Human Rights and the ethics of thick relations real or imagined

July 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.                                                            

These words, attributed to the Pastor Martin Niemoller, and often repeated in their numerous variations, offer a powerful insight into the nature of moral indifference.We speak out (or act) in defence of victims of oppression, Niemoller suggests, only when we include them within our community – whether that be social, religious, ethnic or political. Modern human catastrophe, it has been argued, has at least in part been a product of the individualism and exclusion that characterises the institutional, economical and ideological structures of modern society. Modern civilisation, so preciously guarded, may not only be unable to prevent atrocity but might even provide the conditions required for its occurrence.  In Zygmunt Bauman’s words: ‘We suspect (even if we refuse to admit it) that the Holocaust could merely have uncovered another face of the same modern society whose other, more familiar face, we so admire’ (Bauman 1989: 7).  In her famous study The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt makes a similar point when she notes an essential paradox of human rights: supposedly anterior to all political arrangement and independent of citizenship or nationality, stemming as they do from man’s natural or innate qualities and status, they are nonetheless denied to those human beings that are not members of a (political) community: “The conception of human rights, based upon the assumed existence of a human being as such, broke down at the very moment when those who professed to believe in it were for the first time confronted with people who had indeed lost all other qualities and specific relationships – except that they were still human. The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.” (Arendt 1986: 299) To be a human being is not enough to be the Subject of human rights. In Arendt’s words, “it seems that a man who is no more than a man has lost the very qualities which make it possible for other people to treat him as a fellow-man” (Arendt 1986: 300). Arendt illustrates this point with reference to the apatrides of post-war Europe: denaturalised and stateless, the apatrides were effectively right-less and thus pose a challenge to the universalist theory of human rights, as do present-day ‘stateless’ human beings.[1] Denied legal status and nationality, the stateless person is in a position similar to that of Agamben’s homo sacer – an exile to the law. Yet if the life of the homo sacer is considered politically worthless (zoë), it is by no means inconsequential in ethical terms. On the contrary, the very existence of the apatride exposes a fault line in the theory of human rights, namely the fictional nature of a sacred humanity that precedes and exceeds collective society. In other words, their condition exposes the precariousness of a moral system based on ‘thin’ relations. Michael Ignatieff’s insightful reading of Shakespeare’s King Lear in The Needs of Strangers takes up this same point, exposing the gap between the social and the natural human as crucial in determining our response to human need and, by association, human suffering. For Ignatieff, “the possibility of human solidarity rests on this idea of natural human identity” and the claim that “human beings actually feel a common and shared identity in the basic fraternity of hunger, thirst, cold, exhaustion, loneliness or sexual passion” (Ignatieff 1985: 28). In reality, however, natural human identity is rarely enough to guarantee the solidarity of human beings; it is community in difference that assumes this luxury: “For who has ever met a pure and natural human being? We are always social beings, clothed in our skin, our class, income, our history, and as such, our obligations to each other are always based on difference […] The role of natural duty seems obscure. It is difference that seems to rule my duties, not identity.” (Ignatieff 1985: 28) Modern morality, then, is based on a fantasy of abstraction that fails to account for the particularities of situated (embodied) human life. What Ignatieff seems to suggest here is that in order for me to act altruistically towards another person, I must (in general) have some sense of differentiated identity with that person, some tangible, ‘lived’ connection; in other words, the strongest and most reliable sense of ‘moral’ responsibility we can hold is ethical in the terms described by Margalit. Paradoxically, the emphasis on universal humanity – the cornerstone of modern morality and human rights – threatens to make way for what Margalit calls ‘moral Don Juanism’. Don Juan, Margalit observes, ‘is a romantic who cares deeply for the ideal woman but not for the flesh and blood women he encounters’ (Margalit 2002: 28). Is there a risk that the moral marketing of the abstract ideal of humanity merely offers an alibi for avoiding the obligation to care for the flesh and blood human beings we see suffering on our street corners and TV screens; that in some sense it permits the objectification, the othering of those who are presented as being in excess of the abstract model of the human? Conspicuously absent in the traditional moral theory of human rights is any obligation of care or personal mutual responsibility; it is a person’s rights that are violated, rather than the person herself or our relationship with her. Indeed, the structure of rights is intended on a certain level to make up for this lack of relationality. This type of non-caring morality, it is argued, corresponds to the needs of a modern society in which the individual reigns and communities of mutual responsibility shrink to circles of the closest proximity. In this sense, morality is designed to mitigate the impact of mutual foreignness in modern society. As Margalit writes: “[…] we need morality precisely because we do not care. That is, we usually lack an attentive concern for the well-being of most members of the human race. We care about our parents, children, spouses, lovers, friends, and by extension some significant groups to which we belong, but by no means do we care about everyone […] Most people most of the time carry on by not caring for most other people.” (Margalit 2002: 32-3 While morality may be necessary to mitigate non-caring relationships between strangers, it will always lack the solidity and solidarity of the ethical. As Margalit notes, ‘morality walks on a thin rope, with very little emotion among mere human beings to keep it tight’ (Margalit 2002: 143). The question is thus whether it is ever possible to ‘care’ in the ethical sense for strangers, our knowledge of whom is essentially distant or mediated. In the ethical realm, Margalit contends, it is the thick relation itself that provides the grounds for ethical action, rather than the properties or characteristics of those individuals involved in the relation. The scope of ethics is thus determined by our thick relations; it is within these relations that we carry with us a sense of responsibility and care towards others, and it is within these relations that we are most likely to act altruistically, to come to the aid of someone in need. But how do we determine which relations count or could count as thick? Is the scope of ethics determined by ‘the actual [thick relations] we happen to have, or the ones we are assumed to have or ought to have’ (Margalit 2002: 45)? In the latter case, Margalit suggests, the thick relations we ought to have might, in their most extensive scope, encompass all of humankind. ‘Thus’, he writes, ‘morality turns into ethics’ (Margalit 2002: 45). The remaining question then, is how to extend the imagined boundaries of our ‘thick’ relations? If ethical bonds are in part formed through shared narratives and memories – as Margalit suggests they are – then could cultural representation and historical memory have a role to play in encouraging us to relate to distant others in ways that approximate our ‘thicker’ responsibilities, allowing us to imagine an ethical relationship of care to those we have never met? If the stories of the suffering of distant others were to become part of our so-called collective memory, does this mean we would come to see these others in ethical terms?

