by Mindy Clegg
In our modern society, we are awash in a near constant barrage of information. It can be difficult for even the most critically-minded among us to sift through all of that information and vet it for truthfulness. It’s likely that we all are subject to some misinformation that we believe in the course of our daily engagement with mass media. Although it’s more pervasive and immediate in today’s interconnected world, this state of affairs has existed since the beginning of the industrial age, starting with publishing in the nineteenth century and then onto broadcasting media of the twentieth century. But, if the medium is the message as Marshall McLuhan argued, what do these generations of engagement with mass forms of broadcasting actually mean for us as a society? The content fades away into the background to some degree while the medium shapes our shared experiences. Broadcasting and social media have become a shared prism on world, with differing interpretations of events experienced in a similar way.
We rarely have public discussions on what a mass mediated society means for us, taking its existence for granted. Perhaps turning to a classic treatment of mass society might remind us of the historical and social constructedness of mass media. One such compelling work was the 1967 work by Situationist Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (published in English in 1970). Debord’s work has become a classic among philosophers, disaffected youth, and scholars attempting to come to grips with the role mass media plays in modern life. In this essay, I will argue that some of Debord’s assertions, such as his claim about the passivity encouraged by the spectacular industries, are incomplete. No form of mass medium was ever accepted passively. Rather, people as consumers often actively engaged with mass media, even if the goal was passive acceptance from the top down. I use the example of popular music to illustrate the point.
Guy Debord’s formative years in France saw the rise of fascism and the Second World War. Little surprise that postwar he joined whatever interesting and radical groups he could find, beginning with Isidore Isou’s Letterist group. He later split off his own collective, the Letterists International before forming the Situationists International, a collective that lasted until 1972 and continues to influence cultural theorists and artists. Debord wrote about living in within a capitalist society. His most well-known work, The Society of the Spectacle, explored the role that mass media play in constructing and supporting the capitalist economy. In this work, he argued that mass media exists to promote the capitalist mode of production, primarily via reflecting images of humanity that serve to distort reality and alienate people from each other. He noted that “[t]he spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people.” (41) He describes modern society as “fundamentally spectaclist” and notes that “the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.” (14) “The spectacle subjugates living men to itself to the extent that the economy has totally subjugated them. It is no more than the economy developing for itself.” (16) Debord’s argument about the economy’s self-replication bears similarity to Karl Polanyi’s contention that the market had taken over most aspects of human life in the period prior to the World Wars.2 Moreover, the spectacle, Debord contends, encourages the isolation of the individual, the cultivation of the “lonely crowd” as he dubs it (28). He goes on to note that “[t]he spectacle within society corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation” (32).
Debord connects the spectacle with the commodity. He argues in the second section that, “This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things,” which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.” (36). Here he divides the tangible from the intangible, while defining the role of all commodities. The commodity, according to Debord, is “dominating all that is lived” (37). If the tangible things are the physical products produced in the capitalist system, then the intangible must be the means of selling those products, and the means of shaping our perceptions with regards to our class-riven economic system. As explored in the work of the British film maker Adam Curtis, mass media (especially via advertising) played a definitive role in encouraging and manipulating people into accepting the commodity-centered modern economic system of endless accumulation of wealth.3 The mass media exists primarily to sell the public commodities and to distort our perceptions of the labor value of said commodity. A form of global imperialism, he further argues its a global phenomenon now, noting how it “defines the program of the ruling class and presides over its formation. Just as it presents pseudo-goods to be coveted, it offers false models of revolution to local revolutionaries” (57). Commodities themselves become means by which people signal their allegiance to commodities, noting that “the consumer is filled with religious fervor for the sovereign liberty of the commodities” (67). Debord argues for a one-way relationship to commodities, with our social relations being threaded through our embrace of them. Culture is especially central, according to Debord, noting that “[w]hen culture becomes nothing more than a commodity, it must also become the star commodity of the spectacular society” (193). Our relationship with culture was fundamentally altered by its commodification, disrupted according to Debord in order to reinforce the ruling hegemonic ideology of the capitalist system.
