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The Age of Spectacle
Connecting the dots of American Political Dysfunction
Claire—the essay below is a précis of a book by Adam Garfinkle about spectacles and their political consequences. I’ve cajoled him into publishing this and subsequent chapters of the book here at CG. I was particularly eager to share this because I agree with him: The phenomenon is highly significant and directly relevant to the rise of the New Caesarism.
By Adam Garfinkle
The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last act on May 21, 2017. But the larger truth is that the circus never left town. We love and will pay for a constant diet of attention-arresting displays: super high-tech, virtual reality fare that depends for its effect on offering us the sudden perception of the improbable. Manufacturing spectacle has become good and very big business, and a spectacle mentality has come to dominate American cognition. This fact explains, better than any alternative account, why even before the pandemic the United States’ political culture growingly approximated Lord of the Flies. US political culture may now be described as an addictive spectocracy—one where entertaining media depictions of events, dominated by images, seem more real and politically salient to Americans than the events themselves.
Other observers have called attention to the emergence of this mentality and noted its influence on American politics, but they have usually done so in passing, and they’ve not identified it as the central feature of our epoch. Until now, no one has connected our spectacle culture to the tectonic shift in mindset we are witnessing among We the People and our changed political behavior. Nor have they precisely defined the spectacle mentality in terms of its neurobiological correlates, notably the effects on brain chemistry of deliberately structured uncertainty.
A spectacle works by creating a sudden perception of something improbable. It evokes what some cognitive psychologists have called the “astounding complex,” that is, a profound challenge to someone’s understanding of reality. It’s what used to make circus freak shows so captivating. It induces the reaction, “Wow, you don’t see that every day.” Does that cow really have two heads, or is that some kind of illusion? The longer the uncertainty lasts, the more engrossing and alluring the spectacle. We will pay for this sensation—we will pay a lot—because we enjoy it. Spectacle, we now understand, has a profound effect on the brain, and the more improbable the spectacle, the larger the cascade of endorphins it produces.
But offerings from Ripley’s Believe it or Not have become quaint, as spectacle goes. Our affluence now permits us to enjoy spectacles enhanced by technology, and these are to Ripleys as fentanyl to opium tea. What’s more, we are constantly exposed to them. The amount of time we spend in front of screens is astonishing: During the pandemic, the amount of time American adolescents spent looking at a screen doubled to 7.7 hours, not counting the time they devoted to schoolwork. This is more than half their waking hours. People in technologically advanced societies now see more mediated images than real ones.
Spectacle, therefore, is no longer a moment of escapist fun in an otherwise workaday life. For most of us, it is a cognitive way of life to which we are completely habituated. The ramifications of this are enormous. When a spectacle mentality predominates, people will favor cognitive simplicity and the concreteness inherent to oral language, transient amusement to avocation, and superficial appearance to substance. Such a mentality now takes pride of place among Americans without a college education; but increasingly, our political class shares it. It has seeped deep into our political culture.
What are the consequences of this transformation? We inherited from the Enlightenment a relatively sophisticated positive-sum attitude toward public life and institutional order. This attitude has faded. American political culture is now defaulting to an older and cruder zero-sum view that renders a civil society founded on classical liberal principles—aimed at balancing the competitive and cooperative aspects of social life via subtle institutional design—impossible for many even to imagine, let alone sustain.
Three developments, layered together over time and accelerated by shifts in media culture and business models, have produced the spectocracy:
Rapid-onset affluence. Among key age cohorts, it has been essentially unearned.
Failed myth maintenance. The failure is particularly owed to our elite’s antipathy to teaching young people civics and moral reasoning.
The erosion of deep literacy. This, above all, is the key development. We have seen the stunning and rapid atrophy of a particular kind of literacy, even among nominally well-educated people.
