The Society of the Spectacle
Spoiler Line: p. 621
Pages 620 and 621 rang a literary-theoretical bell that had lain dormant in my skull since back in Fall 2003 when I took an Intro to Theory class.
There was this French guy, a literal French Guy named Guy DeBord*, who in 1967 wrote a brief but influential book/treatise called “The Society of the Spectacle.” His main shtick was that, as he says in the very first line of the book, “life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” In other words, life is no longer something that we live, but something that we watch, primarily via the medium of TV and other forms of entertainment.
If you’ve been Infinite Summering this summer then your pump is probably primed to accept this sort of critique, because it’s very similar to a lot of what Wallace has to say about Entertainment in the U.S. To wit:
One of DeBord’s problems with a society that plops its fat collective ass in front of the Tube to live life, as opposed to say, actually going out and living life, is that it engenders an insidious passivity. The spectacle demands “passive acceptance;” it is “the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity.” It “keeps people in a state of unconsciousness.” Cf. this with what Wallace says in everyone’s favorite RCF interview: “[TV] admits passive spectation. Encourages it. TV-type art’s biggest hook is that it’s figured out ways to ‘reward’ passive spectation. A certain amount of the form-conscious stuff I write is trying–with whatever success–to do the opposite.” Similarly, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, DeBord’s goal was to “wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images.”
The drug-speak is not an accident. As with Infinite Jest’s Entertainments, DeBord’s Spectacles have an overall narcotizing effect. Like the enslaving Substance who’s only goal is to get you to ingest more Substance, “the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.” “The spectacle is the bad dream of a modern society in chains and ultimately expresses nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.”
Another consequence of the society of the spectacle is what DeBord calls “a vicious circle of isolation.” “From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender ‘lonely crowds.’” “Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.” If your head isn’t throbbing with echoes of Wallace’s E Unibus Pluram by now, please refer back to p. 112 of Infinite Jest.
I think these correspondences are pretty striking, and I have to imagine Wallace was familiar with DeBord’s work. But Wallace departs from DeBord’s arguments in some pretty important ways. In fact, I have to say that Infinite Jest offers a more nuanced and accurate account of our passive fat-assed scopophile society than The Society of the Spectacle. Here’s why.
DeBord was essentially a Marxist whose Marxism was shot through with thick ropey veins of Pynchonian paranoia. DeBord blamed the current state of societal affairs solely on the machinations of the capitalist system and, importantly, those who control it. Or as he put it, “the activities of the world’s owners.” DeBord is interested in power and those who wield it, and he is convinced that powerful are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of us.
Wallace agrees that there’s a certain amount of Pynchonian machination going on, I think. Just look at the whole ONANtiad puppet-play and the rise of Interlace Entertainment. But Wallace’s key insight w/r/t DeBordian spectacles is the way that individuals are willingly complicit in their own enslavement. We like having the DeBordian wool pulled over our eyes because its soft and fuzzy and it makes us feel good. Think of the rats ringing their P-terminals over and over, and the human test-subjects lining up to do the same. Think of the myriad ways in which American identity, as Wallace sees it, is tightly wound around the concepts of freedom and happiness — or, the freedom to pursue happiness at whatever cost. One of the major projects of Infinite Jest, I think, is to show how close we as a society are to taking the pursuits of freedom and happiness to their logically absurd endpoint of mindless masturbatory P-terminal enslavement. DeBord doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that nobody would be vegging out in front of the TV if it wasn’t hugely compelling to begin with.
If you’re interested, “Society of the Spectacle” makes for a brief, really interesting read. DeBord is generally way more readable and less full of shit than that other French guy who burst onto the literary-theoretical scene in the late ‘60s. And the book has an awful lot more to say about Infinite Jest than what I’ve included here. For instance, he goes into an aside about the role of stars (entertainers, if you will. Like the ETA kids, or Madame P?) in the spectacular society. And I’ll leave you with one last tantalizing quote that is guaranteed to give an enormous interpretive boner to anyone interested in making more sense of the Eschaton episode:
The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the territory it represents. The forces that have escaped us display themselves to us in all their power.
* Fun Facts about GDB: In addition to writing, he also made films. Not only that, but he also designed a war game (Eschaton, anyone?) that you can now actually play online. Similar to a certain Mad Stork, DeBord drunk himself to suicide in 1994. Interested yet?