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The Spark that Ignites: Catalytic Signifiers for a Transformative and Performative Planetary Humanism

Published onMar 17, 2022
The Spark that Ignites: Catalytic Signifiers for a Transformative and Performative Planetary Humanism

The Vietnamese girl, Phan Thi Kum Phuc, fleeing a Napalm attack. Brutality against civil rights activists captured on camera as with the Alsatian dog unleashed by police against the Black American, Walter Lee Fowlkes. Videoed beatings of Rodney King by Los Angeles policemen after a high-speed chase for drunk-driving. The lifeless Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Mediterranean beach. The police chokehold on George Floyd against his murmurs “I can’t breathe”….

These are just a few (audio-)visual signifiers that catalysed and, in retrospect, epitomised a swell of anti-racist and anti-xenophobic protest in modern times, spanning from the 1960s to the contemporary era. While imagery might not on its own trigger or sustain a movement, it can certainly amplify the moment into a movement. Just like a catalyst, it precipitates reactions as much as it is prone to dissipate. As it energises, it intensifies a concatenation of thoughts, beings, becomings and actions. Relaying events in arrested motion or captive motion, the image or series of imagery become catalytic signifiers of a particular atrocity that, as they circulate, fuel rage against injustices. They become visible sparks that affectively produce as much as they refract politicised publics.1 With reference to potent case studies, I consider the main features of viral imagery in anti-racist and anti-xenophobic movements in a world that is super-saturated with imagery.2 The article is structured around three main questions through, and with which, I weave my argument about how such imagery comes to catalyse and catapult moments into political history and collective memory – noting their potentials as well as fully conscious of their limitations.


First I ask: what is the spark that ignites when it comes to visual and audio-visual imagery and protest? The spark encapsulates the shock of realisation, a realisation that is not necessarily a discovery but an excavation from deep down. While discussing speech acts to do with so-called terrorists, migrants, refugees, and Muslims, Sara Ahmed states: “the process of recognition (of this feeling or that feeling) is tied up with what we already know”.3 These could be in terms of sedimented experiences, memories and traumas to do with injustices that resonate in the present with systemic challenges and ongoing violations.4 With the imagery, there is an emphasis on the vulnerability of flesh, bone, breath (or lack of). It is often gruesome or visceral, capturing an act of horror – such as the blistering effect of napalm on skin, or the crushing pain of a chokehold on the body. But it could also be metonymic – that is, the smoking gun that points to the shadowy trail of a perpetrator such as the lifeless boy on the beach, silently alluding to systemic hurdles and xenophobia against racialised migrants and refugees5. The record captures a cry that shrieks out of the photo or footage and, where it does not, we can only imagine that the cry had departed with the last breath.

The image does not just engage the eye and mind but gets to the gut. Like a catalyst, it interrupts a normative pattern. While it influences, it enables an internal alchemy that transforms into insights and an awareness in tandem with an ability to see and feel deeper, unleashing a chain of reactions along with a change of orientation. Overwhelmingly, these image-events with their image-effects are charged by what Adriana Caravera has called the “horrorism” of “crimes” that are deeply disturbing and offensive at the ontological level.6 The victims in the image are almost always unarmed or defenceless, helpless against a mightier power, underlining the severity of the crime. As an image of vulnerability, we are taken in by a deep wound where care is felt to be most needed - responding to the individual rather than immediately thinking of the wider aims, structures or contexts for the violence perceived and felt, a point revisited below.

A certain emotive ethic and aesthetic emerges that is both new and familiar, pulling upon the heartstrings of contexts that we are or have become accustomed to. Where the content and aesthetic might not be familiar and indeed might be rejected, the image is an invitation to get familiar – a familiarising that happens perhaps through the focus on a universalised family or a child, an innocence lost, despoiled and brutalised. As Bishnupriya Ghosh elaborates, images of injured or dead children “arouse protective drives, from deep anxiety to horror”7 where the pull of the photograph strikes across geographical, cultural, ethnic and racial divides. The fragility of the subject raises or resurrects unresolved memories, anxieties, grief and anger. Included within these is an empathy for those in struggles to survive, where breath, flesh, clothes, shelter, sustenance, families, and futures portend a common universality. It is as if pain, suffering or death erases race or ethno-racial difference, offering a glimpse of a shared, albeit, ambivalent humanity.

