Spectacle and the Public Sphere

June 16, 2007


Part I

What can we say about Giorgio Agamben’s ontological account of spectacle in Means without Ends? I’m referring particularly to his “Marginal Notes on Commentaries on Society of the Spectacle,” although traces of his engagement appear in other parts of this book, particularly in the essays “Notes on Gesture” and “Notes on Politics.” My suspicion is that, by defining spectacle, rightly, as “the commodity’s last metamorphosis, in which exchange value has completely eclipsed use value and can now achieve the status of absolute and irresponsible sovereignty over life in its entirety, after having falsified the means of production (75),” Agamben gives himself, wrongly, a pass to ignore production and value entirely, as if, in spectacle, capitalism had become solely the production of ontological and onto-communicative conditions without need for a recourse to economics, as if domination (“sovereignty over life”) had replaced exploitation as the chief face of capitalism’s brutality.

This is not my reading of Debord, nor is it what I see from when I can bear to look, although it is the path that Baudrillard beat before Agamben. [One of the things that I plan for this blog is a reading of key Marxist and post-Marxist texts that, contrary to the post-Althusserian drift of the day, keep the economic sphere central to any analysis of capitalism.] It’s worth noting here that Agamben himself stresses the importance of Debord’s extension of the commodity fetish against Althusser’s abandonment of it.

If in Capital Vol. 1, Marx defines exchange value as the impingement of the social totality–which assigns value to the commodity–upon any transaction of exchange, the dominance of spectacle represents the historical moment where the hijacking of this value-assigning totality by capital itself allows for the creation of value completely independent of social needs, of use. But this does not mean the disappearance of the mode of production as primary. Only that agents that had traditionally been considered superstructural–politics, culture, etc.–can directly create and reinforce those means of production, rather than merely re-produce them. Exploitation and domination fold into each other. This is what Debord refers to, wittily, as “the falling rate of use value” (thesis 47 in Soc. of the Spec.). Again, decline in use value does not mean the disappearance of use, but the disappearance of its primacy, where value is no longer decided completely by social needs but by a structure of cultural command. The value–and this is real value, connected to real labor–created by appearance, the work of seeming-to-be or seeming-to-have which certain people produce and certain other people consume, requires that traditional modes of production (outsourced, as we all know, to primary and secondary producers in the developing world: look at the label on whoever it is that’s wearing the pants here) generate the value which the consumers of “seeming” utilize. Spectacle marks the moment when exploitation itself becomes a social need rather than the manner by which these social needs are satisified.

Perhaps the above is not yet clear enough. I don’t feel that I’ve completely articulated the nuances yet, or even the broad strokes, only that, as this blog continues, I will continue to describe the economic sphere and the persistence of the commodity form against the prevalent ontological, discursive or, for my taste, overly structural accounts of capitalism.

All that said, I think there is much that is useful in Agamben’s account of spectacle. First of all, his Heideggerianism has a distinct advantage here in that it wards off a technicist reading of spectacle. [see, for instance, “The Question Concerning Technology”]. Many interpreters of spectacle fall victim to its peculiar twist on the commodity fetish—seeing as a stable image and as the production of images what is, in fact, a social relation; or alternately, seeing as the result of a social relation what is, in fact, the production of social relations. Spectacle is not the manufacture of illusions, but of illusory relations. Hence, Agamben’s turn to language and to communicativity or, as the case may be, non-communicativity, for an account of spectacle:

“It is evident, after all, that the spectacle is language, the very communicativity and linguistic being of humans. This means that an integrated Marxian analysis should take into consideration the fact that capitalism . . . not only aimed at the expropriation of productive activity, but also, and above all, at the alienation of language itself, of the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings, of that logos in which Heraclitus identifies the common. The extreme form of the expropriation of the Common is the spectacle, in other words, the politics in which we live. But this also means that what we encounter in the spectacle is our very linguistic nature inverted. For this reason (precisely because what is being expropriated is the possibility of a common good), the spectacle’s violence is so destructive; but for the same reason, the spectacle still contains something like a positive possibility–and it is our task to use this possibility against it.” (81-82)

