Blog begins here.
By Douglas Kellner
1. Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle
Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle
The Infotainment Society and Technocapitalism
From Media Culture to Media Spectacle
Signs of the Times
Cultural Studies as Diagnostic Critique
2. Commodity Spectacle: McDonald’s as Global Culture
McDonald’s and McDonaldization
Theorizing McDonald’s: A Multiperspectivist Approach
McDonald’s Between the Global and the Local
McDonald’s Between the Modern and the Postmodern
The Case Against McDonald’s
The Personal and the Political
3. The Sports Spectacle, Michael Jordan, and Nike
The Sports Spectacle
The Spectacle of Michael Jordan
Jordan, Sports, and the Race Spectacle
Jordan, Nike, and the Commodity Spectacle
Comeback, Sex Scandal, and Contradictions of the Sports Spectacle
4. The Rock Spectacle
Elvis and Dionysius
Madonna, MTV, and the Rock Spectacle
Hip Hop and the Rap Spectacle
The Multicultural Pop Spectacle
5. Megaspectacle: The O.J. Simpson Murder Trial
Murder/Media Spectacle in Brentwood
Spectacle Culture and the Social Construction of Reality
Media Culture, Identity, and Identity Politics
6. The TV Spectacle: Conspiracy and Paranoia in The X-Files
Series Television as Social Critique: “Trust No One”
The Postmodern Sublime, Parody, and Ambiguity, or “Is the Truth Out There”?
Postmodern Deconstruction: “I Want to Believe” but…
Representing the Unrepresentable
7. Spectacle Politics: Presidential Narratives from JFK to Bush II JFK, the Movie
LBJ and Nixon: Bad Movies
Ford and Carter: Indifferent Presidencies and Poor Spectacle
Ronald Reagan, the Acting President
Bush I: Mixed Spectacle, Failed Presidency
The Clinton Spectacle: Sex, Scandal, Impeachment, and Survival
Bush II, Grand Theft 2000, and Terror War
Conclusion: Democratic Politics, Citizenship, and Spectacle
Culture in the New Millennium
Media Culture and the Triumph of the Spectacle
As the human adventure enters a new millennium, media culture continues to be a central organizing force in the economy, politics, culture, and everyday life. Media culture drives the economy, generating ebbing and flowing corporate profits while disseminating the advertising and images of high-consumption life-styles that help reproduce the consumer society. Media culture also provides models for everyday life that replicate high consumption ideals and personalities and sell consumers on commodity pleasures and solutions to their problems, new technologies, and novel forms of identity. As technocapitalism moves into a dazzling and seductive information/entertainment society, mergers between the media giants are proliferating, competition is intensifying, and the media generate spectacles to attract audiences to the programs and advertisements that fuel the mighty money machines. Yet the Terror Spectacle of September 11 and its aftermath unleashed war and destruction, creating multiplying crises in the global economy and growing insecurity in everyday life.
In the past decades, spectacle culture has significantly evolved. Every form of culture and more and more spheres of social life are permeated by the logic of the spectacle. Movies are bigger and more spectacular than ever, with high-tech special effects expanding the range of cinematic spectacle. Television channels proliferate endlessly with all-day movies, news, political talk, sports, specialty niches, re-runs of the history of television, and whatever else can gain an audience. The rock spectacle reverberates through radio, television, CDs, computer networks, and extravagant concerts. Media culture provides fashion and style models for emulation and promotes a celebrity culture that provides deities and role models.
Media culture excels in creating megaspectacles of sports events, political conflicts, entertainment, “breaking news” and media events, such as the O.J. Simpson trial, the Death of Princess Diana, or the sex or murder scandal of the moment. Megaspectacle comes as well to dominate party politics, as the political battles of the day, such as the Clinton sex scandals and impeachment, the 36 Day Battle for the White House after Election 2000, and the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent Terror War. These dramatic media passion plays define the politics and culture of the time, and attract mass audiences to their programming, hour after hour, day after day.
The Internet in turn has generated a seductive cyberspace, producing novel forms of information, entertainment, and social interaction, while promoting a dot.com frenzied boom and bust that fuelled and then deflated the “new economy,” producing a turbulent new form of creative destruction in the vicissitudes of global capitalism. Ever bigger and more encompassing corporate mergers suggest emergent synergies between the Internet and media culture, and thus the information and entertainment industries. These interactions of technology and capital are producing fecund forms of technocapitalism and a technoculture which promise that the new millennium will be as full of novelties, innovation, hype, and instability as the fin-de-millennium.
September 11 and the subsequent Terror War, however, intensified uncertainty and unpredictability, disclosed a new vulnerability of the most powerful Western societies, and showed how a set of well-orchestrated terrorist attacks could wreak havoc with the global economy and polity. These catastrophic events and their attendant instability and capriciousness assure a profitable futures market for investments in chaos and complexity theory, as well as arms and security industries. Yet it also appears that the “information society” is being put on hold in the interests of eradicating “evil” (i.e. terrorism) from the world. The new forms of war and politics suggest that perhaps there may even be a come-back for postmodern theory, which articulate breaks and ruptures in history and far-reaching novelties in the economy, politics, society, culture and everyday life. There may also be a return to dialectical theory, as the interconnections between globalization, technological revolution, media spectacle, Terror War, and the adventures of cyberspace and the Internet become central to every sphere of existence from the dramas and banalities of everyday life to the survival of the human species and life on earth.
In the new millennium, media culture is more important than ever in serving as a force of socialization, providing models of masculinity and femininity, socially approved and disapproved behavior, style and fashion, and appropriate role models (Kellner 1995). The celebrities of media culture are the icons of the present age, the deities of an entertainment society in which money, looks, celebrity, and success are the ideals and goals of the dreaming billions who inhabit Planet Earth. As the human species prepares to embark on adventures into outer space, to explore inner space with the miracles of nanotechnology, and to remake the human species with biotechnology, possibilities emerge that the media, consumer, medical, and other technologies of the present age will propel the human species into a posthuman adventure that may even exhibit the spectacle of the end of humanity in an age of spiritualized and transformative machines.
Whatever the vicissitudes and adventures of the future, today, media culture continues to arbitrate social and political issues, deciding what is real, important, and vital. Especially spectacular events, such as the Gulf war, the 2000 Battle for the White House, or the September 11 terror attacks and their aftermath, bring TV day to a halt, with cable news channels suspending regular programming to cover the events of the minute. Sometimes megaspectacles like September 11 and Terror War take over TV day in its entirety and dominate news, information, advertising, and entertainment for months on end. At the same time that corporate control and relentless mergers reduce the number of news sources and put them under more rigid corporate control, Internet sites multiply information and disinformation. The ‘net also provides an interactive sphere where netizens can discover novel opinions and facts and themselves participate in the great dialogue of the contemporary moment (whatever it may be).
Hence, one of the trends of media culture is to multiply media spectacles in novel spaces and sites, and spectacle itself is becoming one of the organizing principles of the economy, polity, society, and everyday life. Social and political conflicts are increasingly played out on the screens of media culture which display spectacles like sensational murder cases, terrorist bombings, celebrity and political sex scandals, and the explosive violence of everyday life. Radio, film, TV news and entertainment, an ever-mushrooming tabloid culture, and the proliferating domain of cyberspace become spectacles of technoculture, generating expanding sites of information and entertainment, while intensifying the spectacle-form of media culture.
Of course, there have been spectacles since premodern times. Classical Greece had its Olympics, thespian and poetry festivals, it public rhetorical battles, and bloody and violent wars. Ancient Rome had its orgies, its public offerings of bread and circuses, its titanic political battles, and the spectacle of Empire with parades and monuments for triumphant Caesars and their armies, extravaganzas put on display in the 2000 film Gladiator. Machiavelli advised his modern prince of the productive use of spectacle for government and social control, and the emperors and kings of the modern states cultivated spectacles as part of their rituals of governance and power. Popular entertainment long had its roots in spectacle, while war, religion, sports, and other domains of public life were fertile fields for the propagation of spectacle for centuries. Yet with the development of technologies of media culture such as film, radio, television, the Internet, and evolving forms of multimedia, technospectacles have been decisively shaping the contours and trajectories of contemporary societies and cultures, at least in the advanced capitalist countries, during the past decades.
Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle
The concept of the “society of the spectacle” developed by French Situationist Guy Debord “unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena” (Debord 1967: #10). Debord’s conception, first developed in the 1960s and continuing to circulate through the Internet and other sites today, alludes to a media and consumer society, organized around the production and consumption of images, commodities, and spectacles. Spectacles are those phenomena of media culture which embody contemporary society’s basic values, serve to enculturate individuals into its way of life, and dramatize its controversies and struggles, as well as its modes of conflict resolution. They include media extravaganzas, sports events, political happenings, and those attention-grabbing occurrences that we call news — a phenomena that itself has been subjected to the logic of spectacle and tabloidization in the era of the media sensationalism, political scandal and contestation, seemingly unending cultural war, and the new phenomenon of Terror War.
As we enter a new millennium, the media are becoming more technologically dazzling and are playing an ever escalating role in everyday life. Under the influence of a multimedia image culture, seductive spectacles fascinate the denizens of the media and consumer society and involve them in the semiotics of a new world of entertainment, information, and drama, which deeply influence thought and action. In Debord’s words: “When the real world changes into simple images, simple images become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior. The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world by means of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense which the sense of touch was for other epochs (#18). According to Debord, sight, “the most abstract, the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction of present day society” (ibid).
Experience and everyday life are thus mediated by the spectacles of media culture. For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a “permanent opium war” (#44) which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life — recovering the full range of their human powers through creative practice. The concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of separation and passivity, for in submissively consuming spectacles, one is estranged from actively producing one’s life. Capitalist society separates workers from the products of their labor, art from life, and consumption from human needs and self-directing activity, as individuals inertly observe the spectacles of social life from within the privacy of their homes (#25 and #26). The situationist project, by contrast, involved an overcoming of all forms of separation, in which individuals would directly produce their own life and modes of self-activity and collective practice.
The correlative to the spectacle is thus the spectator, the reactive viewer and consumer of a social system predicated on submission, conformity, and the cultivation of marketable difference. The concept of the spectacle therefore involves a distinction between passivity and activity and consumption and production, condemning lifeless consumption of spectacle as an alienation from human potentiality for creativity and imagination. The spectacular society spreads its wares mainly through the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialized media culture. This structural shift to a society of the spectacle involves a commodification of previously non-colonized sectors of social life and the extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure, desire, and everyday life. Parallel to the Frankfurt School conception of a “totally administered” or “one-dimensional” society (Horkheimer and Adorno 1972; Marcuse 1964), Debord states that “The spectacle is the moment when the consumption has attained the total occupation of social life” (#42). Here exploitation is raised to a psychological level; basic physical privation is augmented by “enriched privation” of pseudo-needs; alienation is generalized, made comfortable, and alienated consumption becomes “a duty supplementary to alienated production” (#42).
