Derrida may be understood to use the image of a mask to think about the relation between testimony and reality. A testimony is like a mask that “covers” an objective reality in that a witness’s testimony is an affirmation of their claiming to have been present in some space at some time (76). Consequently, a testimony cannot be guaranteed because once it is, its sense of reflecting a witness’s presence at some time is lost, making it no longer a “mask” of an individual’s experience over an objective reality (68). Since testimony cannot confirm a reality without losing its classification as testimony, bearing witness is an “appeal to an act of faith” because in order to communicate this testimony, the witness asks for their listeners to believe in what they communicate (79).
“Three Visions from Gregory the Great” may be interesting to think about in terms of Derrida’s account of testimony as a sort of mask, for this story may be understood to embrace the potential uncertainty of the accuracy of testimony that is brought forth by Derrida’s mask. This vision focuses on the fates of Peter and Stephen, two individuals who were prematurely given visions of Hell, then sought to reform themselves after receiving these visions. While a soldier’s temporary entrance into the afterlife permits him to confirm Peter’s fate, the soldier returns to life before Stephen’s fate is decided, leaving the narrator to acknowledge that neither he nor the soldier who claims to have witnessed the battle over Stephen’s soul know the outcome of this battle. The narrator directs readers to take away from this outcome that visions of hell before a person’s death can serve both the individual that witnesses hell and other individuals that “witness” through another person’s witnessing. Such direction by the narrator suggests that knowing Stephen’s fate is not really where the focus is drawn; the narrator instead suggests that the purpose of describing the narratives of Peter and Stephen is for those who hear of their stories and the soldier’s story to understand that they must learn to live in a sincerely holy way, a way in which Peter and potentially Stephen were unable to, despite their first-hand witnessing of what might await them after death. By conveying this desire, the narrator perhaps draws attention to the mask that he puts on his compilation of the accounts of Peter, Stephen, and the soldier in his “testimony” of their encounters with divine visions. Given that the narrator’s “testimony” of these encounters cannot be confirmed, more weight may be placed on the desire that readers believe what the narrator looks to communicate; the narrator may not necessarily ask that readers trust his account of the individuals’ encounters with the afterlife, but may instead ask that they trust his interpretation of what people should learn from hearing or personally experiencing such encounters, that is, they should learn to genuinely reconsider and reform their lives.
André Bazin was a French film critic and theorist who, in his paper “Ontology of a Photographic Image”, argues that the invention of photography altered the production of visual arts in that art was no longer produced solely to manifest concretely the external world (art could substitute the external world), but that the creation of art through photographs itself participated in the creation of concrete objects in the external world. While none of the images we looked at during our virtual “trip” to the SMART Museum were of photographs, the importance of the invention of photography in art production may help us make sense of how Derrida’s “mask” extends to testimony in the form of visual arts. While earlier forms of visual testimony, such as Jacques Callot’s etchings, appear to depict moments of fighting just as they were, later forms of visual testimony, such as Otto Dix’s drawings and the Monster Roster’s pieces, are much more abstract, and may be thought of as incorporating more of the artists’ interpretations of their witnessing into their work. Using Bazin’s argument, one may reason that the more modern, abstract pieces do not only attempt to substitute a concrete war experience onto a sheet of paper, canvas, or ball of metal, but instead are the product of the witnesses and participants of wars incorporating themselves into their testimony. In doing so, these visual forms of testimony are perhaps “masks” that function at least partly to ask readers to believe their testimony that is not only about what may have objectively occurred during war, but also includes what the artists took away from their experience in war and now wish to communicate.
Image from the SMART Museum of Art (http://smartcollection.uchicago.edu/objects/10368/absalom-absalom?ctx=e2081e6c-5456-4173-90c9-2aa2da04bd21&idx=0)