Monday, March 6, 2017

TV & Reality (Core Response 4): A Neoliberal Theater of Suffering- Reality TV Humanitarianism and Hurricane Katrina

During this week’s readings, I was really appreciated the connections between reality TV and neoliberalism made by Anna McCarthy (2007) in “Reality Television: a Neoliberal Theater of Suffering.” In general, neoliberal discourse, in contemporary America, also correspond with ideas of postfeminism and colorblind/postracial ideologies, which are also recurring topics throughout this semester. In general, present-day neoliberalism is reflective of Michel Foucault’s idea of governmentality, which McCarthy (2007) describes as when “state policies synchronize with cultural practices to apply market-based individualism as a governmental rationale across the institutions and practices of everyday life” (21). The application of neoliberal ideology to governing entails a maximizing of “individual freedoms” and limiting of state aid and intervention: “governmentality finds its principle of rationality in the axiom that individuals are sovereign beings best ruled under circumstances in which they are encouraged to self-manage, taking on responsibilities for their welfare, growth, and security that might otherwise be assumed by the state” (McCarthy 2007, 25). Of course, this ultimately reflects, once again, the claim of meritocracy in the United States—that anyone can achieve wealth and “greatness” if only they tried hard enough. As McCarthy (2007) details in relation to the reality series Random 1, Bruce’s story and its aftermath are ruled by a logic of “chance” and “randomness,” aspects highly reminiscent of meritocracy and divorcing current individual situations from an overarching systemic and institutional issue.

As McCarthy (2007) details in relation to Bruce, “His story, it seems to me, offers a potent allegory for the drama of neoliberal citizenship today—a drama of randomness and its aftermath that was horrifically played out by the abandoned citizens of New Orleans in 2005, but which is felt on the level of daily subsistence by those whose job security, health care, and education are ruled by the vicissitudes of the market” (35-6). As Sean Alfano (2005) discussed for CBS News a few days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the question was raised about the relationship between the horrendously poor response to the situation in Louisiana and its relationship to the fact that “those most affected are poor” and African Americans. President George W. Bush was highly criticized for the lack of evacuation plan and “no urgent effort to rescue” those remaining in New Orleans. Additionally, Henry A. Giroux (2015) details, Hurricane Katrina and neoliberalism are complexly weaved and inseparable. As in the case of Bruce in Random 1, Hurricane Katrina demonstrated a rhetoric of private individual (as opposed to collective) challenges; in both instances those “left behind” were abandoned to “fend for themselves,” and “increasingly rendered disposable." This idea of disposable bodies in the face of free-market ideologies recalls McCarthy’s (2007) argument that, in relation to Bruce in Random 1, “we are left with the distinct impression that instead of receiving charity, he has in fact given it. Bruce has essentially donated his trauma to John and Andre, to help them advance their careers as philanthropist filmmakers. Trauma’s intersubjective witnessing is transformed into a property that benefits the witness most” (32). In relation to Hurricane Katrina, I wonder how this statement made by McCarthy might also apply to individuals, like Sean Penn, being highly publicized and recognized for their efforts in helping the aftermath of the disaster, as opposed to reporting on the actual issues leading up to and effecting the people in New Orleans, and how the logic of neoliberalism not only enables but cherishes/places value on these "humanitarian" behaviors.

Alfano, Sean. 2005. “Race An Issue In Katrina Response.” CBS News, 3 Sep 2005,

Giroux, Henry A. 2015. “Revisiting Hurricane Katrina: Racist Violence and the Politics of Disposability.” Truthout, 8 Sep 2015,

McCarthy, Anna. 2007. “Reality Television: a Neoliberal Theater of Suffering.” Social Text 25 (4): 17-41.


  1. 1/2
    Thank you, Brooke, for your rich reflections, and the highly relevant example of Sean Penn’s humanitarianism during the Hurricane Katrina disaster! I also found McCarthy’s article in general very sophisticated, insightful, and politically relevant (and appealing).

    Just as you point out the apparent ”disposability” of some parts of the population from the perspective of the state, we can see how in the context of commercial TV, Bruce in Random 1 was implicitly consituted as a kind of disposable commodity—he was picked up, utilized for purposes entangled in the market of popular culture (for a couple of weeks, I suppose), then, after his potential for that utilization, or entertainment value was assumed to be exhausted on the producers’ part, he was discarded. (I might be wrong though, and I think it is possible there was some sort of a long-term care or attention given to him, or that such things happen sometimes in similar contexts.) Furthermore, he might have been pushed to be more expressive of affect, to be more palatable for the spectator of the show supposedly hungry for drama and emotional excess and catharsis. I am also with McCarthy in finding the rhetorics applied as a conclusion of his case to be egregious (to use a strong adjective used by the author in the article), and at the very best as exemplifying wishful thinking: namely, that Bruce (or other people who occupy a social position of relative or massive deprivation) is now should be able to start a new life full of opportunities, his freedom and mobility regained. What a severe set of denial (or of lies), indeed, is needed to make such claims. A person homeless for years, dropped out of social networks, lacking (financial and perhaps, other kinds of) capital, and so on, is supposed to think of himself and be thought of as rehabilitated and provided with "equal opportunities”?! Just because now he is less far from being able-bodied than he used to be with his old artifical leg that wasn’t functional anymore?

