Disseminating Destruction: The Impact of the Image during World War I

May 5, 2021 | Spring 2021


Northwestern ’21

Matt Lieberman is a senior from Boston studying Journalism, Political Science and Integrated Marketing Communications. He wrote this research paper during Northwestern’s Art, Literature & Contemporary European Thought (ALCET) program in Paris, France.


In a nutshell, what is your research topic?

My research explores how the coinciding innovations of World War 1 military technology and democratized, mass produced photographs of human suffering brought about societal disillusionment. To do so, I consider this relationship through the lens of Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction and Jacques Rancierè’s dissensus in order to portray how evolving aesthetic conventions galvanized political action.

How did you come to your research topic?

After noticing a swift evolution of aesthetic conventions from the 19th to 20th century, I sought to further understand these changes. In doing so, I came to the realization that industrialization produced an advancement in military technology around the same time that mass produced photography became widely available to capture and disseminate images of human suffering.

Where do you see the future direction of this work leading? How might future researchers build on your work, or what is left to discover in this field?

Future researchers might build upon this work by considering the implications of advancements in modern technology on our society. Images and videos now circulate through an instantaneous global network, leaving questions about whether this has the positive effect of sharing the truth, the negative effect of desensitization, or both.

Where are you heading to after graduation?

I will be working at PepsiCo in Chicago as an Associate Marketing Analyst.

The following poem is displayed at The Topography of Terror in Berlin, Germany.  The center, located at the former SS headquarters, preserves the memory of the horrors of Nazi violence. 

Ein Foto (A photograph), by Willem Wilmink

There are photographs of round-ups

on Jonas Daniël Meijerplein

where German soldiers

can be seen bullying Jews. 


A fearful man with shiny shoes,

long coat and bow tie 

is herded across the square 

as if it were a livestock market.


Three German soldiers are

watching with a mocking smile,

 and there’s a fourth one, who,

perhaps ashamed averts his eyes.


Imagine that you saw that photograph 

of a man with a bow tie

and that you suddenly realized

you were looking at your dad


Sometimes I also wonder 

how the other son must feel, 

the one who recognised his father

in the smiling soldier looking on.

In his 1889 essay “The Decay of Lying,” Oscar Wilde opined that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life,” given that “anti-mimesis” occurs because “the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression.”1  While anti-mimesis’ precedence over mimesis has been debated for centuries, the timing of Wilde’s essay is notable.  Just a decade later, the paradigm by which artists could use art to imitate life changed drastically with the development of portable, efficient, and affordable photographic technology.  Although the original camera was invented in the 19th century, the democratization of photography and its capabilities for mass reproduction would forever alter aesthetic possibilities of realistic representation.  

At the same time, as a result of innovation in military technology spurred by industrialization, the unprecedented destruction of World War I was ravaging much of Europe. While past conflicts had been represented through the subjective narratives of artists in paintings, epic poems and literature, photography’s boom meant soldiers and photojournalists could capture direct depictions of World War I suffering.  As argued by Walter Benjamin, Judith Butler, and Susan Sontag, mechanical reproduction and mass dissemination of the image maintains a unique capability to galvanize political action.  Through the lens of Jacques Rancière’s framework of dissensus and sensus communis, brutal images can redevelop common sensibilities, raising pertinent considerations of the implications of these photographs on the psyche of modern society.  At the turn of the 20th century, coinciding innovation in military technology and democratized photography created a perfect storm for a zeitgeist of disillusionment.  Despite modern society’s dissensus, mass dissemination of mechanically reproduced images provides a basis for sensus communis by breaking aesthetic conventions and reformulating the sensible.

When considering the human capacity for violence throughout history, humans have been at peace for only 268 of the past 3,400 years.2  World War I, however, was different than any previous conflict.  The first of its kind on a global scale, the war, beginning in an age of trailblazing industrialization and advancement in military technology, resulted in European turmoil both on and off the battlefield.  Previous battles had been fought solely on the ground, but the invention of the airplane added further stress for soldiers, as the constant threat of aerial bombings loomed.  Chlorine and mustard gasses posed another consistent danger to soldiers’ health and wellbeing.3  While rifles had been previously used, the Germans eventually came to own over 100,000 Maschinengewehr automatic guns.4  As a result of this influx of destructive military technology, this war was mainly fought in trenches along the Western front, causing copious tragedies in what became nearly the deadliest war to date.5

Before exposure to the atrocities of World War I, the general sentiment of soldiers and civilians surrounding the impending conflict was marked by hopefulness.  Curator Dr. Matthew Shaw wrote that patriotism, loyalty, and country were the main reasons men either volunteered, or remained optimistic after being drafted.  According to Shaw many soldiers felt the “rigours and boredom” of their work in the harsh factories of industrialized Europe would prepare them for the day-to-day realities of war.6  That initial optimism, however, quickly soured.  Beyond the trauma of violence, industrialized weaponry brought about trench warfare, in which soldiers endured woeful conditions.  Deep in the trenches, the fear of artillery bombing led to panic, which some militaries tried to subdue— the Germany military valued “Dickfelligkeit” or “thick-skinnedness” in the face of war.7  Crowded, unsanitary, wet conditions in the trenches contributed to the spread of infectious diseases like cholera and dysentery, as well as trench foot and trench mouth.8  While over 10,000,000 soldiers did not make it back alive, those that did return home were rarely the same.  Nearly 4,000 German soldiers killed themselves, and by the end of World War I, the British army had dealt with 80,000 cases of shell shock— what is now termed as post-traumatic stress disorder.9

