The Spectacle of Suffering

This paper is a theoretical exploration on the interplay between suffering, commodification, and representation.

Image by Tom Barrett

Jasper Steggink is an anthropologist living in Utrecht, the Netherlands. Currently working for Namasté Foundation.

7,100 words

The interplay of suffering, commodification and representation as perceived through humanitarian communication.

This paper is a theoretical exploration on the interplay between sufferingcommodification, and representation. Humanitarian communication is the case study used to explore the theoretical interplay. The representation of suffering has been critiqued by many. Commodified, victimized imagery is perceived as socially damaging the people that suffer. Not directly, but through stigmatization. Because of these inequality-enforcing practices, humanitarian organization are in a constant threat of delegitimazation. Trying to steer away from harmful representations, contemporary humanitarian organizations often represent the sufferer in a more abstract form. Not focusing on one specific case of suffering, but displaying a plethora of cases instead. This gave rise to a growing spectacleof suffering, broadcasted through mass media. Through the lens of globalization, the underlying inequality becomes clear. Monopolization of both commercial and non-profit organizations causes unequal information flows. This makes self-representation for the global South increasingly problematic. Although the interplay between suffering, commodification and representation is often perceived problematic, there is a possibility that a furthering process of globalization causes a more positive outlook: that of a geopolitics of affect.

It was long before Band Aid sang Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Geldof and Ure 1984) that the United States and Western Europe started viewing Africa as homogenous and incapable of development (Poncian 2015, 72), but the charity single did contribute to a harmful, stereotypical image of the continent. The song, produced as an effort to fight famine in Ethiopia, surpassed the hopes of the producers and became the Christmas hit of 1984. Although the direct success of the song is appraisable, together with the money it collected, the way it provided a stereotypical view on Africa has to be taken into account when judging the song for its aid enhancing qualities. With lines such as ‘There’s a world outside your window, And it’s a world of dread and fear, Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears’ (Band Aid 1984), the song tries to show the listener how terrible Africa is, and that the continent is almost broken beyond repair. About the song text Mark Curtis, Director of the World Development Movement, commented: ‘The song perpetuates the myth that Africa’s problems can somehow be blamed on lack of rainfall and failed harvests. It conjures up an image of a continent inhabited entirely by starving children with flies on their faces sitting in the sun-baked bed of a dried-up stream’ (JC 2004).

The fundraising dilemma
Humanitarian communication, which Band Aid’s song is an example of, defined by Lilie Chouliaraki (2010, 108), is the ‘rhetorical practice of transnational actors that engage with universal ethical claims, such as common humanity or global civil society, to mobilize action on human suffering’. It is what humanitarian organizations do in order to receive donations and funding. Much of the humanitarian communication has a transnational element to it and because of this, two important characteristics arise; that of distanceand that of the Other.

The first of the two characteristics of humanitarian communication is the way the organisations aim to bridge the distancebetween, for example, the global North and the global South, bringing the sufferer closer towards the donor. The link between proximity and empathy remains a strong one. Bringing the subject of aid close to the donor is a necessity since it is generally thought that people are more likely to aid physically close victims (Kennedy 2009). The main way of doing so is by representing them through media, such as imagery and film (Kennedy 2009). Thus, in order to receive funding, humanitarian organizations often portray their distant beneficiaries in such a way that donors are touched emotionally, which hopefully leads to monetary donations.

Although a flow of money towards the poorer parts of less economically strong nations is at times welcome, the way fundraising strategies represent the sufferer within humanitarian communication has often been criticized. Much of the critique is directed towards the strategic framing of the so called Other, which leads to the second characteristic of humanitarian communication. The Other is a way of describing a member of a dominated out-group. The exact description of the Other completely depends on the perspective of the opposing in-group. An opposition between ‘us’, the Self and ‘them’, the Other (Staszak 2008, 1). Otherness, as described by Jean-François Staszak (2008, 2)is created through a ‘discursive process by which a dominant in-group constructs one or many dominated out-groups by stigmatizing a difference – real or imagined – presented as a negation of identity and thus a motive for potential discrimination’ (Staszak 2008, 2). Othering, in the same fashion, is often understood as socially damaging the subject. Not in a direct way, but through stigmatization and stereotypical portrayal. Take, for example, the description of Africa as sang in Do They Know It’s Christmas?(Geldof and Ure 1984). The lyrics paint quite a one-sided picture of the continent. The danger in stereotypically portraying Africa is that the listener starts to believe that the story told is the onlystory. This ‘single story’, as said by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: ‘robs people of dignity. It makes the recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar’ (Chimamanda 2009).

