A meretricious glitter lies over the whole of this civilisation.1
The victory, like the blood, is sweet.2
ROME wasn’t built in a day, but perhaps it only takes 24 hours to dismantle it. In contemporary life, where mobile devices exist as pervasive and near-permanent human prostheses, the increasing digitisation of communication and the corresponding embrace of “computationalism” ensure that human conceptions of reality are irreversibly mediatised.3 Objectivity spars with emotional appeal, and miscommunication runs rampant in digital discourse. And yet, to castigate online media, and hold it responsible for an unforeseen age of incivility, would be myopic. Violence may be more easily inflicted on the internet’s democratised playing field, but violent punishment—and its modes of representation—has long masqueraded [End page 49] as public entertainment. The Colosseum fixed bloodthirst at its very epicentre, yet famously redressed it as “gladiatorial spectacle,” to be fed to the public as bread and circuses.4 As Claudio Colaguori claims, to argue about the origin of violence in the contemporary world is to argue about its heritage, and not its genesis.5 Digital violence is a hybrid of all barbarism that has come before, and an augural reading of the apocalyptic phantasmagoria of our future. And the mediagon—a mass media invested in representing conflict and competition as entertainment—“replaces the ruined coliseum,” Colaguori claims, “with the virtual electronic architecture of the mediatised coliseum of consciousness.”6 While the digital realm is believed to be capable of elevating human life, its architectural heritage suggests the opposite: the coliseum’s brutal mandate is incarnate in the social dynamics of digital space.7 The degenerate effects of agon culture are spectacularly captured in “24 Hours,” an issue from Neil Gaiman’s seminal Sandman comic book series.8 Gaiman’s Sandman comic series follows the journey of Morpheus, or, the Lord of Dreams, as he returns to the Dream world after his exile. The text reveals that the virtual coliseum does mediatise us; by awakening our primal impulses, the mediagon peels back the buffed skin of human dignity to reveal the decaying skeleton of a wild animal.
Johan Huizinga suggests that, historically, part of the Colosseum’s spectacle hinged on its shifting of the “competitive impulse… from the protagonist to the spectator, who merely watches the struggle of others appointed for that purpose.”9 This transpositional logic is exacerbated in the modern virtual coliseum, which no longer provides mass entertainment that is staged and distributed by powerful conglomerates but is a digital stadium hosting vitriolic fights between online users. These fights take place in the context of online journalism, social media updates, and subculture threads on discussion websites like 4Chan and Reddit.10 Accordingly, the mediagon assumes its most dangerous form in the “open comments” section of online websites. In the paradigmatic comment thread, internet users relish the thrill of play, both by performing and by spectating. In online fights, public flagellation by way of having the last word fulfils the Latin adage, “damnatio ad bestias,” or the public mauling of convicts by wild animals. After all, in the mediagon, the roles of spectator, gladiator, and animal are inter[End page 50] changeable. Such behaviour suggests that our evolved human dignity is simply a veneer, an illusion eroded by the collective schadenfreude we feel when publicly “dragging” individuals.11
We see this manifested in “24 Hours,” which follows patrons inside an unassuming American diner as they descend into murder, debauchery, and chaos under the hypnotic control of a villain named Doctor Dee. The narrative arc of “24 Hours” is fractured into each hour within a 24-hour timeline, punctuated with interjections from television screens and radio soundbites that filter into the diner. Time is demarcated by these interruptions, as speech balloons from midday talk shows, the “News at Six,” and a late-night rerun of The Addams Family bleed into the frame. While the white noise of the 24-hour information cycle provides a soundtrack that is the foreground to human suffering, it also anchors and mediatises the organisation of real time.
Much like the graphic novel format, the online forum synchronises narrative and spectacle. In the Roman Colosseum, the imperial family was seated in the most visible section of the amphitheatre, ensuring that all attendees could see them. Such a privileged position showcased these elites in all their preeminence, vaunting the family in its supreme position of power. In many ways, the most protected position in the mediagon, though, is to be invisible, a position in which one is submerged beneath the roaring 24-hour information cycle.12 The Roman Colosseum’s architectural status quo, which saw senators seated on the floor and slaves quarantined to the nosebleed seats, is levelled in virtual space. There, “free speech” is exploited in all its glory while formal architectural devices collapse under the weight of a growing populace. Although the mediagon feeds competition, the absence of formal social strata, and of an infrastructure to reinforce it, allows control to be surrendered to the spectators at large.
