Friday, November 21, 2008

Society of the Spectacle and the Bail Out

Photo taken by 62Lofu (Flickr)

I am pasting 3 paragraphs from an essay written by Doug Kellner and Steve Best in their on line series Illuminations. They are very illuminating.:)

I discovered this website while on a teaching assignment in Bogota, Colombia. On my prep time, after finishing my lesson plans, I would research and print out these essays to read after school.

Kellner taught at University of Texas until a few years ago. He is now at UCLA. Kellner has a brilliant mind and is an expert on critical theory, the Frankfrut School and the Situationists which Guy Debord and Henri Levebvre were involved. They were part of the Dada and surrealist movement among other movements.

This essay fleshes out Debord's ideas presented in his book, The Society of the Spectacle. A very good book by the way. Kellner and Best discuss what is happpening in our society. If you read the whole article (I'll post the link), you will understand how we got to where we are now. We live in a society of the spectacle alongside a bureaucratic society of controlled consumption.

I hope you find this information illuminating.

The spectacular society spreads its narcotics mainly through
the cultural mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services
and entertainment, ruled by the dictates of advertising and
a commercialized media culture. This structural shift to a
society of the spectacle involves a commodification of
previously non-colonized sectors of social life and the
extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure,
desire, and everyday life. Parallel to the Frankfurt School
conception of a "totally administered" or "one dimensional"
society (Adorno and Horkheimer1972; Marcuse 1964), Debord
states that "The spectacle is the moment when the commodity
has attained the total occupation of social life" (#42). Here
exploitation is raised to a psychological level; basic physical
privation is augmented by "enriched privation" of pseudo-needs;
alienation is generalized, made comfortable, and alienated
consumption becomes "a duty supplementary to alienated

The shift to a "bureaucratic society of controlled consumption"
(Lefebvre 1971 and 1991) organized around the production of
spectacles can be seen as the exploitation of use value and
needs as a means of advancing profit and gaining ideological
control over individuals. Unlike early capitalism, where the
structural exigencies lay in the forceful exploitation of labor
and nature, and in defining the worker strictly as a producer,
the society of the spectacle defines the worker as a consumer
and attempts to constitute the worker's desires and needs,
first creating then exploiting them. In this sense, Debord
claims that use value was resurrected as a referent of
production: "In the inverted reality of the spectacle, use
value (which was implicitly contained in exchange value) must
now be explicitly proclaimed precisely because its factual
reality is eroded by the overdeveloped commodity economy and
because counterfeit life requires a pseudo-justification" (#48).
It is not that exchange value no longer dominates, but that use
value is now deployed in an ideological way that exploits the
needs of the new consumer self.

The spectacle not only expands the profits and power of the
capitalist class, but also helps to resolve a legitimation
crisis of capitalism. Rather then vent anger against
exploitation and injustice, the working class is distracted
and mollified by new cultural productions, social services,
and wage increases. In consumer capitalism, the working
classes abandon the union hall for the shopping mall and
celebrate the system that fuels the desires that it
ultimately cannot satisfy. But the advanced abstraction of
the spectacle brings in its wake a new stage of deprivation.
Marx spoke of the degradation of being into having, where
creative praxis is reduced to the mere possession of an
object, rather than its imaginative transformation, and where
need for the other is reduced to greed of the self. Debord
speaks of a further reduction, the transformation of having
into appearing, where the material object gives way to its
semiotic representation and draws "its immediate prestige and
ultimate function" (#17) as image -- in which look, style, and
possession function as signs of social prestige. The production
of objects simpliciter gives way to "a growing multitude of
image-objects" (#15) whose immediate reality is their symbolic
function as image. Within this abstract system, it is the
appearance of the commodity that is more decisive than its
actual "use value" and the symbolic packaging of commodities --
be they cars or presidents -- generates an image industry and new commodity aesthetics (see Haug 1986).

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