James Johnson, ‘The Arithmetic of Compassion’: Rethinking the Politics of Photography

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article by political theorist Johnson (B.J.Pol.S. 41, 621–643 Copyright Cambridge University Press, 2011) that looks at the incoherent notion of politics of compassion, picking up where Campbell left off. The basic idea is that compassion is related to individual suffering, and as such cannot be translated into a call for political action. Johnson first defines compassion, and then looks at how critics like Sontag misconstrue the limitations of compassion, next he analyses how such unexamined conceptions misinform photography practitioners, and finally at the exception of Salgado – who in Johnson’s opinion offers an alternative in a politics of solidarity.

The title is taken from one of Zbigniew Herbert’s poem series featuring Mr Cogito. Interestingly enough, this poem perfectly encapsulates the idea of CF and all the ideas that I have been looking at so far. Although it was originally written in Polish, I found a translation online:

Mr Cogito Reads the Newspaper

The front page reports
120 soldiers were killed

the war was long
you get used to it

right next to this news
of a spectacular crime
with the killer’s photo

Mr Cogito’s gaze
moves with indifference
over the soldiers’ hecatomb
to plunge with great relish
into the quotidian macabre

a thirty-year-old farmworker
in a state of manic depression
murdered his own wife
and two small children

we are told the exact
way they were killed
the position of bodies
and the other details

it’s no use trying to find
120 lost men on a map
a distance too remote
hides them like a jungle

they don’t speak to the imagination
there are too many of them
the numeral zero on the end
turns them into an abstraction

a theme for further reflection:
the arithmetic of compassion

(Translated by Alissa Valles)

What I like about this is its precision; without recourse to philosophising or hyperbole, the everyman who is Mr Cogito has said it all in a few terse observations – the sheer number and remoteness of the soldiers has caused them to disappear into oblivion, but the farmworker could be your neighbour, his wife’s a face you know from church, his children may have attended the same school as your kids.

In Johnson’s interpretation, Herbert is (through Cogito) warning against grounding politics in compassion: “…politics typically demands precisely that we attend to large numbers and it is just there that compassion falters and loses its grip.” (p 622). Johnson goes further, claiming that compassion is merely a ‘trap’ that leads to a set of more disgusting reactions – pity, indifference, cynicism, and resentment.

In citing the prevalence of photographs in the formation of political opinions, and as used by various agents to garner support or opposition for particular policies or events, Johnson inserts this quote from Martha Rosler on the continuing importance of documentary imagery in contemporary politics: ‘documentary engages with structural injustices, often to provoke active responses’ (Rosler 2004, p 221). Although he concedes that there are aspects of current documentary practice that hamper the use of photography to press political issues.

Johnson invokes both Berger and Rosler’s opinions on the capacity of the photographic image to prompt action. In Berger’s case (Photographs of Agony) the viewer’s sense of inadequacy gives rise either to cynicism or an urge to do penance in the form of donation to a particular cause, “In both cases, the issue of the war that has caused that moment is effectively depoliticized. The picture becomes evidence of the general human condition. It accuses nobody and everybody.” (p 624) Johnson goes on to assert that the depoliticising is the result of an expectation among photographers and their viewers that images of agony should by definition elicit compassion for those subjects depicted. Johnson then picks up with Rosler, who also observed this tendency to depoliticise, stating (in Afterthoughts) that the misfortunes depicted are as a rule put down to the result of natural disasters, which obviates the need to assign blame or culpability, and the viewer is implored to give generously before cynicism sets in.

Using the description of compassion that Hannah Arendt put forth in her writings On Revolution, Johnson suggests that compassion, since it is seated in the vicarious suffering of the particular other, is not translatable to the general, and “It is this feature of compassion, its resolute focus on singularity and particularity, which deprives it of purchase in the face of large-scale suffering.” (p 626) Not only this, but also the emotional nature of compassion causes political discourse to collapse, since it “…eliminates the space of argument and discussion through which people might forge common interests and principles.” (p 626) compassion is as such relatively inarticulate – its language “consists in gestures and expressions of countenance rather than in words” the net result being to render itself “politically speaking, irrelevant and without consequence.” (Arendt, 1973 p 86) Taking all of this into consideration, compassion can be seen as depoliticising, since by focusing on the individual case it not only “hinders our ability to grasp the broader political and social causes of suffering“, but by removing the political space it also “subverts our ability to explore possible effective ways to mitigate their broad effects” (p 627), as such compassion is to be regarded with great suspicion.

A more common reaction to general suffering is pity, and this Johnson (using Arendt’s writings) points out is a politically dire sentiment, establishing both distance between subject and object as well as a need for the suffering to continue, to be enjoyed for its own sake (pity, unlike compassion, does not desire for the alleviation of suffering). I’m not sure I completely agree with how Johnson has taken Arendt’s words and interpreted them; she does not make a strong distinction between compassion and pity, but uses the position of pity as a counter to her suggestion of solidarity as being a more appropriate response. I also don’t see how compassion can exist without suffering. Johnson does not go into this.

Johnson then turns to Sontag, and uses her work ‘Regarding the Pain of Others‘ to assert that compassion is an inadequate response to large scale events where collective and coordinated activity is called for. Johnson rightly points out that Sontag finds fault with photography rather than posing the important question of the failure of the response itself (it is easier to blame the stimulus for evoking the wrong reaction than to analyse the shortcomings of the emotional response itself). He asserts that Sontag wrongly assumes that the distance that photographs of large scale suffering place between their subjects and objects is the reason for the lack of appropriate response, since such images depersonalise the victims.

