Cover image for Humanitarianism and Modern Culture By Keith Tester

Humanitarianism and Modern Culture

Keith Tester


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ISBN: 978-0-271-03735-6

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ISBN: 978-0-271-03678-6

144 pages
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Essays on Human Rights

Humanitarianism and Modern Culture

Keith Tester

“In all the frenzy of celebrity humanitarianism, where famous idols call attention to the world’s suffering (and to themselves), Keith Tester’s trenchant book provides the critical eye necessary to understand how Western culture exploits humanitarian crisis. In the field of human rights today, there is a disturbing trend toward making human rights another cause célèbre, packaged for the consumption of the world’s fortunate consumers. How has the commercialization and consumerization of human rights affected the course of global emancipation from suffering? Tester’s book provides some unsettling but crucial answers.”


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  • Table of Contents
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It seems paradoxical that in the West the predominant mode of expressing concern about suffering in the Third World comes through participation in various forms of popular culture—such as buying tickets to a rock concert like Live Aid in 1985—rather than through political action based on expert knowledge. Keith Tester’s aim in this book is to explore the phenomenon of what he calls “commonsense humanitarianism,” the reasons for its hegemony as the principal way for people in the West to relate to distant suffering, and its ramifications for our moral and social lives. As a remnant of the West’s past imperial legacy, this phenomenon is most clearly manifested in humanitarian activities directed at Africa, and that continent is the geographical focus of this critical sociology of humanitarianism, which places the role of the media at the center of its analysis.
“In all the frenzy of celebrity humanitarianism, where famous idols call attention to the world’s suffering (and to themselves), Keith Tester’s trenchant book provides the critical eye necessary to understand how Western culture exploits humanitarian crisis. In the field of human rights today, there is a disturbing trend toward making human rights another cause célèbre, packaged for the consumption of the world’s fortunate consumers. How has the commercialization and consumerization of human rights affected the course of global emancipation from suffering? Tester’s book provides some unsettling but crucial answers.”
Humanitarianism and Modern Culture is a timely and fascinating book that cuts across reportage of pop literary references to illuminate our understanding of the role of popular culture in shaping humanitarian discourse.”
“Tester charmingly revives the spirit of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957) in a few wonderful, deconstructive readings of Bob Geldof’s photographs of Africa, which illustrate his claim that Western humanitarianism rests on a number of mythic images and aestheticizing notions of cultural difference, for example the "gorgeous Ethiopian."”

Keith Tester is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hull in England and Professor of Sociology at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, Korea. He is the author of numerous books, including the prize-winning Animals and Society: The Humanity of Animal Rights (1991), Civil Society (1992), Media, Culture, and Morality (1994), Moral Culture (1997), and Compassion, Morality, and the Media (2001).


Preface and Acknowledgments

1. Out of “Africa”

2. Saving Birhan

3. Madonna and Child





out of “africa”

What is common-sense humanitarianism?

If recent debates are to be believed, it is possible to be absolutely sure about one thing. Humanitarianism is in crisis. David Rieff, for example, sees a noble ideal compromised by human rights and states. He believes the strength of humanitarianism comes from the simplicity of its fundamental premise, which is that humans are not made to suffer, and from the specific nature of the action following from the belief. The purpose of humanitarianism is to give a “bed for the night” to those who lack or have been deprived of such shelter and thus have been forced into a confrontation with the basic necessities of human being in the world (because obviously the phrase “a bed for the night” is not to be read narrowly or literally; it is taken by Rieff from Bertolt Brecht). From this point of view, humanitarian actors have no requirement to ask precisely why this particular person has no bed. For them it is sufficient that some people are without. To this extent, humanitarianism is at once pragmatic and practical. It is an acceptance that the world is not a land of milk and honey for all humans, and it is an attempt to ameliorate the impact of the harsh encounter with dull necessity. But humanitarianism is in crisis, Rieff says, because the clarity has been lost (2002).

Rieff’s definition of humanitarianism refuses to admit that the principle is the solution to the situations in which it intervenes. After all, to provide a bed for the night is to take it for granted that some people are deprived of their bed. The situation has to have already arisen, and therefore humanitarianism is to be understood as a response, as a reaction. At most, humanitarianism is an expectation on the part of its actors that there will be a response. Rieff’s definition also contends that the principle and its action are impartial. The point is to assist any and as many people as possible, purely because they are in need, without regard to who they are or why they are confronting necessity. Consequently, humanitarianism has to be distinguished from human rights since, according to one of its leading proponents, human rights action “means taking sides, mobilizing constituencies powerful enough to force the abusers to stop. As a consequence, effective human rights activism is bound to be partial and political” (Ignatieff 2001, 9).

Humanitarianism consists in an outrage that humans are forced into some situations, a belief that to be human is to be a subject of one’s own action and not just an object in perpetual encounter with necessity, and a commitment to lift humans out of their confrontation with need as and when required. There is an acceptance that humans, or at least some humans, are to a degree historically fated—and fated by history—to come into confrontation with necessity. The ambition of humanitarianism is not to bring about a world without encounter with necessity, because that is far too grand and improbable a condition to achieve. To focus on such an ambition would be to paralyze action, since the moment of its achievement is always and inevitably receding. Humans suffer, and humans need, and humans die. The aim is, more modestly, to bring assistance to those who need it when they need it. Yet herein lies one of the ambiguities of humanitarianism. If humanitarianism is motivated by a belief that to be human means more than being forced to live in confrontation with overwhelming material scarcity, does it follow that some can only practice their humanity because others cannot? Is dehumanization a prerequisite for any appreciation of what it means to be human?

According to Rieff, limitation and modesty are the strengths of humanitarianism, but there has been a loss of focus. He contends that humanitarianism has become more than a little fuzzy because different players have harnessed it to their own concerns, although it allowed itself to be so connected because the other players solved issues that bothered humanitarian actors (2002). Specifically, humanitarianism has been connected with human rights and state power. According to the story Rieff tells, humanitarian actors initially welcomed a connection with human rights because it solved the problem of paternalism that haunts relief workers. Human rights enabled humanitarians to overcome the suspicion that they were merely the moral conscience of the affluent (or affluence’s conscience) by giving them a foundation of universal norms upon which to base their action. Instead of having to worry about whether they were wealthy philanthropists or latter-day imperialists, now humanitarian actors could point to norms applicable to all people, regardless of who and where they were. In other words, human rights gave humanitarianism the confidence that it is truly action in terms of a commitment to humanity and not just an expression of guilt or condescension.

But this meant humanitarian actors were unable to avoid slipping into alignment with states that flattered them (if only with lip service) and that purportedly based military actions on human rights norms. States started to need humanitarian actors for both practical aid work and for legitimacy. One example of this is the way in which the discussion of global trade has been wrapped in the moral flag of debt relief and some human right to economic prosperity. And, of course, states also started to talk about “humanitarian intervention” as a justification for often preplanned military adventures. Rieff knows the seduction by states was hard to resist. Reflecting on his experience reporting humanitarian action in the Third World, Rieff (2003) says of the offer of money and support states offered to humanitarian actors,

That sounds very appealing. My problem with it, and the reason I think the marriage of humanitarian action and state power has been such a disaster, is that I think the logic of the human rights movement is imperialist. I don’t think it was necessarily intended this way. But once you talk about categories like international justice, or you talk about bringing people to justice, or an end to impunity . . . if you’re really serious about that, the only way to do it is by at least the possible use of force. The human rights movement, whether wittingly or unwittingly, has increasingly become a force for a recolonization of the world, in the name of rights.

As such, it might be argued that human rights returns the accusation of imperialism that can be laid against humanitarianism, even as it simultaneously takes the charge away.

