Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Precis Posted for Pengcheng(Shawn) Liu- Society of the Spectacle

            We live in a world of increasing connectivity. From the global corporations which span across continents, to technology which allows us to see and talk to people half a world away, our all the cultures on earth are now interacting in ways that people not half a century ago would have imagined to be impossible. It seems absurd to think that in such a melting pot of culture and ideas, people could be more separated than ever before. However, according to Guy Debord in "The Society of the Spectacle", our spectacle based society is digging its self into an ever deepening hole of isolation.
            So what is the spectacle? According to Debord, "The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images"(4). One common misconception about the spectacle people have is that the spectacle is merely media we ingest on a day to day basis. However, it is far more than that. The spectacle is a relation. It's hidden in the brand persona companies develop to relate to their consumers. It can be found in the social media sites which have developed into the primary mode of relation between friends, peers, and businessmen. Of course, the first reaction most people have to this is, so what? These relations bring the world together. They are what allow ideas and cultures across continents to mix.
            The reality however, is that this is exactly how the spectacle wants to appear. "The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification...  it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation" (3). The spectacle appears to be an integral part of society. It promises wealth and unity. All of the technological world is abuzz about connecting through 'the cloud', bringing everything together onto the virtual world, able to exist everywhere in the form of images and binary data. Ordinary people can become extraordinary stars on facebook or twitter by accumulating hundreds of friends and followers. Everywhere, the spectacle promises unity and fame, leaving people desperate to get that extra like on facebook, all desperately hoping that their idea can become the next 'viral' thing. However, this connection is a mere shadow of physical connections that could be made in reality. When going virtual, it becomes extremely easy to make false personas, to present a mask to the rest of society. The anonymity of the web, which many wield with impunity to say things they would never dare to say in reality, is the cause of our own downfall. It only makes it easier for us to never expose our true selves to the world.
            Another way to approach the issue of separation through the spectacle is in the way we try to appear before society. "The first stage of the economy's domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having... The present stage is bringing about a general shift from  having into appearing"(17). Before the prominence of economy in society, life was all about being the hunter, the explorer, the one who performed epic deeds. With the ever growing importance of economy, it became enough to simply acquire rare things, luxurious items which could identify you as someone accomplished. Brands were symbols of power, by owning a brand, you automatically become someone successful and powerful despite not attaining the career or goals you set for yourself earlier in life. With social media, who we are is no longer an issue. We can create whatever appearance we want to others. Through technology, we now have a barrier between ourselves and other both of space and of time. It matters not how we truly feel because in a virtual conversation, we can spend minutes rather than seconds coming up with the perfect reply. We can edit our pictures to appear more beautiful, our status to appear more interesting. What matters is not how good of a friend we are, or how many good friends and meaningful conversations we have. The only thing that matters is the number of friends, likes, and followers that make us appear to be popular important people.
            Of course, the spectacular problem we face isn't just related to social media. This problem is found in all layers of society. "The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation... the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons of for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender 'lonely crowds'"(28). With modern technology, the process of production can be isolated and automated, removing the human aspect. As step by step of the process is automated, as improved transportation technologies allow individual parts to be manufactured on separate continents, commodities lose their human component. No longer can we go to a local butcher and see the butcher slice up a massive carcass. Instead we walk down the sterile frozen aisle with prepackaged meat, picking out food that was probably decimated by a cold unfeeling machine. Of course, in order to alleviate the feeling of separation, companies come up with branding. Instead of relating to a faceless organization composed of committees of businessmen deciding on marketing strategies, we get to see a cute little cartoon pig, a friendly average-joe consumer, or some other ridiculous mascot recommend the quality of the brand based on their own personal experience.
            According to Debord, "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle"(25). Though modern spectacle appear to bring us together, the connections we experience aren't as deep as the physical interactions in reality. "When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings - figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior"(18). Because all the media and relations in society appear to us as images, these images become our reality. We can now make do with skype calling a friend rather than meeting up at a cafe. Brand images are enough to replace the human behind production. Because these images are all we know, we accept them as our reality. But in the end, this reality is a mere figment, a shadowy relation that is the spectacle.


Cheyenne Overall said...

I did enjoy this discussion of the Society of the Spectacle. I particularly liked your discussion of the problem of "appearance" in the spectacle that is particularly reproduced in the way that people present themselves online. I wonder personally about the material effects of that on society. Does it do any obvious harm? Good? The goal of appearance as surrogate achievement has really been made available specifically by capitalism and technology. Sometimes I think it's a sort of therapeutic response to some people's harsh realities produced by these conditions. Other times I think differently...idk just philosophizing. lol Thanks for this!

Dale Carrico said...

I'm a bit breathless at the range of ideas you are trying to cover here, from paragraph to paragraph you raise topics any one of which could have provided the substance of a precis. You may be interested to know that Debord published a short volume "Comments on the Society of the Spectacle" twenty years later in which he began to adapt his theories to emerging computer networks (not yet sufficiently like our own internet and social media to provide an adequate critique, but there are prescient comments). I also think there are places here in which you might be better thought to be engaging with Naomi Klein as an adapter of Debordian theory to the digital media age. Although your subsequent analysis suggests you would sympathize with this point, I would warn at the outset against accepting the terms on which the networked social sphere markets itself to us -- as you give us ample reason to suspect, there is little reason to accept that "we live in a world of increasing connectivity" unless connectivity is a word that denotes disconnection or reduction. Debord's point, like Marx's, that in their mediation by commodities and images (respectively) the reality of social and historical relations between humans who share a time and place in being is disavowed, misrecognized as relations among commodities or images. The specificity of the claims are important here -- in Marx, this misrecognition facilitates an investment in wage slavery in which we accept servitude in the name of free, in Debord, this misrecognition facilitates a rejection of revolutionary emancipation (in the Opium War that generalizes Banjamin's War Machine) at one and the same time that it facilitates a confusion of judgment with consumption ("enhanced survival" is more or less Adorno's "manufactured needs" in the Culture Industry, the completion of ready-made cultural formula becomes the citation of legibility-conferring scripts). It's important to be clear about these things, else the rapid movement between topics -- internet stars, virality, isolated people at computers, automation, processed food, hunter-gatherers -- takes on something of the freewheeling quality of a loose conversation that doesn't quite cohere into an analysis. Very enjoyable discussion, lots and lots of provocative entry points. Good stuff.

Theodore H said...

I love your examples of Facebook and the "going viral" phenomenon. Social media has created a hyperreality where qualitative relationships are exchanged for quantitative benchmarks. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who believe that getting a thousand Facebook likes or a million views validates their existence in this world of spectacles.