Putting the emphasis on difference instead of equality becomes a basis on which more fundamental moral and political assumptions can be made. For one, the audience might think that the ones portrayed are unable to protect themselves. As if they need to be protected, as well as represented, by someone else. ‘Something must be done, soon, from outside of the local setting’ (Kleinman and Kleinman 1996, 7). This assumption not only justifies Western interference, it also invokes an almost neo-colonial ideology of the sufferer having failed because of passivity. Secondly, seeing distant suffering might create the assumption that “we” are somehow better off than “them”, the people living in the poorer countries. The viewer might start to internalize that they have the higher moral status while the ones portrayed as sufferer is doomed to stay where they are; out there, in poverty (Kleinman and Kleinman 1996, 7).

Understanding the harmfulness of strategic framing the sufferer, fund raising aid initiatives are posed a dilemma. A dilemma that Philippe Lévêque, CEO of CARE France, describes as: ‘[not wanting] to lower ourselves with certain fundraising practices, [while knowing that strategic framing] sometimes allows us to touch people who, without that, would not have given. It is a fragile equilibrium’ (Kennedy 2009). Differently said: either use emotional yet stereotypical imagery of the people in need, to raise more money and to help more people, or refrain from such practices and risk having insufficient funds for the aid initiative.

Structure of the paper
This paper is a theoretical exploration on the interplay between sufferingcommodification, and representation. Each segment touches subjects that are aimed to investigate both commodification and representation, providing structure within the debate and hopefully contributing to a deeper understanding of the interconnection between the terms. Humanitarian communication is the case study used to explore the theoretical interplay.

The paper is divided into three segments; first, by investigating styles of humanitarian communication in the past, this paper aims to make the current state of humanitarian communication more understandable. This is done through looking into what Chouliaraki (2010, 107) calls a shift from ‘emotion-oriented’ styles of the past to ‘post-emotion styles of appealing’, as seen in the present. Because the emotion-oriented style of portraying human suffering created pressing moral and ethical questions, humanitarian communication encountered critique (Chouliaraki 2010, 114).

The second segment takes a closer look at the post-emotion style of humanitarian communication, which can both be seen as a reaction to the much-criticized emotion driven articulation as well as a response to the commercial, mediatized structure humanitarian organizations have to operate in. Because of continuing critique, humanitarian communication is in constant threat of de-legitimization (Chouliaraki 2010, 107). Taking the critics seriously, contemporary humanitarian communication subsequently tries to turn away from (mis)representing the sufferer altogether and shifts towards a focus on organizational branding. While doing so, humanitarian communication often refrains from using singular examples of suffering, but uses a plethora of more abstract forms of human struggle instead. This amounts to what Baudrillard (1994, 67)calls ‘a spectacle of poverty and catastrophe’.

Both the first and second part build up towards the third segment, which looks at representation of suffering through the lens of globalization. This perspective shows two things: namely that the underlying conflict of the humanitarian communication struggle to ethically represent suffering is implicitly linked to the global relations of power, and secondly, that looking at the act of representation through the lens of globalization also gives the opportunity to positively revaluate the perceived conflict.

It was long before Band Aid sang Do They Know It’s Christmas? that the United States and Western Europe started viewing Africa as homogenous and incapable of development

Humanitarianism and the creation of the Other

Media and mass communication, perhaps most prominently the Internet, has altered the way we live in today’s world immensely. Eriksen (2007, 3)argues that the Internet, along with the end of the Cold War and identity politics, shifted the globalization of the world into high gear. This implies both ‘a compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness about the world as a whole’ (Robertson 1992, 8). Contributing to this is a greater movement of people. Globalization expanded the range of opportunities available for us. Logically these technological and societal changes have altered the way we think about the scope of people we can provide aid to. Thomas Haskell (1985, 356)suggested that technology, and the process of globalization that comes with it, can change the moral universe we live in. Through the use of mass media techniques, humanitarian agencies (e.g. Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières, Save the Children and many others) contribute to the figurative shrinkage of the world (Kennedy 2009), giving the audience the idea that they have the possibility to help someone on the other side of the earth.

A brief history of humanitarian communication
Although globalization is deemed a fairly new phenomenon, it does not mean that before the invention of the Internet there was no consciousness of the world as a whole. Systems in which people all over the world have participated in, often against their own will, have existed earlier. The European colonial era is the most obvious example. It was arguably the European colonial conquest that laid down an early groundwork for humanitarian aid (O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori 2016, 1). Increased interaction with the ‘distant Other’ created not only a curiosity but, most likely after the colonial era, also a feeling of empathy and the urge to help. This interaction is intrinsically linked to that of the colonial era, both in its imperial origins as well as in its efforts to deal with the problematic relationships of a postcolonial world (O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori 2016, 2).

