Digested by the Spectacle

Once again violence breaks the surface in a way that brings it home even to those of us far removed from the incident. The shootings in Tuscon have joined the list of assassinations that have punctuated my life time. In all that time I can think of only two “Right Wing” victims, – George Wallace and Ronald Reagan – three if you count Jim Brady, although he’s been disowned for not “taking it with a smile” like Cheney’s hunting buddy. The rest were people who embodied some form of expectation that the status quo might be broken. It doesn’t matter that those expectations were probably ill-placed. Other than Martin Luther King, I can’t think of a martyr on the left who could have stood up to his promise.

This post isn’t an attempt to pile on the beleaguered right wing. They scarcely need further “ammunition” to feed their sense of grievance. The trap of victim-hood seems poorly suited to many of the most powerful among us, but then the persona is projected to divert the grievances of some of the least powerful among us, the poor whites who are so easily manipulated by a public version of the pathology that affects so many households destroyed by poverty. Their difficulties are much the same as those of the people they’ve been taught to scapegoat. It’s Divide & Conquer 101. Forgive me if I don’t altogether spare them. They have been at the vanguard of the movement to dissolve any connections between speech and its consequences. They embody the will to power most clearly. Their “opponents” are merely too lazy and comfortable to recognize their complicity in the way they enable and tolerate such behavior.

A time like this shows us how hard it is to avoid being digested by the spectacle. A mentally disturbed individual acts on the influences provided in a cocktail brewed from toxic imagery picked up from the space of spectacle around us put there to keep us enthralled. Its purpose to keep us from beginning to unpack our own views and interests. We’re not supposed to notice that nothing within the visible public sphere has any useful point of contact with what matters in life. These ill individuals can be forgiven for being confused. In their minds the subtleties of imagery and metaphor – even when those subtleties are pressed to the line and beyond, flirting with literal calls for murderous action – these distinctions are just beyond their capacities to distinguish. They can’t keep the fantasy part separate from the “real.” Curious the way “illness” is defined as that which makes someone connect with the stimuli around them wholeheartedly. Expecting it all to matter is considered a sickness, compartmentalizing and maintaining an entirely separate fantasy life, is considered normal. You’re supposed to buy guns, and posters, and watch the shows and buy the products advertized on them; you’re just not supposed to take it so literally! It’s bad for business! The low-grade coercion pressed on the “Enemies of Freedom!” by a chronic climate of threatened violence is meant to keep anyone from actually attempting to engage “The People.” Of course, a few “regrettable” incidents spread out over time help keep that message clear without disturbing plausible deniability.

Watching John McCain squirm at a campaign rally in ’07 when cries went up to literally do what he and Palin had been urging, we saw his discomfort wasn’t that of a reasonable “Man-of-Honor” eschewing violence. He was suffering from buyers remorse. He’d been assured this line would “sell.” It began to appear that it sold all too well and would possibly unmask his hypocrisy and even worse – hypocrisy is worn quite lightly by the professional politician – that the forces of deep unrest might actually come out and take control. He was unready to unleash Kristallnacht. He was afraid that if the rabble did mobilize he’d be riding the trundles with all the other coddled elitists of all stripes. Caught in a trap of cowardice, he lost the election, unable to “strap on” the rage he’d released and “ride it to victory!” or to stand up for decency and put an end to the bait-and-switch that enticed the damaged and the hurt giving them just enough leash to be dangerous.

All that is still preamble. The title of this post refers to the way the spectacle heals over these “moments of truth.” A similar thing happened after President Obama’s Inauguration. The outpouring of yearning to break with the status quo it represented was followed by a “correction.” In the case of these assassinations we’re talking about individuals suffering from delusions that make them take vague fantasies to heart and act on them. What we saw in January ’08 was a mass of people suffering from a delusion that their wishes were about to come true simply through an act of imagery. The Stuart/Colbert “Rally” tried to channel that “miracle” with its celebration of complacency as the supreme virtue. They had their straw-man in the pathetic Glenn Beck. It’s so easy to stay within the badminton game that keeps the ratings high and doesn’t call any of the underlying premises into question. The parodists on both sides flirting more and more with self-parody. Colbert acting the happy Mussolini smiling as his “followers” chant out his name. When they cheer at his persona, how many of them catch his “intended irony?”

In either case we have a need for the spectacle to heal over these lesions lest they begin to prove a real threat. In either case, it’s not what might happen to any individual that matters to the forces behind the spectacle. The audience is a mass-audience, and that’s the way we like it! This is a clue to how the digestion process works. Phagocytes work within the bloodstream to eat invading microbes that threaten the organism. Theirs is a digestive function. The myriad of voices clambering to be heard in the “market place of ideas” that make up our media/social media universe – Including me by default! – come into action. Some go straight for the dumbest most glaring misinformation. It works. The ones who desperately want to glide over any doubts as soon as possible, to keep from having to think for themselves, clamber for it! Others pick apart the “inconsistencies” in this or that interpretation – again, I fall into this category! – There are so many facets to these various viewpoints that together they overwhelm our ability to pass from the initial trauma, feeling, “here we go again!” to arrive at any useful – to us – sense of what has happened and what to expect next. A few days, a few weeks pass, and we are left with just another jumble of painful memories wrapped around a muscle memory of our inability to come to terms with its causes.

Success! The spectacle has done its job.

