Testimony, Affect, and Ethical Argument
In a recent book, Neta Crawford explores the consequential role of argument in world politics. Her argument focuses on the place of ethical arguments in fostering changes in long-standing practices of oppression such as colonialism, slavery, and forced labor:
Ethical arguments concern how to act in a particular situation so as to be doing good, assuming that the good has been defined through cultural consensus or meta-argument. (24)
According to Crawford, ethical arguments operate through an assertion that an "existing normative belief or moral conviction ought to be applied in a particular situation" (24). She points out that assertions that slavery was not "natural" and against Christian principles, for instance, were persuasive because they were emotionally appealing - they played on and resonated with audiences' underlying ethical and moral beliefs.
The use of testimony by abolitionists can be seen as an early precursor of the use of testimony by human rights activists in the post-World War II era. Like slave narratives, human rights testimonies are important vehicles through which ethical arguments are made. They use symbols, images, and accounts of individual experiences of suffering in such a way as to affectively engage and persuade their audiences of a cause's moral worth.
Testimony is premised on the belief that pain is universal, that it crosses all boundaries. This belief in the universality of pain and its effectiveness as a tool for creating solidarity is underscored by researchers who have found that torture is the easiest human rights issue to campaign around (Cohen 2001, 1996). Essentially testimony functions as a medium through which identification with a suffering "other" can take place. Through our identification, we become connected to a political project and can be moved to action. Alison Brysk writes that "a message can foment change by creating an alternative reality, transferring daily experience to a different realm in which it is valued and thus opening the recipient to consider a new social order" (560). In this sense human rights testimonies are performative - they make ethical claims on viewers and listeners and cultivate potential ethical actors in the global arena.
This observation is perhaps best exemplified by a recent video, Testimony: Annie Lennox in Conversation with Palden Gyatso (1998). Produced and directed by Annie Lennox, the well-known Scottish singer from The Eurythmics, the video documents the testimony of Palden Gyatso, a monk from Tibet who was arrested after the Chinese takeover in 1959. A large portion of the half-hour program is devoted to Gyatso's tale of his arrest and mistreatment by Chinese authorities over the years, including torture with an electric cattle prod that, ironically, is made in Britain. At one point Gyatso pulls out several torture instruments which he brought out with him from Tibet (we never learn how he managed to do so). He leans forward and demonstrates to Lennox the way the thumb cuffs work. Lennox, for her part, leans forward too, watching and listening attentively to Gyatso. In this moment, we see how testimony functions as a kind of intercultural technology, bringing individuals together from different worlds through the medium of pain.
Testimonial documentaries thus work on an affective level by exposing audiences to stories of pain with which we cannot help but identify on the basis of our shared humanity. They also work on another level of signification, one that reinforces the first. As "a discourse about the world" as Nichols puts it, documentaries show us situations and events "that are recognizably part of a realm of shared experience, the historical world as we know and encounter it, or as we believe others to encounter it" (1991, x). Our experience of documentary "can be a force unto itself and move us beyond itself, toward that historical arena of which it is part" (1991, xvi). In other words, our engagement with documentary can extend "beyond the moment of viewing into social praxis itself" (Nichols 1991, x). How is this effect achieved? The answer begins with the exceptionality of documentary's referentiality and the materiality of the indexical bond that exists between the photographic image and the object in the historical world to which it refers. What we see on film can seem "to bear indexical links to another world with autonomy and specificity of its own," although as the Rodney King video proves, even "raw" video footage doesn't guarantee a particular meaning. This creates a sense of awe, Nichols writes, which makes it easy to forget we are dealing with a sign system rather than a direct, unmediated duplication of reality. The result, he suggests, is a constant oscillation between the duplication of reality and the reality of the duplication. The tendency to forget that the filmic reality remains a construct, an approximation and re-presentation of a pro-filmic reality to which we do not gain truly direct, unimpeded access, however, is what gives viewers of realist documentaries such pleasure: For the time being their knowledge of this fact is suspended and they can surrender themselves to the immediacy of the reality onscreen.
Much has been written about this attribute of "resemblance" in the documentary aesthetic. There is a strand of documentary theory that has tried to recuperate realist film in recent years by making an argument for the politicizing potential of documentary based on its "aesthetics of similarity" (Feldman 1996). Gaines, for example, uses the term "political mimesis" (90) to describe the process whereby a sensuous link is formed between bodies represented on screen and bodies in the audience. Here she is building on the work of film theorist Linda Williams (1994) who writes about film genres that "make the body do things" through a kind of involuntary mimicry of emotion or sensation of the body on screen, e.g. "horror films make us scream, melodrama makes us cry, and porn films make us come" (Gaines 90). According to Gaines, realist political documentaries work by performing a mimesis, that is they produce emotion in the spectator in and through conventionalized imagery of struggle. Through an indexical identification with characters on screen, spectators, then, are "poised to intervene." As she is careful to point out, however, shared cultural and historical values, and not the indexical image alone, are what lead to viewers' sympathetic action. In other words, political mimesis is possible because an audience shares the same set of political, historical, cultural forces. Realism, then, is a device that, through the process of political mimesis, acts on a politicized audience, extending the community of activists.
I suggest that human rights testimonies on film and video achieve their representational efficacy through the same process of political mimesis described by Gaines. By producing and circulating these texts, activists explicitly seek to create moral spaces through which processes of political mimesis can occur, and sympathy can be evoked and performed (Nichols 1994, 13). It is in this sense that a transnational "witnessing public" around human rights trauma is constituted through testimony (McLagan 2003).