The drastic impacts of European industrialization were not solely encountered in the field of military technology.  At the turn of the 20th century, technological advancements in photography led to the creation of more practical, accessible equipment. While photography apparatuses had existed during the Crimean War and the United States’ Civil War 50 years prior, the exorbitant cost and slow, immobile processes of this equipment rendered them incapable of fully capturing the war.10  According to Hilary Roberts, co-author of “The Great War: A Photographic Narrative,” newspapers had been “quite happy to use photographs which were merely representative or illustrative of a point rather than showing a genuine event itself.”11  In previous wars, the arduous process of long exposure had only allowed for images before and after battles, but new technology altered how photogragraphers could capture the realities of war.  These technological breakthroughs not only transformed professional photography, but also opened up the practice to amateurs.  While Eastman Kodak’s “Brownie” camera popularized amateur photography in 1900, the 1912 “Vest Pocket” became the favorite among soldiers.12  Following this medium’s democratization, soldiers took portable cameras with them into the trenches.  Beyond the emergence of smaller, cheaper cameras, companies also introduced easily reproducible film formats, allowing amateurs to not only capture but also to copy and share their own photographs.  While some nations maintained authority over what material could be published in newspapers, the untethered way in which soldiers could now take and send photos back home enabled them to share uncensored wartime experiences.  According to Bodo von Dewitz, former photography curator at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, “the pictures from the front, sent by soldiers to their families, could not be controlled that much.”13  In the same era that new military technology caused unprecedented destruction, innovative photographic technology generated the portable, accessible means to capture it all.

Resulting from technological breakthroughs in photography, the public’s newfound exposure to exhaustive wartime images altered many Europeans’ perspectives on the conflict, the fabric of society, and life itself.  The influx of societal disillusionment during and after the war — often described in philosophy, literature and art — can be attributed to many causes.  For soldiers, initial optimism, subsequent suffering, and eventual shell shock led to societal disconnect.  For civilians, factors from economic uncertainty to political unrest combined to cause this sentiment, with one key element being an unprecedented awareness of the realities of war.  Previous war narratives had been determined by individual interpretation, as seen in Homer’s words in The “Iliad” or Paolo Uccello’s brushstrokes in “The Battle of San Romano.”  Despite their legendary status as chronicles of wartime heroism and destruction, these representations provided perspectives as portrayed by the artist.  The new paradigm of aesthetic representation through photographic technology now spread unfettered depictions across Europe.  Through postcards from their brothers, fathers, and sons, and images printed in newspapers, civilians were now exposed to visual documentation of wartime suffering.  Mass reproduction brought about greater knowledge among the general populace of violence on the Western Front.  Among other economic and political factors, photography’s ability to disseminate direct depictions across the continent helped to incite societal disillusionment.

In their philosophical writings, Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche expressed similar sentiments, using the war to describe a disillusionment indiscriminately felt by those in all corners of society.  As philosophers attempted to make sense of seemingly senseless mass tragedy, the war served as a central point of interest.  In “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” Freud draws little distinction between combatants and civilians, writing that an “individual who is not himself a combatant – and so is a cog in the gigantic machine of war – feels bewildered in his orientation, and inhibited in his powers and activities.”14  Here, Freud describes the lack of agency felt by civilians as they watched fellow countrymen killed from a distance, often through photographic images.  Freud proceeds to express the feeling among civilians and soldiers alike upon their realization that they have been “misled into regarding human beings as ‘better’ than they actually are.”15  The high moral standard to which people held their fellow humans is stripped away when, through the lens of the image, they view the “brutality shown by individuals… who one would not have thought capable of such behaviour.”16  Previous representations had attempted to portray war’s realities, but direct visual depiction brought the darkest side of humanity to light.  In “Murderous Consent: on the Accommodation of Violent Death,” Marc Crépon asks how we are to understand brutality that goes against what “would have been considered incompatible” with society’s “level of culture” (56).17  In Crépon’s view, Freud argues that we are unable to answer this question because we are disillusioned by “the atrocities of war, whether endured or inflicted” (56).18  According to Crépon, Freud claims that “our confusion is a function of our ignorance, or denigration of the forces that compose life” (56).19  The nature of this disillusionment is one of revelation, in which society’s members realize that even their own “exemplary” democracies are capable of enacting brutal violence.  The coincidence of, as Freud writes, a conflict “more bloody and more destructive than any war of other days, because of the enormously increased perfection of weapons of attack and defense,”20 with the means to capture it all, brought about disenchantment surrounding reformed perceptions of mankind’s inherent morality.

While Nietzsche does not blame societal turmoil on the war as specifically as Freud does, he outlines a similar realization through the putting up and knocking down of “moral values” on a pedestal.  That pedestal, Nietzsche writes in “The Will to Power,” once maintained a distance from the “sphere in which we live on,” but it has since been torn down by the revelation of “untenability of existence when it comes to the highest values one recognizes” (9).21  Exposure to the grisly aspects of human nature brings to light what Nietzsche considers “radical nihilism.”  While Nietzsche claims that men attempt to “resist new conditions of existence with which they cannot cope,” (69)22 mass reproduction made these brutal images inescapable.  The viewing of documented wartime atrocities breaks down the civilian’s previously held notions of man’s inherent morality.  While Nietzsche argues that humans pass “moral value judgements” (11)23 under the guises of religion, theology, and ethics, these photographs bare the truth.  In “The Antichrist,” Nietzsche describes how “our good conscience” was grounded upon “faulty vision” (52)24 and how the repudiation of what man once considered to be true can cause psychological and spiritual weariness.  Upon exposure to suffering, that “faulty” vision becomes clear, leading to a newfound recognition of humanity’s capability to destroy its own kind.  While Freud and Nietzsche espouse disparate views, both describe a sentimental shift brought on by wartime violence and the imagery that spread its realities across Europe. 

