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.

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