No Compassion

by Henry Farrell on September 28, 2005

My friend, Jim Johnson, who teaches political theory at Rochester, has just started a fascinating new blog. “Politics, Theory and Photography”: aims, as its title suggests, to explore the intersection between political theory and photography. Jim has a particular take on this, which springs from a vigorous disagreement with Susan Sontag and others who write about photography as a means towards creating compassion between the subject of the photograph and the person looking at it. He thinks compassion is a bad idea.

bq. 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.

Jim has written a “long paper”: on this topic, but he’s using the blog to do things that would be difficult or impossible to do in a conventional academic article. The blog mixes together photographs and commentary so that his claims and arguments don’t just emerge abstractly from argument with other writers, but concretely, in dialogue with the work of real photographers. It’s a really nice example of the new uses to which blogging can be put.



Adam 09.28.05 at 10:19 am

How about a link to the blog?


Henry 09.28.05 at 10:21 am

It’s there – but maybe not as obvious as it should be. Will rectify.


Scout29c 09.28.05 at 10:45 am

How timely. Certainly the pictures from New Orleans shortly after Katrina passed through were the latest examples how a few pic’s can change the political landscape. Bush was awarded the fickle finger for how fate came around a bit him on the ass.

Bush’s backpedaling on emergency response seemed to be in response to what we were all seeing on every channel. Will the spin of words and photo ops ever be able repair the damage to Bush’s image?


Sean McCann 09.28.05 at 11:13 am

Not hard to see the reasons for Johnson’s complaint. But would aiming for solidarity really have different results than aiming for compassion?


Russell Arben Fox 09.28.05 at 11:25 am

This is a rich and complicated argument that your friend is engaging, Henry, but my quick take is to dissent from his opinion. I don’t deny the truthfulness of his Arendtian worries about “compassion”; it is necessary to preserve the political. However, to the extent the political is conceived as participation, it also makes impossible intervention–that moment when politics is shunted aside by imperatives. Intervention is always politically troublesome; it momentarily closes down discussion, and brings absolutes to bear. The consequences are rarely foreseen and often nasty. And, of course, it can be massively abused, as the Bush administration has taught us. But still…would any of us really have wished that the TV crews and photographers of the civil rights era not have shamed us with photographs of Bull Conners, bombing victims, the humiliation and hurt suffered by civil rights protestors, etc.? That is, can anyone really argue that it would have been better if the compassion of a bare majority of Americans had not been triggered by such photography? Would federal intervention in the South have ever happened otherwise? (Martin Luther King, for one, seemed quite aware and accepting of role of the media in making northerners feel guilty.)

I’ll take solidarity over compassion any day, but solidarity takes time to build, whereas compassion can be triggered more quickly, and sometimes quick intervention is what is demanded. (See MLK’s Why We Can’t Wait.)


abb1 09.28.05 at 11:29 am

Whatever works. If you can manipulate public into opposition to child labor or war – that’s good.

He says “what photographs might more properly aim for is establishing solidarity“; more properly sounds fine; concentrating on individual sufferings may be a less proper approach, but it still is proper. It takes all kinds.


Chris Bertram 09.28.05 at 11:51 am

You know, I really don’t see that the pressure that compassionate reaction puts on political argument is a bad thing as such. Anyone who reads a lot of blogs, op-ed columns, etc etc ought to be aware that what passes for argument is often the extended (and sometimes unconscious) rationalization of self-interest. Counter-argument is fine and good of course, but too frequently collapses into a blizzard of counter-claims (see how far we’ve got with argument around the Lancet report). A compassionate reaction can elicit the response: “No, what’s happening here is just wrong” in a way that cuts through all that. Pictures of the detainees at Abu Ghraib and our reaction of compassion to the victims can get us further in this respect than stats on prisoner abuse.


abb1 09.28.05 at 12:26 pm

No, he’s right of course that visceral reaction is incompatible with rational argument. They’ll match your Abu Ghraib pictures by their beheadings pictures and in the end you’ll still have to make an argument. Still, pictures help a lot.


mpowell 09.28.05 at 1:20 pm

My inclination is to agree w/ Johnson. Posters here are quick to point out that pictures that encourage compassion can be the most effective way to advance their political aims, but this is not really the point. The same techniques can be used to advance political aims we disagree with as well. The political polarization we see today may be as a result of too much of this. As the ground for meaningful political discussion erodes, we all suffer. The real question in my mind is, how should we respond when the other side in a political argument uses these techniques?


Chris Bertram 09.28.05 at 1:38 pm

I don’t think you have it quite right there mpowell. Of course both “sides” use nonrational techniques to advance their agendas. But politics isn’t rational all the way down I’m afraid. Compassionate responses tap into a sense of shared humanity and fundamental equality (Lear on the heath anyone?). A lively awareness of that common humanity isn’t just a tool for advancing a left-wing agenda, it is a basis for affective identification which can then motivate political argument.

Of course there are philosophical arguments that purport to establish the basic moral equality of human beings as a premise. Some are better than others. None, so far, are nearly as convincing as the best art or poetry on the same subject.


Russell Arben Fox 09.28.05 at 1:51 pm

“But politics isn’t rational all the way down I’m afraid. Compassionate responses tap into a sense of shared humanity and fundamental equality (Lear on the heath anyone?).”

Excellently put, Chris. This is what I was getting at with my “intervention” comment above. There is an important sense in which even the affective and empowering aspects of public deliberation aren’t worth the failure to arouse the occasional (easily abused, yes, but still often necessary) “visceral reaction.”


Jim Johnson 09.28.05 at 7:43 pm

First, thanks Henry for the nice plug.

Second, my argument about compassion is, while long, fairly simple. It goes like this: (1) lots of critics of differing stripes (e.g., Susan Sontag, John Berger, Matha Rossler) presume without analysis or argument that photos of suffering should elicit compassion; (2) compassion while perhaps a “human response” is, in Arendt’s words, “politically otiose”; (3) this is so for two reasons: [a] by encouraging us to virtually share the suffering of another it collapses the space of political argument, and [b] by narrowing our focus onto the suffering of singular individuals it cannot “generalize” – where unfortunately e.g., famine, forced displacement, war etc. are mass political phenomena; (4) this means that compassion is easily frustrated in the face of such mass suffering and transmogrifies into resentment, despair, cynicism or pity (or some combination) in predictable and often ugly ways -this is reflected in lots of photographic criticism; (4) the tendency to see compassion as the aim of documentary photography reflects and is encouraged by longstanding conventions that focus on individual subjects (from Leweis Hine through the FSA photographers to Diane Arbus to James Nachtwey); (5) there are examples of alternatives (e.g., Sebastiao Salgado) who direct our attention away from exclusive focus on individuals to include what we might call populated landscapes, but these photographers reguarly are pilloried by critics who are frustrated that their photos stymie the “compassion” the critics presume they should feel; (6) solidarity – which is about the recognition of needs and the effort to insure that recognition – rather than about the satisfaction of needs (Agnes Heller) is politially more useful than compassion and also less likely to transmogrify into normatively unattractive attitudes like pity.

In short, compassion is politically self-defeating even if it is the “human” reponse to individual suffering. But “humanitarian” projects are about alleviating symptoms (which is important) rather than about addressing political causes of mass suffering. This may be an unpalatable predicament. But it goes almost entirely unnoticed in any discussion of photography I have found. Better to recognize the predicament than go around in circles yet again.

Jim Johnson


Ken C. 09.28.05 at 8:58 pm

If you want to try to actually read the blog mentioned, the “zap colors” bookmarklet from
is very helpful, making it much less excrutiating for the eyes.

It’s also helpful to do “View | Textsize | Increase” (on Firefox).

And it’s about photography!


gmoke 09.28.05 at 9:32 pm

You all know of don’t you? This is a site which analyzes news photos, sometimes collectively. Interesting stuff.


abb1 09.29.05 at 2:14 am

In short, compassion is politically self-defeating even if it is the “human” reponse to individual suffering. But “humanitarian” projects are about alleviating symptoms (which is important) rather than about addressing political causes of mass suffering.

But human reponse to individual suffering is not necessarily compassion, it can also be shame, anger, disgust. For example, this photograph is often credited with turning US public opinion against the Vietnam war. It didn’t produce a movement to ship children’s clothing to Vietnam. Average Joe is stupid, but not that stupid.


Jim Johnson 09.29.05 at 5:37 am

Nothing I said implies anyone is syupid. One can get trapped in self-defeating cycles easily enough.

Nick Ut’s picture was (1) a depiction of OUR war – it was easy to attribute responsibility. And it ws taken/printed when there already already was some incipient oppostion to the war afoot. That is not the case, saay, in Rwanda or Darfur or Kosovo. So your example seems poorly chosen.(2) I am not saying that photos always induce compassion, but that that they often (typically) are expected to do so and are faulted when they do not. (2) Anger may be a human emotion but it is intricately linked to charges of injustice (see Elizabeth Spelman’s nice essay “Anger the Diary”) in ways that compassion is linked to self-concern. (4) I am talking about one emotion/passion that is self-defeating – emotions are not a homogenous category and so it is an error to think they all work the same way.


abb1 09.29.05 at 6:16 am

Fair enough.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that you imply they’re stupid.


Iron Lungfish 09.29.05 at 9:38 am

It strikes me that the reaction to Abu Ghraib was significantly different from the reaction to every US prisoner abuse scandal broken since then, and not merely because Abu Ghraib was the first, but because we could see what was being done to people by our military. The reports that have followed have in fact documented more systemic and more egregious atrocities than those conducted in Abu Ghraib, but lacked the photographic evidence to connect the viewer to the victims, and so the wide swath of America doesn’t much notice that their country has officially adopted torture.

