In introduction to his film ‘Hypernormalisation’, Adam Curtis says the following:
“We live in a time of great uncertainty and confusion. Events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control. Donald Trump, Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, random bomb attacks. And those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed – they have no idea what to do.
…what has happened is that all of us in the West – not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves – have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us we accept it as normal.” (Curtis, 2016)
Curtis’ style of filmmaking is to assemble footage from a wide variety of sources: news programmes, interviews, popular culture, in order to illustrate the unashamedly subjective story he is trying to tell. In approaching this assignment, I take this as inspiration, using current visual culture I will attempt to demonstrate the conflicting nature that faces us from the relentless media noise of modern society. In doing this I see many parallels with Guy Debord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle’ – although first published in 1967 this work appears both prescient and relevant to our image saturated, late capitalist consumer driven world. Debord saw the spectacle as the “everyday manifestation of capitalist driven phenomena: advertising, television, film and celebrity.” (Morgan and Purje, 2016) Using Debord’s text and examples recent examples from visual culture I aim to demonstrate this prescience.
“The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible. It says nothing more than “that which appears is good, that which is good appears. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply, by its monopoly of appearance.” (Debord, 2009: 4)
“The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.” (Debord, 2009:10)
In ‘No Logo’ (2000), Naomi Klein describes how from the cultural influence (and astronomical growth in wealth) of multinational corporations can be traced back to a management idea from the 1980s: “successful corporations must primarily produce brands as opposed to products.” (Klein, 2000: 3) For ‘pioneering’ businesses like Nike, Microsoft, Tommy Hilfiger and Intel producing goods became only an incidental part of their operations:
“What these companies produced primarily were not things…but images of their brands. Their real work lay not in manufacturing but in marketing.” (Klein, 2000: 4)
In frequently saturated market places, current advertising exists to establish, perpetuate and consolidate brand identity. Often it is a lifestyle that is sold rather than the product itself. An example of this is Coca-Cola – a product that has existed since the late 19th century, has consistently led the way in brand development and was rated the fourth most valuable brand in the world in 2016. (Badenhausen, 2016)
For their 2016 advertising campaign ‘Taste the Feeling’, Coca-Cola used fashion photographers Guy Aroch and Nacho Ricci to create slick image that appear both genuine and aspirational, described as “Norman Rockwell meets Instagram” a style which aspires to capture an authenticity that appears to feature unscripted moments in a contemporary way. (Nudd, 2016) These adverts present images that are youthful, fun, cool, diverse and sexy while all the time emphasising the positive effect the product is having on the lives and friendships of the people depicted through the omnipresence of the bottle of Coke each of the models are holding. The insinuation is blatantly simple: drinking Coke is the way to share this lifestyle.
“In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” (Debord, 2009: 4)
“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” (Baudrillard, 1995: 79)
2016 proved a most divisive and controversial year for news and current affairs where assumptions about the power of the media seemed to be both confirmed and refuted. Two high profile ‘shocks’ that were widely touted as not going to happen, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have led to much analysis of why the mainstream media appear to have got it so wrong. Much has been made of the impact of social media, fake news and a distrust of mainstream media outlets and politicians. The US election for example is now thought of as a rejection against the status quo – it appears that Hilary Clinton’s professionalism, credentials for office and carefully managed image are major reasons why she was not elected with a section of the electorate viewing her as the representation of the establishment and not representing them. Despite multiple scandals throughout the campaign concerning his views and previous misdeeds, outlandish pledges and an image that was frequently lampooned as ridiculous (comb over hair, orange complexion, badly fitting suits) Donald Trump projected an image of the ‘man on the street’, despite being anything but – one of the richest men in America. Attempts to dismiss his statements made with questionable basis on truth were attacked as conspiracies by the liberal media. Trump’s campaign actively capitalised on a distrust of politicians and the establishment as well as the uncertainty about what is true and what is not.
If it is true that image is all then how can the success of politicians such as Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage be explained?
In the UK concerns about immigration have been a major area of debate for some time, increasing in prominence over the last few years due to the worsening global; refugee crisis. In August 2015 David Cameron described a “swarm of migrants” coming across the channel for in search of a better life. While the comments drew much criticism for the way they dehumanised migrants and seemed to appeal to fear of the ‘Other’, there were also voices of support with newspapers such as the Daily Mail providing front pages with photographs purporting to prove that immigration was out of control. In September 2015, however, a shocking image of a dead child lying on a beach having died trying to flee the war in Syria was widely reported and another picture took the headlines and the mood suddenly changed to demands for intervention in the refugee crisis with many calling for Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene and grant immigrant’s asylum.
By October another picture made the front pages purporting to be of a potential child refugee seeking asylum who appeared to be an adult. Although there was much debate about the authenticity of the image with reports both that the pictured man was actually an interpreter and not an asylum seeker, the implication was clear – it important to support migrants only if they fall into the
category of deserving support and we must be constantly vigilant of those who wish to abuse our hospitality and trick their way in. The truth of the issue became less important than the ideological stance taken by various news outlets.
It appears that much of the current affairs reporting that is presented to us is both contradictory and unable to offer suggestions about what the correct course of action is. Confusion reigns with the ideological stand points of organisations displayed blatantly – the effect of which has been described as post truth.
“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (Debord, 2009: 2)
“Here’s me outside the palace of ME!
Construct a self and psychosis
Meanwhile the people are dead in their droves
But nobody noticed
Some of them noticed.
You could tell by the emoji they posted.” (Tempest, 2016: 22)
In an essay about the legacy of ‘Society of the Spectacle’, John Harris asserts Debord’s prescience:
“the book is full of sentences that describe something simple, but profound: the way that just about everything that we consume – and, if we’re not careful, most of what we do – embodies a mixture of distraction and reinforcement that serves to reproduce the mode of society and economy that has taken the idea of the spectacle to an almost surreal extreme.” (Harris, 2012)
The way social media has entered our lives, and it could be argued, has replaced experiencing life directly could be classed as this “surreal extreme.” Instagram, twitter, Facebook and the selfie all form part of how many of us project ourselves onto the wider world. In ‘Nosedive’, an episode from the anthology series ‘Black Mirror’, the logical progression of our society continuing to be obsessed by social media is satirised. In the apparently near future, ‘likes’ have become currency, a means of providing societal hierarchy and enabling conformity. In order to gain access (and importantly to continue to be able to use) services approval ratings must be maintained. Failure to do this means affects where you can live and work and who you can socialise with.
Some aspects of celebrity culture have embraced the selfie as a means of projecting their self image. A strata of celebrity who seems to be famous for being famous have emerged. Australian comedian Celeste Barber demonstrates the often ridiculous nature of these celebrity selfies through her Instagram account which shows how the pictures may have looked if made by a real person. It seems that image and images will only gain in currency going forward, compounding the need to live through the prism of technology rather than real lived experience.
When challenged about whether he simplifies complex reality to support his subjective world view, Adam Curtis replied:
“All reality is incredibly complex and chaotic. To make sense of it we have to tell stories about it – which inevitably simplifies. And that is what politicians – and journalists – do. What I try to do is to find new facts and data, things you haven’t thought about, and turn them into new stories. My aim is to use those stories to try and make the complexity and chaos intelligible.” (MacInnes, 2015)
When faced with the question what is reality? I find Curtis’ explanations here reassuring and positive – perhaps the only way to combat and possibly explain the complexity of the modern world is by engaging with it through art be it satire, social commentary or merely playful. The most dangerous thing we can do is believe there is only ever one reality and we also should not be too wedded to our own beliefs.
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