Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Capital and the Spectacle

In Capital's first volume, Marx defined capital as a social relation that is mediated by things. In this case, Marx was looking at what happens when you go to work everyday, and his point was that only a part of your day is spent producing the value that you receive in your paycheck. Another part of your day is uncompensated, and this "surplus-value" is appropriated by your employer. If your employer can turn around and sell "his" products, that surplus-value will become profit -- for him.

When you read Capital you will see that Marx goes into all kinds of different scenarios where the uncompensated part of the day is this or that much in comparison with the part you get paid for. It depends, for instance, on whether technology is assisting very much in production (in which case the uncompensated time can be very great), or whether employee resistance has reduced the total hours of a working day (in which case the uncompensated time might be less). In reality, you have many things happening simultaneously: increased productivity through technology is often relied on to offset other factors -- the main reason why businesses are always hollering about technological innovation.

For Marx the whole scheme was pinned together, in a fundamental way, by the fact that your boss owns, as his exclusive right, everything needed to make stuff; while you on the other hand are hard pressed to even grow your own vegetables. In a meaningful sense, you are propertyless, making you highly amenable to your employer's outlook on life: his schedule, his pay -- his terms. Just to reflect for a moment on the amount of nonsense you went through in your educational formation so that you might best appeal to his preferences tells you something about the relationship -- one that is mediated by things.

In the 20th century, Guy Debord, a thinker working in the Marxist tradition came up with this whole idea about something he called the "Spectacle." The Spectacle was, in his words, a social relationship mediated by images. What the hell does that mean? I'll be the first to say that I'm not entirely sure. At one level, you can talk about TV and the mass media. So when all the headlines converge around one particular issue, you'll notice that everyone is talking about that one thing. If the headlines don't reference that one thing, people are less likely to offer an opinion about it, because you have to think about it and you might be wrong. But if a position on something is being trumpeted nationwide, you can just say: "Yeah, that!" and get along with almost anybody.  Or you can take one of the two sides that usually reflect elite opinion, and get along with certain people.  As Debord wrote: "Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear."

The whole thing stems from the fact that in contemporary society there isn't any formal space to think on your own terms. You're either at work taking orders, or you're at home watching commercials. You hear what professional opinion makers have to say about something one way or the other. You aren't encouraged to have a view of your own, certainly not if it departs from the industrially manufactured view.

The Spectacle is the experience of only knowing your life as it is marketed to you by consumerism.  "Branding" plays into this directly: the purchase of "lifestyles."  Even our "work lifestyles" have been sold back to us as black comedy in films like Office Space and shows like The Office and Party Down.   But you aren't going to get a breakdown of what is happening to you at work in a way that helps you respond, or helps you help others.  In popular culture, work is just this futile endeavor we all have to endure, with no explanation as to why this must be so.


Anonymous said...

In popular culture, work is just this futile endeavor we all have to endure, with no explanation as to why this must be so.

A cynic such as myself would say, we must work so that we may buy a great plasma TV on which to watch the commercials and shows that confirm what we're supposed to think/know.

C-Nihilist said...

well put. without going into too much detail, in my work, when i was starting out doing the work "by hand" it took on average 8 hour day to produce one 'unit.' now, working on a computer i can produce one 'unit' in 3 hours or less. i can't even hazard a guess at the number of times i've wondered, "why doesn't my productivity belong to me?" that 4 hour day idea makes sense. 3 hours for the unit, 1 hour to pay for the computer, and give me the rest of the day off, man!

funny thing. i posted something from Debord today as well, at the auxilliary site.

what the Tee Vee taught said...

Debord's thoughts are a joy, overwhelmingly generous (I was tempted to say Debord's "book" is a joy... but he didn't copyright the thing).

#43, where he arranges the "perfected denial of man"... that's the ticket.