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231 13 Digital Cosmopolitanisms The Gendered Visual Culture of Human Rights Activism Sujata Moorti In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Internet has become the preeminent medium from which international human rights campaigns have been publicized. Activists from around the world—whether it is Tibet, the Sudan, Iran, or Iraq—have increasingly turned to YouTube or independent websites such as the Hub to upload first-person accounts of human rights violations. These images have drawn international attention to “hot spots” of violation and local forms of activism that may have otherwise flown below the global media radar. Indeed, many human rights organizations now consider the Internet as the primary venue for exposing human rights abuses and mobilizing public opinion against them. Scholars have parsed the do-it-yourself (DIY) culture that has come to predominate the discourse and action of contemporary human rights campaigns, as well as the ways in which the reliance on visuality has transformed our understanding of human rights.1 In this chapter, I focus on the representations of gender and sexuality in videos about the Oaxaca teachers’ strike of 2006 and the Myanmar protests of 2007. Through a close reading of the visual grammar deployed in the videos posted on the Web, I highlight the cultural work of the images and signal how the representational grammar helps construct a transnational community of sentiment. Updating Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities for the age of globality, Arjun Appadurai coins the term community of sentiment to designate a“group that begins to imagine and feel things together.” He singles out electronic media as facilitating imaginings beyond the nation-state:“These are communities in themselves but always potentially communities for themselves capable of moving from shared imagination to collective action.”2 Working from this productive understanding of transnational community facilitated by the conjunctions of media and mobility, I examine the sentiment of cosmopolitanism that human rights videos effect. The human rights digital uploads engender in viewers a shared sense of belonging and reinstate Western understandings of rights and justice. Notwithstanding the novelty of the technology and the poignancy of the evidence they provide, the images of human rights activism help reinscribe a digital colonialism. 232 Sujata Moorti Familiar themes of the North-South politics of representation are rewritten for the new digital era. Human rights as a discourse is once again authorized with themes central to the Western project of modernity, and the liberal subject of the Enlightenment is firmly recentered with accents and flavors from the Global South. Indeed, the promiscuous circulation of human rights videos serves as an alibi for the reinscription of Western modernity. These politics are keenly evident in the representations of gender; continuing asymmetries of power and existing geopolitical realities shape the ways in which human rights discourses continue to be articulated. The human rights videos facilitate new processes of governmentality , with incongruent effects in the Global North and South.3 My analysis reveals that transnational circulations have a different valence in the South than they do in the North; often in the latter, the simple act of viewing the videos serves as an alibi for activism. Over the past decade, the term cosmopolitanism has acquired the status of a catch-all term characterizing complex cross-cultural processes. Most commonly associated with a Kantian political philosophy of abstract universalism that transcends regional particularities, cosmopolitanism, however, cannot be conflated with a flaccid internationalism. There is also a growing consensus that like nationalism, cosmopolitanism is heterogeneous and is not opposed to nationalism .4 Cosmopolitanism is located and embodied; it is not a postnational politics . The human rights videos are a fertile terrain from which to examine how two productive but unwieldy terms—transnational and cosmopolitanism—are referenced and translated. Notwithstanding the contradictory “local” effects that I document, I contend that digital media engender among viewers the capacity for flexible attachments to more than one community. They facilitate a cosmopolitanism that proclaims an abstract “universalism” and a form of activism, which dovetails with key principles of neoliberal capitalism.Above all, they make it possible for viewers to believe they belong to a transnational community of sentiment that allows them to think beyond the nation.5 I offer a brief outline of the teachers’ strike in Oaxaca and the Myanmar protests and then offer a close reading of videos uploaded about human rights violations in these sites. The chapter concludes with an exploration of alternative possibilities that have the potential of breaking the existing...


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