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Spectacle

Spectacle is the system’s representation of itself. It is a vast self-reproducing accumulation of images[1] which stands in for a society which no longer exists. This accumulation, which reaches its final, most developed form in the internet and in the accelerating technologies through which it is interfaced, appears to be spaceless, in that it doesn’t exist in a definable location, and timeless, in that it has neither past nor future; but this is an illusion. In fact the image—the data which come to us through the screen—exists purely as formal fact, as a hyper-refined timespace thing which is caused by and is related to other such things. What all these things lack is a unifying context; they are sinister because of their absolute arbitrariness, the fact that nothing really has anything to do with anything else. The river of experience, which both flows through all living creatures and is the medium in which they flow, has dried up, leaving separate, fabricated, manipulable bits.

There is as I write, for example, presented to us through the techno-spectacle, a ‘war’ in the Ukraine. It matters not to those who experience this war through their screens whether there really is, or what it really is, or why it’s happening, because, through the spectacle, we can never really know. The connection of this ‘war’ to shared, sensate social-cultural experience is entirely severed. It exists as a phantom dreamt into being by a mechanism which serves only itself. Spectacular war has no real past (in the spectacle there is no real reason for war, it just happens), it exists in no real context (there is only one war in the universe, and this is it) and, because context is absent, we can gather no sense of its proportion, making it (i.e. the imputed actions of the Russkies) an absolute moral crime.

Before war, there was virus, also primarily a virtual event. This too we could never directly experience the reality of. We could see a few people around us getting ill, we heard of one or two octogenarians dying of something, but there was no evidence in our lives of a ‘pandemic’. It too had no real past (it too was ‘unprecedented’, ‘unique’), no real context (it too was the only thing in the universe that was killing people), and no sense of a proportion that comes from context (deaths from virus were, again, the only ones that really, actually mattered).

Again, the reality here is, for the system, beside the point. Perhaps the coronavirus was worse than the ‘57 and ‘68 flus, perhaps not. What matters is that both virus and war are spectacular representations. They may intersect, at various points, with a verifiable sensate reality—it’s helpful to the system if they do—but they don’t have to. For the most part they are as illusory and ephemeral as a dream. There is a spectral threat, a dread sense of impending disaster, existential fear, loneliness, and uncertainty; but everything is shrouded in mist, nothing is clear, all is vague and shifting.

One might think that the solution to this endless nightmare is clarity, that all we need to do is ‘wake up’ to be free of it; that as soon as the illusion is perceived as such, as soon as we possess accurate facts, the perceiver will be freed. But not only is this not so, it is a fatal error, that, in itself, can only ensnare the hypnotised subject further into its hypnotic dream.

For the extraordinary reality of dream is not the fact that one experiences implausible things in it, but the truth that those things are not, ultimately, separate from me. The incredible speaking dog in my dream may be remarkable, but it is not, evidently, unthinkable. It may be bizarre, but it remains within the coordinates of the knowable. The liberating truth of dream, the miracle of it, is that the separation between dreaming subject here, me, and dreamt object there, the speaking dog, is also an illusion.

This is self-evident. When we wake, we ‘know’ that me-here and dog-there were all really one; but self-evidence is not the truth. There is no way even to conceive of the truth of the dream. Any conception, such as the mystic idea that ‘the experiencer is the experienced’, is inherently deceptive; for it too is an objective thing which the subject observes, thinks about, reacts to… The thinker’s grasp of the truth of dream transforms the miracle of it into a mere fact.

The experience of being that which the subject is only ever cognisant of is the only actual means by which I can be freed from the illusion of dreaming; the illusion of being a subject here observing a spectacular object there. Without this non-literal experience the literal dream may end, but the dreamlike illusion—and existential misery—of being entirely separate from something external to myself remains. This debilitating alienating delusion, far more profound than mere spectacle, is simulation.[2]

Simulation

Simulation, such as it appears to us in the last days of the system, is not explicable in terms of fact and falsehood, reality and unreality, authenticity and re-appropriation—i.e. in the terms and presuppositions of spectacle—because there is no fact, reality, or authenticity which can possibly serve as scale, frame, or context. It is not just the thing I am witnessing which is a product of the system, but the ‘I’ which witnesses it; my fears, feelings, opinions, beliefs, hopes, assumptions, doubts, desires and even my perceptions.

