Media MA student reflects on media spectacle and crisis
BY Cassia McAreavey, MA Global Media and Communication
In this era of rapid technological advancement, critical commentaries from as little as five years ago quickly lose relevance. It’s not surprising, we are in a period of constant updates. But Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” (1965) is among the few exceptions. While written over fifty years ago, it is one work that has but gained in significance and applicability in today’s digital age. It is uncanny that Sontag notes one of the primary 1960s’ anxieties reflected by the science fiction genre was “in man’s ability to be turned into a machine” (47). Therefore, the piece fittingly appeals to emotion as Sontag recognizes and addresses the film’s psychologically contentious appeal. It is in this way that she presents a thorough argument, revealing the fine but ambiguous lines between what we enjoy as media, what is mediated and what is reality. As for the limitations of the essay; I suppose they fall primarily on its supposition of the audience’s naivety in finding the predictable utopian plotlines believable at all, and in their ascribed position of “merely spectators” (45). In addition, it raises the question of how these “depressing” (42) findings may be remedied but leaves us without answers – but perhaps there are none. In any case, her argument stands on the basis that it is, moreover, through these films’ repetition and in their insistence on “a dispassionate, aesthetic view of destruction and violence – a technological view” of real-world anxieties and conflicts that the worrying problem of de-humanization arises (45). Crucially, this essay provides an original, evocative and, I believe, very necessary insight; by turning the viewing process towards the audience and encouraging us to see more than surface-level “spectacle in disaster”, be it in art, film or print; fictionalized or otherwise.
Sontag gives us a tangible warning. Through a philosophical social commentary and analysis of the science fiction film genre, she uses an example of her time that remains as something most of us can relate to. (The Day After Tomorrow being the first film that springs to my mind). Referencing a vast selection of films released in the 1950s and 1960s, for example The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1962), she concludes that “science fiction films are not about science”, but rather, they have two recurring themes; disaster and de-personalization (44). Hence, Sontag’s final summation is a disturbing one. She shows that in presenting us with a nightmare that is “too close to our reality”, science fiction films are “in complicity with the abhorrent”, for not only do they serve to de-sensitize us to it, but “they neutralize it” (48). If “ours is indeed an age of extremities” (42) with a whole host of real destruction and chaos, Sontag importantly puts the focus on the audience of these films, cautioning of the danger “fantasy” fiction presents by “normalizing what is psychologically unbearable, [and] thereby inuring us to it” (42). The effect, she argues, is that our reactions in the real world are no longer adequate.
While Sontag retains an analytical though non-critical approach in her discussion of the genre as an artform, she does not shy away from expressing the more worrying concerns and dilemmas that our indulgence in these films present, nor the damaging effects of how and what they represent. Her analysis highlights an inherent disconnect within our consumption of this genre. On the one hand, she argues that they provide us with escapism, “releasing [one] from normal obligations” (45) in exchange for being wholly consumed by fantastical adventures that pivot on world destruction and its saving. On the other, they represent something more sinister for, increasingly, with growing “technicolor” credibility, they simultaneously “reflect worldwide anxieties, and they serve to allay them”, to the point that this escapism is now synonymous with a “strange apathy” to our own suffering (42, 48).
What’s more is that this essay reflexively makes its point in a particular temporality. It emerged in 1965, during a period of major events and change worldwide; with the memory of WW2 arguably still tangible, the rise of the Civil Rights Era and the feminist liberation movement, advancements in space exploration, and nationalism, all within the Cold War setting. In 1965, this history could be seen in the threat “not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically – collective incineration and extinction…”, reflecting the period’s warfare realities of nuclear bombs and mass genocide (48). Applying Sontag’s logic then, as an example, it is likely that the film Contagion (2011) was inspired by and reflective of the effect of the 2009 Swine flu pandemic (47). And if her logic has any merit, for those unconvinced, let us wait to see that the next disasters of the science fiction film will reflect a new age of anxieties, dominated not only by a mutating virus, but possibly even a crisis of existentialism and anxiety itself.
Despite being written prior to the intensified interest in Media Studies research, Sontag’s analysis – though lacking in specific references – could be aligned with the works of Walter Lippmann and critical cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall, among others and is apt for the current moment of spectacles and multiple crisis. The necessary warning of our “de-personalized” indulgence in mediatized disasters that Sontag describes touches on critical debates surrounding the hegemonic and agentic relationship between the audience and media (48). Additionally, Sontag’s observations could also apply when considered in terms of the mediation and mediatization of war and conflict, with the effect that certain repeated frames -such as repeated discourses of victimization and/or criminality used to depict certain crises – effectively erase their validity by over-exposing, numbing and de-personalizing the subject: the reality. We need only to consider the impact of ritual daily reportage on COVID-19 deaths and case numbers.
But more worryingly, Sontag forces me now to ask: why it is that in the face of constant racism, misogyny and violence that our attention is only really grabbed by extreme calamity, akin to the life/death crux moment of any science fiction film you’ve seen. From the highly publicized disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard in the UK to the recent “surge” in race-related hate crimes and murders, there is something unsettling about what grabs our attention, who grabs it and when it is grabbed. Perhaps more unnerving again, is the question of what this attention means. Is it just another spectacle, another heart-racing headline – a feeling of fear-induced adrenaline set to be forgotten, from the moment the top headline is replaced on the front page, by some other tragedy of this day and age. We need to start asking ourselves why it is that we are blind to the horrors that unfold daily; why does it take a dramatic and tragic spectacle to bring some semblance of reality into view? That is, if indeed it ever becomes more than just that, mere spectacle. At what point do we disconnect from the numbers, and the suffering of our humanity, and humanize the victims; to see their faces and their names, whether there is one victim or one hundred; on the street or the top news of the day. At what point do we become more than “mere spectators” – if we ever become more than that. We need to start asking, what is it, really, that brings us to action, beyond the hyper-polarized frames of the digital screen; and the fictions of our imaginations.
Image credit: “slomuse is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms”, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/
Image caption: Harlan Ellison at podium: 14th World Science Fiction Convention, 1956. Image # WSFS_001