[1] The challenge that statelessness poses for international law has been highlighted in a number of reports and campaigns recently, for example in this one by the Open Society Institute: (accessed 18/12/2009). See also a report on Statelessness by Refugees International, available online at: (accessed 18/12/2009).

Choreographing Empathy

April 23, 2012 § 1 Comment


I recently read this book by Susan Leigh, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance. Three words in the title have already occupied me for years; now I can add choreography. Leigh is writing about dance, but the underlying tone of her book suggests that she has something to say about life more generally, about the ways in which we feel into each other with our bodies. I’ve been trying to think about this in relation to the memorial. How do visitors experience the space of the memorial, how do they perform the chronotope of its architecture, physically and cognitively? Empathy, Kinesthesia and Performance are all part of the memorial experience, but I believe we can also think it in terms of choreography. It is a choreography at one prescribed and improvised: a collaborative choreography between the visitor, the space, the other visitors. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin is the perfect stage for such performances and their collisions; here we see choreographies of play and laughter coincide or conflict with dances of sadness and solemnity. These videos posted by visitors serve as records of the dances, and show the similarities and differences between performances. In each case I think we can speak of a form of kinesthesia or embodied empathy at work between the space and the people occupying it, as well as between the people themselves – all three are linked, so that the observer is the observed, the spectator spectated (a metaphor well extended by the videos themselves, and us watching them). Why do people post these videos? Is it to prove they were there? To find an audience for their performance: what is the performance to them? Do they see it as a form of witnessing, or simply a form of fun?

An exercise in devil’s advocacy, or: on the violence of representation

November 23, 2011 § 1 Comment

I am currently preparing a paper that goes against the grain of idealism that has up to now characterised my work on memory and trauma – sometimes cleverly concealed behind a show of academic scepticism, but always there, as it has been since my childhood (I always insisted, at school and university, on ending my essays on an optimistic, positive note, on finding the dim ray of hope for a better future for the characters in the books I was studying, the readers, the world in general). Now I find myself playing devil’s advocate, the cynic and detractor, and there is more pleasure in it that I imagined. The topic of the paper is violence and representation or, better said, the violence of representation. I have argued in the past, following Susan Sontag and many others, that the representation of violence and suffering has the potential to inflict further violence upon victims of atrocity who, being ‘represented’ in museums, images, films, and texts, also all too often become victims to objectification and appropriation, displayed for voyeuristic pleasures. The notion of ‘concentration camp pornography’ (Karen Goertz 2001: 179) is not new, and certainly the possibility for representation to symbolically (and sometimes literally) repeat the harm and humiliation inflicted upon victims is a real one. Nonetheless, I have frequently argued that the representation of suffering also allows for the possibility of an ethical response to the victim’s plight by the spectator, a response based in empathy, care and a sense of social (in)justice inspired by the encounter with the representation of the other’s suffering. In this way, I have repeatedly suggested that representation – in the form of memorials, art, and literature in particular, but also (although often more problematically) photography, film and media images – can have a positive social and ethical impact by encouraging or eliciting a culture of cosmopolitan response-ability (to use Kelly Oliver’s term) and secondary witnessing. But the focus does not lie merely with the representation; of equal importance is its spectator, receiver or interlocutor – the potential ‘secondary witnesses’ themselves. A visitor to a memorial or the spectator of an image of atrocity also contributes something to the representational moment. He or she not only brings personal experiences, fears, perspectives and prejudices but also a conscious or unconscious willingness or unwillingness to engage ethically with what is being encountered. ‘Ethical secondary witnessing’ is thus a two-way process.

