Human Rights In Camera

Human Rights In Camera

by Sharon Sliwinski

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From the fundamental rights proclaimed in the American and French declarations of independence to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Hannah Arendt’s furious critiques, the definition of what it means to be human has been hotly debated. But the history of human rights—and their abuses—is also a richly illustrated one. Following this picture trail, Human Rights In Camera takes an innovative approach by examining the visual images that have accompanied human rights struggles and the passionate responses people have had to them.

Sharon Sliwinski considers a series of historical events, including the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Holocaust, to illustrate that universal human rights have come to be imagined through aesthetic experience. The circulation of images of distant events, she argues, forms a virtual community between spectators and generates a sense of shared humanity. Joining a growing body of scholarship about the cultural forces at work in the construction of human rights, Human Rights In Camera is a novel take on this potent political ideal.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226762760
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 694,500
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sharon Sliwinski is assistant professor in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies and the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario.

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Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76276-0

Chapter One


Thinking men and artists have not infrequently described a sense of being not quite there, of not playing along, as feeling as if they were not themselves at all, but a kind of spectator. Others often find this repulsive ... The inhuman part of it, the ability to keep one's distance as a spectator and to rise above things is in the final analysis the human part. THEODOR ADORNO, Negative Dialectics

How does a human being come to be human? Perhaps the better question is: How does one become a member of that community called humanity? For the ancients, it was unthinkable that anyone outside the polis could be a human. Throughout modernity, one of the most salient ways people have sought to define and to secure this ineffable condition has been through the declaration of rights—both by declaring one's own as well as by defending the rights of others. Consider the sweeping and deceptively simple claim that opens the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights." The statement is a direct echo of the 1789 French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which begins with a similar assertion: "Men are born and remain free and equal in rights." This latter document was influenced in turn by Thomas Jefferson's memorable opening to the American Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." These weighty documents provide a textual history of human rights; they give us a taste of their various climates through the flavor of their words. The term "men" was eventually replaced with "human being." An emphasis on "freedom" shifted to an emphasis on individual "dignity." But despite these changes, the dominating theme of this textual history of human rights remains a celebration of the individual subject endowed with "self-evident" rights. In each of these famous declarations, individual rights and freedoms are envisioned to be "inalienable," naturally "endowed," or "inborn." To be human, these documents resoundingly declare, is to be free and equal in dignity and rights.

But despite the apparent transparency of the condition, refutations of this definition of the individual human subject have persisted since the time of the first declaration's drafting. The paper trail is rife with critique. The French declaration drew particularly vociferous commentary from the neighboring English. The well-known essayist and Member of Parliament Edmund Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France, which described the revolutionary event as a "monstrous tragicomic scene" in which everything appears "out of nature." Jeremy Bentham described the claims asserted in the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen to be "rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts." At the heart of these criticisms was contempt for the declaration's new definition of the human subject as naturally endowed with freedom and rights. In the Englishman's view, the law creates rights, and law is an action of government. To suggest human beings could be endowed with rights simply by virtue of birth was regarded as senseless and, moreover, failed to provide a useful fiction about the nature of political authority. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1948, this old quarrel was repeated almost verbatim. By 1949, German émigré Hannah Arendt had published the first of her furious critiques in which she described this latest declaration as crippled by a "lack of reality" that would give rise to "philosophically absurd and politically unrealistic claims." Even after centuries of dispute the attempt to define what it means to be human can still draw high-spirited debate. The picture trail generates a rather different story. In contrast to the triumphal vision of "inalienable" dignity and rights boldly asserted in the three major declarations, the pictures that have historically inspired and accompanied human rights discourse show a world rife with disaster and atrocity. In 1755 for instance—a full generation prior to the American and French revolutions—an enormous earthquake devastated the city of Lisbon and its surroundings. Subjects throughout Europe and even the New World became spectators to this catastrophe through abundant reports that circulated with remarkable efficiency. For those who could not read the textual accounts, pictorial engravings available at every alehouse and fairground provided a bystander's view of the destruction wrought upon the city and its inhabitants. These testimonies had a startling effect. Not only did the representations of the quake initiate a lively, international debate about the nature of the human subject and its place in the world, but they also brought into consciousness a global empathy with the sufferings of distant strangers, a kind of tele-pathos derived in large part from the aesthetic encounter with this catastrophic event.

In a similar trajectory, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was immediately preceded by the circulation of images from the newly liberated Nazi camps. Allied publics came face-to-face with the National Socialists mass manufacture of corpses throughout the spring and summer of 1945, when photographs of the western camps were widely reproduced in newspapers and illustrated magazines such as Life and Picture Post. Grim newsreels peopled with shockingly emaciated figures preceded evening screenings at the cinemas. Exhibitions were quickly assembled in both Britain and the United States and tens of thousands attended. More than five thousand people turned up on June 30, 1945, the opening day of an exhibition of concentration camp photographs held at the Library of Congress in Washington. In less than three weeks this exhibition had broken all records—88,891 people had seen it. The first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in the shadow of this horror. The preamble to the document quietly refers to this pictorial revelation of the camps' operations as those "barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind."

