Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle
By Steve Best and Douglas Kellner
But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, ... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.
The afterlife of the ideas of Guy Debord and the Situationist International is quite striking. Contemporary society and culture are still permeated with the sort of spectacle described in classical Situationist works, and the concept of "spectacle" has almost become normalized, emerging as part and parcel of both theoretical and popular media discourse. Moreover, Situationist texts are reaching new and ever-expanding audiences in the proliferation of 'zines and Web sites, some of which embody Situationist practice. The past decade has been marked by a profusion of cultural activism which uses new communications technology to proliferate radical social critique and alternative culture. Many of these 'zines pay homage to Debord and the Situationists, as do a profusion of Web sites that contain their texts and diverse commentary. Situationist ideas thus remain an important part of contemporary cultural theory and activism, and may continue to inspire cultural and political opposition as the "Society of the Spectacle" enters cyberspace and new realms of culture and experience emerge.
In this article, we will accordingly update Debord's ideas in formulating what we see as the advent of a new stage of the spectacle, requiring new technologies and forms of oppositional practice. We first delineate Debord's now classic theory of the spectacle, indicate how it is still relevant for analyzing contemporary society, and then distinguish between new forms of interactive and megaspectacles which we contrast to a conception of what we call "cybersituations" that have become possible with the Internet and new technologies, offering expanded possibilities for resistance and democratization. At stake is formulating categories adequate for representing the transformations of contemporary society and devising a radical democratic politics relevant to its challenges and novelties.
The Situationists: Capitalism, Commodification, and Spectacle
The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence
when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole.
The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained
the total occupation of social life. The relation to the commodity
is not only visible, but one no longer sees anything but it: the
world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends
its dictatorship extensively and intensively.
In the shift from 19th century competitive capitalism, organized around production, to a later form of capitalism organized around consumption, media, information, and technology, new forms of domination appear, greatly complicating social reality. While Lukacs (1971 ) saw the acceleration of commodification in contemporary capitalism, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, and others associated with the Frankfurt school traced the gradual bureaucratization, rationalization, and commodification of social life in the media and consumer society. They described how the "culture industry" defused critical consciousness, providing a key means of distraction and stupefaction, and developed the first neo-Marxist theories of the media and consumer society (see Kellner 1989a).
We interpret the emergence of Guy Debord and the Situationist International as an attempt to update Marxian theory and practice in the French post-World War Two conjuncture--a project that was also deeply influenced by French modernist avant garde movements. Debord and his friends were initially part of a French avant-garde artist milieu that was shaped by Dada, surrealism, lettrism, and other attempts to merge art and politics (see Marcus 1989; Plant 1992; and Wollen 1993). Unorthodox Marxists like Henri Lefebvre (himself at one time part of the surrealist movement and producer of a "critique of everyday life") influenced Debord, as did groups like "Socialism or Barbarism" and Arguments, both of which attempted to create an up-to-date and emancipatory Marxist theory and practice. Rapid modernization in France after World War Two and the introduction of the consumer society in the 1950s provoked much debate and contributed to generating a variety of French discourses on modern society, inspiring Debord and others to attempt to revitalize the Marxian project in response to new historical conditions and aesthetic and theoretical impulses.
Yet the Situationist revision constituted significant differences from classical Marxism and new motifs and emphases. Whereas traditional Marxism focused on production, the Situationists highlighted the importance of social reproduction and the emergence of a consumer and media society that had developed since the death of Marx. While Marx spotlighted the factory, the Situationists concentrated on the city and concrete social relations, supplementing the Marxian emphasis on class struggle by undertaking cultural revolution and the transformation of everyday life. And whereas Marxian theory centered on time and history, the Situationists, with Lefebvre, accentuated the production of space and constitution of society.
Debord and the Situationists can thus be interpreted as an attempt to renew the Marxian adventure under historically specific conditions. Their program was to reinvigorate Marxian revolutionary practice and to supplement Marx's critique of capital and the commodity, attempting to trace the further development of capitalist society and culture and the new forms of alienation and oppression. Politically, Debord and the Situationists were deeply influenced by the council communism promoted by the early Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, and a tradition taken up in France by both the Socialism or Barbarism and Arguments groups. This tradition was radically democratic, emphasizing the need for workers and citizens to democratically control every realm of their life from the factory to the community and it influenced Debord and the Situationists. Drawing on Sartre and his concept that human existence is always lived within a particular context or situation and that individuals can create their own situations, as well as by Lefebvre's concept of everyday life and demand to radically transform it, Debord and his comrades began devising strategies to construct new "situations" (see the 1957 Debord text in Knabb 1981: 17ff.). This enterprise would merge art and everyday life in the spirit of the radical avant garde movements and would require a revolution of both art and life.
Interestingly, some of the Situationist aesthetic activities anticipated postmodern culture -- such as the emphasis on pastiche and quotation and the collapsing of boundaries between high and low art, and art and everyday life --, though Situationist practice was always geared toward a revolutionary transformation of the existing society, both bureaucratic communist and capitalist ones. Debord's analysis of contemporary capitalism developed Marx's analysis of commodification to its latest stage, which he described as "the becoming-world of the commodity and the becoming-commodity of the world" (#66). For the Situationists, the current stage of social organization is a mutation within capitalism, but it is still fully accessible to a Marxist interpretation. Beneath the new forms of domination, there is "an undisturbed development of modern capitalism" (#65). Also influenced by Gramsci (1971), the Situationists saw the current forms of social control as based on consensus rather than force, as a cultural hegemony attained through the metamorphoses of the consumer and media society into the "society of the spectacle." In this society, individuals consume a world fabricated by others rather than producing one of their own.
Paraphrasing Marx's opening to Capital, Debord said: "In the modern conditions of production, life announces itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles" (#1). The society of the spectacle is still a commodity-producing society, rooted in the capitalist mode of production, but reorganized as a consumer and entertainment society. "Spectacle" for Debord is a complex term which "unifies and explains a great diversity of apparent phenomena" (#10). In one sense, it refers to a media and consumer society, organized around the consumption of images, commodities, and staged events, but the concept also refers to the vast institutional and technical apparatus of contemporary capitalism, to all the means and methods power employs, outside of direct force, which relegate subjects passive and obscure the nature and effects of capitalism's power and deprivations.
