Distant Suffering : Morality, Media and Politics. Luc Boltanski. Distant Suffering, first published in , examines the moral and political implications for a spectator of the distant suffering of others as presented through the media. What are the morally acceptable responses to the sight of suffering on television, for example, when the viewer cannot act directly to affect the circumstances in which the suffering takes place? Luc Boltanski argues that spectators can actively involve themselves and others by speaking about what they have seen and how they were affected by it. Developing ideas in Adam Smith's moral theory, he examines three rhetorical 'topics' available for the expression of the spectator's response to suffering: the topics of denunciation and of sentiment and the aesthetic topic.
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In Distant Suffering: Politics, Morality and the Media , Luc Boltanski addresses the historical legacy, philosophical contradictions, and political challenges of humanitarian movements that want to alleviate suffering. Distant Suffering also includes, in its analysis, the dilemma facing spectators bombarded with mediated images of human misery. Boltanski distills this humanitarian and spectatorial dilemma into two predominant positions - abstract universalism and local particularism.
Those compelled by the former embrace global solidarity with others, identifying, too readily, with all those who suffer. The second position ignores the plight of those outside of their immediate sphere, only offering assistance to those with some sort of geographical, cultural, or familial proximity. Abstract universalism can lead one to mistake the grief of others for one's own and to a dismissal of local problems as trivial. Local particularism may lead one to ignore what is happening in the world and to become politically apathetic until someone close is touched by war, pestilence, or tragedy.
While the initial identification of two dialectical extremes certainly sounds Hegelian, Boltanski's astute reading of the problem offers neither a grand synthesis nor a depiction of history as teleological. Boltanski parses, in ever more precision, the contradictions of this polarity. Arendt pinpoints the beginnings and influence of the politics of pity for the modern consciousness that emerged in the French Revolution; Taylor articulates the quest for authenticity as part of contemporary subjective experience.
As Arendt first diagnosed, the "politics of pity" distinguishes between those who suffer and those who do not. It encourages one to focus on the spectacle of suffering, substituting action with observation of the unfortunate. The politics of pity is different than the politics of justice. Meritocratic justice asks for the resolution of disputes and for a common understanding of fairness. A politics of justice distinguishes between the great and the small, and between the minoritarian and majoritarian, without attaching this status to particular persons forever.
The politics of justice tests those who suffer to determine what is just. In other words, a politics of justice seeks justification. People must be positioned as victims to earn justice, while a politics of pity does not question whether the misery of the unfortunate is justified p.
The urgency of action needed to bring an end to suffering invoked always prevails over justice in the politics of pity. Boltanski successfully lays out the internal and twisted dynamics of these modes of understanding the politics of pity, the idea of justice, their antecedents, and the implications of such approaches for humanitarianism, but the analysis does not lead to paralysis. A deeply political book, Distant Suffering wants to incite the reader to imagine the possibility of action in this particular historical conjuncture.
Boltanski supplements his ethical concerns with examples from both the contemporary mediascape and from history. This allows him to connect past and present, yet to distinguish between past occurrences and present conditions.
This is no showy display of academic erudition, but identifies what may be specific about our present moment. Thus, while he locates the origins of a politics of pity, through Arendt, in the French Revolutionary intellectual debates, these antecedents do not lead him to conclude that the present is just a replay of the past. For example, in the trade-union movement of the late nineteenth century, the politics of pity and justice were rooted in the demand for social justice from those who were affected by hardship.
In the case of the modern humanitarian movements, there is a "mutual otherness" and distance is the norm. More often than not, "donors live in rich countries and recipients in poor countries often with authoritarian regimes" p. Inherent in the politics of pity in the modern period is the problem of dealing with suffering from a distance and the "massification of a collection of unfortunates who are not there in person" p.
Although contemporary media may have "dramatized" the spectacle of distant suffering in the past 30 years, they neither invented nor caused this condition. Historical examples also bolster Boltanski's claim that the media did not inaugurate the politics of pity - rather, its logic was set out more than years ago. Boltanski carefully examines this logic and the paradoxes it creates in the book's three sections.
Part 1 lays out the argument. Part 2 relies heavily on literary sources to analyze the "topos," a term he borrows from rhetoric, of the idea of pity and suffering. The third section deals with the question of pity and misfortune, drawing primarily on historical and contemporary examples, such as the work of Doctors Without Borders and the clash in the late s between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty.
Each chapter is replete with insight, making this a difficult book to summarize. Every word and every argument is so intricately intertwined with the next that paraphrasing seems a travesty. The third section should be of interest to those located in the disciplines of communications or media studies. Here it is important to recall the subtitle of the book, Morality, the Media and Politics.
Boltanski returns to the question of the spectator and the anxieties of those who wish to do something about what they see unfolding on their screens. He asks: "[H]ow might the contemporary spectators' anxiety be reduced without averting their gaze from misfortune or by abandoning the project inherent in the modern definition of politics of facing up to unnecessary suffering and relieving it[?
What could political action be, given the fact that suffering does occur at a distance and that not every struggle can be taken on with equal commitment? First, he argues that there is a political, technical, and moral necessity to open up a discussion of commitment and ideology, although what he means by ideology is not adequately explained. Second, he contends that witnessing suffering means that morally we are asked to act.
