Comments and reflections on Lisa Ann Richey (ed), Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power (London: Routledge, 2016), and Ilan Kapoor, Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity (London: Routledge, 2013). i

In a recent intervention on the effects of what he calls “humanitarianist diplomacy,” Sam Opondo writes:

Nowhere is the production of a consensual moral humanity as the recognition and care for the vulnerabilities of any-subject-whatever clearer than in the responses to ‘extreme’ violence in Africa. Here, a ‘growing planetary and humanitarianist consciousness’ and human diplomacies of everyday life assign functions and representations to an elaborate network of individual experts, representatives of non-governmental agencies, and ethnic groups in a manner that seeks to transform violent contexts by creating a consensual whole that pins people down to their proper and morally sanctioned places. By making distinctions between ‘spaces of life and ‘spaces of death,’ such planetarian discourses and humanitarian moralities draw upon a ‘torrent of images of casual death and conflict,’ which are usually transmitted instantaneously from all over the African continent with far reaching implications for how people think about Africa, violence, and the appropriate response to violence (2012, p. 97).

In response to this humanitarianist consensual diplomacy that knows, ahead of time, where the “spaces of life” and, by contrast, the “spaces of death” reside and which subjects are to occupy each of these spaces, Opondo invites us to “displace the silence, invisibility, and moral certainty that an uncritical humanitarianist diplomacy privileges” (2012, p. 98).

Celebrity humanitarianism, I take Richey (2016) and Kapoor (2013) to be telling us, is an effort, in the name of humanitarianist diplomacy, to maintain and often to reinforce the silences, the invisibilities, and the moral certainties of the humanitarian enterprise and its planetarian ideology. Kapoor is right. Humanitarianism is an ideology and, often, a pernicious and vicious one at that, put to the service of neoliberalism, capitalism, market forces on a global scale, global democracy, the so-called universality of humankind, or, often, simply of itself. Celebrity philanthropy or charity is this ideology’s dominant instrument today, one that is as much about “helping others in distress” as it is about smoothening the international landscape for the sake of the dominant ideology and its ever flowing circuits of corporate growth, market expansion, democracy and human rights promotion, or cultural Westernization (or perhaps Northernization since it is also, as Richey’s volume shows us so compellingly, about a constant redistribution and redefinition—but always from the perspective of the North or West—of North–South relations).

In many ways—in many intricate, detailed, and at times necessarily ruthless ways—Richey’s and Kapoor’s volumes show us what sort of ideological instrument celebrity humanitarianism is, what its intricacies are, how they operate, in what insidious yet so appealing and compelling fashion they do so (that’s precisely celebrity humanitarianism’s lure). They also show us how celebrity philanthropy/charity/altruism has become a pervasive modality of humanitarian action well beyond the proto–typical figure of the popular global celebrity (a Madonna, an Angelina Jolie, a Bono, a Bill Gates even) as most agents involved in the global humanitarianist diplomatic enterprise feel compelled to reproduce celebrity culture’s traits (the spectacularity/visual performance of the endeavor, first and foremost).

Thus, in a way, it has become impossible to disentangle the humanitarian ideological motif from the celebrity–spectacular performative motif. As Kapoor reveals, one can no longer tell where one ends and the other starts and takes over. Is celebrity performativity at the service of humanitarianism, or is humanitarianism deployed for celebrity and spectacular purposes? Who knows? A principle of total indifference has taken hold of the contemporary humanitarian simulacrum.

So, as much as we may say—as I think Richey and Kapoor wish to say—that the tool/instrument that is celebrity humanitarianism helps to render or turn the inequalities, injustices, and outright violence of the neoliberal transnational order benign, normal, moral, or even altruistic perhaps, it also makes Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle” (1970) a daily commonplace, anodyne, harmless reality. Better yet, it makes the Society of the Spectacle accepted and acceptable, expected, demanded even, so that, as Kapoor cleverly explains through his turn to Zizek, we, Westerners/Northerners, can find our own enjoyment in and with it. Celebrity humanitarianism—despite the fact that or, rather, because it is a neoliberal ideological tool that keeps in place accepted and expected “spaces of life” and “spaces of death”—makes the Society of the Spectacle ever so immutable on a planetarian scale because it fulfills our jouissance. It makes a seamless Society of the Spectacle a Society of Enjoyment. And so yes, going back to Kapoor’s opening joke about the U2 concert, every time Bono claps his hands here, in the West/North, an African child dies over there, in the non–West/South/Africa. And yes, Bono’s hand clapping may well be the cause of African children dying since their death is very much the symptom of, perhaps the necessary condition for, our own enjoyment/jouissance here. ii Put differently, our “spaces of life,” in order to continue to be enjoyed, require the presence of their “spaces of death.” And they require that we maintain their “spaces of death” spectacularly visible, active, and morally affective and effective. It is indeed a dreadful war or death machine that is being driven by celebrity humanitarians of all stripes. It is also the revelation that the humanitarian enterprise, at its core, is a biopolitical operation or, better yet, a necropolitical operation, one that relies on, thrives in, and in the end perpetuates the “making of death worlds,” as Achille Mbembe puts it (2003, p. 40).

