The Spectacle of the 2010 midterms

Elections season brings out the nuttiest in people – along with death and taxes, this is one of the few certainties in life (although if the Tea Party has their way, we may have to amend that statement).  Yet the midterms of 2010 set a new….a new….something.  From the shocking (Christine O’Donnell’s lack of knowledge about the 1st Amendment, Ken Buck being…well, Ken Buck) to the scary (the Queen of the WWE running for Senate), to the hilarious (the rent IS too damn high), one thing is certain: with each passing day, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle seems increasingly prescient:

“The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object…is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.”

The spectacle, in this sense, is the object in which one’s identity is actualized.  Our understandings of “reality” – always fluid and relational (something that Debord at times fails to recognize) – are increasingly mediated by images infused with political relations that subordinate the realities of social division to the forms of commodity fetishism that come to pervade societal norms and institutions and, at some level, constitute our very sense of self.

Take, for instance, a recent development:

The Fort Collins Coloradoan (a supposedly respectable, “objective” journalistic entity) just endorsed Ken Buck – a homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic, global-warming denier whose foot-in-his-mouth moments have become fodder for the national media – for US Senate.  This example is instructive as it is reflective of the ways in which Tea Party strategies play upon a social environment wedded to “the spectacle.”

While I don’t think the Republican Party will make the gains that some expect, this election seems to be proving that if you say something – no matter how absurd – loud enough and often enough, you’ll pick up more media attention, and the momentum behind your ideas will grow.

The formula is simple: (1) build an image centered upon symbols that cut to the core of a conjured American identity (flags, nostalgia for 1950s “real America,” family values, Christianity, etc).  (2) Repeat these themes loud and often and juxtapose them against a plurality of oppositions that smoothly link up (communism, secularism, progressivism, Islam, etc.).  (3) The more outrageous your statements, the more attention you’ll garner.

The result is a series of images that grow into sedimented forms through their repetition and relation to social imaginaries.  We come to recognize ourselves in the objects that are constructed through this process of spectacularization: from the obvious ways that the characters on Jersey Shore and the depictions in mainstream rap videos influence suburban youth, to the to more subtle ways that supposedly timeless forms like “The Constitution” and “The Border” acquire a whole host of symbolic meanings to “Tea Partiers” and “Minutemen.”

Even as we sometimes consciously see these spectacles as subjects of mockery, these objects become woven into our social fabrics in ways that enable them to take on a sort of life of their own.  As absurd as it seems, Ken Buck has come to represent discontent, patriotism and populism for many Coloradoans, and each stand he takes against a constructed “status-quo” only reinforces his popularity.  He has found strength in The Spectacle.

The good news is that I don’t think he’ll win.  The scary news is that he’ll come damn close…and some of his lunatic cronies may soon find themselves in positions of power.

Another, less academic medium that is proving incredibly prophetic (perhaps more so than Debord):

How long will it be until we have our very own Dwayne Alazondo Mountain Dew Herbert Comacho?  Not too damn long at the pace we’re going…


~ by iamtomjoad on October 23, 2010.

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