But how helpful is Debord’s top-down analysis? Does he paint an accurate picture of humanity under capitalism? Not entirely, though his Marxist analysis has strong merits. Debord notes that the “bourgeoisie is the only revolutionary class that ever won” (87), an argument put forward by Marx. Over the course of the twentieth century the mass media has been employed to shape popular opinion, as described in the Curtis documentary. Father of public relations Edward Bernays transformed the field of advertising by connecting our consumption with freudian desire. He also argued in favor of propaganda precisely because he believed that the average American was unable to make rational political decisions. Propaganda, coupled with a healthy consumer economy, allows for the elite class to better control the street, which at the time was seen as a dangerous form of democratic engagement.4 American mass media has historically functioned as a voice of mainstream ideology for both the state and private interests over the years. Major record labels still wield a great deal of power in the realm of popular music, despite fragmentation of the industry since the punk era. Popular films often promote American foreign policy aims (among other things) with active participation from the Department of Defense. In other words, large corporations have a major stake in shaping the public perception of our economy, government, and reality which often dovetails with the demands of the nation-state under the globalized capitalist system. They indeed act as mutually constituting institutions, in other words. I have no argument against that important point and am in full agreement.
Nonetheless, Debord’s analysis feels lacking. Where is the sense of human agency? At the beginning of the his work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart, Karl Marx said this on agency in history:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
In other words, we can shape the course of events, but we are indelibly shaped by structures that we did not ourselves build, that were built before us, and will likely be transformed by us. We have agency, but are limited by the times in which we live and by the structures that limit our horizon of possibilities. Marx hints at a possible space of resistance to these hegemonic structures, by disguising and borrowing language. It hints at new directions in the future, shaped by activists looking to make a more humane society, even in the face of those limitations. Looking closely, we can see that within the supposedly solid spectacle as well.
The spectacle plays off our need for communication, narrative, and connection to something outside of ourselves. Humans crave story and meaning in a world that is in reality meaningless and deeply disordered. Few things epitomize the attempt to come to grips with the actual chaos of our reality than postmodernism, a movement in art and philosophy that rejected the concept of progress as an inevitability and embraced the notion of complexity in determining the truth (not, as some claim, that no truth actually exists)—but the emergence of postmodernist thought and culture set off some rebellion from those looking for certainty. We can see the contours of that rebellion in the embrace of religion and right wing nationalist populism. Both offer certainty and assurances of meaning, while postmodernism often demands you make your own meaning. It’s not an either/or question though; the search for meaning and the more complex reality described by postmodernism are not mutually exclusive. We can find alternatives to the past moving forward, and popular culture can be part of that process. The late, great fantasy author Terry Pratchett called us “Pans Narrans” (or storytelling chimpanzees), or the “falling angel meeting the rising ape” as he has Death put it in his homage to myth and meaning Hogfather.5 Pratchett understood that we need to make sense of the senseless universe in which we find ourselves. As our societies have transformed over the centuries, from hunter-gatherers eventually to denizens of cyberspace, narrative helped prop up whatever common sense existed but could also give us alternatives and the means to think about changes that benefit us all.
That’s precisely where our intervention here comes in, because the spectacle never existed without a multiplicity of meanings. Pratchett and writers like him are just one example of using a particular medium as a critique of itself and the structures which support it. If the medium is the message, that doesn’t make the messages being carried entirely irrelevant. People have been using mass culture as a part of their resistance for a while now, with varying levels of success. It also depends on what you mean by acts of resistance. As noted by Elizabeth Grace Hale, white audiences have often mistaken embrace of images of rebellion for the real thing.6 But there has been actual rebellion promoted via cultural production. Jazz, one of the earliest popular music spread via sound recording and radio broadcasting, carried messages of resistance to white supremacy, even as the recording industry sought to depoliticize the genre for white audiences. Jazz artists themselves merely sought out new means of indicating their resistance to white domination of the mainstream music industry, such as the subgenre of Bebop. People in other genres of music followed the model laid down by jazz pioneers. Post-Elvis rock and its demon spawn punk rock both embraced rebellion as a pose. Punk is an especially cogent example. The early definers of punk were music critics such as Lester Bangs and Greg Shaw. Younger people who found community in their local punk scene, however, took it a step further, wrestling the spectacle of rock music down to a communal level. Those identifying as punks eventually sought an alternative to the mainstream music industry, setting up parallel labels, distribution chains, and promotional outlets via college radio, fanzines, independent record shops, and tape sharing networks through the mail—all well prior to the rise of the internet.
