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Vivian, Bradford

Special Issue 44:3, pages 204-219

Witnessing Time: Rhetorical Form, Public Culture, and Popular Historical Education

Abstract:  Practices of witnessing powerfully modulate perceptions of historical temporality in contemporary liberal-democratic societies. This essay not only acknowledges that acts of witnessing suffuse the rhetoric of historical narration in our time but also examines a more fundamental temporal phenomenon: the sense of historical time peculiar to witnessing as such. Witnessing organizes a discursive window on the past through which audiences are given to understand historical chronology and potentially steer its trajectory toward the ends of symbolic, if not procedural, justice. Such collective perceptions of historical chronology are fundamentally untimely: specters of radically other historical experiences are among the most commonly invoked and uncannily felt historical touchstones of contemporary historical pedagogy, transnational justice, and moral reasoning. The essay delineates essential characteristics of the untimely time that comes to pass in the rhetorical act of witnessing and those customary historical truths and judgments that it organizes and distributes as resources of social, political, and moral influence.

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