As broken pictures of pain, the imagery harbours a certain “stickiness” to use Ahmed’s term for the “affective quality of objects”.8 The spark sticks and fans out beyond the specifics of the making and features of the imagery. As content or affect, the “body in pain” to cite Elaine Scarry, “is not only a bodily trauma, [but] it also resists and even shatters language and communication”.9 The vocabulary that exists for experiencing, expressing and sharing pain is either too codified or can only be expressed as metaphors that evoke a near likeness. After all, language cannot fully capture the excess that either the body experiences or indeed the imagery evokes. But imagery can certainly convey the excesses, evocative of bodily pain to a greater impact. As David MacDougall notes on a photographic paradox:

“What was paradoxical about visual imagery, as against written text, was its apparent plenitude, which flooded the observer with concreteness and detail, yet revealed little in the absence of a surrounding discourse”.10

This apparent plenitude of the photograph conveys the excess that carries the spark onto other affective registers beyond the concrete specifics of time and place. This specificity is characterised by the non-specific – that is, the absence of contextual discourse. Indeed, the viral imagery unleashes other kinds of corporeal reactions and relations as it circulates. It creates a “towardness” or an “awayness” and perhaps both dynamics when one is both empathetic and disturbed or disgusted by the content of the imagery.11 When saturated with such intensive affect, imagery becomes sites of personal, social and political tensions.

Following Ahmed as she expands her argument:

“The negative emotions of anger and sadness are evoked as the reader’s: the pain of others becomes ‘ours’, an appropriation that transforms and perhaps even neutralises their pain into our sadness. It is not so much that we are ‘with them’ by feeling sad; the apparently shared negative feelings do not position the reader and victim in a relation of equivalence, or what Elizabeth V. Spelman calls co-suffering (Spelman 1997: 65). Rather, we feel sad about their suffering, an ‘aboutness’ that ensures they remain the object of ‘our feeling’.”12

So once sympathising, we can in fact end up objectifying the subject of the image that goes beyond the purely visual – an objectification that leads to the empowerment of the viewer, rather than the subject. Therefore, the image circulates as part of “complex relations of power”.13 The over-representation of the pain of others is significant as it fixes the other as the one who “has” pain, and who can overcome that pain only when the reader or viewer feels moved enough to do something.

There is therefore a double-bind in catalytic imagery discussed here. It harbours both the promise of a solution (the harm captured) and an intractable problem (the subject objectified) – an image of agency but also one of degradation. However, just as the pharmakon is both cure and poison, this affective space is a fluid one. The fluidity is more than just along dual channels (cure/poison, for instance). Indeed, Charles Sander Peirce has described the photograph in terms of its indexicality but also its part of an endless chain of contagions.14 Returning to the imagery at hand, the unstable vulnerability of the subject is not fixed in pathos alone but it might well give rise to a certain dignity born out of the powerless - a spark that lights a fire that glorifies, a fire that needs sacrifice to reach the expanse and heights it does, where the vulnerable might become the valiant. This pain-to-power process is not without problems, and involves our active interrogation of the circumstances along with interrogation of our own selves in relation to others.


Before we go any further into the complexities of our relations to the image, the question remains: “what sticks?” and “how does it stick?” How might a captured moment become part of the motor of a movement? How can and do visual and audio-visual signifiers catalyse emotional and physical reactions that can escalate virally when it comes to anti-racist and anti-xenophobic movements?

