When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently announced they were closing down their traveling acts, more than a few articles observed the irony of the end of a classic American amusement coinciding with the beginning of the Trump presidency. In the society of the spectacle, a three-hour circus extravaganza that for many families was the entertainment highlight of the year—an occasion for which they might travel hours or days to witness—was buried in an avalanche of daily distractions one can plug into at any given time. So pervasive has the imperative of the spectacle become that even the political process by which the United States chooses its president delivers more “thills, chills and spills” than the travelling Big Top that once had a monopoly on such amusement. The conclusion one might draw from this observation was that the greatest show on earth could no longer compete with the spectacularized politics of the most powerful nation on earth.
How did this happen? How did so many facets of daily life, including the presidential race that gave us the Trumpire, morph into a world where the elements of the circus–flying trapeze, death-defying stunts with wild (and, alas, abused) animals and whimsical clown cars–rather than be a rare and treasured opportunity for amusement become the sin qua non of contemporary existence. Perhaps a good place to start is with the circus itself.
With its roots in the gladiator games and chariot races of the Roman Empire, the circus has long been understood as the purest form of mass entertainment and amusement. And while few frowned on an occasional visit to the big top, the circus itself was seen as an unsavory assemblage of gypsies, bohemians, roustabouts and vagabonds who were beneath the dignity and aspirations of the more well-to-do. To want to join the circus was a sign of either desperation or defunct moral character. Observe the reaction of Mr Gradgrind, the headmaster of a primary school in the fictional industrial burg of Coketown in the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, when he asks one of his new students about the occupation of his father:
“Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”
“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir”
Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand. “We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here.”
As fate would have it, who should Mr. Gradgrind see as he walked back to his house peeking through a hole in a fence trying to get a look at the newly arrived circus performers but “his own metallurgical Louisa…and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act!” The horror by which this respectable bourgeois gentleman expresses upon discovering his own children loitering around a drab vacant lot trying to catch a glimpse of a troupe of disreputable performers indicates the low esteem such entertainments held in “respectable” society. Such distractions were to be judiciously avoided in favor of Christian morality, utilitarian virtues, and sober rationality.
Dickens’ novel (as Dickens’ own life) was set in the early age of industrialization—a time when Great Britain saw its society radically transformed by the building of a mass manufacturing capability and the privileging of a merchant, banker and industrialist class that built, financed and maintained these new economic assets. In their rise to a dominant position in British society, this collection of enterprising innovators brought with them a set of liberal values that emphasized efficiency, competence and merit over the decadence, ostentation and opulence of the traditional aristocracy. Entertainment and distraction may have had their place in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of daily life, they were a drag on the business of maximizing output and “getting things done.” Hence the disdain Mr. Grandgrind—a bourgeois gentleman par excellence—expresses when one of his new students turns out to be the daughter of one of the reviled circus “freaks” and his own children are jockeying around each other to steal a glance of these same “freaks” shortly thereafter. In this setting—early industrial capitalism—Debord’s notion of the spectacle has little purchase because what amusement and entertainment that does exist is disdained.
So what changes? Put simply, the passage of time—history. One can read the books of scholars like Eric Hobsbawm to get all the details, but in essence, the concrete, social and ideological assemblage of power that defined early industrial capitalism morphed over the decades into the assemblage of power that defines a new manifestation of capitalism and international politics. In this new assemblage of power, supplies begin to outstrip demand as advances in manufacturing eliminate the old problems of scarcity in the market. Industrialists are faced with new pressures to stimulate demand in order to sell the surplus they find sitting idly in their warehouses. One solution to this problem was export overseas, but the challenge of international competition and the dangers of colonial rivalry limit this option. After World War II, a new solution emerges—consumerism.
Consumerism was an ideal way of solving the problem of the supply glut in the wake of the world wars and the Great Depression. However, a general population versed in the virtues of frugality and thrift needed encouragement to let their inner shopper out. Enter at this time an army of advertisers and marketers and public relations gurus to promote and glamorize this abundance of consumer goods. At the center of this effort at evoking the imagery of the consumerist utopia were grand visionaries like Walt Disney who sought to find innovative new ways of showcasing the fantasies of luxury and contentment to the masses in the United States and beyond. This drive to more vividly represent the pleasures of material abundance led first to Disney’s primary innovation of the theme park, and then the effort at designing and constructing substantial portions of the World’s Fair in New York in 1964.
Consumerism then, represents a new assemblage of power that combines new understandings of what constitute sound economic and political thinking. The haughtiness and hauteur of the Victorian Age, of which Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind is an early exhibitor, gives way to the shameless shopper of retail goods or impulsive procurer of extravagant experience. And lurking in the shadows of this consumer abundance are banks and creditors eager to lend money to those who want the trappings of the good life but find their eyes are wider than their salaries.
The need to stir this spending is where Guy Debord’s spectacle gets hatched. Taking advantage of increasingly powerful media technologies combined with consolidating corporate monopolies and states armed with nuclear weapons, a new assemblage of power takes shape in a new historical era that has the same basic DNA as the old era, but has evolved into something much different. It is in this context that the circus goes from a seedy but fascinating show of derring-do to a yawn-inducing tedium. Why pay for a ticket to see a lion tamer when there is a show called “When Animals Attack” on television for free (spliced of course with beer and cheap auto insurance ads). Why spend money to watch acrobats when there are any number of athletic competitions being shown on television live (again with substantial commercial interruption)? And why go to a smelly circus tent to see clowns engage in slapstick with each other when the spectacle of American politics gives us the presidential campaign that had devolved into its own vulgar burlesque? Many would like to see a change to this situation, but like the death of the circus, the death of farcical politics will end only with an escape from the society of the spectacle and the assemblage of power it represents.
The good news on this front is that history continues to march on, and we can already see how the passage of time has changed the spectacle in different ways. Examining these changes is now the task of this space.
 See Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848, New York: Mentor, 1962, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875. New York: Vintage, 1976, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914. New York: Pantheon, 1987, and The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. New York: Vintage, 1994.