Academic journal article Nebula

Distant Suffering and Postmodern Subjectivity: The Communal Politics of Pity

Academic journal article Nebula

Distant Suffering and Postmodern Subjectivity: The Communal Politics of Pity

Article excerpt

Introduction

Narratives of loss and suffering form an important part of the modern media landscape (see Gorney 2005; Oushakine 2006; Debrix 2006), and such narratives are the primary means by which people engage with disasters and tragedies. According to the Centre for Research on Epidemiology of Disasters in Belgium there has been a marked increase in the number of disasters worldwide with 1,230 disasters registered between 1970-1979, compared to more than 3,000 disasters reported between 2000-2003 (See Vasterman et al. 2005:107). As sociologists and historians have argued the communal consumption and experience of pain and suffering can be fundamentally social (see Cole 2004; Good et al. 1994; Winters 1995) enabling human communion through media narratives. Media narratives of suffering have the potential to both personalize and de-personalize suffering to their audiences and in the process they can re-frame proximity and distance, our sense of connection and disconnection as well as temporality.

Mediated suffering is then a cognitive construct which influences our moral and ethical responses through the media's visual cultures and discursive paradigms where images and narratives work hand in hand to compose and enable global spectatorship. The audience's ability to understand suffering as a phenomenon enacted on a global stage and the media's ability to invite moral gaze and engagement is a recurring phenomenon in postmodernity. Our socialization to 'mediated suffering' denotes our subjectivity to our mediated environment and equally our human condition to be attracted to narratives of human loss and suffering. The media by socializing us as subjects who bear witness, authenticate and respond to mourning confers a state of subjectivity on the postmodern audience where suffering is pervasive and our reactions to it can be mediated both through our personal orientations as well as institutional and media attempts to forge collective mourning.

The act of bearing witness to global events through the broadcasting space has been well documented in media literature (see Dayan & Katz 1992; Scannell 1989). Broadcasting reframes time and space and has the ability to pause accelerated modernity and enable humanity to reconnect and commune through media events. Here the media appropriates a social role to transform tragic events into platforms for global communion. It can equally create spaces for therapeutic recovery both by inviting a moral gaze as well as facilitating national and (perhaps) global conversations on suffering, where these can be unrestrained by geographical barriers. Pantii & Wietten (2005:313) reiterate that the ability to connect with human tragedies is not limited by national borders and that national unity is forged through collective mourning. The news media becomes a platform for this brief national consensus.

By creating spaces for moral engagement mediated grief becomes a device to convene humanity and convey humanitarian discourses. However, our ability to domesticate grief and personalise it in relation to events far and near can vary in intensity. Whilst the mass media can mobilise national and global reactions to grief, its persistent need to feed the public with the politics of pity and invite moral engagement can equally lead to apathy and disengagement where suffering and traumatic narratives become part of the everyday terrain of news creation and consumption. Grief and suffering can be become banal when entwined with the everyday and this non-stop consumption of images of suffering can result in 'compassion fatigue' (Hoijer 2004). Tester (2001:13) describes compassion fatigue as a phenomenon in which 'people become so used to the spectacle of dreadful events, misery or suffering that we stop noticing them and are left unmoved.' Tester (1994:107) contends that the media tends to have an anaesthetic effect and can in effect thwart the moral values of solidarity. …

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