In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Spectacle

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Spectacle in the Canon of Political Philosophy
  • Ancient Spectacle
  • Medieval and Renaissance Spectacle
  • Modern Spectacle
  • Bertolt Brecht
  • Media Studies
  • Visual Culture Studies
  • Autonomism, Anarchism, and Radical Democracy
  • Spectacle and Authoritarianism
  • Race, Gender, and Spectacle
  • Spectacles of Violence, Suffering, and Disaster
  • Spectacle and Terrorism
  • Spectacle and New Media

Political Science The Spectacle
Devin Penner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 02 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0160


The concept of the spectacle is most closely associated with the work of French Marxist Guy Debord, who in 1967 characterized postwar consumer capitalism as the “society of the spectacle.” While it is now common to use the term loosely to dismiss visually distracting entertainments, Debord had a very specific definition of the spectacle as a social relationship mediated by advertising and other mass media images. As noted in Crary 1989 (cited under General Overviews), however, perhaps Debord’s most significant contribution is to attach the definite article to spectacle, making it appear as an ideologically unified system of images. There are debates as to when the era of the spectacle begins, with Debord’s account dating it to the 1920s. But the difference between a and the spectacle is not a trivial one, as the idea of one system of images implies that individuals have little power to contest dominant constructions. This is why modern conceptions of the spectacle tend to be associated with a very passive notion of spectatorship. More generally speaking, the term spectacle is often employed in a pejorative manner to criticize public entertainments for manipulating the public or distracting it from more-important social and political issues. But the term need not be reduced to these pejorative or critical uses. In descriptive terms, a spectacle is a public display, or, to be more precise, a public event that is notable for its impressive appearance. This definition includes a range of different visually oriented cultural forms, from live theatrical performances to inanimate museum exhibits to reproduced images in film and television. No matter what form a spectacle takes, what is most important is that it is watched or seen, with the most spectacular events drawing the largest audiences. The form and political function of spectacle varies by political regime, as there is less point to grandiose displays of power—such as Hitler’s mass marches—in a democratic regime. The dominant forms of spectacle also change over time; poetic performance was an important type of spectacle in ancient societies, whereas modern societies are dominated by reproduced spectacle. The importance of reproduced spectacle in the postwar period, as television spread, no doubt strengthened the pejorative connection between spectacle and passivity. An important question today, then, is whether the emergence of new media will undermine this idea of a public that passively consumes spectacles by providing a venue where people can respond to what they see or even circulate their own creations. In today’s hypermediated society, another important question, raised especially by poststructuralist Jean Baudrillard, is whether there is still a reality that can be distinguished from spectacular constructions of it.

General Overviews

The literature on the concept of the spectacle is quite fragmentary, with few works that could be classified as general overviews. Works chosen for this section provide particularly useful discussions of the concept or comparisons of different views on spectacle. Of these, Bergmann 1999 provides the best overall introduction to the term, and it is one of the few works that attempts to compare ancient and modern spectacles. The remainder of the works focus primarily on the modern period. In fact, the articles Crary 1989 and Kohn 2008 both define the spectacle in a way that makes it a distinctly modern phenomenon, combining the views of a number of theorists to consider the origins and nature of today’s society of the spectacle. The specific subject of MacAloon 1984 is the modern Olympic Games, but the analysis develops a framework for employing spectacle as a cultural category, which is linked at the end to the work of Daniel Boorstin and Debord. Garoian and Gaudelius 2008 surveys the contributions of many of the authors mentioned in this bibliography in an essay that criticizes the spectacular nature of visual culture in contemporary society. Duncombe 2007 assesses the key features of fascist and commercial spectacle in order to develop an alternative, participatory conception of spectacle that is consistent with the aims of progressive activists.

  • Bergmann, Bettina. “Introduction: The Art of Ancient Spectacle.” In The Art of Ancient Spectacle. Edited by Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon, 9–35. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1999.

    A unique article in that it surveys the literature on the term spectacle with the aim of analyzing spectacle in ancient Greek and Roman societies. It notes the problem of importing modern notions of spectacle into ancient societies, and provides extensive endnotes suggesting other sources to consult.

  • Crary, Jonathan. “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory.” October 50 (Autumn 1989): 96–107.

    DOI: 10.2307/778858

    A thought piece that uses Debord, Baudrillard, and others to offer some speculative hypotheses about the origins and meaning of spectacle. Often cited for its remark that modern conceptions of spectacle are distinct for the presence of the definite article (the).

  • Duncombe, Stephen. “Imagine an Ethical Spectacle.” In Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. By Stephen Duncombe, 124–175. New York: New Press, 2007.

    Seeks to develop a progressive alternative to fascist and commercial conceptions of the spectacle. This alternative, which is dubbed the “ethical” or “participatory” spectacle, incorporates ideas from Debord and Brecht, among others.

  • Garoian, Charles, and Yvonne Gaudelius. “The Spectacle of Visual Culture.” In Spectacle Pedagogy: Art, Politics, and Visual Culture. By Charles Garoian and Yvonne Gaudelius, 23–39. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

    Argues that contemporary visual culture is a “spectacle pedagogy,” where images play a central role in determining how people see, think, and interact. Discusses the ideas of Debord, Boorstin, McLuhan, Benjamin, Baudrillard, and others.

  • Kohn, Margaret. “Homo Spectator: Public Space in the Age of Spectacle.” Philosophy and Social Criticism 34.5 (2008): 467–486.

    DOI: 10.1177/0191453708089194

    Uses Rousseau’s critique of theatre as a point of departure for thinking about the relationship between public space and democracy in the modern society. Connects Rousseau’s criticisms with the ideas of Walter Benjamin, Debord, and Jürgen Habermas.

  • MacAloon, John. “Olympic Games and the Theory of Spectacle in Modern Society.” In Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Edited by John MacAloon, 241–280. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984.

    Defines spectacle as a genre of cultural performance as distinct from festival, ritual, and game, and uses this to argue that spectacle is the dominant frame for understanding the cultural impact of the Olympics.

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