Academic journal article Social Justice

Atrocity and the Power of the Image

Academic journal article Social Justice

Atrocity and the Power of the Image

Article excerpt

The future always belongs to those who combine a universal enough new meaning with the mastery of a new technology.--Eric Erikson (1958: 225).

The new, global media think in terms of abstract universal principles--the traditional weapon of the weak seeking to restrain the strong--even as the primary responsibility of our policymakers must be to maintain our strength.... The enormous anti-war demonstrations on several continents [trying to stop the invasion of Iraqi] revealed that life inside the postindustrial cocoon of Western democracy has made people incapable of imagining life inside a totalitarian system. With affluence often comes not only the loss of imagination but also the loss of historical memory.... [T]he peace demonstrators ... appeared to have no idea whatsoever that their very freedom to demonstrate had been won by war and conquest in the service of liberty--precisely what the U.S. and British governments were proposing to do in Iraq. Of course the masses are uninterested, as Ortega noted: "Since they do not see behind the benefits of civilization ... they imagine that their role is limited to demanding these benefits peremptorily, as if they were natural rights.--Robert Kaplan (2003: 80-81).

When people ask who is this, what happened to them, and where, they distance themselves from what they are looking at. We are living in a dictatorship of information, of facts. We know everything, we know from our endless 24-hour news channels that every day 10 people die here or there. We want to know, but we don't want to see. Because when we see, we are more involved. This is the power of visual arts. This is why I am a visual artist and this is why 1 insist this should be seen.--Thomas Hirschhorn, discussing his work The Incommensurable Banner (the central exhibit in the 2008 Brighton Photo Biennial exhibition), a melange of images of atrocity gleaned from the web that do not appear in newspapers or magazines.

A Role for the Image in Social Justice 21st-Century Style?

WE INHABIT A WORLD WITH MANY CLEAVAGES AND DISTINCTIONS, STILL holding on to the modernist paradigm of national states and "international" law (i.e., law agreed between states). It is globalized without a coherent global ethic or praxis. Existentially, "we"--i.e., those subjects/citizens of the world who have the economic and intellectual freedom/capital to escape the daily struggle for survival and seek self-consciousness by reflecting and analyzing our partial reliance upon science, faith, and poetry--both enjoy and fear this position. It is our fate in an age that seeks to see the world as a picture (Heidegger, 1977). Striving for objective representations of the world, we try to escape the trap of our subjective knowledge and attain a "transcendental" location through technologies of representation, yet also find each one to be a different trap, a living totalitarianism. Thus, the phrase of the French existential writer Sartre: we live as a "detotalized totality."

Doomed to seek, and doomed to reject, images of a totality, we--especially those of us who are secular--have little confidence in teleological claims. The traditional ideal of justice, as things being in their correct location in the cosmos, offers no solace to rationalists, for any such account of the cosmos is countered by conflicting discourses. In any event, we are in love with the tropes of self-assertion and self-realization and are only prepared to compromise in the recognition of the other as a right-bearing subject. My "soul" belongs to me first and foremost, and to the world only secondarily. My freedom is the freedom not to fit with prior, preexisting paradigms and to say to God that he speaks in so many tongues that I will make my own interpretation. So our grand narratives compete and disparage consistency. Such disagreement wires us as human, allows us a comforting mystery, but it also makes us fearful of the nights to come while giving us historical memory structured in tragedy. …

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