Repurposing Spectacle as Protest Rhetoric

Curator's Note

 "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." ~ Guy Debord, 1967 (Society of the Spectacle)

     Debord's seminal work is a critique of commodity fetishism and consumer culture, as well as class alienation and cultural homogenization. Mass media is now, however, propagated by government/corporate entities and the masses themselves. Thus, documented public spectacles are often repurposed and take on a life/message of their own.

     The spectacle of the 2017 presidential inauguration -- comparison photos of Obama's attendance in 2013 versus Trump's -- and the latter's insistance his crowd was bigger than media stated, launched parodies mocking Trump's insecurity about popular support (#inaugurationcrowd, #inauguration). "Trial by Twitter" is an increasingly popular pasttime; incidents like the United Airlines passenger removal (#UnitedAirlinesNewMoto), ICE's "Criminal Alien" reporting hotline (#criminalalien), and public missteps like the "Bowling Green Massacre" (#BowlingGreenMassacre) and comments on Jackson/the Civil War (#CivilWar) are taken up by the masses and vollied back in a spectacle all their own.

     The proliferation of Black Lives Matter marches in response to video-documentation of police britality across the United States has generated a collective perception of "march" spectacles, in which generally peaceful marchers are intimidated or assaulted by riot police (#blacklivesmattermarch). Mass protests, generally to draw attention to issues of race, gender, and class alienation or oppression, have become spectacle backdrops in response to other gaffs, like the Pepsi/Kendall Jenner fracas (#kendalljenner #pepsi).

     Spectacles of protest also provide visual narratives that enhance other avenues of speech, like record album covers, which provide a socio-political context for musicians' lyrical and narrative themes (see Rage Against the Machine's self-titled album, Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime cover, and Disturbed's Ten Thousand Fists cover). Videos are another visual medium through which muscians can repurpose historical spectacle to add a meta-narrative to their music; see clip from Draconian's 2016 release "Stellar Tombs," in which the horror of 20th C spectacle (the A-bomb, fascism, mass anti-war protests) is superimposed over the characters' story arc (see video link).

     These multi-media responses to contemporary events repurpose spectacle create "protest rhetoric," rejecting the pro-forma narratives of mass-marketed politics, social strife, and even consumerism, for glimpses (or parodies) of reality.


I really appreciate your examples of "repurposing" protest images. The uses of such images in the Pepsi commercial (and others) and music videos are particularly powerful to me. The protest images become spectacle in the media and their recycling of quick shots, and then the images become a commercialized spectacle in service to selling a brand (more than selling a product). The brand becomes associated with abstract notions of rebellion, defiance, or anger based on images decontextualized from the conditions and analysis that prompted the protest. The "Stellar Tombs" video did a good job of building the images into a coherent message about nuclear weapons, nuclear annihilation, and protests against them--but I still noted that at the end of the video, the singer walks alone in the space. Ultimately, the spectacles of protest served that persona/brand. Rage Against the Machine also makes a creative effort to tie the spectacle of protests it uses in videos to the lyrics which contain more systemic analysis. The post also made me think of "Forest Gump," and its use of spectacles of protest which are not so much decontextualized as simplified to serve the personal love story.

You deftly highlight the normative paradox of today's spectacular society. On the one hand, the spectacle propounds consumerism and alienation. On the other, today's spectacular iterations, particularly via social media, can coalesce new forms of politics that resist cultural homogenization and contest normativity. These political expressions, too, can be coopted to promote a brand and, in turn, are routinely critiqued for that cooptation on mediatic platforms. It's a cycle that mirrors the broader systems of (attempted) interpellation within which society is imbricated. All the same, if we expand our notion of "the spectacle" beyond the corporaization and desensitivity, I wonder if we can explore ways in which the spectacle has been appropriated to produce material change. As you indicate, videos of police brutality circulating on social media, for example, have given rise to new movements and new voice to people who've long been silenced. How can we acknowledge dissent spurred by the spectacle, while also problematizing corporate control?

I agree that public demonstrations, collective displays, and the discussions they generate can lead to intense shifts in organizing and economic-political efforts. For me, the notion of "spectacle" rests in the relationships between folks which are mediated by images in ways that eclipse the conditions that sparked the protests. Those foster social relations often limited to fetish and image consumption. Videos and photos as media are not necessarily reductive or constitutive of spectacle. But the obsession with and repetition of the images (whether corporate or user-shared on behalf of corporate software like YouTube that profits from content usually created for free) constructs the spectacle from the videos and photos. As someone who respects and celebrates collective actions, demonstrations, and marches, I do not question spreading the word and inspiring others. But I have seen not only the corporatization and commodification of such images, but also the use of them as style or even a badge of rebelliousness. Neither of which have much impact on the larger systems that prompted the protests.

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