What Guy Debord calls la societe du spectacle1, what Jean Baudrillard calls la societe de consommation2 , what R.H. Tawney calls the acquisitive society3 , what Istvan Meszaros calls "a metabolic system of control"4 , what Arthur Kroker and David Cook call the postmodern scene and excremental culture5 , what Jacques Ellul calls the technological society6, Richard Stivers calls the culture of cynicism. What is it? How did we get here? Stivers offers an important analysis that proposes an answer to these questions.
"American society is experiencing a moral decline, the critics say. [M]ost critics [from both the political right and the political left, respectively] seem to think [social problems] can be solved by a greater exercise of moral authority or by political reform." (p.vii) Stivers counters these prevailing views by adding that "the decline runs much deeper than this. For it is not signaled by a series of discrete moral problems that the conventional morality can no longer control, but by the Very Morality Itself, a morality that encourages, even promotes, cynical and self-serving behavior." (p.vii) The conventionality of Stivers' perception is highlighted by its echoing of Solzhenitsyn here.
Although Stivers contrasts the relative positions of Kierkegaard (an ethical position) and Nietzsche (an aesthetic position), it is evident in some fashion that Stivers would agree with Nietzsche's assertion that the Moral God is dead because we have killed him: "the nation [America] has conquered the god of American Christianity [sic] and become one itself in the process." (p.33) If the Moral God is dead, what has the new god given us in his stead? Stivers responds: "Modern American morality in its totality (content and form) is an expression of the marriage between technological utopianism (mental structure) and technological power (material structure)." (p.166) If this new morality was only America's, Stivers' thesis might be of limited interest; but he expresses agreement with Baudrillard that America is the realised utopia towards which the rest of the world is headed: "[A]s the most technologically advanced society, America is the future of all modern societies." (p.viii)
As societies based on capital develop, they become more technological and exalt the "virtues" of productivism - echoes of Baudrillard's analyses in Le miroir de la production. This exaltation of productivism leads to an emphasis on technique [technical rules] that are extrapolated to all social action. Citing Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society: "'Technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.'" (pp.71-72) The invasion of technique into all human action has a telling result for Stivers' story:
Technical rules are rapidly supplanting moral norms by making them irrelevant. A technological civilization is one in which the means absorb the ends. Traditional norms place limits on power; technical norms are a form of power. (p.74) [...And, important for a society of the spectacle:] Ethical meaning [derives] from a limitation of power. [...] Power is more spectacular than the limitation of power [!]" (P. 154)
This "power-play" has detrimental effects in that it breeds either cynicism or idealism - one more piece of evidence in support of Nietzsche's assertion that we have killed the Moral God and his ethical system. "Ethical action has a source other than reality itself, whereas cynicism and idealism both draw their inspiration from reality in the very act of deceiving us about it. [In other words, they cause us to enter into the hyperreal]. They are thus ideological." (p.ix)
The ideology is power and the good that is sought is success. The goal is accomplished through a naive belief in technological evolution. "With evolutionary progress perceived as a deterministic process [technique], power and goodness become identical. Success [the bitch goddess, Stivers tells us, that Americans exclusively worship] is not the result of moral character; rather it is moral character itself." (p.24)
The emphasis on technique makes technology into a system, a bureaucracy, which recharacterises the nature of power: "to the extent that technology becomes a system [...], power becomes objectified and abstract." (p.91) Therefore, a simulacrum of power leading into the hyperreality in which we find ourselves. Borrowing from Owen Barfield's Saving The Appearances, Stivers explains:
The equation of reality and truth is the most pernicious aspect of the onslaught of technology and bureaucracy. It is not enough to say that science has become the arbiter of truth in the modern world, for the value of science today lies in technology. Technology becomes truth. This represents the materialization of truth. Perhaps this is what Heidegger meant when he called technology the metaphysics of the twentieth century. (p.88)
This metaphysics works to replace "reality" with Baudrillard's hyperreality which is more real than the real. Reality is destroyed!
Atomistic science has produced in effect a universe of random facts. [...F]acts and reality are one, and our approach to reality is purely aesthetical [therefore, hyper-aesthetics!]. We are detached consumers of interesting facts. Reality is the sum of all facts but is known one fact at a time. Therefore reality is experienced as both fragmentary and interesting."(p.107)
Power as simulacrum, reality fragmented, destroyed, then metamorphosed into hyperreality, a weltanschauung of hyper-aesthetics where technology is truth [anti-truth] - voila! the new morality [anti-morality]! A nightmare desert where the both the subject and the social are corpses, victims of this society's brutal sign-violence.
