[-empyre-] Viral Witnessing: Closing Questions/Remarks/Speculations

Patricia R. Zimmermann patty at ithaca.edu
Tue Dec 8 14:18:45 EST 2009

To conclude, we (Patricia Zimmermann and Sam Gregory) would like to kindly thank Renate and Tim for inviting us to share  our collaborative work on Viral Witnessing with our friends and colleagues on EMPYRE. The comments from this list have been urgent and important as we continue to think through and work with, both theoretically and on the ground in the US and elsewhere, these issues of the ethics of viral witnessing in the new media ecologies. 

We offer our closing remarks and speculations on viral witnessing, in the hopes of picking up and expanding upon important threads about networks, the viability of the spreadable, image resonances, the political economies of tools and the military industrial complex provoked by Ashley, Lynne and Gerry:

As we move to a close (or further, more complex openings and contradictions) we’d like to suggest four areas of concern that remain unresolved:  Viral/physical linkages; Geopolitical Positioning; Middle Class Technologies; Structural Issues beyond Images

*Connecting the Viral and the Virtual to the Physical – How are connections created across the digital divide  - a digital divide of skills, infrastructure and access - when human rights violations occur in the physical realm (often in Global South) and are shared in the virtual world (where they are primarily accessed, viewed, re-mixed in the global North)? 

*What are the feedback loops that go beyond one-click activism? We see intriguing feedback loops happening in the virtual space around evidence of violations – look, for example at the voices on YouTube reacting via video response to the shooting of Oscar Grant, a young African-American man on the Oakland BART mass transit system. But even here it is unclear how this virtual conversation links back to the world. 

*Geopolitical positioning:  The countries which get attention in the circulatory networks suggest that the utopianism of new user-centric technologies should be read with some measure of suspicion.  

*Iran and Burma get attention as geopolitical hotspots because of dominant commercial media spotlights, generating work and interest.  But often other countries with complex, ongoing issues of human rights, democracy, environmental degradation, are obscured by both dominant media and circulatory network media: East Timor, Papua, Nepal, many countries of Africa.

*Middle Class Technologies: Strong social media movements have been located in the middle class, even in countries with abuses.  This middle class has access to cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, secure servers, English.  Yet there is internal geo-political positioning within countries in terms of which issues are highlighted and dispersed.

*How do we deal with and analyze issues that are beyond the visual, beyond documentation in the image?  Many user-centric and user generated human rights images focus on abuses to individuals—being beaten, abused, tortured. 

* See for example, the slew of videos about police brutality – in Eqypt, Greece, Slovakia, the USA and China – that circulate in these networks. 

*Yet how do we think about media about larger structural issues, such as access to water, the onslaught of transnational cyber capital, environmental destruction that cannot be seen or photographed, such as toxins?  

*Is is harder to tell stories about structural rights issues in these mutable spaces? Or does the mutability, the endless micro-audiences online mean that these stories can be told and reach audiences?

AND FINALLY, What ethical issues become salient in viral/spreadable media forms?

*In documentary, visual and even digital studies, we have usually focused on the ethics of the image. Now, we need to shift our research to an ethics of the networks, an ethics of sharing and multiplying images.

*We will no longer control how an image moves forward. Digital images are endlessly shifting, changing location, movable, transforming and transformative.

*The ethics of participatory/viral/virtual/spreadable witnessing are not resolved.  Four key issues must be addressed:  Dignity of those represented; re-victimization through circulation; security issues and overall networked infrastructures, spanning the physical to the virtual; the ethics of re-purposing and re-mixing.

*In a circulatory system of fluidity, remix, and dissemination beyond borders, issues of ethics and dignity become much more complex to unravel and define. 

*How do we think about the implications for human dignity in a networked circulatory media environment when real security risk to people exposed exists, and when perpetrators seek retribution?

*The complexities of understanding to whom people in spreadable and viral video  and online projects think they are speaking gets more complex in a world of ubiquitous cameras: Am I making a joking reference about my local police commander to my friend’s cellphone or am I making a public declaration in a ‘public space’? As that villager speaking out in eastern Burma about attacks on my community, is my imagined audience possible/containable in a viral, virtual world of circulation? 

*Is an act of individual private bravery transmutable into a public act? For example, the young man in Cuba who stood up in a semi-public setting to critique the party and was distributed nationwide and globally. His next public act in the visual space – a public apology on national television as a choice to act with individual courage in a constrained space becomes a more public, daring statement of independence than he anticipated.

*Throughout it all, how do we protect human dignity of those represented? A key idea that runs through all human rights is that of the dignity, integrity and worth of every human. 

*And following much witnessing scholarship, the understanding that we have an ethical responsibility as witnesses to share the suffering of others in a manner that empathizes with, rather than re-violates the victim. In You Tube, on Daily Motion, on Facebook, there is no such professional code of ethics.

*And re-victimization can be both psychological and physical. Here’s a question: “Should we watch Neda (Iran)?” Where do we consider issues of human dignity as we re-circulate imagery? Every network at all levels of the political economy of media circulated this image.  But is that what her family would have chosen? What she would have chosen? Should her death be circulated so much?  If she had been alive and the image of an assault on her had circulated and she had been arrested; what moral responsibility would we bear? Is this question moot given the wide circulation and penetration of the image of her death? Should it be moot? How do we think about the 1000s of Nedas we will see on our multiple screens in the next few years?

* How do we create an online visual culture of fairness and justice, that balances the right to privacy (and the integrity of the person) with freedom of expression? How do we translate a necessary emphasis on ethical image-making for a growing world of image-makers who will never attend Documentary 101, enroll in Introduction to Social Media, write a paper for a digital culture theory seminar, participate in an intro to human rights course, or participate in arguments and debates on EMPYRE?

Patricia R. Zimmermann, Ph.D.
Professor, Cinema, Photography and Media Arts
Roy H. Park School of Communications
Codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Division of Interdisciplinary and International Studies
953 Danby Road
Ithaca College
Ithaca, New York 14850 USA
Office: +1 (607) 274 3431
FAX: +1 (607) 274 7078
BLOG: http://www.ithaca.edu/fleff10/blogs/open_spaces/
patty at ithaca.edu

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