Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Spectacle and Language

Ok, this is a conference presentation I'm working on that also contains a lot of the work I'm doing for my dissertation. This is the first half to two thirds. I'm still working on the poetry section. I'd love to know what you think. Particularly, since I just finished rewriting this section, I'd love to hear opinions on whether or not the examples seem relevant. Tell me what you think!


Guy Debord outlined a society of alienated social relationships mediated by images known as the spectacle. Debord defines the spectacle as a totalizing system, discussing under its aegis everything from celebrity culture to avant garde art to concepts of time and history under the spectacle, as well as the commodification of every day life. Whereas in Barthes’ conception of myth, the interests of the class in power, are made to seem universal, natural, and “just the way it is,” the spectacle “manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond all dispute. . . . it demands . . . the same passive acceptance that it has already secured by means of its seeming incontrovertibility, and indeed by its monopolization of the realm of appearances.” Not only does the spectacle in this case naturalize its own interests, but it also demands passivity, and through it, “the ruling order discourses endlessly upon itself in an uninterrupted monologue of self-praise,” ultimately serving as “total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification.”

The spectacle itself is not the image, or even the media, but the media is a part of the spectacle and as such, “presents itself simultaneously as all of society, as part of society, and as instrument of unification.” Debord describes this aspect of the spectacle as “the sector which concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” He goes on to explain that “due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is the common ground of the deceived gaze and of false consciousness, and the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of generalized separation.” We no longer have only three television channels to watch, in which to have our gaze concentrated, but there are still cultural icons created by television, movies, and magazines which all the people in given culture or society know about.

The ubiquity of Angelina Jolie, for example, on magazine covers, in movies, on television gossip shows, etc. means that it is virtually impossible for anyone in America not to know who she is. The ubiquity of many of these American media in other parts of the world means that she is known throughout the world. Anything that happens in the American media happens in all media – magazines, television, the internet, etc. In this way, the public’s gaze is kept up on things that the media deems important. And celebrity reigns high on that scale as beautiful, rich people who supposedly embody the dreams of Americans and keep up the appearance of the rags to riches, American Dream. For those who claim to hate celebrities, there is room in the media for them to be mocked and made fun of, particularly if they get too big and need to be taken down a peg, like Britney Spears. Praise or criticism doesn’t matter to the spectacle. What matters is the focus of the public’s attention on what it deems important. The spectacle functions as what media analysts have called a feedback loop, a symbiotic relationship between culture and marketing, or between the interest that the public has and what is presented in the media that feeds back into the public, albeit in a slightly altered form.

Consumption of Language

We are exposed to an intense level of linguistic activity (talking, reading, watching television, browsing the internet, listening to the radio, etc.) on a daily basis. Assuming an average day of 8 hours of such activity, we are exposed to 72,000 words a day, or 504,000 words each week. Thus, we are forced to process language in as shallow, quick fashion as often as we can, saving our more advanced linguistic resources for the most complex mental and linguistic operations. “There is growing evidence that the process involved in ordinary language comprehension is in fact fairly shallow . . . Some linguistic expressions . . . are retrieved from the memory . . . [in] prefabricated chunks, and others . . . must be computed . . . .”

We can, I think, extrapolate from this some ideological implications. In a world saturated by mythological and spectacular images and statements, it is not possible to linger over every expression and analyze its ideological basis. Furthermore, the constant repetition of slogans, jingles, clips from television shows and movies, etc. ensures that those items will eventually be stored into prefabricated units. Consider how common the “Got Milk?” campaign has become and how often “Got _____?” has become used in other contexts. A prefabricated phrase so simplistic, yet so ubiquitous, can even be pushed to the forefront of our warehouse of stock phrases and in some situations, might become the first thing we think of when we’re searching for the right phrase. There are several sites that have the phrase “Got Blood?” ranging from a Halloween site advising people how to make fake blood to an anti-war magnet that has “a picture of George W. Bush with a red mustache like the Got Milk Ad.” PETA ran a series of ads entitle “Got Beer?” I can tell you from my media class that when we do culture jamming spoof ads we have a high number of “Got _________” ads. It’s a pre-made, easily understood piece of culture that they can draw upon.

There are Facebook sites with names like “I speak movie!” and “I memorize and recite movie dialogue for fun and everyday conversation.” The description for “I speak movie!” says “This is a group for everyone who realizes that the best dialogue EVER happens in the movies and can fluently speak movie in any situation.” The wall posts consist mostly of people reciting movie dialogue for their own amusement, with occasional posts or commentary by other people, but largely it is not interactive, but recitative. We hear things like this all the time—people inserting conversation from Seinfeld or Family Guy. Sometimes they quote it, and sometimes they just pass it off as they’re own thoughts or comments. How many times have you heard “show me the money” or “you had me at hello” or a myriad of other well-known movie lines used in everyday conversation? It’s sometimes used to be funny or clever, but it also constitutes and shortcut to conversation, hence a shortcut to thinking. The availability of the prefabricated chunks forecloses the need, and hence the opportunity, for more advanced linguistic procedures that would lead to more original forms of expression. And once again, we see as Debord indicated, the media has acted as a unifying aspect of spectacular society, providing us this time with not only images of ourselves reflected back to us, but the very language, in the form of dialogue or slogans that we can use as prefabricated chunks. There is no longer any need to think critically or creatively for ourselves.

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