This is the text I wrote in preparation for giving a talk tonight at the exhibition “New Situationists” at the ProArts Gallery off Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. I’m not going to read it, but I wanted to sort through my train of thought ahead of time. This is probably rather more articulate than I’ll actually be in person!
The Situationists seem newly relevant, although for many radicals they never lost their acuity. In late February even the New York Times ran an op-ed by Robert Zaretsky called “Trump and the ‘Society of the Spectacle’, arguing for the relevance of Guy Debord’s seminal work:
With the presidency of Donald Trump, the Debordian analysis of modern life resonates more deeply and darkly than perhaps even its creator thought possible, anticipating, in so many ways, the frantic and fantastical, nihilistic and numbing nature of our newly installed government. In Debord’s notions of “unanswerable lies,” when “truth has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to pure hypothesis,” and the “outlawing of history,” when knowledge of the past has been submerged under “the ceaseless circulation of information, always returning to the same list of trivialities,” we find keys to the rise of trutherism as well as Trumpism.
In his later work, “Comments on the Society of the Spectacle,” published almost 20 years after the original, Debord seemed to foresee the spectacular process that commenced on Jan. 20. “The spectacle proves its arguments,” he wrote, “simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed …. Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte.”
Actually I think it’s a curious problem to apply this analysis to Trump’s rise, implying as it does that the Spectacle has somehow risen anew on January 20. The point of the “Comments” in the late 1980s when it was written, was to argue that the Spectacle had become fully integrated between east and west, and that the ability of spectacular power to create its own circular logic depended on their being a basically univocal media universe. This was probably most visible in our impression of what life in the one-party state of the Soviet Union was like, but his argument, as I understood it, was that we too were living in a parallel state, where despite apparent “differences” and a so-called “free press” the information in our society too was that of a univocal perspective. I’ve often argued that we live in a one-party state with two factions. Sure the Republicans and Democrats disagree about various priorities, but when it comes to US empire, the rule of property, the dependence on militarism, oil, and autos, and the attendant shaping of the fabric of life to protect and extend the rule of billionaires and their corporate and governmental institutions, no real disagreement exists. In this sense, the true is a moment of the false, as Debord put it, and the deep truth of our lives is never acknowledged—that we are enslaved to a system that allows no real alternatives, and our “freedom” is always overwhelmingly contingent on our obedience, on our complicity in reproducing this world. The hyper-trivialization of mass entertainment, sports, and so-called politics has reinforced this logic for decades, whether the titular head of government was Bush, Clinton, or Obama.
Trump represents a kind of backwards challenge to the Spectacle. Of course his barely literate twitter feed has created a self-referential world unmoored from verifiable facts, a world that—incredibly—millions of people seem to believe in. Trump goes round and round, repeats his Big Lies incessantly and claims that anyone who says different is a the real liar. He and Bannon and the alt-right press are trying to establish hegemony for their version of the self-referential and circular Spectacle, but in so doing, they have underscored that there is not just one Spectacle at this juncture. What Trumpism has done is to crack apart the consensus view of the world. No longer is there a univocal media world full of self-referential platitudes about this being the best of all possible worlds, and anyway, the only one possible (don’t forget Margaret Thatcher’s T.I.N.A. admonition: There Is No Alternative!). Now we have the funhouse mirror Trump world that invites the anti-intellectual and resentful white America to hide in it to avoid the complicated realities of science, multicultural society, rising gender nonconformity, etc. The formal opposition is the previously self-satisfied world of the center-right mass media, the networks and CNN and big city newspapers, who are trying to come to grips with having their hold on power shattered. They are having to actually engage in adversarial reporting, a long lost art. For many of us it is kind of exhilarating to see journalism trying to crack the daily tidal wave of lies, distortions, and distractions. But the premise of this conflict is that Trump and all he represents is the outlier, and somehow the consensus view of reality, i.e., the Spectacle, must be reaffirmed and ultimately supplant the crude propagandists of Trumpism.
But the real wild card here is a resurgent civil society. From the women’s marches to the airport protests, the first weeks of Spectacular instability had millions of people moving into the public sphere directly, acting without waiting for mediation or instruction. Going forward, various organizations with diverse agendas are working to direct and harness the urgent and fertile insurgency percolating among millions of Americans whose expectations of representation are at an all-time low. Very quickly nonprofit organizations, tiny cadres of still-extant professional revolutionaries, and dozens of issue-oriented campaigns have rushed to get in front of this welling energy. A good time, perhaps, to look at the decades-long limits of radicalism between the 1970s and today.