Under this broader definition, the education system and the institutions of representative democracy, as well as the endless inventions of consumer gadgets, sports, media culture, and urban and suburban architecture and design, are all integral components of the spectacular society. Schooling, for example, deploys sports, fraternity and sorority rituals, bands and parades, and various public assemblies that indoctrinate individuals into dominant ideologies and submissive behavior. The standard techniques of education which comprise rote learning and mechanical memorization of facts presented by droning teachers, to be regurgitated through multiple choice exams, is very effective for killing creativity and choking the spirit and joy of learning. Currently, the use of video technologies in the classroom can reinforce this passivity and creates a spectacularization and commodification of education, with TV "news" punctuated with ads by corporate sponsors, such as the Whittle Corporation's Channel One which is made available in thousands of schools across the U.S. Computer technologies are potentially more empowering as they can require interactive and creative research and communication activity, though they too can be put in the service of the spectacularization of education with multimedia toys and play with images and texts replacing the often difficult activity of learning.
Contemporary politics is also saturated with spectacles, ranging from daily "photo opportunities," to highly orchestrated special events which dramatize state power, to TV ads and image management for competing candidates. Elections from Israel to Russia reduce politics to a battle of image and a media spectacle with Hollywood-style campaigns for candidates intent on selling personalities more than political platforms. The media promote political spectacle to attract audiences and to enhance revenues and so in recent years the public has been subjected to endless rehashes of the Clinton sex scandals, the tribulations and death of Princess Diana, the drama of high-tech war, ranging from the most extensive TV spectacle in history, the Persian Gulf TV War (Kellner 1992), to enactments of terrorist attacks on Western targets and/or U.S.-led attempts at military retaliation and, most recently, the bombing campaign against Serbia and odysseys of Kosovo refugees.
For Debord, the spectacle is a tool of pacification and depoliticization; it is a "permanent opium war" (#44) which stupefies social subjects and distracts them from the most urgent task of real life--recovering the full range of human powers through revolutionary change. In Debord's formulation, the concept of the spectacle is integrally connected to the concept of separation, for in passively consuming spectacles, one is disengaged from actively producing one's life. Capitalist society disconnects workers from the product of their labor, art from life, and spheres of production from consumption, which involve spectators passively observing the products of social life (#25 and #26). The Situationist project in turn demanded an overcoming of all forms of separation, so that individuals could directly produce their own life, culture, and forms of social interaction.
The spectacular society spreads its narcotics mainly through the mechanisms of leisure and consumption, services and entertainment, all ruled by the dictates of advertising and a commercialized media culture. This structural shift to a society of the spectacle involves a commodification of previously non-colonized sectors of social life and the extension of bureaucratic control to the realms of leisure, consumption, desire, and everyday life. Parallel to the Frankfurt School conception of a "totally administered" or "one dimensional" society (Adorno and Horkheimer 1972; Marcuse 1964), Debord states that the "spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life" (#42).
The spectacle not only expands the profits and power of the capitalist class, but also helps to resolve a legitimation crisis of capitalism. Rather then vent anger against exploitation and injustice, oppressed social groups are distracted and mollified by new cultural productions, social services, and wage increases. In consumer capitalism, the working classes abandon the union hall for the shopping mall and celebrate the system that fuels the desires it ultimately cannot satisfy. But the advanced abstraction of the spectacle brings in its wake a new stage of deprivation. Marx spoke of the degradation of being into having, where creative praxis is reduced to the mere possession of an object, rather than its imaginative transformation, and where need for the other is reduced to acquisitive individualism. Debord invokes a further reduction, the transformation of having into appearing, where the material object gives way to its semiotic representation and draws "its immediate prestige and ultimate function" (#17) as image--in which look, style, and display function as signs of social prestige. The production of objects simpliciter gives way to "a growing multitude of image-objects" (#15) whose immediate reality is their symbolic function as image. Within this abstract system, it is the appearance of the commodity that is more decisive than its actual "use value" and the symbolic packaging of commodities--be they cars or presidents--generates an image industry and new commodity aesthetics (see Haug 1986).
While spectacles like Roman bread and circuses have long distracted the masses and celebrated state power, the society of the spectacle has more immediate origins in 19th century capitalist society organized around commodity spectacles and consumption. As Walter Benjamin argued (1973, discussed in Buck-Morss 1989), the commodity-phantasmagoria of the spectacle began in the Paris Arcades in the 19th century which put on display all the radiant commodities of the day. Department stores soon appeared in Paris and elsewhere which exhibited commodities as a spectacle and emerged as coveted temples of consumption. Sears catalogues offered customers entrance to commodity paradise and companies began using display and advertising to market their wares, creating a society where images offered fantasies of happiness, luxury, and transcendence (see Ewen and Ewen 1983).
By the 1920s, advertising had become a major social force and films were celebrating affluence and consumer lifestyles, but the depression of the 1930s and World War Two prevented the consumer society from developing. After the war, however, the "affluent society" emerged in the United States as returning soldiers came back with money in pocket to start families and to buy the all the new products offered and promoted on radio and television. Life in the suburbs was centered on consumption, and new shopping malls gathered together a diversity of department stores and specialty shops in an environment scientifically designed -- right down to subliminal messages in the Muzak--to promote a spontaneous orgy of purchasing. The 1950s was thus the epoch of the consumer society in the United States and by the 1960s the same dynamics began to appear in France with new "drugstores," shopping malls, and a proliferation of consumer goods and services. It is this era that is theorized in Debord's and the Situationist International's classic analysis of the society of the spectacle.
Further Adventures of the Spectacle
When the real world changes into simple images, simple images
become real beings and effective motivations of a hypnotic behavior.
The spectacle as a tendency to make one see the world by means
of various specialized mediations (it can no longer be grasped
directly), naturally finds vision to be the privileged human sense
which the sense of touch was for other epochs; the most abstract,
the most mystifiable sense corresponds to the generalized abstraction
of present day society.