While societal disillusionment was utilized to construct philosophical viewpoints, it was also often used as a literary theme, as seen in Albert Camus’ “The Stranger and André Breton’s “Nadja.”  “The Stranger’s” protagonist Meursault remains unphased by even life’s most tragic circumstances, expressing an indifference that closely resembles the philosophical perspectives offered by both Freud and Nietzsche. 

What did other people’s deaths or a mother’s love matter to me: what did his God or the lives people choose or the fate they think they elect matter to me when we’re all elected by the same fate, me and billions of privileged people like him who also called themselves my brothers? (121)25

Expressing his sense of a lack of agency over his own life, Meursault appears to feel like a mere cog in society’s machine.  Later, Meursault evokes Nietzsche’s nihilism, remarking that “it’s common knowledge that life isn’t worth living, anyhow” (121).26  Indifferent to a reality he feels unable to control, the protagonist acts beyond the constraints of morality when he murders a foreign stranger and resigns himself to a final fate.  On Camus, Crépon writes: 

My reading of Camus tells us that this kind of disorientation is hardly exceptional.  It applies to anyone who is no longer sure where he is or how things are or where he is going because he has been led to suspend, in specific circumstances, all concern for the care, the aid, and the attention that the vulnerability and the morality of the other still, everywhere, demand of him (48). 27

Given his dissociation with society, Mersault’s attitude resembles the disillusionment of the early 20th century.  Similar sentiments are reflected in André Breton’s “Nadja”, an iconic work of the Surrealist movement.  Breton writes “perhaps my life is nothing but an image of this kind; perhaps I am doomed to retrace my steps under the illusion that I am exploring, doomed to try and learn what I should simply recognize learning a mere fraction of what I have forgotten” (12).28  As the narrator grapples with his current grasp on life and his previous conception of reality, he exhibits the common disillusionment of this time period.  Throughout the novel, the questioning of reality remains poignant, with the narrator attempting to discern what is real and what is merely illusory.  Resulting from their exposure to wartime atrocities, most often by way of the reproduced image, many Europeans grew suspicion over their previously held assumptions.  While each author expresses disenchantment using distinct literary devices, Breton and Camus both share disillusioned sentiment through their characters.

This sentiment became prominent in the aesthetic culture of the early 20th century, impacting previously established artistic movements and inducing new ones.  During World War I, the Dada movement was born, rejecting modern capitalism’s logic and its traditional aesthetics.  Countering these conventions, Dada instead embraced the irrationality and chaos of the time period.  In 1918’s “Dada Manifesto,” Tristan Tzara asks: 

How can one expect to put order into the chaos that constitutes that infinite and shapeless variation: man? The principle: ‘love thy neighbor’ is a hypocrisy. ‘Know thyself’ is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind.29

In response to a conflict that was, in their view, born out of bourgeois control, Dadaists attempted to thwart the power structure of modern capitalism by defying aesthetic norms.  To ridicule modern society’s capitalist organization, as well as nationalist politics they believed gave way to World War I, Dadaists used imagery of nonsense.  In doing so, they hoped to express their disapproval of wartime violence, much of which had been disseminated through brutal images. Developing out of the Dada movement, Surrealism sought to combat the “rationalism” that had led to World War I.  In his “Manifesto of Surrealism,” Breton writes:

The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd.30  

Breton’s Manifesto rejected the political, social, and economic order that Surrealists believed brought about the violence and suffering depicted in wartime photographs.  Although grounded in different goals, another movement stemming from wartime violence was Futurism, which intended to replace traditional aesthetic conventions with energetic celebrations of machinery.  Futurists hoped to “glorify war” as “the only cure for the world.”31 While it reflects a break from the antiwar sentiment of Dada and Surrealism, Futurism serves as an example of mass violence’s effect on aesthetic culture.  Although these movements share both common threads and vast disparities, they each reflect how mass recognition of wartime realities manifested in new movements of artistic expression.  This knowledge, brought about by the coincidental development of destructive military technology and the technological means to capture this violence, gave way to the philosophical, aesthetic, and literary climate of the time period.

Photographic technology’s impression on the era’s societal zeitgeist can be further explicated through Walter Benjamin’s framework of mechanical reproduction and his delineation of how photography differs from other aesthetic mediums.  In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin distinguishes between an authentic work and one that is mechanically reproduced.  The original “aura” (4) of a painting or sculpture, Benjamin argues, is stripped away through the process of mechanical reproduction.32 While this conception lies upon mechanical reproduction’s extinguishing of a work’s authenticity, one can distinguish between the notion of “aura” in a painting or sculpture as compared to a photograph.  A painting or sculpture has only one original copy, and further reproduction of the work renders subsequent copies inauthentic.  On the other hand, a photographic negative, because it exists solely in the realm of mechanical reproduction, can “make any number of prints” (6).33   By its very nature, the photograph is designed to be mechanically reproduced.  Each negative maintains just as much authenticity as the next, implying that mechanical reproduction of the image does not strip away “aura.”  Due to photography’s inherent grounding in the process of mechanical reproduction, the image never had an aura that could be taken away.

