The rhetorical structure of the act of witnessing

Witnessing appears to have an awkward relation with either rhetoric or aesthetics, because of the dominance of manipulation in rhetoric and of form in aesthetics. Rhetoric got a bad name because of its manipulative and by implication deceitful nature, starting with Plato’s famous attack in Gorgias[2]. Aesthetics always carries the danger of emphasizing form or of turning into aestheticism.

In this context, indeed, how could one think of witnessing, and the ethical demands related to testimony, in terms of rhetoric or aesthetics? The first thing to note would be that manipulation, in origin, does not have negative connotations at all. Latin manipulare means simply to handle, and more specifically to use one’s hands with skill and care. Not only will being a witness often imply handling something with care, it will require form, literally and figurally. Perhaps more explicitly, bearing witness will demand skill, and care, and form. It is not effective in and for itself. Any witness will have to appear rhetorically, in a formal setting, either because she is framed as such, or because she wants to operate adequately, also in an ethical sense. Nevertheless, I do want to take the ambivalent meaning of especially rhetoric seriously. With regard to this I will not be dealing with skilled witnesses, who know how to interpret what they are witnessing and how to give an adequate report of what they have witnessed. I will be dealing with the intrinsically rhetorical structure of the act of witnessing. On the one hand this rhetorical structure may easily facilitate the manipulation of witnessing, in the pejorative sense of the word. On the other hand it also facilitates the acts of witnessing and bearing witness in an ethically and affectively meaningful way.

The balance between the two is at the core of an installation turned into visual essay by the Afro-American artist Kara Walker; my second example. This work, entitled After the deluge, finds its historical starting point in the flooding of New Orleans in 2005, caused by hurricane Katrina. As an international audience could see, this flooding struck the community of Black Americans the heaviest when 80% of New Orleans was covered with water. In the United States, so Walker contends, it also led to a response that fed on, or tapped into, centuries-old racial patterns and prejudices. Walker’s essay is an investigation into these patterns, dealing with issues such as divine wrath, racial stereotyping, and the perversities of both. It is of interest for my topic that the essay appeared relatively quickly after an event that so many had been able to “witness”, as the common parlance of media commentators wants it, not just in the United States but worldwide. Indeed, one of the questions posed by Walker’s essay is what the difference may be between seeing things on television and witnessing them. Even though events may be broadcast nationally or globally, there are always very different communities involved with disturbingly different histories, living in painfully different circumstances. In this regard, Walker’s essay can be seen as a witnessing text looking for an audience. The essay performs something, here, that not only connects it in terms of its aims to Dermôut’s story, but also testifies of a rhetorical complication in the act of witnessing because of the ways in which modern media operate.

Because of the fact that witnessing implies a double address it is intrinsically rhetorical. Because of the fact that these addresses imply a different modality, it is also intrinsically theatrical. This is hinted at when, for instance, Nevejan and Brazier state that “Witnessing refers to the fact that the persona of the witness embodies the possibility to act upon and/or to testify about the act” (Nevejan and Brazier 2011, XX). Evidently, there are two acts: the act of witnessing and of bearing witness. The witness addresses the one that is being witnessed and this form of address differs distinctly from the way in which one delivers testimony. The two acts imply two different modes of address. Moreover, the witness is being described here as a persona, who takes up a role, in looking, registering, acting, and reporting. In this respect, the role of being a witness demands a simultaneous relation with two “you’s”: the “you” that is presently being witnessed and the “you” of some sort of an audience, or more specifically, a community that is virtually present in the act of witnessing the first “you”. One could think of the classical chorus, here, not so much in its role of commenting on the action or intervening in it, but in relation to its being present all the time, simultaneously.

A double, simultaneous address is the defining characteristic of a specific rhetorical and intrinsically theatrical figure, namely apostrophe. This form of apostrophe has nothing to do with the punctuation mark, and is related to, but distinct from its poetic variant. Apostrophe, in what follows, is a rhetorical figure that indicates how a speaker can break away from one addressee to another whereas the two are connected simultaneously, theatrically, in a given situation.

Note 2: The rhetoricians that Plato attacked were also known as sophists. Like rhetoricians these acquired a bad name in European history, as in “sophistry”. On the origin and history of rhetoric, and also on the rather positive ways in which rhetoric has been dealt with in relation to the construction of politics, society and civilization, see George Kennedy (1994), A New History of Classical Rhetoric.

Frans-Willem Korsten