The Crises of (Com)Passion and the Corrupt Audience

Alina Popa (co-initiator of The Bureau of Melodramatic Research)
an analysis of affect circulation and border movement in the Postspectacle Shelter 

The Crises of (Com)passion

How does the relationship between compassion and injustice work? And how does it function in an institutionalized museum context? Does the display of injustice in a museum produce any actual twist, any affective shift, or is it a mere dioramization, a caged instance of a murky reality, tamed as in a transparent time-capsule? The capital of compassion accumulates constantly through the charity-economy with artists, NGO's and foundations acting as agents of the soul—that soul which is put to work in the new financialized economy.(1) The whole image–production, which represents far-off colonial subjects as well as hidden backyard misery within the first world, is in search of the ‘becoming-spectator’. Becoming spectator to the pain of others generates the illusion of agency through involvement in a labyrinthine circuit of feelings. Rather than increasing and intensifying consciousness, it only succeeds in sustaining and reproducing social injustice and economic inequality. Becoming-spectator is always implicit in the representation of injustice.

Compassion implies hope, hope for justice; it implies the transformation of a singular instance in a potentiality for its perpetual existence. But capitalism today relies on the “relentless branding and marketing of even the most ‘inner’ aspects of subjective experience.”(2) Hope is immediately commodified as a warranty that the system will go on, so that the structural inequalities and generalized injustice fail to be challenged. Neoliberalism is a machine for engineering hope: it recycles the hopelessness of its outcomes into new hope that eventually accelerates its negation. Thus, we have to acknowledge that in the new economy of emotions, a compassion-without-hope operates. In the Postspectacle Shelter(3), an event organized in Bucharest in the building that hosts both the Parliament and the contemporary art museum, No-Hope slogans were the backdrop for the performance of compassion brought bluntly onto the artistic and political scene.(4) There was no illusion in the Shelter, or rather everything else seemed to be an illusion. The spectacle of compassion was made manifest without the smooth-out of its contradictions. All that was performed was the pure soothing effect: inviting the homeless, and offering food, medical care, knowledge, affectivity and voice. In the neoliberal ‘reality’, in order to annihilate the resistance to the exploitation both of humans and non-humans, big companies and supra-democratic organizations use whitewashing strategies, such as fighting poverty, investing in research to clean the ecosystem, and the rehabilitation of communities. In this 'reality', compassion and charity merely become the 'spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down'. In the Postspectacle Shelter only the 'sugar' was delivered, only the comfort, without the 'medicine' and nonetheless without hope. Although the situational spectacle inside the Shelter was devoid of illusions, what was enhanced was, on the contrary, an effect of unreality. It has been clear all along that no hope lies in the neoliberal 'spoonful of sugar', but is there any hope at all?
Slogan of the Presidential Candidate campaigning in the Postspectacle Shelter
Identifying the categories more prone to being deemed as compassionate easily turns into a political question. The present economy manages compassion as it organizes moods and states of mind. In this emotional organization chart, roles are assigned and registered, and the psychic space is being constantly modeled and produced on the immaterial assembly line of the postfordist factory. The idea of care becomes a commodity to be sold for profit under the strict regulation of the economic logic. We find how this affective regulation works in the dominant rhetoric of the West as capitalism arrived in the Eastern Bloc, at the beginning of the transition period. The West proclaimed itself as compassionate and performed the agency of care in the East. For example, among the homeless who came to the Shelter there was a young couple with a baby, who were wondering what the actual source of the diaper packages they got as a present had been, and then concluded that it must have been ‘the French’ (there was a group of artists from France invited for the event). The couple were actually repeating the foreign aid rhetoric, in which compassion and help have been associated with the West, as if they were delivered by some anonymous alien benefactor-force. And they were right, in that before appearing in shops and on billboards, the aid campaigns functioned as the best commercials or ‘use manuals’ for the commodities that were soon going to flood the newly opened market.

