Witnessing

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Can we apprehend what is before us? How much can we rely on our observations to derive reliable knowledge about the world?

This video considers the possibility for witnessing. Rather than understanding witnessing only as a physical ability, we discuss it as a social accomplishment. To describe it in this way is to suggest what counts as correct, astute, proper, etc. witnessing is matter that is worked out through interactions between people.

Debates about what can be seen and who can perceive it have been central to how the world is understood.

For instance, as the historian Lorraine Daston has detailed, medieval and early modern Europe was full of wonders that people of the time struggled to comprehend. Take miracles. As signs of divine will, miracles were regarded as vitally important experiences in medieval Europe. Yet at this time, they were understood largely as personal divine revelations to an individual. This private status created a problem: What about those experiences that seemed to be miracles but were nothing of the sort? Could the senses, after all, really be trusted? Might they be deliberately led astray by dark forces? In part because of concerns over false miracles, by the seventeenth century religious institutions shifted from treating miracles as private sacramental revelations. Instead they became understood more as public demonstrations of God’s will. Especially for Protestant theologians, for events to be miracles they needed to be visible and available for inspection by others.

By the end of seventeenth century, much of the impetus to shore up miracles did not derive from fears about how Satan might promulgate bogus wonders, but rather from concerns about how religious zealots that might see miracles far too often. In an effort to tighten up who could legitimacy see what, the Catholic church revised its requirements for what counted as a miracle and who could designate experiences as truly miraculous. Today, miracles in the Catholic church are determined through highly formal procedures that draw on scientific expertise.

Also around the end of seventeenth century, who could witness what was also disputed in relation to the emergence of laboratory experimental science. As Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer argued in their book Leviathan and the Air-Pump, laboratory experimental research sought to produce publicly available evidence for claims about the world. Yet, laboratories were restricted spaces and experiments prohibitively expensive for others to duplicate. Researchers of the time could write down their steps so that readers could be ‘virtual witnesses’ to experiments, but ultimately no amount of detail could eliminate the need for trust in those doing science.

These historical examples indicate how determining what is present is not a straightforward matter.

As anthropologist Geoffrey Hughes notes in this video, entertainment magic has a complex related to the notion of witnessing. Magicians can go to considerable lengths to ensure audiences that they are seeing what they need to see. This can be done through a performance that carefully manages what the sociologist Erving Goffman referred as a visible frontstage and a hidden backstage. Audiences are invited to see what is what, even as they can appreciate the play of front and backstage is part of the trickery on show.

As also elaborated in this video, magicians often regard their own ability to apprehend magic as troubled. This is because magicians seek to generate awe and wonder in audiences. Yet because of their understanding of the hidden methods of effects, performers can lose track of what is powerful for others. Too, magicians worry that their interest in sleight techniques can lead them to become preoccupied with technical skill rather than on what audiences perceive.

In the time of Zoom-based magic, questions about what is being witnessed and the ability to witness are mediated through particular kinds of technologies. As with other forms of interface, Zoom-based communication is made possible by social conventions regarding how people ought to behave. Through the example of magic, in this video we consider the ways in which remote witnessing is dependent on new social conventions becoming familiar as well as the way remote witnessing makes everyday conventions strange.

Notes: The effect featured in this clip is called ‘Triumph’. Triumph is a classic effect with hundreds of variations. Its origins have been traced back to the late 19th century.

Witnessing

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Next: Concealment