-Karl Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
Inspired by Brüno's anarchic, situationist-style attack on the unconscious of the spectacle, I thought I might actually attempt to give my reading of what "power and the spectacle" really means in our moment of late capitalism, or what Fredric Jameson has called Postmodernity. What does it mean to read media, propaganda or newspapers, advertising or film when culture is the very logic of capital accumulation?
What is the Spectacle?
Published in 1967, Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle was a whole new direction for Western Marxism to take vis a vis the "relations of production."
"By means of the spectacle the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise. The spectacle is the self-portrait of power in the age of power's totalitarian rule over the conditions of existence. The fetishistic appearance of pure objectivity in spectacular relationships conceals their true character as relationships between human beings and between classes; a second Nature thus seems to impose inescapable laws upon our environment. But the spectacle is by no means the inevitable outcome of a technical development perceived as natural; on the contrary, the society of the spectacle is a form that choses its own technical content. If the spectacle -- understood in the limited sense of those 'mass media' that are its most stultifying superficial manifestation -- seems at times to be invading society in the shape of a mere apparatus, it should be remembered that this apparatus has nothing neutral about it, and that it answers precisely to the needs of the spectacle's internal dynamics." (Thesis 24, Society of the Spectacle)The key thought this passage is the "fetishistic appearance of pure objectivity" that accompanies the monologue of gratuitious "self-praise" or a "self-portrait" of power by power that can be read in the spectacle of images and discourses that we call culture. Power appears neutral, natural, inescapable; however, the society sustained by and immersed in the spectacle "is a form that choses its own technical content." We have a choice in what we read and what we see, but no matter what you chose, you feed and consume the beast of the spectacle. You're plugged into the matrix, etc. (To the left is shoe advertisement alongside a May '68 poster.)
The Local Cynicism of Power
While I am generally sympathetic to the Situationist project, and I think their critique of capitalism is pretty trenchant, I think they miss something about the way power functions differently on a tactical vs. strategic level. I have in mind something M. Foucault once wrote: "the rationality of power is characterized by tactics that are often quite explicit at the restricted level where they are inscribed (the local cynicism of power)...an implicit characteristic of the great anonymous, almost mute strategies which coordinate the loquacious tactics whose 'inventors' or decisionmakers are often without hypocrisy" (History of sexuality: the will to knowledge, 95). Power functions because at the strategic level there are no inventors, no one is to blame for the anonymous system, however on the localized tactical level, power is cynical
Reading the Cynical Contradictions of the Spectacle
If power is cynical on the local level at which it is inscribed in the spectacle, we could reasonably expect to find it engaged in a "loquacious" "monologue" talking about itself constantly, revealing it's contradictions to us. You have to listen for it, but I think pop music, in particular, and the following selection of music videos from Bowie, Britney, and Lady GaGa is a pretty uncanny example of the local cynicism of power showing its tactical hand. What will be revealed is that the cynical voice of the spectacle taunts us with come ons, seducing us with its wiles and charms. The conceit of this blog post is to take literally the idea that we can construct a narrative of the dual crisis of late capitalism and the Left from 1969-2009 from the materials of popular culture. That capitalism talks to us and all we have to do is listen, but, in the wake of the 60s-era radical politics has capitalism begun to disclose its overarching strategy in all of its babble? Does it show us it's underlying contradictions?
I will try to keep editorial comments to a minimum, periodising and contextualizing only slightly on this journey through the space and time of the spectacle.
One year after the situationist general strike ground Paris to a halt, the United States put a man on the moon, and we get this initial transmission from the spectacle: 1969, David Bowie's "Space Oddity" (which is a riff on Stanley Kubrick's 1968 cinematic masterpiece, 2001: Space Odyssey)
Ground control to Major TomThe revolutionaries of 68 had "really made the grade." Apparently, "the papers want[ed] to know whose shirts [they] wear." Marx famously made a comment in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about how counter-revolutions always dressing up in old garb to repeat history as farce.
Take your protein pills
And put your helmet on
LESSON NO. 1: All good general strikes come to an end. "Now its time to leave the capsule if you dare."
Did the leftist "spaceship know which way to go" in this tripped out postmodern spectacle that began in 1969? Our scorecard from the past 41 years after Bowie's video doesn't look so pretty. In 1971, the US unilaterally withdrew from the Bretton Woods agreement, making the dollar the default reserve currency of the world. The world was plunged into a recession, and OPEC sent oil price shocks throughout world markets. In 1979, Paul Volcker ascended to the position of Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Regan was elected in the US and Thacher in the UK, and the neoliberalsim bueyed the capitalist system by deindustrializing much of the core countries in the First World.