Still, a powerful virtual prominence or “presence” is possible. By tweeting, the US President relishes the same visibility and attention that the imperial family sought in the Colosseum; and yet, anonymous members of the public may band together in mass protest against the President on democratised social media platforms.13 By commenting in these online forums, users contribute to an ongoing narrative [End page 51] while simultaneously staging a live “event spectacle.”14 Crowd-sourced spectacle proves that the model of the Colosseum is ruined; hungry mobs online do not turn to an imperial authority to save a life, nor to approve the execution of an individual, but rather now band together to enforce their own decisions through coercive methods.15
Similarly in “24 Hours,” Doctor Dee often lurks in a corner of the diner, or on the periphery of the comic book page itself, thus manipulating patrons from beyond their peripheral vision. Dee’s washed-out silhouette camouflages amid the palette of dull greens and greys, mirroring his indecipherable motives. He is hidden as a part of the crowd. The lack of centralised control—and frequently, personal accountability—makes the internet infamously anarchical, and yet simultaneously democratic: to surveil or police speech in such a space is labour-intensive and we, as a society, often fail to muster the collaborative energy. The digital forum is hardly ever inert: social media rejects autocracy and facilitates empathy, but it also provokes the angry mob. While the internet dismantles the historic elitism of an established intelligentsia, it is also true that, as Steve Fuller claims, the triumph of democratised information can unleash chaos and anger among the masses, albeit “the growth pains of maturing democratic intelligence.”16 Rather than entrusting a singular authority to decide the value of a life, the mediatised coliseum regularly crowd-sources its own violent narratives, inciting polemical voices to further fuel the spectacle.
The mediagon’s virtual architecture directs the online user’s line of sight—their perspective within information society—while also reshaping their role in the conditions of their environment. That is, perspective influences ontology. The interactive dimension of the internet hybridises the spectator as an actor once they click or tap a button. By moving through the digital sphere, the spectator generates a trail of data that confirms what knowledge they may access with their credentials—their identifying usernames and passwords.17 The symbiosis between perspective and identity is what Slavoj Žižek calls “architectural parallax”: he claims “there is a coded message in formal architectural play,” a kind of “political unconsciousness” that [End page 52] manipulates individuals who interact with a structure.18 In the Roman Colosseum, the spectacle is walled in by the amphitheatre’s elliptical seating structure. And since different social classes are allocated specific spaces (and perhaps, in modern amphitheatres, through the symbolic assignment of number), access to its functions and spaces is regulated, much as access to a website is regulated by usernames and passwords.
The roar of the ancient Colosseum echoes in the public, agonal clashes of today’s online spaces; likewise, we can decipher a digital genetic code in the old Colosseum’s architecture. In the mediagon, avatar communities offer individuals the freedom to reinterpret personal identity under the veil of anonymity through a fictitious username. By exploiting their anonymity, users may speak without inhibition, but this evidently ripples into the pack mentality of digital communities. In his diagnosis of the internet’s malignant “coarsening of social discourse,” Frank Rose identifies anonymous online commentary, along with “assorted other Net-native ills,” as central symptoms of the “general Web-induced civilizational decline.”19 Consider Reddit’s Incel subthread, an insular community founded on a shared claim of the victimhood of “involuntary celibacy”; and yet, as Angela Nagle notes, this community is still capable of mobilising young men to “organise tactics around the idea of fighting back against the culture war being waged by the cultural left.”20 The prescription of a sacred philosophy between Incel members is a matter of ritual, a dogma that aligns with Huizinga’s assessment of ritual as the nexus of Roman ludic culture.21 What is ritual is sacred, and what is sacred must be protected.22 Incel jargon alienates outer society by compartmentalising others as “Stacies,” “Chads,” and “Normies,” while at the same time consolidating Incel subthreads, which operate as training schools for ideological gladiators.23 The self-proclaimed victim imagines himself the victor; and thus, traditional spectatorial and gladiatorial roles are hybridised.
The phenomenon of hybridisation, often a genetic trope, becomes a textual one in “24 Hours.” The graphic novel’s comic format explicitly illustrates the mediagon’s “dog-eat-dog” economy, unveiling the cannibalism inherent in anthropocentric attempts to establish social [End page 53]
Figure 1. The Businessman Devouring the Interviewee24
Figure 2. Baroque and pop art meet in comic intertextuality25 [End page 54]
order. Particular frames in “24 Hours” mirror paintings of mythological violence, replicating images in which victors consume their opponents to seize power. The businessman’s primal takedown of the interviewee (figure 1) is narrated by commentary from a nature documentary (“The pack leader’s teeth are strong and sharp”), resembling Francisco Goya’s Saturn Devouring his Son.26 Likewise, Kate’s “fantasy” of receiving Garry’s head as a reward for abiding his infidelity (figure 2) pays homage to multiple Baroque renditions of Biblical tales, adaptations in which Salome requests the head of Saint John the Baptist and Judith slays Holofernes.27 These depictions of domination demonstrate that competitions are won by consumption—through either mauling a competitor with one’s teeth, or neatly serving up his head like game on a platter. Gaiman’s use of the multimedia graphic novel format is characterised by excess. Blood sprays into the gutter between comic panels and emphatic lettering curls out of frame as visceral, onomatopoeic representations of acoustic sound.
