When the storm hit the Hansa Carrier, twenty-one shipping containers fell from its decks into the Pacific Ocean, taking some 80,000 Nike sneakers with them. Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer used the serial numbers from the sneakers that washed up on the rain coast of North America to plot the widening gyre of ocean-going garbage that usually lies between California and Hawaii. Bigger than the state of Texas, it is called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, and sailors have known for a long time to steer clear of this area from the equator to fifty degrees north.
It’s an often windless desert where not much lives. Flotsam gathers and circles, biodegrading into the sea. Unless it is plastic, which merely photo-degrades in the sun, disintegrating into smaller and smaller bits of sameness. Now the sea here has more particles of plastic than plankton. The Gyre is a disowned country of furniture, fridges, cigarette lighters, televisions, bobbing in the sea and slowly falling apart, but refusing to go away.1
New Hawaii is the name some humorists prefer for the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre now that it has the convenience of contemporary consumer goods. Or one might call it a spectacle of disintegration. It is as good an emblem as any of the passing show of contemporary life, with its jetsam of jostling plastic artifacts, all twisting higgledy-piggledy on and below the surface of the ocean. Plastic and ocean remain separate, even as the plastic breaks up and permeates the water, insinuating itself into it but always alien to it.
The poet Lautréamont once wrote: “Old Ocean, you are the symbol of identity: always equal to yourself … and if somewhere your waves are enraged, further off in some other zone they are in the most complete calm.”2
But this no longer describes the ocean, which now appears as far from equilibrium. It describes instead the spectacle, the Sargasso Sea of images, a perpetual calm surrounded by turbulence, at the center always the same.
When Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle
(1967), he thought there were two kinds: the concentrated and the diffuse spectacle. The concentrated spectacle was limited to fascist and Stalinist states, where the spectacle cohered around a cult of personality. These are rare now, if not entirely extinct. The diffuse spectacle emerged as the dominant form. It did not require a Stalin or Mao as its central image. Big Brother is no longer watching you. In His place is little sister and her friends: endless pictures of models and other pretty things. The diffuse spectacle murmured to its sleeping peoples: “what appears is good; what is good appears.”3
The victory of the diffuse spectacle over its concentrated cousin did not lead to the diffusion of the victor over the surface of the world. In Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), Debord thought instead that an integrated spectacle had subsumed elements of both into a new spectacular universe. While on the surface it looked like the diffuse spectacle, which molds desire in the form of the commodity, it bore within it aspects of concentration, notably an occulted state, where power tends to become less and less transparent.
That the state is a mystery to its subjects is to be expected; that it could become occult even to its rulers is something else. The integrated spectacle not only extended the spectacle outwards, but also inwards; the falsification of the world had reached by this point even those in charge of it. Debord wrote in 1978 that “it has become ungovernable, this wasteland, where new sufferings are disguised with the names of former pleasures; and where the people are so afraid … Rumor has it that those who were expropriating it have, to crown it all, mislaid it. Here is a civilization which is on fire, capsizing and sinking completely. Ah! Fine torpedoeing!”4
Since he died in 1994, Debord did not live to see the most fecund and feculent form of this marvel, this spectacular power that integrates both diffusion and concentration. In memory of Debord, let’s call the endpoint reached by the integrated spectacle the disintegrating spectacle
, in which the spectator gets to watch the withering away of the old order, ground down to near nothingness by its own steady divergence from any apprehension of itself. Debord: “that state can no longer be led strategically.”5
And yet the spectacle remains, circling itself, bewildering itself. Everything is impregnated with tiny bits of its issue, yet the new world remains stillborn. The spectacle atomizes and diffuses itself throughout not only the social body but its sustaining landscape as well. As Debord’s former comrade T. J. Clark writes, this world is “not ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image,’ to quote the famous phrase from Guy Debord, but images dispersed and accelerated until they become the true and sufficient commodities.”6
The spectacle speaks the language of command. The command of the concentrated spectacle was: OBEY! The command of the diffuse spectacle was: BUY! In the integrated spectacle the commands to OBEY! and BUY! became interchangeable. Now the command of the disintegrating spectacle is: RECYCLE! Like oceanic amoeba choking on granulated shopping bags, the spectacle can now only go forward by evolving the ability to eat its own shit.
The disintegrating spectacle can countenance the end of everything except the end of itself. It can contemplate with equanimity melting ice sheets, seas of junk, peak oil, but the spectacle itself lives on. It is immune to particular criticisms. Mustapha Khayati: “Fourier long ago exposed the methodological myopia
of treating fundamental questions without relating them to modern society as a whole. The fetishism of facts masks the essential category, the mass of details obscures the totality.”7
Even when it speaks of disintegration, the spectacle is all about particulars. The plastic Pacific, even if it is as big as Texas, is presented as a particular event. Particular criticisms hold the spectacle to account for falsifying this image or that story, but in the process thereby merely add legitimacy to the spectacle’s claim that it can in general be a vehicle for the true. A genuinely critical approach to the spectacle starts from the opposite premise: that it may present from time to time a true fragment, but it is necessarily false as a whole
. Debord: “In a world that really has been turned on its head, the true is a moment of falsehood.”8
This then is our task: a critique of the spectacle as a whole, a task that critical thought has for the most part abandoned. Stupefied by its own powerlessness, critical thought turned into that drunk who, having lost the car keys, searches for them under the street lamp. The drunk knows that the keys disappeared in that murky puddle, where it is dark, but finds it is easier to search for them under the lamp, where there is light—if not enlightenment.