Rieff has suggested that Western states probably do not care terribly much about many of the humanitarian disasters that happen, but by the logic of the so loudly trumpeted human rights case, leaders have to be seen “doing something” when the needs of others become unavoidable. They get humanitarian actors to do it for them. On the one hand, this is attractive to the actors (which are invariably grouped together under the umbrella term of nongovernmental organizations) because they get funding and profile, but on the other, it means that “states were involved as actors in humanitarian operations as well as funders of them: aid had political consequences” (Rieff 2002, 307). Put another way—put an obvious way—Rieff is arguing that whoever pays the humanitarian piper calls the tune accompanying the relief work. Consequently, there is a blurring of the boundaries between state policy and humanitarian action, a blurring made rather clear by Michael Ignatieff when he subconsciously links the two and says that “military or humanitarian intervention amounts to a moral promise to persons in need” (2001, 44). Whether or not this remark is valid is less pressing than the unquestioning way in which it brings together what are in fact two extremely different kinds of action: the military (when all is said and done, military action is about killing people, although Ignatieff’s remark does imply that humanitarian intervention, as he calls it, can justify the killing of some humans) and the humanitarian (which is often about clearing up the human damage created by armed forces).

For Rieff, the answer to the crisis is for humanitarianism to return to its central tasks and to its minimal definition. He wants it to return to the core assumptions of “solidarity, a fundamental sympathy for victims, and an antipathy for oppressors and exploiters” and thus to become independent of external considerations like state politics or human rights. Rieff continues, “Independent humanitarianism does many things well, and some things badly, but the things it is now being called upon to do, such as helping to advance the cause of human rights, contributing to stopping wars, and furthering social justice, are beyond its competence” (2002, 334).

But maybe what humanitarianism does badly has become so overwhelming that this practical question is also part of the crisis. Fiona Terry has reflected on one of the moral difficulties of humanitarianism: what do you do if some of those who are face to face with necessity are the cause of the neediness of others? She points out that the humanitarian principle is deontological inasmuch as it is a view of morality primarily concerned with ideas like duty or obligation. It is a duty to provide a bed for the night to those who are without a bed. But Terry reflects on experiences in the field and contends that whatever it might once have been, presently “humanitarian action no longer represents the ultimate expression of deontological reasoning, but incurs consequences that, whether intended or not, can undermine the very logic on which such action is based” (2002, 217). Sometimes the bed can be taken away by force, and sometimes a bed can be given to someone who is responsible for the want of another. Terry reaches this conclusion after a detailed consideration of the implications of some notable humanitarian actions. For example, in the mid-1990s the defeated Rwandan government and its supporters, who had been complicit in the genocide of the Tutsi population, moved into the very camps in Zaire already occupied by refugees from the killing. They escaped to the camps in order to get the legal protection that comes from being recognized as a refugee, and physical protection, because the Tutsi militia, bent on revenge, did not chase them into Zaire (Terry 2002, 182). The effect was that conflict was displaced into the camps themselves, which quickly became extremely violent and militarized. This situation set the deontological position of humanitarianism against the consequences of humanitarian action, because it meant aid was being given into the control of the very forces that had caused the initial crisis. The refugees in the camps had gone to Zaire to escape the danger in Rwanda, only to find that violence followed them. “The humanitarian imperative to give aid wherever it was needed clashed with the responsibility to ensure that . . . aid was not used against those for whom it was intended” (Terry 2002, 195). Some aid agencies decided that ethical principles had to remain untarnished and withdrew from the Zaire camps, but most appreciated they were stuck in a paradox and decided to stay.

Like most, if not all, professional humanitarian actors, Terry is no utopian. She knows these kinds of paradoxes cannot be overcome and are to some extent part of the humanitarian parcel. But she makes a compelling argument that it would be absolutely wrong to therefore conclude humanitarianism is always doomed to fail or is necessarily unethical in its consequences despite its good intentions. The point is that, even though it is riddled with problems, the humanitarian project must be maintained. As Terry says with brutal realism, “We can never construct the best world in which our compassion can immediately translate into an end to suffering, but we can try to build a second-best world based on hard-headed assessments of needs and options” (2002, 216–17).

the humanitarianism of the inexpert humanitarians

These are important debates, and they show that commentators and humanitarian actors are at once reflective and principled. For Rieff and Terry, the point is not to bury humanitarianism but to rescue it. They know there are no easy answers in such a messy world, but that does not stop them from struggling to do the best they can toward others who are confronting necessity. However, the eloquence of the commentators and activists, alongside their access to the media of debate, creates something of an optical illusion. Think of a kaleidoscope. If it is looked at one way, it is a collection of shattered moving pieces that occasionally come together into coherent patterns but spend a lot of time in a somewhat confused condition. This is how the commentators on humanitarianism tend to see the matter. They are committed to a coherent principle and to the action that follows from it, and yet they know that as soon as the tube is looked down, all that is likely to be seen is a chaos of overlapping parts, gaps, color clashes, and incoherence. They see crisis. Yet there is another way of looking at a kaleidoscope. Yes, all of the pieces are in a mess, but the circumference of the tube contains them and they often come together into coherent patterns, even though the coherence can and does disappear very quickly. From this way of looking, the kaleidoscope is taken for granted and is largely invested with trust, and quite how it all works is significantly less important than the fact it sometimes does. The kaleidoscope might not be looked at terribly often, but when it is, it shows what is looked for.

Most people who would be likely to define themselves as good and committed humanitarians have not read Rieff or Terry (they have probably never even heard of them), and it is very unlikely they have ever met someone who has confronted necessity or been to a refugee camp. But they have almost certainly bought clothes or books at a charity shop, expressed outrage at television pictures, and quite possibly responded to appeals in the media. For most humanitarian actors, humanitarianism is not something in crisis, for the incredibly simple but obvious reason that it is not something thought about terribly much. It is just there, like the sports results, celebrity gossip, and television listings. Humanitarianism has become a naturalized component part of the ordinary Western cultural and moral milieu. For most people most of the time, it is not very special at all, but it is still important. Humanitarianism is part of day-to-day common sense. This is what is missed if the humanitarian kaleidoscope is looked at in the way the commentators look at it, but it is what comes sharply into focus if the shapes and patterns are seen without prior assumptions about how they ought to look.

There is the humanitarianism of the professional humanitarians like Rieff and Terry, and there is also the humanitarianism of people who have had no physically immediate encounter with necessity or the needy. Tony Waters has rightly said that schoolchildren responding to Red Cross appeals share the humanitarian credit with more obvious actors like relief agencies shipping supplies to refugee camps (2001, 2). Nevertheless, what humanitarianism means to schoolchildren and aid agencies are two very different things indeed. Actually, the situation is rather similar to one identified by Antonio Gramsci in the case of philosophy.

As Gramsci saw, it does not follow from the existence of a professional group called “philosophers” that the pursuit of the activity of philosophy is peculiar to it. Of course, philosophers seek to justify precisely that kind of assumption through the monopolization of institutional positions, publishing outlets, and the development of a specialist jargon. However, Gramsci pointed out, if the meaning of philosophy is broadened to include all thought about the world, then it is obvious that “everyone is a philosopher” because everyone thinks and acts in terms of a “specific conception of the world” (1971, 323). The difference is that philosophers have a self-aware conception of the world, in principle amenable to criticism, whereas the conception of “everyone” is unreflexive, based on a premise that “this is how things are,” and is taken to be a straightforward, “real” representation of the world. The philosophy of the nonprofessional philosophers consequently consists in a conception of the world that stresses practical knowledge, and it is immune to critique or interrogation. It simply is and is accepted as self-evident and true, in as far as it makes action practically possible. This latter kind of conception constitutes common sense.

Gramsci defined common sense as “the conception of the world which is uncritically absorbed by the various social and cultural environments in which the moral individuality of the average man is developed” (1971, 419). From this it follows that common sense is not the same in all places and at all times, and it has to be understood as “a conception which, even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent and inconsequential” (1971, 419). Common sense is not a coherent and unified theory like, say, utilitarianism or Kantian ethics. Rather, it is the diverse and often mutually contradictory mishmash of conceptions enabling social subjects to go about the business of daily life, to make sense of a world apprehended as always and already “there” and to some extent beyond their control and immune to their intervention. In terms of its dealings with the world, common sense is reactive rather than creative, and therefore the greatest reaction will come from whatever has the greatest impact upon moral individuality. The impact and reaction will be felt in a very immediate way, and, because common sense conceives of the world as almost thing-like, it will stress the sensate. The world has an impact on moral individuality to the extent that it directly stimulates moral consciousness and conscience; that is to say, in as far as it has a power to impinge upon the moral senses of the individual. It is the point of Karl Marx: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (1942, 356). The moral senses are no more innate or natural than the moral individuality of which they are a part. Rather, the moral senses are resources of interpretation and conscience within the social, cultural, and historical environments in which social subjects are situated. From this it follows that, just like common sense, moral senses are variable and, also just like common sense, their impact is felt to be “natural.” They constitute a practical morality.

