumatizing profession than the measurement of the incidence of PTSD symptoms by emphasizing the spectacular violence of the scenes they witness. The incidence of PTSD symptoms nonetheless helps to authorize tales of journalistic witnessing through medical constructions of the reporter’s body and psyche as fragmented markers of the violent scenes they have seen. PTSD ‘is fundamentally a disorder of memory’ (Leys, 2000, p. 2). According to medical historian Allan Young, ‘traumatic memory is a man-made object’ (1995, p. 141) that becomes knowable as an object of study, diagnosis, and treatment when it is brought into representation as a medical disorder. PTSD is not a timeless condition but a disorder ‘glued together by the practices, technologies, and narratives with which it is diagnosed, studied, treated and represented’ (Young, 1995, p. 5). Training texts and psychological studies use PTSD to script narratives of journalistic trauma that construct the source of reporters’ psychological stress in having seen and been near overwhelming sights of destruction and death. Recent studies demonstrate that combat and non-combat journalists see sights of carnage and face the task of organizing and interpreting these horrifying scenes of disorder into news stories: fields of burned and butchered corpses after military battles, twisted bodies and vehicles at crash sites, the charred remains of humans and family pets caught in house fires, city streets awash in sewage after ﬂoods. They become, as Pierre Bourdieu (1990) might suggest, ‘transubstantiated media’, the embodied means of exchange between the scenes they witness and their means of constructing it as news. According to Roger Simpson and James Boggs’s (1999) study on noncombat journalists, just under one-half of their 131 survey respondents had experienced at least one form of violence directly, either from combat, car wrecks, assaults, or fires. Most (86 per cent) had covered
Carrie Rentschler 169
one or more violent events at the scene, including fires, auto crashes, murders, air crashes, violent assaults, and earthquakes (in order from least to most common). Some respondents also witnessed more unusual forms of violence and death: volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, drowning, train derailments, explosions, prison riots, executions, and an elephant charge. While their study does not diagnose journalists’ traumatic stress, it codifies the breadth of violence and disorder that some noncombat reporters cover, suggesting that seeing scenes of violence are a ubiquitous feature of reporters’ work lives (for example, Hartley, 1999). According to Simpson and Boggs, some journalists witness forms of mayhem that occur far outside the borders of war zones, but unlike war correspondents, where there is at least some notion that war journalists ought to be trained in how to deal with the risks and dangers of the war zone (see Rentschler, 2007), domestic reporters work under no such belief in the necessity of training regarding the hazards of reporting. In other words, journalists experience the kinds of scenes discussed in Simpson and Boggs’s study without any professional preparation for how to respond, a reality Covering Columbine represents and seeks to rectify through its use in new journalism and trauma programs. As other recent studies suggest, war correspondents seem to suffer from a higher prevalence of PTSD than police officers, in rates on par with combat veterans (Knightley, 2001; see also Feinstein, 2003). A survey of 170 war correspondents by University of Toronto researcher Dr Anthony Feinstein found that 25 per cent of his respondents suffered from symptoms of PTSD at some point in their work lives. All of Feinstein’s survey respondents had been shot at, two experienced mock executions, and three had experienced their colleagues being killed in the field (Tomlin, 2001). Another national survey of non-combat newspaper journalists conducted by Caroline Pyevich found that ‘covering trauma-related stories and being personally threatened while covering assignments uniquely relates to PTSD symptoms.’3 While only 4 per cent of Pyevich’s respondents could be formally diagnosed with PTSD, 70 per cent of them experienced intense horror and disgust, fear, or helplessness in relation to their most stressful work-related assignments, the top three of which they reported as the death or injury of a child, murder, and motor vehicle accidents (Pyevich, 2001). Many experienced individual symptoms that constitute part of the symptomology of PTSD. These studies medically codify beat reporters and news photographers as sufferers of PTSD, interpreting their having seen sites of violence as a condition of traumatic illness that uniquely ‘makes up’ the subjectivity of the journalist-cum-witness (for example, Hacking, 1986) on par
From Danger to Trauma
with emergency workers. The metaphor of ‘first response’ then becomes an umbrella term not only for different kinds of time-sensitive work practices (such as policing and reporting), but also for the experiential dimensions of that work insofar as they can be reduced to the particular experience of seeing. PTSD, then, is not simply a condition that is ‘just there’ waiting to be discovered, but one which has to be brought into representation through the use of cultural metaphor (for example, Scott, 1990, p. 308; Treichler, 1999, p. 15) and medical terminology. In order for reporters to be recognized and speak as traumatized professionals, journalistic trauma must first be made into a condition for which there are accounts (for example, Davis, 2005; Hacking, 1986). Thus, as Sander Gilman suggests, ‘the palpable signs of illness, the pain and suffering of the patient, cannot be simply dismissed as a social construction, even though this pain may be understood . . . in a socially determined manner’ (1988, p. 10). The significance of journalistic PTSD is in its reconfiguration of the practice of journalism as a practice of ‘bearing witness’, proven through the similarities of trauma’s symptoms across the body vocational.
Training ﬁlms in trauma: Covering Columbine Covering Columbine is one of a number of training artifacts that now circulate in what I call ‘trauma training’ curricula within some U.S. journalism schools. Currently, schools with such curricula include the University of Colorado-Boulder, where Covering Columbine was made, the University of Washington-Seattle (and its associated Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma), Michigan State University’s Victims in the Media Program, Indiana University/Purdue University in Indianapolis, IN, and the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, OK, among others. Journalism programs began to adopt trauma-based curricula in the 1990s as a response to victim advocates’ critiques of news media treatment of crime victims. Trauma and victim-based training seeks to teach students how to think about what the physically and potentially psychologically traumatic experience of being a crime victim is like in order to cover them in less harmful and insensitive ways. The concept of ‘trauma’ is used in this training as a framework for representing the psychological marks of crime, disaster, and accident on their victims and survivors, which knowledgeable reporters can use to re-orient their interviewing practices to treat victims and survivors more responsibly. Training also teaches journalists about their own potential for psychological injury on the job as a result of listening to crime and disaster
Carrie Rentschler 171
victims’ accounts of their experiences and seeing the scenes of violence they must cover (particularly news photographers). Trauma is a significant concept in this training because it provides reporters a language for describing the psychological dimensions of physical injuries and the experiences of those who are proximate to others’ suffering and become subject to it vicariously. While journalists learn to document physical suffering and devastation, they are less well trained to cover and understand its psychological dimensions. The concept of PTSD sits precisely at this juncture between the physical and the psychological wound; through its classification schemes, ‘the medical wound, trauma, became the psychic wound’ (Hacking 1996, p. 85). Understanding the concept of trauma in this training means that one learns to become a better reporter, one who is better able to cover news subjects by learning how to face ‘the consequences of death’ armed with a language for talking about those consequences as trauma. The dramatic hour-long documentary retraces journalists’ memories covering the Columbine shootings up to a year after the event, translating the discourse of journalistic witnessing into a discourse of journalistic trauma in the process. It models what some journalism educators envision as the potentially therapeutic practice of more victim-centric coverage of school shootings, their victims, and victims’ families and communities. Rather than focusing on the news subjects from that day or the news audiences and their reactions to the coverage, it is clear from the start that reporters are the subjects of Covering Columbine. It is their memories of the coverage, their own reﬂections on the assignment, and their emotional responses that the film depicts, modeling for viewers an emotionally literate form of reﬂection on the work of reporting. While the film addresses how intrusive coverage was for community residents, the shooting victims, and their families, it specifically highlights how the obligation to cover Columbine was intrusive and overwhelming for reporters, too. In the context of training journalism students, the film models how to talk about trauma, not in the search for a talking cure, but instead as a means of speaking ‘truth’ about the psychological realities of reporting – realities to which Covering Columbine gives representation. Most of the journalists and editors who appear in the film live in or near the Columbine community and speak of identifying with the parents and students they covered. In the film, a professional ethos of ‘toughness’ and psychological detachment fragment under the emotional weight of covering their own communities and imagining their own children dead. One female TV news reporter is shown crying and
From Danger to Trauma
unable to finish her report from the triage scene after the shootings, barely able to state between her sobs, ‘As a parent, this is just really hard.’ Health/science reporter Ann Schrader observed, ‘I was talking to this 16-year-old kid, and I was thinking, “I’m talking to you and your parents don’t even know you’re alive” ’ (Watkins, 2000). Without knowing what to expect or how to prepare for the effects of ‘first contact’ at a major crime scene, journalists go in cold to a culture of trauma in which they know little to none of the language for talking about it and understanding it. Covering Columbine not only provides this language, it nurtures a different image of professional journalism premised on reporters’ emotional proximity to the events they cover, rather than the detached distance so central to the stoic masculinity of the field’s dominant professional ideology. Over and over again, journalists talk about how the professional demands made on them to cover Columbine caused their emotional distress – in the film and in other reports that echo the point of the film. Amanda Onion, a reporter for Fox News Online, stated that she felt ‘sick, knowing I would have to ask [students] to tell me about what was probably the most horrible experience of their lives’ (Onion, 1999). Dan Meyers, Metro Editor for the Denver Post echoes Onion’s sentiment on the day of the shootings: ‘I was one of thousands of journalists who went home and cried that night, and then again the next morning. I could hardly read our own coverage of it’ (Covering Columbine). Patty Dennis, news director for KUSA-TV in Denver reported, ‘After 13 funerals, I had photographers coming in saying they couldn’t do anymore’ (Covering Columbine). Ann Schrader describes the feeling, saying, ‘It scorched your soul. It made you really look down deep within yourself’ (Watkins, 2000). New York Daily News photographer David Handschuh describes his experience: ‘I cried at Columbine. A lot of photographers stood outside the church that day and did a lot of self-reﬂection. We asked ourselves why we do what we do and how we do it. [ . . . .] Photographers are exposed to multitudes of trauma. Every time you see the picture, whether it be on the front page of the newspaper or displayed for an award, you relive the sights, sounds, smells and the adrenaline that is associated with the picture’ (Bui, 2000). In addition to its dramatic visual displays of journalistic emotion and reporters’ own statements about the psychological burdens they bear from covering the Columbine High School shootings, the film narrates a common newsroom struggle between what editors demand and what photographers and reporters are willing and able to do on the job. Schrader, Handschuh, and Onion represent an emotionally
Carrie Rentschler 173
identified journalistic ethos being put to work against the callous news organizations by whom they are employed. The competitive industrial battle within the news business appears in the film as a confrontation between emotion and profit, on the one hand, and empathy and professional objectivity, on the other. In both cases, reportorial affect, and the literacy with which reporters speak it, indexes a position that reporters occupy to question the needs of the industry for breaking news and anniversary coverage of major crimes and the doxic beliefs of the profession around covering them. According to the film, many journalists began to refuse assignments because of their unwillingness to intrude on survivors in interviews or because they felt they could not emotionally handle revisiting the particulars of the shootings. After reporter Ann Schrader of the Denver Post refused her editor’s request to interview the husband and daughter of a woman who had just committed suicide (the daughter, Mary Ann Hochhalter, was paralyzed in the Columbine attack), and in again refusing to interview her neighbors, another journalist took her place, inadvertently notifying the woman’s best friend of her suicide. Reporters’ consciousness of the intrusive nature of the news interview for survivors, the families of the students, and bystanders to the event acquires a heightened affective charge in the film from its association with the testimony of witnesses to the event. This charge extends the in-profession critique of interviewing’s intrusiveness on the lives of those dealing with shock and grief by reframing it in terms of the emotional weight it places on some reporters. Yet Covering Columbine takes the critique of interviewing’s intrusiveness further by suggesting that to feel as a reporter (and to have a language for talking about it) signifies that journalists themselves are witness to catastrophic events in ways that place them in ethical opposition to the requirements of the job. To ‘feel strongly’ as a reporter, then, further signifies that the affective dimensions of the job (and their display in the film) evidence reporters’ own bodily and psychological transformation in the process of reporting crisis. Their transformation makes explicit, ‘naming the unnameable’ (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 129), those regulative codes of the profession that abstract the journalist from his or her body and try to distance what the journalist reports from what the journalist sees and hears in others’ accounts. Covering Columbine criticizes that move to abstract the journalist from the testimony of others as the denial of the affective dimensions of news work. ‘In situations of crisis’, Pierre Bourdieu has argued, ‘these paradoxical and extra-ordinary situations call for an extraordinary kind of discourse, capable of raising the practical principles
From Danger to Trauma
which generate (quasi-) systematic responses, and of expressing all the unheard-of and ineffable characteristics of the situation created by the crisis’ (1991, p. 129, emphasis in original). The charged portrayal in the film of journalists’ emotional and psychological responses to covering Columbine not only dramatizes the failures (or ‘remainders’, we might say) of journalism’s dueling codes of detached objectivity and invested advocacy. It also enunciates the link between the affective dimensions of the job and the larger political labor of news-making. Feeling becomes a kind of symbolic capital in this articulation of journalistic practice, a sign that the reporter himself/herself literally and symbolically embodies not only the catastrophic event on which he or she reports, but also the labor of the news industry itself. Covering Columbine portrays a form of ‘emotional literacy’ with which reporters talk about their surrogacy role as carriers of the affective traces of the events they witness, the testimonial accounts they receive from their interviews, and their work as laborers for the news business. To be clear, feeling here is not code for ‘trauma’; it is instead code for the practice of witnessing around which journalism is being redefined. The film signifies the potentially traumatic dimensions of journalistic witnessing by emphasizing reporters’ roles as bodily carriers of others’ stories of trauma; they are proxies for the reception of traumatic accounts of the events they cover and for the news industry and its audiences that affectively reverberate for reporters. Covering Columbine’s critique is aimed at the news industry’s failure to function normatively as a responsible ‘witness’ to the event – as an agent itself, bound by an expectation of concern for how and what it produces as news that is borne not through the abstract countenance of the news business, but through the bodies and psyches of its workers. It prescribes a model of journalistic practice in which news-making bears the moral burden of witnessing for what it covers. In describing news in this way, it also prescribes news behavior, telling reporters that they should witness the consequences of others’ deaths ‘because audiences need to see it’. Textbooks in journalism education make this prescriptive function even more explicit. William Coté and Roger Simpson, two former journalists turned journalism professors, argue in Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma: The journalist’s obligation to represent the public means, above all, going where human beings are most at-risk. For better or worse violence is an important part of the report we want journalists to bring back to us . . . [C]itizens in a democracy must know about violence if
Carrie Rentschler 175
they are to make responsible decisions about how to protect themselves, their families and their communities. The job of the media is to tell them, accurately, fairly, and comprehensively (2000, p. 223).
In Coté and Simpson’s text, the representation of journalism has an explicitly dual character, signifying (1) the depiction of realities that news audiences need and (2) the act of standing in for news audiences, for bystanders and eyewitnesses, and for the news industry itself (see Ganguly, 1992; Spivak, 1988). Covering Columbine and Covering Violence describe news-making as an act of moral and social agency, where news both depicts violence in the world and intervenes in it in the process of acting as its witness. As texts used to cultivate modes of professional conduct in students, these training media have a powerful ‘capacity to prescribe while seeming to describe’ (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 128) the work of journalists covering crisis. Their descriptions of journalism as a practice of witnessing also direct their viewers and readers to understand themselves as witnesses, to see journalists’ work not simply as the documentation of an event and its effects but as a form of agency born by a responsibility that leaves physical and psychological marks on its bearers. Interviewed reporters also talk about the harms of inaccurate portrayals in the early coverage of the Columbine shootings to both survivors and the profession, defining the agency of news representation in part through its ability to inﬂict harm. When the harm is directed at survivors, the solution partly comes in reconstituting the memorial record of the event through more accurate accounting of the details of the shooting and its effects and in providing more victim/survivor control over the representation of the event. Bearing witness signifies a kind of reporting that seeks to reduce the harms that representation itself is said to produce. It also signifies a valuation of the news as a commodity around its use value as a potential social palliative, where the emotional literacy of journalists translates possibly harm-producing coverage and news behavior into news-making aimed at its own ‘harm-reduction’. Subjects covered as victims in the news further extend the critique that training texts make of the harmfulness of news coverage, particularly when the crime victim is also a journalist. Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor for The Nation and executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, survived a brutal knife assault at a New Haven, CT coffee shop and also paid witness to the images of his assault on the news. The representation of victimization in the news
From Danger to Trauma
appears in his testimony as an additional harm to the one he suffered from his assault: On the local evening news, I have unexpectedly encountered footage, several months old, of myself writhing on an ambulance gurney, bright green shirt open and drenched with blood, skin pale, knee raised, trying desperately and with utter frailty to find relief from pain . . . a picture of my body, contorted and bleeding . . . a propaganda image in the crime war (Shapiro, 1995).4 Shapiro occupies a unique position from which to examine the personal costs and political abstractions of crime news. He is a survivor who testifies about the struggles that occur over the reportorial obligations to cover crime and the experience of that coverage as its victim, highlighting the politicized terrain of covering crime and catastrophe as an interaction between the institutions of news-making and crime politics in addition to the individual needs of the victim. The reporter mediates between these positions, caught in a system of industrialized looking that requires journalists to translate other’s experiences of crime into marketable news commodities in which law-and-order politicos have a particularly vested interest, but also into potentially sympathetic and ‘useful’ narratives of crime’s victims. Crime and catastrophe news do both: they sell a commoditized product of others’ suffering and their accounting of it, but they also ‘bear witness’ to the individual and social effects they have. One is not reducible to the other, nor does one practice replace the other. Shapiro and Covering Columbine suggest instead that news is witness commoditized. The problem is that the discourse of witnessing can make it harder to talk about the industrial production of crime and catastrophe news by masking its commodity form and the alienated labor of its workers.
