What do #MeToo, refugee selfies and oil paintings have in common? They are all part of a mixed and changing culture of witnessing. This interdisciplinary panel explores the different media platforms and practices of spectatorship that today enable our moral and political engagement with human vulnerability. It asks not only how the digital has shifted the terms of our visual encounters with bodies-in-pain but also shows how our testimonial cultures remain the same. This is not only because contemporary witnessing mixes media, old and new, but crucially also because it is still traversed by historical power relations and social hierarchies.
Selfies and the ethics of the face. A case study in refugee self-representation
Lilie Chouliaraki, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science
In this talk, I propose an understanding of the selfie as moral practice. Extending current approaches to the digital genre of the selfie as an aesthetic or a techno-social practice, the proposed understanding of the selfie as moral practice stems from two places. First, it stems from the function of the selfie to confront us with the face of the other (as a locative ‘here I am’ and an existential ‘here I am’) and, in so doing, to make a demand for our moral response. Second, it stems from the capacity of the selfie to flow across digital networks, both horizontally across social media (intermediation) and vertically onto mainstream news platforms (remediation). As both face and flow, the ethics of the selfie becomes particularly relevant in research questions around excluded or marginalized groups whose ‘face’ struggles for visibility in Western media spaces – for instance, refugees. Taking my starting point in the 2015 refugee crisis and its extensive coverage in European news, I explore the complexities of the selfie as moral practice, by addressing the following questions: What does it mean for refugee selfies to circulate on Western media platforms? In which ways are their faces inserted in ‘our’ visual economies? How is their news value justified? And what role do these justifications play for Western media not only as news platforms but also as moral and political spaces?
Lilie Chouliaraki (@chouliaraki_l) is Professor of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her main research interest lies in the histories and challenges of mediated suffering. Her work has focused on three domains in which the human body-in-need appears as a problem of communication: disaster news, humanitarian campaigns & celebrity advocacy, war & conflict reporting. Relevant publications include 'Discourse in Late Modernity’ (1999), ‘The Spectatorship of Suffering’ (2006), ‘The Soft Power of War’ (ed., 2008) and ‘The Ironic Spectator. Solidarity in the Age of Post-humanitarianism’ (2013; Outstanding Book of the Year award of the International Communication Association, 2015).
Portraits in Courage: A Sovereign Renders His Subjects
Robin Wagner-Pacifici, The New School of Social Research
Reversing the normal vector of sovereign representation, former U.S. President George W. Bush is currently engaged in an ongoing project of painting his subjects. Producing exhibits and a book, titled: Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (2017), Bush has painted hundreds of portraits of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them wounded in battle. This paper explores what it means to have the sovereign witness and render in oil the very subjects he sent to war. The paper tracks the politically vexed exchanges of courage, identity, and accomplishment in such portraits, taking as its model Foucault’s analysis of the troubled “reciprocal visibility” in Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas.
Robin Wagner-Pacifici is the University in Exile Professor of Sociology at the New School for Social Research. Her research addresses moments of crisis and transformation in social life, and the problems of mediation and representation that they pose. She is the author of a number of books, including The Moro Morality Play: Terrorism as Social Drama" (University of Chicago Press, 1986); "Discourse and Destruction: The City of Philadelphia versus MOVE,"(The University of Chicago Press, 1994); “The Art of Surrender: Decomposing Sovereignty at Conflict’s End” (The University of Chicago Press; 2005) and, more recently, “What is an Event” (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
How to Witness Invisibility
Barbie Zelizer, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
In an era where invisible currents motivating the news are increasingly at play, the very possibility of witnessing must wrestle with new challenges to its authority. What does it mean to witness suffering when the account of a news event lacks a visible center? This paper takes the #MeToo movement and its cataloging of sexual harassment and abuse as a launch-pad for addressing the limitations of the witnessing trope as it relates to news photos. What would the visualization of sexual harassment and abuse look like? And are there circumstances under which it could foster different witnessing practices? Arguing that an increased accommodation of invisibility in the current news record is making witnessing difficult, if not impossible, this presentation considers the uneven capacity of witnessing as a possible response to suffering.
Barbie Zelizer (@bzelizer) is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication and Director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. A former journalist, Zelizer is known for her work on journalism, culture, memory and images, particularly in times of crisis. She has published fourteen books and over a hundred articles and essays. Recipient of multiple fellowships, Zelizer is also a media critic, whose work has appeared in The Nation, PBS News Hour, CNN and others. Coeditor of Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, she is a recent President of the International Communication Association. In the spring of 2018, she will be Director of the Center for Media at Risk, a platform devoted to addressing media practice--in journalism, documentary, entertainment and online practice—in situations of creeping authoritarianism.