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In the second extract from Mikkel Thorup, Pro Bono? the ideological function of celebrity and charity is analysed

Pro Bono

Extract from Mikkel Thorup, Pro Bono? (Zero Books 2015) 100pp

The present mediatized celebrity system fits well with a certain heroic and compassionate charity narrative where the celebrity goes out into the world, preferably Africa, meets the ‘real people’ of the world, get moved by their stories, and decides to act. A strange gaze is created when celebrities look with pity at the poor and destitute. They look back in amazement and studied gratitude. And we look at them both. Who is really looking and who is looking at being looked at? There is even a website detailing celebrity giving called ‘Look to the stars’, again prompting the question: Who is doing all the looking that the celebrity system requires? Are these highly publicized celebrity charities telling us to give also, to get involved, or are they rather seducing us to outsource compassion and giving to the ones we have already outsourced the dream life to; the ones we have outsourced godlike agency to?

Celebrities perform a very important ideological function besides the more obvious one of legitimating consumer capitalism (Hayes & Seymour 2014), and that is to act as mediators between ordinary people and global capitalism. They are so far away from most people’s everyday life, yet they seem so accessible. They are in the stratosphere yet all around us. “Celebrity”, Philip Drake says, “must at the same time seem obtainable (unlike, say, membership in the aristocracy) yet maintain a distance necessary to continue the aura of stardom.” (Drake 2008, 440). Celebrities can mediate the distance between a global elite and a global capitalism on the one hand personified in group photos of heads of state, Davos summits, the big banks like Goldman Sachs or just the ominous word ‘global capital’ that all of them demonstrate distance between us and them. Moving seemingly effortless in that distant and decoupled relation are the celebrities. Not only do they constitute a sort of meritocratic aristocracy, unlike a blood aristocracy, they also operate both on the global scenes and on our homely screens. They are our access points to a world otherwise inaccessible. In order to perform that ideological function they must be both very close to us – we must feel addressed, part of their life, invested in their doings and personal lives – and far away. Celebrity philanthropy performs both those tasks. They participate in charities, travel the poor parts of the world, meet with ordinary people, and express commitment to people’s struggling everyday life, but at the same time they fly in private jets, meet the president of the poor countries, and host a grand party.

Celebrities first replaced royals and then politicians as the ones feeling the pain of others in public. Like the plutocrats, giving is not enough. You have to feel, and no one feels as intense or as public as celebrities. Again, this is the function that their mediating role performs for us. The distance from which a celebrity looks at people in need only really allows for pity. The fortunate gaze upon the unfortunate. This is not to say that politics and justice may not be articulated. It surely often is. However, the way celebrity charity is most often acted out is through the language and imagery of pity, of a celebrity feeling and a populace suffering. No matter the posturing of the celebrity of being just a human among humans, the only reason he or she is there, feeling, is because celebrity has separated them endlessly and permanently only to occasionally and momentarily in the charity setting to put them together for a brief moment (Littler 2008; Barron 2009). Despite protestations and genuine motives, the celebrity/media-phenomenon doesn’t really allow for anything else. Pity is really the only possible emotion in that situation. The distance and difference is enormous and anything other than pity posturing obscures the basic fact of inequality. When celebrities raise awareness of urgent causes a systematic pressure coming from the celebrity logic sets in, “the story ends up being not about Africans, but mostly about her [Angelina Jolie] – her experiences travelling there, her guilt, her sympathy.” (Kapoor 2013, 22; Yrjölä 2009). Many celebrities know and manipulate this for good causes, but none can escape it and it will inevitably reproduce the inequality that made it possible to begin with. For all the efforts to confront powers, celebrities can never confront the unequalizing logic of which they themselves are part. They can never truly confront the distance between the few and the many without ceasing to be celebrities. Making ironic gestures about being really just a person, or making fun at their own wealth and prestige, is something only the non-ordinary and the wealthy can do and – as ideology critique 101 will tell you – it only exacerbates the distance while easing the conscience of the mighty.

