Wednesday, November 9, 2016


It's surreal to think about a Trump presidency; it's also strange to write anything down about it. Making anything I write public is tough for me as I subject myself to so much criticism that nearly everything is erased - I can't see outside myself. And while this is always true to some extent - we can never truly see outside ourselves - I've come to use this is an excuse not to be self-reflective, not to risk the possibility of criticism. While Trump's victory isn't a harbinger of our destruction, it is deeply troubling, for reasons I don't need mention. I suppose, then, this is the time for self-reflection, not only for myself, but our country. And, if only as an indulgence, I write something down in an attempt at self-reflection, to risk criticism, from myself and others. This seems like a time to try new things, to test the boundaries of our own thought, to wake up from a cozy cynicism absolves us of responsibility, of any sort of engagement with others. As my friend Ben observed, Trump proved the 'facts' about electoral politics to be contingencies, applicable only to particular times and places; similarly, then, it follows that Trump proved engagement - language, discourse, conversation: politics - has potential, perhaps more so then ever. And if I only engage with myself, through my own flawed writing, I hope I can contribute something to my society, even if it's only a self that (for once) is trying to be better, and be better for others.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hipster Conservatism

Hipster Conservatism (or The Free Market, Christianity, and the Simple Life)

Barack Obama’s re-election should obviously not be read as the ascension of the American left. As many commentators have noted, Obama’s politics more closely resemble that of the more moderate Republican party of the 70s than anything even remotely ‘leftist’. The last president who might fit the bill of a ‘leftist’ leader would be Lyndon Banes Johnson who created two of our more *ahem* ‘socialist’ federal programs, namely Medicare and Medicaid. Even LBJ, however, is a far cry from the peace-loving hippies most people associate with the American left. After all, he IS responsible for the disastrous American ventures in Southeast Asia, including the wholesale slaughter of peasants in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. So I think it’s pretty easy to conclude he is no leftist, at least by self-proclaimed leftists’ standards. But, by conservative standards which exclude even entertaining the thought-experiment that an American president would NOT be involved in the murder of some population of people somewhere on the planet, LBJ just might very well have been in league with a nascent group of (very, very old) American Bolsheviks.

Yet even as the left enjoys little presence in the halls of American government, the American right (I include Democrats among this group) has been waging a fierce campaign against them and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the realm of culture where conservatism is enjoying a peculiar popularity. While the term ‘conservatism’ likely itself isn’t as popular, its basic economic principles rooted in the eminence of the ‘free market’ undoubtedly are, with both major political parties pledging unwavering fealty to them time and time again. At the level of political culture, I read the increasing number and prominence of self-described libertarians, especially, as the expression of the increasing cultural popularity of economic conservatism. By ‘cultural popularity’ I simply mean that people find it an attractive option to identify themselves with fiscal/economic conservatism; essentially, it is fashionable or in vogue. In particular, I have encountered a striking number of people who identify as socially liberal but fiscally conservative, especially LGBT men and women. While certainly social liberalism and fiscal conservatism aren’t inherently in conflict, I can’t help but suspect that its cultural popularity (reactionary as it is to a politically impotent left) is coterminous with the rise of the vacuous cultural cannibals we today call hipsters. Yes, my friends, I speak of a Hipster Conservatism.

Hipster conservatism is in love with the occult knowledge represented by the GOP and free market ideology in general. Leftism represents perhaps the most straightforward of answers—that humans and their institutions can and should take care of each other. Conservatism pretends to a different sort of humanitarianism, one that eschews the simplicity of human intervention in favor of a more mysterious and, I would argue, elaborate system of workings beyond the scope of mere mortals. The Free Market (I choose to refer to it as a proper noun due to the near-metaphysical properties attributed to it) is no human institution or system—as represented to us by the present-day GOP and free market ideologues, The Free Market (or TFM because acronyms are sexy) is otherworldly, divine in its perfection, and possibly imbued with all of the same righteousness found in Abrahamic scripture. You may think I’m embellishing—I’m not. Logically, one can only conclude that The Free Market is of divine origin, or at least spiritually rich in nature. And by spiritually rich, I don’t mean soul-edifying or any other sort of non-sense. I mean it involves a lot of spirits. Literally.

Let me explain. If The Free Market is at odds with leftism which advocates every variety of human economic intervention, all the way from state-guided economic planning to the radical socialist thought that individuals should care about one another, then it must follow that The Free Market is not a function of these things. Rather TFM is decidedly not human—it certainly involves humans in its processes but because it does not emerge from a decision founded in human reason that might deviate from profit-maximization, it cannot, itself, be human-derived. As represented in conservative economic ideology, even if one engages in philanthropy, it is under the auspices of The Free Market that one acts. Human agency is in a strange state of flux within TFM—if the public acts altruistically (through its agent, the state), exercising autonomy beyond the implications of a cost-benefit calculus, then it is not acting under the auspices of TFM. Yet, if you act as an individual, doing whatever the hell you want to do, you’re an agent of TFM—there’s no escaping it. Even as you, yourself, are not The Free Market, you are forced to do its bidding, because whatever you do, that’s what TFM wants you to do. While some might say that TFM, then, is simply a synonym for individual human autonomy, this cannot be the case.

Let me pretend I’m Socrates for a moment: can a human being act autonomously in such a way that she would not be exercising her autonomy? Obviously not—if you are truly autonomous, then whatever you do will be a function of that autonomy. Now, for a harder question: can an aggregation of autonomous human beings collectively act in a such a way that they would not be exercising their autonomy? It depends. If a collective of otherwise autonomous human beings can only properly express their autonomy if 100% of them agree to a single course of action, then it follows that democracy, governments, and corporations in general are completely antithetical to The Free Market—it is impossible to achieve a 100% consensus from a group of people on the scale of any sort of complex organization. But what if people within a collective agree to surrender aspects of their autonomy to representatives in a government who will make decisions for them? Would this mean that an individual exercised her autonomy in such a way that she ceased to exercise her autonomy? Again, the answer is still no as she was free to make that decision to begin with. A conservative would never say that signing a contract with another person is a form of depriving oneself of autonomy.

So we arrive at a strange impasse: either the theoretical basis for western democracy (Locke’s social contract) is, itself, antithetical to The Free Market because it is founded on people autonomously surrendering portions of their autonomy, thereby making The Free Market synonymous with Hobbes’ state of nature; or The Free Market has nothing to do with freedom and autonomy but, instead, supposes a hyper-individualist ideology that necessitates social and economic isolation. Philanthropic collaboration itself is the Satan and anti-Christ to TFM.

[Note: I don’t really believe that Locke’s theory of social contract actually provides the conditions for human autonomy; rather, I refer to the theory because of its almost sacrosanct position in justifying liberalism as the foundation of western society.]

Indeed, TFM supercedes even our basic autonomy as human beings—it places the individualist profit motive as the supreme Good of all humankind. TFM doesn’t fear ‘private’ collaboration because any firm or corporation that ignores TFM’s profit-motive will not long survive. Collective collaboration as the state, however, which wields its monopoly power over law, can act altruistically and not be eliminated through market competition. Consequently, conservative economic ideology has positively cosmic implications for humanity’s place in the universe.  TFM is a god—there’s no other way around it.

Using Christianity as an analogy, my point becomes more clear. If TFM were God, then The Invisible Hand would be Jesus Christ, TFM’s agent here on earth, doing its bidding and taking all the flak for the mistakes otherwise wrought by humanity. Just as God in many Christian sects is the total sum of everything, present in every iota of existence yet possessed by none of it, similarly is TFM a mysterious presence that encompasses the totality of all economic activity yet is not present in any particular individual or moment. I am not The Free Market, neither is Barack Obama, Mitt Romney or Milton Friedman.  Yet, when operating on the scale where statistics become the language of choice for describing human activity, TFM manifests itself. The aggregation of economic activity is understood within conservative economic ideology to disclose itself as the The Free Market. So, while I, by myself, do not constitute TFM, when I am grouped together with a million other people, TFM can be said to be present among us. Thus it can concluded that TFM is a force that exists among and between humans—it is a mysterious spirit that rears its head as the sum of economically-proximate human beings’ activities. Radical.

And let’s not forget our older brother in this whole thing. The Invisible Hand likewise has to be some kind of spirit. First, of all—it’s invisible, the tell-tale sign that something is likely superhuman in some way. Yet, even in its invisibility, it is present where TFM is hanging around, except it’s taking an active, well, hand in guiding what a large group of people do. And, of course, he directs them on the one true path of righteousness and eternal glory. However, instead of proposing 10 job killing, bureaucratic restrict…I mean…’commandments’, TFM has kindly streamlined the whole process into one righteous imperative: maximize profits, minimize costs. And as long as you take part in the monthly liturgy of receiving a fat salary, you’re getting just the right amount of TFM-ordained Invisible Hand into your system.

Not to mention having TFM in your life makes things so much easier. When Christians do good unto others, they are said to possess the spirit of the Lord. TFM does you a solid and takes God’s goodness one step further—it possesses you, kindly relieving you of all responsibility to anyone, anywhere! When you become an agent of TFM (along with, say, 300 million other people), all you have to do is keep your eye on the scoreboard and everything will be AY-OK. As long as you’ve got more of TFM’s holy goodness than others, you’re fulfilling your duty to everyone else and, in a way, making sure they’ll be taken care of. Well, by ‘taken care of’ I mean…well, whatever happens to them, it’s TFM’s will anyways. After all, money is TFM’s corollary to God’s love—some people are blessed to have it; others, well, fuck them. They aren’t working/praying hard enough or some shit. It’s TFM’s will.

Religion is perhaps the most mysterious of human activities, worshipping god(s) who may or may not care about you and your neighbor, all dependent on your choice of scripture and interpretation. Yet even with its mystery and obscurity, core elements of hipster ‘taste’, religion remains unpopular among them. Maybe it has something to do with the simplicity of the message offered by several religious groups. Protestants offer eternal salvation in exchange for the simple task of accepting Jesus as your savior. Dull as shit. Where’s the science? Where’s the Derridian double-speak that only makes sense when under the influence of a particularly potent batch of pot brownies?

 It’s much cooler to talk about ‘science’, economics, and markets than it is to say we should simply care about one another. Hipsters use knowledge as a way of doing two things: (1) acquiring power over others and (2) avoiding responsibility, which is, perhaps , the very definition of economics: the science of avoiding responsibility. What most people associate with the term ‘hipster’ is someone who possesses an obscure knowledge about something (usually music) and uses it to establish a Foucauldian knowledge-power relationship and bludgeon their opponents into silence. Similarly mainstream economic conservatism has to constantly refer to obscure knowledges about aggregations of people’s labor in order to justify its policy recommendations. Conservatism is forced to beg the question about efficiency because it is not, and never has been, a human value. Efficiency is something that happens at a level of analysis  far-removed from everyday human storytelling and that’s why economics has to assume not only the existence of market efficiency but also its human desirability. It’s nearly impossible to speak of a ‘leftist economics’—if Marx was really a political economist it was only because he critiqued the shit out of capitalism. He never articulated the ‘economics’ of the Kingdom of Freedom precisely because it doesn’t exist. The Revolution is inexorably bound up in the HUMAN individual, not the worker-human that makes an appearance in name-only in economic treatises. The truly leftist project is one that abandons any pretense to economic ‘principles’ and proceeds instead on the basis of human values.

Unless conservatism really is God's chosen way of discursively representing human beings, then we can't even consider it a human science. No wonder hipsters love The Free Market: all the obsequiousness to obscurity contained in religion without any of the attendant responsibility! It’s a trust fund for your conscious!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Notes on the Spectacular Society 51-66: On 'The Way Things Are'

51. The materialized ideology-world of the spectacle is captured in the term ‘The Way Things Are’. The Way Things Are is the spectacle in its totality; as the monopolization of all visual space by non-reality; as the displacement of all real things such as that which is fake achieves reality only by the preponderance of its presence in a world that presents itself as real.

