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Seminar 6: In/Visible Bodies, Vulnerabilities, and Human Rights

Seminar Leaders:

Wendy Hesford, Ohio State University
Wendy Kozol, Oberlin College

In the field of global human rights, the embrace of an ocular epistemology (the “seeing-is-believing” paradigm) narrows media attention to normative scenes of social and legal recognition, rendering some bodies hyper-visible and others invisible. This seminar investigates how the discourse of global human rights visually maps vulnerability onto certain bodies—but not others—and how these bodies take on the burden of representation in international politics, law, and culture. Through the analysis of visual representations of human rights violations, we will explore the differential distribution of vulnerability and exceptionality along the lines of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality, ability, nation, and citizenship.

Drawing from work in rhetorical studies, visual culture studies, critical race studies, political philosophy, and transnational feminist studies we will explore a number of key questions, including: Which human rights images become a part of human rights campaigns and incite international sympathy and attention, and which do not? Which bodies are visible in rights discourse and for what political functions? Which subjects are unrecognizable by state systems and what role can/do visual representations play in compelling us to see their vulnerability and the impossible subject positions they are forced to occupy? What are the conditions for ascribing vulnerability? Which subjects, groups, and communities benefit from their attachment to the discourse of vulnerability and the politics of gender, race, and sexuality inherent to it? How do activists and social actors mobilize vulnerability to contest social-symbolic injustices (e.g.,#blacklivesmatter; die-in demonstrations)? What effects have visual representations of human rights violations had on the public’s capacity for political engagement? What moral and ethical positions do such representations imagine for us as global subjects and citizens?

The seminar will be structured around paired readings of scholarly texts and viewings of primary sources. Students will be asked to facilitate one such pairing. Seminar texts will span a range of primary and secondary sources and genres (e.g. histories of human rights, feminist theories of embodiment, legal cases, human rights campaigns, art activism, documentary photography and film) and social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter). These texts will provide seminar participants with opportunities to work with different methodologies foundational to rhetorical approaches to the study of visual materials. The seminar will take place in a location where each participant will have their own computer station and participants will have the opportunity to develop and present a short visual project (Photoshop, PowerPoint, or iMovie) that illustrates a key rhetorical concept germane to the representation of global human rights.

Readings will feature short excerpts from communication and rhetoric scholars as well as scholars working in visual culture and new media studies, human rights studies, new materialisms and posthuman studies, such as, but not limited to, Ariella Azoulay, Lila Chouliarski, Laurie Gries, Wendy S. Hesford, Wendy Kozol, Amy Propen, Nicholas Mirzoeff, and Sharon Sliwinski,among others.

Questions should be directed to Wendy Hesford, hesford.1@osu.edu


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