Torgeir Fjeld, Clandestine Acclaim: How Spectacles Conceal Our Praise of Power

Between freedom from prohibition and emancipation from social oppression lies power. While liberation from obstructions, hindrances or impediments to our desires seems to be commonly accepted as a social good, [1] there is a difference in substance between this kind of freedom – what Isaiah Berlin referred to as negative liberty – and gaining access to the means to alter the social, political and economic conditions that envelop our lives. [2] The fragility of the permissiveness that characterises negative liberty is demonstrated, for instance, when a sovereign experiences a state of siege by a hegemon and responds by decommissioning freedoms that are perceived as strenghtening the cultural dominance of the opponent, or when sovereigns cross what Giorgio Agamben has called the ‘threshold of indifference’ between oikos – the domain of private matters – and polis, the public domain, in order to enter into a permanent state of exception, suspending civil liberties and thus circumscribing the field of negative liberty by the immediate necessities of state security. [3] This essay investigates how it is that we tend to settle for negative liberties even though we are fully aware of the limitations of such freedoms, and how a peculiar technique of governance – what we shall refer to as clandestine or hidden acclaim – underpins an emergent form of social domination, so-called ‘acclamative capitalism’. [4]

Already thinkers of the Frankfurt School have pointed to how the culture industry tends to conceal its own operations. Adorno and Horkheimer’s work on ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ was published in 1944 and written while the pair were living in California. It is an open critique of the way the new mass media and their events operate. In the view of Adorno and Horkheimer, it is not only that the notion of culture is increasingly monopolised by a few media giants who choose how and what types of cultural products to disseminate, but also – and more importantly – that new media industries are taking charge of the way in which consumers access and interpret cultural artifacts. While, to Immanuel Kant, the work of the receiver was to relate the varied experiences of the senses to fundamental concepts, for Adorno and Horkheimer the culture industry ‘robs the individual of [this] function. Its prime service to the customer is to do his schematising for him’. [5] No longer is the labour of fitting direct intuitions of works of culture into a system of pure reason delegated to the soul, as Kant perceived it. Instead this mechanism

is to all appearances planned by those who serve up the data of experience, that is by the culture industry, it is in fact forced upon the latter by the power of sociey, which remains irrational. [6]

While it is easy to deride Adorno and Horkheimer for their lament over the loss of function of the soul in the production of cultural meaning, there are some elements in their analysis that remain pertinent to our historical moment. First, their discovery that it was no longer enough for cultural dissemination to simply display an artifact and leave the interpretation to the observer and her soul, but that the interpretative schemes were increasingly hegemonised by the moment of dissemination, contributes to explaining the ways in which mass media seeks to control meaning. For instance, when a national sports event is disseminated on television, much of the work by commentators, game statistics, interspersed footage, and so on, serves to frame the event in ways that circumscribe the possibilities of interpretation.

Second, Adorno and Horkheimer’s bracketing of the culture industry within a larger socio-economic structure of power foreshadows the conceptualisation of the cultural field in contemporary social thought. Importantly, this force of power is one that remains irrational to the Frankfurt School, and it should serve as a reminder that power itself does not seek a rational grounding, but, rather, works as a brute, dumb force that largely goes unnoticed in our daily exchanges.

The limitation of their analysis lies in their conception of the receiver of mass mediated culture as relatively powerless and bereft of the necessary tools to resist and reinterpret cultural artifacts that come with such interpretative schemes attached. To Adorno and Horkheimer, cultural products are delivered in such a way that ‘sustained thought is out of the question if the spectator is not to miss the relentless rush of facts’. [7] We might wonder how anyone could pose a challenge to the monopolised interpretative schema if it were so that all receivers are duped and robbed of their senses.