Reflections on the current globalized capitalist system suggest that contemporary overdeveloped societies continue to be marked by Debordian spectacle in every realm of social life, creating ever more elaborate megaspectacles. In the economy, more money is spent each year on advertising and packaging which in the U.S. constitutes 4% of the gross national product (see Kellner 1996). New malls feature ever more spectacular shopping centers, and "the malling of America" and the Global Consumer Village exhibit not only a sparkling array of goods and services but also high-tech entertainment, postmodern architecture, and, increasingly, simulations of famous sites past and present (Gottdiener 1997). The Edmonton mall in Canada, for example, combines an amusement park, a replica of Columbus' ship Santa Maria, recreations of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, a casino, and theme hotel, along with hundreds of shops, so that there is currently a 60 percent/40 percent split between retail sales and entertainment (Ritzer 1998). Not to be outdone, Las Vegas now has on display an elaborate simulation of New York City, complete with 42nd Street and the Statue of Liberty.
Entire environments are ever more permeated with advertising and spectacle. Buses are now wrapped with giant and glowing graphics, thus becoming rolling billboards. Whole urban areas, like Las Vegas or Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, are illuminated by lasers that flash promotions upon buildings and environmental advertising, in which urban sites are lit up by ads on buildings, on high-tech billboards, and in the sky, taking the megaspectacle to new heights (or depths, depending on how you view it). With cable and satellite television, the spectacle is now so ubiquitous and accessible that one need not even rise from the lounge chair to shop, requiring only a telephone and credit card to purchase a vast array of products from TV home shopping networks. Indeed, many people buy impulsively from such shows and "shopping addiction" and "shopoholics" are widespread forms of psychological malaise. To expand the domain of shopping and profit still further, advertisers are already creating new malls in cyberspace that will provide virtual shopping environments of the most exotic kind to parade an unbelievable surfeit of products. Currently, corporations are establishing Web sites on the Internet which offer all sorts of visual spectacles in order to entice customers to buy their goods and provide consumer profile information for future advertising and commercial ventures. Like the industrial commodity markets that preceded it, the spectacle has gone global with the proliferation of satellite dishes beaming Western consumer goods, sex and violence, and spectacles to all corners of the globe, subverting the cultural traditions of many countries and producing a globalized mass culture.
Such media spectacles are financed by advertisers who in turn pass along costs to the consumers, who are doubly exploited in work and consumption. Consumers pay for the spectacles of entertainment, subsidized by advertising, in the form of higher costs for products. Moreover, what the entertainment and information industries offer is a function of what they think will sell and that on the whole advances their own interests. Hence, the spectacles of the culture industry produce ever more desires for its goods and way of life and proliferates into new arenas and realms, as we explore in the next section.
Entertainment is a dominant mode of the society of the spectacle with its codes permeating business, news and information, politics, education, and everyday life. Newspapers like USA Today parcelize news into small stories, illustrated by graphs, charts, and color pictures, while both local and national TV news is saturated by happy talk and human interest stories. Cable TV promises to offer over 500 channels in the near future, and Internet Web sites and new media sites may offer even more infotainment spectacles, as multimedia technologies develop. Such a scenario frightens cybercritic Paul Virilio to imagine an increasing inertia setting in, as individuals enter virtual worlds through the click of a mouse (1998: 117ff).
Today, entertainment is big business and business has to be entertaining to prosper. In the "entertainmentization" of the economy, television, film, theme parks, video games, casinos, and so forth become an increasingly important part of the national economy and personal spending. In the U.S., the entertainment industry is now a $480 billion industry, and consumers spend more for fun than clothes or health care (Wolf 1999: 4). In Texas, once known as the wheat state, the estimated market value of the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers was greater ($735 million) than the total value of the wheat that the state harvested ($600 million) (Environmental News Network, May 12 1999). Further, a corporate entertainment complex is rapidly advancing in Bangkok, Australia, China, India, Islam, Japan and elsewhere, forming a crucial aspect of the global restructuring of capitalism and disseminating modernization and postmodernization processes simultaneously.
Moreover, in competitive business environments, it is the fun factor that can give one business the edge over another, and so corporations seek to be more entertaining in their commercials, their business environment, and their web sites. Hence, Budweiser commercials feature talking frogs which tells us nothing about the product, but catch the viewers' attention, while Taco Bell deploys a talking dog and Pepsi uses Star Wars characters. Buying, shopping, and dining out are coded as an "experience" as businesses adopt a theme park style. Places like the Hard Rock Cafe are not renown for their food, after all, people go there for the ambience, to buy clothing, and to see music and media memorabilia. It is no longer good enough just to have a web site, it has to be an interactive spectacle, featuring not only products to buy, but music and videos to download, games to play, prizes to win, travel information, and "links to other cool sites."
The infotainment society reduces everything to the logic of the commodity spectacle. Always a major site of the spectacle and a source of capital, religion itself has become packaged as a spectacle commodity with TV religion, religion Web sites, and dramatic increase in religious artifacts ranging from bibles on CD- ROM to Christian rock music videos and CDs. Since the rise of televangelism in the 1980s, religion has been relentlessly commodified with TV evangelists promoting the spectacle of religion to rake in millions of dollars from gullible contributors. Jesus2000.com advertizes itself as "The Holy Land's Largest Shopping Mall on the Internet," claiming over one million Virtual Pilgrim visits since its December 98 launch. Feed reports that Jesus2000.com faces stiff competition, though--and not just from Crosswalk.com, the Internet's No. 1 Christian portal. The Chosen People have developed a number of innovative Web applications including VirtualJerusalem.com, a site that lets users send e-mail directly to God. VJ Webmaster Avi Moskowitz prints and carries a batch of e-mail prayers to the Western Wall daily. Meanwhile, Taliban Online has been providing a small but faithful Muslum audience with "news and articles on Islam and Jihad" for more than a year now. The site is selling cars, stereos and other earthly delights as part of a Web banner "ad network" (http://feedmag.com/daily/dyo20499.html).