Since Debord’s theorizations of the society of the spectacle in the 1960s and 1970s, spectacle culture has expanded in every area of life. In the culture of the spectacle, commercial enterprises have to be entertaining to prosper and as Michael J. Wolf (1999) argues, in an “entertainment economy,” business and fun fuse, so that the E-factor is becoming major aspect of business. Via the “entertainmentization” of the economy, television, film, theme parks, video games, casinos, and so forth become major sectors of the national economy. In the U.S., the entertainment industry is now a $480 billion industry, and consumers spend more on having fun than on clothes or health care (Wolf 1999: 4).
In a competitive business world, the “fun factor” can give one business the edge over another. Hence, corporations seek to be more entertaining in their commercials, their business environment, their commercial spaces, and their web sites. Budweiser ads, for instance, feature talking frogs who tell us nothing about the beer, but who catch the viewers’ attention, while Taco Bell deploys a talking dog, and Pepsi uses Star Wars characters. Buying, shopping, and dining out are coded as an “experience,” as businesses adopt a theme-park style. Places like the Hard Rock Cafe and the House of Blues are not renowned for their food, after all; people go there for the ambience, to buy clothing, and to view music and media memorabilia. It is no longer good enough just to have a web site, it has to be an interactive spectacle, featuring not only products to buy, but music and videos to download, games to play, prizes to win, travel information, and “links to other cool sites.”
Entertainment has always been a prime field of the spectacle, but in today’s infotainment society, entertainment and spectacle have entered into the domains of the economy, politics, society, and everyday life in important new ways. Building on the tradition of spectacle, contemporary forms of entertainment from television to the stage are incorporating spectacle culture into their enterprises, transforming film, television, music, drama, and other domains of culture, as well as producing spectacular new forms of culture such as cyberspace, multimedia, and virtual reality.
Sports has long been a domain of the spectacle with events like the World Series, Super Bowl, World Soccer Cup, and NBA championships attracting massive audiences, while generating sky-high advertising rates. These cultural rituals celebrate society’s deepest values (i.e. competition, winning, success, and money), and corporations are willing to pay top dollar to get their products associated with such events. Indeed, it appears that the logic of the commodity spectacle is inexorably permeating professional sports which can no longer be played without the accompaniment of cheerleaders, giant mascots who clown with players and spectators, and raffles, promotions, and contests that feature the products of various sponsors.
Sports stadiums themselves contain electronic reproduction of the action, as well as giant advertisements for various products that rotate for maximum saturation — previewing environmental advertising in which entire urban sites are becoming scenes to boost consumption spectacles. Arenas, like the United Center in Chicago, America West Arena in Phoenix, on Enron Field in Houston are named after corporate sponsors. Of course, after major corporate scandals or collapse, like the Enron spectacle, the ballparks must be renamed!
The Texas Ranger Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, supplements its sports arena with a shopping mall, office buildings, and a restaurant in which for a hefty price one can watch the athletic events while eating and drinking. The architecture of the Texas Rangers stadium is an example of the implosion of sports and entertainment and postmodern spectacle. The stadium is surrounded by a man-made lake, the corridor inside is modeled after Chartes Cathedral, and the structure is made of local stone that provides the look of the Texas Capitol in Austin. Inside there are Texas longhorn cattle carvings, panels of Texas and baseball history, and other iconic signifiers of sports and Texas. The implosion of sports, entertainment, and local spectacle is now typical in sports palaces. Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay, Florida, for instance, “has a three-level mall that includes places where ‘fans can get a trim at the barber shop, do their banking and then grab a cold one at the Budweiser brew pub, whose copper kettles rise three stories. There is even a climbing wall for kids and showroom space for car dealerships'” (Ritzer 1998: 229).
Film has always been a fertile field of the spectacle, with “Hollywood” connoting a world of glamour, publicity, fashion, and excess. Hollywood film has exhibited grand movie palaces, spectacular openings with search-lights and camera-popping paparazzi, glamorous Oscars, and stylish high-tech film. While epic spectacle became a dominant genre of Hollywood film from early versions of The Ten Commandments through Cleopatra and 2001 in the 1960s, contemporary film has incorporated the mechanics of spectacle into its form, style, and special effects. Films are hyped into spectacle through advertising and trailers which are ever louder, more glitzy, and razzle-dazzle. Some of the most popular films of the late 1990s were spectacle films, including Titanic, Star Wars — Phantom Menace, Three Kings, and Austin Powers, a spoof of spectacle, which became one of the most successful films of summer 1999. During Fall 1999, there was a cycle of spectacles, including Topsy Turvy, Titus, Cradle Will Rock, Sleepy Hollow, The Insider, and Magnolia, with the latter featuring the biblical spectacle of the raining of frogs in the San Fernando Valley, in an allegory of the decadence of the entertainment industry and deserved punishment for its excesses.
The 2000 Academy Awards were dominated by the spectacle Gladiator, a mediocre film whose garnishing of best picture award and best acting award for Russell Crowe demonstrates the extent to which the logic of the spectacle now dominates Hollywood film. Some of the most critically acclaimed and popular films of 2001 are also high-tech spectacle, such as Moulin Rouge, a film spectacle that itself is a delirious ode to spectacle, from cabaret and the brothel to can-can dancing, opera, musical comedy, dance, theater, popular music, and film. A postmodern pastiche of popular music styles and hits, the film used songs and music ranging from Madonna and the Beatles to Dolly Parton and Kiss.
Other 2001 film spectacles include Pearl Harbor which re-enacts the Japanese attack on the U.S. that propelled the country to enter World War II, and that provided a ready metaphor for the September 11 terror attacks. Major 2001 film spectacles range from David Lynch’s postmodern surrealism in Mulholland Drive to Steven Spielberg’s blending of his typically sentimental spectacle of the family with the formalist rigor of Stanley Kubrick in A.I. And the popular 2001 military film Black-Hawk Down provided a spectacle of American military heroism which some critics believed sugar-coated the actual problems with the U.S. military intervention in Somalia, causing worries that a future U.S. adventure by the Bush administration and Pentagon would meet similar problems. There were reports, however, that in Somalian cinemas there were loud cheers as the Somalians in the film shot down the U.S. helicopter, and pursued and killed American soldiers, attesting to growing anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world against Bush administration policies.
Television has been from its introduction in the 1940s a promoter of consumption spectacle, selling cars, fashion, home appliances, and other commodities along with consumer life-styles and values. It is also the home of sports spectacle like the Super Bowl or World Series, political spectacles like elections (or more recently, scandals), entertainment spectacle like the Oscars or Grammies, and its own spectacles like breaking news or special events. Following the logic of spectacle entertainment, contemporary television exhibits more high-tech glitter, faster and glitzier editing, computer simulations, and with cable and satellite television, a fantastic array of every conceivable type of show and genre.
TV is today a medium of spectacular programs like The X-Files or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and spectacles of everyday life such as MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules, or the globally popular Survivor and Big Brother series. Real life events, however, took over TV spectacle in 2000-2001 for a spectacular battle for the White House in a dead-heat election, that arguably constitutes the great political crime and scandal in U.S. history (see Kellner 2001). After months of the Bush administration pushing the most hardright political agenda in memory and then deadlocking as the Democrats took control of the Senate in a dramatic party re-affiliation of Vermont’s Jim Jeffords, the world was treated to the most horrifying spectacle of the new millennium, the September 11 terror attacks and unfolding Terror War which promises an unending series of deadly spectacle for the foreseeable future (see Kellner, forthcoming).
Theater is a fertile field of the spectacle and contemporary theater has exploited its dramaturgical and musical past to create current attractions for large audiences. Plays like Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in da Funk, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Fosse, Swing!, and Contact draw on the history of music spectacle, bringing some of the most spectacular moments of the traditions of jazz, funk, blues, swing, country, rock, and other forms of pop entertainment to contemporary thespian audiences. Many of the most popular plays of recent years on a global scale have been spectacles including Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Ragtime, The Lion King, Mama Mia, and the Producers, a stunningly successful musical spectacle that mocks the Nazis and show business. These theatrical spectacles are often a pastiche of previous literature, opera, film, or theater and reveal the lust for participation in cultural extravaganzas of contemporary audiences of all types of culture.
Fashion is historically a central domain of the spectacle, and today producers and models, as well as the actual products of the industry, constitute an enticing sector of media culture. Fashion designers are celebrities, such as the late Gianni Versace, whose murder by an ex-gay lover in 1997 was a major spectacle of its era. Versace brought together the worlds of fashion, design, rock, entertainment, and royalty in his fashion shows and emporia. When Yves Saint-Laurent retired in 2002, there was a veritable media frenzy to celebrate his contributions to fashion, which included bringing in the aesthetic and images of modern art and catering to demands of contemporary liberated women.
In fashion today, inherently a consumer spectacle, laser-light shows, top rock and pop music performers, superstar models, and endless hype publicize each new season’s offerings, generating highly elaborate and spectacular clothing displays. The consumption spectacle is intrinsically interconnected with fashion that demonstrates what is in and out, hot and cold, in the buzz world of style and vogue. The stars of the entertainment industry become fashion icons and models for imitation and emulation. In a postmodern image culture, style and look become increasingly important modes of identity and presentation of the self in everyday life and the spectacles of media culture show and tell people how to appear and behave.
Bringing the spectacle into the world of high art, the Guggenheim Museum’s Thomas Krens organized a retrospective on Giorgio Armani, the Italian fashion designer. Earlier, Krens produced a Guggenheim show exhibiting motorcycles and plans to open a Guggenheim gallery in the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas with a seven-story Guggenheim art museum next to it. Not to be outdone, in October 2000, the Los Angeles County Art Museum opened its largest show in history, a megaspectacle “Made in California: Art, Image and identity, 1900-2000,” featuring multimedia exhibitions of everything from famous California painting and photography to Jefferson Airplane album covers, surf boards, and a 1998 Playboy magazine with “The Babes of Baywatch” on its cover. In 2001, the Los Angeles County Art Museum announced that it would become a major spectacle itself, provisionally accepting a design by Rem Koolhaas that would create a spectacular new architectural cover for the museum complex. As described by the Los Angeles Times architectural critic, the “design is a temple for a mobile, post-industrial ageŠ. Capped by an organic, tent-like roof, its monumental form will serve as both a vibrant public forum and a spectacular place to view art” (Dec. 7, 2001: F1).
