November 9, 2007

The Subject's Alienation via the Spectacle


The alienation of the spectator, which reinforces the contemplated objects that result from his own unconscious activity, works like this: The more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.
- Guy de Bord


My post was inspired by our reading Society of the Spectacle for this week's class. It concerns what de Bord says about the subject's alienation from the image of contemplation. But I thought the principle might be used to rebuff the the argument from demand.

Guy de Bord argues [Thesis #30] that the subject's alienation from the image happens thus:

  1. the more we contemplate the objects which the spectacle places before us, the less we live
  2. the less we live, the more we realize our dependence upon the image (object of contemplation offered by spectacle)
  3. the more dependent we become, the less we understand our own desires and existence
  4. the less we understand, the more our gestures become not our own but those represented to us by others

In it's essence, the argument from demand is that all tv is simply audience driven: producers will air whatever gets people to sit still for advertising spots. Through continuous surveillance - polling and ratings - there is a constant feedback loop of communication that insures the audience gets exactly what it wants. In the case of reality tv - perhaps the latest and greatest target for those concerned with the cultural decline (always) being precipitated by television - it follows that the reason there are so many reality shows is that it is what the people want. What could be more rational, democratic, and, well, capitalist?

However, the argument from demand fails to take into account the cycle and circuit de Bord lays out here. The subject, classically understood, is such by being such—it is what it is because of what it does and can do.

Contemplation (Descarte's cogito ergo sum) has traditionally been at the heart of philosophical conceptions of subjectivity. Through contemplation we think ourselves - it is the primary scene of our subjectivity's enactment. We contemplate what is available to us (first premise). And while that may once have consisted of the "real social activity" of which our lives are comprised, or maybe the great speeches of the agora, or (more recently) great books like Descarte's Meditations, under the conditions of spectacular society, the stuff of contemplation consists of the images TV gives us.

The more we contemplate the images put before us, the more dependent we become on these objects of contemplation for the realization of our subjectivation (second premise). The more dependent we become, the less capable we are of understanding our own desires and existence (third premise). That is, we become separated from our own desires and the concrete potentiality of our real existence and the social activity in which it obtains. The less we understand, the more our “gestures”—the acts through which we realize ourselves as social subjects—become not our own but those represented to us by others (fourth premise).

Thus are television audiences’ “demands” not those that arise from any sort of authentic engagement with a lifeworld, not from a particular world-view of individuals arising from lived experience, nor even from communities which might be thought to comprehend what they want authentically and then express it (through polls, through viewing choices, through text-messages to American Idol). Those demands become increasingly those which the televisual spectacle supplies.

The consequence is a serious twist on the argument from demand. Television does indeed gives us what we want. Not in the sense of supplying us with the content we truly demand, but in the sense of supplying us with the demand.

9 comments:

brett said...

I don't know if this example is an appropriate illustration for what you mean, but when i read Debord, notions of separation, and alienation by the spectacle, i thought about the installation of television sets in prisoners' cells rather than just recreation rooms. Television is a field where you are powerless to intervene, as Virilio (1994) suggested. "As one prisoner put it when asked about the changes: 'Television makes being in jail harder. You see all you're missing out on, everthing you can't have" (p.65).

Paul Virilio. (1994). The Vision Machine

Dan said...

Personally, I think the best illustration for this discussion would be that great piece of cinematic genius know as "The Cable Guy" (hopefully someone picks up on the sarcasm). Clearly Jim Carey's character in that movie is someone so engrossed in TV that he has no grasp on reality at all.

My concern with this whole argument though is the purpose TV serves. I can understand the downward spiral that can arise from an over dependence, but how does the news or sports programming play into this? Clearly these are two types of programs that actually are reality, more than American Idol. In the case of watching a football game, even though you are not physically present at the game, you are still sharing the reality of it.

Secondly, do we have to look at the escape from reality provided by this idiot box as a bad thing? I have a few programs that I really enjoy watching because of the fact that they are unrealistic and allow me to escape everything for a half or hour. In this case, the disconnect isn't perceived as a hindrance on my grasp of reality, but as a means of letting your mind relax.

I'm not trying to play devil's advocate, but it appears that this particular thesis exists in excessive or rare circumstances, such as Brett's example of TV in prison rooms.

George said...

