- Immediately following Elliot Rodger’s spree killing in Isla Vista, CA last month Internet users discovered his YouTube channel and a 140-page autobiographical screed, dubbed a “manifesto” by the media. The written document and the videos documented Rodger’s sexual frustration and his chronic inability to connect with other people. He specifically lashed out at women for forcing him ” to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires” and causing his violent “retribution”. Commentators and the popular press framed the killings as an outcome of misogynistic ideology, with headlines such as: How misogyny kills men, further proof that misogyny kills, and Elliot Rodger proves the danger of everyday sexism. Slate contributor Amanda Hess wrote:
Elliot Rodger targeted women out of entitlement, their male partners out of jealousy, and unrelated male bystanders out of expedience. This is not ammunition for an argument that he was a misandrist at heart—it’s evidence of the horrific extent of misogyny’s cultural reach.
- Writing at Cyborgology, Jenny Davis saw the tragedy as a terrible lesson in misogyny and digital dualism, the Cyborgology blog’s pet theory:
His parents saw the digitally mediated rants and contacted his therapist and a social worker, who contacted a mental health hotline. These were the proper steps. But those who interviewed Rodger found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human.” They deemed his involuntary holding unnecessary and a search of his apartment unwarranted. That is, authorities defined Rodger and assessed his intentions based upon face-to-face interaction, privileging this interaction over and above a “vast digital trail.” This is digital dualism taken to its worst imaginable conclusion.
- Eryk Salvaggio at Like Fish. posted a thorough analysis of Rodger’s manifesto looking at how women function as objects and symbols in the text:
In fact, in the entire 140-odd-page memoir he left behind, “My Twisted World,” documents with agonizing repetition the daily tortured minutiae of his life, and barely has any interactions with women. What it has is interactions with the symbols of women, a non-stop shuffling of imaginary worlds that women represented access to. Women weren’t objects of desire per se, they were currency.
What exists in painstaking detail are the male figures in his life. The ones he meets who then reveal that they have kissed a girl, or slept with a girl, or slept with a few girls. These are the men who have what Elliot can’t have, and these are the men that he obsesses over.
Women don’t merely serve as objects for Elliot. Women are the currency used to buy whatever he’s missing. Just as a dollar bill used to get you a dollar’s worth of silver, a woman is an indicator of spending power. He wants to throw this money around for other people. Bring them home to prove something to his roommates. Show the bullies who picked on him that he deserves the same things they do.
There’s another, slightly more obscure recurring theme in Elliot’s manifesto: The frequency with which he discusses either his desire or attempt to throw a glass of some liquid at happy couples, particularly if the girl is a ‘beautiful tall blonde.’ […] These are the only interactions Elliot has with women: marking his territory.
When we don’t know how else to say what we need, like entitled children, we scream, and the loudest scream we have is violence. Violence is not an act of expressing the inexpressible, it’s an act of expressing our frustration with the inexpressible. When we surround ourselves by closed ideology, anger and frustration and rage come to us when words can’t. Some ideologies prey on fear and hatred and shift them into symbols that all other symbols are defined by. It limits your vocabulary.
- Some of these analyses recall Douglas Kellner’s take on school shootings as crises of masculinity:
While the motivations for the shootings may vary, they have in common crises in masculinity in which young men use guns and violence to create ultra-masculine identities as part of a media spectacle that produces fame and celebrity for the shooters.
Crises in masculinity are grounded in the deterioration of socio-economic possibilities for young men and are inflamed by economic troubles. Gun carnage is also encouraged in part by media that repeatedly illustrates violence as a way of responding to problems. Explosions of male rage and rampage are also embedded in the escalation of war and militarism in the United States from the long nightmare of Vietnam through the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- Influenced by Debord, Kellner used the term “spectacle” in discussing the role of media coverage in events like rampage shootings:
For Debord, “spectacle” constituted the overarching concept to describe the media and consumer society, including the packaging, promotion, and display of commodities and the production and effects of all media. Using the term “media spectacle,” I am largely focusing on various forms of technologically-constructed media productions that are produced and disseminated through the so-called mass media, ranging from radio and television to the Internet and the latest wireless gadgets.
- Kellner’s comments from a 2008 interview talking about the Virginia Tech shooter’s videos broadcast after the massacre, and his comments on critical media literacy, remain relevant to the current situation:
Cho’s multimedia video dossier, released after the Virginia Tech shootings, showed that he was consciously creating a spectacle of terror to create a hypermasculine identity for himself and avenge himself to solve his personal crises and problems. The NIU shooter, dressed in black emerged from a curtain onto a stage and started shooting, obviously creating a spectacle of terror, although as of this moment we still do not know much about his motivations. As for the television networks, since they are profit centers in a highly competitive business, they will continue to circulate school shootings and other acts of domestic terrorism as “breaking events” and will constitute the murderers as celebrities. Some media have begun to not publicize the name of teen suicides, to attempt to deter copy-cat effects, and the media should definitely be concerned about creating celebrities out of school shooters and not sensationalize them.
People have to become critical of the media scripts of hyperviolence and hypermasculinity that are projected as role models for men in the media, or that help to legitimate violence as a means to resolve personal crises or solve problems. We need critical media literacy to analyze how the media construct models of masculinities and femininities, good and evil, and become critical readers of the media who ourselves seek alternative models of identity and behavior.
