Media, Activism & Society of the Spectacle

June 24, 2013


Our ability to move into a collectively imagined future has been trapped in an ever-present now, composed of continually transmitted images. The spectacle accompanies us throughout our lives. News, propaganda, advertising, entertainment and social media present a continuous stream of imagery, projecting a constant justification for how our culture is formulated. When Guy Debord first published The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, the digital revolution was still decades away and the technological capacity to project images into every corner of our lives was far less developed than it is today. The spectacle is no longer simply all of the time; it is also everywhere. More than ever before, Debord’s words apply: “Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”

As with many things in recent times, the boundaries of systems have become harder to discern. In the media/entertainment industry the process of mediation, where a consensus on the ‘nature of things’ is imposed, used to occur within newsrooms, edit suites and copy editing offices. Today, much of the ingredients of the spectacle – press releases, YouTube videos and comment/blog pieces – are received and published almost verbatim. More adverts are increasingly populated by the consumers themselves. We donate, as consumers, our own commodified identities to the spectacle, to be sold back to us.

The developing power of the spectacle can be seen in politics: both in the halls of power and in the street. PR-perfect Prime Ministers like Tony Blair and David Cameron (who worked in PR before becoming an MP), more adept at constant self-representation, have an instant head start on the likes of Gordon Brown, whose persona and body language were more suited to the era of the telegram. It may surprise some people to hear that many comparisons can be drawn between the extraordinary influence on public life held by PR figures like Alastair Campbell or Andy Coulson, and the suffocating imperatives of the spectacle seen within activism.

A press group in any “social movement” acts as its point of interaction for mainstream media and thus sets about shaping the movement’s outward identity which, in the case of something like Occupy, is then projected on a massive scale. The press teams of protest movements, like the spin doctors in Westminster, have power precisely because of the power of the spectacle. A press team sees nothing incongruent between the culture of PR and “messaging” and a movement’s stated rejection of “business as usual,” often to the dismay of those who view this abuse of language and corruption of communication as both central to the present system and central to why it is to be despised.

A seriously flawed strategy that seems pervasive among activist groups is the idea that by simply “exposing” something to public scrutiny or “showing the media” evidence of systemic injustice, a dent can be made in the daily reproduction of such injustice. Mass “public debate,” hosted and framed by the mass media is a pre-decided, packaged commodity, ripe for consumption and replete with the media’s essential ingredient “controversy”. Chasing the news agenda and trying to keep its attention long enough for that to make a difference to your cause is like trying to get the Tasmanian Devil to sit still long enough to do a sudoku puzzle.

In the absence of the ability to control the spectacle, people often fall back on the trope of “We changed the conversation”. But this is what you say when you have no actual effect. A change in the discourse is an acceptable achievement only if it forms the beginning of a process – not the end result or its highest claim. Talk is cheap. Capital is a liquid process, a means of reproducing and consistently cementing class and power relations on a minute-to-minute basis – any change in the debate that surrounds this process dissolves into nothingness once the space is gone, the novelty wears off and the news cycle moves on. A social movement that fails to intervene in the production process or have a tangible impact upon political/economic power or, worse still, doesn’t realise the importance of these two things is just a ‘social’, not a ‘movement’.

The spectacle, instead of being a mediator of the actions that are taken, now becomes an active player in how actions manifest. We find it impossible to entirely escape the spectacle and its power to formulate subjectivity. Many direct actions are consciously staged and choreographed with the question “how will this play in the media?” in mind. The timing of an action is highly influenced by when it might fit into the news cycle. Locations are carefully planned, with thought given to the power of their symbolism. This makes a worrying amount of dissent little more than a performance, whereby protesters pit themselves against the entirety of existing power structures not by trying to directly impact them but by taking the confrontation onto a different terrain – capricious old “public opinion”. As Mark Fisher writes: “Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism”.

Spokespeople are chosen for their marketability to media audiences, largely consisting of the learned ability to utter banal, empty statements to fit with the discursive style of mainstream politics. All of this and more is present within perhaps the most perfect case study of the interaction between the spectacle and activism: Laura Taylor.

Laura was one of the self-appointed spokespeople of Occupy London. Except this spokesperson wasn’t self-appointed; she had no self. Laura was a fictional being, concocted by the Press Team, who set up the initial Facebook page calling on people to occupy the London Stock Exchange on October 15, 2011. She makes one of her first appearances before the occupation even began with a long quote on the politics blog, Libcon.

