Anthropologies of witnessing: imaginaries, technologies, practices
Location Senate House South Block - Room G7
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 11:30
Sessions 3


  • Liana Chua (Brunel University London) email

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Short abstract

This panel explores the imaginaries, technologies and practices through which witnessing - as a morally- and politically-loaded intervention, and not just an act of seeing - is facilitated and conceived in multiple ethnographic contexts.

Long abstract

The notion of witnessing has made constant, if intermittent, appearances in anthropology, both as an analytic (e.g. Dave 2014, Fassin 2008, Givoni 2011, McLagan 2006), and as the ethical or political basis of various forms of anthropological engagement (e.g, Bringa 2016, Das 2006, Marcus 2005, Scheper-Hughes 1995). This panel seeks to complicate and extend such conversations by exploring the imaginaries, technologies and practices that mediate different modes and concepts of witnessing.

Taking witnessing as a morally and politically-loaded intervention rather than a mere act of seeing, the panel explores three key areas: 1) the technologies and affordances – representational, epistemological, ontological, and so on – through which witnessing occurs and ‘witnesses’ and ‘witnessed’ are produced; 2) historically and culturally-specific relations and regimes of witnessing; and 3) the reflexive and/or recursive implications of ethnographies of witnessing for anthropological thought and practice. Crucially, it seeks to destabilize distinctions that often characterize conventional notions of witnessing, e.g. art/science, subjectivity/objectivity, truth/fiction, event/process, asking instead how these may be inextricably bound up in practice.

More specific questions include:

- Through what material, visual, artistic, affective, embodied and verbal devices – from testimony to photography to performance art – does witnessing occur?

- What kinds of relations, temporalities and artefacts emerge from these processes?

- How are ‘witnesses’ and ‘witnessed’ produced, apprehended and/or challenged?

- To what extent is witnessing a representational process – and in what other terms can it be conceived?

- To what extent can ‘truths’ and ‘facts’ be artistically conveyed or evoked?

- How are global regimes of witnessing constructed, and how well (or badly) do they travel?

- What role do museums, art galleries, archives, educational institutions and other similar bodies play in acts, processes and regimes of witnessing?

- What can culturally- or historically-specific tropes and practices of witnessing contribute to ongoing anthropological debates?

- What happens when different imaginaries, technologies and practices of witnessing intersect or clash?

Panellists are invited to address these and other relevant questions both critically (e.g. Angel-Anjani 2004, Reed-Danahay 2016) and creatively, through ethnographic, conceptual or experimental means. By shedding light on the complex, uneven processes and practices of witnessing, the panel will speak to key themes of the conference, including how representations act on/in and link different contexts, and how visual imaginaries and moral politics are generated and sustained.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Sepur Zarco, Guatemala: 'bodying forth' and the forensic aesthetics of witnessing in the courtroom and beyond

Author: Silvia Posocco (Birkbeck, University of London) email

Short abstract

Drawing on long-term ethnographic research on the Guatemalan conflict, this paper examines processes of witnessing, subjectification, and desubjectificaton in the legal proceedings related to the case of sexual and labour slavery in armed conflict known as the 'Sepur Zarco' case.

Long abstract

In September 2012, fifteen Maya Q'echi' women and three men appeared as witnesses in the High Risk Court in Guatemala City. The hearings related to events that took place in a military base near the village of Sepur Zarco, Izabal, between 1982 and 1986, and were framed as the first major case of sexual violence committed by the Guatemalan Army during the Guatemalan conflict to reach the courts, as well as the first case of sexual and labor slavery in armed conflict ever to be heard in a national court. The hearings led to a trial, and on 26 February 2016, to two convictions. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research on the Guatemalan conflict and at selected court hearings, in this paper, I examine how the figures of a woman, Dominga Coc, and her two daughters, Anita and Hermelinda, emerge in the court proceedings. Focusing on the partial scene of the court hearings, I examine processes of witnessing, subjectification and desubjectificaton - with their differential affective registers and logics of evidence. I focus on processes of 'bodying forth' (Das 2007) in the declarations of the different parties, as they conjure up Dominga Coc on the riverbank washing Army uniforms under duress, or as the body of the forensic exhumation. 'Bodying forth', as a gendered and racialized process of witnessing, materialisation and subjectification, is tied to performative forensic imaginaries and aesthetics in the courtroom, the broader Guatemalan body politic, and beyond.

