The term “spectacle” refers to an event or image that is particularly striking in its visual display, to the point of inspiring awe in viewers. In its origins, the concept of spectacle was used to describe something impressive and unusual, which thrilled because it looked like things never seen before or which deployed immense scale to dwarf its spectators. The notion of spectacle was applied to high-culture products such as visually impressive dramas or operatic displays as well as religious ceremonies and folk spectacles.
The idea of spectacle is considered today, however, almost entirely within the framework of modern media. It is used primarily for cinematic, photographic, or technologically enhanced images and visual displays (from the spectacle of cinema to a fireworks display, for instance). While the term “spectacle” has often been used to convey the idea of unique and thrilling events, beginning with late twentieth-century theory, the idea of spectacle has come to mean an empty, mediaobsessed, image-saturated world that numbs viewers with an onslaught of spectacular images.
The key text that helped to shape this new understanding of the concept of spectacle was Guy Debord’s The society of the spectacle (1994, 1st pub. 1967). Debord was a founding member of the radical group Situationist International, in Paris in the late 1960s, who were interested in using guerrilla tactics and innovative publication styles to intervene in the homogenized experience of everyday life. The society of the spectacle, according to Debord and the Situationists, defines contemporary society as an ongoing and constant spectacle that produces an autocratic political context in which the awe of the image creates political acquiescence in increasingly passive citizens. Debord defined several different kinds of spectacles (such as the “concentrated spectacle” of fascist and communist societies, the “diffuse spectacle” of advanced capitalism and commodity culture), arriving at the term “integrated spectacle” for recent forms of spectacle that borrow from the concentrated and diffuse and that define the pervasive realization of the spectacle of the liberal democracy.
While Debord and the Situationists were rooted in the social movements of the 1960s, it could be argued that the relevance of their ideas and the world of spectacle have reached new heights in the decades since, in particular in relation to media spectacle and the “empty” spectacle of political events. The term “spectacle” is thus used to convey to varying degrees awe-inspiring events that produce a mystification of power and an increasingly passive public. The term has thereby come to increasingly convey a negative context, in which media events overpower political debate and discourse, and citizens are drawn in and disempowered by their awe of the spectacle. It has been a foundational idea in the critique of media events that deploy aspects of spectacle and entertainment styles in ways that mask their superficiality. For instance, Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz (1992) argue that the immensity of media events such as the Olympics or the Prince Charles–Lady Diana wedding are forms of spectacle that take on the aura of religious ceremonies. In addition, the concept of the spectacle is key to the concepts of postmodernism, as defined by such theorists as Jean Baudrillard, that critique the world of surface and simulation of contemporary societies. For Baudrillard (1983), the mesmerized public is fascinated by spectacle over meaning, and this gives rise to the embrace of simulations over representations and the loss of a sense of the real.
The notion of spectacle as a key force in modern society has been reinforced in the past few decades by the dominance of spectacular images in the global media contexts of massive live audiences watching riveting events, such as the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and the mass spectacle of the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. It reached what appeared to be a particularly powerful manifestation in 9/11, an event that has been defined by many as the quintessential moment of the triumph of spectacle. Thus, theorists such as Slavoj Zizek proclaimed that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 intended, above all, to produce spectacular images and the spectacle of terrorism, which was why they reminded so many observers of the spectacle of Hollywood film. Thus, even with its negative connotations, “spectacle” is a term that has come to seem increasingly prescient in relation to world events and the role of the media.
- Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).
- Crary, J. (1989). Spectacle, attention, counter-memory. October, 50, 96–107.
- Dayan, D., & Katz, E. (1992). Media events: The live broadcasting of history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Debord, G. (1994). The society of the spectacle (trans. D. Nicholson-Smith). New York: Zone Books. (Original work published 1967).
- Zizek, S. (2002). Welcome to the desert of the real! London: Verso.