Taking a closer look at the history of humanitarianism, O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori(2016)differentiate five phases that describe its past ‘not as a series of sudden right turns, but instead [as] bursts of activity that refreshed the sector while carrying with them the baggage of what had come before’. The first phase is imperial humanitarianism. After the First World War came the second phase. It was during this time that Safe the Children appeared, crossing official policies in order to relieve the suffering of people caught in conflict. After the Second World War came the third moment, which marked the beginning of official development aid (O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori 2016, 6). After that, humanitarian aid has seen two significant expansions of its sector. The forth phase came between 1968 and 1985, coined the ‘NGO-movement’, between the humanitarian crisis resulting from the Nigerian Civil War and the ‘global fund-raising extravaganza’ of Live Aid, of which the song Do They Know It’s Christmas? was part. This period is also signified by the rise of global media. The fifth and thus far final phase is the post-Cold War period, where NGO’s have been looking for both new forms of intervention as well as communication in a rapidly changing world (O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori 2016, 6–7).

Hereby it must be said that the traditional narrative of aid provided by ‘the West’ to ‘the rest’ needs to be disrupted, for humanitarian aid has also seen South-South relations and, as written in the article Humanitarianism in context, in the case of Indian aid to Spain (1930) also an instance of South aiding the North (O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori 2016, 2). Because this paper involves a closer look at the critique towards Western humanitarian communication involving imagery of the global South, viewed by a Western audience, the focus of the paper stays with this ‘traditional’ point of view, while keeping in mind the exceptions.

Contemporary humanitarian communication is carrying the baggage of the past and the continuities from the colonial era are many. This is seen in the way humanitarian communication depicts the sufferer, which has much in common with the struggle of anthropology in finding an ethically correct description of its subject. The anthropological struggle was most prominently critiqued in the 1980’s, when the discipline tried to once and for all set aside a focus on societies defined as ‘radically “other” to the anthropologists’ own’ (Robbins 2013, 449). During the 1980’s Johannes Fabian wrote Time and the other (1983), where he criticized how anthropological ethnographies cast Others out of the present moment. Also, James Clifford (1983)voiced his critique on the representations of Others, through which a hierarchy is constructed. Clifford and George Marcus wrote Writing culture (1986), challenging the legitimacy of scholars to say anything about Others at all. After the 1980’s, for anthropology, ‘the differences between Western and non-Western societies’ had become ‘blurrier than ever before’ (Robbins 2013, 449). Yet, the echo of the colonial past seems to be more present in the case of humanitarian communication.

This echo continues to shape the views of the outside world (O’Sullivan, Hilton, and Fiori 2016, 7). Herein lies what Nandita Dogra calls ‘a double logic of “difference” and “oneness”, […] to show the global poor as different from the [developed world] and yet like us by virtue of their humanity’ (Dogra 2012, 3). Nonetheless, the focus on difference and suffering is understandable, mostly because humanitarian communication is implicitly linked to fundraising. Humanitarian communication therefore needs to “sell” the audience something. Or, differently said, they are creating a need. Which in many cases is done through showing imagery of a person suffering. Within this process, commodification of suffering is prone to happen.

Shock effect appeals
Typical early forms of commodified human suffering are called ‘shock effect’ appeals. ‘Shock effect’ images, as seen in campaigns of Oxfam (1956) and Red Cross (1961) (1) during the aim to show suffering in its purest form, for example relying on depicting human bodies in an extreme state of starvation (Chouliaraki 2010, 110). Shock effect images are known for dehumanizing shots of half-naked people, skinny legs, exposed rib-cages, passively sitting on the floor. Both the Oxfam as well as the Red Cross campaign relied heavily on the sufferer. The relationship that is created by doing so, is based on the ‘colonial gaze’, through which the audience finds themselves being defined through both being privileged and through their own set of value-preferences (Bill, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2007, 187). The term ‘colonial gaze’ is a remainder from the colonial era, in which the colonizers did not only dominate the conquered nations economically or militarily, but also in cultural representation. With the arrival of modern ways of communication technologies, around the late 15th century (e.g. film, photography, print, sound recording), also started the spread of imagery of distant colonial settings for larger audiences. These images were full of stereotypes and classified societies along a European made hierarchy. The stereotypes defined both gendered relations as well as racial distinctions. About the racial distinction Frantz Fanon, a psychologist, writes that the objectification done through the white, colonial gaze causes psychical trauma (Fanon 1952, 224). In general, the colonial gaze created a sense of cultural and scientific supremacy through which imperial action can be justified, for this style of Othering stigmatizes the subjects in such a way that it becomes easy to relegate them to the margin of humanity (Staszak 2008, 1). By doing so, the imagery keeps the power relations as perceived in the colonial era intact.