Deep literacy is not the kind that takes place when you read a list, a bumper sticker, an advertisement, or the back of a cereal box. It refers to what happens when you engage with a serious essay or book, fiction or non-fiction, that requires you to engage in a multipartite dialogical relationship with an author, bringing your own stored intellectual resources and mature theory of mind to bear for the purpose. A chief of cause of accelerating deep literacy erosion is the cybernetic revolution, the downside of which remains largely unappreciated.
Unearned affluence has led, as it always does, to intellectual laziness, notably in the form of the preference for empirically unmoored and spontaneous abstractions over patiently examined facts, and a general decay of intellectual and moral standards. Work has declined in status. A vague notion of experience-as-value in itself has taken its place. The notion of politics as an avocation has been diminished, replaced by the notion of politics as a series of performative gestures. All of this, in turn, has produced an overweening sense of effortless entitlement among elites, a relentless drive to lock in their privileges for their offspring, and a keen corresponding sense of unfairness and envy among the less privileged classes, who have only grievances to pass down.
Failed myth maintenance has created a vacuum into which simpleminded ideas about governance and economics have flowed. Classical liberalism represents an achievement of the political arts emerging from the unlikely, indeed highly improbable, conjunction of secular and religious innovation when the Age of Reason, by coincidence, enmeshed itself with the Protestant Reformation. The result was something new and fine compared to the misanthropies of premodern governance, but something also delicate in that its appreciation and mastery required every generation to study it afresh. Study, in turn, requires literacy, and absent a certain minimal level of mass literacy, regressive pre-Enlightenment modes of thought will re-root. Apparently, they now have done so.
The spectocracy now gives rise to one after another example of the “reason of unreason” (in the words of Ortega y Gasset), mainly on the right, and the revenants of mythical thinking (recall Ernst Cassirer), mainly on the so-called woke left. This is because, when serious reading declines, important cognitive skills—such as the ability to understand symbolism and a facility with abstraction—decline with it. Without the ability to understand and manipulate abstract concepts, one cannot grasp (or master) complex and rapidly changing social realities. Lacking this, citizens are attracted by emotive oversimplifications and adolescent ideologies, and their political agency is all too easily hijacked by entrepreneurs who peddle the rhetoric of spectacle—e.g., “carnage.”
The rise of the spectocracy is directly related to the difficulty we are experiencing in teaching Americans how to understand their own government. (Not that other sources for the difficulty are lacking.) If you ask, you will find that many younger Americans believe, for example, that the government gives the people rights just as it gives them benefits, when of course it is We the People who give the government rights. It is increasingly difficult for them to understand that the Federal government is deliberately limited, with its power divided among three branches, so better to protect the people from tyrants, mobs, and avaricious majorities and permit the real business of life to proceed. These subtle ideas at the very heart of our constitutional design are nearly incomprehensible in a world where power is understood as a zero-sum struggle and the state the vital center of society from which all initiative flows. To know better one must be guided in reading about it, and so we come back to the erosion of deep reading.
According to recent Department of Education data, 54 percent of the American public cannot comprehend standard newspaper copy. Twenty percent are what the OECD judges a level-1 reader or below; that is, they may be able to puzzle out words, but for all intents and purposes, they are illiterate. They cannot understand, for example, the instructions written on a bottle of prescription medication. Some 130 million adults are unable to read a simple book to their children. The number of Americans classified as functionally illiterate is growing at the rate of 2.25 million a year. Only twelve percent of the public, according to the OECD’s Survey of Adult Skills, can now “integrate, interpret, and synthesize information from complex or lengthy texts that contain conditional or competing information.”
Meanwhile, one in three Americans say they are addicted to their screens. Surely the self-reported figure is not less than half the true figure. Screen addiction inflicts a different kind of cognitive and neurophysiological damage; it is not the same as the erosion of deep literacy, but the two phenomena are often found together. When screen addiction develops in a post-television public that never developed the capacity for deep reading in the first place, the groundwork is laid for the development of the illiberal, Caesarist, and populist personalities now eroding America’s liberal democratic traditions. Indeed, rightwing populism—in other democracies as well as in the United States—may be defined as mass mobilization in an electoral democracy that falls below a specified level of deep literacy.
