Monday, October 22, 2012

Crossing the bridge

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“A witness is authorized to speak by having been present at an occurrence. A private experience enables a public statement. But the journey from experience (the seen) into words (the said) is precarious… It always involves an epistemological gap whose bridge is fraught with difficulty. No transfusion of consciousness is possible. Words can be exchanged, experiences cannot.”

In his essay published in the journal Media, Culture, and Society, John Durham Peters brings forth provocative realities about the role of a witness. As the above quote demonstrates, it is impossible to truly communicate the act of experiencing an event to an ignorant second party. The “bridge” between experience and words that Peters describes is one that our society has tried to form in many different fashions. We of course relate verbally; but we also take photographs, write stories, paint pictures, and videotape those experiences in our life that may be of significance to others or ourselves. The closer we can get to the event, the better. Visiting an actual holocaust survivor may be the best way to understand the ways of the Nazi regime. The ideal form of coverage the media can provide is “Eye Witness” News interviewing the clerk at a store that was robbed. The examples go on, but the obvious fact is that we tend to go to the source for information. In order to understand an occurrence we must get as “close” to the actual moment as possible.

In our study of history, a witness is a source possessing raw, authentic proximity to facts. Ideally, all history would be taught from these first-hand observers, but this of course is impossible. Naturally, we turn to the sources that go back lifetimes. War photography, Victorian portraits, and the first newspapers tell us of the past, texts taking us back the furthest. From ancient hieroglyphics to the bible, we see text as the most solid proof we can get about what happened years ago. Accordingly, it would make sense to assume that the most reliable form of text would come in the first-hand experience of the diary. For in order to re-create an experience as closely to reality as possible, one must remove the idea of a reader in the mind of the author. If one is writing for no one, with no one in mind, with no intentions other than to remember experiences for one’s own sake, where is the motive to alter what they see? Peters acknowledges the failures of any discourse of witness, however, and his essay brings one to ask the question of whether or not the seemingly simplistic act of journaling is even as reliable as it may appear.

To display the prominence of these failures in experience communication, Peters uses as an example the connotation of witnessing most generally thought of the witnessing of a crime. People are put on the stand to testify the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth as to what they saw, did, or heard. They may also be asked to relay their experience on paper. However, it is nearly impossible to keep personal beliefs, feelings, and state of mind out of one’s testimony. Even if they are truly relating exactly what they experienced, different people who witness the same event can produce remarkably divergent accounts. Not to mention the other type of divergence from truth, the intentional kind. Swearing on the Bible may be enough to ensure honesty in some people, but many others may feel no obligation to speak truthfully. Who’s to know what the author’s real intentions are? It is all too easy to alter a concrete fact in order to elicit certain responses in the receiver of the information. When it comes down to it, the only people who know if O.J. Simpson is really guilty of murder are the people who witnessed the crime and, as we all well know, relating experience orally does not always ensure justice. Although the camera has long been considered a device that does not lie, a photographer relays his state of mind through the lens just as an author through his book. Things can easily, intentionally or unintentionally, be left out of or added to a photo. The hand in which the camera lies has the power to personalize an experience as they wish. In this day and age, a photograph has also lost what credibility it once had as a truthful witness. Digital photography allows us to alter an image almost as easily as we alter our words. This is the precarious journey that Peters speaks of, and the unavoidable problem that is the unreliability of a witness.


Diary chroniclers, on the other hand, have the supposed advantage of privacy and therefore little reason to diverge from the truth. They are representative of all types of people travelers, pilgrims, creators, apologists, confessors and prisoners. Some write to keep track of their memories, others write for spiritual development; or to spark or explore their art. There are those diarists who wish to confess or celebrate sins committed in life; still others, trapped in jails imposed by others or by their own limitations, use diaries to express frustrations with the world of their time. Whatever the motive, diaries are meant to be introspective. The author of a diary should be a witness with no desire to embellish, and therefore should serve as excellent sources for learning about events from the past.

Diaries and journals of early Americans, for example, are considered an honest, unembellished form -- a key to our understanding of the past. The words, often written by ordinary men and women, provide valuable clues as to how people lived. Perhaps most importantly, we are given insight into words and feelings of the historical witness that may have otherwise gone unrecorded because of social taboo. For example, in the 1700s, minister Jonathan Edwards kept detailed records of his duties and castigated himself for his spiritual failures. In a time where women were forbidden from speaking their minds and their daily lives were considered insignificant, their introspective diaries became the only record left for us of an inner life. In the 180s, Rebecca Cox Jackson, an African American slave, described in a diary her spiritual transformation. Her writing would later gain her the title of a religious visionary.

However, even the diary does not serve as the flawless bridge between experience and discourse that we are constantly searching for. Especially today, diary-writing has become a public activity. With the advent of the “weblog”, people chronicle their every-day life solely for the purpose of others logging on to read about it. What kind of twisted view of our society would a historian 100 years into the future have if he based his conclusions on the world of these diaries? Like the witness in court, underlying biases and purposes can also effect the diarist and the work they produce. Perhaps even in the diary not meant to be read the author could have motive or tendency towards embellishment�for example when recording a frightful event that one wishes to repress or deny.

Diaries are a wonderful resource for reflecting the forces -- economic, political, social and technological -- that have affected the lives of people throughout history. However, they must be taken with a grain of salt when looked upon for proximity to an event we wish to witness. Today, as in the past, most diarists are not well known. They may be students of history, literature, languages and the like; scientists and naturalists who note their discoveries and ideas; a multitude of others who write for their own spiritual or intellectual growth�and it is impossible to know the true purpose of their journaling. Still, the records we leave behind may serve as the most accurate testimony we can create to the times we witness. Peters was all too correct in his statement that no “transfusion of consciousness” exists, but we will continue to search for the best way to take the journey from the seen to the said.


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