25 September 2005

The Arithmetic of Compassion

In an on-line obituary for Susan Sontag, the critic Rebecca Solnit remarks of Sontag's writings on photography - "What is now most striking about Sontag's argument is that it is not so much about photography but about compassion, an emotion and an ethic that photographs can awaken or undermine."

You can find Solnit's text at: http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=2095. As always Solnit has proved perceptive. For Sontag is preoccupied with compassion. She is not alone. The same preoccupation emerges, if somewhat less obsessively, as central to the comments that critics like John Berger and Martha Rosler make regarding the aims of documentary photography. Indeed, Solnit herself concludes by endorsing comassion as a reponse to distant suffering. But compassion, as Hannah Arendt rightly notes, is de-politicizing and I think it is a major mistake to identify the aim of documentary photography as eliciting compassion in viewers. How is compassion de-politicizing? Two ways. First, insofar as it demands that we identify with the suffering of some other, compassion collapses the space for argument which is a basic medium of politics. Second, compassion focuses resolutely on individual suffering and so cannot generalize to the large numbers of people who are subject to war, famine, dislocation and so forth. What photographs might more properly aim for is establishing solidarity. But that would require rethinking many of the conventions of documentary practice.

I make this argument at length in a paper entitled "'The Arithmetic of Compassion': Rethinking the Politics of Photography." You can find a link to this paper in the sidebar thanks to my friend Henry Farrell.

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