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June 12, 2007



The Society of the Unspectacular

It is time to leave the theories of Debord about the Society of the Spectacle behind us. If today we witness the hyper-spectacular in the mass-media, this should not fool us. It is not the apotheosis of the spectacle, but much rather the eclipse of the spectacle - the final moment of tragic sublimity, of hyper-violence, before it fades out....

In many ways the fate of the spectacle society mirrors (and is mirrored in) the culture of the spectacle par excellence, that of the mass-mediated United States of America. If today the USA projects its power as super-state throughout the world with an unprecedented hyper-violence, then this tragic spectacle should not fool us. The USA has long shed it status as the sole superpower in the world. Silently financed by China, economically eclipsed by the EU, again China, and soon even India, unable to procure for its own wasteful energy needs (hence its dependence on countries like Russia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia), culturally and intellectually unsettled - it has become a crash waiting to happen...

The mass-media are about to dissolve into a sea of hypermedial fragments, transforming into a multitude of hybrids and singularities (does anybody still know what television actually is these days?). This inevitably invites a radical fragmentation of 'the public'. This is a process that has at long taken hold of the informational societies. The current explosion of self-publication in countless weblogs, on community websites, self-video portals, in on-line diaries, web fora and a plethora of individual websites is only the visible sign of an undercurrent that was already for many years transforming 'the public' into an amalgamation of increasingly unrelated subjectivities and singular interest groups.

What can be witnessed today is the rise of swarm publics - highly unstable constellations of temporary alliance, creating a public sphere in constant flux - globally mediated flash mobs that never meet- fuelled by sentiment and affect - escaping fixed capture.

The face of "radical mediocrity"

Rather than tending towards the expression of hyper-individuality, these swarm publics, by lack of common frame of reference, tend towards the lowest common denominator; the absolutely unparticular - mediated in excess to find confirmation of its own averageness. This is what we could perhaps call the face of "radical mediocrity" (as philosopher Henk Oosterling would probably call it, though I'm not sure he understands the same thing with this as what I'm getting at here).

Mass Media then become Generic Media: What we can see on YouTube is first and foremost the eternal return of the same, the absolutely average, the radically unparticular, the excessive practice of everyday life.

The media space of Generic Media is a quotidian space: It is the space of the everyday. It is inherently unspectacular. Generic Media is never in any sense an anti-spectacle, it is simply the denial of spectacle altogether.

What can be witnessed in the universe of self-media is the nominalisation of the mediated image - and what is so striking about it is that the image (on average) is so exceedingly boring. It is the grand testimony to the human spirit's inability to move beyond itself. We can witness it day in and day out trapped in its own circularity. The media image in the universe of self-publication tends towards that negative horizon where it looses all its articulation and becomes 'vernacular', something that is impossible to capture.

The current excess of self-mediation was already prefigured in the early experimental internet cultures of the 1990s. When I was asked to reflect on the Liverpool variation of the Superchannel project, a do-it-yourself web-tv platform facilitated by the Superflex collective from Copenhagen, called Tenant Spin. I couldn't help but noticing while going through the archive of this web-tv project in the UK's oldest tower-block during reconstruction how incredibly boring and unspecific, 'normal' these webcasts were. In no way did they reflect the spectacles of mass media. I called it "Aesthetics of the Unspectacular", and of course these were media without an audience par excellence!

The dark face of "YOU"

The productive moment of self-media is quite evidently its escape of authoritarian indoctrination. However, this certainly does not mean that it constitutes a space without conflict. Much rather conflict flourishes in the space of generic media. In a sense the system of self-mediation is the ultimate expression of Chantal Mouffe's idea of antagonistic pluralism. The space in fact has a double face, at the same time the face of radical mediocrity and a much more darker face:

The dark-face of "YOU" - is constituted by the exponential proliferation of do-it-yourself xenophobia, racism, hatred and paranoia ("don't trust anyone - not even yourself!"). No theory to account for social reality can be trusted anymore. Every argument is immediately overturned, reversed, subverted, distrusted. Discourse is tribalised, fragmented and ultimately atomised. The unceasing on-line debate about the conspiracy theories of 9/11 are the clearest case in point - the excess of do-it-yourself paranoia has resulted in a space of complete disinformation, in which all public discourse breakdown (and decision making removes itself entirely from the public sphere).

The state apparatus - no longer assured of mediated mass-mind-control has to respond to the radical fragmentation of its publics with new systems of control, and adopts the swarm-model of radically distributed surveillance (rfid, smart dust, etc.) and the integration of the biological body of its underlings in a technologically induced system of control (biometrics). If Joseph Goebbles still believed that the true base of political power was "to capture the heart of a people and keep it", today the complete visibility of hyper-surveillance strives for the complete traceability and scrutiny of all people.

Power today is vested not in the ability to connect and become visible, but much rather in the ability to disconnect, to become invisible and thus untraceable, at will. This is the paradox: under conditions of complete media transparency, decision making retreats from the public sphere altogether. Agency today is located outside the domain of visibility.

Eric Kluitenberg,
Amsterdam June 2007.

The short text ... was given as a fast talk in the closing program of the INFOWARROOM series on media criticism and visual cultures at De Balie Centre for Culture and Politics in Amsterdam, June 8 & 9 2007. After three seasons the INFOWARROOM series came to a close this weekend with an extensive two-day lecture program devoted to the theme "At the end of the era of mass media", including presentations by Arthur Kroker (Ctheory.net), David Garcia, Richard Wright (Mediashed.org / Mongrel), Patricia Pisters and many others. The recordings of the live streams will soon be placed on-line.

The archive of the INFOWARROOM series can be found here: http://www.infowarroom.org and at the Balie website: http://www.debalie.nl/dossierpagina.jsp?dossierid=45611 [posted on nettime]

Posted by jo at June 12, 2007 06:25 PM