The Spectacle of Independence Day

This July 4th let’s ponder the way in which our lives are dominated. Our existence slyly orchestrated. Our experiences siphoned down highways dotted with endless signs that ask in that prodding way “why aren’t you happy yet?”  

“Kids are in cages” we answer. “They are ripped from their families trying to escape violence and poverty that this country created in their own. They’ve been herded into pens. They sleep on concrete floors.  

“They are deprived toothbrushes, clean water, ample food. They are watched over by vicious and unfeeling people who have been trained every step of the way to dehumanize and humiliate. We cannot be happy in the midst of this.” 

Armed guards step out from behind each of the signs. They ready their rifles. And they ask, once again, “why aren’t you happy yet?” 

* * * 

Fifty years ago Guy Debord and the situationists looked at the way in which the logic of commodity had insinuated itself into every aspect of daily life. Building on Marx and Lukács he zoned in on the concept of reification, the way in which a commodity makes the manufactured seem natural, and the social relations of any given time appear eternal. Starting in the 1920s, mass media and consumerism had aided in the spread of this logic and its further transformation into a “common sense” worldview. 

This is the spectacle. Under the spectacle everything becomes a simulation of sorts. Materials and items are no longer viewed primarily in terms of what they can be used for but what their value is on the market. And since literally every item in our lives is a commodity, since even our time and consciousness are subject to that same process, every human interaction becomes transactional.  

With this transactional nature comes all kinds of other behavioral assumptions. We punish those who don’t live up to the transaction, praise those who do, conspire behind backs of both. Human bonds are based not on camaraderie, sympathy, solidarity, mutual recognition of talent, but on whether we can get back a return on what we invest in them. Every human interaction is mediated through this prism, and ideas that subvert them are easily sucked back into the system and sanitized. If commodity and bureaucracy present themselves as eternal and above history, what they achieve is placing us outside of the historical process, outside of our ability to experience and change the conditions of our lives. 

It is not quite correct to say that aesthetics play a role in this. More to the point, what the rise of consumerism, public relations, the streamlining of state and private media all managed to accomplish was a version of what Walter Benjamin called “the aestheticization of politics.” Aesthetics, the practice and study of how the environment can be changed to interact with our sensuous lives and subjective selves, becomes woven into political economy.  

For Debord the phenomenon of the spectacle could be accomplished through the implication of force (the maintenance of order through constant threat of violence that characterizes authoritarian states, which Debord called “concentrated spectacle”) or the illusion of choice in a society overwhelmed by commodities (“diffuse spectacle,” which we associate with consumerism).  

In most modern capitalist societies, however, Debord saw a fusion of the two prevailing. This he called the “integrated spectacle,” achieved through the close cooperation of state and private enterprise. Underneath the apparent abundance, very real and crude machinations of secrecy move. We are both convinced and coerced into the belief that this is the best of all possible worlds, systems, nations.

* * * 

In 2013 McKenzie Wark, radical author and one of the best living experts on the subject of Debord and the situationists, postulated that we had transcended the previous forms of spectacle. He wrote: 

These days one might speak of a disintegrating spectacle, in which the centralized forms of mediating the spectacle break down into fragments but retain their commodified form. Thus these days we all have to participate in making display ads and writing advertising slogans – selfies posed in newly purchased outfits – assuming the burden of doubling the consumption of things with the consumption of images. All against the background of what Debord called a sick planet, groaning under the weight of waste. 

Wark was correct. The brilliance of capitalism’s use of technological innovation has always been in its ability to parse and rearrange the process of production. It eliminates whatever it needs to eliminate and outsources whatever it can outsource. To make us not just complicit but active and enthusiastic actors in the market, even when we are not consciously working or buying something; this is truly genius. 

And yet one wonders whether the disintegrated spectacle even captures it anymore. As so many of the threats and specters we thought were long gone return and collide and mix with new existential threats. The new always brings with it markers of the old. Even as the disintegration continues, new ways are (re)discovered to integrate and infuse. 

Today, on July 4th, there is a military parade in Washington, DC. Awesome destructive power is rhythmically rolled through city streets, simultaneously encouraging wonder and threatening its use. Spectators cheer and clap and listen to music. We become even more emotionally invested in a system that when push comes to shove will gladly use that same force against us. 

Meanwhile, so much of online chatter seems to be boosting and reifying the idea that we should not call them “concentration camps” (we fucking should). But of course, given what we know of the medium, this narrative doesn’t just come from the “top down.” It’s not melodramatic to say that we are supervisors to our own virtual petty bureaucracies in which others read as disposable. This is the shape of participation in a process in which we are monitored and manipulated, in which commodification and securitization are quickly becoming synonymous. 

Is this a new phase? Are capital and the spectacle showing themselves capable of centralizing through decentralization? Hasn’t this always been how it operates to one degree or another?

Is the Trumpian moment, with its reality show redeployment of “America First” rhetoric, simultaneously searching for new ways to isolate and atomize, the moment of, for lack of a better term, “re/dis/integrated spectacle”?  

And what, exactly, does this mean for resistance? Actual resistance. Not the kind that comes with a hashtag in front of it. 

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