Attending these aesthetic scenes as primary historical evidence—focusing on the picture trail rather than the textual trail—generates a strikingly different narrative about the development of universal human rights. Such a construction asks us to rethink how the very concepts of "humanity" or even "the human" come to be envisaged and held in imagination. Put differently, attending these aesthetic scenes casts a spotlight on a figure that is usually not accorded much due in the traditional story of how human beings become human. Indeed, in this narrative the spectator has a starring role.

Although this figure went largely unnoticed during the international debate about rights inaugurated by the French Revolution, the role of the distant spectator did catch the attention of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. When he was sixty-five years old and complaining more than ever of the shortness of life, Kant set down his own views on the political significance of the revolution with an essay titled "An Old Question Raised Again: Is the Human Race Constantly Progressing?" The philosopher took a characteristically unique tack, arguing that the importance of the event was not to be found in what was actually happening on the streets of Paris. The end of "ancient splendid political structures" and the seemingly magical birth of democracy were of mere secondary importance. For Kant, the real significance of the revolution was to be found in the enthusiasm that the endeavor to realize freedom aroused in the eyes of its observers, in the emotional effect the events had on distant spectators:

The revolution of a gifted people which we have seen unfolding in our day may succeed or miscarry; it may be filled with misery and atrocities to the point that a sensible man, were he boldly to hope to execute it successfully the second time, would never resolve to make the experiment at such cost—this revolution, I say, nonetheless finds in the hearts of all spectators (who are not engaged in this game themselves) a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm, the very expression of which is fraught with danger; this sympathy, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral predisposition of the human race.

Kant was not enamored with the deeds or misdeeds of men that make empires rise and fall. And unlike the English essayists, he was not particularly concerned with the juridical dilemmas of defining a human subject as naturally endowed with freedom and rights. What caught the philosopher's eye instead was the figure of the world spectator, what he called der Weltbetrachter. He regarded the importance of the revolution to actually rest in the eyes of these beholders and in particular in the ways these spectators responded with sympathy to the distant events. Rather than dwell on the heroic actions of political agents (Kant fails to mention Robespierre or Mirabeau), the philosopher sought to highlight the special role played by the anonymous observer. His claim is that the spectator's emotional reaction to the distant events serves as a carrier of "moral character." Passionate enthusiasm exhibited from a distance—a kind of tele-pathos—is the agency that "permits people to hope for progress toward the better" and indeed is "already itself progress insofar as its capacity is sufficient for the present." The spectator's emotional response, in other words, can be read as a sign of humanity's progress. In Kant's mind, the concepts of universal rights and a collective notion of humanity were borne aloft not by political actors, but by the emotional engagement of spectators, representatives whose position outside the immediate action provided the condition sine qua non of human judgment. For these ideals to function as common concepts—as ideas rather than actualities—they had to be envisaged by impartial observers who were some distance from the scene. Indeed, what was revealed in "this game of great revolutions," Kant evinced, was a special "mode of thinking of the spectators."

The Matter of Judgment

Kant's startling proposal about the special role played by the spectator has gone largely unnoticed in human rights discourse. Historical accounts of social justice campaigns focus predominantly on the testimony of the victims and the courage of those individuals who struggle to win dignity for those to whom it has been denied. Detailed descriptions of spectators' passionate responses to far away struggles are difficult to find in the historical record. And when these responses are recorded, they often serve as anecdotes or asides in works devoted to some larger purpose. Take for example Virginia Woolf's antiwar essay Three Guineas. The essay was written throughout the winter of 1936–37 while the Spanish Civil War raged on the continent. The polemical piece opens with a question from an unnamed interlocutor, a lawyer who has purportedly written to the author some three years earlier to ask: "How in your opinion are we to prevent war?" In the first few pages of her response Woolf searches, unsuccessfully, for an absolute moral authority on the rightness or wrongness of war. Neither the soldier nor the poet, the chief lord justice nor the clergy can provide her with guidance: "Indeed, the more lives we read, the more speeches we listen to, the more opinions we consult," she writes, "the greater the confusion becomes and the less possible it seems, since we cannot understand the impulses, the motives, or the morality which lead you to go to war, to make any suggestion that will help you prevent war."

What follows from this failure to find insight on the question of war is a curious digression about some photographs that Woolf has received in the morning's post. She does not offer any further information about the images' origin; they might have been sent by the besieged Spanish government for purposes of political persuasion (the Woolf's were liberal supporters of the Republican cause) or they might simply have been images published in a newspaper (photographs of Guernica were widely reproduced in the international press shortly after the Basque town was bombed on April 26, 1937). For the most part, Woolf reports, the images are of dead bodies:

They are not pleasant photographs to look upon ... This morning's collection contains the photograph of what might be a man's body, or a woman's; it is so mutilated that it might, on the other hand, be the body of a pig. But those are certainly dead children, and that undoubtedly is the section of a house. A bomb has torn open the side; there is still a birdcage hanging in what was presumably the sitting-room, but the rest of the house looks like nothing so much as a bunch of spillikins suspended in mid-air.

