Tag Archives: the Spectacle

the banality of the sacrificial truth

With the Covid pandemic, the sacrificial truth of capitalism came out. How so? We are openly asked to sacrifice (some of) our lives now to keep the economy going, by which I am referring to how some of Trump’s followers directly demanded that people over 60 should accept to die to keep the US capitalist way of life alive… Of course, workers in dangerous professions (miners, steelworkers, whale hunters) were risking their lives for centuries, not to mention the horrors of colonization where up to half of the indigenous population was wiped out. But now the risk is directly spelled out and not only for the poor. Can capitalism survive this shift? I think it cannot: it undermines the logic of an endlessly postponed enjoyment that enables it to function.

You know the world has been turned on its head (or on its feet, depending on how you saw the world before, I guess) when Žižek starts coming across as an optimist… though I guess you could counter that by saying that he’s consistently contrarian. Anyway, point being: I do not share his optimism regarding capitalism’s inability to survive the shift he’s describing here. It’s certainly possible that it might not survive it, but far from a fait accompli—to say otherwise is to fall into the same trap that Matt Colquhoun observes in folk who claim that “capitalist realism is over”, as if saying it were sufficient to replace the hard work of making it so. (Disclaimer: I’ve definitely done this myself. Magical thinking is very tempting in trying times.)

That said, Žižek’s observation of the pandemic’s exposure of the sacrificial truth of capitalism rings clear, at least to me, echoing as it does the bioethical implications of the pandemic that I discussed (or, more accurately, ranted about) months ago. But the neoliberal order’s response to (and incorporation of) that exposure was already then apparent, as manifest in the almost immediate establishment of global league tables of national death rates: the logic of market competition applied itself immediately, and we’re still arguing over who dun covid bestest, months later, despite it being far from over.

Furthermore, the same logic is starting to be applied to the sacrificial sectors: a competition to decide who gets the putative vaccine first, who gets to stay the safest for the longest time while we wait for it. Perhaps the Hunger Game vibes of this contest will eventually provoke some kind of pushback, as Žižek believes. But to return to Fisher, we’d do well to remember and respect capitalism’s ability to absorb, incorporate and commodify the fiercest attacks made upon it. The only counter to that paradigm is (a return to) a more communal, situated and grass-roots form of political organisation… and the medium-as-message constitution of the systems through which we are obliged to communicate and organise in lockdown and lockdown-adjacent circumstances are demonstrably and explicitly geared to exactly the opposite social dynamic. It is notable that the only political activity of any vitality at the moment is happening in the streets, in defiance of lockdown measures.

Is that an argument against lockdown measures? It’s not meant as one, but it might well be taken as such, I suppose. My point is that during lockdown, those privileged enough to be in lockdown experience the world outside only through multiple layers of mediation; the (very real) risk to older folk and the immune-compromised appears as part of the spectacle, but the (equally real) risk to the people embedded in the supply chains (in one’s own nation, but also far beyond it) which make living in lockdown possible appears far less frequently, if at all. The risk is indeed “directly spelled out”, as Žižek says—but to assume that this spelling-out of the universality of risk won’t result in people falling back on the old class and national divisions as a ready-made template for the (re)distribution of said risk seems optimistic in the worst possible passivity of that term. (OK, sure, the WHO has said everyone needs to pull together—but at this point it should be obvious that, for the most part, state apparatuses are taking only what they consider to be politically efficacious from the WHO’s pronouncements; an soft-pedalled argument for internationalism is unlikely to leave much of a mark, I’m assuming.)

After all, that (re)distribution of risk is always-already ongoing—and the metasystem’s effacement of consequences, now amplified still further by lockdown’s forcing us into a situation where our perception of the situation is so thoroughly and seamlessly mediated and curated by algorithms intended to flatter our pre-existing perspectives, makes it oh-so-easy to pretend that it isn’t. That which is appears is good; that which is good appears.

Indistinguishable from magic? Extractivism, the infrastructural metasystem, and the obfuscation of consequences

This is a video-paper I prepared for a virtual conference called Extraction: Tracing the Veins, running this week under the aegis of the Political Ecology Research Center at Massey University, NZ and Wageningen Univeristy, NL.

My paper is a part of the Technology & Infrastructure panel, and if you think mine sounds of any interest at all, then I’d ask that you go and give my co-panellists the same attention you would grant to me.

You can leave feedback and questions on the panel’s webpage if you want to, or drop a comment here, or even leave one on the Y*uT*be page for the video if you prefer.