Gramsci said, “In common sense it is the ‘realistic,’ materialistic elements which are predominant, the immediate product of crude sensation” (1971, 420). As such, within the context of common sense, the immediate effect of something happening will be the sensate reaction that it generates, and the strength of the reaction will be taken to be a “real” and more or less accurate guide of the extent to which moral individuality has so responded. Put another way, the more social subjects are able to immediately demonstrate a response, the more “real” the stimulus will be taken popularly to be. Similarly, it can be proposed that from the point of view of the moral individual, in as far as the sensate response is minimal, the stimulus is lacking in charge and it is a less compelling “reality” (less, that is, in comparison to other stimuli, not in relation to some normative response).

Common-sense humanitarianism therefore can be defined as the conception of obligations toward others that is uncritically constitutive of moral individuality by virtue of the situation of social subjects in specific social and cultural environments. It is not necessarily coherent or even necessarily acted upon, but it is constitutive of a fundamental—and fundamentally—moral conception of the world. The motto of ­common-sense humanitarianism is the call “something must be done!” The impetus behind the “something” will emerge in the first instance from sensate emotional responses to a world conceptually constructed as inevitable. Furthermore, the legitimacy for the action of the “something” will be provided by the immediate sensate responses of the social subjects (the moral individuals) who feel an obligation to help but who can only satisfy that obligation by facilitating the action of agencies or organizations present within their conception of the world, but external to their own individual, practical competence.

Bob Geldof is the culturally established exemplary figure of common-sense humanitarianism, where an “exemplary figure” is she or he who is illustrative. Consequently, when it is said that Geldof is exemplary, the point being made is that he illustrates the conception of the world, and (re)action within it, that is characteristic of common-sense humanitarianism. The word “exemplary” is not being used in this context as an intimation of worth or its lack. Moreover, Geldof is significant in this regard as a cultural figure and not as a private individual; indeed, from the point of view of this discussion, Geldof’s personal life is largely irrelevant. The contention that Geldof is the exemplary figure of common-sense humanitarianism draws attention to some of his statements and takes it away from either outright condemnation or celebrations of his status as some purported “visionary leader” (Westley 1991). Equally, it means no great attention needs to be paid to the widespread debates among commentators about Geldof’s brand of humanitarianism. Yes, there is a popular discussion about Geldof that questions the sincerity of his motives, but this tends to take place within talk about celebrity as opposed to some (popularly marginal) debate about strategies and mechanisms of Third World famine relief or the efficiency of aid agencies. Geldof emerged in this field in 1984–85 thanks to his role in the Band Aid and Live Aid movements, which used the music industry as a vehicle to raise funds for relief of the famine then rife in Ethiopia and felt to be important because of the sensate responses caused by the broadcast media coverage. It is reasonable to contend that Geldof was the first celebrity of common-sense humanitarianism, a position he has maintained despite the appearance of others (such as Bono of U2).

The passage in Geldof’s autobiography in which he talks about his response to seeing a television news report on the famine can be read as a foundational statement of common-sense humanitarianism. The report was by the BBC journalist Michael Buerk and came from the famine zone of Korem. It is worth dismantling the reaction Geldof relates. He says, “From the first seconds it was clear that this was horror on a monumental scale. The pictures were of people who were so shrunken by starvation that they looked like beings from another planet” (1986, 269). There are two points to pull out of this passage. First, and implicitly, Geldof is taking it as given that it is possible and legitimate to engage with television news reports. He is distancing himself from any thesis of the passive observer or, indeed, the skilled semiotician who is able to spot polyvocality. Instead, Geldof is presuming that the news audience is active and actually or potentially engaged. This is because news reports have become a self-evident, naturalized, and in themselves uncritical part of everyday life (indeed, although there can be critique of what the reports show and how they show it, the validity of broadcast news in and of itself is not questioned). Moreover, polyvocality is rendered inadmissible by the self-evidence of the images. They are read uncritically as meaning what they show and showing what they mean. This leads to the second point in the autobiographical passage: for Geldof, what the news report has done is reveal the human impact of the confrontation with necessity, and the meaning of confrontation is stark and once again self-evident. When they are face to face with necessity, humans run the very real risk of dying, and in that context analytical high jinks are simply wrong.

Geldof continues to draw a contrast between the necessity shown in the report and the context of the reception of the news. Recalling the famine victims, he says, “The camera wandered amidst them like a mesmerized observer, occasionally dwelling on one person so that he looked directly at me, sitting in my comfortable living room surrounded by the fripperies of modern living which we were pleased to regard as necessities” (1986, 269). The charge of the contrast between necessity and “frippery” is, then, derived from what Geldof takes to be the ability of the direct gaze to cut through cultural, social, and historical differences and to establish an immediate human bond consisting in a moral petition for help. That petition is presumed to stand outside of history and to be the basis of a direct interpersonal appeal regardless of institutions. It leads the moral individual to think about her or his personal responsibility for the tragedy and the assistance she or he might provide (Geldof 1986, 290). The moral individual is individualized in the recognition of the emotionally felt and legitimated need to “do something.”

What Geldof did was contact friends and acquaintances in the music industry and facilitate the recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” from which all of the profits went to the famine relief effort. The profits were considerable because the artists performed for free and took no royalties, and the industry itself covered production and distribution costs. The release was accompanied by a media blitz, with radio, television, and press all engaging in incredibly heavy promotion. At the time of its release, the record was the fastest-ever-selling single in the United Kingdom (a title it eventually lost to Elton John’s version of “Candle in the Wind” for the funeral of Princess Diana), and it raised over £;8 million for famine relief (BBC 2000). The success of the single resulted in similar efforts being made elsewhere (for example, the American “We Are the World”) and, fairly quickly, to the organization of the Live Aid concerts in July 1985 (at which time the Band Aid charity was also registered in London). Throughout, the audience was encouraged to consume the products of this more or less industrialized process, on the grounds that these particular acts of consumption were not selfish but were, instead, about helping the suffering of the world. Geldof’s “doing something” involved giving others an opportunity to do “something else,” but everything was ostensibly pulled together by the common and external cause.

At this point, one of the contradictions of this common-sense position emerges. The Band Aid and Live Aid movements Geldof was instrumental in establishing stressed the practice of personal responsibility, in the first instance through the act of purchasing a pop record—in other words, by the consumption of one of the very “fripperies” that was revealed for him to be what it was by the direct gaze of the famine victim. “Doing something” was translated into the everyday demand to “go shopping.” It is also worth noting that when Geldof talks about this moral demand, something interesting happens to the camera filming the victims and, by extension, to the news itself, in as far as it is a generic broadcast program. It disappears. At first, Geldof’s comment suggests an implicit awareness of the selectivity of the camera. To say it “wanders” is also to admit that it is choosing to see some things and not others. In this remark, the camera is seen as a piece of disembodied technology without a human operator. But as soon as eye-to-eye contact is established, the camera, with its implicit criteria of selectivity, completely disappears. All Geldof can see is the other human being, and it is as if the connection between them is as immediate and consequential as it would be with anyone else who happened to be in the same room at the same time. Television itself is presumed to become completely invisible, leaving only a human plea and neighborliness. Geldof repeated the theme of neighborliness a number of years later, when another famine was raging: “Oxfam tells me that about 400 people are dying a week. Can you imagine if that was happening around, for example, Oldham? . . . And one hears nonsense about how they’re different in Ethiopia; they’re different because they’re not just down the road, they’re 2,000 miles away. . . . 2,000 miles is just down the road” (Geldof 2000). But, of course, this presupposes the very technologies occluded by Geldof.

