I. 1. a. A specially prepared or arranged display of a more or less public nature (esp. one on a large scale), forming an impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it.” or “2. A person or thing exhibited to, or set before, the public gaze as an object either (a) of curiosity or contempt, or (b) of marvel or admiration.”
The word spectacle conjures images of extravagant display and performance, or more negatively, images of violence and atrocity. The OED definition of spectacle encompasses “curiosity or contempt” and “marvel or admiration.” While the affective response to spectacle may vary from spectator to spectator, much of the spectacle’s appeal (or repugnance) derives from its visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the viewer. The etymology of the word spectacle derives from the Latin root spectare “to view, watch” and specere “to look at,” and even the alternative definition of spectacle as a pair of spectacles or glasses refers to an instrument used in assistance of sight or as a mediating eye. Like its optical counterpart spectacles which mediates eye with object, the spectacle event serves as a form of mediation between the eye and the affective senses of the spectator. Associated with the display of performance and theater (the Greek theates meaning spectator” and theasthai meaning “to behold”), the spectacle and its ties to the visual and the emotions dates back to Greek tragedy. Aristotle’s from The Poetics essentially argues how the proper arrangement of dramatic elements elicits an emotional response from the audience. For tragedy to assume the “finest form,” the drama must “[arouse] fear and pity” (Aristotle 639). Aristotle’s catharsis, or the purification of emotions through drama, indicates a way in which the spectacle becomes an affective medium for the spectator. Spectacle, however, is not limited to the theater or theatrical performance and can appear in a vast array of contexts and media (i.e.: fireworks, parades, current events, etc.).
The concept of spectacle becomes further complicated with the coming of recording technology. In cinema, television, radio, and similar technologies, a temporal and spatial severance occurs between the spectacle and the spectator. Television shows broadcast across a disparate range of locales and times (i.e.: Eastern vs. Central time showings), and reach a spectator audience who may not even be present in one place or time. The spectacle becomes temporally and spatially disseminated in a doubling of mediation so that the individual’s experience of the spectacle is experienced as a mediation of technological apparatus (a digital screen, radio, etc.). The image of a fireworks display becomes a spectacle because of its televised presentation in addition to its original appeal as an attraction, and similarly mundane events can become spectacle through a televised context (i.e.: reality t.v). Indicative of McLuhan’s oracular maxim “the medium is the message,” the technological medium itself becomes the spectacle rather than the event or content of the spectacle (McLuhan 23). This increase of televised and cinematic mediation, however, does not necessarily alienate the spectator from the spectacle and instead seems to produce a new type of awe and wonder based upon the medium specificity of the filmic image. French social and literary critic Roland Barthes writes on his enthrallment with the cinema, describing the “cinematographic hypnosis” and pleasure of being “glued to the representation” alongside his overall fascination with the “darkness [and] obscure mass of other bodies” found in the cinematic space (Barthes, 348-9). The darkness and mirror-like nature of the cinematic screen allows for a narcissistic gaze to take place between the subject within the film and Barthes the spectator (ibid.).
Film apparatus theory, however, problematizes the highly mediated form of the cinema, and demystifies the cinematic spectacle as part of a larger ideological framework (the word “ideology” itself, etymologically based upon the Latin root idea “image,” evokes the potentially dangerous and manipulative power of the spectacular display). First developed in 1970 by film theorist Jean-Louis Baudry, apparatus theory purports that the physical layout of the theater space produces a spectatorship that falsely identifies with the onscreen subject: the film camera is positioned in the back of a darkened room behind the view of the spectator, causing s/he to become totally unaware of the apparatus producing the filmic image. Engulfed within an ideological spectacle, the spectator remains ignorant of the entire film labor process (audio-video production, editing, etc.) and the ideological effects of the apparatus. A similar re-definition and skepticism towards spectatorship appears in Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” a polemic which locates the power of the gaze within male spectatorship. She argues that Hollywood cinema constructs a male spectatorship based upon scopophilia (pleasure in looking) which fetishizes the female into a sexual object and spectacle, and sadism, which demystifies and punishes the woman (see gaze, 14-16). Queer, Marxist, and post-colonial dialogues have responded and refined Mulvey’s argument so that non-normative categories of spectator and spectacle Otherness are considered.
Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish indirectly challenges and compliments these iconoclastic tendencies towards the spectacle image by arguing that the visible spectacle completely disappears from the public eye. Foucault explains that throughout history, torture and public executions functioned as “theatrical representation[s] of pain” that exhibited a controlling power through its ability to shock and appall spectators (Foucault 14). Beginning with the nineteenth century, however, public spectacles of torture and execution disappear, and re-surface in the form of disciplinary social norms. Understanding the modern spectacle in terms of surveillance, the gaze does not emanate from a particular human agent but from an invisible and normalizing collective (see gaze, 18-19). Demonstrated in Foucault’s panopticon, mass spectatorship inverts itself so that that the former spectators become objects of a disciplinary spectacle.
