How the Society of Spectacle Has Taken Shape？
How the Society of Spectacle Has Taken Shape
by CAI Bin
Suzhou Vocational University
Front. Lit. Stud. China 2014, 8(2): 347；DOI 10.3868/s010-003-014-0017-1
When I was a primary school student in the early 1980s, I once saw a film called Today, I Rest, and it has left a deep impression on me ever since. In those days there were not many forms of entertainment, and the selection of available films was very small, so nearly every movie that was shown was capable of leaving a deep impression. The lead actor, Zhong Xinghuo, was still young at the time, and he was completely loveable in his role as a police officer. Because he kept performing one good deed after another on the Sunday he was supposed to have off, he kept making himself progressively later for a pre-arranged date he had with a certain woman. Ultimately the film had a happy ending, with the woman coming to understand the facts of the situation and having a change of heart. I can still remember, however, one of my relatives watching it there with us who didn’t buy into it, exclaiming, “What a joke—where can you find someone so great?”
At first I had been quite happy with the film’s positive, noble policeman, but this comment dampened my spirits. While I was in no position to refute my relative’s assessment, I still felt that both the film itself and the actors were pretty good. When I think back to it now, however, I start to have a better understanding of my relative’s doubts. I do believe that in this world there are actually many police officers who are happy and willing to do good deeds: there are certainly people who would, of their own accord, maintain the order of traffic and send accident victims to the hospital; there are certainly people who would take another person’s child to the emergency room; there are certainly people who would buy a ticket for someone who lost their wallet just as their train is about to depart; and there are certainly people who would help a peasant headed to town rescue his piglet if it fell in the river. The problem, however, is that it is quite unlikely that a police officer would come upon so many accidents at once—and it is even more unlikely that one of the people he helped would turn out to be his future father-in-law! This is probably what gave rise to my relative’s doubt.
My friends who work in literature and art would probably sneer at my superficial observation: taking all the possible plot twists and throwing them into the same story and the same character is obviously necessary for constructing a model person in a model environment—this allows art to not only spring from life, but surpass it. I don’t understand art, but I worry that if this perfect image were to take root in the hearts of the audience, when they once again turn to look at reality and find it to be not so perfect, they might see it as unreal. So while it is true that an image can give rise to life, perhaps it is sometimes also hard for the image to avoid destroying life.
My worries were later proven to be completely unnecessary, as the appearance of perfect police officers on the screen gradually decreased, while the images of police officers with personality, and thus humanity, have increased. Images of heroes who hurl abuses in the street and exhibit coarse behavior have increased as well, while violent action films from Hong Kong and Taiwan present an abundance of police officers who are gangsters and thugs. There are fat detectives like those played by Kent Cheng, and characters like Andy Lau in Infernal Affairs. In Project A, the deputy Zhen Sanhuan, played by Dick Wei, cockily says to Jackie Chan, “I’m a bad cop and you’re a good cop—it’s impossible for the two of us to coexist.” This sounds great: from ancient times good and evil have never been able to coexist, so when the entire city is filled with good cops, you will not only find that all good people are cops and all good deeds are done by cops, but also that there are absolutely no bad cops to be found. But when the media is flooded with images of careless, incorrigible, and unreliable police officers flood the media, as is the case today, it seems as if all the good cops have vanished into thin air.
Opening the newspaper, turning on the television, or getting on the internet nowadays, it’s easy to discover that not only are there fewer good cops, but that good government officials, scholars, teachers, and doctors have decreased as well. Whenever an unfortunate event occurs, the media will use an increasingly crude headline to inform you: the party at fault is not a specific person like Mr. Zhang or Ms. Li, but a kind of social identity or professional position. When some lecherous man exhibits improper behavior toward a woman, it’s not, I’m afraid, because his position as a “professor” or “bureau chief” has led him to complete some sort of unshirkable mission—it’s simply an ill-behaved, inappropriate man acting in a disgusting way.
In the society in which we place ourselves, we’re still far from a time of celebrating our peace and prosperity. Many things are still far from perfect, and in an era of increasing innovation, the media should be put to the utmost use. At every turn, however, this evil thing called the media puts all its energy into looking at the person’s position in society: a professor or a doctor is like this or that, a bureau chief or department head does such and such. In the din of the crowd, in which one thing can easily get painted as another, professors become morons, executives become clowns, and all positions which hold some amount of responsibility in society become the most likely to get a filthy name. The mud has been drained away but no fresh water has been brought in, the evil has been exposed but no good revealed—this has become the way of all sorts of media channels, single-mindedly pandering to and even provoking negative feelings in society. Consciously or not, they present us with a string of social spectacles in an endless succession of vulgar spoofs, setting up a false logic under the name of fairness and objectivity. Waving the banner of factual accuracy, they revel in reporting the most vulgar news. Today’s media suffers from a loss of basic human values, whether it be in its structuring of knowledge, its sense of social responsibility, or any other aspect. It has become a deformed freak birthed in the delivery room of culture. The bleak pictures of life portrayed in the media prevent mutual trust between people and cause them to withdraw into hopelessness. The media is supposed to report on and supervise society, but it must first focus on its own self-regulation and refrain from such fickle meddling. Today it’s one thing and tomorrow another, always seeking to exploit life-and-death struggles by creating all sorts of media spectacles for the target audience. This kind of injustice is often difficult for the public to clearly identity.
I must admit, when faced with the dramatic nature of media spectacles, I myself often get caught up in the commotion. Luckily, however, I still remember that old film I saw, so I know that what the media shows us is a ruined society which is just as unreal as the Sunday experienced by the police officer played by Zhong Xinghuo. The details themselves are not what’s unreal, but relying on these details alone is insufficient to illustrate the complete reality of the situation: thus, it’s nothing more than a sensationalized and valueless social spectacle. I have read in Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle that in modern life reality becomes a kind of spectacle, and the relationship between reality and the individual is no longer something that is directly lived, but rather something to be viewed, having retreated into a kind of accumulation of spectacles. Debord discovered that this move toward the spectacle changes both people and reality itself. “The ultimate meaning of the accumulation of spectacles,” he says, “lies in the thorough dissolution of the self into the reality that is depicted, and furthermore, the continuous reconstruction of reality according to the contents of the depiction.” He also points out that because the spectacle is separated from reality, it carries with it what may be considered to be inherent flaws—in addition to it’s own falsity, it is lacking in both history and logic. Media spectacles are certainly one manifestation of reality’s move toward the spectacle. When examined from this perspective, the problem becomes increasingly clear.
 Translated from Chinese by Todd Foley.