52. ‘The Way Things Are’ is spectacular separation converted to realize a more positive utility.  Just as the worker became a separate entity and subject to the disciplines of both markets and technology, the consumer, too, could not long remain outside the reach of capital’s specialization. The mere advent of the consumer left intact her relationship with purposiveness and Final Cause—associations which otherwise could reveal the inertial functioning of capital and the society of the spectacle. The consumer cannot be made perfectly orderable for the purposes of efficiency without having her life-world too, made subject to the same orderings of capital. The consequent subordination of the human life-world to economics is manifest in the artificial categories of human ‘non-work’ life within the spectacle but also the general condition in which the consumer-worker must actively internalize and enact her own specialization (self-funded schooling, training, and self-promotion) in order to sell her labor. Work as opposed to home, work as opposed to leisure and the increasingly specific categories of ‘time’ to which humanity is beholden are only a few of the specializations enacted upon the human life-world.

53. Centuries have been spent articulating the logic of the market, eventually congealing in the specialized discipline of economics which treats as external everything but the natural conditions of human work activity. Economics is the commodity-form of history engaged in a perpetual process of forgetting about humanity and the productive forces of economies, leaving intact only the architecture of the commodity as the basis for which the world can be constituted.

54. The earliest descriptions of economies understood the notion of ‘economy’ to be inseparable from the broader notion of ‘society’. Essentially, ‘economy’ was embedded within and among social forces; it was a function of human bodies and minds which have since been carved up into certain attributes and artifacts, namely ‘labor’, ‘incentives’, etc. When this notion of economy was met with the conditions of large-scale commerce and the force we call capital, it became the first subject of specialization and was freed so that it could reign over society externally as economics: the study of what is and what always must be. Economics was only able to arrive at its externality—indeed, at its disciplined state—through a process of liberation which freed it from its parasitic attachment to the social conditions of humanity. The birth of economics is coterminous with the reign of the commodity and its eventual overdevelopment into the spectacle.

55. Having renounced its position from within society, economics also surrendered its material relationship with it. Economics can only report the conditions of what it sees as it remains separate and distinct from the development of human life; its relationship with the world can only be described as visual. The separate economy must move according to its own laws for it can never know that which it is not connected to; this is precisely the reason why economics is able to articulate the immutability of its own observations: because they are not for anyone in particular, only itself. By definition, the economics which operates outside the normativity of the status quo ceases to be economics for it has reestablished a connection with human life.

56. It is in this vein of thought that one invariably arrives at economics’ spirituality. While properly understood, economics speaks on behalf of itself, this is only in the same way portions of humanity speak for themselves through conjured and invisible intermediaries. As a priest speaks on behalf of an omnipotent and angry god, so too does economics speak on behalf of a host of external forces, namely spirits, which act upon society from without. These deities and demi-gods take many forms, but most prominently appear today as an Invisible Hand: the Spirit of the Market.

57. The marketplace is necessarily hallowed ground for it is the place where the most spiritual happenings occur. The market—as an aggregation of individual human activities—becomes a powerful location only when an indefinite number of external happenings amidst and between humans realize some greater social good. Because the market does not intend, but only observes, the powers-that-be must exist somewhere beyond the human agents of the market. The Market itself is a god that appears only where humans congregate and supplicate themselves before its all-powerful dictates.

58. No individual human being can summon or channel the power of the Market. It is only as a non-descript mass of consumers that we can make The Market appear and even then we can never hope to control or possess its power. As a force that lies in the beyond, The Market possesses all of us.

59. The freedom of the consumer’s life-world is achieved only through the expropriation of her living time, the time neither spent nor accumulated but realized socially: historical time, time in context and contest. The Way Things Are is the inert-ia which maintains the essential separation of human life-time, keeping the pieces in isolation such that they become whole only in spite of one another. Freedom within the spectacle is not inherent or natural—it is a gift.

60. Time is privation, the ordering of life such that it can become insufficient in any particular capacity. Without time human life activity would be irreducible—there would exist no measure for the calculus of labor and there could not be ‘not enough time’—the proper badge of the American businessperson. Proudly displayed, the insufficient quantity of time is the mark of our spectacular success: to be so consumed with the tasks of work that we have not enough time. This form of specialization can only be described in terms of Debord’s notion of ‘enriched privation’. In this context, privation has—like separation—achieved a more positive utility in that we eagerly pursue it: to be deprived of our life-time so that we can restore something that we do not realize was robbed from us long ago.

61. The Way Things Are is the enervation of life within the spectacle; it is life succumb to routine.

62. The Way Things Are exists in direct opposition to the way things should be. The Way Things Are is the ongoing acquiescence of life to a force which is external to us. Inter-subjective reason has been vacated from social expression precisely because our daily labors amount to perpetual surrender. The purpose of dialogue is lost when one has already capitulated to the opposition.

63. An essential element of ‘the way things are’ is the paradox of the certainty of spectacular society with the uncertainty and contingency of man within it. The society of the spectacle presents itself as the end of history, as the final and eternal result of the development of productive forces of the economy. In the ongoing perfection of the spectacle, humanity is merely an exigency, a body whose welfare is of no particular import in the pursuit of The Way Things Are. This explains how individuals find themselves to be without food, shelter or healthcare in a nation that has an over-abundance of these things; the spectacle is the world made perfect through the expropriation of material, human reality.

64. Life made into the mere exercise of routine is its deterioration into the ‘Everyday’—the infinite iterability of daily life. Within the Way Things Are, any day is Everyday—we repeat the same days over and over again as an expression of our ongoing supplication before the empty idol named The Market. Everyday is all aspects of human life expressed as a pre-arranged category: Work, Home, Vacation, School, Weekday, Weekend—these are not places we go or unique times in the history of our lives, these are categories made constituent of life itself, the ordained functions of our activity as part of a grand ritual to gain the favor of a great and terrible God. This is the emptiness of our lives, the inertia which carries us through our days, the content of our hopes and fears; this is life drained of its meaning, made subordinate to something which we can never hope to possess. The Way Things Are is presented as life par excellence, as the endlessness of our present condition in which we as individuals remain a paradox of contingency in an oh-so certain world. As we are molded in the image of the Market we are made into nothing.

65. The triumph of the Everyday means the battleground has shifted to the daily lives of the subjects of capital. Our ordinary lives have been reconstituted in the interests of the Market and, consequently, ordinary life must become the site of resistance. Within the Way Things Are, even seemingly inconsequential acts like smoking or drinking late into the night become transgressive acts of autonomy as we resist the slavish inertia of the Everyday and its ongoing effort to order our lives in its interest. The Market requires nothing less than a tranquil, quiescent, and habitually sedate population in order to achieve its total displacement of human life.

