Past Workshops

The Time, Poetics, and Ethics of Testimony

Tell your story. In mid-1996, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called on citizens and victims of apartheid's brutality to step forward and "tell their stories." Over 20,000 individuals accepted the offer, including some 2000 who then agreed - sometimes under significant political pressure - to present public testimony before the Commission's Gross Human Rights Violation Committee. A decade later, the outcome of this "unique experiment" remains uncertain. For some, the act of testifying proved useful, cathartic, and even healing. For others, including Yazir Henry, the process was not simply disappointing but harmful, a moment that "trivialised the lived experience of oppression and exploitation" and an event in which words given for recognition were "taken out of my control" and used to impose a "hurtful identity."

There are many other examples. Too many. For those caught in the midst and wake of atrocity, the potential of testimony presents the problem of how to respond, how to "come to terms" that refuse, interpret, and reply to the experience of violence and the attempted negation of ethical life. As Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub suggest in their groundbreaking work on testimony, the art of witnessing frequently holds the matter, the material, of moving from survival to life, a turn that (paradoxically) calls for and depends on the creation of words about "what we do not know of our lived historical relation to events of our times." This lacuna cannot be wished away any more than it can be filled with the "command" to testify. Today, the problem of what testimony can do and how it can do it is at stake in myriad informal settings and a growing number of institutions - like the TRC - dedicated to the recovery and expression of voice. Complicating the matter significantly, many of these bodies seek to gather and then set the testimony of victims and perpetrators into play, a dynamic that may stretch if not contravene the demands of justice.

If it has not grown more urgent, the question of testimony remains. It is a question with multiple dimensions. An event that may mark the very limit if not impossibility of speech, the act of testifying is nevertheless loaded with promise, a potential for words to heal, restore, relate and deter - never again. Now a major subsidiary of the memory industry, the critical study of testimony has provided crucial lessons about the conditions, forms, and risks of witnessing even as some worry that theory has come to (pre)script the very expression that it seeks to free. On the other side of the coin, the defense of narrative testimony as a given (ontological) element of the human condition has yet to account for the cost of this gift or fully consider the potentially anti-political implications of its presumption that everyone has story that needs to be told and deserves to be heard. Complicating the matter, the opportunity to testify in the wake of atrocity is increasingly defended as a right, a legal guarantee that may itself normalize the form of testimony and sanction those who prefer the choice of silence. So too, the act of testifying inaugurates a struggle of interpretation, a set of questions about how to hear, read, and assess the meaning and power of words that are rooted in unfamiliar (and unimaginable) experience and presented in forums from which we are absent.

This workshop invites UW faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to intervene in the ongoing debate over the dynamics and power of testimony. Among others, the workshop seeks to reflect on three interlocking problems that continue to trouble the growing number of national and international calls for individuals to fashion and present testimony in the name of healing old wounds, building nations, and enabling pluralistic politics:

What are the conditions of testifying?
What events, spaces, or forms of time make testimony possible? Who - or what - is a witness? How does the call for testimony bear upon testimony's possibility? What kinds of "experiences" qualify - or disqualify - a subject as a witness? What is the voice of testimony? Can the figure of the gift help us to theorize testimony today?

Does testimony work?
What makes testimony work (or a work)? Is testimony a poetic or a legal operation? Do theories of performativity adequately account for the event - or act - of testimony? How does testimony constitute truth, memory, and experience (the past), as well as the future? What are the politics of these acts? How does the turn from violence and affliction to communication occur? Does testimony require a certain form in order to be recognizable?

What allows testimony to be heard or understood?What problems are posed by the publicization of testimony - through recording, translation, transcription and all modes of dissemination? How do different disciplines conceive and contain testimony? What are the risks of testimony, particularly in the post-colonial situation? What makes testimony ethical? How does testimony by perpetrators differ from testimony by victims?

Over the course of 2006-2007, the workshop will pursue these and other lines of inquiry through a number of different activities and events.

Reading Seminar
Over the course of the year, the workshop invites interested individuals to join a core reading group dedicated to considering and discussion key texts in the literature on testimony. The working group will meet monthly. In addition to undertaking directed readings and discussion, it is envisaged that the group will collectively generate and disseminate a cross-disciplinary bibliography on current work pertaining to the dynamics and ethics of testimony.

Guest LecturesIn 2006-2007, the workshop will be hosting a number of scholars from outside the UW community that have undertaken significant work on the nature and dynamics of testimony. The lectures are open to the public. A schedule of the lectures will be announced in mid-fall 2006.

Campus-wide Symposium
In the Spring of 2007, the workshop will convene a campus-wide event that offers an opportunity for faculty and graduate students from across the University to present and discuss their work. Of particular interest will be the question of how to both understand and relate particular disciplinary approaches to testimony and the ways in which new forms of thinking about testimony can be generated and sustained through cross-disciplinary collaboration.


Thursday, September 28: Inaugural Meeting - The Power and Problem of Testimony
7191 Helen C. White, 4:00-5:30 PM
Readings: Geoffrey Hartman, The Humanities of Testimony

Tuesday, October 10: The History and Contours of Testimony
7111 Helen C. White, 4:00-5:30 PM
Readings: Shoshana Felman, "Education and Crisis, or the Vicissitudes of Teaching"; Dori Laub, M.D., "An Event without a Witness: Truth, Testimony, and Survival"

Thursday, October 26: The Dilemmas of Witnessing in the Wake of Atrocity
7111 Helen C. White, 4:00-5:30 PM
Readings: Giorgio Agamben, "The Witness" and "The Muselmann"; Jay Bernstein, "Bare Life, Bearing Witness: Auschwitz and the Pornography of Horror"

Tuesday, November 21: The Limits of the Testifying (Speech) Act
7117 Helen C. White, 4:00-5:30 PM
Reading: Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself (New York: Fordham UP, 2005)

Friday, December 1: Fiction and Testimony
326 Memorial Library, 12:00 - 1:00 PM
Reading: Jacques Derrida, Demeure and Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000)

Thursday, February 8: Beyond the Language of Truth: Memory, History and Testimony
Nora Strejilevich, Associate Professor at San Diego State University
7191 Helen C. White Hall, 4:00-5:30 PM
Contact: Ksenija Bilbija, 231-6706
Support for this event is also provided by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Jewish Studies Program, the Legacies of Violence Research Circle, the Latin American, Caribbean , the Iberian Studies Program, and the Center for Humanities.

Thursday, March 22: The Diffuse in Testimonies
Stevan M. Weine, MD, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois, Chicago
7191 Helen C. White Hall, 4:00-5:30 PM
Contact: Alastair Hunt,

Wednesday, May 2: Primo Levi for the Present
Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley
6191 Helen C. White Hall, 4.00 PM
Contact: Alastair Hunt,