Representations of violence and in particular our ways of encountering them, I have suggested, run the risk of inflicting a second violence upon the victims of atrocity. The perceived ‘victim’ of the violence of representation here is almost invariably its object, that is, the victim of the original event; the spectator, on the contrary, is positioned as a purveyor of or accomplice to violence. My proposal for the paper I’ve been writing is work against this instinctual analysis in order to examine the ways in which representations of violence and suffering can and do exert violence upon their spectators. Is it also possible to speak of a violence inflicted upon those asked to encounter representations of suffering an atrocity? If violence can be identified as part of spectator experience, then the question that remains to be asked is whether and in what circumstances this violence of representation can ever be productive. Is the violence of representation ever ethically justifiable, and if so, is this one occasion where the exception applies?

So far I have identified three instances of violence as being potentially present in spectator experiences of representations of atrocity:

1. The violence of Emotional and Moral Unsettlement (sometimes known as ‘Vicarious trauma’, though this is problematic, I will come back to this concept in another post)
2. Accusation and Manipulation
3. Disempowerment and disenfranchisement of the spectator as moral agent

It is of course crucial to be as specific as possible about the forms of atrocity representation we are dealing with; the potential for and the nature of violence exerted by representations will vary greatly according to this and other variables. Nonetheless, reflecting on my own experience, as well as that of some of the respondees to my survey on visitor responses to memorials in Berlin, has made me think it is time to take spectators’ experiences of violence more seriously, whatever representational form the source of these experiences may take.

The paper is still a work in progress, so for now I am still asking questions: is the encounter with representations of suffering – in the many and varied forms they take, on the news, in museums, in films, photographs, memorials, literature and art – an encounter marked by violence? What are the effects of the proliferation of atrocity images on the internet and in the media (I am thinking, for example, of the image of a dead and dying Gadaffi that made it on to the front page of most major British media websites, including the BBC and the Guardian)? Does our exposure to representations of the suffering of others empower us by giving us knowledge, or does it rid us of our moral agency, by ‘numbing’ us to the reality of injustice and our role in combating it?

Marilene has recently moved to Angola, and is, I know, being moved on a daily basis by the realities that she sees there firsthand. Can representation ever move us in the same way? Doesn’t it always also manipulate us, framing our knowledge and understanding of events in a way that exercises power over our politics as well as our perception?

Joel-Peter Witkin

May 10, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joel-Peter Witkin and Andres Serrano were two of my rite of passage artists at art school. I met Witkin when I was working at RIP at Arles in 1996. He was an incredibly entertaining character with a sharp sense of humour (with a preference for dirty jokes). I think this initial personal encounter may have softened my initial reaction to his work as looking back on it now I find it very shocking. At the time I met him, Witkin had become famous for using unclaimed bodies from a Mexcian morgue in his photographs. He would include bodies or body parts in his complex studio set ups and place them at the centre of a complex and fantastical narrative, much like Classical paintings. The photographs themselves were exquisite – incredibly seductive in texture and colour. As a print and photomedia student they seem to me to have everything I coveted – the velvety texture of a mezzotint, the anger of an etching (Witkin scratches the photographic plates) and the bruised hues of tinted fibre based photographic prints.

In the context of this blog, Witkin’s photographs also have scars and wounds  – the bodies are unidentified, unclaimed and their most distinguishing feature is a great big fat autopsy scar across their body.

 I am not at all sure about the ethics of this work and as a blog which aims to work towards an notion of ethical secondary witness this images strikes me as problematic but for me as an artist who wants to use scars and wounds as a part of a visual language I need to think about it / look at it.

When I look at this image, and at the wound/scar what strikes me is how closed up an impenetrable the scar is – whereas the mouth and eyes are open. The scar is the location of the truth – the explanation, the evidence. The breathless mouth and sightless eyes can tell us nothing.

I have to look away now

Sketches 17th April 2011

April 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

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