Report on Workshop 1: The Range and Function of Testimony in Cultural Forms

The first day-long workshop of the AHRC Research Network Culture and its Uses as Testimony was held at the University of Birmingham on 10 November 2016. The workshop brought together 23 members of the Network to discuss the following three issues:

  • Why do individuals turn to culture in order to tell their stories?
  • What can the writing of testimonial literature, the making of a documentary film, or bringing historical witnesses on stage do that other forms of bearing witness cannot?
  • How does this testimony relate to concepts of reconciliation and justice at an individual and societal level?

The workshop kicked off with an introduction by PI Sara Jones, followed by 5 short position papers presented by theme leads Roger Woods (Nottingham, CI), Alison Lewis (Melbourne) and Bill Niven (Nottingham Trent) alongside Eugenio Szwarcer of the documentary theatre company La Conquesta del pol sud and Romanian novelist Carmen-Francesca Banciu. Following discussion of the position papers, the group divided into smaller clusters to consider the three core questions also in relation to three readings circulated in advance.

The event was a great start to the project. The conversation was vibrant and multidisciplinary and harnessed the wide-range of expertise within the network membership. The key issues emerging related to: the ethics of using cultural forms of testimony; testimony and education; the role, value and limitations of cultural forms of testimony; the position of perpetrator testimony. The report below summarises the Network’s discussions. You can also download it as a PDF here. Please do leave comments and suggestions below!


Briefing document

AHRC workshop 1: The Range and Function of Testimony in Cultural Forms

Practical and Moral Issues In her introduction Sara Jones raised an issue that came up in various forms throughout the day: what guidance can researchers offer? This point is particularly relevant since the Network includes practitioners producing documentary films and stage events, a novelist, teachers, and representatives from Holocaust Centres in the UK and USA.

In these various forms of cultural production and transmission in educational contexts, should cultural testimony be used and, if so, how? The Network’s outcomes can have some practical applications. One example that arose during the day was how to use perpetrator testimony when working with school students. The IWitness Foundation was noted for its work on ethical film editing and working with young learners on testimony. Members also discussed the need for the moral dimension of the Network to be articulated.

Definitions Network members from various disciplines challenged some key concepts of the day and the processes they implied – eg ‘turning to culture’.  Individuals live in culture if it is defined as the practice of everyday life. A pragmatic approach to the definition of culture is to list the kind of sources that Network members research on or produce: autobiographical and historical fiction, autobiographies and memoirs, generically hybrid texts, art exhibitions, photography, documentary films, theatrical productions, theatre featuring victims and survivors, and on beyond “high culture” to popular genres such as TV game shows, talk shows, and soap operas.

This approach may give a sense of the core business of the Network, but it tends to lean towards high culture, and it does not deal with the broader definitions of culture. Also, the Network includes members with expertise in Law, Transitional Justice and Psychology, and there was broad agreement that all forms of testimony can be regarded as culture. It is also common practice for cultural studies approaches to be applied to forms of testimony or evidence that are brought before a court: eye-witness accounts, confessions, secret police files.

Why do individuals turn to culture in order to tell their stories? Acknowledging the limitations of definitions noted above, Network members returned to this issue throughout the day, looking at literary witnessing and testimonial literature, the role of fiction, imagination, illusion, imagery, metaphor, the nature and purposes of empathy, the status of non-primary/second-generation witnesses.

Producers of testimony in cultural form pointed to their aim of working with witnesses/survivors and unheard voices to inform, to stimulate emotional engagement with another’s story and values and to produce an account that an audience can relate to.

Testimony in cultural form may allow distance (e.g. use of the third person) to rehearse something, to avoid re-traumatisation, and it may serve as a shield to protect oneself. It can extend the memory temporally and spatially, and facilitate deeper learning. As we move out of communicative memory into cultural memory/post-memory, what is the role of non-victims?

Testimony in cultural form can be liberating and empowering while embracing contradiction, doubt, and playfulness to transmit experience. It is often structurally complex, fragmentary, ‘messy’, offering no context or masternarrative. Can it be confusingly messy? One Network member concerned with Holocaust education asked: if individual testimony does not directly connect with the historical displays, how do we enable students to make sense of history and testimony?

