Editor’s Note: In light of the recent sentencing of Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the death penalty, it is timely and meaningful to re-post an essay that appeared in ARTES in 2013, soon after that horrific day that killed and maimed so many. The intention here was not to focus on the events of the day, but to shed light on the dynamics of our American–and by extension– Western European culture. A tradition of conspicuous consumerism has long been a source of alienation and disenfranchisement for many, particularly those new to this way-of-life. Marginalized and angry, many seek out the comforting and enabling message of radical and reactionary groups, in an effort to gain a sense of personal power. Today’s headlines are filled with the narrative of inner city communities struggling with those very issues. Here, an examination of the history and precedent that might lead to dramatic acts against a consumer-centric society are examined, in an effort to attribute motive to an otherwise senseless act of violence…
“In a world which really is topsy-turvy, the true is a moment of the false.” ~The Society of the Spectacle ~Guy Debord, French philosopher (1931-1994)
On the night police intercepted the alleged Boston Marathon bombers, they were on their way to New York City to wreak more havoc—their objective: Times Square. With hundreds-of-thousands of people walking or driving through the square each day, it makes an ideal ‘soft’ target. But that doesn’t fully explain why the locale has been such an appealing destination for terrorists over the last decade. The deeper and more profound answer to the question, Why Times Square? rests with its symbolic value as a blatant manifestation of Western capitalism and fetishistic, material excess. It is the towering and imposing, flashing-neon equivalent of photographer, Eugène Atget’s 19th century photographs of Paris’ poster-strewn walls and jammed merchandise display windows, during its nascent rise as a modernized symbol of urban consumerism. xxxxxx
Piquing most terrorists’ consciousness is the persistent emphasis, in the West, on product consumption and its resultant emphasis on ‘having’ rather than ‘being,’ as they would define it in the framework of radical Muslim orthodoxy. This same spiritual impoverishment was of no small concern to philosopher, Guy Debord, who stated that, “Though separated from his product, man is more and more, and ever more powerfully, the producer of every detail of his world. The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life. The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” In his analysis of the spectacular society, he notes that quality of life is impoverished and that, with such lack of authenticity, human perceptions are affected. There is also a degradation of knowledge, resulting in the hindrance of critical thought. Debord analyzes the use of knowledge to assuage reality: the spectacle obfuscates the past, conflating it with the future into an undifferentiated mass—a type of never-ending present (hence, the lights in Times Square [or Las Vegas!] are never turned off). In this way, the Society of the Spectacle prevents individuals from realizing that the seductive phenomenon is a mere spectral event, raising the possibility that it might be overturned by revolution.
When Debord says, in response to the “immense accumulation of spectacle” that, “All that was once directly lived has become mere representation,” he is referring to the central importance of the image in contemporary society. Images, he says, have supplanted genuine human interaction. One need only spend time in Times Square to experience the capitalist premise of social relationships between people, mediated by images. One particularly striking example (among many) is the Abercrombie & Fitch retail anchor store (left). Three-story-high photo montages envelop the building, just above eye level. Elevating one’s eyes (a key gestural homage to the divine), one sees portrayed semi-naked figures—perfect human specimens lounging in products found just inside their doors. Offering more than the lifestyle promise, the images portray heroic, gladiatorial men and Aphroditic women, all enjoying each others’ company in ideal natural settings. The message is clear: the Dionysian realm of passion and revelry in Acadian settings would be gifted to ordinary consumers, if only they embrace their consumer products. The unspoken promise is that the right outward appearance will help achieve that end…”The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having” and now “of having into appearing” (italics mine).
The reader could borrow a page from another French philosopher here—Louis Althusser (1918-1990)—who argued that our values, desires and preferences—rather than being self-initiated—are inculcated in us by ideological practice, the sphere of which has the defining property of constituting individuals as ‘subjects.’ These received ideas are the result of exposure to social institutions like family, the media, the educational system, religious organizations and, most importantly, in his framework, capitalist societies. For Debord, Times Square is too overwhelming as an encompassing experience to preserve the essence of the self, “to wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images, through radical action in the form of the construction of situations.” Abercrombie & Fitch calls to mind his observations about the antagonistic role of youth as the maintainer of “illusory roles” (against adulthood, “…[as]master of his own life and nowhere to be found”). “And youth—implying change in what exists—is by no means proper to people who are young. Rather, it characterizes only the economic system, the dynamism of capitalism: it is things that rule, that are young—things themselves that vie with each other and usurp one another’s place.”
Taken from the Facebook page of a young traveler: “Am I in Taipei or Times Square? Shopping in the Xi Men Ding area right now (see, right). They have stores such as ‘Forever 26’ and ‘Love, Hope & Faith’. Both are identical (really, identical) to Forever 21 and Abercrombie.”
Debord also draws equivalence between the role of mass media marketing in the present and the role of religions in the past…”The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion.” The spread of commodity-images by the mass media, produces “waves of enthusiasm for a given product” resulting in “moments of fervent exaltation similar to the ecstasies of the convulsions and miracles of the old religious fetishism.” Here, I am reminded of a trip to Rome and a visit to Santa Maria della Vittoria. The Bernini sculpture located there is astounding for its pathos and dynamic portrayal of Teresa of Avila, swooning in the presence of an angel, at the moment of her ecstatic vision of God. The moment when divinity intrudes on an earthly body—later recorded in her diaries—gives new meaning to the Freudian notions of sublimation and displacement:
“I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God.” ~The Life of Teresa of Jesus’ (1515–1582)
As Debord addresses the historical power of religion to meld sensual and spiritual pleasure, as both an intentional and influential point of contact between earth and heaven—between matter and spirit—his point is indirectly, but powerfully exemplified, in this orgiastic Bernini sculpture. He states, “Religious contemplation in its earliest form was the outcome of the establishment of the social division of labor and the formation of classes. Power draped itself in the outward garb of a mythical order from the beginning. In former times the category of the sacred justified the cosmic and ontological ordering of things that best served the interest of the masters, expounding upon and embellishing what society could not deliver […] but mass allegiance to frozen religious imagery was originally a shared acknowledgement of loss, an imaginary compensation for a poverty of real social activity…”
So for millions throughout history, faith and consumerism have gone hand-in-hand, as the spectacle of each delivers the oppressed worker up from the despair of the underclass, replacing true experiential individuality with “specious forms of the sacred.” Whether it is a life-time’s labor spent constructing a cathedral to house the artifacts and artifice of a self-justifying faith, or the persistent pursuit of goods that first isolate, and then seek to define the consumer through the common language of the fetishised spectacle, the result is the same: “The spectacle unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.”
Profiling the typical mass killer, like the Marathon bombers, often reveals patterns of alienation and social isolation, along with a desire to punish those who seem to be so readily able to participate in the fabric of society. Here, we might be enlightened by the writings of Debord, as we struggle to understand the motivation behind such heinous acts of violence. Triggered by religious teachings that deride the Society of the Spectacle—the very nurturing symbols of capitalism, like Times Square or Christianity—our mass killers are confronted by the false choice between “phantom qualities meant to elicit devotion to quantitative triviality,” and “an image of harmony set amidst desolation and dread, at the still center of [their own] misfortune.”
“The unreal unity that the spectacle proclaims,” for the assassin living outside the realm of the desired products of society, “is exposed as a mere sum of solitudes without illusion.”
The Boston Marathon bombers, and other aspirants like them, have everything—and nothing—to lose.