Society of the spectacle

It is a typical day on television in the society of the spectacle.  In one channel, we watch the honorable senators of the Republic gravely intone their deepest reservations about a document they regard as a watershed in the nation’s life.   In another, all eyes follow the country’s representative to the Miss Universe pageant when she trips and momentarily disappears from the screen.  From underneath the stage, as though in a rehearsed act, she gracefully bounds back like a bird on its first flight.

In yet another channel, game show hosts are in the middle of a bid for the unknown contents of a gift package.  As soon as the bid hits P10,000, a woman prematurely but firmly takes the cash, pleading an urgent need for money to buy medicine for a sick child.

Modern life, writes the poet and film-maker Guy Debord in his book “The Society of the Spectacle”, “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.  All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.  Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever.”

Passive spectators watch in awe as former basketball, TV, and movie idols deliver their spiels on weighty issues of national security and foreign policy.  They listen to the legislators’ voices and remark on their delivery, but they do not comprehend the arguments.  They throw long hard glances at their clothes and their faces, and, on this recognition, pronounce their courage, integrity and wisdom.

Outside the Senate hall, the camera pans a crowd of protesters.  It is an uncannily familiar sight: the same faces, the same banners, the same anger vented on a reporter’s microphone.  On a split screen, a clash between demonstrators and police is contraposed against the sober speeches of senators.  The speeches validate a decision about to be reached, one that takes no account of what those who are outside are saying or why they have come.  In just a few moments it will be over.

“Never before has censorship been so perfect,” Debord says.  “Never before have those who are still led to believe that they remain free citizens, been less entitled to make their opinions heard, wherever it is a matter of choices affecting their real lives.  Never before has it been possible to lie to them so brazenly.  The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing, and deserve nothing.”

Meanwhile, only God knows where Ms. Quiambao could have landed when she fell.  If she was hurt, she gave no hint of it.  Her perfect body bore no bruises and her poise concealed all embarrassment.  Her quick and graceful recovery has erased all traces of the fall.  Viewers would swear it did not happen at all.

And as the game show host counts the old woman’s cash winnings in thousand peso bills, reverently depositing ten of these on her palm, no one sees the long queues roasting in the hot summer sun from which she had emerged.   No one asks how long she waited, how she came, and what desperation and faith drove her and a thousand others like her to the TV station on this bright summer day.

‘The spectacle,” says Debord, “manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute.  All it says is: ‘Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.’   The attitude that it demands in principle is the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility.”

The day had not quite come to a close when Nature decides to stage its own spectacle:  first, from beneath the ground, a quick staggering jolt that registers 4.5 on the Richter scale, followed by lightning and thunderstorm, and then torrential rain.  A bolt of lightning rips through the quickly darkening sky and, at once, imperiously banishes all images from the city’s television sets.

The return to elemental reality is momentary.  By early evening, the world of the spectacle is back.  On the evening news, a  flow of images representing the day’s reality crawls once more across our screens.  The Visiting Forces Agreement has won.  Scores of demonstrators have been hurt.  An earthquake of tectonic origins has rocked Luzon.  And ominous thunderstorms greet the Senate action. Finally, on the representation of a Catholic bishop, no one will die by lethal injection.  Pablito Andan, a convicted rapist-murderer, has been granted a month-long reprieve by an executive decision.

Andan’s parents gratefully acknowledge the President’s generosity.

His lawyer, who could not save Leo Echegaray in January, is pleased. But the victim’s parents are distraught, begging the President to give them justice by allowing the man to die.  Their lawyer cries foul.  The crusaders against violence enter the picture, call a press conference and denounce the triumph of criminality.  And a couple of young congressmen warn the President against abusing the executive prerogative to grant reprieve.

We’ve seen it all before.  The same faces and the same voices. Truth claims resolved on television.  Guilt proven by repetition of the heinousness of the deed.  Everyone catches on with the only game in town: the game of appearances, of carefully crafted images.

“When the spectacle stops talking about something for three days,” says Debord, “it is as if it did not exist.  For it has then gone on to talk about something else, and it is that which henceforth, in short, exists.”


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