The purchase of witnessing in human rights activism

Authored by: Sra Ristovska

The Routledge Companion To Media And Activism

Print publication date:  March  2018
Online publication date:  March  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138202030
eBook ISBN: 9781315475059
Adobe ISBN:


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Witnessing is a communicative practice that facilitates the relay of information about previously indeterminate events. As such, it is closely associated with notions about truth telling, and it is thought of in relation to an audience as the ultimate addressee that partakes in the production of knowledge (e.g. Laub 1992; Frosh & Pinchevski 2009). Witnessing, therefore, signals not only the sensory experience of an event but also ‘the discursive act of stating one’s experience for the benefit of an audience that was not present at the event and yet must make some kind of judgment about it’ (Peters 2001: 709). Borrowing from its origin in religious and legal discourses, witnessing by now has become a cultural form of communication (Thomas 2009) that is inextricably linked to some form of suffering and operates within the matrix of knowledge, responsibility and action. In this context, to bear witness constitutes an act through which an audience assumes responsibility for the suffering of others (e.g. Zelizer 1998; Tait 2011) as a first step towards moral, political or legal action.

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