Contemporary architecture too is ruled by the logic of the spectacle and critics have noticed how art museums are coming to trump the art collection by making the building and setting more spectacular than the collections. The Frank Gehry Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Richard Meier Getty Center in Los Angeles, the retrofitted power plant that became the Tate Modern in London, Tadao Ando’s Pultitzer Foundation building in Saint Louis, and Santiago Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Museum of Art all provide superspectacle environments to contain their art works and museum fare. Major architectural projects for corporations and cities often provide postmodern spectacle whereby the glass and steel structures of high modernism are replaced by buildings and spaces adorned with signs of the consumer society and complex structures that attest to the growing power of commerce and technocapitalism.
Popular music too is colonized by the spectacle with music-video television becoming a major purveyor of music, bringing spectacle into the core of musical production and distribution. Madonna and Michael Jackson would have never become global superstars of popular music without the spectacular production values of their music videos and concert extravaganzas. Both also performed their lives as media spectacle, generating maximum publicity and attention (not always positive!). Michael Jackson attracted attention in 2001 in a TV spectacle where he reportedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to digitally redo the concert footage he appeared in. Jackson had his images retooled so that he would be free of sweat and appear darker that the “real” image, in order to better blend in with his family members performing with him and to appear a cooler black to appeal to his fans. And one cannot fully grasp the Madonna phenomenon without analyzing her marketing and publicity strategies, her exploitation of spectacle, and her ability to make herself a celebrity spectacle of the highest order (Kellner, 1995).
In a similar fashion, younger female pop music stars and groups such as Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, or Destiny’s Child also deploy the tools of the glamour industry and media spectacle to make themselves spectacular icons of fashion, beauty, style, and sexuality, as well as purveyors of music. Pop male singers like Ricky Martin could double as fashion models and male groups like ‘N Sync use high-tech stage shows, music videos, and PR to sell their wares. And hip hop culture has cultivated a whole range of spectacle, ranging from musical extravaganzas, to life-style cultivation, to real life crime wars among its stars.
Musical concert extravaganzas are more and more spectacular (and expensive!) and the Internet is providing the spectacle of free music and a new realm of sound through Napster and other technologies, although the state has been battling attempts at young people utilizing P2P (peer to peer) technologies to decommodify culture. Indeed, films, DVDs, sports events, and musical spectacles having been circulating through the Internet in a gift economy that has generated the spectacle of the state attacking those who violate copyright laws that some claim to be outdated in the culture of high-tech spectacle.
Food too is becoming a spectacle in the consumer society with presentation as important in the better restaurants as taste and substance. Best-selling books like Isabel Allende’s Aphrodite and Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything celebrate the conjunction of eroticism and culinary delight. Magazines like Bon Appetite and Saveur glorify the joys of good eating, and food sections of many magazines and newspapers are among the most popular parts. Films like Babette’s Feast, Like Water, for Chocolate, Big Night, and Chocolate fetishize food and eating, presenting food with the pornographic excess usually reserved for sex.
Sex has frequently permeated the spectacles of Western culture, and is prominently on display in Hollywood film, as well as popular forms such as burlesque, vaudeville, and pornography. Long a major component of advertising, sex has been used to sell every conceivable product. The spectacle of sex is also one of the staples of media culture, permeating all cultural forms and creating its own genres in pornography, one of the highest grossing domains of media spectacle. In the culture of the spectacle, sex becomes shockingly exotic and diverse, through the media of porno videos, DVDs, and Internet sites which make available everything from teen-animal sex to orgies of the most extravagant sort. Technologies of cultural reproduction such as home video recorders and computers bring sex more readily into the private recesses of the home and the sex spectacle attains more and more exotic forms with multimedia and multisensory sex, as envisaged in Huxley’s Brave New World, on the horizon.
The spectacle of video and computer games has been a major source of youth entertainment and industry profit. In 2001, the U.S. video game industry hit a record $9 billion in sales and expects to do even better in the next couple of years (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 1, 2002: C1). For decades now, video and computer games have obsessed sectors of youth and provided skills needed for the high-tech dot.com economy, as well as fighting postmodern war. These games are highly competitive, violent, and provide allegories for life under corporate capitalism and Terror War militarism. As in the game Pacman or in the corporate jungle, its eat or be eaten, just as in air and ground war games, its kill or be killed. While some women and game producers have tried to cultivate kinder, gentler, and more intelligent gaming, the best-selling corporate games are spectacles for predatory capitalism and macho militarism and not a more peaceful, playful, and cooperative world.
The terror spectacle of Fall 2001 revealed that familiar items of everyday life like planes or mail could be transformed into instruments of spectacular terror. The al Qaeda network hijacking of airplanes turned ordinary instruments of transportation into weapons as they crashed into the World Trade Center Towers and Pentagon on September 11. Mail became the delivery of disease, terror, and death, as the anthrax scare of Fall and Winter 2001 made ordinary letters threatening items. And rumors proliferated that the terror network was seeking instruments of mass destruction such as chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to create spectacles of terror on a hitherto unforeseen scope.
The examples just provided suggest media spectacle is invading every field of experience from the economy, to culture and everyday life, to politics and war. Moreover, spectacle culture is moving into new domains of cyberspace which will help to generate future multimedia spectacle and networked infotainment societies. My studies of media spectacle will strive to contribute to illuminating these developments and to developing a critical theory of the contemporary moment. Building on Debord’s analyses of the society of spectacle, I develop the concept in terms of salient phenomena of contemporary society and culture. While Debord’s notion of spectacle tended to be somewhat abstract and theoretical, I attempt to make the concept concrete and contemporary. Thus, whereas Debord presents few actual examples of spectacle culture I develop detailed analyses that strive to illuminate the present age and to update and develop Debord’s notion.
These “dialectics of the present” will disclose both novelties and discontinuities in the current epoch. The in-depth studies that follow in this book attempt to articulate defining features of the contemporary moment and distinctive features of the existing and emergent society, culture, and everyday life in the new millennium. Yet my studies suggest that novel and distinctive features are grounded in the trajectory of contemporary capitalism, its creation of a global economy, and ongoing “creative destruction” that has been a defining feature of modernity from the beginning. Hence, the cultural studies in this book will be grounded in critical social theory and will themselves contribute to developing a critical theory of society by illuminating key features and dynamics of the present age. The studies will illustrate, in particular, the dynamics of media spectacle and an infotainment society in the current stage of technocapitalism.
The Infotainment Society and Technocapitalism
Today the society and culture of spectacle is creating a new type of information-entertainment society, or what might be called the “infotainment society.” The changes in the current conjuncture are arguably as thoroughgoing and dramatic as the shift from the stage of market and competitive and laissez-faire capitalism theorized by Marx to the stage of state monopoly capitalism critically analyzed by the Frankfurt School in the 1930s. I would therefore suggest that we are entering a new form of technocapitalism marked by a synthesis of capital and technology, and the information and entertainment industries, which is producing a new form of “infotainment society” and spectacle culture.
In terms of political economy, the emerging postindustrial form of technocapitalism is characterized by a decline of the state and enlarged power for the market, accompanied by the growing strength of transnational corporations and governmental bodies and the decreased strength of the nation-state and its institutions. To paraphrase Max Horkheimer, whoever wants to talk about capitalism must talk about globalization, and it is impossible to theorize globalization without addressing the restructuring of capitalism. Culture and technology are increasingly important constituent parts of global capitalism and everyday life in the postmodern world and permeate major domains of life, like the economy and polity, as well as constituting their own spheres and subcultures.
The term “infotainment” suggests the synergies of the information and entertainment sectors in the organization of contemporary societies, the ways that information technology are transforming entertainment, and the forms in which entertainment is shaping every domain of life from the Internet to politics. It is now well-documented that the knowledge and information sectors are key domains of our contemporary moment, although how to theorize the dialectics of the present is highly contested. While, as many have noted, the theories of Daniel Bell and other postindustrial theorists are not as ideological and far off the mark as many of us once argued, the concept of “postindustrial” society is highly problematic. The concept is negative and empty, failing to articulate positively what distinguishes the alleged new stage. Hence, the discourse of the “post” can occlude the connections between industrial, manufacturing and emergent high-tech industries, and the strong continuities between the previous and present forms of social organization, as well as covering over the continued importance of manufacturing and industry for much of the world.
Yet discourses of the “post” also serve positively to highlight the importance of significant novelties, of discontinuities with modern societies, and thus force us to rethink the original and defining features of our current social situation (see Best and Kellner 1997 and 2001). Notions of the “knowledge” or “information” society rightly call attention to the role of scientific and technical knowledge in the formation of the present social order, the importance of computers and information technology, the materialization of biotechnology, genetic engineering, and the rise of new societal elites. It seems wrong, however, to characterize knowledge or information as the organizing or axial principles of a society still organized around the accumulation of capital and maximization of profit. Hence, in order to avoid the technological determinism and idealism of many forms of postindustrial theory, one should theorize the information or knowledge “revolution” as part and parcel of a new form of technocapitalism. Such a perspective focuses on the interconnections between new technologies, a networked global society, and an expansion of the culture of spectacle in an emergent mode of the “infotainment society,” rather than merely obsessing about “new technologies” or “globalization,” without seeing the articulations of these phenomena.
The limitations of earlier theories of the “knowledge society,” or “postindustrial society,” as well as current forms of the “information society,” revolve around the extent to which they exaggerate the role of knowledge and information. Such concepts advance an idealist vision that excessively privileges the role of knowledge and information in the economy, in politics and society, and in everyday life. These optics downplay the role of capitalist relations of production, corporate ownership and control, and hegemonic configurations of corporate and state power with all their massive and momentous effects. As I argue below, while discourse of the “post” help describe certain defining features of contemporary societies, at least in the overdeveloped world, they neither grasp the specificity of the current forms of global technocapitalism, nor do they sufficiently mark the continuities with previous stages of societal development.
Consequently, to grasp the dynamics of our contemporary social situation, we need to perceive the continuities between previous forms of industrial society with the new modes of society and culture described by discourses of the “post,” and also grasp the novelties and discontinuities (Best and Kellner 1997 and 2001). In the studies in this book, I argue that current conceptions of the information society and emphasis on information technology as its demiurge are by now too limited. The new technologies are modes of information and entertainment that permeate work, education, play, modes of social interaction, politics, and culture. In all of these domains, the form of spectacle is changing areas of life ranging from work to communication to entertainment and diversion.
