What I’m Reading: The Ironic Spectator


I am currently studying Religion in Peace and Conflict Studies at Uppsala University. As part of the literature course, our professor has asked us to write a bibliographical review of sources that we may use for our thesis. I have chosen to write my thesis on media and its effect on immigration policy. Therefore, I will be reviewing articles and books that focus mostly on the refugee crisis sparked in part by the Arab Spring movement in 2011.

Lilie Chouliaraki’s book The Ironic Spectator analyses how solidarity has shifted from spiritual or revolutionary ideas to the performative aspects of therapy and aesthetics. I was most interested in her analysis of media’s influence on how we view suffering. As in her other two books (previously discussed here and here), there is a sense that media, whilst transformed by social media and easy access to technology, it is still constrained by old models of transmitting the news and centring it on Western sensibilities.

Chouliaraki describes the difference between spiritual solidarity, revolutionary solidarity and the post-modern “ironic solidarity” (2013). According to Chouliaraki, ironic solidarity ‘explicitly situates the pleasures of the self at the heart of moral action, thereby rendering solidarity a contingent ethics that no longer aspires to a reflexive engagement with the political conditions of human vulnerability’ (2013: 14). That is, instead of the solidarity of a group of religious cohorts or the solidarity of the proletariat, there is just the solidarity of pity or sympathy, without any religious or political support.

This new ironic solidarity is tied with the marketisation of humanitarian efforts. With the explosion of aid agencies, they must compete in capitalistic terms. So they must advertise themselves as if they were commodities by using tactics that cause the spectator to feel pity or sympathy; NGOs have become a brand (Chouliaraki 2013). However, these economic approaches completely gloss over the ‘”big picture” questions of injustice and redistribution that are specific to the contexts of development” (Chouliaraki 2013: 18).

Using media is the easiest way to market NGOs. By harnessing the new social aspects of mass media–that is, traditional media’s call for tweets, personal videos and personal testimonies–humanitarian agencies are basically given free commercial access (Chouliaraki 2013). However, media is still a moralising force throughout the world and in constant threat from authoritarian regimes and even capitalist market forces that choose what is important to Western spectators.

Like her other books, Chouliaraki analyses media sources in order to build her arguments, something that I hope to emulate well when it comes to my own thesis. Her books were helpful, although I did struggle with the sometimes dense, overly-academic language.

photo: Engin Akyurt

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