- Almost immediately after news of the violence broke, and word of the killer’s YouTube videos spread, there was a spike of online backlash against the media saturation and warnings against promoting the perpetrator to celebrity status through omnipresent news coverage. Just two days after the killings Isla Vista residents and UCSB students let the news crews at the scene know that they were not welcome to intrude upon the community’s mourning. As they are wont to do, journalists reported on their role in the story while ignoring the wishes of the residents, as in this LA Times brief:
More than a dozen reporters were camped out on Pardall Road in front of the deli — and had been for days, their cameras and lights and gear taking up an entire lane of the street. At one point, police officers showed up to ensure that tensions did not boil over.
The students stared straight-faced at reporters. Some held signs expressing their frustration with the news media:
“OUR TRAGEDY IS NOT YOUR COMMODITY.”
“Remembrance NOT ratings.”
“Stop filming our tears.”
“Let us heal.”
“NEWS CREWS GO HOME!”
- Youtuber Azorek79 has a video in 2 parts based on The Society of the Spectacle, narrated with excerpts from Debord’s book as well as selections from McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.
- Also, I just stumbled across a subreddit organized for a book-club-style reading of Society of the Spectacle. They began reading on Dec. 19 and are just over halfway done (they are ending by reading Comments on the Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life). Check it out here.
- A couple of weeks back I linked to the Guardian’s discussion of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, and I just came across another article from their site that I had overlooked: “What Debord can teach us about protest”:
The danger with this reading – the spectacle as a retroactive name for the social alienation of modern media culture – is that it turns Debord into a prophet who simply confirms everything we already know and further cements its inevitability. In other words, it is to make The Society of the Spectacle into precisely the kind of spectacle that Debord warns us of in thesis five, where he insists that the spectacle is not a simple product of mass media, but “a weltanschauung that has been actualised, translated into the material realm – a world view transformed into an objective force”.
The author, Meghan Sutherland, comments on the diminishing funding for humanities departments in her discussion of resistance to the spectacle:
It will also require that we redouble our efforts to challenge the systematic elimination of philosophy departments and humanities funding from university programmes all over the world – a project of austerity economics that deems the study of ideas simultaneously elitist, irrelevant to the “real” world and without market value. For as Debord makes clear, when we allow the pleasures of living and acting to become severed from the pleasures of thinking and looking, The Society of the Spectacle can mean only one thing. And it will do so until we learn to reconnect them.
- An Atlantic article by Scott Meslow titled “Boys can love ‘Titanic,’ too” quotes an older interview with media effects researcher Mary Beth Oliver discussing sex differences in responses to sad film:
“There are certain arenas where male crying is deemed appropriate, like the loss of a favorite sporting team, the death of a parent, or war,” said Mary Beth Oliver, a media professor at Penn State, in 2010 interview with the BBC about the tear-jerking effects of a different film. “For many men, there is a great deal of pressure to avoid expression of ‘female’ emotions like sadness and fear. From a very young age, males are taught that it is inappropriate to cry, and these lessons are often accompanied by a great deal of ridicule when the lessons aren’t followed.”
- Sherry Turkle’s TED talk that I posted over the weekend has sparked a number of articles: io9: “Do you feel more lonely after using your smartphone?”; Christian Today: “Is our connected world just getting lonelier?”; and tangentially-related NYT: “Voice technology: A real conversation starter“.
- Variety ran a review of a new documentary (that apparently premiered at SXSW) called “Welcome to the Machine”:
Every generation uses the technology of its time as a metaphor to better understand itself, and in the zeitgeist-examining docu-essay “Welcome to the Machine,” director Avi Zev Weider ponders the degree to which man’s present and future are dominated by his inventions. Philosophically speaking, it’s fascinating stuff, though film hardly seems the most conducive way for Weider to present his arguments, with an overreliance on baby photos and the failure to deliver a key interview making the whole inquiry feel smaller than it is.
- Co. Create published an interview with Douglas Rushkoff in advance of an upcoming keynote address in NYC. His comments on the function of the artist echo McLuhan:
I think the artist, even more than government, has become the one who is doing long-term thinking about what’s happening, what are the implications, what are we doing to ourselves? And they’re some of the only ones, really. An artist’s job is to sit outside what’s happening and reflect back to us where the human is in this. I think it’s a very valuable exercise. It’s just the opposite exercise of what most people probably think it is. It’s not for technologists to realize the visions of artists. It feels much more like it’s for artists to contextualize the visions of technologists.
- One of my goals for summer 2012 is to learn a programming language. Multiple factors motivated this decision, one of them being Rushkoff’s articles on coding and his recent book “Program or be programmed”. Turns out I wasn’t the only one: I learned about web site Codeacademy from a post by Juliet Waters titled “My code year, so far“:
I was hooked by the headline of an article by Douglas Rushkoff on CNN.com. “Learn to Code, Get a Job!” Coding, he argued, was a skill that not enough people had, and companies were paying big money to find people who were “code literate.”
- The Guardian’s “Big Ideas” podcast just posted a 13-minute discussion about the meaning of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and its evolution over the years, among many other spectacular topics.
- The New York Times posted a photo slideshow along with the photographer’s description of the conceptual foundation: she was inspired by the Situationist concept of psychogeography.
- Morning Star Online featured an article musing on the influence of Debord and the Situationist international on global revolutionary movements in the context of the recently published book Why It’s Kicking off Everywhere. From the article:
I think Debord underestimated the more basic systems of control which underlie the “spectacle,” paying less attention to how the basic disciplines of work and worklessness keep capitalism together. The corporate emperors’ grip on society relies on the way they control bread as well as circuses.
In my opinion Society of the Spectacle is evergreen, as relevant in 2012 as it was in 1968. Technology changes, and the specific content of the media diversions and distractions changes, but the social relation of the Spectacle remains constant.