The word spectacle (spectăculum) is derived from the Latin verb spectăre (to look). The Oxford English Dictionary reports that a spectacle is “a thing seen or capable of being seen” and is typically of a “striking or unusual character.” Though not inaccurate to employ the term in the sense of a philosophy of perception, that is to simply refer to those things seen or capable of being seen, a spectacle is generally understood as a “person or thing exhibited to, or set before, the public gaze as an object either (a) of curiosity or contempt, or (b) of marvel or admiration.” Such an exhibition is intended to form an “impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it.” Of specific interest to media studies the intellectual lineage of the critique of spectacle begins with its two major foundational think ers: Plato and Aristotle. Unlike the latter, Plato does not offer a specific theory of spectacle. However, interpreting his allegory of the cave in light of the concerns addressed by postmodern media theorists proves rich for tracing an intellectual history and opening up those more recent exegeses.

In Plato’s Republic Socrates asks that the young Glaucon imagine human beings who have, for all of their lives, been immobilized and their sight restricted by captors. The only things they know come from a fire-cast puppet show consisting of “statues of people, and animals made of stone and wood and all kinds of materials.” [1] Occasionally the prisoners can hear voices but are unable to distinguish whether the voices belong to fellow prisoners, captors, or puppets. At some interval “nature brings this state of affairs to an end.” [2] A prisoner is freed to exit the cave and behold the things under the light of the sun, and upon acclimating to the pain of such light, to behold the sun itself.

With this allegory, Plato, through the medium of Socrates, argues that the philosopher is morally obligated to discover and disclose the Good to non-philosophers who are, with regard to reality, deceived by images. Contemporary media theorist W.J.T. Mitchell points out that the allegory is “constructed on a set of hypervalued metapictures.” [3] He contends that such an image theory permits Plato to treat “the world of concrete sensations as a mere shadow world of insubstantial images, and the ideal sphere of forms as the realm of real substance.” [4] Though Plato does not explicitly address spectacle as such, he nonetheless problematizes the relationship of a spectator to those things seen by asking Glaucon and the reader to picture a theory about pictures or images. Thus, he comments upon the “authenticity” of visual experiences; and predating more recent theorists, his cave allegory situates the critique of spectacle within a suspicious discourse of power and knowledge.

On the other hand, Plato’s student Aristotle directly addresses spectacle, what he calls opsis. An Ionic word, opsis refers to a sight, appearance, face, or even the power of vision itself. [5] However, whereas Plato uses the word in a non-technical manner, Aristotle jargonizes opsis for his discussion of tragedy in the Poetics. “Tragedy,” he writes, “…must have six components, which give it its qualities—namely, plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and lyric poetry. The media of the mimesis are two components, its mode one, and its objects three; there are no others.” [6] For Aristotle, spectacle is the least important of the components because though it is “emotionally potent” it “falls quite outside the art and is not integral to poetry: tragedy’s capacity is independent of performance and actors, and, besides, the costumier’s art has more scope than the poet’s for rendering effects of spectacle.” [7] The spectacle is brought to bear in the construction of masks and the performance of the actors, and thus need not be contrived by the poet. In other words, spectacle does not ensure the authenticity of the tragedy as such.

Taken at his word an internal problem arises for Aristotle with regard to the necessary or excessive status of opsis as a component of tragedy. As Mitchell has noted, ultimately Aristotle “privileges lexis over opsis, speech over scenery, dialogue over visual spectacle;” for Aristotle claims “the plot should be so structured that, even without seeing it performed, the person who hears the events that occur experiences horror and pity.” [8] However, the apparent contradiction may be explained away by the fact that Aristotle classifies spectacle as a mode and not a medium (or media). Whereas the media of tragedy, diction and lyric poetry, are the sole territory of the poet, opsis, as mode, is a kind of shared territory between the poet, actors, and costumiers. Apropos Mitchell’s above claim, Aristotle further argues that, “what is fearful and pitiable can result from spectacle, but also from the actual structure of events, which is the higher priority and the aim of a superior poet.” [9] The tragedian’s craft or art lay not in mere spectacle because he is a poet whose, to use an Aristotelian characterization, “appropriate” medium is lexis (words) and not opsis.” [10]

Late in the 20th century a number of theorists advanced positions that were primarily concerned with the role of spectacle within society and the discourse of political and power relations. Guy Debord, a French philosopher-artist and leading figure in the Situationist International, offered one the most controversial critiques of spectacle in The Society of the Spectacle. Contra Plato and Aristotle, Debord argues that the spectacle is not a collection of deceptive or kitsch images but rather a “social relationship between people that is mediated by images” and that this relationship “appears at once as society itself.” [11] Following a Marxist logic, he theorizes three manifestations of spectacular power that sustain the society of spectacle: the concentrated spectacle, the diffuse form of spectacle, and the integrated spectacle. [12]

Debord equates the concentrated spectacle with bureaucratic capitalism and/ or totalitarian regimes such as Mao’s China. He argues that spectacular power is concentrated in a single authority (i.e. Mao) and that such a dictatorship must be “attended by a permanent violence.” [13] In addition to violence, spectacular power is also maintained by the proliferation of propaganda. Historically a rival of concentrated spectacle, “the diffuse form of the spectacle is associated with the abundance of commodities, with the undisturbed development of modern capitalism.” [14] Debord argues that the competing industries and markets that jockey for position within an affluent economy maintain this particularly American brand of spectacle. For instance, “the spectacular logic of the automobile argues for a perfect traffic flow entailing the destruction of the old city centers, whereas the spectacle of the city itself calls for these same ancient sections to be turned into museums.” [15] As capitalists vie for the passions of consumers by producing more desirable commodities, “particular commodities wear themselves out in the fight,” and “the commodity as abstract form continues on its way to absolute self-realization.” [16] This spectacular logic of production fashions and sustains the society of the spectacle; it is both its goal and outcome. Of the integrated spectacle, Debord writes that it “shows itself to be simultaneously concentrated and diffuse, and ever since the fruitful union of the two has learnt to employ both these qualities on a grander scale.” [17] Though initiated in France, Debord insists that the integrated spectacle imposes itself globally and has “integrated itself into reality to the same extent as it was describing it, and that it was reconstructing it as it was describing it.” The consequence is that the integrated spectacle “spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality.” [18]

As Jonathan Crary has pointed out, the infamous postmodern theorist, Jean Baudrillard, rejects the notion of the society as spectacle as a critical concept on the grounds that “there is no more opposition between the abstraction of money and the apparent materiality of commodities; money and what it can buy are now fundamentally of the same substance. And it is the potential dissolution of any language of the market or of desire into binarized pulses of light or electricity that unhinges the fictive unity of spectacular representation.” [19] Within Debord’s understanding of the integrated spectacle, commodities and their relationships can be (re)presented and identified. Baudrillard, on the other hand, argues that all means of reference have been liquidated in the age of simulation and the experience of hyperreality. For Baudrillard, those commodities of which Debord speaks are not material instantiations of production but simulacrum. Ergo the critique of spectacle is but a simulated discourse whose Utopic dialectic is illusory at best, and at worst, mendacious.” [20]

Despite Baudrillard’s objection, Paul Virilio, one of the leading thinkers of the convergence of technology and vision, as well as the integration of military-industrial power with spectacle, argues that present-day society is characterized by an “integrated circuit of vision,” a “paradoxical logic” that synthesizes spectacle with surveillance. [21] Virilio points out that human beings now live with “vision machines,” machines that watch us watch them watch us ad infinitum. [22] In a telling example, he observes that televisions have a built-in device, a Motivac, which permits the monitoring of audiences. Unlike older models, the updated instrument can detect the presence of a viewer and not only whether the television is turned on. Recently, televisions have been allowed in the “private” cells of prisoners, which allows them (i.e. the inmates] to “monitor actuality.” [23] This means that prisoners can witness the activity of a world simultaneously denied and granted, albeit in a restricted form. Moreover, Virilio is quick to stress that “as soon as viewers switch on their sets, it is they, prisoner or otherwise, who are in the field of television, a field in which they are obviously powerless to intervene.” [24] To further reinforce his thesis, Virilio calls upon Michel Foucault’s observation that “surveillance and punishment go hand and hand” which allows him to pose a question reminiscent of Debord: “what other kind of punishment is there if not envy, the ultimate punishment of advertising?” [25]

In light of this question, in order to grasp the relevance or irrelevance of a concept of spectacle with regard to media studies, perhaps a return to Plato’s cave is in order. Upon reentering the darkness, the media theorist may inquire as to why reprieve was granted and what it means to leave the cave? Is the puppet show an advertisement of the world outside? Or as Aristotle might wonder: is the puppet show but mere spectacle whereas the authentic tragedy is disclosed and experienced with the philosopher’s discovery that such was, in fact, the case with the world outside the cave as well? Or with Virilio and Debord, the media theorist could ask is this world but a high definition, fully integrated spectacle? [26] If so, is authenticity or art even possible or desirable?

Zach Harris
Winter 2007