About drgrumpyprof

Senior Lecturer of International Politics, Political Theory and Media Colorado State Author of several works including "The American Empire and the Arsenal of Entertainment"

This Is Not A Drill…It’s Entertainment

Though less than a week has elapsed since the firing of James Comey, a conventional wisdom is already emerging. This has been expressed by a fairly broad cross-section of elites, pundits and academics who all espouse both the unprecedented nature of Trump’s dismissal of the former FBI Director and the harbinger of doom for the future of the republic it represents. CNN legal analyst and status quo junkie Jeffrey Toobin used the phrase “grotesque abuse of power” to describe Trump’s sacking while Erica Chenoweth, a scholar of political resistance movements at the University of Denver, made clear in a recent Vox piece that Trump’s actions were vintage authoritarianism and that “this is not a drill.”

The firing of Comey clearly has the look of a chief executive trying to figure out how to consolidate his power and there is very much a cause for concern, but in the end, will anything really be done? Will the hemming and hawing result in substantive action being taken against Trump and his administration by ostensibly independent bodies within the government or pressure groups and movements outside of government? To answer this question, previous precedents and references to past parallels to the days of Richard Nixon are not much help–the popular mindset and media environment is very different in the early twenty-first century than the mid-to-late twentieth century. And to make this point, I will invoke the theme of this blog, Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle.

In the Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord says “Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the present mode of production. It is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality.”[1] In a world that demands the production of endless streams of news, information and entertainment to keep all of us staring at our televisions, radio, computers and smart phones, this bombshell of an event should be seen less as news and more of another episode of an indefinite reality show constructed around the presidency of Donald Trump. The first “season” of this show—the campaign Trump for the Presidency—should have demonstrated to everyone that all the conventional wisdoms, replete with their traditional unspoken protocols and unwritten codes of conduct and informal norms and behaviors, did not apply when popular discontent with neoliberalism combines with an insatiable media apparatus ready to serve every wish, desire, fantasy, and dream of the disillusioned body politic. Mainstream commentators and traditional academics assuming the laws of political physics that applied to past presidents have failed to notice we are now on a different planet and a new set of physical laws operate here.

Debord also writes, “The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory.“[2] Trump, largely through instinct more than acumen, appears to understand this better than most. In the society of the spectacle, the media needs news and events to sensationalize and turn them into infotainment. It is largely unconcerned about the moral or ethical dimension to the news stories that it covers. One only need to observe how CNN or Fox or MSNBC political shows bear more than a faint resemblance to ESPN or Fox style sports show. Indeed, this space spoke last week of the crisis in sports media brought about by social sharing platforms. Much of the same trends are at play in “regular” journalism as well, and the news that Comey was fired was met by these cable news channels with OJ Simpson style coverage, including helicopters following Comey’s SUV through the freeways of Los Angeles while advocates for the various feuding parties engaged each other in meaningless verbal fisticuffs for the sole purpose of filling the airtime with drama and tension in the hopes the audience does not change the channel.

This goes to the heart of what Debord says in the quote about the “sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity.” The effect of all this coverage is not an outraged mass public that demands accountability for the corruption and overreach of certain segments of the government, but a still better act the next time around–that the next bit of Trump related news be juicier and more jaw-dropping than this. To the “this is not a drill” warnings from the likes of Chenoweth, Trump replies, figuratively speaking, “are you not entertained?”

     [1]Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 3.

     [2] Ibid., 5.

The Fall of ESPN in the Integrated Spectacle

The recent turmoil at ESPN provides an interesting opportunity to see the spectacle of disintegration at work in a way that allows us to leave the bleak world of security and terrorism behind for a bit. Though even here, we are only leaving the more visible and direct world of politics and power and moving into the realm of the invisible and indirect forms power. As I have argued elsewhere, sports and entertainment have been an essential ingredient of American power for the past century and the machinations of the ESPN broadcasting behemoth can be discussed in a similar way as organizational realignments in the Pentagon or the World Bank. To see this, however, let’s begin by looking at sports and entertainment’s place in the integrated spectacle.

In the previous post on the integrated spectacle, reference was made to American football and the fusion of the hype and hoopla of sport mixed with the showcases of military strength and selfless valor. The sophistication and coordination of such spectacle speaks to the high level of centralized planning and organization required to be effective, and the enormous expense that must be paid to ensure the show reaches the widest possible audience. Indeed, ESPN is part of the media empire of the Walt Disney Company, a huge debt-laded juggernaut that, like all corporate and state monoliths in a post-industrial world, are looking for any and all opportunities to tap into the consciousness of as many human minds as possible. Part of this is due to commercial and financial calculations, but another part of it is this more evangelical motivation to bring as many souls under the power of its media influence as possible. Because of the universal appeal of sport—indeed, one might relate the devotion of sports fanatics to that of religious zealots—ESPN and other sports media outlets have the opportunity to act as the mediators between the actual sports on the field and the viewing audience at home. ESPN, in its collusion with the sports leagues, serves as a media cathedral through which the fans of the various sports can worship and pay their devotion while simultaneously be solicited by advertisers and propagandized by the state through both overt and covert messages.

