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The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to 'Reality' TV and Beyond

The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to 'Reality' TV and Beyond

by Geoff King

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Hollywood special effects offer spectacular creations or re-creations that make claims to our attention on the grounds of their ‘incredible-seeming reality’. They can appear both ‘incredible’ and ‘real’, their appeal based on their ability to ‘convince’—to appear real in terms such as detail and texture—and


Hollywood special effects offer spectacular creations or re-creations that make claims to our attention on the grounds of their ‘incredible-seeming reality’. They can appear both ‘incredible’ and ‘real’, their appeal based on their ability to ‘convince’—to appear real in terms such as detail and texture—and on their status as fabricated spectacle, to be admired as such. At a seemingly very different end of the audio-visual media spectrum, ‘reality’ television offers the spectacle of, supposedly, the ‘real’ itself, a ‘reality’ that ranges from the banality of the quotidian to intense interpersonal engagements (two extremes experienced in Big Brother, for example). The two also overlap, however, nowhere more clearly and jarringly than in the ultimate ‘spectacle of the real’, the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, live television coverage of which evoked constant comparison with big-screen fictional images.

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The Spectacle of the Real

From Hollywood to 'Reality' TV and Beyond

By Geoff King

Intellect Ltd

Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84150-918-1


Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle

Douglas Kellner

During the past decades, the culture industries have multiplied media spectacles in novel spaces and sites, and spectacle itself is becoming one of the organizing principles of the economy, polity, society, and everyday life. The Internet-based economy has been developing hi-tech spectacle as a means of promotion, reproduction, and the circulation and selling of commodities, using multimedia and ever-more sophisticated technology to dazzle consumers. Media culture itself proliferates ever more technologically sophisticated spectacles to seize audiences and increase their power and profit. The forms of entertainment permeate news and information, and a tabloidized infotainment culture is increasingly popular. New multimedia that synthesize forms of radio, film, TV news and entertainment, and the mushrooming domain of cyberspace, become spectacles of technoculture, generating expanding sites of information and entertainment, while intensifying the spectacle-form of media culture.

Political and social life is also shaped more and more by media spectacle. Social and political conflicts are increasingly played out on the screens of media culture, which display spectacles such as sensational murder cases, terrorist bombings, celebrity and political sex scandals, and the explosive violence of everyday life. Media culture not only takes up expanding moments of contemporary experience, but also provides ever more material for fantasy, dreaming, modeling thought and behavior, and constructing identities.

Of course, there have been spectacles since premodern times. Classical Greece had its Olympics, thespian and poetry festivals, its public rhetorical battles, and bloody and violent wars. Ancient Rome had its orgies, its public offerings of bread and circuses, its titanic political battles, and the spectacle of Empire with parades and monuments for triumphant Caesars and their armies, extravaganzas put on display in the 2000 film Gladiator. And as Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga (1986 and 1997) reminds us, medieval life too had its important moments of display and spectacle.

In the early modern period, Machiavelli advised his modern prince of the productive use of spectacle for government and social control, and the emperors and kings of the modern states cultivated spectacles as part of their rituals of governance and power. Popular entertainment long had its roots in spectacle, while war, religion, sports, and other domains of public life were fertile fields for the propagation of spectacle for centuries. Yet with the development of new multimedia and information technologies, technospectacles have been decisively shaping the contours and trajectories of present-day societies and cultures, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, while media spectacle also becomes a defining feature of globalization.

In this chapter, I will provide an overview of the dissemination of media spectacle throughout the major domains of the economy, polity, society, culture and everyday life in the contemporary era and indicate the theoretical approach that I deploy. This requires a brief presentation of the influential analysis of spectacle by Guy Debord and the Situationist International, and how I build upon this approach, followed by an overview of contemporary spectacle culture and then analysis of how my approach differs from that of Debord.

Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle

The concept of the 'society of the spectacle' developed by French theorist Guy Debord and his comrades in the Situationist International has had major impact on a variety of contemporary theories of society and culture. For Debord, spectacle 'unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena' (Debord 1967: #10). Debord's conception, first developed in the 1960s, continues to circulate through the Internet and other academic and subcultural sites today. It describes a media and consumer society, organized around the production and consumption of images, commodities, and staged events.

