The Spectacle and the Living

In the day of the spectacle, paying deep attention is a radical act.

On this day in 1936, the Olympic Games opened in Berlin. Adolf Hitler presided over the opening ceremonies. He had gone to great pains to outdo the Los Angeles stadium of 1932, building a track and field stadium to seat 100,000 spectators, among other impressive arenas. It was the first televised Olympics, the first torch relay, and the Nazi Chancellor saw the games as a tremendous opportunity to promote his nationalist agenda.

He didn’t speak of killing or deathcamps. He just made sure that Jewish athletes were barred or otherwise prevented from competing. He tied the image of the noble and beautiful athlete to state power and his voice to high-minded ideals invoking language of unity, proclaiming, “The sportive, knightly battle awakens the best human characteristics. It doesn’t separate, but unites the combatants in understanding and respect. It also helps to connect the countries in the spirit of peace. That’s why the Olympic Flame should never die.”  It’s fair to assume that if he couldn’t stir millions with invocations like this, he wouldn’t have been in a position to orchestrate the terrors that followed. With this in mind, it’s worth considering and reconsidering what moves us, in order to notice who and what gets erased when the primary motivating impulse is grandiosity.

After the games, the Olympic Village was repurposed for use by Nazi armed forces, as a camp, an infantry training school, and a hospital. Because of World War II, there would not be another Olympics for twelve years.

Also on this day, in 1981, MTV began broadcasting. The first video to be aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star” from The Buggles, featuring these famous lines:

In my mind and in my car

We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far

Pictures came and broke your heart

Put the blame on VCR.

The line of connection is the power of the image. It calls to mind Marshall McLuhan’s reminder that “The medium is the message,” and it’s worth noting the relevance, considering the diverse anxieties of living in an age where the speed and proliferation of messages is so omnipresent. Many a would-be dictator has benefited from the reality of censorship through noise. From the standpoint of anyone doing creative work: of art, education, growth, a movement–– sheer noise is one of the chief weapons of the anti-life force of the machine that works to prevent this growth. Soul and species survival, in this era, necessitates certain questions: what invisible truths are living behind what is projected in this moment? Who and what is not featured? Who and what is erased? 

Erasure is diffuse and happens most effectively when it can go undetected. Any ecosystem that supports the systematic erasure of certain life forms above others is by nature unstable in ways that threaten the entire ecosystem. Where certain lives are systematically erased, all lives live under constant surveillance and threat of erasure. It’s one thing to talk about fighting for life, about defending the threatened, but the problem with this rhetoric is that both invoke the same tired images of victory and conquest that support the erasure at hand. We can’t defend what we’re not noticing. To look well and deeply is an act of courage and humility. So is listening. 

Also on this day, Carlton Douglas Ridenhour was born in Queens, NY. He would later adopt the stage name Chuck D., form the group Public Enemy in 1985, and rise to international fame while delivering a call to social consciousness and resistance against the forces of state-sanctioned violence and racialized social control. In the summer of 1989, the group released “Fight the Power” with this timely message:

You say what is this?

My beloved let’s get down to business

Mental self-defensive fitness

Don’t rush the show

You gotta go for what you know

Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

Lemme hear you say

Fight the power

In an age of senseless invisible killing on a global scale, with the stakes as high as they have ever been, the act of paying attention becomes a radical act. It’s tempting and gratifying to the ego to invoke the same tired images of the fight, the raised torch, the path to victory.  But the spectacle is not in service of life. The spectacle, as employed today, is generally in service of another agenda. Spectacle in and of itself is not necessarily the problem, but it’s not the solution, either. You could argue that the lyrics above, powerful as they are, are part and parcel with spectacle.  

A spectacle designed to move people to resist corrupt power systems, in a world of spectacle, is important and necessary, but the real work is deeper. Children, for example, who need lots of care, will celebrate the wild, crazy uncle that comes to visit every so often, who raises them high in the air, gives piggy-back rides, speaks in funny voices, and feeds them candy before leaving. The kids are reaffirmed with a sense of magic and possibility, but they’d likely be in danger if they were left solely in his care. The care is the slow, unglamourous, painstaking work of the sleep-deprived parent, day in and day out, one ordinary moment at a time. 

What to do with these torches, these stirrings to victory, the way they are all wrapped up in our idea of transcendence? A good symbol is better repurposed than neglected. One suggestion may be, to bring the torch lower–– maybe to the level of the campfire.  To create a space for the opposite of spectacle, where the quiet magic lives, so real we can almost miss it. A place of listening and sharing, under the common sky, unified by a sense of being small beneath it. And against all the spectacles of false strength, to recognize a common fragility, and a call to protect what needs protecting, not with the posture of a blowhard pretend strongman, but through the patient, slow-moving, and restorative acts of the nurturer.

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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