This long-form essay was first published in May 2013. It was the result of eight months of research that began as a series of questions. I was convinced then, and even more so now, that we live in a culture of spectacles presented to us daily, hourly, and, minute by minute as essential information for being informed about the world.
The purpose of the Spectacle is two-fold. One, capture our attention, paralyzed our emotions, and convince us that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Two, treat us as consumers of products, ideas, and personalities. Fear is a product that we purchase by our attention given to those who are presented to us as the experts and authorities. Of course, no one seems to ask, if they are the people we should turn to and trust to guide us in a time of crisis, then how did we get into this situation in the first place? If you have ever read Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, then you will understand.
May you find clarity and direction for managing The Spectacle of the Real.
THE SPECTACLE OF THE REAL
Chitral, NorthWest Frontier Province, Pakistan
We live in a time of images. They form our understanding of history and engage us in the present. These faces of Afghan freedom fighters from three decades ago sustain a memory of an encounter that I had with them as a young refugee worker. This image helps me understand the continuity of history in the region.
But without that direct engagement, this image may be more surreal than real. For there is no life context in which to interpret what was taking place when the picture was taken.
Just a few days after the above photograph was taken, this man, an Afghan refugee, honored me with an expression of thanks after our team of refugee workers brought food, clothing and shelter to his refugee village on the desert plain outside of Peshawar, Pakistan.
Images influence our sense of what is real. Without direct engagement, however, they can deceive us.
Simulating the “Real” Story?
The Boston Marathon bombings (April 15, 2013) were watched by millions on television and discussed across all social media platforms and in online communities. The event, though, was mostly absorbed through pictures. The bomb at the finish line exploding over and over again. The pictures of the injured and maimed being wheeled away to rescue workers and hospitals. The faces of the two brothers as they became known as the bombers. Facts were few in number; reporting rich in conjecture, and all born through images that touched our emotions.
Fueled by a 24/7 news cycle, actual news – a statement of “facts” that an event, an accident, a death, an agreement, a visit or something has taken place, described in the traditional journalistic parlance of “who, what, when and where” – is transformed into a spectacle of opinion and virtual reality driven by the images of faces speaking words of crisis, fear, and self-righteous anger. Televised analysis – more important than the “facts” of the story- drives the news through the ambiguity of the visual image and is its source of validation.
Imagine a gathering with family and friends, catching up on the news of each other’s lives, and the conversation is like the panels of “experts” who fill televised news each day. No one intentionally chooses their backyard barbeque guests to mirror the political divisions of the nation. That would be boring, tedious, and just inhospitable and unwelcoming.
These televised events aren’t conversations seeking truth, but, rather, people talking at and past one another in a game of leveraging images for social and political influence. We are drawn to the image on the screen of these “experts” having something to say that is meaningful, hoping that at some point some sense of the moment will be revealed, bringing reality into view.
Politics has degenerated into an unreal media-driven spectacle of dissimulation and simulation. What we are given is not a story about what is real because to do so, the experts and our politicians would have to admit to their own limitations of insight and foresight.
Rather, we are given a simulacrum, a virtual story whose narrative appearance conceals a different purpose, enveloping the listener, the viewer, in an alternative world of meaning. Politics is a game of deflected attention, a sleight of hand, an allusion to the real that is an illusion. Get the public to focus on what inflames their passions, isolating them into their defensive enclaves, then we can go about the real purpose for which we were elected, to secure the next election and pass legislation that the public would not approve if they really knew. This is what the modern practice of politics has become.
French theorist Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation, describes how the portrayal of what is real has become the hyper-real.
To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence. But it is more complicated than that because simulating is not pretending. “Whoever fakes an illness can simply stay in bed and make everyone believe he is ill. Whoever simulates an illness produces in himself some of the symptoms” (Littre’). Therefore, pretending or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the “true” and the “false,” the “real” and the “imaginary.” Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces “true” symptoms? (emphasis mine)
This is the game of appearances. In one instance, it is like the child pretending not to have the pilfered cookie that is in his pocket. Dissimulation is the lie that we learn as children where we hide what we have. It is a denial of reality, based on what everyone knows is true.
Simulation, on the other hand, is an imitation of the real. Some simulators, like those that train pilots, are meant to mirror the real world as closely as possible. Other simulations are intended for the exact opposite, to create an alternative reality.
