Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Society of the Spectacularly Crass

I was going to make my next post on the subject of the prison; in fact, I've begun writing that post. It's beginning to turn rather political (I think unavoidably) and maybe that's got me into a mood. I was just over the shops, and perused todays newspapers, the front covers of which are united in celebrating the orgy of self-congratulation that, I sincerely hope, marks the final, irrevocable end of the olympics.

I have touched already on my problems with the olympics in the version of the introduction I posted, but I'd like to tie that a little more in to a specific point about the Island, and also to illustrate the thinking behind some of what I have already written. The point is this: That the olympics are a fascist spectacle, and that one of the most fundamental differences between London and the Isle of Wight is that it is impossible for the olympics (or similar events) to occur in the latter.

First, the idea that the olympics is a 'fascist spectacle'. What does this mean exactly? Not that the olympics is designed to promote racism (although it's certainly not perfect) or any particular extreme right-wing ideology. The term 'fascism' is used more exactly, in regards to aesthetics. In her seminal essay about the work of Leni Reifenstahl, Fascinating Fascism, Susan Sontag memorably summarises her construction of fascist aesthetics in the following way:

"Fascist aesthetics...flow from (and justify) a preoccupation with situations of control, submissive behavior, extravagant effort, and the endurance of pain; they endorse two seemingly opposite states, egomania and servitude. The relations of domination and enslavement take the form of a characteristic pageantry: the massing of groups of people; the turning of people into things; the multiplication or replication of things; and the grouping of people/things around an all-powerful, hypnotic leader-figure or force. The fascist dramaturgy centers on the orgiastic transactions between mighty forces and their puppets, uniformly garbed and shown in ever swelling numbers. Its choreography alternates between ceaseless motion and a congealed, static, "virile" posing. Fascist art glorifies surrender, it exalts mindlessness, it glamorizes death."

Riefenstahl is, of course, remembered partly for her film Olympia, which documents the 1936 Berlin summer olympics, and has been incredibly influential in the way that sport is filmed. The 1936 olympics generally have had a lot of influence on how the olympics is presented and conducted (the olympic torch relay was invented for that event, for example). This is not, of course, why the olympics is fascist, but it's definitely a salient thing to mention.
London is a city of spectacle. It is designed for spectacle. Think of the Mall, dripping with union jacks. During the last couple of years, as public sector jobs haemmorhage, as the cost of higher education triples, as libraries shut down, London has been used to host a succession of big, flashy, dramatic events that glorify nationalism, monarchism, corporatism and other essentially malign forces and institutions. The royal wedding, the jubilee, the olympics...does it really seem much of a stretch to suggest that this is meant, on some level, to distract people from the very real, ideologically lead harm that is being done to this country. Is it a coincidence that all these events 'exalt mindlessness'' blind emotion, flag waving and tear jerking, 'the whole nation coming together' (implying that there is only one correct and acceptable way to think and feel) and flashy spectacle? Does anyone remember the various dissenters against these events, slapped with ASBOs and harassed by the police based simply on the possibility they might ruin the aesthetics of the show with their silly opinions and unfortunate individuality?

Guy Debord's concept of the society of the spectacle is worth invoking here, though Debord originally meant something much more subtle, in the vain of the map/territory relations we talked about in a previous post. Certainly, the idea of the victory of performance and image over reality is apt. To Debord, the Island would also be a society of the spectacle, because of its involvement in what later writers have called 'spectacular capitalism'. It might be better to move on to the slightly more modern concept of 'hyperreality', as theorised by Baudrillard, which refers to any situation where people are unable to distinguish reality from a copy or image thereof, without necessarily making the more unilateral claims of Debord. Neither the Island nor London is really hyperreal, though London is on the cusp of it, and certainly a hyperreal London exists. That is the London of films, of television. You can probably physically visit it as a tourist, with the right sort of eyes. Whilst the Isle of Wight also tries to project a false (or at least heavily idealised) version of itself to tourists, I feel it fails because, essentially, no one has a very clear mental image of the Isle of Wight without having actually been here. There is not enough of a narrative to construct something above reality.

Anyway, back to that original point. It may seem asinine to say 'the olympics can't occur on the Isle of Wight'. Of course they can't! There's no infrastructure, no money, probably not even the space, although the Island did bit to hold some of the sailing events. What I'm trying to get at is more a matter of the theatricality of a place; about the ability of a place to be used as theatre. London, both the real London and the fictional hyperreal London, are backdrops. Scenery. Events can occur there without being connected to, or affecting, the underlying reality of the place, much in the same way a theatre is not altered fundamentally by the plays that take place on its stage. This is a level of presentation that is not possible on a place like the Isle of Wight. Large events that occur here (Cowes week, the various music festivals) become inextricably woven into the fabric of local life, as a matter of course. Perhaps it can be related to the idea of alienation, so often remarked upon in urban environments?

Interestingly, as an aside to an aside. one example often used to illustrate the concept of a hyperreal place is Disneyland, and places like it. There is a (fictional) connection here, through the novel England, England by Julian Barnes. The book postulates a future where everything that is essentially and symbolically English has been removed to the Isle of Wight and re-assembled as a theme park of Englishness that is it's own sovereign state. A full discussion of this book (which I've been meaning to re-read anyway) would probably fit well on this blog, and is a definite idea for the future.

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