Conclusion. The Power of the Mere
Humanitarianism as Domestic Art and
Imaginative Politics
As Roland Barthes (1957 [2013]) long ago pointed out in his classic essay on
“The Great Family of Man” exhibition, there are dangers in trying to connect
the world via a universal human subject “Humanity”—that is, in privileging
a form of international or global solidarity (and being) that abstracts away
from specific sociopolitical circumstances and regional histories, and from
different forms of subjectivity.1 The “ritualized and institutionalized evoca-
tion of a common humanity” easily yields to an idealized “higher harmony of
the World Spirit” (Nairn 1977:430; Malkki 1994:41). Classic humanitarianism
such as what underlies the icrc and the whole Red Cross and Red Crescent
Movement is mandated to be apolitical and to be guided first and foremost by
the alleviation of the need and suffering of human beings. Compassion and
responsibility are based, in principle, on a universally shared, basic humanity.
As I have shown in earlier work (1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1996, 1998), such humani-
tarian approaches to, for example, “refugees,” as ahistorical subjects merely
“human,” merely “victims” depoliticizes and hinders our understanding of
their actual circumstances, yielding the perverse result of a humanitarian-
ism that dehumanizes (and sometimes actively harms) its objects by reducing
actors in a complex and meaningful historical process into nakedly human
objects of compassion, zoë, or in Agamben’s terms, “bare life” (see Arendt
[1951] 1973; Nietzsche 1966; Foucault 1978; Malkki 1996; Agamben 1998; Biehl
2005; Englund 2005; Rancière 2011:62 75). As I wrote at the outset of this
book, my earlier fieldwork was devoted to understanding the world through
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