Post-humanitarianism in the digital era: a public lecture by Lilie Chouliaraki

Published: February 10, 2016

Lilie Chouliaraki, Guest Professor at Stockholm University’s Department of Media Studies, gave a public lecture at Filmhuset on February 3, 2016. Organized and sponsored by the Leading Research Environment “Global Media Studies and the Politics of Mediated Communication” (Director: Miyase Christensen), the event addressed the issue of solidarity in the post-humanitarian age.

Lilie Chouliaraki analyzes Javier Bardem’s campaign for Doctors Without Borders/Greece. Photo by Martin Åkerblom.

The lecture, introduced by Associate Professor Anna Roosvall, was entitled “Discourse and the digital: solidarity in the post-humanitarian age”. Lilie Chouliaraki started her presentation by raising two questions: What are the conditions of possibility for solidarity with others in the context of the rise of digital media? And, how does the discipline of media and communication studies approach this matter in comparison to moral philosophy or international development? According to Chouliaraki, the issue of how we come to care for others predates the rise of digital media but requires new answers, and the problem of how to analyze its digital dimension deserves careful consideration. In her view, the highly-concentrated focus on what is “new” about digitally mediated communication -that is, on the discontinuities that are said to result from its rise- may be distracting scholars from paying due attention to the continuities. The challenge is to keep the communicative tissue characteristic of the social world in sight.

Referring to the book Discourse in late modernity: Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis that she co-authored with Norman Fairclough in 1999, Chouliaraki called attention to the ways in which discourse has effects on social subjects and on their relations to one another, and invited the audience to consider the qualitative dimension of discourses regarding solidarity in the digital era: What do digital appeals for solidarity mean? Which are the conditions of possibility that render their meaning possible? And why does this matter for the ethics and politics of our times?

Starting from what she called a “minimum conceptual definition” of solidarity, understood as the moral imperative to act for others without asking back, Chouliaraki resorted to examples from her award-winning book The Ironic Spectator (2012) to illustrate changes in the ways in which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have appealed for the solidarity of audiences over time. The suffering body has always been central in their appeals for solidarity, but the discourses referring to it have failed to express humanity, and therefore been critiqued for their lack of moral sensibility or political correctness.

The humanitarian sector’s most recent response to the problem of how to appeal for solidarity in the context of critique and compassion fatigue combines celebrities and digital media. Referring to a campaign launched by Doctors Without Borders/Greece starring Spanish celebrity Javier Bardem who calls for funding the organization by way of buying “Pastilles to relieve the pain of others” in pharmacies, Chouliaraki discussed how the NGO and the actor mutually promote each other. The campaign invites audiences to show solidarity by clicking and shopping, and to interact and participate by circulating Bardem’s message amongst their online contacts.

By focusing on the celebrity, the campaign leaves out the suffering others, who are not displayed, and avoids specifying whose pain is being talked about. By resorting to digital media, it promotes a fleeting and self-referential commitment. Chouliaraki argued that today solidarity is no longer a moral imperative emanating from outside the self: we are now solidary because we are getting something out of it, be it a sense of self-improvement or a positive image of ourselves. Post-humanitarianism refers to the fact that in neoliberal times the ethical basis for solidarity has changed, aided by digitalization, and become market-driven and individualistic. Or in other words: Digital neoliberalism is detrimental to the ways in which we think of ourselves as moral actors.

Self-referential solidarity? Photo by Martin Åkerblom.

Chouliaraki’s presentation was followed by a rich round of questions and answers. Asked about the empirical validity of her analysis, she explained that her claims about the texts should be considered “barometers, or traces, of wider social processes”, and not statements about what people think based on their engagement with them. In this view, the texts provide clues about what Raymond Williams defined as a “structure of feeling” and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello have characterized as “the spirit of capitalism”. Lilie Chouliaraki will return to Stockholm University’s Department of Media Studies in April 2016.


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