The more I watched the Olympics unfold, the more I thought there must be something here for psychoanalysis. And if I had to start anywhere it would be with the opening and closing ceremonies, because these seemed to set both the tone and the parameters for this event. Although perhaps the word ‘spectacle’ might be more appropriate than ‘event’, because more than anything else these games were a triumph of the spectacle – and, more specifically, of the image.
At risk of stating the obvious, 99% of spectators of the games experienced them through the media, or, rather, through various forms of media. These were the Virtual Games, befitting the Virtual Experience that passes for real (social) life in the early twenty first century. And even for those lucky enough to be present at one of the venues (and before anyone asks, yes, I did have a ticket for the main stadium), much of this experience was still refracted through an array of media technologies, i.e. giant video screens, ongoing commentary and, of course, all that rock music constantly thumping out, albeit through an excellent sound system.
Not that there’s anything new in this, of course – just remember Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s masterpiece of propaganda in the 1930s. Again, this was really about the triumph of the spectacle and the image. However, it’s been a while in this country since there has been such a concerted and sustained effort to project an image of national unity and, dare I say it, greatness. Yes, there were the Diamond Jubilee celebrations a couple of months ago, but somehow these seem to pale into comparison with spectacle that has been dominating our lives over the last fortnight, not to mention the build up over the last six months or so.
With regards to the opening ceremony, this was (apparently) a potted, and very selective, ‘history’ of Britain since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. However, from where I was sitting it seemed far more a pastiche of Britishness, in true post-modern tradition, which passed off as history. In other words, a set of images that, taken together, comprised a (loosely formed) narrative of what it is to be ‘British’. In spite of what the Daily Mail might have us believe, this was no Marxist history of Britain. Rather, it was more akin to a substitute for history – an experience that the main characters of Trainspotting would undoubtedly feel at home with (was Danny Boyle being more ironic than we realise?)
As far as the closing ceremony goes, this seemed to be more of the same, although the focus here was a potted ‘history’ of British pop music, i.e. more pastiche. And in between? For two weeks, especially if you happened to be watching the BBC or reading the mainstream newspapers, normal life was suspended, with even The Guardian appearing to have lost its critical faculties for once. Instead we were subjected to a veritable feast of spectacles and images, loosely held together by endless commentary. The media seemed to be full of apologists for the Olympics, and apologies from those who had started off being sceptical about the whole thing but somewhere along the line underwent their own conversion experience. Truly a triumph of (the will of) the spectacle.