Above: From Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Credit: Sony Pictures.

Modern Potlatch

Potlatch festivals are a now generally historical (and contested) feature of Native American indigenous cultures during which a tribe would use a festival or celebration setting to demonstrate its power to members of another tribe by giving away and sometimes destroying (by burning), quantities of their most precious commodities--such as oil, animal skins, and so forth. The tribal chiefs demonstrated their prowess and wealth to others by gifting and/or actively wasting, materials otherwise vital to the tribe. On one level the potlatch can be understood as a gift-giving boast-battle; gift-giving within a ritual that could descend into macho squandering.

Theorist Jean Baudrillard described certain present-day spectacles, events, and activities as "modern potlatch." Examples include the couture catwalk collections in fashion, the Formula 1 racing season, and contemporary art auctions. All of these activities can be interpreted or comprehended in terms of an obscene wastefulness. The recent films Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Alita: Battle Angel, are good examples of modern potlatch as theorized by Baudrillard--astonishing state-of-the-art computer animation and graphics tech is used to produce puerile and vacuous movies ... the effort of the thousands of specialists credited seems only to have been wasted.

For Baudrillard the crucial aspect of any instance of a modern potlatch is the effect on the spectator. The viewer looks on in state of awed disbelief at the wastefulness unfolding before them (as the ordinary member of the tribe in the historical context). The onlooker is absolutely aware that, say, "we could have taken this money to fund a vaccinations scheme in a developing country or fed a million refugees for a month," but is powerless to act. The potlatch is mesmerizing; the appalled watcher tends to look on engrossed, as if hypnotized.

(23 February 2019)