Two things should be noted: first, the people taking those photographs weren’t trying to evince compassion or solidarity from their pictures – precisely the opposite, in fact. Second, the people trying to preserve the policy of prison torture are doing their utmost to prevent photographs of that torture from being released to the public. This is because photographs compel people to action in a way that words simply don’t. Apathy towards Darfur, for instance, is less a result of how people in Darfur are photographed than it is a result of the fact that it’s easy to avoid photos of Darfur: extensive regular television reporting from Darfur simply doesn’t happen in the United States.

(As a side note, I don’t think pictures of beheadings would derail discussion of torture at this point, simply because in this climate I expect pictures of beheadings to provoke more “let’s get out” sentiment than “let’s get ’em” sentiment.)


Jim Johnson 09.29.05 at 10:05 am

Several thoughts here. The “reaction” to Abu Ghraib has been slight. Lots of tisk-tisking in the leftish press. But the administration whose policies arguably are responsible for what happened there was re-elected rather handily well after the story broke. There have not been mass protests about torture or other bad acts at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo or elsewhere. What is getting folks out in the street is the sense that our boys are dying for nothing.

You are correct that the point of the Abu Ghraib photos was not to induce comapssion. My claim is that what we need to do is look at the uses of photography (which are multiple) and not presume, as many critics and many photopgraphers do, that photos of suffering should aim at inducing compassion.

On the Darfur issue – you seem to think that more coverage of the situaiton would induce outrage and action. there is little evidence of that in my estimation. But let’s grant your point for purposes of argument. My claim is that additional coverage that induces compassion is self-defeating and de-politicizing.

By the way, there is a terrific web page that I mention on the bolog that deals with the ethical and political issues surrounding the depiction opf famine at I recommend it highly.


Sean McCann 09.29.05 at 12:06 pm

solidarity – which is about the recognition of needs and the effort to insure that recognition – rather than about the satisfaction of needs (Agnes Heller) is politially more useful than compassion and also less likely to transmogrify into normatively unattractive attitudes like pity.

Sorry if I’m being dense, Jim, but I’m not seeing how the distinction would play out in practice. I can certainly understand your doubts about compassion, though I think like Chris and others, I’d want to say that compassion isn’t politically sufficient rather than that it’s self-defeating. But to the extent that solidarity involves something like an emotional sense of common interest, and to the degree it can be stimulated by photography, why would that be different than compassion mongering? Sure, compassion can have negative consequences, but bad results aren’t unknown to solidarity either.

If the recognition of needs you refer to is basic survival needs, how else do you show that than by the same methods that produce compassion? On the other hand, if “needs” also includes something like dignity and you mean by solidarity something like the recognition of autonomy, I can see your point. It would be similar–wouldn’t it?–to William Stott’s classic explanation of why Walker Evans is better than Margaret Bourke-White. But don’t equally serious questions remain? If your photography treats its subjects as dignified or autonmous, that’s not in itself necessarily going to produce good political results. Why wouldn’t it make sense to say that, however you use it, photography is never going to be politically adequate on its own?


abb1 09.29.05 at 1:25 pm

Jim’s point, if I understand it correctly, is that addressing fundamental political/social/economic problems should not be substituted by charity – it’s counterproductive. I completely agree; in many cases charity only protracts the suffering by maintaining the system that’s causing it in the first place.

What this has to do with photography is another matter, perhaps it’s more clear to professional photographers.


Jim Johnson 09.29.05 at 3:06 pm

Sean, Thanks for pushing on this. The first thing, I think, is that solidarity is not an emotion. Arendt calls it a principle, Heller a virtue. I tend to side with Arendt on that (since I think virtue talk is unhelpful) who interestingly enough converges with Rorty in seeing solidarity as a way of imagining others as like ourselves. She converges with Nozick too who see principles as instruments for establishing similarity relations of various sorts. I admit that I have not thought trough these matters as well as I need to do.

The critical point is that I think solidarity is less susceptible to the sorts of pathologies to which compassion is subject. These pathologies haunt the literature on photopgraphy (Here I recommedn recent papers by Susie Linfield.) How solidarity works out in politics is a hard nut to crack. I will admit that solidarity is no guarantee of anything. It can fail. It also can be insufficient as a basis to get from need regnition to some remedy. And conceptions of need, of course can be contested politically. There has been relatively little work done on these matters. As a poltiical theorist that bothers me. Anyone with suggestions?

As for the implicaitons for photographic practice I think the clearest way is to compare, say, Nachtwey and Salgado. (I do this the the paper.) nachtwey, like Hine, Evans, Lange, andArbus, focus almost exlusively on individuals. The two most famous American photographs may be Lange’s “Migrant Mother” and Evans protrait of “Allie Mae Burroughs”. I have not done an exhaustive study but I suspect they are exmplary beause they encourage compassion for indiviudals suffering hardship. That in turn sets the criteria for assessin subsequnet work.

