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Maggie Nelson’s Spectatorship Theory Essay

The term spectatorship traditionally refers to the act of watching something without taking part. “Image flow” represents this idea of spectatorship where individuals mindlessly scroll through images and videos to fill the gaps in their day (Nelson 304). Maggie Nelson, author of “Great to Watch” presents the term “image flow” as the act of scrolling through social media and being in a constant state of “extremity”, either angry shock or boredom (300-311).

However, she progresses her argument from disgust at the “desensitization” caused by the frequency of being in that state of “extremity” to exemplifying individuals and ideas that fall outside of those extremes (Nelson 300). Nelson’s notion of spectatorship, which identifies the self, is in direct relation to Malcolm Gladwell’s theories of context. Gladwell, author of “The Power of Context,” suggests that direct physical environment, the “context of the situation”, molds an individual’s morals and the way he or she perceives the world altogether (149-162).

Author Jean Twenge’s idea of entitlement in, “An Army of One: Me” serves as a foundation that holds together Gladwell and Nelson’s effect of a created context (486-505). The individuals feel that they are entitled to the information provided and by viewing the videos or images and taking action or voicing their opinion they are empowered, raising their self-esteem. Active spectatorship creates a context in which individuals feel the need to take part of a movement, forging a chain reaction in motivating more activism from others, changing their decisions and beliefs, and thus molding the self.

The essential aspect that forms the complexity of the self is environment. Environment is usually described as an individual’s immediate surroundings because it sets up the context of the individual’s life, influencing thought process and behavior. When examining the Zimbardo prison experiment, Gladwell inquires, “How much influence does immediate environment have on the way people behave? ” (Gladwell 158). Gladwell uses the term “environment” to describe an individual’s immediate surroundings. However, with each change to environment, the individual’s behavior evolves because the environment causes a separate reaction that alters behavior.

Gladwell’s description of the outcome that each different environment causes exemplifies the importance of context to an individual’s development and overall self. Taking this defining concept of environment, Maggie Nelson’s usage of “image flow”, which causes reactions from individuals, is seen as an environment itself. Image flow creates a context that ultimately changes the experience of the spectators watching the video or viewing the image. Nelson quotes political activist Susan Sontag who states, “that we live in an age of extremity”(Nelson 306).

The images are said to cause a reaction that is described as extreme, either boredom or anger. Sontag fails to take into account that even though viewing images and videos makes you a spectator because you are not currently in the physical environment, individuals absorb the information and it changes their thought process. Nelson argues that “image flow” is only described by the traditional notion of spectatorship. However, the outcome of “image flow” surpasses the traditional notion of spectatorship, merely watching, because it changes the individuals’ beliefs, it forms a reaction not only mindless scrolling.

The act of being involved and wanting to be a part of a greater change is contagious. People don’t like that there are so many injustices in the world. Wanting to live in a better place is only natural for human beings. Being exposed to constant issues does not “[desensitize]” people (Nelson 304). Instead, it makes them want to be active in the situation and be a part of the change. The context created by these images and videos forms a change in the individual. Gladwell examines a study in which students were told that they were either on time or late to a presentation, depending on this they would either help or ignore a homeless man.

Gladwell then stated, “epidemics are, at their root, about the process of this transformation” (Gladwell 161). His use of the word “epidemics” implies a spread of this “transformation” as a result of the context of the situation. The context of our world is constantly shifting because of the immense amount of media exposure. Nelson argues that the exposure and spectatorship is no longer a problem when stating, “[society has] gotten wildly off course by treating the condition of spectatorship as a problem” when it has become the solution to mindless “watching” (Nelson 307).

The “condition of spectatorship” has undergone this “process of transformation” and the product of this change is an “epidemic. ” Individuals exposed to injustices want to be a part of the change. This transformation of spectatorship leads the world into a new era. It has produced a new generation, “Generation Me” (Twenge 488). Though superficially this generation may seem as nothing more than narcissistic individuals, it is these individuals that transformed this notion of spectatorship.

Twenge examines the Baby Boomer Generation and states that the “[Boomer generation is] followed by those who perfected [individualism]” by “[reinventing] their way of thinking” (Twenge 490). This “individualism” is represented through speech, “using language full of abstraction, introspection and ‘growth’” (Twenge 488). The Baby Boomers described their generation movement through words that represent an internal “growth. ” They had an introspective mentality that kept them from being the generation to truly voice their opinions.

Generation Me is “[offered] images and ideas from that other level, that other way of being,” that “other level” being the injustices seen world wide (Nelson 310). They are “offered” horrible images that they can choose to ignore, displaying the traditional notion of spectatorship, watching and moving on, but they don’t simply ignore the issues. The Baby Boomers added the first pebble to this mountain of change but it is Generation Me that has utilized “image flow” to voice their opinion. They are the individuals behind the active spectatorship, those that reside in the grey area between Sontag’s extremes.

The Self of these individuals evolved from that of their parents and instead of following the habits of the previous generation, they themselves transformed by becoming more aware and utilizing their opinionated generation to raise their voice against injustices. In many cases, humans can be seen as sadists. They watch videos or search images of horrendous crimes and gore that they do not have influence over. Most individuals are in a position in society where they are incapable of doing anything because of the complexity of the problem and the fact that they are only one person in the face of many injustices.

This feeling of incompetence does not satisfy individuals, therefore, they go out and try to do something in order to feel as though they are a part of the positive movement. Nelson examines Blue Servo’s Virtual Border Watch Program where “spectatorship is not so much abolished as it is recast as a form of empowerment” (Nelson 303). Recast is defined as a change, a change to what spectatorship is. Blue Servo takes pride in remodeling spectating and making it hands on so that the individuals watching can feel as though they are doing something.

However, this notion of involvement can be seen outside of BlueServo on websites like the HUB, where individuals can post videos of any injustices witnessed, because people are being informed and are voicing their opinions. This generation likes to be heard. They like people to know what they think. Voicing their beliefs not only makes them feel like concerned people, and therefore better citizens, but it also creates a front to the rest of society of how much they care about the injustices surrounding them.

Jean Twenge expresses her views on narcissism, stating that “[This generation] also feels entitled to special privileges and believes that they are superior to other people” (Twenge 504 ). Twenge’s notion of entitlement is the foundation for active spectatorship. This generation’s need to be heard and let everyone around them know their opinion fuels the movement of not only watching and forgetting, but taking part and understanding the issues around them in order to voice their opinions and make a change.

This in turn makes them seem knowledgeable and involved, giving them a feeling of “superiority” over other individuals who do not voice their opinions. Though the activism might not stem from simple good-will, the videos still provide the viewers with international knowledge and through their support of the injustices, their thought process on the subject may change and they become more aware of their decisions, proof of the transformation of the self.

The context forged by active spectatorship sparks the reaction of infectious activism that changes an individual’s self. The movement of the generation, the need to be heard and acknowledged, strengthens the importance and positive results of spectatorship. Generation Me rejects incompetence and refuses to sink in the shadows of traditional “spectatorship”. This entitled generation is what has given the traditional view of spectatorship a new definition outside of simply “watching” conflict.

Through their own justification on why they voice their opinions on matters, it nevertheless falls into the same category of a major change in generations. This change has “transformed” the individuals from bystanders to activists. It altered their behavior and decision making towards conflict. Nelson’s notion of spectatorship inspires a change in the individuals of today, of Generation Me. Her notion is the product of the “transformation” in the self of the individuals and their reactions towards the injustices they’ve “witnessed. “

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