In the period between the end of the cold war in 1989 and the events of September 11, 2001, human rights became the dominant moral narrative by which world politics were organized. Inspired by the momentous political and cultural transformations taking place at the time, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the spread of global communications technologies, promoters of human rights discourse optimistically predicted that a transnational public sphere dedicated to democratic values would emerge. (We now know, of course, that such predictions were wrong, as early post-Cold War hopes gave way to the harsh realities of contemporary globalization.)
In order to help create the transnational public sphere they envisioned, international human rights activists deployed a number of strategies, among them the production and circulation of testimonies by victims of rights abuses. Testimonies are first person narratives in which an individual's account of bodily suffering at the hands of oppressive governments or other agents come to stand for the oppression of a group. Rooted in dual Christian notions of witnessing and the body as the vehicle of suffering, testimony is a deeply persuasive cultural form that animates and moves western sensibilities. Although testimony has long played an important part in rights advocacy (dating back to abolitionism), its use grew in the 1990s and testimonies proliferated in multiple genres and arenas, from written texts to film and video documentaries to "live" performances/face-to-face encounters in activist meetings, NGO forums, and governmental hearings. My essay explores this phenomenon, focusing on the role of several mediated forms of testimony, such as "cine testimonials" (testimony on film/video) and testimony online, in activist attempts to construct a transnational public.
While media are recognized as being critical to the general diffusion of human rights norms and values, especially in the post-World War II period (see Cmiel 1999), relatively little scholarly work exists that adequately addresses their role in the making of contemporary human rights claims. This neglect can be attributed to two things: first, a tendency to treat human rights as "something out there" waiting to be realized legally or philosophically rather than as a flexible and expansive category through which politico-ethical claims are made and socio-political transitions are accomplished; and second, a tendency to overlook the fact that media are not merely conduits for social forces, or expressive of social realities, but possess a logic and power that is itself constitutive of thought, identity, and action. One implicit aim of this essay therefore is to counter rights legalism by demonstrating the centrality of media (and cultural production) to the human rights movement.
To render something public once meant submitting it to the critical judgment of others; in recent years publicity has gained new meanings, the result of a "bewildering array of spatial and technical mediations" making something public. As Arvind Rajagopal notes,
[T]he effect of the means and modes of reproduction, whether analog or digital, electronic or mechanical, and the space of an event, whether in a shopping mall, a crowd, a city square, or for that matter, in a broadcast image or a website, all shape the experience of publicity in significant and different ways. The kinds of visibility a public event has are not secondary to its being public; rather, they condition the forms of publicity mobilized. (personal communication)
The taxonomy of testimony proposed in this essay underscores Rajagopal's observation that analysis of public texts, events, and practices must be form-sensitive. Testimony can work through the enumeration of facts as well as through emotionally laden narratives of suffering; each entails a different kind of signification. Although human rights activists often deploy both kinds simultaneously, the larger point is that testimony is not a transparent genre or practice, as the following discussion of its mediation in various forms demonstrates.
Analysis of the relation between human rights testimonies and transnational publicity thus involves bringing aesthetic questions about formal semiotic properties and generic conventions to bear on considerations about how testimonies generate action outside the textual event itself. In this essay I argue that human rights testimonies can be understood as a form of political communication, as a means through which ethical arguments or claims are made and collectivities are hailed and potentially persuaded and mobilized.