Symposium Report

This document (which can be downloaded here) reports on the discussions and papers of an ESRC (RES 070-27-0035) and University of Manchester funded workshop entitled ‘Capitalism, Democracy and Celebrity Advocacy that met in June 2012. Precise details of who attended and the programme of papers are available at this site. In this report I have not provided a panel by panel summary of the papers and discussion. Rather I have drawn out some of the themes, arguments and approaches that animated our conversation. I first explain its provenance and purpose.

The meeting arose from the accelerating changes in the political economy of different sectors of the celebrity industry, humanitarianism, development aid and charitable causes more generally. These changes have created new markets for the cultural industries, new audiences for celebrity and celebrity advocates, and new forms of NGO, state and corporate action. They signal dynamics in deeper social, political and economic relationships which require exploration.

A selection of the questions that were listed in the original symposium call include these:

–  What is the history and variety of celebrity advocacy?
–  How does celebrity advocacy alter the political economy of the cultural industries, and of development, and how do these industries affect the political economy of celebrity advocacy?
–  How do different citizens and consumers respond to celebrity advocacy?
–  What are the implications of celebrity advocacy for things like cosmopolitanism, development awareness and development education?
–  Where is the presence and growth of celebrity stymied and discouraged (and how and why)?
–  How are we to understand and theorise celebrity advocacy within the context of broader changes to the nature of capitalism and democracy?

Participants were not, however, limited to them, and the papers presented in the final programme by the participants proved as rich as they were diverse.

It is important to note from the outset that this was a thoroughly interdisciplinary gathering. Although there was a slight predominance of geographers and development scholars, participants also came from Politics and International Relations, Anthropology, Media and Cultural studies, Business Schools, Dance and Theatre Studies, English Literature and independent consultancy with DfID and the NGO sector. This lead to a good deal of cross-cultural learning, and for example, allowed interpretations of quantitative data to be scrutinized by scholars from the humanities as well as challenging rarified analyses to be rendered communicable to practitioner audiences.

A recurring theme was the need to de-centre celebrity, or, if you like, the importance of taking ‘celebrity’ out of celebrity studies. Celebrity is attention seeking, but that can mean it gains more attention that it deserves when we are trying to explain and understand important aspects of advocacy or development politics. Tony Bebbington’s commentary on the first day reminded us of the importance of finding ways of talking about celebrity which did not centralize its importance or assume how legitimacy is conferred. A gathering of researchers for a meeting with this symposium’s title is bound to find that task difficult, but Cheryl Lousley set the tone here right from the start, exploring how Band Aid and Live Aid worked within a particular moment of ‘sentimentality’ – ideas about the power and work of love in society which were coalescing in the 1980s (and which have diminished since). The power and reach of the 1980s mega-events is attributable not so much to the celebrity actors in them, but rather the cultures of sentimentality within which they operated, and which they sought to capture.

Two approaches also facilitate decentering of celebrity. First a historical approach, setting what we are experiencing now in longer context. This was part of Mark Wheeler and Cheryl Lousley’s contributions, and was the lynch pin of Jo Littler’s work. Jo contrasted the famous philanthropists of the Victorian era with those of today, drawing out how the work of the former lead to the welfare state, while the latter appears to hasten its demise and take on roles that the state has evacuated.

Second, there is an examination of the ways in which celebrity advocacy is professionalized and made visible into the public domain, or as Uma Kothari put it, an understanding of how celebrity advocacy is the produced and circulated. This again focuses not so much on the famous, but the ways in which attention is focused on their advocacy. This was apparent in Patrick McCurdy, Dan Brockington and Nina Laurie’s contributions. Patrick provided a detailed study of how activists can be rendered celebrities by the media and the limitations of the media resulting. Dan reported a study of how the NGO sector and celebrity industries have formalized and professionalized their interactions as they have come to interact more intensively and systematically. Nina discussed the implications of prestigious international awards to leaders of activist networks against sexual trafficking in Nepal. Her paper, which described the professionalization of activism, the personal costs of fame to the activists, and the benefits to grass roots activism, rather substantially challenged most of our conceptual frameworks of the privileges of celebrity, and contributed significantly to our understanding of the diversity of celebrity culture (on which more below).

