At the outset of this paper we identified representation as being one of the characteristics of witnessing and the biggest problem for this everyday ontological account. At its simplest, witnessing is distinguished from perception by virtue of the record or representation that the former implies.

There is, of course, a large body of psychological research which has considered the nature of witnessing and ‘eye witness’ accounts (for example Loftus, 1975; 1979; Loftus et al. 1989) and, of course, our episodic and autobiographical memories are memories of events (episodes) we have witnessed or in which we have participated (see for example, Conway, 2001; 2003). However representation is used in many different ways by the very many different disciplines which write and reason about it. Clark (1997a; 1997b) has made considerable efforts to unpick and clarify the nature of representation, which he defines as “information-bearing internal states”. Rejecting the extreme non-representational, radical embodied accounts (e.g. Dreyfus, 2002; Chemero, 2009), he distinguishes between “weak” representations and “strong” representations (Clark and Grush, 1999). Strong representation is what most people would regard as genuine representation – the stuff of cognitive processes. Strong representations are further defined as being “de-coupled” from the immediate world and thus stand for things when they are removed from us (or us from them) . Here we see representation as re-presentation (to present again). In contrast, weak representation refer to internal states bearing information about an external object (event or person) but only when that object is available, proximal and ready-to-hand. Weak representations are found in what Clark describes as “information and control systems” rather than information-bearing states per se and as such they facilitate our responsiveness to the environment (e.g. fight or flight). In the next section we briefly consider strong representation (from the perspective of everyday memory) before doing the same for weak representation.

Strong representation

Bearing witness is mediated, it is derived and necessarily relies on the manipulation of a (strong) representation of that which was witnessed. The extent of this manipulation is a matter of concern not only to academic psychologists, but to journalists, lawyers, historians and so forth. Curiously, the study of memory has not, until relatively recently, been concerned with real world memories: instead it has focussed on laboratory–based studies of how many items can be remembered, or how quickly they are forgotten. These laboratory-based studies, which have broadly followed the protocols established by Ebbinghaus in the 19th century, predominated until Neisser dismissed the work on memory of the previous 100 years of research as worthless for failing to answer “the important questions about memory” and called for a shift to the “realistic” study of memory (Neisser, 1978). Since Neisser’s outburst, everyday memory research has become well established and there has been a growing number of studies on such varied topics as autobiographical memory, eyewitness testimony, prospective memory, “flashbulb” memory, memory for action, memory for faces, memory for places and so forth (e.g. Cohen, 1989). There is now a substantial body of psychological evidence relating to the recall of witnessed events which variously show that these memories are re-constructed (e.g. Burt et al., 2001); are subject to distortion and manipulation (e.g. Loftus, 1979; Loftus et al. 1989; Braun et al., 2002); and are story-like or schematic in their structure (Bartlett, 1932; Hasher, 1983; Conway, 2001; 2003). As this is so well documented and so well established we will leave the discussion at this point and move on to a consideration of the less well known role of weak representation in witnessing.

Weak representation

The idea of the outside world acting as part of our cognition has received sustained attention in recent years, which have seen the creation of enactive, dynamic, situated and distributed accounts of cognition (indeed this is an almost unmanageably long list). All, to a greater or lesser extent, identify and implicate a role of some feature or aspect of ‘not us’ in our memories, problem solving, reasoning and so forth. In many respects, however, these are still largely cognitive accounts. In contrast, for Clark, weak representations do not count as genuine representations, that is, they do not stand for anything. Weak representations only become active when the individual is engaged with the world (while, correspondingly, strong representations are active when we are disengaged from the world). Weak representation provide us (Dasein) with rapid feedback about proximal objects enabling us to respond to them effectively (there is substantial evidence that it is the striate motor cortex is responsible for encoding information related to proximal objects). Clark has also noted that if the source object of a weak representation becomes distal (or absent) the representation becomes unavailable. At this point we propose extending this account. We suggest that the affordances of the entities themselves may actually serve as an external representation, as a kind of recursive memory of themselves. This point can be illustrated with a simple, everyday example. We all use shopping lists, online calendar, diaries, our smart phones and notebooks as media for the external representation of what we need to remember or for plans of various sorts. In other words we exploit the affordance of notebooks as memory prosthetics. However we can also use the affordances of objects themselves as reminders of the things we need to remember. So, the night before we are due to travel (assuming an early morning departure) we will put passports, travel documents and so forth in plain sight. I, for one, will put important documents in the path which I am bound to take as I leave my home. The very sight of these objects as they become available (as I leave the house) provides me with the necessary information to act appropriately (i.e. remembering to take them with me).
A very similar technique is used by police forces in the ‘re-creation’ of crimes by populating the crime scene with people, objects and events which are ‘close’ (proximal) to the people, objects and events involved.

Phil Turner