Even the Pope himself has become a commodity-machine, a global superstar whose image the Roman Catholic Church recently licensed to sell official Papal souvenirs, ranging from books and posters to watches, sweatshirts, CDs and videos featuring the Pope, and bottled (holy?) water--with a Papal Web-page to promote the Vatican's image and to sell their merchandise. A Papal visit takes on the form of megaspectacle, as when the Pope's trip to St. Louis was awarded the headline "Pope gets rock-star greeting in US" (as reported in http://www.suck.com/fish/99/02/02).
Megaspectacles also include sports events like the World Series, Superbowl, and NBA championships which attract massive audiences, are hyped to the maximum, and generate always accelerating record advertising rates. These cultural rituals celebrate society's deepest values (i.e. competition, winning, success, and money) and corporations are willing to pay top dollars to get their products associated with such events.
Indeed, it appears that the logic of the commodity spectacle is increasingly permeating professional sports which can no longer be played without the accompaniment of cheer leaders, giant mascots who clown with players and spectators, and raffles, promotions, and contests which hawk the products of various sponsors. Instant replays turn the action into high-tech spectacles; after Mark McGwire broke Roger Maris' home run record in September 1998, the historical shot was replayed endlessly and Fox Sports presented a montage of McGwire's most spectacular home runs, accompanied by patriotic music and images of commodity advertisements in the stands as his home runs bounced into the bleachers. Sports stadiums themselves contain electronic reproduction of the action, as well as giant advertisements for various products which rotate for maximum saturation--previewing environmental advertising in which entire urban sites are becoming scenes to promote commodity spectacles. Sports stadiums, like the new United Center in Chicago, or America West Arena in Phoenix, are named after corporate sponsors. The Texas Rangers stadium in Arlington, supplements its sports arena with a shopping mall and commercial area, office buildings, stores, and a restaurant in which for a hefty price one gets a view of the athletic events, while quaffing food and drink. Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay "has a three-level mall that includes places where 'fans can get a trim at the barber shop, do their banking and then grab a cold one at the Budweiser brew pub, whose copper kettles rise three stories. There is even a climbing wall for kids and showroom space for car dealerships'" (Ritzer 1998: 229).
It probably will not be too long before the uniforms of professional sports players are as littered with advertisements as racing cars. In the globally popular sport of soccer, companies such as Canon, Sharp, and Carlsberg sponsor teams and have their names emblazoned on their shirts, making the players epiphenomena of transnational capital. In auto racing events like the Tour de France or Indianapolis 500, or professional bicycling events, entire teams are sponsored by major corporations whose logos adorn their clothes and cars. And throughout the world, but especially in the United States, the capital of the commodity spectacle, superstars like Michael Jordan commodify themselves from head to foot, selling their various body parts and images to the highest corporate bidders, imploding their sports images into the spectacles of advertising. In this manner, the top athletes augment their salaries, sometimes spectacularly, by endorsing products, thus imploding sports, commerce, and advertising into dazzling spectacles which celebrate the products and values of corporate America.
In fashion, already a consumerist spectacle, laser-light shows, top rock and pop music performers, superstar models, and endless hype promote each new season's offerings, generating ever more spectacular clothing displays:
In the same way that movies are being judged by the size of their grosses, not whether they make any sense, couture shows are now judged by the size of the spectacle.... Keep your eye on the three-story waterfall at Givenchy [fashion show], and wait for the train at Christian Dior... At huge expense, a spice-filled Souk was recreated, and the lost luggage room had trunks tagged with names like Bing Crosby, Cleopatra and Brad Pitt ("In Paris Couture, the Spectacle's the Thing," New York Times, July 21, 1998: C24).
Here the logics of spectacle and simulation combine in a megaorgy of lights, music, dazzling image, and constructed environments that celebrate the commodity and celebrity culture, fetishizing its idols. Indeed, one of the world's most fashionable and glamorous women, Princess Diana, has become a commodified spectacle in her death, as in her life, with an intense global marketing of her image on postage stamps, coins, portrait plates, porcelain dolls, and other wares of "Dianabilia" (New York Times, August 26, 1998: C1, 3). These celebrity icons provide deities to worship from afar and inspire individuals to themselves enter the world of image and spectacle, becoming part of the action.
Indeed, it appears in the society of the spectacle that a life of luxury and happiness is open to all, that anyone can buy the sparkling objects on display and consume the spectacles of entertainment and information. But in reality only those with sufficient wealth can fully enjoy the benefits of this society, whose opulence is extracted out of the lives and dreams of the exploited. The poor souls who can't afford to live out their commodity fantasies in full are motivated to work harder and harder, until they are trapped in the squirrel cage of working and spending, spending and working--and increasingly borrowing money at high interest rates. Indeed, consumer credit card debt has sky- rocketed over 47% in recent years, as credit cards are easier to get and interest payment rises. By the mid-1990s, the average debt per household was over $3,000, up from barely over $1,000 per household in 1985 (New York Times, December 28, 1995: C1). Near the end of the deacde credit indebtedness reached $1.2 trillion, growing at a 9% annual rate and generating negative saving rates two months in a row for the first time on record (Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1998: C3).
New forms of megaspectacle are emerging through the tourism and leisure industries. Theme parks like the Disney Worlds recreate entire spectacular simulated environments for family consumption. IMAX movies feature gigantic footage of erupting volcanoes, avalanches, climbs to Mount Everest, voyages to the moon, undersea exploration, and the like which allow simulation of the wonders of nature. In the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park, built for $3 billion, you can island hop around five different sites, including recreations of Seuss Landing, which features a "Cat in the Hat" ride and a Green Eggs and Ham Cafe; Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, Toon Lagoon, and Marvel Super Hero Island. This homage to the megaspectacle features high-tech rides, with twelve story high roller coasters, sophisticated animatronics, and 3-D special effects. Designed as pure escapism for the entire family, their advertisement bids, "Give us Three Days and Nights. We'll give You a Whole New Universe."
