Spectacularity Julia Moritz

Among the many myths about Julia Augusta, the first Empress of Rome, is one concerning her demand for more realism in the arena of the Circus Maximus: the gladiators were too vain, their battles inauthentic, the blood only borrowed from animals. What she wanted instead was true agony, convincing historical scenes, death delivered right in front of the audience—for the sake of intensity. Augustus listened to her, and the new, real circus became a mind-blowing success.1 But that was the barbarity of the old days. … The theaters of classicist Europe turned away from the mob. Splendidly decorated ceilings now saved the noblemen the strains of open-air presentations, the radian seats were covered with the most precious velvet, and artificial illumination celebrated the gowns and wigs of a new public. Yet it could not do without an appeal to the basic instincts. The rationale is found with the ancient Greeks, the proper inventors of the kirkos. Aristotle’s concept of drama reversed the Platonic accusation that poetry would encourage an uncontrolled state of mind. He introduced the converse: the moral efficiency of staged events.2 In order to prevent an actual outburst of excessive passions, catharsis became the long-held method of expulsion. Stereotyped characters and stunning action evoked overwhelming emotion in an audience that learned not only to accept the roles on display but also to behave temperately in everyday tragedies.

Spectacularization involves this very spectrum of historical layers of theatrical spectatorship, symbolic and social indoctrination, and ideological distraction. Its various forms of representational architecture might have outlived the manifold architectures of representation, but the twofold operations of spectacularity still seem to follow the age-old dialectics of the impressive and the sensational. Tightly knit together by the recipes of dramatic production, the latter thoughtfully reckons the sensible, while the former grandiosely imprints what is worthy of note. While the breathtaking, the eye-catching, the mouthwatering navigate our psycho-physical experience, the fantastic, the attractive, the imaginary crafts our desires. This is the dual theater of spectacularization.


The strange flowers of historiography assess Roman barbarism mainly as a matter of obscene spectatorship. But Rome did not become an empire by merely paralyzing the plebeians through the spectacle. In proffering these plays, the emperors readily prepared and perpetuated the military climate so crucial for their megalomaniac endeavors—as did every imperialist regime that was to come.

By the time Vladimir Ilyich Lenin reincorporated the vibrant circus culture of Eastern European Gypsy troupes (which had sustained the ancient spectacle during the austere Middle Ages) into an official “people’s art form” of the USSR, and the Moscow State Circus company began its much applauded international tours, a communist in exile had just completed the The Caucasian Chalk Circle. It was not until the 1950s, however, that Bertolt Brecht’s political theater scrutinized the ideological function of catharsis as a fraud that leaves vital emotions unresolved and precludes certain social behaviors by the audience.3 A political and aesthetic criticism of spectacularity as a major cultural tool of capitalist rule, his subversion of the disempowering structure of catharsis aimed at overcoming the high-versus-low culture dichotomy that socialism had retained.4 His famous Verfremdungseffekte (“alienation effects”) rendered the ideological function of the theatrical event intelligible, disabled emotional identification, and thus abandoned the spectacle’s self-celebratory narrative altogether—art as a forum for critical analysis was an incitement to his heirs.5

Though by no means the end of history (nor of its blooming epistemological curiosities), spectacularity needed to reconfigure after the immediate postwar period. Repressing its traumatic metastases of mass manipulation, neoliberalism campaigned against the cruelty of the menagerie and glossed patina over the empty tiger cage. Indeed, the provocative smell of the gladiator’s blood, sweat, and tears cannot be found in the mediated landscapes of the contemporary spectacle—nor can the heat of the fire-eating Gypsy, nor can the quake of the conformist Soviet parades. The optical paradigm of hyper-real entertainment confines the spectacle to digital circuits on high-definition screens. The theater’s semblance of reality has become the nostalgic simulation of spectacularity itself.

That is when Guy Debord enters the ring:

“This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by ‘intangible as well as tangible things,’ which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.”6

This, the 36th of the 221 theses of La Société du Spectacle, stands for a theoretization of spectacularity that takes on the old avant-garde reconciliation of art and politics in revolutionary terms. Debord and his collaborators of the Situationist International were sensitive to the accumulation of spectacular tactics in the advanced capitalist metropolises of the 1960s and fervently exposed this complicity of affect power and capital in their agitprop actions. Marxist theory again proved useful for the articulation of the reified spectacle, its passive subject, and the inability of the dominant version of democracy to solve the social and economic issues of the day by pulling one commodity after the other spirally out of its hat. But what exactly is art’s duty in this dubious racket?


Another word for “eyeglasses” is “spectacles”, frames carrying lenses worn in front of the eyes in order to correct vision or protect the iris. Here again, we meet the Romans and their Latin spectare: to view, implying that something reveals itself. The patronizing correction of this very visibility in order to protect the faithful from the truth is an old tune. Even so, the retinal paradigm is what lies at the heart of museum activity: the belief in optical representation, the semantic arrangement of physical screens, the display of recorded experience as information corresponding to no reality but itself.

Exhibition space is the “big top” of modernity. But it is not merely the intensive training, the nomadic life, the smell of the canvas, the display of oddities, and the twittering of glamorous guests at international touring events that unites the circus and the art world. Equally anachronistic in their very structure, they both serve as a last bastion of authenticity, the ethics of individual skill, strength, and daring, the positivism of seeing-is-believing. Public visibility based on a notion of universal access is the prevailing ideology of spectacularity. From the Roman arenas onward, however, the first rows are always reserved for the highest ranks; sensual immediacy remains a luxury product designed to slake the exotic cravings of the upper classes. The show keeps moving, the next biennale will open soon at a venue near you, but the list for the after-party close-ups remains strictly rarefied. Sensuality is a sinking ship: the images that once mediated social relationships have themselves become mediated in our digital age. The public sphere has shifted from the actual gatherings in front of the “Greatest Show on Earth” toward the atomized space of television and computer screens momentarily monitoring the information provided. Almighty Wikipedia bizarrely mirrors this staggering of realities, in a vicious cycle of quotations revealing the degradation of the social in an uncannily perfect place:

“Debord notes that quality of life is impoverished, [12][13][14][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22][23][24].”7

And fortunately so, because the absence of a cathartic resolution of this rather biblical bibliographic task requires us to take action instead of filling the gaps we experience in capitalism’s schizophrenic economy of desire with yet another dictionary fashioned by Gates or Gutenberg. That is why the much decried decay of the social and its abundant knowledge is only one side of the coin. The very same spectacle designed to impede critical thought can be reversed in the construction of an oppositional situation within it. The Situationist reordering of experience is by no means located outside everyday life or conceived as politics exiting through the back door, let alone the abolition of art itself (even if it entails all this as well). Tactics such as détournement, psychogeography, and dérive are mingling nowadays with Brechtian realism and, in order to recover spectacular images, infusing critical meaning in its semantic avenues, finally turning their pastiches against themselves. The “cirque nouveau” of contemporary critical practice does have the power to smash the virtual surfaces of neoliberal spectacularity.


1 / Anthony Barett, Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome, New Haven, London 2002.

2 / Aristotle’s Poetics, trans. George Whalley, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal 1997.

3 / Benjamin Walter, Understanding Brecht, Verso, London 2003.

4 / Bertolt Brecht, “The Popular and the Realistic,” Richard Drain (ed.), Twentieth‑Century Theatre: a Sourcebook, Routledge, New York 1995, p. 188–192.

5 / Fredric Jameson (ed.), Aesthetics and Politics, Verso, New York 2007.

6 / Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Black and Red, Detroit 2005.

7 / Society of the Spectacle, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_the_Spectacle (accessed January 31, 2009).