Conclusion: Bringing trauma back to the profession Against this backdrop, in which news is reconceived, on the one hand, as harmful, commoditized, and abstracted, and on the other as commemorative and potentially palliative, journalists are taught to re-conceptualize their position as reporters through the lens of ‘bearing witness’. This is an obligation to see and receive accounts of others’ suffering that some journalists say is pushing them out of the profession altogether. While some might want to dismiss these journalists as simply ‘not cut out’ for the pressures of the job, another interpretation
Carrie Rentschler 177
recognizes that the language of trauma may enable reporters to name the harm-creating conditions of the job, connecting the labor of journalism with the labor of bearing witness by conceiving of witnessing as itself a form of work. In Covering Columbine, journalists’ voiceovers speak of the personal, emotional effects of their assignments at Columbine and their desires to change jobs or move into a different kind of reporting, associating the responsibility for the potential traumas of the job with the industry and profession. One male reporter even says to the camera, with a look of serious resignation on his face, ‘I’d rather cover a war than a school shooting.’ Another reporter admits, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I might open a bait shop.’ In another scene, a local TV reporter stands in the spring rain on the day after the shootings, her face marked with red splotchy streaks from the tears she cannot hold back. She weeps so powerfully she is unable to continue speaking, a metaphor resonant with meaning if we consider witnessing not as a form of passive experience as it is so often described, but as a form of labor that for reporters is significantly lacking conventions – or even recognition – for its representation. Covering Columbine and psychological studies of journalists mark the emergence of a larger discourse of journalistic witnessing that interprets the conditions of the profession as themselves traumatizing, and the work of journalists, in part, as a mode of affective labor. Against the construction of psychological trauma as ultimately un-representable in referential form (Caruth, 1991, 1995; see also van der Kolk and van der Hart, 1995), the training films and studies analyzed here suggest, along with Elaine Scarry, that ‘psychological suffering, though often difficult for anyone to express, does have referential content, is susceptible to verbal objectification, and is so habitually represented’ as nearly ubiquitous in public culture (1985, p. 16; see also Furedi, 2004) as well as in professional ones. These films and studies create a discourse of journalistic witnessing that translates a medical discourse of traumatized witnessing into a professional discourse that prioritizes the work of journalism as affective labor. Ultimately, the discourse of journalistic witnessing turns the concept of witnessing others’ suffering inward into a reﬂexive discourse on the profession, one aimed at its therapeutic transformation. Like other forms of trauma discourse emerging in the post-9/11 context, the construction of journalists as sufferers of PTSD locates the problem of the intensified industrialization and commercialization of catastrophe news in the effects it has on individual workers and not in the structural conditions that make news work and the events being covered more trauma
From Danger to Trauma
prone (see Cloud, 1998; Berlant, 2000). Professions are being asked to bear the burden of traumatizing conditions and the responsibility for their rectification at the same time (for example, Miller and Rose, 1994). Journalistic trauma becomes both the proof and code for journalistic witnessing in the current political and industrial juncture that media industries occupy, the means for both affectively investing in the profession and the news industries’ mandates, and the possible means for rejecting the illusion of detached and heroic models of reporting on the front lines.
Notes 1. This work appeared online without page numbers. Other reference information has been provided in References section. 2. Freud himself discussed the links between war and traumatic experiences in his Introduction to Psycho-Analysis and War Neuroses; British military psychiatrist C. S. Myers defined the condition ‘shell shock’ in 1915 in his Lancet article ‘A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock’ in order to explain the traumatic consequences of war on the psyches of World War I veterans; and Kardiner published in 1941 his book The Traumatic Neuroses of War (see Lamprecht and Sack, 2002). 3. Of her 906 survey respondents, 87 per cent of Caroline Pyevich’s study subjects were reporters, 6 per cent were editors, another 6 per cent were both reporters and editors, and 1 per cent were ‘other’. See her unpublished dissertation, ‘The Relationship among Cognitive Schemata, Job-Related Traumatic Exposure, and PTSD in Journalists’, Department of Psychology, University of Oklahoma at Tulsa, 2001. 4. This work appeared online without page numbers. Other reference information has been provided in References section.
References American Psychiatric Association (1980) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders III (Washington, DC). L. Berlant (2000) ‘The Subject of True Feeling: Pain, Privacy and Politics’, in J. Dean (ed.), Cultural Studies and Political Theory, 42–62 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press). T. Bennett (1992) ‘Useful Culture’, Cultural Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, 395–408. P. Bourdieu (1980/1990) The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press). P. Bourdieu (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge University Press. D. Bui (2000) ‘David Handschuh: One Photographer’s Perspective’ (Seattle, WA: Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma), www3.adhost.com/dartcenter/News/ new_columbine2.html, date accessed 22 July 2007.
Carrie Rentschler 179 C. Caruth (1995) ‘Trauma and Experience: Introduction’, in C. Caruth (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 3–11 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press). C. Caruth (1991) ‘Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Possibility of History’, Yale French Studies, vol. 79, 181–92. J. Clifford (1988) The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). J. Clifford and G. Marcus (1986) (eds) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press). D. Cloud (1998) Control and Consolation in American Culture and Politics: Rhetoric of Therapy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications). P. Conrad (1992) ‘Medicalization and Social Control’, Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 18, 209–32. W. Coté and R. Simpson (2000) Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims & Trauma (New York: Columbia University Press). A. Cvetkovich (2003) An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma (2001) www.dartcenter.org/fromeditor. html, date accessed 12 September 2001. J. Davis (2005) Accounts of Innocence: Sexual Abuse, Trauma, and the Self (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). A. Feinstein and J. Owen (2002) ‘War Photographers and Stress’, Columbia Journalism Review, July/August, 51. A. Feinstein (2003) Dangerous Lives: War and the Men and Women who Report on It (Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers). Freedom Forum European Center (2001) ‘Risking more than their Lives: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Journalists’, Published Transcript of a Panel Discussion (Arlington, VA: Freedom Forum, 12 April 2001). T. Furedi (2004) Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (London: Routledge). S. Gal (2003) ‘Movements of Feminism: The Circulation of Discourses about Women’, in B. Hobson (ed.), Recognition Struggles and Social Movements: Contested Identities, Agency, and Power, 93–118 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). K. Ganguly (1992) ‘Accounting for Others: Feminism and Representation’, in L. Rakow (ed.), Women Making Meaning: New Feminist Directions in Communication, 60–82 (New York: Routledge). S. Gilman (1988) Disease and Representation: Images of Illness from Madness to AIDS (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press). I. Hacking (1986/1999) ‘Making Up People’, in M. Biagioli (ed.), The Science Studies Reader, 161–71 (London: Routledge). I. Hacking (1996) ‘Memory Sciences, Memory Politics’, in P. Antze and M. Lambek (eds), Tense Past: Cultural Essays in Trauma and Memory, 67–88 (London: Routledge). M. Hardt (1999) ‘Affective Labor’, Boundary 2, vol. 26, no. 2, 89–100. J. Hartley (1999) ‘Why Is It Scholarship when Someone Wants to Kill You?: Truth as Violence’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, vol. 13, no. 2, 227–236. C. Hedges (2002) War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs).
From Danger to Trauma
M. Herr (1977) Dispatches (New York: Knopf). J. Herman (1992) Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books). H. Himmelstein and E. P. Faithorn (2002) ‘Eyewitness to Disaster: How Journalists Cope with the Psychological Stress Inherent in Reporting Traumatic Events’, Journalism Studies, vol. 3, no. 4, 537–55. E. F. Kittay and E. K. Feder (eds) (2002) The Subject of Care: Feminist Perspectives on Dependency (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield). P. Knightley (1975) The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Vietnam (London: Andre Deutsch). P. Knightley (2001) ‘The War on Journalism’, The Guardian (26 November), http://media.guardian.co.uk/print/0„4307116-105337,00.html. F. Lamprecht and M. Sack (2002) ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Revisited’, Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 64, no. 2, 222–37. D. LaCapra (2001) Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press). R. Leys (2000) Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). A. Loyd (1999) My War Gone By, I Miss it So (New York: Doubleday). C. Marvin and D. Ingle (1998) Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge University Press). P. Miller and N. Rose (1994) ‘On Therapeutic Authority’, History of the Human Sciences, vol. 7, no. 3, 229–64. F. Ochberg (1996) ‘A Primer on Covering Victims’, Nieman Reports, Fall Issue, 21–6. A. Onion (1999, May/June) Special Report: Littleton with the Columbine Kids. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved from http://www.cjr.org. M. Pedelty (1997) ‘The Marginal Majority: Women War Correspondents in the Salvadoran Press Corps Association (SPCA)’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol. 14, no. 1, 49–77. M. Pedelty (1995) War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents (New York: Routledge). J. D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. C. Pyevich (2001) The Relationship Among Cognitive Schemata, Job-Related Traumatic Exposure, and PTSD in Journalists (Department of Psychology, University of Oklahoma at Tulsa), unpublished dissertation. C. Rentschler (2007) ‘Risky Assignments: Sexing “Security” in Hostile Environment Reporting’, Feminist Media Studies, vol.7, no. 3, 257–79. L. Sargent (ed.) (1981) Women in Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (Boston: South End Press). E. Scarry (1985) Bodies in Pain: the Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press). W. Scott (1990) ‘PTSD in DSM-III: A Case in the Politics of Diagnosis and Disease’, Social Problems, vol.37, no. 3, 294–310. B. Shapiro (1995) ‘One Violent Crime’, The Nation, 3 April 1995, www.thenation. com/1997/issue/970210/shap0403.html, date accessed 24 April 2000. T. Sharp, R. deFraites, S. Thornton, J. Burans, and M. Wallace (1995) ‘Illness in Journalists and Relief Workers Involved in International Humanitarian Assistance Efforts in Somalia, 1992–3’, Journal of Travel Medicine, vol.2, no. 2, 70–6.
Carrie Rentschler 181 J. Shay (1994) Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (New York: Atheneum). R. A. Simpson and J. G. Boggs (1999) ‘An Exploratory Study of Traumatic Stress Among Newspaper Journalists’, Journalism and Communication Monographs, vol. 1, no. 1, 1–26. G. Spivak (1988) ‘Can the Subaltern Speak’, in C. Nelson & L. Grossberg (eds), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 271–313 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press). P. Starr (1982) The Social Transformation of American Medicine (New York: Basic Books). J. Tomlin (2001) ‘War Correspondents Found to Suffer from Stories They Cover’ (Freedom Forum), 13 April 2001, http://www.freedomforum.org, date accessed 3 March 2002. P. Treichler (1999) How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (Durham, NC: Duke University Press). F. Turner (2001) Echoes of Combat: Trauma, Memory, and the Vietnam War (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press). B. van der Kolk and O. van der Hart (1995) ‘The Intrusive Past: The Flexibility of Memory and the Engraving of Trauma’, in C. Caruth (ed.), Trauma: Explorations in Memory, 158–82 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press). A. L. Watkins (2000) ‘Reporters’ Perspectives, Part II’ (Seattle, WA: Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma), 20 July 2000, www3.adhost.com/dartcenter/ News/news_columbine7html, date accessed 22 July 2007. A. Young (1995) The Harmony of Illusions: Inventing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press). B. Zelizer (1993) ‘Journalists as Interpretive Communities’, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, vol.10, no. 3, 219–37.
8 Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation Joan Leach
Are you ready to testify? Get ready to testify. Are you ready to testify? Get ready to testify. ‘These are machine translations. Please do not send corrections to the machine.’ 1
Proposals for the twentieth century to be understood as the century of traumatic witness have dominated post-millennial criticism and analysis in multiple genres of life-writing and history.2 For the media, the claim has been made directly that ‘television sealed the twentieth century’s fate as the century of witness’ (Ellis, 2000, p. 32). It would seem, then, that trauma and its attendance in witnesses and testimonies are central to understanding the century gone and the one recently begun. The sciences sit peculiarly on the edge of this claim. On the one hand, scientific witnessing suggests a remove from the witness to trauma; ‘the objective witness is very different from the survivor . . . the objective witness claims disembodiment and passivity, a cold indifference to the story, offering “just the facts” ’ (Peters, 2001, p. 716). On the other hand, scientists may claim objectivity and disinterestedness in the way they go about research, but they certainly are not disinterested in the results, the ‘story’, or the interpretations of their data. Further, the goals of science do not include only representation, but intervention, belying the passivity in the appeal to objective witness; the point of science is both to represent the world and do things in it (Hacking, 1983; Pickering, 1995). Finally, through tracing the history of the position of scientific witness, historians of science have drawn attention to the mediated nature of scientific observation and the moral, political, and epistemic commitments 182
of scientific observers as they invent (in the rhetorical sense of inventio) testimony from observation. Thus, while witnessing media events on television may frame the paradigm of contemporary attitudes toward testimony, exploring the stance of scientific witness provides an alternative trajectory for understanding the contemporary role of testimony and witness. To be sure, scientific witnessing does not step outside of history; the discussion of testimony and witness from the seventeenth century in natural philosophy is, in part, a discussion of the relationship of observation to witnessing in an ordinary sense, a legal sense, and a religious sense (Shapiro, 2002). There are important continuities among these many senses of witness. But there are disparities, too. This paper offers an outline of recent approaches to scientific witnessing and their attendant theoretical constructs of credibility, trust, and authority. After surveying these approaches and presenting scientific witnessing in this alternate tradition, I offer one limit case for scientific testimony, the testimony of machines. This limit case brings the argument back around to mediation and its role in the stance of scientific witnessing.