If we assume, as Sontag does, that images are made exclusively to elicit compassion in viewers, we find ourselves in a double bind. By inducing compassion for individual suffering, the photographs are politically disarming; by encouraging pity for the masses, they encourage negative attitudes of superiority or disdain.

Johnson looks at the work of Riis and Hine and the FSA photographers (especially Lange and Evans), examples where the suffering of individuals was used to stand in for the suffering of the masses, and looks at how this tradition is maintained through the work of war correspondent Nachtwey: “I like to work in the same intimate space that the subjects inhabit. I want to give viewers the sense that they’re sharing the same space with a photo’s subject.” (Quoted from an interview with Nachtwey on his book Inferno) Although he lauds Nachtwey, since he hopes through photography to elicit appropriate political responses from his viewers, Johnson reminds us of the effective political impotence of compassion.

I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” – James Nachtwey. Indeed, the images that comprise Inferno are testament to the horrors that humans are capable of inflicting on other humans.

On the other hand, Johnson proposes that Salgado understands the limitations of compassion and chooses instead to work from the position of solidarity, insisting that: ‘If the person looking at my pictures only feels compassion, I will believe that I have failed completely.’ (From an interview with John Berger)

Extolling the virtues and achievements of Salgado’s work, Johnson then cites many examples of how the economist turned photographer manages to switch between close up images and broader landscapes without falling into the trap of either pity or compassion, instead by instilling his images with a sense of solidarity, the audience is moved to consider the wider political implications of the scenes they are confronted with:

“Individuals suffer and perish as a result of war, famine, disease, economic dislocation and other man-made, and so in principle preventable, calamities. Salgado depicts individuals as they endure such hardships and humiliations. But his pictures do more than that. They work to establish patterns, to suggest or at least prompt viewers to raise questions about causes and interdependencies. They work, too, to raise questions about responsibility, rationalizations and redress.” (p 640)

According to Johnson, by focusing on issues of politics and causality Salgado offers an alternative to the images of individual suffering normally associated with the documentary genre. As such he avoids evoking both compassion and pity, and instead promotes ideas of solidarity and community. On this notion of solidarity Johnson waxes eloquent: “Unlike compassion, solidarity does not demand that I partake vicariously in the pain of another… Moreover, solidarity avoids the arithmetic of compassion without falling prey to the repugnant political alternative offered by pity.” (p 640) In this way, we avoid the inadequacies of compassion and the maintenance of suffering that pity necessitates: “while solidarity may fail and often surely does, it is liable to neither the political irrelevance of compassion nor the political perversities of pity.” So what he means is that at least we can feel a little bit better that the position seems to undermine the ineffectuality pointed out by Berger and Sontag, whether more people are responsive to action after viewing Salgado’s pictures as opposed to Nachtwey’s, Johnson does not seem to be in a position to tell us (but such an empirical study would add weight to his argument; as it stands we are merely presented with conjectural analysis).

A topical item comes up in this essay, where Johnson touches on the subject of forced migration as a sight that is unusual in the North: “We in the developed world have limited exposure to forced migration… the vast majority of such political and economic dislocation, and indeed what arguably are the most dire instances of it, occurs safely out of ‘our’ sight in the poor, developing world.” (p 642) Since this is no longer true, and the results of displaced persons migrating north to Turkey and risking everything to make the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean and on into Europe is a daily sight and one that has populations and even the EU divided. I think here we have the opposite phenomenon taking place, where the numbers of migrants and refugees that are crossing the borders actually begin to mean something when people feel strongly about their national culture and traditions being at risk. This would make an interesting coda to Johnson’s piece.

In conclusion, Johnson declares:

“Salgado departs from conventional practice, directing our attention away from suffering individuals and asking that we attend as well to the large populations, the aggregates, of which those individuals are a part. To that extent, he places the possibility of solidarity on the table. In so doing, he does not offer a substitute for political action, just an invitation to move in that direction. In the process he holds out hope, too, that we might resuscitate the politics of photography.” (p 642)

Sebastiao Salgado, US-Mexico border 1997

Overall, this paper is an interesting analysis of how photographs work to elicit certain emotions from the viewers, and whether or not you agree with Johnson, he does make some interesting points and certainly takes issue with Berger and Sontag on their views that the photograph is largely to blame for the lack of adequate response to images of suffering. The idea of solidarity is not something that can be so easily deployed in the disability debate, but perhaps moving beyond images of heroism (including the Paralympians) or abjection (to elicit donations) would entail the kind of work that Hevey is doing and the kind of work that I aim to produce. Not activist in the normal sense, but openly challenging stereotypes and embracing the social constructionist model as well as depicting everyday activities that go some way to reclaiming lost bodily locations (identity, usefulness and sexuality).

Johnson uses the definition outlined by Richard Rorty in his Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, that solidarity is an effort to extend a sense of ‘we’ to people previously thought of as ‘they’. In fact, on reading the passage that Johnson refers to, I found a much more interesting description of human solidarity, which fits with postmodernist notions of identity as well as going some way to explain how solidarity can be extended to include people with disabilities: solidarity is not the recognition of core human essence in the population as a whole, but rather “the ability to see more and more traditional differences (of tribe, religion, race, customs, and the like) as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation – the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves as included in the range of “us.”” (Rorty 1989, p192)


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