Terrorism Fatigue and the Spectacle

At the heart of the spectacle is the relentless need for innovation and novelty. Alberto Toscano put it best when he says:

Create. Invent, Innovate, Network. Under the non-authoritarian hegemony of capitalist realism such ubiquitous imperatives have come to occupy the place of the seemingly exhausted, or unduly crass, industrial command: produce.[1]

Sustaining this drive to something new and different to make and sell in a world already awash in consumer goods, services and experiences is perhaps the greatest challenge of all facets of twenty-first century economic production. It means the spectacle must constantly remake the world of consumer needs and lifestyle aspiration to ensure the ugliness of the contemporary world hiding in plain sight remains an annoying trifle, a lamentable tragedy, or a “costs of doing business.”

Guy Debord argued this need for innovation and novelty in the spectacle had the effect of transforming time itself—from traditional cyclical time where humankind experience nature and history to what he labels as pseudocyclical time, or time processed into measured commodified units divided into work, leisure, retirement, etc.. Once cut up and packaged:

 “(t)hese commodified moments are explicitly presented as moments of real life, whose cyclical return we are supposed  to look forward to. But all that is really happening is that the spectacle is displaying and reproducing itself at a higher level of intensity. What is presented as true life turns out to be merely a more truly spectacular life.[2]

In practical terms, what Debord is describing here is not dissimilar to the process of the “cool hunt,” or the means by which marketing firms and advertising agencies scour society for morsels of originality and authenticity to capture and use for the latest wave of promotional campaigns and material. One marketing executive describes it thusly:

. . . Actually, it’s a triangle. At the top of the triangle, there’s the innovator, which is like two to three percent of the population. Underneath them is the trendsetter, which we would say is about 17 percent. They pick up on ideas that the innovators are doing, and they claim them as their own. Underneath them is an early adopter–it’s questionable exactly what their percentage is–but they are the layer above mainstream, which is about 80 percent. And they take what the trendsetter is doing, and they make it palatable for mass consumption. They take it, they tweak it, they make it more acceptable, and that’s when the mass consumer picks up on it and runs with it and then it actually kills it.[3]

The cool hunt has a certain paradoxical nature about it that stems from the pressures for ever greater demands for sales and profit. The “next big thing” must be found and packaged as quickly as possible lest the mass of consumers become distracted by movements and forces beyond the control of the advertising companies. And yet, when this “next big thing” is found, the act of mass production destroys it, causing the cycle to repeat itself. The need for the fresh and new becomes greater even as the supply of what is fresh and new begins to dwindle.

It may seem vulgar to compare terrorist attacks (including media coverage and public reactions to these attacks) with marketing strategies, but in the society of the spectacle, politics and terrorism are just two more commodities to brand and distribute to the masses hungry for new forms of entertainment. On some level, many terrorist “masterminds” and preachers of aggressive expansionist Islam were aware of the power of the spectacle in the western world and sought to incorporate this phenomenon into their strategies. One of the more famous explications of this point came from Abu Bakr Naji, author of The Management of Savagery, a terrorist “guidebook” of sorts that was popular among ISIS fighters when that group was still in its ascent. In the preface of this work, Naji describes the source of the Western powers and why they were successful in controlling lands of Islam:

The two superpowers which used to dominate the global order controlled it through their centralized power. The meaning of “centralized power” here is: The overwhelming military power which extends from the center in order to control the areas of land that submit to each superpower, beginning from the center and reaching the utmost extremity of these lands. Submission, in its primary, simplest form, means that these lands owe the center loyalty, submission to its judgment, and responsibility for its interests. There is no doubt that the power which God gave to the two superpowers (America and Russia) was overwhelming in the estimation of humans. However, in reality and after careful reflection using pure, human reason, (one comes to understand that this power) is not able to impose its authority from the country of the center–from America, for example, or Russia–upon lands in Egypt and Yemen, for example, unless these (latter) countries submit to those powers entirely of their own accord. It is correct that this power is overwhelming and that it seeks help from the power of local regimes controlled by who rule the Islamic world. Yet all of that is not enough (to completely control the satellite states). Therefore, the two superpowers must resort to using a deceptive media halo which portrays these powers as non-coercive and world-encompassing, able to reach into everyearth and heaven as if they possess the power of the Creator of creation. But the interesting thing that happened is that these two superpowers believed, for a time, their media deception: that they are actually a power capable of completely controlling any place in the entire world, and that (this power) bears the characteristics of the power of the Creator. According to the media deception, it is an all-encompassing, overwhelming power and people are subservient to it not only through fear, but also through love because it spreads freedom, justice, equality among humanity, and various other slogans.[4]

What is clearly implied in this lengthy passage is that the media of western culture, in its effort to constantly keep the masses amused and distracted, has also distorted the true capabilities of western military power and the ability to keep the west safe from attack. This frequently referenced “media halo” works hand-in-hand with the military to create the appearance of safety and insularity from whatever dangers that might lurk from the outside world. In this way, Naji is referencing something similar to what Guy Debord called the “integrated spectacle,” where consumer culture and authoritarian power work together to protect and legitimize the status quo assemblage of power in society.

The choices for those like Al Qaeda and ISIS who wish to attack the United States and other western powers is to either go after the military and political capability or to pierce the “media halo” that creates the false sense of security. The first option, though carried out with success on September 11th, is nevertheless a dead end. Another strategist of global jihad, Abu Mus’ab al-Suri, explained why, despite the success of September 11th, the strategy of attacking the heart of western military and financial power was doomed to fail:

Throughout the last decade of the 20th century, programs for fighting terrorism were able to disband those organizations security-wise, militarily defeat them, isolate them from their masses [of followers], damage their reputation, dry out their financial resources, make their elements homeless, and put them in a constant state of fear, starvation, and lack of funds and people[5]

The better approach, for al-Suri, is to take advantage of global media capabilities—especially social media capabilities in their then nascent stage—to inspire devout Muslims scattered around the world to launch their own do-it-yourself style attacks in the locations where they live, thus avoiding the surveillance and potency of the US military and its allies. By putting forth a global imperative, or in al-Suri’s word’s “call,” pious warriors of Islam can strike the enemy where it is most vulnerable and pierce the “media halo” referred to by Naji. Indeed, the media halo will itself by a carrier of the message of the “call.” As Al-Suri himself says:

“The Call is to convoy the idea in succinct and detailed ways in order to enable the youth, who are determined to fight a jihad, to enter this call and form their own Units independently”[6]

For the last few years, al-Suri’s strategy of small localized attacks launched with whatever the local attackers could use as weapons paid enormous dividends, perhaps contributing to the election of Donald Trump.[7] Yet there was one flaw to this strategy that perhaps did not become apparent until a few weeks ago in New York—terror attacks that do not rise to a certain undefined level of devastation and horror no longer attract the same kind of attention as they would in the past. Indeed, in terms of spreading mass slaughter and murder, everyday ordinary Americans with access to military-grade firearms can do as much damage as any ISIS inspired zealot. Indeed, the ISIS-claimed truck rampage attack in New York City was sandwiched-in between the worst mass shooting in recent American history (Las Vegas) and the sixth-worst mass shooting in recent American history (Texas). Meanwhile, less than 48 hours after the shooting outside San Antonio, the reporter Shaun King observed that the top trending topic on Twitter was Real Housewives of Atlanta.[8]

This leaves a macabre dilemma for those who still wish to perpetuate terrorist violence against the United States. Seeing that their efforts to capture and co-opt the spectacle of the west is being undermined by the violent people they are trying to destroy, terrorists may decide to abandon the Al-Suri model and engage in the ultimate cool hunt–a form of attack against American society that is unlike anything ever seen before. This could take the form of either a return to the Khalid Sheik Mohammad model of hijacking airliners and attacking skyscrapers in the hope of creating a genuine apocalyptic maelstrom that the spectacle cannot look away form, or to come up with a new strategy that tries to insert fear and chaos into western society in some other yet-to-be anticipated way (one might speculate that efforts of acquiring a weapon of mass destruction will take on a new intensity now). One hopes this is not the case, but given how effective we Americans are at killing each other en masse and how unmoved the rest of the country seems to be in the wake of these killings, it is the terrorists who find themselves marveling at the brutality of us.

