Have you ever turned off the news after watching the reporter shift from the subject of a midnight traffic collision, to a school board meeting, to an attempted murder by samurai sword, to a kid and his hamster, back to the samurai sword attack (this time with mugshot), and then out for commercials, and thought to yourself, “It’s…it’s unreal. It can’t happen, I mean, why?”
Sounds like a severe case of the spectacle.
life, liberty and the pursuit of spectacle
In 1967, French theorist and filmmaker Guy “Should’ve-Been-Named-Dude” Debord published his most famous work, The Society of the Spectacle, a series of 221 short theses arguing that our historical moment constitutes “the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life.” In other words, our social world is mediated through products or potential products: objects and experiences and brands capable of being circulated in a market, things that can be bought and sold.
You know, consumer capitalism. For Debord, Christopher Commodity-Columbus has landed on the shores of our everyday lives and planted his flag. (You know how this story ends.)
So how does all this manifest itself? What does it look like? (And why is it that my instinct is to reach for a metaphor of appearance to try to explain this new concept?) Debord writes,
[L]ife is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
For Debord, the spectacle is not simply a bunch of images plus sounds, like a movie; it’s something a bit more subtle: “a social relation between people that is mediated by images.”
Meaning: not only do we understand our social world through commodities, but we move through it via images, seemingly endless series of representations. This doesn’t mean that the spectacle isn’t real. It becomes real through the way we end up living our lives through and around it. Importantly, the spectacle dominates the other senses, which could be why I reached for, “What does it look like?” before, rather than using some other metaphor. Debord writes that when the real world is transformed into images, the images become real in themselves. As a result, sight becomes the privileged sense of belief, rather than touch, as it was in the past (compare doubting Thomas, who needed to touch Jesus’ wounds to believe He’d been resurrected, with the Internet meme “pics or it didn’t happen“).
(For more on this, read my blog on reality/unreality in The Matrix.)
spectacle is a one-way street
An important implication of this modern, consumer-capitalist shift to a society of spectacle is that we—members of society—become primarily spectators, which for Debord is a problem since it puts us nearly perpetually on the muted receiving end of a one-way relationship with those in power. The spectacle “is the opposite of dialogue.”
Here’s how Debord says this works:
The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality, while lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. … The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.
This may be kinda hard to wrap your head around, but think about it. From the time we were infants, we have been surrounded by the spectacle: kid’s shows, toys, eating utensils and dishes, music, diapers, ways of being taught and socialized and objectified, all of it making up and being made by the spectacle that represents what it means to be a kid in a particular society, subject to cultural icons, symbols, reproductions.
From being to having, from having to appearing. This, for Debord, is how the spectacle operates. It is “a worldview that has actually been materialized, that has become an objective reality.”
(If you’re still confused–which, you know, I get it–this blog post does a great job of listing some of the major everyday examples of Debord’s theory of spectacle as it pertains to media, travel, education, all forms of leisure, art, politics, sports, style, etc.)
Here’s the thing: at no point along the way does the spectacle allow you to respond. You can’t talk back to your TV when a commercial suggests how you should think. You can’t have a dialogue with the billboard along the road. You can’t actually object to the magazine and the models displaying products and ways of being; they can’t hear you. The message has already been sent, has always already been sent, and the messenger is deaf to the receiver.
Okay, all this so I can talk a bit about the news.
delicious news, baked fresh daily
In his paper “The Sociology of News Production,” Michael Schudson draws on the work of Gaye Tuchman to declare that
News is not a report on a factual world; news is “a depletable consumer product that must be made fresh daily.”
The news is both a product and producer of the spectacle on a daily, even hourly basis. Using Debord’s words, the news presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unifying society’s separated parts into some constructed whole.
The socialized member of this society, the society of the spectacle, is implicitly expected to be up on the news of the day. The News as a media institution, but especially TV news (and of that, especially cable news) is sort of the perfect case study of the spectacle, the ostensible “focal point of all vision and all consciousness.”
Sociologist and theorist Pierre Bourdieu, in his lecture “On Television” (1998), blames TV news for both seeing and presenting the world as largely “a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution.” The news-as-spectacle is perpetually presenting events, people, images in a stream that is understood to be without end, prompting constant attention; this is precisely part of how Debord’s spectacle functions:
In the spectacle … goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.