Thus, “new technologies” are much more than solely information technology, encompassing and restructuring both labor and leisure. Previous forms of culture are rapidly being absorbed within the Internet, and the computer is coming to be a major household appliance and source of entertainment, information, play, communication, and connection with the outside world. As clues to the enormity of the transformation going on and as indicators of the syntheses of knowledge and cultural industries in the infotainment society, I would suggest reflections on the massive mergers of the major information and entertainment conglomerates which have taken place in the United States during the past decades. This process has produced the most extensive concentration and conglomeration of these industries in history, as well as an astonishing proliferation of technologies and media product.
During the 1980s, television networks amalgamated with other major sectors of the cultural industries and corporate capital, including mergers between CBS and Westinghouse, MCA and Seagrams; Time Warner and Turner Communications; Disney, Capital Cities, and ABC; and GE, NBC, and Microsoft. Dwarfing all previous information/entertainment corporation combinations, Time Warner and America On-Line (AOL) proposed a $163.4 billion amalgamation in January 2000, which was approved a year later. This union brings together two huge corporations involved in TV, film, magazines, newspapers, books, information databases, computers, and other media, suggesting a coming synthesis of media and computer culture, of entertainment and information in a new infotainment society. The fact that “new media” Internet service provider and portal AOL is the majority shareholder in the deal points to the triumph of the new online Internet culture over the old media culture. The merger itself calls attention to escalating synergy among information and entertainment industries and old and new media in the form of the networked economy and cyberculture.
These amalgamations bring together corporations involved in TV, film, magazines, newspapers, books, information data bases, computers, and other media, suggesting a coming together of media and computer culture, of entertainment and information in a new networked and multimedia infotainment society. There have also been massive mergers in the telecommunications industry, as well as between cable and satellite industries with major entertainment and corporate conglomerates. By 2002, ten gigantic multinational corporations, including AOL Time Warner, Disney-ABC, General Electric-NBC, Viacom-CBS, News Corporation, Viviendi, Sony, Berelsmann, AT&T, and Liberty Media controlled most of the production of information and entertainment throughout the globe. The result is less competition and diversity, and more corporate control of newspapers and journalism, television, radio, film, and other media of information and entertainment.
The corporate media, communications, and information industries are frantically scrambling to provide delivery for a wealth of services. These will include increased Internet access, wireless cellular telephones, and satellite personal communication devices, which will facilitate video, film, entertainment, and information on demand, as well as Internet shopping and more unsavory services like pornography and gambling. Consequently, the fusions of the immense infotainment conglomerates disclose a synergy between information technologies and multimedia, which combine entertainment and information, undermining distinctions between these domains.
The mushrooming and constantly evolving corporate mergers of the information and entertainment industries call for an expansion of the concept of the knowledge, or information, society, into concepts of technocapitalism and its networked infotainment society. On this conception, the synthesis of global corporate capitalism and information and entertainment technologies are constructing novel forms of society and culture, controlled by capital and global in reach. In this context, the concept of the networked infotainment society characterizes the emergent technocapitalist project in order to highlight the imbrications of information and entertainment in the wired and wireless multimedia and information/entertainment technologies of the present. Together, these corporate mergers, and the products and services that they are producing, constitute an emergent infotainment society that it is our challenge to theorize and attempt to shape to more humane and democratic purposes than the accumulation of capital and corporate/state hegemony.
The syntheses of entertainment and information in the creation of a networked infotainment society is part and parcel of a global restructuring of capital. Few theories of the information revolution and the new technologies contextualize the structuring, implementation, distribution, and use of information technologies and new media in the context of the vicissitudes of contemporary capitalism and the proliferation of media spectacle and the domain of infotainment. The ideologues of the information society act as if technology were an autonomous force. They often neglect to theorize the interconnections of capital and technology, or they use the advancements of technology to legitimate market capitalism (i.e. Gates 1995 and 2000 and Gilder 1989 and 2000). More conventional and older sociological theories, by contrast, fail to grasp the important role of entertainment and spectacle in contemporary society and culture. Likewise, other society theories of the information society, such as those of Daniel Bell, exaggerate the role of information and knowledge, and neglect the importance of entertainment and spectacle.
Thus, Guy Debord’s concept of the “society of the spectacle” in which individuals are transfixed by the packaging, display, and consumption of commodities and the play of media events helpfully illuminates our present situation. Arguably, we are now at a stage of the spectacle where it dominates the mediascape, politics, and more and more domains of everyday life. In a culture of the technospectacle, computers bring mushrooming information and multimedia extravaganzas into the home and workplace via the Internet, competing with television as the dominant medium of our time. The result is a spectacularization of politics, of culture, and consciousness, as media proliferate and new forms of culture colonize consciousness and everyday life, and promote novel forms of struggle and resistance.
The dramatic technological revolution has resulted in ground-breaking forms of technoculture like the Internet and cyberculture and vast technological sophistication and development of media forms like radio, television, film, and video. Digitization has deeply transformed culture producing new modes of spectacle and new domains of technoculture. The studies collected in this book interrogate contemporary culture to illuminate major trends, possibilities, dangers, and conflicts of the present age. In the following sections, I will accordingly elucidate the methods of cultural studies and its conjunction with critical social theory that I deploy to signal what I am attempting to accomplish.
From Media Culture to Media Spectacle
My earlier book Media Culture (1995) appeared following an era of Reagan/Bush/Thatcher conservativism and was shaped by its dispiriting politics and culture. Media Spectacle was informed in turn by the triumph of neo-liberalism in what now appears as an era of Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush2 unleashing of market forces and the curtailment of the welfare state and social services. While Clinton and Blair purportedly offered a “Third Way” between state socialism and unrestrained market capitalism, in retrospect the past decades exhibit the triumph of capitalism and the corporate spectacle. The turn-of-the-millennium period in retrospect was one of dramatic technological revolution, exhibiting ever-expanding globalization with both celebrations and assaults on the bludgeoning global economy. It was also a time of profound political struggle between liberals and conservatives (with radicals continuing to fight on the margins). There were intense cultural wars, which began in the 1960s, between feminists and anti-feminists, and those who would promote racial justice and an inclusive multiculturalism against those who asserted class, gender, and race privilege and who fought to preserve tradition and to oppose liberal social change.
The U.S. Election 2000 already appears as a retro back to the future with the ascension of George W. Bush, son of the conservative former President. Bush II has assembled his father’s legion of doom for new domestic and global adventures and after the September 11 terror attacks is now engaging in ungoing Terror War, suggesting that the spectacles of the New Millennium will be frightening and violent. Bush blasts from the past create a brave new world of deja-vu all over again. Like Reagan and Bush I, the Bush II administration has used tax cuts for the rich and escalating military spending to destroy the budget surpluses that had accrued in the prosperous Clinton years, thus forcing cutbacks in government spending and social welfare.
As the new millennium unfolds, the domestic U.S. and global economy appears highly unstable and Western countries are threatened by new enemies within and without. The combination of a crisis-ridden global economy with ever-proliferating media and technology, and global Terror War within a highly contested and combustible political domain, promise a proliferation of apocalyptic spectacle into the new millennium. The culture industries are also proliferating media spectacle for mass distraction, entertainment, and profitability in one of the few expanding domains of the “new economy.” These developments suggest promising futures for the study of media spectacle and need for cultural studies to help unpack their production, meanings, and effects.
This book is not per se a polemic against media spectacle, although I surely note some of its disturbing features. Critics of the dramatic expansion of media and their incursion into the new realms of cyberspace and virtual reality (VR) have worried about the obliteration of the real and the substitution of an ersatz, contrived and manufactured pseudoreality for the ordinary experiences of everyday life. Others fret that with the glut of information and entertainment citizens will become extremely distracted from the trials and travails of ordinary life and will increasingly seek escape in the realm of high-tech entertainment. Yet other critics obsess about the vulgarization of culture, of its dumbing down and banalization in an era of special effects, spectacular media extravaganzas, tabloid journalism, and the glitter and glitz of competing high-tech media.
All of these critiques of media culture were articulated many times before. Yet the expansion, technological development, and proliferation of media spectacle provide new life to these old fears, as well as the new worries that the Internet and cyberspace may generate. While I will certainly be critical of many of the media spectacles that I interrogate, and level criticisms at the general structure and direction of the society and culture of the spectacle, I am also interested in providing concrete readings of specific media spectacles, in order to see what they tell us about contemporary life as we enter the third millennium.
My conception of cultural studies includes diagnostic critique based on a close reading of what various phenomena of media culture tell us about the contemporary condition, combined with critique of the politics of representation of gender, race, sexuality, and class. Diagnostic critique thus attempts to discern what media culture tells us about contemporary society, as well as carrying out ideology critique of the specific politics of a text or artifact and showing how media texts circulate social discourses that articulated specific political positions. Thus, while engaging the politics of representation and ideology critique in reading cultural texts, I also go beyond the text to interrogate the context in which they are produced and received. My studies thus evoke social context and history to help read the texts of media spectacle, and deploy cultural texts to illuminate the more general social and cultural context of the present, one that I have sketched out in this introduction and will flesh out in the studies that follow.
This dialectic of text and context was developed by Walter Benjamin and T.W. Adorno in their conceptions of cultural texts as hieroglyphics or prisms that provide a source of critical knowledge of the contemporary era (Kellner 1989a). Adorno and Benjamin deployed a micrological and hermeneutical method in deciphering cultural phenomena ranging from newspaper astrology columns to television programs to twelve-tone music or the poems of Holderlin. During the same epoch, Siegfried Kraucauer read the dominant modes of culture and society from phenomena like the Tilly Girl reviews and the mass ornament — analyses which anticipated, I might note, German fascism, just as Kracauer claimed that German Expressionist film anticipated the rise of Hitler and fascism. So too can one interrogate the phenomena of media spectacle today in order to appraise the current forms of contemporary society, the prevailing dreams and nightmares, and the regnant values and ideologies.
I would therefore suggest that media spectacle provides a fertile field for cultural, political, and ideological analysis. Following these models of critical theory, I closely examine some salient phenomena of media spectacle in order to provide insight into the vicissitudes of the contemporary moment. As I try to demonstrate, a close reading of cultural texts and phenomena can tell us a lot about the conditions of the world as we enter a new millennium. Reading the spectacle of some of the popular texts of media culture help provide insights into current and emergent social realities and trends. Popular texts seize the attention and imagination of massive audiences and are thus barometers of contemporary taste, hopes, fears, and fantasies. Let me, then, briefly illustrate this argument with some examples of how critical decoding of popular media spectacles of the era can provide critical insights into the present age. I then return to explicating the concept of diagnostic critique that guides my particular version of cultural studies.
Signs of the Times
**** During the summer of 2000, dinosaurs became a megaspectacle with the release and popularity of the Dreamworks film Dinosaur, accompanied by concurrent museum exhibitions of dinosaurs, always a popular exhibit, to complement the film, and with an explosion of TV-documentary specials and news reports about the extinct species. Indeed, a megaspectacle encompasses several media like film, television, the Internet, and cultural life; it is a focal point for attention and provides clues to the social psyche. W.T. Mitchell has written a book on the history of dinosaurs (1999), highlighting our cultural awareness and construction of the species, and the different meanings attached to these strange beasts. I bring up the example to suggest that hermeneutical deciphering of such figures can provide insight into contemporary social and political dynamics and concerns.
Dinosaurs can be read as a polysemic spectacle that encompass a wealth of images and meanings. The extinct beasts are a sign of radical otherness, of a species that no longer exists. Dinosaurs are dramatically different from any existing species and thus are a figure of difference and altereity. Dinos are as well figures of montrosity, of the power of nature over humans, and of the violence and menace within nature (the Disney movie, by the way, was deemed too violent for young children and there were debates whether young kids should or should not see the film). And perhaps most telling, dinosaurs are a figure of finitude, of an extinct species that was extinguished by natural catastrophe, thus pointing to the finitude of the human species itself, and constituting a figure of warning in an era of nuclear bombs, biological-chemical weapons of mass destruction, global Terror War, emergent nanotechnology, and scientific awareness of cosmic and interplantetary cataclysm (for systematic discussion of these issues, see Best and Kellner 2001).
**** ABC’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? emerged as the most popular new U.S. television program of 2000-2001. Itself modeled after a British TV-series, the phenomenon reveals the global obsession with instant wealth and the transformation of knowledge into information. Making a spectacle out of the gaining of easy money, the series is highly ritualistic in its posing of questions, its illuminated and blinking set and portentous music, and its hosts’ repetitive intonation of the fatal question, “Is that your final answer?” The show rewards those who in particular possess a detailed knowledge of the trivia and minutiae of media culture, registering a transformation of the cultural ideal of knowledge into information. Whereas the classic quiz shows of the 1940s and 1950s rewarded contestants who had absorbed a body of knowledge and allowed them to choose areas where they had devoted the hard work of education to gain mastery of their field, Millionaire focuses on questions concerning the trivia of media culture, rewarding those who have devoted themselves to absorbing picayune detail of the spectacle culture of which television is a crucial component.
***** A popular new form of “reality” television, Survivor, was also based on an English series which had become a global popular and model for shows around the world. The CBS Survivor series broadcast in summer 2000 involved a dangerous endurance contest among 16 contestants on a deserted island off Borneo, and quickly became a major ratings-success. On this show, contenders voted each other off each week, with the winner receiving a million dollars. The competition elicited complex sets of alliances and Machiavellian strategy in a social Darwinian passion play, in which an overweight gay middle-aged “corporate trainer,” Richard Hatch, became a national celebrity. The series outdrew the Republican convention and its concluding show was deemed by TV Guide to be the number one event of the television season (January 8, 2001).
Another form of “reality” television spectacle, Big Brother, presented a positive spin on Orwell’s dystopia of a society of total surveillance. Following the model of a wildly successful Dutch TV series, a group of volunteers lived in a house under unrelenting surveillance of television cameras. The denizens were unable even to have contact with the outside world, and viewers voted on which characters should stay or go, until only one remains and wins a cash prize. CBS bought rights to air an American version of the show and broadcast the show in summer 2000. Like the Dutch show, each week viewers voted on which contestant would be eliminated and the “winner” was to take home a half-million dollar bonanza (during the second season the contestants voted each other out). The sight of dozens of microphones and cameras everywhere, including the CBS logo of an open eye, recalls the Orwellian nightmare, transmuted into fluff entertainment in the society of the spectacle. Quite possibly Big Brother helps acclimate people to surveillance, such as is exercised by the FBI “Carnivore” program that can intercept private e-mail, or to round-the-clock video surveillance at work, in public spaces, and perhaps even at home.
Upping the anti of spectacle culture, CBS played an even more dangerous Survivor series in the Australian outback for spring and summer of 2001, and a Survivor Africa series for fall-winter 2001-2. Meanwhile, the Fox television network, which seemed to have reached a new low with its embarrassment How Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, devised a reality television series Temptation Island for 2001 in which four unmarried couples would be subjected to the temptations of an attractive array of dating and sexual partners to “test” the couples’ relationship; it was a hit and a second season is scheduled for 2002, promising more sex and spectacle. Another 2001 reality television series concocted by ABC, The Mole, inserted a plant in a group, providing potential CIA agents to gain experience with infiltration and exposure, while meeting complex challenges. Fox’s reality show Boot Camp (2001), in turn, provided training for would-be marines to head off to trouble spots around the world for adventure and endurance tests, thus providing excellent training for U.S. participation in Operation Enduring Terror War.
Demonstrating the psychopathology of the spectacle, contestants on these “reality” shows are driven by a lust for money and, perhaps more so, the 15 minutes of fame and celebrity promised to them by Andy Warhol. Buffeted about by the machines of publicity, there appear to be no losers, as those voted off return to instant renown and receive offers to become TV guest hosts, VJs, or even to appear in Playboy (though one contestant on the Swedish Big Brother committed suicide after his exile, and it is not clear what the long-term effects of celebrity withdrawal on participants in these experiments may be).
Hence, whereas Truman Burbank, in the summer 1998 hit film The Truman Show, discovered to his horror that his life was being televised and sought to escape the video panopticon, many individuals in cyberworld choose to make televisual spectacles of their everyday life, such as the Webcam “stars” or the participants in the MTV “reality” series Real World and Road Rules. Even PBS got in the act in summer 2000 with its reality-based show The 1900 House which features another survival endurance trial, this time involving a family suffering without the amenities of the consumer society and technoculture in a Victorian-era British middle-class house. The Brits also produced a more civilized reality series, The Castaways, that forced groups of people marooned on a North Sea island to cooperate in order to survive the rigors of bad weather and isolation.
These reality TV series and their web sites seem to be highly addictive, pointing to deep-seated voyeurism and narcissism in the society of the interactive spectacle. It appears that individuals have a seemingly insatiable lust to become part of the spectacle and to involve themselves in it more intimately and to peer into the intimate lives of others. Moreover, they exemplify what Daniel Boorstin (1961) referred to as “pseudo-events,” in which people pay more attention to media-produced spectacles than pressing concerns in the sociopolitical world and everyday life. As Baudrillard astutely observed (1983c), postmodern media society devolves around an “obscenity” that implodes public and private spheres and puts on display the most banal and intimate aspects of everyday life — be it the sex games of Bill Clinton or the melodramas of ordinary “real life” drama participants.
***** In the Fall of 2001, reality TV lost its luster when TV news dramatically overshadowed its banal intrigues with the megaspectacle of the September 11 terror attacks and succeeding Terror War. As the U.S. began its retaliatory bombing in Afghanistan on October 7, the war news was suddenly interrupted by the spectacle of a videotape of Osama bin Laden, the leader of the terrorist network believed to be behind the attacks. Bin Laden appeared in his now familiar turban and camouflage jacket, an assault rifle by his side, in an Afghanistan landscape with a cave behind him. In ornate Arabic, translated erratically by the network translators who were trying to render his speech into English, bin Laden praised the September 11 strike on America that “destroyed its buildings” and created “fear from North to South,” praising God for this attack. Calling for a Jihad to “destroy America,” bin Laden assailed the “debauched,” “oppressive” Americans who have “followed injustice,” and exhorted every Muslim to join the Jihad. The world was now divided, bin Laden insisted, into two sides, “the side of believers and the side of infidels,” and everyone who stands with America is a “coward” and an “infidel.”
Remarkably, bin Laden’s Manichean dualism mirrored the discourse of Israeli President Ariel Sharon, George W. Bush, and those in the West who proclaimed the war against terrorism as a Holy War between Good and Evil, Civilization and Barbarism. Both dichotomized their Other as dominated by fear, Bush claiming that his Holy War marked freedom versus fear, citing Islamic extremists’ animosity against Western values and prosperity. Bin Laden’s Jihad in turn positioned fearful America against his brave warriors, characterizing as well his battle as that of justice versus injustice. Both appealed to God, revealing a similar fundamentalist absolutism and Manicheanism with both characterizing their Other as “evil.” And both sides described their opponents as “terrorists,” convinced that they were right and virtuous while the other side were villains.
Bin Laden was quickly elevated into an international media megaspectacle, reviled in the West and deified in parts of the Islamic and Arab world. Books, artifacts, and products bearing his name and image sold around the world. For his fans, he personified resistance to the West and fidelity to Islam, while to his enemies he was the personification of Evil, the antiChrist. Needless to say, entrepreneurs everywhere exploited his image to sell products. On the Internet, one could purchase toilet paper with bin Laden visage and choose from three slogans: “Wipe out bin Laden,” “If he wants to attack he can start with my crack,” or “If your butt gets to cloddin’ just wipe with bin Laden.” In addition, condoms, shooting targets, dartboards, golf balls, voodoo dolls, and violent video games featured bin Laden’s now iconic image. Websites presented bin Laden porn, tasteless cartoons, and computer games where the player could dismember the al Qaeda terrorist.
Documentaries and news reports circulated endlessly every extent image and footage of bin Laden, portrayed in either negative or positive contexts, depending on the media venue. Viewing the countless video and images of Osama bin Laden one is struck by his eyes. The al Qaeda terrorist never seems to look into the eyes of others or the camera when he speaks. bin Laden seems to be in another sphere, above and beyond mundane social interaction. His communiques are thus ethereal and bloodless in their presentation, even if their content is highly blood-thirsty, as his eyes look up and away into a transcendent horizon. The Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, by contrast, had contempt, mixed with slight fear, in his eyes that always turned down and away from Westerners when he encountered them. The Iranian Khomeini’s look away was always dour and rejective, while occasionally one sees a twinkle in bin Laden’s eye, betraying a tell-tale worldliness, before it darts into a beyond that guides and bedevils him.
George W. Bush, by contrast, is known for his propensity to stare directly into other people’s eyes and famously claimed he could eye the Russian president’s soul by looking into his eyes. Bush is good at eye contact with the camera, providing the illusion that he is speaking directly to the people, face to face, while bin Laden is staring out in space and speaking to eternity. . To be sure, sometimes the camera catches the vacant and blank Bush whose small eyes point to the littleness within. At other times, the camera catches Bush’s infamous smirk that reveals his arrogance and contempt, or shows Bush’s eyes darting erratically from one side to the other, acknowledging insecurity and anxiety.
In a controversial move, the Bush administration put an embargo on bin Laden videotapes, pleading with the U.S. TV networks not to play the tapes which were seen as propaganda and perhaps vehicles of “secret messages” to followers. In December 2001, however, the Bush administration released a bin Laden videotape found in Afghanistan which supposedly provided the “smoking gun” that once and for all would determine bin Laden’s guilt. The results for the West were disappointing. Although bin Laden seemed to admit to foreknowledge of the September 11 attacks and gloated and laughed over the results, for the Arab world the tape was a fake. Qatar’s Al Jazeera television had commentators on who immediately insisted that the “tape has been fabricated, it’s not real.” The father of condemned terrorist Mohammed Atta dismissed the tape as a “forgery” to an Associated Press journalist. Obviously, some Arabs were so bound to belief in bin Laden that they could not recognize the cynicism and viciousness in his distortion of Islam, while others so distrusted and hated the U.S. that it was unlikely they would believe anything released by the Great Satan.
Although George W. Bush blustered on December 14 that it was “preposterous” that anyone could doubt the authenticity of the bin Laden tape, in fact there were fierce debates over its production, translation, meaning, and mode of release. Such debates demonstrated acute hermeneutical capacities of audiences and critics through the world, vindicating the position long argued by British cultural studies that different audiences produce different interpretations of the text. Special effects experts in London “say [that a] fake would be relatively easy to make” (Guardian, Dec. 15, 2001). But experts in the U.S. from Bell Labs and MIT concluded that “technology [is] not yet good enough to fake bin Laden tape” (AP, Dec. 15, 2001).
The response to the bin Laden tape confirmed French theorist Jean Baudrillard’s position that we are currently living in an era of simulation in which it is impossible to tell the difference between the real and a fake, reality and simulation. As Hollywood films use more and more computerized scenes, as rock stars like Michael Jackson digitally “cleanse” their image, wiping away sweat from a vigorous performance and making himself more black to blend in with his brothers on stage, and as politicians use political image production and spectacle to sell themselves, the difference between the authentic and the real is harder and harder to determine. Is George W. Bush a real president, or is he just acting out the sound-bites fed him by his handlers, performing a scripted daily political act that he does not fully understand? Are the frequent warnings of terrorist attacks genuine, or just a ploy to keep the public on edge to accept more reactionary rightwing law and order politics? Is the terrorist threat as dire as the U.S. National Security State claims or are they hyping threats to raise their budgets and power? In an era of simulation, it is impossible to clearly answer these questions as we do not have access to the “real,” which in any case is complex, overdetermined, intricately constructed, and in some cases, as Kant discerned in his distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, ultimately impossible to specify.
****** As the 2002 New Year’s eve fireworks spectacles and celebrations took place throughout the world, one could hope for a better year and future. In Europe, there were spectacular displays to inaugurate the Euro, ranging from laser-sound and light spectacle to fireworks and mass gala festivities. In Pasadena, California, the Annual Tournament of Roses Parade fêted the theme of “Good Times” with the usual floats trumpeting corporations, leisure, and the commodity spectacle. But under heavy security, the parade opened with the U.S. Marine Corps band and closed with the West Point Marching Band, featuring military floats, and equestrian riders from the U.S. Marshals service. The festival featured military and patriotic themes and continued war spectacle as the spirit of the new millennium.
As 2002 unfolded, spectacle culture developed apace. The Super Bowl spectacle is arguably one of the biggest world culture events annually - with over 800 million viewers on average from all corners of the globe. For the St. Louis Rams and New England Patriots Super Bowl 2002 spectacle, over 160 million U.S. citizens tuned-in to the biggest TV event of the year. Mariah Carey sang the “Star Spangled Banner” in a Diva performance, rising to a deafening crescendo at the end, as a flag was unearthed from the rubble of the World Trade Center and put on triumphant display. While single players usually come out to the field to great individual fanfare, the Patriot defense marched out ensemble, as a team, ready to roll. Sporting red, white and blue uniforms, the Patriots were a heavy underdog against the powerhouse Rams, but pulled off an upset in the game’s final seconds in what sportscasters instantly hyped as the “greatest Super Bowl in history,” the biggest upset, and the most exciting finish ever.
Super Bowls are often connected to military events, as when the 1991 spectacle featured Gulf war floats, military marching bands, and a commemoration of George H. W. Bush and the U.S. military. Following this template, Super Bowl 2002 featured Bush I and former Navy and NFL star Roger Staubach flipping the coin to decide which team would receive the first kickoff. A high-tech spectacle featured U.S. troops watching live in Kandahar, and military personnel punched in statistical graphics, making the screen appear like a computer in a military system. Stars of each team were periodically shown in front of a waving American flag with a graphic announcing that “they were proud to be a part of SB36, of this great nation, and that they were thankful for the troops’ courage in Afghanistan.”
Broadcast by the ultraright Fox Network, the computer graphics featured red, white and blue banners and the transition graphics involved use of an exploding fireworks scene with the triad of patriotic colors blasting across the screen. The Super Bowl logo in the center of the field was in the shape of America and the Fox network used a patriotic logo with the flag’s colors and images, imitating NBC which transformed its multicolored Peacock into the flag’s tricolors after the September 11 terror attacks. As always, half-time featured a spectacle of music and entertainment with Bono, just back from the World Economic Forum. Bono and Bill Gates had tried to persuade the world economic leaders of the importance of addressing gaps between the haves and the have nots, and caring for poverty, health, and the environment. Bono screamed “it’s a beautiful day,” and the crowd exploded with hoy as U2 performed its hit song with the “beautiful day” signature. A more somber performance provided a tribute to the victims of the September 11 World Trade Center bombing. A large banner unfolded with the names of the victims of the attack as Bono and U2 sang their apocalyptic “Where Streets Have no Name.” At the end of the set, the banner collapsed as smoke enveloped the stage with evocation of the World Trade Center. As Bono concluded, he lifted open his jacket to reveal an American flag and the crowd went wild.
Super Bowls are also spectacles for advertising with websites collecting the ads and museums putting on the yearly display. In an $8 million extravaganza, Britney Spears belted out the Pepsi song with images presenting Spears in a postmodern collage of attire from styles from the previous decades that pastiched Pepsi ads and imagery of the epoch. For the conformist 50s, Britney appeared as a soda fountain patron in a grainy black and white montage; the ‘60s Britney appeared as a white Supreme circa ’63 and a mid-60s beach party girl; for the ‘70s, Britney appeared as a peacenik flower child, and the ‘80s imagery cut to her as Robert Palmer in the 1989 “Simply Irresistible” Pepsi ad format. The flow of retro Pepsi ads and fashion imagery culminated in a contemporary display of Britney in a belly shirt, with a highly futuristic neon-lit diner in the background, positioning the present as a conservative back to the future of the 1950s!
The ad suggested that the Pepsi generation by now encompasses multiple generations with icons like Madonna and Britney representing the Pepsi community. In other ads, Budweiser featured horses bowing to the Statue of Liberty and New York City, and a highly acclaimed spot where a falcon swept down from an apartment to cop a Bud for a young man and his two female friends. Altogether ten Bud ads ran, sending the message that beer promoted fun and good times and that it was cool for young people to drink. Ad prices declined from the top price of $3 million a spot in 2000, with Fox opening bidding at $1.9 for a thirty-second spot. While the past couple of Super Bowls had featured a bevy of dot.com ads, this year saw limited entries, such as infect-truth.com, whose ads perhaps inadvertently sent out messages of hope that more truthful and honest corporations would not meet the fate of their predecessors, many of which, like Enron, had gone bankrupt.
A highly propagandistic set of ads, made by the U.S. government and shown as public service announcements, made a connection between drugs and terrorism, sending out a message that if you use drugs you provide money for terrorists. “Where do terrorists get their money?”, queries one of the ads, which portrays a terrorist buying explosives, weapons and fake passports, while putting a stack of Russian AK-47s into a rental car! Answering its question, the ad proclaims that half of the 28 organizations identified as terrorist by the State Department are funded by sales of illegal drugs. The implication is that people who use drugs help terrorists, and the ad, costing U.S. taxpayers over half a million dollars for its production, and providing the pro-Bush administration Fox network with $3 million in advertising revenues, provided propaganda for both U.S. military and drug policy.
As for the game itself, it was a cliff-hanger. The underdog Patriots took a 14-3 half-time lead, the Rams fought back in the second half to a 17-17 tie, and in the final second the Patriots scored a field goal to gain an upset win, costing Las Vegas gamblers billions, but creating a patriotic fervor for New England and much of the nation. The Patriots owner declared after the game, in a cleverly conceived speech: “We did it with teamwork and spirit. Spirituality and faith in democracy are the cornerstones of our country. Today, we’re all patriots and the Patriots are world champions.”
And so the spectacle of the Super Bowl provided a brilliant spectacle of American nationalism. Other media spectacles, however, were producing rising anti-Americanism. Treatment of bound, gagged, and sedated al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba were creating an uproar world diplomatic circles and in the Human Rights community, as the U.S. refused to recognize their “unlawful combat” detainees as prisoners of war and thus denied them the protection of the Geneva Convention. When George W. Bush proclaimed that the U.S. was out to destroy an “axis of evil” in his late January State of the Union address, there was extreme anger and worry in both the Middle East and Arab world. Moreover, the U.S.’s European and other allies feared that the U.S. was going to take Terror War to dangerous and unprecedented levels of perpetual war.
Indeed, as the Winter Olympics opened in Salt Lake City on February 8, it featured more troops and police than were stationed in Afghanistan. Security was at an all time high with some 50,000 law enforcement forces deployed, air flight over the Olympics site was grounded, and Black Hawk helicopters patrolled the area. After some debate, the U.S. was allowed to unfurl an American flag saved from the ruins of the World Trade Center in the opening ceremonies. Members of the Olympic Committee initially thought that such a patriotic symbol might conflict with the internationalist flavor of the Olympics, and others had said that the flag should go to the Smithsonian, or a suitable venue, and not be subject to the vicissitudes of weather. The ceremonies opened, however, with their usual hoopla and another major spectacle was underway as an estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide watched the festivities, broadcast to 160 nations.
