Witnessing in Mediation: Toward an Aesthetic Ethics of Practice




Cobb, Sarah

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School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution


This paper attempts to provide a normative basis for mediation that will hopefully complicate our ethical understanding of this practice. Specifically, I will elaborate a critique of ‘recognition,’ following Oliver (2000), which will allow me to build on the ‘relational transformation’ ethic at the base of the transformative model of mediation, advanced by Bush and Folger. Drawing on Oliver, I will argue that recognition is a concept, anchored in the Enlightenment, that paradoxically reduces rather than enables us to be present to Others, by requiring their strangeness/difference in order to constitute ourselves as whole. In place of this concept, I will offer the process of ‘witnessing’ as a discursive process whereby we constitute the subjectivity of the other and ourselves in the process. Further, drawing on Foucault (1980) and Jabri (1998), I will argue that the ethics of witnessing is not pragmatic in nature, but rather aesthetic, for it is the aesthetic that allows for the creation of a normative model for assessing narrative practice. Finally, drawing on Appreciative Inquiry and the literature on circular questions, I will provide a description of this aesthetic ethics in terms of practice in discourse, suggesting that the mode of inquiry fostered by the mediator is ethical if/when it destabilizes existing narrative and opens up uncertainty, while, at the same time, inviting elaboration of reversals in narrative trajectories. Ultimately, my aim is to elaborate a normative theory for mediation that is anchored in the practice of witnessing and suggestive of an aesthetic of narrative. While this will not dispel the spectre of the critique that Fiss invoked, it may provide some incantations that can be used to shift the grounds on which the discussion takes place, contributing both to our collective reflection and to our ethics of practice.”