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  • Writer's pictureDave Stanley

English 876: Week 5-Disrupt the Spectacle

Discussion Question:

This week, we have continued our investigation into SI by looking at interventionist films of the Lettrists (Isou), ambitious urban games of Constant, and specific instances of the disruption of spectacle through detournement, and various other forms of intervention. We’ve also discussed contemporary capitalism’s resilience to such forms of resistance through absorption and co-optation. Follow up on a few of these threads through the analysis of a specific person, incident, campaign, tactic or artifact. Feel free to explore other issues associated with SI, such as psychogeography and the “derive


The spectacle is difficult to disrupt, and even more difficult to change in any meaningful way. One need only point to the 2016 presidential campaign to see spectacle, in the guise of disruption, and how it has been co-opted by the most blatantly capitalist politician in recent memory. I wonder how much power ridicule and mockery can have to disrupt the spectacle, when those have seemingly become tools of state, even beyond the president. Maybe temporalality is the problem, and what we need to focus on is how the demagogues of old have maintained their mythical posthumous power, or had it stripped away.

Video Essayist Lindsay Ellis writes about Mel Brooks and his attempt to rob Adolph Hitler of posthumous power through mockery. While films like American History X, A Time to Kill, Green Room, Green Book, and many others, both represent (often) successful deconstructions of white supremacy myths, while also providing numerous scenes that, when taken out of context, demonstrate the power and agency of those acting in this way. Seeing Edward Norton in American History X covered in tattoos, with rippling powerful muscles, does not, in isolation stand to disrupt the spectacle in a useful way. Instead it re-creates and reinforces the spectacular power these images have. Alternatively, Mel Brooks constant mockery of Adolph Hitler as being totally absurd, and only laughable, denies even decontextualized, or to borrow from Barthes, Mythic, representations from being used, divorced from their greater intentions, meanings, and contexts.

Image Credit: "American History X" by Tony Kaye

The moment that a work of media crosses the line from openly mocking an ideology, to representing it as powerful, even if it intends to fully deconstruction and repudiate it, the gates are opened to the co-opting of that representation. And yet, capitalism finds new and ever growing ways to reclaim and stake ownership and acceptance even the harshest ridicule. I think of the discourse surrounding Brooks most infamous film Blazing Saddles which sought to ridicule the racist in the most obvious way it could, and has yet become something of a rallying cry of the alt-right against PC culture. Many times the phrase "you couldn't make Blazing Saddles today" echos from the depths of 4Chan, implying that it was not Brooks satire, but older political standards that made it "acceptable" for that film to use a racial slur. A sort of "if they did it, why can't I" mentality. This attitude has invaded the deepest levels of politics, to the point that many main stream news anchors and politicians ask that same question, while never understanding the significance behind the answer.

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