Atrocity has become the defining event of our time. In this lecture, Joanna Bourke reflects on the politics of atrocity within so-called progressive western societies, exploring the ways that acts of spectacular cruelty have been narrated between 1914 and 2011. The use of the language of “atrocity” is a form of labelling, of make a normative distinction between “necessary” violence and excess. One of my arguments is that the “problem” created by the display of absolute power over flesh has increasingly retreated from the external (the “bad event”) to the internal (the suffering psyches of perpetrators). When faced with excess, the “correct” response is increasingly seen as an emotional one, but a politics based on interior sensations is no match for the politics of cruelty.
This lecture was given within the framework of the 2011 School of Critical Theory organized by the Centre for the Humanities in Utrecht. The programme was titled ‘G-local Cosmopolitanism: The Social Responsibility of the Artists, the Academics, and the Media’, and offered trans-national and interdisciplinary approaches drawn from the humanities, social sciences, law, philosophy and international relations. Its focus on the development of cross-national European perspectives in these areas, allows for the innovative use of key notions of cosmopolitanism across different national, cultural and disciplinary traditions. The school consisted of three clusters, which focused on Cosmopolitanism and the social responsibility of the Artists, Cosmopolitanism and the social responsibility of the Academics, and Cosmopolitanism and the social responsibility of the Media.