BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 05 MAY 09
Featured in
Issue 123

All that Glitters

Disco balls and the society of the spectacle

BY Jennifer Allen in Opinion | 05 MAY 09

Okay, here’s my crazy idea: The disco ball foretold the society of the spectacle. Sure, Guy Debord laid down the theory, whereby spectacles come to mediate all social relations. But the disco ball encapsulates the society of the spectacle in a more concise – and global – way than any theorem. If I’d peered into the disco ball instead of concentrating on John Travolta’s groin during Saturday Night Fever (1977), why, I could have predicted a whole spate of future phenomena, from the celebrity cult to the digital image.

First: The disco ball is a gently rotating globe, like planet Earth itself, although without Earth’s tipped axis. Despite the sparkly mirrors, what could be more natural than a mini-planet spinning endlessly – or at least until closing time? With its planet-like appearance, the disco ball not only mimicks the global reach of today’s society of the spectacle but also reflects our tendency to view the spectacle’s omnipotence as natural. And are there any other planet-balls orbiting in the disco solar system? No. Like the spectacle, the disco ball takes the spotlight while defining the centre of the stage.

Second: The disco ball produces stars. Tons of them. Just flash a few lights at the ball and, whammo, the club becomes an instant night sky – a galaxy with more stars than ‘Big Brother’ and ‘American Idol’ combined. With this instantaneous stellar production, the disco ball manifests the society of the spectacle’s creation of celebrities, high and low. And the speed of the spectacle. After all, the disco ball’s stars move at next-to-instant rates. Who ever saw Venus or the Big Dipper move that fast across the night sky? These are not falling stars. As television show Dancing With the Stars attests, the spectacle knows only comets which return periodically for a guest appearance.

Third: However spherical, the disco ball is ultimately made up of little square mirrors: like the pixel of the digital image, the universal format for storing and transmitting spectacles. Both the disco ball and the spectacle combine the global perspective with the individual perspective in a show of populism. No view is too large or small; the large can always be broken down into the small.

Courtesy: Catherine Booker/PYMCA

The connection between the disco ball and the society of the spectacle is closer to a functional affiliation than a metaphor. It’s as if the disco ball were a miniature with an exceptional perspective onto the society of the spectacle, which can never be seen in its totality. Perhaps my crazy idea is a bit like watching a boiling kettle to understand cloud formation, albeit before satellite weather maps. First popularised in the 1920s, the disco ball predates Debord’s theories from 1967. But as its heyday came later with the proliferation of pop throughout culture from the 1970s on, the disco ball seems to have updated Debord for the vastly larger communication network of globalization. That leads to some troubling insights, beyond a holographic Bee Gees reunion.

For all its resemblances with planet Earth, the disco ball is not the kind of globe where one can find a country, like Italy, or a geographical landmark, like Hudson Bay, let alone calculate the distance from one place to another. Every point on the disco ball looks like every other point on the disco ball. In other words, it’s a globe where all differences and distances have been erased. A flat earth – which both collects images and allows them to be viewed – seems to be the goal of the spectacle itself.

As the sole planet in its solar system, the disco ball takes over the central position of the sun while relegating all other bodies, including spotlights, DJs and dancers, to orbit around it. While dependent on light for its visibility, the ball reduces lights to a secondary position, whereby the reflection through the ball is more important than the source. The spectacle similarly thrives on redistribution.

The disco ball expresses the spectacle’s domination not only spatially but also temporally. The ball does not take 24 hours to rotate, nor does it spin to the music. It rotates of its own accord – in both directions – and can come to a full stop. Like the ball, the spectacle liberates itself from the natural cycles of day and night, only to define time.

If you look closely at a disco ball, you see your own face along with anyone and anything around you. The ball is a world freed from geography as well as from content. However omnipresent and omnipotent, both the disco ball and the spectacle simply reflect what happens around them and never produce images of themselves. That’s the secret of domination. Indeed, it’s impossible only to observe the spectacle-ball. Looking automatically makes you a part of its universe, whether you’re standing still or doing the Hustle.

Main image: Bucharest, Romania. Courtesy and photograph: Andrei Percu / EyeEm

Jennifer Allen is a writer and critic based in Berlin.