Based on Benjamin’s notion of photography as an auraless medium, mass circulation of an image does not deprive subsequent copies of authenticity.  In “Frames of War,” Judith Butler expands upon Benjamin’s claim, arguing that the image’s circulable nature allows it to “break from itself” in order “to move across space and time” (10).34  Butler’s description of the photograph’s capability for circulation, in which each copy maintains the same authenticity as the next, serves as further testament to the unique abilities of the image.  Benjamin draws further distinction between the aesthetic paradigm in which viewers were required to travel to the site of the piece to experience it, and the new means of dissemination spurred on by photography.  As an art form inherently grounded in reproducibility, Benjamin argues that the photograph can meet “the beholder or listener in his own particular situation” (4).35  Rather than requiring a viewer to expend finite resources— time, money, and energy— to experience a work, photography brings about a new exemplar of accessibility. Butler furthers this description, claiming that mechanical reproduction allows the masses equal access to the image, as circulation “delimits” the notion of “a single context” (9).36  Instead of categorizing dissemination as separate from the initial snap of the shutter, Butler considers circulation integral to the process.  In arguing that inherent reproducibility deteriorates the idea of a “single context,” Butler encapsulates the efficacy of wartime imagery. These visual depictions met viewers in their own situation, whether that was the mailbox or the newspaper stand, to bring about unprecedented awareness of the realities of war.  By delimiting a specific context, while still maintaining authenticity even after millions of reproductions, this auraless medium bridged the gap between soldiers in the trenches and civilians back home. 

Through the lens of Benjamin’s chronicling of art’s functionality, photography brought about a new paragon of functional value grounded in opportunities for the politicization of aesthetics. In “The Work of Art in Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin describes early works of art as holding “magical,” then “religious” or “cult” value, tied to location and ritualistic function (6).37  Benjamin proceeds to outline how the new paradigm of “exhibition” value disrupted long-standing aesthetic traditions, emancipating art from its “parasitical dependence on ritual” (6).38  In a medium like photography, with its direct ties to mechanical reproduction, authenticity as a metric to determine value becomes obsolete.  As such, a new function— one based on politics rather than ritual— is born.  While a work with cult value awaits the viewers’ deliberate approach, a mass-produced image can meet the “beholder in his situation.”  Whether or not the artist of a work with “exhibition” value intends to serve a political purpose, “exhibition” value provides an opportunity to spread a message delimited from a single context.  Benjamin also describes how images of war can serve a “cult” value surrounding a certain individual.  “The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead,” Benjamin writes, “offers a last refuse for the cult value of the picture” (7).39  As the dead’s aura “emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face,” (7)40 the photograph provides a subject to which family and friends of the fallen soldier can direct their mourning.  However, beyond the loved ones of that specific soldier, the image has the capacity to generate impact on a larger scale with exhibition value.  Despite the emotional distance of the masses from that individual, mass reproduction’s fulfillment of exhibition value provides an opportunity to convey a political message.  By transcending the context of that specific family, exhibition value surpasses cult value.  Regardless of a photographer’s initial political intention, mass dissemination opens up opportunities for far-reaching impact through exhibition value.

By further illuminating reality through technical and process reproduction, photography achieves the masses’ desire to forge further spatial and emotional connection. Benjamin argues that even aspects “unattainable to the naked eye” may be “accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will” (4).41  While the image’s framing is determined by the photographer’s will, the camera itself can shed light on truths unavailable to the naked eye.  While Benjamin acknowledges that viewing a photograph is not the same as witnessing a scene up close, he argues that technical reproduction can expose viewers to truths outside of what they might see in person.  Beyond these capabilities, Benjamin argues that process reproduction fulfills a common goal of the “contemporary masses,” in satiating their desire to “bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (5).42  By meeting “the beholder in their particular situation” through process reproduction, the image can bring distant truths closer to the contemporary masses.  Photography’s ability to put a “copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself” (4)43 provides opportunities for visual representations to traverse boundaries of space, setting, and human emotion.  Through the capturing of photographs unattainable to the human eye via technical reproduction and their mass dissemination through process reproduction, wartime images bridged the spatial and emotional gap between civilian life and the distant realities of war.

Through the lens of Jacques Rancière’s dissensus, dissemination of images beyond limitations of sensibility defied the aesthetic break, unifying viewers toward sensus communis through the reformulation of the sensible.  When analyzing the image’s capability to close the aesthetic break by circulating material beyond the boundaries of sensibility, it is crucial to consider Rancière’s framework of partage du sensible.  In “The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible,”  Rancière describes “the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it” (12).44  In any given society, the aesthetic content that is considered to be “sensible” falls within the realm of respectability.  However, the limitations of that realm are subject to reformulation, as outlined in Rancière’s chronology of regimes.  In “The Emancipated Spectator,” Rancière denotes an early ethical regime marked by “sensus communis,” (57)45 a universal appreciation of certain aesthetic works.  The second regime is representational, marked by mimesis as the highest value of art and characterized by an aesthetic break that privileged the wealthy elite.  Finally, Rancière describes the aesthetic regime of the 20th century and today, in which art’s goal is purely aesthetic.  In Rancière’s view, the chronological progression of regimes goes hand in hand with increased fragmentation and dissensus.  Here, Rancière describes the fracture between artist and viewer, and between disparate viewers, along the lines of their perceptions and reactions.  While Rancière claims that the aesthetic regime is marked by further dissensus and varied perceptions of the same works of art, the reproduced image’s ability to rectify the aesthetic break through the redeveloping of the sensible counters this notion.

