Civil Unrest in the Society of the Spectacle

The acquittal of former police officer Jason Stockley in St. Louis has released a wave of social and racial tensions not seen there since the controversy over the Michael Brown police killing in Ferguson in 2014. Those heady days in Ferguson were part of a larger set of foundational events that included the killing of Trayvon Martin and the mysterious death of Freddie Gray in police custody in Baltimore that have brought about a “third wave” of the civil rights movement to deal with what Michelle Alexander has called “The New Jim Crow” epitomized by the structural racism of the American criminal justice system.[1] The events in Ferguson were also significant because they were among the first examples of “bottom-up” style digital journalism from individuals not working for private print or broadcast media outlets. Empowered by access to relatively cheap digital media technology, these individuals—ranging from a mobility-challenged woman who live-streamed images as she moved along police lines in her wheelchair to a local resident who communicated events almost exclusively through Vine clips—provided a gritty and authentic view of the protests that was lacking in virtually all conventional media outlets that were often overly deferential to police narratives and not especially welcome among the ranks of the protesters themselves.

These events can also be interpreted from the perspective of the Debord’s notion of the society of the spectacle, especially in terms of his later concept of the “spectacle of integration.” As elaborated in a previous post, the spectacle of integration is the unification of two phenomena of the twentieth century—the rise of totalitarianism and its use of mass media technology to deify demagogues and glorify the coercive capability of the state and co-incidental rise of commodity fetishism and consumerism manifested in the ubiquitous deployment of advertising, branding, public relations and other sociological and psychological techniques to get people to purchase things they don’t necessarily want or need. Debord labeled these the “concentrated” and “diffuse” spectacles that fuse together as part of the process of globalization taking place after the fall of the Soviet Union. The integrated spectacle unites, glorifies and protects the structures of neoliberal world order in a way that preys upon both the fantasies and fears of the world’s population, thus making it especially resistant to efforts by dissidents to organize and effect social or political change.

Indeed, as one observes the unfolding confrontations in central St. Louis, the seams of the integrated spectacle are easily traceable. The stage is set by the combination of an increasingly militarized police force sporting equipment and vehicles designed to both simultaneously intimidate and fascinate (indeed police agencies seem to really enjoy showing off tactical gear and vehicles at local “open houses”) and a local and national media apparatus that is built to cover breaking news in a strictly sensationalistic and episodic fashion. In the name of law and order, police forces deploy a dazzling array of advanced crowd control and tactical weaponry that produces a stream of visceral images broadcast news outlets absorb into their cameras and wring out on their programming. Audiences, drawn by an involuntary reptilian impulse to the lights and movements of the images on their screen, gaze in wonder and excitement at the unfolding spectacle. Yet the news outlets broadcasting these images provide little or no context of why the events happen in the first place. Alternatively, if context is provided, it is of a very limited and focused nature pertaining to the unfolding action and usually consisting of a pre-fabricated frame like “forces of order quell forces of anarchy.” The fact that the unrest is the result of larger systemic problems of historical injustices is largely ignored.

According to Debord’s notion of the integrated spectacle, the larger problems are ignored because the existence of those problems serves the maintenance of the status quo. This is  due to the  strategy of tension (again, see the previously linked post) and according to Martin Bull and James Newell, this strategy is “predicated on the basis of spreading a climate of fear to provide a perceived necessity for a restoration of public order…(.)”[2] Though Bull and Newell are writing in the context of Italian political unrest in the 1970s, the phenomena is the same—the threat of violent disruption of consumerist bliss by a poorly understood threat requires the state to exercise overwhelming and brutal force in order to “keep you safe.” The actual threat may be small or localized, but what matters here isn’t the qualitative nature of the specific threat but the mere fact that it is out there “somewhere” and only the state has the ability to protect you (so long as it has the latest in weapons and tactical technology). In terms of creating an integrated spectacle, the strategy of tension gives the state a path to enter and exploit the communications infrastructure of the diffuse spectacle and facilitates the creation of a situation where “spectacular government, which now possess all the means to falsify the whole of production and perception, is the absolute master of memories just as it is the unfettered master of plans which will shape the most distant future.”[3]

Whether consciously or not, governments in St. Louis have engaged in this strategy of tension in the Jason Stockley verdict. The Missouri National Guard was called up, public buildings in downtown St. Louis were surrounded by fences, private businesses boarded up their windows, and schools cancelled class for the day of the verdict. Yet there were two great unknowns here that make all these measures problematic: 1) what the actual verdict would be—ostensibly a guilty verdict would not mean any significant protests since the system “worked” this time, and 2) what the level of public displeasure would be if there was a “not guilty” verdict. In the spectacle of integration, however, these questions are irrelevant. The mere possibility of even the most timid dissent is an opportunity for the institutions of the status quo—state, media, major commercial interests, etc.—to add another layer of solidification on its hegemony by implying that however upset one might be by this miscarriage of justice (and the larger problem of criminal justice among poor and racially disenfranchised communities), the alternative is exponentially worse—so worse that we have to deploy all these extraordinary measures to protect you, even if the actual number of people who protest do so in an non-threatening way and that those who are violent create less mayhem than a typical Saturday night after the all bars and clubs close.

This also explains Trump’s comments about crime and violence and his ostentatious displays of support for police agencies. While the statistics on crime are quite stark in their depiction of a precipitous drop in the frequency of violent crime in most of the country, the rhetoric from the president utilizes the strategy of tension to arouse the menace of fear and the hope that these threats (usually expressed in the language of illegal immigration) will be forcefully and viciously put down. The recent mini-controversy over Trump’s comments at a gathering of police officers in New Jersey, where he encouraged the attendees not to be gentle when placing suspects into cars to the apparent delight of many those assembled behind him, is an example of how the integrated spectacle works.

But to bring this back to one of the observations made at the start of this post, the protests, whatever their magnitude, will also feature a different kind of “coverage from below” thanks the ability of amateur and semi-professional journalists to also capture images of conflict and contestation combined with the advancement in mobile device technology. Armed with device applications that can record sound and video and immediately broadcast it live onto the web, these journalists offer to show not only images and content that would have been censored or edited by mainstream outlets in the past, but together construct a counter-narrative to the traditional frames of social unrest. While these alternate accounts can make no greater claim on “the truth” as those more stylized productions of mainstream broadcasters, they contribute to a much fuller account of the event and add a texture and authenticity that has long been lacking in processed news production.

Analytically, they are also examples of the spectacle of disintegration that this space has discussed in previous posts.  The spectacle of disintegration occurs when the dominant apparatus of power, (in the case of the turmoil in St. Louis, the local media outlets, major economic interests, government and police) can no longer control the effects of the spectacle as they could in the past. So when the police force engages in an act of brutality (and there was a particularly egregious one in the immediate aftermath of the Stockley verdict), the police and city government cannot use a compliant and submissive media to edit out the problematic footage or provide an immediate justifying narrative to soften the verbal impact of seeing such imagery. Moreover, unilateral journalists on the receiving end of the state’s weaponry shatter the menace of social disruption and humanize those who would normally be depicted in problematic generalizations by the institutions of the status quo. As more individuals and crowd-sourced media operations get under way, the ability to paint any kind of coherent narrative around an event of major political or social significance becomes all but impossible, robbing the dominant institutions of their ability to shape a single story for millions of people.

When the spectacle fails to keep the masses properly pacified and enraptured, the threat of genuine sustained social change requires the need to use state violence in a more direct manner—more in the spirit of the concentrated spectacle of the old totalitarian regimes. Already we see government agencies finding ways to limit the ability of unaffiliated citizen journalist from gathering content that might appear to portray them in a negative light. As their grip on power becomes more tenuous, to what measures will they resort to regain this control? This is perhaps another thing to look for as events like St. Louis continue to unfold. Will these autonomous digital media actors become targets of the state and other dominant interests? Will there be new regulations regarding the use of digital media platforms in certain circumstances? Will lawmakers and law enforcers rethink the sanctity of “free speech” if it exposes them to unwanted scrutiny, criticism and calls for change? These are the issues at stake as the spectacle continues to fragment in a world in disarray.

 

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New York: New Press, 2012).

[2] Martin J. Bull and James L. Newell, Italian Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 101.

[3] Debord, Comments on the Society of the Society of the Spectacle, 10.

Trump and the Media Are Not Enemies

Before the media’s attention turned to Houston and the unfolding flood disaster there, there was much rumination on the political rally of Donald Trump in Phoenix on August 22nd. The event was a throwback to the large campaign rallies that were the hallmark of the Trump presidential campaign and were a big part of his success with a large segment of the population. Of particular interest were Trump’s comments about the media, especially the following:

“Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I’m saying tonight, I can tell you.”[1]

This as well as other comments from the rally were more evidence that Trump was intentionally stoking the dislike of the media among his fans in order to rally their support and distract the larger viewing public of Trump’s declining approval ratings. [2] Moreover, it gave some hope that now, finally, Trump had gone too far and that his Teflon-like resistance to bad press and public condemnation would cause his star to fall. But such is not to be the case. If anything, Trump’s anti-media comments at the Phoenix rally give special insight as to the source of his power and why so many who are eager to pronounce the death of his presidency will continue to be disappointed.

At the heart of Trump’s anti-media comments is a key paradox. Trump’s supporters—and much of the larger general public—do indeed despise the media.[3]  The reasons for this are usually chalked up to partisan politics—conservatives see the mainstream media as in the tank for liberal values and the Democratic Party while progressives see conservative outlets as repugnant Republican propaganda. This explanation, however, while no doubt reflecting part of the answer, overlooks the larger structural and global aspects of how the media are organized and what compels it to produce the propaganda that it does.

This space will offer an alternative explanation. Because it is devoted to exploring the ideas of the spectacle put forth by Guy Debord, the answer sketched out here will draw its explanation from Society of the Spectacle, and in particular thesis #13:

“The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory”[4]

The French gloire, similar to English, implies a shine and magnificence, but one can replace the word “glory” with “infamy”, and in doing so, one can get a better idea of what Debord might be referring to in the context of Trump’s relationship with the media. Instinctually, Trump is aware that the media cannot help themselves whenever he goes on one of his rants in front of his fans or sends out an outrageous tweet. Though the individual reporters and editors may loathe to cover such developments, the internal logic of the media and of spectacular capitalism demands that such provocations and declarations be covered and analyzed. This gets to what Debord is referring to by the idea of the means and ends of the spectacle—Trumps outrageous commentary garners substantial ratings, which benefits news and media outlets that cover said comments. These news and media outlets then fill their substantial amount of airtime and print space with commentary about the commentary—whether it is critical of Trump or supportive of him is not important, just so that there is an abundant supply of it and that it sustains the ratings the original comments brought. Inevitably, the media commentary and punditry, combined with the demands of governing and outside events, results in Trump making new, often more outrageous comments, which then unleashes a new cycle of commentary and counter-commentary ad infinitum. All the while, the ratings remain high, revenue from ads are robust, and those who own, control and benefit from this arrangement become more powerful. So long as Trump continues to be Trump, there is no reason why this arrangement will end. Indeed, the real threat here is if Trump every decided to not talk/tweet. The system may not be able survive such a scenario.

For some evidence of this arrangement and why it is not going away anytime soon, see these two quotes from high ranking media executives commenting on Donald Trump. The first is from Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS:

  “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun….I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”[5]

This quote is from the head of CNN International Tony Maddox:

“[Trump] is good for business…It’s a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period…If you look at the groups that Trump has primarily targeted: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert…every single one of those has seen a quite remarkable growth in their viewing figures, in their sales figures.”[6]

This still leaves the question of what is going on with the popular hatred of the media and the masses that both loathe the media but also can’t stop watching. Again, part of it is partisanship—Fox viewers hate all the media except Fox, who they give a pass to, while a similar thing happens with viewers of more centrist media outlets (with one or two exceptions, there really is no  left wing media in the US).  But if one watches both Fox and MSNBC or CNN carefully, what one is struck by the similarities that exist in terms of presenting a vision of an idealized consumer life that is, for the large part, beyond the reach of many of its viewers. As Debord said in Society of the Spectacle:

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. “[7]

In between all the partisan bickering and canned discussion are an endless stream of human interest stories, celebrity profiles and advertisements that glamorize and glorify a way of living that are bursting at the seams with passion, pleasure, prosperity and happiness. Or, put in a more vulgar, (but also perhaps more effective language), Matt Taibbi says, “America’s TV networks have spent the last forty years falling over each other trying to find better and more efficient ways to sell tits to the 18-to-35 demographic.”[8] The media establishment barrages the viewer with titillating images to sell its products and get the masses to watch its shows by appealing to the emotions, fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams of its audience. Eventually however, people start to realize they are, to use Debord’s figurative words, “in chains.” They realize the images and dreams on the screen are illusory, but they also don’t want to give up the slim hope that they might still come true for them (if no one else). The appeal of Donald Trump stems from the fact that, realizing the media dream is fake, they are drawn to someone who is “strong” enough to go after this machine that holds them in a state of paralysis. They delight in Trump’s denunciations of CNN as “fake news” because in a certain, strange way, he is right….ironically, it is not the news that is fake, but everything else on the channel—the ads, the phony perkiness of the anchors, the contrived interest of the reporter interviewing the obscure reality television star with apparent bated breath. They are tired of being spoon fed this drivel but can’t detach themselves from it when it is all their body can now digest. Their one hope is a man who knows this awful media apparatus so well he can identify its weak points and attack it where it will do the most damage.

But the lie here is that Trump isn’t attacking any weak points. He is only making it stronger. The audiences, as the quotes from the media executives show, are flocking to them in greater numbers, hoping to see if the media monster will be slayed and not realizing that this is not really in the cards. Trump’s success is the media’s success and vice versa. If something like the Mueller investigation succeeds in setting forth a chain of events that end the Trump presidency, the media will suffer for it in the long run. But it won’t be destroyed. And that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this—the only entity that can truly be vanquished here is Trump. The media, and the society of the spectacle that it helps to create, will persist long after Trump is gone.

[1] See http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/08/23/president-trump-phoenix-rally-full-entire.cnn

[2] See https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/23/16189198/cnn-don-lemon-rebuke-trump-phoenix-speech

[3] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx

[4] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[5] Les Moonves quoted in:  http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/02/les-moonves-trump-cbs-220001

[6] Tony Maddox quoted in http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/taibbi-blame-media-for-creating-world-dumb-enough-for-trump-w499649

[7] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 7.

[8] Matt Taibbi, “We’re Hiding from the Ugly Truth in the Imus Scandal” http://www.alternet.org/story/50726/we%27re_hiding_from_the_ugly_truth_in_the_imus_scandal

North Korea in the Society of the Spectacle

North Korea recently announced that it was pausing in its drive to launching a missile attack against the island of Guam, a sovereign territory of the United States. This announcement should not come as a surprise since any sober analysis of the standoff between North Korea and the United States points to a situation where North Korea had far more to lose if war were to break out. Nevertheless, the leadership of North Korea (including Kim Jong-un, who was absent from view until very recently) went out of its way to rattle its substantial military sabre and put forth the image of a powerful state that can take on the world’s only superpower. Such posturing is not new—and in many ways does not rise to recent examples of heightened tensions between North Korea and South Korea/United States where South Korean military vessels were sunk and a South Korea border town endured a brief artillery barrage

Yet this episode of North Korean obstreperousness was different. Some of this was due to what appears to be a leap in capability in the power and range of North Korean ballistic missiles. But the main drama at play here is the existence of the Trumpire and the “brave new world” that the rise of this global assemblage of power represents. For all the talk about the megalomania of Kim Jong-un and his Stalinist grip on power in North Korea, Kim must also confront his own problem of gauging the spectacle of Donald Trump and the comments and controversies that accompany his statements as tensions between the two nations rise. Such a surreal battle of egos and wills is unique in the recent history of global affairs, and scholars and practitioners of foreign policy are having trouble analyzing the dynamics at play.

Once again, the ideas of Guy Debord provide some interesting and useful insights. Of particular use is the idea of the “concentrated spectacle,” an idea Debord used to describe the media and other imagery conjured up by authoritarian regimes during the Cold War like the Soviet Union and China. While the former state has ceased to exist and the latter state has transformed itself into a paragon of a new form of illiberal capitalism, North Korea, as the world’s last totalitarian state, offers a place for one to observe the concentrated spectacle in the same way one might observe the last of an endangered species in a zoo or animal preserve. Moreover, we can see an interesting interaction take place as the integrated spectacle of the Trumpire clashes with the concentrated of North Korea. How this clash will work itself out is what many politicians diplomats, scholars and observers are struggling to comprehend.

First, then, let’s review the notion of the concentrated spectacle and see how it relates to North Korea. As discussed in a previous post, the concentrated spectacle is the spectacle that is spun out of the imperatives of totalitarian control. At the heart of the power of the concentrated spectacle is the imagery of violence and the implements of coercion whose force lies less from their use than their sight and media representation. All of this power flows from the concentrated image of the dictator who occupies the exalted deified space in these totalitarian societies. As Debord argues, the concentrated spectacle “imposes an image of the good which is résumé of everything that exists officially, and is usually concentrated in a single individual, the guarantor of the system’s totalitarian cohesiveness. Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity—or disappear.”[1]  This provides the explanation of some of the key images of the Eastern Bloc during Cold War (or of a place like North Korea today)—the ubiquitous pictures of Mao or Lenin or Stalin (or the Kim family), the grand military parades in the vast central squares of Moscow or Beijing, and the ultra-elaborate pageants of North Korea.

The threats and posturing of North Korea against the United States are thus not actual preludes to war, but the regime engaging the imaginations of its population through this spectacle.  And as with most cases where one finds a national government of dubious legitimacy, nothing fires up the imagination like the rhetoric and drama of an external threat. While the shows of overwhelming strength and boasts of easy victory may seem silly for outsiders, decades of state propaganda and highly regimented daily routines have created masses who need such spectacular boasting from god-like figures to both take the threat seriously but also be reassured the “dear leader” Kim Jong-un has everything under control. Of course, the regime will always stop of short of any real precipitous action—it may engage in the aforementioned skirmish, but it knows when push comes to shove it won’t be able to survive a bone fide war with the United States.

There is a temptation at this point to see the side of the United States in a similar light as previous historical eras when the diffuse spectacle was Debord’s operating paradigm for the spectacle in the west. This would be a mistake. The Trumpire of 2017 is an instantiation of the integrated spectacle where totalitarian administration and free market promotion come together to preserve the status quo. The conflict between North Korea and the United States isn’t one of the concentrated spectacle facing the diffuse spectacle, but of the concentrated spectacle facing the integrated spectacle. And because the integrated spectacle has the DNA of the concentrated spectacle within it, we do see some interesting parallels between the two regimes.

For one, the boasting of Donald Trump—epitomized by his threats to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea—reflect some of the same demagoguery as that of Kim Jong-un. Whatever one thinks of his politics, Trump has managed to tap into the  imaginations of millions of people who see him as the fearless leader from whom all good things come (good in this case may simply mean those things not associated with the Washington elite). They frequently visit those media sources that pay homage to the Trump presidency and ignore other sources of news that criticize his words and actions (often by labeling such information as “fake news”). While the people of North Korea are born into the hermetically sealed bubble of Kim Jong-un’s state media apparatus, Trump loyalists (as was discussed a bit in the last post), create their own sealed-off media universe and lock themselves within it voluntarily. The effects in terms of getting access to contrarian information is the same—a trust of the “dear leader’s” judgment implicitly and support of any decision he makes.

Yet there is another dynamic at play here that makes the spectacle at work in the west a bit more problematic. For many not placing themselves under the spell of Trump (and who are in most cases apolitical), the integrated spectacle nevertheless offers them the thrill of experiencing the drama and fervor of preparing to go to war. While much of the “mainstream” media is critical of Trump, they are still motivated to seek out or create engaging information and entertainment for the purposes of boosting ratings and revenues. The march to war, regardless of who is president and which country is in the crosshairs, is one of the surefire best ways to bring in these ratings. Indeed, the prospect of a missile attack on the island of Guam seems like the perfect “reality show” scenario for these news and media companies—here is a small sparsely populated island that no one really cares about (indeed, probably could not find on a map) but is nevertheless a part of the United States. The crisis allows the average consumer to become personally involved in the events (it’s the USA after all…nobody threatens my homeland!) but not actually have to fear any real lethal threat (except for the tiny population that lives on the island). If war does occur, the North Korean regime needs to stir the imaginations of the people for the primary reason that these same people will be called upon to fight, suffer and die defending the regime. For the residents of the United States, the need to stir the imaginations of the media-viewing public is done to ensure everyone tunes in when the shooting starts and watches the commercial inserted in the breaks in the action. Here is where Trump’s rhetoric serves an important role—it adds to the reality show/professional wrestling aspect to the conflict. Media personalities and pundits can scoff at the incendiary language of Trump, but these same media types will no doubt be riveted to cover and pontificate on events that result in a war breaking out that provides a chance for their stars to rise and their careers to be boosted.

Given this analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that North Korea would back down. For while North Korea may boast of military strength and victory in war, at the end of the day a war would be the end of that regime. For the United States, however, such existential dangers are not as readily present. While North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and should not be taken lightly, there are also a frighteningly large number of variables that skew toward seeing a conflict with North Korea take place for reasons that have little to do with foreign policy or international relations. The danger of Trump’s rhetoric isn’t that it might lead to a misunderstanding that triggers an accidental war, but that the rhetoric is the beginning of a deliberate move to engage in military conflict with North Korea. With the support of his cult of personality and the news media eager for compelling drama, a small (but very real) threat of a nuclear attack may not serve as a disincentive to attack. Thus, the logic of deterrence appears to collapse in the face of the spectacle.

[1] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 42.

The Saga of Megyn Kelly: A Lesson in the Ways of the Spectacle of Disintegration

There has been a minor tremor in the media and political world as the ratings for Megyn Kelly’s new show on NBC continue to decline. Kelly was the much lauded and admired host of an evening chat show on Fox News that garnered the network’s second highest ratings (behind the new departed and disgraced Bill O’Reilly). Amid the controversy over the treatment of female employees at Fox News by male executives and eager to make a name for herself outside the narrow world of cable news, Kelly left a big payday at Fox to begin a new chapter in her career at NBC. Ostensibly, Kelly would transcend her traditional role as a younger and more polished presenter (as compared to the cartoonish demeanor of Sean Hannity and grumpy-old-man vibe of O’Reilly) of conservative takes on the day’s issues and become a reporter and news presenter of genuine mass appeal along the lines of Katie Couric or Connie Chung of past media ages.

Yet something seemed to happen on the way to infotainment immortality. Kelly’s ratings for her Sunday evening show, which were solid at first due to a scoop interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have now plummeted to below most other network rivals (including the somehow-still-on-the-air inane-fest America’s Funniest ((and most likely Staged)) Home Videos). Conservative commentators celebrated what appeared to be her just karmic desserts for being down on the campaign of Donald Trump and her apparent abandonment of Fox News. Indeed, a recent rumor suggested that Kelly had been fired by NBC for the low ratings—an allegation made plausible by the fate of Greta Van Sustern, who like Kelly, left Fox News forNBC and was promptly fired after six months when her news/talk show floundered.

What explains such difficult and fatal transitions for news celebrities who just months before looked to be surging to glorious career heights? The answer explored here lies in one of the themes of this space—the spectacle of disintegration—and the lack of understanding of how it operates. To briefly review, the spectacle of disintegration is McKenzie Wark’s updating of Guy Debord’s classic notion of the spectacle he laid out in 1968 in The Society of the Spectacle. Debord argued that industrial capitalism had developed to a point where its most important product was not merely the material objects produced in factories, but the images, lifestyles and fantasies created alongside these products to sell, market, advertise, brand and promote them. This process began at the beginning of the 20th century and advanced to a point by the late 1960s that human beings no longer experience any kind of authentic existence of life but merely went through a set of pre-choreographed rituals centered around the consumption of these heavily marketed products. While individual life devolved into a hallow charade of conformity, a small cadre of government and corporate elites benefited enormously from this consumer environment and went to great lengths to protect it. This regime of protection Debord detailed in a later work called Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, where he discusses, among other things, the reasons why governments might wish to hype the threat of terrorism (to give the passive consumer audiences something to fear and to delight when the state ostensibly appears to defeat it and make the world safe to shop in again). This later phenomenon Debord called The Integrated Spectacle as it combined both the consumerism of the west with the authoritarianism of the east during the Cold War.

Recently, with the develop of social media capabilities and a series of legitimacy crises with the prevailing financial/consumerist order, a new kind of spectacle has emerged. This new variation McKenzie Wark dubbed The Spectacle of Disintegration and it features the same basic components of media imagery, mass consumption, and expressions of military strength but is no longer controlled by a central command structure of dominant media institutions, hegemonic western states, and global corporations and banks. Instead, the development of social media has allowed the masses who were passive consumers of the spectacle (and did not hesitate to fatten themselves up on its fat and sugar) to make their own contributions to this spectacle—so much so that the struggle to constantly feed the masses hungry for ever newer and grander content could be “outsourced” to these same consumers. They would make endless hours of content of themselves singing and dancing and writing fan fiction and posting comments and sharing their most intimate thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires and fantasies into cheap web cameras that would be devoured by their fellow consumers. Media owners and operators would charge rent on the bandwidth and get rich in the process. Everybody wins.

Yet a handful of unforeseen developments transpired. The prevailing assumption among many of these web platform developers was that the masses would share the inanity of their daily lives with the world and not use these platforms for anything that might threaten the status quo. So long as the tranquilized masses did nothing but share cat pictures and take “Which Sex and the City Character Are You”-style quizzes, there was nothing to fear from the new media platforms. Indeed, such information that consumers shared with the world could be aggregated and analyzed to steer them toward similar content. Yet it turned out the masses weren’t all as inane as they seemed. Some used media platforms to promote certain ideologies and activism from a variety of perspectives. Like minded communities quickly congealed and were able to make significant impacts in the so-called “real world.” Eventually, these communities constructed their own smaller media content production points and distributions networks. These on-line platforms linked up with traditional media outlets on television and radio to create information and image ecosystems were an individual could enter and have all other bits of data deflected by out into the ether. The scale of this filtering wasn’t merely taking place at the broad level of clichéd debates of “the left vs. the right,” but could function at a very micro-level. Conspiracy theorists who insisted the US government staged the 9-11 attacks had their own micro-universe of documentaries, academic studies, podcasts, panel discussions posted on-line, interviews, and just about every other form of information conveyance within an all-but-hermetically-sealed media cage. Millions of consumers would enter these cages when they interfaced with a computer or smart phone and never left—and have no intention or desire to leave.

Wark gives this phenomenon the name of the spectacle of disintegration because each of these micro-ecosystems represents a small chunk of what was once an integrated and coherent informational whole into a multitude of self-contained universes. Like a worm, these chopped off segments are now growing into their own organisms and are not under any central control from the original organism. The structure has disintegrated, but rather than collapse into a rubble of component parts, it grows into something that no one knows how to control. This is why events like the election of Donald Trump have transpired and the dominant institutions of media, state, and corporation are at loss to explain and control it. What was once the central command structure of the integrated spectacle is now a much smaller and insulated world of elites who no longer have the power to use their prominent positions to spoon feed the masses the gruel of “conventional wisdom”. Voters in the rural South, Midwest and Intermountain West do not get their news and information from network news casts or Newsweek magazine as was the case in the past. They get it from niche chat shows on Fox News and websites like Breitbart that speak an effective language of anti-elitism. These outlets backed the Trump train when it looked like his candidacy had staying power and helped deliver to Trump his voters. Megyn Kelly, though not a Trump supporter, nevertheless saw her star rise within the microverse of Fox News and conservative media punditry. She perhaps believed that the success she experienced in this small habitat would translate to success in a larger one.

This, however, has not been the case. When she failed to prostrate herself before Trump and added her name to the accusers of Roger Ailes and his unwanted amorous advances, she had become a persona non grata among the people who had given her the celebrity status she enjoyed at Fox News. Believing her skills as a reporter were transferable to another network (as they no doubt would have been in the past), she instead perhaps discovered her popularity was due less to reporting skills and more to the perspective she more or less conformed to and that her audience at Fox News expected. When she changed networks, this source of support disappeared and there was not a similar audience of loyal followers waiting for her at NBC. With time she might be able to create a new viewer base, but in the dog-eat-dog world of network television, she might not have much time available to her. Like Greta Van Sustern before her, she may find herself wandering the wilderness of independently produced podcasts and guest columns on Huffington Post and the like. Such a fate would be tragic, but not unanticipated if one understands the spectacle of disintegration and the increasingly fragmented nature of media universe of the twenty first century.

The Spectacle and the Gulf Power Struggle

The end of June saw an interesting development in the regional balance-of-power struggle in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia along with some of the Gulf emirates called on the peninsular kingdom of Qatar submit to thirteen demands or face the prospect of severe economic sanctions and political isolation. The demands come out of several years of tensions between Qatar and its Arab neighbors over allegations Qatar is supporting radical Islamic terrorists and becoming a little too friendly with Iran, a country that is seeking hegemony in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Israel. Many of the thirteen points refer to this aforementioned support of terrorism, including demands Qatar end monetary support of groups other nations (including the United States) have designated “terrorist,” cease its interference in other nations via clandestine channels and providing compensation for violence perpetrated by groups Qatar has given indirect support.

The most interesting of the thirteen points are numbers three and four, which read:

  1. Shut down al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
  2. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

Authoritarian regimes have never been big boosters of “free media” (even if such a thing doesn’t really exist in a capitalist world), but the demand to shut down one of the world’s largest satellite news broadcasters is brazen. As one recent newspaper profile wrote, (Al Jazeera) claims to broadcast to more than 310m households in more than 100 countries. The company employs more than 3,000 people and has a London studio in the Shard.”[1] To channel the spirit of a long-running popular meme, “one does not simply shut down a major satellite new broadcaster in ten days”. To shut down AL Jazeera would not only be logistically very difficult, it also entails asking thousands of employees, including countless reporters and support staff who would no doubt put their journalistic skills to work asking questions about the background, mindset, habits, behaviors, foibles, vices, and countless other unsavory details about the regime and its leaders who made such an unprecedented demand. The question thus arises: why would Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States make such a demand?

There is a temptation in answering this question to attribute such a call to the traditional authoritarian impulse to control information. There is certainly much to this. However, in an era when the spectacle is one of the dominant generators of human experience, the call to precipitously terminate a large generator of this spectacle, especially one that plays an important role in how power conflicts in the Middle East are perceived, points to a deeper layer of explanation. In making the call to shut Al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia and its partners are essentially demanding a form of disarmament.

To see how this might be the case, one needs to travel back in time to World War I and the story of an American bureaucrat named George Creel who was tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to manage the information flow in the United States during the war and persuade a skeptical public at home (and a not necessarily friendly foreign media) that the war was noble and necessary. So empowered, Creel created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and in the process, revolutionized the role of information in the business of the state and recast media as a branch of the armed forces. In a book he wrote after the war was over and the CPI dissolved, Creel asserted:

There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ. The printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board—all these were used in our campaign to make our own people and all other peoples understand the causes that compelled America to take up arms.[2]

Than a few pages later:

Mortar-guns, loaded with “paper bullets,” and airplanes, carrying pamphlet matter, bombarded the German front, and at the time of the armistice balloons with a cruising radius of five hundred miles were ready to launch far into the Central Powers with America’s message.[3]

Creel was arguing here that in the larger war effort, the media ought to be seen not merely as a minor appendage of the larger military conflict going on across the Atlantic, but as a central front in the war itself. The imagery about “paper bullets” is especially apt, as the suggestion here is that these “paper bullets” would have a similar effect as the real ones in allowing the US and its allies to attain victory. And where the real bullets made their impact through violence and force, the paper bullets made their impact through the less lethal means of persuasion and publicity. In Creel’s view, there was no substantive difference between the deployment of military force and the deployment of media assets.

Indeed, Creel perhaps did his job too well. In the wake of the conflict, he came under intense scrutiny for what many saw as his manipulation of public opinion in favor of the war and the disquieting questions this success raised.[4] Had some kind of dark art casting a spell over the collective consciousness of the nation been discovered by Creel and what did this mean in terms of preserving a free space for open debate that a democracy ostensibly requires? Many of the these questions wouldn’t be answered more fully until the Second World War and a new round of media and cultural weaponization took place on both sides of this conflict.

Back in the twenty-first century and the power struggle in the Gulf, the request by Saudi Arabia to terminate the operations of Al Jazeera takes on a new dimension. What the Saudis and their allies are essentially demanding of Qatar is the liquidation of its most powerful power resource—akin to demanding a traditional great power dissolve its army or navy. It is a powerful admission by Saudi Arabia that in the battle for influence in the global spectacle, the Saudis cannot prevail against a nation that by any other measure is inferior, and so must use these other power resources to negate this disadvantage.

Of course, this analysis also indicates why Qatar cannot possibly agree to these demands, for what nation would willingly surrender its most effective weapons? It is akin to asking a state with a nuclear weapons to surrender such capabilities—it simply will not happen short of some very large and very generous concessions and/or incentives. Indeed, one is tempted to see demands three and four less as actual demands and more as possible points of concession in exchange for compliance on the other demands. As the deadlines for such compliance are moved around and ultimate sanctions delayed, such speculation will ultimately by verified, but in the meantime, an interesting case of the changing perceptions of what constitutes power and threat will continue to play out both in Middle East and for the rest of the world. The outcome here may be a harbinger for how states struggle with each other in the future.

[1] Graham Ruddick, “Al-Jazeera: The Qatar broadcaster at the centre of a diplomatic crisis” The Guardian, 24 June, 2017.

[2] George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid., 427.

Manuel Noriega’s Legacy to the Integrated Spectacle

Last Monday, General Manuel Noriega, the infamous Panamanian strongman, died anti-climatically in a hospital in Panama City. Noriega will most likely be remembered as one of the Latin American bêtes noires of the late Cold War who ran afoul of the foreign policy imperatives of the United States resulting in armed intervention. As a prized CIA asset for many years when the priority of US foreign policy was containing communism, he was allowed to rule the country at his own whim with little condemnation of his drug smuggling activities. As US foreign policy interests shifted to drug interdiction, however, he found himself under pressure to reform his government and end his narcotics trafficking. Refusing to do either, he was ousted by an US military intervention in the waning December days of 1989.

There is another legacy of Noriega, albeit a far more obscure one. Noriega was identified as a prime example of the nature of the integrated spectacle in his penultimate work Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle. In “Chapter” XIX, Debord gives a brief account of Noriega’s interesting role as both hero and villain of American interests in the region. Then, after recounting this history, he writes:

Far from being a peculiarly Panamanian strangeness, this General Noriega, who sells and simulates everything, in a world which everywhere does the same thing, was altogether a perfect representative of the integrated spectacular, and of the successes that it allows the most varied managers of its internal and international politics: a sort of man of a sort of state, a sort of general, a capitalist. He is the very model of the prince of our times and, of those destined to come to power and remain there, the most able to resemble him closely. It is not Panama which produces such marvels, it is our era.[1]

There is more than a hint of admiration in the words of Debord. Noriega, Debord argues, recognized the country he ruled was “dug out” by the United States in order to build a canal and didn’t really enjoy any kind of genuine sovereignty.[2] This allowed him to generate his own personal fiefdom so long as he allowed the US to use the country as a tool for its official and clandestine objectives in the region. When the winds of US foreign policy changed, he knew he had much leverage over the demands by the administration of George H.W. Bush, who was accused of being a “wimp” in the media over his inability to control the rogue dictator.[3] When Bush realized he was losing the media war in the standoff between the United States and Panama over the allegedly rigged elections of 1989, Bush ordered invasion of Panama to topple Noriega—in essence tapping into the concentrated portion of the integrated spectacle when the diffuse one failed to yield the desired results.

Today, the notion that Manuel Noriega represents the epitome of the integrated spectacle is charmingly quaint. In the era of the Trumpire, Noriega is small potatoes. Yet there is more than a little resonance between the antics of Noriega and the much grander bloviating of Donald Trump. Like Noriega, who was able to contribute to the narrative of George H.W. Bush as a “wimp,” Trump took no uncertain pleasure in ridiculing Bush’s son Jeb as “low energy” and a “lightweight” before coining insults for all his other opponents in the presidential race. Also like Noriega, Trump is awash is shady business dealings and may or may not be involved in secret arrangements with great powers and both men seem to be somewhat self-conscious about their appearance (Noriega for his skin complexion and Trump for his body fat). Sure, there are significant differences between the two men who came to power in different eras, but when Debord describes Noriega as someone who sells and simulates everything, one would have to look hard to find a more elegant way of describing Trump as well.

One huge difference exists, however–Noriega lacked full control of the integrated spectacle. He did successfully co-opt its media side for a few months but ultimately, the United States could deploy its overwhelming military force which would have the double impact of allowing the US to control the physical space of Panama while simultaneously creating a compelling media counter-narrative that would portray the dictator as a heartless drug lord, dispel the image of George Bush as a wimp, and provide enticing and entertaining news reports and subsequent fictionalized accounts of the invasion that would allow the event to go down in history as another example of US benevolence. Noriega would ultimately be captured and sent to prison and, a much worse fate, obscurity. Trump does not suffer from this liability. He is in ostensible control of the entirety of the Trumpire’s integrated spectacle, and there are no American military forces to topple this regime (at least not in any way that is constitutional). Whether the current scandals of the Trumpire bring down Donald Trump remains to be seen, but with the death of Noriega, Debord’s description of him as “the very prince of our times” perhaps should now be directed toward Trump.[4]

     [1] Guy Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle (New York: Vero, 1998), 58.

     [2] Ibid., 57.

