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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Capital, Spectacle, and Modernity: An Interview with Retort

Capital, Spectacle, and Modernity: An Interview with Retort

Soren Whited

Platypus Review 8 | November 2008


A prefatory statement from Retort: Having talked over your questions at length, we find that they can be answered best by grouping together several of them and trying to spell out the key issues and assumptions we see underlying them. That way, we hope, the common ground between Retort and Platypus will be clear—as well as the nature of our disagreements.

Soren Whited: How would you describe the historical and conceptual relationship between the commodity form—first articulated by Marx and further elaborated by Lukacs as “the central, structural problem of capitalist society in all its aspects”—and the concept of spectacle—first formulated by Guy Debord as “capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image”?

It is Platypus’ understanding that the commodity form should not merely be condemned, but rather—as the current form of social mediation— that it points beyond itself, that as the site of reification it is also the basis from which critical and progressive consciousness can be raised. What do you think of this statement? Do you think that spectacle points beyond itself in a similar way? Is spectacle a dialectical category?

Along the same lines, we in Platypus feel that the enormous social and productive forces of capitalism continually both undermine and reproduce the possibilities of human potential and transformation. Do you see a way in which these great forces —which, as alienated from their own historical agents have proven unfathomably destructive— can themselves be politically redirected toward their own conscious overcoming? Can these awesome forces be transformed and redeemed?

Retort: We too, with reservations to be explained later, take the commodity form to be central to an understanding of the last four hundred years. Marx’s analysis of the form, as we understand it, is an attempt to describe what happens to social relations when a previous age-old pattern of face-to-face (and sword-to-sword) social dealings, rooted in hands-on work and consumption, are more and more comprehensively mediated by a money economy. The picture Marx paints is familiar: a system takes shape in which almost all human activities and products, and more and more natural goods, are deemed to have value only (or predominantly) by dint of their participating, as abstractions or phantoms, in a generalized circuit of exchange.

Spectacle is a theory of the ongoing consequences of that economic ghost-dance for the day-to-day substance of human interactions and self-understanding. It is certainly an extrapolation from Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities, but it puts more stress than Marx did on the phenomenal form of that fetishism: the specific character of the phenomenal form, the intensification of the form’s phantasmagoric power over human actors, and the specific political problems and opportunities that follow from that intensification. To cast the basic proposal in Marxist terms: as use-value is supplanted by exchange-value, so materiality cedes to appearance. And the “as” and “so” here are not just logical operators: materiality —the continual production of representations of the world as substantial, resistant, “embodied,” “here and now,” having this specific otherness to human subjects’ wishes— is the necessary symbolic economy accompanying an economy of use-value, just as image (or virtuality, or image, or spectacle) is the necessary pseudo-sociality —the necessary shadow-form of a vanished encounter with things as bodies and bodies as totalities— for an economy of abstract equivalence.

SW: You have sharply criticized the radical de-politicization that the concept of spectacle has undergone at the hands of “approved postmodern discourse” in the four decades since Debord first published The Society of the Spectacle. To what do you attribute this trajectory? And how might the term regain its critical purchase?

Afflicted Powers points out that the realm of the spectacle “erodes the boundary between the imaged (the imaginary) and the real.” Is this boundary literally or apparently eroded? Retort: When we object to the de-politicization of the theory of spectacle, this is not (or not just) because we are a bunch of politicos. It is because the concept was originally generated as part of an argument with classical Marxism —the least glance at Debord’s book confirms this— and in particular took issue with that older Left’s view of the state and society. That remains its cutting edge. The theory says this: As appearances become the (pseudo-)substance of social relations, a specific problem of power emerges. Power becomes more and more a matter (alongside its primordial brute forms, which certainly do not go away) of management in the realm of appearances. Spectacle, as we read it, is primarily a theory of politics —of social control, of the grounds of a continuing struggle to re-center and consolidate the state-form and the last vestiges of charismatic authority and solidarity— in conditions of advanced capitalism. It is no doubt a theory that starts by trying to specify the characteristics of a new stage of capitalist development. Its object is “consumerism.” But only —or mainly— in order to point to the central paradox of commodification as it spreads wider and deeper into the texture of everyday life: as this dispersal and banalization, this general thinning of social oxygen, intensifies, there arises the political problem of re-consolidating social life around a new (or new-old) set of identities, loyalties, identifications, homeopathic doses of togetherness, “imagined communities.” No one who has lived through the era of Bush-and-the-evangelicals needs lessons on this politics’ effects.