As Geldof expands on his response to the news report, a political position does emerge. Looking back, he records his feelings at seeing the news from Ethiopia: “A horror like this could not occur today without our consent,” he writes. “We had allowed this to happen and now we knew that it was happening, to allow it to continue would be tantamount to murder” (1986, 271). This argument suggests a kind of collective responsibility for what is happening in Ethiopia, although it is noticeable that the responsibility only becomes guilt as soon as the event is known. Guilt is a sensate response to what is happening as opposed to a disposition of moral individuality. It is not that we are guilty; rather it is that we are made to be so by what we come to know. Guilt is felt uncritically. The famine itself is taken to be “our” fault, and the felt responsibility to do something about it is entirely reactive in the first instance. However, there is a question mark to be put against the constituency of the “our” that Geldof interpellates. At one level the collective “our” is self-evident. It comprises everyone who watched the same news report, and so to this extent the “us” underpinning the “our” is the community constituted by the television audience. But the interpellated “our” quickly becomes exceptionally more complex. Geldof goes on to ponder what could be done in the face of what he now knew, writing, “I would send some money, I would send more money. But that was not enough. To expiate yourself truly of any complicity in this evil meant you had to give something of yourself. I was stood against the wall. I had to withdraw my consent” (1986, 271).

Let’s think about that passage in a little more detail. First, it is clear that it contains a slippage from the communal “our” to the personal “I.” This either means Geldof was already and consciously establishing himself as the culturally exemplary figure of the response to the Ethiopian famine or, more likely, he was carrying out exactly the same dehistoricized and dehistoricizing kind of universalization that had run through his comments on eye contact with a person on the screen. Geldof is presuming that his reaction is identical with that of any and every other person who wishes to accept responsibility for the famine. In other words, what brings individuals together is not the social, cultural, or historical; it is the sensate. By this argument, social subjects are not brought together by common practices or interdependency. For Geldof, social subjects are more or less isolated and sovereign individuals who can be brought together by an external stimulus revealing a bedrock of common emotions and sensibility. Public issues are entirely collapsed into personal troubles, and thereby the space for any sociological imagination is denied. The sensate emotions are presumed to be pure since they are felt to emerge from “within” in response to an effective external stimulus, thus exacerbating denial. Put another way, the emotions are naturalized. The “our” becomes at once personally compelling and represented by Geldof himself. As he saw the matter, he became the leader of “a populist, non-governmental constituency. I represented nobody but myself and the millions who wanted to help. A constituency of compassion” (1986, 312). Here compassion justifies the slippage from the “I” to the “us,” and compassion is itself taken to be a natural emotion that does not need to be questioned, indeed cannot rightly be questioned because it simply is. Or as Geldof put it when reflecting on a later stage of the development of Band Aid, “The public began to see Band Aid as something which stood for common sense and common decency in a world marked by self-interest and double-dealing. . . . I became emblematic of Band Aid’s aims without ever wishing to encourage a cult of personality” (1986, 396). The emotions are pure, as is the constituency ostensibly coalescing around them, and only the common-sense world is the site and source of the corruption and defilement of what it means “naturally” to be human. The soon-to-be Sir Bob Geldof wrote this in what was marketed as his best-selling autobiography, although, in the conception of the world that is common-sense humanitarianism, contradictions of such an order are quite insignificant.

An emphasis on the sensate immediacy of emotion is a recurrent theme in Geldof’s statements. He once wrote, “The key thing is that people respond emotionally to images of others dying of starvation because there’s an empathy, a concrete shared humanness.” He said the response is not founded on “some abstract conviction about ‘humanity.’ It’s an emotional response. But it’s also a rational one. And it has the great merit of being right” (2000). But what is the criterion of this “being right”? Given that common sense establishes a divide between individuals on the one side and the world on the other, it is unsurprising that for Geldof the truth of the case he is making comes from the reduction of global issues to the personal level: “You need some pretty convoluted logic to convince yourself that it’s wrong to help another person when you can—that it’s really better that you do nothing and let them die” (2000). At the individual level, at a level that remains pure despite the corrupting world, social subjects just know what is right, uncritically and without any need for theory or abstraction. This is the nub of a contradiction in Geldof’s argument, because although he is making a case for the responsibility of individuals (with his interpellation of “you”), he goes on to contend that the help ought to be provided by the European Union because it has the ability to assist and sits on massive food surpluses. Consequently, just as the moral problem impacts individuality as an external force, so the role of the individual becomes one of a mediator who somehow or other (by withdrawing consent through the act of consumption) puts pressure on a monolithically conceived institution. Indeed, since common sense defines institutions as part of the world and, moreover, since it denies space to any sociological imagination that might make it possible to tease out the linkages between social subjects and institutions, the argument can only deal in opposites without nuance. At no point is any attention paid to how the interpellated “you” relates to the institutions of the European Union, because those institutions are invested with an agency making them a “you,” too, and therefore entirely intelligible as being like an individual of sorts. This becomes clear when Geldof explains what the European Union ought rightly to do: “What the EU has to do isn’t difficult: just crank up the planes, float the boats and load the trucks—and do it now” (2000). In this way, the European Union is drastically misunderstood; it becomes a coherent and purposive monolithic actor and not a complex institution with its own bureaucratic rationality and irrationalities. For Geldof, the European Union is just like an individual, albeit a big and powerful one. Geldof is presuming an almost Manichean split between moral individuals and immoral institutions that hide the fact that Ethiopians are not different from Europeans: “They behave with their children exactly as you or I do. They behave with immense dignity and they give up every scrap of food to their children to try to keep them alive” (2000).

Yet there is a second, and extremely interesting, theme buried within Geldof’s remark that giving money was not enough in the face of the Ethiopian famine. His point was that sending money could not possibly exculpate one from responsibility for the suffering. Something else was required. For Geldof, the situation was so outrageous and disgusting it was incumbent upon him to withdraw his consent from the system allowing it to happen. Geldof needed to do more than give money. But what did he want other people to do? The answer became clear at the Live Aid concert in July 1985. In a famous incident, a television presenter was telling the audience the postal address to which to send their donations. Geldof interrupted, “Fuck the address. Who’s going to write in with their money? . . . Listen, there are phones there just lying dead. If you’ve given your money already, go to your neighbor and bang on their door and tell them to send some too” (Geldof 1986, 384; emphasis added). Geldof felt he had to give more than money; he had to give time and effort to make sure everyone else gave, well, money. Indeed, throughout his discussion of the Band Aid and Live Aid appeals, Geldof is obsessed by the amount of money raised and by the size of individual donations. In short, he asserts the value for everyone else of a form of action he had decried as insufficient for himself.

Geldof expressed a need to withdraw consent, and yet the action that followed was precisely a form of consent. In particular, it was consent to the quantitative dictates of the market and therefore to the common sense of consumerism. As Geldof explained by way of justification for the absence of black acts at Live Aid, “The purpose of Live Aid was to raise money. If a band sold a million records, it meant more people would watch than if they sold a thousand. If more people contributed, more people lived” (1986, 364). Exactly the same argument reappeared twenty years later, when the Live 8 concert was held at the time of the G8 meeting at Gleneagles. Geldof was obviously stung by criticism of the lack of black and African acts at the London concert and responded, “We had to use the biggest selling artists in the world, nationally and internationally. For all their great musicianship, African acts do not sell many records. People wouldn’t watch. Networks wouldn’t take the concert.” He went on to point out that the DVD of the London Live 8 concert was “the biggest and fastest-selling” ever, while one of a concert featuring African artists sold “only a few thousand” (2005a). This is moral conscience as accountancy, even though the publicly expressed intent of Live Aid was consciousness, not fund-raising.

These contradictions were, and to some degree are, kept in check by the force of Geldof’s personality. His media appearances consistently present a self at once sardonic and sincere, safely rebellious and predictably unpredictable. To some extent, the incoherence of the common-sense humanitarianism he espouses and illustrates moves toward both crystallization and transcendence in the self he presents in the media. The force of mediated personality overcomes the force of argument, and displays of emotional veracity (“fuck the address”) at once stop all disagreement in its tracks and intimate a depth of feeling about the issue. Moreover, in as far as Geldof presents himself as the exemplary figure of an “us,” he indicates to all individuals who wish to be members of that “us,” who wish to be able to talk in terms of “our,” how they too ought properly to feel and behave. Displays of sensate emotional veracity and depth become demonstrations of how bad the situation really is, and of how outraged “we” are. Moral argument becomes identical with emotional display, and emotional display is naturalized and is “the way things are” for “people like us,” thanks to the ability of television to establish a purportedly immediate and unmediated connection between those who can look into one another’s eyes or share feelings. In all of this there is absolutely no room for critical reflection.