In the spectacle of compassion, the subjects of injustice are caught in the trap of performing their suffering in front of an audience who must develop a psychic transformation to-not-feel-empathy in order to adapt to the emotional requirements of the neuropolitics at work. The spectacle of compassion operates precisely as cover for lack of compassion, whereby the gaze at another’s suffering is really a mode of inadmissible envy (in-videre), not-seeing, and voyeuristic love of witnessing the pain of the other. For instance in the 'tributes' from Hunger Games(5), the spectacle seemed to be the only escape, the only way out of one’s precarious life: all that you are left with to perform is your own enacted bare life. 

The imperative to exhaust the spectacle potential, to empty the stage, becomes a question of transgressing ethics through a contradictory aesthetics. If a zero degree of attention is achieved, this could give way to an affective attention or ineffective attention leaking through the interstices of the sensible that has become precisely the medium where power operates today. This ineffectual attention opens an affective gap inside the current marketization of (in)attentiveness, a blindspot of the spectacle attention—the latter relying on the priming effect (6) that drives the vectors of the sensible towards what is already the established norm that keeps the system going.(7) Placing oneself in a position of ‘insensible’ self-fragilization(8) by allowing a power to affect and to be affected corrupts the interstices of the sensible.(9) Maybe this (an)aesthetic vulnerability could be the result of the radicalization of the effects of the contemporary spectacle of suffering and compassion. This could be then transformed into an (an)ethical vulnerability—the reciprocal acknowledgement of a shared fragility and precariousness of our body-psyche both politically and ontologically, while overcoming and corrupting the ethical imperatives at work in the current affective ecosystem.

By allowing the amplification effect of passion for both the anesthetic effect of the current spectacle of compassion and for one’s vulnerability facing it, the current crises of compassion could radicalize and corrupt the becoming-spectator into (mis)using his/her own fictitiousness to intervene in reality by creating aesthetico-political black holes. The Postspectacle Shelter opened up a new post-ethical thought, beyond the auto-laudatory moralism that so often drives activist thinking and self-proclaimed political art.

Compassion and Distance

There is a multiple layer of distance in compassion. The first layer enables compassion in the first place. It is the distance between the subject and object of compassion. This gap involves a sort of hierarchical relationship between the object of compassion, which is the subject of the suffering itself, and the subject of compassion, which is also the subject of the thought of suffering.(10) Compassion in itself requires an unequal relationship between the thought of emotion, which then becomes an emotion of thought (feeling the pain of others), and the lived, embodied emotion (one’s own suffering, feeling pain).

The second layer of distance comes from the overwhelming enormity of the painful spectacle, which results in feeling powerless.(11) The scenes of vulnerability produce a desire to withhold compassionate attachment, to be irritated by the scene of suffering. The spectacularization of poverty produces a numbness of empathic feeling. It produces the possibility to disconnect, to run away from the scene of suffering, to refuse actual engagement with the reality of pain. Lack of empathy (impairment of compassion) and apatheia (impairment of pathos) are the states of mind produced by the late capitalism, with its now primary function as an emotion-shaping belief system.

The third layer of distance follows the Cartesian view on the mind-body relation, wherein one’s own body and emotionality is perceived as external, detached and hence controllable by the sovereign-mind and rationality. In this case, distance—which actually characterizes the post-Renaissance dominant scientific and patriarchal paradigm—is what separates body from mind. It was believed that through will, judgment and reason, the unruly, animal body could be tamed and controlled, in the same way that the state functioned as the center of command to discipline the bodies of people under its rule. As Silvia Federici noted, “[…] the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.”(12) As a historical moment, the Cartesian paradigm simultaneously coincides with the advent of capitalism, the erosion of community and of alternative forms of communality, based on proximity and compassion, as opposed to the alienation and estrangement triggered by the dominance of capital and money relations.

