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.

November 8, 2007

Shifting Images vs. Encoding/Decoding

Perhaps I am just a little behind the rest of you, but a thought came to me earlier today and I was curious for your opinions. My question is how shifting images are different from encoding and decoding messages. Relating back to Bert and Bin Laden, the meaning of the images clearly shifted among countries, but could this be a result of ambiguous coding by the creator? If this is something that everyone else has already figured out, then sorry, but in all honesty, I am just really curious now...