Watching 11 September: The Politics of Pity

Lilie Chouliaraki

    Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


    In this article, I discuss extracts of television footage from the vantage point of discourse: how the reported event ‘comes to mean’, how it becomes intelligible through television’s meaning-making operations. Specifically, I study the mediation of the 11 September event as one of distant suffering, drawing upon the work of Luc Boltanski (1999) on morality, media and politics. My aim is to identify the ways in which the television spectacle engages the affective potential of the spectator and evokes a specific disposition to act upon the suffering – thus, its moralizing effects on the spectator. First, I introduce a ‘politics of pity’, a politics that aims to resolve the space–time dimensions of mediation in order to establish a sense of ‘proximity’ to the events and so engage the spectator. Second, I contrast three different modes (or ‘topics’) of representing suffering, by reference to three extracts from the Danish national television channel: street shots of Manhattan, just after the collapse of the Twin Towers; the summary of the day’s events, with shots from the second plane collision and President Bush’s first public statement; and a long shot of the Manhattan skyline burning. I describe each ‘topic’ in terms of its space–time dimensions, its distinctive semiotic elements, and the affective and moral horizons it opens up for the spectator.
    Original languageEnglish
    JournalDiscourse & Society
    Issue number2-3
    Pages (from-to)185-198
    Number of pages14
    Publication statusPublished - May 2004


    • Discourse
    • Ethics
    • Multi-modality
    • Politics of pity
    • Space–time
    • Television

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