Punks attempted to short circuit the spectacle by erasing the line between fan and artist, with the hardcore wave of punk especially leaning into a sense of community as opposed to an uneven relationship between consumer and producer. Punk existed as more than just a genre of music, evidenced by the fact that early punk bands drew on a variety of musical styles, and sometimes none at all. Rather it functioned as a location of community building around mass culture, creating a translocal public based around a consumerist identity. It gave (and continues to give) meaning and connection to people who found no such thing in the so-called mainstream cultures in our modern, mass-mediated societies. Yes, it’s a compromise with the spectacle, but one that allowed people to shape their own sense of self rather than accept what was imposed from the outside. Punk, at its heart, sought to break down the facade of the spectacle bit by bit and to reconfigure it into a space of shared cultural meaning. Punks also insisted upon the producer having greater cultural control over their music. In doing so, punks created greater awareness among music fans of how the musical sausage was made. Today, when more mainstream pop artists like Taylor Swift discuss the reality of the recording industry, they are taking influence from punks who regularly talked about the exploitation of musicians by the major labels, such as with Steve Albini’s now famous rant about how the major labels misuse artists. Swift and many of her pop peers are a weird mash up of the business savvy Madonna and her punk contemporaries from the 1980s.
Maybe sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s intervention into culture and the arts might bear fruit for us here. Rather than a top-down, impenetrable spectacle of Debord’s, he described an interconnected social field of activity. There, people or groups of people competed and interacted, with varying levels of power within those fields. For one, it seems to more accurately describe how the culture industries actually work. For example, the “gate keepers” of Hollywood are not only the powerful big name movie producers. It can be anyone with access to jobs from small town theaters right on up to big budget films. A “big break” can come from meeting the right casting director at the right time and place. Same can be said of the music industry, where “success” is no longer just defined by some level of mass success. Many artists since the rise of punk carved out careers at the mid-level, forging loyal fanbases that allow for creative autonomy. The more critical relationship since the punk era has become that between the producer and consumer of music, not the corporation and artist. Punks helped forge a new dimension to the field of cultural production, one that sought greater inclusivity and understanding about the mode of production for music. Punk also changed the narrative around how artists should be understood, as punks focused on the concept of artistic authenticity. Today, even major pop stars either have greater involvement in songwriting or signal that they do via the public. The punk intervention into the music industry created real change that allowed for more authentic engagement with music.
Ultimately, we should recognize that the various social institutions humanity built over the course of the past few centuries can and should change when they fail us. That process can take time, effort, and forethought. It also means accepting that sometimes that change won’t arrive for a long time. Capitalism and the ideologies that support it did not spring into existence overnight, but they are not either unassailable or inevitable. Rather, it took several centuries for the pieces to fall into place and replicate itself in our minds as “the correct” way to handle our collective needs. Our experiences with the current economic and social system, after all, only encompass a tiny fraction of human history, and as Ursula K. LeGuin once reminded us, the divine right of kings once seemed inevitable too.
If history can provide valuable insights, the key one is that small changes can snowball into larger, structural changes. It’s people taking small steps together who provide the impetus for that change. For the spectacular industries like the music industries, we’ve seen an alternative structure built by rebellious youths that revealed the cracks and fissures of the larger industry. By paying heed to such examples, we can derive hope that other aspects of our society can be transformed as well.
5 Terry Pratchett, Hogfather, New York: Harpertorch, 2014. A complete bibliography of the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s works can be found at his website.