September 15, 2021
From Anarchist News

Images taken from "Insurrection: Anarchist Magazine, Issue 5" (1988), chosen due to their similarity to some of the stills used in advertising the film "20-22" (2018), and due to the relevance of the articles in that issue, to this topic.

Recently, I thought of reviewing a movie to submit it to The Anvil Review. The film I had in mind, “20-22”(2018), was initially announced under the subtitle of “Society of the Spectacle”, which later got re-titled 20-22 Alpha, and then Omega, with the tagline “A non-verbal cinematic symphony about the humans of the Anthropocene”. The movie is a silent film, a series of images with a symphonic soundtrack, no narration, no dialogue. It focuses on places with people on them, much like the film “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982), which means “life out of balance” in Hopi. After seeing the website and reading interview with the filmmaker, I felt the framing was already overbearing. I felt that it had spoiled any “fresh” perspective I could have upon watching it. It makes sense how he expressed in that interview that he wanted to maintain the rhetorical framing sparse by naming it “20-22”. The images -shot in black and white film, “a dying medium”- are meant to stand on their own: “Because the project is non-verbal, I thought how can I have a title that’s not too suggestive? If I call it “Apple,” if I call it “Anthropocene,” if I call it “Post-humanism,” it’s a little bit too on the nose, in my opinion. I wanted a title that would leave room for the imagination, just like a picture or an image can do.”

I was the feeling that the framing was kind of trite and stale. I kinda felt cheated, being drawn in by what seemed to be a fresh take on “The Society of the Spectacle” (1973), the have the framing switched to “Anthropocene” at the last moment. Why is that? Years ago, I had greatly enjoyed Guy Debord’s films. Particularly, “On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time” (1959), “Critique of Separation” (1961) and “In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni” (1978). The medium here is also film, but mostly re-appropriated footage, a video-collage détournement with Guy’s voice narrating throughout most of the film. The text versions stand on their own, the images and sparse soundtrack are almost superfluous. In both cases, is the medium film and the genre “film essay”? In my mind I see a tenuous line -in terms of style and content- connecting Debord’s films, to films by Chris Marker and Adam Curtis, like “A Grin Without a Cat” (1977) and “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” (2011), respectively. Similarly, I see threads going from Debord’s writing, to certain strains of Anti-Civ thought.

Not wanting to rain over the saturated field of film analysis, theory and critique, reveling in its content. Stretching the thread like thin filament, like how the contents of the human DNA are supposedly said to be able to be stretch could stretch to the sun and back 61 times. There’s nothing new under the sun. Staring at the sun can be as blinding as staring at bonfire, an incandescent lightbulb, or a variety of screens, flashing lights, for hours, for a lifetime. Narrative devices deployed in campfire stories, the telling and re-telling of monomyth, like the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100-1200 BC) etched on the Deluge clay tablet found in Mesopotamia, to palimpsest cities, to modern cities with their neat grids of roads, networked conurbations of megalopolis connected by highways, power grids, the Internet… with its wi-fi enabled devices, smartphones, tablets…interconnected by relay antennas. People went from being the heroes of myth and legend, to myth-makers, to relays on a circuit. Alas, film is not my concern when bringing up this topic. I want to discuss the notions of Spectacle and critiques of Civilization which have seen widespread adoption, use and abuse -some would say recuperation- in mainstream culture.

Civilization is a much older topic than Spectacle. There are many ancient stories of the numerous instances of the rise and fall of civilization. There’s always been plenty of conventional scholarship on the subject, from different academic fields, from the Humanities to Social Science. I’m thinking of texts by sober academics like Lewis Mumford, particularly “Technics and Civilization” (1934), “The City in History” (1961), “The Myth of the Machine” (Vol.1 1967, Vol. 2 1970); and James C. Scott, particularly books like “Seeing Like a State: “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed” (1998), “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia” (2009), “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” (2017). Narratives of “Collapse” of our current “Civilization” seems to overlap with the concept of “Anthropocene”.

Anthropocene is a scientific sounding name in the style of a geological epoch, used to name the current version of Flood myth. It seems to want to replace the tired term “Late Capitalism” mostly concerned with waning or faltering Neo-Liberalism. It evokes the ongoing human-induced mass extinctions and climate change, as well as apocalyptic horizons. It feels at home in environmentalist discussions by liberals like Extinction Rebellion. Its continuity with a geological time-scale, provides perspective of how small a sliver of time humans have been around on Earth. It allows a glimpse at a time before and after humans. Yet, it also strokes their hubris by naming a whole era after themselves as an homage to their world-shaping power.

