The Spectacle, the Social Web and You
“The only historically justified tactic is extremist innovation” – Debord & Wolman, A
User’s Guide to Détournement (1956)
I’ve been thinking about the Situationists for about a decade now, after learning of
Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle in some Propagandhi liner notes (I think)
about a decade ago. Sadly, after all that time, I’ve developed no great insights as to
what the hell they were talking about. I mean, I get the gist if that counts for
anything, but I think to really grasp what they’re really getting at, one needs a
graduate seminar and plenty of contextual knowledge. Nevertheless, the shit is damn
brilliant and informs my worldview in many ways (most of which are surely based on
misreading). Since presently, I do what one might call information work, and as a
result have become heavily invested in the web and social networking, I’ll use this
post to share some cool films by the Situationist International (SI), and briefly look at
how the SI’s ideas of spectacle, détournement, and separation apply to the social
Social networks as commodified existence…
I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence toward the Internet, particularly as it has
become the prime mediator of social and professional interaction. Obviously, we
have experienced some real and perceived benefits due to our increasingly rapid
adoption of technology (defining “technology” is problematic in many of the same
ways as “information,” but let’s put that aside and assume I mean computers and
electronics and stuff). We have increased economic opportunities (for some), more
free time (theoretically), greater safety and efficiency, instant production and
communication without regard to geography, and access to unbelievable amounts of
information. But we can just as easily indict technology for it’s less benign social,
political, and economic effects. A short list of technology’s less celebrated effects
might include: modern global warfare, loss of personal privacy, environmental
devastation, and political (as well as social, economic, and cultural) hegemony — all
brought to new heights by liberatory (at first glance) technology such as industrial
automation; steam, electrical, and combustion power; the telephone; modern media;
and any number of innovations in digital computing. Of course, what we currently
colloquially refer to as “technology” — the Internet — is equally hailed in alternation
as a force for democracy and a catalyst for democracy’s demise. Obviously, both are
true in their own argumentation, but miss the larger point altogether.
With the relatively recent explosion of Web 2-point-oh!, social networks, etc., we see
something notably different than what was experienced with earlier technologies.
Machines, electricity, cars, televisions, and the like, were all transformative and
initially liberated in some sense; addressing (and inventing) needs, and conferring
legitimacy and status to their early consumers. In those regards, the Web is not
different. Where it departs from previous innovations is that it goes beyond creating,
serving, and reinforcing consumer identity and consumer culture into actually
displacing and disappearing the consumer as he exists in reality. Debord identified
this tendency in …the Spectacle as it relates to earlier (1960s) cultural conditions, but
it is ripe for application to the 21st century, with it’s ravenous tech fetishism and
fascination with identity construction and maintenence through social networks.
As you may have guessed, I recently picked up Society of the Spectacle for some
rereading and found that basically the entirety of the first chapter is as effective a
deconstruction of 21st c. new media culture as it was of television, films, and
advertising in 1967. Here’s a sample…
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an
immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded
into a representation.
The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which
the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup
themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at.
The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images
where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life,
an autonomous movement of the nonliving.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and
as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all
consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the
domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but
an official language of universal separation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that
is mediated by images.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media
technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world
that has become objective.
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the
dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It
is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations
— news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the
dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have
already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by
that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification
of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the
constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time
spent outside the production process.
I could continue quoting ad nauseum (actually, you may already be throwing up), but
I’ll leave it to the reader to read more if they choose. In the end, I’m still not sure
where I stand on this. I like the internet. It’s amusing and often useful. And as a
worker in information and technology, I am actually not alienated from my own
work. More than ever, I have a high degree of control over the products of my labor.
While I see the potential harm of these evolving conditions, I mostly see them in the
bizarrely onanistic tweets/status updates of others. I, naturally, am able to rise above
the unreality of mediated life — so much so that I’m thinking about purchasing an
island timeshare in Second Life to serve as respite for my World of Warcraft guild.
This, of course, would be done as an act of serious-parodic détournement (not to be
confused with shallow irony), and thus would not be lame.
So, what is détournement? A quick but insufficient answer might be found reference
to hip hop, web mashups, Marcel Duchamp, or Adbusters. “In détournement, an artist
reuses elements of well-known media to create a new work with a different message,
often one opposed to the original” (Wikipedia). A common example (though I’m not
sure it was ever actually produced) would be to take the footage of The Birth of a
Nation, and replace the text panels of that technical masterpiece with new music or
text which would change (or détourne) the original meaning, from an egregiously
racist historical lie, to something that crafts from the film’s intellectual content and
technical strength an effective (and modern/correct/relevant) moral-political
statement. As Debord & Wolman point out (1956), if such a project merely attempts
to negate the meaning through irony, counter-argument or comedic juxtaposition, it
misses the opportunity and the point. The best example I’ve seen, which serves as a
better instruction than I can write, is René Viénet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks?.