Spectacle, then, is communicative, intersubjective activity that becomes aestheticized, abstracted from the social totality, and that often presents itself as an unmediated—that is, unchanging–totality. Agamben wants to read this as the career of general being toward a nihilistic endpoint in which spectacularized language drifts free from any referent, becoming an end in and of itself. A kind of Derridean or Baudrillardian apocalypse which, as some will know, offers the opportunity for a of détournement. Agamben’s political solution is to make the passive becoming-barren of life, under the ban, the exile from law, a kind of active choice. Not an included exclusion from law, but a real exclusion from law. It’s hard, though, to tell of what the difference between the two might consist.

This is the interpretation that, as should be clear, I think we must avoid. Here and in the later work around the theme of Homo Sacer, Agamben imagines a space of generalized language, a pseudo-public where capital “has realized parodistically the Marxian project of a classless society” by providing for a global petit-bourgeois the illusion of abundance and satisfactions. Opposed to this public, is the non-public of “whatever singularities” that have no access to self-representation.

What gets lost in this account is the work that the “global petit-bourgeois” actually does. For Agamben, the participants in the spectacle are, it seems to me, simply consumers, rather than producers in the tertiary or quaternary sector of the economy. The task of the spectacle is purely negative; it does nothing. In fact, though, I think it’s more useful to think of the labor of this “petit-bourgeois” who mediate between capital and labor as directly producing the social relations which allow for the extraction of value from those “whatever singularities.” In accounts like Agamben’s it would seem that the world consists entirely of, on the one hand, those who work in offices during the day and watch American Idol at night and, on the other hand, the informal economy of slum-dwellers which Mike Davis describes in Planet of the Slums. There is no way to give an account here of the expansion of the tertiary and quaternary sectors of the economy and the continuing presence of industrial production and the extraction of raw materials.

Agamben’s account is close to Hardt and Negri’s in Empire and, especially, to Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude. I suspect there is a missing intertext, or many of them, as the case may be, that is in dialogue both with Agamben’s notion of the spectacle as an appropriated Common and Virno’s notion of spectacle as a commodification of “general intellect” but I don’t know enough about the left thought in Italy. (Can someone tell me if I’m right and, if so, what the earliest example of this reading of “general intellect” is?). Virno’s account, unlike Agamben’s, doesn’t leave production behind, and in this, is probably one of the better latter-day readings of Debord. I hope to write substantial about the Virno book soon.

Part II

For now, though, I want to propose that Agamben’s account helps us to understand the spectacular nature of web 2.0. As sites for the communication and distribution of information, blogs and social software might seem to resemble the public sphere in its earliest manifestation in the 18th-century. Certainly, this is what was once hopefully imagined for the web, and what they hung under the banner of “information wants to be free” in a phrase that has as much of the terrible neoliberal dialectical of englightenment in it as it has genuine emancipatory valences.

I won’t deny a residual aspect to blogs that serve the above purposes, and confirm the values of discourse, debate and argumentation in accord with rational principles. This happens, no doubt, but what I see more frequently in web 2.0 is a situation where the circulation of information becomes more important than the content of the information itself. In line with Debord’s “falling rate of use value,” there is also a falling rate of content, something that no doubt has to do with the increasingly dematerialized media which this content is asked to traverse. On many blogs, and certainly in MySpace or Facebook, it’s the noun that matters, nouns that fill out the blanks left by the question marks trailing the pseudo-event. No surprise, either, that these nouns are stand-ins for some kind of commodity, or commodity analogue, that can be purchased with a few clicks (where attention, too, can be the entrée to a kind of purchase). Web 2.0 allows for the direct production of social relations, not just their reproduction. It allows for the direct production of value which commodities accrete by passing through the capillarial links and pages.

