"More than machinery, we need humanity."
We know that the images flashing at us from the multitude of screens that surround us are trying to tell us something. To a certain extent the meanings are quite obvious: status updates alert us to new messages, newscasters inform us of what is going on in the world, commercials exhort us to improve our lives by purchasing various products, and so forth. This is a world of spectacle, and as Guy Debord put it:
“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than ‘that which appears is good, that which is good appears.’ The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearance without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” (12)
Thus the spectacle displays and then unrelentingly advances a version of the good life and an image of reality that is neatly packaged and presented. A world of spectacle is created, unfolding in millions of images that shout out from screens of all sizes, or hovers in the background in a collage of advertisements and audio jingles. This flood of images creates a sense of the world and then reassures those watching that this is the correct image of the world. The spectacle speaks, shouts, and whispers to us constantly – but how often do we genuinely understand what it is saying?
Answering that question is at the center of Eric Goodman’s “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” a theatrical rock performance that blends live music with film montage and cultural critique. By disrupting and then re-editing the informational, sensorial, and image flows of the spectacle the performance aims to break through the surface level of “that which appears is good, that which is good appears” in order to expose the real messages being disseminated by the spectacle. What Goodman demonstrates is how “that which appears is good” for business, “is good” for keeping those in power safely ensconced in their positions, and “is good” for keeping people so distracted by the constant stream of images that they begin to doubt whether there is a version of the good that exists outside of the mandate of the spectacle.
The performance begins with a parable of a kingdom facing a serious dilemma: something has gone terribly wrong with their grain crop. Those who eat the tainted grain go mad, but there is not a sufficient quantity of untainted grain to feed all of the people. Reluctantly it is decided that most people will eat the madness inducing grain while a few others will be fed the non-tainted grain from previous harvests. Therefore, even if most people go mad – a slim minority will remain to remind the rest of their madness, and to remind them that their madness has been induced by what they have been eating. From this dark opening “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” delves into an exploration of the madness causing grain that one consumes when exposed to contemporary mass media and technology – while relying upon the voices of those who resisted the temptation of this grain to provide a counter narrative.
Moving at a brisk pace from one topic to the next “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” turns the very imagery of the spectacle against itself. As an army of smiling or scowling politicians, fashionable celebrities, news anchors, and advertisements are deployed presenting familiar messages in new contextual configurations that reveals the ideology behind the manufactured smiles and paid-for gravitas. From the initial parable “Thus Spoke” presents the perfected world of the spectacle with its smiling, literally, made-for-television public, before switching from the image of attainable perfection to the drumbeat of deaths, violence and destruction being announced by a stream of stone faced newscasters. Rather than retreat from this darker image back to the advertisements for happiness, “Thus Spoke” delves deeper: moving into celebrity culture and contrasting the legion of fashionable and fit forms with the spectacle’s voyeuristic mania that feeds on the tragic death of a celebrity just as merrily as it feeds upon images of them on the red carpet. And though this tragic element may exist within the spectacle it simply gives the spectacle another reason to heap praise upon those it elevates – even if it has a tendency to cause them to come crashing to the ground. The wild beat of applause fills the screen – and it is always the sound of the spectacle congratulating itself. It cares not if it shows tragedy or comedy – so long as it keeps people watching.
Shifting tone from flashbulbs, self-congratulation and expensive smiles, “Thus Spoke” moves into the territory of the unseen forces behind the spectacle. The fabulously wealthy celebrities’ images leave the screen to be replaced by the even more wealthy faces of those in finance. By contrasting scenes from the film version of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and images from the great depression with news reports and testimony related to the 2008 financial crisis “Thus Spoke” gives a grim reminder how “that which appears” is often not good at all for most people, even if these not good images are quickly papered over by further distractions. A particularly appealing such distraction, “Thus Spoke” suggests, is the lure of high-technology which promises – like a religious savior – to mollify all concerns and usher in ever greater luxury and enjoyment. Yet those who put such faith in the machine are like the foolish sorcerer’s apprentice who put their unthinking trust in magic they do not fully understand and therefore risk being destroying by it.
After all, are not cataclysmic weapons of mass destruction themselves technological advances over earlier and simpler modes of delivering death? “Thus Spoke” demonstrates how the faith in the high-tech future grew more influential even as the threat of spectacular technological violence (the mushroom cloud) was used to assure assent for a war premised upon winning through “shock and awe.” The torrent of images that seamlessly blend war with celebrities, politicians with cartoon advertisements, ideology with nonsense, are the evidence of a culture that has not only been eating the madness inducing grain of the initial parable but has been frantically devouring as much of this grain as possible. Indeed, the spectacle seems to have its own set of Ten Commandments, it demands fealty, and it demands that people continue gorging themselves.
The song “Know Your Rights,” by The Clash, begins with Joe Strummer declaring “This is a public service announcement…with guitars!” And had Eric Goodman chosen to begin “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” with a similar declaration it would have been true – for what his performance presents is a vital “public service announcement” that comes accompanied by guitar (and drums played by Leo Freire). Eric Goodman has set himself a very difficult task with “Thus Spoke,” one that must balance effectively using the imagery of the spectacle to counteract its narratives without accidentally creating just another manifestation of the spectacle in the process. And “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” succeeds on all accounts – it engages with the spectacle without ever replicating, reinforcing or reifying its messages. The drums and guitar are there, but they never supply celebratory rock anthems to the spectacle, instead Goodman uses the sound of the guitar to cut through the noise of the spectacle.
At moments Goodman allows the spectacle to speak in its own voice, but just as often Goodman draws upon others to provide a scathing commentary of what appears on the screen. Goodman draws upon critics of society and technology (many of whom are associated with the field of Media Ecology) – those who did not eat of the madness causing grain – to rip the spectacle’s ideology to tatters. It may be that Neil Postman, Lewis Mumford and Erich Fromm (to name just a few of those drawn upon) never considered if their work would be effective if matched with a guitar solo – but “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” proves such pairings to be highly effective. Similarly effective is Goodman’s selection of images – particularly those he takes from classic films like Metropolis, The Night of the Living Dead, and Frankenstein. Cutting scenes of horror and anxiety from these films in with the stream of Technicolor euphoria of advertisements provides a staggering juxtaposition that reveals the monstrous underbelly of the spectacle. These images play out upon the screen that dominates the stage while Goodman presents commentary from various thinkers – including himself – mixed with occasional singing that make the images take on an almost haunted quality. While the visual and auditory aspects of the performance are consistently well conceived and carefully executed there are some moments that truly stand out as wonderfully effective. Goodman makes effective use of sound and image – but as one particularly brilliant sequence demonstrates – he also knows how effective a drawn out silence can be.
Though “Thus Spoke” is incredibly timely in its overall subject matter many of the specifics dwelt upon may seem somewhat dated. Granted, to claim that the WMD claims in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 financial crisis are “dated” is to give credence to the success of the spectacle for always insisting upon something new. Nevertheless, focusing upon the 1997 death of Diana, Princess of Wales seems rather odd in a period when the spectacle is focusing upon new glamorous royalty. Similarly the sections on technology seem cursed by the impossibility of keeping up with the latest gizmo being touted as the “killer app” – had Goodman re-edited the sections dealing with technology on Saturday they would have lagged behind the tech company news by Sunday. And yet these are minor trifles. One of the things which “Thus Spoke” does an excellent job demonstrating is that our present “society of the spectacle” is one about which we were warned – repeatedly, by numerous thinkers. In a culture so obsessed with the new, providing a reminder of recent events can serve as an important demonstration of the script the spectacle has followed before – and the script that it will undoubtedly follow again.
“Thus Spoke the Spectacle” is a thoroughly discomforting performance – and this is meant as the absolute highest form of praise. Where the spectacle functions by bludgeoning people into an inured acceptance of the world around them, it becomes the duty of critical thought and critical works of art to shake people from their stupor – even if, and especially if, people seem content to keep staring at the screen. “Thus Spoke the Spectacle” reveals what the spectacle truly says – and reminds the audience that they need not keep listening to its commands.
“Thus Spoke the Spectacle” was written and produced by Eric Goodman, and is performed by Eric Goodman and Leo Freire. It is presented at The Kraine Theater (85 E. 4th Street, NYC) and has future performances there (in 2015) on June 28, July 19 and August 30 – at 8:00 p.m. each night. You can learn more about the show by visiting its website: www.thespectacle.net. Please note: this performance does include moments of limited strobe light usage.
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983.
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