Through the reformulation of the sensible, the image closes the aesthetic break by developing a sensus communis against material that strays beyond the limitations of sensibility.  In Rancière’s view, sensus communis is a common understanding of what falls inside and outside the boundaries of sensibility.  In a modern society marked by dissensus, and disparate conceptions of what is considered sensible, Rancière argues that “there is no longer any correspondence between the concepts of artistic poiesis and the forms of aesthetic pleasure” (64).46  However, by disseminating material beyond the sensible, photographers altered conceptions of what is sensible and formed correspondence between poiesis, or creation, and aesthetic displeasureBefore World War I, exposure to wartime violence often came through the subjective narratives of poems, literature, and paintings.  With the advent of photographic technology’s ability to disseminate direct depictions of war, these new images fell beyond the limitations of what was considered sensible. While war photographs were considered out of the realm of sensibility for most civilians, they may have accurately depicted daily life for that civilian’s father, brother, or son.  As civilians reacted to imagery that was once considered beyond sensibility’s boundaries, the reformulation of sensibilities brought about sensus communis marked by disillusionment.  While Rancière claims that the current regime’s aesthetic goals manifest in further dissensus, the nearly universal “aisthesis,” or sensation, in reaction to these images helped to close the aesthetic break.  Despite a distinction between photographer and viewer, as well as between viewers, the image’s ability to “delimit a single context” (9)47 and meet “the beholder in their particular situation” (4)48 unified some Europeans.  Despite fragmentation along the lines of race, class, or aesthetic preference, images beyond the sensible and subsequent reformulation of the sensible brought about a sensus communis grounded in disillusionment regarding seemingly senseless violence.

While the 20th century may have been marked by more dissensus and reformulation of the sensible than the “ethical regime,” aesthetics unified much of society in each era.  One can draw similarities between the sensus communis in the ethical regime and that of the early 20th century.  In the ethical regime, standardized aesthetics under the guise of cult value drove the community to share similar sensations toward artistic works.  “In that regime,” Rancière argues, “a portrait or statue is always an image of someone and derives its legitimacy from its relationship with the human being or god it represents.”49  Deriving legitimate status from the figures it represented, art with cult value served as the paragon of the sensible.  One particular medium through which the Ancient Greeks shared the sensible was the theatre, which served as a “magnifying mirror” in which viewers could see reflections of themselves through fictional stories, as described by Rancière.

There was a continuity between the intrinsic consistency — or autonomy — of the play and its capacity to produce ethical effects in the minds of the spectators in the theatre and in their behavior outside the theatre. […] The stage, the audience and the world were comprised in one and the same continuum. (60)50  

Through the development of concordance between “sense and sense,” (60)51 the theater produced affect — in the psychological denotation of the word— beyond its venue.  While Rancière argues that art’s ability to bring about sensus communis by traversing boundaries was lost in the progression of aesthetic functionality, photography maintains similar capabilities.  Rancière writes that “human beings are tied together by a certain sensory fabric, a certain distribution of the sensible” (56).52  Even though Europeans were siphoned off in disparate communities, the common “aisthesis” against wartime atrocities and the subsequent reformulation of the sensible helped to engender sensus communis of dissociation.  By facilitating common sensation through the delimitation of context, the mechanically reproduced image traverses lines of disidentification.  As 60 million Europeans were mobilized to fight in World War I,53 Europe’s civilians were bound to know friends and family fighting.  Personal connection to the war and circulation of brutal images tied humans together through, in Rancière’s words, a “certain sensory fabric” (56).54  By closing the gap between soldiers in the trenches and civilians back home, mass dissemination of war images manifested in a shared sense of horror, helplessness, and disillusionment.

Even beyond helping to close the aesthetic break, reformulation of both the sensible and systems of visibility further united civilians in the time of war.  As Rancière writes in “The Emancipated Spectator,” “an image never stands alone.  It belongs to a system of visibility that governs the status of the bodies represented and the kind of attention they merit” (99).55  These war photographs violated previous norms of sensible visibility, in which wartime violence was merely portrayed through representational means.  The reframing of the sensible as a result of mass dissemination provided the basis upon which viewers could take political action.  For Rancière, the reformulation of the sensible maintains close ties to democracy.  In “The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible,” he writes that “democracy itself is defined by these intermittent acts of political subjectivization that reconfigure the communal distribution of the sensible” (3).56  The ability of these images to transcend dissensus brought about new perspectives on the realities of war.  In “The Emancipated Spectator,” Rancière maintains that “to reconfigure the landscape of what can be seen and what can be thought is to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities and incapacities” (49).57  By uniting many of the masses with images beyond the sensible, aesthetics were “reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification” (49).58  Under Rancière’s framework, art in a time period of pure aesthetic functionality might be incapable of breaking through dissensus.  However, when the violation of sensible norms and the reformulation of those norms unifies across boundaries of disidentification, therein lies opportunity for political action. 

Interpretation of a photograph does not rely solely on the viewer, meaning that the image’s affect can break across boundaries of dissensus and disidentification to unite  disparate backgrounds.  While multiple factors socioeconomic, political, or aesthetic can coalesce to inform the individual’s reaction to an image, Butler claims that affect is not solely determined by the viewer.  Through her description of an image’s ability to delimit a single context, Butler describes the photograph taking on a life of its own.  With its ability to move “across space and time,” and in Benjamin’s view meet the “beholder in their particular situation” the photograph can unsettle “both maker and viewer” (67).59  By describing images as autonomously capable of inciting affect, and countering the notion of interpretation as a “subjective state” (50),60 Butler speaks to the image’s inherent power.  Even in societies marked by dissensus along political, socioeconomic, or aesthetic lines, Butler’s categorization reflects the images’ ability to bring about sensus communis.  In accordance with Rancière’s view of humanity’s collective tie through a “a certain distribution of the sensible,” the image’s unsettling of “both maker and viewer” is testament to its unifying power across the lines of disidentification.  Despite dissensus, the image’s ability to transcend subjective aisthesis can unite beholders from disparate backgrounds.  While no single image can bring about full sensus communis, its affect, often against the individual’s will, cuts across the lines of disidentification to provide a basis upon which viewers can engage in political action.

