Twitter and its Post-Spectacular Discontents

Debord defined the spectacle as a one-way communication regime in which Capital discourses endlessly upon itself. [1] Seen from this perspective, the “billboard as a medium” does not convey differentiated content. Instead, its message is formal, and is characterized by continuity, regularity, and normalized affects. As a perfected form of commodified communication, it occupies a static space, fixes and strictly regulates time, and is non-reciprocating. It’s not “cool” so much as cold. Its message is always the same: “look here!” Like any other authoritarian power, the billboard speaks but does not allow a response. Because it wants us to be only its mute and captive viewers, every “exchange” with the billboard diminishes us, and at some level breeds hostility; unless, of course, through an act of “culture-jamming” or vandalism, the billboard is seized and opened to dialogue and participation, as is the promise here – an aspect of the “hopefulness” Cheyanne mentions in her post.

While the theory of the spectacle is useful, it needs to be reloaded in the age of social media, where “us-viewers” can no longer be meaningfully described as passive consumers of spectacular information. Today, we don’t “consume” the spectacle so much as author it (and for free – pure surplus value!). In other words, we have become the fully-integrated producer-consumer-programmers of our own publicity [2]. Is this an improvement? One can’t be blamed for wondering if the “democratic” and “participatory” claims made by social media utopians aren’t overly optimistic. For whether they are carried out in the realm of technology and culture (Twitter), or at the level of politics-as-such (the state), don’t these minor modifications to Capital’s tools and techniques – its languages and its means of communication – only serve to consolidate our deepening dependencies on this brutal and dispiriting social order? In the same way that credit was introduced to fend off a growing crisis in productivity, social media will not overcome or even significantly challenge the increasingly obvious “deficits” of commodified communication; it will simply normalize and expand them – it will socialize them.

For these reasons, I was both uneasy and encouraged when Clint and Lorna asked me to participate in Digital Natives. Uneasy, because I’ve been unenthusiastic about the new modes of communication such as Twitter (“RIOT 1492” is my first tweet, though I actually emailed it…); encouraged, because the project clearly seeks to address precisely these issues, and opens the possibility to test-run a counter-interpellative “reply” to the billboard.

I’m not sure I’ve succeeded in that, but I’ll reflect on what I had to say in another post.


[1] “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.” – Debord, Society of the Spectacle, §24

[2] “Publicité is connected to the German Öffentlichkeit and means “public sphere” or “public opinion.” The German root offen– suggests openness, clarity, transparency and manifestness. Yet instead of translating publicité as “public sphere,” which carries specific connotations in political theory, we use “publicity,” following the convention established by Kant’s translators. Note however that “publicity” does not just mean advertising in a narrow sense, but rather the whole sphere of “publicness.”” – Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War.


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