66. Consumption is the passive relationship between man and reality; it is the assumed acquiescence to the present state of affairs; it is the a priori righteousness of ubiquitous and omnipresent commodity exchange; it is a social relation that lacks contemplation or thoughtfulness; it is a condition of being-alive that is disconnected and subordinated to the singular trajectory of ‘the way things are’; it is the Zombification of humankind.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Notes on the Spectacular Society: 41-50 - An Elaboration on the Visual Representation of the Spectacle

41. The visual model of the spectacle is not an essential aspect of it; rather, it merely helps inform the task of understanding it in its totality. This task can be described as dialectical and vertical—embarking on the journey requires that one remain grounded in some sense of responsibility (even if this responsibility is, itself, anchored within the spectacle). By dialectical I mean an approach to thinking that mitigates self-indulgence: a spectacular movement that oscillates back and forth, up and down in varying degrees of intensity. This oscillation invariably is expressed as part of the continuous and singular integrity of the spectacular wave form, but this oscillation has the potential to produce resonance, a term for a near becoming-one through the speed of wild fluctuations. Resonance produces a mutual experience that is a location with the spectacle-in-itself, centralized and total.

42. (The oscillation of strings produces a trans-substantial resonance that we give the name: music.)

43. The project of awakening or becoming-aware in the spectacle is about engaging it in its total moment of separateness. In this task, we can achieve unity in our mutual resonance with one another, in a community whose existence is bound up in the autonomy of individuals whose activity becomes connected through a collective resonance. The project of undermining the spectacle is not one of becoming-total itself—it is undertaking the perilous journey into the false totality of the spectacle itself, into Heaven to dethrone the false God who conceals himself as the inexorable perfection of human activity.

44. Hegel’s observation that a kernel of truth about a thing is possessed in its opposite is astute in its articulation of the duality at the heart of the spectacle. Each thing that reflects—or is reflected in—the spectacle is engaged in the production of the truth of its opposite (and consequently, itself) in that it maintains the truth of the false vacuum in which all spectacular activity thrives. The ‘reflexive mirror tendency’ at the heart of the spectacle does not reflect the inverted falseness of the spectacle itself, but rather the individually spectacular segments that are engaged in the work of producing reciprocal alienation. We are the truth of one another, and this is reflected within the spectacle’s generally induced separation: we are united within the medium of separation, that is, united in the sense that we are all collectively atomized and alone, a lonely crowd[8].

45. Resonance is the relationship between people whose individuality has become autonomy in that it no longer precludes connection with other people. Others are the necessary condition for meaning, both individually and collectively in the organizational form we call ‘civilization’ and its constituent ‘society’.

46. The x-axis within the visual representation can be understood as ‘responsibility’. This ‘responsibility’ exists not as Truth but, rather, the possibility of contingent truths that emerge from proximate discourse. Responsibility can be said to have a location and even if it is not definite we can say that it is proximate. Proximity and responsibility are essential elements of the understanding of spectacular politics insofar as they serve as tools to find one another in the dark.

47. The singular integrity of the continuous wavelength of human social activity is understood in terms of its amplitude which is also its intensity. Political and social activity expressed in terms of amplitude, then, is the intensification of already-existing political discourse: a cacophony of un-contemplative voices yelling louder in an attempt to engage in some sort of meaningful communication. At some point this increase in amplitude begat the total detachment of social activity from its axis (responsibility) such that the center of its wild shifts became rooted in praxis, i.e. convention. The connection to responsibility loses itself where it cannot exist without a representation to the production and maintenance of its own wholeness.

48. The relocation of the center of social activity in praxis is the origin of the inert-ia of the spectacle. The integrated term ‘inertia’ fails to capture the static motion of the praxis-oriented spectacular society—inert-ia reveals the trajectory of social activity bound up in its deference to itself, that is, its iterability as an expression of movement as opposed to an accumulation of novel growth. The society of the spectacle does have movement with a trajectory; however, it is in the direction of itself. This phenomenon can be called society’s inert-ia insofar as the term preserves the false vacuum of the spectacle animated through a continual expression of itself.

49. Alienation within the spectacle is present in all four quadrants and in all four directions. As the product of spectacular political activity, alienation is manifest not only in the inescapability of the spectacle as one moves anywhere (as movement, remember, is really the production of a mutual, seemingly antagonistic alienation—as one moves, one is expanding the horizon of one’s own alienation), but also in the imposition of a rigid segmentarity in the form of the quadrants and directions themselves. The presence of these directions and spaces in the imagination can be understood as a pre-occupation by the spectacle as these represent the already existing structural conditions of our atomized emptiness. Movement plays on the terms of the spectacle because it is already contained within it—activity is harnessed as kinetic energy to fuel machines that desire their own repression. The spectacle’s mode of production is fundamentally kinetic, powered by the friction of its raw intensity.

50. Movement within the spectacle is raw in that it is individualized and manifest primarily as the accumulation of itself, that is, the (re)production of itself by ‘recurring on that border, or extremity […] of its own disappearance’[9]. Expansion of something that is already one (whole) through a process that allows it to become more while still remaining one (whole) can only be described as kinetic; the displacement of the Real is not achieved without an intense collision of matter. The result of this collision is not the elimination of matter itself, but the occupation of its original location through a transpositioning of that matter to the realm of non-appearance in a universe defined exclusively by its manner of appearing.

[8] Riesman, David. The Lonely Crowd. 1950.