Witness/Host, Documenter/Guest - Hospitality as Synecdoche and its Political Inversions: On Certain Human Rights Encounters in Israel/Palestine

Author: Omri Grinberg (University of Toronto) email

Short abstract

This ethnography explores hospitality-based interactions shaping of Palestinian witnesses' narration of subjective experiences of Israel's occupation's violence. Based on fieldwork in Israeli human rights NGOs, I examine the synecdochic significance of the hospitality-testimony interface

Long abstract

This paper ethnographically explores how hospitality-based interaction shape Palestinian witnesses' narration of subjective experiences of violence, and their influence on documentation by Israeli human rights agents. Based on 18 months of fieldwork in NGOs focused on Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories, I examine the interface of hospitality and testimony as a three-folded synecdoche, standing in for: (i) colonial elements of the human rights industry, (ii) shifts in subject positions triggered by a documenting of a witness' enunciation; and, (iii) the national entanglement in Israel/Palestine.

In 2013, I joined Fahed, an NGO fieldworker, to collect a testimony from a Palestinian family recently attacked by Israeli settlers. On our way to the family's home, we learned that they already testified to another NGO that will handle the case. Fahed says that "the family expects their story to be heard", so we still must collect the testimony. As we are seated in their living-room, we are offered chocolate bars, sodas and hot beverages. Fahed was right: the family has every intention of testifying again.

Whereas anthropologists have recently noted the role of reciprocity in humanitarian practices, the specific correlations of human rights/humanitarian intervention, testimony collections, and hospitality have yet to be thoroughly extrapolated. In the vignette above, Fahed—metaphorically and practically—serves as the family's host in the realm of human rights: the documenter is guest, and the witness is host. By noting the inextricability of testimony-hospitality in such events, I trace the shifting categories of witness-victim and documenter, guest and host.

"Being There": Rethinking truth with midiativistas in Rio de Janeiro

Author: Raffaella Fryer-Moreira (UCL) email

Short abstract

Drawing on an extended ethnography in Rio de Janeiro, this paper examines the ways in which the knowledge practices of video activists articulate particular concepts of truth that are grounded in bearing witness, and considers how these notions can help us rethink anthropological truth.

Long abstract

Drawing on an extended ethnography of the midiativista movement in Rio de Janeiro, this paper examines the specific ways in which the concept of "truth" is locally articulated. The popular uprising of 2013 in Brazil led to the emergence of video activists or midiativistas, who sought to produce audiovisual reports of the police repression they witnessed from the front-lines of the protests they attended. Midiativistas conceive of their practice as an active intervention in the space they document - an act of witnessing that transforms the event by extending it through online networks, generating new witnesses and permitting them to viscerally and affectively encounter the protest space, thus allowing witnessing to be socio-technically distributed. These reports grounded their truth claims in the midiativistas act of "being there" and bearing witness, resulting in first-hand accounts that were situated, partial, and "subjective", yet more convincing precisely because they rejected the claims to disembodied "objectivity" that the mainstream media appealed to. The rejection of "objective truth" - as a view from everywhere that is simultaneously a view from nowhere (and no-one) - in favour of situated truth, that is witnessed directly, unsettles traditional divisions between subject and object, representation and reality, and questions the conditions (and relations) through which knowledge is produced. This ethnographic engagement with the knowledge practices of others, and the concepts of truth they articulate, aims to reflect on anthropological knowledge practices more broadly, and how they may be conceived otherwise in light of ethnographic variants from our fields.

Committee as Witness: The governing work of ethical decisionmaking

Author: Rachel Douglas-Jones (IT University Copenhagen) email

Short abstract

In this paper, I explore the ethics review committee as a contemporary witness to the conduct of 'good' biomedical research in the Asia-Pacific region, focusing specifically on committee member roles and expertise.

Long abstract

In this paper, I explore the ethics review committee as a contemporary witness to the conduct of biomedical research. Ethics committee work is an internationally growing form of deliberation and decision making, a technology of anticipation that grants access to experimental spaces, research funds and publication venues. Drawing on ethnographic research with biomedical ethics committees in the Asia-Pacific region, I consider how this form of witnessing research travels, and complicate the kind of seeing that a legitimate committee must evidence. In earlier work on the ethics committee's history in North American regimes of representational politics, I have argued that those attesting to the ethical nature of research are also witnesses of its scientific validity - their decisions not only rely on the scientific expertise of members but are also about that science. In such settings, we see arise a situation which gives double meaning to the making of 'good science'. In this paper, I shift my attention to the form of the committee and its capacity to speak. The objective, authoritative committee must elide the personal, expert based function of the witness with the attestive work of the collective. While studies of expert and lay knowledge focus on the roles, capacities and characteristics of each, this analysis untethers the witnessing voice from an individual 'point of view', such that the attestive assemblage 'speaks as one'. By exploring the accessibility of a witnessing experience, and the credibility of testimony, I aim to show witnessing as a form of ethical work, for ethical ends.

