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The Ironic Spectator: solidarity in the age of post-humanitarianism

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Lilie Chouliaraki
Polity (November 2012)

This path-breaking book explores how solidarity towards vulnerable others is performed in our media environment. It argues that stories where famine is described through our own experience of dieting or or where solidarity with Africa translates into wearing a cool armband tell us about much more than the cause that they attempt to communicate. They tell us something about the ways in which we imagine the world outside ourselves.

By showing historical change in Amnesty International and Oxfam appeals, in the Live Aid and Live 8 concerts, in the advocacy of Audrey Hepburn and Angelina Jolie as well as in earthquake news on the BBC, this far-reaching book shows how solidarity has today come to be not about conviction but choice, not vision but lifestyle, not others but ourselves - turning us into the ironic spectators of other people’s suffering.

  • Professor Lilie Chouliaraki is professor of media and communications at LSE.

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'How can humanitarian communication move beyond the pitfalls of both traditional humanitarianism (which can reinforce stereotypical images of helpless victims from the South) and of post-humanitarianism? Chouliaraki provides an alternative theoretical model based on theatricality, but the extent to which it can be enforced in practice remains to be seen. Indeed, this is precisely why her book – written with brio, depth and sensitivity – is so valuable, and deserves attention. The Ironic Spectator is a must-read for anyone professing to a level of social consciousness, and proves that academic debates can play a role in both fostering improved ethics in the context of a pervasive aspect of contemporary global life, as well as informing new humanitarian practices.'
Global Journal

'Lilie Chouliaraki is the Aristotle of mediated humanitarianism. With empirical finesse and theoretical bite, she shows how compassion for distant suffering turned from pity into glitz. And yet she defends theatricality as a potential moral force if checked by critical self-awareness. This book casts desperately needed light onto media and morality today.'
John Durham Peters, University of Iowa

'In this breakthrough investigation, Lilie Chouliaraki brings a "sceptical optimism" to bear on humanitarian politics today. With its theoretical finesse and rich cases, The Ironic Spectator shows the transformations solidarity has recently undergone, and still needs to make, as citizens seek an emotional connection to a tragic but distant world.'
Samuel Moyn, Columbia University, author of The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History

'The Ironic Spectator is a profoundly arresting argument for our global and mediated times. With razor intelligence, Chouliaraki slices into old debates, salvages what’s still of use and structures new analytical constructs for the exploration of the possibilities of cosmopolitan solidarity in a "post-humanitarian" world. Brilliant, disturbing, humane.'
Simon Cottle, Cardiff University

"With a sophisticated conceptual foundation, a compelling empirical analysis, and a carefully constructed argument, Lilie Chouliaraki's new book offers fresh insight not only about the historical evolution of mediated solidarity, but also about ourselves and how we imagine the suffering in our world. Enthusiastically recommended!"
Peter Dahlgren, Lund University


The Ironic Spectator