Monday, February 23, 2009

Trash/Spectacle an Introduction

At the end of 1967, Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle and Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life presented the most elaborate expositions of Situationist theory, which had a widespread influence in France during the 1968 student rebellion.

In their analysis, the Situationists argued that capitalism had turned all relationships transactional, and that life had been reduced to a "spectacle". The spectacle is the key concept of their theory. The worker is alienated from his (and it is in the masculine) product and from his fellow workers and finds himself living in an alien world: The worker does not produce himself; he produces an independent power. The success of this production, its abundance, returns to the producer as an abundance of dispossession. All the time and space of his world becomes foreign to him with the accumulation of his alienated products....

The increasing division of labor and specialization have transformed work into meaningless drudgery.

"It is useless," Vaneigem observes, "to expect even a caricature of creativity from a conveyor belt." Or we might add a call centre.

What emerges from this discourse is that in order to ensure continued economic growth, capitalism had to create "pseudo-needs" to increase consumption. Instead of saying that consciousness was determined at the point of production, they said it occurred at the point of consumption. Modern capitalist society is a consumer society, a society of "spectacular" commodity consumption. Having long been treated with the utmost contempt as a producer, the worker is now lavishly courted and seduced as a consumer never more than in the credit crunch, the economic downturn or more directly the collapse of the global economy.
At the same time, while modern technology has ended natural alienation (the struggle for survival against nature), social alienation in the form of a hierarchy of masters and slaves has continued. People are treated like passive objects, not active subjects. After degrading being into having, the society of the spectacle has further transformed having into merely appearing. We then are transformed into a world of mere appearance, the fa├žade of glass and mirrors.

The result is an appalling contrast between cultural poverty and economic wealth, between what is and what could be. "Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation," Vaneigem asks, "entails the risk of dying of boredom?"

You can argue that one of the ways the Situationists sought to pursue action was to transform the here and now of everyday life. To transform the perception of the world and to change the structure of society was the same thing. By liberating oneself, you could change power relations and therefore transform society.

The Situationists have undoubtedly enriched anarchist theory by their critique of modern culture, their celebration of creativity, and their stress on the immediate transformation of everyday life.

This may seem to be a detour to a commentary on the Exhibition "Reskilling" (Nov 29 - Jan 10, 2009) Guest curated by Shannon Stratton and Luanne Martineau that is part of the reading TRASH/SPECTACLE LECTURE SERIES this Spring but reflecting upon their statement that “artists now revisit craft as a place from which to critique or react to the post-digital, consumerism, condensed time and globalism. But now, rather than embody a medieval utopian fantasy, nostalgia for the more recent 1970s, its politics and rebellion, prevails. ”

It strikes me that the issues, ideas and actions as explored by the Situationists and Debord’s work on The Society of the Spectacle inform the various methodologies that many activist practitioners working in and on craft subscribe to. The celebration of creativity in the every day, the reaction to global commoditisation and consumerism and a concern with how people get rid of their things, or other people’s things reveals a concern with thinking through things, and in terms of the materiality of things and their temporalities and spatialities and how we consume the practices of things.

You can argue that ‘old materials never die’, they are transformed, mutate and are morphed into other things, made out of the trash of the world. What we witness in many works that deploy craft's techniques and mediums is a kind of ethnography which shows why material culture is often an ideal conduit for conveying how essential, ordinary, mundane and therefore often quite overlooked practices are central to the normative form of everyday life whether through activist DIY culture or through artists raiding the streets of the garbage and carnage cans of the world’s waste.