The Figure of the Witness - Interdisciplinary Perspectives on a Social Institution of Knowledge
The conference aims to explore the figure of the witness as a social institution of knowledge and to analyze not only the informational character but also ethical, political and cultural dimensions. Papers may come from all disciplines including cultural studies, history, literary criticism, psychology, media studies, linguistics, law, sociology and religious studies. Conference languages are German and English.
A great deal of what we know is based on information from the words of others. The figure of the witness who gives an account of past events and by doing so makes these events available to others embodies the fundamental practice of human knowledge – whether as an intermediary of everyday knowledge or an eyewitness in court, a contemporary witness or a survivor of a historical event, a scientific expert or a martyr whose life and death is a testament to his faith and religion.
It is surprising that for a long time philosophers have treated this subject very one-dimensionally: The problem of testimony has long been discussed only as an epistemological issue regarding whether knowledge by the words of witnesses can be considered true knowledge. But is this all we can say about the problem of testimony? The intent of this international graduate student conference is to reinvestigate the figure of the witness as a social institution of knowledge and to analyze not only the informational character but also ethical, political and cultural dimensions. As a starting point, we shall use the juristic origin of the witness and its history as well as a phenomenological analysis thereof in order to investigate further varieties of the phenomenon that testimony is in religious studies, historiography, philosophy, natural science, literature and art. In each case we will have to distinguish between what is being testified and to what extent it is a transfer of positive knowledge or rather testifying as an ethical and political act.
The practice of testifying has various manifestations and, according to Renaud Dulong, is a universal element of human culture. Testimony is a social practice that always takes place between a speaker and an audience – only someone who is accredited by the audience, who is reckoned to be credible, can be a witness. However even older legal systems have always shown a certain skepticism towards witnesses – before a witness’ statement was accepted as evidence his credibility and personal integrity had to be considered. It is part of the characteristic dilemma of the witness that he cannot prove his own trustworthiness. When Goethe writes in “Faust” (Part I, verse 3013): “what two witnesses declare/ Is held as valid everywhere” he quotes a classic legal rule that was determinant for the way witnesses were treated in all older legal codes: testimony had to be confirmed by at least one further witness to count as solid evidence.
Today the evidentiary value of witnesses in court is constantly being questioned. Studies in experimental legal psychology show that statements of witnesses – even if they are testifying to the best of their conscience – are inaccurate, unreliable and therefore rather inconclusive. Furthermore commonly used video cameras whose lenses conform much better to the paradigm of objectivity also compete with witnesses. While a witness has to prove his integrity, technical recordings convey a certain kind of evidence immediately, as Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes have pointed out in their essays on photography (Roland Barthes: Camera Lucida, Reflections on Photography, New York, 1981; Susan Sontag: On Photography, Penguin, London 1977). Language does not possess this kind of evidence: The person using it could be lying. Barthes writes: “It is the misfortune (but also perhaps the voluptuous pleasure) of language not to be able to authenticate itself”. (Barthes: Camera Lucida, chapter 36, NY 1981, p. 85).
But the deficiency of the witness as exposed by experimental psychology might be turned into something positive in the following question: What is specific about testimony in contrast to a technical recording instrument? What specific truth does testimony convey and what does it mean for the transmission and the generation of knowledge?
We would like to suggest the following questions for discussion:
Ø What part does the witness play in court and what is his role in the legal system of a society? Is the witness paradigmatic for other phenomena of testimony?
Ø What meaning do witnesses have in religious contexts – how are their roles defined in Judaism, Christianity or Islam?
Ø What status do witnesses have in the examination and the reappraisal of historical events? The historian Herodotus called himself a histor, which also means witness. At the same time, we seem to need a strict distinction between historians and contemporary witnesses to be able to undertake a factual reappraisal of history.
Ø Is the report of a contemporary witness a source of knowledge, evidence, or a trace of the past? What about testimonies that are accounts of traumatic experiences and therefore have a singular significance such as the testimonies of Shoah survivors?
Ø Is testimony an ethical problem?
Ø What role do witnesses play for the political and cultural identity of a community? Do witnesses have political power – or are those that “say facts” characterized by their position outside of the political discourse? (cp. Hannah Arendt)
Ø What role do witnesses play in the area of tension between science, truth and political public?
Ø What role do they play in the sciences? In the empirical sciences of modern times witnesses appear consistently as envoys and guarantors of knowledge – whether as witnesses in history, in geography or “witnesses” of physical experiments (cp. Shapin and Schaffner) – they are intermediaries of knowledge that one cannot find out for oneself. What role does trust and knowledge based on the words of others play in present-day scientific discourse?
Ø To what extent are art and literature testimony? Are poets witnesses? What do they testify? Do they transmit evidence?
Ø And finally: How do technical media change our understanding of testimony? Will ubiquitous video cameras supersede eyewitnesses? Does live transmission on TV make us witnesses of events?
The conference will begin with either a meeting or an evening lecture on July 9th 2009 and will span the two following days – July 10th and 11th (Friday and Saturday). The graduate lectures should not be longer than 20-30 minutes. The conference languages will be German and English. Please submit your abstract and a short CV until April 30th 2009 as two different files to Barbara Janisch: firstname.lastname@example.org or Sibylle Schmidt: email@example.com. The abstract should not be longer than 500 words. We would appreciate a short bibliography with the abstract. The FU Berlin will provide three nights accommodation for foreign speakers. We are sorry, but we do not refund travelling expenses. You will find further information on our website: http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/babascha.
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