Guy Debord’s conception of “Spectacle” also seems to make use of linear time stages or periodization. “The Society of the Spectacle”(1967) talks about leaving behind “Spectacular Time” (commodified time, consumable pseudocyclical time) and a return to “Historical Time” or even true “cyclical time”. Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) mentions the emergence of and the progression from “Concentrated Spectacle”, to a “Diffuse Spectacle” and finally giving way to a more totalizing and smoothly running “Integrated Spectacle” (could we also call it “Late Spectacle”?) that is even harder to contest. Both texts exhibit delusions of grandeur with the pretension of accurately describing totality and then confronting it with the stratagems of a paranoid loitering alcoholic. In hindsight, between workers councils and a random walk that ends with a shot to the heart seems, the later seems like the more estimable pursuit. Such fatal dérive is a turn of phrase which seems to aptly describe Guy Debord’s life and death, as much as the stochastic attentats of nihilists.

Though seemingly more sober and level-headed in their approach, one could question the sanity and effectiveness of the insurrectionists who forgo merely biding their time and not intending to play the game, in favor of immediate straightforward attack on discrete systems. Indeed they have been known to address their tame words to the deranged on occasion. But today I’m thinking in particular of “Insurrection: Anarchist Magazine, Issue 5” (1988) and of Negazine-1″ (2017). In contrasting both publications, one can see evolution of a line of thought that concerns itself with attacking technology, where the driving desire remains the same, but the context, the analysis, the proposed point of contact and intervention, becomes more complicated, even if the time to act is always still now. Sabotage is still considered good for one’s health, being a question of night walks in the countryside. But there’s also a sense that it might be already too late.

Out of the 3 terms in the title of this topic, “Spectacle” is the more slippery poetic one, but it also aims at something much particular. Earlier civilizations had not developed their theatrics of power into full-blown Spectacle, which is a much wider concept than the mass media that Marshall McLuhan wrote about in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), and overlapping with the wider critiques of mass culture mentioned Adorno and Horkheimer’s “Dialectic of Enlightenment” (1944) in, yet also pointing at other particularities. All the fuzzy logic and self-indulgent qualities of “theory”. While “Spectacle” seems to be a term more inherently confrontational with society in its conception in a way that Anti-Civ would later be, I was never satisfied with any of the proposed ways in and out of the situationist labyrinth by different authors. The “Spectacle” is the more overtly politically positioned term, ultra-left, while Civilization and Anthropocene seem more objective and neutral terms. In mainstream culture “civilized” is often thought of as a compliment, while “Anthropocene” might have an aura of dread. In a way, these 3 terms seem to evoke the same awe and sympathy at “the folly of man”. Peak anthropocentrism.

As climate anxiety generalizes and more frenzied panicked chatter effuses, meaning gets eroded and nothing makes sense. Busied with interpreting the content of these films, of these texts, of these terms, of culture in general… I remember, duh: the medium is the message. Is the medium/message civilization? Are all of these different siren songs of civilization structuring us in the same way? Lead astray by the beacon of a strange attractor, the alluring glow of the ignis fatuus of Enlightenment. These all-encompassing terms at immense scales kind of aid a feeling of learned helplessness in the face of things we can affect. With this macro-vision of mega-trends and mega-machines, what can be done? Is it dancing in the dark to the beat of your own heart? These 3 terms seem to demarcate a place and a moment for “Humanity” in “History”. Fredy Perlman suggests in “Against His-story, Against Leviathan”:

“It is a place where human beings, just to stay alive, have to jump, to dance, and by dancing revive the rhythms, recover cyclical time. An-archic and pantheistic dancers no longer sense the artifice and its His-story as All but as merely one cycle, one long night, a stormy night that left Earth wounded, but a night that ends, as all nights end, when the sun rises.”

What are your favorite or preferred takes on Civilization, Spectacle and the Anthropocene? What are the normie -even if academic- takes about Civilization, Spectacle and the Anthropocene that annoy you the most? How do these terms and nested notions envelop, overlap and contrast with each other? How does each inform your anarchist perspective? How do they clarify, confuse, distract, and overwhelm your anarchist practice? Or is this all absolute typhos to you?