The society of the spectacle

April 16th, 2012 atam Posted in Animal welfare, Climate change, Culture, Earth, General | No Comments »

So have you managed to catch a glimpse of Lyuba?

Funny how the mummified body of a baby mammoth (which, by the way, isn’t the latest art work by Damien Hirst. How he must be kicking himself for not getting hold of it, encrusting it with diamonds then selling it on for gazillion dollars) that lived on the icy tundra of the Arctic 40,000 years ago should become entertainment for an iPhone-camera crowd jostling for a picture in the icily air-conditioned atrium of the IFC.

Funny also how the real animals in our countryside – and even in the urban areas – don’t catch our eyes; and if they do, more often than not receive complaints for getting in our way. Somehow, animals are fine as long as they’re exotic or dead, kept well away from us and don’t remind us that we share a common habitat by the name of Earth.

There’s a lesson in Lyuba’s world tour as well as an irony. The lesson is that Lyuba’s discovery was only possible because of melting ice, an effect of global warming. The irony is that while people don’t like animals that they consider to have encroached on their habitat, rather than the other way round; they will fall over each other to see one that’s long dead or those that should be left alone rather than be disturbed by coach-loads of tourists – like the real elephants in wildlife reserves. Animals don’t exist to provide entertainment for humans; they exist as vital links in our common ecosystem, and we forget at our own peril.

The excitement generated by Lyuba’s exhibition at the IFC is a perfect reflection of what French social theorist Guy Debord called “the society of the spectacle” (la société du spectacle). In his collection of aphorisms of the same name, he drew attention to the way in which everything in a consumerist society became commodified for the purpose of consumption.

“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” he wrote. “The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation.”

We live our lives through the images and narratives provided by spectacles such as Lyuba, soap operas and advertisements to such an extent that the real lives that we can live, in which we interact with the world around us, weaving our own narratives, is deemed too real. We get our hands dirty; we sweat and afterwards there may not even be a nice shower awaiting us at a five-star hotel or someone to wash up the resulting laundry for us. So let’s set reality aside and settle for something thoroughly sanitised and objectified – a dead animal from some mysterious past, kept well away from us in a perspex case that can be viewed in the air-conditioned comfort of a shopping mall.

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