The self-emancipation of our time is an emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth. This ‘historic mission of establishing truth in the world’ can be carried out neither by the isolated individual nor by atomized and manipulated masses… (Guy Debord)
Early in the summer of 1991, I was 10 years old, living in Hammond, Indiana. The staff of Thomas Alva Edison Elementary gathered all of us to reveal a time capsule from its construction in 1938, full of trinkets, toy cars and childhood letters to a future student body. I wondered if anyone who wrote those letters was still around. I never investigated further and there isn’t an NPR story where I could track them down, trying to solve some incredible mystery. It was a box of commodities and memories, some stuff.
As I go through that quote by Debord, I recognize it’s a smearing. A close-up shot of a submarine filling with water, a solo hand scratching against the glass of a blast door. It’s lapsed hope, circa 1967. It’s not that I’m nostalgic for it. I wasn’t even alive. It would take another 14 yrs for me to hatch. Another 20 to get up to speed, another 10 for what? What did I do with my youth? Is it still happening, is it static? As animals, it’s shelf-life. As cosmic voyagers, a drop of blood in the void. I have tried to live mine, still trying. The first entry in this series was acerbic, as though it had pooled inside me all these years. Passing a kidney stone, throwing up after a good party.
It felt like hot grease in my stomach. After John Kerry lost the 2004 election, I said that things wouldn’t change in this country until everything got really bad. I’m not entirely sure if things are really bad or better? How do you qualify that now? I don’t want to look for it or past it. Just going to cool down a bit, get the story from the wire.
[The Spectacle can be defeated] …only and always by the class that is able to dissolve all classes by reducing all power to the de-alienating form of realized democracy — to councils in which practical theory verifies itself and surveys its own actions. Only there are individuals ‘directly linked to world history’ — there where dialogue has armed itself to impose its own conditions.
I enter my bedroom, turn on the desktop computer, look through video files and select. Noise fills the room. On my notebook computer, I scroll through this page. My smartphone a few feet away, pushing notifications from the outside world. Three simulations, little maker machines. These devices are always on. I watch hours of footage, creating catalogs of film shots in my head. It’s research, habit, obsession. I like to walk through the steps of a musician’s discography. I’ll research the periods of output, collect the albums, annotate the vinyl sides. Then I’ll research the singles, outtakes, relevant live tracks from the era, always trying to capture the loose ends. Cavernous time.
There was a gnawing headache at the base of my head when I composed the first entry in this series. It seemed perfect, a kind of ongoing sickness, the overflow of lava into the concrete structures of my life. Think of the science fiction film that ends with post-apocalyptic survivors restarting the oral tradition through cinema stories. That’s the Spectacle. Storytelling from the imagination of film stills and shots, and each shot is at once a connection and a disconnection in the mind. Humans, we talk. We talk a lot and we retell those shots, already today, until our brains are full of names, dates, feelings that we never possessed in our real life.
Beyond industrial production, we produce things that shape, interpret, alter and appropriate reality. Reality, as I define it, is human experience collectively communicated. These things we produce are made in such great numbers that they appear as a reflective view of society, or as Debord puts it, “an immense accumulation of spectacles.”
Every day I wake up. What is it I’ve been fighting for all these years? What is the Spectacle? My adherence to Debord has produced a reflexive depression. Negative patterns, emotional waves that give way to a lot of wasted hope and imaginative power. I’ve crumbled under the weight of this ideology, falling apart and trying to push it out of my mind. I’ve wondered if I’m strong enough to drive away from the wreckage. I can’t say that the Spectacle isn’t here, it permeates the landscape, nuclear fallout. The Day After, produced for television in 1983 tells the tale of a full-scale nuclear attack on the world. It’s still the most-watched television broadcast, at just a little over 100 million viewers.
The things the spectacle presents as eternal are based on change, and must change as their foundations change. The spectacle is totally dogmatic, yet it is incapable of arriving at any really solid dogma. Nothing stands still for it. This instability is the spectacle’s natural condition, but it is completely contrary to its natural inclination.
The Spectacle is separation perfected. The shots/images, devoid of context, collect into our social relationships. Our discourse becomes deceived, the inverse of direct experience replicates as a pseudo-direct experience. We become stuck in between worlds, like a virus, life and non-life. Capitalistic societies no longer produce alienation, because alienation has become the root of society. The Spectacle ends up being an affirmation of the choices made by the ghosts, specters of previous generations, old manifestations of reality.