The conspiratorial paranoia, stridency, and increasing vulgarity of rightwing populists in the United States testify vividly to the adolescent character of the phenomenon. These are people who can no longer distinguish a cognitive framework appropriate for fantasy video games from one suitable for navigating reality. Meanwhile, the energies of the woke cultural left call to mind premodern mythic religions, organized around primal conditions and subjective experiences of which three seem to be key: the presumed boundless fluidity of sex and gender roles, despite the biological fundaments of at least the former; fantasy storylines along Utopian “superpower” themes; and the reification of poorly-defined group identities that are understood to trump individual agency, if not free will altogether (a point of view incompatible with classical liberal political culture). Because they are para-religious and trans-empirical in nature, both right and left forms of this adolescent thinking discount facticity and normal rules of evidence.
When a zero-sum mentality is stewed in a cauldron of endless spectacle that has been enhanced by technology, it produces a cognitively impatient, gluttonous, and immature personality. Both the illiberal right and the illiberal left now display this. Personalities in the age of what Herbert A. Simon called the attention economy are drawn to performative dramas involving the exaggerated and extreme polarization of difference, a calculated incivility imported from the Jerry Springer Show, and the shameless subversion of truth. The goal of the performance is to grab as much attention as possible and keep it fixed upon oneself long enough to take it to the bank. American political discourse was already shot through with the language and techniques of modern advertising. Thanks to the twinned revolutions of spectacle and technology, this discourse has become a hypertrophied parody of itself.
On the right, at least, the vicissitudes of the spectocracy resemble a scam P.T. Barnum would have well understood: Elite entrepreneurs cater to and manipulate a mass of rubes for the sake of their own power and pocketbooks. On the left, the illiberal utopians preaching to the less well-washed appear to believe their own ideological psychobabble. It’s not yet clear which, in the long run, is the more dangerous. It is worth noting, however, as Daniel Boorstin wrote more than half a century ago: “When God wants to punish people, He makes them believe their own advertising.” They do; so there is hope.
Unearned affluence, elite failures at myth maintenance, and the erosion of deep literacy are separate developments. But they have over time reinforced one another, producing a perfect storm of cultural regression from written to oral modes of thinking. Orality privileges affect over reason, the personal over the civic, and right now over the day after tomorrow. This is the cognitive medium in which spectacle becomes not an entertaining diversion in otherwise workaday lives, but a dominant mentality that colors every aspect of life.
This is how we got here. It is shocking how many Americans believe the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, but even more shocking and much more serious are the number who claim to believe that a dark web video exists showing Hillary Clinton and Huma Abedin ripping off the face of a dead child and eating it for an adrenochrome fix, said to be the Satanist elite’s favorite. According to the canonical account, the video is called Frazzledrip and was found in Abedin’s husband’s computer under the directory heading “Life Insurance.” (Her husband, Anthony Wiener, is both strange and estranged.) In effect, such people believe that the power behind today’s ruling American elite is none other than Satan. In the dispensationalist, rapture-addled world of the neo-evangelical, Jesus amounts to Santa Claus for physiological adults; superhero narrative bad guys are so blurred with the image of Satan that you half expect him to whip out a light saber. Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, and their associates are bit players in a para-religious narrative of cosmic significance. Who would have predicted, half a century ago, that middle-class, hyper-consumerist boredom, magnified by the mesmerizing effects of screen-born spectacle for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, would produce such an effect? Think what this means: Large, or large enough, numbers of people have been moved to take political positions, and some even to storm the Capitol, based on their belief in the Satanic crimes shown in a video that does not even exist. This does not describe a good condition for a democratic political order to be in.