For Debord, spectacle constituted the overarching concept to describe the media and consumer society, including the packaging, promotion, and display of commodities and the production and effects of all media. Using the term 'media spectacle', I am largely focusing on various forms of technologically constructed media productions that are produced and disseminated through the so-called mass media, ranging from radio and television to the Internet and latest wireless gadgets. Every medium, from music to television, from news to advertising, has its multitudinous forms of spectacle, involving such things in the realm of music as the classical music spectacle, the opera spectacle, the rock spectacle, and the hip hop spectacle. Spectacle forms evolve over time and multiply with new technological developments.

My major interest in Media Spectacle (Kellner 2003), however, is in the megaspectacle form whereby certain spectacles become defining events of their era. These range from commodity spectacles such as the McDonald's or Nike spectacle to megaspectacle political extravaganzas that characterize a certain period, involving such things as the O.J. Simpson trials, the Clinton sex and impeachment scandals, or the Terror War that is defining the current era.

There are, therefore, many levels and categories of spectacle. Megaspectacles are defined both quantitively and qualitatively. The major media spectacles of the era dominate news, journalism, and Internet buzz, and are highlighted and framed as the major events of the age, as were, for instance, the Princess Diana wedding and funeral, the extremely close 2000 election and 36 day 'Battle for the White House', or the September 11 terror attacks and their violent aftermath. Megaspectacles are those phenomena of media culture that dramatize its controversies and struggles, as well as its modes of conflict resolution. They include media extravaganzas, sports events, political happenings, and those attention-grabbing occurrences that we call news –a phenomena that itself has been subjected to the logic of spectacle and tabloidization in the era of media sensationalism, political scandal and contestation, seemingly unending cultural war, and the new phenomenon of Terror War. Megaspectacles such as the O.J. Simpson trials, the Clinton sex and impeachment scandals or the ongoing Terror War dominate entire eras and encapsulate their basic conflicts and contradictions, while taking over media culture.

More generally, my conception of media spectacle involves those media and artifacts which embody contemporary society's basic values and serve to enculturate individuals into its way of life (Kellner 1995, 2003). Thus, while Debord presents a rather generalized and abstract notion of spectacle, I engage specific examples of media spectacle and how they are produced, constructed, circulated, and function in the present era. As we proceed into a new millennium, the media are becoming more technologically dazzling and are playing an ever-escalating role in everyday life. Under the influence of a multimedia image culture, seductive spectacles fascinate the denizens of the media and consumer society and involve them in the semiotics of an ever-expanding world of entertainment, information, and consumption, which deeply influence thought and action. In Debord's words: 'When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle, as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs' (#18). According to Debord, sight, 'the most abstract, the most mystified sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present day society' (ibid).

Experience and everyday life are thus shaped and mediated by the spectacles of media culture and the consumer society. For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a 'permanent opium war' (#44) which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life – recovering the full range of their human powers through creative practice. Debord's concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of separation and passivity, for in submissively consuming spectacles, one is estranged from actively producing one's life. Capitalist society separates workers from the products of their labour, art from life, and consumption from human needs and self-directing activity, as individuals inertly observe the spectacles of social life from within the privacy of their homes (#25 and #26). The Situationist project, by contrast, involved an overcoming of all forms of separation, in which individuals would directly produce their own life and modes of self-activity and collective practice.

The correlative to the spectacle for Debord is thus the spectator, the reactive viewer and consumer of a social system predicated on submission, conformity, and the cultivation of marketable difference. The concept of the spectacle therefore involves a distinction between passivity and activity and consumption and production, condemning lifeless consumption of spectacle as an alienation from human potentiality for creativity and imagination. The spectacular society spreads its wares mainly through the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialized media culture. This structural shift to a society of the spectacle involves a commodification of previously non-colonized sectors of social life and the extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure, desire, and everyday life. Parallel to the Frankfurt School conception of a 'totally administered,' or 'one-dimensional,' society (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972; Marcuse 1964), Debord states that 'The spectacle is the moment when the consumption has attained the total occupation of social life' (#42). Here exploitation is raised to a psychological level; basic physical privation is augmented by 'enriched privation' of pseudo-needs; alienation is generalized, made comfortable, and alienated consumption becomes 'a duty supplementary to alienated production' (#42).

Spectacle Economy

Since Debord's theorization of the society of the spectacle in the 1960s and 1970s, spectacle culture has expanded in every area of life. In the culture of the spectacle, commercial enterprises have to be entertaining to prosper and as Michael J. Wolf (1999) argues, in an 'entertainment economy,' business and fun fuse, so that the E-factor is becoming a major aspect of business. Via the 'entertainmentization' of the economy, television, film, theme parks, video games, casinos, and so forth become major sectors of the national economy. In the U.S., the entertainment industry is now a $480 billion industry, and consumers spend more on having fun than on clothes or health care (Wolf 1999: 4).

