Issue 2.1 Homepage

Article Contents
·Testimony as Documentary Evidence
·Testimony, Affect, and Ethical Argument
·Transnational Publics and the Branding of Human Rights
·Works Cited

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Meg McLagan, "Human Rights, Testimony, and Transnational Publicity"
(page 5 of 5)


In my Introduction, I noted that human rights activists often deploy various genres of testimony simultaneously, each of which circulates in particular arenas, reaching particular audiences. I want to conclude by suggesting we think about this practice in terms of activists' use of different "registers" to construct political issues. These registers feed off and at times clash with each other in interesting and productive ways. For instance, logocentric and realist forms of documentary evidence and testimony continue to play a fundamental role in the work done by human rights lawyers; they remain powerfully persuasive to U.S. Congressional committees, international legal bodies, and nongovernmental organizations that seek to influence policy rather than mass audiences. Human rights documentary film and video, though they rely on a similar concept of visible evidence, are visual media and as such have a capacity to generate emotion in audiences through the use of evocative storytelling and affective imagery. Activists use this form to mobilize new publics around individuals who function as "nodal points" in a transnational network of identification and solidarity (Nelson 305). Through victims' onscreen narratives or testimonies, witnesses are situated as potential ethical actors that might intervene in the situation that produced the suffering which is on display.

Finally, we know that new media refashion prior media forms such as writing, film, and photography, and that this process of "remediation" (Bolter and Grusin 1999) upends old ideas about subjects and participants, producers and texts that underpin theories about how media work. So, for instance, if we look at human rights websites we find that instead of occupying just one position, we occupy multiple shifting positions (as voyeurs, as consumers, as activists). How does this multiple positioning square with the argument made above that human rights media offer one subject position, that of witness with ethical responsibility? Understanding the ways in which digital activism might reshape the possible horizon of identities and actions that can be produced is critical to making sense of the new arenas of practice and publicity that are emerging around human rights.


1. This essay draws on my review essay, "Principles, Politics, and Publicity: Notes on Human Rights Media" (2003). Thanks to Faye Ginsburg, Jeff Himpele, Barbara Abrash, Brian Larkin, and Ann Cvetkovich for their suggestions on revising this piece. [Return to text]

2. The spread of human rights testimonies also contributed to a more general cultural trend that led Renate Salecl to describe the 1990s as "the decade of testimonies." Why would one pretend to be a victim of the Holocaust? See also Hartman. [Return to text]

3. See McLagan (forthcoming) for a discussion of the performance of human rights testimonies in public fora. I do not deal with live testimonies in this essay. [Return to text]

4. See Bradley and Petro for an exception to this rule. [Return to text]

5. Thanks to Arvind Rajagopal for sharing his thoughts with me on "publicity and its careers." [Return to text]

6. See Ann Cvetkovich's An Archive of Feelings for a discussion of this point in relation to trauma theorists' claim that testimony is an "impossible genre, an attempt to represent the unrepresentable" (167). [Return to text]

7. See Clark on the role of Amnesty International USA in the formation of international human rights norms. [Return to text]

8. For more on this topic, see Annabelle Sreberny-Mohammadi and Ali Mohammadi's seminal study of "small media" during the Iranian revolution; Calhoun on the importance of fax and CNN during the events in China in 1989; and Rafael's essay on cell phone texting during the uprising against President Estrada in the Philippines in 2002. [Return to text]

9. See Ginsburg for more on the use of video in indigenous communities. [Return to text]

10. For more on the use of video in the Rodney King trials, see Feldman 1994, Nichols 1994, and Ronell 1992. [Return to text]

11. See Keck and Sikkink's discussion of Abolitionism as an early form of transnational advocacy. [Return to text]

12. Though see Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, in which contra Cohen and others, she argues for the difficulty of translating pain across the membrane between bodies. [Return to text]

13. When you click, you are taken to the home page of Amnesty International's Stop Torture campaign which includes images of several recent victims of torture and a brief paragraph stating AI's position on freedom from torture as a fundamental human right. At the bottom of the page is a space to enter your email if you want to receive updates and appeals for action. [Return to text]

14. The most recent example of this is the case of Ngawang Sangdrol, a nun detained at the age of 13 for participating in pro-independence demonstrations in Tibet. The most well-known of the Drapchi 14 arrived in the United States in early April 2003 after having been paroled from prison by the Chinese for medical reasons. See for more information on her reception in the U.S. See also the book and accompanying CD-Rom of Rukhag 3: The Nuns for Drapchi Prison by Steven D. Marshall, available from Tibet Information Network. [Return to text]

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S&F Online - Issue 2.1, Public Sentiments - Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini, Guest Editors - ©2003.