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Ways of Witnessing: A Reflection

The Top Paddock
Béatrice Bijon & Martin Thomas

Co-directors of the Menzies Australia Institute, King’s College London

02 June 2021

'Being a witness implies lending our eyes and ears to the lives of others.’

There is no beginning and no end to the skater’s journey. We meet him in the middle of wherever he is going and for a few sweet minutes we tail him like a low-flying bird, soaring through the frozen landscape. Rhythmically, soothingly, the skater shifts his weight from one foot to the other, propelling himself in sweeping strides. The ice is black; the lake’s edge a crusty tangle of frosted vegetation. Each movement, each skater’s stride, is recorded by the mark it leaves in the pristine ice.

The choreography of the traces etched into thin ice is inseparable from the vibration of the sounds produced by the skater’s blades. Paradoxically maybe, it is the very traces that reveal the pristine sleekness of the surface of the lake and the sharp clear sounds that make us hear the intense silence of the wildness.

Why are these images so mesmerising? Perhaps because of the communion we find with the solitary skater. Certainly, the visual and auditory stimuli sharpen our senses and transport us to a place beyond our long-forced isolation. These moving images are soothing and calm the cacophony of voices that the covid crisis has been producing. For a moment, we are the skater, alone in the Nordic wild. But not only. We’re also off-screen, like the camera operator who tracks the skater so we can see these images. Through a vicarious journey with the skater, we are both participant and observer. This gratifying solitariness is all relative though. According to the National Geographic YouTube statistics, more than 25 million viewers have been fellow witnesses, sharing the experience of this digital journey.

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Being shareable is arguably a condition for witnessing, whether it be witnessing an event, a moment, a sensation, a concept, a memory, an image, or a story. Being a witness implies lending our eyes and ears to the lives of others and generating a narrative. Both a gesture and a trace, the witness’s testimony is a story told and shared which produces perspectives and knowledge of our times: past, present and future. There are various ‘ways of witnessing’ the world. Reflecting on what being a witness involves, John Berger insisted on a necessary state of receptiveness. Or, as formulated by Susan Sontag appraising Berger, witnessing requires ‘attentiveness to the sensual world with responsiveness to the imperative of conscience’. Daunting? Maybe. But absolutely essential if one is to bear witness to our times in a way that is meaningful at all.

John Berger Menzies

Global events have heightened and challenged the nature and responsibility of the witness. Post-truth logorrhea, amplified by social media, has necessitated a factual turn. Who could have thought that a United States president could peddle the trope of ‘alternative factuality’? Well, times have changed—Bushisms could draw a reluctant smile, but not Trumpisms!

To bear witness and maintain hope is quite a challenge. It is presently hard to find a corner of the planet unaffected by dissension and disturbance. So in these circumstances, how come bearing witness does not eventuate only in horror stories? As an outstanding witness of the human condition, Svetlana Alexievich and her journalistic texts, produced out of in-depth interviews with witnesses, provide some answers. While she is telling the stories of the Chernobyl disaster’s survivors and the spectral presence of the dead, we are able to hear the ‘sad melodies from a choir’ because she listened to the people’s voices and their silences. ‘Receptiveness’ and the ‘imperative of conscience’ are key. She has hosted these people’s lives and stories because of her listening, opening her ears to the hundreds of voices which, standing at the podium, she said were around her during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2015.

So what is it that I do? I collect the everyday life of feelings, thoughts, and words. I collect the life of my time. I’m interested in the history of the soul. The everyday life of the soul, the things that the big picture of history usually omits, or disdains. I work with missing history. I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it. Everything overflows its banks: music, painting—even words in documents escape the boundaries of the document. – Svetlana Alexievich
Svetlana Alexievich Menzies

Bearing witness is transformative. For Alexievich, it has cost her health—she got contaminated by her interviewees’ radioactivity. We can only imagine and hope that her act of witnessing (hearing the wounded and writing their stories) restored some sort of humanity to the survivors. Her words are leaving the trace of that which the Soviet government wanted erased. The author has effaced her presence in her books to leave all the space to her witnesses while the power of her words, solemnly rendered, reflects her utter compassion and humanity. Her moral responsibility as witness brings to mind what Camus viewed as one of the writer’s most arduous responsibilities: the refusal to lie about what one knows. The experience of reading Alexievich is wonderfully transformative as it gives us the freedom to know.