“… the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”
“The Main Street facades are presented to us as toy houses and invite us to enter them, but their interior is always a disguised supermarket, where you buy obsessively, believing that you are still playing,”.
This is a simulacrum of a small town. It looks, on appearances, that it is a small town. But instead, it is a place of commerce hidden behind the image.
Patriotism is a common theme to simulate. Particularly in the use of the American flag as an icon of all things good about America. Print the flag on a can of beer, a bikini, a holiday table cloth, woven as a blanket, painted on motorcycle gas tank, flown in a church, and in massive numbers on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and on Flag Day, and you have attached the greatness of America to your consumer product. The image on the product distracts from the real purpose of the flag and its history in the founding of the American republic. The flag has become an commercial icon attaching itself to a powerful emotion – love of country – by simulating the perspective that buying is patriotic.
Pornography, in a similar way, is a simulation of love and intimacy. Televised sex is a provocative restatement of social relations for the purpose of advocating the primacy of sexual expression and pleasure for modern human beings. Pornography is a simulacrum that defines human beings, not as social beings, but as sexual ones. The erotic power of sex fills a person with intense sensory feeling, and by it, alters how a person views their relationships with others. The logical outcome is the practice of having friends with benefits.
Human beings may be animals, but we are not just animals. We are human animals for whom human fulfillment is more than intense sensory release. We desire to be known in the realness of our lives. We are not fulfilled by “playing” a part, but by finding relationships of openness and mutuality. The mutuality of human love, of giving, receiving, sharing, is at the heart of the sexual intimacy that is so key to human flourishing. The lie of pornography is that sex = love and love = sex. It is a simulacrum of the appearance of intimacy, though without the other conditions that drive human communion.
Spectacle as Simulated Reality
Simulations can become a simulacra, a virtual reality, a hyper-reality, a replacement reality of the world of meaning. They are a kind of diversion, a deflection from reality that commands our attention. This is the nature of the spectacular event.
The culture of the spectacle, of the event that captures our attention for the moment, has become the driving force in the culture of news, entertainment, sports, and consumerism. The spectacle deflects us from the real toward the hyper-real through the intensification of the historical moment as beyond history, as a singular moment in time that we must become immersed in to be alive or to be “informed.” Not just a different version of the story, or different narrative, or a different perspective; but a different reality. This spectacle is a simulacrum. A iconic image event that simulates a representation of values or meaning, regardless of whether the reality of the event was about the moment being represented.
Reporting on the Boston Marathon bombing became a platform for speculation and conjecture based not on what was known about the bombing, but a projection of individual bias as expert opinion. The nature of the spectacle requires linkage to other spectacles to establish a pattern that validates credibility. This is now the nature of the news as presented throughout the day, every day. Every day, every event is a spectacle for drawing attention to the screen.
As the news became an entertainment medium, entertainment lost much of its distinctive appeal. The “news” isn’t about the news, but a sensationalization of opinions about the news for the purpose of ratings and increased advertising revenue. On-air time space must be filled, and be paid for by ads. Without the sensationalism of the daily spectacle, no one would watch. The entertainment value of the news is the hook to tie us into a consumer culture of serial exhilaration and boredom. The difference between CNN or Fox and TMZ is one of degree, not of the difference between news and entertainment. The difference between the reality TV of news and entertainment and the actual lives that people experience is the difference between the simulacrum and reality.
The Game of Entertainment
Professional sports is a televised entertainment spectacle, less a sport, no longer simply a game to be played by talented athletes. It is the business of entertainment. The game is just the hook. The simulacra of professional sports has permeated the games that children once played so that now, play is an adult-managed hyper-organized simulation of college and professional athletic competitions. No longer do children just play on their own initiative, but are socialized into the developmental system of organized sports, essentially trained to become part of the entertainment spectacle of modern sports.
The NFL is the master of the weekly sports spectacle. Fantasy sports leagues now provide an outlet for filling the attention gap when games are not on. It is real only in the sense that the contest happens. But it is unreal because, as a spectacle, it exists less as pure sport, and more as a collection of one-off entertainment events.
Winning a championship has meaning for the moment. By the next day, the thrill is gone and the addictive pull of the next spectacle returns. The spectacle isn’t the event itself, but rather all that precedes it. College basketball’s March Madness has turned what was a locally focused, end-of-season tournament by regional conferences into a national three-week spectacle, where even the President’s “bracket” makes news. The entertainment pull is to analyze and the set up for the next spectacle. It is a consumer culture of diversion and hyper-reality.