     [1] Alberto Toscano, “In Praise of Negativism,” in Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke, Deleuze, Guttari and the Production of the New (New York: Continuum, 2008), 56.

     [2]Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 84.

     [3]  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/interviews/gordonandlee.html

     [4] Abu Bakr Naji, The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Though Which the Umma Will Pass, William McCants (trans.) (Cambridge, Massachusetts: John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, 2006), 7-8.

     [5] Abu Mus’ab al-Suri quoted in Brynjar Lia, Architect of Global Jihad: The Lige of al-Qaida Strategist Abu Mus’ab al-Suri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 352.

     [6] Ibid., 443.

     [7]  https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2016/05/how-donald-trump-could-win-the-white-house

     [8]  https://twitter.com/ShaunKing/status/927359736424648705

Disaster and the Spectacle

It’s been several weeks since Hurricane Maria stuck Puerto Rico as a near Category Five hurricane that in a matter of hours transformed the US protectorate from the most developed island in the Caribbean Sea to a devastated community thrown back into the past several hundred years. Gone in the aftermath of the storm was access to electric power, clean drinking water, unobstructed roadways, and almost every sign of twenty-first century civilization. Once the shock of the initial impact wore off, the struggle to restore basic services to the island and its many isolated communities began. Only there was one problem—the process of restoration never happened. As the days after the arrival of Maria turned into weeks, the process of recovery stubbornly refused to transpire or took place with glacial lethargy.

Yet to observe some of the coverage in the media in the aftermath of the hurricane’s impact, this slowly unfolding disaster was not easily observable. Indeed, what emerged from the mainstream accounts of the recovery effort in Puerto Rico was a contested narrative of local leaders calling for assistance and warning of a humanitarian catastrophe without outside help and leaders in Washington—most especially President Trump through his Twitter feed—praising the rapid response to the crisis in Puerto Rico and celebrating the success.[1] Such contradictory statements are no doubt confusing for the casual observer, who most likely harbors genuine concern for the fate of Puerto Ricans but also took the state and government at its word when it said it was doing everything it could to help those in need. It turns out, however, that this confusion is actually a sign of the society of the spectacle succeeding in its mission to problematize and obscure what should be a straight-forward news story about a humanitarian crisis and the inability for the state to adequately address it. Indeed, if we look back to the last major humanitarian disaster involving a major hurricane, we can actually see how the spectacle has perfected its technique of sensationally obscuring a tragic event.

We know now—over ten years after the fact—that the US government lacked the requisite skills, competence, planning, training, and motivation to help the people of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached. Yet this reality was not immediately apparent, in part because the one skill that most people in charge of relief efforts in Louisiana had was media and public relations. As thousands of people endured squalid conditions at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome—places city officials had told local residents to go to seek shelter—the dominant media narrative at the time was that local, state and federal disaster relief was going (forgive the pun) swimmingly. Indeed, it was in this context that George W. Bush famously told then head of FEMA, Michael Brown, that he was doing a “heck of a job.”[2] The reality, of course, was that hundreds had died and thousands more were in mortal danger. The damage done to the city by the floods would take years to repair and the city as it existed then would probably never return.

The key fact lost in all of this is that although Brown resigned in shame a few days after Bush paid him the infamous compliment, the general aim of disaster relief in the society of the spectacle had been accomplished. When it became apparent that the public’s expectation of proper disaster relief in New Orleans didn’t meet up with the reality, the reaction of the government was to put forth leading administrators to say that things were fine and there is nothing to worry about. Bush’s comment to Brown was only one of several dubious statements. In  its account of the aftermath of the storm, PBS’s Frontline documents the following comments by leading government officials:

At a press conference in Baton Rouge, 80 miles away, Gov. Blanco says, “Mr. President, thank you thank you, thank you. You have responded to my calls.” Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, says he is “extremely pleased with the response of every element of the federal government and federal partners … to this terrible tragedy.” And Michael Brown tells Louisiana officials, “What I’ve seen here today is a team that is very tight knit, working closely together, being very professional … and making the right calls.”[3]

This spectacle of self-congratulation and circle-backpatting drove then mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin so mad he said:

“This is ridiculous. I don’t want to see anyone doing any more goddamn press conferences. Put a moratorium on press conferences. Don’t do another press conference until the resources are in this city and they come down to this city and stand with us when there are military trucks and troops which we can’t even count.”[4]

It is easy to see why Nagin was justified in his anger, but for those who see these emergencies unfold in the context  of the society of the spectacle, they shouldn’t be surprising. Debord discusses in Society of the Spectacle how society transforms itself from a world of being into having, representing the transformation of the economy from simple accumulation to industrial production, and then a second “general shift from having to appearing—all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose into appearances.”[5] In this case, the “having” of emergency relief supplies has been transformed into the “appearing” of these relief supplies through the various press conferences of leading officials discussing the distribution of said relief supplies (though little to no evidence of the actual material supplies is provided). And as the fiasco of unpreparedness proceeds, the more press conferences that are held to once again try to provide the appearance of actual material relief taking place. Given enough time and attention, genuine relief does take place and the material that should have been on station before the storm is eventually brought on line. But by this time the spectacle has manufactured other distractions in other places to capture the public’s attention and the outrage everyone felt during the time of crisis subsides (or is redirected elsewhere). Those in charge of disaster relief on some level know this, and the trick is always to provide enough reassurance that all is well so that the combination of the spectacle and the public’s short attention spans result in lost interest. The inadequacies and incompetence can then proceed as normal.

It is interesting to note that in the wake of the impact of Maria in Puerto Rico, infamous former FEMA head Michael Brown observed that it appeared the mismanagement evident on the island demonstrated that the government didn’t learn anything.[6] This isn’t true. The government learned quite a bit in so far as to push the logic of the spectacle further in an effort to distort what in objective terms is a significant humanitarian crisis. Indeed, as with so many other related issues, having a President who is a veteran of reality television and instinctually knows how to manipulate the spectacle is a valuable asset. Trump’s intentional lambasting and insulting of local leaders like the mayor of San Juan is just the kind of distraction material that allows genuine scrutiny of the government’s botched efforts at relief and recovery work to not take place. [7] Trump also made sure to pay a visit to the battered island and engage in some genuinely bizarre behavior (most likely not intentional, but the results had the desired effect) in order to ensure critical reviews of dubious US policies (some of which, like the Jones Act, harken back to the days of European colonial monopolies) remain minimized.[8] During Katrina, individuals like Michael Brown eventually did lose their job for their incompetence. As the death toll rises in Puerto Rico, no one has lost their job of been severely publicly censured, general interest in the recovery effort is waning, and events like the Las Vegas shooting have stolen the limelight. The system is working just as designed.

