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. 

Of Unfinished Revolutions

Here’s a series of questions for my “fellow” Americans. Answer honestly. Do you really need to know what Prince Harry and Meghan Markle named their son? Should you even give a blue shit? Is the fact that you have twelve years to stop your city from sinking underwater in any way impacted by the naming habits of people who have space reserved for them in the nearest sealed doomsday biodome?  

The answer to all of these questions is, naturally, no. And yet you know his name. It’s Archie, the little bastard. You may wish that part of your brain was occupied by more useful information, but there you have it.  

Gertrude Stein once said something to the effect that the United States is the world’s oldest country because it was the first to enter the 20th century. A fascist-sympathizing hack she may have been, but she was onto something when she said this. History never moves in a straight line, and as nations surge ahead their dominance creates complacency that soon renders them anachronistic. But we Americans love our linear time. It’s behind every single sanctimonious parable of American exceptionalism. And it’s why we’ve given the world some of its most insufferably thick historians. 

We love to talk of progress. But the contradiction of progress is that in a society where resources are so unevenly distributed, it is always incomplete. The same progress can merely widen the gulf, transforming the mildly backward into a jarring rift in space-time.  

And so it tracks, perfectly and tragically, that in a time of abject cultural decay, we have this homuncular notion of American culture that not only tolerates monarchy, in all its long history of parasitism, but outright celebrates it.  

It’s an even more brazen example of what I described regarding Anna Sorokin. Industrial society moves toward democracy, stops halfway. That society has a need to valorize its limited social mobility compared to a system dominated by divine right. But as its organs of democracy both formal and everyday continue to atrophy, this valorization mediates the gap between the haves and have-nots. It obscures the gap’s causes by blurring the lines between meritocracy and self-entitlement. Divine right, mutated by two hundred years of partial sunlight, once again rears its head.  

And here we are at the current conjuncture. When billionaire reality TV stars can become president despite losing the popular vote, when Kylie Jenner is defended with a straight face for “earning” her billion dollars, is it all that surprising that the British monarchy is the object of this particularly American form of fawning? 

Yes, some of it is a reciprocation of the royal family’s twenty-year-long “We Didn’t Kill Diana” PR campaign, in which “commoners,” even American actors can seize the throne. For sure, it has made things easier on the royals themselves. Eighty years ago the king had to abdicate before marrying an American and meeting with Hitler. Now, all a royal has to do is dress like Hitler before marrying the American! 

The American revolutionary experience was, to put it mildly, an uneven one. It hadn’t the involvement of plebeians or women that we saw in the French Revolution. And naturally its insistence on maintaining chattel slavery was one of the reasons that the Haitian Revolution and eventually the Civil War became necessary. If there is anything that it had going for it, though, it was its anti-royalism. Its belief that a bunch of oblivious, inbred, gout-ridden toffs had no business telling anyone what to do.  

And now these same remorseless cretins have danced under the radar back into your hearts? Where is your spine? Where’s your sense of dignity? Where (sweet merciful crap, I never thought I would write this) is your patriotism? 

Potemkin Village Lifestyles

“In her world, this is what her social circle did… Everyone’s life was perfectly curated for social media. People were fake. People were phoney. And money was made on hype alone.” 

So says the defense attorney for Anna Sorokin – aka Anna Delvey. Sorokin was convicted last month of what amounts to one big scam of New York’s social elite. Three counts of grand larceny, one count of attempted grand larceny, four counts of theft of services. She was sentenced on Thursday to a maximum of twelve years in jail. ICE have also confirmed that Sorokin – who has German citizenship – will likely be deported at some point.  

Reading through the list of her escapades, you can’t help but be impressed. Socialites, five-star hotels, even a hefty loan from City National Bank. Over the course of four years she managed to bilk them out of around $275,000. She got others to pay for luxury rooms, private jets, vacations to Morocco, and lavish nights out while having barely a cent to her name. All by convincing people that she was heiress to a $67 million fortune.  

She isn’t. Her father is a truck driver and her mother is a housewife. Who said millennials lack ambition? 

