The Annotated Spectacle of the Real: 3
Background Series: The Spectacle of the Real
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 a different narrative, or a different perspective; but a different reality. This spectacle is a simulacrum. An 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 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 have 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 analysis 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 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 is this real, true and the way things actually are. This is a hyper-real world which 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 with, 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 the commitment to the care and nurture of our relationship.