Back to Nachtwey & Salgado. They travel to the same places and sometimes photograph the same scenes. But Nachtwey focuses (as the conventions established by Lange & Evans suggest he should) on individuals. By contrast Salgado tacks back and forth between individuals, groups and what I call populated landscapes – often refugee camps or lines of migrants or aid distribution sites. While Nachtwey works in these places, Salgado depicts them. He does not lose site of individuals but does expand our sight to larger groupings in various ways. He breaks with convention in that way. And in so doing he encourage solidarity with larger populations rather than compassion for individuals. (By the way each photographer articulates some of this in interviews.) I thik both Nachtwey & Salgado are masters (I’m sure they are relived by that assessment!). But they work in different ways to different ends.


Iron Lungfish 09.29.05 at 3:52 pm

The “reaction” to Abu Ghraib has been slight.

No, it wasn’t. The reaction to the Abu Ghraib photos was widespread shock and disgust, not just on lefty blogs but well into the mainstream and conservative media, where defense mechanisms like the ticking bomb scenario had yet to be coined, let alone cliche. There was genuine outrage, and calls for Rumsfeld’s resignation started becoming commonplace even from conservative, hawkish quarters. This was only dampened by a concerted effort by the administration to distance itself from the soldiers involved (by branding them as “bad apples” who had just happened to commit acts of torture without either the knowledge or approval of their superior officers) and to abruptly change the subject – a tactic that would’ve proved less successful if Americans could have been persuaded to pay attention to the numerous torture scandals that followed Abu Ghraib, which itself would be a much simpler task if we’d had some damn photos.

The reaction to torture in general has been slight, precisely because the administration had made sure that documentation accompanying the numerous torture scandals that have followed has been denied to the public – specifically barring the release of hundreds of photographs. A lot of Americans seem to believe that torture in the American military began and ended with Lyndie England. Until they see with their own eyes that this is not the case, being told the facts and statistics will not move them to care, anymore than being told the facts and statistics about Darfur will move them to care about genocide there, either.

On the Darfur issue – you seem to think that more coverage of the situaiton would induce outrage and action. there is little evidence of that in my estimation.

Apparently you have access to an alternate universe in which there IS nightly saturation coverage of Darfur in the United States? Otherwise, I’m not sure how you’re proving or disproving a counterfactual – or proving or disproving anything at all here, in fact.

Like many of the commenters here, I’m a bit confused on the solidarity-versus-compassion issue. Is there a way to shoot for one and not for another? Is there a special filter involved? Do you recommend I use my flash with that? What if I get a photo that evinces 60% solidarity but 40% compassion? Is my solidarity too dilute here? Can I maybe touch it up in Photoshop? What if the person looking at my photo thinks he’s feeling solidarity but in fact is feeling compassion? Perhaps a caption could help. What if I take a photo of a village massacred by the Janjaweed that evinces 100% solidarity, 0% compassion, and provokes its viewer sit on their ass and go “eh”? Do I get points for effort?


Jim Johnson 09.29.05 at 4:28 pm

Mr. Lungfish,

Please excuse me if I speak frankly. It is a funny thing. I taught the Amnesty Internaitonal report on Guantanamo to my intro theory class this afternoon. That was published when? This past spring/summer – roughly a full year after the Abu Ghraib photos made splash. And according to AI the administration by all accounts is proceeding in precisely the same fashion as before the hew and cry about Abu Ghraib. They are rolling out the same claims and arguments as they have been all along. The war proceeeds apace. Their policies on enemy non-combatants remain largely unchanged. And next week Bush will nominate and the Senate will start to confirm ALberto “torture is a fine military tactic” Gonzales for a post oon the Supreme Court. Just who lives in an alternative universe?

As for Darfur. Sure, you can line up more photos of starving African babies and you will get precisely the same outpouring of what? Compassion that soon turns into despair and cynicism. Not an iota increase in non-military foreign aid. Not a single change in policy from any developed country. The problem with depictions of famine is that coverage treats it as a case of this or that starving baby not as a politically induced problem brought about by the distribution or property rights or by military strategy. The humanitarian organizations do good work at trying to clean up the mess. But they do nothing regarding the political causes. And the ways that they manipulate the photographic depiction of famine are highly problematic. That is not new – please check out the site I recommended earlier. If you think that being embedded with the military effects the ways that photographers shoot wars, is it just remotely possible that being similarly embedded with humanitarian NGOs influences the ways that they shoot famines? Just a thought.

I think photos can have effects. Perhaps we agree on that. I simply think for reaons I have stated and that you have left unaddressed that inducing compassion is problematic. I already have suggested how I think photos of well known photographers work in differnet ways. Instead of snotty questions about photoshop you might compare their work and see if just maybe I have noticed something with the slightest merit. What you get points for is having posted the first really unhelpful entry into this conversation. Thanks.