Sorokin’s conviction and sentencing have, predictably, been the source of vigorous buzz and chatter. For some she’s been the object of derision and spite, for others she’s cause for the gleefullest of glee. Fashionistas have gandered at her choice of clothing throughout her trial. Shonda Rhimes is developing a series based on Sorokin’s story. Lena Dunham is working on another. 

Still others have wondered why it is that the New York District Attorney has gone after Sorokin with such viciousness while in the past he has failed to prosecute the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Dominique Strauss-Kahn for more serious crimes. Some suspect sexism afoot, and I reckon there is something to this. 

What interests me the most though is what Sorokin’s lawyer means when he says “her world.” Because, after all, the life of the rich and privileged wasn’t “hers.” It’s precisely this that in the end got her into so much trouble. In Sorokin’s case it is less about the amount of money she stole than who she stole it from, who she pretended to be. At the core of it, her biggest crime is the crime of false pretense. 

In some ways, though, it was her world. If her place within it could be so easily adopted and faked, then perhaps that says more about the world than her. Sorokin’s actions didn’t just rely on aestheticization. They were, in their entirety, aestheticization. Delvey never existed. She was made up, invented, carefully curated and skillfully plotted.  

Ben Davis writes of how the art world was the circulatory system through which Delvey ran her scams. She promised an arts center to potential financial backers, featuring art from Koons and Christo. Her Instagram presence (as she is sure to have learned from so many Rich Kids of Instagram) was patiently crafted and constructed. It suggested that Sorokin had a deep appreciation and love for art and aesthetics. Though as Davis has also pointed out, this could itself be an act; for all we know of Anna Delvey, Sorokin could have known and appreciated as much about art as the average Wikipedia reader.  

Whatever the case, Sorokin has if nothing else closely studied the ways of the rich and spoiled. Her ability to convince those around her that she was an heiress reflects how perceptive this study was. But it also reveals that there isn’t a whole lot of difficulty in aping the upper crust, in convincing them that you are one of them. There is no substance to fake, no authenticity to mine, just an image to cultivate.  

Yes, it is old hat to point out that the lives of the rich are, behind the glitz, empty and banal. Or that social media aids in the cultivation of these full spectrum poses. But there is also something particular about the timing of Sorokin’s story, falling as it does in an era also marked by the Fyre Fest fiasco, by Elizabeth Holmes, by the specter of the “millennial scammer.” Compare this crop with those behind the Enron or WorldCom scandals of the early 2000’s, and you start to see an added element in play.

It is more than generational turnover. More than just conspicuous consumption. The global slump of 2008 was a foundational crisis in neoliberalism, exposing not just its inner machinations but thusly forcing sections to reassess how it maintained cultural hegemony. If financialization required the basic workings of exploitation to be obscured, aestheticized, then the crisis of this template required an intensification of neoliberalism’s specific relationship with the culture industry. 

Take, as an example, the rich people of reality television. Not long before the ‘08 crash, production studios had begun to lean heavily on reality TV. This was most immediately an adaptation to the four-month writers’ strike that put countless scripts on hold. But the strike itself was indicative of much larger rifts that were opening up in Hollywood’s business model. And so Hollywood also stumbled on a very profitable lesson.  

Today, reality TV is far more bankable than scripted shows. Labor costs are lower for them and their ratings are on the whole higher, but they also reflect and encourage a peculiarly voyeuristic kind of moralism. Among them a special place is held for shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Real HousewivesSouthern Charm; shows that dramatize the idleness of the pampered. Their mundane pettiness is wrapped in the pretense of high drama, and in such a way that it wouldn’t be if they were of a more common socioeconomic stature.  

The line between content and form becomes blurred, and it is used against us. Our emotional investment in the petty behaviors of the privileged mirrors the way in which our own lives are financially tied up with the maintenance of their lifestyles. Yes, the vacuity of the rich has been laid bare, but even in schadenfreude, we are made complicit in that same vacuity.  

This dynamic doesn’t merely apply to gulag bait reality TV. But the specific form exhibits a logic that has been widely instilled in neoliberalism and accelerated in its later, post-crash iteration. The internet, social media, the generalized on-demand-ification of our cultural artifacts, even the rise of a mundane surveillance state; all have instilled in public consciousness that we somehow have a purchase in the lives of others. And if it seems as if the lives of the more well-off have more weight in that purchase, well, then you probably also have understood the double meaning behind the word “purchase.” 

What we are talking about then is a huge innovation in glamour, in the psychology and aesthetics of envy. Glamour and envy in the way that Berger described them almost fifty years ago: 

Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion. The industrial society which has moved towards democracy and then stopped half way is the ideal society for generating such an emotion. The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day-dreams. 

Telescope this forward to today. The means of reproducing the day-dream have been revolutionized and innovated a thousand times over. Yet the means to democratize daily life haven’t just failed to keep up but have been coerced from us.  

What happens when someone decides to not merely stay in the daydream, but make it their reality at any cost? The answer is found somewhere in the gap between Anna Sorokin and her avatar Anna Delvey. With the desires of the first unrealizable, the invention of the second becomes necessary. And the only skill needed is a convincing con game.  

It is not just that the lives of the rich are empty, it is that this very same emptiness has become its greatest source of strength. The void has gotten bored of staring back. Now it’s devouring us whole. And when we finally get to its center, there’ll be nothing waiting for us but Lena Dunham.  

Civilization Never Happened

I.

There is a truly noxious moment in Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC documentary series Civilisation. The art historian, knight, and life-peer stands across the Seine from Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral and ponders the meaning of the series title.  

“What is civilization?” he asks before peering over his shoulder. “I don’t know, but I think I can recognize it when I see it.”  

It isn’t roads or agriculture that define Clark’s civilization, not plumbing or shelter, modes of production or complex systems of governance. Not even the grand buttresses and spires he is obviously referencing as he glances across the river. 

Just “I can recognise it when I see it.” Almost the exact same phrase used by a US Supreme Court Justice to describe pornography five years before. “I know it when I see it.” The definition is in the definition.  

“I know it when I see it.” The refrain of the charlatan. Of they who believe that their level of education is its own argument, regardless of how much attention they may or may not have paid during class. Everyone who has ever been in a position of unchecked power has their variation of it.  

It was fitting that Lawrence O’Donnell included Clark’s words in the closing segment of his MSNBC show on the night of the Notre-Dame fire. It was followed by an assertion from French President Emanuel Macron (he who has spent the past five months trying unsuccessfully to quell a full-on insurgency in his own country) vowing to rebuild. The message is clear: Notre-Dame is a symbol of this great thing we call civilization, and civilization must be maintained.

Which begs the question: how the fuck do you rebuild something you can only know when you see? How do the blueprints for something like that work? Or is civilization itself, like so many other words and phrases, simply a convenient concept for the powerful huckster? Convenient because its aesthetic trappings can be so easily unmoored from actual meaning? 

II. 

Five years after Clark’s special, the BBC showed John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Berger’s four-part documentary was intended in part as a rebuttal to Civilisation. While Clark’s series was imbued with a noblesse oblige version of “everyone has a right to culture,” Berger asserted that the right to culture also meant the right to shape and contribute to culture. He investigated how the photograph had revolutionized our interaction with the aesthetic. The transmittable image provided not merely the ability to bring an object’s representation to whoever might pick up a magazine or photo album, but the ability to manipulate the object’s meaning, to make it either conform to power or reveal the potentials of the radical democratic.  

What one finds when they look at aesthetic history through this prism – the radical democratic, the socialist in other words – is that there has not been a single artistic-cultural item that has remained untouched by it. And why would it? History happens. Nothing and nobody are exempt from it. Particularly when humans themselves become the motor of historical change.  

During the French Revolution, Notre-Dame’s look and feel, its meaning, all had a question mark placed over them. With the church’s power now openly challenged, openly threatened in fact, crowds of revolutionaries and laborers periodically stormed the cathedral and ripped down its statues. It was not mere anti-religiosity motivating this iconoclasm. Tearing down and decapitating 28 statues of the biblical Kings of Judah had an obvious anti-royal resonance to it. 

In 1793 the cathedral hosted the Festival of Reason. Notre-Dame de Paris had become the Temple of Reason. Its busts of religious icons were replaced with those of Enlightenment philosophers and radicals. Robespierre’s naïve-but-admirable attempts to renovate every aspect of material and spiritual life were in keeping with temporal rupture, not erasing the past so much as changing history, its trajectory altered as the masses stormed it.  

III. 

Neither politician nor historian have any clue what to make of moments like these. They have wasted millions of words and pages equivocating, attempting to parse the “good” from the “bad” in the French Revolution. It is a watershed for Enlightenment ideals, but gave way to excesses of the rabble that any unchecked ruler would find monstrous. During the revolution, reason and rationality carried with them the possibility for humans to collectively control their own destinies. Now they are less thrashed out than benevolently bestowed. 

Take France’s precious laïcitéThe doctrine of secularity, of reason’s ultimate triumph over myth and superstition, is today so arbitrarily applied that it may as well be a myth itself. Teachers can be prevented from wearing hijabs, but when a Catholic cathedral burns the government vows to rebuild. True, the events of the 1790s show that Notre-Dame is a site of history well outside the peculiarity of one religion. But Macron isn’t interested in rebuilding history. He is interested in preserving the past. 

Civilization needs the past. More than roads or plumbing or agriculture or other prosaic markers of society, civilization needs the past. Most pointedly it needs that past to keep its parts static and unmoving, to sit conquered and quiescent while monuments are built on top of it. It needs symbols that withstand the actual ebb and flow of events.  

When the gilets jaunes graffitied the Arc de Triomphe, smashing the faces of statues and busts, liberal and conservative alike swooned. Clearly the working and poor were nothing but nihilists, and that nihilism was proof that their grievances were ill-founded. The great ruptures in the story of France had already happened, and they were to remain in place, their agreed-upon meaning undisturbed. The future of its people – burdened by austerity and chastened by the imminence of a dying planet – were likewise carved from stone. The definition of existence had been decided, those who threatened it were wreckers. 

IV. 

There is something else discomfiting about the triumphalist fervor for rebuilding. Eighteen years ago the Buddhas of Bamyan were dynamited by the Taliban, less than a year before the United States invaded Afghanistan and officially launched the War on Terror. Archeological sites and museums were ransacked during the occupation of Iraq. ISIL, the militarized death cult that was bound to emerge from western-wrought carnage, has destroyed parts of Palmyra, ancient Sufi shrines in Libya, the Green Mosque in Mosul. 

It is not unfair to say that the pressures of empire have uprooted much of what we have come to call “the cradle of civilization.” There was always the risk of Orientalism in this label: the east is ancient and stuck in its ways while the west is modern and enlightened. But again, that’s the beauty of a pliable word. 

Note how few of these obliterated monuments have provoked the same indignation and resolve from western leaders. No refrains of “we must rebuild,” just “stuff happens.” Some parts of the past must be maintained at all costs, recreated if necessary. Others can be merely mourned. 

V. 

During World War II, the Philippine capital of Manila was second only to Stalingrad in terms of the fiercest urban fighting. By then the four-hundred-year-old city had already been rebuilt more times than the ancient city of Troy. The Battle of Manila between occupying Japan and the United States left it devastated. In particular the Intramuros, the “Walled City” of churches and administration buildings dating back to the Spanish colonial period of the 1500s, was almost entirely destroyed. 

It was under the murderous Marcos regime that the Intramuros Administration was founded as a subset of the Department of Tourism and tasked with rebuilding the Walled City. Since then, many urban planners and historians have been openly critical of the IA’s project. They have called the architectural style “inauthentic,” and compared the results of revitalization efforts to a theme park. 

Maybe that’s all civilization is anymore: a theme park. A great big gatekeeping operation of aesthetics, of pasts lionized or ignored, vying for the shape of a straight and uninterrupted march of progress that is ultimately hollow at its core.  

The past is, ultimately, far less consequential than history. Pity that most gatekeepers – be they bureaucrat or politician – don’t know the difference. Notre-Dame will undoubtedly be rebuilt and maintained. The same way that the rides at EuroDisney are periodically. And with it the idea that the past and history are synonymous: buttressed by unbending laws of what should and should not be, understood by a select few, observed and marveled at by the rest of us. The fever dream of civilization continues, and we are trapped in its walls as they are revamped over and over and over.