It is often said that everything in our late modern society is nothing but spectacle and image. By large, such is at least the conventional wisdom of our self awareness since La Société du spectacle by Guy Debord. It is a literary masterpiece published in 1967 elaborating on the impact of the television. The significance of such concept as the society of spectacle is widely disputed. Self-acclaimed postmodernists like to behold it as the ultimate sign of the all-embracing relativity of existence. This is a social construction of reality which offers you the delightful promise of radical uncertainty. Paradoxically enough, this insight is often used to highlight that everything can be considered not to be real. As such, evading uncomfortable and complex discussions seems easier than ever. But are we really evading them? Or is it rather the case that with the help of mass simulation, we simply banalize them?
Just as the philosopher Ian Hacking once pointed out, the postmodern strategy of divide and conquer does not fool anyone, not least themselves, I think. For it is obvious that nothing is only spectacle and image. Keep in mind for instance the fact that spectacle and image can cause rather substantial material consequences. Think for example about public images depicting skinny and lightly dressed models, is it not quite clear that this phenomenon is not only spectacle and image when considering its role in influencing the presence of anorexia? I think the answer is simple even if the phenomenon is engaged through the lens of postmodern methods by itself. The signified keeps re-producing itself by the furtherance from the signifier. Pictures (signifier) of anorexic models (signified) effectively participate in manufacturing of new anorexic models (signified), and by the spectacular assistance of signifier alone. The relationship between signified and signifier becomes circular.
People in this postmodern utopia may enjoy the freedom to interpret these images just as they like. Still, on a systemic level, it seems to re-produce the same structural pattern over and over again. It may be the case that we just need more of the postmodern exercise in relativistic interpretation. What do I know, I can only offer you my interpretation…
Anyway, I think many would agree that the society of spectacle and image is what we in everyday speech refer to as ”mass culture”. The interesting question regarding this phenomenon is: How do we make sense of such a culture? And what is its nature?
The answer, just as everything, is obviosly disputed. So many are those who have elaborated on the subject of mass culture. Among the more perceptive – but nonetheless mass culturally uninteresting – accounts is the one put forward by the Texanian philosopher Rick Roderick in a series of lectures under the title The Self under Siege performed back in 1993.
For him, the mass culture of postmodernism based on spectacle and image had a peculiar non-systematic nature. All we could really know about it, is that it will appear on a grid. But just as with culture in general we can never be sure about the extent of the grid. In his own words: ”When you discuss cultural phenomenon today, you almost have to go phenomenon about phenomenon”.
Roderick’s greatest fear and foreboding was that even though the postmodern culture of mass simulation carried the task to extend the freedom in human lives, it nonetheless disrupted the very conditions underlying the meaning of being human at all. To paraphrase: ”it is pointless to talk about free humans, in the absence of humans.” Now, what do I he mean by this? Well, it is a complex argument, but I think it is best made intelligible by being analyzed from the standpoint of psychoanalysis.
Although psychoanalysis just as philosophy is not really a science in the strict sense of the word. It have for sure had it’s great contribution to philosophical inquiry in general and as such also affected the epistemology of science in a way that enables us to be far more sceptical about the meaning of knowledge than ever before. I am, of course, talking about the contribution of psychoanalysis in introducing us to the cognitive phenomenon of ”the subconscious”. This little word is often too serious a fatique for philosophers of older traditions, having only but the conscious part of our psyche as a point of departure for all previous philosophical inquires.
To the contrary, psychoanalytical thinkers such as both Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan (to name a few) viewed our conscious mind to be a rather small part of our actual psychic lives. Freud, to be brief, made his fundamental distinction between the Id, ego and the super-ego. The ego, the organized and conscious part of our psyche, is according to Freud just a small garrison within our minds. It is, to be precise, only a small conscious ”garrison” within the ”city” of the unconsious.
The Id on the other hand, is something close to our natural instincts, our inner primeval being, and our desires. In popular culture it is often depicted as a little devil sitting on the left shoulder providing you with shameless proposals. What makes the ego resist this little devil is, as we all know, the little angel sitting on the other shoulder. This is the super-ego, the part of our mind that is intersubjectively entangled and embedded within society, the part responsible for morals and social norms of behaviour. That said, these three compose our psyche, in a greatly simplified sense.
Generally, the purpose of engaging in psychoanalysis is to make unreflected parts of the psyche become reflected. To make larger parts of the ”city” part of the ”garrison”. Even if that entails dealing with really ”sick” or unpleasent memories and thoughts. The goal is, in the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s words, to re-structure the order of the symbolic. That is to say, the goal is to bring about change by undermining the fictions structuring our reality, through the act of critical reflection in the realm of the unconscious. Postmodernists often interpret this imperative as coming to terms with the idea of there not being any reality. I will not protest – let them engage in psychoanalytic reflection in the postmodern way and discover what kind of institution it will lead them into. I on the other hand, prefer to interpret this as making visible the structures of hegemony and the manner in which it affects the materiality of society, which makes me realize that reality could be different. The more mundane form of this process is in simplification to make the Id become the I (ego). To make ”unknown knowns” become part of our ”known knowns”. This does not sound too bad, it’s, if you will, getting to know your inner ”true self”.
But bearing this in mind, what does it tell us about the function of mass tele-communicated and simulated culture? Isn’t its assignment rather to bring about the radical opposite?
Well, Roderick’s conclusion was exactly this: ”If the goal of psychoanalysis was to make the unreflected parts of our minds to become reflected (the Id become the I), then the goal of a mass simulation culture is psychoanalysis in reverse. It is to make that little last remaining part of that ”garrison” become unconscious.”
To make an example, by the time you have watched a few of those sitcoms of later production there is eventually not much of your life left that has not become it (the sitcom itself). Everything is reflected upon, is brought under the searchlight of ”enlightenment”, and so paradoxically becomes the general property of everyone, becomes generally understood. It takes upon reflecting socially uncomfortable memories, and as such, moves them out of the (conscious) clear ”garrison” and slam them around the (unconscious) ”city”. It’s goal is simply, to bury everything that might threaten the order itself.
Eventually, nobody dares to use their own reason, because reason is not even their’s to own anymore. That little garrison of autonomy inside our heads that we used to call ”self” is under constant assault from it.
After a while of indulging this mass culture (watching all these sitcoms and stuff), you will start to ”quasi-recognize” yourself in them. But then maybe you realize it have taken everything of meaning away from you and made it a general, although banalized, property of everyone.
But do not mourn, this culture is also a culture where all your needs and desires can be immediately satisfied over and over again. However, I cannot refrain from asking yet another question: Did those desires exist prior to it or is it rather through and by it that they are perpetually created?
We may come one step closer to this inquiry if we imagine that our desire would actually be that this mass simulation really unplugged itself. In simple words, for the television to blow itself up. This desire, this demand, it will never satisfy, it will never meet. Try going all relative about that.
Now that we have made some speculation about it’s nature. What then is it’s function, and how does it effect what Žižek would call the symbolic order?
This is actually the part where the phenomenon of the postmodernists is rendered interesting. Not because of any insight they might share, but rather from studying the phenomenon of their relativist attitude towards existence itself. How is it, if their insight is so enlightened, that they emerged out of history exactly at a time when society itself seemed to have lost hope for any real change? I think the answer lies precisely here. The relativist attitude is the effect of this mass culture, not it’s cause. For what happens when it, the culture of simulation, keeps superficialize reality by relentless circulation of infinitely replicable images. Why, as Roderick points out, visit Switzerland when the ”Switzerland land” at Disneyland is even better than the real Switzerland? Why even bother to make the distinction? If not for any possibility of finding a meaningful difference between superficial versus genuine at all. Further, you will never find any topic of discussion not having been banalized already by being endlessly treshed by the cynical mincer of talk show hosts like Ricki Lake, Geraldo Rivera, or in the Swedish case: Filip and Fredrik. And it’s not as simple as turning the television off. In that case, you may eventually find yourself in a confused situation of not even being able to find something that resembles the resemblance of ”reality”. In a state of hyper-reality (reality being only that which could be simulated), this act of un-plugging will simply turn you into an outcast. Just as the general academic community already is at the time.
At this point, it may become clear what the consequnces of this phenomenon of mass culture might be. Roderick’s idea is that you could build walls that are apparent and crude, and by such easy to storm and tear down. This is what Roderick called ”stupid totalitarianism”.
But there are also walls that cannot be seen. These walls exist everywhere, they are the walls of ”race”, ”class”, ”sex”, and so on. However insidious, the walls are rendered even stronger by the perpetual process of banalization through sitcoms, talk shows, and all other simulations of mass culture (what people generally refer to as , pardon the language, ”shit” but still enjoy). In the end, the frightening part ist that you will perpetually have the feeling that you have already stormed the walls.
The ”known knowns” of your little brain will be turned into the ”unknown knowns” of everyone. This is the only way our psyche can handle such an overload of ambiguous and banal information, by moving it out of the garrison. As such, the goal of mass simulation is almost to reverse the process of the enlightenment. In metaphorical words, the little clear ”garrison” of your mind keeps shrinking for the benefit of the extending unconscious ”city”. Mass simulation performs exactly the opposite process to what Freud and Lacan had in mind.
All this makes the attitude of ”everything is just bullshit” far more reasonable to assume than to even try to make sense of a system of such complexity. As expressed by Roderick: ”These walls do not really wall anyone out, they just wall you in.”. And this is what Roderick calls ”smart totalitarianism”. An order of the symbolic powerful enough even to manage to satisfy your desire for revolution once in a while. Or as Žižek usually put it: ”it doesn’t give you what you desire – it tells you how to desire.”
Text: Dennis Halvordsson