This arrangement, however, is very top down and hierarchical. It relies on an unwieldy trust of cable channels (ESPN being one of many), cable and satellite TV providers, provincial sports leagues (including an NCAA that does not pay wages to its talent for their labor), big name advertisers, and a state regulatory apparatus that makes the public airwaves available at little or no cost. There has historically been little authentic multi-directional interaction between stations like ESPN and its audience outside of the usual marketing and publicity campaigns designed not so much to allow the “fans” to give input on the programming they consume, but to allow ESPN to more effectively tailor their programming to the wants, tastes, desires and fantasies of their traditional viewers and those non-traditional demographic groups they wish to solicit and bring within the fold. As others have explained,[1] the monopolistic structure allowed the sports leagues to charge ever higher fees to ESPN who then charged the cable and satellite ever increasing fees to broadcast the sports for which they paid the rights who then charged the paying customers ever higher rates. The lack of competition and growing need for the distraction of sport in tough economic times placed upward pressure on these fees.

Then the media capabilities shifted with the arrival of social networking sites, ubiquitous mobile devices and the general onset of the spectacle of disintegration. Before long, the “gods” of the sporting world—athletes and celebrities—were able to bypass the media priesthood channels like ESPN had spent billions to erect and speak directly to their fans. Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds, and all the other signature capabilities of the social media age meant the lumbering media giants were having the ground taken out from under them. Similar to Martin Luther decrying the paying of indulgences and arguing for a more direct relationship with God during the Protestant Reformation, fans decried the high fees they paid to access their sports and insisted with so many athletes now available on social media, the need for such “mediation” from sports reporters and personalities was unnecessary. The leagues and teams also were drawn to this new arrangement. They could produce their own media programming and social media content without having to worry about ESPN and other sports media outlets editing their comments or asking question they would prefer not to answer. Social media also enabled fans to engage in more widespread “discussions” and “debates” about their favorite teams and athletes. Most of this content was (and is) tedious, silly, absurd and often vulgar. Fans would spend hours arguing “logically” why one side should win a particular contest over another despite the fact that much sport involves chance and random events that defy the best laid plans or skills of the most effective players and teams.

All of this is evidence of the integrated spectacle at work. This monolithic and authoritarian unidirectional media apparatus experienced several organs of its body spin out of control and become autonomous. When fans and athletes are able to talk to each other without mediation from sports reporters at ESPN or Fox, they have seized parts of a complex of power they were never supposed to be able to access or control. Like a ship where a portion of the crew has taken over a part of the vessel and is issuing its own orders, the audience of ESPN found the ability to turn the media weapons used against them on its usual operators, who are struggling to figure out how to re-take full control of the ship. One tactic they have tried is to reflect the debate and diatribe found on social media back at the audience in the form of these now omnipresent programs where highly paid celebrity pundits engage in duels of “hot takes.” There seems to be some unwritten rules to these pseudo-contests centered around giving an opinion that somehow manages to be both outlandish and plausible at the same time and concise enough to fit in a Twitter post. Consistently crafting a perspective that is sufficiently unique and abridged requires a special talent that eludes most sports reporters and ex-athletes, resulting in an odd cadre of sports media aristocrats like Colin Cowherd, Skip Bayless, Stephen A. Smith and others who have mastered this very twenty-first century art form.

Meanwhile, however, the old fashioned sports reporters and editors who were only asked to gather facts and write them out in complete and compelling sentences is becoming less and less necessary. One does not need an interview with Lebron James about how it felt winning last year’s NBA Championship when he can write a Facebook post or craft a tweetstorm that captures this. He and his fellow athletes can talk directly to the fans and bypass the reporters who could never be fully trusted to convey the precise message the athlete or celebrity (or their publicist) wishes to communicate. Reporters and other support staff become dead weight on a sinking ship, and as ESPN showed during the last week of April, this dead weight—regardless of how talented it is or how well it does its job—must be jettisoned.

Moreover, sports leagues are figuring out how to bypass media companies altogether in terms of broadcasting their contests to their mass audiences. We already see each of the major sports leagues operating their own cable/satellite channels—if ESPN and its ilk begin to see serious declines in revenue and audience, these sports leagues may decide to bypass the broadcasters altogether and use their popular products to boost their own smaller media fiefdoms. Within these fiefs you are also likely to see a more totalitarian posture by the leagues, which will begin to severely restrict what their stars and celebrities can say via any social media platform. This, as has been argued in previous posts, is the return of the concentrated spectacle and the development of an authoritarian impulse within the context of the sport media environment. Indeed, depending how restrictive these media fiefdoms become, they may be models that can be exported to the corporate or administrative world to prevent employees from speaking ill of the organizations they work for or to prevent whistleblowers. They may even be tried out in civil society itself–an unlikely scenario t be sure, but perhaps an appropriate one. What brought authoritarian rule to the United States wasn’t the CIA or the FBI, but the NFL and MLB.