Yet there is an undertone of something bigger afoot that even an entity as powerful as the spectacle cannot completely keep concealed forever. Debord discusses this in a piece he wrote about the challenges pollution and environmental degradation pose to the legitimacy of consumer capitalism. In an essay entitled A Sick Planet, Debord writes

The masters of society are now obliged to speak of pollution, both in order to combat it…and in order to conceal it, for the plain fact that such harmful and dangerous trends exist constitutes an immense motive for revolt…[9]

Events like Katrina and Maria are some of the grisliest evidence of an incompetent government and a society of the spectacle that is more adept at appearing to function well than actually function well. If the state cannot deliver basic security to its people when unprecedented weather phenomenon strike, than what other basic securities is it also not adept at providing (but nevertheless charges high taxes and demands obedience in an authoritarian manner to provide)? How much of the current functioning of the government and society under its capitalist leadership is a product of good leadership or sheer inertia? Is the dysfunction on display through the fog of the spectacle in places like Puerto Rico a preview of things to come to the rest of the world and at times when there are no storms or civil unrest or other external factors? Finally, if this is a preview of the future, what obligation exists to sit back and allow such an eventuality to take place? As Debord remarks in Commentatries on the Society of the Spectacle, one of the key functions of the spectacle is to offer all possible alternatives to the status quo as terrifying and grotesque. But if delivering basic necessities in an emergency is beyond the resources of a heavily bureaucratized and militarized state, and if this incompetence is a harbinger of things to come in non-emergency settings, what incentive is there for the masses to continue to accept its legitimacy? To repeat the last part of Debord’s quote, when will the spectacle no longer be able to obscure “an immense motive for revolt.”

[1] For the former, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/10/01/san-juan-mayor-continues-calls-for-relief-after-attacks-from-trump/?utm_term=.3b40ca602450. For the later, see http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/trump-10-puerto-rico-hurricane-response-article-1.3574443

[2] http://politicaldictionary.com/words/heck-of-a-job/

[3] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/storm/etc/cron.html

[4] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4209174.stm

[5] Guy Debrod, Society of the Spectacle, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[6] https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/25/ex-fema-chief-michael-brown-we-havent-learned-anything-from-katrina.html

[7] http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/30/politics/trump-tweets-puerto-rico-mayor/index.html

[8] https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/trump-s-roll-puerto-rico-n807216

[9] Debord, A Sick Planet (New York: Seagull, 2008), 82.

Spectacular Protest

There appears to be a crack in the sports and entertainment industrial complex of American society. What began as a mostly solitary gesture against racial injustice and police brutality by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has ballooned into a fully formed media maelstrom. Kaepernick’s protest consisted of going down onto one knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner—a ritual that precedes every NFL game (and indeed pretty much every organized sporting event from the pee-wee level to the professional ranks). As the football season last year proceeded, more and more fans and reporters began to take note of Kaepernick’s actions, and in a few cases, Kaepernick was joined by other athletes in the NFL and other sports. Before long, a strong backlash had developed against the protests, with many accusing Kaepernick of disrespecting the flag, active military personal and veterans in order to make his partisan statement. As the new NFL season began last month, a handful of players continued to take knees during the anthem while Kaepernick himself appeared to have been blacklisted by the NFL as he was unable to find a spot one of the sport’s professional rosters despite there being an apparent demand for the kind of quarterbacking talent and skill Kaepernick possess.

As a previous post on this space has argued, NFL games are a rather stark example of what Debord called the “integrated spectacle”—the unification of the most effective attributes of consumer capitalism and totalitarian militarism. The lavish patriotic extravaganzas that occur before and during games as well as special “military appreciation” weeks during the season weave a seamless fabric of entertainment and power that distract and deflect popular attention away from the conflicts and contradictions in the personal lives of individuals and collective life of the nation. Kaepernick’s protests place a pall on the pageantry of the spectacle and threaten to insert an element of “real life” into a proceeding designed explicitly to keep the despair of everyday existence at bay. With many commentators and disgruntled fans calling for a boycott of the NFL, might one of the key complexes of American social power be on the verge of collapse? Moreover, will Kaepernick’s protests create enough fervor in the social world of the United States that politicians will take up the cause of racial injustice and problematic police conduct?

Thesis 9 of the Society of the Spectacle states: “In a world that has really been turned upside, the true is a moment of falsehood.”[1] Kaepernick’s protests no doubt come from a place of genuine concern and authenticity on his part, but the nature of the spectacle as captured in the quote is such that these authentic gestures will be transformed into a carnival of controversy. And as has been suggested before, few understand this better on the instinctual level than President Trump, who threw gasoline on the controversy when he recently called anyone who knelt during the anthem was a “son of a bitch” and that the owners should “get them off the field.” One this and similarly phrased tweets went out, media hype machine went into full throttle. The panoply of sports debate shows dispensing out “hot takes” did not disappoint (and surprisingly many of them were quite supportive of the kneeling players). On social media, the scene was much confrontational and ugly, including multiple videos of fans burning their season tickets in disgust and one tweeter gleefully using the N-word toward the coach of the team he ostensibly supports.

Behind all this showcased controversy, however, is an uncomfortable phenomenon—the more heated and intense the debate, the less likely any substantive change will take place. In Thesis 24 of Society of the Spectacle, Debord writes, “The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life.”[2] For all the debate, these controversies are less about the verbal search for a consensus on a pressing social issue, and more about demonstrating how insurgent acts of dissent can be neutralized and transformed in such a way that the net effect is to make the status quo even stronger. Opinions are offered, rants are unleashed, hot takes dispensed, and a few ill-mannered tweets are offered up by the President of the United States in a manner that greatly magnifies the place of the controversy in the larger world-historical moment. In the meantime, an audience of millions consumes the controversy until they have had their fill and some other pseudo-manufactured crisis emerges to change the subject. Meanwhile, the actual problem that prompted Kaepernick’s kneeling remains ignored, as do a handful of other genuine life-and-death issues (hurricane damage in the Caribbean, Catalonia and Kurdish independence movements in Spain and Iraq).

Yet there are places where the issues that Kaepernick wanted to highlight are the subject of genuine struggle. As the last post of this space explored, St. Louis is an on-going site of contestation and clash over the nature of police brutality and a compromised justice system. There has almost no mention of the nightly demonstrations there in the mainstream media—and one should not expect there to be. This doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t spaces were one can get access to information about them and stay updated. One of the positive elements of the spectacle of disintegration is the emergence of insurgent media sources that do not internalize the values of the traditional spectacle and thus are less prone to its contradictions. These sources also tend to be local in their orientation and seek corresponding local solutions—a likely important step in seeking redress of grievances given the lack of interests in the federal tier of government for such problems. If one is truly moved by the issues Kaepernick attempted to raise through his kneeling, one of the few places where one can actually do something about it (again, at a very local level, as the spectacle prevents any kind of mass mobilization unless it benefits the spectacle itself) one should direct their attention and efforts toward St. Louis.