[9] Mouse on Mars. “Unity Concepts”, Idiology, 1999.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Notes on the Spectacular Society: 1-40

“In the essential movement of the spectacle, which consists of taking up all that existed in human activity […] so as to possess it in a congealed state of things […] we find our old enemy, the commodity¸ who knows so well how to seem at first glance something trivial and obvious, while on the contrary is so complex and so full of metaphysical subtleties.” – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

Oh and our world is gone.
Sleeping has left us weak
Crushed into the century’s dust.
And our movement as fools
Hanged us out, an already-rotting corpse.
-          - Martineau

1. The spectacle is the name for the emptiness at the heart of all American social life—political, cultural and academic, at home and at work. Reflected in the spectacle is the general disintegration of ‘community’ that now only exists in discrete and increasingly local forms, rarely beyond the boundaries of friends and family. The spectacle is the ecosystem in which images, fantasies, and myths flourish; it is the molecular medium in which structures of domination dissolve and “proliferate into microfigures impossible to recognize or identify, [made] discernable only when they are centralizable[1]”. The spectacle is the milieu in which the social imagination thrives on an abundance of images; it is where social anxieties and fears find room to metastasize; its ecology is verdant in artificiality, populated with real plastic trees and actual rubber men.

2. Guy Debord describes the spectacle as a weltanschauung—a worldview—but its arrival amongst us cannot be attributed to its articulation as a logic of science or philosophy. Rather, the worldview of the spectacle is an implicit, hidden logic contained within the modern means of production—a language of separation that knows itself only as a unifying paranoia but which in actuality is a language of division within social relations.

3. The spectacle is the disconnection of man to the essence of things, both material and intangible. This disconnection is not ‘away’ or ‘from’ the Real but is actually ‘to’ it through the maintenance of a false connection to a selection of images that ‘impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.’ Separation, the spectacle’s modus operandi, is enacted upon all within its purview and integrates them into a totalized separateness, a general condition of being-separate that vacates all social activity of substance.

4. The essences of things are not artificial or empty; however, the essence of the spectacle is artificiality—within its realm all things are made empty in its image.

5. Spectacular emptiness is the recursive loop of the functioning of things, movement in the direction of a false ethos: the intensity-driven character of commodity production.

6. The spectacle maintains itself through separation whose primary manifestation is in a reflexive duality. The mirror (reflection) is at the heart of the spectacle—each who sees her other is actually seeing herself through a reflexive prism which calibrates[2] the self as a distinctive (polar) other, a self-other whose artificiality is not only constituent of the spectacle, but is also its product. The continued production of this ‘reciprocal alienation’ is essential to the maintenance of the spectacle as it ensures that ‘progress’—movement to the left or right, forward or backward—is really a passage into the spectacular Other, that is, a locale be it social or political whose difference (or improvement) is illusory; it is merely a reflection, albeit a distorted one, of the origin. All movement within the spectacle occurs merely as the distortion of images.

7. The spectacle can be visually represented as an x-axis bisected in the center signifying its reflexive mirror-tendency. All social and political activity manifests itself as the oscillation of a continuous single wave-form concentrated along the x-axis, fluctuating in amplitude as the appearance of movement.

8. The spectacle is without context. Its appearance is marked by loss—disconnection to a broader sense of reality and the discourses that propagate it. The spectacle is fundamentally disconnected as it represents existence through its own singular integrity—it is a perpetual moment of completeness and ending: a moment that does not end. It is the insistence of ‘having arrived’.

9. Organic life grows through the accumulation of new cells—mitosis and cytokinesis are processes by which life demonstrates a type of learning from its past. New cells carry genetic material from its origin, maintaining a connection to its past but making demonstrable growth in a new direction, one that is unique through its continued resonance with other cells. The spectacular society, understood in its totality, does not demonstrate growth in an accumulation of—and fidelity to—knowledge and history but, rather, it grows in intensity, a single cell becoming larger through an expansion of its existing territory. The spectacle does not conquer—it occupies and colonizes new territory, in effect disappearing it through the imposition of a spectacular map which reflects only the singular origin from which it embarked. The spectacle’s movement occurs as the replication of a perfect counterfeit map, stretched farther and farther until it has covered the entire surface of what was once before it.

10. The general deterioration of the Aura —the essence of art historically present in its particular manifestations prior to its mechanical reproducibility—as lamented by Walter Benjamin[3] is coterminous with the spectacle’s presencing in western societies. However, the aura is not lost in an inherent emptiness contained within the modern means of mechanical and digital reproduction but, rather, in the “choice already made in [modern] production and its corollary consumption”[4]. The loss of contemplation is manifest in the whole of social relations becoming mediated by images, in other words, the spectacle.

11. Alienation is produced not only in the workplace where man becomes disconnected from his labor through the wage-relation, but also in the social and political, through the separation of man from his community and society. Separation does not exist as a general emptiness among and between people; rather it is an articulate emptiness, a fake protoplasm that induces the simulation of connection and unity.

12. The society of the spectacle does not express choice or preference for spectacular things over real things; it is unaware of the possibility of this choice. The spectacle represents choice as an abundance of consumer choices, which do not reflect the autonomy of individual people. Spectacle, aura, and authenticity are terms whose significance is lost within the spectacle; people cannot develop in relation to them because they are only aware of them in the sense that they take them for granted.

13. Politics within the spectacle is the expression of reciprocal alienation.

14. American politics is spectacular; it is the fetishization of images, an obsession with the particularities of performances, and is the continuous production of a recursive monologue. “American Idol” is the spectacular reflection of the practice of politics in the United States.

15. When Fiorina[5] in the late 1970s  noted the slow disintegration of what he calls ‘programmatic’ politics, that is, politics and election campaigning rooted in the advocacy of specific policies, he had begun to describe the contours of the spectacle. Candidates for publicly accountable offices, he explains, discovered that to win elections, what was most effective to garner the support of voters was not the advocacy of particular policies, but the construction and maintenance of a nebulous sense of their identity in terms of their situation within a community. The candidates that stayed in office were those who performed a sort of vanishing act, making their political activity (and consequently the activity of Congress) disappear from the surface of public discourse, replacing it with an array of American flags, nuclear families, and toothy smiles. Politicians, captivated by the lucrative benefits of career politics, began to approach their tenure as an object to be won independent of the oscillation of American political will—they discovered that aligning themselves with the fickle impulses of the American polity did little to secure a position within the national legislature. Programmatic political acts, those that effect substantive political change on the institutional machinery or the body politic, if made the substance (content) of political discourse, is a surefire way to alienate parts of their constituencies. Policy positions do little to shore up support from a candidate’s base of voters but invariably serve as a source for controversy and disagreement. Candidates, upon realizing this, created a safe alternative to disagreement and discourse, namely constituent service and an emphasis on the image of the candidate as opposed to the policies or conditions of society. The result was separation by emptying the relationship between candidates and voters of its substance and filling it with vacuous talk of ‘experience’, ‘patriotism’, and ‘supporting the troops’. The accumulation and dissemination of images now constitutes the work of a politician.

