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. (Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle, §1)
Following Debord’s famous analysis, the conference “Spectacular Now: The Politics of the Contemporary Spectacle” organised by TU Dortmund University’s Institute of English and American Studies took place in November 2016. The title already suggests the controversial character of this conference and its contributions. The media-specific aspects of spectacles were explained with a focus on contemporary societal, cultural, political, economic and technological phenomena. Specifically aimed at young scholars, the conference explored the meaning-making processes that lie underneath media events and mass spectacles. Though spectacles have existed since ancient times (a reflection on Foucaultian thinking would be appropriate here), modern consumer society and the (hyper-)mediatisation of the world have drastically transformed them. Political debates, protest movements and social unrest are mediated and marketed to the same extent as entertainment shows and reality TV. Can depoliticisation therefore be seen as the spectacle’s own politics? How does an alienated, atomised and passive spectator fit into new forms of participatory and (anti-)social media? Furthermore, did something actually happen if one has not posted about it and earned the new currencies of our time – clicks and likes? If all of life presents itself spectacularly, what identity can exist without a spectacular quality? Scholars were invited to connect their studies to contemporary representations, depictions and stagings of spectacles and their inherent politics, to investigate our current age and time, and to explore new ways of presenting their findings, indeed spectacularly.
After a welcome address by the organisers and Prof. Dr. Gerold Sedlmayr, Chair of British Cultural Studies and Dean of the Faculty of Culture Studies, outlining the topics of the conference, the first panel “(De)Constructing the Spectacular, Blurring Boundaries” took off with a spectacular presentation as indicated above.
Sarah E. Beyvers and Florian Zitzelsberger (University of Passau) made a media spectacle out of their talk “‘A Thing Is a Thing and Not What You Say of That Thing’ – or Is It? Alienation Effects and the Conflation of Theatre and Film as Meta-Spectacle in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) and Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (2014)”. They replaced parts of their live talk with recorded versions of this same presentation projected onto the screen. The speakers analysed how both films make use of theatrical means to add performative and live-event characteristics, simultaneously enhancing and abandoning their illusionistic character. The merging of cinematic and theatrical forms of framing of information, according to Beyvers and Zitzelsberger, functions as alienation effects and opens up a meta-discourse on the films’ own constructed spectacularity.
UnReal (2015–), which airs on Lifetime Television, was the topic of Missy Molloy’s (Santa Fe College) follow-up presentation. The series gained the channel, formerly associated with low-quality content targeted at a female audience, critical acclaim by satirically depicting the production of a reality TV show similar to The Bachelor (2002–). According to Molloy, UnReal skilfully shows and deconstructs the complexity of such productions’ running themes such as surveillance, objectification and perverse spectatorship, adding another frame to the already multidimensional nature of reality TV. The main character, Rachel, is shown using all manner of pressure to get the most spectacular pictures and audio while revealing her own mental problems and conflicts. Molloy pointed out how real social issues like race and gender are used by reality TV and UnReal – on a meta level – to create media spectacles.
The second and last panel of the first day was entitled “Politics and Participation” and included Florian Freitag’s (Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz) “Banksy’s Dismaland and the Politics of Theming”, and Philip Jacobi (University of Passau) presenting “‘In the End, It Was All About You’: True Crime and Performatist Spectacles”. Freitag, a scholar of theme park studies, examined these year-round spectacles. In their theming – according to Freitag – theme parks traditionally avoid controversial issues while pursuing a ‘politics of inclusion/exclusion’. In 2015, the British street artist Banksy turned this selectivity upside-down with his ‘Bemusement Park’, Dismaland, in Weston-super-Mare (UK). Freitag argued that the spectacular Dismaland reverses common tropes by including topics like the pollution of the ocean, government surveillance and the recent refugee crisis, thus expanding the concept of the theme park. By broaching such issues, the park is as relevant as it is popular with audiences. The excessive use of Disney(land) imagery in Dismaland was identified by Freitag as a critique of a recent development named ‘autotheming’ – a theme park in/of a theme park, or a spectacle about spectacle.
Jacobi continued by applying theories of the spectacular to the true crime genre. Focussing on Serial (2014–16), a podcast produced by Sarah Koenig for WBEZ Chicago, whose first season documented and recounted a 1999 murder investigation, Jacobi noted that it had revived not only podcasts but the true crime genre itself. Touching upon what the producer herself called ‘the big things’, topics like love and justice, Serial and similar texts derive their addictive power from the desire for sensationalism of the consumer audience. Furthermore, the paper suggested that true crime blurs the boundaries of truth and even adds a participatory aspect, allowing audiences to submit their own investigations and thoughts. The last feature, though, opens up ethical dimensions to consider around this and indeed all kinds of the spectacular.
Johnny Walker of Northumbria University opened this day with his keynote “The Macabre Video Underground: Historicising the Subcultural Value of Real Death Imagery”, exploring the correlations between underground, explicitly gory, direct-to-video horror movies and their fan cultures in the 1990s. Walker discussed the myth of the snuff movie – feature films including sequences of allegedly real live death – and how sensational media reports of such films helped draw attention to them. Shockumentaries like Faces of Death (John Alan Schwartz, 1978) gain their spectacular value from the fascination with arbitrary death scenes, body modifications and atrocities, challenging notions of good taste. These amateurish productions, according to Walker, owe much to the boom in home videos during their time, while their apparent real live death images consciously reject mainstream cinema, and especially mainstream horror, modes of representation. The black market-like transnational distribution and circulation of these extremely violent movies led to their rarity status within this subcultural sphere.