Displays of strong emotion through “plain speaking” and the presentation of a certain kind of moral self, one that is practically effective because it accepts a naturalized world only to rage against its selfish beneficiaries, became defining qualities of Bob Geldof. On the tenth anniversary of Live Aid, he reappeared in the media (not that he had ever really been far away) and made several pugnacious comments. In particular, he made it plain that his sphere of concern was quite different from that of professional humanitarian actors. As he said in a remark distilling the common-sense approach to complex issues, “The technicalities of aid distribution don’t interest me one bit” (Deevoy 1995, 32). They are someone else’s problem, and not Geldof’s, because they are not practically relevant to his situation. The remark would be impossible and unintelligible from someone like Fiona Terry, who is that kind of expert. But Geldof gave another rendition of his sphere of concern when he reflected on Live 8 and how it caused him to get involved in negotiations with many different players. Geldof presents himself as a selfless amateur, doing what has to be done because it is simply right: “I genuinely could do without all the grief, the numbing boredom of the endless briefings, reports, meetings, abuse, stats, smarming, word-watching, tie-wearing, brown-nosing and general crap that goes with all this ‘world-saving’ bollocks.” But he has no choice; his role is natural and naturalized, individualized and evidently without institutional support: “The thing is, I don’t know why or how, but I can do this stuff,” he says. “And in being able to do it, it would be the most grotesque irresponsibility to then turn away . . . it is unimpeachably boring—but somehow it works” (Geldof 2005a).

But Geldof’s persona does reflect some of the incoherence of ­common-sense humanitarianism, although typically these paradoxes are presented as facts and simply part of the way things are. Nothing is really joined up, and everything is separated. This is represented in a magazine article that covered a return journey Geldof made to Ethiopia in 1995, on the tenth anniversary of Live Aid.

First of all, in the large photograph accompanying the article, a ­serious-looking, sunglasses-wearing Geldof is pictured in the foreground in focus, and in the middle ground looking at him are two slightly out-of-focus Ethiopian boys. He dominates the picture and is framed as its center of attention, although the smiling boys have a weight of meaning behind them. They are established as the pictorial and metaphorical background for the story, and their evident happiness intimates the success of the humanitarian effort Geldof illustrates and symbolizes. Yet in the accompanying article Geldof says, “I loathe and detest aid films. . . . Whitey wandering through famine-torn Africa holding hands with the little black babies makes me sick. It’s patronising and grotesque” (Deevoy 1995, 32). This is “everyman” as the reluctant hero. And then, recalling a point from his autobiography, Geldof says that on the tenth anniversary of Live Aid he did not want to go to Africa: “I didn’t want to go, much like I didn’t want to go to Africa in 1984. I was highly resistant to it then. But it became incumbent upon me to go. I was a focus. If I went, then the cameras would go” (Deevoy 1995, 34). The point here is, of course, that the news cameras invariably deploy a repertoire of generic devices in order to communicate a complex situation speedily, and one of those is precisely the image of “whitey wandering through famine-torn Africa” (to use Geldof’s own phrase). Geldof actually played on this image when he wandered through an impoverished area of Addis Ababa: “Festooned with skinny kids who are evidently thrilled to have this lanky Irishman in their midst, Geldof saunters through Teklehaimanot Woreda, a cluster of shanty towns in Addis Ababa. It is a dirty, disease-ridden part of town” (Deevoy 1995, 34). Here, then, is Geldof in exactly the guise he claims to abhor.

Second, the article narrates a little incident in which Geldof haggles with stallholders in the market (Deevoy 1995, 36). Admittedly, this is an ambivalent act that could be read as a refusal to patronize the local community, and it could be argued that Geldof is treating the stallholder with respect and according to custom. Such is the reading of the incident the article intends, with the added intimation that Geldof sees things for what they really and truly are and cannot be fooled by anyone. But the haggling can also be interpreted differently, as a refusal of the cosmopolitan “whitey” (Geldof’s word) to be ripped off. Whatever the reading of this incident, it opens up some of the contradictions of common-sense humanitarianism. The attempt not to patronize the other leads directly to his poverty. After all, when all is said and done, the multimillionaire Bob Geldof is more securely able to avoid confrontation with necessity than any market stallholder in Addis Ababa.

common sense and myth

Reading or listening to Geldof, it is impossible to avoid the matter of mythicization and his recurrent deployment of its devices. In this regard, it is worth noting Geldof repeatedly refers to “Africa” as if it were all one place. No attention is paid to differences, and it could be argued that this is an attempt to render the complexity of difference literally and visually invisible. Much the same thing happens to “Africa” as happened to the European Union: it becomes a monolith. But there is a difference. The European Union is a monolith refusing to act, whereas “Africa” is one that cannot act.

In 2005 Geldof wrote a newspaper article that is interesting for two reasons. First, it contains the monolith of “Africa,” and second, it nevertheless shows how Geldof’s position had mutated in the twenty years since he emerged as the exemplary figure of common-sense humanitarianism. When he first became aware of the problems of the continent, Geldof was clear that the answer consisted in the immediate provision of humanitarian assistance. After all, people were starving now, and so that had to be the basis of any appropriate help that might be given to them. However, by the time of Live 8, he was focusing more on world trade systems. These two strands come together—and are inflected with an assumption that because “Africa” is not a full participant in the global economic system, it is being left behind—when Geldof says that, unlike India, “African states never developed from the skittish single-commodity market into a more balanced economy, and fell into a condition of seemingly inexorable decline with all its attendant and baleful consequences. Hunger, disease, conflict, lack of education and opportunity.” Admittedly, Geldof goes on to identify South Africa and Nigeria as “the stirring giants of the African continent” (2005a), but it is clear that “Africa” is being treated in terms of a default position identifying it as all one place. It is also noticeable that this position identifies the confrontation with necessity as the consequence of economic underdevelopment. Then something dubious happens in the argument: none of this is the fault of the “Africans.” They are presented as victims who are struggling to be equal players on the world stage, but the World Trade Organization prevents them from taking their place. “Africa” is a place corrupted and defiled by external factors. The hint is that had it been treated as an equal, “Africa” would now be a full member of the world community because it possesses the material and human resources that participation in world trade networks requires. Yet “we” are the beneficiaries of a system destructive of what “Africa” could have been, and hopefully might become again. From this it is taken to follow that it is the interpellated “us” who ought to feel “shame at our moral and political failure” because “we” have not applied sufficient pressure on the WTO (Geldof 2005a). Pressure, then, is the point of contact between “us” and institutions like the European Union and the World Trade Organization. Since they are conceived through what amounts to a category mistake as being like big individuals, like any individual, they can be influenced by peer group pressure. Or at least, that is the common-sense argument.

Running through this presentation of “Africa” is an implicit contrast between the purportedly impoverished and violent continent existing today and some noble and pure past that is the foundation for universal humanity. “Africa” is “our” home, the place from which “we” all came: “If you ever get the chance, go there. It feels like . . . going home” (Geldof 2005b, 7). This is the mythic “Africa” of ancient origins. Geldof has observed, “Humankind started in Ethiopia. . . . Traces of our earliest human ancestors have been found here” (Deevoy 1995, 34). On the benign side, it could be suggested this comment is an attempt to show that common roots connect all humans, these roots go back to Ethiopia, and therefore all humans share a moral responsibility toward their true homeland. But if that line of thought is pursued with a less benign mind, then it also promotes a forgetting of the history of Ethiopia’s impoverishment and, indeed, ignorance about cultural differences. The identification of common roots stresses what we share, but the moral problem of famine is actually a sign of historical difference, and this is what Geldof denies. When he does recognize difference, it is in purely aesthetic terms. For instance, he remarked that Ethiopians are “one hundred per cent drop-dead gorgeous” (Deevoy 1995, 34).

