Under Chinese context, Witness – 见证 – is combined using “见“ (See) and “证” (Evidence or proof), which makes the word closer to the meaning of “testify”
The traumatic scene witnessed today in Kyiv, resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, triggers ferocious discussions and stimulus inside the social discourse, whereas the general voices display an anti-war holism, other voices such as “Witnessing history” comes to my attention as a paradoxical, yet philosophical twist. The latter, nevertheless, tries to establish a neutral position as an observer of the truth. In this response, I’ll explain the rationale behind this gesture, and provide one methodology that treats history.
The etymology of the word “history” from the Greek verb “to know '' which seeks inquiries of “stories” — accounts and perceptions of events (Steinmetz, 2017). The Chinese etymology of “history”’s correspondent, however, creates an inference of the framework that identifies the events. The word “历史” (History) is a combination of “历” (Calendar) and “史” (Past Events). This first originated from Sun Quan, the Lord of the Wu dynasty, who tried to thoroughly observe the histories of the seeable regions. In the historical Records of Three Kingdoms: The Book Wu, Sun “observes the calendars'', and “picks their uniquenesses'' (Chen, 300) The observation of the calendar can be seen as a metaphysical inspection of a ruling paradigm that applies a cyclical framework of the world that is presumably infinite. The unique cyclical paradigms that govern have absolute domination over the narratives of eras, which served the feudalist Kings. As a result, Sun found different paradigms that were based on varied taxominial methodology. Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties’ histories were distinguished: some centered on agriculture, some centered on mysticism, some centered on community interactions… etc. Despite nature's interference, ancient Chinese history has often been regarded as the consistent subversion of feudalism, i.e. the subversion of the dominating paradigm. As I see it, revolutionaries tend to negate the negation — the Hegelian synthesis of atrocities from the past — and readjust, or revolutionize the paradigm. Chinese histories, or even the world’s revolutionary histories, in this sense, had been arranged using versatile dialectical processes.
The cyclical paradigmatic nature of history accounts for events under an evaluative and coordinated system, however, an event can provide precisely what forms historicity. Any events, by nature, are challenges to the cyclical framework established by the imaginary collective of authority. This framework can be seen as parallel to Lacanian terms such as the symbolic order, the master signifier, the Big other, and, more precisely in a Badiou sense, “the current situation.” Event is a technical term in the sense Badiou, a philosophical indicator of “something that disrupts the current situation”, and “Event as a Trans-Being” that concerns how unique events manifest under one consistent ontological structure, i.e., how can we identify a new event, if everything can be explained thoroughly, without excess, using the semiotics the structure has already? In this sense, as one is finding an explanation, or tries to account for the mutability of the event, one’s framework that grasps the situation, in general, falls into temporary crisis and will become a harsher trauma if the looping holes cannot be fulfilled to suffice his explanation. Here, the event is seen to be subverting disciplines of beliefs and values, going beyond the existent explanatory framework, and people tend to be desperate to find a way out of the crisis of homogeneity.
The same mechanism applies to history on a wider scale. The mutability of a historical event is actively cutting open the explanatory framework, i.e. the breakdown of the cyclicality (paradigm), and this is manifested in subversive events such as nuclear weapon demolishing (Hiroshima during WWII, 1945), the Haitian revolution that imposed catastrophic damage on the French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue from 1791 to 1804, the Industrial Revolution, or even any exertion of the power that subverts the existent framework, brings substantial promotion to the course of history. In this process, historicity derives from the impossibility of testification, i.e. the process of witnessing the event— in which the event one witnesses substantiates a credential for evidence or proof that confirms the truthfulness of the event — violates historicity itself. An event, when it’s happening, has an autonomy that reconstructs or dislocates the previous paradigm; any declarations of “witnessing” would assert a dominant and stagnated narrative, where the truthfulness is attempted to be grasped by a dynamic first-person point of view. Meanwhile, the event consistently disrupts the witness. The parallel is seen between the neutral position of an observer and the establishment of cyclical paradigms, where the former utilizes the first-person evidentiality of minds (what I see is true, what I grasp is true) and the latter holds a holistic explanatory framework, which, in the end, would be falsified by history itself, or the mutability of the historical event. Any expression of observation as such could be considered a distortion of the event. If any event can be neutralized using the current explanatory framework, revolutions would be centralized and dissolved, since it loses meaning to subvert.