16. The abundance and attendant primacy of the image has produced the political equivalent of the wage-labor alienation achieved in Marx’s industrial factories. American political labor is expressed as a disconnection to the political itself where votes are merely rewards for excellent performances.

17. The notion of ‘electability’ has come to mark the total lack of substance of today’s presidential politics. ‘Electability’ when used as a criterion for determining how to vote, exposes a politics that is entirely self-referential. In this sort of politics, a candidate’s political value lies only in their popular capacity to win an election, not on their positions that determine the outcomes of policies, in theory the entire reason publicly accountable offices exist in the first place. While, perhaps, this may serve as a better indictment of the two-party system which increasingly compartmentalizes voter choices in two, maybe three static categories, the fact that this very criticism rarely makes an appearance in political discourse points to a deterioration in the very ways that we represent the political to ourselves. Evaluating a candidate based on their ability to merely occupy an office is spectacularly vacuous.

18. Most political activity within the United States can be accurately described as ‘pandering’, the practice of representation marked by a descriptive and substantive alienation from constituencies. Pandering is the logical expression of political representation in the spectacle as the political takes on its secondary, tertiary and even quaternary functions. The political sphere becomes a place not for the informed negotiation of public interests but, rather, for the negotiation of private interests. The public still thrives within this new private, political sphere but only as a simulated, alienated public who opines rather than negotiates and talks rather than listens.

19. Spectacular candidates are accountable only to those agents of the spectacle that are un-separated and have retained the power to represent their own interests. As substantive political activity is not scrutinized by the public, these agents can continue to benefit from policy without risking the anger of a citizenry who fronts the bill for their private economic activity.

20. Even the appearance of resistance to actual policies betrays the hegemony of the spectacle. The citizenry has been mobilized on numerous occasions to resist policy initiatives that run counter to the interests of American business. The Tea Party’s protests held in opposition to the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act appears to contravene the impunity of the spectacle. However, while resistance may exist vis-à-vis certain material policies, it is an exercise of spectacular politics in that the discursive foundation of such opposition is abstracted from anything material or tangible. This opposition occurs not on behalf of those who protest but in the name of something above and beyond them, cultural or divine. This represents the sacrifice of the real on the altar of the spectacle, where we fight and lose ourselves in the name of images and empty signifiers. This helps explain the ascendant primacy of cultural, rather than material, discourse in politics. The Tea Party resists policy initiatives which would benefit them the most, including progressive taxation, the extension of unemployment benefits, and publicly-funded health care. This resistance is characterized by a rejection of the cultural meanings attributed to such policies, what is generally understood as a sort-of cultural ideology that promotes laziness, unaccountability and non-traditional lifestyles (including the acceptance of homosexuality). It is here that ‘values’ and ‘patriotism’ come to characterize opposition to actual policy and  this language is notably vacuous and void of any tangible signifiers. Patriotism has become code for ‘supporting our troops’ unquestioningly as criticism could ‘put them in harm’s way’. John Ashcroft famously argued that critiquing Bush administration policy ‘endangered’ the lives of our soldiers; Americans chanted ‘If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them over here’; pundits depict the ‘sanctity of marriage and family’ as (Christian) objects which can be tainted or disturbed by the tolerance of homosexuality—discourses replete with emptiness. People who otherwise could be unified in the wake of the near-universal decline in wages and access to social services that benefit them are separated and divided by virtue of discourses that are inert and empty. Only in the battle over culture can race, gender, and sexuality be instrumentalized to isolate communities and regulate scarcity in ways that reify economic hierarchy at the social level, causing the poor to become the masters of the even-poorer. This reproduction of economic hierarchy functions as an additional level of disciplinary power, as those (usually white) people regulate the scraps of economic power afforded to the middle and lower classes in ways that benefit themselves and deprive those at the lowest possible economic rung of any meaningful access to a better life.

21. The spectacle’s domination of politics is dangerous as it achieves not only the disempowerment of the people to enact substantive political change, but it also represents the total dispossession of the political from popular democracy. Individuals, in essence, are alienated from the fruit of their political labor. Theoretically understood, democracy serves as a way of allowing ‘the people’ to control the outcomes of government policy. Within the spectacle, however, popular political labor doesn’t actually produce change in policy outcomes; rather it only scrapes particular personalities from the political landscape, leaving the substructure of power beyond the hands of the governed.  Indeed, politics within the spectacle is the precession of the political by a simulacrum that displaces the democratic ‘truth’ of politics. This precession achieves not only displacement but also the perfect simulation of democratic power. Perhaps this explains a recurring phenomenon within the spectacle—the experience of taking things for granted. So perfect and total is the occupation of society by the spectacle that we talk openly about how we have no power to realize change or have popular interests reflected in public policy, yet we happily march on, exercising the simulation of political power by voting en masse for images on television that sate our superficial desire to do something—but we don’t even know what. As a citizenry we can no longer represent our own needs to ourselves—we are as primates, relying on the vast subjectivity of the image in an attempt to communicate with others, grasping desperately at that object in the beyond which we lack the words to describe or explain. Our will as a society has been emptied and replaced with a simulation; we rise in the morning for reasons we can’t explain and consume, mindlessly, as the expression of a desire that knows only itself and possesses no relationship to anything. We are spectacularly dispossessed.

22. The privileged position of pithy rhetorical ‘sound bites’ and ‘talking points’ is an expression of the inert-ia of the spectacle. Words are the only challenge to the visual metaphors that dominate the American imagination and, consequently, this explains why words must be subordinated to the image by making them merely a vehicle to propagate easily-consumed images.

23. The democratization of the media and its extension of participation to the population at large is really its capitalization in that it allows media to occupy tertiary and quaternary functions as it enrolls the already-subordinated consumer in the task of disseminating increasingly vacuous image-talk to the larger consumer society. Capital is always innovative in finding ways to shed the costs associated with labor; it achieves this today through illusory talk of participation which serves the dual purpose of employing workers who do not ask compensation whilst maintaining the appearance of broader societal dialogue. Political participation within the spectacle is an unpaid internship for the body politic.