To succeed in the ultracompetitive global marketplace, corporations need to circulate their image and brand name, so business and advertising combine in the promotion of corporations as media spectacles. Endless promotion circulates the McDonald's Golden Arches, Nike's Swoosh, or the logos of Apple, Intel, or Microsoft. In the brand wars between commodities, corporations need to make their corporate logos familiar signposts in contemporary culture. Corporations place their logos on their products, in ads, in the spaces of everyday life, and in the midst of media spectacles such as important sports events, TV shows, movie product placement, and wherever they can catch consumer eyeballs, to impress their brand name on a potential buyer. Consequently, advertising, marketing, public relations and promotion are an essential part of commodity spectacle in the global marketplace.

Celebrity too is manufactured and managed in the world of media spectacle. Celebrities are the icons of media culture, the gods and goddesses of everyday life. To become a celebrity requires recognition as a star player in the field of media spectacle, be it sports, entertainment, business, or politics. Celebrities have their handlers and image managers to make sure that they continue to be seen and positively perceived by publics. Just as with corporate brand names, celebrities become brands to sell their Madonna, Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, or Jennifer Lopez product and image. In a media culture, however, celebrities are always prey to scandal and thus must have at their disposal an entire public relations apparatus to manage their spectacle fortunes, to make sure their clients not only maintain high visibility but also keep projecting a positive image. Of course, within limits, 'bad' behaviour and transgressions can also sell and so media spectacle always contains celebrity dramas that attract public attention and can even define an entire period, as when the O.J. Simpson murder trials and Bill Clinton sex scandals dominated the media in the mid and late 1990s.

Entertainment has always been a prime field of the spectacle, but in today's infotainment society, entertainment and spectacle have entered into the domains of the economy, politics, society, and everyday life in important new ways. Building on the tradition of spectacle, contemporary forms of entertainment from television to the stage are incorporating spectacle culture into their enterprises, transforming film, television, music, drama, and other domains of culture, as well as producing spectacular new forms of culture such as cyberspace, multimedia, and virtual reality.

The Culture of the Spectacle

Sports has long been a domain of the spectacle with events such as the Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, soccer World Cup, and NBA championships attracting massive audiences, while generating sky-high advertising rates. These cultural rituals celebrate their society's deepest values (i.e. competition, winning, success, and money), and corporations are willing to pay top dollar to get their products associated with such events. Indeed, it appears that the logic of the commodity spectacle is inexorably permeating professional sports which can no longer be played without the accompaniment of cheerleaders, giant mascots who clown with players and spectators, and raffles, promotions, and contests that feature the products of various sponsors. Sports stadiums themselves, often named after their corporate sponsors, contain electronic reproduction of the action, as well as giant advertisements for various products that rotate for maximum saturation – previewing environmental advertising in which entire urban sites are becoming scenes to boost consumption spectacles.

Film has long been a fertile field of the spectacle, with 'Hollywood' connoting a world of glamour, publicity, fashion, and excess. Hollywood film has exhibited grand movie palaces, spectacular openings with searchlights and camera-popping paparazzi, glamorous Oscars, and stylish hi-tech film. While epic spectacle became a dominant genre of Hollywood film from early versions of The Ten Commandments through Cleopatra and 2001 in the 1960s, contemporary film has incorporated the mechanics of spectacle into its form, style, and special effects. Films are hyped into spectacle through advertising and trailers which are ever louder, more glitzy, and razzle-dazzle. Some of the most popular films of the late 1990s were spectacle films, including Titanic, Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace, Three Kings, and Austin Powers, a spoof of spectacle that became one of the most successful films of summer 1999. In 2002-2003, a series of comic book hero spectacles were among the most popular films. Spiderman (2002) was one of the most popular films ever and has spawned planned sequels and a cycle of films presenting comic book heroes such as The Hulk, another of the X-Men series, and the comic book-like Matrix Reloaded, Terminator 3, and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. These films embody fantasies of attained spectacular powers that enable the protagonists to conquer enemies and prevail in hi-tech environments. These cinematic spectacles are an expression of a culture that generates ever-more fantastic visions as technology and the society of the spectacle continue to evolve in novel and surprising, sometimes frightening, forms.


Excerpted from The Spectacle of the Real by Geoff King. Copyright © 2005 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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