(ii) The Society of the Spectacle

A Genealogy of Post-Modernity

'Postmodrnism is a form of analysis or expression, while postmodernity refers to the sociological dimensions of a postmodern society.' Bryan S. Turner.126

To attempt an analysis of post-modernity as a discursive formation upon the threshold of epistemologisation is perhaps ambitious for this paper. Nonetheless, it is with a detachment befitting a genealogist that we must approach it. Brought about by a radical break at the close of the 1950s/early 1960s, 'postmodernism' consists of the collective phenomena associated with the end of the modern movement - the idea of the end of history, the death of the Individual Subject, post-industrial society, the end of 'progress', and various other 'endings.' To quote further from Bryan Turner's helpful summary, "Insofar as modernism has become associated with instrumental reason, patriarchy and the domination of nature, postmodernism has embraced play, irony and parody as sources for an oppositional critique. The non-rational and irrational are drawn upon for an anti-modern agenda and in this critical struggle desire is opposed to discipline, folly to reason, play to labour."126

The discursive practice of Postmodern Art, epitomised early on perhaps by Andy Warhol and the pop art style, and the synthesis of classical and popular styles in general, is characterised by a newly heterogenous cultural flavour. The rigour and discipline of Modernism seems to have given way, in a truly 1960s fashion, to a permissiveness and promiscuity beyond the boundaries of what used to be regarded as 'Art.' In architecture in particular, as Jameson points out, "a kind of aesthetic populism"127 highlights what seems to characterise all postmodernisms: the blurring of the boundaries between what modernism held strictly apart - the high-culture of the elites, and the so-called low culture or mass culture of the general populace. Photorealism, punk rock, experimental video are all cited as examples of the postmodern in art.

In philosophy the Post-structuralists called an end to the transcendental sway of the 'centre'. The structuralist movement, taking culture as a language to be read from a standpoint of great philosophical skepticism, decomposed or deconstructed the image of Man into its components, (as we have seen,) and in an anti-humanist approach, replaced the individual at the helm of culture, with structure. Clearly, Foucault's work is a prime example of this, and also of the parallel, reflecting post-structuralism, not a subsequent movement, but, in Young's words, "an interrogation of structuralism's methods and assumptions...transforming structuralist concepts by turning one against another."128

If a centre in a structure gave it a grammar, rules by which that structure operated, then that centre, as an organising principle, was beyond analysis, out of bounds, outside the structure as well as inside it. Turning structuralist methodology upon such a structuralist analysis, the centre itself must give itself up to analysis, thus decentering the structure. The centre is replaced with 'play,' a sign which, in Derrida's word, is a 'supplement,' a surplus addition to the place where the centre used to be.

This play in turn brings about a Pluralism in attitude - a celebration of our inability to experience reality as an ordered and integrated totality, in favour of an acceptance of the validity of the many fragments that make up life. After all the Individual Subject itself, the centre of the universe since the time of Descartes, is de-centred in this critique. The Self, organiser from without and resident within, has lost its former power. In its place, is play, the ability to create our own collages of identity, from the multiple choices available to us.

'The Postmodern Condition,' Lyotard's book of 1979, weaves together the discussion of postmodern art, poststructuralist philosophy, and the theory of postindustrial society we looked at earlier in this section. He defines the postmodern by contrast to the modern: "I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse....making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative......I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives." Thus the postmodern can be characterised by "a denial of the existence of any general pattern on which to base our conception of a true theory or a just society."129

Some propogandists of the postmodern, (Laclau and Mouffe in particular) seem encouraged that "the Western world at least [is] entering a 'postmodern' epoch fundamentally different from the industrial capitalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries."130 But many others are under no illusion that this post-modern, post-industrial society is in any sense post-capitalist. On the contrary, Jameson is at pains to point out that "this whole global, yet American postmodern culture is the internal and superstructural expression of a whole new wave of American military and economic domination throughout the world: in this sense, as throughout class history, the underside of culture is blood, torture, death and terror." Behind every MacDonald's hamburger is a burnt out rain-forest.

Rational vs Irrational

Postmodernism as a theory, using the Marxist and the ecological critique of industrial capitalism, points out however that "the allegedly rational characteristics of capitalism are in fact substantively irrational....and that ...pluralism stand[s] in opposition to [the] unitary nature of capitalism as a system of domination based upon a notion of sameness."131

This broaches upon a critique of instrumental reason itself. Weber consistently argued that whilst instrumental reason was seen essentially as an effective system for the achieving of known ends, the purposes of action could never be derived from reason itself. Moral, ethical, absolute values are derived from cultural systems - in particular from religious culture, which, since the Enlightenment, has been excluded and kept outside the boundaries of reason.

