The Diffuse Spectacle

The last post discussed the nature of the concentrated spectacle and how this incorporation of political and media capability helped cement together the strong but brittle totalitarian states of the middle and late twentieth century. The idea of the concentrated spectacle was important because it showed that the larger concept of the spectacle was not exclusive to the western world, where evidence of the spectacular nature of consumer capitalism was (and continues to be) far more readily apparent.

Debord gave this spectacle in the west its own name—the diffuse spectacle. “Each individual commodity,” Debord writes, “is justified in the name of the grandeur of the total commodity production, of which the spectacle is a laudatory catalog.”[1] This diffuse spectacle is the more complicated and more potent form of spectacle. Rather than a single omniscient image of a dictator-god flowing from a central political command center, the diffuse spectacle provides its subjects with a more polytheistic universe of sovereign images in the form of specific commodities, their various trademarks and brands, advertisements and celebrity endorsers. In the diffuse spectacle, “irreconcilable claims jockey for position on the stage of the affluent economy’s unified spectacle, and different star commodities simultaneously promote conflicting social policies.”[2]

The diffuse spectacle may be messier than the concentrated version, but that is in large part what gives it its greater power. In the diffuse spectacle, there is an appearance of ostensible competition and rivalry between image-gods—not unlike what one might find in Greek mythology. Car makes and sneaker brands and a galaxy of other commercial signs engage in a celestial war for market share on the airwaves of mass broadcasting outlets. This battle spills into the political realm as well, as politicians participate in election campaigns that largely take place through broadcast media events in an effort to persuade what are assumed to be even-minded voters which candidate has the best policy proposals or (as this election is perhaps showing) personalities. All this gives the appearance of a freedom of choice and liberty that was absent in the concentrated form of the spectacle (and was the primary argument of the moral superiority of the West over the East in the Cold War). Whatever the difference in the nature of the concentrated or diffuse spectacles, however, the effects are largely similar—to legitimize or neutralize resistance to totalitarian political and socio-economic structures.

McKenzie Wark captures the distinction between concentrated and diffuse spectacles best when he writes, “Big Brother (the concentrated spectacle) is no longer watching you. In His place is little sister and her friends: endless pictures of models and other pretty things.  Whereas the concentrated spectacle gives a permanent and seemingly unchanging image of ruthless power and authority to pacify its people, the diffuse spectacle keeps it subjects pacified by inducing them to constantly chase rotating pop cultural trends and conceptions of “cool.”[3]

It is the diffuse spectacle that most of us are intimately familiar. It is the ubiquitous advertisements on what seems like every urban space, the endless stream of ads and commercial content that stream onto out televisions, radios and personal devices, and the way we all seem to act like and ape celebrities and/or ficitional characters rather chase some sort of autonomous understanding of ourselves. The diffuse spectalce is consumerism’s attmept, in the name of generating ever larger amounts of revenue, to make sure we never have a moment of peace and quiet or an original thought of our own.

And yet remarkabley, this diffuse spectacle is not the most potent assemblage of power, especially as the world moves beyond the rivalry of the Cold War and into the era of globalization. At this key point in history, the spectacle will actually find a way to become even more powerful.

[1] Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014),  27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Spectacle of Disintegration (New York: Verso, 2013), 4.

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