II. Possibility of Written Documentation
The subversion of this framework cannot be directly witnessed. Witnessing, in this sense, can be seen as an assumption made through first-person evidentiality. It can be inferred that history has an autonomy that suffices the impossibility of the witness and the active nature of historical events, which has the potential energy to break the cyclical framework. When the breakdown of the framework — the “eventfulness of events” or “the phenomenality of phenomena” — occurs, and the witness fails to confirm the truthfulness, writing should be especially considered. Writing refers to the documentation of beliefs and disbeliefs or the duality of history.
Considering the semiotic view of written text. Text endows with autonomy that refutes the dynamic eyewitnessing that is similar to history. This is largely due to the synchronicity of the text. In Jung’s context, synchronicity refers to “circumstances that may appear to be meaningfully related yet lack a causal connection” (‘Synchronicity’ 2022) In Saussure’s linguistics, nevertheless, it sees texts horizontally as webs of discrepancies, and the longitudinal depth which seemingly creates a definitive meaning of a word throughout history is absent. Intertextuality, under this context, shall not be considered as a historical incident, but from the pure discrepancies established when signifiers are opened to the others. The writer of history should carefully consider how the text of a description forms casualty, as he/she/ze needs to account for the sublation of longitude embedded inside the meaning network of a language system. As well as to record an ongoing event, assumptions such as “history repeat itself” or references made to past figures can be misleading. This is a striving gesture towards objectivity, and this strive can only be infinitely convergent towards the objectivity, or the neutrality of an observer. On the other hand, the text is a static symbol. Within the certain openness of words towards others, the autonomy, generated by the meaning network, is mutually dictating and restricting, which avoids the text from the dynamic witnessing from the first-person evidentiality. When a text is produced, say the author of Harry Potter — a giant novel franchise — tries to adjust the character settings. The established text would forbid Rowling to complete the adjustment without thorough decolonization of the existing story. Here, the text can be perceived as a force of prevention. The static nature of the text reflects in historicity, making events coordinated and aligned through the written documentation. The text is an autonomous world.
The concept of the “duality of history” is critical in the process of documenting as the nature that must be considered. The dualization of historical events is a further elaboration on the impossibility of witnessing and the mechanism of historical autonomy. When a subject is present, an event’s documentation results from the gaze. Prior to the comprehension of the event, the event carries a pre-symbolic state, at which the gaze is impossible to be documented. Drawing back to the radiant, bright, and instantaneous moment when the event just breaks out, or the moment history comes through by this event, the gaze is blind while drifting, awaiting for symbolization, i.e. an understandable input of the event. It can be said that “we are all wandering at the moment” If an event is to be explained by the news media, a reference is made for the credential, though people usually wouldn’t require media or other’s symbolization but perceive the event using their symbolics formed through experiences. The fundamental of this comprehension reveals a dualization. The event, pre-symbolic, would put the gaze in predicament. The primary decision of whether this event has happened, though sometimes manifest in its effect in the consequences, reveals dual answers; whereas the gaze doesn’t capture the breakage of history, the credential can’t be purely made of the gaze itself. Rather, the post-gaze reveals a contradiction. This entanglement tells the difference underlies the phenomenality, which is either “believing in it” or “not believing it.” The process of persuasion, though another realm, is generated through symbolics. While it is impossible to grasp the event’s activeness, the dispute post-event creates what forms the historical lineage. A positive belief would confirm the event’s dislocation to the cyclical framework. Among the recognizations, there must be resistance that denies or disagrees with the conveyance, which formulates the ferocious quarrels over the uncertainty, or the fights were taken to control the narrative. This mechanism appears on all levels of understanding, while histories still maintain the potential to overturn all the grasps through layers of occurrences that may appear later. This overturn, meaning the events themselves, can be revolutionary; the epistemological grasp, or the immediate symbolization, on the other hand, if it is not a dualized understanding, can be easily falsified. The historical event, in this sense, is advocating and creating a new explanatory, or even ontological framework that contradicts the previous cyclical paradigm, in which the latter has been taken as natural historically.