A different tradition Media critics have drawn attention to trauma, pain, and suffering as central to the experience of mediated witness. John Durham Peters (2001) suggests that ‘a different tradition seeks to secure the validity of statements without the metaphysical and moral conundrums of pain’ (p. 715). By this, he points to the ‘alternative’ tradition of scientific witness in which the scientific witness observes nature and experiment. If pain is at the irreducible center of debates and analyses of media witnessing, the ‘social’ is at the center of much theorizing about scientific testimony. The point of examining the role of testimony in science has been to ask ‘how deeply’ social relations underpin scientific claims. Social epistemologists have variously argued that there is something irreducibly social about knowing and its relationship to the representation practices of knowers; science is no exception to this general claim. The ubiquitous position of testimony, the act of telling what you know, demonstrates the irreducibly social basis for scientific knowlege (Fuller, 1996). In this epistemic frame that features the social, an astonishing amount of scientific knowledge is based on testimony. From the labels on laboratory materials and the interpretation of data to speculative discussions among scientists, most professional scientists rely on the testimony of their colleagues for their beliefs about fundamental scientific questions. In short, a very precious few scientists have ‘seen for
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
themselves’ or ‘directly witnessed’ the experiments, the proofs, or even the raw data that supports scientific claims. Scientific testimony, then, is usually a double-mediation. Reports of scientific results are reports of others’ reports and of machines and instrumentation. John Hardwig (1985) was one of the first epistemologists of testimony to point out that ‘big science’ collaborative projects provide an ideal model for the array of beliefs supported by testimony that people generally hold.3 In this sense, science is not unusual, but exemplary. What is of note, however, is the management of this situation in light of science’s purported epistemic status as the best-justified knowledge available. As science is increasingly seen as a social enterprise, the status of testimony and witnessing in theories of scientific knowledge continue to ascend. Instead of the ancient dogma (from Greek rationalism to Hume) that a knowledge claim should be endorsed only if one has seen for oneself or has a deductively conclusive argument for it, theorists of scientific knowledge concede that there is at least a ‘testimonial moment’ to the dissemination of much scientific knowledge. Here, however, is where the waters become murky. Is scientific testimony only a testimonial moment, a moment of witness when the scientist points at something objective, something beyond the social? Or, does an exchange of scientific knowledge boil down to the evaluation and exchange of credentials or bona fides between testifiers? Historians of science have suggested a middle road and have called upon ‘witnessing’ as a theory-laden stance of observation to historically frame scientific attitudes toward knowledge exchange. Some of these historical views of scientific witnessing will be outlined below. The key point here is that theorists of scientific knowledge agree that testimony is a feature of science (as it is of ‘just getting on the world’), but disagree about how central theories of observation, or witnessing, are to the ways in which knowledge is justified and disseminated in science. Science looks to be, at least at some level, epistemically reliant on testimony as well as rhetorically reliant on its disavowal. Who wants to know that scientific knowledge is only as good as the observer’s account of that knowledge? But to suggest that because this disavowal is rhetorical it is not powerful would be mistaken. This is all the more obvious when the results of science and technology are discussed in media forums; the standards for judging the sense of what is being said is a testimonial standard as well as (or even more than) a scientific one. This has meant that the authority of scientific testimony, or grounds to trust what scientists say, have been carefully structured by peer review,
extensive checking of sources and methods, and lengthy apprenticeship in science – precisely to create the kind of credentials that can act as markers of potentially credible testimony. Increasingly, this has also meant that scientists have adopted a range of ways to work with scientific testimony, especially in journalism-dominated media contexts.4 It is not incorrect to suggest that scientific institutions have developed an effective mode of public scientific testimony that is self-conscious as well as motivated and that is inadequately captured by the description of ‘public relations’. There are a number of limits to place on the discussion to this point. First, there is a clear problem with discussing ‘science’ instead of the many disciplinary practices that the word ‘science’ includes. The discussion here does not delve into the manifest distinctions between different intellectual endeavors in the sciences. The physics of the new Hadron Collider is very different than the biology of wetland ecology, and the practices that sustain these sciences are also widely divergent. However different these practices are at a local level, though, the rhetorical stances taken by scientific actors in these varying sciences are surprisingly similar. Testimony, in the form of scientific witness, offers such a rhetorical stance. It is also the case that further mediation along the lines of ‘scientists say . . . ’ produces nearly rhetorically equivalent claims.5 This is not to say that there are not ‘situated textualities’ in the sciences, to use Lynette Hunter’s useful phrase, but rather to say that the rhetorical stance of scientific testimony in mediated contexts is surprisingly coherent across the sciences (1999). The discussion of media is also very particular; those who study scientific testimony in mediated contexts tend to take very seriously an instrumental view of science journalism where ‘journalism’ means science news and features.6 In other words, the role of science journalism is to present science to laypeople (the exemplary function of science in the mediated context), and this media can be utilized to carry the messages of science to a broader populace. Thus, scientists are becoming a large market for ‘science media courses’ where ‘media skills training workshops can help to break down barriers, and give scientists a feeling of greater confidence and control over media appearances’ (Metcalfe and Gascoigne, 1997, p. 275). The implicit argument is that scientists should be concerned about their credibility both inside and outside of their professional places of work and pay more attention to the packaging of their testimony to audiences outside the sciences.7 This attitude toward science in mediated contexts fits well with the ‘poll culture’ of mass communication in the latter half of the twentieth century. The
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
question ‘How trustworthy do you find scientists?’ is routinely asked, and the answers ﬂuctuate, sparking moral panic or concern for how scientists are viewed by media consumers (Mead and Metraux, 1957; Durant, 1989). What is less explored is the role of popular media in representing the image of scientists as it has been transformed in the twenty-first century. This has been called the emergence of the ‘rad scientist’ of CSI, Numbers, and other television serials of the early twenty-first century (Postrel, 2007). What is important about the theoretical preference to view mediation as instrumental to scientific testimony is that it reveals the multiple projects that orbit the study of mediation and witness. ‘Testimony’ is a shared term in these endeavors, but the meaning, focus, and intellectual trajectories it suggests can vary greatly. This seems to be especially important, as mediated accounts of science and technology are extraordinarily powerful in shaping beliefs about science and technology. Yet, media scholars rarely tackle questions of the testimonial stance of scientists and science studies scholars have only recently taken on the frameworks of media witness. Epistemologists tend to ignore both. This is, in some sense, an observation of the interdisciplinary space occupied by questions of witness and testimony as applied to science. It even appears as if there are contradictions and ironies in disciplinary approaches that themselves need explaining.8 Thus, while an exploration of testimony in science is also an exploration of a ‘different tradition’ of media witnessing, coming from discussions of scientific witness back to the role of science in media testimonies lands one in different territory than if one starts from the tradition of media witnessing and heads to the other country of science. The following discussion introduces various types of scientific witness useful for considering the historical role of mediation in science and the challenge of machine witness.
Scientiﬁc witnesses Scientists, natural philosophers, and scientific writers have all troubled over the mediated nature of scientific knowledge and worried about the idiom in which nature is represented. Indeed, the ‘language politics’ of the sciences is one of the best-known features of historical accounts of science (Montgomery, 1995). The particular stance of scientific ‘witness’ has been, in fact, one of the reasons given for the rise of the sciences in the seventeenth century. If the twentieth century was the century for mass-mediated traumatic witness, the seventeenth was
surely the century of literate scientific witness. One powerful account of this is given by Stephen Shapin, who has argued for the centrality of the role of testimonial maxims for understanding scientific truthtelling. Shapin’s well-known studies of the early Royal Society, notably in A Social History of Truth, focus on a thorny question for science (then, as today): Why should one believe the testimony of someone reporting the experimental results (never mind more theoretical enterprises) of a scientific inquiry? After all, very rarely are such experiments reproduced in other labs, and sometimes results seem quite fantastical. The answer to this question sheds light on the role of testimony in the institutions of science. We are warranted to believe the testimony of a scientist because an experiment is replicable (even if it is never, in fact, replicated), because there is consensus among experts that the experiment ‘seems right’, that the methods used are ‘fitting’.9 But, as an historical development, before we can acknowledge contemporary warrants for believing experimental results, we must ask, ‘What warranted the initial belief in scientific testimony, before there was consensus, before methodological orthodoxy, before replicability seemed obvious?’ Before, even, the profession called ‘scientist’ was coined? Shapin finds that there are a series of ‘testimonial maxims’ that guide the reception of scientific testimony at its outset: plausibility of the testimony, number of occasions of the finding, consistency of accounts, closeness of connection among observations and accounts, the skill of the witnesses, the manner of communication, and the ability and fidelity of the sources. In each of these maxims, to be sure, is buried a historical and rhetorical treasure, nothing short of a history of our basic assumptions about warrant for scientific belief. However, Shapin’s point turns out to be that there is an important social code that backs these warrants, a code of gentlemanly conduct without which these maxims are rendered nonsensical. It was, in short, one’s standing as a gentleman that insured that at least an initial plausibility be attached to what one said, that one’s manner of communication be decorous to get one heard in the first place, that one’s ‘fidelity’ was assured. To quote Peter Lipton’s gloss on this account of scientific testimony, ‘Gentlemen prefer gentlemen’ (1998, p. 10). There is a long-standing tradition, going back to Hume, of discerning guiding rules by which testimony can be given and received. Shapin, following this tradition, refers to the ‘maxims and counter-maxims’ that guide sensible scientific testimony and its reception. These have also the ﬂavor of Gricean maxims which are, in a sense, rules that make sense of their violations (Wilson and Sperber, 1981). It is not that violation of
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
the maxims is impossible or even improbable. It is rather, says Shapin, that maxims guide interpretation and the generation of claims: The maxim is recognized to depend utterly upon taken-for-granted background knowledge and to vary in its sense and force according to the scene and purpose of practical activity. It has a local rather than a global sense and potency. The speaker and hearer of a maxim take it as a prudential guide to specific actions in specific settings (1994, p. 188). The local nature of maxims makes it probable that there will be other similar maxims and, indeed, counter-maxims for other practical activities and that these maxims might rely on the knowledge of other maxims to make sense or be applicable. The importance of these maxims is that they guide testimony, that is, the form, format, and genre of believable scientific witness. Shapin’s account links the production of believable scientific witnesses with their status as gentlemen who, qua gentleman, regularly produce various reliable testimonies as bona fide truth-tellers. This scientific witness, furthermore, is tied to civility through the threat of force; violence underwrites civility and, thus, trust in testimonial accounts. Shapin’s account of the mentita (‘giving the lie’ and proceeding to a duel) and its function in early modern England recalls the link between gentlemanly culture and violence. Gentlemanly culture depended on the knowledge that some quarrels could end in violence, and gentlemen needed significant rhetorical resources that could mitigate the chance of violence. Shapin argues that the management of these particular resources added to the power of early scientific witness as they provided ways that skepticism and difference of opinion could be expressed without insult (1994). Thus, the rhetorical manner of early scientific writing, including the exchange of views in letters, was guided by the overarching rhetorical decorum of gentlemanly conduct aimed at avoiding offense or the possibility of violent disagreement. The seventeenth-century scientist was also the skeptical and modest, objective and civil gentleman, avoiding any threat of violence. It is he who leaves a rhetorical legacy in the form of testimony of the scientific witness. Donna Haraway’s version of the role of testimony in science highlights the decorum of the scientific rhetorical stance of witness as one of modesty. She characterizes the scientific ‘modest witness’ as follows:
He bears witness: he is objective; he guarantees the clarity and purity of objects. His subjectivity is his objectivity. His narratives have a magical power – they lose all trace of their history as stories, as products of partisan projects, as contestable representations, or as constructed documents in their potent capacity to define the facts. The narratives become clear mirrors, fully magical mirrors, without once appealing to the transcendental or the magical (1996, p. 24). What is crucial in this reading of the objective appeal of the modest witness is the seemingly unmediated nature of his locutions. The authority of the modest witness paradoxically stems from the appearance that authorship itself disappears. The very stance of the modest witness disguises itself and achieves a reality effect in which the witness is a mere conduit for nature itself. While Haraway echoes Shapin’s account of the ‘gentleman’ scientist, she emphasizes the translucency of scientific witnessing; it is a ghostly process that does not reveal itself in any straightforward rhetorical way. Scientific witnessing follows the code of realism which demands that audiences accept that ‘there is nothing rhetorical going on here’. Here, scientific witnessing is more straightforwardly seen in continuity with accounts of media witnessing such as those given by Peters. Technologies such as the phonograph, in which audiences are separated in both space and time from the recorded voices that they hear, can have uncanny effects that must be rhetorically managed lest they conjure voices of the dead. The rhetorical management of the modest witness who both authorizes knowledge claims and is invisible is achieved through the various literary technologies of science and their particular grammatical formulations. The scientific author was the first ‘modern’ author to ‘die’, disguising subjectivity for objectivity and exiting the text. The key example is the passive voice through which the modest witness, through careful use of the copula and a past participle, disappears from the text and whose role it is to remain translucent. It is little accident that the passive voice and the modest witness hearken from the same era (Harmon and Gross, 2007). Alongside Shapin’s historical account and Haraway’s critical analysis lie a number of epistemologically centered analyses of what testimony is and does in a scientific setting, which highlight the rhetorical power of scientific witnessing and troubles over its mediated nature. Many epistemologists certainly accept (and, in some cases, even preempt) a Shapin-style historical account. Jonathan Adler, for example, puts it clearly: ‘If we know much of what we think we know, then we do so through testimony. Testimony only succeeds if there is trust’
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
(1994, p. 264). While being a gentleman in the seventeenth century may have been necessary and, in some cases, sufficient to cement that trust, what cements this trust now? Kristina Rolin provides ample evidence that the characteristics of gentlemanly or ‘modest’ witness catalogued by Shapin and Haraway are not far from the fore of trust in contemporary science (Rolin, 2002). Rolin also points out that the epistemologically minded analyses of trust in science have made two important errors: they have linked credibility with trustworthiness (in the manner of Shapin’s gentlemen) and underplayed aspects of communication (such as who has access to others to communicate effectively in science). Further, Steve Fuller (1996) has criticized the excessive attention given to trust in Shapin-esque accounts of scientific testimony. In short, he asks, why should the important epistemic question be ‘Do I trust you?’ rather than ‘What do you have to say about the matter?’ His view is that the attention to trust has meant that epistemologists have had the tendency to evaluate trust relations in hindsight. This means that certain common cases have escaped notice. In cases in which we might find trust lacking (in a colleague who is not very adept at getting reliable data from a particular instrument, for example), we still might listen to see what account the untrustworthy person gives and form some intermediate view. Thus, while the rhetorical stance of scientific witness might be aligned with the objective stance and reliant in some ways on trust relations backed by various forms of power, rhetorical practice could look otherwise, especially if the model in question is not one scientist giving testimony of results (I got a positive test for the presence of X), but a scientist giving testimony that provides one piece of an answer to a question asked by a larger community. (Is it safe to eat X given a high probability of contamination?) In short, critics are building on the picture of the modest witness to include communication among testifiers in a variety of epistemic modes, including trust-building and credibility-gaining. However, pointing out the mediated nature of scientific testimony suggests that it is not just the credibility or trust-building functions of scientific discourse that are worthy of attention, but also the rhetorical principles of credulity that audiences use to guide the acceptance of mediated communication.10 To summarize these three approaches to witness: Shapin sees the maxims of credibility, bolstered by gentlemanly status, as central to the stance of witness in early modern science. Haraway emphasizes the authority that is gained by the modest witness by disavowing the very position of witness and disappearing, through various literary technologies, from the narrative of scientific research. More epistemologically inspired
accounts, such as Rolin’s and Fuller’s do not necessarily disagree with Shapin and Haraway, but put the focus on the when, where, and how of scientific witnessing in relation to audiences; that is, scientific witness is more appropriately referred to as witnessing, an ongoing process, perhaps akin to religious witnessing, that requires audiences to engage in particular ways not always guided by the maxims of science or the ‘rules of the game’.
Machines as excellent witnesses The three brief sketches above provide some guidance for thinking about mediation in science and an attitude toward mediation that includes machines and instrumentation. First, scientific testimony (and its popular representation in various media) is viewed as using mediation in an instrumental manner; that is, scientists can use the media to ‘get their message out’ much in the way that they can use laboratory instrumentation to get information in. It is this instrumental sense that informs a common view of testimony that is begotten from machines. In one sense, science produces a remarkably Aristotelian attitude to testimony. Aristotle famously made the distinction between artistic and inartistic proof and infamously put testimony in the category of inartistic proof (Rhetoric, 1360). What this means in terms of understanding testimony rhetorically is that testimony is outside the art of rhetoric; testimony is somehow immune to the rhetorical savvy of the witness. This distinction, while it has been heavily criticized through the ages, still holds some intuitive and critical purchase; after all, the ‘data cannot lie’. Popular representations reinforce this Aristotelian scientism when researchers or technicians are shown standing around machines that spit out answers to various questions asked of them. Recent television science has done much to underscore this view; instrumentation and machinery (or as the CBS website would have it, ‘cutting-edge forensic tools’) are at the center of producing ‘facts’ that lead various characters to produce testimony about or stand in witness to crime. Frequently, on shows such as CSI, for example, the data spewed from machines authorize a kind of moral discourse from the techno-police: ‘The facts don’t lie . . . but people do.’ Instrumentation, then, produces testimony understood in the Aristotelian fashion as inartistic, in contrast to people who artistically embellish their accounts. Scientific testimony informed by this inartistic testimony is then more reliable than views or interpretations that scientists could come up with on their own (and, as we have seen, this is epistemically unlikely anyway). This account forms a kind of
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
folk epistemology of scientific mediation that privileges the truth-telling status of machinery and instrumentation. The technology of the contemporary sciences seems to have garnered so much authority for the practices of science that epistemologists, too, have joined in this folk theory. Thus, it now makes sense to ask if technology can produce testimony, too. In the words of two epistemologists, Martin Kusch and Peter Lipton, the question might be framed as one of:
How we should compare human informants and instruments in regard to testimony. Is learning from others a special case of learning from instruments, in that, for example, the tracking of track records (as one of us once put it) is similarly applicable in both cases? Or is the assimilation of humans to instruments a violation of thinking of testifiers in terms of the ‘participant stance’? . . . Alternatively, should we go the other way, and assimilate computers and machines to humans? Should we extend the participant stance to machines as well? (2002, p. 215).