Finding Foundlings: Drawings and Field Notes from Workshops at the Foundling Museum

Author: Rachel Taylor (Leeds Arts University ) email

Short abstract

This paper will present observations of children's workshops at Foundling Museum. Photography was not permitted, drawing and field notes were used as a method to document the sessions. I will question if what I drew was what I truly observed, a doubt that Micheal Taussig describes as 'witnessing'.

Long abstract

As part of an artist residency, I facilitated performance workshops with children to explore the child's 'voice' in the Foundling Museum.

Due to ethical restrictions, photography was not permitted as children are regarded as vulnerable. Instead, I recorded what I observed through drawing and field notes, and these images will be used to illustrate what occurred during the session during the paper.

I struggled not to draw the children. If I drew the child, I worked in a stylised format that represented the action but the child, s/he is unrecognisable, and the drawing could be described as a characterisation or an interpretation. It is not an image of the real child.

Later on in the process, instead of struggling with what I could and could not draw, I began to document the children's art work, as this felt ethically 'safer'. However, this process of simply copying another drawing did not spark the same revelations as drawing the children and their actions had. Rather than using drawing to 'encompass' (Taussig, 2011) events that I had witnessed, I was merely documenting drawings that I was seeing the children make. The act did not have the same process of looking.

During the paper, I will question if I drew what I truly observed. Micheal Taussig describes this as doubt as 'witnessing' rather than 'seeing'. This difference between these two types of observation will be used to analyse my role as a witness in the workshop sessions.

Materialities made testimony. Objects as a way to organize the past in the narratives of the National History Museum of Chile.

Author: Hugo Rueda (Concordia University ) email

Short abstract

This proposal seeks to problematize the construction of different logics of history in a set of material pieces exhibited by the National History Museum of Chile. For this, I propose an approach to the objects understood as testimonial relics, able to create a national historical memory.

Long abstract

This proposal seeks to examine and problematize the construction of different logics of history in a set of material pieces exhibited by the National History Museum of Chile, from its formation in 1911 until the present day. In line with the work of American historian David Lowenthal, who describes three distinct modes of constructing and constituting the past -namely: stories, memories, and relics- I propose an analysis of those discourses, statements, and practices which have allowed the entry of an important set of pieces to the museum's collections under a justification that, I suggest, works under the logic of the Christian idea of the relic.

This proposal takes a useful look on a set of material objects who, I consider, operates as a synecdoche, representing via a fragmentary part, a whole of historical and testimonial characteristics. Th justification of the presentation, exhibition, and sacralisation of objects at the museum centres on the fact that they "belonged to", were "in contact with", or were "touched by" historical figures, witnesses of Chilean history. This is indicative of a group of political strategies to build and organize a unique, single, and shared national past, and the museum plays a fundamental role in the public presentation of this time.

The main problem to analyze is both objects and the social and discursive framework that turns them into historical relics, able to organize, offer, and testify a program of national history through their exhibition in the museum's galleries.

Reconciliation and the Pedagogy of Witnessing in Canadian Museums and Arts-based Research

Author: Jennifer Robinson (Queen's University ) email

Short abstract

Drawing on interviews conducted with heritage professionals working in museums, galleries, and arts-based research collectives, this paper looks at the role of witnessing as both an active, self-reflexive process and pedagogical practice currently underway in heritage work in Canada.

Long abstract

Over the last decade, a distinct practice of witnessing has developed in Canada. Through Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on Indian Residential Schools (IRS), the concept of witnessing as form of knowledge transfer common in many (though not all) Indigenous communities, was incorporated as a platform for the national and local hearings that took place across the country. In this capacity, the TRC intended to produced bodies of witnesses in those that came to hear IRS survivors tell their experiences of the horrors that took place in these schools. However, in the atmosphere post the TRC and through the "Calls to Action" created by the TRC's Final Report (2015), witnessing as an embodied practice has developed as part of the growing vernacular concerning redress, reconciliation, and decolonial research praxis in Canada. Drawing on interviews conducted with heritage professionals working in museums, galleries, and arts-based research collectives, this paper looks at the role of witnessing as both an active, self-reflexive process and pedagogical practice currently underway in heritage work in Canada. This paper asks: What does it mean to witness in the context of art-based research? As scholars and heritage practitioners of Settler-European descent, how do we better engage in creative and decolonial research practices that require pedagogies of witnessing? And finally, how might we draw on witnessing as an embodied practice to build better skills such humility, empathy, listening, and reflection all of which are required when working with survivors of cultural inequality, discrimination, and violence?