Jim Johnson 09.29.05 at 4:50 pm


I want to take another stab at addressing your concerns re: compassion. Why do I see it as
self-defeating rather than merely insufficient? Politics depends on argument and debate. Pain subverts language which is why, say, torture is effective(here I rely on Elaine Scarry). Compassion is, by definition, vicariously taking on or sharing the pain of another. In that way it subverts our own capacity to articulate political demands and arguments – and so issues, as Arendt suggests, in “gestures.” Humanitarian gestures – contributing to Oxfam or Medicins sans Frontieres or whatever – are not political acts they are gestures. And, as I said earlier, since compassion focuses on individuals it distracts our vision form larger populations and patterns and causes. Hence pictures that focus exclusively on starving individuals are counterproductive insofar as the relevant events (war, famine, etc.) are agregate phenomena.
When we cannot do anything to help the person we see depicted, we are tempted to despair. Our gestures come to seem hoolow to us. I think Sontag and John Berger articulate that dynamic nicely even as they hope to resist it. Once having embarked down the road of compassion, though, despair and cyncism are hard to resist.

That is not fully satisfactory I know, but it is along the lines I think are right.

Consider the converse question: how do we aggregate compassionate responses into a political movement of any sort? I have a difficult time seeing what that even means.


vivian 09.29.05 at 7:42 pm

Interesting topic! Reminds me of Sen’s April 2005 Economics and Philosophy article, summarizing a rigorous, more complex view of preferences – as partly social and not just in a way that turns into a second-order individual benefit/cost. His version distinguishes sympathy, where my reaction to your suffering is to suffer a little, and thus (maybe) work to end your suffering, from commitment which is a more principled, rational opposition to suffering whether or not I know about it, whether or not it affects me.

The difference between Sen and Jim Johnson seems to be that Sen treats them as independent dimensions, while the implication above is that photos will either elicit emotional or political responses, but one works against the other. (Is this reading accurate or do I misunderstand?)

If so, it should be amenable to some form of empirical analysis, though probably with the kind of rich, messy data that leave both sides feeling validated. My gut feeling is that with both Vietnam and Abu Ghraib and even in the Ethiopian famine, the photos somehow tapped into both shared-suffering and an outrage labeled “not in my name” which combined to move political action much higher in many people’s priorities. How much higher, and is it enough, is another question, of course.


Sean McCann 09.29.05 at 9:16 pm

I’m sorry, Jim. I think it isn’t adequate. I see your point, of course, about the dangers of compassion fatigue and the limits of compassion as a complete basis for politics, but it still seems to me you’re overstating the case. Politics depends on argument and debate, but–unless you’re Arendt, of course (whose lack of interest in compassion could be taken as a weakness of her work)–it’s not only argument and debate. And, yes, pain subverts language, but not always completely or irrevocably. If I remember right, Scarry’s argument is about making as well as unmaking the world. For her, a chair is a creative response to pain, right? Is there a reason that political responses to pain inspired by compassion shouldn’t be seen the same way? Why wouldn’t it be possible to say that Oxfam was such a thing? And why shouldn’t we see Oxfam as a political organization inspired by compassion? And if compassion is such a slippery slope, how is it Oxfam, etc. are surviving institutions that in fact regularly draw attention to collective patterns? Then, too, wouldn’t many of the same questions apply to the aim of using photography to produce solidarity? Solidarity alone (without argument and other instruments) gives you no politics. It’s easily abused and can suffer the same kind of fatigue as compassion, I’d think.


Jim Johnson 09.29.05 at 11:40 pm

Sean, If you don’t like Arendt on compassion try Martha Nussbaum who is much more “pro-compassion” but whose very lengthy treatment essentially ends up recapitulating Arendt pretty much point for point. For Nussbaum compassion is problematic in precisely the same ways as it is for Arendt. In order to avoid the conclusion that it is politically irrelevant she is compelled to import her own (highly contestable) exogenous moral theory and only then can she make any connection between it and the political basis of liberal societies. But then what is doing the work is the moral theory not compassion. She tries but fails to say compassion is merely “unreliable”. I think you are in the same boat.

Can you sketch an alternative conception of compassion in which it amounts to anything other than vicarious sharing of another with individual ‘s suffering that, in addition, is highly vulnerable to all sorts of pathological transformations. No theorist I know of supports your view. I guess it is not enough to simply keeep saying you don’t see it if you cannot show why Arendt or Nussbaum, say, are mistaken in their analyses (actually the challenge is greater, you’d have to explain how they are mistaken in ways that support your view that compassion can sustain poltiics) There is some burden on you here to explain where they take a mis-step rather than simply say Arendt is insufficiently interested in compassion.

So too there is some burden on you here to show how compassion can work politically. The people who work for Oxfam may be political in all sorts of ways. I do not see hoe the people who contribute to it are (at least insofar as they are giving to Oxfam). Oxfam is a charity that seeks to ameliorate suffering and in its work it addresses (in the sense of seeking to reform or change) none of the underlying political causes of suffering. It surely does little to empower those to whom it offers aid. That is what politics is about and argument is among the very basic mechanisms for doing so. How does compassion work to susatin argument? I’ve at least suggested how it undermines argument.

The slippery slope of compassion is there in Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others. In the end she can identify no “we” whom photos might move and so she fails in her self-appointed task. And it is there in lots of other less adept critics of photography as well.

