Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tuncel's Genealogy of the Spectacle

My New School colleague Yunus Tuncel has just published a groundbreaking book, Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle. This handsomely produced book (Eye Corner Press)  is important because Tuncel rehabilitates the spectacle from two species of opprobrium: social and aesthetic. Social, because, as Tuncel points out, modern authoritarian leaders have exploited mythic patterns and symbols in a crypto-populist way that the ancient world did not itself understand, but which tropes from antiquity provided a powerful substrate for their noxious propaganda, in which "myth becomes convoluted and confounded with nationhood" (77). Moreover, the absorption of the spectator in the spectacle (the two words interestingly aligned much as Paul Kottman, another New School colleague, has pointed out with respect to 'theory' and 'theater') has been unfashionable ever since the Russian Formalists, with their 'laying bare the device', and Brecht, with his "alienation effect." Really the idea of the spectacle today is confined, as Tuncel says, to the most banalized spheres, such as Disney shows and the Super Bowl. (Even in contemporary sports, the spectacle is being pierced, as in the case of Moneyball, one of whose effects is to 'lay bare the device' of what actually goes on in baseball, rather than to just look at the 'spectacle’ of on field play. Indeed, as a former student of mine showed in her senior thesis a few years ago, the behind-the-scenes quality of Moneyball (the book) had a plausible alignment with beyond-formalism quality  of many postmodern aesthetic theories. Tuncel, one of whose great interests is sports history, would presumably not take this aside too amiss--or the observation that, if they lived today, Aeschylus would be a Yankee fan, Sophocles a Met fan, Aristophanes a Cub fan, Euripides a Tampa Bay Ray fan. 

So spectacle needs to be rescued. How does Tuncel propose to rescue it?  In short, staccato bursts of argument--their aphoristic quality reminiscent of Wittgenstein, Pascal, or the Nietzsche of The Twilight of the Idols--Tuncel resuscitates the spectacle. Far from being reliable and absorptive, true spectacle is risky in its hypersensible self-sufficiency, ecstatic (e g. 'standing outside of', not just 'blissful') its existence as pure metaphoricity rather than something which seeks to refer, affirmatively or subversively to something else. Ecstasy represents a kind of lay spirituality, intense yet unmoored, fulfilling yet chaotic. Ecstasy provides the heedlessness that unbinds the spectacle from self-sufficiency. "Spectacle does not represent something outside itself, but is a unique occurrence in time and space" (67). Tuncel is anti- or post-Aristotelian; but not totally so. His 'unity of spectacle' (26) takes its place in the sundry alternate unities that have been employed to widen, but not entirely supplant, Aristotle’s theory of mimesis. But Tuncel does not want us just to stand in awe of the spectacle or murmur genteel or even not-so-genteel effusions about it. (It is this light that he strategically does not discuss the natural sublime, or any form of extra-human or extra-aesthetic spectacle). Getting back to sports, Tuncel reminds us that, in ancient Greece, spectacle and agon has an intimate kinship, as Greek theater and poetry were manifested in competitions, contended for prizes. In a way, today these two strands have been separated: when artists win prizes, it is only about money and cultural capital, there is no art itself in the winning of the prize, as opposed to 'that quantity which wins the prize'. That a spectacle is manifested as part of a competition renders irrelevant the most vexing aspect of the spectacle, its seeming inertness and impenetrability.

Another way Tuncel goes against the grain here is in preconceiving the theory of response to the spectacle, which since Aristotle has been a subject of considerable ambiguity. it is understood, for instance, that catharsis requires an audience to complete it, that it cannot just unfold in a mute artifact without an audience, like Keats' Grecian urn. On the other hand, though, few would want to label Aristotle an audience-response theorist; he is seen above all as a theorist of the work of the art-object as work. Tuncel, though, widens the sphere of effects from the conscious to the unconscious--thus in a way the thinker who can most explain the element of audience response in Aristotle is Freud--or at the very least Nietzsche. Tuncel indicates that a mediating factor between the unconscious and the conscious is what might be called the proprioceptive, an orientation of the spectator to the spectacle in terms of space and place. The theater or arena, Tuncel implies, embody an ideal mediation of these two factors: architectural spectacle, on the other hand, risks careening towards the unipolar, a conscious display of splendor and visibility, that evokes the name Tuncel, in a highly Nietzschean way, sues as his bête noire of bad spectacle throughout—the music of Richard Wagner. In the wake of the debate about the World Trade Center site and the highly visible role of architecture s trope for both mourning and national reassertion, this is a very needed reminder. Tuncel suggests we replace architecture in  our idea of the typical spectacle with the artistic movement—he proffers the example of Surrealism—that, whether or not its actual products operate in the mode of the spectacle (as Tuncel sagely recognizes all art does not), indicate in the public display of the very nature of art the most outstandingly brave aspects of spectacular manifestation.

What I like most about Tuncel's book is how he reminds us of the humility of the ancient Greek dramatists. Even what we might see today as something vaunting and narcissistic--that they competed for prizes--public-spiritedness and humility. Every time I teach Greek drama, my class and I struggle with how these works are so ‘universal’; without cliché, Tuncel comes very close to indicating why and how this is so.

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