[1] http://www.salon.com/2017/05/03/does-espn-have-anywhere-to-go-but-down_partner/

The Trumpire and the Integrated Spectacle

It is now time to go back and revisit some of the earlier comments of this space with regards to the notion of the Trumpire. As some of the earlier entries attempted to show, the Trumpire is the name given to the merging of the power of the traditional military-industrial complex and all its ancillary institutions with the power of the global media apparatus. Upon his election, the person of Donald Trump was perhaps the most perfect instantiation of these two monolithic entities coming together. On the one hand there is Donald Trump, the tabloid figure and reality television star whose savvy for publicity and connections in the public relations, advertising, real estate and other trademark industries of late capitalism have made him a household name, even if that name was often uttered with a tinge of disgust. On the other hand, President Trump represents a man with unorthodox foreign policy and national security views taking control of the United States’ uniquely dominant military arsenal. These two Trumps merge together to lead an assemblage of power that has never had this kind of command over the material infrastructure of both hard and soft power simultaneously. Such a fusion deserves its owe unique moniker—the Trumpire.

Debord’s concept of the integrated spectacle gives a fuller appreciation of what the Trump Administration represents. Recall that the integrated spectacle fuses many of the old totalitarian elements of the collapsed Soviet Union with the more enticing practices of entertainment and consumer choice found in the west. It is not that the regimes in the west are any less totalizing in their suffocating of individual creative spirit or autonomy, it is just that the regimes of the west made this totality more fun and luxurious. In both regimes, the state and its attendant social institutions made ambitious claims on the time of the average worker, often demanding formally or informally they perform tasks of inane drudgery and sullen banality for often low pay and little job satisfaction. The west, with a freer economic system, had shinier cars and better sitcoms.

Yet when the two elements are combined, something new and more sinister takes hold of which we are starting to see the first signs. We can see this in how the Trumpire has dealt with the problem of terrorism in the Middle East. First, however, let’s see how Debord conceives of terrorism. In 1998, he argues that terrorism in the integrated spectacle is largely a construction of the state. To elaborate, the state:

     …constructs its own inconceivable foe, terrorism. Its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive. The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.[1]

The state, Debord is saying, seeks to amplify and distort the nature of terrorist attack not because of any grand conspiracy, but because it is a rational behavior of a national security complex operating in a world where the values and priorities of the integrated spectacle have taken precedent. “We should expect,” Debord writes, “as a logical possibility, that the state’s security services intend to use all the advantages they find in the realm of the spectacle, which has indeed been organized with that in mind for some considerable time.”[2] A society organized around the spectacular nature of consumer capitalism—where the need to keep the masses enraptured with the pursuit of ever new products, services and experiences—serves as an ideal platform for also disseminating uncertainty, mystery and fear. The social agents and interests that control the institutions of the state are naturally drawn to the prospect of using the spectacle to legitimize their hegemony by conjuring up the image of nefarious enemies and displaying them through the communications apparatus to a mass public whose tastes have already been adjusted to a diet of fantasy and illusion in the commercial sphere. But instead of the sexy imagery of glamor and luxury summoned up by the advertisers and marketers, there is the savage imagery of brutality and death invoked by the forces in charge of protecting the status quo. This conjuring up of the sights and sounds of danger and threat by the prevailing complex of power is the essence of Debord’s notion of terrorism.

Thus, the recent missile strikes on Syria or the dropping of the MOAB bomb in Afghanistan is less about actually stopping terrorists and more about going through the pantomimes of the war on terror to preserve the status quo assemblage of power, which has used terrorism as its “inconceivable foe” since September 11th. These strikes fulfill a number of purposes—they give the appearance that the US is “doing something” in the wake of gas attacks and the continued persistence of ISIS, they allow the elements of the military-industrial complex to test out weapons systems and keep sharp on the procedures for using certain kinds of ordnance, they are ratings gold for media companies and their news operations which can fill its never-ending 24 hour news requirements with audience pleasing imagery of bombs exploding and keen sounding commentary from its on-staff military experts, and they serves as messages to other potential adversaries that the US is still the most heavily armed and capable military force in the world. One could add dozens more elements that these missile and MOAB strikes produce. What they don’t produce, however, is any real resolution to the present conflicts and the larger “war on terror.” And this is how we know the system is running as it should, because if Debord’s notion terrorism (or any threat that posed as existential by hegemonic forces) is correct, the terrorists are as much a part of the system as the bombs raining down on them.