The position is refined and developed in the work of Pierre Bourdieu. In his late work On Television he echoes the concern of Adorno and Horkheimer when he notes that

television, which claims to record reality, creates it instead. We are getting closer and closer to the point where the social world is primarily described — and in a sense prescribed — by television. [8]

Bourdieu was well aware of the limitations of Adorno and Horkheimer’s position. He notes that they conceive of the culture industry as ‘the great leveler’, ‘turning all viewers into one big, undi3erentiated mass. In fact, this assessment seriously underestimated viewers’ capacity for resistance’. [9] Nevertheless, it is precisely this capacity that is called into question when Bourdieu engages in a more in-depth analysis of mediated sports events. In his view, sports go through two distinct phases in their development into modern spectacles. [10] First, there is a conversion of popular – vulgar – games into codified practices. This phase enables a uniform set of rules, a cohesive sort of institutional apparatus – associations, clubs, grounds, leagues, and so forth – and a disinterested engagement of the body in sports as leisure. In places such as Eton and Rugby these sports were vehicles for the physical enculturation of the emerging socio-economic élite at the turn of the last century, and what emerged at that time was sport as a domain of the gentlemanly amateur.

In the second phase, these values are turned around. As sports now become objects of mass dissemination they are commodified in a different sense: sports now need to be made available as vehicles for the manufacture of sports products, they are restructured to accomodate notions of prime time and commercial breaks, and they increasingly need to cater for an audience that have little or no practical experience with the sports themselves. To make them interesting for unknowledgable audiences they are fitted with stars, well-paid professionals who extend their public appearance well beyond the limited domains of the sporting ground. It is particularly this latter development that motivates Bourdieu’s claim that sports serve to render audiences passive: instead of popular sports as agents for an active and healthy population, mass mediated spectacles deskill and disempower receivers, and, as such, work with the diametrically opposite purpose of sports as a mass movement. [11]

When Bourdieu designated the spectator as passive he referred to a physical inoperativity of the viewer’s body. What he does not comment on directly in his essays on the sports media is receivers’ ability to make sense of messages apart from those meanings provided by the dissemination itself, and how this ability presupposes a kind of activity on the side of the spectator. [12] Should we not think of such activity as resistance of the kind applauded by Bourdieu in his critique of the Franfurt School? What is at stake here is not so much to uncover in what ways we are being duped by the mass media, but to show how we know full well that we are being duped, and yet participate willingly in this kind of spectacular deception. [13] Is there a way to understand this mechanism without rendering the spectator as a powerless victim of mass culture?

It is here that we should consider the notion of clandestine ethics more thoroughly. In his work on Homo Generator Wolfgang Schirmacher suggests that this kind of creature renders its own operative environment, so that it is possible to, effectively, allow the world of the media to provide an ethical stance while the media consumer carries on unwittingly. In this view the receiver is not fully knowledgeable of all aspects of media products and their reception at all times, but as a totality, the media enviroment generates a world that is ethical. In the media we don’t encounter authentic personalities, but clones of ourselves:

We pay no attention to the arti2cial life which always has been (and always will be) generated by humans. Concealed from our conciousness, humans live ethically, a good life behind our backs. [14] To Schirmacher we are never fully aware of the world of ethics. In his view, ‘cloning humans with media works very well in distracting our attention from this ethical art of living’. [15]

Sports stars are no longer screens that disable an authentic engagement with sports as physical endeavours, but clones of ourselves, who, in their often stupidly mundane and everyday lives and opinions, serve to hide an art of living that is in fact ethical. Sports spectacles, in Schirmacher’s view,

fulfill the secret task of media in keeping our minds occupied with the insane things while in the meantime our undisturbed life techniques generate human sanity — behind our backs but not without our active trust. [16]

