Politicizing the Spectacle

Curator's Note

From the streets of Atlanta to the shores of Antarctica, millions of demonstrators marked January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, with peaceful marches in support of women’s and human rights. With 673 marches spanning all seven continents and 408 rallies in the U.S. alone, according to Women’s March on Washington coordinators, the events were the largest single day of protest in American history.

Impressively, what became a worldwide demonstration attended by nearly 5 million participants was launched on Facebook. On November 9, 2016, the day after Trump was elected, Teresa Shook, a retired attorney living on the Hawaiian island of Maui, created a Facebook event to protest Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office and invited friends to join. Seasoned campaign planners were brought in to manage the event after Shook’s post and others like it generated thousands of followers.

While not billed as anti-Trump protests, the demonstrations nonetheless appropriated a political space used by Trump for electoral gain to oppose Trump’s agenda. During the 2016 presidential election cycle, the Trump campaign embraced the media spectacle to promote his candidacy. According to the media analytics firm MediaQuant, Trump benefited from approximately $5 billion in free media value over the course of his campaign. Media attention given to Trump, even when negative, exemplified what Guy Debord referred to as the “society of the spectacle,” in which images supplant human interaction to exacerbate class alienation.

Yet, the global post-election backlash against Trump’s agenda shows that the relationship between the ever-expanding media spectacle and politics is more complex in the 21st Century than Debord theorized in the late 1960s. Rather than simply being subsumed within and reproduced by a corporate media culture, divergent populations are today able to employ the media for strategic spectacularization, whereby mediatic apparatuses undergirding the society of the spectacle are used to forge mass movements that resist political repression and legitimate dissensus as crucial to conceptualizing–and problematizing–who “the people” includes.

If politics is the struggle of the un(der)recognized for equal recognition within an established social order, as the philosopher Jacques Ranciere and women's marchers suggest, then, at a time when the President is targeting immigrants and trampling basic rights, democratizing the media's gaze toward resisting emergent authoritarianism is an urgent political project, and one that might unmask the murmuring corporatization of "sensible" speech as an accomplice to modern barbarism.


Great post! It's been an interesting year for marches/protest spectacle. It seems as though the media apparatus will only cover mass protests as political resistance spectacles, rather than as issue-focused popular democratic participation. You note that "divergent populations are today able to employ the media for strategic spectacularization, whereby mediatic apparatuses undergirding the society of the spectacle are used to forge mass movements;" I think the term media is no longer sufficient to represent the numerous streams of information transmission (not in conversation with each other). Mainstream media only turns attention to large protests when the planning or communication about events has gone viral on social media; it's almost as if they're forced to keep up and give attention to things that "the masses" have deemed worthy of posting, sharing, donating to, and attending. The "murmuring corporatization of "sensible" speech" is at the forefront of the fight for democratic ideals; mainstream media has been flaccid and complicit for decades; what we're now witnessing is perhaps a loss of influence from their own ineffectualness (which is deserved, as they're doing a terrible job in every way imaginable), and a rise of populace-driven coverage, a reclaiming of voice, if you will. Interesting times!

I agree that the traditional media's influence is waning. Social media is equally image-driven and simulacratic, though, and I think has to be incorporated into our modern understanding of how the spectacle is comprised. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram–these are all multibillion-dollar enterprises. With more people than ever getting their news through social media–to wit, the debate over "fake news" and "alternate facts"–I wonder at what point we begin the consider social media to be "mainstream." I'm admittedly trying to expand the term "spectacle" and, perhaps, redefine it a bit, but I think the material impact of image-driven resistance needs further exploration. When people in Honolulu see video of someone marching in New York and want to do the same, I think they can strategically assume the narrative being covered by the "mainstream" media to gain visibility, then move beyond that narrative once visibility has been attained to address the particular manifestations of a given issue in a local context. I'm not positing that as a universal political strategy, of course, but only one tool that can be used to advance political movements in a hypermediatic environment. Anyone doing so would have to safeguard against exactly the kind of cooptation of which you speak, but the possibility for building broader coalitions may be worth considering.

Excellent post and response. I do appreciate the idea of people organizing and getting coverage and sharing their own images. I still lean towards Debord's notion that "the spectacle" creates certain relationships between people, movements, and power systems. While his theory could not have imagined the Internet and the ways people and organizations could control their own images, the fact remains that the great majority of outlets for images, from corporate news networks to YouTube to Facebook have one primary agenda: selling advertising and increasing their revenues. That leads me to questions like, How does posting our own images and words still continue to serve the larger corporate and commercial systems even as it fuels mass actions? In what ways do the un-spectactular issues and negotiations of power get lost in such attention to captivating images of "resistance"? Organizations on the right, like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce have been very successful at building and entrenching their influence without spectacle. I am also reminded of a recent interview with one of the Occupy Wall Street organizers who said, "Success now has become something like getting a lot of people to hear about my meme. Or changing the discourse. We changed the discourse. We trained a whole new generation of activists, but we didn't change how power functions. That's what our real goal was. I think that's an indictment of contemporary activism." None of those questions or comment are intended as criticisms of protest or public demonstrations, but rather as ways to examine the functionality of "the spectacle" even when organizers intentionally deploy such forms intentionally. http://www.npr.org/2017/03/28/520911740/occupy-activist-micah-white-time...

This is an excellent dialogue in which we're engaged and I hope we can continue it once the theme week is over. I'm borrowing from Spivak's idea of "strategic essentialism," as you undoubtedly figured. I'm certainly not denying media corporatization or corporate usurpation of protest for popular branding. If what I'm calling "strategic spectacularization" can ever be successful, it must emphasize the "strategic" part of the concept. Once recognition is attained, any cooptation of corporate platforms must be critiqued, if not utterly renounced. You highlighted the problem: mass movements using traditional or new media are unfortunately ensnared by the corporate entities they're working to expose. At the same time, I disagree with your assertion about the Chamber of Commerce and ALEC building influence without the spectacle. They're shadowy organizations, to be sure, but the groups they represent are often the biggest drivers and proponents of the spectacle–Super PACs, for example, that represent multinational oil or agribusiness firms and spend millions of dollars on reductionist campaign ads. We need more democratic media platforms. Yet, if a narrative can be crafted across traditional media platforms that brings attention to a issue that's long been silenced–Black Lives Matter and police violence, for instance–can that same process by strategically appropriated to foment widespread dissent and repartition who and what counts as recognizable, even temporarily? I'm not dismissing your critique at all. I think it's more than valid. I'm just trying to complicate the question further.

As a historian, I recognize certain movements in the past that have been very successful at both playing the spectacle and engaging the unspectacular aspects of formal power leverage. (The civil rights movement that built from 1896 with the NACWC to its successes in the mid-1960s is one example. The women's suffrage movement with its bitter tensions between the public marches and forced feedings in jail vs. the political and legislative lobbying is another example in which the different tactics were not coordinated but did reinforce each other.) I wonder in our current age if the spectacle has supplanted the unglamorous work and grinding efforts of restructuring power systems. I do not critique demonstrations at all, and I hope with you that they can lead to more systemic change beyond symbolic representation. And I agree that right-leaning organizations use the spectacle as well (although I would say the strength of ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce is their obscured lobbying), but the left has lost the formal economic and political battles of the past 30 years. I enjoy conversations like this one because of my past participation in big protests and marches and my current concerns about their effectiveness--not because I think democratic, public use of the spectacle should cease. But because I hope they lead to sustained efforts at the unspectacular.

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