Simulated man does not see things embedded in context. Perception ‘pokes out’, a series of isolates which he sifts through like he does a room full of people, only alert to those who can benefit or threaten him. Every thing and every person that appears on the screen of his mind, like every thing that appears on the screen of his phone, is only ever for him. Those still in contact with conscience feel the shame of this, and try to hide it. Those fully immersed in the simulation do not.

To be fully immersed is to be one with the simulated world. There is a formal separation between object and subject; the simuloid does not try to walk through walls, and he knows that my little life in my little room ‘here’ is separate from the big events on the big screen ‘there’, but there is no essential, existential separation; all are one. He doesn’t just talk and think and dream of spreadsheets, infographics, television series, video games and chat apps, but the subjective-objective split that these activities presuppose is at all times inescapable. He too is just an arbitrary bit floating in a chaos of foreign fragments.

This is what makes all literal discourse about spectacle, about the illusory nature of the screen through which we interface society, besides the point. I cannot speak of fact and falsehood when I cannot escape from facticity, I cannot speak of reality and unreality when I cannot escape a fabricated self, and I cannot speak of authenticity and re-appropriation when that self is entirely constructed from simulated forms.

Imagine a world in which it has become impossible to avoid the screen, in which all social interactions must pass through it, in which artificial ‘intelligence’ controls every aspect of existence and in which simulated virtual experiences are indistinguishable from reality. Imagine, further, that the capacity of the machine to ‘read’ human subjectivity—thoughts, feelings, personality—is as good as faultless. Then imagine, finally, that in the name of ‘safety’, ‘security’ and ‘health’ this perfect virtual system constantly managed an inescapable virtual reality so as to ensure its continual growth and survival. Under such circumstances it is meaningless to talk of waking up. There is nothing within those raised by a perfected simulation which could awaken. There is no death because there is no difference between the real and the unreal. It is not fake because it is all happening and everything works. But it is not real because absolutely nothing matters. The world collapses into solipsism, a factless causeless phantasm with no reality as counterpoint, just itself. ‘All that remains, is the fascination for desertlike and indifferent forms, for the very operation of the system that annihilates us’.[3]

There is no need to imagine this horrendous unworld. It is here. We are it. It just awaits its final, chilling form, the realisation of the world which the representing mind has been working towards for ten millennia, which now looms before us, a horror which can scarce be imagined, certainly not in the pre-eminent philosophies of the simulacrum; utilitarianism (which we might also call ‘scientism’) and relativism (which we might also call ‘postmodernism’).

Utilitarianism and relativism appear to be at odds; the utilitarian takes the output of the relativist as the worst kind of useless pretension while the relativist takes the ponderous scientism of the utilitarian to be a kind of intellectual fascism. Both philosophical poles are actually either end of the same simulated entity. Neither are able to circumvent the simulation without reducing it to another spectacular form, to another thing which we as things are imprisoned by. Where utilitarianism conceives of escape as better ‘output’ from a social machine conceived as a discrete collection of parts, relativism eschews instrumental thought entirely—what it calls ‘reductionism’, ‘essentialism’, ‘binary opposites’ and the like—not because, as relativists like to think, they’re groovier than fuddy-duddy old moralists and rationalists, but because they are deaf and blind to a quality which the simulation can only perceive as intolerable, dichotomous absolutism.

Spectacle is not completely superseded by simulation, but rather fuses into it, transformed into a utilitarian excrescence. In the world of the spectacle, for example, one had to demonstrate one’s ‘skills and experience’ in a job interview or review. In a simulated world such crude ‘competences’ are still necessary, but now your whole being is constantly monitored to ensure it effortlessly demonstrates its readiness for total-life subservience. The doctor of the spectacle treated you like a thing, a cog, which had to be patched up in order to return it to the machine. This is still the case, but now the AI of the simulation applies itself not to a patient, but to an accumulation of data points; you as a subjective thing in the world are actually a hindrance to diagnosis. The policeman of the spectacle disciplined those who broke the law. This still happens, but now the automated simulation has direct access to the mental-emotional output of the self, enabling the system to manage deviance before it manifests as malfeasance.

