The incommensurable loss of the little drowned boy, Aylan Kurdi

By: Ana Flamind

I hope humanity finds a cure for visas

Photo: “I hope humanity finds a cure for visas.” Published with the permission of the author

This article seeks to explore the particular affectivity provoked by the publication on 3 September 2015, of the picture of a little drowned boy in Bodrum, Turkey.

Why does the image of this little boy seem to provoke a stronger affectivity, one of shame most particularly, prompting us to scream “that’s it, this is really too much!” when other recent pictures seem to have triggered a remediable guilt (for example recent pictures juxtaposing tourists and refugees on the beaches of Turkey, Greece, etc.)? This stronger affectivity could very well be the result of a cumulative effect, of our hearts growing more pained with each and every story we read and picture we see, of the incremental realisation of what tragic fate awaits refugees, of reading headlines calling the recent displacement of people “the worst refugee crisis since World War II.’’ But it could also be that this specific picture does something, undoes us, as Judith Butler would put it, in a specific way.

Butler’s essay “Precarious life”, in the book of the same title, explores the Levinasian ethic of the face to interrogate the link between representation and humanisation.[1] Butler cautions us that the link is not as straightforward as one might think. A picture seeking to humanise should vocalise grief or agony, a sense of the precariousness of life.[2] Yet giving a face to some tragic event does not necessarily require the seeing of a face, which at times comes to symbolise dehumanisation, such as the picture of Osama bin Laden, Butler reminds us. The face that humanises “will be that for which no words really work; the face (that) seems to be a kind of sound, the sound of language evacuating its sense.”[3] This face “is not explicitly a human face” and can be any bodily parts that “are said to cry, to sob and to scream.”[4] The little drowned boy lies face down in the sand, his back prompting us to respond, yet already prefiguring a response lacking the possibility of uttering sense, a response akin to the sound of grief. Butler writes:

“To respond to the face, to understanding its meaning, means to be awake to what is precarious in another life or, rather, the precariousness of life itself. This cannot be an awakeness, to use his words (Levinas), to my own life, and then an extrapolation from an understanding of my own precariousness to an understanding of another’s precarious life. It has to be an understanding of the precariousness of the Other.”[5]

Furthermore, for Levinas, the injunction of the face, testifying to the Other’s vulnerability, provokes in us a struggle between “the temptation to kill and the call to peace, the You shall not kill.”[6] For Butler, this struggle is foundational of ethics:

“If the Other, the Other’s face, which after all carries the meaning of this precariousness, at once tempts me with murder and prohibits me from acting upon it, then the face operates to produce a struggle for me, and establishes this struggle at the heart of ethics. (…) The face makes various utterances at once: it bespeaks an agony, an injurability, at the same time that it bespeaks a divine prohibition against killing.”[7]

Paradoxically, the picture hurts us by keeping grief outside of the frame. Unlike other pictures depicting the absurd barbarity of children losing their lives in and to horrible conditions, with parents seen holding dead and/or wounded bodies, their faces contorted by pain, hopelessness and anger the little drowned boy is seen in his utter vulnerability, as the unaccompanied body of a three-years old who has no one left to protect him or grieve his disappearance. We do not expect little boys and girls to be left alone, unprotected. We cannot accept little boys and girls to be dead alone, either. This picture thus speaks of what is left outside of the frame, of the innumerable and unfathomable decisions parents face when they put their children’s fate into the hands of smugglers and board a flimsy boat with dim hopes of survival. The picture also speaks of the parents’ probable death, the death of those who could most feel the incommensurable loss of three-years old Aylan Kurdi.[8] For if we want to mourn his death, and the death of all refugees seeking to reach our European shores, we need to hear those who have known them and loved them, attempt to speak of their bereavement, of their incommensurable loss. The picture of three-years old Aylan Kurdi, of the man standing next to him, and, in equal measure, of the photographer who has witnessed the bareness of the little boy’s body, commands us to question why his parents cannot be there to mourn him; it compels us to apprehend the precariousness of life itself.

This, for me, speaks of a different kind of pain sweeping away the foundations of our being: That in acknowledging the vulnerability of Aylan’s dead body, we are forced to face our shared precariousness, our interdependence, if we are to ‘overcome’ the vulnerability that always already puts our fate into the hands of others. The picture of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi, the little drowned boy, establishes the ground of our ethical struggle in plain sight: that of a choice between the fear for our own survival or the disavowal of more suffering. It is now our duty to testify of the incommensurability of Aylan’s life and to the bereavement left by his death. This pain must be seen.

Ana Flamind just completed reading for a MA in International Conflict Studies at King’s College London. Her main interest lies in critical IR and security scholarship.

[1] Butler, Judith; “Precarious life” in Precarious life: the powers of mourning and violence (London: Verso, 2004), p 128 – 151.

[2] Rephrased from ibid, p. 141

[3] Ibid p. 135

[4] Ibid p. 133

[5] Ibid p. 134

[6] Emmanuel Levinas as cited by Butler, ibid p. 134

[7] Ibid p.135

[8] The little boy’s father did survive but his older brother and mother did not.

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