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Spectacle As Reality

by Mukul Dube, 6 February 2013

print version of this article print version - 6 February 2013

I find myself in a state of mixed bewilderment and despair. I try to keep abreast of what happens in my part of the world, and what do I see? In Tamil Nadu a motion picture, part of the entertainment industry, becomes the centre of people’s universe. In the west, an intellectual says something to a small gathering and that causes tremors across the land. Neither of these provocations would have been nearly so effective when I was a young man. This seems to me the unreal reality in which we live.

In Delhi the bestiality of five men and a “boy” stuns and causes large numbers of people to come on to the streets. The government in place grandly appoints a committee to look into sexual violence against women and then, like a thief, imposes on the land an ordinance which dissolves in muddy water the immense amount of thought that has gone into the recommendations made by that committee. This is the real reality of our miserable lives.

Today’s reality, at once cruel and dream-like, is that we devote our attention and our energies to whichever trivial matter is inflated to gargantuan size – and push out of our consciousness the monster of hunger that has been carefully documented by people like Utsa Patnaik and Vidya Bhushan Rawat.

Can a hysterically weeping man also giggle hysterically? My point is precisely that: We are insane. We no longer can tell between up and down. We stand on our heads and run like the wind on feet that are no longer on the ground.

It may be that, having become slaves to the mass media, we see the world as a spectacle, one which is made up of many small spectacles. There is something unreal about a reality that is seen only in a reified form: but unpolished reality seems to have become unpalatable and incomprehensible. Anything that is not beamed out on a dozen television channels is no longer deemed worthy of attention. We spend time only on those realities which have received the rubber stamp of media approval.

People’s lately much increased participation in mass meetings and protests is, I think, a related phenomenon. In my younger days I would join a public meeting only if I was truly committed to whatever was the cause. Today I shall join one because two hundred people have already done that – and because there are several television vans present. Protesting in public is no longer the job of the committed or the crazy: it has become the done thing even for the ordinary person. Some have said to me that it proves to them that they are citizens in a democracy who have voices and can use them, that they are full members of society.

I do not know if I should accept this without question. In the past few years I have taken photographs at very many public meetings and have come to feel that people are less interested in making a point than in being seen at a place where a point is made. This is at root the same thing as bejewelled women who know nothing about classical music attending concerts in order to be seen and so that they can say later that they were there.

This is reality as spectacle. When I aim my camera at three people holding a banner, it is almost certain that three or seven more will see me and move quickly into the frame to be recorded. They gamble on the chance that their faces will appear in print the next day. Those who handle television cameras always have to shoo away such interlopers, people who have the hope that their families and friends will see them on the small screen that evening or the next day.

There are many such people, not just a few, and it seems to have become almost universal behaviour around the time that enormous crowds began to flock to see Mr. Hazare and, more important, to be seen with him. The world is indeed a stage, and all of us have become players.

Alas, the cameras do not record the hunger that stalks the land. Nor can the cameras protect women when astonishingly inhuman things are done to them in ordinary, everyday situations.