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Democracy in the Age of New Media

The Politics of the Spectacle

Tauel Harper

In the age of the spectacle, democracy has never looked so bleak. Our world, saturated with media and marketing, endlessly confronts us with spectacles vying for our attention: from Apple and 9/11 to Facebook and the global financial crisis. Democratic politics, by comparison, remain far from engaging. A society obsessed with spectacles results in a complete misfiring of the democratic system.
This book uses critical democratic theory to outline the effects of consumer culture on citizenship. It highlights the importance that public space plays in creating the critical culture necessary for a healthy democracy, and outlines how contemporary ‘public’ spaces – shopping centres, the Internet, social networking sites and suburban communities – contribute to this culture. Terrorism, ecological destruction and the financial crisis are also outlined as symptoms of the politics of the spectacle. The book concludes with some basic principles and novel suggestions which could be employed to avoid the pitfalls inherent in our spectacular existence.


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Chapter Six: The Politics of the Spectacle 109


• C H A P T E R S I X • The Politics of the Spectacle Every age has its massive moral blindspots. We might not see them, but our children will. —Bono (2004) The emergence of homo spectaculum results in a complete misfiring of the critical imperatives of the democratic system. While we still have a political public realm created by homo faber, society itself has become dominated not by a universal rationality but by a series of fragmented systems which, as a totality, occlude opportunities for truly public engagement. This is a result of the infestation of public space by a myriad of private interests, the development of a new impetus for (re)production and the fragmentation of subjectivity that results. The political system has remained focused on catering to the political demands of homo faber and animal laborans—keeping citizens safe and productive. Meanwhile, markets have generated new and ingenious ways to cater to consumers’ agonistic desire. By channelling the frustrated desire of contemporary citizens to display towards private ends, those who strategically control discursive spaces usurp citizens’ desire to critically engage with political decisions. The political institutions of homo faber remain organised on the basis of the old liberal conception of the individual; however, following the structural transformation of the public sphere, these same institutions deny the opportunity for public expression to the individual. The establishment of basic political rights in the framework of mass democracy means, on one hand, a universalization of the role of citizen...

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