The mythic “Africa” is also the “Africa” of ancient truths; there is a biblical dimension to the mythicization. It was played upon by Michael Buerk’s original BBC news report from October 24, 1984, and Geldof has returned to this theme. In the BBC report, which put the Ethiopian famine into Western conscience, Buerk intoned the now famous line, “Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem it lights up a biblical famine, now, in the twentieth century.” Buerk was obviously trying to capture what he saw in a description possessing a measure of immediate sensate emotional impact, but the reference to the “biblical famine” also manages to remove the famine from history. It becomes an occurrence from outside of history, and the implication of the biblical reference is that the world operates according to different principles of action and therefore history. There is the active and historical world of progress watching television, and the eternal world without history and action of the remorseless confrontation with necessity shown on television. In his autobiography, Geldof fastened on to the biblical dimension and skirted around the implicit division of the world into different principles of history and action, when he spoke about watching Buerk’s report: “A famine of biblical proportions. There was something terrible about the idea that 2,000 years after Christ, in a world of modern technology something like this could be allowed to happen as if the ability of mankind to influence and control the environment had not altered one jot” (1986, 271). The references to the Bible serve to make famine nothing other than an eternal and unchanging aspect of human being in the world. When the famine is called “biblical,” the intent is to raise moral outrage, but there is another implication: “This is the reign of gnomic truths, the meeting of all the ages of humanity at the most neutral point of their nature, the point where the obviousness of the truism has no longer any value except in the realm of a purely ‘poetic’ language” (Barthes 1973, 101).

Geldof gives the biblical angle another twist in the context of his aesthetic regard for the “drop-dead gorgeous” Ethiopians. It is not too hard to find a variation on the theme of the purity of primitivism when he comments, “The Ethiopians believe they are totally different. They see themselves as direct descendents of Solomon. Full stop. They are the chosen people, the beautiful ones” (Deevoy 1995, 34). Now, apart from indicating that Geldof misinterprets the concept of “beautiful” as referring to physical appearance alone, the comment is important because it mythicizes “Ethiopians.” They become special and therefore worthy of attention because they are exotic. For the Western watcher at least, their aesthetic appeal redeems their neediness and perhaps even makes it slightly appealing. In this way, their aesthetic appeal links to their existence in an unchanging world to guarantee a kind of purity (a purity reinforced in a horribly paradoxical way by the material starkness of their confrontation with necessity; famine victims are often shown naked). When Geldof watched Buerk’s news report, he saw that some of the starving knew they would not be given food: “There was no anger in their faces, no bitterness, no clamouring. There was only the hollow dignity of waiting for death in silence” (Geldof 1986, 271). This remark brings to mind another, far more coruscating description of dying “Africans” in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Bundles of acute angles sat with their legs drawn up. One, with his chin propped on his knees, stared at nothing, in an intolerable and appalling manner: his brother phantom rested its forehead, as if overcome with a great weariness; and all about others were scattered in every pose of contorted collapse, as in some picture of a massacre or a pestilence.” And there are eyes, too, in this alternative description: “Slowly the eyelids rose and the sunken eyes looked up at me, enormous and vacant, a kind of blind, white flicker in the depths of the orbs, which died out slowly” (1990, 14). But from Geldof’s point of view, the dying were an exotic species, whose minds remained closed to the observer, and all that mattered was how they looked. The distinct possibility that at least some of these people were so furious they were beyond action, so bitter they were apathetic, so tired they could not clamor is inadmissible because it does not fit the narrative of mythicization.

Indeed, mythicization of this kind is one of the most important aspects of common sense. Underpinning common-sense humanitarianism is a “myth of the human ‘condition’ [that] rests on a very old mystification, which always consists in placing Nature at the bottom of History.” That is the contention of Roland Barthes, who continues, “Any classic humanism postulates that in scratching the history of men a little, the relativity of their institutions or the superficial diversity of their skins . . . one very quickly reaches the solid rock of a universal human nature” (1973, 101). In a beautifully barbed aside, Barthes wonders if the parents of Emmett Till, who was lynched by white racists in the United States, would agree with this, and the same aside might be addressed to the surviving families of those whom Geldof saw waiting to die with “hollow dignity.” Barthes made these remarks in the course of an essay on a photographic exhibition that sought to emphasize the unity in diversity (and the diversity in unity) of all humans throughout the world. But he pointed out that the pictures denied “the determining weight of History: we are held back at the surface of an identity, prevented precisely by sentimentality from penetrating into this ulterior zone of human behaviour where historical alienation introduces some ‘differences’ which we shall here quite simply call ‘injustices’” (1973, 101).

When Barthes considered the photographs, he saw a myth of the human community having two stages. In the first stage, the photographs stressed human differences, but all the time in the name of an exoticism emphasizing “the infinite variations of the species, the diversity in skins, skulls and customs.” The second stage of the myth pulls the rabbit of unity from out of the hat of this representation and recognition of diversity: “Man is born, works, laughs and dies everywhere in the same way; and if there still remains in these actions some ethnic peculiarity, at least . . . there is underlying each one an identical ‘nature’ . . . diversity is only formal and does not belie the existence of a common mould” (Barthes 1973, 100). These are the stages of a myth of human community because they reduce human being in the world into something approaching an assertion that escapes—or is immune to—history. The point is, however, that these strategies of mythicization are not peculiar to one photographic exhibition held in Paris in the 1950s. They are also intrinsic to the conception of the world that established common-sense humanitarianism. More specifically, they can be seen in the extraordinary book Geldof in Africa (Geldof 2005b).

This lavishly illustrated book was published to coincide with the broadcast of a BBC television series in which Geldof toured thirteen countries in the continent. Although the precise geography of his tour is a little vague—because everywhere is simply “Africa”—it appears from the photographs (which are attributed to Geldof and are certainly presented as his own visual diary of the journey) that it was focused on sub-Saharan Africa and the Great Rift Valley. The reason seems to be that for Geldof this is the Africa of ancient origins: “One day, a group of hunter-gatherers wound up at the north end of the valley somewhere around the present-day Horn of Africa. . . . They were camping in what was then a wet part of the world.” The homeliness is, however, awe inspiring and a transcendence of history: “I stood at that place too . . . and wondered at all of this. At Africa. At its total beauty. Spiritual and physical. How it exercises that same mind that formed here. How the ancient memory and smell of it draws you back. Draws you home” (Geldof 2005b, 115). It is worth noting that this “Africa” excludes the emerging economies of South Africa and Nigeria, and therefore, this “Africa” is a choice and a construction as opposed to any real place. The “Africa” of Geldof in Africa is, actually, Geldof’s personal Africa, and it seems plausible to media audiences because it fits in with the common-sense conception of the world in which their moral individuality is formed.

The photographs constitute something approaching a case study of the mythical and common-sense “Africa.” They can be put into three dominant categories. First, there are half- or quarter-page pictures of consumer products like bottles of Cola or quasi-surreal oddities such as a memorial with a jet fighter on the top, in front of which stand a donkey and cart (Geldof 2005b, 106). Within this category there are also photographs of abandoned Western technology, and often these are more than a little like illustrations from a collector’s edition of Heart of Darkness (see, for example, Geldof 2005b, 188). Indeed, there is a photograph of rusted railway machinery for which the only appropriate caption is one not given: “I came upon a boiler wallowing in the grass. . . . The thing looked as dead as the carcass of some animal” (Conrad 1990, 12; Geldof 2005b, 198–99). Second, there are landscape shots of barren yet beautiful wildernesses, housing, or “Africans” in context. One instance of the latter kind of photograph shows a Masai man and two boys, dressed in colorful shawls and tunics, in the middle of a vast plain with their herd of cattle to their left. There is no intimation of modernity in this picture, except for the deliberate incongruity of the plastic water bottle the man is holding (Geldof 2005b, 120–21). Third, the book features a lot of admittedly beautiful full-page photographs of individuals looking straight into the camera. At least, these photographs are beautiful from the point of view of commonplace Western aesthetic ideals. For example, one close-cropped picture, titled “Nuer Refugee,” features a young woman standing in front of a thatched roof. She is wearing a colorful “tribal” necklace (of the kind known to any Western consumer of “ethnic” craft) and a slightly flamboyant cream dress printed with pink flowers and embroidered with lace edging. Who she is, why she is a refugee, and the contrast created by the combination of the dress with the cultural meanings of the word “refugee” is never explained. But there is something else of note about the picture: the woman’s forehead is beaded with sweat, and there is what appears to be a teardrop in the corner of her right eye (2005b, 221). Is she crying and, if so, why exactly? The only answer the photograph can admit is that she is crying because she is a refugee; her tears are a sufficient assertion, and no more historical explanation is necessary. Another example of this kind of picture is titled with no sense of cultural clash: “A Muslim Mona Lisa.” This is a close-up of a woman, her head haloed by a gray and white shawl. Her skin is slightly pebbly, and her mouth is in an area between smiling and weeping, presumably justifying her identification with a work of Western art. Again, there is no explanation of who this woman is, the context in which she was encountered, or the reason for her expression. It is true that this woman possesses a kind of dignity, but the reasons why are subordinated to her emotional and sensate appearance (2005b, 117).