It was an unusual experience, producing a video for a conference paper—not really so different a process in terms of writing the piece and developing the slides, but recording and editing the script and compiling the video was an interesting new challenge. It feels a little amateur, but I suspect that’s a legacy of having been a sound engineer in a former life: all I can hear are the cheap production values, and the hurriedness of a project completed in the run-up to a relocation. BUT: it’ll be easier and faster next time, and hopefully I’ll have more time to plan and integrate the production into the drafting of the actual paper itself. I have a feeling that there’ll be a lot more of this sort of work in academia in the near- to medium-term future…

neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental

Medium-length essay here by Rob Nixon, whose “slow violence” concept was briefly introduced to me back in early March at a little symposium thing in Utrecht; I’ve acquired the book, obvs, but it’ll likely be a while before I get to it, and I wanted to put up a quick placeholder for it on the digital wall-of-academic-crazy that this blog is slowly becoming. This, I would assume, is the thesis of the book in a nutshell:

We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.

Nixon’s task in this essay is more than a little inside-baseball, as it’s for the USian Chronicle of Higher Ed. He’s talking about the invisibility of slow violence in the humanities, which is just starting to fall away. The argument goes that Environmental Literary Studies / EcoCriticism and Postcolonial Studies developed in parallel, but rarely spoke to one another thanks to assumptions of divergence and incompatibility in subjects and theory alike; this dialogue is starting to emerge, says Nixon, but needs to be deepened. EcoCrit is particularly parochial (at least in the US, by Nixon’s account: “an offshoot of American Studies”; I can’t speak to its breadth or narrowness elsewhere with confidence, as it’s not my beat). To interrogate this parochialism, Nixon takes up the figure of martyred Ogoni author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, executed in 1995 by the prevailing regime in Nigeria for a lifetime’s resistance to European and American oli interests and their “attritional ruination” of Ogoni homelands:

One might surely have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than other fields of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed the gradual “ecological genocide” of his people, could find no place in the environmental canon. Was this because he was an African? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings were animated instead by the fraught relations among ethnicity, pollution, and minority rights and by the equally fraught relations among local, national, and global politics.

Some of the violence he sought to expose was direct and at gunpoint, but much of it was incremental, oblique, and slow moving.

It was not spectacular, in other words.

Nixon argues that Saro-Wiwa was illegible to EcoCrit in the US because his Africanness made it easy to tag him as a subject more suited to PoCo; at the same time, PoCo critics (in the grand tradition of Said) were dismissing environmentalism as a sort of “green imperialism”. Things have changed since then, with western activists wiser and more willing to learn from the marginalised (though Spivak would object to the use of that descriptor, as it reinforces the otherness that Nixon is seeking to undermine: marginal from what, to whom?); this is in part due to “the writer-activists, journalists, and documentary filmmakers who have helped bring news of those struggles to international audiences and, in the process, have underscored the link between social and environmental justice.” The “transnational turn” in American studies, sez Nixon, and a growing engagement with native literatures emerging from American Indian studies, “will help advance a more historically answerable and geographically expansive sense of what constitutes our environment—and which literary works we entrust to voice its parameters. For all the recent progress toward that goal, it remains a continuing, ambitious, and crucial task, not least because, for the foreseeable future, literature departments are likely to remain influential players in the greening of the humanities.”

I’m less interested in the academic politics of this stuff than the distinction in rhetorics that Nixon is driving toward with the “slow violence” concept. He claims that Global-Southern writer-activists:

… are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.

I got quite interested a while back in a spectrum of narrative logics from cinema studies, namely the spectacular and the dramatic, because it seemed to me a good way to start poking holes in the extruded product of the Hot Take Futures Factory. The spectacular logic might reductively described as the James Bay approach to storytelling (make a lot of things explode excitingly on screen, focus on moment-to-moment jeopardies and gun-point confrontations), while the dramatic logic is more driven by relationships, character growth, and a situatedness of events in contextual timespace.

(There may also be some useful cross-over here with the notion of flat and rounded characters, though the flat character is not an inferior form so much as one that does a different sort of work–particularly within the scope of modern sf, e.g. Bruce Sterling, who uses flat characters as avatars for ideas in a sometimes problematic but nonetheless powerful way.)