     [3]  http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-george-hw-bush-fall-panama-noriega-570478

     [4] Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 58.

 

Terrorism and the Spectacle in the Wake of the Manchester Attack

The recent terror attack in Manchester provides and stark example of what political conflict looks like in the society of the spectacle—specifically in the phase of the spectacle referred to here as the spectacle of disintegration. This phase of the spectacle features a historical era when the ability of states, major international corporations, media companies and state broadcasters, and the dominant socio-economic interests that control them have lost their monopoly over the content and dissemination of the global media apparatus. In this new phase of the spectacle, platforms like social media and tools like smart phones empower the masses to create and disseminate their own media content with little or no oversight or restraint despite the best efforts of traditional gatekeepers of media to assert this control. As a result, pockets of dissent and networks of resistance emerge both in cyberspace and in the material world that co-opt the tools of political pacification and use them against their masters. In its most successful forms, groups like ISIS (also benefiting from an absence of local and regional governance) can use this power to create their own independent spaces free from the dominant economic forces of neoliberalism and the military supremacy of the American Empire.

What makes the attack in Manchester even more horrifying and more compelling is that it matches a pattern observed since this newer paradigm of the spectacle began to reveal itself after the attacks of 9-11. This entails the targeting of establishments like nightclubs, sporting events, rock and pop concerts, and other examples of entertainment and leisure activities usually frequented by the youthful and the more carefree. While attacks against such targets existed prior to September 11th, they didn’t seem to be a preferred target until after this date. The reason for this is difficult to know with any certainty, but it may have to do with the perception that if entertainment, amusement, and “fun” are weapons used to defeat any challengers to the dominant assemblage of power, then they are “legitimate” targets for violence. If, as many Salafist-inspired attackers hold, that their religion and culture and way of life are being suffocated to death by both the deployment of American and Western military force and the omnipresent pop culture of western media, then such material manifestations of this power, including rock/pop concerts like the one attacked in Manchester, are as useful and expedient a target as an attack on a military base or police station.

Indeed, in the early grieving period that has followed the attack, one can already observe writers and thinkers discussing the central importance of these types of pop concerts in the public imagination. Alexis Petridis writes:

It wasn’t just that she (the author’s daughter) was overawed by the spectacle, although she was: stuff I took for granted – lasers, pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, all the usual bells and whistles of a big pop show – were a constant source of overwhelming sensory overload. Nor was it the way her lack of cynicism made me reconsider my own feelings, although that happened too. I have always been deeply suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that modern pop surrounds itself with: all that platitudinous “just be yourself”, “if you dream it you can do it” stuff. But my daughter took it all at face value and I ended up thinking: Well, there’s certainly worse messages you can send out to kids.[1]

Futhermore, because most of the victims were girls and young women, the attack gained an additional depth of repugnance that some have argued epitomizes the deep misogynism that permeates both the consumerist West and the extremist interpretations of Islam. Like Petridis, Mary Elizabeth Williams argues the Manchester attack targets an experience where young women show their power and fortitude:

They are so, so strong, these girls — yes, these girls with their goofy Snapchat streaks and their mermaid hair and their willingness to love things unironically. Their courage and their grace would knock you out. And if you want to know what ferocious resilience looks like, take a look sometime at a young girl and her bestie, sharing a set of earbuds and dancing, in spite of it all.[2]

Those who encourage and carry out these attacks on some level agree with these sentiments. They do see events like these as places where the children of their enemies transform themselves into indirect carriers and scatterers of a decadent ideology—including the children of Muslim families who settled in the West and should know better than to let such profligacy reign. One is perhaps reminded here of the experience of the Egyptian exchange student Sayyid Qutb, who was so repulsed by what he thought was the depravity of American culture in a small Colorado town in the 1950s (capped by his attendance of co-ed cotillion) that it motivated him to found a strand of militant Islamic ideology upon his return to Egypt.

But, as already mention, there is another aspect to this that often doesn’t get addressed—the ways the spectacle, especially in its current disintegrating form, allows for those who wish to do harm to turn the power of the spectacle on its masters. The media apparatus that currently exists pumps out an endless stream of entertainment and enticement in an effort to capture the imaginations of an entire planet. When messages and images of fear and terror are placed in this stream, it is like a bug in a computer network—it causes the system to malfunction until it can be removed. In the meantime, the tool that is supposed to maintain order and stability becomes the most effective weapon against that order and stability. Whether one believes pop concerts like the one in Manchester are a source of empowerment for girls or just another way for the entertainment complex to maintain its power over the minds of a listless consumer public, this apparatus nevertheless has the power to alter the minds and behaviors of billions of people akin to a military force pointing countless guns at the world’s collective head. If weaknesses exist in the operation of this “weapon” system that make it possible to redirect its stream, then one ought not be surprised events like this take place. This, of course, in no way excuses them, it merely points out their effectiveness and to understand why they will happen again.

As is always the case, a quote from the movie Network makes the point here in a far more elegant and clear way. In his first great diatribe of his new show, the “mad profit of the airwaves,” Howard Beale, is describing the power of television in the world. As the TV feed goes out live to millions of viewers and a captivated studio audience looks on, he bellows:

This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation.

This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers.

This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world.

And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.

For decades in the 20th century, there was little fear among those who controlled the tools of the spectacle that it could ever fall into the “wrong” hands. What one sees with attacks like Manchester is that the spectacle is no longer controllable from top to bottom, and that tactics and tools exist for it—or at least a significant portion of it—to fall into the wrong hands.

     [1] The Guardian, 23 May, 2017.

     [2] Salon, 23 May, 2017.