The Spectacle of Disintegration

There is one more evolution of the spectacle that needs mentioning. Interesting enough, there are two variations of this spectacle offered up by two different thinkers in the last decade: the Disintegrated Spectacle by Jeffrey Kinkle and the Spectacle of Disintegration by Mckenzie Wark. I want to give both concepts their due, so the focus of this post will be on Wark’s ideas first before taking up Kinkle’s in a subsequent post.

Mckenzie Wark’s notion of the spectacle of disintegration begins at the point at which the integrated spectacle has reached full maturity and has extended its reach over the entirety of the globe to the point where there are no spaces in the everyday lives of the world’s population that are not influenced or permeated by the images of the spectacle. In this state of affairs, the spectacle becomes “internalized, privatized, “personalized”—miniaturized, domesticated, speeded up, put at every infant’s disposal—with the image doses more and more self-administered by interactive subjects, each convinced that the screen was the realm of freedom.”[1]

Because the spectacle is now everywhere in some shape or form, it is also nowhere, rendering it beyond the ability for any dominant political actor, class, or institution to fully control. As Wark explains:

     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 outsourced 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 that consumers swap between each other—while still paying for the privilege.[2]

Implicit in these words is the crucial role of the now ubiquitous digital content sharing platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, Vine, etc. in the fragmentation of what was once a unitary and cohesive spectacle. For dominant states like the United States, social media platforms were supposed to be a boon to the interests of neoliberal globalization who would be the greatest beneficiaries of billions of people having the freedom and capacity to share their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, hopes and consumer choices with anyone and everyone around the world. This would be especially true in countries challenged by the presence of extremist terror group or authoritarian regimes to flout the restrictive tendencies local rulers. As then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech in 2010,

 …the internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them. This freedom is no longer defined solely by whether citizens can go into the town square and criticize their government without fear of retribution. Blogs, emails, social networks, and text messages have opened up new forums for exchanging ideas, and created new targets for censorship.[3]

 

However, Clinton and other public boosters of open information and interaction through social networking failed to anticipate how the media tools that could help bring down authoritarian governments could also attract vast global audiences and direct their attention to acts of authoritarianism and imperial rule committed by the United States.

This oversight points to a spectacle that is no longer completely under the command of the dominant political, economic, and media institutions in the world. The last decade provides numerous examples of this loss of control. The website Wikileaks under the leadership of its controversial chief Julian Assange published countless troves of classified diplomatic, military and security documents and videos that disrupted the efforts by the United States’ government to project a veneer of virtue and righteousness over the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cyber-activists like Anonymous have used digital tools and tactics to take down or disrupt the internet presence of prominent global corporations and government agencies. Some of the biggest disruptions, however, have come from the participants of the Arab Spring, where dissidents in Tunisia and Egypt used social media platforms to organize protests and coordinate street actions that led to the collapse of the ruling authoritarian regimes and threw much of the Middle East into chaos.

Even more problematic for Clinton and the United States was that the communications platforms of digital media not only failed to destroy illiberal regimes and terror groups, but actually made some of them more powerful.[4] This is the essence of the success of ISIS and its strategy of spectacular savagery. The phenomenon of the disintegrating spectacle has given groups like ISIS the ability to tap into the larger information flows of the global communications apparatus and create small sub-networks of text, pictures, video, and interconnected social circuits that reduce the transaction costs of running an outlaw terror group—especially in terms of producing, editing, and distributing propaganda and other media content to the wider world.

Dissident groups that utilize the tactics of terrorism have always been reliant on mass media largely beyond their control to broadcast their deeds and communicate their messages. One of the reasons why terror attacks often featured violence, cruelty and death was to capture and co-opt mass media platforms that would normally ignore or minimize the political demands of marginalized groups.[5]

This explains why, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, groups like Al-Qaeda were intent on terror attacks that were more “epic” in their scale and ambition. Spectacular acts of violence and destruction, like the attacks of September 11th, were ideal ways of capturing the media institutions of the integrated spectacle (with its 24-hour cable news stations thirsting for constant streams of captivating news and imagery) and using it against its masters. Yet, no matter how skillfully this media jujitsu was realized, ultimate power still remained with dominant states and institutions that controlled the media infrastructure. Even in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks, Osama bin Laden expressed frustration that the videos he made to capitalize on the success of the attacks took months via courier to reach satellite cable broadcasters like Al Jazeera and then were heavily edited when broadcast—if they were even broadcast at all.[6] However, in the new era of the spectacle of disintegration, a less “top-down” media capability made possible by social media platforms that rely more heavily on user-generated content means abundant spaces exist for political groups and movements not sanctioned by the prevailing global status quo to propagandize, recruit, and otherwise realize their political goals. The media apparatus that could only be accessed via a well-planned and staged event is now readily available to anyone with a smart phone and a wireless connection.