I both agree and disagree with Dan's points. On the one hand, I do feel as though a discussion of "the society of the spectacle" is overly concerned with television and other modern spectacles, and is a yet another lament on the loss of human "authenticity." An authenticity or realness that may, in many respects, never have existed in the first place. Consider the Greeks and the first dramatic plays. These stories were taken from mythology and made into creative enactments.
Could we not determine that as a spectacle as well? Were not these plays referent to another set of referents, that of gods and goddesses who were abstracted from forces of nature as experienced through the already symbol-laden understanding of humans. Could we not trace spectacle back to the tribal humans telling stories of ancestors, magical beings, or animals, the understandings of which often blended into one another anyhow (consider the Greek myths where Zeus turns himself into animals in order to seduce young women or men, or the animal/human hybrids such as Ra and Set worshiped by the Egyptians. Even modern Christianity is rife with ritual and metaphorical claims as to what the divine is, i.e. referring to Jesus as the lamb of God, or referring to God the father as "the rock").
On the other hand, I disagree with referring to the news or sports as essentially more real than reality television. While there may be a shared experience, labeling that experience as "real" is problematic. As the de Bord quote notes, the individuals both in the news and in sports are not enacting their own actions, but rather, are enacting the gestures and words of those who came before.
This returns me to my original point and agreement. Perhaps the world was and is, as Shakespeare notes, a stage on which we must inevitably take a bow. We are all, whether intending or not, re-enacting the same gestures as the unoriginal others (whether parents, teachers, or media pundits) we learned them from.
When Guy de Bord writes "The more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires" he makes several implicit assumptions about what it means to truly live, and where intellectual endeavor fits into the scheme.
I personally think (and recognize the potential unpopularity of such a position) that humanity always has and always will be involved in the arduous and frightening task of making sense of a world whose "reality" often escapes us. However, we need not appeal to a "reality" in order to live, which is tremendously important when considering our ability as human beings to define ourselves.

Through A Retina Darkly said...

Perhaps I can help a little with the authenticity question. According to marxism (and this is perhaps overly simple) the "real conditions of social existence" are the actual economic relations of production. Actual practice refers to the material (in this sense) practice through which people engage in economic activity - making your own food for example, or trading that food to someone who has wool for clothing, etc.

Ideology, in this scheme, is a 'camera obscura': it obscures and distorts these real relations and conditions of existence. The commodification of labor, for example, seperates you from your actual existence: instead of raising and selling/trading your own food, you work for an hourly wage in a factory farm, for which you are paid, then you go to a store and buy the very things you were probably raising on the factory farm at a price in excess of the actual cost of your labor and the resources that produced that food. That is, the food becomes a commodity too, and now has an exchange value that exceeds the use value and the cost of its production. This excess makes the owners of the factory farm exceedingly wealthy. But you, poor laborer, are alienated, seperated from your labor. That alienation is exactly why they are getting richer and you never will.

But in terms of my example of tv, I think De Bord's point is interesting. First, your looking, even when you are 'escaping' your life, entertaining yourself, etc., becomes a form of labor. By sitting there and taking it in, you are actually working for the broadcast company by being a warm body watching commercials. But it is fully alienated, in the same way as your work life and labor are alienated.

These shows, by the way, are not produced and aired because NBC or ESPN loves you and wants you to be happy, it is because they want to get you to sit still for the advertising. What is more, the more you attend to the spectacular image, the more alienated you become (the less you live). The less you live, the more dependent you become, the more dependent, the less you understand your unalienated life, and the less you understand it, the more emptied your life becomes.

The goal of the Situationists was to turn the spectacular against itself. They called this "detournment," and in essence it involved taking over the apparatus and images of the spectacle and making them into weapons of resistance. Think mystery science theater 3000, only political.

At least, that is my read...

And what is really going to bake your noodle later is this: would you even need to 'escape' if you weren't feeling all alienated after a long day at the office? And how often do you have to escape escaping in ways which also involve consuming commodities...?

Through A Retina Darkly said...

The Vision Machine....nice! I think we should read a bit of that for our next class....let me work on that...

Meg said...

But on a more simplier note..televison has become a way of life and culture..(look at all the mob movies and the huge audinece that was swept away by the Sopranos.)..look at the shows (some of us) grew up on..and for some the "reality" of television was perhaps better than our own home life so is "escaping so bad?"
Couldn't we view the advertisements as a way of learning (at least in the advertising classes?) look at the Superbowl?!!
Television can be evil as well, though, (especially when kids act out the wrestling moves resulting in the death of a sibling.)

Dan said...

Even when you simplify things, looking at advertisements as a way of learning still comes from what society wants us to learn. Even as I type this, I'm watching an ad telling me to fly Southwest airlines. In that sense then, we don't choose what we learn from ads, ads choose what we are to learn. This is as true today as it will be on Superbowl Sunday.

I guess what really gets me is Gordon's comment about the more you view a spectacular image, the less you live. How would you define living in this sense? Personally, I take time out of my day to watch my favorite sports teams and I still feel like I am living.

brett said...

dan, you're living vicariously. As a spectator, you are not living the game as though you were playing it. You are detached in the sense that you have an objective vew of the game that the playeres could never see. Your spectatorship doesn't influence anything that is happeing on the field. You're a scopophiliac. well, perhaps not, but i've always wanted to write that word...

Dan said...

Brett...yeah...so many things that I could say right now...but...right...