Existential, Relational and Spectacular Space

In a previous article on Conflict Narratives, we saw two areas of social exchange – the relational or experiential space (made up of direct involvement with events and other people) and the spectacular or universal space (made up of cultural and creative projections onto TV screens, into books, magazines etc. Essentially Spectacular Space is made up of shared, communal media).

It is the quality of direct, relational experience that one’s involvement is at its fullest; interaction is more complex, more subtle; body language, vocal intonation and facial expressions, the actual unconscious aesthetics of the event itself: clothing, architecture, the weather, smell and background sound all participate in producing the experience of the event. Spectacular Space, on the other hand, is by definition edited, incomplete space; a constructed, artificial narrative diminished in its possible channels of effect. TV for instance is primarily comprised of sound, image and the sensible progression of narrative patterns.

Most experience today is derived via Spectacular Space, not Relational Space. The spectacular however feeds back into and re-contextualises the relational in that our senses are primarily reorganised and orientated by Spectacular Space. It is media that extends our sensual faculties, some intensified, others left to atrophy. This primary relationship with media and information may be shown to have some notable effects:

  1. “When, in the wrong place, there’s something, that’s disorder. When, in the right place, there’s nothing, that’s order.” (Bertrolt Brecht, Flüchtlingsgespräche (Refugee Conversations))

    Media involvement (‘the right place’) confers on all real space a profound sense of neutrality. That is, in ‘real’, Existential Space, it is the norm that ‘nothing happens’. Conflict, drama, emotional involvement all appear outside the norm, and are agitated in Spectacular Space as the intensity through which that space acquires its resonance. When you read, nothing happens to you outside the book. This is ‘normal’. Everything happens inside the book – these events being abnormal. Thus, our momentary Existential Space is assigned a deep neutrality in order for Spectacular Space to function. This structure of monotonous order can be felt in Radiohead’s refrain ‘Everything in its right place. Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon’. A reflection on ‘the wrong place’ – sucking a lemon, bitter – dully represented in the even-keel tonality of ‘the right place’. The song functions by steeping the listener in hypnotic monotony before presenting them with a vaguely unbalanced image – like suddenly seeing an item you desire in a shopping mall.

  2. ”I was born to be famous, it just took some decades for the rest of the world to realise that.” (Russell Brand, Booky Wook 2: This time it’s personal)

    The Spectacular Space takes on ‘validating’ properties. If in the past there were citizens and non-citizens with varying degrees of existential emphasis, the same is true of our own age, yet here the distinction is between those who exist in Spectacular Space and those that observe it. It is not that Russell Brand (or Jordan for that matter) sought fame, but rather they sought social validity and existential emphasis through the universal and iconic spectacle. Two types of people: the demographic statistic (‘the viewer’) and the actor in the spectacle (‘the icon’). Brand, for all his screwing, could never have found a wife among viewing statistics, nor could he ever have turned his back on ‘fame’ (a grossly misleading term) in favour of ‘higher things’ had he continued to live himself as a statistic. In some respects, what he seeks today as ‘a higher meaning’ could be characterised in the same process – the highest screen is immortality through ‘art’ or ‘philosophy’; the intellectual stage of lasting cultural value. One’s art, one’s depth, one’s philosophy can realistically only ever be communicated relationally. One’s depth must and should exist in isolation to this sort of public or social validity. Brand’s ‘pursuit of the higher plane’ is therefore doomed to bounce around in the artificiality of performance irrespective of whether or not he has anything more than a symbolic value to his nature. In any case, this very shift in desire from fame, sex, drugs, rock star comedy and the dancing Dionysus to something of lasting cultural worth is telling of the endless consumer shortage in existential emphasis and their will to appearances.

  3. TV and abundant fiction amplify our sensitivity to narrative and through narrative we can enter the Spectacular even in our existential lives. When one sits down in a bar, one may emulate the slow-motion movements of a music video; when one leans against a bus-shelter, one may appear in one’s own mind as a model in a magazine; when one wears a ‘band t-shirt’, one materializes themselves in the spectacle of music and image. From Baudrillard:

    “In any case, the virtual camera is in our heads. No need of a medium to reflect our problems in real time: every existence is telepresent to itself. The TV and the media long since left their media space to invest ‘real’ life from the inside.” (Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime,pg 28).

    One finds this phenomenon everywhere. The early popularity of Barack Obama for example is perhaps due to the ease with which his autobiographical narratives slip into consciousnesss. Dreams from My Father is full up with auto-familliar scenes, auto-evocative through cultural repetition. ‘Issues’ and experiences over and over again represented as if they were appearing through the sentimental eye of a teen soap opera. The girl, Coretta, the only other black girl in his class who reminds Obama of ‘a different sort of pain’ is momentarily befriended by him. The scene concludes with Obama cruelly and clumsily rejecting her when a gathering group of sneering children begin to tease them. Scenes described this way demonstrate how the self has come to narrate and understand itself through the spectacle as much as it reveals how a particular recognisable structure can be used to communicate to the wider populace.

Spectacular Space and Relational Space are the wrong way around. We are validated in the Relational by the Spectacular. With the advent of the internet, the implosion of all media into ‘the real’, the disappearance of sex, women and masculine-feminine roles, the above has some significance for the whole future of behaviour and identity. Today, everyone can live on-screen and is driven to do so; everyone has the means to produce their avatar, become iconic, even see themselves as such without being so. Likewise, these same iconic narrative principles may be applied to lives lived out in the relational, existential moment. A politics of ‘the real’ has no business evaluating the lifestyle of simulation. The state of play is that these confusions will only increase, the blurring interplay between pleasure and pain, freedom and crime, the spectacular and the relational, a confusion for which no objective rule-set can be applied or even make sense of.


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