As for Scarry. She sees pain (deep abiding pain of the sort that those who suffer from dislocaiton or war or famine experience) as an object without language. We make the world through imagination (which is language without an object) and when we make a chair to alleviate the discomfort of standing we participate in that. Our participation typically involves language. If making a cahhir (instread of having one given to us) is an analogy to politics it involves participation. Giving to e..g., Oxfam is a surrogate for not a form of particpation.

I will keep working on the case for solidarity. Thanks for the argument.


Chris Bertram 09.30.05 at 1:39 am

Oxfam is a charity that seeks to ameliorate suffering and in its work it addresses (in the sense of seeking to reform or change) none of the underlying political causes of suffering.

This is, btw, just not true. Oxfam campaigns extensively around the global trade regime and spends a great deal of effort on attacking first world protectionism etc.


Sean McCann 09.30.05 at 6:00 am

What Chris said, Jim. Also, one-off donations to Oxfam may be no more politically impressive than, say, one-off donations to political parties. But there’s no reason that people who are drawn to a concern by compassion (or by a sense of solidarity or injustice) may not take up the kind of politics you admire. In that light, it would be strangely formalistic, I think, to draw a bright line between the politics of Oxfam workers and the supposed non-politics of the contributors who enable the organization to exist. Wouldn’t that amount to saying the equivalent of something like party operatives and policy wonks are genuinely political, but when jane doe makes a political donation she’s not? I can certainly see why you might want to say a political system that works that way is not exactly ideal, but I can’t see how it makes sense to say that political donations are not political.

“Unreliable” seems to me a much better description than “irrelevant.” I think that’s more or less the position I was trying to articulate from the first. But I can’t see why unreliability wouldn’t characterize any political emotion, or maybe I should say any emotional motivation for political action. I’d say compassion amounts to something more than a vicarious sharing of pain when it leads to action and/or argument. An example? How about abolitionism, which certainly depended on political resources beyond compassion, but which made pretty strong use of compassion as well. Yes, in that case and all others compassion is highly vulnerable to pathological transformation. But how is that not true of any emotion in politics. No shortage of examples of pathological solidarity.


Jim Miller 09.30.05 at 8:14 am

Can’t help wondering what William Riker (the long time chariman of the department at Rochester) would have thought of all this. Perhaps it is best that he passed away some years ago.


Jim Johnson 09.30.05 at 9:30 am

Bill RIker? That sure comes out of left (or in Bill’s case, right) field. I will say this. Bill forgot more about politics than most political sientists ever learn. He was not simply a technician as many of his intellectual offsppring have become. He also was concerned with the micro-level motivations of politics. ANd he was especially concerned about how individual motivations coalesce to produce larger forces – esepcially when that happens in surprising ways. Which is just what we have been going on about here. So I sdon’t see why he’d be bothered at all.

I personally think Bill was wrong about pretty much everything. I mean this in terms of his political views and his views on science. And I especiallyt think his views about the latter have had baleful consequences in the diiscipline. But that it a long story. I admired Bill to the extent that he never saw an intellectual argument he would turn away from with a dismissive shrug. I only wish the Rochester Department now had more of that attitude.


Jim Johnson 09.30.05 at 9:44 am

Chris, I take your point in part. But I do not want this to be about this or that aid oirganization. I suspect that many engage in “politics” in some way or another. But (1) they typically partition that activity off from direct assitance, (2) those activities are not aimed at empowering the downtrodden or mobilizing their privileged allies in a sustained manner. I do not know how things are in Britain, but in the US there are all sorts of IRS rules about what aid agenciies can do. And there are all sortsof practical constraints on what such agencies will do in the face of power (here I think of the rule that Amnesty has about not asking people within a given country to write the leaders of that country.) Fimnally,, I suspect that those who contribute are moved by the urge to directly assist suffering individuals. I am not saying that is bad. I simply think it is politically beside the point. I think it creates a predicament. having given to aid agencies again and again it is difficult to sustain such cmpassion when yet another famine erupts in some far-away place.

Having said that if Oxfam wanted to play politics for real it would have to worry not just about “safe” matters like international agreements (they are important but challenging them does not directly threaten any domestic power-holder). If we share even part of the Sen view of famines (since Oxfam is primarily concerned with food issues) the target ought to be the structures of entitlement within countries. I do not know for sure, but I suspect they do little or nothing there. And I suspect you’d already have disabused me if they did!


Jim Johnson 09.30.05 at 10:08 am


It seems preposterous to think that people contribute to aid agencies and to poltiical parties for the same purpose or that they are animtated by the same conerns or motivations when (rarely enough) they do either. But perhaps that is the nub of our disagreement poltiical parties are about power and how to use or dislodge it. Aid agencies are about cleaning up the messes powerholders make.

I argue at length in the paper that Nussbaum trys and fails to sustain the distinction between compassion being “only” unreliable rather than wholly irrelevant. Other than reasserting the distinciton you simply have not persuaded me that it can be sustained. Sorry.