The importance of decentering celebrity was visible in divergent responses to the question as to why was celebrity advocacy being undertaken. Opinion was entertainingly divided as to how interesting a question this was. However, if one asks not why do people do what they do (which is difficult to know) but how is that support mobilized and entrained in different networks, and with what consequences, then this makes that analysis of celebrity advocacy easier, and more informative. Dan Brockington argued that by trying to de-centre celebrity one created ultimately a more satisfactory framework for examining interventions which depend substantially upon the personal and idiosyncratic, such as Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, or the Dixie Chicks (initially) financially disastrous criticism of George Bush.

One of the tensions animating the conference concerned what sort of critique should celebrity advocacy be subjected to. A number of participants’ approaches took celebrity advocacy on its own terms, in the sense of taking as given their privilege and elite role, and asking what that role achieves. This underpinned Mark Wheeler, Asteris Huliaras and Nikolaos Tzifakis’ and Alexandra Budabin’s papers. Mark’s examination of celebrity diplomacy in the UN mapped out its evolution in the long duree and its achievements, beginning to take on some of the critiques voiced by Riina Yrjölä who decries the way celebrity advocacy reinforces existing stereotypes and inequalities. Asteris’ examination of interventions in Bosnia tried to explore what logics lay behind Angelina Jolie and U2’s intervention in Bosnia, finding they are free-lancers with short-lived and idiosyncratic contributions. Alexandra Budabin’s study of celebrities as ‘norm entrepreneurs’ around the Save Darfur Campaign examined how particular ideas and notions, in this case ‘the genocide Olympics’, which resulted eventually in a shift in China’s position on Sudan, can be empirically shown to depend on celebrity to gain purchase in the public domain.

Taking this advocacy on its own terms is not the same thing as wanting to evaluate celebrity advocacy campaigns or state whether or not they are a good thing. There are well known instances of celebrity advocacy achieving a great deal. The most dramatic of which I am aware is Katie Couric’s impact on colonoscopy rates in Britain (not even Homer Simpson’s colonoscopy had that sort of reach). But the point is not to ask did any particular campaign succeed or fail thus, rather the goal would be to examine the political space and resources which celebrity advocacy created and what are its broader consequences. This was exemplified in Signe Rousseau’s examination of celebrity chefs and the anxieties around food as she examined how they had come to take on those roles – how has the job description of chef come to include public intervention – and what might be the broader consequences.

The tension between modes of critique existed because the  approach that focused on particular celebrities and advocacy fields contrasted with those founded on a strong antipathy to the unequal structures, systems and societies which celebrity advocacy, and especially celebrity philanthropy, reflected, celebrated, produced and reproduced. This was brought out strongly by Japhy Wilson, Ilan Kapoor, Tanja Müller and Rob Fletcher. Japhy insisted that the global inequalities with which we live are obscene, as is philanthropy which is deliberately and explicitly aimed at protecting that inequality. If Warren Buffet is right, and that there is a class war which his class is waging, and his class is winning (and let’s face it, he should know), then the starting point of our analysis must be how does this advocacy and philanthropy reinforce or challenge those inequalities. Ilan demonstrated how the gift giving was prefaced, and in some instances sustained by, practices which made people poorer. Tanja argued that famine relief in the horn of Africa at the time of Band Aid and since, have served to reinforce structures which made people vulnerable to famine. This resonated, too, with contributions from Andrew Darnton (and Matt Baillie Smith) arguing that the tone and content of celebrity-supported fundraising in the UK had simply handicapped the ability of the British public to engage in development issues or broaden and complexify their understanding of Africa. Mike Goodman argued that celebritus politicus, the celebrity advocate, had to be interpreted in terms of her mobilization in support of neoliberal political regimes.