A conspicuous characteristic of witnessed imagery that inform protest photography is that while, on the one hand, it is intimate and personalised through vulnerability, on the other hand, its vulnerability lends it wider traction especially when it is circulated and collectivitised through a redemptive strength in people and numbers. Once in communicative flow, the imagery appears to enable an “intercorporeality” – affective circulations between signs and bodies that come with an emotional resonance, be it in the vein of shame, pain, hurt, anger and/or loss.15 These bodily sensations come with a judgment and an impulse, that a wrong has been committed, a wrong that has to be righted. This through pictures is how “pain enters politics”.16

The virality of certain imagery is accelerated in what John Postill has described as the era of a “new media ecology” since the rise of social media in 2009.17 The intensity and velocity of this new media ecology catapult latter-day photos of atrocity-capture into multiple and multiplying trajectories. Ghosh describes virality as “the distributed affective politics of social media evident in unprecedented ‘viral intensities’ (the accumulation of social media actions around particular content)”.18 While intensive, they can be dissipative or quickly dismissed as thin, trashy, troublesome or merely transient. However, imagery might become propositional with “argumentative capacity” when such ambiguities are reduced and they can be powered and sustained by specific interests.19 Or in Gavin Titley’s terms, they gain traction for being “debateable”.20 When accrued with a life force that energises, organises, and sustains, they might become part of, as Ghosh elaborates, “a sensible politics of grief and anger, maturing into concrete demands for systemic change”.21 Their circulation might lead to manifold flows and dialogues unleashing other episodic moments in the social and political lives of the imagery: frictive, antagonistic, agonistic, pessimistic, optimistic, and possibly even utopic that themselves can ignite action with promises and imaginaries of righting a wrong, injustice redressed and justice restored, however momentarily.

A critical mass surrounding the imagery whether it be in terms of the number of people who view it and are affected by it, the influence of those people who back it, and/or the strength of organisational hubs and network nodes that converge around it might lead to an energetic swell in its diverse directions of travel. Importantly, the image does not trigger the swell from scratch, but rises from already heaving waves. Temporality is key. The virality of specific imagery then is “the upshot of accumulating affects” around a particular issue in a context of apparatus and digital networks, which themselves are structured by uneven economic and power relations in terms of people’s positionality, capital and location.22

When a critical mass of consensus is reached that imagery is indeed part of witnessed evidence, it might be made to speak truth to power. As Susan Sontag among others have long argued, the camera is part of the machinery of witnessing.23 The camera (be it stills or audio-visual) “bears witness” to an inadvertent event in an incontrovertible way that we too observe in its deferred mediation. Even while we might harbour reservations about figurative manipulations, it becomes part of a chain of evidence on the road to incontrovertibility - beyond reasonable doubt, as lawyers might put it. The recordings enable an entry into the workings of power, seeing behind the scenes, into the darkrooms that service regimes of control and oppression. This witnessing is not necessarily by an individual but a larger collectivity in which the media plays a crucial part in connectivity.24 It is not just the “speaking” of the act by those who witnessed that makes it real,25 but the mechanical reproduction of the act for others that makes it more real than the real. Such media adds to “meaningful statements” about fraught engagements with the world.26

Media also create a certain intimacy and tenuous porosity between body and technology.27 With this, technology might lift the inferior status and perception of the racialised body. But the opposite might also occur where the debased body pulls the technology down. The technology’s status and plausibility therefore depends on the person witnessed as well as witnessing, and the apparatus in which the media is re-witnessed or used as testimony.28 Ongoing prejudice based on racialised, gendered, classed, and ableist codes render particular persons as unable to be in a position to produce impartial knowledge even if supported by technologies of reproduction.29 They cannot so easily be a “modest witness”.30 What they see or even record is often dismissed as overly emotional, manipulated, motivated and/or biased.31 And this on top of the general irrelevance and dispensability accorded to much media and most social media.32

Take, for instance, the riots that followed the verdict on the Los Angeles Police Department’s violence against Rodney King in 1991. Disbelief was aired by Black communities and those in solidarity as to how the jury in court could not register the violence against King recorded on video tape. Even while the recordings played in courtrooms as if the atrocity was reoccurring right in front of them, allegations of police abuses - otherwise read as rational white men against irrational black men - was dismissed out of court, a motion that along with the circulation of the footage, triggered a spate of protests locally, nationally and internationally.33