This dynamic is nowhere more apparent than in the news, which both constructs realities for its audience and, as part of maintaining that constant stream, inevitably ends up in situations where it attempts to extract meaning out of virtually nothing. (Like, literally virtually. I mean, not really literally, since it’s virtual, but…you know.)
a case study in news-as-spectacle
Consider the recent media stampede into the apartment of San Bernadino shooting suspects Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik late last year. After the FBI had raided and processed the scene, the landlord opened up the place to the media.
Yikes. Let’s take a look.*
MSNBC News: “…as you can see…”
To set the scene a bit: the two-bedroom apartment is full of news people, each trying to get a scoop on the place that has already been cleared of anything important to the criminal investigation (as becomes quite clear).
Notice how the MSNBC reporter must fill 5 minutes with something, anything, trying to pull some meaning out of this basically empty apartment. Consider that at this point, we already know the suspects, we know that they were Muslim, and we know that the FBI already swept through the place.
In other words, we, the audience, already know as much pertinent information as we’re probably gonna get. What remains is pure spectacle, an enactment of nervous voyeurism, a groping for something that simply isn’t there.
Some of my favorite lines, each invoking the spectacle towards meaninglessness:
“As you can see, the hard drive is gone…”
“…just see if anything of importance was marked on the calendar here…and nothing there…”
“So, the FBI must have decided that whatever was in here, it was not important…”
But then again, there is meaning here after all; it’s in the spectacle itself, the very act of vicariously pillaging this wasteland of the Other.
CBS News: “…34 boxes of 20 rounds for .223 caliber…”
In this second clip, the reporter does a couple things: from the apartment, without having to grope around looking for objects of meaning, he paraphrases past events with help from the camera, tapping into icons (e.g., a drape with Arabic writing) that index or point to commonplace meanings, signals for the viewer that ease the construction of a story; secondly, he talks over other reporters taking photos of a series of FBI documents itemizing objects that were seized.
The spectacle of the news camera focuses on itself (embodied in the reporter), then aims at a spectacle within the image (the FBI documents) in order to present yet another spectacle in the reporter’s listing of objects, each meaning nothing in itself except as connotation. This sort of regress (spectacle within spectacle within spectacle) occurs at least three times in the clip.
ABC News: “…it’s unreal…”
At the end of a similarly vain attempt at extracting meaning from the empty exercise of naming objects, this ABC reporter interviews the landlord (who is found aptly holding his camera in a constant state of readiness amid the hubbub).
Here’s where things get interesting though: at this point in the coverage, the subject is no longer the shooting suspects, but the media coverage itself! The reporter asks “What do you make of all this?”, leaving it open as to whether he’s talking about the shooting investigation or the media stampede, to which the guy gives this priceless answer:
It’s–it’s unreal. It can’t happen, I mean, why? What did I– I didn’t expect to have anybody here today, just being able to come over here and clean it up and move on, but this is…this is just unreal.
Don’t worry, it’s real.
It didn’t take long for the broader news community to shift from extracting spectacle from the apartment to extracting spectacle from itself, as the following clip from Fox News demonstrates. Anchor Bill Hemmer produces his own spectacle of (justifiable?) outrage in response to the myriad spectacle of the entire media incident at the apartment. (Note that Fox covered the apartment too, same as everybody else.)
And on it goes. Ultimately, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to say that the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.
If anything, what I hope you take away from this look at Debord’s theory of the spectacle is a recognition that the way we live, our relationship to our environment and to other people, our experiences and the experiences of others, are very often (always?) mediated and constructed, and that the messages and images and sights and sounds we move in and out of and through during our every single day are not just there by chance. They aren’t just natural, and they certainly aren’t straightforward and objective. Instead, when we talk about society, we should recognize how interconnected and interdependent and performed it all is, each individual inevitably part of a whole. Which isn’t to say that all of life is fake or fraudulent (but I mean, come one, we all know at least some of it is…).
Like Debord says, the spectacle is real. In one sense, that’s just part of how culture works, how human interaction works, and in that sense it’s pretty amazing. Fascinating. Exciting.
But on the other hand, the spectacle is also an implicit reflection of systems of value and control that probably bears more questioning and thought than we usually give to it. “But isn’t that just what Debord said?” you may ask. “Isn’t that just another form of ‘contemplating the spectacle?'”
Well, yeah. But isn’t that what you’re already doing?
Images used under Creative Commons license via Wittylama and Influential Voices.
*I have no intention of demeaning in any way the horrible events that preceded and contextualize the news coverage in this section. My critique is aimed at the media as spectacle, not the suspects nor the victims in the shooting.