The age of spectacle has been kitted out with the latest technology and is only growing more extreme. Whether a tweet from the US president, an environmental disaster or a shocking attack, a spectacular story is one which is visually arresting and presented in a flash.
I work in theatre and must cop to a love and respect for spectacle. Spectacle has power, it provokes response, it is designed to be consumed. Yet there are types of stories which are not easily turned into spectacle and are thereby omitted. These stories are of a different scale, have a longer time code, and are not easily commodified: stories about the local, stories about the environment, stories about the minutia of policy change, stories which, over time, become our culture. It is vital to create, maintain and protect space for the “unspectacular.”
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Spectacle isn’t going anywhere and it’s nothing new. In 1967, Guy Debord noted, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an intense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”1 Whether binging on spectacle or being force-fed, we are consuming.
The spectacle-cycle offers breaking news 24 hours a day. The world starts to feel like a Vegas circus show with one remarkable feat piled atop another – flips, fire-breathing, a pool in the floor, contortions – all of it happening at the same time so that it’s impossible to take in the whole picture. Yet there is no way to look away. Renowned choreographer Jonathan Burrows says, “If everything is virtuosic, then there’s nothing against which to read the virtuosity.”2 The same could be said of spectacle.
Three dozen local newspapers have recently closed in Southern Ontario.3 When I was younger, my parents were reporters at the Calgary Herald; my mother a police reporter, education reporter and magazine writer, my father covered City Hall, then the court beat, then moved on to investigative reporting. When the paper changed hands, my father left. Editorials were about to move from a local to a national concern, the designated local beats were disappearing. There was no more budget for time-consuming investigations. It’s no secret that these are hard times for print media. The minutes of the city council meeting aren’t about to break the internet while the story of the latest celebrity divorce may. The local has a value that doesn’t link easily into economics but it has a key role in civic society. It keeps a community informed and exposes what may not otherwise be seen. Local stories nurture identity rather than allowing one spectacular national or international narrative to prevail.
When my colleagues and I started making theatre, we wanted to tell the stories that weren’t being told, that Canada needed to hear. This was grassroots theatre based on interviews – for one play, we interviewed people living along the route of the proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline. A hereditary chief of the Gitxsan nation requested that the stories be brought back to Toronto, to Vancouver, to the cities, where decisions were being made about her home by politicians and executives who had never been to her community, by people who did not understand the local conversations. In Toronto, for another play, we interviewed people who lived in a food desert and took three buses to get groceries as poverty drove more and more people to edges of the city.
In a world of the spectacular, information flows one way, from the spectacle to the consumer and there is no speaking back, there is no venue for a conversation in the other direction. Poet Anne Boyer says, “Noticing one thing can make the other things disappear.”4 Spectacle amplifies certain voices, those already with access, and is polarizing. Spectacle shines a floodlight in one direction and it’s too dark to see other possibilities, too bright to see who is shining the light and have a conversation about turning it down.
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Surely, spectacle is good for something. Individual media outlets can come together to do meaningful investigative work. Spectacle works well at scale and it knows how to encapsulate something that has happened rather than something that is in the process of happening. Slow change is less sensational. The spectacular knows how to present the drama of a hurricane but slower changes in the environment, the steady northward shift of plant and animal species5 as the planet warms for instance, is less reported or seen.
Fire! Flood! Terror!
Spectacle can, at a certain point, feel like shock. Naomi Klein says, “Shock, by definition, is a moment where there is a gap between fast-moving events and the information that exists to explain them.”6 It is no wonder that we might miss important developments that don’t speak in the language of shock to which we’ve become inured.
Is there anything less spectacular than the minutae of policy and parliamentary due process? Spectacle announces Anti-Terrorism! Jobs! and draws attention while over sixty changes are quietly made to mandatory minimum sentences7 at a time when statistics tell us that crime has been steadily falling.8 The spectacle is not concerned with truth but with the show. When Trump called Senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas” this was heavily reported while Warren’s response, “Trump wants us distracted... he’s happy that people are not focused on how he’s trying to cut taxes for billionaires,”9 which points to a powerful mechanism of the spectacle, didn’t make it much past her social media page. We are distracted, infantilized, given ‘information’ which begins and ends with the headline. Spectacle does not connect the dots and uncover a larger picture, it plays on repeat, lights blinking away in a dazzling array.
Fighter Jets! Eclipse! What I Ate for Breakfast!
Spectacle can seem a natural by-product of the extremes of the world in which we live – extreme connectivity, polarization in politics, extreme weather events. This past summer, there was a stunning eclipse, fighter jets arcing through the sky – it wasn’t the media – the day to day seemed to be engaging in spectacle.
How natural is it all? When so much of what we intake is in the same sensational mode, at the same decibel level – Harry’s Getting Married! Trump Said What?! – it’s as though the dial is jammed and it is hard to absorb anything else or interpret our own lives through any other mode. It’s no wonder that people begin to process through the lens of the spectacular; photos of breakfast cereal turned into spectacle, posted online.
The social media updates, the hook lines, the flashy video trailer – in theatre too, spectacle is necessary to grab attention and survive. If economics determines stories, then stories will turn to spectacle. I’m not petitioning to cancel the fireworks display and talk about the events of the day in soothing tones, to all wear putty-coloured button-downs so as not to create too much excitement, but in our appetite for spectacle, fundamental stories about ourselves and the world in which we live are being overlooked.
The way to create space for these stories is not to match the pitch of the spectacle or even rage against it. Quoting Guy Debord, journalist and author Amitav Ghosh says, “Is it possible that the arts and literature of this time will one day be remembered not for their daring nor for their championing of freedom but rather because of their complicity in the great derangement? Spectacular forms of rebelliousness are not, by any means, incompatible with a ‘smug acceptance of what exists…for the simple reason that dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity.’”10 Anger becomes spectacle itself.
What we can do is work towards an awareness of the mechanisms of spectacle and seek out the stories that work with a different scale, which may not be clear-cut, politicized or sensational. The myth that our attention spans have dwindled to eight seconds has been debunked11 and isn’t borne out by the popularity of long-form journalism and podcasts or, in theatre, by the attention given plays such as those by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker which feature conversations that are awkward, long, real and not about an end point or being right. Not very shiny at all.
When a society is saturated with spectacle, as we are now, those of us creating narratives and contexts – in media, in live arts – have a subtler role – to bring the unspectacular, the silences, the important conversations between people who are not celebrities, to the fore. To exercise what Gail Dexter-Lord calls “soft power”12 and help our society build empathy.
I’m writing from the middle of the question. How to resist the urge to turn it all into a show? The stories that most impacted me when creating interview-based theatre are not those that made it to the stage, not those that wrapped up cleanly, but the small moments. A silence as a man reflects on his grown children and how he wishes they were able to live closer, a city planner talking about the quality of light in High Park at 5 p.m., standing at a resistance camp on the banks of the Wetzin’kwa river, listening.
The gravity of our times can, as Slavoj Zizek says, create an “urge to catastrophize the situation.”13 The media has an opportunity to make space for the less sensational narratives and to allow us to listen for what we might not otherwise hear. There is story beyond the spectacle.