Understandings of “Testimony”, “Culture” and “Justice”

Understandings of “Testimony”, “Culture” and “Justice”

(Based on network members’ submissions and for discussion at Workshop 3)


The original understanding of culture for the project embraced sources with a stated or unstated element of testimony: autobiography, biography, memoirs, diaries, letters, films, museums. Discussion in the workshops and the definitions submitted ahead of workshop 3 adhere less to this understanding and work instead with broader notions of culture such as symbolic and ordering practices that inform everyday social interactions and political structures (Christian Karner), the collective identity of a group of people encompassing behaviour, traditions, lifestyle and creative outputs (Amy Williams), the filters through which our memories are focused (Joan Salter). Law itself forms part of a culture’s manner of expressing an order of things, patterns of legally oriented social behaviour and attitudes (Agata Fijalkowski), and testifying before a judge is as much bound to form and genre as the writing of an autobiography (Sara Jones). The inclusiveness of this broader understanding calls into question an overall project structure that sets culture off against law and politics.

Possible discussion point: How do we reconcile the broad and the narrow definitions of culture for the purposes of our project?


Submissions on testimony worked with definitions that included and transcended the legal context. Testimony is not just a statement that constitutes evidence or proof (Agata Fijalkowski) but an exploration of lived experience, dealing not only in facts and revealing multiple layers of truths, interpretations and confusions (Elizabeth Kendrick). Testimony may not claim a 1:1 relationship with reality (Sara Jones). These characteristics of testimony mesh with network discussions about the subjective experience of and the individual emotional response to history. Testimony outside the legal context can convey lived experience that is often silenced, suppressed or hidden within the official record, and in literature and art it has characteristics that make it less concerned with truth-seeking than with conveying affect (Stephanie Lewthwaite). These characteristics make testimony disruptive (Roger Woods). Testimony is present as a creative force in fictional works, presenting the writing life as a complex and fraught entanglement of contradictions (Melissa Schuh), and the distancing effect of fiction creates opportunities to convey trauma (Sara Jones).

Testimony about upheaval by contemporary witnesses may be labelled authentic, and survivor testimony about the Holocaust has gained greater recognition in recent decades, but testimony may also include accounts by bystanders and perpetrators (Achim Saupe). Is there/should there be a hierarchy of testimony? Experiencing violence may not be enough for testimony to be considered authentic (Éva Kovács), but sources described as authentic may not be correct in matters of fact. Testimony by individual survivors can be more readily grasped than statistics, and it creates empathy (Catrin Harris).

Possible discussion point: Testimony requires an audience and the act of listening (Emilie Pine), but what does the audience do with the different types of testimony? Uncritical empathy vs analysis of complexity?


Justice in the legal context is the use of power in a way that is fair and appropriate (Agata Fijalkowski), but legal proceedings may fail to satisfy victims and survivors of injustice and may fail to prevent recurrence of atrocities (Tony Peppiatt on the Nuremberg trials).

Justice in a broader sense can be sought and achieved in a variety of settings: legal proceedings, truth and reconciliation commissions, film, literature, art, museums. In these settings justice takes the form of symbolic recognition by a whole society that an injustice has been committed. Justice can have a variety of purposes and outcomes: retribution, punishment, being heard, ‘putting the record straight’, personal justification, political change.

Possible discussion point: How does cultural awareness of injustice contribute to a more just society?

Roger Woods

15 May 2017







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