by Roberto Prado
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation. – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
With the above lines, Guy Debord begins his brief, but seminal work, The Society of the Spectacle. He proceeds to describe the sum total of the efforts of Western Civilization as a progression of images, sounds and streams of video. When Debord penned those words in 1964, the spectacle was at a remove – something seen from a distance. Billboards, magazines, motion pictures, television, radio – all of these media were represented outside of the observer’s personal space, over there. In the intervening decades, the spectacle has closed the distance between the observed and the observer, to absorb the society completely. What was once at a remove now forms an integral part of the atmosphere in which human interaction occurs. The spectacle has absorbed us and we are now protagonists in it, and active participants in its construction. In the 1930’s, the average person was subjected to approximately 3000 advertisements in their lifetime. Today, we are exposed to that many by lunch time. Presaging the rise of social networks, Debord stated that the spectacle was not a collection of images, but a social relation between people that is mediated by images. He continued to say that the spectacle was not merely “visual excess produced by mass-media technologies”, but a “worldview that has actually been materialized.
That was nearly fifty years ago.
Today this worldview is manufactured in real time by ourselves as we create a steady stream of user generated content flooding newly invented social networks in a non-stop, addictive dialogue that we maintain and update with unblinking regularity. Teenagers are being diagnosed with newly created neuroses that have newly coined names like “FOMO”, for “feelings of missing out” and which has become a serious emotional condition for our spectacle based society. We no longer observe the spectacle, we are the spectacle, and we feel a compulsion to connect to it and live in it as much as possible. It is not uncommon today for an individual to watch a television program on one appliance, while communicating with friends on a social network with another appliance.
We carry the spectacle around in our pockets, so that we may constantly refer to it and never feel as if we are disconnected from it. Human relations now occur on screens, in the spectacle, obliterating all time and distance in a perpetual here and now. Because, of course, there is no there here, there is no then, either.
Marshall McLuhan referred to this interrelated community as the global village, a curious expansion of the familiar which absorbs the macro-worldview into the micro-worldview, in a through-the-looking-glass inversion of space and time, bringing the far away into the sphere of the familiar and sanitizing it along the way for easy consumption.
“Now that we live in an electric environment of information coded, not just in visual, but in other sensory modes, it’s natural that we now have new perceptions that destroy the monopoly and priority of visual space, making this older space look as bizarre as a medieval coat of arms over the door of a chemistry lab.” – Marshall McLuhan, War and Peace in the Global Village
Which is why for so many people today, relationships on social networks are more important than relationships in the real world, or as George Bernard Shaw put it: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Sanitizing the Spectacle and the End of Celebrity
In the early 1960‘s news, entertainment and advertising images were already loaded with emotional and social importance. An ad for cognac featuring a group of well dressed young men gathering around a tufted leather sofa is not just and advertisement for cognac, but a symbol of fulfillment, an image of success.
Today we receive much of our emotional information, our social barometer, from the spectacle
In the 1960‘s war was brought into living rooms around the industrialized world with an immediacy and drama that had never been seen before. What was once reported on in newsreels, safely removed in both time and space from the actual events, became a daily representation of acts that increasingly took on familiar faces. The spectacle of war was, at first, shocking, but was quickly commoditized, packaged and put in context. Riots, demonstrations, assassinations, million man marches, all became part of the grand spectacle that civilization was manufacturing at an ever increasing pace and with ever increasing intimacy. In the Vietnam era, journalists were not embedded with troops, essentially limiting their access to anything other than one side of the conflict. Journalists were loose and in the middle of the conflict, often covering both sides of the war and frequently being excoriated by those wishing to limit coverage to stories that either justified or romanticized the conflict. Just five years ago, a single suicide bombing would capture the world’s attention for days, becoming the leading headline of the day in all media. Today, a suicide bombing barely makes the news at all, frequently being relegated to a “crawl” along the bottom part of a television screen, receiving cursory notice at best. The act becomes just another part of the spectacle, so similar to so many others that it does not warrant the turning of heads or the billion blinks per second of the global media audience. The portrayal of carnage is given a more visceral and engaging treatment in films and video games than it is in news reports, further distancing society from its most horrific acts, while simultaneously desensitizing its reaction to them and even eroticizing violence.
A curious phenomenon is the transformation of the most spectacular of all of the creations of the spectacle – the celebrity. Movie stars, rock stars and sports stars lived their lives in the spectacle. That was, in part, their purpose, to be spectacular, to embody the excesses of their age and do so for the rest of society to consume from a safe, middle class distance. Doctors, lawyers, bankers, the gatekeepers of the middle class worldview, cannot behave like rock stars or movie stars. They cannot be seen in those clothes, they cannot jet to the Riviera, overdose on drugs, have wild orgies or, in short, live spectacular lives. So it is left to a select group of individuals to do it for us and present themselves to us as spectacle, for consumption as spectacle; for us to admire, censure and ridicule. In their lives we see the extreme consumption of the products of civilization. The excesses that the rest of us cannot permit ourselves, either because of the decorum imposed on us by the rigid morality of the middle class, or because we simply cannot afford it. In this, too, the spectacle has closed the gap between the observer and the observed. Articles written recently about the demise of the movie star coincide with the emergence of the proletarian star.
