The spectacle of the Super Bowl and NFL and college football is the acme of ideology, for in its full flower it exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems. It is the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life. The spectacle, just like the ancient Roman arena of bread and circus is the expression of estrangement, the alienation between human beings. This represents the extreme stage of the expansion that has turned necessity against life.
Plato said, that “what is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” Today, we apparently have wonderful athletes mostly undereducated, in universities that no longer train students to think critically, and inferior politicians, because we have so cruelly separated freedom from virtue, because we have defined freedom in a morally inferior way. Our founding fathers, who all read and understood the Enlightenment, defined democracy with virtue. Today, we have long had what Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick called, the dark ages of democracy.
The modern spectacle of the Super Bowl depicts the dark age of democracy of what society can deliver, but within this depiction what is permitted is rigidly distinguished from what is possible. The public has been co-opted to pay the large share of stadium costs for the private team owners, the league operates under no anti-trust laws, the Department of Defense and the Pentagon pays the teams to stand at attention during the Star Spangled Banner to promote militarism and recruitment into foreign wars. On college campuses around the country football stadiums and training facilities are constructed at values five-hundred times as expensive as college libraries.
As it has accumulated, capital has spread to the periphery, where it has assumed the tangible form of objects, things and activities, some being destructive. Society in its broad capacity becomes capital’s faithful portrait. Eventually, whatever is conscious erodes and whatever is unconscious becomes unalterable. As Freud said, “once freed, however, this too must fall into ruins.”
The spectacle and bread and circus, is the technical version of the exiling of human powers in a cosmic world beyond us, which becomes the ultimate separation within human beings. The spectacle becomes the bad dream of a modern society in handcuffs, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep.
Societal separation becomes the alpha and the omega of the spectacle. Spectacle itself becomes a concrete inversion of life, continuing the autonomous movement of vapid non-life. The omnipresent celebration of choice creates the sphere of production and governs almost all the time spent outside of the production process itself.
It is as if the sun never sets on spectacle and the empire of consumer passivity. We are now at the stage where social and intellectual life has been completely accosted by the accumulated products of spectacle in the economy. It has entailed a general movement from having, to appearing, where all effective consuming must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’etre from appearances.
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In a society where nobody is any longer recognizable by anyone, each individual is unable to recognize his own reality. Capitalism’s ever-intensifying imposition of alienation at all levels makes it increasingly hard for workers to recognize and name their own impoverishment and eventually puts them in the position of having either to reject it in totality or to do nothing at all. The individual, though condemned to passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to the magical devices of spectacle, can entertain the illusion, that he is reacting to his fate.
We are reduced to expressing ourselves on issues that are meaningless in a vapid culture of identity politics. The citizens of ancient Rome stripped of all political power, were allowed to vote to spare or kill a gladiator in the arena, a similar form of our own hallow public choice.
Today, we prefer the sign, to the thing that is signified, Colin Kaepernick and other players taking a knee in protest to police brutality of black Americans, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence. Illusion only, becomes sacred and truth profane. Sacred meaning, taking a knee, is held captive, to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion becomes the highest degree of sacred meaning.
Like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, we can no longer influence a culture in a state of permanent war and we retreat into our sheltered enclaves where we can continue to worship ourselves and our teams, the bread and the circus. We decry the social chaos for which we bear responsibility, but do nothing.
Permanent war, reduces us all to speaking in the simplified language of nationalism is a disease. It strips citizens of rights and reduces all communications to a patriotic cant, a mindless cheer for our favorite team. It empowers those who make millions from the state in the name of war. It diminishes and destroys democratic debate and institutions. The failure to articulate an alternative in a time of financial and environmental collapse clears the way for the military values of hyper-masculinity, blind obedience and violence.
The cri de coeur for reason, logic, and truth, for a fact-based society, for political and social structures designed to protect the common good, will be the flag carried by the downtrodden and militant remnants of our decaying civilization. Cicero did this in ancient Rome. But he was despised by the crowd and the power elite. When his severed head and hands were mounted on the podium in the Colosseum, and his executioner Marc Antony announced that Cicero would speak and write no more, the tens of thousands of spectators roared their approval. Tyranny in an age of chaos is often greeted with palpable relief. There is often no public outcry. The rebel must for this reason also expect to become the enemy, even of those he or she is attempting to protect.
Just as the Roman politician Cicero said, “To remain in the infancy of knowledge, is to forever be an intellectual and emotional child.” So too, the need to imitate the consumer experience and its apex, the spectacle of the Super Bowl, is indeed a truly infantile need, one determined by all aspects of man’s fundamental dispossession and enslavement.