The Palgrave Handbook of Testimony and Culture. Edited by Sara Jones and Roger Woods. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2023. Pp. 630. GBP £143.50. Hbk.

First of all, believe the praise on the cover. This is a compendious collection which supports the view that the contemporary fascination with “handbooks” and “companions” can produce scholarship of a very high order. Essays in this collection will feature on undergraduate reading lists in Cultural Studies, Modern Languages and History courses (to name the obvious examples) for a long time to come. The clear individual citations at the beginning of each contribution perhaps highlight too clearly, however, that most of these pieces will be read individually rather than as part of a whole. But this is the world in the digital age, even if the publisher undermines the volume’s unity in doing so.

Part 1, “Concepts in Testimony” will be particularly essential for students and scholars trying to define their terms without losing sight of the fact that each “testimony” is by definition unique. It does so, as well, without descending into the jargon-heavy prose or obfuscation that has bedevilled some writing on testimony. The contribution by Sybille Krämer, in particular, will I think be of enduring use. Her fierce logic explicates the apparently simple idea of testimony as “truth telling” which is met by the subsequent essay on witnessing by Sigurd Weigel. Both of these pieces will be of huge value to anyone who wishes to give students a firm foundation in a field which can be hard to gain initial purchase on. The other contributions in Part 1 build on these foundations to show the different kinds of truth that testimony can tell.

This does, however, raise my first concern about the collection. The volume title links “Testimony and Culture” very explicitly, and I felt there could have been more development of the second of these terms. I felt this diluted the strength of one of the key insights of the book – that what is deemed to be testimony and what is consigned to other lesser categories is an indication of social and cultural priorities and preferences. Is culture simply “what is given space”? But then, even the marginalised testimonies explored in some excellent essays are being given legitimacy by their inclusion here.

Processes of centralisation or marginalisation are a particular concern of Part 2. “Mediations and Methodologies” is more practically oriented. I particularly enjoyed the article on “The Sensual Memory of Shoah” by Éva Kovács, which challenges us to think both about audiences (would a blind person respond particularly strongly to Son of Saul?) and the way in which testimony is rarely embodied in the absence of the witness. The idea of tasting the foods remembered in a Holocaust survivor’s recipe book confronts us with how distant we remain from the lived reality of the past. The refusal of participants to eat soup made of rotten turnips like that made in the camps raises some hard questions about how far we are willing to go in understanding the experiences we narrate.

Part 3, “The Ethics and Practice of Testimony” shows the many challenges of presenting testimony, whether on- or offline, though the focus seems to be on adapting testimony for use in digital or “virtual” contexts. In addition to showing the vitality and progressiveness of UK Holocaust Education (see especially the contributions by Rachel Century, Isabel Wollaston, and Alex Blake, as well as that by Fransiska Louwagie and colleagues), the section shows how testimony is used in other contexts. Whether in legal contexts (Helena Vranov Schoorl et al.) or in rebuilding civil society in Northern Ireland (Jim Keys, Stephen Gargan and Alan McCully) testimony is a powerful vehicle for improving understanding and promoting reflection. Any contribution by Sue Vice to a debate is valuable, and her co-authored piece with Ute Hirsekorn on Perpetrator Testimony is predictably important. The piece by Hari Reed and Rebecca Hayes Laughton, “Testimony on Whose Terms? The Cultural Politics of Forced Migration Testimony” is a powerful reminder that the social construction of “valid” testimony is contested and fraught, and frequently disadvantages the already weak or powerless. As with any collection of this kind, readers will probably gravitate first toward those pieces that relate to their specialisms of research needs, but there is plenty that deserves attention outside of that. It really is a brilliant collection and will be a standard work for many years to come.

There is, however, one issue I felt should have been addressed.

The working assumption of the collection, as described by Sybille Krämer, is that testimony is “truth telling”. The presumption therefore is that those testifying are telling the truth as far as they are aware. Even the most cursory glance at the internet and social media, however, makes clear this is not the whole story. Testimony should be a process of telling truths. But it is also a practice with visual, situational and rhetorical tropes that can be applied by the unscrupulous to the production of disinformation. In an era, moreover, of accusations of bias and “fake news”, it seems curious that there is no contribution which really engages with the production and dissemination of false testimony.

If we see a young woman, filled with emotion, testifying to atrocities witnessed in her distant homeland to a panel of socially valuable individuals, there is probably a presumption of honesty in the witness.  But, in 1990, that young woman was “Nayirah”, a young Kuwaiti describing the barbarous killing of babies in a Kuwait hospital. It was a cause celebre. Her claims were believed by the panel, which was apparently the US House of Representatives (though in fact it was a caucus without subpoena power or sworn testimony) and it was taken as fact by organisations like Amnesty International. Her testimony was a very visible and memorable part of the ramp-up to the first Gulf War.

But “Nayirah” did not exist. She was the daughter of a Kuwaiti diplomat whose “testimony” was a fabrication. But it harnessed the qualities of testimony so effectively that the content, the narrative core, established itself firmly in popular awareness. As I write, the conflict between Israel, Hamas and Iran is at a critical point. Popular opinion is moved by hashtags and snippets of video, much of which could be classed as testimony. Some of it, unfortunately, is fake. More is constructed or edited to appeal to a particular audience’s preferred understanding of the conflict. The sheer power of the testimonial form is a thread which runs through this collection. It seems unfortunate that the issues of deliberate distortion and falsification are not part of it. As Kramer notes, we are “epistemologically dependent on others.” (34) We have to be prepared for the possibility that they are not as committed to fair play as we are – though of course this raises questions about who “we” are and how “they” are constituted, in particular places and at particular times.

Perhaps this comes from the optimism of the editors. I heard Sara Jones speak last year at the AJR Forum on Testimony, launching this volume. Her rigour and passion are clearly directed toward the exploration of testimony’s possibilities, with a fierce concern for those who struggle to be heard. This collection is a fascinating and interesting addition to the literature that needs to be explored and studied by a broad range of scholars, practitioners, and policymakers – anyone, in short, who may need to think critically and creatively about testimony.


London, UK