Antipathy to celebrity advocacy drew significantly, and with some irony, upon the world famous criticisms of Slavoj Žižek. Žižek is a colourful figure. He has been forced to deny rumours of liaisons with Lady Gaga, although perhaps he should have read Lucy Bennett’s contribution (described below) before doing so. His works, and role as a celebrity academic, have invited strong criticism. However he also provides useful ways of thinking about celebrity advocacy. Following Žižek, Rob Fletcher argued that celebrity advocacy is a form of fantasy, covering up inconsistencies in the solutions offered to global problems, but one which is accompanied not by believing publics, but cynical sceptics who enjoy observing the spectacle unfold. He suggested that disengagement from television news by television viewers (reported in Martin Scott’s work), which is accompanied by their continued viewing, is in this respect successful audience and resistance management. Japhy Wilson argued that the celebrity philanthropy contributed to a mobilisation of jouissance in destructive ways, reinforcing the authority and legitimacy of obscenely rich people, and reveling salaciously in a pornography of African poverty. Ilan Kapoor argued that celebrity philanthropy was ‘decaffeinated capitalism’, belonging to a group of activities that would include green mining or casualty-free war, that denies the pathology of its main activity.

A second tension that challenged all participants was the issue of the diversity of celebrity, and of celebrity cultures. This is visible, rather banally, in the sheer quantity of celebrities in the contact agency databases. There are over 20,000 on the Red Pages and Celebrities Worldwide, and nearly 60,000 on Contact A Celebrity (although that does include contact details for a number of dead celebrities). The diversity is visible in the numerous categories of celebrity that we discussed, and in the fact that after two days there were others we had not mentioned. One obvious one was sports-stars, but there are many others in domains with strong hierarchies of mediated charisma and power that we had not touched on. Evangelical US conservatives and Catholic priests were Tony Bebbington’s suggestions; textual celebrities, who are not visible in visual media, was Uma Kothari’s, and academia is another obvious one. The panel with Lucy Bennett, Maral Yessayan, Patrick McCurdy, and Nina Laurie, which brought together analyses of posh, ‘upper crusty’ climate change activists, Queen Rania, Nepalese sexually trafficked women and Lady Gaga fans’ exploits epitomized the variety that is possible. It also captured rather well the verve and detail of the meeting as a whole.

The variety of celebrity cultures, and the need to identify them through listening carefully to what audiences are saying, was brought out strongly in the work on audience responses and consumption of celebrity. These pointed to the ways in which celebrity was, in Tim Markham’s phrase, ‘worn lightly’, and, as Tim argued, to the ways in which people learn to wear it lightly. Martin Scott’s extensive focus group and diary research produced evidence of little engagement with celebrity advocacy as such, or celebrity mediation of distant others. He also found that where the celebrity approach was less explicit, and part of presenter-lead documentaries, audience engagement was more effective. Spencer Henson and Johanna Lindstrom’s research with the UK Public Opinion Monitor highlighted the illegitimacy of celebrity in quantitative surveys of public opinion, but that the illegitimacy accorded to celebrity was accompanied by a confessed interest in famous people (who were not celebrities).

But as Mark Wheeler pointed out, this was research conducted on UK audiences and there are very different responses reported from US audiences, where some research suggests incidences of a much deeper reach and engagement between celebrity and their audience. It is interesting to note, on this issue, that a remarkably high proportion of the marketing and advertising research on the effectiveness of celebrity endorsements is carried out on US college students. Or, in other words, a large body of expertise about what celebrity can do to public opinion and action, may in fact be produced by engagement with one particular audience from one particular country. This sort of weak foundation is being exposed as soon as researchers begin to test their hypotheses on other audiences (for example in this research in Norway and the US).