There are a number of reasons to take this suggestion seriously. Chief among them is the claim that, through the production of human/machine cyborgs, we have already produced a kind of ‘machine testimony’ (Haraway, 1985). As a question of testimony as an embodied practice, what we see and what we say are at one with who we are. If who we are is an integrated hybrid of machine and human and what we see and what we say are part of that hybridity, testimony already occupies a post-human space and epistemic accounts will not need to speak of ‘extending’ a participant stance as much as revise who participants are. For critics who have not yet made a post-human turn, the account offered by Shapin, in which scientific witnessing was initially guided by maxims of credibility, offers a guide to thinking about how machine witnessing might function in a more straightforwardly testimonial sense. In the context of scientific research, however, the maxims of credulity for machines and instruments are different than those of humans and it is fairly clear that there is not yet a good understanding of how (and whether and when) these maxims function (Hutchins, 1995; Suchman, 2007). Lucy Suchman’s ethnographic analysis of human–machine interactions suggests that there may be different maxims at play with almost any particular machine in its own setting. In this sense, an analysis of maxims in an historical context is easier than an analysis of
contemporary maxims. She adds that a key problem is the work of the ‘folk theory’ that epistemologists have accepted: The task for critical practice is to resist restaging stories about autonomous human actors and discrete technical objects in favor of an orientation to capacities for action comprised of specific configurations of persons and things. To see the interface this way requires a shift in our unit of analysis, both temporally and spatially (2007, p. 284). A key question is whether, under this reformulation, it makes any sense at all to talk in terms of testimony or witness. Under this approach, terms such as ‘testimony’ and ‘witness’ may belong to a previous regime of epistemological concerns that cannot account for current ‘human–machine reconfigurations’. It would, however, seem that ‘mediation’ would remain a term of significant theoretical import. Encounters among humans, artifacts, and machines occur along interfaces that extend in time and space and make, inter alia, epistemic demands of exchange and knowledge translation and transformation. But the temptation to give up on the theoretical constructs of testimony and witness in the sciences may be premature and indicative of how this ‘alternative tradition’ runs up against other contemporary views of testimony and witness. The post-humanist move to give epistemic status to machines comes precisely at the historical moment when the trauma of human beings can be read as never before. Fuller characterizes this general trend as ‘a kind of reaction to humanity’s failure to solve ordinary problems of poverty, to enable people to participate actively as citizens in their society . . . consequently a lot of so-called progressive thinkers just move on to something else’ (quoted in Barron, 2003, p. 96). Given the kind of translucency of witnessing produced by scientific testimony, it is perhaps unsurprising that ‘moving on to something else’ does not seem to need to engage with the traumatic testimonies of witnesses to atrocity in other cultural realms. Science can make the post-human move with more moral alacrity than other cultural fields precisely because the moral authority of scientists is seen only under erasure. There is also a troubling remainder to the material history of machinery and instrumentation in science. As Barbara Shapiro notes in her accounts of seventeenth-century scientific testimony, ‘Those with telescopes, for example, were deemed better observers than those without’ (2002, p. 257). In contemporary scientific contexts, there is no science
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
without telescopes or their multidisciplinary equivalents. The credibility conferred by the ownership or access to instrumentation has become such that it is not an option but a precondition for scientific work. The data produced by instruments does not so much confer credibility on the operator but is scrutinized for its own markers of credibility and verity; the operator’s credibility comes from their ability to yield ‘good’ data from the instrumentation. This has meant that the gentlemanly status of the seventeenth century has given way to an expertise culture, heavily dependent on expertise in instruments to which access is frequently heavily circumscribed. Thus, the credibility system described by Shapin has become more, rather than less, exclusive even as more people have entered the domain of science. The instrument-expertise culture has also changed the credibility markers for providing truthful scientific testimony, namely knowledge and familiarity with the instrumentation itself. Finally, the mediated nature of scientific testimony and witness outlined above is largely in agreement with views of media witness precisely because instrumentation in science may play a role analogous to the role played by technology in other mediated contexts. While it may seem, at first blush, that the stance of traumatic witness in contemporary popular media and scientific witness have little in common, the focus on the media and instrumentation in both traditions invokes theoretical constructs that could be mutually informing. By viewing witness as a rhetorical stance, a way of managing subject positions in an account of ‘the way things are’, some distinguishing features emerge that allow the position of traumatic and scientific witness to operate as foils. The emphasis on the state of subjectivity, or as Dori Laub puts it, the ability of the witness to bear witness to the process of witnessing, is foregrounded in traumatic witness (Laub and Feldman, 1991, p. 217). This moment of subjectivity is disguised in the stance of scientific witness; the singular moment of witness is reframed as a representative moment of scientific witness available to all others through the literary technology of the scientific article. The rhetorical stance of scientific witness is then to make the recipients of scientific testimony into virtual witnesses; we can all say that we have seen by proxy (Shapin, 1984). This mediating moment, whether foregrounded or disguised, seems to be a fundamental moment of modernity, made possible by science and technology as well as the rhetorical stance that is taken toward the possibilities of mediation itself. It is here that scientific witness, while the result of a different tradition, remains in relation to the centuries in which it was birthed. The scientific witness remains mediated and struggles with this
mediation, denying it, using it to establish credibility, and defying it with a realist style. Yet, the scientific witness stands at one remove, now further mediated through technology, ready to testify to the power of mediation itself.
Notes 1. Lyrics and commentary on Testify by Rage Against the Machine from http:// www.lyricsdepot.com/rage-against-the-machine/testify.html, date accessed 8 November 2007. 2. L. Gilmore (2001) provides a lengthy list of examples of this claim in critical and popular sources. Also see V. Das et al. (2001) who examines this claim in light of political theory in the late twentieth century. J. Wolfreys’s Occasional Deconstructions, especially chapter 7, makes and examines the reiterations of this claim in relation to literature and historiography. 3. For other accounts, see Lipton (1998), Kusch and Lipton (2002), Coady (2002), and Shapin (1994). Each goes into some detail about the range of unjustified beliefs that one can hold while actively practicing legitimate science as well as going about daily events. 4. See, for example, the number of training programs, guides, and resources available for scientists under the rubric ‘working with the media.’ A canonical example is available at: www.foodrisk.org/powerpoint/Workingwiththe Media.pdf. 5. This is under-examined in the rhetoric of science literature; Scott Montgomery (1995) raises this unity of rhetorical stance as a question, but there has been little study to explore this further. Harmon and Gross (2007) produce a collection in which the rhetorics of the various sciences become more similar, but this feature is only brieﬂy noted. When reported in news media, it can look as similar as these two: ‘Scientists say they’ve found a code beyond genetics in DNA’ (www.nytimes.com/2006/07/25/science/25DNA. html) and ‘After Trio of Explosions, Scientists say Supernova is imminent’ (www.nasa.gov/vision/universe/watchtheskies/grb_supernova.html). Taken as testimony, the local methodological distinctions in substantiating these claims with evidence do not result in vastly differing rhetorics. 6. See, for example, Steven Shapin’s last chapter or ‘epilogue’ in The Social History of Truth where this view is implicit and in contrast with his historical view of scientific testimony. Indeed, he seems to suggest that this instrumental character is part of what might make contemporary science different than earlier periods. 7. This implicit argument is made explicit in national ‘science literacy’ and ‘public understanding’ drives. See, for example, AAAS project 2061 where scientists and future scientists are encouraged to develop communication and outreach skills so that they can better represent scientific results as well as values to ever-larger audiences. 8. Even sensibilities about whether testimony is a useful category vary widely. See, for example, J.D. Peters’s (2001) discussion of witnessing being a more useful term than testimony or S. Fuller (1996) who argues that ‘testimony’
Scientific Witness, Testimony, and Mediation
has come only to reference issues of trust in authority which has impoverished the term in philosophical circles. Also, there is Felman and Laub (1992) who argues that testimony gives a special moral privilege. 9. See John Ziman’s (2000) Real Science for a discussion of the various norms (from the positivists through Popper and beyond) for when and how results are accepted. 10. The key critical analysis here is Lorraine Code (1990) What Can She Know: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).
References J. Adler (1994) ‘Testimony, Trust, and Knowing’, Journal of Philosophy, vol. 91, 264–75. Aristotle, ‘The Art of Rhetoric’, in Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle, 2 vols (Princeton: Princeton University Press; publication date: 1984). C. Barron (2003) ‘A Strong Distinction between Humans and Non-Humans is No Longer Required for Research Purposes’, History of the Human Sciences, vol. 16, no. 2, 77–9. C.A.J. Coady (2002) ‘Testimony and Intellectual Autonomy’, Studies In History and Philosophy of Science Part A, vol. 33, no. 2, 355–72. V. Das, A. Kleinman, M. Lock, M. Ramphele, and P. Reynolds (eds) (2001) Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering and Recovery (London: University of California Press). J. Durant (1989) ‘The Public Understanding of Science’, Nature, vol. 340, 11–4. J. Ellis (2000) Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (London: I.B. Tauris). S. Felman and D. Laub (1992) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge). S. Fuller (1996) ‘Recent Work in Social Epistemology’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 3, 149–66. L. Gilmore (2001) The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony (London: Cornell University Press). I. Hacking (1983) Representing and Intervening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). D. Haraway (1985) ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’, Socialist Review, vol. 80, 65–88. D. Haraway (1996) Modest [email protected] Millennium: Femaleman Meets Oncomouse (New York: Routledge). J. Hardwig (1985) ‘Epistemic Dependence’, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 82, 335–49. J.E. Harmon and A. Gross (2007) The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). L. Hunter (1999) Critiques of Knowing: Situated Textualities in Science, Computing and the Arts (London: Routledge). E. Hutchins (1995) Cognition in the Wild (Cambridge: MIT Press). M. Kusch and P. Lipton (2002) ‘Testimony: A Primer’, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 33, 209–17. D. Laub and S. Feldman (1991) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalyis and History (New York: Routledge).
P. Lipton (1998) ‘The Epistemology of Testimony’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, vol. 29, no. 1, 1–33. J. Metcalfe and T. Gascoigne (1997) ‘Incentives and Impediments to Scientists Communicating through the Media’, Science Communication, vol. 18, no. 3, 265–82. M. Mead and R. Metraux (1957) ‘The Image of the Scientist among High-School Students’, Science, vol. 126, no. 3270, 384–90. S. Montgomery (1995) The Scientific Voice (London: Guilford Press). A. Pickering (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). J.D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. V. Postrel (2007) ‘Beautiful Minds’, The Atlantic, vol. 300, no. 2, 140–1. K. Rolin (2002) ‘Gender and Trust in Science’, Hypatia, vol. 17, no. 4, 95–118. S. Shapin (1984) ‘Pump and Circumstance: Robert Boyle’s Literary Technology’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 14, 481–520. S. Shapin (1994) A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth Century England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). B. Shapiro (2002) ‘Testimony in Seventeenth-Century English Natural Philosophy: Legal Origins and Early Development’, Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 33, 243–63. L. Suchman (2007) Human–Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). D. Wilson and D. Sperber (1981) ‘On Grice’s Theory of Conversation’, in P. Wersh (ed.), Conversation and Discourse (New York: St. Martin’s Press). J. Ziman (2000) Real Science: What It Is and What It means (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
9 Witnessing Trauma on Film Roy Brand
The issues of trauma and cultural memory or the effects of violence and victimization on the formation of identity are no doubt of great relevance to our present times. This has not escaped the notice of the academia, and trauma theory, which has been in circulation for many years, is at the forefront of academic research in a large range of fields – from psychology and cognitive science to literature and screen studies. In this chapter, I will relate the rise of trauma theory to a ‘crisis in representation’ evidenced in both the humanities and the social sciences.1 Trauma is not restricted to the outcome of devastating events. As Thomas Elsaesser notes, the significance of the term is due less to its reference to catastrophic events than to the revised understanding of referentiality that it fosters. Thus, according to Elsaesser, ‘Trauma theory is not so much a theory of recovered memory as it is one of recovered referentiality’ (2001, p. 201). Trauma in contemporary culture raises the question of how to represent the unrepresentable or how to experience in retrospect what previously escaped experience (see Caruth, 1992, 1996; Felman and Laub, 1992). Trauma is an experience that is registered without being processed or experienced in the full sense. Therefore, trauma requires a different form of exposition. It cannot simply be expressed or represented due to the fact that there is nothing there to be expressed or represented. To provide a narrative or produce an explanation would be tantamount to explaining away what cannot be grasped and, hence, doing the event an injustice. How may we insert understanding into such an event? How can we bring light to this darkness? In this chapter, I claim that witnessing is the paradigmatic mode of relating to trauma. To witness is to stand in proximity to an event that escapes representation but calls for communication nevertheless. Thus, 198
witnessing is situated in the gap that exists between event and representation. It is the mode by which trauma is communicated outside the logic of representation. Contrary to first impressions, witnessing does not mean having an immediate and fully present experience of the event, but rather, it stands for the impossibility to represent or understand. The notion of ‘event’ already suggests the idea of a happening which cannot be subsumed under concepts. We call on the witness precisely when we do not fully comprehend what, if anything, has happened. The witness is a surrogate for the lack of an experience and, as such, occupies a paradoxical position, acting as a surrogate both for the experience itself and its impossibility. The witness yearns to communicate what cannot be communicated. To witness is to stand in for the absence of experience, but in so doing, witnessing recalls the very absence it attempts to resolve. It is as if the act of witnessing hovers over an abyss which it simultaneously covers and reveals. This chapter will expose this complex dynamic by relating witnessing to trauma, as a way of communicating the loss of experience that trauma entails. I will do so through a close examination of one cinematic example – Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. My claim is that this film communicates a trauma by inducing an experience of loss. In doing so, it positions the viewer as witness, turning the loss of experience into an experience of loss.
Everyday horror Most viewers know, before the movie begins, that Elephant is about the school shooting in Columbine. They know the facts relatively well, but they do not understand why two teenagers would go to school one day and kill 12 fellow students and a teacher before committing suicide. This lack of comprehension prompts viewers to scramble for evidence: Who were the murderers, what lives did they live, and what was their motivation? It is detective work that, by now, viewers of films are largely accustomed to performing. But this one is different. The Buddhist parable, suggested by the title, about the five blind men who attempt to figure out what the elephant is, with each man feeling one part and guessing the whole, should warn us against such guess work. The film opens with a view of a cloudy sky cut by an electric line. Our view is relaxed, as if we are lying on our back watching the clouds pass. However, a tilted electric line (vaguely reminiscent of a scarecrow or a cross) already charges the image with an ominous, palpable but inexplicable sense of violence. Everything moves quietly, slowly, and in ﬂux. This might seem contrived, artificial, or detached, given the
Witnessing Trauma on Film
magnitude of the tragedy, but Elephant takes its cue from the survivors’ and bystanders’ descriptions of horror, rather than from the Hollywood clichés. Their experiences are of silence, emptiness, or slow-motion numbness (Auerhahn and Laub, 1984) rather than the spectacular explosions and general hysteria commonly produced in cinema. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, as Damon Young writes, deals with the ‘everyday as a site of horror’ (2005, p. 497). The movie, a docu-fiction with a cast of amateurs and a loose script, follows the daily high school routine as seen from the perspective of seven students. The movie unfolds primarily in real time, and we gradually understand that what we are witnessing (and witnessing is the appropriate word here) are their last minutes prior to the massacre. The atmosphere is charged, but nothing interesting or dramatic occurs. When the two murderers appear, the movie breaks away from its real-time presentation to show us bits of their lives at home, playing music or video games, waiting for the shipment of arms to arrive, or reviewing their plans. The movie ends with the scene of the massacre, which is horrible but also alarmingly calm – evil but also banal. The effect of horror is achieved not through a surplus of affect (as in the oversaturation of affect in the mass media) but in precisely the opposite way – by an emptying of affective response. The presentation is ﬂat and seemingly untouched by the violence of its own content. The narrative is not formed around climactic events delivering emotional intensity but is rather designed to deliver the everydayness of the horror, its existence as part of the texture of our lives. We may contrast the everydayness of horror with the shocking effect intended by Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine. The two movies broach the subject of violence from radically different perspectives. Moore’s movie is an angry man’s account, one that points a blaming finger at the arms industry and the politics supporting it. The message is clear, as is the offered solution. Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, on the other hand, is a poetic meditation on the culture or way of life that might give rise to such events. The message is ambiguous, and the movie offers no practical solution. We leave Moore’s film with clear views and armed for a debate; we leave Van Sant’s numbed, speechless or, at best, confused. Many commentators fault Elephant with a placid and evasive description of the problem. The killers seem quite normal (as normal as teenagers can be), living in a well-to-do environment and enjoying all the privileges and freedom that are typical of American adolescence. At times, the movie seems almost sympathetic, if not to the killers’ actions then to their physical beauty. The audience is not given a clear
enemy to hate or a clear cause to blame. Thus, the movie itself is blamed as a post-modern rumination lacking social and political consciousness. As one commentator describes it: ‘Elephant comes up fairly empty; it has little to offer in the way of analysis or explanation, and one is left with nothing but the same numb response produced by the original newscasts of the event: it happened, it was horrible’ (O’Brien, 2003, p. 39). The emptiness that the movie reﬂects and the numbness it evokes are an appropriate starting point, but I wish to turn this criticism on its head. Emptiness and numbness are precisely what the movie intends to portray. Emptiness functions as a condition for explanation, revealing the world the killers occupy in such a way that we witness what it feels like to be there as an adolescent. The movie does not reject explanations in favor of a poetic rumination. Rather, it offers a different kind of explanation outside the increasingly reductive rationalization and standardization of the day. The emptiness the movie reveals is full of significance, but to notice this ‘nothing’ (which is very different than not noticing anything) demands attentiveness to one’s own lived experience.