Living in a world of impermanence.
The simulation of reality, the game of appearances, a hyper-real experience, diverts us from the mundaneness of daily existence, towards more pleasurable diversions that take us out of the real world. Watching the news, sports, or entertainment programming are diversions of the type that scientist / philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about in the mid-17th century.
“Sometimes, when I set to thinking about the various activities of men, the dangers and troubles which they face at Court, or in war, giving rise to so many quarrels and passions, daring and often wicked enterprises and so on, I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to be quiet in his room. A man wealthy enough for life’s needs would never leave home to go to sea or besiege some fortress if he knew how to stay at home and enjoy it. Men would never spend so much on a commission in the army if they could bear living in town all their lives, and they only seek after the company and diversion of gambling because they do not enjoy staying at home. …
The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion.”
The triumph of the culture of simulation is that it replaces the reality that we don’t want with a hyper-reality that simulates what we do. But the simulation is not the same as reality. As Baudrillard wrote, “To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have.” This is the power of a world that exists increasingly like an immersive video game, where I can “play” a role, a character, and live a fuller, more complete life in a Sim-ulated world, than in the real world of home and work.
MIT professor Sherry Turkle describes this simulated reality in her book Alone Together.
“After an evening of avatar-to avatar talk in a networked game, we feel, at one moment, in possession of a full social life and, in the next, curiously isolated, in tenuous complicity with strangers. We build a following on Facebook or MySpace and wonder to what degree our followers are friends. We recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances. Yet, suddenly, in the half-light of virtual community, we may feel utterly alone. As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves. Sometimes people experience no sense of having communicated after hours of connection. And they report feelings of closeness when they are paying little attention. In all of this, there is a nagging question: Does virtual intimacy degrade our experience of the other kind and, indeed, of all encounters, of any kind?”
Simulation is not real life, but an artificial one. The result is that life becomes a series of spectacles, events that command our attention, one or more at a time in serial progression without continuity. The diversion works if we do not think too deeply.
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. …
The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. …
The concept of “spectacle” unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena. The diversity and the contrasts are appearances of a socially organized appearance, the general truth of which must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance. But the critique which reaches the truth of the spectacle exposes it as the visible negation of life, as a negation of life which has become visible.”
The life of the spectacle, therefore, is a hyper-reality lived through the images of the event. During the 9/11 attacks, the images of the Twin Towers burning, then collapsing, became a reference point for people to share their shock, their sadness, their anger, and ultimately their compassion for those who lost love ones.
But the nature of the spectacle is that it is too intermittent an experience to foster a life of continuity. Moving from one self-contained event to the next is not a sufficient ground for a society or community to find a common life together. Something else must provide that glue that makes civic life work.
Living in the world of the image and the spectacle is a world where reality is an appearance and beyond our capacity to determine what is this real, true, and the way things actually are. This is a hyper-real world that turns reality on its head.
The dilemma we face is not directly with the spectacular or simulated realities. Rather it is not having a ground upon which to distinguish between the real and the hyper-real. Some people may choose to believe in the reality of the hyper-real world, which leads further into the world of spectacle and its consumer-driven nature. But reality has a way of confronting such an artificial world with economic collapses, environmental catastrophes, and the experience of disease, brokenness, and loss.
To recover reality is not to challenge the simulacrums of our time. But rather seek to understand the larger context in which these simulations / spectacles function.
The ancients would describe this capacity to discern reality as wisdom. While wisdom is certainly in short supply and in great demand, it is only one piece of a wider fabric of reality that is needed.
One of the results of the world of simulation and spectacle is the loss of the capacity for open, trustworthy, mutually caring relationships. Instead, we have connections with people. We have “friends” whom we’ve never met, had coffee, or seen face to face.
I am convinced that the recovery of reality comes through the establishment of relationships of genuine meaning and love.
For to love another person requires a kind of reality that allows for honesty, emotional intimacy, and commitment to the care and nurture of the relationship.
There is a choice we can make here. Live in the midst of the spectacle of the real or step back and try to understand how we can begin to live in ways that make a tangible difference in the way the world we live works.
*Originally published May 2013 in the Leading Questions weblog. Revised April 2020.