#19: Super Bad Feeling
This has nothing to do with Elon Musk
So this week’s newsletter will be a short one. I’ve spent most of the week working on this article:
I was surprised to get this gig because I’ve never done reporting before, except one time, in college. I dread cold calling. I don’t even like lukewarm calling. But now I’m realizing it’s kind of a rush. Once you start expecting to fail, everything becomes a win. I mean, sure, failure is a part of life blah, blah, blah. However, when concentrated, failure feels more like pumping iron. There are endorphins involved.
Anyway, I had less time than I expected to work on this newsletter and I haven’t fully articulated all that I want to say about this subject. But it’s the only thing I want to talk about. So, I’m going to try to articulate some of it here as a first step.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the Met Gala as a F A s H i O n f L O p and a few weeks before that about THE SLAP as the death of the (apparently Rasputinesque) hot take media cycle. And as a result, I’ve been thinking a lot about spectacle.
In Society of the Spectacle, Guy De Bord describes the Spectacle as “the visual reflection of the ruling economic order.” This includes but is not limited to mass media. The spectacle, he emphasizes, is all around us.
The spectacle is used to reinforce economic hegemony and is most recognizable in mass media and advertising. Consider, for instance, the way things like America’s obsession with true crime content and celebrity culture affect our perception of what society and our lives are like and what they should be like.
But spectacle also appears in the form of things like political theater:
Or security theater:
It’s ultimate purpose, however, is to keep the people in line:
De Bord says, “the spectacle is a permanent opium war designed to force people to equate goods with commodities and to equate satisaction with a survival that expands according to its own laws.”
But in the Internet age, we have constant access to spectacle, both as spectators and the spectated.
We become so deeply entrenched in the spectacle that we mistake spectacle itself for real change.
“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle,” De Bord writes.
So what happens when spectacle itself is commodified, when the spectacularity of the thing becomes its value?
When everyone has access to spectacle, spectacle ceases to have power. And yet, we are so dependent on spectacle for this very purpose that we continue to pursue spectacle as a victory in and of itself and once the spectacle is over with, we move on. It’s been just one week since the horrific tragedy in Uvalde, and we’ve already shifted focus to a trial that would have been inconsequential to the public at large were it not for its spectacularity.
“This time is different,” David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 Parkland High School shooting in Florida says, many times over.
One can only hope.
I am beginning to think that, as unmoored as we may feel at this moment, this disintegration of spectacle might be an opportunity for a personal “vibe shift” of sorts, away from outrage or that deep sense of helplessness that many of us feel in the immediate wake of mass tragedy, away from facile responses and the impulse to turn our heads toward every glinting object in our peripheral vision, and toward more integrated and deliberate responses to the issues of our time.
Here are a few spectacle-related essays that I’ve read this week.
“Escape from Dimes Square,” by Will Harrison in The Baffler
Whether we want to admit it or not, as we gracelessly make our way through a mass extinction event, we have more than “non-physical entit[ies]” to reckon with, more than online egregores…
Who is this destruction done for? It isn’t done for the residents of the public housing projects nearby, I can tell you that much. It isn’t done for the residents of Little Fuzhou either, or those on Shtiebel Way. Even if Bill de Blasio, who rushed to raze the park in his final days as mayor, claimed that it was done for the good of the city, to stave off the rising oceans that will inevitably devour us, it doesn’t take more than one glance to recognize that it is also one link in a seemingly endless chain of projects intended to sanitize lower Manhattan. Heading to and from Metrograph, I would stare up at One Manhattan Square, a nearly eight-hundred-foot-tall glass tower full of luxury condominiums that looks down upon Dimes Square. Transgressive politics or not, this is what the grim carnival of the neighborhood has gotten us: a shiny blue cheese grater full of oligarchs on the site of a long-gone grocery store.
“Trends are Dead,” by Terry Nguyen, for Vox
Trend brain operates on dichotomies: relevant vs. irrelevant, good vs. bad, buyable vs. unbuyable, cool vs. uncool. This mentality extends to how people perceive and react to the internet, where even a whimsical aesthetic can become a commodified status signal — a way to demonstrate that you’re a distinct individual who is in the know. With the mass decentralization of culture, even while platforms are becoming increasingly centralized, there’s no way for a sane person to keep up. The problem is, we’re told that we can. We’re told we must evolve to keep up or our digital personas will wither into irrelevance as our style grows stale.
And here we all remain: trapped in the throes of increasingly meaningless trends.
“New Idea Trending,” by Haley Nahman for Maybe Baby
There are five stages of a fashion trend. First there is introduction, then rise, then acceptance, then decline, then finally obsolescence. By the final stages a trend is “considered outdated and out-of-fashion by mainstream fashion wearers, who have moved on to newer trends in the introduction or increase stages.” Typically we don’t think of ideas in this same vein. We imagine them as cumulative or productive, as in the scientific process, versus cyclical and expendable. But imagine if someone published an op-ed tomorrow about an athlete’s right to not speak to the press. It would seem random and irrelevant, despite the fact that it was one of the hottest topics of debate last year following Simone Biles’s and Naomi Osaka’s withdrawals from competitions citing mental health struggles. What came of that, by the way?
Soup Season is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.