Friday, November 7, 2008

More thoughts on the Society of the Spectacle

[This post is a contribution to the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon, running from November 4-9 at The Cooler.]

As a follow-up to my recent post on Guy Debord's film Society of the Spectacle, I have been reading Debord's 1988 essay "Comments on the Society of the Spectacle," an extension to the earlier book and film, as well as an update which amends Debord's ideas in relation to changing social conditions. In general, this later essay is much more pessimistic than the earlier works, as Debord seems to have concluded that by this point the spectacle has definitively won: it is everything and everywhere, and virtually no means exist to question or effectively rebel against the established social and economic order of the world. He addresses his essay to some "fifty or sixty people" who might be interested, among whom he guesses that roughly half will in fact be those who wish to maintain the spectacle. One can hardly blame Debord for his despair, since his 1967 pronouncements and predictions have seemed increasingly prescient and relevant in the face of an expanding globalist economy and a media who do nothing to question or even call attention to its hegemony.

One of Debord's comments in this essay seems especially relevant to the state of the world today, so much so that I felt I really had to post this here. Keep in mind that this was written in 1988.

Such a perfect democracy constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.

I post this primarily as a reminder that, though Debord's theorization of an international "spectacle" which secretly controls the entire world can sometimes seem a bit abstracted or far-fetched, there are obvious and tangible implications for his ideas in the real world. The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act and the invasion of Iraq being the two most blatant ones occurring to me after reading the above.


Jason Bellamy said...

You could add water boarding to the list. Or any of the "stress positions" and the like that are supposedly "not torture."

Torture enough, in my book. And in America's, if Americans were on the receiving end. But try to bring any of this up and the discussion changes to what we're up against, this shifting Them that is our terrorist enemy. "Yeah, right ... WE'RE the problem," they say in mocking tones. Fox News says it often, actually.

It's also interesting that since terrorist armies are so vague -- compared to a traditional army -- Bush & Co have been able to say they are keeping the terrorists out of this location or that one without anyone really being able to refute them. Because a terrorist army is an idea more than an actuality...kind of like an anarchist group, if you follow me.

Interesting stuff. I'm glad you followed up on the previous post.

Ed Howard said...

All great points Jason.

"Bush & Co have been able to say they are keeping the terrorists out of this location or that one without anyone really being able to refute them."

This goes right to one of the other points that Debord makes in the essay discussed here: that in a spectacular society it becomes increasingly impossible to refute the official lies being shoved down our throats. As Debord explains it, one function of the spectacle is to make the concept of "truth" more and more remote from concrete, observable reality. It is no longer possible to say that we "know" anything except what we are told from various sources. The result is an abstracted, relative truth rather than an absolute truth based on facts and direct observation. If the media tells us this or that is true, who are we to say otherwise? And even if our own observations contradict the official version, where are we to say so? Who will hear?

The more I think about it, the more I realize how relevant Debord continues to be. I'm glad seeing this film reawakened my interest in his work.

Joel Bocko said...

"Bush & Co have been able to say they are keeping the terrorists out of this location or that one without anyone really being able to refute them. Because a terrorist army is an idea more than an actuality...kind of like an anarchist group, if you follow me."

I don't know, I think a) the terrorist threat is very real and that b) ironically, your criticism of Bush's approach to terror lets him off the hook too easily (though that is obviously not your intention). There are ways of verifying and measuring success in fighting terror (by which I mean not just killing terrorists but changing minds and redeeming our image around the globe). Among them is NOT throwing people, innocent, guilty, uncharged into a legal limbo from which there is almost no release...and then acting surprised when a few of the few who do make it out take up arms against the United States.

Both of you are astute in acknowledging the ways which Bush & the necons, ostentensibly arbiters of absolute truth and a black/white worldview, have in fact utilized postmodernist relativism to let themselves off the hook and keep people tuned out. Conservatism once stood for an idea of responsibility, but the most relevant phrase launched in the whole War on Terror was Bush's response to the question of what Americans could do at this time: "Go shopping."

Jason Bellamy said...

MovieMan: Oh, terrorism is real and organized. But when I said it was more of an idea than an army, what I meant is that the terrorist army is difficult to point to. In WW-II, when the Nazi's invaded Poland, we knew it. We could point to that army. And likewise, when the Nazis were eventually defeated and/or pushed back, we could point to that too.

In the 'War on Terror,' our military intelligence sometimes argues about where the most dangerous armies really are. That was my point. And so Bush & Co can say that no one has attacked us since 9/11, and that's true. But prior to that, no one had attacked the U.S. from abroad since Pearl Harbor.

So maybe Bush & Co are taking too much credit. Or maybe they have been as instrumental as they claim. When the army is terrorism, it's difficult to evaluate.