While the mass dissemination of war photography can produce an automatic affect, this does not guarantee its “transitive power,” (68)61 or the bridging of the gap between aesthesis and legitimate action.  Susan Sontag, in “Regarding the Pain of Others,” and Butler describe an image’s transitive power as one that brings about a response that manifests in a willingness to take action. A photograph with transitive power does not merely communicate suffering, but does so in such a way that prompts the viewer to “alter their political assessment of war” (68).62  Sontag claims that a war photograph does not just portray or represent a reality, but rather relays an overwhelming and numbing affect to the viewer.  However, Sontag remains skeptical of photography’s ability to incite a legitimate alteration of political assessment of war, noting a distinction between initial aisthesis and an image’s capability to motivate viewers to a “new course of action.”63  Sontag’s distinction between engendering aisthesis and the image’s capacity to give rise to legitimate political action raises pertinent questions about war photography’s efficacy in serving political purposes.  While an image might stir up an emotional reaction in the viewer, Sontag raises questions of the photograph’s ability to bring about tangible political action on the part of the beholder.

While Sontag maintains skepticism of the image’s capacity to springboard the viewer into political action, Benjamin’s framework of mechanical reproduction implies an inherent ability for the mass dissemination of photographs to contribute to political goals.  Benjamin describes mass-produced imagery as repeated across a level playing field, tearing across boundaries of race and class to provide nearly universal access. Here, Benjamin draws a distinction between the mass dissemination of the 20th century and past functionalities of art, which were often reserved for the wealthy elite.  In considering how mass dissemination can give rise to political action, one must keep in mind the discrepancy in the efficacy of political action between the wealthy elite and the layperson.  In Ancient Greece, 20th century Europe, and today, a privileged member of society’s elite has a natural platform to share their views.  On the other hand, if a layperson is similarly impassioned, even extreme courses of action such as joining a war protest or changing their political affiliation might have minimal impact.  Despite this distinction, Benjamin’s conception of mass dissemmination’s ability to surpass socioeconomic boundaries by exposing visual truth to the masses is testament to its transitive power.  Even if the image does not cause the average civilian to take part in an anti-war political movement, or the wealthy to divest in businesses profiting off of wartime violence, the sheer level of reproduction can lead to political action.  Depictions of suffering may not inspire each and every viewer that they reach.  However, under Benjamin’s framework of mechanical reproduction, the image will result in aisthesis for enough of the masses— and ideally, enough of the elite— to bring about a tangible effect.  The power of the mechanically reproduced image does not lie solely in its transitive power, or even its ability to incite legitimate action.  Rather, its true capability lies in mass dissemination, in which the automatic affectation, as described by Butler, can bring about a common thread of thought and culminate in political action from fragmented corners of society.

Despite the commodification and aestheticization of suffering for economic gain, the democratization of the photography process liberates the dissemination of visual truth from government control.  In “On Photography,” Sontag describes how the aestheticization of suffering for economic gain has led to a diminishing of photography’s “shock capacity” (77).64  The increased profitability of images of suffering, along with the blending of the line between news and entertainment, has culminated in desensitization to violence, reflective of a possible reformulation of sensibilities.  Specifically, Sontag distinguishes between past conventions of war journalism and those of today.  Sontag claims that citizens’ interpretation is altered by the state, which influences fields of perception in an effort to control viewers’ affect.65  Crépon supports this claim, adding “even if the state’s monopoly on such selection is increasingly challenged by new technologies that escape its control, such selection continues to implicate the media and political and military authorities in decision-making” (135).66  The state’s ability, and apparent willingness, to frame events in their own favor is nothing new, as evidenced in World War I.  “Men in the trenches were nauseated by reports that portrayed the war like a football match,”67 according to the Telegraph.  However, the democratization of the photographic process prevented the state from exerting their full control over these fields of perception. According to Stephen Badsey, the British public was “saturated by the daily barrage of government propaganda,” but “the truth of what was happening on the Western Front was filtering back by other means.”68  Through the democratized process of capturing and sharing images of war, the fields of perception were unfettered by state influence, allowing visual truths to be freed from the clutches of state control.  While certain journalists were controlled by the state — some of them later wrote of being “deeply ashamed” of “what they had written”69— one would be remiss to neglect those war journalists who remained unswayed.  These photojournalists entered the “action through angles and modes of access that sought to expose the war in ways that no government had planned” (72).70 In spite of the diminishing of “shock capacity” and desensitization, the democratization of photography can surpass state control to liberate uncensored truths from the battlefield.

