Thursday, February 18, 2010

Notes from the spectacle

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle:

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.

Something that's good to appreciate about the market economy, as Marx would say, is that it amounts to a dictatorship within the realm of production. Anybody who's ever had a boss understands what this means.

The same can be said for anybody who's never owned a solar-powered car.  Wouldn't you like to own a solar-powered car?  That's too bad, because the consumer isn't in a position to decide what gets made; the consumer is only in a position to consume what gets made.  And, as anyone who has ever contemplated a telephone, internet, or cable bill can tell you, even the terms of consumption are set in accordance to the whims of the producer.  After all, what are you going to do?  Attempt to live without something over which a particular industry exerts a complete monopoly?  Why, that just wouldn't be modern -- post- or otherwise!

You, the individual consumer, have no power except to ratify those choices already made within production.  In the vernacular of our day, this is called freedom; and, in fact, the principle can be seen hard at work in our political system as well.  No doubt Karl Marx is laughing very hard about it -- but don't get sore, there's more!

Just as we are forced to choose between commodities not of our choosing, that which has become commodified is also a heady trip when you get to thinking about it.  Guy Debord, that bastard Frenchman who wrote like an ass, wrote lyrically about what happens when reality itself is transformed into a commodity, which we must take on somebody else's terms if we want to experience it -- not to mention remain connected to that community of consumers who now make up the modern world.  In this case we are talking about mass media as it informs consumer culture more generally.

I have a younger colleague at one of my jobs.  When I am able to speak authoritatively on some matter of commercial urgency -- the release of a new movie or electronic product -- we enjoy a warm working relationship.  The rest of our time, however, is comprised mostly of crickets and tumbleweeds.  It is a sad testament to the fact that we don't consume enough of the same things with the same enthusiasm, for it is only in consuming things that one exercises that degree of individuality to which others can relate.

Divorced from its commercial utility, individuality does not translate well.  In fact, it is often met with silence and a horrified expression.  Anything which lacks its own promotional budget cannot be communicated intelligibly without enormous effort, because nobody enjoys a preexisting familiarity with it.  As Guy Debord would say, our social relationships are mediated by the Spectacle:  we can talk to each other about Haiti as long as it is made real by the TV.  The rest of the time Haiti does not exist, so we can't talk about it.  And that's because nobody will have anything to say about Haiti unless it is on the TV.  If you had something to say about Haiti before it was on the TV, then you are a very odd bird, indeed, because nobody else shared that experience.  Nobody knew it could exist, or why it should.

More to say on this.


thebaronette said...

thanks JR. this is great!

i tried making my way through Society of the Spectacle over the past few months, but lost my momentum around the third section. a phrase like "Hegelian dialectics" just shuts my brain down i suppose.

have you read any of the vaneigem's Revolution of Everyday Life? there is an excerpt in Leaving the 20th Century that is fantastic. kind of a guide to facilitating the downfall of the Spectacle.

C-Nihilist said...

fantastic post. will you please consider submitting this post (or another post of your choosing) for Carnival of the Liberals? I will be hosting this month's edition at The Stump next week. Submissions can be made here:

C├╝neyt said...

Your last two paragraphs are particularly poignant. It took me years to figure out that this was more than individual failure but also a cultural predilection. The language of association is one of dueling accoutrements. It's very troubling.

Great post, once again.

druff said...

i agree, helluva post. i'm trying to process this part:

"Anything which lacks its own promotional budget cannot be communicated intelligibly without enormous effort, because nobody enjoys a preexisting familiarity with it."

i think this is a good observation, but does it imply that we communicated better before the age of mass media? or worse? has mass media so narrowed the collective consciousness that we no longer interest ourselves in the things that aren't spotlighted in the media? meaning that access to more information results, somewhat paradoxically, in diminished awareness of our reality?

JRB said...


I think our skills in communicating ideas have changed in the same way that our skills in producing other staples of life have changed.

As consumers, we are induced to utilize something "off-the-shelf," rather than construct something of our own, because the industrial process (which we don't control) is "superior" at it, and because we are comforted by the standardization of the experiences that we share.

The implication is only that we are communicating more about things that lend themselves to commodification, and less about everything else.