These close-ups of isolated and individualized faces are examples of the tendency of mythic representation to exoticize. There is an emphasis on the diversity of skins (although only of skin textures; in this world, all “Africans” are “black”) and customs, although they tend to be reduced to the color of fabrics or, in some cases, the differences between styles of dancing. Indeed, it is noticeable that for the most part the people in Geldof’s pictures do not do very much; they stand around a lot looking sad or grinning. If they move, it is for a reason, never on a whim: “Young men looking for work crowd the shantytowns clinging to the edge of the bursting metropolises, which overflow with people, untreated sewage, bad water and crime” (Geldof 2005b, 270). Yet when Geldof’s pictures show work, it is always rural, and cities are only ever places of consumption or personal display in slightly out-of-kilter imitations of Western fashion. According to this way of looking, Africans only move when they are engaging in universal human actions such as work. Rarely is an “African” shown doing what Geldof does in one picture: sleep in the back of a van (2005b, 257). A photograph that is incredibly dubious provides the only exception. A man is pictured napping at the foot of a tree in the midst of a verdant forest. His right arm is over the top of his head in a pose familiar to anyone who has watched wildlife programs (2005b, 289). Of all of these “Africans” it is pertinent to observe, “They wanted no excuse for being there” (Conrad 1990, 11).

It appears that life in “Africa” is either feast or famine. Consequently, there is a kind of movement in the meaning of the photographs. Even as they exoticize, they also intimate a unity of humanity, or at the very least a unity of “Africa” (so the geographical specificity of Geldof’s version of the continent becomes much less important than its mythical and common-sense validity; indeed, the geography of Africa is replaced with the myth of common-sense “Africa” to such an extent that the former is more or less unnecessary). The book suggests that despite its exotic and aesthetic diversity, everything in “Africa” pulls together through universal actions.

Geldof in Africa has a typically mythical and very consistent tendency to transform the relationship between “Africa” and modernity into a fact of nature rather than of history. It is just the way things are, and ambiguity is transformed into an asserted aesthetic exoticism. One full-page picture with no caption shows a large, smiling, bare-breasted woman standing in a dusty street. To one side of her there is a motor scooter, and on the front of the ramshackle mud-colored building behind her is the bright blue sign “Cybercafe” (Geldof 2005b, 39). There is no explanation of how or why a cybercafe has appeared here, what it means culturally or, for that matter, socially. The contrast between modernity and “African nature” (as signified by the woman) is simply shown and therefore transformed into an aesthetic incongruity. Perhaps the most subtle and yet self-evident example of this tendency is found in a half-page photograph of a green-gray salamander hopping between rusting green-gray-black iron spheres, which appear to be old cannonballs. The picture is simply titled “Salamander,” and the cannonballs are there, unmentioned, purely because of their quality as a pictorial background (2005b, 66). It is tempting to wonder whether they are from a companion to the French battleship Conrad’s Marlow saw off the west coast of Africa, firing artillery shells into the forest (Conrad 1990, 11). The counterpoint to this image, “Sisyphus,” provides the clue that the cannonballs are purely aesthetic. It depicts a black beetle making tracks in the yellow sand of the desert. The top third of the picture contains a steely blue sky (Geldof 2005b, 211). Cannonballs and desert become interchangeable landscapes for the wildlife of “Africa.”

Running through the book is a mythic contrast between Western modernity and “African” primitivism. According to Geldof, the two can coexist if the modern fits in with “African” ways. For example, Geldof praises plastic. He sees plastic as a modern product, “which has not only provided most Africans with footwear and impenetrable building materials, but also the revolution that is the plastic bottle” (2005b, 159). Do “most Africans” actually wear plastic shoes? Children have the job of collecting water and have to go many miles to the well, but plastic bottles have evidently changed this burdensome chore for the better. Geldof says, “In the past, children had to walk, carrying the heavy earthenware jars to this source, returning home heavily laden. Thanks to plastic bottles the journey to the well is light; coming home more can be carried and less spilt” (2005b, 159). Above this little text there is a photograph of a child around six or seven years old, wearing an orange robe and carrying a stick and two bottles of water. In order to make this child’s life a little easier, the readers of the book (the interpellated “you”) are enjoined to “Go plastic,” presumably without heed to the environmental costs of such a move (2005b, 159). Yet this appeal only “works” if it is accepted that “Africa” is a dumping ground for Western waste. The plastic bottles become another part of the out-of-kilter fashions, which are perhaps not imitative of Western style for the simple reason they are really Western, having been thrown away as out of date by Western consumers and then dumped on African markets by the ragpickers of global capitalism.

But more often than not, the primitive is infected and destroyed by modern Western incursions. For example, the West has done little to arrest the spread of AIDS: “Africans frequently remark on the linguistic similarity between ‘AIDS’ and ‘aid.’ This is more than a not-very-good joke. It reflects a widespread suspicion that AIDS is something that has been foisted on them by Western scientists. Dismissing this notion as barmy might work in the Western world but in Africa it resonates with the profound ambiguity that Africans have about the nature of the power that emanates from the West” (Geldof 2005b, 295). Western incursion has also brought about the collapse of effective social systems. According to Geldof, “our part of the world” has stressed individualism, and this principle was exported to “Africa,” where “the opposite is true. . . . Everything is done through the collective. Which is why, whenever our world has tried to interfere with Africa, whether in an aggressive or benign manner, it has so often gone wrong. We have transplanted ideas developed under one notion of life on to another contrary view. It can’t work and it never has” (2005b, 158). Yet even in this context, which Geldof implies is the direct cause of death being “everywhere” in “Africa,” it is possible for modernity to provide benefits, so long as what it gives is put into existing “African” arrangements and not allowed to crush them. In this vein, Geldof argues that mobile phones are a positive boon because they allow “people” to continue practicing eternal traditions concerning death. To stay in touch with families is to honor and love the dead. Hence Geldof says, “The biggest expanding market for mobile phone telephony in the world is Africa and a lot of that market is driven by the need of people who have migrated to the cities to stay in touch with their villages and find out who has died” (2005b, 156). Note how, in that passage, “Africa” is once again lumped into one monolith without internal differences, and note also how “people” are identified in a way stressing primitive origins (“their village”) over the “cities” that are therefore implicitly identified with rootlessness and loss.

