Michal Givoni is a fellow at TAU's Minerva Humanities Center and teaches Political Theory at BGU. Email: email@example.com
From Manufacturing History to Manufacturing Testimony
Michal Givoni, “Witnessing / Testimony” Mafteach 2e 2011.
The recently fashionable critical theory of witnessing/testimony is informed by the moral sensibility of Michele Foucault and other neo-Marxist scholars. Radical sociologists/ anthropologists postulate that witnessing and bearing of testimony “should be no longer a seamless extension of experience” and reality but rather a “radical and transformative experience of destitution and loss.” In other words, the witness has to forsake an objective impartiality in order to become a “commanding ethical figure,” a “celebrated carrier of collective memory” of calamities whose testimony “migrated” from the legal and scientific domains to the political public sphere.”
Michal Givoni, who received her Ph.D. at the Cohn Institute of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University under Adi Ophir, is a particularly adept disciple of this school of thought. In as essay titled “Witnessing in Action:Ethics and Politics in a World without Borders,” Givoni uses the work of Médecins sans Frontières – MSF (Doctors Without Borders) to advance a critical theory of witnessing that negates the notion that humanitarian intervention should be limited to neutral, objective, professional expert-witnessing. She demands of the MSF personnel to “form themselves as subjects of moral conduct,” that is to bear moral witness to the evil that had caused the disaster. Her preference is clearly for “medical humanitarianism [which] did not shy away from exposing the political roots of the emergency.” In other words, contrary to accepted practices, Givoni urges witnesses not to treat an emergency as an “empirical event;” they are asked to get involved in the emergency's most innermost, political workings. “The emergency exists in many respects not only for its witnesses but through them.” Humanitarian actors are involved, at least to some extent, in the fabrication of the emergency." She further stipulates: “Before it is a transmission of a message – of a story, of values, or of critique – testimony puts in motion a rather minimalist operational code that consists in drawing victims, perpetrators, and spectators or hearers into direct confrontation with political evil.”
She explains that the “vast majority of the witnesses whose voices Breaking the Silence works to bring to the public discourse remain anonymous. She writes approving that the “testimonies were broken down into thematic fragments, so that often several testimonies, though not explicitly related to one another, have actually been produced by one sole eyewitness.” Such bundling of testimonies is highly questionable from a legal and empirical standpoint, something that even the liberal Haaretz newspaper acknowledged. However, Givoni finds the format congenial to insinuating that "evil" was committed in the military operation in Gaza.
While IDF denied the group’s allegations and Judge Richard Goldstone has retracted parts of his report based on similar evidence, Givoni is unmoved. She explains that: “Testimony was not to be confounded with traditional forms of storytelling whose assumption of perfect correspondence between history, memory, and narrative was invalidated in the face of limit experiences of violence and destitution.” In other words, critical theory of testimony is not subject to such benchmarks as empirical accuracy; rather witnessing serves the higher goal of establishing that evil that was perpetrated by a dominant force against the victims: “A private, even intimate gesture of memory, it was nevertheless construed as the primary form of struggle against the always-imminent realization of murderous political projects.”
Armed with the dispensation from the positivist notion “that temporal and ontological gap separates testimony from the event,” Givoni proceeds to structure her argument that leads to a realization that Gaza is at par with the Holocaust. She quotes Ophir to the effect that Holocaust is not ontologically unique and rejects the criticism of those who want to equate witnessing with objectivity and empiricisms. Givoni understand very well that her moral equation of Gaza=Holocaust would not have stood the test of positivist empiricisms. But in the permissive “anything goes” critical theory of witnessing she is confident that the Breaking the Silence testimonies have achieved their objective; “they worked” because they were a “powerful remainder of horrible crimes,” a clear allusion to the horrible crimes of the Holocaust.
Critical testimony presents a real conundrum to its critics. Unlike the New Historians who tried to preserve the appearance of epistemic positivism, Givoni and her mentors celebrate “the theoretical drifting that equates testimony with the basic structure of subjectivity.” More to the point, this highly subjective “eye of the beholder” notion of what had really transpired in Gaza or anywhere else, turns testimony into an “archetype of moral action.” Without any anchor in objectivity or indeed, reality, Givoni can accuse the IDF of evil deeds that occupy the same ontological plane as the Holocaust while claiming moral credit for “becoming a witness” to the continuing Palestinian catastrophe.