An empty emotional space The third scene captures most distinctly this sense of an emotional space empty of emotions. It depicts Nathan, a high school teen, as he journeys from the sports field to the cafeteria. The camera rests still on the grass, capturing whatever happens to enter the frame. The characters present themselves in groups or in isolation, and they play in groups or in isolation, but in a peculiar manner, without real contact and without words. We hear background murmurs, little noises, and the slow movement of nature. The soundscape is interlaced with an amateur pianist’s rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Later, we learn that the amateur pianist is one of the killers. When Nathan enters the frame to occupy it in its entirety, the camera comes to life and, like a cautious predator, follows him from behind. The sense of play or a hunt is intensified by the enclosure of the high school, and we do not yet know what this game is about. The participants as well seem to partake in it without awareness. There is a feeling of destiny and of time swirling slowly, falling like leaves in the air. The scene, following Nathan through the corridors and into the cafeteria, lasts roughly ten minutes (including only one cut between two very long shots). It delineates, in its temporal and spatial extension, the playing field of the massacre. The remainder of the movie will trace different
Witnessing Trauma on Film
perspectives in this same enclosed four-dimensional time–space, and it will venture outside of this sphere – but not for long – only when depicting the assassins. Much of what is to come may already be anticipated. It is communicated not by means of narrative or dialogue (there is none, other than small talk) but through an atmosphere or mood. Heidegger claimed that moods are ontologically existential, meaning that they open up a world and possibilities for existence in this world.2 The German term [Stimmungen] suggests tuning or attunement, as if one’s mood determines the range of possibilities and the increments between them (one’s degree of sensitivity). Moods are not merely the coloring of facts; they are not an inessential addendum to the objective world. Rather, moods first make a certain world possible. Wittgenstein claimed that the world of the happy man is different than that of the unhappy man.3 The idea here is the same. Since a ‘world’ is not merely an objective, physical reality but also a relational and functional one, moods participate in the very making of the world and in the kinds of lives it may contain. Witnessing a mood means being attuned to the kind of lives and experiences that it entails or makes possible. What then is communicated by the overriding mood of Elephant? To start, it evokes a sense of alienation, distanciation, and indifference.4 The participants seem to be living in parallel worlds, like monads without windows: time seems to stop still, expression seems voided, and interactions appear like empty rituals. Elephant provokes the same dissociation that, for Van Sant, pervades contemporary society. As Van Sant explained in an interview: The way I thought the film is supposed to work is that it leaves a space for you to bring to mind everything you know about the event. It doesn’t give you an answer. There’s no one-stop solution. And if you think there’s an answer you can isolate – maybe it’s video games, maybe it’s the parents – then that lets you think that the problem is somewhere else and that you aren’t part of it. And that’s a mistake, because we all are part of it. But I find it interesting that there’s one thing no one has mentioned about the film. The thing you’re actually watching all the time is a dislocation and a nonconnection. It’s visible, it’s in the representation. It’s what the film represents (Taubin, 2003, p. 33). From that perspective, the avoidance of this film, of its message or of its manner of communication, is itself an indication of the problem. Elephant summons a world that is empty because the people living in
it are isolated and dissociated. This dissociation results in an absence of affect, a kind of numbness of the living dead. The paradox is that Elephant makes this very dissociation affectively present in our experience, hence, evoking and reﬂecting a peculiar numbness. Faulting the movie for its emptiness, then, is failing to recognize its performative aspect. Elephant enacts rather than says outright what it is about. It reminds us of the loneliness and beauty, the isolation and elevation that lies in the in-between state that is adolescence.
The loss of communicable experience Since our subject concerns the loss of experience and the witnessing of this loss, it is worthwhile to elaborate on what we mean by experience and how it may be lost. I turn here to Walter Benjamin who was one of the first to detail the historical transformations of experience from premodernity to modernity. It is important to note that ‘experience’ is a tricky concept, meaning many things to many people. Etymologically, ‘experience’ denotes the capacity for transformation, an ‘undergoing’, a learning process, or a movement of meaning and significance. Experience is a going out (ex) and through (para) – a going throughout or an ‘undergoing’. In Benjamin’s context, this ‘undergoing’ is intrinsically related to language and to acts of communication. Language is the medium and communication is the process by which meanings travel and transform the participants along the way. If experience is in essence an undergoing and a passing through, then communication is intrinsic to its very meaning. Communicability is essential to experience such that a loss of communicability is a loss of experience. Benjamin famously criticizes the shift in the significance of experience, wherein it loses its communicative and communal dimension for the sake of a more mechanical, uniform, and compliant economy of information.5 He relates the dwindling in the value of experience to the destruction of the First World War. In a long, heartfelt paragraph, which is repeated in two of his essays, he writes: No, this much is clear: experience has fallen in value, amid a generation which from 1914 to 1918 had to experience some of the most monstrous events in the history of the world. Perhaps this is less remarkable than it appears. Wasn’t it noticed at the time how many people returned from the front in silence? Not richer but poorer in communicable experience? . . . For never has experience been contradicted more thoroughly: strategic experience has been contravened
Witnessing Trauma on Film
by positional warfare; economic experience, by inﬂation; physical experience, by hunger; moral experiences, by the ruling powers. A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds and, at its center, in a force field of destructive torrents and explosions, the tiny, fragile human body (1999/2, p. 732). The soldiers coming back from the war were silent, ‘not richer but poorer in communicable experience’. They lost the capacity to relate their experiences, or rather, their experiences lost the dimension of communicability that fosters a sense of community or communality. Kant already emphasized the importance of such communality in his Critique of Pure Judgment.6 According to Kant, communicability conditions the scope of possible experience. Though the argument is made explicit only with later thinkers such as Wittgenstein and Habermas,7 we can find already in Kant’s third critique the claim that experience cannot, in principle, be private. One may chose not to divulge certain parts of one’s experience, but if experience is meaningful, it must relate to a shared world, and hence, in principle, be communicable. Communicability is further related by Benjamin to the passing of time, that is, to history and to tradition. The soldiers came back to a world in which they no longer belonged. Their experiences were incommunicable with the new reality, and thus, they were cut off from their times, as if still living amidst the haunted memories of the war. Freud developed his theory of trauma based on the same observations of soldiers coming back from the war. As described in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the returning soldiers were haunted by memories which repeated in the present since they were never actually lived through or experienced in the first place (see Freud, 1961). Hence trauma, for Freud, exhibits a peculiar temporal structure wherein it is first experienced in retrospect as a memory of a past that was never present. What is lost is the inner thread that weaves our lives together, internally, within oneself, and socially, through language, history, and tradition. In a later essay titled the ‘Storyteller’, Benjamin relates the loss in experience to the lost art of storytelling. According to Benjamin: The art of storytelling is at its end. Meeting people who can tell a proper story is becoming very rare. Often embarrassment spreads when in a group of people someone asks for a story. As if a certain
power or faculty has been taken away; one that we thought cannot pass; one that we took for granted – it is the ability to make others share in experience (1999/3, translation amended). The art of storytelling is precisely the art of sharing a story, that is, sharing an experience. Benjamin distinguishes storytelling from the development of the modern novel. Storytelling is born out of the texture of a common life whereas the novel is born out of the solitary individual. One who listens to a story is part of a community whereas the modern reader is isolated. The object of reading a novel is consuming an experience whereas the object of storytelling is passing it on. In fact, according to Benjamin, the value of storytelling consists in the very act of retelling. Storytelling is a practice that supports the passing on of tradition or the continuation of history.8 According to Benjamin, experience itself is contradicted by the new forms of life that are characteristic of industrialization and mechanical reproduction. The new mode of experience lacks temporal duration; it ﬂashes in disconnected instances, always in a ‘now’ that is not even a present since it is cut off from a past and a future. The reduction of time to the present yields its inevitable fragmentation. The stripping away of duration from our contemporary forms of living leaves each of us alone with a presence that is as unique as it is empty and anonymous.9 Time is any time whatsoever and it is attached to any biographical self whatsoever.10 We live a series of moments, each self-contained and disconnected. This shrinking of existential time to a series of present moments is already a form of violence.11 Hence, Benjamin describes life in modernity as a series of shocks or as an extended trauma. As our short discussion of Benjamin reveals, communicability is not something added to experience. Communicability is intrinsic to experience in such a way that its loss implies a loss of experience. Witnessing is precisely the attempt to make experience communicable, that is, to bring it back to life by reconnecting it with the whole person or the community. Thus, witnessing is the proper response to the reduction of experience to a series of ‘nows’ voided of continuity or duration. Witnessing does not compensate for the loss by adding content. It stands in the position of loss and testifies to it. Witnessing is the way we experience reality as lost or missing in some sense. Witnessing, we can say, latches on to the significance of an experience at a time when there is no meaning present. It is a mode of communicating or transferring experience when other modes have failed. Witnessing is what experience turns into when experience remains present to its loss.12
Witnessing Trauma on Film
The performance of loss Elephant is an experience-based investigation of our forms of living in the present, a reenactment of sorts, but one that concerns the present rather than the past. The problem with the present is that it is like an elephant right under our noses – it is too close, too immediate, and too all-encompassing to be noticed. Like our life or our health, our present experience becomes apparent only when it is transformed, suffers degradation, or when we are distanced from it. Elephant uncovers two forms of such degradation, both concerning the loss of continuity – of wholeness and temporal duration – within experience. These losses are countered in the film by the utilization of an almost seamless camera movement and editing techniques that emphasize duration and temporal plasticity. The result is a clash of form and content – a continuous and peaceful depiction of a life that is discontinuous, dismembered, and violent. This juxtaposition itself serves as an experience-based explanation for the eruption of violence. Elephant is not a theory about the loss of experience but a cinematic enactment of that loss. The film performs rather than says what it is about, or it is about what it performs. Reading the film as performative, rather than descriptive, shifts our critical attention. We no longer ask about the reality the film narrates or represents. (Is it true or accurate? What are the causes? Who is to blame?) Rather, we ask: How does this film make me feel? What kind of experience does it evoke? How can I articulate this experience in words? And what does this tell me about the message the movie is trying to communicate? More specifically, since the movie detours from the usual storyline conventions, the viewer is left to reconstruct a narrative within an emotional space–time that lacks clear factual coordinates. In the words of Jeffrey C. Alexander, the viewer operates within the ‘trauma process’, struggling to bridge the gap between event and representation (2004, p. 11). The viewer is thus placed in the position of a witness – midway between a mood and its articulation, a loss and its narration. It is this position that forces the viewer to struggle for comprehension. In this respect, the failure to reach a conclusion only serves to maintain the act of witnessing. According to Alexander, cultural trauma is always, in some sense, performative. There is no natural event in the world that is traumatic, but rather our articulations and interpretation construct the event as a trauma in retrospect (Alexander, 2004). The shift to a performative reading of the movie is essential. Elephant not only addresses what happened but also how we interpret what happened – that is, our own trauma
or cultural memory of the event. Performativity, here, means that the trauma will receive its meaning only in retrospect, by the kinds of memories it will engender and the ways in which these will be interpreted. In other words, performativity implicates the viewer in the production of the meaning of the work. However, if trauma belongs to the category of the performative, it is nonetheless a special case. Trauma has nothing to perform, and so it performs this nothingness. As Elsaesser explains, ‘One would have to invent the category of the “negative performative”, because trauma affects the texture of experience by the apparent absence of traces’ (Elsaesser, 2001, p. 199). Elephant provides a perfect example for such a performativity of emptiness. Paradoxically, the ﬂatness of affect itself becomes the content of experience. Emptiness is made self-aware (we feel and recognize that we feel nothing), mixing with the looming sense of horror we know is coming. It is as if the movie poses the question: Why can’t you feel anything? Why this numbness? Elephant makes us distanced and dissociated, but most peculiar is that we feel our dissociation – we witness our loss. It is here that the film functions both as a social critique and as a form of therapy. It serves as both due to the fact that it enacts this loss in our present. We are made to view it on screen at the same time that we experience it within ourselves. Importantly, we are, like the participants in this film, in a state of experiential limbo – living dead. Unlike them, however, we are not only living this death but we are also keenly aware of it. We are made witnesses, which means that reﬂection arises from within our own experience. This is not simply the realization of what happened there and then, but a recognition of what happened to us, here and now, such that what we experience serves as an explanation of why and how something like Columbine happens. It is as if experience reﬂects on its own loss of communicability thereby performing an immanent critique, which is already a form of recovery.
Engaging the passage of time I have argued that there exists an intrinsic relation between trauma and witnessing, the latter being the attempt to communicate the former, not by means of representation but through a negative performance that affects experience with its own loss. The scenario of the loss of communicability and its performative recovery may also be told in temporal terms. I take my cue from the fact that Elephant
Witnessing Trauma on Film
presents a four-dimensional time–space, repeating the same ten minutes prior to the shooting as lived through seven different perspectives. If trauma means a fragmentation of experience and a sense of a haunted present that repeats itself again and again, witnessing, by contrast, yields narration, continuity, and an eventual overcoming of trauma. The evocation of time in Elephant is essential to its performative work. Contrary to most movies that make us ‘forget about time’, Elephant induces a pregnant, tangible kind of emptiness by allowing us to experience time as duration rather than as a sequence of fragmented happenings.13 In Elephant, time becomes palpable. It almost stands still before the event, but of course, it does not. It is as if the hourglass is spilling the seconds away, taking us towards a death we know is unavoidable. This phenomenalization of time (making it affective in experience) is brought to our attention precisely through the lack of events and through the fact that the film repeats the same stretch of time from different perspectives. There is a short scene showing Elias, an amateur photographer, developing a roll of film he shot earlier in the school’s laboratory. He shakes the negative in a chemical developer back and forth for almost a minute, as if counting time. There is something hypnotic about this pendulum-like movement. Consciousness is emptied and experience is voided, and what remains is the mere ﬂux of the temporal passage. We cannot avoid temporality; we cannot forget that life is ephemeral. The everyday routines of an American high school are charged with the utmost significance, not because of their content but because of their passing away. Engaging the passage of time is a paradigmatic characteristic of the witness. For many, this engagement means being there at the time and the place of the event. But I would like to claim that it can also mean that the witness is privy to the temporality of the event or to its unfolding in time. The witness is ‘there’ at the time of the event, though ‘being there’ does not necessarily mean being at the same place at the same time. We must be careful here to distinguish the form of witnessing we ascribe to a movie such as Elephant from the more traditional claims, which relate witnessing to raw experience, authenticity, originality, wholeness, and presence. As Peters explain, witnessing, traditionally conceived, carries an ontological baggage. In law, theology, and atrocity, ‘A witness is a paradigm medium – the means by which experience is supplied to others who lack the original’ (Peters, 2001, p. 709).14 In contradistinction to the traditional view, the burden of this essay has been to prove that, at least in the case of trauma, the witness is precisely the one who lacks the experience and is made aware of this deficit.
Witnessing can be further delimited as marking and communicating the presence of absence in experience. Hence, it is precisely in cases of trauma that we call for the figure of the witness, not to testify to the facts but to testify to the fact that the event cannot be reduced to facts. Witnessing, Peters reminds us, is more about recognizing the gaps and failures of experience rather than its authentic original content: ‘Witnessing is a discourse with a hole in it that awaits filling’ (2001, p. 710). Notwithstanding these important elaborations of the concept of witnessing, it is vital that we remain faithful to the event and to its ‘presentness’ since this is what distinguishes witnessing from, say, viewing or reporting. The witness engages the temporality of the event even when the event itself is emptied of content. Witnessing means following the unfolding of the event, be it a sports fan who lives the real time of the event albeit indirectly15 or audience members who find themselves implicated in its duration. What is at stake in ‘being present’ is not the metaphysical aspect of ‘being there’ at the time and place of the event, which is never an actual simultaneity but always a more or less abstract present. Being present is not to be taken ontologically (as being there) but ethically – as being responsible or at least responsive to the event. Responsibility or responsiveness carries over time, such that we can be responsible for the (memory of the) past as well as the consequences for the future. Obviously, we cannot change the past or determine the future, though we can still see ourselves as answering to their demands. Likewise, we cannot change what we view on screen, but we can see ourselves implicated in some important ways. In the case of Elephant, the events are brought to our proximity since the question concerns not the past but the way the past affects the present. This explains the unusual effect of suspense that underlies Elephant. We know what is to come, but nevertheless every instance is pregnant with the potential of leading in some other direction.16 Here, fate and a sense of open possibilities are most intimately connected. This juncture may be called the defining phenomenological characteristic of witnessing. The witness, we might say, is both an agent and an observer. She experiences the event as a personal call for her concern, but at the same time, she knows that what happened is in some way outside her power. The witness is, as the traditional view goes, a bridge between those who were there and those who were not. The witness, though, includes this duality from within; the events for her are both contingent accidents and necessities, sharing in both freedom and fate and implicating her as a participantobserver.