Commitment is commitment to some kind of action. Third, he promotes the idea that speech is action. By speaking - to others and even to oneself - we recognize and acknowledge that speech must be understood as a form of action p. One of the conditions of Boltanski's argument is a clear distinction between the world of representation and the world of action.
He writes: "Informed by representation, words must really be deployed in the world of action in order to be effective" p. He is critical of deconstructionist criticism, primarily meaning the writings of Jean Baudrillard, which blurs this distinction to too great an extreme, thereby "holding the order of action" at arm's length or making it illusionary p.
Boltanski does not claim that we remain without an emotional commitment to causes, but rather that "to prevent the unacceptable drift of emotions close towards the fictional we must maintain an orientation towards action, a disposition to act, even if this is only by speaking out in support of the unfortunate" p.
What then are the properties of effective speech? Boltanski turns to phenomenology and semantics, concluding that effective speech involves: a intentionality; b incorporation in bodily gestures and movements; c sacrifice of other possible actions; d the presence of others; and, e a commitment p.
Intentionality involves an intention to speak meaningfully, not just engage in idle chatter. Action and intention are connected to each other in effective action realized in the world.
Intention incorporated in action is "expression. Boltanski goes on to classify different types of action as strong and weak, collective and individual. He builds an argument for local chapters of groups supporting humanitarian movements, such as Amnesty International, for they enable one to avoid the alternative of either on-the-spot involvement or distant spectacle. They are one way to breach the schism between abstract universalism and communitarian withdrawal: "The humanitarian claim for more or less distant causes can thus avoid the alternative of abstract universalism - easily accused of being fired up for distant suffering the better to avert its eyes from those close at hand - or of communitarian withdrawal into itself - which only attends to misfortune when it affects those nearest - by being rooted in groups and thereby linked to preexisting solidarities and local interests" p.
In other words, expression is most "authentic" for Boltanski when made manifest in actions, like participating in a demonstration or protest, which incarnates our beliefs and displays our commitments. By incorporating an action, the person communicates an observable tendency. But is this enough? Boltanski is concerned by apathy and asks us to consider that we are doomed, inevitably, to imperfection in our politics.
Despite this, we must make the attempt to be "moral subjects" - that is, committed and engaged subjects. Because he recognizes the difficulties of negotiating these contradictions, he avoids moralizing. He is no Habermasian trying to outline the conditions for an ideal-speech situation.
In Boltanski's book, we live in imperfect worlds and we must contend with this. He asks that we resurrect compassion into our politics, which he says is always particular and practical, as it is oriented toward doing something about a situation. Unlike pity, it engages with the person suffering. But pity isn't always a bad thing in this analysis. Pity generalizes in order to deal with distance, and in so doing one may discover emotion and feeling for others that may translate into speech or action.
A spectacle of suffering may end with a commitment to involvement. Boltanski realizes the challenge, yet remains optimistic that humans are capable of such a move. There are, as he notes, an "excess of unfortunates" in our world. The problem remains to whom we extend aid or pity, given their great numbers p.
This is true both in the realm of action, but also in the realm of representation. So many people are suffering and there is not enough media space for them all p.
Boltanski does not prioritize causes or instances of grief. He does, however, suggest that the media represent any unfortunate groups taking action to confront and escape their distress. It is unethical to only depict them in the passive act of suffering p. He acknowledges that the mediatization of suffering may incite action. For example, it may protect populations against their own rulers, if only temporarily, for such depictions do not necessarily change the internal political situation.
His analysis assumes that spectators, who are democratic citizens, have a role to play in lobbying and pressuring their own governments to take action p. Again, while aware that public opinion may be manipulated, he argues that public-opinion polls are powerful tools. Answering a poll is depicted as a potentially effective form of speech and an "adequate response to the call for action" p. Distant Suffering thus describes, in sometimes painful detail, a wavering between selfish egoism and altruistic commitment to causes.
Boltanski describes how we may, unfortunately, cultivate ourselves by becoming absorbed in our own pity when looking at the spectacle of someone else's suffering, a phenomenon that has been far too present since the September 11 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York. Boltanski tries to lead us out of this self-absorption into the world of effective political action by offering a range of involvement. While advocating commitment and debates about morality as part of the solution, this is no smug celebration of the "return to kindness" or an easy denunciation of the perverse delight of spectacles of suffering.
In considering distant suffering as the "logical consequence" of the introduction of pity into politics over years ago, we are asked to concern ourselves with the present.
Boltanski ends his fine treatise by exhorting us to quit looking to past injustices, to stop anticipating future injustice, and to stay focused on the present. For over the past, ever gone by, and over the future, still non-existent, the present has an overwhelming privilege: that of being real" p. Boltanski does not provide simple or quick answers to the dilemma, but leaves one with the hope that pity might lead to compassion, commitment, and social change - even if such measures do not end all suffering once and for all.
As such, this translation from the original French text is a welcome addition to contemporary debates in political communication. Taylor, Charles. Sources of the self: The making of modern identity. We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through the Aid to Scholarly Journals Program.
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Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics