Phantom Performances – The Rise of the Spectacle
a visually striking performance or display
an event or scene regarded in terms of its visual impact
“Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image.” ~John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards
“Magical thinking is the currency not only of celebrity culture, but also of totalitarian culture.” ~Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion
Welcome to the spectacle. Or perhaps I should say the kind of spectacle that has become the face of entertainment that pervades our westernized cultures. The way that the spectacle succeeds is that it isn’t so much about fooling us into believing its lies as real, but rather that it is we who ask to be fooled. We seek to suspend our sense of reality, to pursue a space of escape. The spectacle pulls us in because we lend our willingness to its agenda. If we are honest, in this post-truth age, we will admit to living in an age of spectacle. And it is from this that many of us receive our interpretation of reality. Since the middle of the 20th century onwards the ‘western spectacle’ has been in the form of media advertisement and propaganda. We may think that we’ve only recently arrived at the age of the spectacle, where Disneylandification is becoming the norm, and Super Bowls are interspersed with scantily-clad singers, and TV programs appear in the slots between advertisers. Yet the whole spectacle show has been a form of function creep ever since telecommunications first emerged as a social phenomenon. The image has been with humanity since the first dawn of our arising; from cave paintings to hieroglyphics to cuneiform clay tablets. The major difference is that today the spectacle of the image has not only gone global, but it has also gotten inside of our heads.
Western cultures especially (and the US specifically) have now made the image, the spectacle, and hence the illusion so grand, so vivid, and so persuasively realistic that they are becoming our basis of reality. We swing from one illusion to the alternative, which is still yet another grand spectacle; just as we swing from the political left to the right, believing each side is distinctly different. Yet each is a part of the same bubble that customizes our lives – they form a part of our news, our heroes, our tragedies, and our dreams. We now serve a mosaic of ideals carefully crafted as a patchwork of phantom performances. Nothing is ever real anymore except the painful extremes that pervade our daily existence: the violence, the suffering, the deprivation, the inequality, the disease. Only these fragments that create great pain become the real, and from these many of us seek refuge in a plenitude of diversions, distractions, and triviality.
Western civilization has chosen to be played out upon a grand stage where the performance – of invented storylines and scripts – runs the show. We move through social realities that are an entanglement of signs, virtual connections, and social media status. It’s all about who is going to be the next ‘influencer’? We are encouraged to project back into the world our entertainment-mediatized fantasies. People begin to act out their imaginary landscapes, often in violent and distorted ways, as young students massacre their classmates before going to eat at McDonalds. This is the hyperreal that distorts a stable reality, making it harder to gain a grounded perspective on things. People are increasingly being guided by the false totems of media-militarized-entertainment.
The media spectacle gives us our modern guiding images. This is similar to how in the Middle Ages images depicted in stained glass windows and paintings of religious torment or salvation acted to control and influence the social behavior of our ancestors. For many of us the white-bearded god above is dead, so we have media depictions of heroes, adventurers, McGyvers, celebrity-cosmetic makeovers, beauty pageants, talk shows and reality television to be our social guides. An illusory sensate reality has been erected that runs on pseudo-lives and phantom performances. Such phantom performances mask our personal failures and conveniently hide them behind a curtain of the unreal. People prefer to watch the rich and famous on television rather than face the domestic unhappiness of their own lives. Why have ice when you can have bubblegum-flavored ice-cream?
Luckily for those of us who live in the west we inhabit a world of easy-correction where we can make ourselves better if we buy certain products, ingest certain foods, and hang-out in the right yoga gyms. For every situation there is seemingly a commercial solution. We have not been abandoned, after all. In the realm of hyperreality, our fantasies are no longer an impediment to success. On the contrary, our fantasies are the portals through which we enter. All we need is for the world of the media to give us our dream. Everybody has talent, as the reality shows tell us – ‘Britain’s Got Talent,’ ‘America’s Got Talent:’ in fact, we’ve all got talent! We are all of us hidden unique performers, and the world ‘out there’ is begging for our arrival. This is not to be confused with the manipulation by greedy commercial enterprises that are ready to discard you as soon as your ‘talent’ no longer sells.
Yet the truth of the matter is that the spectacle of celebrity culture seeks commodities, not real individuals or souls. It doesn’t want that we seek for any form of transcendence, illumination, or real growth. It is a world that seeks only those that feed the phantom and encourage others to do the same. It is the ‘real’ that gets pushed into a black hole – to become a figment of the imagination, whilst imaginary dreams take its place. Celebrity culture thrives from the very lack of inner reflection. There is no ‘going within’ unless it is a form of medication going down our throats. If we are brutally honest, the celebrity spectacle is an ugly specter that can be as cruel as it is superficial.
The Spectacle of Celebrity Culture
No one achieves celebrity status on their own. It is a stage performance that requires a hoard of cultural enablers; from media, marketers, promoters, agents, handlers, and a host of hungry and gullible people. It is a veritable stage of actors, with each person in it to gain something for themselves. They either seek attention, satisfaction, fame, wealth, or a combination of these. Celebrity culture has come to dominate how many of us define our sense of belonging. It has come to define how we relate to the world around us, and in this respect has disfigured our notions of social belonging and community. Celebrity culture funds and feeds our own movies inside our heads as we invent our roles and behavior. It is a culture in which very few participants are even real for a day.
We idolize celebrities and often project them as idealized forms of ourselves. And yet through this substitution we move further away from any real self-actualization. The transcendent – the Real – does not do substitutes. By throwing our fantasies onto others we are diminishing our own power. In the words of one serious journalist,
We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology …in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft. 1
We are subtly pushed through the well-structured stagecraft whilst all the time thinking that it is real. Our contemporary ‘death of the gods’ has been replaced by a divine adoration of celebrities and celebrity culture. Celebrity items, like holy relics, are paraded, idolized, and sold for vast sums. People rush for autographs, only to sell them later on eBay to make an unhealthy profit. Celebrity personal possessions are sold off at prestigious auction houses for astronomical prices, so aging people can wear the clothes of their idols. The glitzy suit that Elvis wore before dying in a Las Vegas toilet; or the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to show her knickers to the world above a subway vent. Everything is up for grabs – the profane is made sacred, and then sacrificed as celebrity talismans. It all engenders a performance of hysteria, leading sometimes to stalking, or what is nowadays referred to as ‘trolling,’ as celebrity private photos are hacked and shared online. It’s happened to Emma Watson, Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton, Jessica Alba, Kate Hudson, Scarlett Johansson…and the list goes on, and on, and on.
The world of celebrity culture thrusts us into a moral void. People are valued by their appearance and their skin-deep beauty rather than their humanity. Such a culture focuses upon onanistic desires and ways for self-gratification. The cult of self ‘has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt.’2 The cult of self also promotes the right to get whatever we wish, and celebrity media plays into this, often at the cost of the celebrity who suffers from social media harassment and online trolling. Celebrity public life is not a sacred space; instead, it has become a theatre of performance that is open for all spectators. And those spectators who surround themselves with celebrity culture tend to live in the present, fed by an endless stream of packaged information. They live by credit promises, ignorant to the future prospect of unmanageable debt. They are hostage to a culture that keeps them enthralled, like a television commercial replete with pleasing jingles. They navigate their purchases through well-known brands, eyeing the famous logos as guides. It is an image-saturated reality, bright and tantalizing, offering comfort and satisfaction upon all levels – until the credit runs out. Then the person becomes an outlaw to the very system that fattened them up like foie gras ducks.
These are the trivial diversions that for many are necessary, and which exist in cultures that prize shallow entertainment above substance. We may wonder whether the consumerist celebrity culture is a compensation for the loss of our true freedom regarding the human spirit and our well-being. And celebrities too are often trapped within their own fairy-tale prisons. They are skillfully controlled by their handlers and pushed in front of the media – all this to compensate for the insatiable appetites of those thirsty spectators that swarm upon celebrity culture. We are tantalizingly shown that even us, the humble spectators, can triumph in fame through the lens of reality television. The celebrity machinery oils itself on the media-creation of third and fourth-rate celebrities that have their fifteen minutes of fame – crammed together on desert islands, stuffing insects into their mouths as they bad-mouth their once beloved ‘best-friend’ and vote them off the show. Reality survival, it seems, comes at a cost. And then when they finally emerge into the ‘real world’ of the hyperreal they throng and mingle with other reality-stars under the glare of media spotlight in the vain hope that together they can populate an illusory world of the celebrity.
The world of reality television is another limb on the body of phantom performance. In the last decade a multitude of reality shows have cropped up on our television screens; and they all have one thing in common – they involve being constantly watched. Popular shows such as Big Brother put strangers to live together with round-the-clock constant surveillance. These strangers are even videoed in their beds as they sleep or fondle and kiss with other contestants. Sex lives are ogled over alongside the tears and on-screen breakdowns. Then the television psychologists are wheeled out to offer ‘expert commentary’ on the contestant’s state for mass consumption. Yet underneath all this glamour and glitz is the subtle message that intrusive surveillance is a normal feature of contemporary societies. In fact, it even masquerades as something cool that can be shared online, and which can make us famous. However, the brute reality is that such reality shows normalize what would otherwise be blatant non-constitutional intervention. And yet such shows make surveillance not only routine but a potentially enjoyable part of our modern lives. We are being conditioned into monitoring and sharing our own lives for others to see. Our phantom performances can make any one of us into an enviable star.
