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Cultural Analysis, Volume 9, 2010

Contesting the Spectacle: Global Lives as Counterpublic in the Context of Celebrity Activism1

Rebecca Elliott
University of California, Berkeley

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 célèbres. 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 involvement at the G8 summit in Scotland, Bono's activism in general, the movie Blood Diamond (about Sierra Leone's civil war, starring Leonardo DiCaprio), Madonna's adoption of a Malawian boy, or George Clooney's activism in Darfur (Hollar 2007).

Celebrities exert immense influence in the public sphere. They attract attention not only from television news, but from every popular medium. The FAIR report captures how celebrities can and do define which issues are the issues when they talk about "Africa." They can and do set agenda that empower some actors and disempower others. They offer solutions and celebrate heroes. Because celebrities are regarded as trendsetters, they create, reinforce, and promulgate our popular "truth" about Africans: who they are, what their problems are, how those problems can be solved, and who can and should come to their aid.

Celebrities create this truth largely without the voices of actual Africans. For instance, many African activists complained that 2005's Live 8, the worldwide day of concerts to "raise awareness" in advance of the G8 summit, featured Africans in video montages about HIV/AIDS, but not as speakers or activists (Monbiot 2005). The 2007 "Africa Issue" of Vanity Fair, edited by Bono, featured only one African author (Beckerman 2007). Marie Claire magazine lionizes female celebrities who go to Africa and diarize about the resilient hope of desperate female victims of poverty, hunger, disease, sexual exploitation, and conflict (Stoever 2006). In most instances of celebrity activism, Africans are present as subjects but absent as voices, and the "truth" or "common sense" about who they are and what they need goes untested by their own diverse experiences.

Yet while Africans are silent in celebrity activism, they are far from invisible. Celebrities make strategic use of intensely emotional images of suffering—children with distended bellies, skeletal AIDS patients, weary and overburdened women, and so forth. Many of these images feature the celebrity activists themselves, looking distraught. These images tend to recycle inaccurate and degrading stereotypes. "Africans," understood monolithically, are portrayed as passive and helpless, as perpetually beleaguered and in need, or as victims of misery largely of their own making. While the celebrity is recognizable, usually the Africans remain unidentified—as consumers of these images, we typically do not know their names, where they are from, or anything else about them. In this way, the images also act as a communicative medium that silences African voices. The celebrities—and the relatively affluent audiences for whom they proxy—are positioned in these images as the rescuers of the masses of anonymous Africans.

The marginalization of African voices in discourses about them seems intuitively rather unfair. Since celebrities, however, are ultimately so good at generating interest in and support for causes in Africa, we are compelled to ask why we should be so worried about such marginalization. Indeed, celebrities have a great capacity to effect the changes they seek: their wealth and public profile enable them to donate money and raise more; they get the ear of politicians and policymakers; they inspire others to service. Celebrity visibility can be a huge asset to organizations and causes that might otherwise go unnoticed. Americans arguably "care" more about Africa now because celebrities have made it so glamorous (Alleyne 2005; Marshall 1997; Meyer and Gamson 1995; Street 2004; Traub 2008).

The reason to be critically thoughtful about celebrity activism is that it informs how various publics think about these issues, and hence how and to what extent they lean on their own governments and international organizations to intervene. Put simply, and in the words of the Global Lives Project, "what we see informs how we act." A discourse that orients people towards charity for silent, passive victims does not lead to the informed or sustainable redress of some of the most difficult political and economic challenges. Celebrity activism might alert an otherwise apathetic public to the existence of suffering far away. But by portraying Africans as "unfortunate inferiors," rather than as "outraged and insulted equals," celebrities obscure (if not deny) the perspectives and the agency of actual Africans (Spelman 1997, 60). In the words of South African sociologist Zine Magubane (2007): "there is no room in this worldview for the possibility that Africans themselves might be the ones to create the political and economic conditions such that intense poverty might not be the sine qua non of African life" (391).

The seemingly obvious solution to the marginalization of actual Africans in these discourses about them is to "get them in"—find a way to include African voices. Once there, those voices can contest stereotypes and reassert political questions that get sidelined to charitable impulses. The difficulty with simple inclusion is that the current structures of our various, transnational public spheres, in which these problematic discourses circulate, are strongly biased against the meaningful participation of subordinated groups. The FAIR report highlights as much: the cameras follow the celebrities. Rather than focus on "getting them in" to a rather hegemonic set of discourses, then, it is perhaps more strategic to subvert these discourses, to widen the discursive space and amplify the counterdiscourses already forming in African and global counterpublics.

Counterpublics, as defined by critical theorist Nancy Fraser (1992, 2007), provide discursive arenas for the formulation of identity and discussion of common concerns. These forums include magazines and newspapers, films, popular music, avant-garde scholarly or artistic institutions, academic journals and, increasingly, online communities and their products. Participants, engaging as peers, articulate their desires, needs, and wants, outside of the supervision of the dominant groups in more mainstream public spheres. Through the processes of debate internal to them, counterpublics create counterdiscourses and counternarratives, which can then be used to lodge a collective, coherent, and sustained discursive attack on what is commonly asserted and understood as "true." This structural change creates a space and a means for subordinated groups to exercise voice, to challenge assumptions, and to contest the status quo.

The Global Lives Project acts as a type of counterpublic insofar as it defies the logics of commercial media. It produces films that stay close and true to the experiences of the subjects themselves, such that the materiality of their lives can be expressed faithfully, without regard for the right "angle" or emotionally compelling "hook." The videos do not position an interlocutor between the subject and the viewer; no one is named the authoritative interpreter of the subject's experience. There is no Bono or Jolie to describe how whole categories of people experience their circumstances. The videos are particular to an extreme: about specific individuals, over the course of one day of their lives. They thereby resist the tendency to generalize across complex diversity, while allowing the possibility that viewers might notice similarities to their own lives and forge meaningful connections.

In Fraser's rendering, however, counterpublics are strategically oriented. They are political in their objectives, deliberate in their contestation. The Global Lives videos do not make claims or formulate concerns, needs, and wants in the way that Fraser imagines. But what use can then be made of them? Do they represent an arena in which the claims of celebrity activists, and other popular "experts", can be meaningfully contested? If the videos are used as such, are they being co-opted in a way that transgresses the Global Lives Project's purposeful neglect of narrative?

These questions came up multiple times over the course of the day's presentations and discussions. Ultimately, they remain open ones. What makes Global Lives strategic and potentially emancipatory is that it offers a source of information about marginalized people that is focused only on those voices and experiences. The construction and communication of knowledge about ourselves and others are always political acts; the videos provide the data with which viewers can assess just how general the "truths" they take for granted are. The Global Lives Forum provided an opportunity for those involved and interested in the Project to affirm a certain political commitment—not to paternalistically "shine a light" on the "darkest" corners of the globe, but rather to actively seek out and amplifies the diverse voices that have been talking about their experiences all along but have been drowned out by much more powerful and spectacular public figures.

1In these two event reviews, authors Rebecca Elliot and Stina Marie Hasse Jørgensen have adapted their presentations from a forum organized by Cultural Analysis and the Global Lives Project at the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley in February 2010. The forum, "Representing/Experiencing Everyday Life in the Global Media: Commentary on the Global Lives Project", asked a group of scholars and new media artists to reflect on the Global Lives Project itself (, as well as on the value of new media for the understanding of everyday experience globally. The editors are grateful to Elliot and Hasse Jørgensen for their willingness to distill their longer works into our shorter review format. [Eds.] [ Return to the article ]

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