Witnessing Trauma on Film
Shifting our sense of the problem What kind of discovery does Elephant afford? What is entailed in the recognition of a certain dissociation that we usually fail to notice due to the fact that it has become the norm? As Dominic LaCapra explains, ‘Nonconventional narratives addressing the problem of absence, for example those of Samuel Beckett or Maurice Blanchot, tend not to include events in any significant way and seem to be abstract, evacuated, or disembodied. In them, “nothing” happens, which makes them devoid of interest from a conventional perspective’ (LaCapra, 1999, p. 696).17 It is important to note that the phrase ‘ “nothing” happens’ can be understood in at least two ways. In the conventional interpretation, there is simply nothing occurring. The narrative is empty, devoid of content, lacking a point or moral, and includes no significant insight, but as Heidegger’s infamous phrase goes ‘the nothing itself nothings’ (Heidegger, 1998, Section 32),18 meaning that the nothing is not a thing but a doing. The nothing nothings – it clears up a time–space and so makes something possible. Nothing opens up a time–space for thinking or for experiencing in ways other than the ordinary. Alternatively, we might agree with Cavell in saying that it allows us to experience the ordinary as extraordinary, that is, to notice it in the first place (see Cavell, 1994). Elephant ‘nothings’, that is, it works as a ‘negative performative’; it instills a sense of nothingness that does work. Elephant does not simply represent an empty world; it summons it by means of experience. Emptiness becomes thematic in our experience. The title stems from the British director Alan Clarke’s (1989) short film of the same name, which examines but does not provide solutions to the violence in Northern Ireland. Clarke’s title refers to the aphorism about the elephant in the living room that goes ignored. That ‘there is an elephant in the room’ suggests a form of social repression – a problem that is so close and so overbearing that it leaves us speechless. There is an elephant in our public living room – we all avoid it and this avoidance is itself part of the problem. It is this pact of silence that Elephant attempts to break, and the public reaction to the event as well as to the movie, especially in the U.S., ironically justifies the claims Elephant makes. The movie indeed mentions, in passing, most of the reasons given after the event by politicians, psychologists, and the media. Among these reasons are the harassment the killers suffered in school, the possibility of their homosexuality, their fascination with Nazi propaganda, the horrible ease of buying weapons
in the U.S., and the destructive effects of video games. In mentioning these, though, Elephant dismantles their explanatory force. The movie deals with a story the audience already knows (like Van Sant’s remake of Psycho or Last Days), the purpose being to shift the way we articulate the problem and the kind of explanations we envisage as possible rather than simply introducing one more explanation. That is to say, the reasons given after the event are far from providing an adequate explanation. They serve more as indications of our need to produce an explanation of a specific kind or to replace the pain with comprehension. What we want is to be able to point a blaming finger at something or someone. We want to know that the problem is out there – not here – and that we can make it disappear. However, to explain the massacre with one or more determined and familiar reasons is to avoid its proximity and magnitude (its elephant-like character). Bearing witness to the event means recognizing our involvement in it. Elephant is not only about why others kill but also what we do when others kill, to where and why we turn our eyes, and what kind of explanations we wish for and produce. In other words, Elephant is not about a set of facts but about our cultural memory of these facts and our ways of interpreting them. It is an exemplary case for a performative work that makes us witness rather than represent or understand our own forms of living in the present. Thus, our experience of watching a movie about the massacre is, in this case, of greater significance than the reality upon which it is based.
Notes 1. Susannah Radstone (2000) convincingly argued that trauma theory is the response, mainly in the academic community, to a number of deadlocks. For example, it redefines the use of psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic tool and changes its focus from dynamics of desire, fantasy, and repression to dynamics of recovered memory and politics. Fritz Breithaupt argues that in opposition to the traditional claim that trauma spells the loss of subjectivity, trauma has developed as a theory of modern subjectivity since ‘trauma and self are the ﬂipside of the same coin’ (2005, p. 98). 2. The description of moods [Stimmungen] in Sein und Zeit (Heidegger, 1972) primarily occurs in Section 29 of Chapter V of Division One. 3. ‘The world of the happy is quite another than that of the unhappy’ (Wittgenstein, 1922, Section 6.43). 4. I treat these as synonymous, but of course they are not. Their differences are less important for our purpose. What is crucial at this point is to point towards the common mood that their combination evokes. 5. More precisely, the cultural critics of the Frankfurt School define experience, on the one hand, as ‘the uniform and continuous multiplicity of knowledge’
Witnessing Trauma on Film (Benjamin, 1999/1, p. 108), and on the other as ’the selective, disconnected, interchangeable and ephemeral state of being informed which . . . will promptly be cancelled by other information’ (Adorno, 1993, p. 33). The first kind of experience (Erfahrung) includes real movement and duration but is therefore indeterminate and dialectical, whereas the second kind of experience (Erlebnis) is made of exchangeable bits of information that are uniform in quality. Kant uses the notion of aesthetic common sense as a sense for what is universally communicable. The Kantian common sense is very different from the English kind. It means the capacity for estimating, without a concept, what is universally communicable in the presentation. Kant would go as far as identifying this common sense with taste itself: ‘I maintain that taste can be called a sensus communis . . . We could even define taste as the ability to judge something that makes our feeling in a given presentation universally communicable without mediation by a concept’ (Kant, 1987, Section 40, AK. 296). Wittgenstein argues for the essential communicability of experience in the sections of the Philosophical Investigations known as the ‘private language argument’ (Wittgenstein, 1958, in particular Sections 256–261). This reading is also inﬂuenced by Habermas’ claim regarding the essential dialogical nature of rationality. When I fail to accept the other partner in a debate as an equal, my own rationality and autonomy suffer (Habermas’s, 1979, 1989). The Hegelian notion of ‘recognition’ is at the heart of these different arguments. The idea is that reciprocity is essential to experience, (self) consciousness, and reasoning. Without a grain of communality, we cannot achieve our humanity even in ourselves. In a previous work (Brand, 2002), I argued that communicability is at the root of what Benjamin means by Das passagen. In the Parisian Arcades, Benjamin finds the material manifestation for the passing of time or the passing of tradition from pre-modernity to modernity. Here, I follow Bergson’s use of the notion. Duration names the passing of time – its ﬂow or movement. It is an immanent temporal transformation rather than an external measuring unit or an infinite, homogenous series of the present moment (Bergson, 1926). Since this presence is homogenous, the subject occupying it is equally exchangeable. The rise of demographics and statistics, along with cinema, testifies to this new framework. The intimate relation between reduction to the present, fragmentation, and violence is clearly reﬂected in the obsession of the media with death and aggression – from early actualities depicting executions to present-day catastrophe cinema. The popular sub-genre of execution film included titles such as: Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901), Execution by Hanging (1905), Reading the Death Sentence (1905), Execution of a Spy (1902), Beheading the Chinese Prisoner (1900), The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895), and the horrifically absurd Electrocuting an Elephant (1903), which was intended more to promote the power of electricity than to execute Topsy, the man-killing elephant from Coney Island. For a detailed analysis of the first and the last actuality films, see Doane, 2002, pp. 140–71.
12. It is interesting to note that the loss of communicability in experience impinges on its epistemic authority. Benjamin explains that the lost art of storytelling played an important social function – a form of practical wisdom that passed from one generation to the next and from one person or community to the next. With the loss of communicability, that form of practical and dialogical reason which the Greek named Diánoia lost its sustenance. As Benjamin writes, ‘Wisdom is advice woven into the fabric of life’ (Benjamin, 1999/3, translation amended). 13. As mentioned before, I use Bergson’s notion of duration. It is important to note, though, that Bergson viewed the cinema as part of the problem. The moving image, he thought, is just that, a static image projected at a speed that creates the illusion of movement (Bergson, 1926, 308). Deleuze, borrowing the notion of duration from Bergson, believes that the time-image involves an opening of the image to something not only outside the frame but outside what can be potentially framed. This is why the time-image is situated ‘between images’. See Deleuze, 1989, pp. 179–80. For a good exposition of Deleuze and an argument for the ability of new digital media to represent time, see Hansen, 2004. For a thorough discussion of cinematic time arguing for an intermediated, conﬂicted static/temporal image, see Doane, 2002. 14. Indeed, witnessing customarily referred to the presence of the subject in the time and the place of the event. This traditional concept has undergone transformation, in some cases radical, since it includes much of the ‘metaphysics of presence’ that deconstruction, as well as our current media environment, has taught us to distrust. Today, appeals to ‘authentic experience’ or to an ‘original’ strike us as fantasy or as a marketing strategy, and the model of a present-experiencing subject communicating the event to non-present audience is, at best, suspicious. 15. As Peters writes, the sports fan ‘wants to be involved in history (the happening), not historiography (the recording)’ (Peters, 2001, p. 719). 16. Fortuna, Peters writes after Benjamin, ‘reveals her face only in the present. In the past she veils herself as necessity, in the future as probability’ (2001, p. 720). 17. LaCapra insists on the distinction between absence and loss. He locates absence on the trans-historical level, while situating loss on the historical level. Loss can and should be rectified by real personal, social, legal, or political acts. Absence, on the other hand, is a constitutive condition that requires recognition rather than remedy. When absence is confused with loss, the result is some mythic creation of an Edenic past or a utopian future: ’When absence itself is narrativized, it is perhaps necessarily identified with loss (for example, the loss of innocence, full community, or unity with the mother) and even figured as an event derived from one (as in the story of the Fall or the oedipal scenario)’ Such confusion harbors real risks. It can motivate extreme acts of restitutions (of the Edenic past) or of purging (towards an utopian future). Absence must be addressed in other terms since it is not something that has gone missing and can be recovered or replaced. 18. ‘Indeed: the Nothing itself – as such – was present. . . . What about this Nothing? – The Nothing Itself Nothings.’
Witnessing Trauma on Film
References T. W. Adorno (1993) ‘Theory of Pseudo-Culture’, Telos, vol. 95, 33. J. C. Alexander (2004) ‘Towards a Theory of Cultural Trauma’, in J. C. Alexander (ed.), Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, 1–30 (Berkley, California: University of California Press). N. C. Auerhahn and D. Laub (1984) ‘Annihilation and Restoration: PostTraumatic Memory as Pathway and Obstacle to Recovery’, International Review of Psycho-Analysis, vol. 11, 327–44. W. Benjamin (1999/1) ‘On the Program of the Coming Philosophy’ (1918), Selected Writings, vol. I, ed. M. W. Jennings, H. Eiland, and G. Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone and others (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). W. Benjamin (1999/2) ‘Experience and Poverty’ (1933), Selected Writings, vol. 2. W. Benjamin (1999/3) ‘The Storyteller’, Selected Writings, vol. 3. H. Bergson (1926) Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Henri Holt). R. Brand (2002) ‘Experiment in the Technique of Awakening: Working through Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Project’, Graduate Faculty Philosophical Journal, vol. 23, no. 2, 213–26. F. Breithaupt (2005) ‘The Invention of Trauma in German Romanticism’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 32 (autumn), 77–101. C. Caruth (1996) Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press). C. Caruth (1992) Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press). S. Cavell (1994) In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). G. Deleuze (1989) Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press). M. A. Doane (2002) The Emergence of Cinematic Time (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). T. Elsaesser (2001) ‘Postmodernism as Mourning Work’, in ‘Special Debate: Trauma and Screen Studies’, Screen, vol. 42, no. 2, 193–201. S. Felman and D. Laub (1992) Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History (New York and London: Routledge). S. Freud (1961) Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ed. and trans. J. Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton). J. Habermas (1979) Communication and the Evolution of Society (Boston: Beacon Press). J. Habermas (1989) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (Oxford: Polity Press). M. Hansen (2004) ‘The Time of Affect, or Bearing Witness to Life’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 3, 584–626. M. Heidegger (1972) Sein und Zeit (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer). M. Heidegger (1998) ‘What is Metaphysics?’, in W. McNeill (ed.), Pathmarks (Cambridge UK and New York: Cambridge University Press). I. Kant (1987) The Critique of Judgment, trans. W.S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing).
D. LaCapra (1999) ‘Trauma, Absence, Loss’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 25, no. 4, 696–727. G. O’Brien (2003) ‘Stop Shooting’, Artforum, vol. 42, no. 2, 39. J. D. Peters (2001) ‘Witnessing’, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 23, no. 6, 707–23. Also in this volume, Chapter 1. S. Radstone (2000) Screening Trauma: Forest Gump, Film and Memory (New York and Oxford: Berg). A. Taubin (2003) ‘Part of the Problem’, Film Comment, vol. 39, no. 5, 26–33. L. Wittgenstein (1922) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C. K. Ogden (London and New York: Routledge; publication date: 1999). L. Wittgenstein (1958) Philosophical Investigations (London: Macmillan). D. Young (2005) ‘Dis/affected: The Sense(s) of Violence in Dennis Cooper and Gus Van Sant’, Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, vol. 19, no. 4, 495–505.
Index Tables are indicated by table, notes by n.; e.g. absence in space, 13, 38 table 1.1. 9/11, 3, 7–12 absence in space, 13, 38 table 1.1 absence in time, 13, 38 table 1.1, 134 absolute Particular, the, 9 Abu Ghraib, 115 active witnessing, 26, 45 Adler, Jonathan, 189–90 affective labor, 158–9, 177 ‘affect-television’, 108 Agamben, Giorgio, 5, 43 Aiken, Charlotte, 158 Alexander, Jeffrey C., 206 An Afterword: Torchlight Red on Sweaty Faces (Peters) ‘being there’, 42–45 epistemological transmission, 48 Haggadah, the, 44–45 historicist pilgrims, 43 The Life of Brian (Python), 44 Odysseus, 45 Paul of Tarsus, 46–47 presence, 43 religious ritual, 47 religious witnessing, 45–47 sensory evidence, 24, 46, 47 sensory witness, 47 speech, failure of, 43 veracity gap, 48 witnessing, 45, 47–48 witnessing, authenticating power of, 43 anangkê (Greek), 28 anchor persons, 107–108 archaic witnessing, 15, 112–27 Boltanski, 114 configurations of, 118 Cook, 121–2 Ellis, 112–13 Frosh, 112–13