24. The political discourse emerging from media and news institutions is patronizing as it reaffirms the role of voters as spectators whose only power and purpose is to consume those political images and products which sate their empty aesthetic preferences. CNN is Simon Cowell and we are the blurred and faceless backdrop to a reality television show.

25. The emphasis on acquiring and sharing ‘opinions’ is another mark of vacuous political participation. Properly understood, our democratic republic uses representation as a mechanism to infuse the uncritical opinions of the masses with the informed reason of enlightened minds. However, the prevailing influence of ‘opinion’ is now marked by not only uncritical thought but also an intense and passionate anxiety fueled by images of god-knows-what in the American imagination. Representation then suffers because it exists only in relation to an unstable array of images. Occupation by the spectacle is the inevitable conclusion of this deteriorated relationship.

26. Reflected within the spectacle is not only the preoccupation of the political by amusement, but also the general colonization of the political by the commodity-form. The oft bemoaned disappearance of ‘issues’ in political discourse belies the hard truth that the ‘issues’ are the obverse to the commodity coin in that they are already empty, decided questions.

27. The spectacle reflects the already-decidedness of political questions. The commodity’s monopolization of social activity is manifest politically in ideological polarization and enmity. ‘Debate’ and ‘discussion’ are already polemic in that they inform only those conclusions which have already been reached.

28. Democracy is particularly susceptible to colonization by the spectacle as its mechanisms and institutions are designed to realize the public good only as the symptom of political activity whose primary purpose is to satisfy only itself. The externality of the public good to the workings of public institutions allows for its easy displacement or simulation.

29. The statement ‘money is happiness’ is one of the most profound that could be said of our current condition. The freedom achieved through the accumulation of wealth, however, comes at the expense of the wage-worker whose toil sustains the system from which that freedom is derived. The natural condition of man in the spectacle is subordination—only the spectacular system can free him.

30. Debord’s observation that modern capital now sees the worker in his ‘leisure and humanity’ in the newly articulated role as the consumer can be understood as the unique placement of man within the spectacle. The emergence of the consumer is notable because it represents capital’s changing approach to the worker: it is the ultimate expression of the commodification of man. The consumer represents capital’s ongoing investment in man, that is, capital exposes man to technologies of discipline not only for the maintenance of his productivity but also to provide for the perpetual simulation of his own power. The spectacle can be understood as, itself, an investment in the consumer to produce passivity and acquiescence to capital and the commodity-form and its total occupation of society.

31. Debord’s term ‘enriched privation’ is the elaboration of the sophisticated emptiness that is the product of modern economic production. The emptiness produced within the modern economy is not a true vacuum; it is nuanced and elegant. As ‘nature abhors a vacuum’ so does the spectacle articulate within us an emptiness which is more than merely empty; like a noble gas it is inert and refuses within us a connection to the Real. The dominant means of production beget the spectacle as a simulation of man’s will—producing within us motion and productivity that is only for its own sake. Like a placebo it inspires the mind to action but not the body (politic).

32. The spectacle renders unto the world a catharsis of self-movement, circumscribing all activity with its own boundlessness. But this boundlessness cannot be construed as freedom; the un-restriction of activity is really the anchoring of it to only itself, establishing as concrete the absence of anything of which to move toward. The spectacle is perpetuity unto itself: the catharsis of spin.

33. The supposed ‘end of the age of reason’ belies the domination of the spectacle. What drives ideological polarization and the consumptive character of political discourse is not the displacement of enlightenment reason, but rather, its denouement or logical conclusion. The commodity-form of society is fundamentally instrumentalized with all activity subordinated to the logic of consumption. Separation, as the principle product of the spectacle, provisions to each according to their political preference. All spectacular political activity is the consumption of political products. An aestheticized political is an anaesthetized political.

34. Even critiques of consumerism are often expressed within the spectacle. Criticism of the role of the consumer is disseminated un-contemplatively and is, itself, un-contemplative in that it fetishizes the already commodified discourse of rejecting the consumer. The emptiness of statements that often occur within Ad Busters, for example, simply decry the role of the consumer without an interrogation of what the consumer is. It assumes acquiescence to its statement by virtue of its very appearance—as an expression of the spectacle, this discourse achieves passivity by ‘its manner of appearing without reply’.  Ad Busters’ approach reifies emptiness into the spectacular vacuum where, unmoored, it, itself, becomes spectacular by demanding acquiescence to its proclamation of another’s emptiness. Your emptiness is not nothing—it is what it is, that is, its essence can be elaborated. Ad Busters says something about nothing, or nothing at all.

35. Critiques of the spectacle that are co-opted focus on identifying what they see as the hypocrisy of those who aim to improve the conditions for others within society. In 2008, Ad Busters cast its critical lens toward John Edwards for spending $400 on a haircut and decrying the hypocrisy of his call to end poverty whilst spending a large sum of money on something so trivial as a haircut. John Edwards’ haircut is reflected in the spectacle as is the critique of his haircut. Hypocrisy is in the fetishization of the known-spectacularity of representations of politics—one cannot see beyond the spectacle by staring into those things that are reflected most in it. Mitt Romney’s car elevator shines bright in the spectacle, as does criticism of it. The spectacle cannot be dispelled by its repeated invocation.

36. The spectacle cannot be critiqued by occupying the place of its opposite, which is nothing; rather, we must stand with the spectacle in its place above duality, in the space which enacts upon social relations the spectacularly generalized emptiness. We must find the spectacle in its artificial position as the Eternal, the Divine; in its divinity, the spectacle is artificial.