Despite desensitization spurred on by aestheticization and commodification of images of suffering, photography’s capability to enact affect on the viewer remains.  In spite of increased desensitization, Emmanuel Levinas argues that humans will still have a natural ethical response when confronted with the “face of the other.”71  In particular, he mentions how the norms that guide that ethical response determine who is “given face” or “effaced.”72  Regardless of whether one agrees that societal and aesthetic norms are responsible for the illuminating or effacing of “the other,” Levinas’ notion of a natural propensity to responsiveness speaks to photography’s transitive power.  Despite the ways in which images can be produced, framed, or manipulated, Crépon writes that “their repertory is so vast that we cannot minimize their power to haunt us or underestimate the inevitability of such a haunting” (136).73  Whether or not that haunting serves the full transitive function and culminates in political action, the photograph’s engendering of natural aisthesis makes the viewer at least “susceptible to ethical responsiveness.”  In line with Sontag’s argument of how suffering’s commodification devalues shock, desensitization may make us less susceptible to Levinas’ “natural propensity” to “responsiveness.”74  However, even if desensitization renders shock less poignant, the image’s unveiling of the human’s capacity to respond to “visual and discursive frames”75 creates a possibility for political action by providing humans with the opportunity to respond.  In the early 20th century, visual depiction of suffering through photography contributed to various forms of political action.  Whether it came in the form of army mutinies, aesthetic movements like Dada expressing the meaninglessness of war, or contribution to an overall zeitgeist of disillusionment in society, these images gave citizens, at the least, an opportunity to experience affect.  By exposing Europeans to the realities of war, these images provided the awareness necessary for citizens to experience affect and respond, which many of them did.

Photography can develop sensus communis amongst those from similar backgrounds, but its remarkable capacity lies in its potential to unite across more divisive lines.  With modern globalization and the siphoning off of people into fragmented political, social, or aesthetic communities, it becomes increasingly challenging for even the most shocking images to speak a common language.  Crépon describes a disparity in reaction when viewing the suffering of the other.  He writes “the experience of confronting the casualties of a war in which we are implicated by some sense of belonging (national, religious, community) is not the same (and efforts are expended to convince us of this) as being shown the bodies of those who have died, far away” (136).76  Sontag, however, argues that while fragmentation may be a reality of modern society, the universal power of the image holds the potential to break through those boundaries.  As an example of photograph’s ability to delimit context, she describes the relatively recent Abu Ghraib photographs of prison torture as images that “occupy no single time and no specific space” (78).77  Stemming from their lack of, as Butler writes, a single context, Sontag outlines how these photos maintain the capacity to “broker the encounter” (78).78  As the mass-produced image breaks out of its frame and, in Benjamin’s words, meets the “beholder in their situation,” these photographs bridge the gap between first-world viewers, victims of torture, and those victims’ compatriots.  While the photographs did not reverse atrocities, their mass dissemination resulted in international outrage and conviction of some of the soldiers involved.79  Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Foreign Minister of the Vatican, said the Abu Ghraib prison torture was “a more serious blow to the United States than September 11.”80  Even in the case that these photographs had not possessed enough transitive power to alter politics, mass dissemination allows them to serve as an archive of past atrocities.  In “Camera Lucida,” Roland Barthes describes the image’s ability to capture singular moments in time before circulation.

When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not (i)emerge(i), do not (i)leave(i): they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies (57).81

Those captured in images remain in place, serving as both a record of the past and a warning for the future.  For Europeans in the time of World War I, however, these images reflected the happenings of the present.  These atrocities were happening on their own continent, to their own countrymen, and in their own time, as they watched the “butterflies” being “fastened down” in real time.  Seeing their loved ones “anesthetized” into place led to further sentiment of helplessness, and the feeling of being a cog in the machine.  While international outrage or convictions will not return dignity or life to the victims of torture in Abu Ghraib, the image has been ingrained into psyches worldwide.  Whether that sensation culminates in political action, an encounter has been brokered, forging emotional unity surpassing the tension of international conflict.  The full humanity of the victims may never be restored, but the circulation of these images took on a life of their own, engendering common aisthesis across the world.  Although no photograph— or any work of art, for that matter— can force its beholder to engage in political action, mass dissemination can drive unity across previously insurmountable boundaries.  In a modern, globalized and fragmented world marked by dissensus, unity through reformulation of the sensible may be the closest society can get to sensus communis.

Since the invention of the portable camera, the mechanically reproduced image, by disseminating visual truths, has unified across boundaries of race, class, and aesthetic sensibility.  Even in the modern era of increased fragmentation and globalization, the means by which individuals can capture and share events has entered a new paradigm, bringing about further possibilities to forge sensus communis.  Just over 100 years after the invention of the portable camera, viewers can now document and share their realities across the world through social media with a few simple clicks.  Just as brutal images incited political action in the throes of World War I, some of the most impactful political events of the past decade have been driven by innovative technology.  For example, in the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government uprisings across the Islamic world, new technology became a key factor for the success of the revolutionaries.  Both new forms of aesthetic expression— accessible photographic technology— and the ease by which revolutionaries could share their reality helped to propel this political movement.  According to The Atlantic, “Facebook and elsewhere online is where people saw and shared horrifying videos and photographs of state brutality that inspired them to rebel.”82  Today, in the ongoing Hong Kong protests, new technology, with its capability to disseminate images worldwide and facilitate communication, has spurred on revolution.  “The internet has been vital to these protests, with the encrypted messaging service, Telegram, and the online forum, LIHKG, enabling protesters to organize demonstrations,” according to Al Jazeera.83  Until Apple removed it in October of 2019, Hong Kong protestors relied on HKmap.live, a live application where users could share the location of police forces.84  These online communication platforms provide a basis for revolutionaries to share visual truths with the rest of the world and determine the logistics of organization.  While today’s world may be increasingly fragmented along the lines of class, race, nationality and aesthetic sensibilities, the image’s ability to unite remains true.  New technology lends more power to the visual truth of the image, giving political activists and revolutionaries the accessible and democratic means to share their story across the world in a matter of seconds.

