Do Not Witness History

by Jack Da, UWCM
16th of December, 2022
Photo by Jean-Francois Gornet

In response to the claims of “we have witnessed history” when the Ukraine-Russian War began. During that time, Paul hosted a small discussion circle in the Atrium in quest of relating and sympathizing with students on the issue. It was believed by students, however, the perspectives could’ve been more versatile, which became one of the reasons for this work.


The traumatic scene witnessed today in Kyiv, resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, triggers ferocious discussions and stimuli inside the social discourse. Whereas the general voices display an anti-war holism, other voices such as  “Witnessing history” come to my attention as a paradoxical, yet philosophical twist. The latter, nevertheless, tries to establish a neutral position as an observer of 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” is 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 regions in China. In the historical Records of Three Kingdoms: The Book Wu,  Sun “observes the calendars”, and “picks their uniquenesses” (Idema and West 2016). 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. If time doesn’t stop, the calendar continues forever in a rotation: day after day, year after year. The unique governing paradigms have absolute domination over the narratives of eras, which served the feudalist Kings of China at the time. As a result, Sun found different regions’ paradigms that were based on various themes. Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties’ histories were distinguished: some centered on agriculture, some centered on mysticism, and some centered on community interactions… etc. Ancient Chinese history has often been regarded as the consistent overturn of feudalism, i.e. the subversion of the dominating paradigm. Chinese histories, or even the world’s revolutionary histories, in this sense, had been arranged using versatile revolutionary processes. It is a negativity, a denial of the paradigm, conducted through the form of an event.


An event can provide precisely what forms historicity. What is an event? Let’s check what French philosopher Alain Badiou (1937 – ), one of the most important political philosophers says. According to him, an Event (événement) is what doesn’t make sense under the current situation (‘Event (Philosophy)’ 2022). The “current situation”​​ means what we know now, i.e, how we explain things in the past, the knowledge we have for the current moment. For example, in the past, we were very intrigued by opening people’s heads to treat migraine; until the point, we found out, through modern medicine, the way to treat headaches is by blocking pain pathways in the brain, so painkillers were invented. As we have the discovery of pain treatment (as an Event), we then overturn all paradigms we had before. The event subverts disciplines of beliefs and values and goes beyond the existent explanatory framework; when it happened, people initially can’t explain it very well (“Wow, something’s new and mindblowing!”). Especially, in these so-called “supernatural phenomena”, people tend to be desperate to find a way to explain it, though receiving blockages if they solely pull an explanation from their current knowledge. Therefore, we can say, an event is what changes the rules of our current framework – our “situation”, in Badiou’s words. He furthers it by asking this: how can we identify a new event, if everything can be explained thoroughly, without excess, using what we have already? We would just say, “Ah! Nothing’s new here.” To articulate this, an event is what intervenes in the current paradigm. In social transformations, history is prompted actively by these events. We are probably never going to know what is about to happen, and this literally applies to anything, especially within the range of actions of humanity. It is the drive of history, thus, historicity, but there’s one more layer to that: its inability to be testified.


You see, a historical event cuts open the explanatory framework actively, i.e. the breakdown of the cyclicality (paradigm), and this is manifested in subversive events. Name a revolution. When the transformation occurred from the most primary clash between people and rulers. It creates 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, where the event gives credentials or proofs that confirm the truthfulness of the event, would violate historicity itself. When it is happening, an event has an autonomy that reconstructs or dislocates the previous paradigm; any declarations of “witnessing” would assert a stagnant narrative against the radical activity of an event. 


The Ukraine-Russian war is an event. While it is happening, especially when the report is the main form to convey the information, the event undergoes a process of observations and curations. Words are powerful, however, the event itself doesn’t have words, and there is a fundamental difference between a narrative and an event. Imagine, an observer is placed. When this war first broke out, when history comes through by this event, the observer is faced with a difficulty: the event is always “pre-symbolic”, while the observer is waiting for symbolization, i.e., an understandable input of the event, and the comprehension isn’t there yet when the event is still active. The event comes by a bright, radiant, and instantaneous moment. At this moment, our gaze is blind, wandering and perplexed over what is happening, which cannot confirm the event. The confirmation (understanding) of the event is always after, however, it would produce a dispute: “did this happen? Or not?”, which is a version of “believing in it” and “not believing it” – two (or multiple) opposing narratives, confirmation or denial, which is precisely where sources come into consideration. This is the duality of history, something that historicity would always create, forming historical lineage, i.e., the way we stitch events together chronologically. Notably, the act of “witnessing” is a “belief” that can be falsified by the uncertainty of how the autonomous event turns out. It would only be an assumption of “what I see is true, what I grasp is true” (In philosophy, this is named evidentiality/probativeness). Witnessing has the limitation that histories still maintain the potential to overturn all understandings through events that may appear later. This overturn means the events themselves can be revolutionary; the understanding, on the other hand, if it is not a dualized understanding, can be easily falsified. If we see the witness as the “situation” described by Badiou, the event is what changes the rules of this situation. This is why writing is crucial in the process of documenting an event, considering this duality of history.


When we see a ferocious debate over whether something has happened or not, don’t get perplexed, just write it down. The duality of history is between the “pre-symbolic history” (Event) and “symbolic history” (Documentation). History reveals this duality at every point and opens for interpretations. One needs to realize that the event is new. As well as to record an ongoing event, assumptions such as “history repeat itself” by referencing the past figures can be misleading. In other words, one needs to maintain a state of consistent doubts between “believing” and “disbelieving”, while being faithful to the dualization. Writing is different from the witness, i.e., the claim of quick testification, while it creates a possibility to articulate the duality statically. Text is a static symbol, which means, at least when we write it down, the form of the event is clear. In itself, the text also has an autonomy to create meaning, corresponding to the event’s autonomy. Here, we need to advocate a gesture. This gesture is that everything needs to be recorded, beliefs and disbeliefs. Yes, even something is believed to be impossible, write it down. The text becomes, then, a web to contain everything, rather than one narrative. Do not say we have witnessed history, because, first, it can never be fully witnessed, or, testified. In this sense, sadly, as humans, we may never gain a direct contact with the event and note it completely impartially, however, we need to realize, the aim isn’t to create a single objective record; a true objective record contains all possible records, and it would be irresponsible to the people who read history. We, as readers, need to maintain faith that the view towards history shall never be certain, as a singular narrative would be overturned by history.


(This article mainly uses philosophy as a tool to argue. The original article is at, which informs the rigor of philosophical reasoning and provides a more comprehensive argument.)



         Steinmetz, Katy. 2017. ‘History Word Origin: What Is History and Where Term Is From | Time’. 23 June 2017.


         Idema, Wilt L., and Stephen H. West. 2016. Records of the Three Kingdoms in Plain Language. Hackett Publishing.


         ‘Event (Philosophy)’. 2022. In Wikipedia.


Image source: 

Gelonesi, Joe. 2014. ‘Alain Badiou: A French Philosopher Still in Search of the Revolution’. ABC Radio National. 1 December 2014.