The telescopic structure of compassion calls for a new tool to speculate on its complex relationship with distance and alienation. Furthermore, we need to corrupt this telescope and zoom nearer than in and farther than out. Something enabling appears as a result of the paradoxical alignment between the excess of feeling and hyperalienation. If we distance ourselves from compassion in order to know it anesthetically, while feeling it excessively at the same time, we could then reflect upon the plot twists newly produced. All the more so, if the current economy is involved in the automation of the body-psyche through its hegemonic machines that generate the plot that we follow without sensing and the affects that we capture without knowing. The body-mind is automatized both in the Foucauldian sense of discipline and control—a control that is achieved though operations at a distance—and in the posthumanist sense of the prostheticity, which again poses the problem of distance, in that the co-evolution of technology and the human necessitates the externalization of one’s cognition into the tools that will then help the human rule over nature—which rather reveals a trickster mechanism of nature to hopelessly self-help.(13) This melodramatic telescope proves to be an affective prosthetic tool for creating auto-glitches in the body-mind’s emotional and mental programming.

Bodies Out of Place. The Power of Homelessness

As we are more and more becoming precarious and home-less, there is a backlash of intense movements of home-finding and home-creating as all-too-familiar (and dangerous) ways of escaping the frail ground of economic insecurity and no-future-ism.(14) The new old homes are the solid, enclosed (and oppressive) territories of nationalism, racism, homophobia, speciesism, all the community-forming practices based upon exclusion and impaired compassion, or on identity politics, be it related to nation, ethnicity, sex orientation, species, and so on. The alignment of family and homeness with whiteness, heteronormativity and carnophallogocentrism(15) “is powerful, and works to transform all these features into familial ties, into a form of racial kindred that recognizes all non-white [and queer subjects] others as strangers, as 'bodies out of place'.”(16) Identity politics is based on a unidirectional empathy (excluding the bodies out of place), on a compassion-within-borders, which is strictly regulated top-down by the neoliberal economic hegemony, by the state and religion.

Likewise, the institutionalization of resistance and autonomy potential through the NGO system is part of another home-seeking mechanism, which acts through division and dissipation. It finds a cozy home for every social anomaly, disregarding the 'homelessness' of all these anomalies in accordance with the arbitrariness of power and avoiding to grapple with their common cause, which is eventually left unchallenged.(17) We can speak of a unidirectional empathy to characterize the affective restraints of the charity economy that “treats the symptoms and not the sources”. This system of rationalized--algorithmic philanthropy is another mechanism by which “a generalized impaired compassion is being institutionalized on a grand scale.”(18)

For art, home equals the art institution. There is an inflation of art with socio-political content today, which is in constant search for homes, and like the NGO system, it doesn't challenge the causes but only quarantined effects, disregarding the position from which it criticizes and who actually profits from the symbolic capital it amasses. As long as it remains inside the comfort zone of the home-institution, the subversive, disruptive potential of this alleged revolutionary art is easily tamed and its acts of representation cannot escape depoliticization, its semiotic charge cannot turn into action. Maybe political art today relies too much on a hope-rhetoric that disregards all the present refrains of collapse echoed by an art system deeply embedded in the capitalist profit-logic, by the fiasco-politics of Western representative democracy, the abysmal effects of the current expanded biopolitics, or the coming ecological catastrophe.

The state of homelessness is usually associated with the refusal to work. It is a position outside the production time; it is not anymore factory or corporation time, but personal time—as productivity now equates the speed of reaction, the velocity of response-ability and the constant shaping of subjectivity. Homelessness is sheer precariousness (physical) combined with dark precarity (economical). It is the anticipation of the imminent generalized dystopia. A homeless person on the street said: “I have no place to sleep so at night I study, I do my research on the street.” The depressed cannot wake up, the homeless cannot sleep. There is an inverted depression characterizing the homeless. They are hyper-active waste of the neoliberal flood of meaning and information overflow. They embody the dark restlessness and über-consciousness. This forced state of renunciation and hopelessness allows them to drill in time and sensitively connect with the no-future that lurks upon the world. Interestingly, the most precarious social strata, and the homeless in particular, were oftentimes portrayed in horror movies as the most sensitive to dark forces—the chronic social instability makes them also prone to possession—as in John Carpenter’s 1987 Prince of Darkness.

