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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 4-18
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The Future of Testimony
Anne Cubilié and Carl Good
For some, the study of testimony might appear to be reaching the end of its critical potential following several decades of prominence. Academic interest in testimony first emerged most strongly in fields such as Holocaust studies, African American studies, women's studies and subaltern studies, against a backdrop of growing interest in many disciplines for the first person representation of experience. The study of testimony crystallized concerns about the recuperation of voices and traumatic experience deemed lost through state, academic, cultural or literary discourses. James Hatley gives a useful description of testimony in the context of Holocaust concerns: "testimony [. . .] bring[s] one into an immediate and compelling contact with those who have been degraded, suffocated, victimized. The text is the voice of one who would witness for the sake of an other who remains voiceless even as he or she is witnessed" (20). In perhaps the most frequently cited description of Latin American testimonio, George Yúdice characterizes it as
[. . .] an authentic narrative, told by a witness who is moved to narrate by the urgency of a situation (e.g., war, oppression, revolution, etc.). Emphasizing popular, oral discourse, the witness portrays his or her own experience as an agent (rather than a representative) of a collective memory and identity. Truth is summoned in the cause of denouncing a present situation of exploitation and oppression or in exorcising and setting aright official history. (44)
In its most usual conception, testimony encompasses texts under the rubrics of, for example, slave, testimonio or atrocity narratives, [End Page 4] but also oral interviews, therapeutic sessions and other non-literary witnessing forms.
Testimony continues to serve as an important tool for critics working within the fields historically associated with it. Nonetheless, from a perspective outside these fields the topic recently seems to have lost some of its appeal. Even within critical discourses where testimony continues to play a vital role, its study often risks becoming overly institutionalized and complacent. The impression of testimony's demise, however, might be due less to inherent closures in the concept of testimony itself than to the insistence on maintaining the integrity of academic discourses that have become over-invested in relatively narrow notions of testimony's possibilities, for example by treating testimony as a stable and defined genre, by insisting on a set of rules by which it is supposedly produced, by endowing it with a predetermined political function, or by casting it as an unmediated representation of historical experience. Too often, the concept of testimony has been framed within a handful of conceptual paradigms, thereby limiting it to a functional role in describing a set of concerns for a particular discipline.
Testimony makes visible the paradoxical role of disciplines and institutions: on the one hand, one must acknowledge the irreducible necessity for a wide variety of frameworks through which testimony can be elaborated (trauma studies, psychoanalysis, history, human sciences, human rights, law, media studies, literary and cultural criticism, etc.); but on the other hand, one must continually critique the ways in which these disciplines and institutions have often limited testimony by using it for narrower ends. Testimonial studies, in fact, at times seem to be rigidly divided between two poles, emphasizing either the politically interventionist aspect of the testimonial articulation (testimonio, subaltern studies, human rights discourse) or the aporetic unrepresentability of traumatic experience (Holocaust studies and the psychoanalytic dimension of trauma studies).
At the same time, however, the work of many contemporary theorists and practitioners continues to remind us that testimony is not formulaic and that its practice is not fixed. Without contradicting other possible characterizations of testimony, these theorists and practitioners might describe it simply and openly as a mode of bearing witness to the unrepresentable. The potential dynamism of testimony can be seen in contemporary work—exemplified in the essays collected in this issue of Discourse—that draws on a variety of critical perspectives, does not view the testimonial text as a discrete conceptual object and is sensitive to the [End Page 5] ways the problem of testimony...