The Future of the Witness: Nature, Race and More-than-Human Environmental Publics

Sheikh, Shela. 2018. The Future of the Witness: Nature, Race and More-than-Human Environmental Publics. Kronos: Southern African Histories, 44(1), pp. 145-162. ISSN 0259-0190 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

Taking leave from obstacles to the creation of an 'environmental public' in contemporary post-apartheid South Africa and the political silencing and objectification of both nature and racialised subjects, this article interrogates and seeks to expand a specific figure: that of the witness. In the broader, global context of environmental violence, the witness – who, according to classical theories of testimony, is a sovereign subject who speaks in their own name – is considered in the context of constructed categories of active/passive and subject/object as these play out across race, nature and shifting conceptions of the human. The title, 'the future of the witness', prompts two questions: (i) In the context of (missing) environmental publics, in what ways we must reconceptualise the figure of the witness – on ontological, epistemological and political levels – as we move into the future? (ii) Faced with ever-escalating Anthropocenic destruction, is it possible for a witness to testify not only to past events and experiences, as per the generally accepted temporal schema of witnessing, but also to ongoing experiences that unfold into the future? In responding to these questions, it is argued (a) that the witness can no longer be considered as an isolated figure, but rather must be conceived as part of a testimonial constellation; and (b) that, in responding to ecological concerns, this constellation must be a more-than-human collective: an entangled form of sociality between humans and nonhumans that does not take recourse to modernist categories of 'human' and 'nature'.

Moving, via South Africa, from the European Holocaust to global humanitarian and forensic practices, through European and North American science and technology studies as well as Amerindian thinking, the article gathers a generalised set of questions and propositions that might in turn be folded back into specific locales. Key is the classic postcolonial question of who ought to or has the right to speak in the name of whom. Where the witness is often denied self-representation or, more gravely, entirely absent or missing, the article surveys various practices of supplementary witnessing. However, such practices ofen find themselves caught within a representational dilemma whereby, despite the necessity of defending the rights of humans and nonhumans alike, 'speaking for' or 'giving voice' to dispossessed or missing subjects – including nature – runs the risk of further replicating the original colonial matrix of being, knowledge and power that is being contested. Drawing from aesthetic and speculative practices, the article asks what possible strategies might be available for navigating the challenges of representation and for conceiving of more-than-human environmental publics that contest the neoliberal indivisualization of responsibilty and actively bear witness both to unfolding environmental degradation and possible more liveable futures.

Item Type:


Identification Number (DOI):


Testimony, more-than-human, race, nature, environmental racism, representation, postcolonial theory

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies


9 October 2018Accepted
31 December 2018Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

13 Feb 2019 11:27

Last Modified:

15 Dec 2020 17:43

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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