The spectacular logic is a thing of cinema, and for better or for worse, cinema is Hollywood’s creature, a recrudescence of Manifest Destiny and a perpetual recreation of the expansionist frontier mythology: cowboys’n’indians, heroic gunplay, a background of resource extraction, etc etc. Perhaps no surprise, then, that American studies was more drawn to such stories. I infer that the Global-Southern rhetoric thus draws more on the dramatic logic, which is precisely slower, more intimate and diffuse, less Black-Hat-White-Hat… and while I don’t know the EcoCrit or PoCo literatures that well, I’m getting strong echoes from (of course) Le Guin and Haraway, from carrier-bag stories and stayings-with-troubles, all of which suggests I need to talk more to my enviro-and-energy-humanities colleagues, and start reading more widely in fiction as well as theory. (There’s always more things to read, always more more-things-to-read…)

As a final aside, there’s probably something to say about the pandemic (whose mediatisation is entirely spectacular) using this slow violence lens (which would be a nice distraction from the way in which Agamben, while not exactly looking right about it all, is starting to look less wrong about it in a way that’s more than a little disturbing… see also Gordon White’s chaos-magickal take on the biopolitics of the pandemic). Slow violence (as distinct from spectacular violence) might be a better way to come at Oncle Bruno’s argument that the pandemic won’t necessarily make the climate change struggle more obvious and urgent to western folk, because it’s hard to make climate change spectacular without reverting into the other characteristics of such narrative forms: the spectacle is a more immediately compelling logic by comparison to the dramatic.

(But also because the effacement of extractivism’s consequences is an inevitable feature of the metamedium across which such stories are necessarily circulated–the projection/depiction of said consequences takes place upon the surface of the metasystemic prosthesis through which we collectively perform the extraction, and thus serves to efface its (and thus our) complicity in the extractivist dynamic. The machine through which the disenchantment of the world is shown to us is the same machine through which we do the disenchanting… it’s the tech-magician’s perpetual prestige, the show that never ends.)

Perhaps, because less thoroughly mediated, native and/or Global Southern narratologies are less optimised for the spectacular logic, and thus more capable of portraying the drama of slow violence. The failure, if that’s the right word, is the loss of our ability to parse such forms as familiar; if the environmental humanities can rehabilitate that collective literacy, even just a little bit, that’s surely a good thing.

(To which one might retort that the academic humanities are a pretty small bucket for a boat that’s leaking this fast… but hey, many small buckets have gotta beat arguing about who’s got the biggest one. Everyone grab what you got, and start bailing.)

the contentment of Britain

Will Davies at Teh Graun:

It’s not that democracy will end, but that it will be reduced to a set of spectacles that the government is ultimately in command of, which everyone realises are “fake” but that are sufficiently funny or soothing as to be tolerated.

This being, of course, a favourite motif of science fiction from the late 20th century: capitalist democracy as gameshow, Debord meets Dick. Or maybe those brief scenes of escape-into-media from Noon’s Vurt… which is, I suppose, just another way of saying Debord meets Dick.

Nonetheless, The People™ must get what they have asked for. I just hope for their sake that the box contains what they think it does.

A commodified, nostalgic aesthetic

” …the visual remnants of vaporwave have long outlasted its radical ideological underpinnings. Almost immediately, its pastel, geometric, softcore aesthetics were gobbled up by media platforms, in particular the image-driven platforms Tumblr and Instagram. The pastiche compositions of Arizona Iced Tea cans and old Windows desktops were very quickly made available on all these commercial interfaces, which were not only feeding on a countercultural art movement—they were likewise consuming the ghosts of an internet they had long since murdered. The critique offered by vaporwave—its defiant sense of utopia—was immediately and effectively erased, leaving only a commodified, nostalgic aesthetic. And this aesthetic detritus, its millennial pink, Memphis-esque shapes and squiggles made entirely for Instagram, became cold, devoid of joy and playfulness, something the Consumer Aesthetic Research Institute, an ad hoc, Discord-based volunteer group which runs a popular series of blogs and Facebook pages cataloging various aesthetic tendencies across the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, simply calls the “bougie design aesthetic.”

Jameson, as I’ve mentioned, saw this coming, and he teaches us a fairly succinct lesson about the demise of vaporwave:

This omnipresence of pastiche is not incompatible with a certain humor, however, nor is it innocent of all passion: it is at the least compatible with addiction—with a whole historically original consumers’ appetite for a world transformed into sheer images of itself. . . . It is for such objects that we may reserve Plato’s conception of the “simulacrum”. . . Appropriately enough, the culture of the simulacrum comes to life in a society where exchange value has been generalized to the point at which the very memory of use value is effaced, a society of which Guy Debord has observed, in an extraordinary phrase, that in it “the image has become the final form of commodity reification.”

If Guy Debord, in other words, had lived to see Instagram, he would have absolutely lost his gourd. I barely need to mention the dark side of the platform, the side that leaves people lining up for hours just to get a selfie, that has changed how we design products, furniture, even buildings and neighborhoods—all of this is well-documented. What is not so obvious is the way Instagram recycles the original aesthetics, indeed the political ethos, that arose from vaporwave and even the early internet itself, into a decontextualized set of images: the internet has become nostalgia in search of a platform.”

Kate “McMansionHell” Wagner at The Baffler.