     [1] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 24. Italics in the original.

     [2] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 25.

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.

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.

The Integrated Spectacle

So far this space has introduced and briefly discussed the notion of “the spectacle” posited by the French radical thinker Guy Debord in the middle of twentieth century. Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle as part of a larger political and intellectual wave of revolt and social renewal that was sweeping France and much of the rest of the world in the 1960s and culminated in the protests of the Paris Spring in 1968. However, these revolts failed in their most ambitious designs to radically transform French society and the activist elements that were most strongly advocating for this transformation saw their movement suppressed by the coercive power of the state or co-opted by establishment institutions like the socialist parties of Europe. For Debord himself, the fizzling of the movement led him to retreat into relative obscurity while he worked on a handful of film projects and looked on with great interest as the governments of Europe went to great lengths to purge the political ferment released in the Paris Spring. Of particular interest to him was the lingering social and political conflict in Italy, where extreme radical elements in the form of the Red Brigades appeared to grow increasingly fanatical with the use of violent tactics like bombings and kidnappings of public officials. Debord believed there was more to these events than met the eye, and though he would not write about them explicitly at the time, he saw in the “years of lead” in Italy another change in the nature of the spectacle.

In 1988, as the Cold War was about to come to an abrupt close, Debord finally offered up this new understanding of the spectacle. Dubbed the “integrated spectacle,” this form was the “rational combination” of both diffuse and concentrated spectacles into a potent new assemblage of power. Debord describes the effects of the combination in the following way:

As regards concentration, the controlling center has now become occult: never to be     occupied by a known leader, or clear ideology. And on the diffuse side, the spectacle has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the full range of socially produced behavior and objects. For the final sense of the integrated spectacle is this reality no longer confronts the integrated spectacle as something alien.[1]

As powerful as the concentrated and diffuse spectacles were in the middle of the twentieth century, their merging and transformation into the integrated spectacle represents something substantially more potent and mighty. In essence, the best aspects of both spectacles are fused together while the leftovers are jettisoned. The benefits of raw kinetic force and violence that are the specialties of police and military forces but have the drawbacks of bad optics and heavy costs can now be camouflaged and framed with sensationalist news media and skilled public relations. Conversely, the highly cohesive but slow-bonding social cement of consumerism and “lifestyle” management can now be given the proper time to fully settle and affix itself into the consciousness of mass society through selected and temporary deployments of physical discipline. The best illustration of the fusion might be the recent revelations of the National Football League, an example of the diffuse spectacle par excellence, coordinating with and paying the Pentagon hundreds of thousands of dollars for pre-game and in-game promotions and celebrations of American military power, including football field-sized American flags, flyovers by military aircraft, heartfelt (and highly choreographed) reunions of veterans and families, and on-field administrations of the oath of enlistment.[2]

More profoundly, the integrated spectacle can also be thought of in terms of the processes of neoliberal globalization that were in their early stages when Debord wrote his Commentaries.  Debord presciently argued that “the society whose modernization has reached the stage of the integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal features: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalized secrecy; unanswerable lies; and eternal present.”[3] Debord does not go into any detail on the specifics of these features, but the best way perhaps to understand Debord’s point is to combine the happy-go-lucky world of middle 20th century consumerism with the ominous solemnity of the post-September 11th world. In the West the amusement park-like atmosphere of consumer society is now accompanied by the imagery of state violence and secrecy. The rituals of leisure and consumerism—football games, shopping sprees and tourism—are interspersed with military flyovers by nuclear bombers, heavily armed police, and constant admonishments to be on the lookout for unseen threats by faceless terrorists and other kinds of troublemakers. Conversely, many of the areas of authoritarian control like China see the ubiquitous photos of Mao rivaled by the images of models in advertisements at the entrances to giant shopping malls while armed Chinese police standby humorlessly as hordes of tourists take pictures of themselves in places like Tiananmen Square where massacres of civilians took place in the not-too-distant past.