     [1] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 4.

     [2] Ibid., 7.

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.

Trump and the Media Are Not Enemies

Before the media’s attention turned to Houston and the unfolding flood disaster there, there was much rumination on the political rally of Donald Trump in Phoenix on August 22nd. The event was a throwback to the large campaign rallies that were the hallmark of the Trump presidential campaign and were a big part of his success with a large segment of the population. Of particular interest were Trump’s comments about the media, especially the following:

“Look back there, the live red lights. They’re turning those suckers off fast out there. They’re turning those lights off fast. Like CNN. CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I’m saying tonight, I can tell you.”[1]

This as well as other comments from the rally were more evidence that Trump was intentionally stoking the dislike of the media among his fans in order to rally their support and distract the larger viewing public of Trump’s declining approval ratings. [2] Moreover, it gave some hope that now, finally, Trump had gone too far and that his Teflon-like resistance to bad press and public condemnation would cause his star to fall. But such is not to be the case. If anything, Trump’s anti-media comments at the Phoenix rally give special insight as to the source of his power and why so many who are eager to pronounce the death of his presidency will continue to be disappointed.

At the heart of Trump’s anti-media comments is a key paradox. Trump’s supporters—and much of the larger general public—do indeed despise the media.[3]  The reasons for this are usually chalked up to partisan politics—conservatives see the mainstream media as in the tank for liberal values and the Democratic Party while progressives see conservative outlets as repugnant Republican propaganda. This explanation, however, while no doubt reflecting part of the answer, overlooks the larger structural and global aspects of how the media are organized and what compels it to produce the propaganda that it does.

This space will offer an alternative explanation. Because it is devoted to exploring the ideas of the spectacle put forth by Guy Debord, the answer sketched out here will draw its explanation from Society of the Spectacle, and in particular thesis #13:

“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”[4]

The French gloire, similar to English, implies a shine and magnificence, but one can replace the word “glory” with “infamy”, and in doing so, one can get a better idea of what Debord might be referring to in the context of Trump’s relationship with the media. Instinctually, Trump is aware that the media cannot help themselves whenever he goes on one of his rants in front of his fans or sends out an outrageous tweet. Though the individual reporters and editors may loathe to cover such developments, the internal logic of the media and of spectacular capitalism demands that such provocations and declarations be covered and analyzed. This gets to what Debord is referring to by the idea of the means and ends of the spectacle—Trumps outrageous commentary garners substantial ratings, which benefits news and media outlets that cover said comments. These news and media outlets then fill their substantial amount of airtime and print space with commentary about the commentary—whether it is critical of Trump or supportive of him is not important, just so that there is an abundant supply of it and that it sustains the ratings the original comments brought. Inevitably, the media commentary and punditry, combined with the demands of governing and outside events, results in Trump making new, often more outrageous comments, which then unleashes a new cycle of commentary and counter-commentary ad infinitum. All the while, the ratings remain high, revenue from ads are robust, and those who own, control and benefit from this arrangement become more powerful. So long as Trump continues to be Trump, there is no reason why this arrangement will end. Indeed, the real threat here is if Trump every decided to not talk/tweet. The system may not be able survive such a scenario.

For some evidence of this arrangement and why it is not going away anytime soon, see these two quotes from high ranking media executives commenting on Donald Trump. The first is from Les Moonves, Chairman of CBS:

  “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun….I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”[5]

This quote is from the head of CNN International Tony Maddox:

“[Trump] is good for business…It’s a glib thing to say. But our performance has been enhanced during this news period…If you look at the groups that Trump has primarily targeted: CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Saturday Night Live, Stephen Colbert…every single one of those has seen a quite remarkable growth in their viewing figures, in their sales figures.”[6]

This still leaves the question of what is going on with the popular hatred of the media and the masses that both loathe the media but also can’t stop watching. Again, part of it is partisanship—Fox viewers hate all the media except Fox, who they give a pass to, while a similar thing happens with viewers of more centrist media outlets (with one or two exceptions, there really is no  left wing media in the US).  But if one watches both Fox and MSNBC or CNN carefully, what one is struck by the similarities that exist in terms of presenting a vision of an idealized consumer life that is, for the large part, beyond the reach of many of its viewers. As Debord said in Society of the Spectacle:

“The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep. “[7]

In between all the partisan bickering and canned discussion are an endless stream of human interest stories, celebrity profiles and advertisements that glamorize and glorify a way of living that are bursting at the seams with passion, pleasure, prosperity and happiness. Or, put in a more vulgar, (but also perhaps more effective language), Matt Taibbi says, “America’s TV networks have spent the last forty years falling over each other trying to find better and more efficient ways to sell tits to the 18-to-35 demographic.”[8] The media establishment barrages the viewer with titillating images to sell its products and get the masses to watch its shows by appealing to the emotions, fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams of its audience. Eventually however, people start to realize they are, to use Debord’s figurative words, “in chains.” They realize the images and dreams on the screen are illusory, but they also don’t want to give up the slim hope that they might still come true for them (if no one else). The appeal of Donald Trump stems from the fact that, realizing the media dream is fake, they are drawn to someone who is “strong” enough to go after this machine that holds them in a state of paralysis. They delight in Trump’s denunciations of CNN as “fake news” because in a certain, strange way, he is right….ironically, it is not the news that is fake, but everything else on the channel—the ads, the phony perkiness of the anchors, the contrived interest of the reporter interviewing the obscure reality television star with apparent bated breath. They are tired of being spoon fed this drivel but can’t detach themselves from it when it is all their body can now digest. Their one hope is a man who knows this awful media apparatus so well he can identify its weak points and attack it where it will do the most damage.

But the lie here is that Trump isn’t attacking any weak points. He is only making it stronger. The audiences, as the quotes from the media executives show, are flocking to them in greater numbers, hoping to see if the media monster will be slayed and not realizing that this is not really in the cards. Trump’s success is the media’s success and vice versa. If something like the Mueller investigation succeeds in setting forth a chain of events that end the Trump presidency, the media will suffer for it in the long run. But it won’t be destroyed. And that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this—the only entity that can truly be vanquished here is Trump. The media, and the society of the spectacle that it helps to create, will persist long after Trump is gone.

[1] See http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2017/08/23/president-trump-phoenix-rally-full-entire.cnn

[2] See https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/23/16189198/cnn-don-lemon-rebuke-trump-phoenix-speech

[3] See http://www.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx

[4] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014), 5.

[5] Les Moonves quoted in:  http://www.politico.com/blogs/on-media/2016/02/les-moonves-trump-cbs-220001

[6] Tony Maddox quoted in http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/taibbi-blame-media-for-creating-world-dumb-enough-for-trump-w499649

[7] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 7.