Cyberdigerati proclaim that virtual reality will be the next stage in theme park-like experiences, so that spectators can stay home, just don a helmet or visor, and have all the experiences--sights, sounds, and smells--that you would in a "real" experience in a "real" park. In this virtual world, entrepreneurs claim that such experiences will be designed as an interactive spectacle where the "visitor" will have some imput on what she or he will experience--e.g. what dinosaurs will appear, whether you'll be washed over a waterfall, or parachute out of a crashing airplane, and so on. Perhaps such spectacles will become as addictive as the VR drug in the 1995 film Strange Days in which spectators become hooked on video of extreme sex and violence, or the simulated worlds of The 13th Floor (1999) where players are transported to recreations of other times and places, experiencing full bodily enjoyment.
Megaspectacles also involve another form of mass-mediated experience in which megapolitical occurrences like the Gulf War, the OJ Simpson trial, the Clinton sex scandal, teen shootings, and other media events come to colonize everyday life, distracting individuals from their own and their society's serious problems, as spectators of the megaspectacle get lost in the trivia of tabloid infotainment and mass distraction. In the summer of 1999, the Star Wars film The Phantom Menace became the megaspectacle of the moment with saturation media coverage of spectators camped out waiting for the film to open, often with costumes of the films characters. The phenomenon was featured on the covers of many magazines, was heavily covered by TV and other media, and was the subject of high density internet coverage and discussion. Where the kingdom of the image and realm of appearance determine and overtake reality, life is no longer lived directly and actively. The spectacle contains a form of social relations in which individuals passively consume commodity spectacles and services, without active and creative involvement in life. The popular MTV animated series Beavis and Butt-Head provides emblematic examples of such passivity, as the two characters sit in front of television watching music videos and are usually only incited to action by something they watch on television. Representing the recline of Western civilization, their entire vocabulary and mapping of the world derives from TV, and they describe media bites as "cool" or "sucks" according to whether or not the images conform to their preferred forms of sex and violence (see Kellner 1995a and Best and Kellner 1998). For scopophiles like Beavis and Butt-Head, life is played out video by video, an endless rerun of hype and banality.
For Debord, the correlative to the Spectacle is the Spectator, the passive viewer and consumer of a social system predicated on submission and conformity. In contrast to the stupor of consumption, Debord and the Situationists champion active, creative, and imaginative practice, in which individuals create their own "situations," their own passionate existential events, fully participating in the production of everyday life, their own individuality, and, ultimately, a new society. Thus, to the passivity of the spectator, the Situationists contrast the active and oppositional subject which constructs its own everyday life against the demands of the spectacle (to buy, consume, conform, etc.). The concept of the spectacle therefore generates a distinction between passivity and activity and consumption and production, condemning passive consumption of spectacle as an alienation from human potentiality for creativity and imagination.
The concept also entails distinctions between the artificial and the real, and the abstract and the concrete. Unlike real human needs for creativity and community, commodity wants and spectacles are artificial, with capitalism endlessly multiplying desires for the latest gadget or product line, while creating a fantasy world of imagined self-realization and happiness. In place of concrete events and relations with others, the spectacle substitutes abstract images, commodity fantasies, and relations with technology. The spectacle escalates abstraction to the point where one no longer lives in the world per se--"inhaling and exhaling all the powers of nature" (Marx)--but in an abstract image of the world. "Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation" (Debord #1), producing the "philosophization of reality" (#19). By this Debord means that spectacle and image constitute an ersatz reality, an ideal world of meanings and values to be consumed by the commodity self. The realization of philosophy, as conceived by Marx, entailed the abolition of "philosophy"--i.e. of an abstract ideology constituted above and against the concrete conditions of social existence--and the synthesis of theory and practice in revolutionary praxis in which individuals transform their conditions of life. For Marx, revolutionary praxis seeks to realize the ideals of the Enlightenment, creating equality, freedom, individuality, and democracy as the form of social life, thus actualizing Western culture's highest philosophical ideals.
The philosophization of reality, on the other hand, separates thought from action as it idealizes and hypostatizes the world of the spectacle. It converts direct experience into a specular and glittering universe of images and signs, where instead of constituting their own lives, individuals contemplate the glossy surfaces of the commodity world and adopt the psychology of a commodity self that defines itself through consumption and image, look, fashion, and style, as derived from the world of the spectacle. Spectators of the spectacle project themselves into a phantasmagoric fantasy world of stars, celebrities, and stories, in which individuals compensate for unlived lives by identifying with sports heros and events, movie and television celebrities, and the lifestyles and scandals of the rich and infamous.
Hence, many individuals in the society of spectacle constitute themselves in terms of celebrity image, look, and style. Media celebrities are the icons and role models, the stuff of dreams who the dreamers of the spectacle emulate and adulate. But these are precisely the ideals of a consumer society whose models promote the accumulation of capital by defining personality in terms of image, forcing one into the clutches and cliches of the fashion, cosmetic, and style industries. Mesmerized by the spectacle, subjects move farther from their immediate emotional reality and desires, and closer to the domination of corporately controlled consumption: "the more [one] contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires ... his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him" (Debord #30). The world of the spectacle thus becomes the "real" world of excitement, pleasure, and meaning, whereas everyday life is devalued and insignificant by contrast. Within the abstract society of the spectacle, the image thus becomes the highest form of commodity reification: "The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image" (#34).
Debord emphasizes the super-reification of image-objects as a massive unreality, an inversion of reality and illusion. The spectacle is "the autonomous movement of the non-living" (#2). The actual class divisions of society, for example, are abolished in the spectacle and replaced with signs of unified consumption which address everyone equally as consumers. But, like Feuerbach and Marx, Debord saw not simply the blurring of illusion and reality, but the authentication of illusion as more real than the real itself. "Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance" (#10).
Thus, we believe that Debord's analysis of the spectacle continues to be relevant, even more so than during the period in which he formulated the term. Yet we claim that we are in a more advanced stage of the spectacle, which we call the interactive spectacle, that involves the creation of cultural spaces and forms which present exciting possibilities for creativity and empowerment of individuals, as well as novel forms of seduction and domination. The stage of the spectacle described by Debord, congruent with Sartre's analysis of the fate of subjectivity in the present age, was that of the consumption of spectacles in which individual subjects were positioned to be compliant spectators and consumers of commodities and mass media. In this earlier conjuncture, the subject sat more or less passively in front of a movie or television screen, or was a slightly more active spectator of sporting events or commodity spectacles in stores or malls. This phase elicited analyses of the domination of the subject by the object, and categories of passivity, seriality, separation, and alienation described the decline of agency and transformative praxis.