As indicated at the beginning of this post, Debord and his contemporaries saw evidence of this integrating spectacle from the state’s responses to the aftermath of the Paris Spring in Europe, especially in Italy. According to Jeffrey Kinkle, “Italy is clearly seen as a test ground for the integrated spectacle” for Debord because, in Debord’s words “Italy sums up the social contradictions of the entire world and attempts, in ways well known to us, to amalgamate in one country the repressive Holy Alliance between class power—bourgeois and bureaucratic-totalitarian—that already openly functions over the surface of the entire earth, in the economic and police solidarity of all States…”[4] This perspective emerges from Debord’s observations of the Italian state’s reaction to a series of insurrectionary activities taking place around the country in the so-called anni di piombo, including multiple bombing attacks in public squares throughout the major cities of Italy, the kidnapping and eventual killing of Christian Democrat Party leader and former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, and the abduction (and eventual rescue) of the American Army General James Dozier in 1981.[5] On top of this was the assassination of Debord’s close friend and “business” associate Gerard Lebovici in Paris under extremely mysterious circumstances—so mysterious that Debord believed he might have been killed by “agents” of the French state.[6]

Behind these acts of violence, Debord argued, was a more sinister set of machinations by the state—especially among the security apparatus of the police and the military and elements of right-wing extremism in civil society. While not denying the existence of bona fide radical elements in Italian politics that sought to use violence in public in pursuit of its agenda, Debord nevertheless argued that the most audacious and destructive violent attacks were perpetrated in part or in whole by the state itself. Knocked onto their back foot by the popular protests throughout Europe in 1968 and what had always been a strong and well organized labor movement in Italy, the forces of the status quo that controlled the institutions of government were tempted to plan and perpetrate public violence, attribute it to “leftist” actors like the Red Brigades, and let the mass media’s tendency for sensationalism paralyze the larger population into a state of fear and anxiety and in no mood to see the government compromise with oppositional and dissenting parties out of power. Referencing the Moro kidnapping, Debord writes:

The kidnapping and execution (of Aldo Moro) was a mythological opera with great machinations, where terrorist heroes by transformation become foxes so as to ensnare their prey, then lions so as to fear nothing and no one so long as they retain it, and stool pigeons so as not to draw from this blow the smallest harmful thing to the regime they aspire to defy.[7]

In essense, what Debord is suggesting is that the Italian state (perhaps with foreign assistance), orchestrated—or at the very least participated in—the kidnapping and execution of Aldo Moro as a way of shoring up its control over Italian civil society in the face of the possibility that left-wing political groups were gaining too much influence in the governing institutions of Italy.[8]

This belief that the state is somehow as much responsible for major terrorist attacks than any clandestine radical group is part of what some analysts label the “strategy of tension.” According to Martin Bull and James Newell, this strategy “was predicated on the basis of spreading a climate of fear to provide a perceived necessity for a restoration of public order, either through a coup or through the political consequences following from an awareness by politicians of preparations for a coup.”[9]  There is a temptation here to relate the strategy of tension with the idea of the “false flag operation,” a term used frequently in contemporary American political parlance, especially among reactionary political groups prone to advocating conspiracy theories. The difference here is that “false flag operations” are usually understood as providing pretexts for war orchestrated by a hidden group of global illuminati, while the concept of the strategy of tension analyzes ways dominant social and economic groups in a weak state attempt to legitimize themselves by conjuring up largely internal threats that threaten the stability of civil society.[10] 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.”[11]

This galaxy of falsification by the organs of the integrated spectacle was never on greater display for Debord than when his friend and publishing partner Gerard Lebovici was murdered in 1984. Lebovici was himself a fascinating figure. Once an aspiring stage actor in France in the 1940s, the Paris Spring of 1968 and his marriage to the radicalized political activist Floriana Valentin aroused a revolutionary spirit in him. In 1969, he started a small publishing firm he dubbed Champ Libre that specialized in printing cheap copies of works by key thinkers of critical thought, including Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.[12] Lebovici also took an interest in film production, and became the primary benefactor to Debord and his filmmaking aspirations in the 1970s.[13] Yet when Lebovici’s body was found in his car shot four times in the head, the relationship between him and Debord became the foundation of a rash of speculation within the French media of who was the assassin. According to Jeffrey Kinkle, “all sorts of theories were bandied about in the press with suspects including the far left, the far right, police assassins (French as well as Spanish), … the KGB, videocassette pirates, the mob, Action Directe, the Red Brigades, and, last but not least, Guy Debord.”[14]

The media hullaballoo that followed the killing of Lebovici and Debord’s prime place within it further clarified Debord’s thinking about the nature of the integrated spectacle and the role of violence within it. Of particular importance for Debord was the role of the mass media alongside the institutions of the state and the agents of the market economy. While the media was always given a place within the larger concept of the spectacle, Debord had never fully spelled out with any specificity how the media contribute to the madness of modern society.[15] Now, as he witnessed the media take the violent death of his friend and turn it into a cheap melodrama designed in part to impugn his politics, Debord concluded that the swirling maelstrom of false information and partisan speculation was evidence of the integrated spectacle’s further entrenchment into the daily lives of the population. In a short book written after the events of the Lebovici assassination, Debord states, “Never have so many false witnesses surrounded a man so obscure.”[16] Later, in his Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord concludes “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it.”[17] Even if the assassination of Lebovici was not terrorism in the same way as the killing of Aldo Moro, the two events are related for Debord in that they show the way the spectacle had taken on a darker and more powerful turn with its integration and the difficulty of truly knowing what was true or false in modern society.

