Recent Comments

Women's March
Aimee Loiselle

As a historian, I recognize certain movements in the past that have been very successful at both playing the spectacle and engaging the unspectacular aspects of formal power leverage. (The civil rights movement that built from 1896 with the NACWC to its successes in the mid-1960s is one example. The women’s suffrage movement with its bitter tensions between the public marches and forced feedings in jail vs. the political and legislative lobbying is another example in which the different tactics were not coordinated but did reinforce each other.) I wonder in our current age if the spectacle has supplanted the unglamorous work and grinding efforts of restructuring power systems. I do not critique demonstrations at all, and I hope with you that they can lead to more systemic change beyond symbolic representation. And I agree that right-leaning organizations use the spectacle as well (although I would say the strength of ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce is their obscured lobbying), but the left has lost the formal economic and political battles of the past 30 years. I enjoy conversations like this one because of my past participation in big protests and marches and my current concerns about their effectiveness—not because I think democratic, public use of the spectacle should cease. But because I hope they lead to sustained efforts at the unspectacular.

Sally Field as Norma Rae (1979)
Kay Beckermann

Thank you for sharing these great thoughts! I am particularly interested in your discussion of backstage versus frontstage spectacle. Unfortunately, the media often moves the real issue to the background because it isn’t exciting enough to capture audiences. The result is perhaps a great image, like the Sally Field example, but the real issue is lost and the message distorted.

Women's March
Kris Coffield

This is an excellent dialogue in which we’re engaged and I hope we can continue it once the theme week is over. I’m borrowing from Spivak’s idea of “strategic essentialism,” as you undoubtedly figured. I’m certainly not denying media corporatization or corporate usurpation of protest for popular branding. If what I’m calling “strategic spectacularization” can ever be successful, it must emphasize the “strategic” part of the concept. Once recognition is attained, any cooptation of corporate platforms must be critiqued, if not utterly renounced. You highlighted the problem: mass movements using traditional or new media are unfortunately ensnared by the corporate entities they’re working to expose. At the same time, I disagree with your assertion about the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC building influence without the spectacle. They’re shadowy organizations, to be sure, but the groups they represent are often the biggest drivers and proponents of the spectacle–Super PACs, for example, that represent multinational oil or agribusiness firms and spend millions of dollars on reductionist campaign ads. We need more democratic media platforms. Yet, if a narrative can be crafted across traditional media platforms that brings attention to a issue that’s long been silenced–Black Lives Matter and police violence, for instance–can that same process by strategically appropriated to foment widespread dissent and repartition who and what counts as recognizable, even temporarily? I’m not dismissing your critique at all. I think it’s more than valid. I’m just trying to complicate the question further.

Women's March
Kris Coffield

I agree that the traditional media’s influence is waning. Social media is equally image-driven and simulacratic, though, and I think has to be incorporated into our modern understanding of how the spectacle is comprised. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram–these are all multibillion-dollar enterprises. With more people than ever getting their news through social media–to wit, the debate over “fake news” and “alternate facts”–I wonder at what point we begin the consider social media to be “mainstream.” I’m admittedly trying to expand the term “spectacle” and, perhaps, redefine it a bit, but I think the material impact of image-driven resistance needs further exploration. When people in Honolulu see video of someone marching in New York and want to do the same, I think they can strategically assume the narrative being covered by the “mainstream” media to gain visibility, then move beyond that narrative once visibility has been attained to address the particular manifestations of a given issue in a local context. I’m not positing that as a universal political strategy, of course, but only one tool that can be used to advance political movements in a hypermediatic environment. Anyone doing so would have to safeguard against exactly the kind of cooptation of which you speak, but the possibility for building broader coalitions may be worth considering.

Women's March
Aimee Loiselle

Excellent post and response. I do appreciate the idea of people organizing and getting coverage and sharing their own images. I still lean towards Debord’s notion that “the spectacle” creates certain relationships between people, movements, and power systems. While his theory could not have imagined the Internet and the ways people and organizations could control their own images, the fact remains that the great majority of outlets for images, from corporate news networks to YouTube to Facebook have one primary agenda: selling advertising and increasing their revenues. That leads me to questions like, How does posting our own images and words still continue to serve the larger corporate and commercial systems even as it fuels mass actions? In what ways do the un-spectactular issues and negotiations of power get lost in such attention to captivating images of “resistance”? Organizations on the right, like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce have been very successful at building and entrenching their influence without spectacle. I am also reminded of a recent interview with one of the Occupy Wall Street organizers who said, “Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme. Or changing the discourse. We changed the discourse. We trained a whole new generation of activists, but we didn’t change how power functions. That’s what our real goal was. I think that’s an indictment of contemporary activism.” None of those questions or comment are intended as criticisms of protest or public demonstrations, but rather as ways to examine the functionality of “the spectacle” even when organizers intentionally deploy such forms intentionally.

http://www.npr.org/2017/03/28/520911740/occupy-activist-micah-white-time...

