On being a Witness

Humanity has undergone traumatic tragic events. Several have succumbed while a few are lucky to survive and report their horrific ordeal. The witnessing ability of those that survived the horrors of the holocaust/monstrous riots/ ethnic cleansing is called into question by several thinkers. Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Tzvetan Todorov clearly state this inability in the survivors of unimaginable tragedy. The witness makes an appeal to the truth, ‘I have been there ’ but feels betrayed when confronted with the dismissive attitude of the listener. In Russia, there is a saying that says: ‘a man who lies through his truth lies like an eye witness’. A witness of trauma is considered unreliable because there is poetics and politics in the act of bearing witness. Derrida seems to align with this when he indicates that there is no one to bear witness to the witness. This means he denies that testimony has a meta-level. One who bears witness to the witnessing of the survivor is also a witness. Who will then bear witness to him/her? The act of witness is troubled at many levels. The witness who survives his/her horror cannot narrate the horror of those that failed to survive their tragedy alongside him/ her. This does not mean that the act of bearing witness is useless. What we are to understand is that witnessing complex. It is not information. It is not a speech act that produces knowledge. The witness does not seem to have access to immediate truth.

Derrida asserts that all responsible witnessing involves the poetic experience of language. This view raises two questions. ‘What is poetic of language?’ and ‘what is responsible witnessing?’ Derrida refers to a poetic experience as a constellation of three singularities: ‘a singular act, concerning a singular event and engaging in a unique, and thus inventive, relationship to language’. The testimony of a witness is marked by triple irreproducibility. The singularity of the event means that there is no collective experience or memory of it. Hence, there is no sharing. This means there is no witnessing for the witness. But when the survivor produces a poem or an undecipherable traumatized text/ speech, the relation between language and the singular experience is unique. Responsible witnessing on the other hand indicates the presence of politics in the act of bearing witness. This is why Derrida says that testimony is not proof. The act of bearing witness is possible only when the witness testifies to something unprovable. This view runs contrary to legal practices which appear to be based on thinking that presumes that one testimony can be checked against other testimonies to be confirmed or invalidated.

The survivor of a tragedy connects now (the moment of bearing witness) to the event then (the event testified to). The survivor is endowed with double presence: presence there and presence here at the same time. The horror of the event can never be fully captured. Hence, the survivor cannot be fully objective and impartial. Bearing witness, therefore, is swearing/ taking an oath. It indicates that one swears that one has seen, heard, touched and felt. Therefore, perjury is possible. This means the bearer of the witness appeals to the good faith of his/ her addressees. It has a vocative that says you have to believe me. Hence, we may ask, ‘what is believing?’ It can point to two different acts: the act of faith in which testimony is effective by virtue of being a signature of the singular event. Secondly, it can be an intellectual act pertaining to knowledge. This makes truth also ambiguous as it refers to non-lie on the one hand and to justice/ the order of law on the other hand. Believing is a necessity constructed by the relation of the witness and the addressee. The two actors who are in the act of witnessing are joined together by an ethical call involving law, faith and conscience. This means a responsible witness is present to his/her conscience and aware of his/her politics and poetics.

The witness stands alone and is irreplaceable. The witness addresses his listeners and calls them to believe him/her. There is a call to an answerability in the address of the witness. The addressed listener is obligated to respond/ to answer. The bearing of witness is not complete until the addressee responds to the imperative of faith. The addressee of the bearer of witness is called to the necessity of faith. The addressed has the imperative that has triple layers of answerability like the witness: presence to oneself, to the potential listener and the event of witnessing’. It is only in and through this answerability that the addressee of the testimony of a witness (judge/ historian/other listener) justifies his/her witness and claims to understand. This means both the one who is testifying and the one before whom the testimony is given are ethically bound and burdened.

The ethical foundations of the act of bearing witness actually call the addressee/ receiver of the witness to become witnesses at another level. This means though the act of receiving or rejecting the testimony, the addressee also becomes a witness to the original bearer of the witness. This means the judge and the historians are also witnesses. They are also trapped in the paradoxes of poetics as well as the politics of witnessing. The act of bearing witness is, therefore, trapped into a circularity. The addressee is a second-order witness and is a participant in the act of bearing witness. This is why in accepting and rejecting the testimony of the original witness, the judge/ historian and other listeners cannot give the final judgement as each of them suffers the same impediments that the bearer of witness does. The judge and historian are also witnesses and are implicated by ethical answerability that marks the bearer of witness. Hence, there are possibilities as well as needs of revisiting the witnessing of the listeners/judges/ historians who in their imperative to respond to the testimony of the witness gave their testimony by those of us who are addressed by their texts. As long as we lack the fullness of citability/ fullness of access to the past, we will only cite partiality and witness to it also partially. Therefore all witnesses witness imperfectly although we cannot say that they do so irresponsibly.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao