“During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. It used to pay very well to stage such great performances under one’s own management, but today that is quite impossible. We live in a different world now. At one time the whole town took a lively interest in the hunger artist; from day to day of his fast the excitement mounted; everybody wanted to see him at least once a day; there were people who bought season tickets for the last few days and sat from morning till night in front of his small barred cage;”
— Franz Kafka
— A Hunger Artist
“The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious
— Guy Debord
— The Society of the Spectacle
The Geek at the circus has faded from memory. You can watch modern iterations of the tradition when some network or another devotes airtime to someone who has locked themselves in a box, or atop a tower, where they are exposed to the elements in a test of duration.
The most recent version of this, albeit without the voyeurism being marketed as the primary point, is Tom Cruise and his Mission Impossible Franchise.
The most recent edition has just been released to glowing reviews and full saturation marketing. This includes a rotating set of scripted, faux interviews, in which members of the cast appear on chat shows to promote the film and Cruise.
A consistent aspect of this marketing is to highlight the fact that Cruise does his own stunts, that the stunts are extremely dangerous, and that, Cruise feels doing his own stunts establishes his commitment to the audience. That is, he is risking his safety if not his life, as a type of currency and that the value of it is a testimony to how much he appreciates the audience. They in turn are expected to watch his films because they are entertaining, and their value as entertainment lies ultimately in the fact that he may die while making the movie. This is the transformation of value into the unstated possibility of the spectacle of death. Cruise is marketing the possibility of his death as having (or being of) intrinsic value.
That the film has been released is used as a prop to assuage anxiety (which is derived from guilt which is caused by the fact that Cruise is producing a large scale potential snuff film) and discussion of Cruise’s possible injury or death, in the tautological sense that, since the film is being released it is proof that he survived.
This is evasive. What goes missing is that Cruise, and the corporations behind him, and the media which is invested in turning a profit from Cruise Incorporated, are all now essentially hyping the possibility of his death as means to turn a profit.
Hints of this are revealed in certain chat shows. Jimmy Kimmel is, so far as we can tell, the only one of the chatters to address the issue more or less directly, by aking co-star Henry Cavill if Cruise is not in fact, insane.
The answer of course is yes, but no one is going to say that publically, at the level of a national or internationally syndicated chat show. Not only would it damage the product (Cruise) but it would force a confrontation with the way in which the system is cannibalizing itself.
Cruise has said himself that as a child, he was consistently doing things that risked serious injury or death, such as jumping off a roof.
This tempting of death is actually a theme throughout his films. All Cruise films follow the same template. The social climbing man-child commits either a private sin of betrayal, or a public sin of betrayal or both in one gesture, which then requires an act of redemption that restores both his sense of responsibility, or social commitment or both.
In other words, all Tom Cruise characters are Maverick.
Something similar is at work in Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic Christ-martyr films, reaching their peak in the torture porn of Braveheart, and the doctrinaire anti-Semitism of The Passion of the Christ, which is repeated in mufti in Apocalypto.
Cruise being less messianic and more of a good natured bro, is also following a personal arc of redemption after a series of professional public missteps. Unlike Gibson whose transgressions involved drugs, alcohol, and baroque displays of racism, Cruise’s self-inflicted wounds were the result of being manipulated by Oprah Winfrey and getting into a public spat with the odious Matt Lauer.
Forgotten now in the wake of Cruise 2.0 and the successs of the MI films, Cruise gave, at Oprah’s insistence, a performance deigned to achieve everyone’s satisfaction.
For Oprah it was to poke the monkey to dance for the audience, and provide an extravagant display of simplistic joy, suited for her mile wide inch deep audience’s sense of complexity. In other word: show us love, show us romance. This was meant to capture those feelings as a form of display or product/commodity for the social climbing social aspirants that comprise the core of the cult of Oprah.
For Cruise it was yet another opportunity to get attention and approval. To commodify his identity as being both producer of Tom Cruise and also the genuine article. This doubiling is a hallmark of what Debord described in, The Society of the Spectacle.
“The spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.”*
And this crucial aspect:
“Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live.”
Except of course it became a moment in which the performer and the individual blurred, and the moment on Oprah’s couch morphed into a Tom Cruise movie, in which the control collapsed and the product/star had to scramble to repair the breach through which the anxiety of the truth had leaked. He had a “public humiliation” (which was not really, in the scheme of things, that much of a humiliation though it was treated as if he had barfed in Oprah’s lap) and then he had to rebuild himself.
Lauer of course has gone down in flames, and redemption however sincere or manufactured, will be years in the making if it happens at all. He has been consumed by the system and consigned, ala Dante, to a specific ring of contemporary hell.
Cruise is now a kind of too big to fail corporate entity. The Mummy bombed but who remembers it? And even if it’s remembered the corrupt corporate symbiosis between the media and Cruise Inc will see to it that like an exiled former politburo member, it will be excised from the record.
And so now we have the, They Shoot Horses Don’t They atmosphere in which the possibility of a public death has become a commodity.