The thing is, like an event in a sub-atomic collider, or the litter at a crime scene, we are left with important clues. The evidence does speak if we can listen. It’s hard to do! This is why we admire the intrepid scientist or CSI. They’re able to keep their heads and trust their senses when all others are confused and caught up in emotional dramas.

Unlike those questors, widely admired and with high status to back up their self-esteem, the investigator in this case has to fear being lumped in with the “Psychos.” He or she will need to make nuanced distinctions and ask for a suspension of disbelief so that leaps of insight can be made leading to conclusions gathered and meditated upon before further leaps can be made. This mode of patient “research” is supposed to take place during the “time-is-passing-montage” or the jump-cut, we don’t have the patience for this messiness in real life! The courageous investigator safely entombed in the past or in fiction, whether Galileo or Sherlock Holmes, is admired as a wonder, so brave to have bucked the expectations of their peers! Yet, anyone doing the same thing today risks our apathy or worse if they expect us to go through the process with them step-by-step.

There is such a broad chromatic spectrum of conspiracy theorists and believers in questionable fuzzy and pitiful lameness out there! In the noise and with all the “experts” circling the wagons in defense of their authority it is almost impossible – there I go showing my unquenchable optimism! – to keep one’s head above water and not get lost in the maze of false trails.

I’m fascinated by the crazies. I love to watch anything on UFOs, it’s harder for me to stomach a lot of the religious loonies…. There is a way to tell. It’s in their eyes. As they make the sounds to show the uncanny and brilliant connections they’ve made and display their astounding insights for all to see, they all have a certain gleam in their eyes. You can begin to recognize the way they enchant themselves first and foremost with their own incantations. Their words are hollow because they don’t believe they need to make sense. It’s enough to act out the ritual. In this way they are much like our “experts” as they fulfill a similar role in the wider culture. The TV anchor, the cabinet secretary, the university scholar; they have been losing whatever credibility they may have held, even within their own minds. It has been replaced by the same fervent and fevered wish to believe an incantation they now spout mechanically.

A recent example of something altogether different, look again at Dougald Hine and David Abram‘s conversation. Here are two questioning creatures at peaceful wonder within the world and looking for and finding meaningful connections with a light touch and an easy joy.

The spectacle cannot provide this. It has no room for it. It does not know how to digest it, so it finds it better to ignore it, when its not treated as an easy target by the likes of our latest hit-man for hire, George Monbiot. The “courage” of our leaders turns out to be simply their ability to stand up and spout what they don’t even believe themselves while they shine out their defiance of anyone willing to call out their bluff. This is the result of seeing everything as a battle, of accepting any means to justify one’s ends. The entire concept that there are ends and that their deliverance is within our control shows us how far removed our public life is from what any creature would recognize as life.

The lesson I take from all this is to stop looking for answers in the spectacle. That’s not what it’s there for. While we’re at it, backing off on our insistence on answers for everything would be helpful too. Life isn’t a problem whose “solution” is to be found in “answers!” To expect anything else of the spectacle is to be digested by it, along with the everything else.

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3 thoughts on “Digested by the Spectacle

  1. “These ill individuals can be forgiven for being confused. In their minds the subtleties of imagery and metaphor – even when those subtleties are pressed to the line and beyond, flirting with literal calls for murderous action – these distinctions are just beyond their capacities to distinguish. They can’t keep the fantasy part separate from the “real.” Curious the way “illness” is defined as that which makes someone connect with the stimuli around them wholeheartedly. Expecting it all to matter is considered a sickness, compartmentalizing and maintaining an entirely separate fantasy life, is considered normal.”

    Well said, sir, well said! We look upon these people as failures, as qualitatively rather than quantitatively different (I am not suggesting that everyone has an inner-Loughner, here). The concept of “failed consumers” may be useful?
    http://joc.sagepub.com/content/7/1/25.abstract

    Funny, we’re all talking about “compartmentalising” (I refer to Johnnie’ Moore’s closing the field post)…

    1. There are people who are mentally damaged, physically or not. The open question is how their damage relates to the conditions in which they live. A society that fractures community and drives individuals into extreme compartmentalization to survive is not so much pestered by the damaged individuals we see, but has at least channeled their weaknesses into the pathways they exhibit in their ideation and actions. They are most definitely warnings and not aberrations. In the context of an integrated culture they might have “differences” from the norm in their abilities and their behavior, but without having direct experience of such a setting we have no way of telling whether they would be seen as aberrant or if their behavior would channel into destructive pathways the way it does in our culture.

      The psychotic amongst us are the most integrated people in our culture. They either find positions of power and authority – if they are high-functioning – or they express the destructive vision of our society as best they can in literal outbursts. They are strange simply for being literal and not being conflicted the way most of the rest of us are.

      In a “sane” culture, they might very possibly be equally “pure.” In that case they would be true sages and seers to be celebrated for the clarity of their connections between spirit and action. We can’t “know” that, but there is a certain logic to it and some supportive evidence from reports of life in uncivilized cultures.

      “Closing the field,” reminds me of the enclosures of pasture land that led to the impoverishment of Modernism’s first victims in Britain and Ireland. It’s the same greed after efficiency….

  2. […] What I’d like to suggest in linking these two thinkers – who aren’t that different in the end, though they express their focus in differing ways – is that both are talking about the need for a great, a profound, disillusionment as a precursor to moving ahead. A big part of that process is learning not to fall into the cycles of highs and lows brought on by exhilaration and despair. Stepping out of the easy drama, recognizing that its promised “solutions” are illusions. This is the only way to break out of the thrall of the Spectacle. […]

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