To try to understand the experience of another it is necessary to dismantle the world as seen from one’s own place within it and to reassemble it as seen from his. – John Berger

These words of John Berger reveal an essential aspect of witnessing: one that is especially resonant in contemporary Australia where the experiences of outsiders, strangers, migrants and First Nations people are too often ignored or misunderstood. In contrast to many of the world’s settler societies, the Australian colonies never formed treaties with the traditional owners they usurped. In 2017, representatives of Indigenous communities assembled at Uluru in the centre of Australia to address their lack of recognition in the constitution. This resulted in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a declaration of sovereignty and a roadmap for dealing with ‘the torment of our powerlessness’. The Statement is notable for the depth of its generosity as well as its rhetorical and poetic force:

This sovereignty is a spiritual notion: the ancestral tie between the land, or ‘mother nature’, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who were born therefrom, remain attached thereto, and must one day return thither to be united with our ancestors. This link is the basis of the ownership of the soil, or better, of sovereignty. It has never been ceded or extinguished, and co-exists with the sovereignty of the Crown. How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for sixty millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last two hundred years? – Uluru Statement from the Heart

The Statement expresses the aspirations of Indigenous groups ‘for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia’. The pathway is ‘a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.

Henry Reynolds’ recent book, titled Truth-Telling, is the response of an eminent historian to the need for honesty as expressed in the Uluru Statement. An evidence-based analysis of the dubious legality of the colonisers’ claim to territorial sovereignty, it raises the question in its opening pages of whether there is an appetite for truth-telling in Australia. Reynolds’ uncertainty on this point is understandable in view of the blaring official silence surrounding the Uluru statement. Truth-telling might be difficult, yet it is the only adequate and acceptable response to the generosity of the Uluru Statement. The rewards are mutual, as the authors of The Uluru Statement acknowledge. ‘With substantive constitutional change and structural reform we believe this ancient sovereignty can shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood’. Assuming the perspective of another person in the way Berger describes is one path to make the Uluru Statement heard and changes actualised.

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We live in times of escalating emergency, which is why those images of the skater reanimating the thin-ice cliché are so compelling. The sounds and the traces created by the skater bear witness to a state of fragility; a precarious balance that just manages to hold things together. This image emblematically talks to the present global situation. Bringing to the fore our individual vulnerability, the COVID-19 crisis has also brought to the surface the necessity and potential of collective strength.

Further Reading

Berger, John, ‘Ways of Witnessing’, Marxism Today, Dec. 1984, pp. 36-8. http://banmarchive.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/84_12_36a.pdf

https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2015/alexievich/facts/

Reynolds, Henry, Truth-Telling: History, sovereignty and the Uluru Statement, Sydney: NewSouth, 2021.

https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement

About the Authors

Béatrice Bijon is Co-Director of the Menzies Australia Institute and Senior Lecturer at the Australian National University. Her scholarship investigates how the strategic use of language in literary and historical sources can cause change and affect the world. Her work as a curator and documentary filmmaker is informed by her interest in the interaction between image and text.

Martin Thomas is Co-Director of the Menzies Australia Institute and Professor of History at the Australian National University. His interest in witnessing developed from his work on historical sources and also from experience as an interviewer, which has led him into radio production, oral history recording, and documentary filmmaking.

In this story

Béatrice Bijon

Béatrice Bijon

Co-Director of the Menzies Australia Institute

Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas

Co-Director of the Menzies Australia Institute

The Top Paddock

The Top Paddock is the online magazine of the Menzies Australia Institute. Leading writers bear witness to society, history, culture, and politics. Insights and perspectives from Australia…

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