A similar disengagement with the visual spectacle arises in Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception, a work which de-emphasizes the visual concept of the spectator’s gaze in favor of the term perception. Seeking a more encompassing understanding of modern subjectivity, Crary explains that the “spectacular culture is not founded on the necessity of making a subject see, but rather on strategies in which individuals are isolated, separated, and…disempowered” (Crary 1999, 3). The modern spectacle addresses more complicated issues of class and control which arise with the emergence of social phenomenon such as mass consumerism. In the 1967 polemic Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord argues that the rise of commercialism produces a singular market consciousness or what he calls “the society of the spectacle.” The modern spectacle represents something that claims or “arrogates to itself everything that in human activity exists…so as to possess it in a congealed form” (Debord 1999, 26).
Reminiscent of Aristotle’s understanding of tragedy, the spectacle exhibits an ability to engulf or overwhelm the senses of the individual spectator. Unlike Aristotle, however, Debord’s spectacle takes on ideological meaning, becoming indicative of a larger capitalist super-structure. Debord asserts that the “spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1999, 2). He later states, “The modern spectacle…[is] in essence: the autocratic reign of the market economy” (Debord 1990, II). In a world of mass consumerism of press, advertising, and market products, the spectacle represents the dissemination or mediation of commercial images that lack content. With the pre-fabricated desires and choices presented by (capitalist) commercialism and government regimes, individual subjectivity recedes and converges into a singular commercial consciousness. Although the modern spectacle presents an illusory set of image and representation, the spectacle is not an abstract illusion but a Weltanschauung or a worldview that possesses a material reality (Debord 1999, 13). Commercialism is the “materialization of ideology, in the form of spectacle” (Debord 1999, 150). Through the fetishizing of commodity (where the use-value of an object is totally abstracted into exchange-value), the spectator-consumer relation to the spectacle-image-commodity creates a set of power relations in which the commodity “rule[s] over all lived experience”–rendering “all that once was directly lived” into “mere representation” (Debord 1999, 26, 12).
Addressing Debord’s Society of the Spectacle in a more modern context, Jonathan Crary examines the “totality” or dominance of the television as a spectacular commodity in the “Eclipse of the Spectacle.” He argues that starting with the mid-1970s, the television ceases to be a medium of representation and undergoes a structural change in which the television becomes the “heart of another network,” or a system of mass distribution and regulation (Crary 1984, 284). The “totalizing response to television” or the pervasiveness of television in the modern everyday lives of people (i.e.: in broadcast news, shows, surveillance) becomes what Crary calls “the eclipse of spectacle.” Post-modern theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that television blurs the boundaries between the distributor/sender and watcher/receiver, or the “medium and the real” (Baudrillard, 273). Spectator and spectacle become indistinguishable from one another, disappearing into an abstract plane of fascination, representation, and illusion. The television creates a new form of spectacle in which the consciousness of the spectator and the awareness of the television as a medium (or a material apparatus that distributes ideas and institutional structures) dissolve. Baudrillard, however, argues against Debord, claiming that “we are no longer in the society of spectacle” (Baudrillard 273). The television ceases to be a “spectacular medium,” collapsing and becoming “intangible, diffuse, and diffracted in the real” (ibid.). Solely made up of digital representations or simulations, the televised spectacle ceases to have content: Crary states, “with the eradication of any simulation of interiority, one invests not into images of actors but onto the formal management of those images” (Crary 1984, 289). Thus, the television merely mediates abstraction and simulation rather than importing any actual content or signification–making the modern spectacular space one of the hyper-real.
Creating a turbulent media landscape (from the 1960s Kennedy assassination to Tiananmen Square to our current day mediascape), the televised spectacle begins to de-sensitize rather than evoke affect from the spectator (Crary 1984, 291-2). Television merges a proliferation of disparate images into a singular plane of digital spectacle so that comedy sitcoms and civic celebrations appear alongside images of pornography and acts of terrorism. Crary, echoing Debord, argues that the televised spectacle produces a consciousness which operates solely according to the programming and structuring imported through televised media and its associated socio-economic structures. For theorists such as Foucault, Crary, Debord, and Baudrillard, the spectacular shifts from its theatrical origins and now carries with it issues of class ideology and modern subjectivity. With the shift into modernity, the traditional notion of spectacle as a visual and affective medium begins to delineate a more complex understanding of the spectacle and its relationship to the spectator. The spectator, confronted by new modes of socio-economic production and technology, ceases to simply be a receiver of affect and arguably becomes the modern or post-modern subject.
Aristotle. “De Poetica,” in Introduction to Aristotle. Trans. Ingram Bywater. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
Barthes. “Leaving the Movie Theater,” in The Rustle of Language. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.
Baudry, Jean-Louis. “Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus,” in Film Theory and Criticism : Introductory Readings. Ed. by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Crary, Jonathan. “Eclipse of the Spectacle,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation. Ed. Brian Wallis. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984.
Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999.
Debord, Guy. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Malcolm Imrie. New York: Verso, 1990.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1999.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: Signet, 1964.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.