Spectacular

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by Paige West (Columbia University)

Part One: What Is

The term spectacular has traditionally been used to describe the alienation of signs and meanings from reality under capitalism. I suggest here that its etymology points the way to reclaim capitalism’s use of images of plants, animals, peoples, and their intertwinings. To rethink spectacular in our multispecies worlding, we must begin with the spectacle. In the terms defined by The Situationists, spectacle means, simply put, the mediation of all social relations by images produced in order to generate capital by selling commodities. The Situationists were intellectuals, experimental artists, and political theorists who formed a collective in 1957 that was strongly influenced by certain forms of Marxist thought, the avant-garde art movement, and Surrealism. They worked with Marx’s ideas about alienation, fetishism, and commodities – seeing these things intertwined with every aspect of modern life. They saw a world where all social relations were formed over and expressed through objects and where commodity consumption had begun to erase real human experience and real human desires and they connected all of this to the emergence of mass mediated images. The idea of the spectacle was a key part of their intellectual work; it was the enemy.

Guy Debord, in his work The Society of Spectacles argues that commodities have come to have value not because of their material attributes or the labor that went into their production, but rather because of the abstract images associated with them and that the economy, as a whole, has become one of spectacle. With this he describes an economy based on the exchange of signs, symbols and images at least as much as it is based on the actual exchange of objects. In this spectacular economy, we come to rely on images instead of taking the time to learn about the commodities we are buying or the social and material relations that bring us the commodities. These images promise more than a commodity can ever offer and they replace reality with a kind of fantasy world that guides our intellectual, our material, and our aesthetic relations with everything, including politics. These fantasy worlds might offer the promise of a thin body or a perfect head of hair. Or, even a beautiful world full of happy people and healthy animals.

Spectacles, understood this way, make us feel. They make us desire, make us have bodily feelings that then structure how we perceive and act in the world. Susan Buck-Morss argues that the commodities that circulate in the spectacular economy allow us to imagine a better life than the one we have while at the same time blocking out and dulling our experience of the life we are living. In some of my work I have shown that the images used to sell products, like coffee for example, work to make us feel like our consumption can make the lives of other people better as well as providing a future for our planet that is better for both people and animals. Images of indigenous people, and the often beautiful places in our world where they live, are used to make consumers feel both connected to these peoples and places and as if they are directly contributing to the (assumed local desire) to live in traditional ways. Dan Brockington and some of his colleagues have argued, using this same logic of the spectacular economy, that mainstream environmental conservation uses images of nature to sell both environmental campaigns and various commodities. They argue that this process hollows out the meaning of the nature being used and that some efforts to conserve “the natural” have made it so that humans associate some disaggregate bits of the world with commodities, celebrities, or experiences and conservation organizations have used these connections as a vehicle for accumulation.

The images in the spectacular economy today are part of a capitalism with extraordinary velocity. The rate of turnover for images and marketing campaigns in contemporary advertising and contemporary conservation is astounding. Images that were connected to a commodity or campaign yesterday, may well detract from its value today. Marketers and public relations experts plan on a kind of obsolescence of images or signs. Capitalism today depends on a velocity of sign value, so that even if products don’t change, their value can be increased by changing their appearance of value. When the goal becomes the rapid turnover of capital and overcoming barriers to capital, and a commodity’s meanings and values are tied to semiotics, there is also a rapid turnover of meanings, and the meanings, images, and values used to sell commodities can and will be thrown away once they no longer carry marketplace value. Once a meaning stops having value in the marketplace, the people who want to sell the object must immediately find new meaning to pour into the object or to wrap it in. This rapid turnover of images means that the discarded images are seen as lacking value, as disposable. All of this means that in the spectacular economy, where images of indigenous peoples as well as images of plants, animals, and ecosystems are used to “sell”, images of our multispecies world are disposed of after the supposed value has been wrung out of them.

Part Two: What Could Be

In its life before The Situationists, and those of us influenced in our thinking and writing by them, made it into a way of understanding capital, mass mediated images, and social dislocation, spectacle meant something extraordinary that attracts attention and both catches the eye and impresses. If we returned to the Latin origins of the Old French word spectacle (the word from which the Middle English term arose in the 14th century) we get Spectacle from the Latin spectaculum, which means “a show” or “a place from which shows are seen” and spectaculum is from the older spectare, which means “to see” or “to behold.” In Latin speciō also means “see” and gave rise to the Latin word species which meant “the appearance of a thing” or “its outline or shape” and which gave us the Modern English word species. So, at its roots, deep in the history of utterances, spectacle connects to species.

What if we started to reclaim the idea of The Spectacular from corporations and marketers and big conservation? What if we went back to the beginning of its linguistic roots and decided to see every species intersection as spectacular; something extraordinary to behold? That is part, in my sense, of the multispecies project. To revive the wonder in and of our world through understanding the processes – political, social, historical – that worked to convince us that ‘nature’ was somehow distinct from ‘culture’……

….. utterly SPECTACULAR.

Further reading

Buck-Morss, Susan. 1992. “Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered.” October 62 (autumn 1992), 3–41.

Brockington, Dan, Rosaleen Duffy and Jim Igoe. 2008. Nature Unbound. London: Routledge.

Debord, Guy. 1995 [1967]. La Société du Spectacle. New York: Zone.

Vivanco, Luis A. 2001. “Spectacular Questzals, Ecoutourism, and Enviornmental Futures in Monte Verde, Costa Rica”. Ethnology 40(2) : 79-92.

West, Paige. 2006. Conservation is Our Government Now : The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea. Duke University Press.

West, Paige. 2012. From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive: The Social Life of Coffee from Papua New Guinea. Duke University Press.

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a companion to the book