23. The Margin of Existence and Society of the Spectacle

Yesterday I questioned whether Charlie Kaufman was pulling a head fake on us by throwing in this bit about Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle,” and sending people like me down a rabbit hole for his own amusement, and maybe that might have been his plan all along. Having reached the end of the treatise, I now believe that’s probably not the case, although I’m still not 100 percent sure and, damn Kaufman, he saved the part that is most relevant to his movie for the last several paragraphs of this Marxist rant.

Before I get into it, a reminder of the setup. Jake is talking about David Foster Wallace and how his suicide has overwhelmed everything else about it. He declares that obnoxious and says “I don’t think we know how to be human anymore.”

The young woman asks “who doesn’t” to which Jake replies “or society, our culture, people. Whatever all this is, Any of us.” To which the young woman replies “well, have you read any Guy Debord?” And this begins a discussion of his book “Society of the Spectacle.”

She says “Debord says the spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized.” (In Debord’s text, there’s an additional clause that states “a view of the world that has become objective.”) Jake adds “watch the world through this glass, pre-interpreted for us. And it infects our brains. We become it.” She concludes by adding, in a whisper “like a virus.”

What Jake is saying is a paraphrase that comes four paragraphs from the end of the book. Here’s the quote in full:

“In clinical descriptions of schizophrenia,” says Gabel, [I assumed this is from Joseph Gabel’s “False Consciousness] “the disintegration of the dialectic of totality (with dissociation as its extreme form) and the disintegration of the dialectic of becoming (with catatonia as its extreme form) seem closely interrelated.” Imprisoned in a flattened universe bounded by the screen of the spectacle that has enthralled him, the spectator knows no one but the fictitious speakers who subject him to a one-way monologue about their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle as a whole serves as his looking glass. What he sees there are dramatizations of illusory escapes from a universal autism.

While Kaufman’s film avoids direct discussion of mental health in this scene, Debord is clearly making two important allusions to pathologies: schizophrenia and autism. This is really important because of what is about to come — what appears to be a full on schizophrenic break from one or perhaps all three of the characters at once. The discussion of commodities, highly important to Debord, is hard to fit within the frame of Kaufman’s movie unless you consider movies themselves and other forms of entertainment as being those commodities. They establish the looking glass and make it impossible for people to see each other anymore. The two paragraphs right before this one in Debord’s text explains that point a bit:

The spectacle is the acme of ideology because it fully exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life. The spectacle is the material “expression of the separation and estrangement between man and man.” The “new power of deception” concentrated in it is based on the production system in which “as the mass of objects increases, so do the alien powers to which man is subjected.” This is the supreme stage of an expansion that has turned need against life. “The need for money is thus the real need created by the modern economic system, and the only need it creates” (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). Hegel’s characterization of money as “the self-moving life of what is dead” (Jenenser Realphilosophie) has now been extended by the spectacle to all social life.

That sets up the political economy argument, but the next paragraph is especially important because it brings the mental health focus back into sharper view:

The parallel between ideology and schizophrenia demonstrated in Gabel’s False Consciousness should be considered in the context of this economic materialization of ideology. Society has become what ideology already was. The repression of practice and the antidialectical false consciousness that results from that repression are imposed at every moment of everyday life subjected to the spectacle — a subjection that systematically destroys the “faculty of encounter” and replaces it with a social hallucination: a false consciousness of encounter, an “illusion of encounter.” In a society where no one can any longer be recognized by others, each individual becomes incapable of recognizing his own reality. Ideology is at home; separation has built its own world.

So much of what happens in the final act of the film makes more sense when viewed through this screen. A social hallucination takes place at the school, one that includes a highly stylized ballet-fight, a conversation with a cartoon pig infested with maggots and, finally, a melding of the final scenes of “A Beautful Mind” and “Oklahoma!” In this part of the film, each character becomes incapable fo recognizing his own reality, he (or she?) must surrender to this joint schizophrenic delusion. And if it weren’t clear enough already, Debord concludes with this:

The spectacle obliterates the boundaries between self and world by crushing the self besieged by the presence-absence of the world. It also obliterates the boundaries between true and false by repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. Individuals who passively accept their subjection to an alien everyday reality are thus driven toward a madness that reacts to this fate by resorting to illusory magical techniques. The essence of this pseudoresponse to an unanswerable communication is the acceptance and consumption of commodities. The consumer’s compulsion to imitate is a truly infantile need, conditioned by all the aspects of his fundamental dispossession. As Gabel puts it in describing a quite different level of pathology, “the abnormal need for representation compensates for an agonizing feeling of being at the margin of existence.”

Right after this very short discussion of Debord, Jake declares that the melting Brrrs are driving him crazy and he needs to find a place to dispose of them. Our journey to the Oz of Act 3 kicks off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s