What to do?


Spring Breakers, A24, 2013

From The Chronicle Review:

Everyone from Plato and Thomas More to H.G. Wells and Barack Obama has given thought to the question of the fair distribution of labor and fun within a society. This comes with an immediate risk: Too often, the “realist” rap against any such scheme of imagined distributive justice, which might easily entail state intervention concerning who does what and who gets what, is that the predicted results depend on altered human nature, are excessively costly, or are otherwise unworkable. The deadly charge of utopianism always lies ready to hand.

In a much-quoted passage, Marx paints an endearingly bucolic picture of life in a classless world: “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” Charles Fourier was even more effusive, describing a system of self-organizing phalansteries, or cells, where anarchist collectives would live in peace, engage in singing contests—the ideal-society version of band camp—and eventually turn the oceans to lemonade.

Veblen, after his fashion a sharp critic of capitalism but always more cynical than the socialist dreamers, demonstrated how minute divisions of leisure time could be used to demonstrate social superiority, no matter what the form or principle of social organization; but he was no more able than Marx to see how ingenious capitalist market forces could be in adapting to changing political environments. For instance, neither of them sensed what we now know all too well, namely that democratizing access to leisure would not change the essential problems of distributive justice. Being freed from drudgery only so that one may shop or be entertained by movies and sports, especially if this merely perpetuates the larger cycles of production and consumption, is hardly liberation. In fact, “leisure time” becomes here a version of the company store, where your hard-won scrip is forcibly swapped for the very things you are working to make.

Worse, on this model of leisure-as-consumption, the game immediately gets competitive, if not zero-sum. And this is not just a matter of the general sociological argument that says humans will always find ways to outdo each other when it comes to what they buy, wear, drive, or listen to. This argument is certainly valid; indeed, our basic primate need for position within hierarchies means that such competition literally ceases only in death. These points are illustrated with great acumen by Pierre Bourdieu, whose monumental study Distinction is the natural successor to The Theory of the Leisure Class. No, the issue can really only be broached using old-fashioned Marxist concepts such as surplus value and commodity fetishism.

It was the Situationist thinker Guy Debord who made the key move in this quarter. In his 1967 book, Society of the Spectacle, he posited the notion of temporal surplus value. Just as in classic Marxist surplus value, which is appropriated by owners from alienated workers who produce more than they consume, then converted into profit which is siphoned off into the owners’ pockets, temporal surplus value is enjoyed by the dominant class in the form of sumptuous feast days, tournaments, adventure, and war. Likewise, just as ordinary surplus value is eventually consumed by workers in the form of commodities which they acquire with accumulated purchasing power, so temporal surplus value is distributed in the form of leisure time that must be filled with the experiences supplied by the culture industry.

Like other critics of the same bent—Adorno, Horkheimer, Habermas—Debord calls these experiences “banal,” spectacles that meet the “pseudo-needs” which they at the same time create, in a cycle not unlike addiction. Such denunciations of consumption are a common refrain in the school of thought that my graduate students like to call Cranky Continental Cultural Conservatism, or C4; but there is nevertheless some enduring relevance to the analysis. Debord’s notion of the spectacle isn’t really about what is showing on the screens of the multiplex or being downloaded on the computers of the nation; indeed, there is actually nothing to rule out the possibility of playful, even critical artifacts appearing in those places—after all, where else? Spectacle is, rather, a matter of social relations, just as the commodity in general is, which need to be addressed precisely by those who are subject to them, which is everyone. “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images,” Debord says. And: “The spectacle is the other side of money: It is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities.”

We are no longer owners and workers, in short; we are, instead, voracious and mostly quite happy producers and consumers of images. Nowadays, the images are mostly of ourselves, circulated in an apparently endless frenzy of narcissistic exhibitionism and equally narcissistic voyeurism: my looking at your online images and personal details, consuming them, is somehow still about me.

“The Barbed Gift of Leisure”, Mark Kingwell, The Chronicle Review