37. The proliferation of self-help books for our political system (“How X is happening and what we can DO about it”) is an expression of the taking-for-granted-ness of (our preoccupation with) the spectacle. Inevitably we encounter novel political prescriptions only to realize that we already know what needed to be done all along. Of course we need to eliminate the influence of money in Congress. Of course we need to ‘come together’ and take back power. Of course, of course, of course…we take it for granted. We are paralyzed by our constant fulfillment within the spectacle. The spectacle instills the simulation of the privation of political knowledge, that what we need to know—indeed, what we need to do—lies in the beyond. Challenging the spectacle reveals the harsh truth that knowledge of what needs to be done has been with us all along and that the tools are in our hands. However, this realization, while enlightening, does little to alleviate the paralysis of our constant fulfillment within the spectacle. Why wrest power out of the hands of the administrators when we can simulate its power—sweet jouissance—from the comfort of our homes. 

38. Foucault’s work armed man with a vocabulary to better articulate his place within the spectacle. However, the contemporary (post-modern) project of the left operating in his name has weaponized spectacular discourse and enrolled it in a war against unifying and totalizing tendencies to such an extent that we’ve taken for granted our separation within the left. This emptiness has given room for the extension of the dominion of the spectacle over those efforts that, otherwise, might better challenge it. The analysis of discourses as objects of subtle domination has become fetishized in that it has overcorrected the emptiness of spectacular language; the practice of ‘deconstruction’ has become a savage project that now constitutes a gutting of texts and discourses of all unitary meanings, leaving hollow bodies to be filled with jargons so inert as to leave otherwise clever and angry minds ineffectual and sated in a spectacular stupor. Erudite language is not inherently empty but its expression in the spectacle reflects an elegant ignorance, one that confuses form for content. “Language is the house of being”[6]  but those words which find purpose only in an academic commodity exchange make for an empty home. 
 “The abstract thinking of understanding is so far from being either ultimate or stable, that it shows a perpetual tendency to work its own dissolution and swing round into its opposite.”[7] 

39. Debord notes that the critique of the spectacle has the potential to fall prey to a ubiquitous critique of the all – resistance to the all-subsuming capacity of the spectacle is to feel its emptiness and identify, unceasingly, the vacuum in which our temporality is hidden. We are not amidst the ‘end of history’, rather we are incapacitated by the constant presencing of the end. We must insist upon the continuation of finitude and contingency.

40. Art is that which does not reflect—nor is reflected in—the commodity.

[1] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. “Capitalism and Schizophrenia: A Thousand Plateaus” 1978.
[2] I'm looking for a better way to say this.
[3] Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.
[4] Debord, #6.
[5] Fiorina, Morris. “Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment” 1977.
[6] I know this is a Heidegger quote, but I can’t remember the source.
[7] G. W. F. Hegel, “The Phenomenology of Spirit”

Monday, November 21, 2011


While the activity of capital in modernity has long been documented as diverging markedly away from the ideological suppositions that discursively support it, the profoundly networked nature of this activity has yet to be fully articulated. The late-2000s financial crisis exposed the extent to which the public/private divide has been transgressed, and, in turn, demands new descriptions of how institutional economic relations are constituted in late capitalism. Public subsidies for industries and commodities, regulatory capture, corporate financing of political campaigns, corporate lobbying, and corporate influence in higher education curriculum are part of an ecosystem of public and private relations whose processes are inextricably bound up in one another.

Drawing on critical theory and a number of rhetorical and communication theorists, I demonstrate through the case study of Goldman Sachs’ role in the late 2000s financial crisis, how corporate financial institutions’ activities can be understood as net-work, or complex assemblages that require new models of analysis to effectively understand. In particular, my research demonstrates that Goldman Sachs’ activity cannot be effectively understood in a vacuum from the assemblage of public and private institutions whose activities contributed to an ecosystem—perhaps what Deleuze & Guattari call a ‘multiplicitous unity’—of economic struggle. Goldman Sachs activities in the crisis functioned in direct opposition to other institutions’ financial success; complex financial instruments wielded by Goldman Sachs—especially credit default swaps—spliced their success (capital gains) onto the processes of failure (insolvency) in other American and European institutions.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Theorizing Spinuzzi: Spliced Institutional Networks and Ideo-logic

Reflecting on Spinuzzi's work, I was frustrated with his conclusion which hoped to see knowledge workers better armed to cope with the changing demands of an increasingly technological and globalized economy. More specifically, my frustration was with the seemingly limited scope of his theoretical framework - that the "splicing" of net-work(s) was applied only to techno-rhetorical situations within workplaces, not among and between larger institutional net-work(s). Perhaps Spinuzzi isn't interested in this sort of analysis but after his initial articualtion of actor-network theory, I was eagerly anticipating some sort of application to larger, primarily corporate, structures.

Spinuzzi's work and actor-network theory in general I find fascinating because of their potential to provide understandings of how capital has accommodated and incorporated technology, not only into its material processes, but also into its ideological ones (if that's the right word).

Capital's modern functioning is characterized by activities that run very much counter to its ideological suppositions, with a primary one being that competition is the impetus (and result) of corporate activity. As Spinuzzi explains, technology has enabled corporate institutions to splice themselves onto larger net-work(s), both among private institutions and between public ones, essentially circumventing the "ideo-logic" (if that's a word) of competition. As Spinuzzi's history of Bell Telephone Company provides, the ideo-logic of competition has long since failed to explain corporate activity in modernity as technology has transformed the nature of inter-corporate relationships. In the interest of capital accumulation, cooperation simply makes more sense, as centralized corporate structures (this centralization itself enabled by technology) wield more power via organizational, communicative, and financial techno-knowledges. Corporate structures have also spliced themselves onto public/government net-works, creating elegant connections to individual actors (legislators through campaign financing, agency actors through "agency capture") and even sub-networks (subsidy and tax structures, privatization of social programs). Actor-network theory opens up some serious discursive space about capitalism and its ideo-logics, technology and corporate net-work, and democracy's net-work as well.

Splicing I find to be the best description of corporate activity in modernity, that is, the history of modern capitalism is one of accretion and accumulation: corporate organizations purchasing others, in a way, "purifying" the activity of capital through centralization of power in the interest of capital accumulation. Perhaps I'm taking actor-network theory's applicability too far, but "brands" (the ideological construct) also seem akin to "genres", that is, "brands" could be understood as typified responses to recurring market situations.

I don't want to maunder on, but I was excited by Spinuzzi's work (if not the text itself) - his dialogical approach and interrogation of activity theory and actor-network theory proved illuminating to my interests which initially seemed too disparate to be relevant.