Guy Debord, writing in the 1960s, analysed the supplanting of the active and directly lived life of society by the ‘spectacle’, with which members of society passively identify and which they consume. Debord made clear that the spectacle—the mediation of social relations by images—isn’t merely some supplement to society, but that it lies at the heart of our society’s unreality.
I’ve discussed Debord’s work before in various places and have emphasized the ways in which the Internet, and social media in particular, reinforce and extend the dynamics he observed. On social media, the identification with the spectacle is redoubled, not least through the role played by the ‘second screen’. While the ‘first screen’ is the screen upon which we watch a film or TV show, the ‘second screen’ is the screen with which we share our responses and identifications with the images of the first screen on social media.
This ‘second screen’ tightens the spectacle’s control over us and increases our alienation from directly lived reality by further incorporating the self into the spectacle. In the realm of the spectacle, alienated from the solidity and weightiness of reality, the self is highly performative, defined almost entirely by its chosen self-expression and identifications, rather than by any given nature or belonging. The selves that result are fragile, reactive, and unstable.
In this realm, we are defined by appearances, by the images that we project of ourselves within the shared spectacle. You are defined, not by your behaviour over many years in the concrete world, by your family relations, or by your deep belonging within your community, but by the cultural artefacts you like and by the way you align yourself with your words. Whereas the dominance of appearance was necessarily constrained in the past by the sheer weight and immediacy of the concrete world in which we acted, the Internet, as a disembodied and virtual realm cut off from the concrete world, enables appearance to eclipse everything else.
I was brought to think about this again today when reflecting upon the amount of emotional and physical energy expended online in the analysis of, reaction to, and identification with various cultural artefacts, especially by Christians. I have yet to watch the film itself, so haven’t been looking out for them, but I must have seen at least fifty reviews or articles in response to The Last Jedi, a number of them written by Christians. I have encountered countless other reactions on social media and elsewhere.
The glutinous agglomeration of ‘takes’ that social media coughs up after the release of every major cultural product is a telling indication of just how closely we have come to identify with our entertainment consumption. This proliferation of takes reveals a sort of incontinence of speech, probably a result of the sapping of gravity from the realm of discourse and our disconnection from the world of action. When words weigh little they are easy to pronounce. When the online spectacle is our primary reality, what else is there to do but to speak incessantly and incestuously? Like a balloon filled with hot air and untethered from the ground, the solidity of the earth will gradually retreat from our view as we float higher and higher into the thin atmosphere of a realm forgetful of gravity and concreteness.
Where there is little concrete reality that we share in common, the importance of big movies and other such aspects of the spectacle as means of forging community is considerable. A film like The Last Jedi is a global phenomenon and, in the world of social media, it affords us a means of identifying with and against others by means of our shared consummation and various responses to it. Donald Trump is another such spectacle. One of the prominent ends of people’s performative responses on social media to his incompetent governance is the creation of community between people who have little else in common. The hostility to people who are not obsessively absorbed in and vocally preoccupied in this spectacle, illustrated in recent criticisms of Taylor Swift, can be quite revealing of how powerfully this spectacle dominates people’s minds.
If you want to understand the increasingly febrile obsession with global politics and entertainment media in our society, it will be difficult to do so without taking the part played by social media into account. Performative consummation of global politics and big entertainment events are primary means by which we can feel connected to and involved in a larger international community. Without this spectacle in common to obsess over, we wouldn’t have that much that we could all talk about. We would have to focus on more local and concrete issues in the communities we physically inhabit. And that would clearly be terrible.
I’ve been bewildered by the sheer strength of feeling that many ostensibly grown-up human beings can have about franchises such as Star Wars or the various movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, both of which are essentially juvenile entertainment of somewhat uneven merit. I like many of these films, but the vehemence of many people’s responses to them suggests that our consummation of pop culture is playing an unhealthily large role in the formation and expression of our identities.
This unhealthy fixation on entertainment media is also seen in the increased politicization of our films, especially among modern progressives. For millennial progressives and members of the generations that succeed them, for instance, representation of women and minorities in entertainment media has become an obsession. Every cultural artefact will be pored over, with the representation of each identity grouping scrutinized closely. This is as true for many of the people reacting against the ways that pop culture is being shaped by ‘political correctness’: many of them just want a different form of politicization, rather than to break our unhealthy cultural obsession with entertainment media that drives such demands. If you are complaining that a film-maker has ruined your childhood, perhaps it is time to grow up.
As a result of these obsessions, contemporary pop culture artefacts are often scrupulously alert to such issues, concerned to squeeze in as many identity groups as possible, to depict them favourably, and to conceive of themselves as emancipatory gestures and forms of resistance to prevailing power structures. As a result, political and social justice subtexts are seldom far beneath the surface of a modern pop cultural artefact. And in so politicizing their cultural output, their producers are only responding to the ways in which their artefacts are being consumed.
The fact that this involves departures from the character of concrete reality that become ludicrous as they assume conspicuousness in the aggregate—such as the ‘strong female character’ trope—is irrelevant. The spectacle isn’t supposed to resonate with concrete reality; the spectacle is people’s reality. This is one of the key reasons why identities behave so weirdly nowadays. Emancipatory gestures on the screen are profoundly significant for people who spend much of their free time in front of screens, so much so that they often eclipse concrete forms of freedom or bondage. To call this escapism would be to miss the fact that this alienated reality largely is our society, not an escape from a concrete, grounded, and weighty society that still exists intact.
All of this brings me to the phenomenon of Christian commentary on and engagement with entertainment media, politics, and the social spectacle more generally. While there are doubtless things to be gained from reflection upon our cultural artefacts, I fear that most of the effort that Christians expend in their ‘takes’ and responses to these things merely serve as expressions and intensifications of our hopeless absorption in the society of the spectacle. In these Christian ‘takes’ and cultural commentary, we seek morally to metabolize a specious entertainment culture to which we have become hopelessly addicted. We spend our days as glued to and preoccupied by the entertainment on our screens as everyone else and watch the same things as everyone else. We just produce Christian takes at the end of it. While film and TV analysis can be illuminating, for instance, much of it is currently enabling our collective failure to grow up.
And entertainment media is merely a more intense manifestation of the more general phenomenon of the dominance of the spectacle. For Christians, this can involve a preoccupation with incessant theological or political discourse and posturing, especially online, in which an excess of fine words supplants the concrete reality of Christian discipleship. This is a real danger for many of us—I speak to myself here before anyone else—yet it is a danger that we seldom register as clearly as we must. As I’ve argued in the past, we are all almost unavoidably virtue-signallers online—our words are only lightly tethered to concrete reality and hence increasingly serve primarily as means of self-identification and alignment.
Posting something like this online, the danger is that it will merely be caught up in the same dynamic. People will like and share it on social media, thereby displaying something about their identities and values, while continuing to participate in the spectacle more or less unquestioningly. Perhaps some will write their own appreciative or critical takes in response, and we will all continue the games of ideological alignment that we play out every other day.
If anything of what I’ve said in this post rings true in your personal experience, I would request that you refrain from the instinctive action of sharing it, a pseudo-action which easily substitutes for making a genuine change. By all means share it, but please don’t do so until you have taken an initial and determined step—just one step, whatever that step might be—to assess, to arrest, and to break the habits that sustain the power of the spectacle in your own life. The alternative is merely adding to the vast multitude of weightless words that fill social media. And what use does Christ have for that?