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spectacle, geography of

  A social or cultural event, usually of a temporary nature, attracting a mass audience through its dramatic and sensuous staging. The term is typically attached to heavily imagineered and marketed events such as cultural festivals, world\'s fairs, the Olympic Games, and other sports jamborees, but may be extended to permanently staged sites such as theme parks or other places of mass leisure. The labelling of a spectacle is not a neutral designation, but is frequently part of a larger negative critique of the marketing of consumption in the theoretical realm of postmodernity (Harvey, 1989; cf. consumption, geography of).

There is a certain irony to this theoretical niche for the spectacle, for key events such as the Olympics and world exhibitions were firmly established during the last half of the nineteenth century, the era of modernity, while Disneyland, the most referenced site of postmodern spectacle, derives from the postwar period of high modernity. Authors such as Brantlinger (1983) have reminded us that the work of the spectacle may be traced back several millennia to the courts of kings and emperors. The theoretical history of the concept is equally promiscuous. Allusions to the spectacle were made prior to the 1960s by members of the Frankfurt School, while the most influential exposition by Guy Debord was developed in avant-garde media during the 1950s and 1960s, although the English translation came later (Debord, 1973). It was Debord who most forcefully rendered the spectacle as the site of false consciousness, an expansive empire inducing political slumber, that made contemporary mass society immune to the injustice and hegemony of its corporate elites.

The theme of passivity before the allure of the spectacle has survived into a number of current theoretical works. However, another perspective that is rather more accountable to the empirical record is sceptical of such passivity, arguing instead for a more active popular culture, so that people bring their own goals and objectives when viewing a spectacle (Ley and Olds, 1988). Indeed, ethnographies suggest that even the world of Disney is negotiated on the terms of its visitors, and that its hegemonic achievements should not be overstressed (Warren, 1996) (cf. vision and visuality). (DL)

References Brantlinger, P. 1983: Bread and circuses: theories of mass culture as social decay. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Debord, G. 1973: Society of the spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red. Harvey, D. 1989: The condition of postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Ley, D. and Olds, K. 1988: Landscape as spectacle: world\'s fairs and the culture of heroic consumption. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 6: 191-212. Warren, S. 1996: Popular cultural practices in the \'postmodern city\'. Urban Geography 17: 545-67.



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