We are thinking broadly, and of course schematically, about the history of the last two hundred years. Like Platypus, we think the commodity economy is a main key to understanding that history, but it is not the be-all and end-all of explanation. Insofar as the two centuries are susceptible at all to historical generalization, Commodity cannot be the constant dominant. Nature, Nation, and War are, alas, just as important. Malthus, Herder, and Clausewitz are modernity’s theorists alongside Marx. A grim trio —but so is their object of study. Sometimes, reading Marxist accounts of modernity, it seems as if it is being suggested that the permanent catastrophe of the twentieth century was nothing (“essentially”) but the unfolding —the disclosure— of an economic fate. It is as if one constant thread of Marx’s writing had not been the grating between the logic of capital and the politics of empire and nation-state. No doubt it is futile to blame Marx for not foreseeing the world-historical consequences of the application of the new “productive forces” to warfare, or the results that would follow from the global market becoming, most dynamically, a market for arms. But the results are there to see; and we do not doubt that Marx himself would have realized that they were more than noise on the message of capitalism’s future-directedness, alienation, and eventual redemption. (We understand the impulse behind your language of alienation and redemption. We too would like to go on believing in capitalism’s immanent “overcoming.” But sometimes a point is reached in historical analysis at which it has to be recognized that the “interference” of external factors has destroyed the integrity of the system and its dialectical unfolding. Such was the case with capitalism in relation to war and nation in the last century, we think; and now, with a vengeance again, in relation to scarcity of resources and the continual tip-over of “production” into destruction, depletion, and rape of the planet.)

Again, we have no intention of abandoning the category “commodity.” It remains a central theme of any Marxist analysis. The question (which we think Marx himself broached) is how to coordinate the category with others, historically, and how to recognize the shifting causal force of the factors in play. Spectacle, conceived as a theory of capitalist politics, is one such effort at coordination. One way of rephrasing its theses, now with the phenomena of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalisms in mind, would be as follows: Let us grant that one main thread of the history of the last two hundred years has been the spread and intensification of “imagined communities” world-wide, as a consequence of print capitalism. Benedict Anderson has taught us this much. But just as fundamental a consequence was the erosion of non-imagined communities – the shredding of the pattern of interactions, agreements, and solidarities (plus negatives of all three) that had made up previous civil society. Of course by “non-imagined” we are not pointing to an original state of pure presence-for-others. All communities are imaginary —if we mean by this that they are constituted in part by an apparatus of symbolic forms. But the “in part” is crucial. It is only twenty-first century intellectuals who believe that everything human is always already representation. If we could take them back to a stockyard or a guildhall or a Glasgow “steamy” —or indeed to a “market” before the Right eviscerated the notion— they would soon see that human beings have other ways of making each other meaningful besides branding and signing. And it is the interaction of these different ways —of these different materialities and intentionalities— that make up a human world.

Political modernity, then, is the collision of imagined and non-imagined community, and the overtaking of the latter by the former. The net result of the overtaking, which is constantly being resisted and eluded by human actors —only think of the crude body-politics of the “demonstration,” time and again rising from the spectacular dead— is what we call weak citizenship. Weak citizenship, by its very nature, is prone to spasms of increasingly counterfactual, and therefore toxic, imagined community. And this, says the theory of spectacle, produces a specific politics: more and more, in face of the deficit, the state is forced to take control of, and intensify, imagined community and make it equal the nation-state. Fascism was the crude pure form of this pathology, but only slightly less virulent strains are still everywhere. Controlling the imagined community means, in conditions of spectacle, controlling appearances above all. This makes for problems for the new powers that be. That was one main thing Afflicted Powers was about. The Left, so we argued, would do well to confront the vulnerabilities of the capitalist state at the level of its image-life. What we did not argue was that the attacks of September 11 somehow proved that the image-war had supplanted the bullet-and-bomb one, or that victory on the screen —the Towers crumbling— was separable from the historical circumstances informing it. “Perhaps we should say it explicitly: it may or may not be the case that a particular image-event can in itself alter the balance of world-political forces, surging out of the blue of international disorder and remaking the terms of statecraft. Logically this is possible. The notion of spectacle at least suggests a tendential development toward a situation in which, empirically, something like this might one day happen. But September 11 was not it. It was an image-defeat, yes; but it only produced the longterm or midterm effects that it did because, as an image, it resonated so ominously with the gross material realities of ‘failed states,’ the disintegrating world arms market, the threats to the state’s monopoly of the means of mass destruction, and the general neo-liberalization of war.”[1]

SW: Why has Spectacle figured so prominently in your analysis of post 9/11 politics? Is the role and function of spectacle different now than it was when Debord first developed the category? Did it change as a result of 9/11?

Retort: Much more remains to be said about the new politics of appearance. In various ways, the image-events of the past four years point to forms of warfare beyond the Al-Qaida frame. The militants of September 11 aimed at producing a crisis in the consumption of appearances: they would ensure that for a while the wrong appearance —the anti-appearance— would flood the weak citizen’s sensorium.

But nowadays the generalized availability of the digital camera, the cell-phone, and the cell-phone video —in the streets and morgues of Lebanon, in Saddam’s execution chamber, in Chavez’s palace as the US stooges stage their “democratic” coup— begins to alter the terms of image-struggle. A crisis of consumption is followed by a crisis of production. As with war in the twentieth century, there is a strictly technological dimension to the blowback. The new gadgetry is spawned as part of —instrumentation of— the ongoing colonization of everyday life. “Consumers” must become producers, minute by minute, of their alienated image-life. There’s money in Facebook. But when strong citizens —most often hideously strong, with the strength of umma and jihad— wish to do battle with their oppressors, they have new weapons at their disposal. They can show on line, in “real” time, what their oppressors are up to. “Bombing” becomes bodies bursting into flame. The “birth-pangs of a new Middle East” turn out not to be family viewing. “Death to the Persians!” Lindie English mugs for the camera. A severed head explodes from the noose.

“Given the global media environment,” complained one commentator at the time of the Lebanon invasion, “the terrorists may have developed methods that make it nearly impossible for superior military forces to uproot them.”[2] What a shame.

But only a fool would exult in all this. We are no admirers of Sheik Nasrallah. And what Retort thinks is happening is an image-production arms-race, not a wholesale leakage of image-power into the city of slums. Power is working frantically to outmaneuver the opposition. The Chinese Communist Party, we gather, installed 300,000 new CCTVs in Beijing for the Olympics. But do they work? Will they be serviced regularly? What are they for, once the fans have dispersed? Will they keep pace with the forms of resistance to come (which is certainly why the Party spent so much on them)? Or will there be 300,000 bloody sequences, after the event, of bureaucrats pleading for mercy? Spectacle, as a theory and (in Situationist hands) a guide to action, dwells precisely on this dialectic. Spectacle is commodification perfected: once upon a time (in Polanyi’s universe) it was only the ruling realities of land, labor, and money that stood to be de-realized and turned into fully fungible abstractions; now it is body, desire, identity, community, subjectivity, “difference” itself. Maybe the de-realization is irreversible. But perhaps there is a politique du pire even in the realm of unreality. Images are not in and of themselves “unreal.” What is unreal is their self-sufficiency, their being-together in a circuit in which they appear to be what they show. What is unreal is the one-way street of representation – the fact that images, in so many circumstances, are not open to recall, correction, parody, refutation. Without being in the least starry-eyed about the specific battlecries and combatants at present, we can say that the last few years have seen the one-way street begin to turn into a site of house-to-house warfare. The Left will continue an irrelevance —as it mostly is at present— if it fails to respond to this struggle for mastery over the means of symbolic production. Polanyi may still prove right. He believed, you will recall, that capitalism’s progressive dissolution and fragmentation of human sociality was bound to reach an end-point, in which the fictitiousness of the commodity world would prove self-defeating. Human sociality, he thought, simply could not sustain itself without a texture of practices that continually put men and women back in contact with nature, materiality, and each other. Spectacle, Polanyi would have felt, is simply a further stage in the destruction of those practices. And at a certain point the process will implode. For him, the present desperate —and most often frightening— efforts to wrest the image- machines from their owners’ hands, and turn them against modernity itself, would be only the first sign, the opening salvo, in a new battle to reconstitute the human. We hope he is right.

SW: In the book Afflicted Powers, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is categorically condemned, but it is credited with being the only “adequate” opposition to modernity. The final chapter of the book asks what such an opposition from the Left might look like. But why must Modernity itself be opposed? Or, to change the emphasis, why is it modernity that must be opposed?