Walker further stated that the Traces of Death series (1993–2000) and its producer, Dead Alive Productions, left a significant mark on this niche market and subcultural fan base by not only adapting these techniques, but also extending beyond them into the arena of extreme metal music. So-called ‘shock sites’, websites that specialise in the remediation of filmed sequences of death, have gradually been influenced by these earlier developments. Walker concluded his presentation by noting how images like those of the Traces of Death films might have lost their original spectacular potential, having achieved iconic cult status.
Panel 3, “Film and Virtuality”, was opened by Svenja Hohenstein (Eberhard Karls University Tübingen) and her paper “‘It’s a Television Show’: Spectacle, The Hunger Games and Political Activism”. According to Hohenstein, Suzanne Collins’s trilogy The Hunger Games was ideal for detecting the characteristics of spectacle, as the novels on which they are based themselves criticise spectacles in their political context. In The Hunger Games, an annual reality TV-inspired deathly spectacle takes place, functioning as state propaganda, distracting people from political and social issues and thus securing the government’s power. Conversely, the rebellious characters use staging and broadcasting to mobilise oppressed people and encourage them to rise up against ‘The Capitol’. Hohenstein further observed that similar techniques can be found transferred to the ‘real’ world. Although the audience of The Hunger Games franchise could be criticised for adopting an inhuman, voyeuristic attitude similar to the audience inside the fiction, similar spectacles are regularly used for political activism and protest, like the Black Lives Matter movement. The adaptation of themes and symbols from this fiction (especially in the context of social media) shows, according to Hohenstein, how spectacular attributes can be used for campaigns for social change.
The third panel also comprised Susanne Schmid’s (Freie Universität Berlin) engagement with “The Return of the Grand Hotel”. Countering the the worldwide trend for glass and steel tower hotels, a fascination with the turn of the century 1900s Grand Hotel has emerged, noticeable in both film (e.g. Skyfall [Sam Mendes, 2012] or The Grand Budapest Hotel [Wes Anderson, 2014]) and literature. Schmid applied Debord’s theory of the spectacle as materialised worldview to the cosmos of (Grand) hotels and contemplated the notion of nostalgia frequently evoked by such settings.
The second keynote, by Neyir Zerey (SPoD Social Policies Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Studies Association), revealed astonishing empirical data about LGBTI+ rights in Turkey, stressing the interdisciplinary nature of this conference by combining sociological methodology and cultural studies theories of the spectacular. LGBTI+ rights in Turkey being a very contradictory and controversial matter, Zerey focused on Istanbul Pride Marches and how these epitomes of visibility and performativity have the potential to transform the city into a spectacular space. This nowadays highly carnivalesque event was met with bans and brutality in 2014 and 2015, forcing the organisers to rethink their concepts. This led to 2016’s Pride being a specifically different one, focussing on performance arts protests and creative initiatives rather than on ‘excessive’ parades. A rainbow drawn onto a busy street was turned into a spectacle by police forces cordoning off this simple and peaceful scene. According to Zerey, the protesters thereby turned around positions of power by using the authorities themselves. The speaker concluded by pointing out how this form of spectacular protest was key to this year’s events and has a higher potential for influencing acceptance of LGBTI+ in Turkish society than the common carnivalesque parades showcasing what is perceived as ‘perverse’ behaviour.
Taking on a similar topic, the fourth panel was dedicated to dimensions of gender. Melanie Stengele (University of Konstanz) began with a paper titled “‘J. F. K. Wanted to Send a Man to the Moon. Obama Wants to Send a Man to the Women’s Rest Room’: Transgender Rights and the Spectacle of the Public Rest Room”. Stengele critically examined what spectacle resulted after North Carolina passed House Bill 2 in spring 2016, prohibiting cities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances intended to protect LGBTI+ people and thereby forcing transgender people to use the public restroom corresponding with the gender indicated on their birth certificate. The media’s role in framing this political spectacle is essential, as major companies threatened to withdraw from North Carolina following the international attention that it triggered. It also imposed a discourse on gender roles and state authority onto American society, while there have been reports on increased violence against the transgender community. Almost ironically, this spectacular discourse takes place around one of the most private of public spaces. Analysing the spectacular qualities of this incident, Stengele in her conclusion problematised the actual implementations of House Bill 2.
A 2015 BBC documentary by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin and the discourses surrounding it were central to the last talk, Iris-Aya Laemmerhirt’s (TU Dortmund University) “Creating Spectacle out of Pain: India's Daughter (2015)”. This film recounts the deadly gang rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman in 2012 that led to a media spectacle inside India itself which made the government’s policy towards violence against woman once again a subject of debate. The documentary, though, caused even more attention. It was banned in India, while parts of it (for example, an interview with one of the convicted rapists) went viral on social media, especially YouTube. Thus the influence on spectacle-making of social media was essential to this paper. Even though the film helped to raise awareness of the issue around violence against women, Laemmerhirt argued that India’s Daughter can rightfully be criticised for re-establishing a racially connoted colonial discourse, depicting a British perspective displaying hegemonic tendencies even in its very title.
The variety of topics, issues and themes touched upon by this conference testifies to the significant extent to which the spectacle reaches into our daily (mediated and thus real?) lives. It also reminds us of how diverse the scholarly enterprise on this topic has to be in order to grasp all of its dimensions.