The shock effect imagery shows what Nils Christie (1986) calls the portrayal of the ‘ideal victim’; an individual who ‘most readily are given the complete and legitimate status of being a victim’. He describes the term as a sort of an abstract public status comparable to ‘the hero’ or ‘the traitor’ (Christie 1986, 18). Arthur and Joan Kleinman (1996)describe the process that the sufferer goes through as the creation of ‘trauma stories’ and with them, in their core, a cultural image of ‘victimization’. This victimized image becomes the currency that runs through our political economy. Through these images papers are sold, companies are funded, television shows are broadcasted and jobs are created. All this is done because of the misery (and in some cases; the death) of a nameless subject. The sufferer has become a form of entertainment (Kleinman and Kleinman 1996, 8–10).

Positive image appeals
In reaction to the critique that was voiced against the described form of othering that is perpetuated through the depiction of shocking images, NGO’s changed their course in visual communication. This resulted in what is now at the other end of the spectrum: ‘positive image’ appeals. Rejecting the image of the sufferer as a victim, positive image campaigns rather represent people in conflict areas with agency and dignity (Chouliaraki 2010, 112). This style shows smiling faces, people working passionately, often along with sentimental yet empowering texts of either the sufferer or the aid worker. Although seemingly harmless, positive imagery creates an odd juxtaposition when used to depict a humanitarian crisis. When such imagery is used in times of inhuman suffering, the humanitarian organization can easily be critiqued for neglecting the suffering and glossing over the asymmetries of power that might have put the sufferer in their situation in the first place. An instance that could be described as a classic ‘misrecognition’ (Bourdieu 1977, 183–97); concealing the power relations through images of smiling beneficiaries (Chouliaraki 2010, 113).

Analysing the positive image appeal brings up two characteristics. Firstly, the way of portraying personalizes the sufferer and focusses on how they work to change the situation they are in. Secondly, the appeal addresses the audience personally in such a way that their contribution can have a concrete effect on the improvement of the subject’s life (Cohen 2001, 216–18). The relationship created here, where the state of wellbeing of the subject is depicted as a direct cause of the donations done by the observer, renders the ‘Other’ as a ‘perpetual object of “our” generosity’ (Chouliaraki 2010, 113). While, at the same time, the felt generosity of the audience unites them through feeling part of a self-content community of narcissistic good-doers (Hattori 2003, 153). This so called ‘gift giving relationship’ is thoroughly described in Marcel Mauss’ prominent essay The gift (1990), In which the author shows that gift giving establishes a social bond between giver and receiver. He describes three elements to this: giving (the establishment of the social bond); receiving (for refusing the gift would be to refuse the social bond); and reciprocating (a demonstration of one’s own wealth and status). The giving of the gift must be voluntarily, even if the obliged reciprocation is placed in the future. Through this observation Mauss argues that the gift economy foremost has a social function: the creation of a social relationship (Mauss 1990, 18). But opposed to a gift between equals, as a form of exchange, the gift of aid is a type of gift that seemsunreciprocated. The gift of aid does not have to be paid back, or, as put by Ilan Kapoor (2008), appearsto be free from the obligation of repayment. Kapoor describes how Western aid produces a ‘unified and virile sense of the generous nation’. Foreign aid focusses almost completely on generosity and the act of giving through, for example, imagery of heroic camp workers, branded medical teams and branded food distribution, while the negative side of the gift giving relationship (self-interest and pay back) are concealed (Kapoor 2008; Mawdsley 2012, 259).

Another risk in communicating with positive imagery is overly using the beauty of the suffering person in a stereotypical way. Superimposing symbolic and material distance can lead to ‘exoticism’ and is another constitution of otherness, but entails a similar asymmetry of power relations (Staszak 2008, 6). Although not a forceful form of othering, exotism is subtler, such as commodifying the exotic appeal of the stranger in need through communication outings with essentialist imagery. But even if thought of as subtle, the implications of exotism are harmful on the long run. Exotism reassures the already perceived differences, as if the ‘distant Other’ is true to our fantasies, which comforts the Western audience in their identity and perceived superiority (Staszak 2008, 6).

Signifying inequality through commodification
As shown above, humanitarian communication can be placed on a spectrum between either outings of extreme suffering, so called shock effect appeals, and positive images, where sufferers are depicted empowered and with agency (Chouliaraki 2010, 109). There has been, and still is, a lot of commentary on the aesthetics of suffering. Both styles of strategic framing reveal a hierarchy in social relationships that put the spectator above the sufferer. Whether this is by a rather direct form of othering, reifying a postcolonial relationship, or for the gift-giving relation where those who are able to give gifts to those who cannot adequately provide gifts for others.