Britney's dot-com-era bubble pop anthem "Oops! I Did It Again" tops music charts around the globe, selling over a million CDs. This is the height of what Robert Brenner has called Bubblenomics
Sorry about the video remix. Having flashbacks to Bowie yet? Britney's people have disabled video embedding. "That is just so typically" her. The "original" is here. Indeed, spectacular capitalism is "not that innocent"! Though poor Britney was a tender 19 years old in 2000, when she was zipped into in that latex space suit.
You see my problem is this:
I'm dreaming away;
Wishing that heroes, they truly exist.
I cry watching the days.
Can't you see I'm a fool
In so many ways?
But to lose all my senses...
That is just so typically me.
The dialogue at the end of the video is a reference to the 1997 movie Titanic.
Capitalism: "But I thought the old lady dropped it into the ocean in the end""Ground control to Major Tom" the boat was sinking! And surprise, the dot-com bubble popped.
The Left: "Well baby, I went down and got it for you"
Capitalism: "Awwwwe...you shouldn't have"
LESSON NO. 2: Speculative bubbles pop. The spectacle began "dreaming away / Wishing that heroes, they truly exist"
Toxic ass(et)s were flying high. Two years after jihadis hijack planes to destroy monuments of American global military and financial hegemony, and at the height of the real estate bubble and recovery of the airline industry: Britney fills out the stiletto pumps of a poisonous femme fatal stalking the landscape of loft-dwelling urban financiers for her masterpiece, "Toxic." US Bankers start funelling investments through Japanese savings accounts, issuing a globalized come-on to keep consuming and producing.
Again, a video mash-up with Gwen Stefani's 2004 journey down the rabbit hole in "What You Waiting For." Because no one on the internet can share Britney's "intellectual" property. Original video here.
The wink at the end of the original is delicious. In this version, Britney Spears actually throws a bomb at the gates to a building labeled "Toxic Industries" and Gwen Stefani grows too bloated for a nice piece of real estate.
The song is composed in C minor, like Ludwig von Beethoven's ominous, or alternatively heroic "Symphony No. 5," composed two centuries ago. Spears "Toxic in C Minor" is, however, just as infectious, perhaps, more dance-y.
The zeitgeist of post-9/11 subsequently sang her chorus (which was apparently used to torture Guantanamo Bay detainees in a "noise room") for 4 long years:
"With a taste of your lips, I'm on a rideWe mustn't forget the bridge of the track:
You're toxic, I'm slippin' under
taste of a poison paradise
I'm addicted to you
Don't you know that you're toxic?
And I love what you do
Don't you know that you're toxic?"
"Too high, can't come downDo you feel her now? Was the "taste of a poison paradise"? "Taking a sip" of the "devils cup" is incidentally precisely the genealogical account of debt obligations that Nietzsche traces all the way back to the Christian morality of "guilt."
Losing my head,
Spinning 'round and 'round
Do you feel me now?"
LESSON NO. 3: "What you waiting for? Take a chance you stupid hoe!"
2007: Another Day, Another Drama. The Real Estate Bubble Pops
On September 9, two days before the six year anniversary of "9/11", Britney made her "comeback" at the MTV Video Music Awards. The media burst into a frenzy tearing her performance and her bodyweight to shreds. The performance eclipsed an entire news cycle that could have reckoned with the legacy of an interminable "War On Terror"
Blackout debuted at number two on the UK Albums Chart and the U.S. Billboard 200. making Spears the only female music artist to have her first five albums go to number one and two.
This demonstrates another important point: attacking pop culture as degraded or advocating a revolutionary seizure of the State is as futile as trying to decapitate a hydra. It also repeats the drama of mysogyny, you can't hate on the "whore of Babylon," who's busy bailing out your banks and subsidizing your student loans and mortgages. The contradiction of shameless autophagy -- Kronos eating his children -- is simply how late capitalism works when value is abstracted into 1s and 0s. Fag bashing, woman-hating or smashing the capitalist State, is also the very engine of fame, the very life blood of our current stage of capitalism. Britney's "disastrous" performance also propelled another budding starlet to fame, the uncanny Chris Crocker
"What you don't realize is that [Capitalism] is making you all this money and all you do is write a bunch of crap about her!"
You Still Want a Piece of Miss American Dream?
