Toward a Society of the Anti-Spectacle

Jonathan Bernstein asked for suggestions on 9/11 Reading/Viewing/Listening.  I suggested:

Gillespie THE THEOLOGICAL ORIGINS OF MODERNITY
Wright THE EVOLUTION OF GOD
Lilla THE STILLBORN GOD
Ansary DESTINY DISRUPTED (A History of the World through Islamic Eyes)
Van Creveld THE TRANSFORMATION OF WAR
Debord SOCIETY OF THE SPECTACLE

Had to bite my virtual tongue not to include “Hegel/LECTURES ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF WORLD HISTORY” and associated works.  Eventually, I’d have had to include my whole post-9/11 virtual bookshelf… and then my whole pre-9/11 virtual bookshelf, too… not because I take the view that the event itself – assuming there is such a thing as “the event itself” – was materially so greatly significant, but the attacks were, to say the least, spectacularly significant, significant as a multi-spectacle – spectacular negations of the society of the spectacle by would-be entrants into the history of that society at its global moment.

Gillespie’s work self-consciously represents that universalization of one society by adding al-Ghazali to the tradition of theological-philosophical-historical inquiry that “we” have tended to understand as “Western.”  I put “we” and “Western” in quotation marks because the identification of “us” and the characterization of “our” inquiry must be understood as targets of the 9/11 attackers, who may not have been qualified theologians or philosophers, but who, as far as we know, very much saw themselves as exponents of a theology.  The American-led reaction was only somewhat more subtly theological-philosophical – and also tended to be “expressed” in violence, “action” supplying the deficit between murderous offenses and any mortal comprehension of them.  The military ventures of the so-called War on Terror were paroxysms of the American Neo-Empire, not yet death throes, but, in their impotent destructiveness and distracted desperation, they remain premonitions of an inevitable historical moment that, though it may even be deferred for a longer time in years than the period of ascendancy, they also have brought nearer.

All of which is not exactly to say that, if it hadn’t been for 9/11, “we” would have had to invent it.  It is to say that 9/11 was, in a double sense, “our” invention:  E-vents “we” in-vented (necessary and inevitable remainders of the world we made in our image), and the invention of this “us,” this distressingly less national, less self-graspable, less univocal “us.”  With a closed comments section refusing to brook dissent, Paul Krugman blogged today that 9/11 “should” have been unifying, but he’s at best half right.  He seems to imply that 9/11 should and could have been nationally unifying.  It should have, he seems to be saying, re-Americanized us.  But it couldn’t quite do that.  The unity required would have had to have been a global unity, if an Americanism then a transformed or at least re-distilled Americanism, probably not the Americanism we got up with on the morning of September 11, 2001, but we seem nowhere near ready, as we showed and showed again and are still showing, to comprehend and embrace a fully globalized Americanism.  “We”- of the old, not yet discarded collective – feel that requirement as an imposition and set of affronts.  Most intolerably, it seems to imply the inclusion of a murderous enemy.

So we are left, choose to be left, to our own old devices – and find ourselves at a loss.

After expressing a fashionable distaste for all of the inescapable obligatory remembrances and think-pieces, Tom Ricks at his Best Defense blog asked two questions yesterday:  “Why haven’t there been any better 9/11 movies?” and “Did we panic?”  The two questions can be understood as the same question, or two aspects of the same question, but first we can observe that it was very hard for Hollywood to produce a 9/11 movie that could even have approached in effect the cinematic audio/video that virtually all of us who weren’t in the immediate vicinity of the WTC, the Pentagon, or United 93 already experienced, and have been experiencing and re-experiencing, and enjoying, ever since.  (Yes, enjoying:  Enjoyment remains an irreducible element of viewing skillful representations, including think-pieces and memorials, as highlighted in the three images I chose for this post’s gallery, but as ever-present in Greengrass’ frenetic FLIGHT 93, any given CNN survivor interview, the famous NYT obituary series, and on and on.)

The movies have an even deeper problem:  The movie is the typical expressive form of the era whose eclipse was marked by 9/11.  The movie is national, social, total, industrial, and collective:  Modern.  It is the art form of the national-social enterprise.  In this narrow sense, the hijackers were attacking the movie – the spectacle or society of the spectacle, as also embodied in its national, social, total, industrial, pre-eminently American-modern buildings, struck with another iconically American invention of the movie/modern era.  In part the hijackers were making their own movie, but the hijackers were also “making news,” constructing a spectacle for distributive hyper-cinema first to re-exaggerate in a kind of imitative self-annihilation, and then to fragment, disseminate, and endlessly re-cycle into dull sentimentalism and obligatory yet empty signs.

Ricks’ two questions can be seen as aspects of the same question because the successful anti-spectacle spectacle turned “us” upside down, blasted “us” into the air in myriad distorted fragments, objectified and forecasted (in principle ended) one era, one “we,” and its/our replacement by a different set of reference points almost incomprehensible from the prior perspective.  Panic may not have been the appropriate response to the events themselves, but it was the inevitable response to what the events revealed to that “us”:  that is, to them, those people, those Americans of September 11, 2001.


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20 comments on “Toward a Society of the Anti-Spectacle

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  1. @ fuster:
    3-dimensional tends to imply sympathetic, something untenable politically and otherwise for any 9/11 movie. Instead, characters in the very approximate position of the hijackers were allowed to be more human or rounded in films that touched on 9/11-relatable themes and predicaments – MUNICH, THE KINGDOM, even AVATAR.

  2. CK MacLeod wrote:

    3-dimensional tends to imply sympathetic, something untenable politically and otherwise

    precisely. I meant that it would be politically untenable and I meant that it would be factually impossible as well.

  3. @ fuster:
    Factual isn’t the question. If someone was of a mind to, it wouldn’t be difficult to come up with a way to raise questions about and on behalf of 1 of the 19, or a fictionalized version of him. It’s been done with similar character types. But no one is of a mind to do that, or has been. Maybe in about 10 to 25 years…

  4. Fiction does it better, Dan Silva gets at the motivation, of character like the Awlaki standin, in his latest, without denying his evil.

  5. I’d forgotten about that one, Caleb was like the eponymous jihadist in that other series, whose name escapes me, until they pulled the mcguffin,

    Well ‘Better Angels’ was prophetic in many ways, describing the way we would live now, Krugman’s peroration was right out of a Patrick Graham broadcast, he has a new book, ‘The Ark’ supposedly at the end of the year

  6. @ Sphinxter:
    thanks for the thumb, yaint seen nuthin yet. Did I change you to “Sphinxter” or did you do that yourself? You’re welcome to keep on posting under your real name… might even be preferable… it’s up to you… just don’t want you to think of it as a mandate…

  7. @ fuster:
    The “dilate” part was good. I think since the whole sphincter thing is already crude that it’s best to stay sort of prissy and avoid words like orifices as we follow where the theme takes us–so to speak. But don’t let me cramp your style. Wipe as you will.

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