Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Critical Theory Is A Weapon


1.      The Situationist critique of modern capitalism remains a vital and cohesive attack, but since the SI’s dissolution, very few have attempted to seriously advance its critique.  Regardless, amidst the slow suicide of the West, Situationist theory remains the best jumping off point for a new radical critique of the whole of capitalist society.  This is not a matter of “preserving a legacy.”  Leave that to the wardens of dead time, the curators of decay.  The goal remains the same, and all the more crucial for being buried so long: “to rediscover the history of the movement of history itself.” (IS #7, 1963)

2.     “We will wreck this world,” ran a line in the very first Situationist magazine.  The statement is all the more astute for being a precise ironic encapsulation of the attitude of the world’s masters.  “In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood,” as Guy Debord elegantly detourned Hegel.  To decipher the veritable words of power, invert the vapid positivisms.  When Barack Obama speaks of putting “hands on the arc of history” to “bend it once more toward the hope of a better day,” what he is really saying is “we will wreck this world.”

3.     “The Left,” or what passes for it these days, has long since accepted its tenured irrelevancy.  One can find a bit more fervor on the Extreme Right, largely motivated by fearful irrationality.  The theoretical emptiness of the Right hardly merits mention.  Its deliberately a-historical ideology hinges on a nihilistic love for authority.  The surrender of the Left stings a bit more, but we’re over it.  That the traditional ideologies and their myriad micro-variants have nothing left to offer is understood by nearly everyone.  Nowadays apathy itself is culpa levis as compared with criticism of the totality of society.  When history is stalled out, ideology loses its power to seduce.  In any case, reviving ideology would be like fucking a corpse.  We don’t need to revive dead ideas; we demand a liberated real life.

4.     Power demands respect, but it does not preach by example.  One definition of the social system of spectacle would be a series of promises made in bad faith.  “This existence postulates a fluid fidelity, a succession of continually disappointing commitments to false products.” (Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, 1988)   To promise eternal youth.   To deliver micro-managed rigor mortis.  This is the fundamental crime, and it is unforgivable.  No excuses ever, for anyone in authority; that is the first principle.  When it comes to power, we deny the good intention, the respectable mistake, the indiscretion, the extenuating circumstance.

5.     “The triumph of an economic system founded on separation leads to the proletarianization of the world.” (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967)  Now that the process is nearly complete, we can see very well its effects.  The autonomous economy, imposing the logic of the commodity – that is, the logic of utility, interchangeability, disposability – upon the whole of society, remolds and reorders society according to its dictates.  These dictates mediate all social relations – whether human qua human or human qua economy – through appearances.   That is, through abstractions of real conditions.  Marx’s formula for the commodity stated 21 yards of linen = 1 coat.  The modern economy takes for granted its ability to render equivalent dissimilar concrete things, and so dispenses with any quantitative or qualitative distinctions.  Linen = coat.  Progress = regression.  Arbeit mach frei.  One thousand dead Dhaka factory workers equal a smart outfit from Benetton, and the only discussion is about “business ethics” and the appropriate level of compensation.  Noticeably absent from the discussion is the fact that scores of human beings are disposable so long as crisp dress shirts continue to proliferate at market-friendly prices.

6.     “The prisoner seemed to feel he had to amuse the soldier, he danced round and round in front of him in his tattered cothes, while the soldier squatted on the ground, laughing and slapping his knees.” (In the Penal Colony, Franz Kafka)  In 1850’s America, midnight runners smuggled slaves out of the South.  In 1960’s Berlin, people dug tunnels or hopped barbed wire to get past the Wall.  Today, enterprising individuals use tunnels to smuggle KFC and Viagra into Gaza – for a price, of course.  There may not be a more searing indictment of the poverty of our era, when the prisoners can imagine nothing more than a mild cosmetic makeover of their cells.

7.     Radical theory is crucial for a new avant-garde.  A true avant-garde is a revolutionary front or it is nothing.  There is no hope left in aesthetics.  Today’s Yellowist is yesterday’s sub-Dadaist; in any age they are nothing more than salesmen.  The task is assaulting the world of today by utilizing and advancing the best theories of the past.

8.     “The Empire is the codification of derangement.” (VALIS, Phillip K. Dick)  Dialectical historical reasoning has been cauterized.  Within this eternal present of fragile perfection radical thought is submerged in a sea of binary oppositions rooted in empty ideology.  Of course, specific aspects survive, diffused within the generalized tendency to reification.  However, the metaphysics of the era are plainly visible when George W. Bush can claim, with a straight face, to be pro-war, pro-death penalty, and pro-life; when Barack Obama can accept the Nobel Peace Prize and also escalate indiscriminate drone bombing.  The incoherence of ideology becomes the ideology of incoherence.

9.     Even ostensible opponents of the prevailing order are likely to be reformists, at best, recuperators at worst.  What remains of the Left is content hyping specific, discrete manifestations of denigration – an institutional injustice, a corporation behaving unethically, a hypocritical politician, and so on – while steadfastly refusing to even see the totality, let alone assail it.  Thus, in the Guardian, George Monbiot bemoans “consumerism” without ever moving beyond a merely tallying of degradations.  Listing symptoms takes the place of confronting the disease.  The pseudo-ideology “consumerism” is identified, explicated, lamented and filed away.  The same blinkered perspective applies to Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, frothing at the mouth denouncing Goldman Sachs without ever placing them in the larger context, without once daring to break the great taboo of the New Left.  Better to rape an eight-year-old than criticize capitalism.  The critique of Monbiot and Taibbi is tidy and academic.  Their refusal to engage with the totality reinforces the spectacle’s best notions about itself; criticism is permitted, even welcomed; as long as it plays by the rules.  Tidiness is boredom.  And “boredom is always counter-revolutionary.” (IS #7, 1963)

10.     Education remains the main indoctrination apparatus for the integrated spectacle.  At the early levels of schooling, the methods are direct.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States, where the rigid testing that begins in grade school explicitly discourages critical thinking in favor of rote regurgitation.  Within higher education, the approach is rather more subtle, but no less effective.  George Monbiot is an Oxford grad after all, and Matt Taibbi went to Bard.  Even McKenzie Wark, he of the 3D Guy Debord action figure, can hang a liberal arts degree on his wall.  Certain people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated devotion to education.

11.     Science, as well, pursues edification only through a base dedication to utility, whether in developing new anti-depressants, refining weapons technology, or perfecting the various forms of alienated communication.  Of course, this utility is a false utility, functioning as it does to debase the quality of human life in order to reinforce the mandate of the commodity-spectacle economy, which knows nothing else other than proliferation ad infinitum.  In either case, progress for the economy – which is always purely quantitative – is qualitative regression for human beings.  So the Dow Jones breaks 15,000 for the first time, and nations all over the world are on the brink of collapse.  Suicide rates skyrocket and health care spending must be ravaged in the name of “fiscal responsibility,” which is necessary to “jumpstart the economy.”  A tiny minority rules immune to consequence, with everyone else consigned to “the peremptory, unreasonable, degrading tyranny of want,” to quote Oscar Wilde.

12.     However, it is not so long ago that ideas pulled up the paving stones.

 13.     “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue.” (The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Oscar Wilde)  The spectacle, for all its glitter and flash, speaks a dead language.  Dissent begins with a reinvestment in the language of revolt.  The language will evolve concurrent with subversive action.  Theory is a first step.  Unified theory and practice, in the form of a general strike, is the ultimate goal.  Propaganda, as the SI realized, will be essential.  Detourned  or destroyed advertisements, hacked website, pamphleteering and posters, and continuous communication among like-minded, autonomous individuals will be parts of the process.  Selective sabotage cannot be ruled out.  An encouraging sign are the recent studies in the UK suggesting an epidemic of absenteeism, lateness, and strategic stalling in the white collar workforce, a “silent strike,” and something to build on as awareness of capitalism’s hollow promise spreads.

14.     The recovery and reigniting of history begins with a radical critique of prevailing conditions. Dialectical reason is the first weapon in the arsenal.   To think dialectically is to subvert authority.  The tyranny of the commodity-spectacle economy is not yet total.   The free thought of human beings, its most basic enemy, remains less than completely shackled.   But make no mistake; the specialists of subservience are working hard to rectify this.  We must fight back now.  There is never any other time.

Society for Comparative Vandalism
May 2013

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