Hebrew Bible, see Bible, the journalism, 114 journalists, 121 law-court model of witnessing, 115 newspaper, the, 121–3 newspaper reporter, 121 public witnessing, 119, 125 radio, 124–7 reporter, the term, 113–14 telegraph, the, 122–3 television, 124–7 two-step model, 113 The Archive of Feelings (Cvetkovich), 166 Aristotle, 28, 39, 191 Ashuri, Tamar, 15, 133–55 Asian tsunami of 2004, 10, 11 atrocities, 93, 110n.2 audience, 140–1, 145–6, 155 audiovisual media ‘affect television’, 108–9 audiovisual mediation of witnessing, 60 audiovisual realism, 55 communicative structures/aesthetics of, 8–9 dubious witnesses, 36 law and religion, 92–5, 105 media witnessing and, 50 representation, discursive notion of, 76, 82–3 viewers, insulating from, 69, 75 witness, carried/provided by, 75 witnessing, 13–15, 23–4 see also radio; television audiovisual realism, 55 Augustine, 104 Badiou, Alain, 47 Bakri, Mohammad, 147–8 216
Index 217 basanos (Greek), 28 The Battle of Jenin (Shalev), 147, 153 distance and proximity, use of, 152–3 Islamic Jihad’s military wing, 152 Israeli eyewitnesses, 153, 154, 155 Palestinian eyewitnesses, 152, 153, 155 relevance, cues of, 153 Shalev’s absence from film, 153 Bauman, Zygmunt, 67 Bazin, André, 55 BBC, 63, 82, 139 ‘bearing witness’ audience and, 17, 144 communication triangle, part of, 136 definition of, 60, 159, 175 Haggadah, the, 57 Holocaust, 3, 4, 5 individual, identity of, 138 PTSD, 165 veracity gap and, 51–6 witnessing and, 97, 114 witnessing text and, 59–66 Becket, Samuel, 210 ‘being there’, 35, 38 table 1.1, 134, 139, 140, 146, 208, 209 Benjamin, Walter, 17, 36–7, 203–5, 212n.5, 8, 213n.12, 16 ‘Storyteller’, 204–5 Bennett, James Gordon, 122 Bennett, Tony, 166 ‘Useful Culture’, 166 Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud), 204 Bible, the, 114, 128n.6 ‘ark of edut’, 118 Biblical witnessing, 115, 121 community (eda), 119 covenants, 116–18 dreidel, 118 ed, 116–17 Galeed, 116, 117, 118 God’s interaction with man, 118 jurisprudence, 118 media event genre, 115 mo’ed, 118 (Old) Testament, 117–18
Ruth and Boaz, story of, 118–19 ‘sanctuary of edut’, 118 Sinai covenant, 117–18, 119, 126 ‘tablets of edut (testimony/covenant)’, 118 Ten Commandments, 120 y’ad or eda, 116 Biblical witnessing, 15, 115, 121, 126 biographical novel, the, 104–5 ‘Biography Generators’, 103 Blanchot, Maurice, 210 Blondheim, Menahem, 15, 112–27 Boggs, James, 168–9 Boltanski, Luc, 6, 114, 140 Distant Suffering, 6 Borges, Jorge Luís, 31 Bourdieu, Pierre, 15, 133, 136, 168, 173 Bowling for Columbine (Moore), 17, 200 Brand, Roy, 17, 198–211 Bremner, Rory, 81 Brighton Rock (Greene), 31 broadcasting, veracity gap and, 34–6 distance, 34 Gospel of Luke, 34 presence, 35–6 presence-at-a-distance, 34–5 singularity, 35 Bruce, Fiona, 85 camp followers, 2 Caruth, Cathy, 163 ‘Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Impossibility of History’, 164 Channel Four, 63–4 Chouliaraki, Lilie, 42 Christian martyrdom, 95 Christian martyrology, 29–30 civil inattention, 66–70, 84–5 ‘civil indifference’, 67 Clarke, Alan, 210 Clinton, President, 35 Code of Hammurabi, 93, 94 Colvin, Marie, 162 communicability, 203–4, 212n.7, 8
communicable experience, loss of Benjamin, 203–5 Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Freud), 204 communicability, 203–4, 212n.7, 8, 213n.12 Critique of Pure Judgment (Kant), 204 existential time to present moments, shrinking of, 205 experience, new mode of, 205 soldiers, communicable experience, 204 storytelling, the art of, 204–5 time, 205, 212n.8, 9 communication, witnessing, 81–2 confession, 103–4 annual, mandatory confession, 104 ‘Biography Generators’, 103 certitudo salutis, 104 Christian tradition of medieval Church, 103 confessional witnessing, 109 deathbed, 29 entertainment genres, individual confessions in, 108–9 external deeds of sins, 103 Fourth Lateran Council, 97 genre, 14 Hebrew Bible, 114 inner intentions which led to sin, 103 judicial torture and, 28–9 legal poof, source of, 28 Protestant Reformation, 104 public intimacy of, 108–9 Puritan traditions, 104 religious, 103–5, 109 self-inclusion and, 100 of sins, in front of a priest, 103 television, 108 trust and, 107 witnessing as, 103–5 confessional genre, 14 ‘confessional’ witnessing, 109 confessions, 29, 107, 108–9 Confessions (Augustine), 104 Cook, Janet, 121–2
Coté, William, 174–5 Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma, 174–5 Courting the Abyss (Peters), 42 covenant, 15, 116–18, 119, 124, 128n.8, 9 Covering Columbine, 160–1, 170–6 Bourdieu, 173–4 Dennis, 172 Handschuh, 172 Hochhalter, 173 interviewing intrusiveness, 173 journalists, 171–2 Meyers, 172 Onion, 172 photographers, 172 Schrader, 172, 173 subjects of, 171–2 Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma (Coté and Simpson), 174–5 crisis of witnessing, 3–7 Critique of Pure Judgment (Kant), 204 Cronkite, Walter, 34 cultural forms of communication, 89–109 confession, 103–4 cultural form of witnessing, patterns of, 97–103 cultural forms, 90–2 diary, 104 expectations of expectations, mutual, 90 formats and cultural forms, distinguishing between, 90–2 genres or formats, 90–1 high plasticity, 91 inter-systemic fluidity, 92 intra-systemic fluidity, 91 introduction, 89–90 law and religion, 92–5 legal systems, in, 91 novel, 103–5 relative stability, 91 television, remarks on witnessing in, 109
Index 219 cultural form of witnessing, patterns of, 97–103 conflicting realities: contested interpretation of what is real and what truly occurred, 96 false witness, 102 horizon of relevance, 98 introduction, 96 introduction or elimination of novelty, 96 Islamic religious witnessing, 110n.3 legal context, 97 legal witness, 96, 97 legal witnessing, 96, 101, 102, 106 ‘perception’ to ‘utterance’, 97 personal statement, 102–3 ‘pre-audiovisual media events’, 99 presence and absence, relation between, 97 public rendering of private memory, 98 religious witness, 96, 97, 99–100 religious witnessing, 96, 99 ‘re-presentation’, act of, 98 ‘seeing’ to ‘saying’, 97 self-inclusion, dimensions of: mediatization of the body for meta-messages, 100–1–4; meta-message, 101; self-assertion, 100; self-attribution, 100; self-thematization, 100 ‘self-inclusions’, 100 ‘transformation’, 96 trust, 102 ‘vicarious witnessing’, 98 ‘witnessing by imagination’, 98 Cvetkovich, Ann, 166 The Archives of Feelings, 166 danger to trauma, see affective labor; journalistic discourse of witnessing Davies, Deborah, 49 Davis, Joseph, 165 Dayan, Daniel, 42, 47 deathbed confessions, 29 ‘death touchers’, 167 de-ethicalization, 68 degradation, 206
Dennis, Patty, 172 detective fiction, genre of, 80 Deuteronomy, 17:7, 93 Deuteronomy, 19:16, 94 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III, 163 Diana, Princess of Wales, 85–6 diary, the, 104 ‘disaster marathons’, 125, 129n.19 discourse for-anyone-as-someone structure, 65, 69 audience and, 140, 141 co-constructor of witnessing, as a form of, 60 ‘confessional’ witnessing and, 109 experience and, 26, 27, 33, 52, 55 eyewitness, 141, 143 Haggadah, the, 56–7 Holocaust witness, 3, 7 journalistic trauma, 159, 162 legal, 56, 90 mediators, 141, 144 media witnessing, 68, 78 moral, 191 news broadcasts, 78 presence and, 49 public, 64, 69, 109 religious, 94, 95 scientific, 190 ‘speaks the person’, 81–2 testimony, 26, 61 trauma, 17, 177 witnessing and, 4, 26, 49, 52, 54, 138 witnessing, field of, 141, 143 witnessing text, 60, 64 see also journalistic discourse of witnessing discursive as synthetic, 77–9 Dispatches (Herr), 164 dissonance-reduction, 27 distance audience and, 141 Bakri, 152, 153 broadcasting and, 34–5 celebration of, 45 Covering Columbine, 172 distanced observation, 76
distance – continued Elephant (Van Sant), 211 mediators and, 144 present-at-distance, 134 proximity and realignment of, 67 Shalev, 151–2 viewers, freed from being responsible, 125–6 Distant Suffering (Boltanski), 6 distant witness, 7 documentary genre, 148 double aspect of witnessing, 92–3 ‘double take’, 84–5 dreidel, 118, 128n.11 duBois, Page, 28 ‘dumb’ media, 24 dumb witness, 33 duration, 205, 212n.5, 9, 213n.13 eda or y’ad, 116 ‘ed (Hebrew), 15, 128n.7, 15 electronic media, 13, 50–1 Elephant (Van Sant), 200–211 Bowling for Columbine, contrast between, 200 Buddhist parable, 199 communicable experience, loss of, 203–5 criticism of, commentators, 200–1 cultural trauma, 206–7 degradation, 206 Elias, 208 emotional space, an empty, 201–3 emptiness/numbness, portrayal of, 201 everyday horror, 199–201 evocation of time, 208 four-dimensional time-space, 208 horror, achieving effect of, 200 loss, performance of, 206–7 moods, 202, 211n.2, 4 Nathan, 201 ‘negative performative’, 210 ‘nothings’, 210–11 opening, the, 199–200 passage of time, engaging, 207–9 performative reading, shift to, 206–7 performativity, definition of, 207 performativity of emptiness, 207
the problem, shifting our sense of, 210–11 reasons given, after the event, 210–11 suspense, effect of, 209 Ellis, John, 9, 12, 13–14, 24, 42, 47, 51, 53, 73–87, 106, 112–13, 127n.1, 3 Seeing Things, 12 Elsberg, Daniel, 126 embedded journalism, 2, 3 embedded journalist, 2 Enlightenment, the, 32 entertainment genres, individual confessions in, 108–9 enunciator, 59 envisioner, 59 Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke), 32–3 estoppel, 33 event as an instance, 7 event as an instant, 7 ‘event generator’, 99 Exodus, 20:16, 94 eyewitness audiences, as opposed to, 140 discourse and, 141 event, communicating the, 143–4 mediators and, 139 mediator’s trust in, 141 media witnessing, 75, 82 reporter as, 138 status, 144, 155n.2 zone of, 141 see also eyewitnesses eyewitness accounts, 32, 78, 147, 164 eyewitnesses, 137–8, 143–4 The Battle of Jenin (Shalev), 153 Jenin Jenin (Bakri), 147 journalists as, 175 media, employment in, 139 mediators, discrepancies between, 146 professional, 139 requiring, 94 testimonies, 144 truthfulness of, 82 unreliability of, 26–7 eyewitness testimony, 14, 26–7
Index 221 false presence, 34 false witness, 92, 94, 99, 100–1, 102, 122 false witnessing, 94 Feinstein, Anthony, 160, 168 Felman, Shoshana, 3, 56 field of witnessing analysis, framework for, 141–7; audience, 145–6, 147; competition, 146; elements, 141, 144; eyewitness, 143–4; mediators, 144–5, 146–7; purpose of, 141; zones, definitions of, 141 Bourdieu, 136 eyewitnesses, 137–8 introduction, 133 Jenin, case of: Bakri, 147–53; Shalev, 151–3 mediators, 138–40 overview, 136–7 reporters, 139–40 theorizing witnessing, 133–5; implicated witness, 134, 135; Margalit, 134–5; Peters, 134; presence, importance of, 134–5; vicarious witness, 134, 135 trust, 137 film, witnessing trauma on, 198–211 first-person journalism, 50 ‘first responders’, 166–7 ‘Focalization’, 65 ‘for-anyone-as-someone’ audience dynamics, 65–6, 69 forensic attitude, 79–81 Fortuna, 37, 213n.16 ‘frameworks of knowledge’, 139 Frank, Anne, 30 Frank, Robert, 167 Frosh, Paul, 1–19, 49–70, 112–13, 135 Fuller, Steve, 190 Galeed, 116, 117, 118 gambling, 36–7 Gerrard, Nicci, 74 Gilman, Sander, 170 Glenn, Ian, 42 ‘global village’, 123 Goffman, Erving, 79
Greene, Graham, 31 Brighton Rock, 31 Gricean maxims, 187–8 habitus, 136 Hadron Collider, 185 Haggadah, the, 56–60, 70n.5 enunciator, 59 envisioner, 59 ‘as if’ of witnessing text, 59, 70n.7 Passover Haggadah, 57 Seder meal, 58 Seder rituals, 58 Shoah (Lanzmann), 56 Hahn, Alois, 103 Hall, Stuart, 139 Handschuh, David, 172 Haraway, Donna, 188–9 Hardt, Michael, 159–60 Hardwig, John, 184 Harris, Eric, 160 Hartman, Geoffrey, 5 Havel, Václav, 31 hearsay, 7, 32–3, 35 Hebrew Bible, 114, 118 see also Bible, the Herr, Michael, 164 Dispatches, 164 hic et nunc, 35 Hilton, Paris, 85 historical dimensions/variations, 103–5 confession, witnessing as, 103–4 diary, witnessing as, 104 novel, witnessing as, 103–4 ‘historicity’ (or historical authenticity), 13, 37–8, 38 table 1.1, 134, 150 Hochhalter, Mary Ann, 173 Hofer, Jan, 107 Hollywood films, 63, 70n.9 Holocaust bearing witness, 3 crisis of witnessing and, 3–7 event, as an, 7–8 Levi, 5–7 Muselmann, 6 Muselmanners, 5 nature of witnessing and, 30
Holocaust – continued Nazi system, 3 recording testimonies, 4 Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, 4 Video Archive for the Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, 4 witnessing, 4 horizon of relevance, 98 Hume, David, 39 Hunter, Lynette, 185 Ideational Ecology, 62–3 IDF, 147 If This is a Man (Levi), 6 imagined communities, 102 imagined public, 102 implicated witness, 134 ‘implied author’, 60, 71n.10 implied witnessing agency, 60 indifference, 67, 68, 135, 202 Ingle, David, 167 ‘instance’, 7–9 intentionality, 60 ‘intentio operis’, 60–1 Interpersonal Ecology, 61–2 Intifada (the second), 147 Israel Defense Forces (IDF), 147 James, William, 48 Jenin, 147–55 Bakri, 147–53 Intifada (the second), 147 Jenin Jenin (Bakri), 147–53 overview, 147 Jenin Jenin (Bakri), 147–53 Bakri, appearance in, 148 banned, 148 documentary genre, using, 148 documentation, forms of, 148 enunciation of personal experiences, 150 eyewitnesses, 150–1 ‘historicity’, 150 Israeli Film Board, 148 Nakba, the, 149 narrative, the, 148–9 personal experience, enunciation of, 150
relevance, cues of, 151 testimonies, 149–50 testimonies, location of, 149–50 victimhood, formation of, 150–1 Jesus, 31 journalistic discourse of witnessing, 158–78 ‘care work’, feminist scholarship on, 160 introduction, 158–61 journalistic trauma, 159, 161, 163, 166, 167, 168, 170 PTSD: generalizing journalistic witness from war zone to domestic beat, 161–6 PTSD and metaphor of first response, 166–70 training films in trauma: Covering Columbine, 170–6 trauma, bringing back to the profession, 176–8 ‘traumatized journalism’, 160 journalistic trauma, 159, 161–2, 163, 166, 167, 168, 170 journalists, 107–8, 121, 167 citizen, 79 Covering Columbine, 172–3, 177 disaster marathons, 125, 129n.19 ‘first responders’, 166–7 Jenin and, 147 legal witnessing, 14 PTSD, 167, 168–9, 171 receiving witness, 74 training films and, 170–6 see also journalistic discourse of witnessing; reporters Judaism, 43, 95 judicial torture, 28 jurors, 73–4, 76 Kant, I., 204, 212n.6 Katz, Elihu, 42 ‘kéilu’ (Hebrew), 59 Kierkegaard, Søren, 47 King, Martin Luther, 31 Klebold, Dylan, 160 Klemperer, Victor, 30 Knightley, Phillip, 2 knowing, 7, 29, 55, 57, 183
Index 223 ‘known unknowns’, 85 Köpcke, Karl-Heinz, 107 Kusch, Martin, 192 LaCapra, Dominic, 210, 213n.17 Lanzmann, Claude, 56 Shoah, 56 la question (French), 29 late modernity, 105–6 Laub, Dori, 3, 4, 194 law and religion, interconnected roots of witnessing, 92–5 atrocities, 93, 110n.2 Christian martyrdom, 95 Code of Hammurabi, 93, 94 Deuteronomy, 17:7, 93 Deuteronomy, 19:16, 94 double aspect of witnessing, 92–3 Exodus, 20:16, 94 false witness, 94 Gospel of John, 95 Hebraic law, 92–3 Isaiah, 43:8–13, 95 Judaism, 95 Kiddush Hashem, 95 Leviticus, 5:1, 92 Leviticus, 22:32, 95 lex talionis, 94 Maccabees, first and second book of, 95 martyr, definition of, 95 ‘non-humans’, 93 power and authority, issue of, 93 Psalms of lament, 94 Ten Commandments, 92 YHWH, 95 layers of non-presence, 53 Leach, Joan, 16–17, 42, 182–95 Leary, Timothy, 43 legal systems, 24, 91 legal theory of evidence, 27 legal witnessing, 14, 94, 96, 101, 102, 107–8 anchor persons, 107, 108 journalists, 107–8 see also law and religion, interconnected roots of witnessing
Levi, Primo, 5–7, 30, 43 If This is a Man, 6 lex talionis, 94 Liebes, Tamar, 15, 112–27 lie detector, 29 The Life of Brian (Python), 44 Lippmann, Walter, 50 Lipton, Peter, 187, 192 Little, Alan, 163 liveness, 24, 52, 124, 134, 139 liveness, why historicity (or historical authenticity), 37–8 recorded, contrast between, 37 local public, 102, 104 Locke, John, 32–3 Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Locke), 32–3 logos (Greek), 28 London bombing, 7 July, 2005, 10 McCann, Madeleine, 85 machines, as excellent witnesses, 191–5 Aristotelian scientism, 191–2 human-machine interactions, 192–3 ‘human-machine reconfigurations’, 193 instrumentation, credibility by ownership or access to, 193–4 ‘machine testimony’, 192 technology and, 192 Mandela, 31 Margalit, Avishai, 6, 68, 71n.13, 134–5 Marriott, Stephanie, 42 Martus (Greek), 29 martyr, definition of, 95 martyrdom, 95, 96, 99–100 martyrs, 24–5, 29, 30, 95, 97, 99, 107, 152 Marvin, Carolyn, 42, 167 mass media, 49–70 electronic media, 50–1 everyday media usage, intersection between, 10 first-person journalism, 50 introduction, 49–51 morally enabling, 51