In the opening ceremonies, as always, the identity of the final torch-bearer was a closely guarded secret and the crowd was ecstatic to see Mike Eruzione and the 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team that had upset the favored Soviet Union during the last hot phase of the Cold War. George W. Bush emerged to provide a political speech, breaking with tradition that excluded nationalist proclamations, stating: “On behalf of a proud, determined and grateful nation, I declare open the Games of Salt Lake City!” Bush then surrounded himself with the heros of the U.S. 1980 hockey team for a spectacular photo-op that combined patriotism, power, and U.S. victory in the Cold War.
Forgotten was the corruption whereby U.S. Olympic organizers had bribed the International Olympic Committee with over $1 million to swing their votes Salt Lake City’s way. Likewise, there was little mention of the criminal investigations, 15 counts of bribery, fraud and conspiracy in a U.S. Justice Department indictment still pending, and the resignation of ten members of the U.S. Olympic committee. No one had the bad taste to mention the Olympic scandal and connect it with Bush administration and Enron scandals that will provide media spectacle for the coming years and forthcoming books. Instead there was pomp and pageantry, fireworks, and an orgy of patriotism, as the Olympic games opened and the parades and competition began. Bring on the games and let media spectacle rule!
The Winter Olympic games themselves, as it turned out, were a spectacle of scandal, nationalism, and controversy. In what seem to most observers to be an injustice, a Russian figure skating pair was awarded a Gold Medal over the Canadian skaters that most people agreed had offered a superior performance. A French judge broke down and confessed in a meeting that she had been pressured by a French Olympic group to award the medal to the Russians and a committee decided to award a dual gold medal to stem the controversy that was flaming through the global press; some days later the French judge said that it was really the Canadians who had been pressuring her! The Russians in turn protested that their athletes had been “humiliated,” were “greatly unappreciated,” and were robbed of medals by officials’ decisions, threatening to boycott the closing ceremonies and perhaps future games. When a Korean speed skater lost his gold medal to an American after being accused of a foul, tens of thousands of angry Koreans bombarded the Olympic committee with e-mail. And Canada went wild in a patriotic orgy of enthusiasm when its team upset the American ice hockey team for an Olympics victory, while the Germans enthuasiatically celebrated winning the most gold medals. Hence, nationalism and patriotism trumped the internationalism of the games and media spectacle triumphed once again.
For the film community and its fans, the annual Oscar awards is the major spectacle of the year and the 2002 awards were particularly controversial and note-worthy. Oscar 74 took place in Hollywood for the first time since 1960. Under the tightest security ever, entire blocks of Hollywood were closed to traffic, all shops were closed, and even the local subway station was shut down. Leading up to the awards, fierce Oscar campaigns were waged, with unprecedented attacks against A Beautiful Mind. The film dealt with the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash’s battle with schizophrenia, and a whispering campaign demeaned the film for leaving out the rough edges of Nash’s life, such as rumors of bisexuality, adultery, fathering a child out of wedlock, and anti-semitism. Meanwhile another smear campaign unfolded against the film’s star Russell Crowe, who was up for an Oscar for best actor. Crowe was systematically bad-mouthed for his womanizing and lashing out at a director at a British awards ceremony who had cut off his poetry reading; film was also released of a rowdy Crowe in a bar parking lot fight.
The spectacle was as outrageous as ever, with star-studded Hollywood royalty prancing along the fabled red carpet, wearing designer clothes and jewelry, including a million-dollar diamond broach and diamond-studed shoes. Cameras during the Oscar ceremonies focused on the Young and the Beautiful of Hollywood’s royalty, attempting to capture, as always, intimate glimpses of the major players’ responses to winning and losing. While fashion critics raved over the most spectacular clothes and accessories, catty fashion mavens mocked some of the stylists and couture, such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s sagging dress that made her look fat and dumpy, Cameron Diaz’ messy hair that made her look like she’d just gotten out of bed, Jennifer Lopez’s overlaid and trussed-up hair, or Russell Crowe’s silly frock coat that made the bad boy look like a 19th century preacher.
Oscar 2002 was ultimately a spectacle of race as African Americans won both major acting awards for the first time. Halle Berry was awarded best actress and appeared to have an anxiety attack before she overcame her sobbing and thanked every black actress who had preceded her and those who helped her. These included “my lawyer who cut that deal” (to pay off a victim of a hit and run accident, preventing a trial that might have had Halle incarcerated). Denzel Washington gained best actor award, just after presenting icon Sidney Poitier a life-time achievement award. Oscar TV hostess, Whoopie Goldberg, provided a set of race jokes, interspersed with snide comments lampooning the celebrity stars up for the awards.
There was also a serious side to the spectacle, as Tom Cruise opened with an evocation of the horrors of the September 11 terror attacks and an assurance to Hollywood that it was all the more important that they continue in their filmmaking efforts to provide necessary entertainment and inspiration to the public. Woody Allen made his first Academy Awards appearance to make a pitch for filmmaking in New York. And Kevin Spacey made an emotional appeal for a moment’s silence to commemorate the victims of the terror attacks, as the Academy annually remembered those members of the film industry who have passed on the previous year.
But first and foremost the Oscar awards are a spectacle of Hollywood itself and of its importance in the production and reproduction of a culture of the spectacle, one that is now global in import. Combining television performance, musical numbers, film clips, and other forms of entertainment, the evening provides an opportunity for the spectacle to celebrate itself and promote its myriad forms, values, and significance. The Academy Awards are also a celebration of victory, the primal American and global capitalist passion play. Indeed, the prize-garnering films make millions more in revenue from the prestige and position Oscar winners for a big score in the next deal, which is, after all, what media spectacle is all about.
It appears that the New Millennium would be marked by a diversity of spectacles in the field of politics, culture, entertainment, and every realm of social life. In this context, it is important to develop a critical theory of the spectacle to provide citizens with the tools to unpack, interpret, and critique the ballooning realm of spectacle and to discern what the spectacles of the contemporary era signify and tell us about the present and future. This project requires connecting cultural studies with what I call diagnostic critique.
Cultural Studies as Diagnostic Critique
The texts of media culture provide material for a diagnostic critique of the contemporary era whereby critical readings of popular artifacts and spectacles are interrogated to provide knowledge of the contemporary era. In the following studies, I provide detailed examples of cultural studies as diagnostic critique. In Chapter 2, I show how study of McDonald’s fast-food chain provides insights into the dynamics of globalization, the dialectic of the global and the local, and the ways that U.S. cultural products are appropriated and used throughout the world to provide new forms of global and hybridized culture. Likewise, the study of Michael Jordan and Nike in Chapter 3 helps illuminate global media culture and NBA basketball and how U.S. sports have become a global popular in the 1990s, while sport deities like Jordan developed into worldwide celebrities. The McDonald’s study helps elucidate features of contemporary consumer culture, while the Jordan and Nike reading engages the interconnection of sports, commercialization, and celebrity culture in the present era, wherein sports, business, and spectacle culture merge into one another.
Chapter 4 engages the rock spectacle with a study of the origins of rock and roll music in the 1950s and the rise of super stars like Elvis Presley. I interpret the various stages of Presley’s career as exemplifing the Dionysian spectacle of mass celebration and frenzy that exhibited yearnings for sexual liberation and community in the consumer society. Such Dionysian impulses were also evident in the odysseys of later superstars such as Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam. Further, Presley’s middle and later careers exhibit the Hollywood spectacle in the 1960s, the Vegas spectacle in the ‘70s, and the spectacle of the Dead Elvis in the decades to come. The rise of MTV, music videos, and concert extravaganzas are evident in the Madonna spectacle, while the rap and hip hop spectacles reveal new forms of African American culture becoming a global popular. Newer stars of recent years such as Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, Altheia, and Shakira disclose an emergent multicultural pop spectacle in the global musical scene.
The megaspectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial in the mid-1990s provides a case to study in Chapter 5 of the intersections of gender, race, and class in contemporary U.S. society and the ways that identity politics are fragmenting society into competing groups from which individual gain their primary identity. The Simpson saga, far from being merely a sordid murder trial, also shows how the logic of the spectacle is permeating the legal system and crime and colonizing everyday life by permeating television day, generating endless “breaking news,” talk shows, Internet sites, and later TV documentaries and docudramas.
Chapter 6 engages the popular TV-series and film-franchise The X-Files, running on TV from 1992 into 2002, which provides an instructive example of the television spectacle that combines high-tech aesthetic effects with convoluted allegories of the horrors of contemporary life. Producing a spectacle of government conspiracy, alien invasion, and biotechnological mutations of the human, X-Files puts on display a vast panorama of contemporary fears, fantasies, and conflicts. It allows a diagnostic critique of fears of government conspiracies, aliens and terrorists, medical invasions of the mind and body, and mutations of the human in an era of technoculture and technoscience.
Politics too has become a megaspectacle over the past decade as the Persian Gulf TV War dramatized U.S. military power and weapons system, attempted to save a failing Bush presidency (the first one), and tried to insert the U.S. as the principal police-force in the New World Order (Kellner 1992). A more television and media savvy younger presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, used media spectacle to defeat the aging and disengaged George Bush in 1992. But Clinton then faced the wrath of a resolute Republican opposition that used all the media of contemporary culture to create a spectacle of scandal to attempt to destroy his presidency. Curiously, and unpredictably, the Republican spectacle of moralistic vengeance backfired and Clinton survived (barely) the spectacle of impeachment.
After a lackluster election in 2000 between Son of Bush and Clinton’s Vice-President Al Gore, the world was treated to the megaspectacle of a Battle for the White House in which an election was stolen by the Republicans, generating fertile conditions for future political wars and spectacle (Kellner, 2001. In an era of spectacle politics, reading political spectacles like the Clinton sex scandals and impeachment trials and the Battle for the White House and Theft of an election in November-December 2000 can illustrate the broad patterns and trajectories of contemporary politics, culture, and society. Indeed, I will argue that these components of recent U.S. political spectacle are interrelated and can best be read in the context of seeing how the cultural wars and presidential politics from the 1960s to the present played out on the stage of political spectacle. In Chapter 7, I provide a study of “Presidential Politics, the Movie” to discuss vicissitudes of media and politics from the 1960s to the present.
