The Spectacle and the Real

The Spectacle and the Real January 10, 2011

What happened on Saturday was real. Of that event, we can know nothing. We only know about it, but we cannot know it. We can project into the event and try to create “something” (perhaps “something” meaningful, cathartic, or “something” that temporarily cures our boredom), but that “something” is not reality. It is a spectacle.

For those who have known death, real death, they know that it is not spectacular: it is ordinary. Tragedy is not a spectacle; it is a part of real life. We only disfigure tragedy into spectacle as a way to escape the real and make truth into something so extravagantly false, we fall in love with it and desire spectacular things instead of real ones.

The “News” itself tells us about this: what is “News” is sold as spectacular novelty. But those who know of its real origins know that the “News” is not new at all. The “News” is not new, it is complexly distorted into a spectacular thing. It is a thing raped of its reality and replaced with added spectacles of meaning.

As many nice lies that might be said — lies of sympathy and remorse — we all know the basic truth: we love the spectacle. We love these events. We may say that we hate them, but we hate them amorously. We love to hate them. The media loves to feed this to the masses and get rich. And those for whom this fantasy has replaced reality: they will kill anyone who threatens to subvert the spectacle with reality.

What is wrong with this event is that we only believe we can see it — and by thinking we see it, fail to see anything at all — as theater, under the specter of the nation-state: the spectacle of politics.

Regarding politics: political spectacle is status quo. It is the norm, not the exception. Political success is literally tied to being made into a spectacle on television and the rest.

A dose of reality would jolt the social order into the chaos of the real. It is not strange or crazy for strange and crazy things to happen in a culture that fetishes over the spectacle: a culture where real food is the exception; where “reality” is a television genre; where the ordinary is insufficient.

I will not comment on the event, because I do not know it. I only know about it. But I do know that I desire less than the spectacle. I desire the sufficiency of reality, the simplicity of beauty, the ordinary Love that knows how to be excessive and nothing more.

The sign of ideology is the spectacle. The sign of truth is the real. One is an idol, made and loved by a culture that blindly sees it as real, as some new thing: an opportunity for making money, for feeling better about oneself, for justifying our misery. The other is an icon, mysterious and fleeting, and mostly (in)visible to children — the ones who know to not pretend to know what they do not, and cannot, know.

“And so, whoever makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.” (Matt 18:4, NJB)

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  • Much of this is too deep for me, but when there is a tragedy like this, I want to know about it. I want to find out as much as I can. I am fascinated by what happened, and fascinated by other people’s reactions to it. I don’t feel guilty about that. (There are people, by the way, who want to know as little as they can when something like this happens.)

    It is the job of journalists to cover stories, and you can’t blame them for being (on some level) excited to cover a big story. It is why they became journalists. Also, I have noticed over the years that when ordinary individuals are involved in a tragedy themselves, they often want to talk about it in a way that seems to say, “Look at me. I was personally involved in this important event.” I think this explains why grieving relatives are willing to be interviewed on television under circumstances where I imagine wanting to lock myself away somewhere and cry. Some of it no doubt is cathartic, but some of it comes from a sense of being important because something important happened to them. People like to talk about themselves.

    I have only just begun watching old episodes of Gray’s Anatomy, which of course does not qualify as authoritative, but it strikes me as very plausible and probably realistic that the interns crave a chance to be involved in surgery so much that they all but want people to need it. And I personally would rather have a skilled surgeon who loves surgery and doesn’t care all that much for people as an inept surgeon who cared deeply about me as a human being.

    Perhaps this is also one reason we write on blogs (or poets write poems, or novelists write novels). We want to draw attention to ourselves in what is at least is partly a narcissistic way. It’s very human, and it’s negative only if it goes too far.

  • Much of this is too deep for me, but when there is a tragedy like this, I want to know about it. I want to find out as much as I can. I am fascinated by what happened, and fascinated by other people’s reactions to it. I don’t feel guilty about that. (There are people, by the way, who want to know as little as they can when something like this happens.)

    It is the job of journalists to cover stories, and you can’t blame them for being (on some level) excited to cover a big story. It is why they became journalists. Also, I have noticed over the years that when ordinary individuals are involved in a tragedy themselves, they often want to talk about it in a way that seems to say, “Look at me. I was personally involved in this important event.” I think this explains why grieving relatives are willing to be interviewed on television under circumstances where I imagine wanting to lock myself away somewhere and cry. Some of it no doubt is cathartic, but some of it comes from a sense of being important because something important happened to them. People like to talk about themselves.

    I have only just begun watching old episodes of Gray’s Anatomy, which of course does not qualify as authoritative, but it strikes me as very plausible and probably realistic that the interns crave a chance to be involved in surgery so much that they all but want people to need it. And I personally would rather have a skilled surgeon who loves surgery and doesn’t care all that much for people as an inept surgeon who cared deeply about me as a human being.

    Perhaps this is also one reason we write on blogs (or poets write poems, or novelists write novels). We want to draw attention to ourselves in what is at least is partly a narcissistic way. It’s very human, and it’s negative only if it goes too far.

  • I think I agree with you here for the most part, David. I especially agree that, if I am willing to be self-reflexive about it, my post may simply be another spectacle: a cathartic exercise by someone who doesn’t want reality either but likes to make a fuss about it.

    Let me make one clarification: I want to make a distinction between “knowing” and “knowing about.” In Spanish this would be like the difference between ‘saber’ and ‘conocer.’

    I think we desire to “know” but end up settling for “knowing about,” especially in a culture where “knowledge-about” is postured as “knowledge.” (Like being hungry for food and eating chemicals instead, something I do often.) Our desire to “know” is the desire for the real. Replacing that desire with a desire for “knowledge-about” is the perverse desire for the spectacle.

    Thanks for reading,

    Sam

  • I think I agree with you here for the most part, David. I especially agree that, if I am willing to be self-reflexive about it, my post may simply be another spectacle: a cathartic exercise by someone who doesn’t want reality either but likes to make a fuss about it.

    Let me make one clarification: I want to make a distinction between “knowing” and “knowing about.” In Spanish this would be like the difference between ‘saber’ and ‘conocer.’

    I think we desire to “know” but end up settling for “knowing about,” especially in a culture where “knowledge-about” is postured as “knowledge.” (Like being hungry for food and eating chemicals instead, something I do often.) Our desire to “know” is the desire for the real. Replacing that desire with a desire for “knowledge-about” is the perverse desire for the spectacle.

    Thanks for reading,

    Sam

  • Gordie

    Sam:

    This is a wonderful post. I share the same ideas about spectacle. I read Brothers Karamarov recently and the most insightful part of the book for me was the spectacle of Dimitri’s trial. No different then today:) Of course it’s human nature to be attracted to the sensational. I think we do this so we don’t have to think about ourselves, our own inner life, and our purpose in this life. I agree with Kierkegaard when he said “…the crowd is untruth”. But like David I still find myself attracted to the news and the spectacle. I love stories and hearing about people’s triumphs and tragedies. I usually learn something about myself if I’m truly open to what I’m hearing and seeing. Then there comes a point when I get too much of this spectacle and find myself in a melancholy mood. Then I find myself working in the garden, riding my bike with friends, or reading a good book and this brings me solace so I can repeat the process once again. I try to make sense of the world I live in but the answers always slip through my fingers but I keep trying. I consider this my mild form of bipolar disorder:) I wouldn’t have my life any other way.

    Gordie

  • Gordie

    Sam:

    This is a wonderful post. I share the same ideas about spectacle. I read Brothers Karamarov recently and the most insightful part of the book for me was the spectacle of Dimitri’s trial. No different then today:) Of course it’s human nature to be attracted to the sensational. I think we do this so we don’t have to think about ourselves, our own inner life, and our purpose in this life. I agree with Kierkegaard when he said “…the crowd is untruth”. But like David I still find myself attracted to the news and the spectacle. I love stories and hearing about people’s triumphs and tragedies. I usually learn something about myself if I’m truly open to what I’m hearing and seeing. Then there comes a point when I get too much of this spectacle and find myself in a melancholy mood. Then I find myself working in the garden, riding my bike with friends, or reading a good book and this brings me solace so I can repeat the process once again. I try to make sense of the world I live in but the answers always slip through my fingers but I keep trying. I consider this my mild form of bipolar disorder:) I wouldn’t have my life any other way.

    Gordie

  • Jordan Hoerr

    I wonder if perhaps our living vicariously through such spectacular events (in the literal sense of the word) is a means of satisfying our own human needs for such things as, in this case, righteous indignation, or in playing an adventure game, the sense of, well, adventure. Why else would young ones play Cowboys and Indians in the past or Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty today? Why else would men (and a sampling of women) watch ESPN? In other words, not only might there be something cathartic about spectating, but the very opposite might also be (and/or) true: that one satisfies his innate need for certain… I’m at a loss of words. Emotions? That doesn’t sound right. But hopefully you understand. To set up a contrast, while catharsis is the release of pent-up emotional energy, one might say, vicarious spectating is the satisfying of an emotion (word choice?) that one hungers for. I’m not sure if this is actually true, but it’s a theory a friend of mine developed with me one day.

  • Jordan Hoerr

    I wonder if perhaps our living vicariously through such spectacular events (in the literal sense of the word) is a means of satisfying our own human needs for such things as, in this case, righteous indignation, or in playing an adventure game, the sense of, well, adventure. Why else would young ones play Cowboys and Indians in the past or Super Mario Bros. or Call of Duty today? Why else would men (and a sampling of women) watch ESPN? In other words, not only might there be something cathartic about spectating, but the very opposite might also be (and/or) true: that one satisfies his innate need for certain… I’m at a loss of words. Emotions? That doesn’t sound right. But hopefully you understand. To set up a contrast, while catharsis is the release of pent-up emotional energy, one might say, vicarious spectating is the satisfying of an emotion (word choice?) that one hungers for. I’m not sure if this is actually true, but it’s a theory a friend of mine developed with me one day.

  • Thanks for the comments, Gordie and Jordan.

    I think you both raise much of the same sorts of thing I agree with coming out of David’s comment: That the desire for the spectacle is common and seems to be placed deeply within ourselves. I agree. I do think, however, that there are degree and differences between such desires and I hope to follow-up and what find in particular about this one.

    Sam

  • Thanks for the comments, Gordie and Jordan.

    I think you both raise much of the same sorts of thing I agree with coming out of David’s comment: That the desire for the spectacle is common and seems to be placed deeply within ourselves. I agree. I do think, however, that there are degree and differences between such desires and I hope to follow-up and what find in particular about this one.

    Sam

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