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Counter Culture

Idea of the spectacle

Print edition : Nov 11, 2022 T+T-

Idea of the spectacle

In the age of social media, what we consider “appearance” might become “essence”.

Two weeks ago, in a since-deleted video that was going viral on Twitter, a young, tender couple—or let us just assume they were tender—recorded themselves on a first date, singing to each other. They were seated beside one another, performing for the other, and also for the disembodied avalanche on the other side of the Internet’s ether: her voice, his ukulele, if I remember correctly. They kept laughing and giggling as they sang, as though there was something funny about the whole performance, as though they were laughing at each other, but also laughing with each other, not knowing which leaks into what, when.

Broadly, the reactions to the video were love, sarcasm, or awe. Love for the performance, sarcasm chafing at this burning need to perform love, and awe for the ability to perform love. It is the instinct for awe that I find fascinating. That here is a generation so comfortable with the gaze of a camera, that to be and to perform in front of a camera cease to be two distinct things. To not just perform for a camera—and this performance fundamentally altering the self and the self’s relationship to the social—but also to be unworried about the archive of it existing, the digital footprints of their youth. (A weekly magazine took up the video, churned it into a piece without permission. The girl reached out to them to take it down, and then, after a few hours, she too took the video down, the downpour on Twitter being too pungent and overwhelming.)

Awe is in some sense the opposite of sarcasm, and sarcasm is a kind of jaded criticism—that I might not like what I am seeing but I have nothing to offer except my dislike for it. It comes from the futility of this dislike, this resistance, for if there was something you could do about the criticism, something you could dam in the social conscience, sarcasm would be rage, would become an enterprising effort to make that change. The fact that in the face of things we do not like we only offer sarcasm is a kind of resignation that the world is flowing at its whim, and we can only sit by its roaring, rushing banks. Just smirk as the spectacle stretches out. And it is possibly the contemporary malaise, the unceasing gift that keeps rearing its head. When sarcasm and irony entered our lives, innocence left.

Philosopher and political theorist Guy Debord’s The Society Of The Spectacle puts forth, in typical Marxist regalia, the idea of a spectacle. Debord begins with a Ludwig Feuerbach quote, about how the present age “prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence” and, as a result, “illusion only is sacred, truth profane… truth decreases and illusion increases”.

In his theses, he notes that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” and by representation, he means the images that we covet, trying to pursue them, trying to become them, trying to perform them—these images of the self. That we have moved from “being” to “having” to “appearing”. That these images replace human interaction. That the spectacle, as he defines it, “is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”

It is a powerful thesis, written in the 1960s, before social media swept the landscape, which, with its relentless sledgehammer, made us mistake addiction for engagement and performance for being.

ALSO READ:Brahmastra: The missing awe

To be and to be online are two distinct things—perhaps contradictory, perhaps complementary, but certainly distinct. But this conundrum is not new. It is as old as art. For even to be and to be represented are two distinct things. To be represented is an artistic impulse. Jain medieval monks have often spoken of how the skilled artist can even outdo nature in representing it. The earliest Buddhists and Jains were, and contemporary Muslim believers are, averse to representations of god for this very reason—how to create something in the image of greatness. I have always sensed in this reluctance to make an image of god an insecurity, what if one creates an image of god so surreal, so beautiful, so insisting on submission, that the image of god personifies god itself.

‘Stable’ ideas and change

What I want to complicate is this idea of “truth” and “illusion” that Feuerbach uses. When Debord says, “The spectacle in general as the concrete inversion of life,” what does he mean by life? The problem, as I see it, is that we consider things like “truth” and “life” as stable ideas defined, and once defined, unamenable to change, a stubborn, stagnating definition. If the prerogative of time is to change, then should not words, too, be allowed to morph their meanings, soften their hard edges over time, leak into one another, shift boundaries?

Much like how an artistic genius distorts the very notion of how we engage with art, destabilising what “goodness” and “badness” could mean, a technological innovation distorts the very notion of how we engage with life. When the nomads saw the settled agriculturalists digging and dining at one place for their foreseeable lifetime instead of digging and dining across the world, and wondered at how they had completely shattered and contradicted what life ought to be—what life, to them, must be, what man’s connection to nature must be, what man’s connection to nature, to them, must be — there was deep distrust in the flux of time. By insisting that words like truth, life, and being have stable meanings, we are pursuing a similar distrust.

It is true that social media has deepened depression, aching us into anxiety and addiction, has flattened culture into pixelated, designer-clad destinations, and algorithms have turned us into hamsters on a speeding wheel, but isn’t such a strong social reaction natural to such a shattering innovation, one that has completely re-formulated the tenets of our existence? Is the arc of history, then, bending towards performance, towards separating the body from its performance?

There is even, for example, a sexual identity called “digisexuals”, for those who prefer having erotic and sexual escapades only online, mediated by the cold, comfortable distance of a screen. That even intimacy, which we considered requiring a human touch, that dizzying, electric, fumbling touch, might be re-evaluating itself in this rapid, hairpin bending swerve of the human race in time, is a staggering thought.

ALSO READ:Crafted untruth

To be clear, I am not championing social media, merely twisting a perception that we have considered factual—that what we consider “appearance” might become “essence”, that what we consider a performance might become being, and that, right now, irony and sarcasm seem to be shields we sheath ourselves with, to be entertained by this flux of time while noting our passive acceptance of it. It is, I think, a kind of Kool-Aid, even shimmering poison perhaps, that we lunge effortlessly towards.

Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.