So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.

Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 21

One of the small counties I visited in Oklahoma, LeFlore county, raised around $320,000 just after Katrina hit. LeFlore county is an incredibly poor place, and I was shocked that they raised nearly as much as the efforts at the nearby Minnesota State Fair. Ft. Smith Arkansas took in around 9,000 refugees when the only resource they had was an old military base, Ft. Chaffee, with buildings that lacked the most basic amenities such as air conditioning. After the first wave of refugees, they stopped processing paperwork because the task was just so overwhelming. They had to stop accepting donations of clothing and materials because there was no way to process the generosity of the people in Western Arkansas/ Eastern Oklahoma. In the end, they could only ask for home-cooked meals to be delivered and bodies that could help serve them. They needed help, not words or pictures.

It’s hard to turn off the specular stream on TV. It was almost a week before I heard a single “historical recap” of the events because the events were happening so fast. CNN looped twenty-second clips over and over, but these clips had little staying power. Unlike the collapse of the WTC with its signature plumes of smoke, or the toppling of statues in Iraq, there were no singular images that could approach the impact of Katrina. This disaster lacks any real unity of image, and perhaps highlights the artificial nature of these manufactured “signature images.” It seems as if the public has been slapped with an actuality beyond image that defies any general sense of truth. It’s not a spectacle; it is truly a disaster.

The concept of spectacle brings together and explains a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena. Diversities and contrasts among such phenomena are the appearances of spectacle—the appearances of a social organization of appearances that needs to be grasped in its general truth. Understood on its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the dominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance. But any critique capable of apprehending the spectacle’s essential character must expose it as a visible negation of life—as a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself.

Debord, The Society of the Spectacle 10

Unlike most of the man-made disasters of the last decade, this natural disaster has not succumbed to any invention of a visual form. Its actuality cannot be denied.

2 thoughts on “Spectacle”

  1. If there is any one image that I can’t seem to shake it’s the crowd of people yelling help at the top of their lungs for what seemed like hours.

  2. I didn’t actually see this clip, but I read about it: that rude guy on Fox News, O’Reilly, noting that you can’t depend on public services to evacuate you in an emergency, and I agree, you can’t. I hope now we can have some meaningful public discourse on whether we the people would like to change it. We were all watching the news the other night, my son and I and my WW-II generation parents, and feeling sorry for the poor souls who had the made the lethal mistake of trusting their elected leaders to rescue them. My mom said “I suppose they were waiting for the buses” and my dad said, “I wouldn’t wait for no bus, it might not come. I would have started walking, or rolling my wheelchair if I was in one, and got as far inland as I could.” They were kids when the Depression hit. They know what it was like to get no help (the social services we take for granted today were instituted in response to the Depression, they weren’t around when it began). I hope those old folks start speaking out, telling what it was like back then, so people can make an informed decision about whether they really want to go back to those days.
    Whew. Sorry about the long-winded remark.

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