[8] Matt Taibbi, “We’re Hiding from the Ugly Truth in the Imus Scandal” http://www.alternet.org/story/50726/we%27re_hiding_from_the_ugly_truth_in_the_imus_scandal

North Korea in the Society of the Spectacle

North Korea recently announced that it was pausing in its drive to launching a missile attack against the island of Guam, a sovereign territory of the United States. This announcement should not come as a surprise since any sober analysis of the standoff between North Korea and the United States points to a situation where North Korea had far more to lose if war were to break out. Nevertheless, the leadership of North Korea (including Kim Jong-un, who was absent from view until very recently) went out of its way to rattle its substantial military sabre and put forth the image of a powerful state that can take on the world’s only superpower. Such posturing is not new—and in many ways does not rise to recent examples of heightened tensions between North Korea and South Korea/United States where South Korean military vessels were sunk and a South Korea border town endured a brief artillery barrage

Yet this episode of North Korean obstreperousness was different. Some of this was due to what appears to be a leap in capability in the power and range of North Korean ballistic missiles. But the main drama at play here is the existence of the Trumpire and the “brave new world” that the rise of this global assemblage of power represents. For all the talk about the megalomania of Kim Jong-un and his Stalinist grip on power in North Korea, Kim must also confront his own problem of gauging the spectacle of Donald Trump and the comments and controversies that accompany his statements as tensions between the two nations rise. Such a surreal battle of egos and wills is unique in the recent history of global affairs, and scholars and practitioners of foreign policy are having trouble analyzing the dynamics at play.

Once again, the ideas of Guy Debord provide some interesting and useful insights. Of particular use is the idea of the “concentrated spectacle,” an idea Debord used to describe the media and other imagery conjured up by authoritarian regimes during the Cold War like the Soviet Union and China. While the former state has ceased to exist and the latter state has transformed itself into a paragon of a new form of illiberal capitalism, North Korea, as the world’s last totalitarian state, offers a place for one to observe the concentrated spectacle in the same way one might observe the last of an endangered species in a zoo or animal preserve. Moreover, we can see an interesting interaction take place as the integrated spectacle of the Trumpire clashes with the concentrated of North Korea. How this clash will work itself out is what many politicians diplomats, scholars and observers are struggling to comprehend.

First, then, let’s review the notion of the concentrated spectacle and see how it relates to North Korea. As discussed in a previous post, the concentrated spectacle is the spectacle that is spun out of the imperatives of totalitarian control. 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. Everyone must identify magically with this absolute celebrity—or disappear.”[1]  This provides the explanation of 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 (or the Kim family), the grand military parades in the vast central squares of Moscow or Beijing, and the ultra-elaborate pageants of North Korea.

The threats and posturing of North Korea against the United States are thus not actual preludes to war, but the regime engaging the imaginations of its population through this spectacle.  And as with most cases where one finds a national government of dubious legitimacy, nothing fires up the imagination like the rhetoric and drama of an external threat. While the shows of overwhelming strength and boasts of easy victory may seem silly for outsiders, decades of state propaganda and highly regimented daily routines have created masses who need such spectacular boasting from god-like figures to both take the threat seriously but also be reassured the “dear leader” Kim Jong-un has everything under control. Of course, the regime will always stop of short of any real precipitous action—it may engage in the aforementioned skirmish, but it knows when push comes to shove it won’t be able to survive a bone fide war with the United States.

There is a temptation at this point to see the side of the United States in a similar light as previous historical eras when the diffuse spectacle was Debord’s operating paradigm for the spectacle in the west. This would be a mistake. The Trumpire of 2017 is an instantiation of the integrated spectacle where totalitarian administration and free market promotion come together to preserve the status quo. The conflict between North Korea and the United States isn’t one of the concentrated spectacle facing the diffuse spectacle, but of the concentrated spectacle facing the integrated spectacle. And because the integrated spectacle has the DNA of the concentrated spectacle within it, we do see some interesting parallels between the two regimes.

For one, the boasting of Donald Trump—epitomized by his threats to bring “fire and fury” to North Korea—reflect some of the same demagoguery as that of Kim Jong-un. Whatever one thinks of his politics, Trump has managed to tap into the  imaginations of millions of people who see him as the fearless leader from whom all good things come (good in this case may simply mean those things not associated with the Washington elite). They frequently visit those media sources that pay homage to the Trump presidency and ignore other sources of news that criticize his words and actions (often by labeling such information as “fake news”). While the people of North Korea are born into the hermetically sealed bubble of Kim Jong-un’s state media apparatus, Trump loyalists (as was discussed a bit in the last post), create their own sealed-off media universe and lock themselves within it voluntarily. The effects in terms of getting access to contrarian information is the same—a trust of the “dear leader’s” judgment implicitly and support of any decision he makes.

Yet there is another dynamic at play here that makes the spectacle at work in the west a bit more problematic. For many not placing themselves under the spell of Trump (and who are in most cases apolitical), the integrated spectacle nevertheless offers them the thrill of experiencing the drama and fervor of preparing to go to war. While much of the “mainstream” media is critical of Trump, they are still motivated to seek out or create engaging information and entertainment for the purposes of boosting ratings and revenues. The march to war, regardless of who is president and which country is in the crosshairs, is one of the surefire best ways to bring in these ratings. Indeed, the prospect of a missile attack on the island of Guam seems like the perfect “reality show” scenario for these news and media companies—here is a small sparsely populated island that no one really cares about (indeed, probably could not find on a map) but is nevertheless a part of the United States. The crisis allows the average consumer to become personally involved in the events (it’s the USA after all…nobody threatens my homeland!) but not actually have to fear any real lethal threat (except for the tiny population that lives on the island). If war does occur, the North Korean regime needs to stir the imaginations of the people for the primary reason that these same people will be called upon to fight, suffer and die defending the regime. For the residents of the United States, the need to stir the imaginations of the media-viewing public is done to ensure everyone tunes in when the shooting starts and watches the commercial inserted in the breaks in the action. Here is where Trump’s rhetoric serves an important role—it adds to the reality show/professional wrestling aspect to the conflict. Media personalities and pundits can scoff at the incendiary language of Trump, but these same media types will no doubt be riveted to cover and pontificate on events that result in a war breaking out that provides a chance for their stars to rise and their careers to be boosted.

Given this analysis, it is perhaps not surprising that North Korea would back down. For while North Korea may boast of military strength and victory in war, at the end of the day a war would be the end of that regime. For the United States, however, such existential dangers are not as readily present. While North Korea’s nuclear threat is real and should not be taken lightly, there are also a frighteningly large number of variables that skew toward seeing a conflict with North Korea take place for reasons that have little to do with foreign policy or international relations. The danger of Trump’s rhetoric isn’t that it might lead to a misunderstanding that triggers an accidental war, but that the rhetoric is the beginning of a deliberate move to engage in military conflict with North Korea. With the support of his cult of personality and the news media eager for compelling drama, a small (but very real) threat of a nuclear attack may not serve as a disincentive to attack. Thus, the logic of deterrence appears to collapse in the face of the spectacle.

[1] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 42.

The Saga of Megyn Kelly: A Lesson in the Ways of the Spectacle of Disintegration

There has been a minor tremor in the media and political world as the ratings for Megyn Kelly’s new show on NBC continue to decline. Kelly was the much lauded and admired host of an evening chat show on Fox News that garnered the network’s second highest ratings (behind the new departed and disgraced Bill O’Reilly). Amid the controversy over the treatment of female employees at Fox News by male executives and eager to make a name for herself outside the narrow world of cable news, Kelly left a big payday at Fox to begin a new chapter in her career at NBC. Ostensibly, Kelly would transcend her traditional role as a younger and more polished presenter (as compared to the cartoonish demeanor of Sean Hannity and grumpy-old-man vibe of O’Reilly) of conservative takes on the day’s issues and become a reporter and news presenter of genuine mass appeal along the lines of Katie Couric or Connie Chung of past media ages.

