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PSY 355 Psychology & Media in the Digital Age

This page was last modified on April 6, 2021

Society of the Spectacle

Different types of spectacles within cultures tend to reinforce the basic values of that culture.
[Roman Gladiators]

[Chariot Race]Ancient Roman spectacles included (Cartwright, 2013)


·   Chariot Races (“ludi circenses”)

·   Gladiator Contests (“munera”)

·   Wild Animal Hunts (“venatio”)

·   Triumphs (“triumphi”), Processions (“pompae”), and Re-enacted Naval Battles (“naumachia”)

·   Theatrical Performances (“ludi scaenici”)

·   Public Executions (“summum supplicium”) including crucifixions, burnings, and being thrown to animals.


These forms of entertainment helped to provide an “audience with an escape from the boredom of their daily routines” (Coleman, 1990, p. 59)

Frequency: Under Augustus (emperor 27 BCE-14 CE), public entertainments were presented on 77 days of the year; by the reign of Marcus Aurelius (emperor 161-180 CE), the number of days had expanded to 135 {W}

Roman values in the spectacles

Spectacles in Christian Europe

Notre Dame    Lucerne

Religious pageants & processions: Feast of Corpus Christi ("Body of Christ") in June, Carnival/Mardi Gras in late winter, Easter, local feasts of the saints in individual villages, towns, & cities

Church architecture as offering vivid sights for people who otherwise lived in plain homes

Christian values in the spectacles
  • God's Glory & Majesty
  • Divine work via Jesus Christ within human lives: salvation, redemption
  • Hierarchy in society

Spectacles in the 20th Century

The Nuremberg Rallies (Nazi Germany, 1933-1938)

                      Soldiers Nuremberg

Cathedral of Light, 1937, Nuremberg
Triumph of the Will poster

  • "The Cathedral of Light was a main aesthetic feature of the Nazi Party rallies in Nuremberg starting in 1933. It consisted of 130 anti-aircraft searchlights, at intervals of 12 meters, aimed skyward to create a series of vertical bars surrounding the audience. The effect was a brilliant one, both from within the design and on the outside. The cathedral of light was documented in the Nazi Propaganda film Festliches Nürnberg, released in 1937”  [https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/nazi-rally-cathedral-light-c-1937/]
  • Triumph of the Will (German: Triumph des Willens) is a 1935 Nazi propaganda film directed, produced, edited, and co-written by Leni Riefenstahl. It chronicles the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, which was attended by more than 700,000 Nazi supporters” [Wikipedia, 20210405]
    • The film showed German military power & strength: eagles & Swastikas: reminiscent of the Roman Legions from the ancient world.
    • Emphasis upon the unity of the German People: everything shown in perfect alignment, marching in identical step
    • Showed many Germans in peasant clothing and costume linking the Germans of the 1930s with their ancestorss
    • Torchlight processions as reminiscent of medieval celebrations in German cities and towns

Victory Parades in Red Square (Moscow, Soviet Union; 1945 and after)

For many years from May 1945 onward the USSR celebrated victory over Nazi Germany (until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991). These celebrations involved major military parades in Red Square, the enormous plaza (230 by 1,083 feet) in front of the Kremlin, the seat of the government, in Moscow. Thousands of Russian soldiers and sailors marched in perfect formation while military equipment, including new ballistic missiles, rolled through the square as government and military officials watched from the Kremlin Wall.

1945 Parade
                      Parade Missile
1970 Missile
1945 1960 1970

In May 2019 Russians witnessed one of the most elaborate Victory Day Parades in Red Square, an event broadcast on Russian television networks which showed President Putin, military heroes of the past, and ordinary citizens watching an almost endless stream of soldier and sailors. It was billed as the "74th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945".

Many soldiers
Old heroes Marching soldiers

These Moscow Victory Parades--grand spectacles in a hallowed space--have reflected multiple values of Soviet and Russian culture and history including
  • national strength and determination
  • honoring the role of countless "ordinary" people in achieving victory
  • strong historical memories of the sacrifices the nation endured in the war (over 20 million Soviet citizens died)

The Spectacle in Contemporary Society

Guy Debord argues that today we live in
a 'media and consumer society, organized around the production and consumption of images, commodities, and staged events" (Kellner, 2003). Such a society is
  • strongly connected to the notion of separation and passivity ("For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a "permanent opium war" (#44) which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life -- recovering the full range of their human powers through creative practice" Kellner, 2003) and,
  • uses "the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialized media culture" (Kellner, 2003)

Values of contemporary society

  • Competition
  • Winning
  • Success
  • Wealth & Money
  • Leisure

Spectacles todayMajor Examples of Spectacle in today's world (Kellner, 2003)

  • Sports (Olympics, World Series, Super Bowl, March Madness-NCAA Basketball)
  • Sports Stadiums: filled with electronic reproduction of the action & advertisements. Both professional sport teams and, even, high school football, e.g.,
    • Cy-Fair FCU Stadium — Cypress, TX ($80 million, 11,000 seats, 2006)
    • Legacy Stadium — Katy, TX ($70,000, 12,000 seats, 2017)
    • McKinney ISD Stadium — McKinney, TX ($70 million, 12,000 seats, 2018)
    • Eagle Stadium — Allen, TX ($60 million, 18,000 seats, 2012)
  • Film (Glamour, fashion, excess)
  • Comic Books & Films (heroes, fantasy figures of power: today transformed into major Superhero film franchises such as Spider-Man, Batman, Captain America, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers, Wonder Woman, X-Men, Black Panther, Luke Cage, etc.)
  • Television (sports, election coverage, "reality" TV, competitive shows, sex-dating shows)
  • Pop music (glamour, beauty, sexuality)
  • Musical Concerts as extravaganzas
  • Video & computer games
  • Eroticized & Merchandised Sexuality (soft & hardcore porn in multiple media)
  • Politics (campaigns, governing as continued campaigns...; see Question #2 below)
  • Terrorism (9/11, "shock & awe" bombing, ISIS, Boko Haram...) 

Celebrity Wealth 2021  Celebrity Income 2020

   Here are three questions to ask about Spectacle in the Contemporary World:

  • 1. Do you agree or not that the major values in our world today are competition, winning, success, wealth & money, and leisure? If not, what other values do we have in our culture that are equally or almost equally important?
  • 2. Does the notion that spectacles are very important to people today help you understand how our political culture works? Can you think of ways in which political figures use spectacle to attract support from voters?
  • 3. Is it possible that the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and other forms of psychological distress in today's world are related to or made more painful because people who watch spectacles compare themselves unfavorably with what they see?