Prince of Darkness, John Carpenter, 1987

Homelessness becomes a kind of ominous, pre-apocalyptic state, both virtual and actual. In its actuality it defines bodies out of place, at the mercy of the neoliberal compassion apparatus. Nevertheless, in its virtuality, 'homelessness' can become a state of continuous de-subjectivation, a zero degree of being, from where new forms of life could appear. The refusal of 'homes' is bound up to the refusal of work, to the acceptance of fragility and precariousness (as opposed to precarity), to the state of being possessed by the no-hope affect. Even the escape from normative subjectivities is hopeless since transgression has recently become the norm. One can only say, repeating another Postspectacle slogan: “Proud to Be Grey”.

Telescoping through the multiple homes that await our stabilization after every transgression, we could then radicalize the unhome operation to the level of the whole planet. In the midst of the ecological crisis it becomes apparent that even the home of all the homeless—the Earth—will soon rid itself of the human. By becoming possessed by the affect of the imminent extinction and escaping the promised security and success of all 'homes', we end up ridding ourselves of all preservational desires: we can maybe escape our humanity.

When the body disorganizes and disconnects from its familiar, habitual structure, when its movements override the normative patterns prescribed by the late capitalist rules, then maybe the body can become something else. Perhaps what it becomes is the norm that it already was: a homeless, alien body. If 'homelessness' at a molecular level is the displacement of the habitual microstructures from the monolithic body-home and their autonomization, at a macro level it can displace the whole monolith of thinking the human and the body altogether.


The newly developed system of 'Food Banks' in Great Britain seems like a prophecy for the reality to come.(19) The homeless are offered due-to-expire supermarket products in return for sentiments of gratefulness towards the merciful new economy and the religious big-hearted-ness. As in the case of the Food Banks, aid and compassion usually come along together with religious indoctrination. The present charity system replaced the function of the former welfare state, as the emotional turn in politics took place along with the post-70's financialized economy. Compassion management has changed from being regulated by public policies to being part of corporation strategies and the affiliated NGO system. Social assistance transitioned from a right to an opportunity that depends on humbleness and speed. This movement is another link in the neoliberal chain of impaired compassion. The Trusts manage compassion and food.(20) The food they distribute through their centers (one example is the Hope Centre, another name worthy of the dystopian script) is actually the debris of technologically processed stamps, which remain unsold at the end of the day. The circuit of compassion is completed by the specificity of the working conditions. The standardized care is performed by volunteers. Volunteerism is the legitimate form of compassion today. It is based on both a unidirectional empathy (promoted by the employers - foundations, trusts) and on a lack of empathy (the volunteers perform unpaid labor). No trust, no hope.

'Food Bank’ in the Postspectacle Shelter

There was an interesting relation between food and affect in the Postspectacle Shelter. Food was the materialized desire. It was what actually becomes body, and the emotions shape bodies as well. So, on this level, there is a resemblance to the two main acts of production: circulation and distribution/food and affect. Hierarchically, food has always been subaltern to the higher functions of the body-mind. It becomes epistemologically necessary to re-think a flat organization of food and affect. The homeless who usually come to openings for a snack and a drink (called Pișcotari in Romanian) were always treated as inferior because they preferred food to emotional, cathartic states of mind allegedly stimulated by art. There is an emancipatory potential in the subjectivity of this spectator (embodied by the homeless), who doesn’t privilege catharsis over bodily needs. In a society ruled by economic laws, the politics of food is well entangled with a politics of emotions. The immateriality of food can be literally incorporated and at the same time the materiality of affect is being felt. Both are flows that shape subjectivity and create forms of life. Thinking the environment in terms of domination and extraction—mainly since the beginning of agriculture on a large scale—has shaped subjectivities around the fixation on securing the future: the crops ensured food in excess and in reserve as opposed to the hunter-gatherer’s just-in-time nourishment. This is only one instance of the feedback loop between the politics of food and the politics of emotion.