Woolf's dry reporting draws her readers in. One imagines her digesting these terrible details with morning coffee in hand. And despite her initial uncertainty, when Woolf looks at these pictures she is unequivocal: "some fusion takes place within us; however different the education, the traditions behind us, our sensations are the same ... the same words rise to our lips. War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped." Here, ten pages into her essay, Woolf presents a definitive answer to her interlocutor: To find your answer about how to prevent war, simply look upon these photographs. "For now at last we are looking at the same picture; we are seeing the same dead bodies, the same ruined houses."

Then, from this unusually resolute position, the writer takes a sudden turn. Woolf opens her next paragraph by taking aim at her interlocutor's query: "Let us then give up, for the moment, the effort to answer your question, how we can help you to prevent war." Instead, she proposes, our gaze should turn to the reasons that lead men to war in the first place. To talk of prevention only distracts attention from the much more difficult and disturbing problem: why war?

Woolf's intellectual right turn—her shift from the question of prevention to an interrogation of the phenomenon of war itself—leans on the unlikeliest of candidates: an encounter with photographs of atrocity. It is not simply the details of the images that matter. Woolf does not reproduce the gruesome photographs with her essay (even though she does include several other photographs in the book). Indeed, despite her insistence on their ability to achieve consensus, Woolf appears to be aware that photographs do not speak for themselves. What she offers instead of the images is a verbal description of them shot through with what might be called her aesthetic experience. The reader is presented with a complex constellation of affect, a dense response made up of feelings, images, and bodily sensations. The photographs invoke "violent" sensations of shock and horror, they spark a "fusion" within her, and significantly they provoke a common moral judgment that war is an abomination. The delicacy of Woolf's strategy here is easily missed. While the properties of the visual objects in question are important, even more significant is the way in which the self as a spectator can be observed in relation to the images. Woolf attempts to move us by offering a miniature self-portrait, a vision of her anguish at regarding these representations of a mutilated corpse, dead children, and a house ripped apart by a bomb. Kant argued that the passion generated in such encounters is itself what "permits people to hope for progress toward the better." Indeed, in the philosopher's view, Woolf's distant sympathy for the plight of the Spanish people can be read as a sign that demonstrates the "moral character" of humanity. The spectator's emotional experience serves as the container for this abstract concept; her complex affective response makes room for the idea, so to speak. Or as Wilfred Bion once memorably put it: "thinking has to be called into existence to cope with thoughts." Images present the spectator with an emotional situation that calls for thinking, which in turn, allows affects their ideas. In this respect, distant observers become the heralds of the ideals of human rights because they alone are in a position to proclaim that which belongs to the common human understanding.


Excerpted from HUMAN RIGHTS IN CAMERA by SHARON SLIWINSKI Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations    Foreword by Lynn Hunt

ONE     The Spectator of Human Rights    
Textual versus pictorial evidence. Following the picture trail opens a view of the spectator of human rights whose task is to judge. Hannah Arendt’s return to Kant on the distinction between moral and aesthetic judgments. Adolph Eichmann exposes the frailty of judgment. Critiques of the spectator. Lyotard’s emphasis on dissensus in the sensus communis. The scene of human rights as a scene of aesthetic conflict.

TWO     Humanity from the Ruins: 1755    
November 1, 1755: a beautiful and clear day . . . The Lisbon earthquake as the first international mass media event. “Truthful” versus “fantastical” representations. The sublime quaking of a worldview and the emergence of a notion of a common humanity. The quake frames later responses to atrocity. The Disasters of War. Goya’s judgment: “They do not want to.” Print pedagogy for the spectator of human rights.

THREE     The Kodak on the Congo: 1904    
The first use of “crimes against humanity.” King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo Free State. Early humanitarian responses. The intervention of the photograph. The phantasmagoric appeals of the Congo Reform Association. Dreaming of human rights. The first international human rights movement ends with a whimper.

FOUR     Rolleiflex Witness: 1945    
Before there was the idea of the Holocaust, there were the pictures. Photographic evidence becomes the standard for claims of atrocity. Lee Miller’s reports for Vogue. The Dachau Death Train: images bear the mark of this horror. Testimony visualis, or, communication without understanding. Dignity and the “abstract nakedness” of being nothing but human. The “philosophically absurd” claims of the Universal Declaration. The time of our singing: political hymns of belonging.

FIVE     Genocide, Again: 1992    
Genocide as “an exercise in community building.” Lemkin’s linguistic invention and the legislation of international law. Yet neither visibility nor legibility could prevent the reoccurrence of this phenomenon. Yugoslavia: the first televised genocide. The barometer rises in Rwanda. A catalogue of breakdowns. Toward an ethics of failure.


Acknowledgment     Notes     Index

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