Images of (In)Humanity in Religion, Art, and Ethics – University of Copenhagen

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3) The Problem of Evil and Images of (In)Humanity

Menashe Kadishman, Shalechet (1997) (

As Primo Levi, Yosef Yerushalmi, Avishai Margalit and others have argued, commemorating crimes against humanity is an ethical task that prompts reflection on normativity. If we take seriously the fact that people can treat their fellow human beings as if they were sub-human, what mental, linguistic or graphic images of humanity can offer navigational tools and norms of orientation in situations that give rise to confusion? Hannah Arendt raised the question of how we are to understand the concept of human dignity if we cannot prevent its violation. Her question is intensified if human beings are perceived as created in the image of an invisible God, for how can the divine ‘shine through’ when humanity seems distorted beyond recognition? Atheist writers like Jean Améry demonstrate that questions of, e.g., forgiveness confront us even if we live ‘without God.’                    

We will discuss the implications of images of humanity and counter-images in a multi-media context by examining the relation between ethics and aesthetics as it surfaces in double binds and ethical dilemmas. Creative responses to trauma, guilt and shame in literature, film, and art come into focus in this context. Methodologically, we will combine literary and visual studies with the philosophy of emotion and theories of recognition. Understanding the potential of images – their power to move and make evident what they show – is relevant also for finding out how the visual in the service of the verbal can fool people into believing enemy propaganda deforming the image of ‘the other.’ In this connection we will study the difference between the de-humanizing effects of the Lingua Tertii Imperii (Victor Klemperer) and poetry or fiction that resists degradation (e.g. Nelly Sachs, Avrom Sutzkever, Paul Auster, Aharon Appelfeld, Hilde Domin, Elazar Benyoëtz).