In Media Spectacle, I will accordingly engage in some close and detailed readings, contextualization, and analysis of the broad effects of major cultural texts and events deploying the methods of cultural studies, as well as using critical social theory to interrogate what the texts tell us about contemporary reality. While some critics talk incessantly about cultural studies as a historical phenomena, or endless debate the method and concepts of cultural studies, I do cultural studies through dissection of the production of texts, textual analysis of its meanings, and study of their effects and resonance, deploying a multiperspectivist approach. And while some close readings stay ensconced in the textures and surfaces of texts, I want to go beyond the texts to the contexts in which they are produced, consumed, and used, using texts to illuminate their historical and cultural situations.
The conception of cultural studies as diagnostic critique thus combines using social theory to interpret and contextualize phenomena of media culture with developing close readings and situating of cultural texts to elucidate contemporary culture and society. A diagnostic critique exposes hopes and fears, problems and conflicts, of the existing society, as well as the nature of the contending corporate, political, and social groups in the contested terrain of existing society and culture. Seeing culture and society as a field of contestation with forces of domination and resistance, repression and struggle, cooptation and upheaval, provides a more dynamic model than that of certain forms of Marxism or feminism that primarily see the dominant culture as one of domination and oppression. By contrast, envisioning society and culture as contested terrains articulates the openings and possibilities for social transformation, and potentials for resistance and struggle, as well as providing critique of ideology and domination.
Hence, my conception of cultural studies combines critique of domination with valorization of forces of resistance and struggle. While the politics of representation are engaged that criticize racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression, there are also attempts to discern more liberating representations and social forces struggling against domination. Criticizing domination and arguing for a more egalitarian and just social order also envisages progressive social transformation. This involves, in part, educating individuals to resist cultural manipulation and to become media literate. Thus, I am also interested in the promotion of media literacy, of the pedagogy of learning how to read cultural texts critically and politically and to use culture to understand and democratically transform the world. I would therefore identify my project with that of Brazilian educator Paolo Freire who wants to develop literacy to teach people to read the word and through reading the word to read and transform the world.
Consequently, a diagnostic critique uses culture to analyze the conditions of contemporary culture and society and to provide instruments of social change. It combines theory with practice, combining doing cultural studies with reflecting on the society and culture under analysis. It seeks to reconstruct disciplinary practice, drawing on a wealth of disciplines from textual analysis to political economy. And it seeks to transform society, providing critique of domination and subordination and valorization of forces struggling for social justice and a more democratic and egalitarian society. Seeing cultural studies as a diagnostic critique and transformative practice thus seeks those phenomena that best illuminate contemporary society and that provide either obstacles or forces of social progress.
Notes. I suppose that this is the place to indicate the U.S.-centric nature of my subject-position and that I am interpreting the world from the lenses of decades at the University of Texas in Austin and then from the vistas of the University of California at Los Angeles. As I now write, I am looking out the window from West Hollywood into downtown L.A. and the Hollywood hills, in what is perhaps the epicenter of the contemporary media spectacle of our times and during an era of globalization more than a merely local phenomenon. Of course, things look different from variegated class, gender, race, and regional positions. And yet while the focus of my studies is on salient phenomena of U.S. culture and their planetary proliferations, in a globalized world, technologies, commodities, cultures, ideas, and experiences rapidly circulate throughout the planet. Thus, for those living outside the U.S., I might recall what Marx said to all in regard to his analysis of capitalism in England: “De te fabula narratur!” (“The tale is told of you”).  For my various takes on postmodern theory and culture, see Best and Kellner 1991, 1997, and 2001, and Kellner 1995. In the latter text, Media Culture I argue that the contemporary era is an interim period between the modern and the postmodern era. As I argue in this text, one of the features of postmodernity is an increasingly important role of media spectacle in the economy, polity, culture, and everyday life.  For debates over the vicissitudes of the human in the contemporary era and possible transition to the posthuman, see Best and Kellner 2001. . Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967) was published in translation in a pirate edition by Black and Red (Detroit) in 1970 and reprinted many times; another edition appeared in 1983 and a new translation in 1994. Thus, in the following discussion, I cite references to the numbered paragraphs of Debord’s text to make it easier for those with different editions to follow my reading. The key texts of the Situationists and many interesting commentaries are found on various Web sites, producing a curious afterlife for Situationist ideas and practices. For further discussion of the Situationists, see Best and Kellner 1997, Chapter 3; see also the discussions of spectacle culture in Best and Kellner 2001, upon which I draw in these studies. . Wolf’s book is a detailed and useful celebration of the “entertainment economy,” although he is a shill for the firms and tycoons that he works for and celebrates them in his book. Moreover, while entertainment is certainly an important component of the infotainment economy, it is an exaggeration to say that it drives it, is actually propelling it, as Wolf repeatedly claims. He also downplays the negative aspects of the entertainment economy, such as growing consumer debt and the ups and downs of the infotainment stock market and vicissitudes of the global economy. . Another source notes that “the average American household spent $1,813 in 1997 on entertainment — books, TV, movies, theater, toys — almost as much as the $1,841 spent on health care per family, according to a survey by the US Labor Department.” Moreover, “the price we pay to amuse ourselves has, in some cases, risen at a rate triple that of inflation over the past five years” (USA Today, April 2, 1999: E1). The NPD Group provided a survey that indicated that the amount of time spent on entertainment outside of the home - such as going to the movies or a sport event was up 8% from the early to the late 1990s and the amount of time in home entertainment, such as watching television or surfing the Internet, went up 2%.  The project was designed and sold to the public in part through the efforts of the son of a former President, George W. Bush. Young Bush was bailed out of heavy losses in the Texas oil industry in the 1980s by his father’s friends and used his capital gains, gleaned from what some say as illicit insider trading, to purchase part-ownership of a baseball team to keep the wayward son out of trouble and to give him something to do. The soon-to-be Texas governor, and future President of the United States, sold the new stadium to local taxpayers, getting them to agree to a higher sales tax to build the stadium which would then become the property of Bush and his partners. This deal allowed Bush to generate a healthy profit when he sold his interest in the Texas Rangers franchise and to buy his Texas ranch, paid for by Texas tax-payers (for sources on the scandalous life of George W. Bush and his surprising success in politics, see Kellner 2001).  See Nicholai Ouroussoff, “Art for Architecture’s Sake,” Los Angeles Times (March 31, 2002). . There is little doubt but that the emergent technologies of virtual reality, holograms, and computer implants of sensory experience (if such exotica emerge) will be heavily invested in the reproduction of sex. In a webpost by Richard Johnson, “Virtual Sex is Here,” (www.ThePostion.com, January 4, 2001), British Professor Kevin Warwick’s latest experiment is described which involves implant of a computer chip that, if successful, will make possible the communication of a wide range of sensory experience and new types of sexual stimulation. The 1995 film Strange Days portrayed a futuristic culture with addictive VR, in which spectators become hooked on videos of extreme sex and violence. The 13th Floor (1999) portrayed a VR device whereby players are transported to recreations of other times, places, and identities experiencing full bodily fears and pleasures. . The studies in this book are primarily cultural studies, and I explore in more detail the consequences for social theory of the phenomena explored here elsewhere. Theoretical grounding, in turn, for the investigations undertaken here are found in past works such as Kellner and Ryan 1988; Kellner 1989a and 1989b; Best and Kellner 1990, 1997, and 2001; and Kellner 1995. . On the various stages of development of the Frankfurt School for an earlier introduction of the concept of technocapitalism, see Kellner 1989b. For more recent reflections on the roles of new technologies in the current stage of capitalist development, see Best and Kellner 2001 and Kellner 2001. . Frank Webster (1995: 5, passim) wants to draw a line between “those who endorse the idea of an information society” and “writers who place emphasis on continuities.” Although he puts me in the camp of those who emphasize continuities (188), I would argue that we need to grasp both continuities and discontinuities in the current societal transformation we are undergoing, that we deploy a both/and logic in this case and not an either/or logic. In other words, we need both to theorize the novelties and differences in the current social restructuring, as well as the continuities with the previous mode of societal organization. Such a dialectical optic is, I believe, consistent with the mode of vision of Marx and neo-Marxists such as those in the Frankfurt School.  See the chart in The Nation (Jan. 7, 2002) and the accompanying article by Mark Crispin Miller, “What’s Wrong with This Picture?” and the analysis of the impact of “media unlimited” in Gitlin 2002 who discusses oversaturation, intensifying speed, and an increasingly media-mediated existence in the contemporary era. . See Brian Lowry “‘Big Brother’s’ Watchers See Everything But Privacy,'” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 2000:A1, A50 and “The Electronic Fishbowl,” New York Times (May 21, 2000). The new reality shows exhibit the confluence of television and Internet entertainment; the Dutch show “Big Brother” featured a live-web site with four video streams that one could check out, gaining 52 million hits, and the CBS series deployed roughly the same setup, although it charged viewers to subscribe to its website for the 2001 season. It is interesting from the perspective of globalization that recent hit TV formulas have come from Europe to the U.S. The 1999-2001 ABC Television sensation, Do You Want to Be a Millionaire?, was closely based on a hit British TV-series, as was a 2001 follow-up, The Weakest Link. Reality-TV hits Survivor and Big Brother were also derived from European models. It appears in these cases that it is precisely the crassest and most commercial aspects of global culture that crosses borders the most easily…. . This popular, and then reviled, program featured a supposed millionaire (who turned out to be a sleazy hustler) who choose a wife from female contestants who would share a millionaire dollar reward with their new husband. The bride turned out not to be able to stand being with the man, quickly left him, proclaimed her virtue and tried to exploit her 15 minutes of fame, eventually posing nude in a man’s magazine. The tabloids uncovered unsavory pasts of both the husband and the wife and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network suffered some slight embarrassment, although it is unlikely that the Fox people suffer much in the way of shame or humiliation.  German television found that the White House translation of bin Laden’s video was not only inaccurate, but “manipulative.” See http://dc.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=16389&group=webcast.  I am indebted to Richard Kahn for sharing his Super Bowl notes. For a now classical analysis of the superbowl spectacle, see Real 1977. Real (1977: 93) timed the actual football action from quarterback snap to whistle ending the play and found that the four hour spectacle contained a mere seven minutes of actual football action!  For my previous work in and discussion of cultural studies, see Kellner and Ryan 1988, where the concept of diagnostic critique was first developed, and Kellner 1995 which lays out the model of a multiperspectivist cultural studies. By the latter, I mean a cultural studies that analyzes the circuits of production, textuality, and reception, deploying a dialectic of text and context to provide critical readings of media texts and that use the texts to illuminate the contemporary era. A multiperspectivist approach also deploys a multiplicity of theories and methods of interpretation to provide more many-sided readings and critiques.