Tiny Sparks of Contingency. On the Aesthetics of Human Rights

  • Giovanna Borradori


This paper discusses atrocity photographs and other images of suffering as constitutive of humanitarian consciousness. More specifically, its central claim is that exposure to visual documentation of extreme suffering and abuse has forged, and is still forging, a global sensibility concerning human rights by way of a negative dialectics conceived along broadly Adornian lines. Hannah Arendt called for a guarantee of human rights in the form of a principle of humanity, minimally understood as the event of natality. In bringing home the irrefutability of bodily harm in the context of public discourse, these images work in a two-prong manner: dialectically, by undoing the dominant paradigm of dehumanization, and performatively, by constituting humanitarian consciousness on the basis of Arendt’s minimalist formulation. It is thus through visual iterative acts, an extension of Seyla Benhabib’s theory of democratic iterations, that global civil society emerges as the subject and the author of the norm of humanity. Finally, and countering Susan Sontag and other photography critics, the author suggests that from both the perspectives of an “ethics of showing” and an “ethics of seeing” the problem with images of suffering is not so much that they are irreducibly constructed or that they run the risk of aestheticizing pain rather than critically engage the viewer. The problem with images of suffering is that they may induce a numbing of affect that allows the viewer to see the other as not fully real, and thus human.


Global Civil Society Bodily Harm Humanitarian Consciousness Negative Dialectic Normative Standpoint 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyVassar CollegePoughkeepsieUSA

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