Women's March
Heather Lusty

Great post! It’s been an interesting year for marches/protest spectacle. It seems as though the media apparatus will only cover mass protests as political resistance spectacles, rather than as issue-focused popular democratic participation. You note that “divergent populations are today able to employ the media for strategic spectacularization, whereby mediatic apparatuses undergirding the society of the spectacle are used to forge mass movements;” I think the term media is no longer sufficient to represent the numerous streams of information transmission (not in conversation with each other). Mainstream media only turns attention to large protests when the planning or communication about events has gone viral on social media; it’s almost as if they’re forced to keep up and give attention to things that “the masses” have deemed worthy of posting, sharing, donating to, and attending. The “murmuring corporatization of “sensible” speech” is at the forefront of the fight for democratic ideals; mainstream media has been flaccid and complicit for decades; what we’re now witnessing is perhaps a loss of influence from their own ineffectualness (which is deserved, as they’re doing a terrible job in every way imaginable), and a rise of populace-driven coverage, a reclaiming of voice, if you will. Interesting times!

Water is Life
Heather Lusty

Very good post on the confluence of celebrity “causes” and the sideshow media circus. The spectacle of the media (what they covered, what they didn’t cover, and the FB live streaming all played into the mismanagement of coverage. I can remember seeing half a dozen celebrities go up there and talk, but never saw interviews with the indigenous people the pipeline actually endangers on large news stations (I guess a tangential issue here is the rise of social media journalism as a way to garner attention for real issues). There are so many problems with the way mainstream, corporate media chose not to cover a large portion of the discussion, specifically ignoring state police action against peaceful protesters, that is really problematic — the packaging of news is not about conveying newsworthy information or reporting on situations, but on what is most attractive as spectacle (and hence pulls in ad revenue). I think most stations didn’t cover this fracas because of the obvious civil rights violations; when the spectacle is oppression or violation, there’s no good spin.

Aimee Loiselle

I agree that public demonstrations, collective displays, and the discussions they generate can lead to intense shifts in organizing and economic-political efforts. For me, the notion of “spectacle” rests in the relationships between folks which are mediated by images in ways that eclipse the conditions that sparked the protests. Those foster social relations often limited to fetish and image consumption. Videos and photos as media are not necessarily reductive or constitutive of spectacle. But the obsession with and repetition of the images (whether corporate or user-shared on behalf of corporate software like YouTube that profits from content usually created for free) constructs the spectacle from the videos and photos. As someone who respects and celebrates collective actions, demonstrations, and marches, I do not question spreading the word and inspiring others. But I have seen not only the corporatization and commodification of such images, but also the use of them as style or even a badge of rebelliousness. Neither of which have much impact on the larger systems that prompted the protests.

Water is Life
Aimee Loiselle

Excellent post about the risks and results of celebrity voices in protests. The celebrity exists as a spectacle (as a persona separate from their basic existence) and makes the protest an extension of that spectacle. Even with the best of intentions and their own rights to civic activities, celebrities shifted the focus of the DAPL actions. I imagine those actions as a range of efforts: treaty debates, regional political negotiations, court cases, letters and phonecalls as well as the public demonstrations and physical resistance at the site. But the celebrities only highlight the public demonstrations, intensifying the obsession with such efforts and further marginalizing the other forms of resistance in the legal, political, financial, and legislative arenas. It seems like a convergence of spectacle: the celebrity and the public demonstration.

Kris Coffield

You deftly highlight the normative paradox of today’s spectacular society. On the one hand, the spectacle propounds consumerism and alienation. On the other, today’s spectacular iterations, particularly via social media, can coalesce new forms of politics that resist cultural homogenization and contest normativity. These political expressions, too, can be coopted to promote a brand and, in turn, are routinely critiqued for that cooptation on mediatic platforms. It’s a cycle that mirrors the broader systems of (attempted) interpellation within which society is imbricated. All the same, if we expand our notion of “the spectacle” beyond the corporaization and desensitivity, I wonder if we can explore ways in which the spectacle has been appropriated to produce material change. As you indicate, videos of police brutality circulating on social media, for example, have given rise to new movements and new voice to people who’ve long been silenced. How can we acknowledge dissent spurred by the spectacle, while also problematizing corporate control?