Religion, after all, "is a system of values and practices which is concerned with the non-rational."132 Modern rationality is the sworn enemy of what it refers to consistently as 'mystification'. The Enlightenment was a celebration of the bringing of intellectual light to the dark corners that had been occluded by the mysteries of catholicism. But this is not necessarily a given 'good.' As Turner says, "The secularising impact of industrial capitalism destroys the cultural foundations of society and therefore undermines our capacity to live meaningfully within the modern world." For Weber the paradox of modernity was that rationality exposes existence as purposeless, pointless, meaningless.

Yet as we saw earlier, it was precisely from religious culture, specifically that of Calivinism, that much of modern rationality sprang. The disciplined, materialistic, monadic Subject striving for success in the bourgeois professions and in business was the very model of Protestant citizenship in the new bourgeois secular state run as an end in itself. The point of all this activity was to attain salvation in Heaven. "The roots of modern rationality [lie] in religious irrationality."133

That irrationality, we will recall, stems not only from the Calvinist origins, but from the profound paradox of finitude upon which Modernity rests, in which the limitations of the Individual Subject are what makes him omniscient, and in which he derives his sovereignty by virtue of being enslaved. The self-cross-referencing act pulled off by finitude in the Kantian compromise is reminiscent of the all- pervading spirallic return of Resemblance in mediaeval philosophy. Perhaps we are indeed unable to escape what the quantum physicists describe as the 'boot-strap' theory of reality, in which the universe pulls itself up by its own boot-straps.

A profoundly irrational, fragmented, de-totalised picture of our 'interior' (lest the word 'self' confuse) begins to emerge, comprising the shreds of a discredited modernism, which act like almost baroque-allegorical windows onto meaning, and the multiple trends and messages of cultures from around the globe newly available at the click of the hypertext button. The vocabulary of our interiority has become multiple, complex, decentred. Indeed the extraordinary proliferation of communication technologies in the last few decades has exposed those of us in the developed countries to a plethora of understandings. The languages of the mental health expert (nervous breakdowns and inferiority complexes), of other culture's ontological standpoints (karma, nirvana, meditation), and of newly developing subcultures, (the New Age centredness) all have equal access to the communication networks and contribute to the sense of homogeneity in the postmodern. This relative surfeit of canditates for the interior casts doubt upon the referential base - the belief that "there is indeed something special, palpable and identifiable to which such terms refer."134

But if history has come to an end, if the Modern project has foundered, and the individual subject of Calvinist pedigree has been replaced by a de-centred pick'n'mix interior; if the bourgeois nation state has been supplanted by transnational corporations dealing more in information than in artifacts, and artifacts themselves have become more concerned with their image than their content, and the whole edifice of the the Age of Reason and the Age of Man has been found wanting in its purported rationality, just what sort of society are we living in? What sort of capitalism is this?

Postmodernity and the Baroque

The purpose of this paper so far has been to set out the philosophical and historial background to a comparison between the pre and post modern epochs. It must now be clear how both perpsectives on life are held together in a number of ways, not least by a fascination with artifice.

The 'depthless' nature of the 'image' in the postmodern is something Jameson focuses on in his discussion of Warhol, pointing out the contrast between a painting of a pair of boots by van Gogh, and a Warhol photo, 'Diamond Dust Shoes.' The former carries many human stories and is packed with social meaning, giving it depth. The latter is concerned solely with the surface, with the sparkle of glitter on a collection of shoes. It is, in comparison, depthless. Baroque art, as we have seen, was similarly focused upon surface, fascinated with spleadour, grandeur, and upon making an impression. The previously powerful, deep meaning of symbolic mediaeval art is gone, replaced by what some art critics have described as almost "kitsch."135

"The baroque culture of the seventeenth century," in the words of Bryan Turner, was something of a "culture industry which produced an artificial public arena by combining elements of high and low culture," in much the same was as postmodern art. The primary image of the baroque, you will recall, was the ruin, closely followed by the labyrinth and the library. Umberto Eco's quintessentially postmodern work, 'The Name of the Rose,' echoes this fascination, whilst, at the same time, shamelessly using the frame of a standard 'populist' detective novel with which to explore the arcane world of a mediaeval monastery. The baroque images of ruin and labyrinth are central to the baroque sense of the artificiality and the constructive nature of social reality.