Yet something seemed to happen on the way to infotainment immortality. Kelly’s ratings for her Sunday evening show, which were solid at first due to a scoop interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have now plummeted to below most other network rivals (including the somehow-still-on-the-air inane-fest America’s Funniest ((and most likely Staged)) Home Videos). Conservative commentators celebrated what appeared to be her just karmic desserts for being down on the campaign of Donald Trump and her apparent abandonment of Fox News. Indeed, a recent rumor suggested that Kelly had been fired by NBC for the low ratings—an allegation made plausible by the fate of Greta Van Sustern, who like Kelly, left Fox News forNBC and was promptly fired after six months when her news/talk show floundered.

What explains such difficult and fatal transitions for news celebrities who just months before looked to be surging to glorious career heights? The answer explored here lies in one of the themes of this space—the spectacle of disintegration—and the lack of understanding of how it operates. To briefly review, the spectacle of disintegration is McKenzie Wark’s updating of Guy Debord’s classic notion of the spectacle he laid out in 1968 in The Society of the Spectacle. Debord argued that industrial capitalism had developed to a point where its most important product was not merely the material objects produced in factories, but the images, lifestyles and fantasies created alongside these products to sell, market, advertise, brand and promote them. This process began at the beginning of the 20th century and advanced to a point by the late 1960s that human beings no longer experience any kind of authentic existence of life but merely went through a set of pre-choreographed rituals centered around the consumption of these heavily marketed products. While individual life devolved into a hallow charade of conformity, a small cadre of government and corporate elites benefited enormously from this consumer environment and went to great lengths to protect it. This regime of protection Debord detailed in a later work called Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, where he discusses, among other things, the reasons why governments might wish to hype the threat of terrorism (to give the passive consumer audiences something to fear and to delight when the state ostensibly appears to defeat it and make the world safe to shop in again). This later phenomenon Debord called The Integrated Spectacle as it combined both the consumerism of the west with the authoritarianism of the east during the Cold War.

Recently, with the develop of social media capabilities and a series of legitimacy crises with the prevailing financial/consumerist order, a new kind of spectacle has emerged. This new variation McKenzie Wark dubbed The Spectacle of Disintegration and it features the same basic components of media imagery, mass consumption, and expressions of military strength but is no longer controlled by a central command structure of dominant media institutions, hegemonic western states, and global corporations and banks. Instead, the development of social media has allowed the masses who were passive consumers of the spectacle (and did not hesitate to fatten themselves up on its fat and sugar) to make their own contributions to this spectacle—so much so that the struggle to constantly feed the masses hungry for ever newer and grander content could be “outsourced” to these same consumers. They would make endless hours of content of themselves singing and dancing and writing fan fiction and posting comments and sharing their most intimate thoughts, feelings, ideas, desires and fantasies into cheap web cameras that would be devoured by their fellow consumers. Media owners and operators would charge rent on the bandwidth and get rich in the process. Everybody wins.

Yet a handful of unforeseen developments transpired. The prevailing assumption among many of these web platform developers was that the masses would share the inanity of their daily lives with the world and not use these platforms for anything that might threaten the status quo. So long as the tranquilized masses did nothing but share cat pictures and take “Which Sex and the City Character Are You”-style quizzes, there was nothing to fear from the new media platforms. Indeed, such information that consumers shared with the world could be aggregated and analyzed to steer them toward similar content. Yet it turned out the masses weren’t all as inane as they seemed. Some used media platforms to promote certain ideologies and activism from a variety of perspectives. Like minded communities quickly congealed and were able to make significant impacts in the so-called “real world.” Eventually, these communities constructed their own smaller media content production points and distributions networks. These on-line platforms linked up with traditional media outlets on television and radio to create information and image ecosystems were an individual could enter and have all other bits of data deflected by out into the ether. The scale of this filtering wasn’t merely taking place at the broad level of clichéd debates of “the left vs. the right,” but could function at a very micro-level. Conspiracy theorists who insisted the US government staged the 9-11 attacks had their own micro-universe of documentaries, academic studies, podcasts, panel discussions posted on-line, interviews, and just about every other form of information conveyance within an all-but-hermetically-sealed media cage. Millions of consumers would enter these cages when they interfaced with a computer or smart phone and never left—and have no intention or desire to leave.

Wark gives this phenomenon the name of the spectacle of disintegration because each of these micro-ecosystems represents a small chunk of what was once an integrated and coherent informational whole into a multitude of self-contained universes. Like a worm, these chopped off segments are now growing into their own organisms and are not under any central control from the original organism. The structure has disintegrated, but rather than collapse into a rubble of component parts, it grows into something that no one knows how to control. This is why events like the election of Donald Trump have transpired and the dominant institutions of media, state, and corporation are at loss to explain and control it. What was once the central command structure of the integrated spectacle is now a much smaller and insulated world of elites who no longer have the power to use their prominent positions to spoon feed the masses the gruel of “conventional wisdom”. Voters in the rural South, Midwest and Intermountain West do not get their news and information from network news casts or Newsweek magazine as was the case in the past. They get it from niche chat shows on Fox News and websites like Breitbart that speak an effective language of anti-elitism. These outlets backed the Trump train when it looked like his candidacy had staying power and helped deliver to Trump his voters. Megyn Kelly, though not a Trump supporter, nevertheless saw her star rise within the microverse of Fox News and conservative media punditry. She perhaps believed that the success she experienced in this small habitat would translate to success in a larger one.

This, however, has not been the case. When she failed to prostrate herself before Trump and added her name to the accusers of Roger Ailes and his unwanted amorous advances, she had become a persona non grata among the people who had given her the celebrity status she enjoyed at Fox News. Believing her skills as a reporter were transferable to another network (as they no doubt would have been in the past), she instead perhaps discovered her popularity was due less to reporting skills and more to the perspective she more or less conformed to and that her audience at Fox News expected. When she changed networks, this source of support disappeared and there was not a similar audience of loyal followers waiting for her at NBC. With time she might be able to create a new viewer base, but in the dog-eat-dog world of network television, she might not have much time available to her. Like Greta Van Sustern before her, she may find herself wandering the wilderness of independently produced podcasts and guest columns on Huffington Post and the like. Such a fate would be tragic, but not unanticipated if one understands the spectacle of disintegration and the increasingly fragmented nature of media universe of the twenty first century.

The Spectacle and the Gulf Power Struggle

The end of June saw an interesting development in the regional balance-of-power struggle in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia along with some of the Gulf emirates called on the peninsular kingdom of Qatar submit to thirteen demands or face the prospect of severe economic sanctions and political isolation. The demands come out of several years of tensions between Qatar and its Arab neighbors over allegations Qatar is supporting radical Islamic terrorists and becoming a little too friendly with Iran, a country that is seeking hegemony in the region at the expense of Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Israel. Many of the thirteen points refer to this aforementioned support of terrorism, including demands Qatar end monetary support of groups other nations (including the United States) have designated “terrorist,” cease its interference in other nations via clandestine channels and providing compensation for violence perpetrated by groups Qatar has given indirect support.

