Friday, October 01, 2004

The Society of the Spectacle

Is there any better representative of the crass, moronic stupidity of 21st century consumer capitalist culture than Heat Magazine? Probably not. We exist ( I was about to say 'live') in a culture of celebrity, advertising, image and artifice. It's a culture in which passive consumers shell out for glossy, undemanding magazines so that they can gawp at pictures of plastic, semi-fictitious creations called 'celebrities' doing not very much - going to the shops, pushing a pram, drinking in a cafe, kissing a boyfriend. It's experiencing the world at a distance - contemplating the 'lives' of celebrity super-commodities who live for us. The 21st century consumer never has to engage with the world himself/ herself because he/she is presented with a ready-made commodified simulation of life which can be consumed in bite-size easy-to-digest chunks through the pages of glossy magazines or by watching Big Brother. Guy Debord's claim that modern capitalist society has become a world of 'spectacle' was never more true than today.

Debord and the Situationists argued that the alienation fundamental to the capitalist mode of production had permeated all areas of social existence. Marx and Engels, of course, first developed the idea of alienation and commodity fetishism under capitalism. Marx and Engels showed that production under capitalism was performed not to satisfy immediate human need but in order to produce commodities to exchange on the market. The worker is alienated from his/her products, alienated from the activity of producing, alienated from his/her own self. Furthermore, under capitalism relations between people assume the form of relations between things. Under market exchange relationships produced goods appear to possess intrinsic mystical properties and seem to become autonomous powers in themselves. The work process and the workers themselves feel that they are dominated by the goods they produce rather than feeling themselves the master over the things that they have created.

Whereas Marx tended to confine commodity fetishism and the experience of alienation to the workplace, the Situationists argued that these things under modern capitalism had now permeated all society - throughout all aspects of human existence. The commodity form has conquered all aspects of human life. As Sadie Plant puts it, 'Leisure, culture, art, information, entertainment, knowledge... and every conceivable aspect of life is reproduced as a commodity: packaged, and sold back to the consumer. Even ways of life are marketed as lifestyles, and careers, opinions, theories, and desires are consumed as surely as bread and jam' (Plant, 1992: 11). The spectacular world was, for Debord, the 'moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see - commodities are now all there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity' (Debord, 1990: 42). As Plant goes on, (quoting Debord) 'this absolute realisation of commodity relations produces an entirely inverted world, in which everything "that was directly lived has become mere representation", a "dull reflection" of itself' (Plant. 13). Bang on! We don't live under consumer capitalism - we merely consume a commodified representation of life. Our whole existence is defined in terms of the commodities we consume. At the most obvious level, an example of this is that many people's identity seems to be bound up with the clothing labels they wear - they are consituted as people through their choice of brand name and 'brand image' which goes along with it. Think also of the way in which we avidly consume soap operas - we watch prepackaged, thrice weekly 30 minute chunks of simulated social life as a kind of stand in for the social interaction which perhaps we do not experience in our 'real lives' (or which we can not experience so easily and passively - life does not come in 30 minute chunks with easy to follow narrative storylines, beginnings, middles and endings).

But living life through the commodity form is not satisfying and cannot be - indeed it is essential to the system of consumerism that we never are satisfied. The increasingly meaningless and absurd commodities that we are encouraged to consume embody alienated social relations - the act of consumption merely reproduces our alienation as consumers. Commodities are always presented as desirable, glamorous, existing in a glossy, perfect world far removed from the hum-drum reality of our daily lives. In addition, we are encouraged to desire what we see in the commodity system as a whole - indeed individual commodities do not make much sense, or at least lose their glamour, outside of the unreal world of this totality. As Plant comments, 'it is the spectacle as a whole that is advertised and desired. The lights, the opportunities, the shops, the excitement: the attraction of capitalist societies has always been their glamorous dynamism, the surfeit of commodities and the ubiquity of choice they offer' (Plant, 24). But once we actually get hold of one of these commodities, remove it from the unreal advertised world in which it seems to exist (in juxtaposition with other commodities seeming to embody glamour, happiness and so on) and take it home we are, sooner or later, disappointed. The commodity cannot but fail to realise the promise it seems to offer us in the advertisement or in the shop. Our dissatisfaction with this particular commodity is, however, never translated into dissatisfaction with the commodity system as a whole - new and brighter commodities have appeared to us, encouraging us to try again or to make up for the disappointment of the recently consumed commodity by consuming another. The promised land is unattainable but we keep searching.

In the society of the spectacle even time and space is commodified and converted into intrinsically dissatisfying representation. In the spectacle, 'time is advertised and consumed as free time, time out, time to drink tea, eat chocolate, invest, and retire. Measured quantitavely in units of production and consumption it is spent, wasted and saved'. It is 'sliced into saleable units' (Plant, 28). Time seems to shed its free flowing, dynamic uncontrollable nature and instead becomes a quantifiable 'thing' which we can cut up into chunks, package and sell. Time seems to stop - under consumer capitalism we seem to have arrived at the 'end of history'. Life can never be any different - it is and always will be spectacular. Space is commodified too. Travel is made easier by tourism, but the commodification inherent in tourism and selling holidays, turns all places into equivalent undifferentiated things -'the peculiar characteristics of places are lost in the dissemination of commodity equivalence' (Plant, 28). Plant adds that, 'As the recent development of theme parks, reconstructed villages, architectural pastiche, and the hertitage industry shows, both history and space become objects of contemplation: geographical areas are increasingly places to look at rather than live in, and although it is possible to go anywhere, there is less and less reason to do so.' (Plant, 28).

Within this spectacular world of theme parks, shopping malls, soap operas and Heat magazine all possibility of meaningful engagement and indeed of meaningful living is systematically excluded. For Debord and the Situationists, the Spectacle, however was not unassailable - it was possible for humans to reject the spectacle and to create for themselves an unalienated, uncommodified form existence beyond capitalism - as, indeed the students and workers of May 1968 in Paris attempted.

I like to picture a time when the offices of Heat magazine will be stormed and, like the Reformation iconoclasts smashing idolatrous images in churches, the enemies of the spectacle will smash the spectacular images of consumer capitalism, ripping up and throwing photographs of fallen celebrity-icons from the office windows onto bonfires below, like so much rubbish.

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