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The Spectacle of Disintegration

Some might think it a new low, when a candidate for high office starts talking on television about the size of his penis. As if the regular, non-penile spectacle within which we all live and breathe was somehow some lofty public sphere. But perhaps its more a question of the current stage of spectacular live exposing itself in its ruined perfection. The spectacle has a history. Its current stage is what I have called, in a book of the same name, the spectacle of disintegration. I wrote it three years ago, but really to talk about some people who say it coming thirty years ago. Here is how I explain what I think the spectacle of disintegration is and what it means. The book from which it forms the introduction is here. The spectacle of disintegration is this big — a totality, actually.

When the storm hit the Hansa Carrier, twenty-one shipping containers fell from its decks into the Pacific Ocean, taking some 80,000 Nike sneakers with them. Seattle-based Oceanographer Curtis Ebbsmeyer used the serial numbers from the sneakers that washed up on the rain coast of North America to plot the widening gyre of ocean-going garbage that usually lies between California and Hawaii. Bigger than the state of Texas, it is called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, and sailors have known for a long time to steer clear of this area from the equator to 50 degrees north.

It’s an often windless desert where not much lives. Flotsam gathers and circles, biodegrading into the sea. Unless it is plastic, which merely photo-degrades in the sun, disintegrating into smaller and smaller bits of sameness. Now the sea here has more particles of plastic than plankton. The Gyre is a disowned country of furniture, fridges, cigarette lighters, televisions, bobbing in the sea and slowly falling apart, but refusing to go away.

New Hawaii is the name some humorists prefer for the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre now that it has the convenience of contemporary consumer goods. Or one might call it a spectacle of disintegration. It is as good an emblem as any of the passing show of contemporary life, with its jetsam of jostling plastic artifacts, all twisting higgledy-piggledy on and below the surface of the ocean. Plastic and ocean remain separate, even as the plastic breaks up and permeates the water, insinuating itself into it but always alien to it.

The poet Lautréamont once wrote: “Old Ocean, you are the symbol of identity: always equal to yourself… and if somewhere your waves are enraged, further off in some other zone they are in the most complete calm. But this no longer describes the ocean, which now appears as far from equilibrium. It describes instead the spectacle, the Sargasso Sea of images, a perpetual calm surrounded by turbulence, at the center always the same.

When Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle (1967), he thought there were two kinds: the concentrated and the diffuse spectacle. The concentrated spectacle was limited to fascist and Stalinist states, where the spectacle cohered around a cult of personality. These are rare now, if not entirely extinct. The diffuse spectacle emerged as the dominant form. It did not require a Stalin or Mao as its central image. Big Brother is no longer watching you. In His place is little sister and her friends: endless pictures of models and other pretty things. The diffuse spectacle murmured to its sleeping peoples: “what appears is good; what is good appears.”

The victory of the diffused spectacle over its concentrated cousin did not lead to the diffusion of the victor over the surface of the world. In Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), Debord thought instead that an integrated spectacle had subsumed elements of both into a new spectacular universe. While on the surface it looked like the diffused spectacle, which molds desire in the form of the commodity, it bore within it aspects of concentration, notably an occulted state, where power tends to become less and less transparent.

That the state is a mystery to its subjects is to be expected; that it could become occult even to its rulers is something else. The integrated spectacle not only extended the spectacle outwards, but also inwards; the falsification of the world had reached by this point even those in charge of it. Debord wrote in 1978 that “it has become ungovernable, this wasteland, where new sufferings are disguised with the names of former pleasures; and where the people are so afraid…. Rumor has it that those who were expropriating it have, to crown it all, mislaid it. Here is a civilization which is on fire, capsizing and sinking completely. Ah! Fine torpedoeing!”

Since he died in 1994, Debord did not live to see the most fecund and feculent form of this marvel, this spectacular power that integrates both diffusion and concentration. In memory of Debord, let’s call the endpoint reached by the integrated spectacle the disintegrating spectacle, in which the spectator gets to watch the withering away of the old order, ground down to near nothingness by its own steady divergence from any apprehension of itself.

And yet the spectacle remains, circling itself, bewildering itself. Everything is impregnated with tiny bits of its issue, yet the new world remains stillborn. The spectacle atomizes and diffuses itself throughout not only the social body but its sustaining landscape as well. As Debord’s former comrade T. J. Clark writes, this world is “not ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’ to quote the famous phrase from Guy Debord, but images dispersed and accelerated until they become the true and sufficient commodities.”

The spectacle speaks the language of command. The command of the concentrated spectacle was: OBEY! The command of the diffuse spectacle was: BUY! In the integrated spectacle the commands to OBEY! and BUY! became interchangeable. Now the command of the disintegrating spectacle is: RECYCLE! Like oceanic amoeba choking on granulated shopping bags, the spectacle can now only go forward by evolving the ability to eat its own shit.

The disintegrating spectacle can countenance the end of everything except the end of itself. It can contemplate with equanimity melting ice sheets, seas of junk, peak oil, but the spectacle itself lives on. It is immune to particular criticisms. Mustapha Khayati: “Fourier long ago exposed the methodological myopia of treating fundamental questions without relating them to modern society as a whole. The fetishism of facts masks the essential category, the mass of details obscures the totality.”

Even when it speaks of disintegration, the spectacle is all about particulars. The plastic Pacific, even if it is as big as Texas, is presented as a particular event. Particular criticisms hold the spectacle to account for falsifying this image or that story, but in the process thereby merely add legitimacy to the spectacle’s claim that it can in general be a vehicle for the true. A genuinely critical approach to the spectacle starts from the opposite premise: that it may present from time to time a true fragment, but it is necessarily false as a whole. Debord: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, the true is a moment of falsehood.”

This then is our task: a critique of the spectacle as a whole, a task that critical thought has for the most part abandoned. Stupefied by its own powerlessness, critical thought turned into that drunk who, having lost the car keys, searches for them under the street lamp. The drunk knows that the keys disappeared in that murky puddle, where it is dark, but finds it is easier to search for them under the lamp, where there is light – if not enlightenment.

And then critical theory gave up even that search and fell asleep at the side of the road. Just as well. It was in no condition to drive. In its stupor, critical thought makes a fetish of particular aspects of the spectacular organization of life. As Todd Gitlin says, the critique of content became a contented critique. It wants to talk only of the political, or of culture, or of subjectivity, as if these things still existed, as if they had not been colonized by the spectacle and rendered mere excrescences of its general movement. Critical thought contented itself with arriving late on the scene and picking through the fragments. Or, critical thought retreated into the totality of philosophy. It had a bone to pick with metaphysics. It shrank from the spectacle, which is philosophy made concrete. In short: critical thought has itself become spectacular. Critical theory becomes hypocritical theory. It needs to be renewed not only in content but in form.

When the American Food and Drug Administration announced that certain widely prescribed sleeping pills would come with strong warnings about strange behavior, they were not only responding to reports of groggy people driving their cars and making phone calls, but also purchasing items over the internet. The declension of the spectacle into every last droplet of everyday life means that the life it prescribes can be lived even in one’s sleep. This creates a certain difficulty for prizing open some other possibility for life, even in thought.

Debord’s sometime comrade Raoul Vaneigem famously wrote that those who speak of class conflict without referring to everyday life, “without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.” Today this formula surely needs to be inverted. To talk the talk of critical thought, of biopolitics and biopower, of the state of exception, bare life, precarity, of whatever being, or object oriented ontology without reference to class conflict is to speak, if not with a corpse in one’s mouth, then at least a sleeper.

Must we speak the hideous language of our century? The spectacle appears at first as just a maelstrom of images swirling about the suck hole of their own nothingness. Here is a political leader. Here is one with better hair. Here is an earthquake in China. Here is a new kind of phone. Here are the crowds for the new movie. Here are the crowds for the food riot. Here is a cute cat. Here is a cheeseburger. If that were all there was to it, one could just load one’s screen with better fare. But the spectacle is not just images. It is not just another name for the media. Debord: “The spectacle is a social relationship between people mediated by images.” The trick is not to be distracted by the images, but to inquire into the nature of this social relationship.

Emmalee Bauer of Elkhart worked for the Sheraton Hotel company in Des Moines until she was fired for using her employer’s computer to keep a journal which recorded all of her efforts to avoid work. “This typing thing seems to be doing the trick,” she wrote. “It just looks like I am hard at work on something very important.” And indeed she was. Her book-length work hits on something fundamental about wage labor and the spectacle, namely the separation of labor from desire. One works not because one particularly wants to, but for the wages, with which to then purchase commodities to fulfill desires.

In the separation between labor and desire is the origins of the spectacle, which appears as the world of all that can be desired, or rather, of all the appropriate modes of desiring. “Thus the spectacle, though it turns reality on its head, is itself a product of real activity.” The activity of making commodities makes in turn the need for the spectacle as the image of those commodities turned into objects of desire. The spectacle turns the goods into The Good.

The ruling images of any age service the ruling power. The spectacle is no different, although the ruling power is not so much a ruling monarch or even a power elite any more, but the rule of the commodity itself. The celebrities that populate the spectacle are not its sovereigns, but rather model a range of acceptable modes of desire from the noble to the risqué. The true celebrities of the spectacle are not its subjects but its objects.

Billionaire Brit retailer Sir Philip Green spent six million pounds flying some two hundred of his closest friends to a luxury spa resort in the Maldives. The resort offers water sports and a private beach for each guest. Much of the décor is made from recycled products and there is an organic vegetable garden where residents can pick ingredients for their own meals. ‘Sustainability’ is the Viagra of old world speculative investment.Sir Philip is no fool, and neither is his publicist. This retailer of dreams has the good sense to appear in public by giving away to a lucky few what the unlucky many should hence forth consider good fortune. And yet while this story highlights the fantastic agency of the billionaire, the moral of the story is something else: even billionaires obey the logic of the spectacle if they want to appear in it.

The spectacle has always been an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise. But things have changed a bit. The integrated spectacle still relied on centralized means of organizing and distributing the spectacle, run by a culture industry in command of the means of producing its images. The disintegrating spectacle chips away at centralized means of producing images and distributes this responsibility among the spectators themselves. While the production of goods is out-sourced to various cheap labor countries, the production of images is in-sourced to unpaid labor, offered up in what was once leisure time. The culture industries are now the vulture industries, which act less as producers of images for consumption than as algorithms which manage databases of images that consumers swap between each other – while still paying for the privilege. Where once the spectacle entertained us; now we must entertain each other, while the vulture industries collect the rent. The disintegrating spectacle replaces the monologue of appearances with the appearance of dialogue. Spectators are now obliged to make images and stories for each other that do not unite those spectators in anything other than their separateness.

The proliferation of means of communication, with their tiny keyboards and tiny screens, merely breaks the spectacle down into bits and distributes it in suspension throughout everyday life. Debord: “The spectacle has spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality. It was easy to predict in theory what has been quickly and universally demonstrated by practical experience of economic reason’s relentless accomplishments: that the globalization of the false was also the falsification of the globe.” Ever finer fragments of the time of everyday life become moments into which the spectacle insinuates its logic, demanding the incessant production and consumption of images and stories which, even though they take place in the sweaty pores of the everyday, are powerless to effect it.

It is comforting to imagine that it is always someone else who is duped by the spectacle. Former movie star turned tabloid sensation Lindsay Lohan allegedly spent over one million dollars on clothes in a single year, and $100,000 in a single day, before consulting a hypnotist to try to end her shopping addiction. Lohan’s publicist denied the story: “There is no hypnotist, and Lindsay loves clothes, but the idea that she spent that much last year is completely stupid.” The alleged excess of an other makes the reader’s own relation to the spectacle of commodities seem just right. Its all about having the right distance. For Debord, “no one really believes the spectacle.” Belief, like much else these days, is optional. The spectacle is what it is: irrefutable images, eternal present, the endless yes. The spectacle does not require gestures of belief, only of deference. No particular image need detain us any longer than this season’s shoes.