Most kids in this country once grew up to be adults. Now, thanks to the systematic debasement of reality by dint of affluence-enabled, mediated fantasy envelopment, a great many don’t. Many who were once adults have, thanks to their dumbed-down, preliterate media infosphere, regressed back to their 11-year old selves. We are witness to a mass-based, technology-propelled Benjamin Button experience, only it’s not the least entertaining to those not immersed in it. Not even Aldous Huxley could have imagined how seductive and intellectually demobilizing these fantasy amusements could be, nor even the sagacious Neil Postman half a century after him, armed only with the evidence of television. Don’t kid yourself; we’re in deep trouble, and we’ve done it to ourselves.
Past the turning point?
Beneath these three causal streams (yes, of course, there is another turtle down there) is the famous theory advanced in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic. Democracies, argued Plato, are obsessed with a too-narrow definition of ideal values; such narrowness tends to become a misplaced zeal to achieve radical, undifferentiated egalitarianism (i.e., Tocqueville’s Paradox), which, when it runs up against stubborn reality, leads to social division and disorder. Eventually, this generates a demand for authoritarian corrections. Plato saw democracy’s doom as fated, a natural part of the eternal cycle of birth and death. Even a genius like Plato could not foresee the rise of a liberal democratic order with a confirmed mechanism for self-correction. His insight nevertheless remains a relevant warning.
At the political level, institutional dysfunction devolves from the shift in our dominant culture from positive- to zero-sum thinking and from cognitive literacy to cognitive adolescence, not the other way around. That said, US institutional dysfunction, some of it inherent in the aging of our refined yet imperfect Constitutional order, reinforces the shift by appearing to validate the anti-Enlightenment zero-sum premise. Our governmental framework was devised before the Industrial Age, when most people lived in rural areas and worked independently along with their extended families. We now live more interdependent urbanized lives, typically working in a hierarchical structure in a factory or an office. Given such vast social and economic change, it is no surprise that the framework has been at pains to keep up. Such change has given rise, in American history, to four convulsive eras and closely following on them small groups of Constitutional amendments and other seminal legislation: the Civil War and the essentially failed Reconstruction; industrial capitalism and the Progressive-era reforms; the Great Depression and New Deal; and the one we are muddled in now that yet lacks a name.
“Social life takes up and freezes into itself the conceptions we have of it,” wisely wrote Erving Goffman, and that insight identifies the crux of the matter: The zero-sum, winner-take-all, illiberal conceptions we Americans are now busy freezing into our social life are inimical to the benign ones that made America the imperfect but laudable experiment it has thus far been. Americans as a whole used to prize open, honest debate; now what remains of the classical liberal center is sandwiched between book banning and cancel culture. Americans as a whole used to understand the need to strike a balance between a flawed foundation history and the struggle for a sustainable better future; now we seem vice-gripped between nostalgia for an ideal past that never was and an insistence on a perfect future that can never be.
Something has got to give when attitudes and institutions become so sharply misaligned, and we can already discern what, for the moment at least, is more likely to give way. When a former President proposes doing away with the Constitution so he can return to power—and almost no senior members of his party publicly condemn him for it—it is easy to see which way the wind is blowing. Fortunately, most of that party is both incompetent at governance and shockingly petty in their personal behaviors, as the truly bizarre failure of the 118th House has demonstrated by turning the routine election of a Speaker into yet another spectacle. One of their own, Dan Crenshaw, himself no paragon of virtue, put it plainly as he beheld the antics of the MAGA constituency: “They’re like children. This is such a childish attempt at gaining attention … petty attempts to gain notoriety. It’s unbelievably frustrating and they should be held accountable for it by the American people.”
They should, yes, but will they? Maybe. A case can be made, by optimists, that the political fevers we have suffered lately have broken at long last. If so, that would at least buy the rest of us time to banish the spectocracy to the circus, where it belongs. But color me dubious on that prospect, for the cultural predicates at work run silent but very deep.
Political agency is nonetheless real; the American people do still have the power to remake their future and reshape its institutional expression within the broad, flexible framework of our constitutional order. We will see if they rise to the challenge.
Adam Garfinkle is a member of the Cosmopolitan Globalist editorial board.