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”