I‘m recently back from a two-day workshop for social scientists in Edinburgh. On day one, I gave a talk with the title of ‘Emancipatory Social Science: from monological to dialogical communication’. I spoke about French philosopher Guy Debord who, in 1967, wrote a book called ‘Society of the Spectacle’. Debord argued that we now live in a society in which ‘the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’,1 and that the reality we experience is now one overwhelmingly mediated via mass communication systems. Debord called this the ‘society of the spectacle’ and saw the spectacle as a ‘social relation among people mediated by images’.
I suggested that spectacular society was constructed and maintained by a particular authoritarian and monological (i.e. one way, top-down) form of communication that I called ‘communication-as-message’. One topical example of communication-as-message would be the recent UK general election – a battle in which the Conservatives won, according to the Daily Telegraph, by ‘hammering home their message’ and ‘drowning out’ and ‘disrupting’ ‘Labour’s key messages’.
UK Election as battle of arch ‘spin doctors’: Labour’s David Axelrod vs Conservative’s Lynton Crosby
Communication-as-message, then, is the dominant (or ‘hegemonic’) form of communication in our society today. Its ultimate purpose is, according to Debord, social separation, i.e. keeping us divided. For Debord, separation was the ‘alpha and omega’ of the spectacle. His own focus was on class division, but we are separated along many other lines too.
Shattering the spectacle
What, then, would democratic (‘counter-hegemonic‘) communication – communication designed for social unification – look like? I argued along the lines of my recent blogpost (now OpenDemocracy piece) that it would be fundamentally dialogical, i.e. people coming together to talk and to listen in a praxis i.e. a continued process of shared learning and action. But, what about the mass communication technologies that produce the spectacle? How can we shatter the spectacle in the name of democracy and social unification?
For Debord, the only way to shatter the spectacle was through direct encounters. Debord focused specifically on workers’ councils, but we could also extend this to any space or organisation in which people come together in dialogue to change their world. This is, of course, absolutely central to our goal, but I would suggest that, when it comes to modern communication technologies, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Here, therefore, I brought in the insights of early 20th Century German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin.
Walter Benjamin was alert to the emancipatory potential of technological innovations. Shattering the spectacle entails, of course, ending communication as one-way monologue. For Benjamin, this necessarily meant breaking down the rigid separation between author and reader, radio broadcaster and listener, or TV/film producer and viewer. He was, in hindsight, perhaps a bit too optimistic regarding the press and radio of his time. However, I think that the internet really does have the revolutionary potential that Benjamin envisaged. Substitute the word ‘internet’ for the word ‘newspaper’ in this quote from Benjamin to see what I mean…
‘Authority to write is no longer founded in a specialist training but in a polytechnical one, and so becomes common property. In a word, the literarization of living conditions becomes a way of surmounting otherwise insoluble antinomies, and the place where the word is most debased – that is to say, the newspaper – becomes the very place where a rescue operation can be mounted.’
In the internet I believe that Benjamin’s hopeful vision can find its fulfillment. Yet, as we well know, though it has had its moments, the internet is being used quite effectively by ruling elites to keep us divided. Clearly, what is needed is a more conscious strategy for utilising the internet as the method of and catalyst for democratic, dialogical communication – a strategy that seeks to break down and democratise the ways in which media is produced. This is the focus of my own current project, but I’m still at very early stages so will tell you all about this at a later date.
A lesson in spectacle construction
Day two of the workshop began with a 2 hour-long (!) panel made up of two leading BBC television journalists and three self-proclaimed ‘neutral’ university social scientists.2 The BBC journalists effectively told how they had no choice but to put on the same bickering politicians every day; how their audiences wanted to know the ‘facts’ that didn’t really exist; and how their audiences couldn’t cope with in-depth analysis anyway.
They peddled the BBC myth of impartiality by repeating how they always gave air to both sides of the argument as if every argument has only ever two sides and these two sides were not invariably from the right of the political spectrum. The BBC claims the central ground, ignoring the fact that the centre has moved so far to the right in recent decades that it is now what Tariq Ali rightly calls the ‘extreme centre’.
I witnessed both an abrogation of moral duty by claiming the halo of ‘impartiality’ and a barely concealed contempt for the general public.3 In short, I witnessed how the spectacle was constructed and maintained in contemporary Britain today.
The revolution will not be televised
During the panel I held my tongue. I longed to tell them that if they were going to sit on the fence that hard any longer then I hoped they’d get splinters up their arses! I was also reminded of a great quote attributed to Dante: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality.’
The panel was supposed to be about the Scottish Referendum – an event in which ordinary people, by coming together and getting involved in dialogue and political organisation (i.e. democratic communication), took on the whole united political and media machine that is the spectacle and nearly won! In two hours of debate, only one panelist made brief reference to this electrifying political resurgence. There is, my friends, only one conclusion to draw: that, in the words of the great Gil Scott Heron, ‘the revolution will not be televised’!
1Here, Debord follows Karl Marx by identifying the commodity as the foundation of capitalist society. In capitalism, goods and services are produced not primarily because of their use-value, i.e. because people find them useful (although they still do need to be useful or, at least, be thought to be useful), but because of their exchange-value, i.e. because they can be sold in a market for profit (a.k.a ‘surplus-value’ which derives from workers’ labour-power). So, what Debord is saying is basically that this practice and logic of commodity production and exchange, i.e. of the market, has penetrated virtually all areas of human life.
2I put neutral in speech marks, because I believe that no one is ever neutral and that claiming neutrality is a central strategy for hiding ideology and power.
3Tellingly, in Society of the Spectacle’, Debord highlights the ‘contempt’ that ‘specialists in the power of the spectacle’ are ‘corrupted by’, a contempt that is ‘confirmed by their knowledge of the contemptible man, who the spectator really is’.