Film: Can Dialectics Break Bricks?: René Viénet, 1973: via U B U W E B
I’m not a great fan of the Debord films, though they do nicely illustrate, literally, the
idea of the spectacular as it permeates our collective media life. As with social
networks, academia and high culture, the images Debord détournes in Society of the
Spectacle are, individually and collectively, simultaneously useful, beautiful, and
inspiring, as well as banal, authoritarian and vacuous. Like all cultural products, their
meanings are contextual and constructed and can serve many masters at once. The
same is true of new media products, services, and cultural tendencies.
Film: Society of the Spectacle, parts 1 & 2: Guy Debord, 1973: via U B U W E
Although new media culture has some very deep differences from traditional media
culture working in its favor (openness, decentralization, interactivity), it’s yet to be
seen how that will change over time. Likewise, will the ubiquity of web-mediated
social interaction continue on its current trajectory (whatever that might be is actually
unclear), or will it evolve into new and unexpected forms? I’ve got this idea that the
(social) web is the perfect vehicle for détournement, though I’m less convinced it’s a
worthy venue for cultural resistance. Any thoughts?
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Facebook: A Generation's Identity Archive
Posted 9/05/2006 11:13:00 AM | 12 comments
This morning, millions of college students are thinking differently
about their online identity. The reason? Facebook, the industry-leading
college social networking website, introduced "feeds" last night. Feeds are
pretty simple - they're a running list of what you've been doing in the
Facebook. For example, if you add a friend, update your relationship
status, upload photos - this all gets dumped into a feed, viewable by
anyone that can view your account.
The logic that went into such a feature is easy to explicate. When you've
got 200-400 friends in Facebook, it is impossible to keep track of them all.
Remember when we had to keep track of 30 blogs manually? It sucked.
And we solved that problem with RSS - let the updates come to us.
Facebook has taken this notion and applied it to our lives. Facebook
knows that its userbase uses the service to "keep up" with people -
continuous social research, if you like - so this addition appeals to very
base motives of Facebook users. Clearly, this is an idea that sounded
great on paper.
In reality, however, this gets messy. Let's get some background. First, I'm
convinced that many young users of Facebook don't look at the site as a
social networking service per se. This generation has been socialized on
Xanga, LJ and forums - they are comfortable and used to the idea of being
on a social website. The Facebook simply represents another game-like
social website that they are on - nothing more. Second, digital identity,
like that presented in the Facebook, thrives because it is temporal. You
can change your identity at the drop of a hat - you can become a liberal
or conservative at the push of a button, change your interests an hobbies
on a whim. The point is, you're always presenting the identity you want to
present - you never have to worry about the identity you used to present.
I believe that identity disclosure is so high in the Facebook for the first
reason I cited - students see this as a game, something that is
qualitatively less than real. Students disclose lots of real information, but
they also disclose lots of false information. The key to winning in the
Facebook is maintaining a good mixture of the real and false information.
Implicit in this is the reality that you can always change the fake
information, when you want - you can rewrite history at any time.
This morning, millions of students were shown that they can't actually
rewrite history. Everything they do, all of the groups they join and
interests they state or friends they make - it is all being recorded. Not
only is it being recorded, it is being presented as content to other users of
the Facebook. The Facebook is no longer just a current method of
identity presentation, it is an archive of our digital identity. This is
a cold, hard reality for students, and you're seeing a lot of public venting
of discomfort as a result.
So lets prognosticate a little, and see what might happen to the Facebook,
now that entire userbase is acutely aware of the fact that everything they
do is being recorded and shared with the world.
• First, I believe this move will cause a lot of mental discomfort to students
who hadn't really thought through online identity. They will be presented
with all of the changes from their friends and realize that they, too, are
having every minute change in their identity fed to hundreds of others.
• Second, I believe students will be forced to rethink how they socialize in
the Facebook. Facebook has reached a critical mass among college-age
students, and my research has shown that many students on the
Facebook now use the service heavily for out-of-network connections.
Their cousins, old friends, brothers and sisters are on the Facebook.
Knowing that everything they do will be presented to their entire network
will have a chilling effect. Here's an example: A student posts a change to
their profile late at night, as a joke for a friend. That student knows that
likely, only a few people will see his change, and he can revert it in the
morning. With the new Facebook, that change is now broadcast to the
entire network - and it is saved in an identity archive - the feed.