Just beneath the surface of this primitivism runs a very questionable current. Looking at the photographs in Geldof in Africa, it is impossible to resist the conclusion that the book is promoting a common-sense view of “Africa” as the home of pure humanity, of a purified humanity, demolished by an overly arrogant modernity and hidden from the West by an overabundance of the “fripperies” of consumerism. In this regard, it is worth paying some attention to a photograph toward the beginning of Geldof in Africa. It is given the title “Sudan” and shows two naked children, a tall girl of around ten years of age holding the hand of a chubby child of three or so. They are photographed from behind as they stand in the desert. The tall girl is the interesting one. Her legs are incredibly long and spindly, but her back already has muscular definition, her waist thin and her buttocks firm. This girl is statuesque and perfect. She is at once our great ancestor, what we in the West have lost, and also the threatened future. She is a primitive, somehow present before the gaze of modernity (Geldof 2005b, 11). This girl is exemplary of some pure nobility lost to the corrupted West: “Consider an African walking. You will rarely see one do anything as provocative as run. There is an effortless, upright elegance.” This girl is possessed of “a huge poise against the endless whiteness of the sky” (2005b, 27). Yet she is also noble in sentiment; at once our ancestor and a future we in the West threaten, she holds the hand of a toddler, and they walk together with “a slow rhythmic steadiness of unhurried ease wholly different from the flustered, busy, jerky, spasmodic rush common to the European” (2005b, 27). Here, then, Europe too is turned into all one place and subjected to a monolithic conception of the world, and this has to happen because it acts as the narrative other to “Africa.” Only the individual—only the interpellated “you” or “us”—escapes the monolith.

Geldof’s “Africa” is the opposite of his Europe. There is a contrast between the “clean and the impure, the incorruptible and the defiled, the physical and the mental, the joyful and the critical” (Sontag 1980, 88). Common-sense humanitarianism’s conception of the world identifies “Africa” as a place pure yet rendered impure by Western illnesses; incorruptible yet defiled by greed; physical and not too concerned with questions beyond the immediate life world (except where those questions have been imported from the West and sit incongruously in local settings); and utterly joyful except where it is forced into a direct encounter with the necessities of life. This is a world of the self-evident and contemptuous of the “reflective, the critical, and pluralistic” (Sontag 1980, 89) because those cognitive attitudes destroy the primitivist ideal and defile the pure. The girl in the “Sudan” is nothing less than a hero from the pure past, come to haunt “our world.” She is a reminder of what we once were and what we have lost and can be no more, except as tourists or through the sensate emotional bond of common-sense humanitarianism. She is the perfection common sense adores.


The dependency of common-sense humanitarianism on myth has remained constant. It probably must remain so, because any engagement with Africa as opposed to “Africa” would open up a space within which common sense itself would have to be transformed into something more critical. But then it would likely crumble and collapse. It would almost certainly become less popularly compelling.

There has been one significant shift in common-sense humanitarianism from its emergence in the mid-1980s to the present. When Band Aid and Live Aid first appeared, Geldof was arguing forcefully that sensate emotion was the glue for a “constituency of compassion” that could achieve a withdrawal of consent from a system producing famine, through the expedient of consenting to purchase a product of the culture industry. However, by the end of 2005, Geldof was critiquing the sensate emotions he had previously lauded. In ostensible terms at least, the shift happened because the recalcitrance of the world of institutions had called the bluff on emotional truths. In other words, the reliance of common-sense humanitarianism on the sensate had, in the practical terms of “getting something done,” proven to be rather impractical. Yet this acknowledgment created the space for a split in the constituency made by common sense, since it meant different individuals now had to do different things and accept different demands. There was now an implicit division between the masses and the exemplary figures.

Geldof argued, “The politics of emotion can take you only so far. All the tears in the world have never kept a human being alive. Practical action does that. Cash and politics. Charity and justice. Morality and realpolitik. Oil and water” (2005a). In the mid-1980s this now self-evident contention would have been identified as a deliberate obfuscation of simple realities, or it would have been the launch pad for a condemnation of the institutions complicit in the production of “the nightly pornography of poverty trailed pruriently across our teatime television screens” (Geldof 2005a). But now it was presented as a reflection of the harsh reality of a world possessed of a natural presence all of its own. In the context of this newly accepted reality, Geldof implies a division between those who carry out the business of cash, charity, morality, and water and those who are in a position to deal with institutions on their own terms of politics, justice, realpolitik, and oil.

From this claim, Geldof moves on to argue that “practical action” therefore requires focused and knowledgeable engagement with political structures and institutions. In the 1980s institutions were either obstacles to be pushed out of the way because they were the source of the damage, or they were the home of the self-seeking and of a selfishness “other” to the “constituency of compassion.” This is why the organizational knowledge of common-sense humanitarianism was limited; the very ignorance was a sign of purity of intent. But now institutions and structures have to be taken into account. And as Geldof justifies this point, it is clear that he has moved away from his earlier position about the withdrawal of consent. Now he can be found arguing that since the causes of poverty are political, “you must engage with the process as it is. Not as you imagine it to be, or as you would wish it to be, or even as you think it should be—but as it is” (2005a). The nub of the message is that there is no alternative, and consent cannot be withdrawn since to do so would be to ignore “the process as it is.” Geldof continues, “You must engage with the power and the persons and institutions and methods that wield that power. It can be a tiresome process, but ultimately that is irrelevant if that person you saw last night on television can just stop hurting one second” (2005a). In this passage, television is still the unproblematic and self-evident medium through which the human confrontation with necessity is known, but there has been a shift in the interpellated “you.” In the mid-1980s Geldof’s “you” was more or less identical with an imagined constituency of individuals who experienced the same sensate reaction to news reports (reactions quantifiable through donations and acts of consumption). By 2005 the “you” has become more pedagogic; this “you” is Geldof himself explaining to others what is required of someone like him. The “you” is no longer “us”; now it is “those who engage with the process as it is.” The “you” has become a reflexive device as opposed to the intimation of community it used to be.

In short, Geldof has naturalized his own position and become separate from the “constituency of compassion” he once claimed to represent. In a rather bombastic passage, he tries to distinguish himself from the institutions with which he now deals, presumably in order to continue to stake a claim to being pure and selfless. Geldof deliberately uses an obnoxious metaphor to make his discourse quite distinctive from that of institutions and to try once again to connect with common-sense conceptions of the world. He says there are three attitudes to adopt toward the structures with which it has become necessary through experience to engage: “There are those who will stand outside the tent peeing in, there are those who will be inside the tent peeing out—and then there are the others who will stand inside the tent peeing on the ground where they stand.” Geldof identifies himself as one of the latter group because he has learned a bitter lesson: “Sometimes, by being momentarily allowed inside the tent, you can help to change it. By peeing so wantonly, so copiously, you can stink the place up so much that they want you out—at a reasonable price” (2005a).

With phraseology like that, Geldof is clearly seeking to bolster his “outsider” persona even though he now negotiates with the kinds of people he once disdained, people like British government leaders: “Blair and Brown . . . have consistently shown world leadership. . . . They work well together and share a passion for Africa” (Geldof 2006). He has also published an article about a tour of “Africa” with George Bush so sycophantic the White House was probably a little concerned it might seem like too much of a put-up job. For example: “I read it [the ‘Bush regime’] has been incompetent. But not in Africa. It has created bitterness. But not here in Africa. Bush can’t do oratory. He can in Africa” (2008, 3). Yet, using his own metaphor, it is only possible to pee in the tent if, first, the tent always-already exists and, second, one is let in. The first point means that structures have to be naturalized and the second that Geldof accepts his separation from the very constituency he previously claimed to represent.

Something else happens if you pee on the ground on which you are standing. What was previously solid ground turns to mud, and you can slip up. For the exemplary figures of any position based on common sense, this is the ultimate difficulty. Common-sense humanitarianism emerged with an emphasis on an emotional desire simply to help others who were face to face with necessity. The relationship between the sufferer and the aid giver was presumed to be immediate and direct thanks to the sensate bond created by television, and existing institutions were presumed to be obstacles in the way of humans coming together on the basis of a bedrock of shared origins. But the more the same people repeat that position, the more they shift from exemplary figures to experts. Consequently, the Geldof who once claimed with pride that he knew nothing about the logistics of what he was arguing about ends up being an expert member of the British government’s Commission for Africa. Whatever else he might be (for example, celebrity or owner of media companies), Geldof becomes, precisely, a professional humanitarian. As such, the very common sense upon which his exemplary status was once based can become the ground from which he is attacked. Perhaps this is one of the greater inconsistencies of common-sense humanitarianism.

What is common-sense humanitarianism? It is the humanitarianism of media audiences who rely on unquestioned myths to make sense of the suffering of others. Common-sense humanitarianism is the naturalized cultural creation through which we make sense of the news from out

of “Africa."

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