The Concentrated Spectacle

As previous posts have argued, the spectacle is an assemblage of power that emerges amid the transformation of the global economy from an early stage of industrialization and production to a later stage of financialization and consumerism. But this shift in economic priorities occurs with the political context of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, with its focus on totalitarian rule and rigid economic planning represented a powerful counterhegemonic bloc to the primacy of the American-led West….or at least that is the standard story told of the Cold War. While the spectacle may be a useful tool to explain some aspects of western capitalism, it has little purchase to explain any interesting aspects of Soviet politics and ideology. Indeed, if Debord hates western capitalism and consumerism so much, then he obviously must be some kind of Marxist and prefers a Soviet-style system, ne c’est pas?

Yet Debord is no more fond of the eastern model of state-controlled economic development as he is of western commodity fetishism (even if he finds such Marxist concepts like “commodity fetishism” interesting and useful). Debord clearly sees a split between the two poles of the Cold War. Yet in acknowledging this split, Debord made a crucial distinction that is important in understanding the spectacle in the context of the twenty-first century (a topic for a future post). In Theses 64 and 65 of Society of the Spectacle, Debord identifies two separate forms of spectacle: the “concentrated” and “diffuse”. It is the concentrated spectacle that interests us for today (while the diffuse spectacle will be the focus of the subsequent post).

The concentrated spectacle is the spectacle that is spun out of the imperatives of totalitarian control found in the Soviet Union and China. 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.[1] This provides the explanation for 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, the grand military parades in the vast central squares of Moscow or Beijing, and the ultra-elaborate pageants of North Korea.[2]

Despite the differences in the regimes types between the west and east in the Cold War, the concentrated spectacle is not that much different from its western counterpart. The only real difference is the scope and intensity of the violence that is applied. For example, when Kim Jong Il died in 2011, there were surreal scenes of mass grief as the carefully choreographed procession made its way through the immaculately manicured streets and public squares of Pyongyang. Yet given the intense political repression of the North Korean regime, one cannot help but wonder how much of that grief was genuine and how much of its was the people “putting on a show” knowing that the state could theoretically kill you if you aren’t showing the proper emotional turmoil at the death of the Dear Leader. Or, as Debord says: “Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity—or disappear”[3]

This absolutism was at the heart of Debord’s rejection of communist parties and Maoist movements in Europe in the 1950s and 60s. The task of the concentrated spectacle in places like the Soviet Union and China was to disseminate such an intense stream of ideological dogma through the media apparatus of a totalitarian government that dissent of any kind was unthinkable. Violence was less a means of deterrence and more a means of punishment for not paying the proper amount of attention to one’s studies in the ideology of the ruling apparatus. For someone of Debord’s ilk—he embraced a very radical individualist disposition—the idea of erecting such a police state in France was the noblest of causes.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the reformism of Deng Xiaoping seemed to signal a moment when the specter of the concentrated spectacle no longer haunted the so-called “free world.” Yet the concentrated spectacle lived on in an arguably more insidious form. How this was possible will be explored in a future post, but before that topic can be broached, we must also discuss the diffuse spectacle.

     [1] Society of the Spectacle, 42.

     [2] Debord himself says “If every Chinese has to study Mao, and in effect be Mao, this is because there is nothing else to be. Society of the Spectacle, 42.

       [3] Society of the spectacle 42.

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