- Mobilizing Vulnerability: New Directions in Transnational Feminist Studies and Human Rights
Since August 2015, the New York Times has run a series of front-page articles about the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. The intensified media coverage of the crisis was initially sparked by the global circulation of the image of Aytan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian Kurdish child whose body was photographed washed up on a beach in Turkey on September 2, 2015.1 In response to the heightened media coverage of the crisis, New York Times foreign correspondent Charles Homans opened an article published on September 3 with the question, “Why this boy” (2015)? As Homans points out, nearly 12,000 children have reportedly been killed as a result of the Syrian civil war and nearly 2 million more are living as refugees, according to Unicef (2015). Homans suggests that whereas the majority of photographic images of vulnerable children are designed to elicit pity in their intended audience, urging Americans to “use their hegemonic privilege to alleviate suffering,” the image of the boy on the beach evokes not pity, but rather empathy (2015). As he comments, “In the geography of empathy, the boy on the beach occupies an unusual position. He is at once an emissary from a distant war of unfathomable, baroque atrocity and a figure of awful closeness . . . for a moment at least, you are looking at a photograph that hurts just as much as it should.”
Homans presumes that the “hurt” we should feel emerges through identification—in his case, identification between Aytan and his own son. Here identification facilitates the shift from pity to empathy. Prompting readers’ self-reflexivity, he asks: “Is it wrong to be more jarred, more ravaged by this image simply because the child looks as if he could have wandered off your neighborhood playground . . . Because this child, unlike the anonymous, dust-shrouded corpses you’ve seen in other photographs, bears all the outward signs of being cared for as you care for your own?” Although Homans encourages us to consider the ease with which identification is enabled, we also need to consider what identification obscures. [End Page vii]
In Deliberative Acts: Democracy, Rhetoric, and Rights, Arabella Lyon (2013) observes: “In its seemingly abstract impartiality, identification hides the powerful differences of material conditions, suasory practices, semiotic technologies, and discursive structures, all of which lend force to identification as a vehicle for creating outcomes and consensus” (60). While the US media coverage of the European refugee crisis may resonate with humanitarianism’s iconic configuration of children as vulnerable subjects in need of protection, what Homans’ identification points to, and what we want to foreground, is that children across the globe are not configured in the same ways. The media circulation and uptake of the image of Aytan’s lifeless body is part of a global humanitarian phenomenon, but, as Jane Juffer notes in her contribution to this issue, “‘Children’ is never a static category.” Indeed, as Juffer points out in her cogent analysis of Central American child migrants to the United States, “state treatment of child migrants is deeply ambivalent, with children perceived at times as vulnerable and at times as ‘threatening, unruly, and uncontrolled outsiders.’ ” Thus, we must ask: to what degree has the image of Aytan’s body on the beach ignited humanitarian recognition? Why is the lapping sea that killed him now legible as a landscape of humanization (Atanasoski 2013, 2)? Is rescue the primary framing narrative? Or has another discursive frame taken hold?
As photographed subjects in media-driven humanitarian narratives, children frequently take on the identity of “absolute victims,” their bodies reduced to an innocent and fragile vulnerability intended to ignite Euro-American humanitarian recognition. Such images of children as apolitical subjects without agency are common signs of the gendering of vulnerability within the humanitarian imaginary. In attaching moral clarity to innocence, these humanitarian fantasies of transnational intimacy rest on the representation of the “foreign” woman or child as a deserving victim in need of rescue—a rescue narrative caught up in the logic of Western imperialism parading under the cloak of international humanitarianism. Homans’ commentary on the image...