Although Susan Sontag passed away 15 years ago, her description of the increased desensitization toward violence at the hands of aestheticization and commodification of suffering rings true today.  With today’s 24-hour news cycle, media consumers are constantly battered by images of violence, raising the question of whether society will come to a point where these images lose their effectiveness.  Since the invention of the portable camera, there has been continued reformulation of what is considered sensible to society.  The news, television, music, and films consumers are regularly exposed to today are more graphic and violent than ever before.  Much of what society now considers to be typical viewing would have been considered too graphic, violent, or inappropriate 50, 25, or even 10 years ago.  The reasonable fear is that this constant and continued reformulation of the sensible will devolve to a point where nothing is too violent to be depicted on television or social media.  The sharing of the sensible, in the view of Rancière, is driven by a commonality of norms within a given subset of society.  What is considered too violent or too unsensible to be shown on television in Manhattan or Kansas City, might reflect daily life in Damascus, Hong Kong, or The Bronx.  A society’s sensibilities are determined by what its members are accustomed to and what they consider to be either pleasurable or necessary viewing.  The photographs disseminated in World War I, or images on today’s television news of American school shootings or political strife in the Middle East, may appear offensive to some.  These widespread depictions likely further desensitization to violence among collective society.  However, by choosing to not share these images, the photographer runs a risk graver than any society desensitized to violence.  Opting not to disseminate such images implies that one’s reality is too grotesque, violent, or distant for the eyes of another.  Not sharing such images strips humans worldwide of the opportunity to experience affect, and their opportunity to engage in political action.  The negative impact of stripping society’s psyche of the opportunity to view visual truths because they fit outside of what society considers sensible is more substantial than any media malaise or desensitization.  If a victim of torture, oppression or wartime violence is experiencing such realities firsthand and those visual truths can be captured, they should then be spread far and wide. Censoring realities in an effort to counter desensitization sets society down a dark path in which protecting the viewer from shock takes precedence over protecting a victims’ dignity or life.

In “The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible,” Rancière described the aesthetic regime as encompassing the current time period,85 one in which we are siphoned off into groups based on political beliefs, aesthetic preferences and more.  This may be true in terms of propensities for different types of poiesis.  However, the unprecedentedly simple dissemination of material calls into question the classification of today’s as an era in which it is more challenging than ever before to create sensus communis.  While it is nearly impossible to get all members of a globalized society to align on divisive political issues, the power, speed and efficacy of sharing images across social media speaks to a promising future.  In the time that Benjamin wrote of mechanical reproduction, individuals were more capable than ever before to spread images across political, racial, or religious lines.  In World War I, whether or not they were fully cognizant of their impact at the time, photographers raised an awareness in viewers that brought about the basis for political action.  Today, movements like the Arab Spring and Hong Kong protests are often sparked by— and orchestrated through— this medium.  Imagery continues to be utilized as a critical means of exposing the world to the realities of violence, oppression, and political strife.

About 100 years after World War I, and nearly 100 years after Walter Benjamin introduced his ideas about mechanical reproduction, photography remains an essential means by which humans can disseminate visual truths across boundaries of language, politics, religion, and culture for possible political effect. Today’s fragmented world will never achieve full sensus communis as the Ancient Greeks held, nor should that be the ultimate goal of society.  However, the capability for mass dissemination that initially came into fruition around the turn of the 20th century provides further opportunities for shared sensation, political unity, and tangible action.  Despite how mass dissemination of the image has caused reformulation of the sensible and a society-wide desensitization to violence, it has helped to unify a society increasingly marked by dissensus.  While unification through aesthetics was once spurred on by painting, sculpture, theater, or literature, unification in the 20th century was often driven by a rectangular box, the click of a button, and strips of negatives.  Nearly twenty years into this century, that unification is now marked by a ubiquitous smaller rectangle, a virtual button, and instantaneous circulation through a global network.  While the new technology that the rest of this century will bring is yet to be seen, the photograph and its mass dissemination will continue to play a vital role in modern aesthetics.


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  7. Ibid.
  8. Dunleavy, Brian. “Life in the Trenches of World War I.” History UK. A&E Networks UK, April 23, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/life-in-the-trenches-of-world-war-i
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  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Crépon, Marc. Murderous Consent: on the Accommodation of Violent Death. Translated by Michael Loriaux and Jacob Levi. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
  18. Ibid., 56.
  19. Ibid., 56.
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  23. Ibid., 7.
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  26. Ibid., 121.
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  28. Breton, André. Nadja. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2015.
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  38. Ibid., 6. 
  39. Ibid., 7.
  40. Ibid., 7.
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  42. Ibid., 5.
  43. Ibid., 4.
  44. Rancière Jacques, and Gabriel Rockhill. The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
  45. Rancière Jacques. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2011.
  46. Ibid., 64.
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  58. Ibid., 49.
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  60. Ibid., 50.
  61. Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
  62. Ibid., 68.
  63. Ibid., 68.
  64. “On Photography- Susan Sontag.” Lab404. Accessed December 8, 2019. http://www.lab404.com/3741/readings/sontag.pdf
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  66. Crépon, Marc. Murderous Consent: on the Accommodation of Violent Death. Translated by Michael Loriaux and Jacob Levi. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.
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  85. Rancière Jacques, and Gabriel Rockhill. The Politics of Aesthetics: the Distribution of the Sensible. London, UK: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.