Trauma and Witnessing

Stephanie Bezanquen, a French philosopher focusing on cultural representations of genocide and mass murder, offers a perspective on witnessed presence in dramatic and dramatized participatory projects of theatre and film that aim to unveil the truth, to help people cope with the trauma of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

Bezanquen presents an analysis of a film and theatre play produced by westerners and a film and yearly performance of a historical walk initiated by Cambodians. Western organizers experienced difficulties in applying the Cambodian culturally rooted hybrid model of transitional justice to their work. Only the work by the Cambodian filmmaker offered the honesty to confront the westerners with the amnesia about the part their western leaders played in Cambodia’s epic tragedy. Nevertheless, the western production contributed to ‘recognition beyond recognition’ in which cultural differences in coming to terms with historical trauma are expressed and recorded. Bezanquen argues that in dramatic and mediated contexts, specific social, cultural and historical contexts of witnessing remain distinct for understanding experience and meaning that emerge.

Introducing the concept of the ‘healing witness’, Sheryl Brahnam explores the vital importance of witnessing in the mediation of self-narratives (and the self). Noting how trauma challenges self-narratives, Brahnam provides a comprehensive exploration of what it means to bear witness to another’s suffering so healing can take place. According to Brahnam, the healing witness is a willing and capable listener, someone who makes room for a time of remembrance so that meaning and self-narratives can emerge from the undigested, raw experiences of suffering. Using contemporary trauma theory originating from the work of Pierre Janet and Julia Kristeva’s concept of the symbolic and the semiotic, which roughly correspond to the conscious and unconscious aspects of signification, Brahnam shows not only what it means to bear witness to suffering but also how opportunities for witnessing are disappearing, in part due to our uses of technology. Whereas reading and writing provide practices that enlarge our capacities to empathize and to imagine, modern forms of mediation are constricting those capacities and disordering memory and time in ways that resemble trauma. Unless technology opens us more to the imaginary, Brahnam believes ‘we risk losing the capacity to bear witness to one another and to create narratives and connections that are meaningful’.

Connecting the work of these five previously mentioned authors, it seems that the imaginary and fictional presence is fundamental to witnessing. Even more so, since we have so much mediated communication around. Whether the witness will be able to have an ethical position depends on media configurations and their potential to include the imaginary and fictional presence. The following three contributions explore how presence configurations can be designed, what elements human beings need to perform their presence and enter into the in-between. Architect Charlie Gullstrom, psychologist Satinder Gill and social scientist Caroline Nevejan with computer scientist Frances Brazier present current research into the factors that contribute to building witnessed presence.

A presence-in-person paradigm prevails in our society, founded on the expectations of trust and knowledge-sharing between individuals, argues architect Charlie Gullstrom. Given that mediated spaces currently provide viable alternatives for meetings and interactions, Gullstrom takes us from presence design through to architectural practice. For centuries, human visual history has created virtual presences through the orchestration of visual space. Architecture affects how people tune their presence, and the design of space is a significant factor when building mediated presence. Gullstrom integrates media technology with architecture, introducing the concept of ‘design frictions’ to better understand how mediated presence can be orchestrated for witnessing to take place. In her practice as designer of mediated environments, three elements are crucial: mediated gaze, spatial montage and shared mediated space. In her contribution to this special issue, Gullstrom illustrates and discusses a variety of mediated presence designs.

How we move in time together is fundamental to witnessing. Rhythm and entrainment of the movements of our bodies and voices shapes how witnessing emerges, according to psychologist Satinder Gill. In the process of physical social presence, people tune their rhythms in breathing, movement, vocal sounds and gaze. Such tuning facilitates mutual synchronization that is needed to both bear and be witness at the same time, i.e., for witnessed presence. Mutual synchrony, or entrainment, is about how we co-adapt to each other’s rhythms. In mediated presence, when there is simply a piece of glass between two people, Gill finds that such tuning is inhibited. However, even though mediated environments allow for less subtle tuning, when committed to communicate, human beings find ways to tune their presence.

How people manage to tune their presence in on and offline merging realities and establish trust, was the subject of an exploratory study by Caroline Nevejan in which 20 experts engaged in in-depth interviews with her? System participation in human communities of practice challenges the notion of witnessing and, therefore, the ability to build trust. Nevertheless, through trial and error, people in a variety of practices have found ways to establish presence and develop trust in merging realities. Together with Frances Brazier, Nevejan identifies significant factors in the four dimensions of the YUTPA framework: time, place, action and relation. Nevejan and Brazier conclude that systems output deeply affects the mental maps that human beings make of each other, the world around them and their own self. By designing granular interaction in four dimensions, reciprocity in witnessing obtains significance, and the basis for establishing trust in a variety of presences emerges whilst human agency acquires potential.

The Open Forum section of this special issue offers an analysis of three case studies from a witnessed presence perspective. John Mendy finds that actor presence is fundamental to the witnessing that takes place in reorganization processes in business organizations. Shelly Tara and Vigneswara Ilavarasan analyse the organization and use of cabs by unmarried young women call centre agents who have to commute at night in New Delhi, India. They find that the cabs and the presence of a third person in the cabs are perceived as means of producing respectability for the young women by their parents. But, introducing a third person as a witness in the cab does not create the intended trustworthiness because third persons, like the driver, are males as well. Last Maurice Berix, being a designer and civil servant of the regional government in the Netherlands, offers a visual essay in which he analyses how the orchestration of government communication may include citizen’s participation by a deliberate design of presence and trust.