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The Aesthetics of Human Rights

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This essay situates the 1755 Lisbon earthquake as an alternate origin point for human rights discourse. As one of the most destructive earthquakes in recorded history, the event had a broad effect on both scientific and philosophical thought. The quake also represents one of the first modern mass media events in which subjects throughout Europe became spectators to a distant catastrophe. Both visual and verbal representations of the event circulated throughout Europe with incredible efficiency and helped inaugurate a secular notion of human suffering as well as thoughts about its prevention. The story of the quake shows that the notion of 'the human' has migrated through public imagination, in part, by virtue of our passionate engagements with pictures. By placing Lisbon at the origin of this discourse, moreover, human rights can be re-imagined as a dimension of political life that has to do with our exposure to vulnerability and the task of responding that follows. As opposed to humans simply being free and equal in dignity and rights, the Lisbon catastrophe reveals that individuals must be judged human in order to enjoy the benefits associated with this title.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: April 1, 2009

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