A better account of this kind of social value production will need to accurately describe the curious kinds of publics that web 2.0 produces. Paolo Virno, for instance, opposes “multitude” to “people,” where the multitude is the private face of the public people, that individual or singular aspect of life that is denied representation by the collective. It is private in the sense of privation. This seems to accurately describe the personalized and often intimate, affect-charged nature of blog discourse with its opportunities, however vitiated, for self-fashioning and self-expression. Blogs are a space for aspects of the self that have no public fora in the increasingly sterile, affect-drained corporate subsectors that masquerade as public space, and offer, in place of individual expression, a series of caricatures and grotesques. (A Grammar of the Multitude, 22-23).

Michael Warner’s essay “Publics and Counterpublics” is also useful here, particularly in the manner in which he distinguishes between the public (as in the people) and a public. The public is a political fiction that exists only as a form of address, and as a legislative subject. What we have instead is a public, and a series of such publics, circuits of self-creating, self-defining discourses that constitute the ever-varying totality of the public. (Public Culture 14:1). However, a public is always tautological; in order to circulate, it must first assume a set of addressees who will only later validate and confirm these presumptions. But the reader, when coming across such a discourse, does not see himself or herself as pre-included by the discourse, and so there is a gap between the presumed addressee and the real one. In order to close this gap and allow for the reader’s identification, a certain type of discourse must pretend that it is addressed to anyone, to strangers. A public must pretend that its audience is the public, while at the same time hinting at the nature of its special set of readers.

In opposition to this form of circulation, a counterpublic encourages the disjuncture between presumed and real addressee. It still must exist in relation to a general public; it is still open to this public on one side, but it is a public that it negates, rather than posits. And, as with Virno’s multitude, Warner’s counterpublics are affectively-charged and expressive.

What does this have to do with web 2.0 and the current post 9-11 form of spectacle? My tentative hypothesis is that the discourse networks of web 2.0 are a-publics that do not presume the public, do not presume the generality of the stranger, either by, on the one hand, attempting to address it or, on the other hand, defining themselves in opposition to it. I think the sheer volume of information that consitutes the historical moment, and the inadequacy of the major organs of information circulation (the capital m “Media”), makes the imagination of a singular public impossible. In addition, the mainstreaming of subcultural or oppositional groups, often based upon false or cosmetic differentiators, engenders intense cynicism as to the possibilities for an adequately-forceful oppositionality. You sell out the moment you state an oppositonal claim, not after.

This is to say: here, the public is a-public.

Curiously, here again we note the utopian or pseudo-emancipatory nature of what spectacle provides—a public sphere without any kind of overt hegemony, any kind of repressive or negating social power. A world without a reified entity known as culture, where the aesthetic and para-communicative aspects of sociality seem to have collapsed back into life in general. The death of the aesthetic and the beginning of. . .
The web is a kind of caricature of a post-capitalist world, or a caricature of Debord’s and the SI’s own visions of an emancipatory, non-dominating, non-exploitative society:” “. But, of course, this is to look at the content and not the form. As a structure, as a series of codes, wires practices, the web is about as reified, regulated, and encapuslated as possible.

If, as Debord writes, “The spectacle, whose function it is to bury history in culture, presses the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means into the service of a strategy that defines it in the profoundest sense,” then what we have here is the spectacle of the cultureless culture, in which history is as invisible as the languages beneath the graphical shell of http. Or history is the very activity that the content seem to obscure and supplant. A spectacle of negation, not a negation of the spectacle.

What is to be done? Well, for starters, continue the work of researching and diagramming the kinds of social non-communication which this communicativity masks. And, aside from the critical project, one might remember to affirm the emancipatory wish–however distorted, static or reified–that the internet figures. As with any utopia–aqd I’m borrowing from Fredric Jameson’s work here–it’s usefulness is in pointing out the limits of other ability to think anything other than the system that we have. The internet, then, is a distortion of a real post-capitalist society we cannot imagine how to imagine on the streets.

Meanwhile, though, knowledge is not power, really, is it? It’s entertainment. The library of Alexandria: an amusement park; the fire: part of the ride.