Social media is now rife with home-grown videos where everyone from toddler to teenager to retiree is making their performances visible to the image-hungry collective. Selfies too are the new fashionable rage as we perform in front of ourselves. This trend has become so pervasive that each year the number of selfie-related deaths has been increasing. In 2015 more people died from taking selfies than from shark attacks.[i] A dedicated online Wikipedia page has been established to record some of the ongoing ‘selfie-deaths.’ Here are a few examples:
Two young men died in the Ural Mountains after they pulled the pin from a live hand grenade to take a selfie. The phone with the picture remained as evidence of the circumstance of their deaths. (Russia, January 2015)
An 18-year-old died when she attempted to take the “ultimate selfie”, posing with a friend on top of a train in the north-eastern Romanian city of Iași when her leg touched a live wire above which electrocuted her with 27,000 volts. (Romania, May 2015)
A 19-year-old from Houston died after trying to take an Instagram selfie while holding a loaded gun to his head. He accidentally fired the gun and shot himself in the throat. (USA, September 2015)
A 17-year-old student, Andrey Retrovsky from Vologda, Russia, fell to his death attempting to take a selfie while hanging from a rope from a nine-story building. The rope snapped. Retrovsky was known for taking ‘extreme’ selfies and posting them to his Instagram account. (Russia, September 2015)
Selfie deaths, it seems, are global – and not a rare occurrence. Our phantom performances come at a cost. In a world where the image is iconic, more and more people are losing themselves in a reality where a sense of achievement comes from catching the ‘ultimate selfie.’
The drive for inner fulfilment, transcendence, and growth has been wavered aside in favor of the pixilated image. We fear not being seen. We dread being anonymous. Even being a spectral ghost is preferable to being dead.
We Are the Image
The new perspective on the world is pixilated. We are awash with images without substance and which are routinely fetishized as iconic. Signs are lacking immanence; they are fleeting and transient like never before. That is why corporations spend millions trying to find an image logo that will stick around long enough to be implanted into our minds. Images are becoming signs to the disappearance of the real. Images are the new believable reality; now no one cares that the original behind the image has quietly slipped away. The world exists as if in a play of phantom appearances. The image has taken centerstage within the space of the new real. We are now the image.
Yet the danger here is that in being given the image with its glamour and glitz we are in return giving up our critical and intellectual tools that help us cope with a complex world. Where once we had the faculty of separating illusion from reality we now have a simplified hyperreal world where everything can be explained away by a platitude of post-truth phrases. Does it even matter anymore that Las Vegas with its illusion of France with the mock Eiffel Tower, or its pseudo-canals of Venice, are far from the reality of France or Venice? How many people care? Or that the fantasy worlds within the various Disney theme parks are merging with the entertainment-saturated lives outside? Would it truly matter if we were all living within a controlled environment as depicted within the film The Truman Show? Or maybe, just maybe, such films are actually trying to tell us something – to wake us up?
The danger now is that our cultural spectacles – our celebrity culture and spectral images – are making any other alternative seem dull to us. It may be that in an age of simplified gratification any complex reality is boring. What the ‘real’ presents us with may no longer be enough. In its place we are perhaps seeking a false magic.
We have lost touch with that essential something that can work like magic in our lives. As one thinker recently stated:
We live in changing times whereby humanity is undergoing a transformation…We need to understand phenomena at deeper levels, and not just accept what we are told, or what is fed to us through well-structured social institutions and channels. We must learn to accept that our thinking is a great tangible spiritual force for change. 2
The notion that our ideas, our vision, our projections onto the world can be a ‘great tangible spiritual force for change’ is eluding us. Never before has it been so important to trust in the power of the human spirit, and to put forth, with honesty and integrity, the innate human power. The alternative is that we slide into the slipstream of our own phantom performances – we become the image.
About the Author
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of Bardo Times: hyperreality, high-velocity, simulation, automation, mutation – a hoax?, The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion, and Consciousness, and The Sacred Revival: Magic, Mind & Meaning in a Technological Age, available at Amazon. Visit him on the web at http://www.kingsleydennis.com/.
1 Hedges, Chris. 2010. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. New York: Nation Books, p15
2 Gulbekian, S.E. 2004. In the Belly of the Beast: Holding Your Own in Mass Culture. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads, p251
[i] See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/11881900/More-people-have-died-by-taking-selfies-this-year-than-by-shark-attacks.html