By Doug Kellner

In the contemporary era, media spectacle organizes and mobilizes economic life, political conflict, social interactions, culture, and everyday life. My recently published book Media Spectacle explores a profusion of developments in hi-tech culture, media-driven society, and spectacle politics. Spectacle culture involves everything from film and broadcasting to Internet cyberculture and encompasses phenomena ranging from elections to terrorism and to the media dramas of the moment. For ‘Logo’, I am accordingly sketching out briefly a terrain I probe in detail in the book from which these examples are taken.1

During the past decades, every form of culture and significant forms of social life have become permeated by the logic of the spectacle. Movies are bigger and more spectacular than ever, with high-tech special effects expanding the range of cinematic spectacle. Television channels proliferate endlessly with all-day movies, news, sports, specialty niches, re-runs of the history of television, and whatever else can gain an audience. The rock spectacle reverberates through radio, television, CDs, computers networks, and extravagant concerts. The Internet encircles the world in the spectacle of an interactive and multimedia cyberculture. Media culture excels in creating megaspectacles of sports championships, political conflicts, entertainment, “breaking news” and media events, such as the O.J. Simpson trial, the Death of Princess Diana, or the sex or murder scandal of the moment. Megaspectacle comes as well to dominate party politics, as the political battles of the day, such as the Clinton sex scandals and impeachment, the 36 Day Battle for the White House after Election 2000, and the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent Terror War. These dramatic media passion plays define the politics of the time, and attract mass audiences to their programming, hour after hour, day after day.

The concept of “spectacle” derives from French Situationist theorist Guy Debord’s 1972 book Society of the Spectacle. “Spectacle,” in Debord’s terms, “unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena” (Debord 1970: #10). In one sense, it refers to a media and consumer society, organized around the consumption of images, commodities, and spectacles. Spectacles are those phenomena of media culture which embody contemporary society’s basic values, and dreams and nightmares, putting on display dominant hopes and fears. They serve to enculturate individuals into its way of life, and dramatize its conflicts and modes of conflict resolution. They include sports events, political campaigns and elections, and media extravaganzas like sensational murder trials, or the Bill Clinton sex scandals and impeachment spectacle (1998-1999).

As we enter a new millennium, the media are becoming ever more technologically dazzling and are playing an increasingly central role in everyday life. Under the influence of a postmodern image culture, seductive spectacles fascinate the denizens of the media and consumer society and involve them in the semiotics of a new world of entertainment, information, a semiotics of a new world of entertainment, information, and drama, which deeply influence thought and action. For Debord: “When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present day society” (#18). Today, however, I would maintain it is the multimedia spectacle of sight, sound, touch, and, coming to you soon, smell that constitutes the multidimensional sense experience of the new interactive spectacle.

For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a “permanent opium war” (#44) which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life — recovering the full range of their human powers through creative praxis. The concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of separation and passivity, for in passively consuming spectacles, one is separated from actively producing one’s life. Capitalist society separates workers from the products of their labor, art from life, and consumption from human needs and self-directing activity, as individuals passively observe the spectacles of social life from within the privacy of their homes (#25 and #26). The situationist project by contrast involved an overcoming of all forms of separation, in which individuals would directly produce their own life and modes of self-activity and collective practice.

Since Debord’s theorization of the society of the spectacle in the 1960s and 1970s, spectacle culture has expanded in every area of life. In the culture of the spectacle, commercial enterprises have to be entertaining to prosper and as Michael J. Wolf (1999) argues, in an “entertainment economy,” business and fun fuse, so that the E-factor is becoming major aspect of business.2 Via the “entertainmentization” of the economy, television, film, theme parks, video games, casinos, and so forth become major sectors of the national economy. In the U.S., the entertainment industry is now a $480 billion industry, and consumers spend more on having fun than on clothes or health care (Wolf 1999: 4). 3

In a competitive business world, the “fun factor” can give one business the edge over another. Hence, corporations seek to be more entertaining in their commercials, their business environment, their commercial spaces, and their web sites. Budweiser ads, for instance, feature talking frogs who tell us nothing about the beer, but who catch the viewers’ attention, while Taco Bell deploys a talking dog, and Pepsi uses Star Wars characters. Buying, shopping, and dining out are coded as an “experience,” as businesses adopt a theme-park style. Places like the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues are not renowned for their food, after all; people go there for the ambience, to buy clothing, and to view music and media memorabilia. It is no longer good enough just to have a web site, it has to be an interactive spectacle, featuring not only products to buy, but music and videos to download, games to play, prizes to win, travel information, and “links to other cool sites.”

To succeed in the ultracompetitive global marketplace, corporations need to circulate their image and brand name so business and advertising combine in the promotion of corporations as media spectacles. Endless promotion circulates the McDonald’s Golden Arches, Nike’s Swoosh, or the logos of Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. In the brand wars between commodities, corporations need to make their logos or “trademarks” a familiar signpost in contemporary culture. Corporations place their logos on their products, in ads, in the spaces of everyday life, and in the midst of media spectacles like important sports events, TV shows, movie product placement, and wherever they can catch consumer eyeballs, to impress their brand name on a potential buyer. Consequently, advertising, marketing, public relations and promotion are an essential part of commodity spectacle in the global marketplace.

Celebrity too is manufactured and managed in the world of media spectacle. Celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life. To become a celebrity requires recognition as a star player in the field of media spectacle, be it sports, entertainment, or politics. Celebrities have their handlers and image managers to make sure that their celebrities continue to be seen and positively perceived by publics. Just as with corporate brand names, celebrities become brands to sell their Madonna, Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, or Jennifer Lopez product and image. In a media culture, however, celebrities are always prey to scandal and thus must have at their disposal an entire public relations apparatus to manage their spectacle fortunes, to make sure their clients not only maintain high visibility but keep projecting a positive image. Of course, within limits, “bad” and transgressions can also sell and so media spectacle contains celebrity dramas that attract public attention and can even define an entire period, as when the O.J. Simpson murder trials and Bill Clinton sex scandals dominated the media in the mid and late 1990s.

Entertainment has always been a prime field of the spectacle, but in today’s infotainment society, entertainment and spectacle have entered into the domains of the economy, politics, society, and everyday life in important new ways. Building on the tradition of spectacle, contemporary forms of entertainment from television to the stage are incorporating spectacle culture into their enterprises, transforming film, television, music, drama, and other domains of culture, as well as producing spectacular new forms of culture such as cyberspace, multimedia, and virtual reality.

For Neil Gabler, in an era of media spectacle, life itself is becoming like a movie and we create our own lives as a genre like film, or television, in which we become “at once performance artists in and audiences for a grand, ongoing show” (1998: 4). On Gabler’s view, we star in our own “lifies,” making our lives into entertainment acted out for audiences of our peers, following the scripts of media culture, adopting its role models and fashion types, its style and look. Seeing our lives in cinematic terms, entertainment becomes for Gabler “arguably the most pervasive, powerful and ineluctable force of our time–a force so overwhelming that it has metastasized into life” to such an extent that it is impossible to distinguish between the two (1998: 9). As Gabler sees it, Ralph Lauren is our fashion expert; Martha Stewart designs our sets; Jane Fonda models our shaping of our bodies; and Oprah Winfrey advises us on our personal problems.4

Media spectacle is indeed a culture of celebrity who provide dominant role models and icons of fashion, look, and personality. In the world of spectacle, celebrity encompasses every major social domain from entertainment to politics to sports to business. An ever-expanding public relations industry hypes certain figures, elevating them to celebrity status, and protects their positive image in the never-ending image wars and dangers that a celebrity will fall prey to the machinations of negative-image and thus lose celebrity status, and/or become figures of scandal and approbation, as will some of the players and institutions that I examine in Media Spectacle (Kellner 2003).

Sports has long been a domain of the spectacle with events like the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, World Soccer Cup, and NBA championships attracting massive audiences, while generating sky-high advertising rates. These cultural rituals celebrate society’s deepest values (i.e. competition, winning, success, and money), and corporations are willing to pay top dollar to get their products associated with such events. Indeed, it appears that the logic of the commodity spectacle is inexorably permeating professional sports which can no longer be played without the accompaniment of cheerleaders, giant mascots who clown with players and spectators, and raffles, promotions, and contests that feature the products of various sponsors.

Sports stadiums themselves contain electronic reproduction of the action, as well as giant advertisements for various products that rotate for maximum saturation — previewing environmental advertising in which entire urban sites are becoming scenes to boost consumption spectacles. Arenas, like the United Center in Chicago, America West Arena in Phoenix, on Enron Field in Houston are named after corporate sponsors. Of course, after major corporate scandals or collapse, like the Enron spectacle, the ballparks must be renamed!

The Texas Ranger Ballpark in Arlington, Texas supplements its sports arena with a shopping mall, office buildings, and a restaurant in which for a hefty price one can watch the athletic events while eating and drinking.5 The architecture of the Texas Rangers stadium is an example of the implosion of sports and entertainment and postmodern spectacle. A man-made lake surrounds the stadium, the corridor inside is modeled after Chartes Cathedral, and the structure is made of local stone that provides the look of the Texas Capitol in Austin. Inside there are Texas longhorn cattle carvings, panels of Texas and baseball history, and other iconic signifiers of sports and Texas. The merging of sports, entertainment, and local spectacle is now typical in sports palaces. Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, Florida, for instance, “has a three-level mall that includes places where ‘fans can get a trim at the barber shop, do their banking and then grab a cold one at the Budweiser brew pub, whose copper kettles rise three stories. There is even a climbing wall for kids and showroom space for car dealerships'” (Ritzer 1998: 229).

Film has long been a fertile field of the spectacle, with “Hollywood” connoting a world of glamour, publicity, fashion, and excess. Hollywood film has exhibited grand movie palaces, spectacular openings with searchlights and camera-popping paparazzi, glamorous Oscars, and stylish hi-tech film. While epic spectacle became a dominant genre of Hollywood film from early versions of The Ten Commandments through Cleopatra and 2001 in the 1960s, contemporary film has incorporated the mechanics of spectacle into its form, style, and special effects. Films are hyped into spectacle through advertising and trailers which are ever louder, more glitzy, and razzle-dazzle. Some of the most popular films of the late 1990s were spectacle films, including Titanic, Star Wars — Phantom Menace, Three Kings, and Austin Powers, a spoof of spectacle, which became one of the most successful films of summer 1999. During Fall 1999, there was a cycle of spectacles, including Topsy Turvy, Titus, Cradle Will Rock, Sleepy Hollow, The Insider, and Magnolia, with the latter featuring the biblical spectacle of the raining of frogs in the San Fernando Valley, in an allegory of the decadence of the entertainment industry and deserved punishment for its excesses.

The 2000 Academy Awards were dominated by the spectacle Gladiator, a mediocre film that captured best picture award and best acting award for Russell Crowe, thus demonstrating the extent to which the logic of the spectacle now dominates Hollywood film. Some of the most critically acclaimed and popular films of 2001 are also hi-tech spectacle, such as Moulin Rouge, a film spectacle that itself is a delirious ode to spectacle, from cabaret and the brothel to can-can dancing, opera, musical comedy, dance, theater, popular music, and film. A postmodern pastiche of popular music styles and hits, the film used songs and music ranging from Madonna and the Beatles to Dolly Parton and Kiss.

Other 2001 film spectacles include Pearl Harbor, which re-enacts the Japanese attack on the U.S. that propelled the country to enter World War II, and that provided a ready metaphor for the September 11 terror attacks. Major 2001 film spectacles range from David Lynch’s postmodern surrealism in Mulholland Drive to Steven Spielberg’s blending of his typically sentimental spectacle of the family with the formalist rigor of Stanley Kubrick in A.I. And the popular 2001 military film Black-Hawk Down provided a spectacle of American military heroism which some critics believed sugar-coated the actual problems with the U.S. military intervention in Somalia, causing worries that a future U.S. adventure by the Bush administration and Pentagon would meet similar problems. There were reports, however, that in Somalian cinemas there were loud cheers as the Somalians in the film shot down the U.S. helicopter, and pursued and killed American soldiers, attesting to growing anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world against Bush administration policies.

Television has been from its introduction in the 1940s a promoter of consumption spectacle, selling cars, fashion, home appliances, and other commodities along with consumer life-styles and values. It is also the home of sports spectacle like the Super Bowl or World Series, political spectacles like elections (or more recently, scandals), entertainment spectacle like the Oscars or Grammies, and its own spectacles like breaking news or special events. Following the logic of spectacle entertainment, contemporary television exhibits more hi-tech glitter, faster and glitzier editing, computer simulations, and with cable and satellite television, a fantastic array of every conceivable type of show and genre.