Another dimension to the mediation between an inaccessible elite and ordinary people is directly related to the post-political condition. Many people feel more represented by celebrities than by their elected politicians. Celebrities both enact and subvert popular dissatisfaction with political elites. The dissatisfaction with post-politics is expressed by people’s preference for celebrities rather than politicians, a preference often mentioned or alluded to by celebrities themselves. However, they also subvert the dissatisfaction, firstly by offering even more inaccessible solutions to the world’s problems (celebrities on poverty safaris) and, secondly, by lending discredited politicians their aura, thereby aligning themselves with the present post-politics. In his critical exposé on Bono, Harry Browne clearly states and documents that Bono and celebrities like him is a story “about how those powerful people and institutions [they meet and are photographed with] are genuinely committed to making the world a more just and equitable place.” (Browne 2013, 2). Celebrity philanthropy is parasitic on ordinary politics both by expressing what seems an alternative to post-politics and by performing post-politics themselves, both moves alienating ordinary people from political and philanthropic action.

Celebrity activism is not a solution to crises of democratic representation. It is a symptom and possibly a radicalizer of the crisis. In an interview with Rolling Stones Magazine from 2005, Bono explained his role as a celebrity activist: “I’m representing the poorest and most vulnerable people. On a spiritual level, I have that with me. I’m throwing a punch, and the fist belongs to people who can’t be in the room, whose rage, whose anger, whose hurt I represent.” (Wenner 2005). The people ‘who can’t be in the room’ stuffed as it is with celebrities, are not asked if they authorize this representation. This ‘representation’ is post-politics, post-representative democracy, at its purest. Democratic representation “is supposed to involve some kind of deliberative process, whereby a group of people choose a representative as their surrogate, advocate, or intercessor.” (Dienst 2011, 117). However, not only does Bono circumvent democratic representation at the representational level. His description of his ‘mandate’ is also post-political, because Bono “does not claim to represent their interests, their perspectives, or even their hopes, but rather their ‘rage, anger, and hurt’.” (Ibid.). He ‘represents’ emotions not policies, bodies not subjects. Rather than representing political subjects, celebrities are perfectly placed to articulate and mediate emotions.

George Monbiot, among others, has noted that celebrities not only mediate. They are not merely or only relay stations between the population and the political and economic elites. They are also actors themselves and “have assumed the role of arbiters; of determining on our behalf” (Monbiot 2005). Celebrities, no wonder given the attention and amazement that surrounds them, assume and perform power. They are basically unelected leaders mistaking acclaim for consent. Monbiot is right to call them “bards of the powerful.” They may criticize unrepresentative power but are so themselves. They may criticize inequality but are dependent upon it themselves. They may ally themselves with the poor in campaigns but their lives are spent rubbing shoulders with the rich and mighty. Post-politics is also spectacle politics, both in the sense that it’s all for show and in the sense that it is performed as a show, and as Ilan Kapoor rightly stresses:

When charity work turns principally on spectacle and show, the tendency is to valorize dramatic stories and moral arguments, sound-bites and photogenic images, and quick and short-term solutions, often at the expense of a broad, complex, and long-term politics. When celebrities unilaterally represent the Excluded (the Third World, orphans, disaster victims, subaltern women, people living with HIV/AIDS), when they speak and ‘witness’ for them, the result is the construction of voiceless and passive victims. (Kapoor 2013, 115)

And let’s add voiceless and passive spectators. Just like with plutocharity, it is the massive inequality, this time of attention rather than money, the differential access to media and popular attention, which enables the charity. The celebrity of the celebrities not only marks their difference from the rest of us. It gets redescribed as an opportunity – possibly an obligation – to do good. The charmed life of the celebrities and our watching it gets bestowed a moral dimension otherwise lacking from a mediatized existence. The inequality in media attention is what makes this charity possible, and charity is part of what makes celebrity legitimate.

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