An in-depth report by the Washington Post in November of 2015 testifies to the extent to which ISIS has harnessed the power of the spectacle of disintegration to its own devious ends. “Cameras, computers and other video equipment arrive in regular shipments from Turkey” are “delivered to a (ISIS) media division…whose production skills often stem from previous jobs they held at news channels or technology companies.”[7] These tools are then used to create and distribute large quantities of online content, ranging from the trademark “snuff” videos of ISIS operatives killing prisoners to more “hearts and minds” oriented videos that show the tranquility of daily life in area under the control of the Islamic State to recruitment videos inviting foreigners to make the journey to Syria and Iraq and participate in history. The importance of the power of the spectacle to ISIS is revealed when one learns that, according to one ISIS defector, the “media people are more important than the soldiers…Their monthly income is higher. They have better cars. They have the power to encourage those inside to fight and the power to bring more recruits to the Islamic State.”[8] This effort at cultivating a unique ISIS “brand” has had devastating results, as evidenced by the attacks in Paris in November 2015, which “were carried out by militants who belonged to a floating population of Islamic State followers, subjects who are scattered among dozens of countries and whose attachments to the group exist mainly online.”[9]

The United States and its western allies, habituated to being masters of the spectacle, found themselves at a loss to counter ISIS on a terrain over which it was used to exercising domination and for much of the twentieth century had been a primary source of its power. Already struggling to come up with an effective media strategy for their counterterrorism goals when Al-Qaeda enjoyed paramountcy of the jihadist movement, the success of ISIS fusing their media operations together with their terrorist actions has left leading members of the State and Defense Department bewildered.[10] This lack of success goes to the heart of the nature of the spectacle of disintegration, which, as Mckenzie Wark writes, marks “the withering away of the old order” but an order that nevertheless “remains…circling itself (and) bewildering itself.”[11] The persistence of ISIS in particular and radical violent extremism in general represents a bewilderment that is having deadly consequences.

So too with other “surprising” events of the last year—the victory of Donald Trump being but the most obvious example. Indeed, it is the hope that this space will provide in the future much content and commentary on the Trumpire via the lens of the spectacle of disintegration. Before the move to this task, however, it is important to briefly discuss another variation on the spectacle in the twenty-first century that hits on many of the themes explored here but also has enough unique insights to treat separately. This is Jeffrey Kinkle’s Disintegrating Spectacle, and it will be the focus of the next post.

     [1] Timothy J. Clark, The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 184.

     [2] McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration, 6.

     [3] See http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm.

     [4] With regards to primarily authoritarian regimes like Belarus, this was first observed by Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom (New York: Public Affairs, 2010).

     [5] Douglas Kellner, From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush Legacy, 52.

     [6] See Jason Burke, “How Changing Media Is Changing Terrorism,” The Guardian, 25 February, 2016. Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/25/how-changing-media-changing-terrorism

     [7]  Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet, “Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine, Washington Post, 20 November 2015. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/inside-the-islamic-states-propaganda-machine/2015/11/20/051e997a-8ce6-11e5-acff-673ae92ddd2b_story.html

     [8] Abu Abdullah al-Maghribi, quoted in Miller and Mekhennet, Washington Post.

     [9] Miller and Mekhennet, Washington Post.

     [10] On the lack of success of American marketing efforts to the Muslim world, see Edward Comor and Hamilton Bean, “America’s ‘Engagement’ Delusion: Critiquing a Public Diplomacy Consensus,” International Communications Gazette 74:3 (2012), 203-220. On the more recent frustrations and controversies with regard to ISIS, see Greg Miller and Scott Higam, “In a propaganda war against ISIS, the U.S. tried to play by the enemy’s rules,” Washington Post, 8 May, 2015. Accessed at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-a-propaganda-war-us-tried-to-play-by-the-enemys-rules/2015/05/08/6eb6b732-e52f-11e4-81ea-0649268f729e_story.html?tid=a_inl

     [11]Wark, 3.

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