Eric Goodman for The Spectacle
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
George Carlin joked that when you’re born into this world you’re given a ticket to the freak show, and when you’re born in America, you’re given a front row seat. I would only add that living in New York City gets you a backstage pass.
As a young New Yorker in the mid 90’s, I had every reason to be happy. I had an Ivy League degree, a promising career in a growing field, a gratifying sideline writing and performing music, friends, girlfriends, and good health. I had little pocket money, but enough. The dot-com-fueled economy was still bubbling, and the country was “at peace,” which is to say that the bombing, sanctioning, and general meddling the U.S. government carried out in that period was of little concern to the media, and even less to the public, my own self-absorbed soul not excepted. I was upwardly mobile, creatively stimulated, socially adapted, and financially stable. Moreover, I had the great good sense to be born white and male [Sarcasm Alert], which meant I could unworriedly traverse my increasingly Disneyfied metropolis all hours of the day or night in relative comfort and safety. The country’s most pressing concerns—as the media told it, anyway—were a Presidential sex scandal and an ex-football player’s murder trial. Let the good times roll!
Somehow this happy-go-lucky existence didn’t seem quite real, let alone fulfilling. Amidst the general revelry of post-college life, I found myself weighed down by a growing skepticism and vague apprehension. At the height of the Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy late Clinton years, my untimely search for the elusive “man behind the curtain” of the social charade made me a bit of an eccentric among friends and family. I found greater camaraderie for my wayward thoughts in the works of exotic foreign writers such as Guy Debord, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and Erich Fromm. Pioneering existentialists Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky, and their 20th-century heirs Kafka and Camus, drove me even further from the HappyLand of American public (un)consciousness.
It was my own countrymen, however, who most shocked me into disorienting awareness. The America of Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Boorstin, and the towering Lewis Mumford was light years from the branded “America” seared into the nation’s psyche by Madison Avenue. They spoke of a society steeped in illusion, mired in injustice, overwhelmed by alienation, beholden to technology, and teetering on the brink of spiritual collapse. I was further astonished to discover a 1979 clip of Jimmy Carter who, in an unprecedented, never-to-be-repeated harangue by an American president, warned the country of its dangerous descent into unreality, consumerism, and nihilism—this, as he himself was being booted from office by a corporate-shilling, B-rated Hollywood actor hitherto best known as an ape’s sidekick.
My motivation to transmute such warnings and visions into social commentary music videos was greatly influenced by media critic Neil Postman. His thesis, brutal in its simplicity, is that we Americans are a people in the process of amusing ourselves to death.
In a 1985 book by that title, Postman explained that this was so because we’ve allowed what he called “entertainment values” to infiltrate every facet of life, to the point where even supposedly serious institutions like journalism, politics, religion, and education take their cues from show business, dumbed down to resonate with the spectating audience that’s replaced the engaged citizenry of bygone days. Postman wasn’t against entertainment or humor in their proper contexts, and he himself was quite witty in his writings, speeches, and conversation, the latter of which I can report from a few memorable meetings with him. But he insisted that when serious discourse dissolves into giggles, society’s in big trouble, and feared that one day we’d not only find ourselves laughing instead of thinking, but wouldn’t know what we were laughing about, or why we stopped thinking. He went so far as to call Americans the best entertained and least informed people in the Western world.
WELCOME TO THE SPECTACLE
Given such a steady diet of cultural subversion, it’s little wonder that French radical Guy Debord’s classic critique The Society of the Spectacle took hold of my imagination.
A few years before The Matrix and The Truman Show would depict Debord’s “spectacle” and Baudrillard’s “simulacrum” in film, I began experimenting with the subject as the basis of a conceptual multimedia rock opera. I merged film and video clips with instrumental compositions I was producing at the time, settled on spoken word narration to advance the philosophy and augment the visuals, and Thus Spoke the Spectacle was born.
Over the years that I’ve been producing and performing this show, the maladies it explores—unreality, alienation, militarism, consumerism, nihilism, technological subservience and so on—have mostly gotten worse. Neil Postman used the present participle form of the verb “amuse” in his title Amusing Ourselves to Death to suggest an ongoing social degeneration, advanced but not yet terminal, which might yet be stemmed or even reversed given proper awareness of the condition and a serious determination to remedy it.
Riffing on Postman’s theme, Pink Floyd founder and chief songwriter Roger Waters was less hopeful. He ominously employed the past tense for the title of his album Amused to Death, which ends with alien anthropologists discovering “our shadows grouped around the TV sets,” presumably the final residue of nuclear war victims. The aliens, perplexed, conclude that “this species has amused itself to death.” I always found it interesting that the people were vaporized but the TV sets survived. Artistic license? Or a purposeful comment on the everlasting power of our omnipotent media? In any case, Waters sensed as far back as 1992 that Western corporations would never relinquish their population-controlling, profit-soaked monopoly on public perception, nor were Americans likely to give up their God-given right to be entertained 24/7, come what may.
In 2016, what may come to America, did.
It surely wouldn’t have surprised Neil Postman that a nation amusing itself to death would elect as President a billionaire TV star with no political or military experience and little regard for, or facility with, reason and truth. Guy Debord, too, saw the writing on the wall in his 1988 update Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, trading the incendiary revolutionary zeal of his 1967 masterpiece for an eerily resigned, frighteningly sober depiction of the spectacle’s continuing conquest.
WHAT, NO HAPPY ENDING?
With a similar outlook, I couldn’t see fit to give Thus Spoke the Spectacle a Happy Hollywood Ending. If the show is dark, it’s because we live in dark times, our fate hinging on our ability and willingness to understand and react to the harsh realities we face. The story Thus Spoke the Spectacle tells will have closure either when the technocratic regime it depicts reaches full totalitarian control (a state Postman called “Technopoly”), or We the People transcend it. Despite popular rhetoric, transcendence from our technocratic dystopia will not come from tech titans, self-serving politicians, or virtue-signaling corporations but from conscious, dis-illusioned individuals—those who have thrown off the psychic shackles of mainstream narratives. My belief in experimental art as a weapon against indoctrination has long anchored my concert/film protest. Thus Spoke the Spectacle is not for everyone, but those with eyes and ears for this brand of critique will know it. As the great French theologian and philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote, initial escapees from our technocratic prison must of necessity be a minority of reverse mutants:
“Not the mutants of science fiction—the technological human being with a robot’s brain—but quite the opposite. Someone who can use the technologies and at the same time not be used by, assimilated by, or subordinated to them. This implies a development of the intellect and a development of consciousness which can come about only for individuals, but it is the only development possible.”
— Jacques Ellul
Borrowing from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I think of such mutants as fragments of the future: people who, against great odds and with no guarantees, bring an unmediated, unbroken spirit to bear on the creation of a better world. The struggle is not as it plays out in movies; no Hollywood Hero Reward awaits today’s mutant warrior. And it’s surely not without its perils: confronting a world merrily drowning in delusion and distraction is difficult and dangerous, as Nietzsche himself no doubt knew. Perhaps foretelling his own impending madness, he warned that when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back into you.
Thus Spoke the Spectacle’s kindred spirits are those who know that at this late hour, the consequences of not looking are even worse.
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