The whole point is that compassion tends not, by its nature, to generate political action. It sometimes motivates humanitarian gestures. But these, as I have suggested, are (i) not obviously political and also are (ii) highly susceptible disapppointments that transform compassion into pity,resentment, and despair. Again, There are plenty of examples of how this dynamic works incommentaties on politics and photgraphy.

As I think I said earlier, solidarity is not on my view an emotion. Instead I htink it is a principle. ANd principles – again this is a conceptual point – operate to generalize; they are tools we use to establish similarity relations between one (new) case and another (past) case. In that sense they direst attention away from individuals (where compassionate motivations are fixated) and toward broader pehnomena which demand political remedies. I have not (nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone else) offered more than a skecth of how solidarity works in the fine grain. But this broad way of differenitating it from compassion seems quite clear to me. And I think the difference I’ve just stated makes solidarity less susceptinle to the vicissitudes that surround compassion and other emotions. whether as you seem to suspect, it is surrounded by other
difficulties remains to be seen.


Sean McCann 09.30.05 at 11:36 am

I suspect that those who contribute are moved by the urge to directly assist suffering individuals. I am not saying that is bad. I simply think it is politically beside the point.

That sounds a bit disingenuous, Jim. The conversation began with your claim that “compassion, as Hannah Arendt rightly notes, is de-politicizing and . . . it is a major mistake to identify the aim of documentary photography as eliciting compassion in viewers.” If it’s a major mistake, it must be bad.

It was the sweeping character of that statement and the proposal of solidarity as an alternative that motivated my objections. I haven’t yet read your paper so, you’re right, I can’t really argue against your claim that Nussbaum’s view of the unreliability of compassion is indefensible. Fair enough.

But other than simply asserting solidarity as an alternative, you also haven’t done much here to show what it is, why it’s a principle rather than an emotion, why it’s a necessary addition to other principles, and how it could plausibly be more of an aim for documentary than compassion or, for that matter, information.

My own sense of the nub of our disagreement is about whether it’s important or possible to draw bright line distinctions between what is and isn’t political.


Dan Kervick 09.30.05 at 11:52 am

Without going too deeply into my own theory of value, let me tell you what I think is wrong with this argument, but also what truth it hints at.

Without the capacity for compassion, it is impossible to assign values in any humanly intelligible way. Values are not perceived with the eyes alone, or intuited by some direct intellectual act, but rest on a foundation of feeling. Values can subsequently be perceived indirectly, and reasoned about, but they must in the first instance be felt.

Without normal experiences of compassion, our existence would be largely affectless, self-absorbed and morally blank. There would be nothing upon which to rest ascriptions of value; nor even a disposition to do so. There would be nothing to have politics about.

However, compassion is selective, and not alone sufficient for evaluative judgment. Roughly, can only experience compassion for one object at a time. During the time I am truly experiencing compassionate identification with x’s pain but not with y’s pain, I am likely to overestimate the negative value of x’s pain as compared to y’s pain. Only by combining broad experience with the capacity for reason do we correct for this deficiency. Over time, our estimates of the value or disvalue of a person’s experiences can be based on an occurently dispassionate assessment, based on our earlier experiences of compassionate identification with others having similar experiences. Our judgments of relative value become more consistent, comprehensive and reliable.

Arendt is right that an episode of compassionate identification can interfere temporarily with our more considered assessments of relative value. But without continued experiences of compassion from time to time, those considered judgments do not grow, improve and become more discerning. And they would probably degrade over time into hardhearted, distorted and overly simplified ideological reductions of reality.


abb1 09.30.05 at 1:10 pm

If it’s a major mistake, it must be bad.

I think it is bad if leads to substituting political action with charity. If it doesn’t, then it’s not bad, just beside the point.


Jim Johnson 09.30.05 at 1:37 pm

Hey gang,

I agree with abb1.

Sean, I already have conceded that I need to do more work on solidarity. I took a stab at that at the end of a 45 page paper on the interaction (baleful, in my view) between compassion and documentary photography that tries to look closely at both.

If I understand properly, you are trying to defend a view of compassion that runs contrary to the entire theoretical literature on the topic. And you are doing so without argument whatsoever. (You may think that I have not provided an argument either – here I’d say read the paper.) Why is Arendt wrong to see compassion as particularistic and subversve of our capacities to articulate political grievances? She seems persuasive on that point. Why is she mistaken to depict solidarity as a principle? It is not just me that makes that claim. And her claims there (as I pointed out earlier) converge quite surprisingly with theorists like Rorty & Nozick. The oddity of the line-up leads me to think there is somsething to be said there (even though I admit to not haveing said it very well yet!). How can we draw a distinction between compassion being irrelevant and inadequate in ways more persuassive than Nussbaum? She thinks compassion is crucial to the moral repertoire of citizens in liberal demcoracies but ends up (I think) showing that it is de-politicizing.