They call themselves the Bus Buddies. The women who travel the Adirondack Trailways Red Line spend five and even six hours commuting to high paid jobs in Manhattan, earning much more money than they could locally in upstate New York. They are outlier examples of what are now called extreme commuters, who rarely see their homes in daylight and spend around a month per year of their lives in transit. It is not an easy life. “Studies show that commuters are much less satisfied with their lives than non-commuters.” Symptoms may include “raised blood pressure, musculoskeletal disorders, increased hostility, lateness, absenteeism, and adverse effects on cognitive performance.” Even with a blow-up neck pillow and a blankie, commuting has few charms.

For many workers the commute results from a simple equation between their income in the city and the real estate they can afford in the suburbs, an equation known well by the real estate development companies. “Poring over elaborate market research, these corporations divine what young families want, addressing things like carpet texture and kitchen placement and determining how many streetlights and cul-de-sacs will evoke a soothing sense of safety. They know almost to the dollar how much buyers are willing to pay to exchange a longer commute for more space, a sense of higher status and the feeling of security.” By moving away from the city, the commuter gets the space for which to no longer have the time. Time, or space? This is the tension envelope of middle class desire. Home buyers are to property developers what soldiers are to generals. Their actions are calculable, so long as they don’t panic.

There are ways to beat the commute. Rush hour in Sao Paulo, Brazil features the same gridlocked streets as many big cities, but the skies afford a brilliant display of winking lights from the helicopters ferrying the city’s upper class home for the evening. Helipads dot the tops of high-rise buildings and are standard features of Sao Paulo’s guarded residential compounds. The helicopter speeds the commute, bypasses car-jackings, kidnappings – and it ornaments the sky. “My favorite time to fly is at night, because the sensation is equaled only in movies or in dreams,” says Moacir da Silva, the president of the Sao Paulo Helicopter Pilots Association. “The lights are everywhere, as if I were flying within a Christmas tree.”

Many Paulistanos lack not only a helicopter, but shelter and clean water. But even when it comes with abundance, everyday life can seem strangely impoverished. Debord: “the reality that must be taken as a point of departure is dissatisfaction.” Even on a good day, when the sun is shining and one doesn’t have to board that bus, everyday life seems oddly lacking.

Sure, there is still an under-developedworld that lacks modern conveniences such as extreme commuting and the gated community. Pointing to this lack too easily becomes an alibi for not examining what it is the developing world is developing towards. And rather than a developed world, perhaps the result is more like what the Situationists called an over-developed world, which somehow overshot the mark. This world kept accumulating riches of the same steroidal kind, pumping up past the point where a qualitative change might have transformed it and set it on a different path. This is the world, then, which lacks for nothing except its own critique.

The critique of everyday life – or something like it – happens all the time in the disintegrating spectacle, but this critique falls short of any project of transforming it. The spectacle points constantly to the more extreme examples of the ills of this world – its longest commutes, its most absurd disparities of wealth between slum dwellers and the helicopter class, as if these curios legitimated what remains as some kind of norm. How can the critique of everyday life be expressed in acts? Acts which might take a step beyond Emmalee Bauer’s magnum opus and become collaborations in new forms of life? Forms of life which are at once both aesthetic and political and yet reducible to the given forms of neither art nor action? These are questions that will draw us back over several centuries of critical practice.

Once upon a time there was a small band of ingrates – the Situationist International – who aspired to something more than this. Their project was to advance beyond the fulfillment of needs to the creation of new desires. But in these chastened times the project is different. Having failed our desires, this world merely renames the necessities it imposes as if they were desires. Debord: “It should be known that servitude henceforth truly wants to be loved for itself, and no longer because it would bring any extrinsic advantage.”

McKenzie Wark

  • chippy

    can’t the author write less theoretically???For some reason I am thinking of Chomsky’s critique of the postmodernists who swept to international stardom in the 1980s….the language in this article– its orwellian poetic tones– is attractive and probably appeals to eighteen year old humanities student with its calls to arms but what these arms are i wouldn’t have a clue. French philosophy is like that.To paraphrase and distort a title of a book on psychotherapy….”50 years of critical theory and the world is getting worse”

  • dmf
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