The Ritual of Provocation II – Creating Spectacle and Presence

In this second part of the three part series on the recent Quran burning I will focus more on the role of the political entrepeneurs themselves, how they create a stage and, even more so, a public by creating rituals of provocation (explained in part I). Because who knew pastor Jones before his plan last year of burning the Quran? Who knew the Jylland-Posten outside Denmark before the Muhammad Cartoons? Who knew Hirsi Ali before her film Submission (and the murder on TV director Van Gogh)? Wilders rose to great heights with his film Fitna.

Media all over the over world have covered the media events of Fitna and the Quran burning, it is discussed on numerous websites and newspapers. What these entrepeneurs have done is opening a space of appearance and connecting otherwise unconnected people into a community. They have turned different conflicts, identities and power structures into one common problem that requires action. The use of key symbols such as the Quran and the prophet Muhammad in a derogatory way in film, drawings and media coverage, as explained in the previous post on rituals of provocation, catches the eyes and minds of the audience and gives them a sense of urgency, drama and sensation. The common conflict (with Islam) that is part of the message brings the allies from all over the world closer to each other while it further alienates Muslims as the ultimate other. It is furthermore significant that most of the entrepeneurs do not only create an antagonistic message about Muslims but also about the political status quo and elites in their own country. Both the demonizing of Muslims and questioning the existing social order disrupts the normality of every day life and more or less guarantees media coverage and thus seige the political space (see Zeynep Gambetti).

Guy Debord’s landmark study on consumer culture, The Society of the Spectacle can shed some light on the above mentioned aspects of the Quran burning (but also think about the Muhammad Cartoons and even more so Fitna) and the role of the media. Debord sees the spectacle as the domination of every aspect of human life by corporate capitalism. The spectacle according to Debord is ‘The Spectacle, according to Debord, is “the world of illusion where all attention and consciousness converge.’

At Thus Spoke the Spectacle we can find a very interesting and provoking examples of how Spectacle works. This site has several videos dedicated to the theme of ‘radical media literacy for the digital age’.They quote Debord’s Comments on the society of the spectacle:

“In all that has happened in the last twenty years, the most important change lies in the very continuity of the spectacle. This has nothing to do with its perfecting of its media instruments, which had already reached a highly advanced stage of development: it means quite simply that the spectacle’s domination has succeeded in raising a whole generation molded to its laws. The extraordinary new conditions in which this entire generation has effectively lived constitute a precise and comprehensive summary of all that, henceforth, the spectacle will forbid; and also all that it will permit.”

According to the people behind the website ‘The videos of Thus Spoke The Spectacle explore these “extraordinary new conditions” under which we live.’

This world of illusion is dominated by images of commercialized community: happy, well-adjusted people connected in meaningful and satisfying ways through the shows they watch and the products they consume.

The reality, Debord argues, is a mass of alienated individuals separated from themselves, from each other, and from a genuine experience of life.

Separation Perfected combines Debord’s philosophy with a visual representation of the world he critiques.


As explained in the previous post movies like Fitna and Submission, the Quran burning and the Muhammad Cartoons and their subsequent media coverage do not depict happiness, but rather the opposite. Their message is not one of communitas but is adversarial. We have seen a similar thing during the events that led to the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies.

“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”

– Adolf Hitler

In a poll of U.S. citizens taken just after September 11th, 2001, only three percent responded “Iraq” or “Saddam Hussein” when asked who they believed was responsible for the terrorist attacks.

By January of 2003, 44 percent of Americans polled reported the belief that either “most” or “some” of the September 11th hijackers were Iraqi. No hard evidence to support the notion of Iraqi involvement was offered in the interim, and in fact the official account from the beginning reported no Iraqis among the perpetrators.

What can account for such a dramatic change in perception?

Answer: Incessant, aggressive propaganda, backed by constant repetition, the full “authority” of the administration, and a near complete lack of scrutiny or verification on the part of the mainstream media.

In 2003, suggesting that the administration was willfully creating the impression of imminent danger to drum up support for an already planned war of aggression was considered by many Americans ludicrous, “anti-American,” and unpatriotic.

To suggest the same now, when it’s too late to avert the tragedy, is considered common sense by some original supporters who are nonetheless still willing to buy into a similar script recycled for an attack on Iran.

WMD Blues portrays the propaganda campaign leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It is offered in the hope that the kind of misinformation, disinformation, innuendo, and outright lies that led to the war may be less persuasive the next time around.

George Bush himself provides the moral at the end.


WMD Blues is constructed from the pronouncements of the Bush administration, its accomplices in right-wing think tanks, and obedient journalists across the political spectrum.

Note the musicality of well-constructed propaganda: how the melody, rhythm, and cadences of the soundbites work to create a storyline that convinced millions of Americans of the threat of Iraq despite an entire lack of credible evidence.


In Debord’s work the WMD propaganda but I think also the media events of Fitna and the Quran burning are to be seen as the ‘Integrated Spectacle’ whereby political entrepeneurs invent an enemy that is to be compared with ‘liberal democracy’ implicitly ‘proving’ the superiority of the latter. In particular pictures of violence by Muslims are essential because they make the liberal democratic society perfect and superior by default; it doesn’t really matter whether the violence is part of the original message (like in Fitna) or is a reaction on the propaganda. In the course of the media event they will be woven into one ‘image bite‘: the violent, irrational, fanatic Muslim who will easily resort to violence when provoked.

What is different (compared to the WMD propaganda) of course with regard the Quran burning and Fitna and so on, is that the makers of these events are not part of the political status quo. In order to create a public presence they break out of the ‘normal’ rules of liberal democratic participation by using deliberately insulting and provocative slogans and images. As such they remain outsiders to the mainstream politics and publics which is necessary in order not to be encapsulated by the system and subsequently toning down their voice and contents.

The use of film by people like Hirsi Ali, Wilders and the strategies used to reach to the media (in the case of the Quran burning) are well-informed attempts to be part of a spectacle and to create an ‘image event’. DeLuca (1999) uses the phrase “image event” to refer to the media tactics of social movements. I do not think he meant Fitna and the Muhammad Cartoons to be ‘image events’ (take Greenpeace’s campaigns in media as prime example of such staged events) but Deluca’s analysis which shows that such events are examples of rhetoric that combines the verbal with the visual in order to achieve “critique through spectacle” (DeLuca 1999:22) is applicable here as well. Such ‘image’ events are usually about providing ‘fragments of arguments’ that break away from the established order, in this case on the one hand it taps into ‘common sense’ ideas about multiculturalism and Islamization while offering an alternative to analysis and explanations coming from what is perceived as the political elite who is giving ‘our’ culture away.

The particular images used in ‘image events’ can be seen as ‘image bites’ having similar persuasive effects as sound bites on viewers and their political understandings, in particular when it involves negative compelling images that elicit danger, fear, or disgust. The power of the visual rhetoric is, among other things, that it makes the message almost incontestable because reality is reduced in such a way as to be seen as inherent in the way things are. It turns complex issues into messages that appeal to people’s common sense.

Next week, part III: Counter-reactions

  1. The ritual of provocation I – Burn, burn the Quran!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *