Two decades after the end of the Nazi regime (though not of its still lingering ideology), Guy Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle. The “spectacle” refers to the inverted representation or “image” of society that substitutes actual social human relationships with the relation between humans and things or commodities. This results in a dehumanizing state of alienation, perpetuated principally by the fascinating, technologically produced images of everything from advertising to art, to music, to entertainment, to news, affecting nearly every aspect of our lives, from the most personal to the political. In the society of the spectacle desires are produced by external sources, information is carefully disseminated, actual experience is supplanted by virtuality, communication is mediated through electronic devices rather than in person, and most dangerously, people are divided from one another, breaking apart community in favor of an isolated, individualized notion of freedom. In defense of this largely consumeristic conception of freedom many atrocities have been committed.
Another two decades later, in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle Debord advances his analysis by delineating the spectacle’s three major manifestations: the concentrated, the diffuse, and the integrated. The first of these forms, the concentrated spectacle, Debord associates with the totalitarian and fascist state and its bloated bureaucracy. The extreme expression of this is the concentration/death camp, which Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer characterizes as the part of the biopolitical paradigm of the modern era. Here one finds the complete inversion of what it is to be human: entire races of people condemned for being different, people treated as cattle, mass death. The specter of that nearly unimaginable horror haunts contemporary society, a jarring reminder of one of the great dangers facing us today. There are certainly other dangers facing us now also almost too terrible to imagine that are equally part of the spectacle, such as nuclear destruction and the rampant environmental abuse of the earth. The diffuse spectacle that is the state of contemporary capitalist society has succeeded in replacing consumer consumption of the whole with competing commodities vying for market dominance. This historical development of the spectacle leads to its current and most insidious form, namely the integrated spectacle, which combines the first two forms, using the police and military might of the concentrated spectacle to preserve and serve the interests of the diffuse spectacle. All this is done to concentrate power and capital in the hands of the few.
The society of the spectacle is reinforced and perpetuated via its relation to silence. Visually and audially stimulating, and at times overwhelming, the spectacle induces a form of passive silence that exposes not only the individual but the social whole to the most shocking and violent actions, even to the point of condoning at times those very actions. Moreover, it does so without either realizing the full extent of the injustice or, in the worst instances, believing it is for the common good having been influenced completely by the spectacularly produced images and language of truth and goodness. The silence in question here is squashed by the dizzying, dazzling display of the spectacle, which serves to screen and filter dissent and opposition by the sheer onslaught of continual propagandized messages packaged as entertainment and onto-theological-political truth. In other words, by reducing the voices of the many to silence by promoting the interests of the few, of a vague and anonymous they (one need only think of Donald Trump’s vacuous and repetitious appeal to an illusory authority, “All I’m saying is, many people are saying...”), the spectacle is able to spin the legitimate concerns of the authentic plurality, even majority, into irrelevance if they contest the produced messages of those who control the spectacle machinery.
Addressing the phenomenon of the spectacle, which for Debord signifies the estranged modes of communication in industrialized societies, Agamben extends the meaning of spectacle to include not just images but also language. The attempt to reduce large swaths of humanity to the status of homines sacri, those who are accursed, to perfect the mechanization of mass death, is to impose an utter silence that not only negates language but also produces nonresistance. Agamben observes, “The extreme form of this expropriation of the Common [which was first mentioned by Heraclitus in relation to the logos] is the spectacle, that is, the politics we live in. But this also means that in the spectacle our own linguistic being comes back to us inverted. This is why (precisely because what is being expropriated is the very possibility of a common good) the violence of the spectacle is so destructive; but for the same reason retains something like a positive possibility that can be used against it.” The violence of the spectacle reaches its consummate stage by inverting the form of the common good—that is, the logos of communal interchange—into the degenerate manifestation of nothingness: the repression of freedom and development, the silencing of dissent, and the enslavement of mind and body. The inverted being is the image and the word of the spectacle now experienced as the imposition of silence on the masses, resulting in the “figure of Bloom.” Although Bloom is the name of nihilistic being, it is also the locus of transformative, revaluative overcoming, the possibility of conversion from either a passive or an active nihilism into a liberating ecstatic nihilism.
Modern cities have been appropriated by capitalism, writes Debord in The Society of the Spectacle, as a means of controlling not only the natural and human environment but also as a means by which class interests and power can be maintained precisely through atomizing and isolating workers from one another by massing them together. The technology of the present-day has only reinforced urbanism as essentially “individuals isolated together.” Today, the instantaneous result and gratification of computer technology and mass audio-video media is steadily replacing direct face-to-face interaction with the phenomenon of the spectacle. The “opposite of dialogue,” the spectacle is not just an amalgam of images but rather a ghostly mediation, “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.”
Debord’s negative appraisal of the spectacular urbanized society reinforces the need to deconstruct the alienating power of the fascinating, technologically produced image. How society and the earth in general is viewed will be increasingly shaped and manipulated by those in control of the spectacle. Although of a different order and intensity, whether it is the flagrant violence of the fascist totalitarian spectacle, or contemporary capitalist society’s elevation of the spectacle to the level of the aesthetic, there is a parallel structure or logic at play, one that conceals in the spectacular silence of the image and the word the trampling of the ethical and political rights of countless people. As history has shown time and again, the defeat of an extreme, destructive violent politics does not preclude the possibility of similar violence from arising. The power of the spectacle lies in its transmuting fluidity and flux.
If all appears to be fine in the world then people will just assume that it is fine, and therefore will not be generally motivated to take up any sort of sociopolitical action to ensure that the real concrete needs of the world are being met. Real space will be replaced “in the everyday life of society as pseudo-cyclical time,” which is time transformed by industrialized society into a consumable product. Pseudo-cyclical time is the time of the spectacle, according to Debord, which is “in effect a false consciousness of time.” What does this mean with respect to silence? Silence and the word form a union, and the rhythmic relation between them determines meaning as much as does linguistic content. When in the spectacular society time becomes a source of alienation and a means of control, so also does silence become a power of estrangement. Not only one’s bodily existence but one’s own thinking confronts the self as alien, at odds with the produced for consumption of meaning through images and words. “And what has been passed off as authentic life turns out to be merely a life more authentically spectacular.” This results in a “spatial alienation,” which is also to say a “social alienation” that severs any meaningful contact between the subject and the community, between the individual and the natural world. The sense of being at home, of feeling interconnected with others and with the earth itself that one experiences as an individual in the silent solitude of thought is threatened through the rupture of that silence by the external forces of produced desire and signification, resulting in a peculiar schizophrenia, as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari observe.
Contemporary technology is increasingly bound to this manufactured and manipulated sense of time, which is inseparable from the phenomenon of speed, a topic on which Paul Virilio has offered much reflection, manifest in the fact that time is now counted as universal world time and that space and time are determined no longer locally but rather globally. As people and technology become ever more intertwined, there is a resulting loss of being in control of the pace, the rhythm, of one’s own existence. What remains as one of the final vestiges of human freedom—the silence of the mind—is transformed by the imposition of an accelerating demand to think, respond, produce, and consume. This pushing aside of a certain type of silence produces another variant of silence—the silence of inaction, which displaces or even nullifies creativity, reflection, resistance, dissent, spirituality, and even rest. In this way the herd, to use Nietzsche’s famous example, is kept under control. The technological alteration of space-time perception immobilizes subjectivity to a certain extent by keeping people bound silently, passively, inactively, to their telecommunication screens while temporally accelerating subjectivity, which is to say, keeping society so transfixed by and absorbed in the ever-moving play of the spectacle that many become oblivious to the fact that the meaning of their existence is being determined externally and not interiorly as everything is moving so fast that there is little or no time to slow down and take stock of what is actually occurring. Virilio shares Debord’s concern about the growing domination of the spectacular image, and repeatedly criticizes the technological alteration of space-time perception. This acceleration leads to a fundamental disconnect not only with others but more insidiously within the subjective self. This is the manifestation, the disclosure, of the unfolding ontology and logic of the society of the spectacle. What is needed to counteract this debilitating acceleration is the cultivation of what Emanuel Swedenborg, Nietzsche, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-François Lyotard term variously the “listening eye,” a perspective that deconstructs the spectacular and calls forth a wholly different orientation to both the self and the other.
In the United States of America everyone has equal rights regardless of race, color, creed or national origin. I am saddened by the current state of affairs that we are experiencing in contemporary society. Just last night upon seeing Donald Trump's face on the national news the person sitting next to me in the room asked me to comment on what he deemed "the problem with all these Islamists in our country." My blood began to boil, I began to find it hard to breathe, and all I could do to remain civil was to get up and walk out of the room and say "I don't like Donald Trump or anything that he stands for."
The truth is I'm no good at public debate. My hands are sweating just typing this. I'm too emotional to have a conversation in person that wouldn't end up with me screaming at the top of my lungs in frustration. But to have someone sitting right next to me try and tell me that this country has a problem because too many Muslims are in it is just so disappointing. The problem America has, and the rest of the world for that matter, is that too many humans kill other humans.
The problem that's bothering me most right now is Islamophobia. Martin Luther King, Jr. said "Never, never be afraid to do what's right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society's punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way" And lately I'm finding that my soul just can't stay quiet anymore.I have a problem with what Trump is encouraging and the behavior of his more fervent supporters. How is it any different than what was happening during the Civil Rights Movement?
When the general public start yelling out violent threats to those they disagree with saying things like "light the mother@!$%#er on fire!" and "seig hail!" and encouraging beat downs by saying they were deserved. That's a huge problem and it isn't going to just go away. As citizens of the United States of America have we already forgotten the heavy price of overcoming segregation? Have we forgotten about the churches being bombed and the innocent people being mistreated, beaten and even killed by our own countrymen?
I wasn't even alive but I haven't forgotten.In America we have already had innocent Muslims die as a direct result of irrational fear that is being perpetuated by the right leaning media. Just last year in Missouri a 15-year-old boy was killed as he exited a mosque. An SUV with the words 'Quran is a virus disease woreste than Ebola (sic)' scrawled on the rear window in white paint rammed into him severing his legs. Abdisama Sheikh-Hussein died in the hospital. This is just one glaring and tragic example of many. Let's get one thing straight right now Islamic extremists are not the only ones doing the senseless killing in America.
Innocent people die every day and that will continue. That man's ignorance goes much further than just bad spelling it resulted in him killing an innocent child and ruining not only his own life but the lives of the victim's family and friends. Hate crimes against Muslims are happening all across the nation, the children of bigots are becoming bigots themselves and there are people in power who are encouraging this behavior. When will it ever end? Why do we allow this type of behavior to go unchecked?
Free speech is being abused and used to incite hate right in our own backyard. The good people of the world can no longer stand by and silently tolerate this behavior. It is our responsibility to uphold the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr, by speaking out and standing up against injustice and encouraging others to do the same. If you are afraid of Muslims, if you are one of those people spreading the hate, if you've ever said you felt like killing a raghead or that all Muslims are terrorists or whatever other hateful sentiment you might be harboring, I beg you, please reconsider your stance.
Please try and find it in your heart to give people a chance before jumping to conclusions about anyone based on their religion or the color of their skin. You aren't protecting America by hating all Muslims. You are making it worse. My whole point of this letter was to remind my friends that racism, bigotry and sexism are still wrong and to state to all of them that I stand for and believe in equal rights for all. And when I say all, that means everyone, regardless of race, religion or color. When we let this kind of hate speech go unchecked and keep our mouths shut to avoid conflict we are contributing to the problem.
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