This stalwart of Occupy London would go on to appear in national and international publications including Reuters, the Guardian, Morning Star, CNBC and the Daily Mail. She would invariably relay vapid pronouncements such as the following quote, in which she explains why Occupy London activists were handing out flowers to members of the public last May Day: “The flowers we gave to people this morning will be taken into offices all over the city. We hope they will brighten up people’s day, but also provide some food for thought. May Day is a day for everyone who works, whether that be in the public or private sector, in an office or at home, unionised or not. Together, we can make this May the start of something really special. Everyone is invited.”

Laura’s sordid tale of fabrication and nothingness holds within it many lessons for us about the influence of the spectacle, media pressures on activism and the dangers of prizing mainstream media attention as the sole arbiter of achievement or success. Occupy London wasn’t like the other big horizontal movements of 2011 in Spain, North Africa and the US. It began with a Facebook page and a Press Team, with an idea, based on a single tactic yanked wholesale from Zuccotti Park: it was conceived out of PR and that’s how it continued. Central to the planning of events was corporate messaging, press releases and marketable aesthetics. Actions were deemed as failures simply because they didn’t garner enough column inches in the corporate press, let alone the even more vaunted television coverage.

In any analysis of activism and the spectacle, it’s incumbent upon those of us who seek to call a halt to the dominion of capital over our lives and our ability to live them, to ask ourselves a fundamental question: Are we having any direct effect on capital’s ability to continually reproduce itself? Whilst a great many people are engaged in a lot of good work, it would be criminal of those of us with a desire to see another possible world to not take advantage of the recent crises facing capitalism.

This means using our minds, our bodies and our laptops to reach beyond the currently limited terrain, consisting largely of occupying/picketing branches of multinationals, tussling with the police and going on big marches or one-day strikes with little effect. The “beyond” we’re trying to reach, that we rarely lay a glove on, is the terrain where power resides. Where existing power and class relations are continually reproduced.

Of course, the problem we face is that the terrain of real power is as surreal as the spectacle. There are the towering, phallic skyscrapers built to intimidate; and the impenetrable lexicon of financialisation whose facade bewilders but whose substance fails to add up. One statistic is particularly revealing: JP Morgan Chase has a derivative exposure of around $70 trillion, roughly the size of the entire world’s economy. Activists, with little budget and who are up against recent history and the status quo, can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed, even hopeless. The complexity of the global financial system means that true power often resides not only out of reach, but outside of reality.

Back to Debord, who wrote: “Complacent acceptance of the status quo may also coexist with purely spectacular rebelliousness – dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of abundance develops the capacity to process that particular raw material.”

This describes perfectly some of the “activism” that you see nowadays. The activism of the ego, of the machismo. The kind that could have been plucked from the Jay Z and Kanye West ‘No Church in the Wild’ video or that Levi’s advert. There is the mimicry of imagined, nostalgic or historically lionised forms of protest, linked to romantic notions of “fighting the good fight”. A group of the men at OccupyLSX even took to dressing in military camouflage and set out on marches as if an outmoded form of warfare was imminent. This was a group of people who had been birthed into the world of non-institutional politics largely for the first time. They took their cues from the spectacle. They reproduced the imagery of dissent that had been broadcast into their lives, through countless adverts, films and images of war on rolling news. But they were unable to make it relevant for a completely different terrain. Towards the end of the encampments of the Occupy movement in London, the sites became a faithfully simulated boot camp, as if on the edge of a trench system of a continuing armed conflict – one or two even developed trench foot. People sat on the frontlines, waiting for a revolution that could only take place in the immaterial realm.

We’re not going to stop reproducing these effects until we step back from them. We can’t affect change within the glare of the spectacle and its very nature wards against it being a tool that we can control. Its function is predicated on its ability to subsume attempts to co-opt it or “change it from within.” The bridge from the past to the future instead needs to be mediated by not only a more accurate and tangible present, but a present where genuine discussion can take place. We must provide a better, broader context to the present. It’s only in constantly building a present contextualised to the past, that we can continue to transform the present into a shared future. This is the environment in which movements are built. It’s not enough to develop tools of expression across new media and communication networks. It’s also imperative that these organs are not fed by the same nervous system as the spectacle. Or, if we are to engage with it, to understand its limitations and engage in a suitable fashion.

We’re in a period between spikes of action where we’ve seen infighting, burnout and selling-out. The UK movements of 2011 have run out of steam, the next concerted pushback is yet to materialise, but it’s important that we have some way of recording things to mitigate the problem of the lack of institutional memory in contemporary organising. The juncture we have reached is too critical, the forces we face too powerful to keep on making the same, naive mistakes. Social movements need to break with convention, break the law and break us out of this desolate paradigm. The main lesson must be that if you only want to lobby capitalist power, appealing with insipid entreaties to the impervious spectacle: join an NGO.

By Michael Richmond & Jack Dean | @Sisyphusa @Jack__Dean


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