Spectacles and Spectres

Since its introduction into the English language from Old French in the fourteenth century, the word 'spectacle' (derived from Latin) has retained its original meaning of 'a show'. But not any old show. The term implies some organisation of the visual field that is out of the ordinary. Many of the debates and different conceptualisations of the term 'spectacle' turn on this relationship to, and conceptualisation of, the everyday or the norm. In the debased and overused lexicon of marketing today, the extraordinary qualities of a visual display are routinely promised as a means of filling our leisure time (and extracting our disposable income). In this conception, spectacle offers something wondrous and (often technologically) novel, dependent on an existing standard of 'ordinariness' to differentiate its own spectacular qualities while also returning us after the spectacle to that norm which has somehow been both marked by the 'rupture' of the spectacle and unchanged by it.

As a promise and as a rupture, there is (or was?) something latently revolutionary about spectacle. Thus within Marxist cultural theory of the 1920s and 1930s, a nascent mass culture was seen as a potential resource for rupturing the habitual

15 relations of spectators to the world around them (Leslie 2002), denaturalising what

^ was taken for granted and encouraging a series of aesthetic/perceptual shocks to

~ promote social and political awareness. Hence Eisenstein's montage of attractions,

2 Brecht's alienation effects and Benjamin's profane illuminations, which sought to is release the utopian energies stored up in the everyday detritus of early consumer

& capitalism. In such cultural practices, elements of the mass media were conceived

& as potentially subversive stimulation. But with the commercialisation and

^ conglomeration of the mass media, such optimism for the untapped radical o potential of spectacle largely waned and in its place there emerged after the Second World War a more negative assessment of the spectacle.

The locus classicus of this position is the work of Guy Debord, who coined the notion of a 'society of the spectacle' (Debord 1983). Here the onlooker, observer, audience or spectator implied or addressed by the mass media is reduced to a passive agent rather than the active agent envisaged by Brecht, Eisenstein and other avant-gardists. Mass media spectacles offer only a unilateral monologue, not a genuine dialogue between spectacle and spectator; they are riven with manipulations and undeliverable promises. However, it is important to understand that the 'spectacle' in the sense used by Debord is not just a question of the media. It is rather the convergence between the commodity relations of advanced capitalism and the organisation of the senses, particularly though not exclusively the visual field (Debord 1983: 34). This broader critique of our social relations could encompass, for example, sport, politics, corporate identities (Kellner 2003) or our entire built environment. Thus in his study of nineteenth-century Paris, Walter Benjamin explored all the fragments of urban life that were synthesised into the spectacle of an emerging consumer capitalism. He noted, for example, the way mirrors could be used to expand the interior spaces of cafes and shops, making them lighter and brighter and how this was part of a general libidinalization of sight, of looking at others and the self in countless reflections, and all merging with the commodities on display. This narcissistic use of mirrors appropriates an older pre-capitalist image and channels it into the 'magic' of the marketplace. 'One may compare the pure magic of those walls of mirrors which we know from feudal times with the oppressive magic worked by the alluring mirror-walls of the arcades, which invite us into seductive bazaars' (Benjamin 1999a: 541). In this broader conception of spectacle, 'the real' and the spectacle merge; the everyday becomes the site of myriad commodity spectacles (each contradictorily proclaiming its extraordinary quality), the appearance-forms which disguise the deeper real relations of commodity capitalism and the exploitation and asymmetrical power relations on which it is built. Media spectacles are thus not quite the 'escapist' rupture with the ordinary that they present themselves as, because the ordinary and everyday tissue of experience under capitalism is already an escapist fantasy.

Debord describes the spectacle as 'the autonomous movement of the non-living' -a

(4), and there is certainly one dimension of spectrality in the horror film, most a commonly the haunted house, where the dominance of the 'non-living', the world a of commodities, is vividly demonstrated. The relationship between the commodity ^

and death or dead things is something which was posited in the rhetorical i strategies of both Benjamin and Marx himself, as he tried to grasp a process by i which people lose control over their own labour and its products. The imperative .

of capital accumulation acquires a life of its own and this thrusts the real human M

subject (labour turned into a mere commodity) into a new kind of (living) death. 3

Thus the dominance of the commodity form not only sees the 'non-living' acquire life, but the living acquire a death-like existence, or in a related (and within the horror genre, very popular) development, the dead haunt the living as a rebuke to their dematerialised mode of life.

The spectre, a term which entered the English language from French in the early seventeenth century, has some interesting overlaps and differences with spectacle. Like spectacle, a spectre is something visually arresting and out of the ordinary. But the sense of rupture it evokes is different in that a spectacle is presumed to have natural or human derivation, whereas the spectre passes over into the supernatural, escaping (or severely testing) rational explanation of known laws and matter. Yet even here there is an ambiguity, since the spectre (like other strange phenomena) often provokes rationalistic explanations grounded in natural, social or psychological laws. Just as the spectacle in some discourses is associated with the distraction or concealment of the real, so the spectre is associated with a certain insubstantial, phantasmatic quality. But here is a crucial difference. The spectacle is associated with a public show which may then be critiqued as a collective distraction from the real, but the not-real component of the spectre often overlaps with a sense of it being a subjective projection/misrecognition by the individual, or if given within a film an unqualified status of actually existing it usually 'exists' for a few select individuals (Ghostbusters [Ivan Reitman 1984 US] is an obvious exception). Thus while spectacles are public displays, spectres are often (but not always) displays for the private or individual gaze.

However, paradoxically, thepublicness of the public spectacle, its quality as a means for engaging the public as socially connected collectives, is profoundly compromised by its commodification, as Benjamin and Debord argued. Conversely, the spectacle of the spectre is a fleeting, secret, half-glimpsed rupturing of the ordinary appearance-forms of the spectacle; and what is often half glimpsed in the private gaze of the characters (un)lucky enough to see the spectre, is precisely that genuine (if phantasmatic) publicness or collective social being, fragmented and atomised by the appearance-forms of capitalism's commodity relations and images. The spectre (this return of the repressed) has some ghostly affinities with the older Marxist/avant-garde cultural and theoretical practices. It 15 works, however, from a more compromised interior space within the spectacle and, ^ overtly at least, it is more grounded in the irrational - this, however, gives the horror ~ genre its peculiar force since much of what we take to be rational masks the deep

5 irrationality of capitalism. The private gaze onto a repressed public/collective is relation marks a point of tension within popular forms still largely grounded in

6 individualised modes of storytelling but increasingly having to 'process' raw social

& material from a systemic, collective and global system (Jameson 1992). i—

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