We have all become protagonists in the spectacle. So called reality television shows show us ourselves, but presented in the formats required for spectacular consumption. Thus, the glamour of celebrities of the past has receded and been overtaken by the working class interpretation of celebrity today. As the distance between spectacle and audience has been closed, so too has the social imperative for comportment. Decorum is now the purview of the upper middle class alone. The image of Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant or Audrey Hepburn is no longer possible today as a commodity, having been replaced by thousands of programs about celebrity chefs; ice road truckers; crab fishermen; poorly educated, poorly behaved and not even very attractive people with names like Snooki, that have captured the attention of a society which no longer views the spectacle as something at a remove, but something in which they participate.
This is also true of plastic surgery. Once an exclusive luxury commodity, available only to movie stars and individuals whose lives were, by definition, lives of spectacle, plastic surgery has also been democratized and is now available to the society at large. This is in no small part due to the increasingly spectacular nature of what were once ordinary lives – average citizens now feel a cultural imperative to have botox treatments, breast implants, face lifts and to inject thousands of pounds of collagen into their lips, all in an effort to both match the images presented to them as desirable in the spectacle, and to demonstrate their acquisitive ability to afford such commodities.
Thus, the glamorous images of the spectacle of the past have been replaced with the working class images of the spectacle of today. Now it is possible for a banker, a lawyer or a doctor to have visible tattoos, huge puffy lips, wear outrageous clothing or engage in behaviour previously limited to only a select few individuals living on the edges of society. It’s okay now. We have become a society of rock stars and movie stars, and so our rock stars and movie stars have become simply part of our society, blended together with celebrity chefs and celebrity party animals. There is no longer a distinction between the movie star and the average citizen – or at least the average citizen with a reality show. The truly spectacular has been reserved for royal weddings and, to a lesser extent, the Academy Awards.
This principle has been extended to include politicians and world leaders, who are now selected as much for their resemblance to the so-called “common man” as they once were for their spectacular and elite nature, a trend a hundred years in the making. Presidents wish to be seen as “somebody you can have a beer with” today, whereas this concept would have been completely alien just 75 years ago.
When fashion icon Cristobal Balenciaga announced the closure of his boutique in 1968, the reason he gave was “there is no one left worth dressing.” He was right.
Today Balenciaga is worn by the sixteen year old daughters of investment bankers and Dior can be bought at any department store.
This is the essence of the tautological character of the spectacle. There is no political point of view or direction, there is no single hand at its controls. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.
The Signifier and the Thing Signified
The spectacle also represents choices, choices already made by the collective worldview of our age and materialized by our engines of production. The resulting collection of news, propaganda, entertainment and advertising presents these choices, along with their justification, as a whole.
Crucial to this equation is the justification of these choices. Thus an image will transform over time to better represent the visual characteristics of the pre-selected choices of any particular moment. The spectacle becomes the embodiment of a historical moment. I offer up Barbie as an example. When Barbie first appeared on the spectacle she was introduced as a perfect plastic embodiment of all that is an adult female, for consumption by young girls seeking instruction on how to become the perfect embodiment of an adult female. In 1959, and for several years after, when this anatomically disproportionate, always smiling symbol first captivated the hearts of little girls, she was a sophisticated 27 year-old fashion model, living in a penthouse in Manhattan. Barbie was intelligent and independent, with a wardrobe based on designs by the leading fashion houses of Europe: Dior, Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent. Barbie wore lipstick and opera gloves. She had dramatic eye makeup and earrings and drove a convertible. Today, Barbie has been transformed into a teenager, perpetually 16 years old and wearing jean shorts and sneakers, pushing a baby stroller. She drives a Volkswagen bug with daisies on it.
Similar transformations have occurred and are occurring constantly as each image is brought in line with the thinking of any given moment, adjusted to suit the consumers of the images and their tastes.
In this manner, the spectacle has chronicled the transformation of the goals of a global society, from the qualitative, to the quantitative, to a pure illusion based on the appearance of the qualitative and quantitative.
For example, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the United States automotive industry was focused on manufacturing the best cars in the world. In the 1970’s and 1980’s that focus shifted from the qualitative to the quantitative and the US became interested only in manufacturing the most cars in the world. Today automobiles with US brands on them, like Chevrolet and Chrysler, only aspire to the appearance of being manufactured in the United States, when, in fact, they are made in Korea or Japan, and Japanese or German brands like Toyota, Honda, BMW and Volkswagen are manufactured in the United States.