Still, in 2007 rearranging the chairs on the Titanic appeared fun, glamorous and sexy! Love her or hate her, the mouthpiece of late capitalism will preemt your criticism:
I'm Miss bad media karmaSide Note: in the post-production of the bathroom dance scene, Britney's body required some special effects wizardry. They thinned her waistline. She's still an "exceptional earner," so you better "Tighten your belts!"
Another day another drama
Guess I can't see the harm
In working and being a mama
And with a kid on my arm
I'm still an exceptional earner
And you want a piece of me
I'm Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous
(You want a piece of me)
I'm Mrs. Oh my God that Britney's Shameless
(You want a piece of me)
I'm Mrs. Extra! Extra! this just in
(You want a piece of me)
I'm Mrs. she's too big now she's too thin
(You want a piece of me)
LESSON NO. 4 Capitalism will always be "misses she's too big now she's too thin."
2008: Reprieve, or "Lovegame" of Failed Utopias?
I want to kiss youWhere did she learn that fist gesture?
But if I do then I might miss you, babe
It's complicated and stupid
Still got love for all those suits on a plane (not to be confused with Snakes on A Plane)? Maybe if we just follow the Leninist revolutionary script and nationalize those "mothafuckin' [suits] on a mothafukin plane" the world would be a better place! Unfortunately, this is still the libidinal project of most Marxists. Jameson argued in an NLR piece titled "Politics of Utopia" that utopia was "structured like desire." Utopian projects, and capitalism is not exempt from this, begin to work precisely when the impossible object of desire has failed, when it is realized as unattainable. The divine Lady GaGa has realized this, however, in her long nights cabareting on the Lower East Side, she probably never had the time to read Jameson's 2004 essay. The love affair with late capital is a game, a "lovegame" to be precise. The libidinal economy is just as real as the so called "real economy."
Why hasn't the left followed Samuel L. Jackson's lead and just blow a hole in the plane, take the whole thing down? Why are we still debating where the chairs on the Titanic should be placed? Perhaps your ass is still "squeezed by sexy cupid"?
LESSON NO. 5: Capitalism says, "I wanna take a ride on your disco stick." But it also gives us a fair warning.
"It always starts the sameThe stakes of this lovegame are pretty high considering the emminent likelihood of a premature capitalist ejaculation. "Green shoots" the media tells us! Maybe this toxic cumshot can "green wash" our mode of production. Maybe capitalism could make babies with the environmental movement and produce a new legion of working class proletarians, working in some new "green collar economy." Capitalism -- much like Sappho's dialectical line about Eros -- is always "bittersweet":
with a boy and a girl and a *grunt* game
"Maybe three seconds is enough
For my heart to quit it?"
The Current Conjuncture
Britney's 2009 album is appropriately titled Circus. A previous generation of Brazilian radicals in the psychedelic Tropicalia scene (Os Mutantes) called the phenomenon of reactionary bourgeois consciousness "Panis e Circensis" (Bread and Circuses) to harken back to the gladitorial spectacle of Ancient Rome
Substituting "markets" for dancefloor and Briney's first person pronoun for the Ich of Capital is instructive :
I feel the adrenaline moving through my veins
Spotlight on me and I'm ready to break
I'm like a performer, the [market] is my stage
Better be ready, hope that you feel the same
Ms. Spears lesson for Leftists of 2009?
"There's only two types of guys out thereThe lumpen so satyrized by Marx in 18th Brumaire have "claws and teeth" to appropriate the presocratic fable Aristotle recounts of the hares and the lions. Louis Napoleon may have been a circus clown, but he became the ring leader of the 2nd Empire.
Ones that can hang with me
And ones that are scared
So, baby, I hope that you
I run a tight ship
The symptom of Capitalism in crisis: "Everybody let go, we can make a [market] just like a circus."
The prescription for the Left: "Don't stand there watching me, follow me, show me what you can do"
Thus: Spectacular, capitalism as the obsessional repetition of the farce of 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, or rather a single track that keeps skipping. We are all lumpen swamp creatures, swimming in the muckety-muck of late capital. Raking the muck around isn't likely to do much to tidy things up.
During the fire dance sequence at the end of "Circus" anyone else having flashbacks to "Oops I Did It Again"?
How to avoid the mistakes of failed revolutions?
How to not let capitalism "do it again" to our hearts, and our Utopian imaginary? Is the Odysseus strategy for dealing with these syren songs of late capitalism is the best remedy: Tie your ass down to the mast of the ship, put plugs in your sailor buddies' ears, and listen to the music? Perhaps.