Andy Warhol’s seminal painting Marilyn Diptych (1962) is also plastered behind Kate’s silhouette, suggesting the layered semantics of the word “consumption.” The etymology of consumption is notable here, as it derives from the Latin consumere, which comprises the two parts con, meaning “with,” and sumere, meaning “to take.” Together, these elements suggest both seizure (to take) and sustenance (to be with).28 One seizes food for self-preservation and nourishment. However, consumption now extends beyond satisfying mere physiological need. In our post-industrial age, we consumers gorge on feasts of abundance and information overload, just as Marilyn Monroe’s redlipped mouth suggests her unshakable drive to consume frivolously in an age of mass production. The mass-produced, well-fed mouth of Marilyn is an icon, an allegory, for contemporary lust and power, even though such power may last for no longer than Warhol’s aphoristic “15 minutes of fame.” The consumer’s hunger for excess echoes in the ruthlessness with which online users chew up and spit out the dignity of each other in subcultural forums. Any attempt to moderate comment sections are subject to allegations of censorship and elaborate defences of free speech, while many users “tacitly concede the imperfection of [End page 55]
Figure 3. Taking the auspices through dark humour and satire
the democratised medium,” excusing its frequently violent speech acts as an inevitable cost of the online forum’s utility.29 As Erika Whiteway and Tiffany Lee Brown wryly advised in “How to Pick Up Chicks on the Internet,” a magazine article written in 1994, when the internet was very much in its infancy, “Don’t neglect to let your virtual friends know that she is one of the following: a dyke, a slut, virtually frigid, or better yet… really a 14-year-old boy in Toronto.”30
Open comment threads do not just engender violent speech acts but also limit their users’ capacity for critical thought. The contested development of knowledge through networks like Facebook and Twitter, where all manner of ideas are published and exchanged at a fierce velocity, rarely encourages even a moment’s reflection, much less a degree of critical thought. But in times of cultural despair, satire is often at its sharpest. By laughing at the absurdity of violence in order to cope with its emotional toll, satire may both prophesy and buffer imminent disaster. Patrick Brantlinger describes the writing hand of the Roman poet Juvenal as the “withered hand of the satirist—almost of the prophet—that seems to point to the precipice.”31 Indeed, the ancient poet’s critique of institutionalised entertainment as mass [End page 56] control remains pertinent today.32 In the fourth hour of “24 Hours,” Doctor Dee manipulates a live recording of an after-school special in which the host seems to slit the wrist that he uses to animate his hand puppet (figure 3). By drawing a rift between the host’s bright demeanour and his increasingly dark remarks “to slash down the wrist, boys and girls,” Gaiman aligns the condescending didacticism of children’s television shows with the debasement of critical thinking in the mediagon. The assumption that children cannot comprehend subtext conveys the general lack of subtlety of online discourse, where sarcasm and irony are easily lost in translation. The all-too-easy descent into zealous exchanges in online ideological debate also illustrates Hannah Arendt’s claim that rage arises “only when our sense of justice is offended.”33 Notably, Arendt argues that violence may not be inherently bestial; instead, she attributes our transformation into “the most dangerous beast,” quite ironically, to our capacity for reason.34 That is, our tendency to contest the views of others by assuming a pugilistic or defensive stance, she suggests, inevitably lends human reason an animalistic impulse. And so it is that verbal stampedes in the mediagon so frequently trample the withered hand of the satirist.