This duality is between history’s “autonomy of reality” and “textual autonomy”, or “pre-symbolic history” and “symbolic history” History reveals this duality at every point and opens for interpretations. If one must be faithful to history, the documentation of the primary duality (pre-symbolic history vs. symbolic history) must be recorded, whereas one has to go deeper into the ontological and explanatory framework inside the mutability of an event, i.e. to understand the mechanism of its eventfulness through all symbolizations possible. This understanding would reveal, not only the primary duality inside historical perception itself but also the secondary duality between two contradicting paradigms or frameworks. For example, in the perception of a revolutionary, if understood only to the primary duality, it would be seen as savages exerting pure violence; nonetheless if the understanding of “why revolution?” is thorough, subjectivities and personhood are seen. Either it is due to structural oppression, tyranny, offenses, economic discontent… etc. In this sense, the priority of the dualities should be reversed, if one wants to shift the vision towards contemporary politics. Writing, in the meantime, relates to the autonomy of the eventfulness, condenses subjectivities, and makes one’s grasp of this duality possible, rather than declaring his/her/zirs “witness” or “testification” of historical events. In other words, one needs to maintain the state of consistent doubts between “believing” and “disbelieving”, while being faithful to the dualization.
III. The Gesture
History is autonomous. Albeit it actively generates duality, it cannot acquire its own homogeneity because of this nature at the same time. While a historical event is capable of subverting the paradigm — an established symbolic model of history, — the pre-symbolic state, i.e. an event before symbolization would immediately fall into a self-betrayal. This can be linked, even psychoanalytically, to the process of castration, as the presentation of history must depend on textual, or symbolic autonomy. Thus, the disputes over histories are precisely a formation — resulting from single-sided stories, or this duality — of a polyhedron, which is constantly conflicting, entangling, and portraying the history itself. Unlike the Kantian answer that “disputes over historical events” are just antimony, which I’d like to quote Žižek here, happen just because there’s “no common ground” and “no common language between the two levels”, which “can never be dialectically ‘mediated/sublated into a higher synthesis.” However, the historical events hold a sublation over the cyclical framework in itself, that “the notion parallax gap provides the key which enables us to discern its subversive core” (Zizek, 2009) The subversion, the criticism, and the sublation from a historical event provides the necessity to treat them from an ontological perspective. The parallax seen between two frameworks, one comes with the event and another comes with the present paradigm, is essential to understanding history. The conflict has a primordial, phylogenetic force to actively practice the dialectical synthesis and negation that makes historical progress possible. This is close to a dialectical materialist historical view, however, the severity of today’s events and conventions require an update, yet a deeper negation towards thinking of what the future would be.
This requires those who investigate and advocate history to bear the fundamental and pedagogical responsibility. The gesture is that everything needs to be recorded, even with what is believed to be impossible. Here, I advocate for the news press to freely publish information, and any institution of history that teaches shall give students the eye to see history substantially. I’ve investigated the IB Global Politics and History course and asked students’ opinions in UWC Maastricht. For Global Politics, the answers I got were “it seems like it’s a bunch of isms fighting over the narrative and each other”, and portrayal of historical figures was “painting them as crazy nuts”, where conversations about how “Kaiser is just malicious” take place most often. The ideologies resulting from socio-political struggle are more fundamental than the way it is being taught in my school, which I feel, as UWC students who carry the wish for a sustainable future, should be aware of and have the ability to reflect ontologically. The subversive contemporary world requires thinkers, as I believe it, true decolonization and reimagination are needed more than ever. The fundamental question provides another aspect to the gesture, that Epoché, a nostalgic term that refers to sublation in phenomenology, needs to be studied by students in young institutions. The gesture says, the view towards history shall never be certain, as a singular narrative would be repressed and overturned by history.
(I created this piece as a secondary creation of a video, named "Do Not Witness History" in Chinese Mandarin. This would be a formal essay format that synthesizes deeper contemplations. )