The Disintegrating Spectacle

The last post discussed Mckenzie Wark’s notion of the spectacle of disintegration—a variation of the spectacle where the audience is invited to participate in the smothering of their own creativity by digitizing the banality of their lives on various social media platforms. Whereas the original intention of this evolution of the spectacle was to enhance the entrenched structure of the status quo, what has happened instead is the breaking off of certain elements of the spectacle that spin autonomously apart from the larger global media vortex. Some of these rogue gyres even threaten and damage the structures of the status quo, such as when ISIL makes one of its infamous snuff films to the delight of a small but vocal on-line audience. (The place of terrorism in the spectacle will the topic of future posts).

For now, all that remains is to examine the other notion of the spectacle tailored to the times of the twenty-first century—Jeffrey Kinkle’s notion of the disintegrating spectacle. Kinkle’s analysis is less interested in the application of new technologies in the expansion of the spectacular power and more on the fate of humanity in the face of a spectacle that has largely accomplished its goal of eliminating all human agency and dissent in the world. As Kinkle himself defines the term:

The disintegrated spectacle is a society that is not subject to any kind of external threat, but is rather rotting on the inside. If the nature of the spectacle is ‘the transmutation of everything for the worst,’ as Debord wrote in the late seventies, the disintegrated spectacle is a world threatened by its own idiocy.[1]

Kinkle is here describing the dark side of Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis, where the defeat of the Soviet Union and communism represents the end of the final epic ideological battle in human history.[2] Whereas advocates of liberalism cheered the end of this struggle (and make no mistake, the end of a conflict where nuclear catastrophe was always in the offing was something very much to celebrate), the end of the Cold War and the onset of globalization also represented a moment in history where no significant thoughtful opposition or reforming impulse to contradictions and shortcomings of capitalism survived. Without a strong and vociferous opposition rooted in the radical traditions of western philosophy or any number of counter-hegemonic movements from the decolonized world or marginalized communities, the machinery that was built to protect liberalism would slowly begin to turn its weapons on itself, including the institutions and mechanisms of the spectacle.

Kinkle sees evidence of this in Hollywood’s obsession with the end of the world in the period surrounding the turning of the millennium. Without the specters of communism and the Soviet Union to conjure up and offer as fodder for blockbuster style movies and related entertainment products, the spectacle sought alternatives wherever it could find them—on stories about the earth being hit by comets or asteroids, of outbreaks of ebola-like viruses turning humans into zombies or a plethora of natural disaster scenarios from tornadoes to tidal waves to Armageddon itself (2012).Yet all this spectacular entertainment did was reveal the fact that there was no real opposition to American hegemony and the liberalism it sponsored. To drive this point home, Kinkle quotes Anselm Jappe who claims, “The fact is that the last of Debord’s works are by no means concerned with the struggle between the masses in revolt and the spectacle but rather with the imbecility of a world where everyone has succumbed to the spectacle’s tyranny.” [3]

It is here perhaps where we can bring back the discussion of the Trumpire that began these posts. In the disintegrating spectacle, Donald Trump is the popular solution to an imagined problem—a problem no one can quite describe with any concrete articulation, but is nevertheless so dangerous and pressing the entire American political establishment must be up-ended in order to meet it. It may have to do with immigrants, but not explicitly; it may have to do with Muslims, but don’t mistake the travel ban as a ban based on religion; it may have something to do with Obamacare, but it sure seems a lot of people want to keep Obamacare around.

What makes all this problematic is that while the problem is ill-defined, the ramping up of the American military apparatus to combat it represents the possibility of a future where the integrated spectacle makes an unpleasant return much more willing to emphasize its concentrated side than its diffuse side. Make no mistake, the reality shows and shopping malls and Pokemon Go aren’t going anywhere—just be ready to enjoy all these things in the midst of police in riot gear, surveillance drones, and constant warning and alerts about vague terrorist threats.

With these concepts of the spectacle articulated in past posts, this space will now turn to looking at various aspects of the Trumpire in the hopes of gaining some perspective and understanding on what appears to be baffling and confusing decisions by the new administration. Terrorism, immigration, and the day-to-day drama of Trump’s interaction with the media may not seem so absurd if we employ a concept like the spectacle .

[1] Jeffrey Kinkle, Spectacular Developments: Guy Debord’s Parapolitical Turn. PhD thesis. Goldsmiths, University of London. [Thesis]: Goldsmiths Research Online.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[3] Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord (Berkeley, California: University of California Press: 1993), 123.

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