Ostensibly, the integrated spectacle provides an interesting and powerful way of explaining many of the absurdities of our age, ranging from the odd phenomenon of the rise and persistence of ISIL to the surprise victory of the Brexit campaign to the “failing upward” success of Donald Trump. However, might this all be symptoms of yet another variation of the spectacle? This topic will be explored in the next post.

     [1] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 8.

     [2] Jeb Lund, “The NFL and the military: a love affairs as strange and cynical as ever” The Guardian, 11 September, 2015. Available at  https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2015/sep/11/the-nfl-and-the-military-a-love-affair-as-strange-and-cynical-as-ever

     [3] Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 9-10.

     [4] Jeffrey Kinkle, Spectacular Developments: Guy Debord’s Parapolitical Turn. PhD Thesis, Goldsmiths, Univeristy of London. [Thesis]: Goldsmiths Online, 107 and Debord, Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle, Not Bored. trans. Not Bored: 1978 Available at: http://www.notbored.org/debord-preface.html.

     [5] Anni di Piombo translates to Years of Lead, a reference to the amount of bullets fired during these turbulent years.  Kathryn Westcott, “Italy’s history of terror”. BBC News (January 6, 2006). Available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/3372239.stm. On the history of the Red Brigades, there has not been much published recently in English. Robert C. Meade’s Red Brigades: The Story of Italian Terrorism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 1990) is probably the most accessible account of the period. In Italian, however, a new comprehensive history has been published by Vladimiro Satta, I nemici della Repubblica: Storia degli anni di piombi (Milan: Rizzoli, 2016).

     [6] Debord wrote and published his thoughts on the killing of his friend and its meaning in Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici, translated by Robert Greene (Tam Tam Books, Los Angeles, 2001).

     [7] Debord, Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of the Society of the Spectacle, (London: Chronos, 1983), 12.

     [8] Debord’s skepticism about who really kidnapped and killed Aldo Moro and the possibility of a foreign role (by the United States and the Soviet Union) in the episode may seem like delusional paranoia, but substantial mystery surrounds the event even into the present day. Indeed, as recently as 2008, Italian investigators were making new inquiries into the affair. See Lizzy Davies, “Aldo Moro mystery: Italian prosecutors revisit former PM’s 1978 murder,” The Guardian (10 June 2003). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jun/17/aldo-moro-murder-mystery-italy and Malcolm Moore, “US envoy admits role in Aldo Moro killing,” The Telegraph (11 March 2008). Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1581425/US-envoy-admits-role-in-Aldo-Moro-killing.html.

     [9] Martin J. Bull and James L. Newell, Italian Politics (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), 101.

     [10] In this way, Debord is part of the tradition in critical theory to understand the idea of “false consciousness” first theorized in the modern era by Marx. For a discussion of the emergence and development of this term, see Ron Eyerman, “False Consciousness and Ideology in Marxist Theory,” Acta Sociologica vol.  24, no. 1, (1981), pp. 43-56.

     [11] Debrod, Comments on the Society of the Society of the Spectacle, 10.

     [12] McKenzie Wark, The Spectacle of Disintegration, 140-141.

     [13] Indeed, so close had the two men’s working relationship become that in 1983, Lebovici bought Debord his own movie theater in Paris, the Studio Cujas, which screened nothing but Debord’s films. Needless to say, the theater was almost always empty. See Winkle, 109.

     [14] Kinkle, 110.

     [15] Ibid., 111-114.

     [16] Debord, Considerations on the Assassination fo Gerard Lebovici, Robert Green, trans. (Los Angeles: Tam Tam, 2002). 2.

     [17] Ibid., Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 19.

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.

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.

The Spectacle and History

When the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently announced they were closing down their traveling acts, more than a few articles observed the irony of the end of a classic American amusement coinciding with the beginning of the Trump presidency. In the society of the spectacle, a three-hour circus extravaganza that for many families was the entertainment highlight of the year—an occasion for which they might travel hours or days to witness—was buried in an avalanche of daily distractions one can plug into at any given time. So pervasive has the imperative of the spectacle become that even the political process by which the United States chooses its president delivers more “thills, chills and spills” than the travelling Big Top that once had a monopoly on such amusement. The conclusion one might draw from this observation was that the greatest show on earth could no longer compete with the spectacularized politics of the most powerful nation on earth.

How did this happen? How did so many facets of daily life, including the presidential race that gave us the Trumpire, morph into a world where the elements of the circus–flying trapeze, death-defying stunts with wild (and, alas, abused) animals and whimsical clown cars–rather than be a rare and treasured opportunity for amusement become the sin qua non of contemporary existence. Perhaps a good place to start is with the circus itself.

