The Ironic Spectator (book review)

I noticed that my reading habits are changing as I am becoming more immersed in academic teaching, course planning and advising MA students on a variety of assignments for our Communication for Development program.
I am discovering more and more new literature that not just helps me in my research and writing, but also helps me pointing students into the right direction for their reading and own reflections.
Celebrities’ involvement in development and humanitarian issues is clearly a trending topic and more and more research and publications are engaging with numerous issues around celebrity discourses in the global market of development (re)presentations.

Lilie Chouliaraki’s book The Ironic Spectator-Solidarity in the age of post-humanitarianism is a very good resource that combines academic rigor, critical thinking and engaged scholarship into a go-to publication for contemporary thinking on media, performance, (celebrity) culture and global development symbolism in the digital age.
Even if the book can be a bit ‘heavy’ on the academic side at times it achieves one important goal really well: To analyze the rituals and performance of celebrity humanitarianism and public engagement with/in them without becoming simply dismissive, arrogant or cynical.

The starting point of Chouliaraki’s book is already at an advanced level where more simplified narratives around ‘clicktivism’ often seem to end she is opening up a larger discussion around ‘monitorial citizenship’:

I accept that new media habituate us into mundane cosmopolitanizing acts, enabling us to get selectively engaged with momentary but efficient forms of online activism – from signing a petition to donating money; in so doing, they may be encouraging what Schudson calls ‘monitorial citizenship’, a mode of citizenship that no longer relies on our physical presence or sustained commitment to common affairs but on a more fragile and fleeting public sensibility characterized by simply being “watchful even while (we are) doing something else” (1998: 311) (p.18).
This immediately created an ‘aha’ moment for me and reflections around topics from Kony 2012, to our research on development blogging or social media interactions with global politics.

As she is preparing the ground for the following chapter on The Humanitarian Imaginary, Chouliaraki reminds us of important concepts that have been around before digital humanitarianism or celebrity adoption debates. We are entering the sphere of the theater, of spectacle and performance:

Theatricality (…) refers to a communicative structure that does not necessarily belong to the theatre but operates in line with the conventions of theatrical performance – namely by distancing the spectator from the spectacle of the vulnerable other through the objective space of the stage (or any other framing device) whilst, at the same time, enabling proximity between the two through narrative and visual resources that invite our empathetic judgement towards the spectacle (p. 22).
The second chapter is focusing on the historical analysis of the creation of (humanitarian) spectators.
I found it very interesting that the complexity of humanitarian imaginary led her to a nuanced, even optimistic initial conclusion:

Instead of accepting negative accounts of humanitarianism, which tend to treat these paradoxes as static impasses that doom any call for solidarity to failure, however, my own account of the humanitarian imaginary treats these paradoxes as productive tensions that constitute solidarity within different public moralities, at different points in time (p.52).
From appeals to concerts and news - ambivalent representations of us and the distant sufferers
The following chapters engage with an illustrious range of relevant examples from different sub-fields of the humanitarian performance, the first being appeals. She identifies a ‘crisis of pity’ and how the legitimacy of appeals has been transformed into the ‘market practice of branding that technologizes and particularizes the premises for action on suffering’ (p.75). This is not simply a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ development, but rather a development we can witness in many other areas of contemporary capitalist culture: Instead of challenging the ‘root causes’ we are told that ‘smart’ consumerism, participation and (digital) engagement can create ‘win-win’ situations:

In this way, post-humanitarianism challenges traditional forms of agency, where solidarity requires the subordination of the self to a higher cause, and privileges the pleasure of the self as a more effective way of making a difference to distant others (p.75).
So there we are, stuck between ‘the promise of a new solidarity and the risk of narcissism’ (p.77).

Celebrity is the topic of the next chapter. This chapter provides a good middle ground between reflections on UN ambassador Angelina Jolie and the broader question of how celebrities help to engage ‘the public’ in humanitarian issues.
Not surprisingly, Chouliaraki is critical of these mediated efforts where the celebrity often becomes the focus as s/he starts to ‘stand for’ an issue or organization and her/his experiences become the inspirational story from a refugee camp in a humanitarian crisis zone:

the communicative practice of celebrity may enchant western publics as spectators of the drama of suffering, it may not be able to provide these publics with a more enduring orientation to action. (…) (it) runs the risk of inspiring talk about the celebrity herself and so of inserting aspirational performance into registers of ineffective speech (p.103).
No analysis of humanitarian performances is complete without a look at concerts, the topic of chapter 5. It starts of by ‘rock as ritual ceremonies’. The review comprises the ‘usual suspects’ such as Live Aid/8 and the researcher-me wondered whether there may be such thing as ‘celebritizing research on celebrity events’. But the teacher-me noticed the overview character of the chapter which is useful for students and newcomers to this field.

The ambivalence of fandom, spectatorship & power in numbers
Her conclusion points out the ambivalence of the (digital) public quite well, a public that learns from Nick Kristof’s articles, watching a TED talk that features Bono and comments on Bill Gates’ reading list, but that often does not follow-up and change their behavior.

These (…) transformations point (…) to a humanitarian imaginary that replaces theatricality, the social space of spectatorship where questions of politics and otherness appear as possibilities for collective reflection and action, with narcissistic pleasure, a return to the western self as both the subject and object of collective enchantment. This is an imaginary where publicness and fandom merge into a radically ambivalent agency, one that is both empowering, in that sheer numbers make a loud statement of solidarity, and subduing, insofar as this activism, embedded as it is in the disenchanted enchantment of contemporary spectatorship, reflects less a body politic and more pleasure-seeking yet knowing fandom (p. 137).
Choosing news as the remaining arena for her analysis proves to be an excellent choice. The chapter links the changing landscape of TV and print news that are celebritizing actors in their own way to the media’s ways of engaging with humanitarian issues. And while I find her analysis of post-television narratives as a ‘therapeutic model of journalism which, in giving voice and recognition to ordinary contributions on distant suffering, replaces objectivity with a proliferation of truth-claims none of which take epistemological priority over others’ (p.170-71) interesting, I also wondered where this leaves new forms of digital journalism. As traditional news are losing a younger audience, an interesting discussion ensues about the chances and limitations of the ‘blogosphere’ as new way of engaging various stakeholders more directly or replicating powerful discourses of voice and agency as the seemingly global civil society of the Internet comes with its own challenges around cosmopolitan representations of development failures and successes.

What does your
‘theater of engagement look like?
Chouliaraki’s final words are worth quoting at some length as they really capture the essence of her book: 

This is why we need the “in-between” of the theatre. (…) It is this in-between that connects us imaginatively with a distant world that is not and should not be reduced to the world we comfortably inhabit. It is this in-between that enables us to raise crucial questions, now almost forgotten, of justification (why is this important?), antagonism (what is right and wrong?), complexity (is donating enough?), otherness and historicity (what makes these people who they are?) that may turn us from utilitarian altruists to cosmopolitan citizens. (…) Not only because the humanitarian imaginary needs to balance a delicate act between judgement without over-rationalization, emotion without sentimentalism and an awareness of its paradoxes without surrendering the hope of representation. But because we, too, have to balance an equally delicate act between being good to others whilst skeptical about any justification for such goodness that transcends ourselves (p. 205).
After I had finished reading the book I thought about the notion of ‘theater’ for a while. In my understanding it is a space, a stage if you like, that tries to resist more celebritization and the ironic distancing from complex issues, whether we talk about the challenge of ‘capturing Joseph Kony’ to the ‘ironic’ reading of comments on a celebrity’s latest journey to Africa on a celebrity and fashion gossip website. Finding a balance will remain difficult, but Lilie Chouliaraki provides us with excellent intellectual food for thought to keep ‘us’ (academics, teachers, development ‘experts’,…) on our toes!

Chouliaraki, Lilie: The Ironic Spectator. Solidarity in the age of post-humanitarianism.
ISBN 978-0-7456-4211-6, 238 pages, GBP 16.99, Polity Press, Cambridge.


 Full disclosure: I received a free review copy from Polity in April 2013.

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