'Food Bank’ in the Postspectacle Shelter

The Corrupt Audience and the Illusion of Spectatorship

On stage: the audience-performers/ performing audience : the guards, the museum wards, the director, the employees, the artists, the homeless, the NGO, the philosophers of depression, surveillance cameras etc.

When the only audience is corrupt, and does not respond to the same rules of valorization as the ones established by the history of an institution, like the museum, a solipsistic game riddled with holes of meaninglessness starts unfolding. New forms of truth-telling can arise if the spectator de-automatizes affectively and semiotically from the system of valorization that makes art art. Maybe bringing the homeless as audience is a necessary act of cynicism; it breaks the art bubble autarkeia, and annihilates the usual self-gratulatory ceremony (which happens in restricted circles, while self-praising the practice of addressing a wider public). This practice can be a contemporary parrhesiastic game to change perception of art/institutions/politics for performers and audience alike. The homeless seem to be paradigmatic for the function of the subversive spectator. They are the unbearable audience: the constant reminder that biopolitics is real and the spectacle has crept inside to teach us how to play our role outside. The rupture between the audience and the performers makes one think that each plays her/his own show at the end of which the applause comes for something other that what was meant, leaving one hopeless and devoid of meaning, In the Postspectacle Shelter, the performance is beyond feedback, beyond appreciation.

The Postspectacle Shelter operated an aesthetic intervention to re-enact the crises of compassion—its internal contradiction. Postspectacle recognized that the only possible place to both stage reality and affirm the real effect of the stage where we play every day as bodies in and out of place is a No Hope shelter. A shelter which takes over a public institution by overstating its past and present failed promises of compassion and care for the people: The House of the People, now mainly housing the Romanian Parliament. The grand narrative of Romanian modernity produced this concept of a grand 'home' which was to never belong to the people, as its name so performatively promised. At the same time, the current representative democracy failed to meet the necessities of the demos; the people itself stopped believing in it. Hence, everybody invited could fearlessly play on the political stage constructed in the Shelter: by addressing the audience from the open tribune of the Presidential Candidate you became what you already were—the spectacle itself.

Freeing the homeless from 'representativity', from being caught in the rogue algorithm of compassion operates a shift in the relationship between representation and injustice. There is no sure 'home' for the spectator and the performer. The audience is as fragile as the performing bodies. The assigned roles inside the spectacle are in themselves precarious, unstable, oscillatory. The partial-spectator becomes the partial-performer and vice versa. There is no pure audience. Like in the performance of compassion, mere spectatorship generates the illusion of agency, but there is first and foremost the illusion of spectatorship that shadows any oscillation between comforting agency and the much-feared passivity. The stakes are not about seeing a spectacle, but about sensing the movement, the uncertainty of every moment, the fragility of borders and of the possible outcomes.

One of the Presidential Candidates addressing the audience in the Postspectacle Shelter

To be passive as a corrupt audience in a museum is a subversion of the codes imposed by such an institution. And passivity has always been associated with the incapacity of judgment—demonized and deplored. On the contrary, I contend that precisely this incapacity should be regarded as a positive anesthesia, wherein becoming insensate draws one closer to the inhuman prosthesis that one is. Maybe this corruption of the sensible is the flipside of the emotional overflow of the outside spectacle to which one becomes attuned even through one’s own inattentiveness. While even emotions are introduced into machines that make them effective and marketable, automating inequality, the glitch introduced by this affective corruption could be as well automatically proliferated.

'Passive' and 'passion' have a common Latin root—passio—which means 'suffering'. Com-passion should be common passion, a shared passion, a suffering experienced together. Or rather becoming ‘possessed’ and homeless in common. “To be passive is to be enacted upon, as a negation that is already felt as suffering. The fear of passivity is tied to the fear of emotionality, in which weakness is defined in terms of a tendency to be shaped by others.”(21) The affect cannot be incubated in the body, there is no well-sealed interiority: it has already started leaking its inhumanity out of the human. There is a permeability, fluidity of affectivity—affect is homeless. No vacuum chamber to isolate it inside the body. That is why the psychological apparatus is so deceptive. Compassion as co-passivity should be the shared capacity of being affected, acted upon and possessed. Of being able to co-suffer and abide in the negativity and hopelessness of this sufferance both as a partial-spectator (the subject of compassion) and a partial-performer (the object of compassion).