With its roots in the gladiator games and chariot races of the Roman Empire, the circus has long been understood as the purest form of mass entertainment and amusement. And while few frowned on an occasional visit to the big top, the circus itself was seen as an unsavory assemblage of gypsies, bohemians, roustabouts and vagabonds who were beneath the dignity and aspirations of the more well-to-do. To want to join the circus was a sign of either desperation or defunct moral character. Observe the reaction of Mr Gradgrind, the headmaster of a primary school in the fictional industrial burg of Coketown in the Charles Dickens novel Hard Times, when he asks one of his new students about the occupation of his father:

“Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”

“He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir”

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand. “We               don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here.”

As fate would have it, who should Mr. Gradgrind see as he walked back to his house peeking through a hole in a fence trying to get a look at the newly arrived circus performers but “his own metallurgical Louisa…and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act!” The horror by which this respectable bourgeois gentleman expresses upon discovering his own children loitering around a drab vacant lot trying to catch a glimpse of a troupe of disreputable performers indicates the low esteem such entertainments held in “respectable” society. Such distractions were to be judiciously avoided in favor of Christian morality, utilitarian virtues, and sober rationality.

Dickens’ novel  (as Dickens’ own life) was set in the early age of industrialization—a time when Great Britain saw its society radically transformed by the building of a mass manufacturing capability and the privileging of a merchant, banker and industrialist class that built, financed and maintained these new economic assets. In their rise to a dominant position in British society, this collection of enterprising innovators brought with them a set of liberal values that emphasized efficiency, competence and merit over the decadence, ostentation and opulence of the traditional aristocracy. Entertainment and distraction may have had their place in the grand scheme of things, but in terms of daily life, they were a drag on the business of maximizing output and “getting things done.” Hence the disdain Mr. Grandgrind—a bourgeois gentleman par excellence—expresses when one of his new students turns out to be the daughter of one of the reviled circus “freaks” and his own children are jockeying around each other to steal a glance of these same “freaks” shortly thereafter. In this setting—early industrial capitalism—Debord’s notion of the spectacle has little purchase because what amusement and entertainment that does exist is disdained.

So what changes? Put simply, the passage of time—history. One can read the books of scholars like Eric Hobsbawm to get all the details, but in essence, the concrete, social and ideological assemblage of power that defined early industrial capitalism morphed over the decades into the assemblage of power that defines a new manifestation of capitalism and international politics.[1] In this new assemblage of power, supplies begin to outstrip demand as advances in manufacturing eliminate the old problems of scarcity in the market. Industrialists are faced with new pressures to stimulate demand in order to sell the surplus they find sitting idly in their warehouses. One solution to this problem was export overseas, but the challenge of international competition and the dangers of colonial rivalry limit this option. After World War II, a new solution emerges—consumerism.

Consumerism was an ideal way of solving the problem of the supply glut in the wake of the world wars and the Great Depression. However, a general population versed in the virtues of frugality and thrift needed encouragement to let their inner shopper out. Enter at this time an army of advertisers and marketers and public relations gurus to promote and glamorize this abundance of consumer goods. At the center of this effort at evoking the imagery of the consumerist utopia were grand visionaries like Walt Disney who sought to find innovative new ways of showcasing the fantasies of luxury and contentment to the masses in the United States and beyond. This drive to more vividly represent the pleasures of material abundance led first to Disney’s primary innovation of the theme park, and then the effort at designing and constructing substantial portions of the World’s Fair in New York in 1964.

Consumerism then, represents a new assemblage of power that combines new understandings of what constitute sound economic and political thinking. The haughtiness and hauteur of the Victorian Age, of which Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind is an early exhibitor, gives way to the shameless shopper of retail goods or impulsive procurer of extravagant experience. And lurking in the shadows of this consumer abundance are banks and creditors eager to lend money to those who want the trappings of the good life but find their eyes are wider than their salaries.

The need to stir this spending is where Guy Debord’s spectacle gets hatched. Taking advantage of increasingly powerful media technologies combined with consolidating corporate monopolies and states armed with nuclear weapons, a new assemblage of power takes shape in a new historical era that has the same basic DNA as the old era, but has evolved into something much different. It is in this context that the circus goes from a seedy but fascinating show of derring-do to a yawn-inducing tedium. Why pay for a ticket to see a lion tamer when there is a show called “When Animals Attack” on television for free (spliced of course with beer and cheap auto insurance ads). Why spend money to watch acrobats when there are any number of athletic competitions being shown on television live (again with substantial commercial interruption)? And why go to a smelly circus tent to see clowns engage in slapstick with each other when the spectacle of American politics gives us the presidential campaign that had devolved into its own vulgar burlesque? Many would like to see a change to this situation, but like the death of the circus, the death of farcical politics will end only with an escape from the society of the spectacle and the assemblage of power it represents.