mass media – continued State of Terror: A Dispatches Investigation, 49, 50 ‘televisual metaphysics of presence’, 50 ‘mass society’, 69–70 mechanical witness, 33 media audiovisual, 8–9, 13–14, 23, 24, 36, 105 ‘dumb’, 24 electronic, 13, 50–1 event genre, 115 mass, see mass media recording, 36 ‘science media courses’, 185 ‘transubstantiated’, 168 witnessing, see media witnessing Media, Culture and Society, 42 mediated communication, 112, 122, 190 mediation double-mediation, 184 historical role in science, 186 Jenin and, 53 machines and, 191–5 media witnessing, 1, 2, 13 power of, 17 radio, 124 scientific testimony, 17, 183, 184, 186, 190–1 scientific witness, 13, 186–91 television, 124 veracity gap and, 51–6 ‘Witnessing’ (Peters), 51 mediators, 138–40, 144–5 media witnessing audience, 140–1 audiovisual representation, 76–7 child of ‘mass society’, 69–70 definition of, 1–2 eyewitnesses, 137–8 introduction, 1–3 logic of, 8–9 mediators and, 138–40 as a moral force, 68 non-commitment, 69
why now, 1–19 witnessing witness through, 74–6 Menchú, Rigoberta, 31 mentita, 188 Meyers, Dan, 172 mismeeting, 67 (mis) recognition, 84 modality of ‘being there’, 35, 38 table 1.1, 134, 139, 140, 146, 208, 209 definition of, 59 of historicity, 13, 37–8, 38 table 1.1, 134 of liveness, 11, 24, 36–8, 38 table 1.1, 52, 134, 139 ‘recording’, 4, 7, 12, 13, 33–4, 35–6, 38 table 1.1, 52 of witnessing, 13, 15, 124, 133, 136, 146 Mo’ed, 118 moods, 202, 211n.4 Moonlight Sonata (Beethoven), 201 Moore, Michael, 17, 200 Bowling for Columbine, 17, 200 moral witness, 6, 134–5 mundane witness, 14, 73–87 conclusion, 85–7 definition of, 86–7 discursive as synthetic, 77–9 experience of, 82–5 forensic attitude, 79–1 introduction, 73–7 witness communication, 81–2 Muselmann, 6 Muselmanners, 5 Nakba, 148, 149, 155n.4 Nazi, 30 Nazism, 6 Nazi system, 3 newspaper news, 80, 121 newspaper reporter, 121 newspapers, 80, 113–14, 121–23, 124, 129n.17, 18 New York Express, 122–23 ninth Mosaic commandment, 28 non-commitment, 69 ‘non-humans’, 93
Index 225 ‘nothing happens’, understanding, 210 ‘the nothing itself nothings’, 210, 213n.18 objective witness, 33–4, 182 Ochberg, Frank, 165 (Old) Testament, 117–18 Onion, Amanda, 172 ontological baggage, 24–5, 158, 209 ‘ontological security’, 108 Operation Defensive Shield, 49 Ovid, 31 pain King Herod, 38 live, 38–9 Poetics (Aristotle), 39 veracity gap and, 27–31 Palestinians, 14, 53, 147, 149, 150–1, 153, 154 ‘Parasocial’ interaction, 64 parastatês (Greek), 29 passive witnessing, 26, 33 Passover Haggadah, 57 Passover Seder, 44, 118 Pearl, Daniel, 158 performativity, 207 perpetual vigilance, 10 Peters, John Durham, 7, 12, 23–41, 42–8, 51, 134, 158, 183 An Afterword: Torchlight Red on Sweaty Faces (Peters), 42–8 Courting the Abyss, 42 Speaking into the Air, 45 ‘Witnessing’, 23–41 Philosophical Fragments, 47 photograph, as the absolute Particular, the sovereign Contingency, 9 Pinchevski, Amit, 1–19, 42, 133–55 polygraph test, 29 post-event tampering, 26–7 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) definition of (DSM-III), 162 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual III, 163 ‘first responders’, 166–7 ‘first response’ and, 166–70
‘fundamentally a disorder of memory’, 168 generalizing journalistic witness from war zone to domestic beat, 161–6 involuntary bodily behavior, 163–4 physiological behavior, 163–4 ‘Risking More than Their Lives: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Journalists’, 162, 163 ‘traumatic likeness’, 162 ‘traumatizing’, 164, 178 Vietnam War, 164 presence and absence, relation between, 97 an event, view of, 43–4 bear witness, 54 broadcasting and, 35–6 co-presence, 97, 106 in court, 101 eyewitnesses, 137–8, 150, 153 false, 34 ‘first responders’, 166–7 God’s, 117 importance of, 134–5 layers of non-presence, 53 lost ‘presence’, inaccessibility or transcendence of, 98 making a difference, 49 mediators, 145, 147 narrator, 63 ontology of, 54 past presence, 98 in place, 134 presence to events – to be present is to witness, and to witness is to be subject to trauma, 166 present past, 98 present presence, 98 in space, 13, 38 table 1.1 ‘televisual metaphysics of’, 50 testimonial, 57 in time, 13, 38 table 1.1, 154 witnessing text, 60 witness, ‘telling presence’ of, 113 presence-at-a-distance, 34–5 present-at-distance, 134 Protestant Reformation, 104
Psalms, the, 104–5 ‘psychological suffering’, 177 PTSD, see post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) ‘put to the question’, 29 Pyevich, Caroline, 169, 178n.3 Python, Monty, 44 The Life of Brian, 44 Rabin, Yitzhak, 124 radical inclusion of the incidental, 9 radical vigilance (attitude to sensation), 40 radio, 52, 61–2, 65, 89, 124–26 Radio5 Live, 162 ‘rad scientist’, 186 Reagan, Ronald, 34 receptivity, 13, 54, 60–6 recording, 4, 7, 12, 33–4, 35–6, 38 table 1.1, 52 recording media, 36 recuperation of the singular, 9 ‘referential excess’, 9 regressus ad infinitum, 102 ‘relations of production’, 139 religion, 51, 91–2, 92–5, 105–6, 109 see also law and religion, interconnected roots of witnessing religious witness, 96, 97, 99–100, 102 religious witnessing, 14, 45–6, 107 Rentschler, Carrie, 16, 42, 158–78 repetitive possession, 165 reporters audience, 140–1 BBC (Belgian Congo), 139 ‘death touchers’, 167 the event and, 77 as eyewitness, 138, 139–40, 145 ‘in the field’, 53 ‘first responders’, 166–7 mediators, as extensions and direct delegates of, 139–40, 145 PTSD, 161–2, 168, 169–70 ‘Risking More Than Their Lives’, 164–5 term, origin of, 113–14, 127n.4
training films in trauma: Covering Columbine, 160, 170–76, 177 trauma and, 159, 160–1, 165–6, 171 traumatized journalism, 160 as traumatized witnesses, 158–9 violence, having experienced (survey), 168–9 war reporting, dangers of, 16 ‘the weighty baggage of witnessing’, 158 as witness, 121, 166 see also journalistic discourse of witnessing; journalists Ricoeur, Paul, 29–30 ‘Risking More than Their Lives: The Effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on Journalists’, 162, 163, 164 Rolin, Kristina, 190 Rothery, Teryl, 87n.2 Ruth and Boaz, story of, 118–19 sanctuary of edut, 118 Scannell, Paddy, 42, 78, 81 Scarry, Elaine, 177 Schlinder’s List, 31 Schrader, Ann, 172, 173 Schwartz, Louis-Georges, 42 science journalism, 185, 195n.3, 5, 6, 7 ‘rad scientist’, 186 ‘science media courses’, 185 scientific testimony, 185, 195n.6, 7 ‘alternative tradition’, 183 authority of, 184–5 introduction, 182 machines, as excellent witnesses, 191–5 science journalism, 185 scientific witness ‘alternative tradition’ of, 183, 193 introduction, 182–3 scientific witnesses, 186–91 authority, 190 credibility, 190 Gricean maxims, 187–8 mentita, 188 ‘modest witness’, 188–9
Index 227 seventeenth century, 186–8 see also machines, as excellent witnesses; scientific witness Scott, Wilbur, 161, 165 secondary witness, 99 The Secret Agent (Conrad), 80 Seder, , 44, 45, 58 Seder meal, 58 Seder rituals, 58, 70n.5, 6 Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty (Ellis), 12, 51 self-inclusion, dimensions of mediatization of the body for meta-messages, 100–1 self-assertion, 100 self-attribution, 100 self-thematization, 100 ‘self-inclusions’, 100 sensory evidence, 24, 46, 47 sensory witness, 47 Shalev, Noam, 151–2 Shapin, Stephen, 187, 188, 195n.3, 6 A Social History of Truth, 187 Shapiro, Barbara, 193 Shapiro, Bruce, 164, 175–6 shared world, 10, 11, 204 Sherlock Holmes (Conan Doyle), 80, 87n.1 Shoah (Lanzmann), 56 Silverstone, Roger, 108 Simpson, Roger, 158, 167, 168, 174–5 Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma, 174–5 Sinai covenant, 117, 119, 126 singularity, 7, 9, 11, 35 singularity of the instant, 9 sin, subjectivization of, 103 ‘situated textualities’, 185 A Social History of Truth (Shapin), 187 Socrates, 31 Solzhenitsyn, 31 sovereign Contingency, the, 9 ‘spark of accident, the’, 9 Speaking into the Air (Peters), 45, 48 Spielberg, Steven, 4 spontaneous recognition, 83–4 Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, 162
State of Terror: A Dispatches Investigation, 49, 52–3, 63, 71n.11 Stimmungen (German), 202 The Sting, 37 ‘Storyteller’ (Benjamin), 204–5 storytelling, the art of, 204–5, 213n.12 stranger sociality, 66–70 sub poena, 33 Suchman, Lucy, 192 Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, 4 Suu Kyi, Aung San, 31 Sweeney, John, 162–3 synthetic, 77, 78, 82 Sznaider, Natan, 68 ‘tablets of edut (testimony/covenant)’, 118 Tamil Tigers, Sri Lankan, 162 Tawalbe, Mahmud, 152 ‘technical infrastructure’, 139 telegraph, the, 122–23 television ‘affect-television’, 108 anchor persons, 107–8 archaic witnessing and, 124–27 communication itself, witnessing, 81–2 confessions, 108–9 editing, 124, 129n.16, 20 fiction, 122 forensic fictions, 80–1 individual confessions in, 108–9 introduction, 24 journalists, 107, 109 late modernity, changes for witnessing in, 105–6 legal witnessing, 105–6, 109 media witnessing, 75 news, 80 programming, thesis for analyzing, 105 religious witnessing, 105–6 sense of communitas, 124 a social system for witnessing, 106 ‘televisual metaphysics of presence’, 50
Telling Presences: Witnessing, Mass Media, and the Imagined Lives of Strangers (Frosh), 49–70 civil inattention, 66–70 discourse, 49 electronic media, 50–1 first-person journalism, 50 Haggadah, the, 56–60 indifference, 67, 68 introduction, 49–51 knowing, 55, 57 law and religion, interconnected roots of witnessing, 92 layers of non-presence, 53 as a moral force, 68–9 morally enabling, 51 non-commitment, 69 presence, 49 as receptivity, texts that bear witness, 60–6 State of Terror: A Dispatches Investigation, 49 stranger sociality, 66–70 ‘televisual metaphysics of presence’, 50 uncivil attention, 67 veracity gap, witnessing and, 51–6 witnessing, main features of: Impersonal, 64–6; Witnessing Intentionality, 60–3 witnessing, main features of: Interpersonal Ecology, 61–4 witnessing texts, 60–1 Ten Commandments, 120 tertius (Latin), 29 testamentum (Latin), 29 testimonio, 31 testis (Latin), 29 ‘textual’ metafunction of language, 61–2 Thomas, Gunter, 14–15, 89–109 Timerman, Jacobo, 31 torture current age, 28–9 Greek ideology, 28 judicial, 28 la question (French), 29 polygraph test – ‘lie detector’, 29 ‘put to the question’, 29
‘transformation’, 96 ‘transubstantiated media’, 168 trauma ‘accounts’, 164 bearing witness, 175 ‘concept of’, 170–1 Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma (Coté and Simpson), 174–5 cultural, 206–7 description of (Caruth), 165 on film, see trauma, witnessing on film journalistic, 160–2, 163, 166, 167, 168, 170 PTSD, 171 repetitive possession, as a form of, 165 theory, 198, 211n.1 training films in: Covering Columbine, 170–76 ‘trauma training curricula’, schools with, 170 trauma theory, 198, 211n.1 ‘traumatized journalism’, 160 trauma, witnessing on film communicable experience, loss of, 203–5 Elephant (Van Sant), 199–211 emotional space, an empty, 201–3 introduction, 198–9 loss, performance of, 206–7 passage of time, engaging, 207–9 the problem, shifting our sense of, 210–11 trauma theory, 198 trust audience and, 141, 155 distributed, 141 eyewitness, 137 ‘false witness’, 94, 102 gentlemanly, 190 Jenin and, 154 journalistic witnessing, 107–9 mediators, 141 ‘modest witness’, 190 news organizations and, 82 produced, 141–7
Index 229 science and, 32 scientific testimony, 183–4, 190–1 testimony and, 190–1 witnessing, cultural form of, 102 witnessing, field of, 133, 137 two-step model, 113 uncivil attention, 67 ‘Unclaimed Experience: Trauma and the Impossibility of History’ (Caruth), 164 ‘Useful Culture’ (Bennett), 166 Van Sant, Gus, 17, 199 Elephant, 17, 199–211 veracity gap broadcasting and, 34–6 objectivity and, 32–4 pain and, 27–31 witnessing and, 50–4, 57, 113 witnessing texts and, 60, 61 vicarious witness, 134 ‘vicarious witnessing’, 98 Video Archive for the Holocaust Testimonies at Yale, 4 Vietnam War, 161, 164 vigilance, 10, 11 Vlock, Laurel, 4 Wagner-Pacifici, Robin, 42 Weber, Max, 104 West, Fred, 74 West, Rosemary, 74 Wiesel, Eli, 30, 43 Wilkomirski, Benjamin, 5 Williams, Raymond, 37 witness attitude to sensation (radical vigilance), 40 dumb, 33 faces of, 26 mechanical, 33 modest, 188–9 moral, 134–5 as a noun, 25, 73 objective, 33–4, 182 passage of time, engaging, 207–9 scientific, 186–91 sensory, 47
traumatic, 193 as a verb, 25–6 Witness (the book), 31 witness as a cultural form of communication, see cultural forms of communication witnesses 9/11, 8, 9–10 active, 46 anchor persons, 107, 108 audience members, 140, 141 authoritative, 3 BBC journalist (Belgian Congo), 121 Cook, 121–2 Covering Columbine, 174 cultural form of, 95–102 Elephant (Van Sant), 207 expert, 47 false, 94 Haggadah, the, 57 Holocaust, 3–4, 5, 8 identity, importance of, 138 Jenin Jenin (Bakri), 147 journalistic, 106–7 journalists, 16, 67, 158, 162 jurors, 73 law and, 92–5 lay witnesses, use of, 140 legal, 97, 99 machines as, 191–5 mass media and, 11 organizations as, 63–4 public, 124–5 religion and, 92–5 religious, 95, 97, 99–100, 102 reporters, 167 scientific, 186–91 subjective, 47 television viewers, 8, 54 true, 3, 5–6 unreliability of, 26–7 untruthful, 80–1 witnessing active, 26, 45 archaic, 15, 112–27 Biblical, 15, 115, 121, 126 civil inattention, 66–70 communication itself, 81–2 ‘confessional’, 109
witnessing – continued cultural form of, 95–102 discourse, 49 events, 38 fact and fiction, 38–40 Haggadah, the, 56–60 by imagination, 98 journalistic discourse of, see journalistic discourse of witnessing knowing, 57 liveness, why, 36–8 main features of: ideational ecology, 62; impersonal, 64–6; interpersonal ecology, 61–4; personal, 64–6; witnessing intentionality, 60–3; witnessing modality, 60, 61 mass media and, 49–70 as a moral force, 68–9 pain and time, 38–40 passive, 26, 33 phenomenological characteristic of, 209 post-event tampering, 26–7 ‘presentness’, 209 as receptivity, texts that bear witness, 60–6 religious, 14, 45–7, 108 retroactive character of, 39–40 social objectification, 99 sorts of witnessing an event, 38 table 1.1 stranger sociality, 66–70 in television, 47, 105–107 texts, 60–1 trauma on film, 198–211 two-step model, 113 veracity gap: broadcasting and, 34–6; objectivity and, 32–4; pain and, 27–31; witnessing and, 51–6 vicarious, 98 see also ‘Witnessing’ (Peters) witnessing, as a field analysis, framework for, 141–7; audience, 145–46, 147; competition, 146; elements, 141; eyewitness, 144–5;
mediators, 144–5, 147–8; purpose of, 141; zones, definitions of, 141 Bourdieu, 136 eyewitnesses, 137–8 introduction, 133 Jenin, case of: Bakri, 147–52; Shalev, 152–3 mediators, 138–40 overview, 136–7 reporters, 139–40 theorizing witnessing, 133–5; implicated witness, 134, 135; Margalit, 134–5; Peters, 134; presence, importance of, 134–5; vicarious witness, 134, 135 trust, 137 Witnessing Intentionality, 60–1 Witnessing Modality, 60, 61 ‘Witnessing’ (Peters), 12 active witnessing, 26 audiovisual media, 23, 24, 36 broadcasting, veracity gap and, 34–6 confessions, 29 deathbed confessions, 29 dissonance-reduction, 27 ‘dumb’ media, 24 dumb witness, 33 Ellis, 24 events, 38 fact and fiction, 38–40 false presence, 34 hearsay, 32–3 historicity (or historical authenticity), 37–8 introduction, 23–5 legal theory of evidence, 27 liveness, why, 36–8 objective witness, 33–4 ontological baggage, 24–5, 158, 208 pain and time, 38–40 passive witnessing, 26, 33 polygraph test – ‘lie detector’, 29 post-event tampering, 26–7 presence, 35–6 presence-at-a-distance, 34–5 recording media, 36 Seeing Things (Ellis), 24 term, analyzing the, 25–6
Index 231 torture, 28–9 veracity gap: broadcasting and, 34–6; objectivity and, 32–4; pain and, 27–31 witnesses, unreliability of, 26–7 witness: faces of, 26; as a noun, 25; as a verb, 25–6 ‘witness protection program’, 31 witnessing texts addressees, interaction between, 57 Althusserian terms, in, 59 ‘as if’, of, 59 audiences, 51 ‘bearing witness’, 60–6, see also ‘bearing witness’ generic expectations for, 63
Haggadah, the, 50, 51 moral point of, 66 ‘witness protection program’, 31 Wittgenstein, L., 202, 211n.3, 212n.7 World Trade Center, 9/11 attacks on, 3, 7–12 y’ad or eda, 116 Yavin, Haim, 107 YHWH, 95 Young, Allan, 168 Young, Damon, 200 Zapruder, Abraham, 31 Zelizer, Barbie, 42 zeugen (German), 29 Zeugnis (German), 29