At various points in the day the absence of perpetrator testimony was noted as a problem, for example in key stage 3 teaching in UK schools. Its omission hinders deeper understanding of the past, but if it is heard, how do we respond to it? In South Africa, perpetrators were given a voice in exchange for telling the truth. But that truth was elicited in exchange for amnesties and, in this sense, justice was sacrificed. A recent trend in documentary films is to include the perpetrator: the documentary My Nazi Legacy includes the voices of the perpetrator and the sons of perpetrators.

What can the writing of testimonial literature, the making of a documentary film, or bringing historical witnesses on stage do that other forms of bearing witness cannot? Testimony may help survivors move beyond trauma. They may be less interested in justice and punishment of perpetrators than in healing for the individual and for society. An emotional response to testimony can have a healing, clarifying effect. A union of knowledge and emotion can produce a ‘poetic moment’.

We read cultural testimony for shock, knowledge, recognition, enchantment (Felski, Uses of Literature). Cultural testimony can generate empathy (cf Assmann and Detmers: Empathy and its Limits) and affect. These concepts are themselves the object of distinct bodies of research that need to be covered by the project: the limits of empathy – feeling as others, feeling with others – empathy plus a distancing that is reminiscent of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.

How does one reconcile empathy with critical understanding? The National Holocaust Centre and Museum challenges young people through testimony to think critically, feel inspired. Visitors to ‘dark tourist’ sites in Cambodia have testified to how it has made them think differently. On the other hand, first-hand witness accounts (e.g. a Holocaust survivor talking directly to a group of students) do not necessarily provoke a political response. The Hohenschönhausen website has statements by school students about how their visit has changed their attitude to democracy; but the responses of school pupils are typically emotional, not political. The limited examples of engagement with the concept of democracy are superficial and seem to be parroting what students have been told. The effect of testimony in cultural form on audiences/visitors is clearly a key item, and has the potential to become a prominent component of the project as a whole.

The issue of direct vs mediated experience came up at regular intervals during the day, with Network members pointing out that cultural testimony is heavily mediated when it becomes a consumer good, and that all testimony is inevitably mediated. The ‘I’ on paper is not the ‘I’ of the actual experience. It seems likely that mediation will become a major focus for the Network and that it will raise further matters of definition: can non-witness testimony count as witnessing? “Secondary witnessing”, that is “witnessing the witness”, is a highly mediated experience. Mediation also figured in the day’s discussion of what gets published as literature/what is rejected by publishers as not sufficiently literary – distinctions forced upon authors. We also considered what ‘testimonial literature’ really was. Can fictional literature be considered a form of testimony at all? If not, might it be a form of secondary witnessing? What about autofiction or other forms that intertwine different genres?

Cultural artefacts allow for ambiguity and tension not possible in other genres and they may empower individuals, but empowerment may be constrained by genre, medium, power dynamics in the field of culture: gatekeepers, publishers, audiences. In the case of audiences, the writer cannot control the reader, and the readership is not foreseeable. How is cultural testimony appropriated? Audiences have different assumptions, expectations in different settings/countries, and it is problematic to identify Anglophone students as the recipients: reception may be very different in a Romanian or a Polish context, for example.

How does this testimony relate to concepts of reconciliation and justice at an individual and societal level? Viewing courtrooms and tribunals as performative spaces, even as theatres, may mean that we do not have to make a distinction between testimony in cultural form and courtroom testimony. One recurring theme during the day, however, was cultural testimony making up for the shortcomings of legal proceedings after traumatic experiences. How do we square these approaches?

Testimony in isolation needs to be set in a framework and set against other testimony – a balance that allows for social justice if not legal justice. Testimony always has to be contesting, or there is no purpose to the testimony. Ethical issues arise when containing/framing the testimonies, especially from perpetrators.

Is there a fundamental difference between truth of testimony as experience and truth required by courts? What kind of testimony comes before courts and what does not? Is the venue national or international? How is the crime defined? And where do truth and reconciliation commissions fit into the picture – somewhere between courts and cultural testimony?




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