The anthropologists' video camera as a stage: Displaced communities' attempt of counter-imaging in Sudan

Author: Valerie Haensch (LMU Munich) email

Short abstract

The paper analyzes genres of crises witnessing as claims of truth-telling. It explores how the anthropologists' video camera is used by displaced communities as a stage aiming at the production of visual counter-evidence against hegemonic discourses and promises of large infrastructures.

Long abstract

Based on in-depth ethnographic research the paper proposes to analyze genres of representations, which I call here "crises witnessing". I explore how communities aim to visually document, witness and communicate a silenced history of forced displacement in a remote area along the Nile in Northern Sudan. With the construction of the Merowe Dam, the River Nile was impounded, and thousands of people have been flooded out of their homes without warning and even before resettlement had taken place. In the absence of smartphones and the lack of cameras at the beginning of the flooding, many inhabitants asked me to record the destruction, the flight, and the appeals to the international community. Based on the internalized perception that images are able to establish evidence, the forcefully evicted inhabitants placed great hope in the power of images to prove human rights violations and to provide visual counter-evidence against hegemonic discourses. In this paper, I argue that the video camera acts as an "actant" evoking specific genres of representations in moments of crisis that differ from everyday interactions with a video camera. These, often performative, genres of crises witnessing which aim at the production of visual evidence, I contend, resonate with globally distributed media realities and hence reproduce certain practices of communication that are stereotyped in the mass media. The local interactions with the camera as a stage, that appropriate global regimes of representations and stage "witnesses" and produce "victims", require critical reflections about the challenges to produce visual evidence as an anthropologist.

Witnessing and the Revelation of Responsibility in Urban Suriname

Author: Stuart Strange (Yale-NUS College) email

Short abstract

This paper shows the different but analogous ways Hindu and Ndyuka Maroon mediums in urban Suriname transform their patients into passive yet resolutely moral witnesses to the social relations with spirit and human others of which mediums reveal patients to be composed.

Long abstract

What is witnessed in revelation? In this paper I argue that, at least for many Guyanese Hindu and Ndyuka Maroon spirit mediums in contemporary urban Suriname, revelation works by compelling patients to witness their own lack of self-knowledge. In place of assumptions about the transparency of subjective understanding of the self, mediums show that their possessing spirits are the only effective witnesses to the reality of patients' internal states and external relations with others. Following the interactive dynamics that afford patients awareness of their personal incapacity, this paper shows how mediums and patients use competing idioms of witnessing to remake revelations of personal ignorance into powerful experiences of victimization and its exposure. Accepting human ignorance enables mediums' patients to renounce personal responsibility, turning them into passive but resolutely moral witnesses to the social relations of which mediums reveal them to be composed. In this way, witnessing becomes a negotiated revelation of ontological limits that enforce human epistemic dependence on spirit mediation and the forms of authority it supports among Maroon and Hindu migrants.

Through the Sensationalist Gaze: The Dissonance of the Human Image in Humanitarian Social Media

Author: Matthew Mahmoudi (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

As social media transfers the once esoteric task of producing information to victims of human rights violations, it is easy to estimate the dawn of a new form of civic participation, promising further democratisation and empowerment. It would be a mistake, however, not to consider the ongoing fetishisation of “smart” technologies as problematic; often taken at face value and as political ends in and of themselves.

Long abstract

One characteristic of this larger problematik is the ramifications of the active manipulation, suppression or disregard of the human element in human rights and humanitarian media. It is no less true that a dividend of the digital era and social media has been the affordance for civilian-generated social media imagery (footage or photography); nevertheless, the same technologies that grant access to these spaces, also allow parties such as NGOs and celebrities to take ownership of civilian narratives and subject them to the economy of the media, marking a moment which continues the historical iconographication of suffering.

What are the caveats of the persistent mediation and translation - or “packaging” - of civilian-produced social media, by NGOs and celebrities? Are contemporary practices culpable for generating a public dissonance of the true human image of suffering and despair? Is human rights social media guilty of constructing a sensationalist gaze? This essay explores social media - or ICT4HR - as not simply a force for mobilising change, but also as a process by which certain power structures are normalised, and narratives are colonised.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.