In the previous stage of the spectacle, the media and technology were seen as powerful control mechanisms keeping individuals numb, fragmented, and docile, watching and consuming, rather than acting and doing. Yet the spectacle was not always as monolithic, determining, and powerful as some believed, nor were spectators mere dupes or conduits of manipulation. For the last several decades, work in media theory and cultural studies has challenged simplistic "hypodermic needle" models that assume individuals are merely injected with ideology, and has analyzed the ways viewers read texts critically and against the grain, and subvert or challenge power relations in their everyday life (see Kellner 1990 and 1995). However, the subject was arguably not as self-constituting as later advocates of the "active audience" within British cultural studies and elsewhere would maintain in the 1980s (see the critique of the latter in Kellner 1995a and of the Situationist concepts in Best and Kellner 1997, Chapter Three).
Thus, our challenge is to theorize forms of domination and manipulation and agency and resistance in the previous and current phases of the spectacle. We must do so with the realization that the spectacle itself has today evolved into a new stage of the interactive spectacle, which comprises new technologies (unforeseen by Debord) that allow a more active participation of the subject in (what remains) the spectacle. The subject of the new stage of spectacle is more active and new interactive technologies like the computer, multimedia, and virtual reality devices make possible more participation, albeit of limited and ambivalent types. Accordingly, we contrast a more dynamic and creative construction of cybersituations with manipulative and pacifying modes of the interactive spectacle.
Cybersituations against the Spectacle
Today the revolutionary project stands accused before the tribunal
of history--accused of having failed, of having engendered a new
alienation. This amounts to recognizing that the ruling society
has proved capable of defending itself, on all levels of reality,
much better than revolutionaries expected. Not that it has become
more tolerable. Revolution has to be reinvented, that's all.
Internationale Situationniste #6 (August 1991)
The trajectories and effects of the interactive spectacle are far from clear and we can offer here but a few speculative thoughts on a condition still unfolding. To begin, we believe that the interaction between subject and object, between individuals and technology, celebrated by cybertheorists like Sherry Turkle (1996) and others, exaggerates the interactivity and the break with previous forms of culture and subjectivity. On one hand, as we suggested above, the previous stage was not as passive as Debord claimed. On the other hand, contemporary forms of the interactive spectacle are not as emancipatory and creative as many cyberdigerati claim. Whereas we are ready to concede a more interactive dimension to the current stage of the spectacle and a more energetic role for the subject, we also see something of a collapse of the distinction between subject and object occurring that has disturbing implications, as individuals implode into an ever denser technological network. While we would not go as far as Baudrillard in postulating the triumph of the object in contemporary postmodern culture (see the discussion in Kellner 1989b: 153ff), we recognize that the cyberspectacle, like its predecessors in media culture, is highly seductive and may constitute new forms of alienation and domination.
For example, many of the forms of cyberculture being promoted do not advance genuine interaction and instead wrap subjects more insidiously within the tentacles of the consumer society. Thus, instead of merely watching television, beer in hand, today someone can voice an opinion by phone, fax, or email to participate in polls, or to respond or argue with the hosts of talks shows and their guests. Rather than the customary beta-wave stupor induced by TV, the cybersubject can voice an opinion. Yet one should not exaggerate the significance of such activity. A Pepsi commercial on MTV promoting the 1998 MTV music video awards emphasized the fact that the video of the year award would be selected by the viewers through Internet and phone calls live during the show; the commercial dramatized "the power of choice" and reminded us that "you are in charge of your destiny," equating the ability to vote for an MTV music video award with personal and social power. In such fashion, the interactive spectacle attempts to seduce viewers into playing its game and equates virtual participation with empowerment and destiny.
Furthermore, there is typically a structuring of the protocols of interaction on computer networks and a monitoring and manipulation of communication in mainstream media shows, like talk radio and television, or in websites and television programs that solicit viewer opinions through fax, telephone, or email. That is, often "wizards" or list-serve administrators can take people off of lists, censor postings, and limit the type and extent of interaction. And interactive mainstream media such as CNN call-in programs or discussion programs that solicit viewers to email or fax comments for instant dissemination are monitored and controlled, as are MS-NBC television and websites that incorporate live viewer input and most websites of media corporations that allow interaction and discussion. While these are interesting developments in the history of the media, they do not constitute a democratizing, empowering, or genuinely interactive culture and are continuous in some ways with the media spectacles of the previous stage, although they integrate the consumer and audience in more engaging ways into the spectacle.
Hence, "interactive TV" is not only an oxymoron, it is also an ideological concealment of the fact that the stage and props of discussion are already in place and tightly controlled (a producer screens calls, the host can instantly cut off a radical perspective that may seep through), and that individuals are still serialized in private homes. "Interactive TV" is therefore an alibi that functions in the same way that the "open hallways" of Congress (now threatened by the summer 1998 shootings of two Capitol police officers) masks the fact that, open or blocked, the citizens still do not get behind the closed doors of establishment power politics.
In an attempt to further ensnare the benighted couch potatoes of consumer capitalism, the entertainment industry has on the horizon a new form of "interactive TV" which allows the viewer to be their own director, to call their own shots, to edit their own videos, or even to project their own image onto the screen (especially enticing with porn videos) to "interact" with the programmed scenario and plot. Thus, we can now go into the TV, becoming a part of it as it has become a part of us. With every passing day, people become more and more like Max Renn in David Cronenberg's film Videodrome, who has video cassettes inserted into his body and video fantasies implanted into his mind, a new technobody satirized in "Television Man" by the Talking Heads:
I'm looking and I'm dreaming for the first time
I'm inside and I'm outside at the same time
And everything is real
Do I like the way I feel? ...
Television made me what I am ...
(I'm a) television man.
