The Spectacle of Disintegration Review
I have many good things and many bad things to say about Mckenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration. This book is intended to follow his history of the Situationist International, and reading it without the necessary backstory and specific vocabulary felt a lot like jumping into the deep end without knowing how to swim. My time was divided between reading and looking up figures, events, and terms on the internet, and I doubt I’m alone in saying I would have preferred a single, dependable introduction that didn’t require me to have a wifi connection every time I sat down to read the book. However, I can see how the specific purposes of The Spectacle of Disintegration was more aligned with the purposes of this class than a simple history would be, and amidst those pages I found ideas that deepened my understanding of ideas discussed in the Participatory Cultures Handbook, Social Media: A Critical Introduction, Remix by Lawrence Lessig, and other theory I am personally interested in.
This book was more about examining the enduring relevance of the Situationists International and discussing how their ideas and actions could be employed in an effort to find alternatives to modern reality. I began reading while focusing on finding the answer to a single question: “What is the spectacle?” and I found no single answer. First, there was the the concentrated spectacle, which is a society organized around a concentrated power such as Maoist or Fascist states. Then there is the diffuse spectacle that floods its citizens with images of commodities in order to convince them what they desire. The Integrated Spectacle (how Debord categorized modern capitalist society before his death in 1994) is a combination of these two, but less transparent than either. It still relies on centralized means of organizing and distributing, but the variety of media has increased to the point where it has permeated every aspect of our lives. So the Spectacle is the world of all that can be desired, it is modern culture and the way media directs our lives. The spectacle prevents us from thinking freely because it floods our minds with so many visions of false desire. To add more to the fire, these visions are most often at odds with each other, making it impossible to satisfy one without lessening the satisfaction of another.
As Wark states in the text, the primary project of the Situationists is “to advance beyond the fulfillment of needs to the creation of new desires.” In a big way, this means figuring out methods of living a fulfilling life outside of capitalism. Many who have actively tried to resist the draw of capitalism have found that it has so deeply infected every aspect of modern that is impossible to escape, creating a kind of disillusionment or passivity. An interesting point made in the text was that we about the end of the world much more often than we talk about the end of capitalism, and yet capitalism is premised on the idea of an ever expanding market. One would think it wouldn’t be able to expand when there is nowhere left to expand , but the spectacle has learned to collapse back into itself and exploit its own disintegration. It tries to convince us that its own problems represent the end of our world, and “the over developed world is incapable of proposing any alternative to itself but more of the same.”
Another thing that struck me was the idea of détournement as it basically provided me with a single word for a concept I was trying to describe in my research project for this class. Viewing the entirety of cultural past as a cultural commons that belongs to everyone is such a fascinating concept for which I have many conflicting feelings. A huge part of me wants to agree that the idea of authorship is just a myth because labor is always social and collective. But then at the same time, I see exploited cultures (such as Native American Cultures) that continue to have their culture stolen from them without any kind of reparations. My desire to protect them and make right on the transgressions of my ancestors conflicts with the artistic desire to participate in a common culture.
The Spectacle of Disintegration presented me with so many interesting scenarios to consider, and it definitely had an effect on me. I found that I didn’t particularly like Wark’s style of writing even though I found the subject matter interesting. He tended to jump from topic to topic without and real thread stringing them together. Although I struggled with it, I’m surprised I didn’t know about the Situationists before this reading and a new element has been added to my methods of thinking about culture critically.