Bob Fosse's 1973 (See Prelude) masterpiece Cabaret, which is incidentally set in the Weimar Republic 1931, before the ascent of Hitler may prove instructive. Sing it Liza !
The daughter dressed in the garb of her mother! Marx would have had a field day with that!
However, we leftists should all have so much courage to perform our contradictions so fully and so nakedly, to confront them in such a way that we can heroically overcome them. This is the heart of the materialist dialectic pioneered by Marx. I've chosen figures who are ostentatiously female or faggy for all of these posts because I think we need to submit the vitriolic attack on lumpen to a dialectical critique. To observe that many Marxists are homophobic or misogynist is to state a commonplace: politically this troublesome libidinal structure is suicide. Hating capitalism, or hating petty bourgeois culture for its glitter and frills will get you nowhere. She's still the sexiest thing in the room. These women (and men) have been put on the sacrificial altar of capitalism, as superstars, as scapegoats on which we can heap our scorn and hatred of the system when they stumble and fall, when their waist lines grow or become too thin. To think dialectically is to embrace the tactical opportunities of the spectacle. We need sexier propaganda and more tripped out Utopian dreams. The Left should sit down on Lady GaGa's "disco stick" for a while. I'm convinced that we can learn from mistresses.
In a position he has named "anti-anti-Utopianism," Jameson subjects the concept of Utopia to a rigorously immanent critique or a determinate negation in order to extract truth from the ideologies of the various utopias and their detractors. He writes, "what these utopian oppositions allow us to do is, by way of negation, to grasp the moment of truth of each term. Put the other way around, the value of each term is differential, it lies not in its own substantive content but as an ideological critique of its opposite number." A truly rigorous dialectical thought about a particular utopia requires that we acknowledge its position as a partial or ideological view of society as a whole, and that no utopian discourse is exempt from this. He continues, "[a]nother way of thinking about the matter is the reminder that each of these utopias is a fantasy, and has precisely the value of a fantasy -- something not realized and indeed unrealizable in that partial form."
So what is Jameson's prescription for the failed utopias of the left, in our era of rétrenchment?
The boredom or dryness that has been attributed to the utopian text, beginning with More, is thus not a literary drawback nor a serious objection, but a very central strength of the utopian process in general. It reinforces what is sometimes called today democratization or egalitarianism, but that I prefer to call plebeianization: our desubjectification in the utopian political process, the loss of psychic privileges and spiritual private property, the reduction of all of us to that psychic gap or lack in which we all as subjects consist, but that we all expend a good deal of energy on trying to conceal from ourselves.
"Model railroads of the mind," Jameson writes, "these utopian constructions convey the spirit of non-alienated labour and of production far better than any concepts of écriture or Spiel" (pp. 40-41).
Another world is possible. A city of thousands is built every year in the "spirit of non-alienated labour." 1986: Inspired by the anarchist concept of creating "temporary autonomous zones," the Cacaphony Society built a laboratory for utopias at Baker Beach in San Francisco with a mere 20 people. At it's peak population in 2008, 49,599 people arrived to tinker with the supposedly "natural" "objective" reality of the the world. This city is not about performing some subjective écriture; there is no audience. People come there for the purpose of building "model railroads of the mind," and to experience a "loss of psychic privileges and spiritual private property." Stop spending all that energy trying to hide from your psychic gap, your Lacanian lack.
Mae West, born in 1893 in the now hipster neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn, New York, and living to the ripe old age of 87 once quipped, "say anything you want about me so long as you mention my name." The left should try being a brazen hussy for a change.
Fredrich Nietsche once said, " I have certainly seen more men destroyed by the desire to have a wife and child and to keep them in comfort than I have seen destroyed by drink or harlots."
LESSON NO. 6: Kill the asshole boyfriend, kill the husband, kill the father, burn your God (ie. money). "He" was the problem all along. Only then will you learn how to start building utopian erector sets and "model railroads of the mind."
Did you catch the dialectical reversal hidden within the Lady GaGa "Paparazzi" video? She actually reverses the narrative structure after all those fantastic dance numbers: She dons the costume of the battered wife who tricks the spectacle into thinking that she has forgiven him for having pushed her off a balcony. As if! Dressed literally as mini-mouse, or mickie mouse in drag, she assasinates the paparazzi and fashion models who got you to consume her image.
I'll let the would be assassain of late capitalism speak for herself:
"Im your biggest fan
I'll follow you until you love me
Baby there's no other superstar
You know that i'll be your