“We must therefore rediscover, after the natural world, the social world, not as an object or sum of objects, but as a permanent field or dimension of existence.”
― Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (1945)
Spectacle is a powerful artform and cultural artifact. This artistry resides in an artform that is also a show of force that operates as an extraordinary showpiece of music, staging, dance, or drill designed to awe or impress--that includes the viewer as a partner in its power. It celebrates the singular human ability to cooperate adaptably. In its ability to put is in step with each other, spectacle is the ultimate human art, and possibly even the original great artform, one that outshines cave art.
Spectacles are a type of magic in their ability to overcome our differences and the feeling of being “slightly out of step with others,” as geographer Yi-Fu Tuan put it (1). Parades, pageants, and giant rallies raise that question: “How do they do that, all together?” It has origins and ties to the rituals of religion in its sway of emotions involved in empathy, trust, and consilience—in every world culture. The core of religion, as in the word origin, is to “tie together” in communal surrender to a higher order.
The whole entourage is animated in the total synchronicity of a single mind, as in a flock or swarm, by following a few simple rules: match speed and direction, and stay an equal distance apart. (This is also the rulebook in robot coding in AI.) The rules are simple but effective algorithms –the way culture works. Which is that no one is obviously in charge, yet the brain software seamlessly coordinates thousands of discrete thoughts and activities. It is the perfect staging that celebrates the performers as well as those enthralled by them.
This is because of the core arts of music and rhythm, with their hold on the social emotions of converge. Both have an inborn power to connect us, something dance halls and the military are quite aware of. Singing the national anthem together at the Super Bowl or “My Old Kentucky Home” at the Kentucky Derby delivers the thrill of deeply uniting force, creating a sense of belonging and safety and strength in numbers. Melody and rhythm have the ability to activate the limbic brain, bringing the many into one at rock concerts, as in the iconic generational symbol for the baby boom, Woodstock. In this way, thousands of heartbeats can be channeled just by sound alone, augmented by sight, a psychological showcase of performance or procession intended to unite, impress, and inspire. The fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock is this year, a low-tech event that shaped the Boomers in August 1969 and is still the milestone of Generation Woodstock coming of age. Thanks to the same sound systems for the masses, Hitler programmed the sweeping music of Wagner for his own national theme at the Nuremberg rallies.
Why is spectacle so emotionally compelling? Music, choreographed group motion, themed costume, immersion in a whole-brain experience among hundreds to thousands of others.
Spectacle creates a hyperreality we enter in real time and space. Think of the legacy of such events – campfires, hunting ceremonies, processions, mass celebrations, funerals, warfare ceremony—modern sports are a ritualized version of war (the FIFA World Cup, like the Olympics, has three billion viewers worldwide). Spectacle has a meaning quite fundamental to human bonding as well as creativity, with a profound effect on our capacity for diversity. This is the same appeal to be found in current escape rooms, with their single-minded focus on solving problems in a group that is so clarifying (2). There is a formula for this focus throughout cultural study.
This is because spectacle operates at two levels as it connects them: primal physiology and group encounter. It is an integrative force. Spectacle breaks down the walls between individuals, allowing us to converge with thousands of other minds. The dynamic that rules a Roman procession is in this way the same one that occurs in falling in love. As synchronizing sound, movement, and expectation builds coordination, it promotes trust and theory of mind, our ability to read the motives and moves of others. Oxytocin is boosted, increasing interest and direction toward social cohesion.
Does Spectacle create community across groups?
It is no accident that the highlight of the Roman Catholic high mass is its music, commonly cited by Catholics as the core of the Church’s continuing appeal. Level of apotheosis, miracle, mind-reading: single mind and single heart convert and scale up from the micro level to the macro: group mind, group heart. A show of force and skill becomes an artform in real time – to impress outsiders but also the performers themselves. This artform showcases our best human talents: our capacity for solidarity, visible, immediate, and affecting. Cathedrals and theaters are ornate and magisterial to match up to our impressive ability to move from the personal to processional ways of thinking and feeling. The long-running Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland is an old-style example of a low-key techno-music parade with basic light show and simple melody that has become a national favorite moment. The other park spectacle marks the end of the day at the World Showcase in EPCOT and consists of fireworks, spotlights that target the circle of national symbols, set to music keyed to each culture.
Music plus large-scale choreography does something extraordinary: they tap into each brain to create an irresistible group psyche. This artform is ingenious in drawing into concert two basic human impulses, the individual and social. They are instantly immersive whole-brain and whole-body experiences starting with music and rhythm, going straight to our ancestral limbic brain for instant cooperative with other people. This is our uniquely human capacity – add a cause or purpose, and the result is a form of theater that showcases a deeply human artform, perhaps the first ever – a performance that promotes both the noble social goals of civilization and the primal need for affect (expression) and belonging at the most personal level.
There is a reason that rock concerts make more money than the tracks that make up the program. The group virtuosity of orchestra, Carnival, the British coronation, military extravaganzas, the Olympics, the Million Man March (actually about half that number, the size of Woodstock) consolidate both private and social virtuosity. Nazi rallies were held to re-instill pride in Germans after a humiliating defeat in WWI. Collective morale is showcased at the Russian May Day, ancient Roman games in the colosseum, the Super Bowl, and religious and triumphal processions so often portrayed on ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman monuments.
To celebrate the city and its ethnic enclaves, Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade is a classic example of an historic form that has survived and thrived, season after season, into the present as an emblem of identity. On the west coast, it’s the Rose Parade.
1. Yi-Fu Tuan, Escapism, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.