This leads me to Dan whose post seems to converge with my views in interesting ways. I have never said copassion is not an important ethical imperative/motivation. What I have tried to argue is that it is politically irrelevant (politics and ethics being overlapping but not identical domains). And I claim that if we want to think about the political uses of photography in terms of mobilizing political responses to mass suffering, aiming at a compassionate response is a mistake. It is self-defeating precisely because compassion works in something like the way you suggest – to narrow and concetrate our attention on the suffering of some specific individual at tthe expense of attendiong to broader concerns.

It may be an irony that compassion works like that in the sense that it means we cannot easilyy (or as easily as we might like to think) from ethical motivations to political principles or action. That irony is the basic point of the paper I wrote.


Sean McCann 09.30.05 at 2:33 pm

If I understand properly, you are trying to defend a view of compassion that runs contrary to the entire theoretical literature on the topic.

I don’t think so. I began by noting that I agree with what I take to be the classic accounts of the dangers of compassion–including Arendt’s–while also wanting to raise the possibility that it may not be so easy to distinguish compassion from a hypothetical alternative like solidarity or even possibly from the apparent invocation of principle or argument. Put another way, I’m doubtful about what seems like Arendt’s allergic reaction to compassion and am suspicious (though admittedly I can’t defend the view without reading your whole essay) about the possibility that that allergic reaction may depend on an abstract and implausible alternative–which is my untutored sense of what the public realm is in Arendt. In this context, it seems to me that it matters that the concept of solidarity isn’t yet elaborated. If it can’t be constructed on the lines you prefer, I think the complaint against compassion can’t be as strong.

My view is close to Dan’s, who puts the case a lot more clearly and eloquently than I can. In response, you note that politics and ethics are distinct but overlapping realms. That seems right to me. But if they are genuinely overlapping than it may not be possible to define something ethically important like compassion as categorically non-political. Abolitionism was, for instance, a political movement which was in part inspired by and which also made political use of compassion. It could not have been successful without relying on the sense of justice, the principles of religion, the feeling of solidarity (in attractive and unattractive guise) and the instrumentalities of argument and other political techniques. But it seems to me just impossible to pull compassion out of the mix and say it’s the nonpolitical or irrelevant element in this compound.

You say, “if we want to think about the political uses of photography in terms of mobilizing political responses to mass suffering, aiming at a compassionate response is a mistake.” I don’t disagree entirely. I’d just add the problem seems to me more basic and lies in the idea of using photography to mobilize political response period. Its capacities will always be limited and the range of its possible uses will make for good and bad results. Similarly, when you say it may be harder than we think to move from ethical motivations to political principles or action, I’d say, yes but would doubt your phrasing slightly. It seems to me also and equally difficult to move from political principle to action. People act politically on reasons, but rarely on reasons alone. Photography and other forms of political rhetoric appeal to interest and emotion and that’s all prey to pathology.


Susan 09.30.05 at 8:08 pm

I think this debate is very interesting, however, without wishing to be too rude, I think it would be improved if those commenting actually read the paper to which they are responding.


Tom Doyle 09.30.05 at 10:03 pm

Jim Johnson:

Would you define “compassion.” This might aid the discussion.



Seth Edenbaum 09.30.05 at 10:14 pm

As usual I’m disturbed by the inability to accept problematic realities as such. In the end these issues must be treated on a case by case basis. Johnson referes in his paper to ‘proximity,’ the same term I’ve used in reference to the moral relativism of everyday life: If your mother dies I’ll offer condolences, but I won’t cry. Art creates a temporary and artificial proximity, and ‘documentary’ Images those meant to have a specific function rely on texts to clarify their meaning.

It’s a conundrum whether to be specific or general, and in what ratio to deploy either as modes of communication. What makes no sense at all is to preternd they overlap, or that photography- with its ersatz physicality or pseudo presence- can perform the functions of- can mimic successfully- either words or experience. I’m far from alone in thinking that documentary as such is much of an illusion as objectivity in what’s now called ‘journalism’ What photography can do as an art is to give specificity a weight that words can not. But that comes at a cost.

PS Susan Sontag is famously an aesthete and a dilettante.
Friends witnessed her atrocious behavior in Sarajevo.
Don’t get me started on Annie Leibovitz.


Sean McCann 10.01.05 at 7:18 am

ouch. you’re right, of course, Susan.


Seth Edenbaum 10.01.05 at 9:40 am

I’d add for those of you which would be most of you who don’t know Martha Rosler that her work is specifically forcefully didactic and that whatever irony is to be found- irony as implying an awareness of her own position as a producer of images- is in the work seemingly despite her own intentions. The woman heself is a pedant, but the show is good

LMAKprojects/Elga Wimmer
526 West 26th Street, #310
until october 8th.

If you’ve got $20,000 to spare, pick up one of the early ones, they’re classic.


smart shade of blue 10.01.05 at 4:02 pm

Johnson´s blog is certainly fine work, but I felt a little disappointed because your description makes one think of a different kind of blog. In fact, there are surprisingly few photos in it, and it is mostly theoretical; I expected more applied work _ just photos being analyzed. Deception with ausence of more applied work notwithstanding, it´s a nice blog.

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