Cathy Gordon on Withnessing

How I Discovered Withnessing (and no, that’s not a typo).
By Cathy Gordon

I am not an academic, so I never thought I would say this, but there is something deeply exciting about discovering critical theory that supports your creative intuition. My discovery happened last spring while I was in Ireland at MAKE Artist Residency. The fiercely intelligent Annie Dorsen was questioning me about the role of the audience in my show, an essential question for any piece of performance but especially for participatory work like HAMMER. I was struggling with how I might lead us closer – myself and the audience, as individual people, in this room, at this time – physically and emotionally – in a deep way that was not violating and hopefully even fun! Skeptical, Annie wanted to know my approach.

So I described the various parts of my show, referring to them as fanciful strategies for processing anger. Annie looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t see what is so fanciful about them. Those seem like coherent methods of sublimation, which as Freud determined, all mature beings do as a means of processing trauma, trauma being is an unavoidable part of the human experience. Do you know Bracha Ettinger and her theory of withnessing?” Um…

No, I had never even heard of Bracha Ettinger, despite the fact that she is a noted intellectual and accomplished artist, a luminary of the New European Painting movement, a practicing psychologist, a Freudian scholar with an additional PhD in Aesthetics who has developed an extensive body of feminist psychoanalytical theory. And, in short, a person who has contributed to “ethical thinking about human responsibility to one another and to the world.”[1]










Cathy Gordon. Photo: Warren Orchard.

So what is “withnessing?” Cultural scholar, Griselda Pollock[2], explains, “She [Ettinger} expands a word’s conceptual range from the legal and testimonial meaning of bearing witness to the crime against the other, to being with, but not assimilated to, and to being beside the other in a gesture that is much more than mere ethical solidarity.”

A significant part of Ettinger’s work addresses trauma. Her theory includes the complex processing of images but I am most interested in the corporal experience. How does trauma continues to live in our bodies thereby unconsciously impacting our present lives? My understanding of “withnessing” is that trauma cannot be contained within a single body; there is an energetic ripple effect. Our bodies subconsciously communicate with each other simply by being in the same room together. We affect each other whether we want to acknowledge it or not. However, if we attempt to bring consciousness to these energies, there is the potential for compassion. Compassion creates potential for transformation.


Cathy Gordon is a multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto whose work encompasses the “social” vibrating between two approaches to performance, that of theatre and visual arts.

See her show HAMMER: The History Of Cathy Gordon's Anger – Six Strategies For Sublimation at The Theatre Centre March 19-22, 2015.  Click here for more information and ticketing info.


[1] Mainly: “From Proto-ethical Compassion to Responsibility”, “Fascinance” and “Com-passionate Co-response-ability, Initiation in Jointness, and the link x of Matrixial Virtuality”.
[2] Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory & History and School of Fine Art, History of Art & Cultural Studies, University of Leeds
2.08 Old Mining Building, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK