Contesting the spectacle: global lives as counterpublic in the context of celebrity activism.

Author:Elliott, Rebecca
Position:Events and Debates

The Global Lives Forum convened on February 27, 2010, to provide a space for critical discussion of the mission and products of the Global Lives Project. The Forum brought together the Project's staff of producers and filmmakers with scholars, students, and members of the public to engage in conversation about the potentials and limitations of the Project, what it had accomplished, and what work was left to be done.

Left implicit but yet perhaps the motivating force behind the entire day's discussions was the question of what makes the Global Lives Project worth doing. Why do we experience a need for something like the Global Lives Project; to what are we reacting? In the various panels and discussions, the participants at the Forum described dissatisfaction with the products of commercial media: radically simplified sound bites increasingly packaged and filtered by appealing personalities. What we know is what is spectacular and this seems insufficient for understanding the world and our places in it.

The current supremacy of the spectacle and its dangers is illustrated forcefully by the contemporary phenomenon of celebrity activism on behalf of Africa. The value of the Global Lives Project as a source of information about the world can be appreciated if we consider the kinds of media background among which it exists and thus effectively defies.

Bono, Madonna, Angelina Jolie, George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and other megastars have chosen to lend some of their limelight to African disease, poverty, and conflict, which become their causes celebres. Bono takes meetings with world leaders to discuss debt relief. Jolie promotes economist Jeffrey Sachs' Millennium Villages Project in Kenya. Winfrey had a school for girls built in Johannesburg. This explosion of interest in Africa among American celebrities is perhaps best confirmed in a 2006 article in the Style Section of the New York Times which remarked on Madonna's use of images of AIDS-stricken Malawian children as the backdrop during her concerts, and concluded: "That Madonna should suddenly be casting an ice-blue eye toward Africa should hardly be surprising. After all, she has always known how to spot a trend. And much as it may strain the limits of good taste to say it, Africa--rife with disease, famine, poverty, and civil war--is suddenly 'hot'" (Williams 2006).

A net result of this swell of this high-profile activism, however, is that celebrities have now become a predominant and ubiquitous source of information about Africa. In a 2007 report, media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) assessed the current state of Africa-related television network news coverage and concluded that African countries and issues are increasingly seen "through the prism of celebrity." A full quarter of Africa-related stories on the NBC Nightly News over 2005-2007 had a celebrity angle, most commonly focusing on Bono, with whom anchor Brian Williams traveled to sub-Saharan Africa in the spring of 2006. Across the major networks, FAIR found that Africa-related stories were largely about either celebrity...

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