Print Project Proposal: Spectacle in the Digital Age

Throughout my MA coursework, I have come to read a lot about spectacle and the spectacular from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. Vanessa Schwartz’s Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris was my first introduction to these concepts, and this book beautifully explains the revolutionary way in which turn-of-the-century technologies and cultural developments changed the ways that people understood their world and their place within it. Alison Griffiths’s Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View compliments Schwartz’s book by extending the concept of the spectacular towards the present day through her analysis of planetariums and IMAX. I propose that the rise of the digital has again substantially altered the way in which we see and are seen through the creation of new forms of spectacle, and has affected how people understand both where and what they are.

My project would examine how virtual reality, Google Street View, and other immersive technologies originate from and build upon the spectacles of the late nineteenth century such as early cinema, panoramas and cycloramas, and wax dioramas. I expect to find similarities between the feelings these experiences provoked despite the temporal distance, proving that spectacle is about the overwhelming experience of viewing something new and immersive.

Griffiths rejects virtual reality as a form of the immersive view because it is a solitary experience. Both Schwartz and Griffiths would argue that spectacle relies upon not only seeing but being seen — a derivation of Tony Bennett’s theory of museums and other public spaces as places of policing the self and others through watching and being watched. However, the rise of social media and interactive technologies that aim to make even the most solitary experience communal or at least publicized mean that the things we view alone are now meant to be just as spectacular as viewing a cyclorama among a crowd in the 1880s. In addition, if our solitary viewing experiences are shared on an enormous scale, how does Bennett’s theory still apply? In what ways do we police our own and others’ behavior in a digital world?

This project is more theoretical in nature than practical; it is more microanalysis through close readings than macroanalysis through digital tools. I expect that the course readings relating to mobile media, place, and mapping will prove useful in understanding how some of these spectacular technologies have evolved and what they set out to do. So much of spectacle is about place and space. The readings on video games and interactivity will also be of value since video games are similarly intended to be immersive.

I’d love to hear any thoughts on this or suggestions for related readings!

One Reply to “Print Project Proposal: Spectacle in the Digital Age”

  1. This is a really neat idea! I’m, in general, a huge fan of work that attempts to identify streams of continuity between various forms of new media. To that end, if you did decide to carry this project forward, I think a lot of Farmen’s mobile media book may be of use. Jason Farmen also wrote this really great piece on the “Forgotten Kaleidoscope Craze in Victorian England” https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-forgotten-kaleidoscope-craze-in-victorian-england which might be of interest. Related, there is a fair bit of work exploring how networked technologies have altered and changed notions of public space (ex. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/networked-publics ).

    The point about technologies like VR being isolating is an interesting one. At the same time, it seems like there is a whole other virtual spectacle thing going on in the phenomena of selfies. Even with something like VR, there are lots of experiences that are premised on being networked and then inhabiting the same virtual space with other people. So it seems like there could be something there in terms of how the experiences become connected, shared and networked. In any event, it seems like an interesting idea to be exploring.

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