Since the first time I read about it, I’ve always seen the Spectacle as a smooth micro-layer of perfectly invisible skin. It drapes itself over objects, Spinoza’s god. Macabre fiber optic cables running from land mine to land mine. Right there, I recognize part of the error in thinking this way. It’s the same rationale that makes people crazy.
In December 1979, Peter Sellers released his penultimate film, Being There. Sellers plays Chance, a gardener, who has been living in the house of “the old man” since he was a child, never leaving, only caring for the garden, obsessed with television. We never learn of the circumstances that brought him here. When the old man dies, he is ejected into the streets of Washington DC. After being hit by the car of an elderly mogul, Chance’s 1920s etiquette and wealthy looking clothes bring him into the bourgeois circle of the day. With a mentality of a 10-year-old child, a kind of half-wit, his total lack of insight is seen as insight. Chance is a variation of the Spectacle acknowledging the Spectacle.
Asked if he’d like to write a book, Chance responds, “I can’t write.” The reaction is perfect, “Of course not, who can nowadays? Listen, I have trouble writing a postcard to my children. Look, we can give you a six-figure advance. I’ll provide you with the best ghostwriter, proofreaders…” Chance responds, “I can’t read.” “Of course you can’t! No one has the time! We, we glance at things, we watch television.” “I like to watch TV,” Chance says.
It ushers in the ’80s, the blank approach, the last shards of life-lived disappearing in the cloud of time. The gleaming rabid fangs of the Reagan administration just inches away from civilization, that rust of life always in contemplation. Debord calls the Spectacle, “a negation that has taken a visible form.” The monotony of day-to-day existence, the deep throes of depression, and how incredibly inconsequential life feels, that loop. Existence isn’t an easy place to be. Most of the time, I’m not entirely sure how close we are to crazy. I’d imagine we aren’t that far off.
Nostalgia stems from this very posit. There is a place that was once magical to us, a place sound and calm, always in the past, always slipping away in our minds. It’s hard. You get so far into an idea, an idea like this, and you can’t pull away from it. I’m starved to find someway out and I’m not sure if I can. The terrain crumbles and you start over. I can. We can. Years ago, when I was first stepping into this arena, I thought I had found the secret teachings in Ezra Pound’s Cantos.
Critical theory must communicate itself in its own language — the language of contradiction, which must be dialectical in both form and content. It must be an all-inclusive critique and it must be grounded in history. It is not a ‘zero degree of writing,’ but its reversal. It is not a negation of style, but the style of negation.
As a kid my parents had a water-bed. At night, I would sneak into it, moving into the corner, sleeping below the mass of water, pressing against the wood. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.” My grandmother sang this a lot. I like to think that I was protected from the Spectacle. It wasn’t even a world for me yet. As a kid, there is a lack of definition in the mind. You can go for long stretches of the day uninhabited by anything more than your imagination. I’m in bed, all the lights are off, the room is fully dark and in that darkness you can create shapes, ideas, monsters, madness, a new world. It wasn’t until I was 5 or 6 that I started watching television all the time. You work so hard for sensory experiences and then the heaviness of media claims you.
It’s got all that flexible meaning, the total theory of modern society. It’s got the bullet that splintered through Guy Debord’s heart on 30 November, 1994. The raw, ferocious disgust that I wrote through in the first of this series rips away at me still. It fills me with dread and anger until it fragments over the guardrail. I want a different life. I want the Post-Spectacular World. I want something that exists and cannot exist. I want the long-con. I know, the Spectacle is all-persuasive, holding onto everything and everyone. It’s totally real. It’s also just a shape in the dark. There must be some way to have a world that isn’t just the apocalypse; a long line of traps set and triggered automatically, living in this delete.
- NICHOLAS DEBOER
Nicholas DeBoer is a poet, collagist, activist, and chaos magician living in NYC. He is the author of many chapbooks and broadsides, as well as a co-editor for Elderly with Jamie Townsend and Cheer + Hope Press with Geoffrey Olsen. He also is a member of the Potlatch Discordian Network, a magickal organization operating out of Ridgely, MD. Currently he is prepping “The Singes”, the first in his epic arc “The Slip”, for publication. He is also also most certainly alive.
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