No false witnessing

Walker’s solution, by digging in history and archives and turning the objects she has found into an installation in which we are involved, is to re-theatricalize the situation, splitting it up in two different modes of address. In doing this she hopes to help us to not simply participate in what happens, becoming false witnesses, as Cathy Caruth defined them on the basis of the work of Robert Jay Lifton.[18]

For Lifton, false witnessing is involved in relation to historical circumstances that are used to justify repetition. His most powerful example is the My Lai massacre, that was first witnessed to as having been a heroic battle. Bearing witness on the massacre as a heroic battle, the witnesses produced a testimony that was “drawn narrowly, manipulatively, and violently, in connection with retribution and pervasive killing” (Lifton 2003:147). Modern news media are inclined to fall under the rubric of analogous repetition, in fetishizing the present and ignoring the maladies of the past. There is always the push and pull of immediately mobilizing and attracting an audience. The repetitiveness of the process is captured specifically by the compulsive and massive generation of media images.[19] They embody an ever floating “here and now” (live!) , as a result of which the not-being-there in being-there – the double mode of address of the witness – implodes. We are carried along with what happens, instead of being aware of the split between two related modes of address. Theatricality is dead in any proper sense of the word.

Note 18: Caruth 2008: 166–168.
Note 19: On this see, for instance, Guerin and Hallas (2007) in their introduction to The Image and the Witness: Trauma, memory and Visual Culture.

Frans-Willem Korsten