welcome to the desert
In the net art and critical theory communities, Society of the Spectacle has seen a sudden renewal of popularity this past year. Published in 1967, the visual metaphor of “the spectacle” detailed therein has only become less bizarre and more disquietingly relatable with time. To Guy Debord and his movement, the spectacle is agglutinated capital, piled up until it solidifies into an image. It has specific forms— advertisement, content, entertainment—and a general one—the permanent and omnipresent realization of our social and economic system. The spectacle is not merely a simulacrum that “covers the entire surface of the world”. Ever-more thickly layered as it mutates and reproduces itself, the spectacle becomes the world we interact with.
This image, unfolded and papered across our lives, forms its own occult diagram, replete with arcane symbols (brand logos) and esoteric prophecy (consumer profiles). Here, the self is understood not by the order of the heavens, but by the ordinance of consumption. Debord portrayed the human effect of the spectacle as a blending of the personal and the commercial. This is a banal observation in 2016, when the purchase and use of commodities as a primary way to construct our identities is utterly normalized. To comprehend its pervasiveness and scale, we must catalog the ways in which meaning in our lives is mapped to the consumption of goods.
An easy-to-spot subsystem is what might be called “techno-spiritualism.” Collective identity, formerly achieved through the worship of gods (the symbol for god is “star” in Mesopotamian cuneiform), is today consummated through the worship of computation. Each spring and fall, ceremonial assemblies come together to prostrate themselves at corporate cathedrals. This custom begins with a rumbling murmur in anticipation of new miracles, which rolls and boils into a convulsive moment, a “fervent exaltation” of a product’s release. The keynote is the new sermon. Finally, the inevitable, purgative act of purchase completes the cycle. Contentment is not derived from actual use of iPads, Dyson inventions, crowdfunded IoT devices fighting for their 30 days of fame. Association with and allegiance to brands becomes an internal self-defining act, while participating in the ritual of consumption itself becomes the goal and the external signifier of personal identity. In this scheme, there is no act worth more respect than joining the clergy. To become an entrepreneur, to dedicate oneself in mind and body to the creation and disruption of new markets, is to be celebrated.
In other ways, the body is already subservient to computation: mass media sustain themselves by fracking attention from our facial orifices. But the true battle for the personal meaning is fought on psychological ground. Even as supposedly progressive groups and self-help gurus champion ideas like “radical self-love,” the beneficiary of self-care seems increasingly removed from people themselves. For the privileged, self-care is undertaken through acts of ever-increasing isolation, marketization, and aestheticization. “Wellness” is the central phraseology of this project. This all-encompassing and self-justifying vernacular enables the sale of everything from kale and SoulCycle to company-sponsored kickboxing classes and stay-cations. The content marketer’s suggestion that eating “a snack with some good protein and lean fats” can “calm your mind from stress” is a perfect example of consumption masquerading as emotional health. Similarly, the tech leader’s evangelization of meditation is an anarcho-capitalist ploy for ultimate productivity disguised as spiritual enlightenment.
Those who prosper within this system of meaning become more and more image-like themselves, called to become the new aesthetics. The mind is made whole by ingesting “clean” non-GMO foods. The conscience is cleared by surrounding oneself with minimalist goods, then dispersing them with periodic Kondo purges. The poor, jobless, and homeless face worse fates. Although global finance capital produced the systems which in many cases caused this plight, its victims are branded “irrational actors.” Institutionalisation and imprisonment is the price for failing to submit to and reflect back the duplicitous story that meaning and contentedness is within one’s own personal control. Ranciere tells us that politics and aesthetics share the ability to delimit the visible and invisible; if the spectacular self is an aesthetic being, then our society’s demarcation of personhood excludes and silences those who literally cannot afford to maintain a self-image.
If this view of our own world is overwhelming, alien, yet nauseating familiar, it has done its work. Here is an entire ontology which forces itself on us, envelops and penetrates us, and coerces us to accept it on its own terms. Within it, the persona is merely subject to the movement of markets. This too is a map of the self, a spectaclist topography by which we navigate personal and inter-personal space. But unlike modern astrology, this system takes itself totally seriously. Meditation, exercise, and an abundance of trendy “superfoods” are frequently offered as actual ways for individuals to adapt themselves in response to the challenges posed by neoliberal capitalism. Here we find that magical thinking has not been retired, but is in full force. The notion that purchasing items with surface-level signifiers like minimalism or “fair-trade” has some correlated virtuous effect in the self is as silly of a proposition as your call getting dropped because Mercury is in retrograde.
Can we say that this world is rational? That computational devices are free of ideology or that materialism is irreligious? By now it should be obvious that we cannot. The surface-level infallibility of these ideas may be comfortable but they are neither pure nor factual. They too are just systems of meaning—social productions whose acceptance as “objective” fact are culturally determined. Retreating to self-determination and scientism allows the twisted logic of the spectacle, no more sensical than that of the mystical, go unobserved and unchallenged. The ancients believed the universe operated according to mysterious divine principle. But neoliberalism is the ultimate cabalistic regime of power. From the trivial to the highest level of abstraction, from how we hold our pencils to how we define personhood, its designs are immaculate, unknowable, unaccountable.