Moving on to a more recent case of racially motivated police violence against Walter Scott in 2015 where the legal apparatus appears to be more accommodating of videoed violence, Nicole Maurantonio observes: “Seeing was believing, and seeing meant bearing witness to a brutal action performed by a White police officer”.34 After two decades of anti-racist struggles from the time that King’s footage surfaced, recordings of police violence against Scott appeared to be less contested – ones that had to be taken as evidence of racism that is otherwise brushed under the carpet by those not subjected to it and continue to uphold structures of white ignorance.35 But as to what exactly the technological witnessing of the atrocity was about was limited to individuals and not institutions, accidents rather than a wider pattern of systemic violence against racialised communities. Maurantonio elaborates:

“Such claims suggested that if only visual evidence of wrongdoing existed, ‘justice’ would be served. Attending to the video as the answer to the problem of racialized violence, however, addressed the issue of institutionalized racism on only one register — accountability when violence was enacted. It neglected to take aim at the ideological underpinnings of such violence or the fact that video…is hardly a guarantee of ‘justice’.”36

The argumentative capacity of imagery is limited therefore when the socio-political apparatus is unable to accommodate it as part of modest or impartial witnessing; and debate does not and cannot go beyond the individuals depicted in the imagery. This leads to my next series of questions on how imagery is arraigned in hegemonic contexts to do with race and their intersections with other aspects of identities such as gender and class that to a greater or lesser extent are themselves (re)produced by the same mediation.

Planetary potentials

While mindful of racist injustices, at what point can the specificity of racial identities in and around imagery dissolve? Can the catalytic potential of imagery outweigh Eurocentric and epistemological limitations of liberal humanism?

As with the onset of the nineteenth century realist novel and its opening up to the intimacies of other people’s live and worldviews, imagery (visual and audio-visual) might enable another point of entry to the interiority to the lives of those who have been and continue to be subjected to racialised atrocities and injustices. We can clearly see this with regards to the recent Small Axe films based on Black lives in Britain directed by Steve McQueen – Mangrove (2020) and Alex Wheatle (2020), for instance - and those on African Americans by Ava DuVernay - When They See Us (2019) and her documentary film, 13th (2016). The media might provide a momentary departure from our corporeally grounded selves, socio-cultural paradigms and spatio-temporal contexts. They become an entry point into interiority to some extent, of a state of mind, a state of suffering. Depending upon the media and the viewer’s positionality and orientation, it might also enable a co-suffering.

Reflecting on Titley’s book on racism and media, Malcolm James considers the vitality and virality of Kurdi’s image on the beach, that once pictured and circulated as “digital debris” became “part of a mediated assemblage that led hundreds of people to leave their jobs across Europe and beyond, and to head for the Greek Islands of Lesbos, Samos and Chios to care for people they didn’t know”.37 There were certain features that lent this particular image more mileage than others of drowned refugees at the time: Kurdi’s young age, his western dress, the “patriarchal protection” of the policeman that carried the dead boy, and his light skin that resonated with “racialised narratives of European grievability”. As James elaborates, this constellation of factors hit a collective nerve: it digitally materialised care as an “alternative humanism” that transcended colonial and racial boundaries.38

But this was also a contingent humanism, one that can easily evaporate as quickly as it emerged. And in other cases, as with Floyd’s, the politics of pigment breaks down altogether: the humanist trope relevant here was the “lovable giant” and his suffocated cries that haunted as they echoed in the midst of a public health pandemic.39 Moreover, Floyd was a Black American citizen, not an irregular migrant, and a consituency that Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists could mobilise to their cause to assert another kind of entitled humanism with the operative logics of nation-state boundaries, sovereignty and citizenship. It is entitled because the lives of those in the global North are still more valued than those in the South despite the ongoing prejudice and oppression against those whose ancestry might be traced back to countries in the South. In this sense, the racialised individual and the irregular migrant are inter-leafed on a shifting spectrum between race, on the one hand, and nationality, on the other. In hostile environments, they might well converge as became crystal clear in the “Windrush scandal” when those who came from Britain’s former colonies in the mid-twentieth century were targeted by the state and could not prove their right to belong to the nation with the Conservative party’s 2012 policies against migrants. Subsequently, those (children of) migrants who had become British citizens lost their jobs, homes, and rights to services to the point of deportation to islands in the Caribbean.40