Intellectual thought in the simulation follows the same pattern. The utilitarian concerns of the spectacle still manifest as the dry, dreary academic output of scientists and rationalists, dotted here and there with modernist frills, but this has now been almost completely superseded and made dependent upon the anti-philosophy of the simulacrum; complete subjectivist solipsism, postmodernism in its most exalted form; the total obliteration of truth, either quantitative or qualitative. No fact, no reason, no gender, no body, no meaning, no right and wrong, no good and bad; nothing.

Quality, the only escape from the subjective solipsism of relativism and the objective solipsism of utilitarianism, does not feature in modern thought unless in the most ponderous utilitarian sense. Unless words such as ‘good’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘right’ refer to satisfying the mathematical, material needs of the spectacle, they cannot be found; and even when they can, they are embedded in the driest, dullest, most characterless blether imaginable. The manager-theorist of the middle class never speaks of right and wrong, good and bad; only of ideas, opinions and perspectives. Nor does he offer any meaningful solutions to his diagnoses of the world problem. Modern writers and modernist thinkers might tell us we need to decentralise, use green tech, build resilient communities, transcend the ego, improve our IQs, merge with the eternal or design comprehensive solutions to omni-considerate, integrally developed psychosocial structures, but the hip theorist has no idea how to exit the simulated thought forms these ideas appear as; because his consciousness is a simulated thought form. This is why his speech and writing are boring and mystifying. They give the impression of having content, or of expressing something which is beyond the grasp of mind, but that content, that thing, turns out to be itself, like a birthday gift comprising a hundred layers of wrapping paper.

When simulated minds, only able to perceive ‘wrapping paper’, are confronted by a genuinely ineffable expression, one that expresses not just the beguiling enigma of its own contradiction, but the actual mystery of life, they feel threatened. There is nothing here for the simulated relativist mind to play with and there is nothing here that the utilitarian manager of the spectacle can benefit from. Such minds might set about turning the enigma into another thing which can be valued—the fate of great art—but they can never experience the reality it gestures towards; because, for the simulated mind, there are only gestures.

There is no exit for simulated man because he is the simulation. The spectacle can be turned off; but the simulacrum is that which does the turning. Man can stop thinking about the spectacle, but simulation is that which thinks. No matter how elevated the thought of simulated man, they are simulated thoughts. No matter how noble his acts, they are ersatz acts. No matter how good he feels, his feelings are counterfeit. This is the case even when he is in ‘nature’, or before ‘great art’, or ‘in love’. His factual-causal self, the one that separates him from experience, remains intact; only now it is titillated by a pleasurable or deep or beautiful or pleasurable thing which he sucks at, trying to get, capture, be ‘inspired’ by.

No argument can reach simulated man in his simulated self, nothing can persuade him that he is a sim. He can agree with you, probably will, he can learn the truth, he can denounce the lies of the spectacle and oh! can he be special and spiritual and well above it all; but all the while he remains ensnared in the dreamlike separation of his subjective self from his objective world; a separation which links subjective selves at the very moment it divides them.

Debord’s famous description of the spectacle, that it links people in ‘a one-way relationship to the very centre that keeps them isolated from each other, [reuniting] the separated, but … only in their separateness’4 applies to the spectator as a condition he can switch off or turn away from. Simulated man has no such luck, because the centre is no longer external to his self. Even Away From Screen, de-teched in a Swedish yurt, roundtabling ‘conversations’ on the regrowth of enlightened community, he is a thing among things, cut off from the radical other, from context and consciousness. In the midst of his warm, giving hugs and tender heart-work he is as existentially isolated as the miserable working-class slave he has nothing to say to. Both have a one-way relationship to their status as a thing, as a self, that keeps them isolated from each other. Reunited, but only in their separateness.

The end of the simulacrum is therefore the end of the self, along with the idea that this is an ‘event’, called ‘death’, which ‘happens’ at the end of ‘life

…when nothing could be further from the truth.

This article was originally posted on Darren Allen’s substack.

Notes

(1) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle.

(2) Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle.

(Featured Image: “Magician” by h.koppdelaney is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.)

Author

  • Darren Allen

    Darren Allen is a radical, independent philosopher and novelist. His books include 33 Myths of the System, Self and Unself, Ad Radicem and Fired. His work addresses the nature of reality, the origin of civilisation, death, gender, genius, love, life outside the simulacrum and other matters which are opaque to rational analysis and subjectivist whim.