And then critical theory gave up even that search and fell asleep at the side of the road. Just as well. It was in no condition to drive. In its stupor, critical thought makes a fetish of particular aspects of the spectacular organization of life. The critique of content became a contented critique.9
It wants to talk only of the political, or of culture, or of subjectivity, as if these things still existed, as if they had not been colonized by the spectacle and rendered mere excrescences of its general movement. Critical thought contented itself with arriving late on the scene and picking through the fragments. Or, critical thought retreated into the totality of philosophy. It had a bone to pick with metaphysics
. It shrank from the spectacle, which is philosophy made concrete. In short: critical thought has itself become spectacular. Critical theory becomes hypocritical theory.
It needs to be renewed not only in content but in form.
When the US Food and Drug Administration announced that certain widely prescribed sleeping pills would come with strong warnings about strange behavior, they were not only responding to reports of groggy people driving their cars or making phone calls, but also purchasing items over the internet.10
The declension of the spectacle into every last droplet of everyday life means that the life it prescribes can be lived even in one’s sleep. This creates a certain difficulty for prizing open some other possibility for life, even in thought.
Debord’s sometime comrade Raoul Vaneigem famously wrote that those who speak of class conflict without referring to everyday life, “without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”11
Today this formula surely needs to be inverted. To talk the talk of critical thought, of biopolitics
, of the state of exception
, bare life
, of whatever being
, or object oriented ontology
without reference to class conflict is to speak, if not with a corpse in one’s mouth, then at least a sleeper.
Must we speak the hideous language of our century? The spectacle appears at first as just a maelstrom of images swirling about the suck hole of their own nothingness. Here is a political leader. Here is one with better hair. Here is an earthquake in China. Here is a new kind of phone. Here are the crowds for the new movie. Here are the crowds for the food riot. Here is a cute cat. Here is a cheeseburger. If that were all there was to it, one could just load one’s screen with better fare. But the spectacle is not just images. It is not just another name for the media. Debord: “The spectacle is a social relationship between people mediated by images.”12
The trick is not to be distracted by the images, but to inquire into the nature of this social relationship.
Emmalee Bauer of Elkhart worked for the Sheraton Hotel company in Des Moines until she was fired for using her employer’s computer to keep a journal which recorded all of her efforts to avoid work. “This typing thing seems to be doing the trick,” she wrote. “It just looks like I am hard at work on something very important.”13
And indeed she was. Her book-length work
hits on something fundamental about wage labor and the spectacle, namely the separation of labor from desire. One works not because one particularly wants to, but for the wages, with which to then purchase commodities to fulfill desires.
In the separation between labor and desire lies the origins of the spectacle, which appears as the world of all that can be desired, or rather, of all the appropriate modes of desiring. “Thus the spectacle, though it turns reality on its head, is itself a product of real activity.”14
The activity of making commodities makes in turn the need for the spectacle as the image of those commodities turned into objects of desire. The spectacle turns the goods into The Good.
The ruling images of any age service the ruling power. The spectacle is no different, although the ruling power is not so much a ruling monarch or even a power elite anymore, but the rule of the commodity itself. The celebrities that populate the spectacle are not its sovereigns, but rather model a range of acceptable modes of desire from the noble to the risqué. The true celebrities of the spectacle are not its subjects but its objects.
Billionaire Brit retailer Sir Philip Green spent six million pounds flying some two hundred of his closest friends to a luxury spa resort in the Maldives. The resort offers water sports and a private beach for each guest. Much of the décor is made from recycled products, and there is an organic vegetable garden where residents can pick ingredients for their own meals.15
“Sustainability” is the Viagra of old world speculative investment. Sir Philip is no fool, and neither is his publicist. This retailer of dreams has the good sense to appear in public by giving away to a lucky few what the unlucky many should hence forth consider good fortune. And yet while this story highlights the fantastic agency of the billionaire, the moral of the story is something else: even billionaires obey the logic of the spectacle if they want to appear in it.
The spectacle has always been an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise. But things have changed a bit. The integrated spectacle still relied on centralized means of organizing and distributing the spectacle, run by a culture industry in command of the means of producing its images. The disintegrating spectacle chips away at centralized means of producing images and distributes this responsibility among the spectators themselves. While the production of goods is out-sourced to various cheap labor countries, the production of images is in-sourced to unpaid labor, offered up in what was once leisure time. The culture industries are now the vulture industries, which act less as producers of images for consumption than as algorithms that manage databases of images that consumers swap between each other—while still paying for the privilege. Where once the spectacle entertained us, now we must entertain each other, while the vulture industries collect the rent. The disintegrating spectacle replaces the monologue of appearances with the appearance of dialogue. Spectators are now obliged to make images and stories for each other that do not unite those spectators in anything other than their separateness.
The proliferation of means of communication, with their tiny keyboards and tiny screens, merely breaks the spectacle down into bits and distributes it in suspension throughout everyday life. Debord: “The spectacle has spread itself to the point where it now permeates all reality. It was easy to predict in theory what has been quickly and universally demonstrated by practical experience of economic reason’s relentless accomplishments: that the globalization of the false was also the falsification of the globe.”16
Ever finer fragments of the time of everyday life become moments into which the spectacle insinuates its logic, demanding the incessant production and consumption of images and stories which, even though they take place in the sweaty pores of the everyday, are powerless to affect it.
It is comforting to imagine that it is always someone else who is duped by the spectacle. Former movie star turned tabloid sensation Lindsay Lohan allegedly spent over one million dollars on clothes in a single year, and $100,000 in a single day, before consulting a hypnotist to try to end her shopping addiction. Lohan’s publicist denied the story: “There is no hypnotist, and Lindsay loves clothes...