Web-TV already is providing an interactive spectacle combining the television industry and the Internet, allowing the accessing of data bases, web sites, and chat rooms, as one watches television. Further, Internet technology enables ordinary individuals to make their everyday life a spectacle, with live sex on the Internet (usually for a fee) and even a live birth on June 16, 1998 (by a woman who, it turns out, had a felony record for various scams). Moreover, camcorders, or "Webcams," record and send live over the Internet the daily activities of new webstars like JenniCam who receives over 60,000 hits a day to watch her go through mundane activities. Or AnaCam can been seen "on her couch (she has no bed), looking bored, eating a pizza, having kinky sex with her boyfriend--sometimes all at the same time" (Newsweek, June 1, 1998: 64). All over the world, individuals are setting up Webcam sites, often charging individuals fees for access. The latter are often run by sex professionals who offer nude women, frequent sex, and other titilating material on their sites, producing round-the-clock full penetration SpyCams. WebCam sites are also contemplating posting advertising (Salon, April 27, 1999) and an enterprising Gay Frat House Voyeur Cam offers 12 hidden camera angles including "butt cam," "dick cam," and "tan-line cam," not to forget the "toilet cam" (see the description in Suck, http://www.suck.com/fish/99/01/21).
Hence, whereas Truman Burbank, in the summer 1998 hit film The Truman Show, discovered to his horror that his life was being televised and sought to escape the video panopticon, many individuals in cyberworld choose to make televisual spectacles of their everyday life, such as the Webcam "stars" or the participants in the MTV "reality" series Real World and Road Rules. These sites seem to be highly addictive, pointing to deep-seated voyereurism and narcissism in the society of the interactive spectacle, in which individuals have a seemingly insatiable lust to become part of the spectacle and to involve oneself in it more intimately.
As the recent Columbine High School shooting demonstrated, there is also a dark and potentially dangerous side to the interactive spectacle in the form of violent video games. While we by no means intend to reduce the complex array of causes underlying the epidemic of teen killings in the last few years to the leisure activities of youth, it cannot be denied that a steady feast of media and interactive violence will have an impact on many impressionable minds that at the very least desensitizes them to violence in society. Interactive video games like "Doom" are particularly alarming in that they implicate young people in the violent images and actions in a far deeper way than passively viewing violence on TV, and that they blur the boundaries between reality and unreality. The "reality-effect" of some games is such that it even includes a weapon that gives a strong "kick" like a real gun. There are even examples of teenkillers going on a shooting rampage, even though they have never fired a real gun. In December 1997, "Michael Carneal, a 14 year old computer geek and war game freak who had never used a real gun, walked into the lobby of Heath High School in Paducah, Kentucky, and opened fire into a prayer circle, killing three of his classmates" (http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/19990523mag-keegan.html).
As noted, virtual reality devices promise to take individuals into an even higher and more powerful realm of spectacle interaction in which individuals may think that they are interacting with a real environment, rather than a projected simulation, be it a war game or pornographic fantasy. There is something now called "the intensor chair" that provides various sensations and stimulations, as the viewer sits within the midst of a virtual environment, playing war and action games. So far VR devices have been limited to games like "Dactyl Nightmare," where one dons a head-mounted display to fight other characters and avoid destruction by large winged creatures in a Darwinian battle for survival, or one enters a high-tech virtual "movie ride," often based on film characters like RoboCop. Some of these experiences make possible a new level of multi-sensorium spectacles that deploy giant movie screens, 3-D images, and vibrating chairs, something like the "feelies" envisioned by Huxley in Brave New World.
Of course, while more interesting and engaging than plain-old TV, such "virtual" and "interactive" technology merely seduces the viewer into an even deeper tie to the spectacle and there is no substitute for getting off one's ass and becoming involved in genuinely interactive citizenship and democracy. Indeed, advocates of the superiority of cyberworlds denigrate the body as mere "meat" and "real life" ("RL") as a boring intrusion into the pleasures of the media and computer worlds of cyberspace. We would avoid, however, both demonizing cyberspace as a fallen realm of alienation and dehumanization as many of its technophobic philosophical critics (i.e. Virilio 1998 or Borgmann 1992), just as we would refrain from celebrating it as a new realm of emancipation, democracy, and creative activity.
We distinguish therefore between a more inventive and self- valorizing construction of cybersituations and the pseudo- interaction of the corporate-produced interactive spectacle. Extending Debord's conception of the construction of situations into the spheres of new technologies, we suggest that producing cybersituations involves individuals engaging in activities that fulfill their own potential, further their interests, and promote oppositional activity aiming at progressive change and alternative cultural and social forms. This could involve using cyberspace to advance struggles in the real world, such as a political demonstration, action, or organization. It might include the construction of a website, computer-mediated space such as chat rooms, or discussion groups that provide alternative information and culture. Such cybersituations could engage individuals who are usually excluded from public discussions and enlarge the sphere of democratic participation. In these self or group-constructed environments, individuals can develop both form and content, using new technologies to further their own projects, to express their own views, and to interact in ways that they themselves decide.
Contructing cybersituations involves the appropriation, use, and reconstruction of technologies against the spectacle and other forms of domination, alienation, and oppression. The aesthetic strategies of the Situationists included detournement, a means of deconstructing the images of bourgeois society by exposing the hidden manipulation or repressive logic (e.g., by changing the wording of a billboard); the drive, an imaginative, hallucinatory "drift" through the urban environment (an urban variation on the surrealist stroll through the countryside); and the constructed situation, designed to unfetter, create, and experiment with desires (see the texts in Knabb 1981: 5-13, 43-47, and 50-59). There are obvious cyberequivalents of these categories, in which hacking involves a detournement within cyberspace, whereby computer activists hack into government or corporate websites, using the tools of the interactive spectacle against forms or institutions deemed to be pernicious. After the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces in May 1999, for instance, hackers broke into the NATO website protesting the action and there are several examples of hackers breaking into Pentagon and Defense Department cites to post critical messages. Hacker campaigns have also been organized against the governments of Mexico, Indonesia and others, protesting against unpopular policies by defacing official websites or bombarding government sites and servers with spamm or bombs, attempting to shut them down.