Similarly, a Prada or Chanel handbag in 1960 looked much like any other handbag, except for qualitative differences. A Chanel clutch would be similar to a thousand other clutch purses, except that it was made of the finest calf skin, was hand made, with superior stitching and was, ultimately, a far superior handbag to the more pedestrian version being sold in department stores. During the 1980’s it became important to sell more Chanel (or Prada or Luis Vitton) handbags and so they began appearing in department stores, were mass produced, as opposed to hand made, and quality was sacrificed to quantity. Today, it is more important for the handbag to have the appearance of a Chanel or Luis Vitton handbag and so they must be covered in logos identifying them for all to see as Chanel, Luis Vitton, etc. – even if they are counterfeit. The need for consumption of the image of the article has become more important than the actual article and many people are just as proud to own an inexpensive copy of a Luis Vitton bag, than the genuine article. Moreover, the quality of construction is often identical as the fashion houses, seeking ever less expensive means of production, have shipped their manufacturing to the very places that produce the cheap copies. Now the actual article is identical to the copy.
The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity that the “present age, … prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence.” He wrote this in 1848.
From the Ideal to the Mundane
A phenomenon of the spectacle is the presentation of material and conceptual constructs in ideal environments. The phenomenon exists because, just as there is no space or distance in the spectacle, there is also no time. “Ours is a brand new world of allatonceness”, as Marsall McLuhan put it in his book The Medium is the Massage. The idealization of the mundane, then is accompanied by emotional attributes connected to the image at hand.
In a society in which all opinions and social attributes are instantaneous and governed by the spectacle, acquisition of objects, goods, social status and emotional happiness are also connected umbilically to the spectacle. Thus, an individual that does not have the au courant technological appliance, be it Tivo, a smartphone or an iPad, is considered a luddite or socially backward. Middle class society, always tyrannical in its insistence on homogeneity, demands a lockstep adherence to the outward appearance and adhesion to the current social norm – whatever that may be. Remember, the spectacle is tautological, it exists for its own sake and changes spontaneously to suit social convention, which is at the same time informed by the spectacle. Thus, it is a social imperative to have a Facebook account, rather than a MySpace account, the former being the au courant flavor of the month in social networks, the other appearing middle-aged and staid by comparison.
The transferral of the object from its ideal representation in the spectacle, to its palpable materialization in reality, however, brings with it the curious phenomenon of temporal relevance. Once removed from the sphere of the ideal, the object immediately begins to lose appeal, to tarnish and age, and to be replaced in rapid succession by the next idealized image for consumption. The iPhone is replaced by the iPhone 3GS, which, in turn is replaced by the iPhone 4 and the Android. The Kindle is hailed as remarkable and revolutionary, only to be replaced by the iPad in relevance and social desirability, which, in turn, is rapidly replaced by the iPad 2. Each new image is ideal, ageless and desirable – until it is materialized in the mundane world of real existence. At once it loses relevance and becomes mere object waiting to be replaced in the spectacle by the next idealized image. This is just as true for concepts as it is for objects. The relevance of Stalin, as Debord put it, has receded to a trite parody, a cracked and broken image of a concept long forgotten and no longer applicable to the current age.
As Dr. Sandy Krolick writes in his blog kulturCritic, this dichotomy is probably best described by French philosopher and social critic Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his criticism of the Cartesian bifurcation of the object and mind, with its “intertwining of the body-subject, le corps suject, and the world-as-lived”, affording a tangible, palpable relationship between the body and the object” – a relationship denied by the virtual, electronic reality that is rapidly replacing Merleau-Ponty’s world of “touching and being touched, seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, of smelling and being smelled, of tasting and being tasted.” (Maurice Merlau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible)
To again quote McLuhan: “Electric circuitry profoundly involves men with one another. Information pours upon us instantaneously and continuously. As soon as information is acquired, it is very rapidly replaced by still newer information. Our electrically-configured world has forced us to move from the habit of data classification to the mode of pattern recognition. We can no longer build serially, block-by-block, step-by-step, because instant communication insures that all factors of the environment and of experience coexist in a state of active interplay.” – Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage
Because such fingers need to knit That subtle knot, which makes us man… John Donne, The Ecstasy (from kulturCritic)
Creation of the spectacle is a necessary part of modern human existence. As we begin to interact in increasingly virtual, synthetic environments, our separation from nature and increased auto-referential cosmology becomes further and further separated from Merleau-Ponty’s le corps sujet while simultaneously creating an increasingly intimate and personal experience of reality. A heightened sense of solipsism as it were. The real world becomes more distant as the dream world becomes more real, but the dream world also begins to absorb all aspects of the real world. In a sense, as mind becomes the ultimate observer of an increasingly self-created reality, the sense of the universe observing itself through our eyes becomes more palpable.
The spectacle which we are constantly creating becomes both more separate from reality, and more immutable.
The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the profusion of matter and of the stars, but that within this prison we can draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness. – André Malraux