The good news on this front is that history continues to march on, and we can already see how the passage of time has changed the spectacle in different ways. Examining these changes is now the task of this space.

[1] See Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848, New York: Mentor, 1962, The Age of Capital: 1848–1875. New York: Vintage, 1976, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914. New York: Pantheon, 1987, and The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. New York: Vintage, 1994.


The Spectacle

The Trumpire is the product of a particular assemblage of forces converging at a unique moment in history. It may be rhetorically useful to compare the Trump regime to past totalitarian or authoritarian governments, but such comparisons in the long run only distort and inhibit a genuine understanding of the Trump phenomeon. And if the goal is to contest and defeat the Trumpire, one ought to heed the advice of Sun Tzu: “Know the enemy, know yourself, and victory is never in doubt, not in a hundred battles.”

The argument explored in this space is that to fully understand the Trumpire, one must be familiar with the idea of “the spectacle,” a concept offered by the French troublemaking inebriate Guy Debord amid the social tension in France that eventually led to the Paris Spring of 1968. A clear and specific definition of the spectacle is notoriously difficult to pin down, due in large part to Debord himself—and the situationist ethos he helped establish—which seeks to avoid any clear or explicit categorization or definition of things. However, throughout the first chapter of The Society of the Spectacle, Debord tries to flesh-out a little bit the idea of the spectacle and how best one might try to understand the concept. Thesis 6 perhaps comes the most reasonably close to giving a full and formal definition:

Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world—not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society’s real unreality. In all its specific manifestations—news or propaganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment—the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing mode of social life.[1]

Twenty-three years later, in a follow-up collection of thoughts and ideas published under the title of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord gives perhaps his most rigorous definition of the spectacle—one that he seems to regret moments before he gives it—when he describes the spectacle as “the autocratic reign of the market economy which had acceded to an irresponsible sovereignty, and the totality of new techniques of government which accompanied this reign.”[2] What both these characterizations of the spectacle point toward is a concept where an assemblage of power consisting of both economic and political forces merges together to create both a materialistic and mental apparatus of rule.

At the heart of this apparatus of rule is the power of the image. With the emergence of film as a mass medium in the early twentieth-century, and then drastically expanded with the advent of television broadcasting after World War II, the ability of images to alter or restructure the nature of human relationships (including relationships of power and authority) became readily apparent. For Debord living in France the middle of the twentieth century, this meant giving a boost to the dominant structures and legitimizing ideologies associated with western capitalism. In Thesis 17 of Society of the Spectacle, Debord states:

An earlier stage in the economy’s domination of social life entailed an obvious downgrading of being into having that left its stamp on all human endeavor. The present stage, in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all effective “having” must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’etre from appearances.[3]

According to Debord, the emergence of industrial capitalism gave rise to a new set of social values that prioritized the production, accumulation and consumption of manufactured goods and services over all other possible human activities. With the emergence of mass media and the hegemony of the images that it brings, simple mass production gives way to such practices of advertising, marketing, branding, and public relations that transform these simple manufactured objects into deities that occupy the exalted spaces in society. Individual human beings thus construct their own identities and core value systems in relation to the mystique that surrounds these manufactured objects.[4]

I try to emphasize this point to my students by asking them why they are in school (especially those enrolled at expensive liberal arts colleges). Usually, the first response I get is a canned answer about the importance of “getting and education” and “making a contribution to society.” Inevitably, more honest answers to the question begin to emerge–something to the effect of: “I want a good job and a college degree is more likely to make that possible.” I then ask “Why do you want a good job?” Again, a few canned responses repeating the “contributing to society” theme, before someone evetually says, “I want to make lots of money.” “Exactly!” I reply, to which I then ask, “And why do we want to make lots of money?” A long moment of silence ensues before someone chimes in: “To buy stuff!” And there is the answer. The spectacle fuels the thoughts, hopes, dreams, aspirations and  fantasies of vast populations who are embedded within it and motivates them to take on substantial debt to purchase the services of higher education (or for others, to play the lottery or audition for talent shows despite the long odds of success).

The existence of this spectacle by itself does not explain the rise of the Trumpire. Several more historical steps will occur before we arrive in the twenty-first century. For now, the key takeaway in this preliminary discussion is the recognition of the connection between the spectacle and the daily lives of millions of people around the world.

     [1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 13.

    [2] Ibid., Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso, 1998), 2. With regards to Debord’s regret about his writing with a clarity not normally associated with him, he states in the line preceding the one quoted above, “However, in this brief work there will be only too many things which are, alas, easy to understand.”

     [3] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 16.

     [4] Ibid., 43-44. In this way, Debord is building off of Marx’s idea of commodity fetishism, but at a level far greater than was ever likely conceived by Marx.