The baroque intellectual fusion of religion and reason, of the rational and the irrational, is a further arena in which the baroque and the postmodern seem to bear comparison. The decentred nature of the baroque sensibility is very reminiscent, particularly in the theatricisation of existence, so evident in the media-play of our info-tainment. The sense of impending disaster, of the tragedy of the end of the world which pervaded baroque literature and drama certainly seems recurrent in the postmodern fascination with the apocalypse, and the millenarian fantasies of dystopia.

But the political element to the artificiality of the baroque is startling in our contrasting of the two periods. Postmodern transnational capitalism, just as did the new machiavellian states of the baroque, has created "a culture of spectacle which seeks to mobilize the human senses to bring about a commitment of the masses to," if not "absolute monarchies,"135then autarchies dressed up in democratic clothes. Far be it for me to compare Tony Blair with Louis XIV, but the predominance of spin, the incredible concentration of executive power at No.10, the much criticised supremacy of style over content characteristic of the re-branded New Labour machine is at the very least redolent of the baroque manipulation of the masses through fantastic images, colour, and elaborate music.

The Society of the Spectacle

As the 50s and 60s situationists proposed, I believe we are living in a society of spectacle, in which the masses are seduced by the spectacular nature of modern culture. "Just as baroque culture created the spectacle as a means of suborning mass populations in order to induce them into conformity through pleasure, so the modern world of consumerism can also be seen as a spectacle."136

Originally published in France in 1967, a little book by Guy Debord, written in very fragmented, bullet-point, post- modern style, says much in common with our current project. The basic argument of "The Society of Spectacle" is presented in its first 'thesis': "The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."137

Debord's 'Spectacle' is like some leviathon in which all of contemporary society is subsumed, - "both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production," - in much the same way as, but far more completely than the bourgeois state. "In all its specific manifestations - news or propoganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment - the spectacle epitomises the prevailing model of social life."138 The 90's phenomenon of info-tainment is a perfect example of the foresight and continued relevance of Debord's 60s critique. You can download copies of the book from the Internet.

With extraordinary lucidity, Debord describes packaging as "the chief product of present-day society,"139 The spectacle "arrogates everything that in human activity exists in a fluid state so as to possess it in a congealed form" -the commodity. Nor is it merely the commodity culture of production. It is the final victory of the technologies of the body, developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the body itself has now become commodified. The huge slimming industry, and the concommitant diseases of anorexia and bulimia; the burgeoning health and fitness industry and its related nutritional and food technologies and the strange parades of beauty and strength and sportmanship which seem to take up the bulk of our television broadcasting are all allied to this congealing, this fixity of the categories of gender and sexuality into material form: the postmodern body. As Debord comments, "The Spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonisation of social life."140

The pace of change of commodity capitalism echoes another of our Baroque themes - the oxymoron of movement and order. Constant updating and revamping of the same products dazzles us with the appearance of motion and progress within an ordered and planned campaign of action in the market.

The kind of capitalism in which we live is a consumer capitalism with no more purpose than to produce in order to consume, devoid of any and all meaning or higher purpose. "The economy [of commodities] transforms the world, [giving rise to abundance and solving the basic problem of survival,] but it transforms it into a world of the economy," where human labour is turned into "labour-as-commodity." Debord asserts that, "The spectacle is a permanent opium war waged to make it impossible to distinguish goods from commodities, or true satisfaction from...survival." (SOS p30) Indeed, as our media stars figure for us, the ultimate aims of postmodern life are precisely in keeping with the aims of the spectacle: "the power to decide and the leisure to consume which are the alpha and omega of a process that is never questioned."141

The kind of capitalism we are living in is one characterised by commodity fetishism - "precisely the modern religion of the masses in which a new sacred aura surround[s] everyday commodities." No more Calvinistic disciplined Subjects marching toward progress, but instead hordes of hedonistic, playful pluralists worshipping the glitter and glamour of the latest consumer fads, barely managing to interact with one another along the information superhighways of global commerce.

Here, where the performative utterances of our daily lives are formulated, here where our interiors, our postmodern selfhoods, are defined as we cite the codes of consumer culture, here, genuflecting before the aura surrounding everyday commodities, religion has re-entered our authorship of the performative act.

Under a new absolute power - transnational capitalism - we are once more linked to a great chain of being - the global economy. Chaos theory gives us our new link to the butterfly's wings beating in South America that crash the Tokyo stock market. We are piglets suckling at the teats of the Great Sow: The Spectacle.