• Finally, I believe this change will wake students up to the realities of
sharing identity information online. Granted, it won't wake them up much,
but it may just convince them that these sites aren't really games. It may
also convince them to think of the future repercussions of sharing
information anywhere - not only in the Facebook but in Bebo, Myspace,
Hi5, Xuqa and the like.
Personally, I don't believe this is a horrible move for Facebook. They took
a pre-existing model (RSS) and applied it to identity. What they may not
have done is thought deeply about how their users approach identity.
People love exploring each other, but we don't want to leave traces
behind. We don't want people to be able to see if we've viewed the
profiles of others. We don't want people to know if we decline their friend
requests. Social networkingsSystems must enforce basic structural rules
for trust to occur, I believe "not leaving traces behind" may turn out to be
one of those rules.
Of course, Facebook has stated that feeds are subject to all privacy
controls. You can opt out of the system totally, or on a case-by-case
basis. However, opting out of sharing in these services, where sharing is
incentivized, creates issues of inequality in the system. Students who opt-
out aren't playing the game fairly, more or less.
Reaction to the service has been mixed, with Techcrunch's Arrington
giving a neutral review (mostly a recounting of the features). The
comment thread was less friendly. Over on the developer forum, a self-
selected bunch of power users are engaging in threads with names such
as "Why are people allowed to stalk every move I make now" and "Stop it
- I almost cancelled my account today!".
While an interesting move, I do believe that a gradual rollout or more in-
depth consideration of user's privacy concerns would have benefited
Facebook. The Facebook seems to be run by a group of extremely
determined Facebookers (many were early and full-immersion adopters),
so it is possible that groupthink effects have caused the team to lose
some focus of the average user.
The takeaway here is that Facebook, like it or not, has brought to bear a
very real issue in online identity. Everything we do in public or semi-public
spheres can be tracked and chronicled. We don't see our digital footprints
as much because systems haven't cropped up to collect them, but
collecting them is trivial. Facebook has simply put one of those systems in
front of us - wrapped up nicely as a feature - but it isn't hard to see the
reality. As we grapple with this reality - that our privacy is only a
construct of a system, and that our identity can be tracked and chronicled
- how will students change their behavior? We're really only at the tip of
this iceberg, but with Facebook's new features, we've accelerated this
P.S. - I should also note that Facebook now has a official blog, which you
may want to check out. Hopefully they'll add an RSS feed soon
V IO L E NT CO NTRA DI C TI O N
VIOLENT CONTRADICTION: THE PAUL A. TOTH BLOG
Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Guy Debord's Critique of Separation: A Review
Guy Debord's short Situationist film Critique of Separation (here's the link to
the first part, from which you can access the second part) is just that and
nothing more or less: a critique. The narrator's tone is monotone or even
depressed, as if he's suffering a hangover. His key point: we're separated from
everything: one another; history; and, most importantly, adventure. Boredom
is the result: "No adventure is created for us." However, I believe his point in
that case pointed to one Situationist solution that is not further elucidated in
the film: we have to make our own adventures.
Like an existentialist minus the self-created meaning or acts in either good or
bad faith, Debord notes the "necessity of repetition" in making ourselves
understood, a luxury we're rarely afforded. We part company misunderstood.
There's "nothing you can hold onto." There's only the "blunt realization of our
unfulfilled needs." As to world events, he rightfully claims that "the world of
leaders is the world of spectacle." We "remain outside the news." We're so
local that everything is distant.
The footage accompanying this narration never interests the viewer; it reflects
the narration. Nothing happens in the film beyond a few brief moments of
media spectacles from which we're denied access. The world in which we live
can "generate nothing more than separation."
Throughout the film, Debord remains uninterested in offering solutions and
perhaps disinterested, period. This is clearly purposeful; his critique leaves no
room for modulation of the voice, no reason for it at all. The closest he comes
to any kind of suggested action proves negative in the mathematical sense: "It
is necessary to destroy memory in art." That statement can be interpreted in
any number of ways; I will leave the reader to his or her own interpretation.
Mine is skewed by the absurdly baroque music playing throughout the film.
Debord is obviously not a man for whom tradition matters, except to dryly
Were this a two-hour film, Debord's intentionally-monotonous approach
would become unbearable. But because it lasts just under twenty minutes, one
can watch and reach conclusions about Debord's conclusions. Even at this
short length, the film produces an edgy viewer. It negates all expectations even
of a Situationist film because Debord does not offer Situationist answers, only
criticism. To me, the criticism remains valid today.
One note: prepare to squint while reading the subtitles; they're rather difficult
to see. On the other hand, you won't miss much on the screen. Therefore,
concentrate on the text and watch what you can in the breaks from narration.