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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 36-54
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The Ethics of Testimony:
A Genealogical Perspective
The very idea of witnessing, it would seem, necessarily implies first-hand experiential knowledge. C.A.J. Coady, the author of a recent philosophical study of testimony, writes that
[. . .] testimony [. . .] is the evidence given by persons. [. . .] The persons in question are referred to as 'witnesses' but a visual analogy is not essential (obviously a blind man can be a perfectly good witness for some purposes and indeed, in some circumstances, e.g. the dark, he may be an even better witness than someone who is sighted). (27)
The implicit assumption here is that a person becomes a witness—and thus eligible to give testimonial evidence—the moment he gains some privileged knowledge through first-hand experience (be it visual or not).
One of the earliest and most often cited historical sources of this paradigm of witnessing-as-experiential knowledge is eyewitness testimony about the New World. Early modern European eyewitness accounts of the Americas are habitually put forth (following the examples of critics such as Pagden, Greenblatt and Campbell) as an index of the new epistemological prestige of first-hand experience, a prestige that supposedly attended both the birth of modern empirical science and the consolidation of the modern subject. An oft-cited character in this narrative is Bartolomé de Las Casas, the Dominican friar who accompanied Columbus on his [End Page 36] third voyage and who later became an ardent defender of the human rights of the indigenous populations of the Americas as well as the editor of Columbus's logs.
In the prologue to his unfinished Historia de las Indias, composed between 1527 and 1559, Las Casas asserts the privileged authority of the eyewitness historian. In a move typical of early learned accounts of the New World, he argues for the superiority of eyewitness history by citing authoritative textual sources:
Metasthenes [wrote] in order to show that those who would write histories were not to write merely from hearsay nor based on their own opinions, because according to S. Isidore [. . .] in his Etymologies, "history" in Greek is apo tus istorein, id est, videre, which means to see or to know, because none of the Ancients dared to write a history without having been present at the events in question and having seen with his own eyes that about which he intended to write. (I: 5-6)
Countless early modern scholars have called on this Las Casas as an exemplary exponent of what Anthony Pagden has termed the "autoptic imagination" (51). Along with sixteenth-century eyewitness historians of the New World like Bernal DÀ1Àaz del Castillo, Fernando González de Oviedo, Amerigo Vespucci, Jacques Cartier, Jean de Léry, and Sir Walter Raleigh—to name just the best known—Las Casas is thus an important reference point for the history of witnessing, and it is as a representative of general trends in the discourse of witnessing in pre- and early modernity that Las Casas functions in my argument. Against the "autoptic" reading of Las Casas, however, I will suggest that the genealogy of the modern witness is much more complex than the traditional narrative of the "emergence" of the epistemological eyewitness in sixteenth-century Europe would have us believe. Las Casas's praise of eyewitnessing is but one dimension of the discourse of testimony in the History of the Indies. When we examine sixteenth-century European eyewitnesses like Las Casas in their historical context—more specifically, in the context of pre- and early modern juridical practice—it becomes clear that the assumption that testimony is primarily a discourse about knowledge, in particular experiential knowledge, cannot serve as a point of departure for the analysis of testimony in the century following Columbus's landfall on Hispaniola in 1492.
It would be of purely historical interest to point out the limitations of the epistemic model of testimony with respect to New World witnessing were it not for the fact that it is one that has been essentialized in much contemporary humanistic scholarship. [End Page 37] Humanistic studies of testimony...