On Saturday 14 May 2022, over 52 million viewers in Europe and globally were drawn into the spectacle of Eurovision 2022. The final of the Eurovision Song Contest was broadcast live from Turin, Italy as if there were no war taking place in Europe.
The show went on as if Russia had not begun an unprovoked war against Ukraine, a sovereign country, 80 days earlier and as if the members of the Ukrainian band the Kalush Orchestra had not been given special permission to participate in the contest under the martial law that forbids 18–60-year-old men from leaving the country.
By being silent about the war and by forbidding political statements on stage – when it is clear that politics plays an important role in how the professional juries vote – Eurovision was masking the ‘absence of a profound reality’. In denying the reality of war and death in the heart of Europe to the extent that it no longer had a ‘relation to any reality whatsover’, the Eurovision song contest had, in Baudrillard’s terms, become ‘its own pure simulacrum’.
Yet, the simulacrum can be exposed by grasping the essential character of the spectacle as the ‘visible negation of life’. Indeed, the Kalush Orchestra did this by ending its performance with a plea to help Ukraine and Mariupol. The day after the finals, when the group was no longer under threat of disqualification due to politicising the spectacle, it released the official video to its winning song Stefania. In the video, in itself a spectacle of the war, the band is playing in the ruins of Bucha, Irpin, Borodyanka and Hostomel with mothers, grandmothers and female soldiers walking through empty ruins carrying children.
The spectacle of war and the simulacrum of peace exist as long as there are spectators. But Russia’s war in Ukraine involves more than spectators. It is not the only mediatised war – historically all violent conflicts have been mediatised – but a war embedded in a digital world with AI, robotics and drones used in the actual warfare as well as social media in war coverage. Indeed, since the 2010s, warfare has increasingly been embedded in a digital world, in which the monopoly of broadcast media has broken down and soldiers have themselves become journalists, recording their experiences and feelings from the front. As Merrin and Hoskins argue:
‘Multimedia smartphones, messaging apps, and social media platforms have disrupted the relationship between warfare and society, creating a global, participative arena, in which the distinctions of combatant, civilian, and informational warrior implode.’
In the act of sharing and watching content from the front line, everyone with a social media account becomes affectively drawn into the spectacle of war in ways that are deeply social. As Wittel argues, the practice of sharing is an inherently social endeavour; it is primarily social interaction. Holding a social interaction with death, destruction and brutal violence is affectively painful and draining in the long term.
This article is an attempt to understand some of the complex ways in which interacting with war affects us. It stems from our kitchen-table discussions. Lena, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Helsinki and Associate Editor of the Global Social Challenges Journal, lost sleep during the first weeks of the war. The anxiety caused by her early-morning doom-scrolling of Twitter war content affected her work, personal life and mood. This anxiety subsided when she was able to channel her affects into concrete action. Initially, she donated money and material goods, and later provided home accommodation. At the end of March, the head of Sociology at the University of Helsinki contacted the Vice Dean of Sociology at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv offering help. When the University of Helsinki decided to offer Ukrainian students the right to conduct studies in Helsinki, the Vice Dean of Sociology in Kyiv organised a group of 19 students, at that time scattered across both neighbouring countries and Ukraine, to come to Helsinki. Nataliia, one of the first students to arrive, has been staying with Lena and her family since the end of March. She is a third-year BA student at the Taras Shevchenko National University, majoring in Applied Sociology. Nataliia remembers how horrified she was during the first weeks of the war every time she heard sounds of aeroplanes and witnessed or read news about missile strikes. Now, in May, Nataliia says that she has become numb. When reading about destroyed buildings that did not involve human casualties, she does not feel the same fear or rage as before, as if it now takes more to feel anything. The reason for such change is not just being in a safe place, but also the emotional exhaustion and information overload of these painful months.
To be able to continue to move us and affect us, the digitalised war requires new spectacles, new episodes and new horrors. The spectacle of war begins to resemble a gruesome reality television series that we can choose to turn off when we do not want it to disturb our consumption of other spectacles, such as that truly pan-European tradition, the Eurovision Song Contest. And yet, beyond the simulacrum of peace, Russia continues an unjustified war in which people are wounded, killed and raped.
Lena Näre, University of Helsinki and Nataliia Khavriuchenko, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv.
The Global Social Challenges Journal is a new fully open access, non-profit journal which aims to facilitate thinking about opportunities, new ways of being, thinking and doing as we face up to multiple complex global societal challenges.
It will be an important home for research that contributes to the creation of alternative futures that are socially and environmentally just and sustaining. Read the call for submissions here.
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Image credit: Alexander Ishchenko