SSpectacle, Currency, Bits -- Baudrillard, Postmodernism, and Power

Steve Cook

The simulacrum, as wonderful a concept as it may be, is not so much a startling new idea as the refinement and re-application of a large body of previous work. Many of Baudrillard's ideas are predicted in Guy Debord's classic Society of the Spectacle. While Debord was a near-contemporary of Baudrillard, the two men differ distinctly not in their reaction to the simulacrum/spectacle, but in their idea about from where it arises.

Debord was a member of the Situationalist International and a much more traditional leftist than Baudrillard. (I recall reading a paper or magazine once--possibly the Socialist Worker--and seeing a scathing attack on Baudrillard: of course the Gulf War happened; Arab civilians being bombed certainly didn't have room to doubt its existance. Which is simultaneously a valid rebuttal to Baudrillard and a way of completely missing the point) Where Baudrillard sees Disneyland as perhaps his greatest living metaphor, Debord (like McLuhan) is more focused on the television, the Great Satan, the Great Communicator. Television is, in these premillenial times, the major provider of images for Western society. More than the newspaper, more than movies, more than books, more than the net. Unlike McLuhan, Debord hates television with a passion.

There are numerous reasons for this. One is that (as the "cool" medium) television distances one from the events happening outside. As a book on the squatter movement in the Netherlands put it, you can't have a street riot without anyone on the street. Someone at home watching political events unfold (via the simulacra) is, by definition, not taking part in the events (the "reality," to use the phrase that Baudrillard should have defined but didn't).

More important to Debord is television's role in the relationship between labor and capital. Debord's model has labor seeking not capital of their own but mediated capital, the goods and lifestyles represented on television. This is the engine that keeps late capitalism flowing. Hunter-gatherer societies (as noted by Bob Black, among others) had immense amounts of leisure time, compared with our own. Why? Because their standard of living was much lower. Even in the last fifty years, our leisure time has dwindled, as more people work to acquire things that they don't actually need. (The list is endless, even when restricted to things that I own: three pairs of boots, a VCR, a Macintosh, a copy of Riven, ridiculous numbers of CDs, a watch, ad nauseum. Almost everything I own is, in fact, unnecessary.)

I was thinking about this on my recent trip up to New York, the capital of Spectacleland East. Not only the immense amount of advertising. Not only the associations and expectations--media-fuelled--that one has of New York. Capital itself has come unhinged from the real. Most money exists only as bits today, of course. It's no longer backed up by physical objects, like gold, silver, attractive shells. The days of wampum are behind us. That's a truism repeated by Mitchell, among others, and firms like DigiCash and CyberCash are working hard at moving even more of commerce to the electronic realm. I'm thinking more of the actual production of capital. The two richest men in America are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Gates' company rearranges bits. That don't make anything. They shuffle bits into useful (and not-terribly-useful) configurations, and sell them to people. Buffett's company, Berkshire-Hathaway, is even more abstract. It owns stock in other companies. Huge amounts of money are being made by two companies (and two men) who don't really make anything, not that you could put your hands on or take for a drive. More and more of capital is tied up in companies (like Yahoo! or, or AOL, or even Berkshire-Hathaway) that aren't "producing" things in the standard sense. Instead, what they do is manipulate bits. Debord recognized the importance of the spectacle in keeping labor wed to capital, but we've moved past that in the last fifteen years. We've finally entered the age of the simulated economy.

A note for Bill and Liz:

While it's true that the means of worship have changed over the millenia (I, too, will restrict my focus to Christianity), I'm not sure that you can describe all of religion as being within the realm of the simulacrum. Many people have transfiguring religious experiences--"gnosis," direct knowledge or experience of God. Most of the mainstream Catholic sects are dogmatic, rather than gnostic, but not all, and even within the least gnostic of sects, there is a wide range of experience. Consider the following, by St. John of the Cross:

3. O lamps of fire! in whose splendors the deep caverns of feeling, once obscure and blind, now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely, both warmth and light to their Beloved.
Of course, this is a mediated version of John of the Cross' experience, but it gives an idea of what he felt, and that seems about the least simulated thing I can think of...

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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