In this sense, mass mediated sports work in at least two signi2cant ways: first, they enable us to participate in a sort of willful deception that can nevertheless be rendered as part of an ethical act, and second, this participation has a cruical element of concealment built into it. This way of conceiving of an ethical relation to mass deception is reminiscent of the debate between Richard Rorty and Ernesto Laclau over the role of irony in the mediatisation of contemporary events. Rorty agrees with Adorno and Horkheimer’s vision that Enlightenment values – reason, freedom, progress – have been undermined by forces put into movement by the Enlightenment itself ‘but he does not accept their conclusions that, as a result of this, liberalism is at present intellectually and morally bankrupt. […] In his view ironic thinking is far more appropriate to a fully-fledged liberal society than rationalism’. [17] As with Schirmacher, Rorty’s liberal irony enables a view of the spectator taking an ethical stance while engaging with a deceitful media spectacle. However, there is a radical disjuncture between the two. While, for Rorty, the receiver is fully aware of the deception, for Schirmacher’s Homo Generator the ethical aspect of the media event is itself concealed, so that the artificiality of the spectacle only becomes an ethical ‘art of living’ to the extent that it remains hidden and contingent on the decoder’s trust.

Is not the kind of ‘willful deception’ we encounter here similar to the kind of rationality rendered plausible by the metaphor of the market as governing and governed by an ‘invisible hand’? According to the game theoretical deployment of this metaphor, its logic consists in that while individual acts may be rendered irrational or sub-optimal, as a collective aggregate the game secures a logical and ‘rational’ continuation of socio-economic outcomes. Slavoj Žižek recounts how the astrophysicist Niels Bohr responded when queried as to why he had a horse shoe nailed above his door. Did he not know that associating such a symbol with good luck was mere superstition? Bohr answered: ‘I know full well these things, but I’ve heard that it works anyway’ – in other words, I know full well that I’m being duped, and yet I go on as if I didn’t know.’ [18]

In a discussion of the notion of ‘Manufacturing Consent’, made famous by Noam Chomsky, Žižek points out how the phrase was first used by Chomsky’s colleague Walter Lippmann, but then in a positive way. An elite class should rise above the ‘chaos of local opinion’ and establish, precisely though a manufactured consent, a machinery of knowledge that circumvents the de2cits of democracy. Žižek notes dryly that it is ‘no mystery in what Lippmann was saying, it is an obvious fact; the mystery is that, knowing this, we continue to play the game. We act as if we are free to choose’. [19]

What is cruical to apprehend here is that spectacles of sports are illusory in a di3erent sense than the deceptive fraud postulated by Adorno and Horkheimer. When Bourdieu made use of the term illusio it was to show how we sometimes get so caught up by the finished product (the opus operatum) that we forget the ways in which it was produced (its modus operandi) – we are deceived into believing that the sports event is something else and more than a game. Illusio, then, is a term that gives an account of how social orchestration compels us to forget the work that lies behind a spectacular display. [20] When we forget ourselves in the game we accept the illusion and subscribe to the orchestration of bodies implicit in spectacular sports events. And how can we better describe the activity of television viewers of these events than as participating in some kind of collective acclaim?

While there is an element of unconscious action involved here, let us not forget that the kind of conjuring we are talking about is different from the notion implied by the psychoanalytic term ‘fantasy’. In the work of Jacques Lacan, fantasy is constitutive: already from the moment we enter into symbolic relations – that is, from the moment we acquire language – we engage in a fantasmatic relation to the world. The ego itself is, indeed, a fictional device in Lacan’s psychoanalysis. [21] In other words, when we rid ourselves of a fantasy in Lacanian terms, all we find is another fantasy.

The proper term to account for the unconcious work of spectators of these sports events is therefore something more in the realm of automatisation: sports manufacture an automated form of consent from our bodies – an acquiescence that we might have refused had we not been so engaged. [22] This kind of affirmation takes the form of an acclaim – a praise of power and of the performance that has brought it into being. We are somatised and transported into a state in which we unwittingly acquiesce to order.

