Contemporary western society is dominated by spectacle. This has been the case for a long time and, judging by its present dominance, appears set to remain so for the forseeable future. Guy Debord brought this concept to the forefront of radical social analysis in the 1960s, but much has changed (and worsened) since then, and I doubt even he could have foreseen the developments that have followed.
Particularly since the 1990s and the development of the internet and mass instant communication protocols, the spectacle has developed into an even more absurd and oppressive state of dominance; and while there had existed for centuries iconic figures that were well-known, and whom stood out from the masses, the increases in the power of communications technology that occurred during the 20th century have accelerated – and at the same time broadened – what has become known as ‘celebrity culture’. But since we cannot explain culture purely as a result of technology, this begs the question: what ethological processes are at work behind this trend?
In recent times, ‘celebrity culture’ – the adoration, ‘celebration’ and even worship of those individuals considered (by programmers) worthy of mass broadcast – has moved into a new realm of absurdity. There now appears to be a plethora of ‘celebrities’ who are celebrated for no other reason other than they ‘are’ celebrities. Having been thrust into the spectacle without reason – whether by opportunism (e.g. a prostitute ‘caught’ servicing another celebrity decides to take advantage of the publicity and sell herself as a product) or by the more usual means of vacuous ‘talent shows’ – they simply remain there.
This is spectacle in its purest form – new developments in the ‘narrative’ of the spectacle are derived (or recycled) from previous elements of the spectacle itself. Indeed it is no longer so much the abilities of the celebrated persons that are lauded as it is their ‘platonic selves’: the images of them that are pumped through the veins of the media and dripped into the mouths of those in a mindless state of open-mouthed awe.
Furthermore, it is not so much what the individual in question does (in terms of career, vocation or activity) but rather the mundane ‘private’ – or ‘real’ – life of the person which garners interest from the public and cements the dominance of spectacle. This move towards the popularity of ‘reality’ derives from a desire not for spectacle but to experience The Real: authentic life outside of the process of spectacle. This trend in the motivations of the public is actually encouraging because it demonstrates the beginnings of discontent with pure spectacle. However, as an immune response within the paradigm of the spectacle, what is presented to satiate the desire for The Real is spectacular ‘reality’ – a commoditisation and further expansion of the spectacle, as I shall explain.
Today, a ‘celebrity’ walking through a street, dropping off dirty clothes at a launderette or stopping off at a café, is enough to garner potential interest from millions of people and the resultant arrival of a flock of paparazzi. This is the spectacle of the mundane – a desire to see and to ‘know’ a ‘celebrity’ in their Real life (outside the spectacle). This, paradoxically, leads to the mundane details of their ‘real’ existence becoming absorbed into the spectacle; the cancer of the contrived.
This fundamentally oppressive entrenchment leads to today’s particularly notable celebrities leading tri-layered lives with multiple identities: the ‘public’ self (the contrived form in which the celebrity is presented where there is no attempt on anyone’s part to pretend reality – for instance the actual situations of entertainment in which they are employed); the ‘real’ self (the less contrived but equally commoditised representations); and finally The Real self (the actual concrete situations the person finds their whole self in and living through at any time – the genuine sleeping, shitting, worrying, crying life behind everything that individual does.
Thus we are looking at people living with tripartite selves. Maintaining a multiplicity of identities of the singular is a psychologically taxing act – is it any wonder the mental composure of so many ‘celebrities’ is constantly under question?
Celebrity gossip magazines – and their TV and internet equivalents – act as a means to present a false authenticity of the life of the person in question – an unreal realism which plays a key role in the division of life into separate worlds. Furthermore, the development of various electronic communications protocols – most notably that of Twitter – allows ‘celebrities’ to develop and express a ‘real’ self, but in a contrived way within a controlled environment. Much of the interest in Twitter derives from the perception that it offers a peek into the ‘real’ lives of ‘celebrities’, and even the ability to contact them directly. In an attempt to pacify their fans without playing into the hands of the paparazzi, many celebrities see Twitter as their favored method for the expression of their (contrived) ‘real’ selves. When the ease of use for the ‘celebrity’ that informs this preference is combined with the scope of availability to all and sundry, a dangerous mix is concocted. Having imbibed this potion in the form of spectator, many non-celebrities choose to ape celebrities, constructing a ‘real self’ of their own in an attempt to become a ‘celebrity’ themselves. Twitter thus encourages and enables the user to in turn develop a tripartite self of their own (and risk developing the accompanying neuroses). I’ve seen this happening amongst people I know, who are quite different in the ‘real’ expressions of their online personas than in their Real interactions with me and other friends, often using ‘social media’ to express themselves in contrived ways that have nothing to do with their real thoughts. For instance, the declaration of philosophical principles by people, in the form of images that have become known as ‘motivationals’ (and ‘demotivationals’ for the sarcastic equivalents) is an example of the inauthentic ‘real’ of the tripartite framework, when ‘posted’ by people who don’t ever discuss – or even air – philosophical principles in normal discourse in their daily lives.
So we can see that the spectacle that underpinned ‘celebrity culture’ has moved beyond solely pertaining to ‘celebrities’ and augurs the arrival of an all-inclusive universal standard for living inside of the spectacle. Thus the spectator has become the spectated – completing the absolute expansion and dominance of the spectacle.
All is not lost however. The very dominance of the spectacle to the point of it becoming an apparent universality is also its greatest weakness. Over time, spectacle becomes trite and the participating masses become jaded. Like an old seaside town long past its halcyon days, the triteness and kitsch of the spectacle becomes apparent. The development of the tripartite self is a symptom of the failed search for The Real, visible to all who choose to see it by peeling back the lick of paint on the tired facade; now is the perfect time for substance to take root.
In a time of universal and degenerating spectacle, substance is an explosive material. More and more the expression of substance creates a powerful spectacle in itself. Let us then create substance by the boatload and unleash the spectacle within substance itself. It is time for substance to take the trapeze of the circus tent of the spectacle and create a spectacle which eclipses all others, bringing that rotten tent down as it glides through the air. It is not enough to merely create a ‘message’ or even a platform, but to express an entirely alternative reality grounded on The Real of truth and substance which makes ‘real’ life – as we are currently shown it – look like a schlocky B-movie.