This is clearly a pinnacle of depravity; a peak moment in the fever dream that is the end phase of capitalism. It is distinct from other hellish events in which the system rolls out industrial scale savagery (like Vietnam or the war on drugs or the implosion of the Middle East and Afghanistan which are sold in essentially the same way detergents or clothes are sold) in that it is presented strictly as entertainment; devoid of any political issues it is strictly speaking, the voyeurism of death as spectacle within the wider spectacle of mass entertainment. In other words, a postmodern bread and circus act.
As the often truculent Baudrillard has it: “All the media live off the presumption of catastrophe and of the succulent imminence of death…Anticipation of effects, morbid simulation, emotional blackmail.”
In other words, if it bleeds, it leads.
Stars performing their own stunts is not new. Douglas Fairbanks, Gene Kelly and Steve McQueen did the same thing, but the exposure was far more limited and the hype it received was curtailed. Though it existed within the overarching exploitation of the system, it was not the fulcrum.
In a sense this is what Paddy Chayefsky was describing in Network, when Faye Dunaway’s corporate harpy wanted cameras to record, and follow the domestic terrorists from their “show” to their crossover into another “show” where, live on air, they murder Howard Beale (Peter Finch) the existentially tormented prophet of the evening news, and the nation’s collective nervous breakdown.
For Cruise this is an act of redemption in which, precisely because he is risking his life, he is proving his sincerity. For the audience it is a moment to pretend they are not decadent and depraved users, and part of a parasitic system that is eating itself. They can assuage their anxiety by repeating that since the film has been released, all the stunts (a priori) worked out as planned – risky yes, but in the end, successful and part of the thrill. But the true arrangement lies in waiting to see if in the next Perils of Pauline, Cruise, while filming his next spectacle, will die or be maimed.
As a sacrament Cruise offers the best of all worlds. The lure and appeal of death, wrapped in the unspoken eroticism of pain and risk, and the sacrament of America – money.
Kimmel came close to the unspoken when he expressed a sense of anger about all of it, but of course marketing must silence honesty.
But now as with capitalism itself, Cruise is locked into a terminal trajectory. Having risked his life on the side of a building, and mountain and a helicopter and in assorted other ways ranging from motorcycle accidents to explosions, he must either break faith or up the ante and the risk. This is the artificial scarcity of capitalism transferred to a human being.
Volunteering to run the risk of death, or being maimed as a measure and reflection of entertainment, is the essence of decadence, and speaks to the inherent corruption of a system that is built on a foundation of selling life with the same ease that one sells a car, or a pair of shoes.
The issue now is will you hand over the cash and enter the tent, and wait to see if death triumphs; are you going to fuck the whore, or pay to have the whore fuck you.
The pimp of capitalism of course doesn’t care.
What matters is the cash and the spectacle.
But that begs another question: What matters to you?
Are you a circus Geek or not?
*Debord was writing in 1966-67. While mass media was already a concern there were still a dozen newspapers in New York. Within a few years most would be gone and the monopoly of the state and the ruling class (really one in the same despite claims to separation) would be well on its way to controlling the media as a single, homogenized entity.
Debord was of course part of a vast set of responses and criticism. Consider the scene in A Hard Day’s Night where George accidentally wandered into the office (lair) of a marketing thug and is asked if he is, the next big thing?
Or consider the lyrics to, Satisfaction which had been released two years before Dabord’s book. More importantly recall that the B side to the single with Satisfaction was a song called: The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man.
Contrast Debord’s idea of the Spectacle with Foucault in Discipline and Punishment:
“Our society is not one of spectacle, but of surveillance; under the surface of images, one invests bodies in depth; behind the great abstraction of exchange, there continues the meticulous, concrete training of useful forces; the circuits of communication are the supports of an accumulation and a centralization of knowledge; the play of signs defines the anchorages of power; it is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies.”
The first response would logically be to ask why these are mutually exclusive positions? There is no reason that the creation of the “individual” through surveillance can not be a form of spectacle. Additionally since surveillance is a function of the system – of the state – it is possible to define it as a spectacle or an instrument of creating spectacle.
Consider the collaborationist mantra in defense of mass surveillance: If you have nothing to hide, why would you object.
Technically rendered in the form of a question it is in fact not really a question but an assertion of ritual and its power. The individual ceases to exist and instead is part of the collective under the perpetual eye of the state but also, following on from that, and through the elimination and negation of the interior and private reality, the individual-as-part-of-the-collective becomes a spectacle. Foucault inverts this process to say the negation that is integral to surveillance eliminates the spectacle.
We view it as a process that is repeated constantly. Every act of mass surveillance requires perpetual compliance and that is a form of the spectacle. All exchanges are commodified and become assertion and surrender; the individual participates publically in surrendering their autonomy to the hive, thus all exchanges of power (subordination can only exist as the reverse of domination thus they co-exist and are always symbiotic) serve to reaffirm the power of the system. This is the very essence of the Spectacle.
Context is important here as Foucault was writing in an era when it was still possible (permissible) to disappear. An individual could simply walk away and vanish from the screen of awareness. Now obviously with the ubiquity of state surveillance and the tyranny of perpetual tracking through cameras, government and corporate surveillance via electronic slave manufactured devices, it is all but impossible.