This variety makes Lisa Richey and Lene Bull’s exploration of celebrity interventions in Denmark, with its own particular celebrity cultures, audiences, and aid debates, all the more important. It makes particular interventions, such as Queen Rania’s Youtube campaigns that Maral Yessayan examined, all the more interesting because they reinforce the legitimacy of a Jordanian monarch to US audiences. It also makes it possible to recognize some very different forms of engagement by particular sub-cultures (albeit surrounding mainstream stars). Lucy Bennett’s paper on Lady Gaga’s fans use of social media to pressurize US senators on gay rights provided a vital counterpoint to the (UK) audience research of people who were, almost entirely, not fans. It pointed to a form of activism, a depth of engagement, and a social learning of what political activism might mean that did not always fit into current concepts of celebrity advocacy, but which needs to.

There was a continued discomfort with our (the participants) general tendency to think normatively about celebrity advocacy. There is little to be learnt from asking whether particular audiences think or behave as we want them to. Asking middle class questions about what people ought to be doing (Tim Markham’s phrase) will ultimately tell us most about ourselves. As Scott Prudham argued, there may be a fear of the mob in our conversation. He argued that we need to recognize that people are smart, they are hard to dupe, and can see through manipulations.  This is one of the strengths of the more Žižekian approaches – it builds in people’s complicity and recognition of their own exploitation into the analysis.

Avoiding the normalization tendency requires a more empirical, and carefully listened approach, that first examines what people are doing, and then its consequences. While there may be much disavowed interest in celebrity (even perhaps, as Japhy Wilson pointed out, among the participants of the meeting), we need conceptual frameworks of audience response that include other categories. Jo Littler and Dan Brockington argued that we need to recognize that bafflement over celebrity activism will contain confusion and ignorance as well desire. Matt Baillie Smith emphasized here too the need not to treat audiences and publics as atomized individuals: that is a neo-liberal imagining of society. Rather we need to examine how multiple aspects of our identity (class, place, gender, community, family, ethnicity, race, age) shape our collective engagement with development issues and celebrity advocacy. Of these categories attention to youth, and how younger adults learn to engage, and learn not to, through celebrity, will be particularly important.

Finally our discussions had a number of gaps which we could not cover adequately. Scott Prudham and Cheryl Lousley mentioned the lack of attention to democracy and democratic deficits. Scott also noted there was a need to re-engage the sort of material we had considered with specific debates in particular disciplines in order to communicate it more effectively within the academe. There was, for example, relatively little geographical debate in the discussion (in the sense of issues combing space and society or environment and society). This was despite a number of ardent geographers being present and very ardent during all of it. Our attention to the ‘prosumption’ of celebrity advocacy was limited; there was not enough attention to the bio-politics of celebrity, or its role in social reproduction, among other gaps.

And what happens now? Celebrity industry research is gathering pace. In addition to Asteris Huliaris, Christos Frangonikolopoulos and Liza Tzaliki’s recent book, Signe Rousseau’s recent book, Lisa Richey and Stefano Ponte’s recent book and Ilan Kapoor’s forthcoming book, there are new research networks. In particular, Lisa Richey, Lene Bull and Louise Rasmussen informed us of the Celebrity and North-South Relations network. Mike Goodman announced and demonstrated nascent software which will make it possible to trace networks of celebrity advocacy more effectively, and that could incorporate and enhance existing web crawling software.

Finally, there was a strong call to engage effectively with NGOs and organisations working on development advocacy and in particular with the upcoming, if misnamed, Make Poverty History 2 campaign, upon which Rachel Tavernor’s research begins shortly. Matt Baillie Smith and Andrew Darnton are particularly well placed to enable connections between academic researchers and NGOs: Andrew, for his enduring commitment to tracking  attitudes to development and role in writing Finding Frames; Matt, for his plea voiced in his paper and meeting that we pay more attention to the social relationships which produce development education and awareness in the global north. They were not alone. There was a general desire to collaborate on engagement, and interview, opportunities as they arose. The engagement should also arise from the character of the critiques offered. Scott Prudham argued strongly for an empathetic approach to the context in which NGOs are working and engaging with celebrity.

This symposium website will form part of that engagement, by making available versions of the papers presented as soon as possible.

Dan Brockington
Manchester, June 2012