Where does this all leave us? Kapoor, correctly in my view, suggests in the conclusion to his book that celebrity humanitarianism—in fact, the general modality of humanitarianistic diplomacy, since celebrity philanthropy is merely this ideology’s trompe l’oeil—was or is never about them, the others, the Excluded (as Kapoor puts it), the Africans (going back to Opondo’s initial statement). It always was/is about us, the Westerners or Northerners, the so–called Included. It was and is about our own problems, our symptoms, our spectacle, and our enjoyment. It is also, of course, about the machine that sustains this enjoyment (both as lack and pleasure), neoliberal capitalism, which we, the Included, make their concern and their problem too, whether they like it or not.

But it is also—and here I think I can perhaps supplement Richey’s and Kapoor’s rich studies—about humanity, our humanity, our human condition, which at its core is a biopolitical concern that we insist on turning into their necropolitical fate. Celebrity humanitarianism—humanitarianism tout court—is also about the hubris of our human condition, about our humanity enshrined as a universal good, about the desperate and often pathetic calls to demand the respect at all costs and the absolute recognition of the priority of what I and several others have referred to as the “metaphysic of human substance” (Butler 1990; Povinelli 2011; Debrix 2015). As Opondo once again argues, “ultimately, the production of universal humanity within a humanitarian world involves the production of oneself as a moralized point in a pain–mediated humanity across one universal space and time” (2012, p. 105). The claimed universality of human–centeredness is what, when all is said and done, gives us humanitarianism as well as its more contemporary celebrity and spectacular accoutrements. It is this same belief or claim that demands that humanitarianism produce recognizable demarcations between “spaces of life” and “spaces of death,” so our humanity may be preserved, and enjoyed. To do away with humanitarianistic diplomacy and ideology—and their powerful instruments of persuasion and enjoyment—maybe we need to do away with the human or, at least, with prioritizing the human/humanity. Maybe we need to think, as philosopher Eugene Thacker has suggested, about a “world–without–us,” to think, that is, the seemingly unthinkable: a world in the “absence of the human-centric point of view,” a world that does not rely on the metaphysics of substance and being, says Thacker (2011, p. 48).

Going back to Opondo’s earlier challenge, could this be the radical move needed to finally “displace the silence, invisibility, and moral certainty that an uncritical humanitarianist diplomacy privileges?– I’m not sure that Richey or Kapoor would want to take us there. But what choice do they leave us with, really? What choice do we have?


Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990).

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red Press, 1970).

Debrix, François. “Falling Bodies: Confronting the Iconography of Terror,” in eds. Priya Dixit and Jacob L. Stump, Critical Methods in Terrorism Studies (London: Routledge, 2015), pp. 177-188.

Kapoor, Ilan. Celebrity Humanitarianism: The Ideology of Global Charity (London: Routledge, 2013).

Mbembe, Achille. “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2003), pp. 11-40.

Opondo, Sam Okoth. “Diplomatic Dissensus: A Report on Humanitarianism, Moral Community, and the Space of Death,” in eds. Sam Okoth Opondo and Michael J. Shapiro, The New Violent Cartography: Geo-Analysis after the Aesthetic Turn (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 95-117.

Povinelli, Elizabeth. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

Richey, Lisa Ann, ed. Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place, and Power (London: Routledge, 2016).

Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet: Horrors of Philosophy, Vol. 1 (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2011).

i These critical comments/reflections were first offered on a “Celebrity Humanitarianism: Authors Meet Critics” session at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Atlanta, GA, on March 17, 2016.

ii This is my revised take on the Bono/U2 concert joke that Kapoor recounts in his book. The original joke goes more or less as follows: Bono, during one of his concerts, interpellates the crowd and tells his audience that every time he claps his hands, an African child dies. At which point someone in the audience yells back at Bono: “Well, stop bloody clapping then!”

Copyright (c) 2016 François Debrix