Despite the critique, shock effect and positive image appeals are both still present in current communication of suffering. The styles should not be seen as following up on each other, but rather as the styles that have dominated humanitarian communication throughout different phases. Arguably did the ‘positive image’ appeal appear as a result of the critique on the shocking imagery, but the shocking images remain widespread. This is mostly because the ‘shock effect’ appeal is proven to be a very effective way of moving the public towards action (Chouliaraki 2010, 122).

The use of both styles exemplifies that commodifying suffering can take on a variety of forms. What these forms show is that the unequal relation between the giver and receiver will always be visible once the giving party starts to represent of the receiving party, notwithstanding any effort to frame it differently. Fundamental to this, is that one party uses the other through representation for monetary gains. This commodification is in itself a signifier of inequality and can, most likely shall, at all times be critiqued, as seen in this chapter.

Well aware of the critique on the commodification of suffering, present day NGO’s struggle to find more suitable ways to mobilize the public on fighting human suffering throughout the world. Keeping the critique to the rousing of grand emotions in mind, the next chapter provides insight on the mediatized landscape in which these NGO’s find themselves in, together with the complications that lie within representing the sufferer in a way that is deemed ethically correct by the critics.

Image by Michael Weidner

The spectacle of suffering

As discussed in the last paragraph of the previous chapter, while both the shock effect appeal as well as the positive image appeal remain widespread, they can be seen as characteristic methods during different phases of humanitarian communication. The style of today’s humanitarian communication can both be seen as a reaction to these much-criticized emotion-driven articulations as well as a response to a commercial, mediatized structure the humanitarian organizations have to operate in. Where in the previous chapter the focus was on earlier forms of humanitarian communication along with its critique, this chapter aims to gives more insight in how humanitarian react to a constant threat of ‘delegitimazation’ (Chouliaraki 2010, 107), how humanitarian organizations react to this threat, and what this shows about the interplay between the commodification of suffering and representation.

A reaction to delegitimazation
There are three major factors that have altered the way humanitarian organizations currently communicate. First and foremost, as discussed in the previous chapter, there has been a lot of critique on the way humanitarian organizations have been portraying and commodifying the sufferer. According to Chouliaraki (2010), and as seen in the previous chapter, humanitarian communication is under ‘a constant threat of delegitimization’; ‘no manner of representing distant others as a cause of public action seems to do justice to the moral claim of suffering’ (Chouliaraki 2010, 107). Second, the commercialization of the sector. There has been an immense growth in the number and influence of humanitarian organizations. According to Keck & Sillink (1998)the amount of humanitarian organizations increased times four between 1970 and the mid 90’s. The fierce battle for public attention, donations and government subsidiaries challenges the way humanitarian organizations address their audience, and forcefully creates for them the need to think and act in for-profit ways while maintaining their non-profit goals (Vestergaard 2009b, 81). Thirdly, the emergence of new communication technologies has had a tremendous impact on the fields of media, advertisement and, subsequently, on humanitarian communication (Cottle and Nolan 2007, 863).

To show how humanitarian communication reacted to the aforementioned factors, a recent commercial of Amnesty International is brought forth. This video is not only a prime example of how contemporary humanitarian communication distinguishes itself from that of earlier times, it also exposes a more pressing side to recent strategies of fundraising. The Amnesty International video is titled We can change the world (2018) (2). It was published on YouTube (3). The clip has a runtime of 1 minute and 5 seconds.

The video starts. Out of darkness, a candle is lit.

       In a succession of tightly edited clips, there are images of an angry mob, men holding torches, fire. A revolt. Police brutality. Poverty and slums. Refugees in boats during a pitch-black night. All while on the forefront, in a big, heavy font the following capitalized text appears: ‘WHEN WE HATE, DEMONIZE, DIVIDE, WE BECOME THEM AND US’.

       Suddenly the clip shows a mother and child. Women hugging and smiling. Autographs being collected. A colourful demonstration. A protester playing the ukulele. A loving gay couple. Children being held, and a march for equality. Again, on the forefront, in the same font, all caps: ‘BUT WHEN WE UNITE IN SOLIDARITY, COMPASSION, RESPECT, OUR ACTIONS BECOME POWERFUL, AND TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THE WORLD’.

       The screen goes white. The Amnesty International logo appears.

The outing differentiates itself from the earlier styles of humanitarian communication through its reflective character. Amnesty International subtly shows that the organization learned from the critics for they, as portrayed in the video, do not create a distinction between the Self and the Other, giver and receiver. Quite the opposite; they show that they are able to rise above it. Amnesty International’s act of reflectivity is a reaction to the development of media discourse on suffering. They realize that cannot function without relying on the media, nor that they can communicate about the suffering without a representation of the Other. Thus, as shown in the video, they address the problem of representation itselfwhile empathizing with the critique of the previous styles (‘we are not Othering, we are uniting’). They strategically divert the critique of the earlier styles by decontextualization the suffering, while subsequently shifting the focus on the possibility of social action (Vestergaard 2009a, 491). Yet, even though there is no mentioned subject in the video, nor a mentioned antagonist, there remains a division between the ones in need and the ones who can take action. What changed is that this time the sufferer has become an abstract entity, stripped of its context. Suffering is still shown, but it is not clear who is being hurt by whom.

Commodifying suffering through branding
Contemporary humanitarian communication seems to be less about a personalized sufferer, nor is it specifically about a cause. Instead, it aims to (re-)creating legitimacy for the humanitarian brand itself. Although the use of branding within humanitarian communication is considered controversial because it is ‘conflicting with basic ideals of the non-profit organization such as altruism, voluntarism and grass root activism’ (Vestergaard 2009b, 82), it is regarded as the most effective form of marketing. Branding strengthens the relationship between donor and humanitarian organization, not through articulating the conflict, but by creating an ‘aura’ of the brand that appeals to the donor (Arvidsson 2006, 73–94). The aura humanitarian communication ideally tries to creates is the idea that they are able to rise above the self-other dichotomy through seemingly subverting the problem of representation. They refrain from showing a particular cause or representing a suffering individual, and rather show a multitude of abstract conflicts. This abstraction is a prominent characteristic of contemporary humanitarian communication, termed by Chouliaraki (2010)as ‘post-humanitarianism’. She notes that post-humanitarian outings still depend on realistic imagery of the sufferer, but without providing context. Through abstraction humanitarian communication manages to ‘loosen up’ up the link between seeing suffering and feeling for the individual who is suffering, de-coupling emotion for the sufferer from acting on the cause of suffering. This recreates legitimacy for the brand itself because the organization is moving away from an ‘explicit marketing of suffering as a cause towards an implicit investment in the identity of the humanitarian agency itself’ (Chouliaraki 2010, 118).

Although without the context, corporate bodies such as humanitarian organizations, still exploit suffering in search for profit. Keeping the commercialization of the sector in mind, it becomes very tempting for agencies to find ways to maximize the effect of this commodification. Through using highly commercial means, humanitarian communication places suffering alongside ‘commodities in a field of desire, seduction and consumption, thrill, pass-time and passivity’ (Vestergaard 2009b, 83). To maximize the effects of commodification, suffering needs to be appointed to a person, it needs to be individualized (Nayar 2009, 151). But due to the moral and ethical questions revolving around this individualization, humanitarian organizations find themselves on ‘safer’ grounds by showing an impersonalized spectacleof suffering. This spectacle of violence in faraway places is what Pramod K. Nayar (2009)calls ‘tele-trauma’ (‘tele’ means distance); ‘the near-persistent visual culture of extreme and distant deprivation, pain and suffering that we are bombarded with in the mass media’ (Nayar 2009, 149). Thanks to mass communication, suffering has become a regular part of our visual culture.

The implication of the passive consumption of human misery brought to the public through capitalist logic is best described by Baudrillard; ‘We are the consumers of the ever delightful spectacle of poverty and catastrophe, and of the moving spectacle of our own efforts to alleviate it’ (Baudrillard 1994, 67). The sheer amount of NGO’s asking for attention, all foregrounding the act of representation, creates a different kind of compassion fatigue. Not so much the bystander effect as generated by the shock effect imagery, but through the excess of discourses of morality that ask of the public some kind of feeling or social action (Chouliaraki 2010, 120).

Humanitarian organizations have been representing the sufferer in a descriptive, individualized form, as seen in the first segment, and this segment shows that an abstract, plural and societal form has come into existence. Both contribute to what Nayar (2009)calls ‘scar cultures’; ‘institutional-economic-structural contexts where suffering becomes the theme of various kinds of narratives’ and ‘the decoding of emotionally meaningful discourses’. This is done through the construction of ‘dominants’ in the representation of suffering. Thus, the media, as an institution, constructs dominant signs and identities: the suffering ‘victims’, evil ‘villains’, ‘heroes’ and brave ‘saviors’, all to circulate them through mass media (Nayar 2009, 147).

In the following segment this paper takes on one other perspective; that of globalization. Through looking at the way information, and the institutional narratives build on suffering, flows throughout the world. This perspective not only lays bare the underlying conflict of representation, but also shows how the unequal flow of information helps to construct a more fundamental narrative of heroes and victims.

Image by Victor Rodriguez

The global perspective

The previous chapters have outlined a variety of ways in which representations of suffering influence the relationship between sufferer and well-wisher. This chapter takes on a global, birds-eye perspective towards the representation and commodification of suffering. By doing so, it aims to do two things. First, laying bare a more fundamental observation that can be seen as the root of the discourse as described in the previous chapters, namely the inequality in global information flows. Second, that looking through the lens of globalization, and the perceived inequality that comes with it, can create either a dystopian or idealistic outlook on the representation of suffering. For there are multiple scholars that point out that the spectacle of suffering might be a blessing in disguise.

Unequal information flows
Globalization is brought forth to discuss the effects of a world which is becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent through an exchange of information, money and migration. Practically, this means a large global flow of labor, news, information, data and images, propelled mostly by transnational corporations (Płudowski 2006, 1), in which both media and humanitarian organization play a big part in.

During the Post-World War II economic expansion, the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan (1962)coined the term ‘global village’ through which he tried to show that the mass new media situation would result in an increased understanding and mutual knowledge between people across the world (Eriksen 2007, 2). However, McLuhan’s theory of the global village has some limitations, with the uneven distribution of information being the most prominent one. Even with the recent development in communication technologies, the gap between the citizens of economic strong and economic weak nations is widening in terms of access to knowledge and information (Płudowski 2006, 2). This uneven access also results in an unbalanced flow of information. For both major Western news services and major Western humanitarian organizations alike, their target audience is situated in the global North. Since these international companies, both commercial as well as non-profit, have control over the flow of information both from and to less economically developed countries, the distribution of information is highly unbalanced, both in quantity and in quality (Płudowski 2006, 3).

The unevenly distributed flow of information and the monopolization of both commercial as well as non-profit organizations, exposes the foundations of the conflict; namely the inability for people living in the Southern Hemisphere to control what the Northern Hemisphere sees. As said before; both the audience of humanitarian communication, as well as the humanitarian organizations are situated in the West. It is never the ones in need that have control the imagery and information that the audience sees. It will remain an act or representation. Thus, the act of representing people situated in different parts of the world as done by the global North is in essence conflicting.

Suffering, representation and commodification
What are the implications of these unequal information flows? What does the perspective of globalization give insight to? And how can this be linked to the spectacle of suffering, created through commodification, distributed through mass media?

The complexity of global processes ought not to be undermined, but the global perspective seems lay bare be two sides of the same coin that the representation (and, in its extreme, commodification) of suffering might bring. Keeping in mind Dogra’s (2012, 3)notion of ‘difference’ and ‘oneness’ (the global poor as different and yet like us by virtue of their humanity), one could argue towards either the negative or positive implications of the aforementioned globalizing processes.

The negative implication would be a global single story (Chimamanda 2009). One that would rob people of their dignity on a global scale. One that would continuously rearticulate illusory differences. This global narrative would intensify a global construct of dominants (Nayar 2009, 147); the South as the victim, the North as the hero or savior. Identities that might get internalized and embodied by both parties. The global spectacle of suffering might continue to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. The wider the gap, the bigger the dichotomy of giving and receiving, making the act of inadequate reciprocation more problematic (Mauss 1990). The negative implication could also entail a worldly process of victimization, fueled by mass media, uncontrolled because both media and humanitarian communication obey to the logic of a capitalist global economy. The same logic that makes humanitarian organization struggle in their portrayal of the ones they are trying to help. Who, despite efforts to fight the threat of delegitimization (Chouliaraki 2010, 107), will most likely continue to (mis)represent and commodify the ones that suffer.

A more positive outlook is presented by Nayar (2009), who simultaneously sees an optimistic side to the spread of the ‘scar culture’. He shows that ‘the new cultures of sentiment with their discourse of suffering offer a unifying agenda to counter [the] terrors of instability, displacement and non-rootedness: a geopolitics of affectwhere care and concern collapse the world too.’ He writes that the emotions coming from perceiving the spectacle of suffering can be ‘harnessed to effective political strategies against war and institutionalized suffering’ (Nayar 2009, 157). This outlook puts the focus on oneness, on shared, planetary humanity. Ashis Nandy (2004), with a grand scheme to unify the world, brings forth the following strategy:

‘The only way the Third World can transcend the sloganeering of its well-wishers is, first, by becoming a collective representation of the victims of man-made suffering everywhere in the world and in all past times, second, by internalizing or owning up the outside forces of oppression and, then, coping with them as inner vectors and third by recognizing the oppressed or marginalized selves of the First and Second Worlds as civilizational allies in the battle against institutionalized suffering’ (Nandy 2004, 441).

The spectacle of human suffering can arguably bring about a new world order based on ethics, something which the representation and commodification of suffering can contribute to. Seeing the suffering in the world demands moral questions and an ethical reaction (Nayar 2009, 157). There are scholarly pleas for ethical geopolitics, like Scott Barrett (2007), who emphasises the need to provide ‘global public goods’. ‘We should care because our wellbeing, the wellbeing of future generations, and even the fate of the Earth depends on [global public goods] being provided. […] Failure to supply these global public goods exposes the world to great dangers. Providing them expands human capabilities’ (Barrett 2007, 1).

It remains questionable whether a worldwide articulation of inequality systematically creates a larger necessity to cooperate on a global scale. And whether a globalized representation of suffering brings about an ethical global community. Yet, the mentioned notions of solidarity and common humanity provide a positive counterpart for the generally expected problematic implications of the interplay between suffering, representation and commodification in a globalizing world.

The global spectacle of suffering might continue to widen the gap between the rich and the poor. The wider the gap, the bigger the dichotomy of giving and receiving, making the act of inadequate reciprocation more problematic.


After Band Aid’s hit Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Geldof and Ure 1984) topped the charts in the UK, American entertainer and social activist Harry Belafonte became inspired to do something similar. What followed was the founding of United Support of Artists (USA) for Africa. who in 1985 came with their charity single We Are the World (Jackson and Richie 1985). The single sold a staggering 20 million copies. Just like Band Aid’s single, the money raised was used to relieve starving people in Africa, specifically Ethiopia. Interestingly enough, listening to the lyrics of the song, Africa is not at all mentioned. Besides a small reference towards the Ethiopian famine (‘there are people dying’), the song is not in any sense descriptive or polarizing. Instead, the artists address both themselves and the listeners as ‘we’, and the lyrics point towards a shared humanity (USA for Africa 1985). A schoolbook example of unifying humanitarian communication.

It is no coincidence that We Are the World has a unifying nature. The writers of the song most likely took note after hearing the voiced critique against its predecessor, and wrote less polarizing lyrics for theirs. Discussing charity singles make it inviting to order them on a hierarchical scale, with the most ethically correct one at the top. Something that could have been done for all forms of humanitarian communication, or representations of suffering in general. This paper aimed to steer away from such an assessment. It tried to refrain from questioning the morals of the act of representation to the point that a definite ‘right or wrong’ way can be determined. While at some instances this seems inevitable since morality and ethics are an important part of the debate behind suffering, commodification and representation. Instead, this paper tried to provide insight in the interplay between these terms within three connected segments.

The first segment of the paper describes the history of humanitarian communication. This shows a succession of phases humanitarian organizations has gone through. These phases are characterized with distinct styles of representation, which can be placed within a spectrum of either shockingly crude images or overly positive imagery. Although this segment focused on the past, shock effect appeals, as well as overly positive imagery appeals remain widespread today, even though they have been critiqued by many. The commodified, victimized image of the sufferer has become the currency that runs through our political economy (Kleinman and Kleinman 1996, 8–10). The contested nature of these outings led to the notion that representation for fundraising purposes by itself is a signifier of inequality.

Because of the ever visible inequality, the second segment show how contemporary humanitarian organizations seem to be continuously threatened by delegitimization (Chouliaraki 2010, 107). This threat gave way to a focus on branding humanitarian aid, in an effort to steer away from aforementioned forms of othering, which resulted in a more abstract form of representing suffering. Not focusing on one specific case, humanitarian branding currently often displays a plethora of cases instead. This has created a ‘spectacle of poverty and catastrophe’ (Baudrillard 1994, 67). Since the amount of humanitarian organizations is still growing, this scale of the spectacle will continue to grow too.

The third segment aimed to look at the interplay between suffering, commodification and representation through the lens of globalization. This resulted in a clarification of the root of the conflict, which can be appointed to the inequality in flows of information. These flows are mostly moving from the global North to the global South. As a result of the monopolization of both commercial and non-profit organizations, international corporations situated in the West often control what is seen by the Western public. This makes self-representation for people living in the Southern Hemisphere increasingly problematic.

The third segment also shines an alternative light on the act of representation. Namely, the notion that a global spectacle of suffering, poverty and catastrophe can contribute to a greater necessity to take political action. This last notion creates a positive counterpoise for the generally perceived implications of global acts of representing suffering.

The interplay between suffering, commodification and representation remains to be seen as problematic. The innumerable accounts of stigmatization and the rearticulating of stereotypes make it hard to think otherwise. Yet, the intensification of consciousness about the world as a whole (Robertson 1992, 8)may continue to change the moral universe we live in (Haskell 1985, 356). The spectacle of suffering, as distributed through mass media, might just grow to the point where a new moral obligation arises. Not a dichotomized one, where the global North provides aid to the global South, but ethical geopolitics consisting civilizational allies with a focus on shared humanity, battling against global suffering (Nandy 2004, 411).

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