"Technical rules, public opinion, peer group norms, and visual images [spectacle], therefore, converge to create a morality of power, morality without meaning. This morality of power, morality without meaning, is, of course, an anti- morality from the perspective of traditional morality, for it destroys symbolically- mediated experiences. Technology and the visual images of the media tend to destroy meaning, without which all norms become exclusively norms of power. (p.167) [... And a]s technology attenuates a common morality, the competition for the fruits of technology - increased consumption - becomes more brutal."(p.165)
Therefore, a landscape of empty signs marked with a monument to anti-morality and the graves of meaning, the subject, and the social - all of the characteristics of the postmodern scene!
Beyond Stivers' analysis of the morality of postmodern technological society, Stivers lends his voice to the slowly growing chorus calling for total resistance, a resistance even to the appropriation of resistance and its subsequent transformation into spectacle: "Were it ever to attempt to become a morality rather than an ethic of individual love and freedom, it would be swallowed up by the very civilization it had chosen to oppose." (p.181) The revolution will be televised!
But, if the alternative to resistance is the nightmare Stivers and others describe, then maybe Stivers' modest proposal, far from being feeble and naive, deserves consideration. Therein lies its real importance. Although Stivers is somewhat vague about how to implement this resistance [is he referring us to Kierkegaard?], other voices in the chorus are more specific, if not more blunt:
Why not get together with some friends soon and say NO! Say no to the draft, or work, or religion, or authority figures, or school; say no to television, patriotism, political ideologies, any of the thousand and one ways in which this society keeps you from realizing your own needs and desires. You'll find the more you do it, the more you'll like it! JUST SAY 'FUCK OFF.' YOU'LL GET A LOT OF SATISFACTION.7
However, there is a common theoretical position today that all resistance to this anti-morality of the society of the spectacle is doomed because it gets caught in the "doubling logic" of said society, viz. it is coopted by society through the violence done on all signs by the spectacle. Although Stivers is not explicit on this position, he obviously rejects it. Echoes of Cornelius Castoriadis come through:
Someone who is afraid of cooptation has already been coopted. His attitude has been coopted - since it has been blocked up. The deepest reaches of his mind have been coopted, for there he seeks guarantees against being coopted, and thus he has already been caught in the trap of reactionary ideology: the search for an anticooptation talisman or fetishistic magic charm. There is NO guarantee against cooptation [...] Everything can be coopted - save one thing: our own reflective, critical, autonomous activity. To fight cooptation is to extend this activity beyond the here and now; it is to give it a form that will convey its content for all time and make it utterly impossible to coopt - that is, capable of being conquered again and again, in its ever-new truth, by living beings.8
Len Bracken would agree that this is also the position taken by Guy Debord, another theorist who rejects the Lyotardian position taken in The Postmodern Condition - i.e., the death of the metanarrative of liberation: "More serious play along the line of a Bakhtinian-parasitutationist dialogue needs to be done rather than following the nihilisticly cynical path of Baudrillard [...]"9
Debord recommended doing violence to the signs of the society of the spectacle through detournement among other strategies of negation - a negation that saves Stivers' politics of total refusal from indifference.
For the society of the spectacle to be effectively destroyed, what is needed are people setting a practical force in motion. A critical theory of the spectacle cannot be true unless it joins forces with the practical movement of negation within society; and this negation which constitutes the resumption of revolutionary class struggle, cannot for its part achieve self-consciousness unless it develops the critique of the spectacle, a critique that embodies the theory of negation's real conditions - the practical conditions of present-day oppression - and that also, inversely, reveals the secret of negation's potential.10
The revolution will be televised but that, in itself, can be a weapon against the tyranny of the culture of cynicism. The alternative is an implicit endorsement of this culture.
1. Guy Debord. La societe du spectacle. (Paris: Buchet-Chastel, 1967; Paris: Champ Libre, 1971).
2. Jean Baudrillard. La societe de consommation: ses mythes, ses structures. ([s.l.]: Editions Denoel, 1970).
3. R.H. Tawney. The Acquisitive Society. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1920).
4. "Marxism Today: An interview with Istvan Meszaros", Radical Philosophy (62: Autumn 1992).
5. Arthur Kroker, David Cook. The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aestetics. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).
6. Jacques Ellul. The Technological Society, trans. John Wilkinson. (New York : Vintage, 1964).
7. Anti-Authoritarian Anonymous. "Midge and Cindy", Semiotext(e) (13: 1987).
8. Cornelius Castoriadis. "The anticipated revolution", in Cornielius Castoriadis, Poltical and Social Writings: Volume 3, 1961-1979: Recommencing the Revolution: From Socialism to the Autonomous Society trans. and ed. David Ames Curtis. (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p.132.
9. Len Bracken, The Spectacle Of Secrecy, CTHEORY (17: 1994).
10. Guy Debord. "The Society of the Spectacle" trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Thesis (203), p.143.