The most interesting of the thirteen points are numbers three and four, which read:

  1. Shut down al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
  2. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.

Authoritarian regimes have never been big boosters of “free media” (even if such a thing doesn’t really exist in a capitalist world), but the demand to shut down one of the world’s largest satellite news broadcasters is brazen. As one recent newspaper profile wrote, (Al Jazeera) claims to broadcast to more than 310m households in more than 100 countries. The company employs more than 3,000 people and has a London studio in the Shard.”[1] To channel the spirit of a long-running popular meme, “one does not simply shut down a major satellite new broadcaster in ten days”. To shut down AL Jazeera would not only be logistically very difficult, it also entails asking thousands of employees, including countless reporters and support staff who would no doubt put their journalistic skills to work asking questions about the background, mindset, habits, behaviors, foibles, vices, and countless other unsavory details about the regime and its leaders who made such an unprecedented demand. The question thus arises: why would Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States make such a demand?

There is a temptation in answering this question to attribute such a call to the traditional authoritarian impulse to control information. There is certainly much to this. However, in an era when the spectacle is one of the dominant generators of human experience, the call to precipitously terminate a large generator of this spectacle, especially one that plays an important role in how power conflicts in the Middle East are perceived, points to a deeper layer of explanation. In making the call to shut Al-Jazeera, Saudi Arabia and its partners are essentially demanding a form of disarmament.

To see how this might be the case, one needs to travel back in time to World War I and the story of an American bureaucrat named George Creel who was tapped by President Woodrow Wilson to manage the information flow in the United States during the war and persuade a skeptical public at home (and a not necessarily friendly foreign media) that the war was noble and necessary. So empowered, Creel created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) and in the process, revolutionized the role of information in the business of the state and recast media as a branch of the armed forces. In a book he wrote after the war was over and the CPI dissolved, Creel asserted:

There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ. The printed word, the spoken word, the motion picture, the telegraph, the cable, the wireless, the poster, the sign-board—all these were used in our campaign to make our own people and all other peoples understand the causes that compelled America to take up arms.[2]

Than a few pages later:

Mortar-guns, loaded with “paper bullets,” and airplanes, carrying pamphlet matter, bombarded the German front, and at the time of the armistice balloons with a cruising radius of five hundred miles were ready to launch far into the Central Powers with America’s message.[3]

Creel was arguing here that in the larger war effort, the media ought to be seen not merely as a minor appendage of the larger military conflict going on across the Atlantic, but as a central front in the war itself. The imagery about “paper bullets” is especially apt, as the suggestion here is that these “paper bullets” would have a similar effect as the real ones in allowing the US and its allies to attain victory. And where the real bullets made their impact through violence and force, the paper bullets made their impact through the less lethal means of persuasion and publicity. In Creel’s view, there was no substantive difference between the deployment of military force and the deployment of media assets.

Indeed, Creel perhaps did his job too well. In the wake of the conflict, he came under intense scrutiny for what many saw as his manipulation of public opinion in favor of the war and the disquieting questions this success raised.[4] Had some kind of dark art casting a spell over the collective consciousness of the nation been discovered by Creel and what did this mean in terms of preserving a free space for open debate that a democracy ostensibly requires? Many of the these questions wouldn’t be answered more fully until the Second World War and a new round of media and cultural weaponization took place on both sides of this conflict.

Back in the twenty-first century and the power struggle in the Gulf, the request by Saudi Arabia to terminate the operations of Al Jazeera takes on a new dimension. What the Saudis and their allies are essentially demanding of Qatar is the liquidation of its most powerful power resource—akin to demanding a traditional great power dissolve its army or navy. It is a powerful admission by Saudi Arabia that in the battle for influence in the global spectacle, the Saudis cannot prevail against a nation that by any other measure is inferior, and so must use these other power resources to negate this disadvantage.

Of course, this analysis also indicates why Qatar cannot possibly agree to these demands, for what nation would willingly surrender its most effective weapons? It is akin to asking a state with a nuclear weapons to surrender such capabilities—it simply will not happen short of some very large and very generous concessions and/or incentives. Indeed, one is tempted to see demands three and four less as actual demands and more as possible points of concession in exchange for compliance on the other demands. As the deadlines for such compliance are moved around and ultimate sanctions delayed, such speculation will ultimately by verified, but in the meantime, an interesting case of the changing perceptions of what constitutes power and threat will continue to play out both in Middle East and for the rest of the world. The outcome here may be a harbinger for how states struggle with each other in the future.

[1] Graham Ruddick, “Al-Jazeera: The Qatar broadcaster at the centre of a diplomatic crisis” The Guardian, 24 June, 2017.

[2] George Creel, How We Advertised America (New York: Harper Brothers, 1920), 5.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid., 427.

Manuel Noriega’s Legacy to the Integrated Spectacle

Last Monday, General Manuel Noriega, the infamous Panamanian strongman, died anti-climatically in a hospital in Panama City. Noriega will most likely be remembered as one of the Latin American bêtes noires of the late Cold War who ran afoul of the foreign policy imperatives of the United States resulting in armed intervention. As a prized CIA asset for many years when the priority of US foreign policy was containing communism, he was allowed to rule the country at his own whim with little condemnation of his drug smuggling activities. As US foreign policy interests shifted to drug interdiction, however, he found himself under pressure to reform his government and end his narcotics trafficking. Refusing to do either, he was ousted by an US military intervention in the waning December days of 1989.

There is another legacy of Noriega, albeit a far more obscure one. Noriega was identified as a prime example of the nature of the integrated spectacle in his penultimate work Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle. In “Chapter” XIX, Debord gives a brief account of Noriega’s interesting role as both hero and villain of American interests in the region. Then, after recounting this history, he writes:

Far from being a peculiarly Panamanian strangeness, this General Noriega, who sells and simulates everything, in a world which everywhere does the same thing, was altogether a perfect representative of the integrated spectacular, and of the successes that it allows the most varied managers of its internal and international politics: a sort of man of a sort of state, a sort of general, a capitalist. He is the very model of the prince of our times and, of those destined to come to power and remain there, the most able to resemble him closely. It is not Panama which produces such marvels, it is our era.[1]

There is more than a hint of admiration in the words of Debord. Noriega, Debord argues, recognized the country he ruled was “dug out” by the United States in order to build a canal and didn’t really enjoy any kind of genuine sovereignty.[2] This allowed him to generate his own personal fiefdom so long as he allowed the US to use the country as a tool for its official and clandestine objectives in the region. When the winds of US foreign policy changed, he knew he had much leverage over the demands by the administration of George H.W. Bush, who was accused of being a “wimp” in the media over his inability to control the rogue dictator.[3] When Bush realized he was losing the media war in the standoff between the United States and Panama over the allegedly rigged elections of 1989, Bush ordered invasion of Panama to topple Noriega—in essence tapping into the concentrated portion of the integrated spectacle when the diffuse one failed to yield the desired results.