We need to exercise caution when media analysis and engagements bring up ideas about a common humanity – ideas such as “race does not and should not matter” and essentially “we are all the same” and therefore need to be treated the same. While the objectives are to be praised, the premises are not. As the Filipino-African-American singer and songwriter H.E.R. contends: “Do not say you don’t see colour. When you see us, see us”.41

Liberal humanism owes a chequered debt to Enlightenment thinkers for, however enlightened they might have been, they held on to the dark chambers of racialised hierarchy.42 We need to move beyond the relative fixity of imagery to the dynamism of affective and political economies that are mindful of such pitfalls. One trenchant pitfall is that of white saviourism and - as Maurantonio elaborates with respect to certain officials and journalists reporting on racist murders - colour-blind morality, the need for racial cooperation, and a sense of inclusive victimhood.43 When anti-racist struggles are individualised in terms of the so-called saviour or victim, or generalised in terms of morality or cooperation, they then go on to minimise or distract from the persistence of systemic, structural or institutional oppression. Added to this, digital imagery is what might be called “a mistress to meaning” for it comes with a certain promiscuity that owe to the pace of the technology and proliferating contexts across which it is mediated and remediated.

So how might we tackle these tensions between the specifics of racialised experiences and the sense of a wider humanity? Paul Gilroy proposes that reproducing political and intellectual divisions based on race is myopic for it continues Eurocentric discourse or “codes” to dominate the globe.44 He argues for a contingent and dynamic “planetary humanism” or a “strategic universalism” beyond the confining categories of current discourse. His aim is to be “post-anthropological” that comes with “the development of an emphatically post-racial humanism”.45 The author sees this as a way out of Black nationalism and essentialisms that particularly mark African American intellectual traditions, and popular audio and audio-visual cultures. However, as Gilroy’s critics have contended, the historical and contextual specificities of a struggle cannot be easily transcended “in the name of general principles” as might be entailed in a return to an anti-racist humanism.46 Don Robotham elaborates:

“An emancipation that is purely human and universal in its very nature will address only the general experiences of oppression common to all oppressed peoples. It will fail to address the very thing that most needs addressing: the specific forms of antiblack racial oppression that are reserved for people of African descent. It will simply leave the conditions of oppression specific to each case untouched.”47

Mindful of both Gilroy and his critics, I note that while understanding and organising around race is critical to challenge specific racist regimes, it is also the case that going beyond race becomes critical to the transformative potential of a movement. This is complicated by having to navigate mobile and shaky territories when it comes to the digitality of catalytic images that are constantly on the move. Planetary humanism therefore has to be continuously iterative and vigilant as to the specific articulations of racist discourse before it can inform and be part of any broader pathway to progress. It is not just that we need a revisitation and decolonisation of Enlightenment thinkers, but also a fuller appreciation of concrete examples throughout time and space, and with this a “radical reflexivity” with respect to our positionality.48 This has to be on all sides, in order to break down not just racial but also intersectional inequalities and barriers along cross-cutting lines of gender, sexuality, disability, linguistic or religious ethnicity, and location, where some need to do more work than others. For as Ahmed reminds us: “The ground into which we sink our feet is not neutral; it gives ground to some more than others.”49 And to return to H.E.R.’s acute words: “We breathe the same. We bleed the same. But still we don’t see the same”. So we might share the same space, we might have similar biophysical abilities. However, our registers of interpreting and occupying those spaces are uneven, filtered, specific and require different kinds and degrees of labour in all their intersectional articulations. I call this a transformative and performative planetary humanism – transformative of the circumstances but also of our ongoing reactions and relations to those circumstances. bell hooks states:

“Finding common ground does not erase conflicts that emerge from difference; it is just the strong foundation that lets us know again and again that we need not fear conflict, that we can constructively handle what comes our way.”50

With this proposal, we might see signs of white privilege, ignorance and saviourism among other variations, transform into discourses where the role of white people is to step down, even out the ground, and carve out other positions that promote equity. Scenes of multiracial teams of footballers taking the knee on the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Euro 2020 pitch against a crowd of cheers and jeers, as well as the vapours of toxic debate by politicians and public alike, is one to recall and build on. There was a bigger goal here than those identified by white posts. The act and the imagery move from debasement to commemorative resistance and, when compared to the raised fist of Black power, a more humble call for defiant empowerment.

On difference, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Nigel Clark comment:

“As Jacques Derrida and fellow ethical philosophers have insisted, such care or passion or desire to be just to others does not arise primarily from a sense of our sameness with those who turn to us in times of need (1992). Rather, it takes flight from our intimations that the others whose suffering or injustice we wish to relieve are different from us in vital ways: that their experience, their story, their pathway though life has not been the same as ours. Which means that a sense of imagined or perceived difference is not so much an impediment to justice, as its very incitement.”51

From 2020, when BLM was interlaced with protests about indigenous rights, climate justice and gender violence, at a time when pandemic emergency powers compounded state oppression and authoritarian policing, resistance was bolstered by sharing operational support and legal advice between very different kinds of groups.52 Such scenarios are about acknowledging and appreciating unity through difference rather than diversity, where differential lives and worldviews may not always be fully aligned but goals to eradicate oppressive structures are. The phenomenon makes for an uneven and shifting terrain upon which performative and transformative visions for the planet and its people might be built.


While imagery cannot on their own trigger or sustain a movement, they have catalytic capacity, and as such, can crystallise as part of a living archive, a public memory bank of racist regimes and resistance. Their spark is generated by friction created on rough and uneven ground between the universal and the particular, the corporeal and the cultural, the humanist and the political. This is not to fetishise the imagery but to see them as devices to communicate and interrogate the circumstances that underlie them, and our iterative and intercorporeal relations to them.

My main points are that while we can appreciate the image as an emotional and political register of a wider complex, a conduit for the excess that cannot be codified in language on its own, a witnessed index of a happening, or its momentary and perhaps momentous potential for argumentative capacity and compelling dissemination, we need to see them as but thumbnails to wider structures, processes and journeys. We need to reexamine our position that goes beyond objectification and “aboutness”, and our own entanglement in systems of oppression, witting or unwitting, near or far, that necessitate different kinds and degrees of labour to undo their pernicious persistence.

There are several other areas that I do not have space to explore on the topic of catalytic imagery. These include a fuller examination of other protests and the multiple social lives of imagery in the different forms, places and regions that they might circulate. The latter point applies as much to their social deaths and afterlives as they are quickly replaced or combined with others in the high velocity world of social media or in a scenario where activation can indeed be followed by apathy as the viewers becomes desensitised to the content and contexts of imagery.53 Each has its own valence and trajectory, but there are certain qualities that bring them together as part of significant “visual memory archives”54 on racial (in)justice that I have attempted to outline here.

I end this article with reference to a resounding music video - one that pierces while it transcends the aboutness and objectification that an academic enquiry might entail. It inter-leafs memories, sounds and imagery to make for a synergistic and potentially transformative experience. The song is by Alice Smith presented to us in a film called Black Mary made by Kahlil Joseph in 2017 using the inspiration of the photographs of the Harlem photographer, Roy DeCarava. Joseph says on the singer and the song that it is “formed by everything (that's happened in the last 400 hundred years or so) . . . a kind of a cry, it feels like a cry.” A cry that, if we were to hear it, returns us to the tone of this paper and its trailing echoes of the need to understand where it came from, where it is, and where it might take us.

ALICE SMITH: Black Mary – A film by KAHLIL JOSEPH (HD)

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