Marcus Clarke and the Society of the Spectacle: Reflections on Writing and Commodity Captialism in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne

Marcus Clarke was fascinated not only with the public spaces of the nineteenth-century city, colonial Melbourne in particular, but with the increasingly commodified, spectacularised forms of cultural production that inhabited these spaces. In both his fiction and journalism the crowds that mill through city streets, arcades and cafes are always, it seems, collections of potential consumers awaiting writers, impresarios or showmen offering various forms of sensationalised entertainment. In these urban tableaux there is an implicit critique of both populism and mass culture; the public's thirst for curious, grotesque or morbid spectacles is a sure index of its gullibility and lack of enduring moral and political conviction. The arrest and public vilification of the accused murderer Rufus Dawes, in His Natural Life, is the occasion of just such an attack on popular culture-consumption. In his elucidation of the relationship between sensationalism and the public fate of criminals, Clarke portrays public interest in criminality and representations of it as indicative of a pathological or impaired state of mind: 'That morbid love of the horrible which is the portion of ignorant or ill-balanced minds, renders a great criminal a great hero in the minds of the people' (72). The sight of the condemned criminal at the gallows also suggests a more general economy of pleasure and spectatorship, in which a public execution and the literary, dramatic or artistic artefacts representing it are comparable as forms of popular entertainment. Both yield the pleasure of what Edmund Burke named the sublime, a pleasure which can reside in beholding the 'real misfortunes and pain of others', so long as these are bracketed and placed at a distance from the spectator: 'the idea of bodily pain, in all the modes and degrees of labour, pain, anguish, torment, is productive of the sublime' (42, 79). While Burke's account of the often perverse pleasure derived from violent and sadistic spectacles clearly informs Clarke's treatment of public sensationalism, it is also reworked by him so that attraction to spectacularised violence indicates a kind of consciousness closely related to the degradation of mass cultural forms. 'The hideous attraction to the exceptional', Clarke writes in His Natural Life, 'is the secret why all these Newgate calendars, bloody stories, and sensational plays are so popular'. In this critique of public taste the consumption of sensational spectacles, and cultural artefacts devoted to them, suggests a logic which permeates the political and moral choices of society. The public that craves 'monstrosity in any shape', as a way of tempering the monotony of quotidian existence in the capitalist metropolis, is apparently incapable of distinguishing other aspects of its cultural and moral life from the world of spectacular amusement. Accordingly, Clarke writes, 'the bricklayer who goes to see a hanging, or buys a "dying speech" to take home as a relish to his pipe, is only displaying another phase of that feeling which got Mahomet worshipped, Caesar crowned, or Tom Thumb patronised. The populace is equally kind to giants and dwarfs; it is only intelligent mediocrity that comes so badly off (73). In the burgeoning world of commodity production and consumption, popular amusement and leisure activity, public taste was linked to forms of sensationalism that Clarke saw as antithetical to rational discernment.

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Published 1 May 1996 in Volume 17 No. 3. Subjects: Capitalism, Characterisation, Journalism, Journalists, Literary portrayal, Narrative techniques, Popular culture, Marcus Clarke.

Cite as: McCann, Andrew. ‘Marcus Clarke and the Society of the Spectacle: Reflections on Writing and Commodity Captialism in Nineteenth-Century Melbourne.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 3, 1996. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.9d7579c1ef.