Compton, James R. The Integrated News Spectacle: A Political Economy of Cultural Performance. New York and Berlin: Peter Lang, 2004. 275 pages. ISBN: 0820470708
Charles Lamb, in his excellent study of the work of Howard Barker, remarked that television “exhibits two convergent tendencies, the authentication of the fictional, and the fictionalizing of the authentic.”1 One of the great emerging contributions being made within the field of visual culture encompasses a more nuanced and broader version of this observation: Mainly, that not just television but all media function to aestheticize the fictional and fictionalize the aesthetic. This important area of inquiry includes directing attention toward the issues involved in what we might call media aesthetics. More broadly, the examination of the implications and provocations of the aestheticizing of media fits into a wider critique of what has been called the political ecology of the senses.2 Such a critical trajectory invariably needs to address the workings of media through the ever-growing effect of information-as-surface, which in turn entails the analysis of the contaminating manifold of short-term culture.3 We have really only begun to investigate the effects of technology on our reception and comprehension of information, but just as important is our need to appraise how surface-centered and short-term technology restructures our aesthetic apparatus.4 This type of critical inquiry would assess and evaluate the level to which aesthetics is explicitly and, more likely, implicitly, involved not just in media but also in such fields as law, economics, religion, and science. James Compton’s The Integrated News Spectacle: A Political Economy of Cultural Performance is a welcome contribution to this growing and important assessment of media.
As his title makes clear, Compton wishes to concentrate on news and its aesthetization as spectacle. His approach is interesting and valuable in its attempt to qualify the quantitative approach of communication and journalism studies with the work of Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, Pierre Bourdieu, and David Harvey. In this sense the book is a useful corrective to the sometimes reductive studies on media as spectacle that have surfaced in our post-McLuhan age. Compton’s text contributes to a broader understanding of the visual culture of news by attempting to coalesce critical theory with the social sciences.
Compton’s notion of the “integrated spectacle” functions first of all to locate and identify the narrow approach to the spectacle that would reduce it to the tabloidization of life. For Compton, tabloidization is the prevalently narrow judgment of popular media both in terms of its content and in its passive and vapid reception by the public. Tracing this critical view to the “bread and circus” approach to bourgeois culture, Compton further identifies two distinct theoretical trends in the approach to popular culture as radical and conservative. Compton sees the former as the mass-society critique rooted in the Frankfurt School’s analysis of culture industry, while he sees the latter conservative approach as the apologetic populist homage to “average people” and their ability to make rational “choices” about information while critiquing the elitist posturing of mass-society critics (the Bill O’Reilly approach). In particular, Compton rethinks the terms of the debate through a rigorous study of the powerful hybrid between entertainment and information that constitutes the news today.
Compton begins by taking up the Benjaminian notion that by providing the public with a vehicle for a psychologically-seductive collective identity, the aestheticizing of politics leads to fascism. Discussing the interpretations of media events such as the death of Princess Diana, he critiques a simplistic reading of such spectacles as either banal entertainment narratives or as dangerous neo-fascist spectacles. Understanding that many large-scale media events may be read as conspicuous rituals of a kind of contemporary culture of fascism, Compton nonetheless calls for subtler readings beyond what he critiques as a problematic “neo-Durkheiminian focus on liminality and ritual”(32). Admitting that media events are ritualized performances, Compton argues that a fuller understanding of these phenomena requires us to apprehend the complex network linking spectacle, media, and reception. Realizing the obvious fact that journalism is far from objective, Compton nonetheless sees a danger in reducing it to mere tabloidization. Thus he rejects the notion that viewers are simple dupes who are not in some way dynamically involved in the spectacle. “Individual media events are singular moments of a much larger social and cultural process—a complex integration of cultural, organizational, economic, state, and material interests” (33). This is the trajectory that leads into Compton’s discussions of Debord’s and Baudrillard’s concepts of the spectacle.
Although Compton appropriates some of Debord’s key ideas, he calls for a more nuanced approach to the spectacle that might complement and expand on what he calls Debord’s “abstract formulation.” Compton’s is a more detailed understanding of what Debord meant by spectacle – an understanding that takes into account complex relationships forming spectacle’s unity among various instances of production, consumption, distribution, and exchange. Along these lines Compton wants to criticize Debord’s idea that individuals are easily manipulated by the spectacle, highlighting instead an appreciation of the individual’s involvement in the reception and comprehension of the spectacle. Pointing out that in our complex culture of images the spectacle needs to be reinterpreted as spectacle-as-commodity, imbedded within the news-entertainment complex where the commodity’s aesthetization invariably contributes to broader structuring principles of human society, Compton outlines the details of this complex – identity, personality, lifestyle construction, taste, class – and examines how this social and cultural network contributes to the aesthetization of everyday life, referring to the totality of the media apparatus as “the logic of the spectacle.”
This implementational logic is related by Compton to Andrew Wernick’s discussion of the use of the spectacle in terms of “promotional culture.”5 For Compton this is a key notion anchoring all his arguments: the spectacle needs to be understood as a result of the practical use of the spectacular commodity, marketed as both production and promotion, that is, as an integrated system of production/promotion. This is an important issue, as well as one of the principal contributions of this book, in that it touches upon two sets of problems that are becoming increasingly relevant for visual culture. We can locate the fulcrum of the problem first of all in the issue of realism, or more specifically, in the manner in which reality is increasingly shaped by technology. According to Jean-François Lyotard, failure to adhere to popular conditions of the constituted codes of reality would affect the loss of what we heretofore called audience in that the spectator is now fully implicated in the construction of reality. Since reality is shaped to echo its own performativity, it constitutes its own self-legitimation.6 Although Compton does not mention Lyotard, his discussions on the news spectacle concur with Lyotard’s important observations. Lyotard’s theory of a dynamic fit between reality and self-legitimizing performativity coincides with Compton’s analysis of the integrated nature of the modern spectacle as being complexly imbricated in a precalculated and planned network of media strategies, what Compton calls the promotional logic of the spectacle. For Lyotard, performativity grows as the amount of information grows, exemplifying the links between power, forms of legitimation, and the growth of knowledge. For Compton, the logic of the spectacle, particularly in its manifestation in news media, lies in its performative self-promotional integration as participatory reality. This sensitive reading of spectacle does not minimize the problem into a simple post-modern rubric of Orwellian control and surveillance, (remember this was Compton’s critique of a reductive reading of Debord), rather Compton’s reading is aware that the integrated spectacle exploits the complex production web within media and related promotional networks as well as the viewer’s complex interpretive participation in the spectacle’s meanings.
Moreover, Compton touches on the second key issue that haunts any reading of media and visual culture: the powerful possibility that reality and its reception are designed. He implicitly describes the workings of today’s ubiquitous design culture as a web of empowering clusters of interpretation pervading the production, promotion, and reception of reality. In this sense, spectacles such as Princess Diana’s death, the Élian Gonzáles case, and the Monika Lewinsky scandal are not interpreted by Compton simply as manipulations by the media but as dynamic, complex, interpretative constellations of planning, production, and aesthetizising – culturally empowered spectacles that are constitutive of both economic and social efficacy as much for the benefit of the media, as for the public. For Compton, the integrated spectacle is thus always a function of a larger political economy of cultural performance. This economy is analyzed in the most detailed chapters of the book through close historical and critical analysis of the news spectacle. Journalism and media studies are obviously Compton’s area of expertise, and his thorough analysis betrays as much. Compton discusses the history of the news spectacle from the notion of the human-interest story through its various manifestations in printed media, broadcast news, and cable television. He touches upon such topics as the integration of marketing, promoting, and production of news events as well as the impact of deregulation on the workings of the integrated news complex, including what he calls the strategy of convergence through cable/satellite TV and the World Wide Web. This last issue is further articulated through Compton’s analysis of “the myth of variety,” the camouflaged hegemony of media convergence through the putative quantification of media “choice.” The book’s last sections explore the news spectacle’s contributions to the anesthetization of politics, including the integrated spectacle of war. As Compton puts it: “to understand the performance of politics we must first grasp the politics of performance” (137).This is not a new topic, and at times the analysis is repetitive and not as nuanced as it might be, especially in Compton’s treatment of Debord and Bourdieu. Nonetheless, this is the most important chapter in the book in that it crystallizes Compton’s thesis that the promotional logic of the spectacle needs to be understood in its full complexity within the matrix of various social fields, everyday life, the economy, journalism, politics, and the realm of the personal.
Although more descriptive, than prescriptive, which might bother some readers, this valuable and suggestive study forges new critical ground that crosses the fields of journalism, media and communication studies, and critical theory. Suggesting an alternative model for the assessment of news media as spectacle, Compton contributes to an increasingly important topic in visual culture at a time when we are becoming more aware of the efficacy of the aesthetic as a powerful mediating cultural conduit in political practice.7