Today, the notion that Manuel Noriega represents the epitome of the integrated spectacle is charmingly quaint. In the era of the Trumpire, Noriega is small potatoes. Yet there is more than a little resonance between the antics of Noriega and the much grander bloviating of Donald Trump. Like Noriega, who was able to contribute to the narrative of George H.W. Bush as a “wimp,” Trump took no uncertain pleasure in ridiculing Bush’s son Jeb as “low energy” and a “lightweight” before coining insults for all his other opponents in the presidential race. Also like Noriega, Trump is awash is shady business dealings and may or may not be involved in secret arrangements with great powers and both men seem to be somewhat self-conscious about their appearance (Noriega for his skin complexion and Trump for his body fat). Sure, there are significant differences between the two men who came to power in different eras, but when Debord describes Noriega as someone who sells and simulates everything, one would have to look hard to find a more elegant way of describing Trump as well.

One huge difference exists, however–Noriega lacked full control of the integrated spectacle. He did successfully co-opt its media side for a few months but ultimately, the United States could deploy its overwhelming military force which would have the double impact of allowing the US to control the physical space of Panama while simultaneously creating a compelling media counter-narrative that would portray the dictator as a heartless drug lord, dispel the image of George Bush as a wimp, and provide enticing and entertaining news reports and subsequent fictionalized accounts of the invasion that would allow the event to go down in history as another example of US benevolence. Noriega would ultimately be captured and sent to prison and, a much worse fate, obscurity. Trump does not suffer from this liability. He is in ostensible control of the entirety of the Trumpire’s integrated spectacle, and there are no American military forces to topple this regime (at least not in any way that is constitutional). Whether the current scandals of the Trumpire bring down Donald Trump remains to be seen, but with the death of Noriega, Debord’s description of him as “the very prince of our times” perhaps should now be directed toward Trump.[4]

     [1] Guy Debord, Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle (New York: Vero, 1998), 58.

     [2] Ibid., 57.

     [3]  http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-george-hw-bush-fall-panama-noriega-570478

     [4] Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle, 58.


Terrorism and the Spectacle in the Wake of the Manchester Attack

The recent terror attack in Manchester provides and stark example of what political conflict looks like in the society of the spectacle—specifically in the phase of the spectacle referred to here as the spectacle of disintegration. This phase of the spectacle features a historical era when the ability of states, major international corporations, media companies and state broadcasters, and the dominant socio-economic interests that control them have lost their monopoly over the content and dissemination of the global media apparatus. In this new phase of the spectacle, platforms like social media and tools like smart phones empower the masses to create and disseminate their own media content with little or no oversight or restraint despite the best efforts of traditional gatekeepers of media to assert this control. As a result, pockets of dissent and networks of resistance emerge both in cyberspace and in the material world that co-opt the tools of political pacification and use them against their masters. In its most successful forms, groups like ISIS (also benefiting from an absence of local and regional governance) can use this power to create their own independent spaces free from the dominant economic forces of neoliberalism and the military supremacy of the American Empire.

What makes the attack in Manchester even more horrifying and more compelling is that it matches a pattern observed since this newer paradigm of the spectacle began to reveal itself after the attacks of 9-11. This entails the targeting of establishments like nightclubs, sporting events, rock and pop concerts, and other examples of entertainment and leisure activities usually frequented by the youthful and the more carefree. While attacks against such targets existed prior to September 11th, they didn’t seem to be a preferred target until after this date. The reason for this is difficult to know with any certainty, but it may have to do with the perception that if entertainment, amusement, and “fun” are weapons used to defeat any challengers to the dominant assemblage of power, then they are “legitimate” targets for violence. If, as many Salafist-inspired attackers hold, that their religion and culture and way of life are being suffocated to death by both the deployment of American and Western military force and the omnipresent pop culture of western media, then such material manifestations of this power, including rock/pop concerts like the one attacked in Manchester, are as useful and expedient a target as an attack on a military base or police station.

Indeed, in the early grieving period that has followed the attack, one can already observe writers and thinkers discussing the central importance of these types of pop concerts in the public imagination. Alexis Petridis writes:

It wasn’t just that she (the author’s daughter) was overawed by the spectacle, although she was: stuff I took for granted – lasers, pyrotechnics, confetti cannons, all the usual bells and whistles of a big pop show – were a constant source of overwhelming sensory overload. Nor was it the way her lack of cynicism made me reconsider my own feelings, although that happened too. I have always been deeply suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that modern pop surrounds itself with: all that platitudinous “just be yourself”, “if you dream it you can do it” stuff. But my daughter took it all at face value and I ended up thinking: Well, there’s certainly worse messages you can send out to kids.[1]

Futhermore, because most of the victims were girls and young women, the attack gained an additional depth of repugnance that some have argued epitomizes the deep misogynism that permeates both the consumerist West and the extremist interpretations of Islam. Like Petridis, Mary Elizabeth Williams argues the Manchester attack targets an experience where young women show their power and fortitude:

They are so, so strong, these girls — yes, these girls with their goofy Snapchat streaks and their mermaid hair and their willingness to love things unironically. Their courage and their grace would knock you out. And if you want to know what ferocious resilience looks like, take a look sometime at a young girl and her bestie, sharing a set of earbuds and dancing, in spite of it all.[2]

Those who encourage and carry out these attacks on some level agree with these sentiments. They do see events like these as places where the children of their enemies transform themselves into indirect carriers and scatterers of a decadent ideology—including the children of Muslim families who settled in the West and should know better than to let such profligacy reign. One is perhaps reminded here of the experience of the Egyptian exchange student Sayyid Qutb, who was so repulsed by what he thought was the depravity of American culture in a small Colorado town in the 1950s (capped by his attendance of co-ed cotillion) that it motivated him to found a strand of militant Islamic ideology upon his return to Egypt.

But, as already mention, there is another aspect to this that often doesn’t get addressed—the ways the spectacle, especially in its current disintegrating form, allows for those who wish to do harm to turn the power of the spectacle on its masters. The media apparatus that currently exists pumps out an endless stream of entertainment and enticement in an effort to capture the imaginations of an entire planet. When messages and images of fear and terror are placed in this stream, it is like a bug in a computer network—it causes the system to malfunction until it can be removed. In the meantime, the tool that is supposed to maintain order and stability becomes the most effective weapon against that order and stability. Whether one believes pop concerts like the one in Manchester are a source of empowerment for girls or just another way for the entertainment complex to maintain its power over the minds of a listless consumer public, this apparatus nevertheless has the power to alter the minds and behaviors of billions of people akin to a military force pointing countless guns at the world’s collective head. If weaknesses exist in the operation of this “weapon” system that make it possible to redirect its stream, then one ought not be surprised events like this take place. This, of course, in no way excuses them, it merely points out their effectiveness and to understand why they will happen again.

As is always the case, a quote from the movie Network makes the point here in a far more elegant and clear way. In his first great diatribe of his new show, the “mad profit of the airwaves,” Howard Beale, is describing the power of television in the world. As the TV feed goes out live to millions of viewers and a captivated studio audience looks on, he bellows:

This tube is the gospel, the ultimate revelation.

This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers.

This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world.

And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.

For decades in the 20th century, there was little fear among those who controlled the tools of the spectacle that it could ever fall into the “wrong” hands. What one sees with attacks like Manchester is that the spectacle is no longer controllable from top to bottom, and that tactics and tools exist for it—or at least a significant portion of it—to fall into the wrong hands.

     [1] The Guardian, 23 May, 2017.

     [2] Salon, 23 May, 2017.