Wednesday, July 20, 2005

I Will Bear Witness (Grrr)

So Connor and I had a discussion going on in comments a while ago, and I found it so interesting that I want to give it its own post. As he's said, and I agree, this won't constitute a comprehensive exploration, but it's worthwhile nonetheless. I'm wondering about the act of witnessing, and to what degree it is active. In court, in theater, in day-to-day life, in anything. (And Connor, I guess I'm using witnessing your way here. You're right, I think it's better..)

Around the Terri Schiavo time, I went with my students to see the Neo-Futurists, and one play consisted of Jay asking audience members to witness his living will declaration. I was one of them. To sign a paper saying you saw something is legally binding and of legal substance; a hermit can't have a living will. Seeing something happen can lead to actual psychological disorders; I know because I've had one, along with a substantive percentage of New York City's population. And thinking about words . . . if you witness something, you generally also "bear witness to" something. To bear, to carry. This implies that the very act of witnessing includes something to bear, that witnessing is weighty. If I will bear witness to your living will, then it's not even what I have witnessed that is weighty, it is the witnessing itself that I am carrying. Which is fascinating. It has implications, consequences, an impact, and if it's something *I* bear, it matters more to me than to others. It might make me look different, but it's on my back.

Can witnessing be active, then, or are you simply weighted down by it? As long as you move, as long as you take your witnessing somewhere, it's active. It is possible to bear witness by just sitting there, in which case it isn't borne per se--being borne implies movement. So yes, by this logic, witnessing almost *has* to be active. To call it witnessing rather than seeing something is to take it on.

How and why did this become a social value? It is, of course, true that we present a front of valuing honesty more than we actually do, perhaps more than we actually can (in Jon Stewart's America (The Book), a caption below a photograph of the Bible reads, "Placing your hand upon this book makes you physically unable to lie"), and our use of witnesses to corroborate stories, to prove or to disprove the honesty of another person, is an extension of that. In some ways, we become a society that shoots down passivity, but in other, more obvious ways, we clearly encourage it. Which leads into the theatrical conflicts connected to passivity and is rather interesting.

Boal wants audiences to depart ready for action, to feel that their involvement in an artificial, theatrical situation has been their rehearsal for a real one. Most conventional theater today wants audiences pinned to their seats; some interactive theater wants audiences to be taken by surprise at their involvement. Taking as a given that the theater involved is good theater (I certainly don't believe that good theater comes in only one form), can each of these acts be described as witnessing? Good theater changes people, no matter what their literal involvement with it was. You don't have to participate directly in Theatre of the Oppressed (for follow-up, see Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed and Michael Rohd's Theatre for Community, Conflict and Dialogue, both of which are totally worth your time) to have it be of personal and social significance to you; each audience member's experience at the Neo-Futurarium is unique, but in an only slightly different way that's the case for all shows. Witnessing--seeing something and being powerfully engaged by it, allowing it to take root in your memory and in the way you connect to your own life--is important. It's what we carry with us. It's what we take on.

There can be a passivity to seeing bad art--in fact, the difference between witnessing and watching may be the exact problem with the TV culture, though I'm sure there's an incredibly interesting debate to have regarding video games here, one that I am not qualified to initiate. But I think it's worth encouraging witnessing, however one wants to define its specifics. It creates many social connections that we don't spend nearly enough time considering; it's what allows you to notice that you live in a community, or that you're present in one at the moment.


At 11:54 PM, Anonymous David said...

I went to see Peter Brook at BAM this spring, and one of the things he emphasized that stuck with me was the idea that the only essential element of theater is the audience (I'm now reading Grotowski, who is a little stronger in forwarding this view). I don't necessarily believe this as strongly as he does, as I think I prefer your statement that good theater doesn't come only in one form. But it fits into a larger view that I subscribe to, being that witnessing an action is part of the action itself. Therefore, I'd say that "bearing witness" is as active as the action itself. Physically, I think this is justified by the brain activity involved; what is reading other than witnessing words on a page? Looking at something can be active or passive, it depends on how much it stimulates your brain to interpret it. Philosophically, I think it is not justified but nicely mirrored by Heisenberg's principle: witnessing an action inherently changes it, making the witness part of a new, larger action. The actor and the witness are nothing without each other, like the consumer and the producer.

I think you took a cheap shot at television at the end of your post. Television gets a bad rap for being passive entertainment, but I think it is just the opposite. Television is often bad entertainment but I have found that it is rarely passive. The purpose of commercial television is to be active entertainment, because it is supported by sponsors who desperately want their viewers to be active. To consume is to be active; to make distinctions and form loyalties between brands is active. Television can be a passive medium, but when it is, it has failed, and networks are quick to notice failure.


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