TV is today a medium of spectacular programs like The X-Files or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and spectacles of everyday life such as MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules, or the globally popular Survivor and Big Brother series. Real life events, however, took over TV spectacle in 2000-2001 in, first, an intense battle for the White House in a dead-heat election, that arguably constitutes one of the greatest political crimes and scandals in U.S. history (see Kellner 2001). After months of the Bush administration pushing the most hardright political agenda in memory and then deadlocking as the Democrats took control of the Senate in a dramatic party re-affiliation of Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, the world was treated to the most horrifying spectacle of the new millennium, the September 11 terror attacks and unfolding Terror War that has so far engulfed Afghanistan and Iraq. These events promise an unending series of deadly spectacle for the foreseeable future.6

Hence, we are emerging into a new culture of media spectacle that constitutes a novel configuration of economy, society, politics, and everyday life. It involves new cultural forms, social relations, and modes of experience. It is producing an ever-proliferating and expanding spectacle culture with its proliferating media forms, cultural spaces, and myriad forms of spectacle. It is evident in the U.S. as the new millennium unfolds and may well constitute emergent new forms of global culture. Critical social theory thus faces important challenges in theoretically mapping and analyzing these emergent forms of culture and society and the ways that they may contain novel forms of domination and oppression, as well as potential for democratization and social justice.

Originally appeared in MC Journal(2003)

Works Cited

  • Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1967.
  • Gabler, Neil. Life the Movie. How Entertainment Conquered Reality. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.
  • Kellner, Douglas. Grand Theft 2000. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.
  • Kellner, Douglas. From 9/11 to Terror War: Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003.
  • Kellner, Douglas. Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
  • Ritzer, George. The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and Extensions. Thousand Oaks, Cal. and London: Sage, 1998.
  • Wolf, Michael J. Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces are Transforming Our Lives. New York: Times Books, 1999.

Notes

1 See Douglas Kellner, Media Spectacle. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

2 Wolf’s book is a detailed and useful celebration of the “entertainment economy,” although he is a shill for the firms and tycoons that he works for and celebrates them in his book. Moreover, while entertainment is certainly an important component of the infotainment economy, it is an exaggeration to say that it drives it and is actually propelling it, as Wolf repeatedly claims. Wolf also downplays the negative aspects of the entertainment economy, such as growing consumer debt and the ups and downs of the infotainment stock market and vicissitudes of the global economy.

3 Another source notes that “the average American household spent $1,813 in 1997 on entertainment — books, TV, movies, theater, toys — almost as much as the $1,841 spent on health care per family, according to a survey by the US Labor Department.” Moreover, “the price we pay to amuse ourselves has, in some cases, risen at a rate triple that of inflation over the past five years” (USA Today, April 2, 1999: E1). The NPD Group provided a survey that indicated that the amount of time spent on entertainment outside of the home –- such as going to the movies or a sport event – was up 8% from the early to the late 1990s and the amount of time in home entertainment, such as watching television or surfing the Internet, went up 2%. Reports indicate that in a typical American household, people with broadband Internet connections spend 22% more time on all-electronic media and entertainment than the average household without broadband. See “Study: Broadband in homes changes media habits” (PCWORLD.COM, October 11, 2000).

4 Gabler’s book is a synthesis of Daniel Boorstin, Dwight Macdonald, Neil Poster, Marshall McLuhan, and other trendy theorists of media culture, but without the brilliance of a Baudrillard, the incisive criticism of an Adorno, or the understanding of the deeper utopian attraction of media culture of a Bloch or Jameson. Likewise, Gabler does not, a la cultural studies, engage the politics of representation, or its economics and political economy. He thus ignores mergers in the culture industries, new technologies, the restructuring of capitalism, globalization, and shifts in the economy that are driving the impetus toward entertainment. Gabler does get discuss how new technologies are creating new spheres of entertainment and forms of experience and in general describes rather than theorizes the trends he is engaging.

5 The project was designed and sold to the public in part through the efforts of the son of a former President, George W. Bush. Young Bush was bailed out of heavy losses in the Texas oil industry in the 1980s by his father’s friends and used his capital gains, gleaned from what some say as illicit insider trading, to purchase part-ownership of a baseball team to keep the wayward son out of trouble and to give him something to do. The soon-to-be Texas governor, and future President of the United States, sold the new stadium to local taxpayers, getting them to agree to a higher sales tax to build the stadium which would then become the property of Bush and his partners. This deal allowed Bush to generate a healthy profit when he sold his interest in the Texas Rangers franchise and to buy his Texas ranch, paid for by Texas tax-payers (for sources on the scandalous life of George W. Bush and his surprising success in politics, see Kellner 2001 and the further discussion of Bush Jr. in Chapter 6).

6 See Douglas Kellner, From 9/11 to Terror War: Dangers of the Bush Legacy. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield
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Douglas Kellner

Douglas Kellner

Douglas Kellner is the George F. Kneller Philosophy of Education Chair at UCLA, working mainly in the field of Frankfurt School critical theory. Doug was an early theorist of the field of critical media literacy and has been a leading theorist of media culture generally. For more information, please see Doug’s author profile
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