1 Franco Bifo Berardi, The Soul at Work From Alienation to Autonomy (Cambridge, Massachussets and London: The MIT Press, 2009).

2 See Steven Shaviro’s “Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales” in Film-Philosophy Journal, Vol 14, No 1, 2010. Retrieved from

3 In the Postspectacle Shelter, the homeless were offered food and medical assistance, and a voice in the Presidential Candidacy. The House of People was through this practical gesture given back to the People – now claustrated between the heavy brackets of double walls, that of the Parliament and of contemporary art.

4 The Postspectacle Shelter was organized in a place with both artistic and political importance, the House of the People built by Ceausescu and never entirely finished (but after the Romanian revolution in 1989), whose Western wing was transformed into the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) in 2004.

5 Hunger Games is a 2012 SF film, directed by Gary Ross, after the homonymous book of Suzanne Collins. “The story takes place in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem, where 12 boys and 12 girls must participate in the Hunger Games–a televised annual event in which the "tributes" are required to fight to the death until there is one remaining victor.” (source: Wikipedia)

6 See

7 This difference between affective and spectacle attention has been signaled to me by Florin Flueras.

8 Term used by Bracha Ettinger in a lecture at Future Art Base (Helsinki) in 2012. Self-fragilization in Ettinger's sense implies the dispersal and loss of the self, becoming sub-subjective. It is thus a concept opposed to oversensitivity.

9 “An individual is first of all a singular essence, which is to say, a degree of power. A characteristic relation corresponds to this essence, and a certain capacity for being affected corresponds to this degree of power. Furthermore, this relation subsumes parts; this capacity for being affected is necessarily filled by affections.” (Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley [San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988], 27).

10 See Lauren Berlant (Ed.), Compassion The Culture and Politics of an Emotion (New York and London: Routledge, 2004), 20.

11 “Citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk, are schooled to be cynical about the possibility of sincerity. Some people will do anything to keep themselves from being moved.” (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002], 86).

12 Silvia Federici, The Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 146.

13 Prostheticity “in the sense of the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world, the prosthetic coevolution of the human animal with the technicity of tools and external archival mechanisms (such as language and culture).” (Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? [Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010], xv).

14 "Welcome Home!" was one of the most repeated slogans of Mihail Neamțu, which he propagandistically used in his hysterical speech against the ruling social-democratic party during the right wing's official demonstration at the beginning of July 2012. He was referring to the alive, dead and 'unborn' Romanians patriots who are against the idea of emigration. Neamțu is an important figure of the center-right party in Romania, and an assiduous promoter of the neoliberal doctrine.

15 In the periods of the mad cow disease outbreak, in countries such as Great Britain in the 80's and 90's, and Canada in 2000's, there was a powerful nationalist discourse tied to the consumption of beef. As Nicole Shukin notes, there “were dramatic public displays of cooking, serving, and consuming Canadian beef, modeling a metabolic commitment to the health and “carnophallogocentrism” of the nation through patriotic displays of meat eating. Not only is the purity of a nation’s meat representative, on a deeply affective level, of its domestic economy; meat also enciphers ideological investments in the masculinist virility and racial purity of the national body.” (Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times [Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press, 2009], 227). Carnophallogocentrism is a term coined by Jacques Derrida to refer to the sacrificial (carno), masculine (phallo) and language-centered (logo) dimensions of classical subjectivity.

16 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 2.

17 Arbitrary power is a concept developed by Akseli Virtanen.

18 See Gary Olson’s Empathy and Neuropolitics: This is your brain on neoliberal culture. Any questions? Available at:

19 See Amelia Gentleman’s Food Banks: A Life on Handouts Retrieved from on July 18, 2012.

20 Although it is a name worthy of dystopian novels, these are foundations which administrate the Food Banks.

21 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2.