Constructing cybersituations includes the creation of an anti- McDonald's cite against the junk food corporation. This site was developed by supporters of two British activists, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, who were sued by McDonald's for distributing leaflets denouncing the corporation's low wages, advertising practices, involvement in deforestization, harvesting of animals, and promotion of junk food and an unhealthy diet. The activists counterattacked and with help from supporters, organized a McLibel campaign, assembled a McSpotlight website with a tremendous amount of information criticizing the corporation, and assembled experts to testify and confirm their criticisms. The three-year civil trial, Britain's longest ever, ended ambiguously on June 19, 1997, with the Judge defending some of McDonald's claims against the activists, while substantiating other of their criticisms (Vidal 1997: 299-315). The case created unprecedented bad publicity for McDonald's which was circulated throughout the world via Internet websites, mailing lists, and discussion groups. The McLibel/McSpotlight group claims that their website was accessed over 15 million times and was visited over two million times in the month of the verdict alone (Vidal 1997: 326); the Guardian reported that the site "claimed to be the most comprehensive source of information on a multinational corporation ever assembled" and was part of one of the more successful anticorporate campaigns (February 22, 1996; the website is at http://www.mcspotlight.org/).
There are by now copious examples of how the Internet and cyberdemocracy have been used in oppositional political movements. A large number of insurgent intellectuals are already making use of these new technologies and public spheres in their political projects. The peasants and guerrilla armies struggling in Chiapas, Mexico from the beginning used computer databases, pirate radio, and other forms of media to circulate their struggles and ideas. Every manifesto, text, and bulletin produced by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation who occupied land in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas in 1994 was immediately circulated through the world via computer networks. In January 1995, when the Mexican government moved against the Zapatistas, computer networks were used to inform and mobilize individuals and groups throughout the world to support their struggles against repressive state action. There were many demonstrations in support of the rebels throughout the world, prominent journalists, human rights observers, and delegations travelled to Chiapas in solidarity and to report on the uprising, and the Mexican and U.S. governments were bombarded with messages arguing for negotiations rather than repression. The Mexican government accordingly did not pursue their usual policy of harsh repression of dissident groups, and as of this writing in Fall 1998, they have continued to negotiate with the insurgents, although there was an assassination of perceived Zapatista forces by local death squads in early 1998--which once again triggered significant Internet-generated pressures of the Mexican government to prosecute the perpetrators (for more examples of technopolitics see Kellner 1995b and 1997).
Obviously, surfing the web can be an example of the Debordian derive, in which one abstracts oneself from the cares of everyday life and seeks adventure, novelty, and the unexpected on the Internet. Such "cruising" is equivalent to the activity of the urban flaneur, celebrated by Walter Benjamin, in which one drifts though the hypertexts of cyberworld, clicking from one destination and spectacle to another, sometimes merely observing and sometimes participating in more interactive endeavor.
Of course, one can get sucked into the tenacles of interactive Internet spectacle, trapped in the interstices of the web, unable to connect or articulate with the outside world. The distinction between creative and empowering cybersituations vs. (pseudo)interactive and disempowering spectacle is thus often difficult to make, but we believe that some such distinction is necessary in order to provide critical perspectives on and alternatives to the forms of interactive spectacle now evolving. While pseudo-interaction provides escape into an ersatz (virtual) reality, constructing cybersituations enable individuals to create and interact more productively with others in their everyday lives and to struggle to transform culture and society, generating new spaces of connection, freedom, and creativity. Constructing cybersituations thus provides potential articulations between cyberworld and the real world, while pseudo-interaction merely entangles one ever deeper in the matrices of escapism and corporate entertainment.
Hence, "constructing a situation" in cyberspace involves producing an interactive realm that allows individuals to articulate their needs and interests, and to connect with people of similar outlets and desires. It can also involve a refunctioning of technology, as when members of the French public reconstructed the Minitel from a centralized source of official government information to an interactive space of connection and discourse from below (see Feenberg 1995). In the case of new MP3 technologies, both known and unknown artists can directly release their music to a listening audience without the mediation of the record industries that exploit artists, control artistic expression, and often enforce a bland homogeneity of available music. MP3 also allows any person with a computer, the right software, and a little technical savvy to be their own DJ and radio station (even if sometimes distributing music illegally), thereby promoting more diversity of production and consumption of music.
Of course, such distinctions are ideal types, since each individual is constructed in some way or another by the social environment in which one lives and even in the most controlled and structured interactive cyberspace there is more participation and involvement than in passively consuming television or film images in the solitude of one's own subjectivity. One is never totally free of social influence and in cyberspace all technologically- mediated communication is structured to some extent by computer protocols, codes, and programs. Moreover, we are not against the amusement itself offered by the interactive and media spectacles which we have been describing. Rather, we are criticizing the organization of an entire society organized around amusement, commodification, and consumption, in which commercial interests dominate the forms of culture and individuals are trained as passive consumers of the spectacle who are isolated in solipsistic activity and cut off from social practice and the ability to help create one's social world and everyday life.
In any case, the new forms of interactive spectacle are highly
ambiguous. On one hand, they can provide a more creative and active
working with media and culture than viewing television or film
and can promote social transformation rather than passivity. On
the other hand, they implicate individuals into technological
systems that abstract individuals from their everyday life in
favor of new virtual worlds, the modes and effects of which we
are still struggling to grasp. Yet while the form of technologically-mediated
interaction is always structured, limited, and coded, new technologies
allow for the creation of alternative cultural spaces that can
attack and subvert the established culture. In this new cultural
space, one can express views and promote alternatives previously
excluded from mainstream media, and engage in new forms of democratic
communication and political debate. Consequently, the new cultural
forums have many more voices and individuals participating than
during the era of Big Mainstream Media in which giant corporations
controlled both the form and content of what could be spoken and
shown. Cyberdemocracy and technopolitics are too recent to adequately
appraise their possibilities, limitations, and effects, but they
provide the possibility of the sort of subversive politics and
the use of the tools of the spectacle against the capitalist spectacle
that Debord promoted. Hence, in the Age of the Internet and new
technologies, the ideas of the Situationist International continue
to be of use in comprehending capitalist society and culture and
challenge us to invent ways to subvert and transform it.
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