The final chapter of Afflicted Powers introduces a variation of Nietzsche’s question, “What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?” Retort asks “What Does The Vanguard Ideal Mean?” In his own question Nietzsche, you point out, “is very far from dismissing” the ascetic ideal, rather, he is interested in its “purpose”, its “historical function”. You then advocate for the same approach to a critique of the vanguard ideal. But your own verdict on the phenomenon of the vanguard ideal is that it “was an understandable response to the reality… of history.” But does this not imply that such a response was merely mistaken, rendering your critique somewhat dismissive? Do you feel that vanguard revolutionary leadership has had and can have no historical function in the development of revolutionary consciousness, even if ultimately such forms of leadership must be worked through and overcome?

In that same chapter you imagine a militant’s pledge to not be Modern. To what degree is this possible, and how should we interpret such a sentiment today? If one can choose to not be modern, can one, conversely, choose to be modern? Should one? Does one have to?

Retort: Your basic intuition here is right: for us the questions of modernity and vanguardism are intertwined. The vanguard model of revolutionary action —the belief that history has a knowable path into the future, and that the key forces that go to make that future can and must be represented (in the two senses of the word) by a disciplined set of proprietors of historical truth— is one pure form of an historical consciousness that stands at the center of modernity as we understand it. We think this a poisonous heritage. The theory of history is wrong; the stress put on representation is wrong; and both errors lead on to something much worse than error: the theory and practice of the proprietorship of truth, about whose consequences for the Left, and its victims, in the last century the less said the better.

We make a distinction between vanguardism and political leadership. If the latter can be prized apart from the history/representation/proprietorship triad, a whole field of necessary —and difficult— questions opens up. Of course Left politics revolves in part around small groups of intellectuals with (occasionally) bright ideas. Of course resistance to the present order suffers often from being too local and single-issue, or from still seeing its particular struggle in “broader” terms borrowed from Lenin or Mao or Slavoj Zizek. Small groups with a sense of history —because we deny that history is knowable as a totality and a “direction,” does not mean we think it any the less important for particular refutable theses about its past and present shape to be made part of the Left’s practical armory— have a job to do. Resistance often needs to be focused. Small groups can sometimes be crucial in providing initiative, or even a “larger framework.” The very word “leadership” need not put us in a panic: the task is to align it with craftsmanship or seamanship or musicianship – that is, to tie it to competence in a particular set of tasks and skills. All of which amounts to saying that if “vanguard” or “militant” could be robbed of their metaphorics of history as Napoleonic campaign —with always the same but different Napoleon moving the masses on his map in the tent— then even these words might be reclaimable. But we doubt it.

It interests us that many of our best readers on the Left balk at our seeming hostility to the modern. (Several of our worst readers conflate our hostility with that of the Islamist vanguard. But such idiocies are par for the course.) Rather than try yet again to state that “modernity” is not a specifiable set of social and technical advances —from which, obviously, there is no turning back— but a specific symbolic economy, a picture of history and subjectivity… Rather than pointing to the fact that the effective present form of resistance to capitalism just is an attack on capitalism as the carrier of that symbolic economy, and that the Left will permanently sideline itself if it leaves the terms of critique in the hands of al- Zawahiri… Rather than asking if a critique of modernity has necessarily to end up as a primitivism… (Obviously we think not. And the fear of a new primitivism is at present mainly an alibi for the Left’s not thinking about the crisis of natural resources, and what might be involved in a politics of real deceleration of “development.” The deceleration will happen, we think, whether we like it or not. We are living through its beginnings. The problem for the Left, then, is how to prevent the process bringing on an atavism that will make Fascism itself look benign.) Rather than repeating ourselves, let us turn the tables. Why is modernity the sticking point for so much of the Left? Again the question of vanguardism looms. For if our argument has been that modernity is now in crisis, what we mainly mean by this —our critics have sensed as much —is that its very model of temporality is foundering: its assumption that history is future-directed, and therefore open to direction. And could there be a Left without such an assumption? What will the Left be like without futurity —without the notion of the vanguard as handmaid of history? Modernity is precious to its true believers —a present without modernity is unthinkable —above all because the modern is always about to deliver its “next stage,” its aufhebung. |P

. Afflicted Powers, 2nd edition, pp. 200-01.
[2]. David Brooks, New York Times, 23 July 2006