If the discordant chorus of online forum commentary reflects the pluralistic nature of the “post-truth” Western world, so the intertextuality of graphic novels reflects a similar multiplicity. But it is not simply multiplicity, or the coexistence of differing perspectives, that alone gives the term “post-truth” its meaning. Rather, the expression denotes the struggle of one perspective to subordinate another without reference to the merits of its case. As Fuller argues, post-truth is the attempt “to gain advantage in a more or less well-defined field of play.”35 Žižek also criticises the concept of post-truth in the context of parallax. He argues that allowing for multiplicities serves to deregulate formal architectures: as networks become decentralised by the distribution of control, so they become far more difficult to harness and monitor.36 Our digital, and now historical, narratives draw from a literary canon of rehashed platitudes. As the graphic novel also draws from textual multiplicities, “24 Hours” bases its visual pastiche on historic texts riddled with vignettes of rape, cannibalism, and murder, [End page 57]
Figure 4. An inexplicable hunger37
wherein moral didacticism serves as recompense for such violence. In such mythology, self-deified patriarchs wield the highest degree of authority by possessing and exploiting instruments of power. Likewise, “24 Hours” is one episode nested within the grander narrative timeline of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, a figure who has recently returned from exile and now seeks to restore the supernatural talismans that were stolen from him. One talisman is the Ruby, now possessed by Doctor Dee, who exploits it to assume Morpheus’s powers of somnambulism. By the 10th hour (figure 4), the patrons paint “God” across Dee’s chest with their blood, carry him upon their shoulders, and sever parts of their bodies as sacrificial offerings. Dee senses his weight of responsibility as a deity, yet derives no pleasure—but rather confusion—from his primal drive to eat (without reason). Online, we are fed by ideas, and feed others without needing to justify such compulsive eating.
In the digital mediagon, humans have amputated the hand of God and installed a technological prosthesis in its place, one that masks sources of chaos with the face and name of an avatar. The ghost of the Colosseum haunts the mediagon, just as the hand of God wavers before secularised society like a phantom limb. Life and death exist side by [End page 58] side in both the agonal world and modern media. As John Durham Peters reflects,
The same phantasms of the living that are “communicated” to far-off destinations in telecommunications [can] be captured for playback… the paradigm case of hermeneutics: the art of interpretation where no return message can be received.38
By preserving history, digital media memorialises the dead. Gaiman’s diner backdrop therefore seems fitting, especially as the libertarian anarchy of online hacker culture provides “the digital equivalent of Enlightenment coffee houses.”39 History is archived in the mediagon, which shapeshifts from the philosophers’ coffee house into the pugilistic spectacle of the coliseum. The “24 Hours” diner illustrates this multiplicity.
In examining how the bloodied coliseum and shapeshifting mediagon fuel our animal impulses, it is clear that virtual architecture functions as part of our contemporary ecosystem. However, a buzz becomes decipherable from the coliseum’s roar. Amid animalistic domination, there remains the democracy of the beehive. Thomas D. Seeley notes that while bees and humans both engage in debate, humans typically close a debate after prolonged struggle and when one party finally submits to their opponent’s argument. Bees in debate, however, suspend their argument entirely by entrusting their decision-making to a new swarm of bees.40 The regular turnover in consensus-building ensures that progress is always possible in bee society. There, debates do not atrophy in stalemate as often happens in virtual discussion. In the penultimate hour, a patron named Judy runs steel skewers into her eyes under the control of Doctor Dee, who claims to show the patrons “the delights of belief.”41 Blood runs down Judy’s cheeks from her out-offrame eyeline, elevated upwards as if she has sighted a heavenly being. Her submission to Dee’s conviction of faith renders her blind. Like Colaguori claims, the “survival of the fittest” dogma that upholds agon culture will ultimately run most of humanity into the ground.42 By the 24th hour, every patron in the diner is dead. Perhaps we must consider a different form of architecture, then. [End page 59]
The feats and faults of our digital evolution exist side by side: the initial survival of the group facilitates the survival of the fittest, and so the ferocity of Roman agonal culture subsists as an ongoing stress on the shoulders of contemporary society. In admitting that technological progress may be undermined by a proclivity for barbarism, “post-truth” culture in the contemporary West reinforces a history of Western contest, just as the ruins of the Colosseum still haunt the mediatised field of consciousness in digital society. And yet, perhaps there remains a sliver of hope: the internet forum may be our virtual coliseum, but it can also become our beehive. As sites of cross-pollination, online forums allow users both to build connection and inflict pain. Violence occurs because we are connected. Just as the Roman augur read the flight of birds, so may we read patterns of animal behaviour across the internet. The pack mentality of subculture forums and the mauling of marginalised voices can be challenged by textual hybridity: by intertextuality, pastiche, and adaptation. The electronic architecture we construct becomes our ecosystem, and our animal impulses may be proof of that fact. In an age fed by a 24-hour influx of information, our appetites still hunger for some meat.
About the Author
Lucia Nguyen is currently completing a Bachelor of Media and Communications (Journalism) at the University of Notre Dame Australia.