What is the order that demands this kind of mute, unquestioning assent? Giorgio Agamben has used the notion of ‘acclamative capitalism’ to describe the most recent mutation of our socio-economic order:

the society of the spectacle – if we can call contemporary democracies by this name – is, from this point of view, a society in which power in its “glorious” aspect becomes indiscernible from oikonomia and government. To have completely integrated Glory with oikonomia in the acclamative form of consensus is, more specifically, the specific task carried out by contemporary democracies and their government by consent. [23]

It is consistent with a more authoritarian mode of dominance. [24] Is the ‘authoritarian personality’ described by Adorno and Horkheimer, Žižek asks, not to be ‘conceived as the symptomal “truth” of the “democratic personality” (the view of, say, Agamben)?’. [25] Praise allows power to rest with no questions asked. [26] As Agamben notes, power needs praise to be assured of eternal life, a reward granted to the just: the ‘crown […] carried by the just originated in the diadem that the triumphant imperator or athlete receives as a sign of victory, and gives expression to the glorious quality of eternal life’. [27] Praise of power is therefore the effect and work of an acclamative form of governance by consent. -rough spectacular events sovereign power reestablishes its reign and its structure of governance – to which our consent is hidden and automatic – remains concealed.


Torgeir Fjeld is a writer and teacher based in Gdansk, Poland, who has published on theories of signification, mediatisation and knowledge regimes.

1 Zigmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (London: Polity Press, 2000), pp. 16-17.

2 Isiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ [1958], in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118-172.

3 Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), pp. 1-12.

4 Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), p. xii.

5 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, ‘The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception’ [1944], in Dialectic of Enlightenment (London: Verso, 1997), p. 124.

6 Ibid., p. 124-5.

7 Ibid., p. 127.

8 Pierre Bourdieu, On Television (New York: The New Press, 1998), p. 22. 9 Ibid., p. 36.

10 Pierre Bourdieu, ‘How Can One be a Sports Fan?’, in The Cultural Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 1993), 339-356, pp. 342-4.

11 Pierre Bourdieu, ‘Programme for a Sociology of Sport’ [1980], in In Other Words (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 156-167, p. 165.

12 See, for example, Stuart Hall, ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 128-138, p. 136-8.

13 Guy Debord noted that ‘the spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’; in Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), p. 42.

14 Wolfgang Schirmacher, ‘Cloning Humans with Media’ in Poiesis, 2 (2000), 38-41, p. 40.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 2007), pp. 109-110.

18 Slavoj Žižek, In Defence of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), p. 300. It is worth considering how Bohr comes close to describing the so-called Moore’s paradox, which can be expressed by the sentence ‘It’s raining, but I don’t believe it’. Not only does Bohr show the disjunction between knowledge and belief, but by the pithy remark demonstrates how we rely on belief as a prerequisite for knowledge. As Moore’s paradox shows, a different state of affairs appears unidiomatic in natural languages.

19 Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), p. 134.

20 Illusio ‘directs the gaze toward the apparent producer – painter, composer, writer – and prevents us asking who created this “creator” and the magic power of transubstantiation with which the “creator” is endowed’; see Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p. 167.

21 Jacques Lacan, ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I’ [1949], in Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1977), pp. 1-7. 22 Bourdieu, ‘Programme for a Sociology of Sport’, p. 167.

23 Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory, p. xii.

24 Jodi Dean describes how ‘external control – through the direct or indirect use of force, through threats and fears, and through the mobilisation and intensification of affects and desires – takes on more of the work previously done by internalised control’; in Democracy and other Neoliberal Fantasies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 66.

25 Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London: Verso, 2007), p. 384.

26 In response to the question ‘what nourishes power?’ Agamben notes that ‘Judaism and the New Testament agree on a single answer: chayye ‘olam, zôê aiônios, eternal life.’ The Talmud (b Berakhot, 17a) states that ‘in the world to come […] the just will sit with their crowns on their heads and will be refreshed by the splendor of the shekinah’, i.e., the divine presence, manifestation or dwelling; in Giorgio Agamben, ‘Herlighetens arkeologi’ [translation of ch. 8 of Il regno e la gloria by Ragnar Braastad Myklebust], Agora, 29.4 (2011), 145-160, p. 155; cf. The Kingdom and the Glory, chapter 8.25.

27 Agamben, ‘Herlighetens arkeologi’, p. 155; cf. The Kingdom and the Glory, p. 247.

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