    I can also see the validity of the concerns related to the widely publicized activism of Sean Penn during the Katrina Hurricane aftermath. I suppose much of the reported extensively on his case, especially compared to a more structural analysis of why and how the natural disaster could cause such immense harm, and how permanently dispossessed many affected people were both before the trauma and afterwards. Likewise, I do not mean to deny the possibility that Penn might have been greatly motivated by how his volunteering could be beneficial to him and his publicity.

  2. 2/2
    Yet I find such claims by McCarthy that you also quote, i.e. that "We are left with the distinct impression that instead of receiving charity, [Bruce] has in fact given it. [He] has essentially donated his trauma to John and Andre, to help them advance their careers as philanthropist filmmakers. Trauma’s intersubjective witnessing is transformed into a property that benefits the witness most” as quite one-sided and in itself, quite unjustified. While calling critical attention to how certain functions and responsibilities are (either explicitly or implicitly) rejected by the state and passed down to civil society and/or to the individual is crucial, similarly to pointing out how the relevant ideology gets reinforced, reading McCarthy’s insightful article still left me with a couple of suspicions and frustrating doubts. For instance, do the main arguments entail a hasty discrediting of humanitarian civil activism and organization, and of the practice of individual altruism, so to speak? Am I exaggerating or missing something in McCarthy if I get the feeling that the sort of critique she practices way too easily discredits anything that is other than pure, selfless action devoid of any interest or profit in any practical or symbolic sense (which action, in my view, just doesn’t exist—but even if it did, it would be criticised and its potentials rejected as it would be framed as an object of exploitation i.e. as neccesarily entangled, yet again, in injustice)? For instance, as John says in the credit sentence of Random 1, quoted by McCarthy: "When you help someone (...) you feel better about yourself (...) [and thus] you feel better about the world” is far from unfounded, and in itself does not compromise any prosocial act. I believe all human acts are selfish and are done in self-interest in some sense—however, crucially, some people’s wellbeing are more closely tied to others’ wellbeing. ["Good” people are, I’d say, who feel better when someone else’s suffering or pain is alleviated, and who would like or appreciate others (or themselves) for trying to cultivate prosocial, empathetic forms of behaviour.]

    In any case, if McCarthy thinks Bruce was basically exploited by the producers of Random 1, why doesn’t she mention her own entanglement in such a dynamics as an academic researcher—especially because: while Bruce does get, at least, a new artifical leg from/through Random 1 (as a sort of exchange for his trauma commodified by the producers, if you wanna focus on this aspect), he definitely does not get anything out of McCarthy or any other people in academia recycling and in a way, repeating this commodification of his person, and his personal narrative and affect (she even uses screenshots from the show with Bruce in them, apparently having asked only for John Chester’s permission). My point here is less about accusing McCarthy of reifying Bruce’s appropriation in a way that advances her own career as an academic, but to question what I see to be McCarthy’s one-sided and foreclosed interpretation of the kind of dynamics that was supposed to be at work between Bruce and the TV show producers, or between people effected by Katrina and Sean Penn as a celebrity volunteer.

  3. I am also intrigued by McCarthy’s arguments about humanitarianism’s reliance on spectacle and the commodification of trauma. I agree that Hurricane Katrina is very relevant to this set of questions, though I am not convinced that it played out according to a “drama of randomness”—it seems clear that post-Katrina governmental neglect was deeply racialized. Kata, I’m with you and your suspicions. On one hand, I think it’s useful to point out how so many media forms that ostensibly aim to end suffering traffic in images of suffering, the end of which would suspend the flow of visual capital that sustains their humanitarian economy. On the other hand, to condemn all instances of helping another as examples of co-optation by the neoliberal state is bleak indeed and leaves us with nothing.

    I’ve been thinking through this dilemma in relation to Canada’s refugee sponsorship program, in which groups of citizens support newcomers to the country financially and culturally, enabling more refugees to enter the country. Sure, this could be framed as a neoliberal outsourcing of governmental duties. Certainly, the program is full of the theatrical dynamics that McCarthy discusses; it is “an opportunity for middle-class liberals to experience therapeutic growth,” one that requires grand performances of gratitude from traumatized others and commodifies their trauma into spectacle, as exemplified by this video that may cause permanent eye damage from the rate of successive eye rolls it provokes:

    However, I’m not sure that makes it evil.