"blunders, gullibility, over-reach, unfathomable ignorance and wishful thinking"

an unkind reply to RETORT

It says here, at the end of the first footnote to an essay entitled "Afflicted Powers: The State, the Spectacle and September 11" and reprinted in the May/June 2004 issue of New Left Review [1], that RETORT "is a gathering of council communists and affiliated nay-sayers, based for the past two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area." In a tell-tale use of the passive voice, this footnote goes on to say: "Involved in the writing of the present essay were Iain Boal, T. J. Clark, Joseph Matthews and Michael Watts."

Yes, dear reader, T. J. Clark: the author of that horrible book Farewell to an Idea, which we had such a good time demolishing several years back. As you might recall from that rather long essay, we castigated Professor Clark for adamantly refusing to discuss his subjects (modern art and socialism) in terms of the situationist concept of "spectacle," preferring instead to call upon such boring old farts as Sigmund Freud, Paul de Man and Noam Chomsky. And yet, here is Clark, signing his name to an essay that goes on and on about "Guy Debord and the Situationist International." Since Clark was once a situationist, one must take seriously -- or at least give a fair hearing to -- his "dissent" from the "totalizing closure" of the concept of spectacle. Or such is the underlying assumption of "Afflicted Powers."

But this assumption is completely unwarranted. In point of fact, "Afflicted Powers" is -- to seize and re-direct the accusations RETORT makes about the manner in which the Bush Administration has conducted its war against Iraq [2] -- dominated by blunders, gullibility, over-reach, unfathomable ignorance and wishful thinking about literally everything it attempts to shed light on. Clark and his mates can't even say an intelligent thing about pop music! [3]

blunders and ignorance

"We start from the premise," RETORT says, "that certain concepts and descriptions put forward forty years ago by Guy Debord and the Situationist International, as part of their effort to comprehend the new forms of state control and social disintegration, still possess explanatory power -- more so than ever, we suspect, in the poisonous epoch we are living through." This is a valid premise, provided, of course, that one actually understands and accurately summarizes those concepts. But RETORT fails to do either one of these things.

Over the course of their essay, the members of RETORT rack up a staggering array of errors. The group refers to the situationists' "hypotheses": but the Situationist International (SI) positioned their ideas as theories, that is, as hypotheses that had been tested and found to be valid. RETORT claims that the "original objects" of the theory of the spectacle "were the Watts Riots and the Proletarian Cultural Revolution": but Debord said that "the modern spectacle" was invented by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. RETORT claims that "spectacle" names "the submission of more and more facets of human sociability [...] to the deadly solicitations (the lifeless bright sameness) of the market" and that the situationists "were interested in the means modern societies have at their disposal to systematize and disseminate appearances, and to subject the texture of day-to-day living to a constant barrage of images, instructions, slogans, logos, false promises, virtual realities, [and] miniature happiness-motifs": but, for the SI, "spectacle" named the bureaucratic state in both the "capitalist" West and the "Communist" East and found its ultimate expression not in "appearances" but the organization of space.

But the worst mistakes RETORT makes are to reduce the SI to Guy Debord, to focus on what Debord wrote in the 1960s (in particular, his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle), and to ignore virtually everything he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s. [4] "The version of 'spectacle' with which we operate," RETORT says,

is minimal, pragmatic, matter of fact. No doubt the idea's original author often gave it an exultant, world-historical force. But his tone is inimitable, as all efforts to duplicate it have proved; and in any case we are convinced that the age demands a different cadence -- something closer (if we are lucky) to that of the lines from Paradise Lost we use as our pamphlet's epigraph [and title] than anything from Lukacs or Ducasse.

But Guy Debord -- who did not "author" the "idea" of spectacle, but "detourned" (diverted) the way this concept was used in the critical theories of Georg Lukacs, Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes and many others -- does not designate a tone of voice or cadence. And, as we will attempt to show (see below), "the age" doesn't demand "something" different; instead, our poisonous epoch would be quite well-served by Debord if it managed to actually understand what he meant.

Not surprisingly, RETORT's "version" of spectacle is flat-out wrong. Instead of being a dialectical exposition, it is a chronological narrative.

Debord, to speak of him directly, was concerned most of all with the way the subjection of social life to the rule of appearances had led, in turn, to a distinct form of politics -- of state formation and surveillance [...] We extract the following propositions from his pages. First, that slowly but surely the state in the twentieth century had been dragged into a full collaboration in the micro-management of everyday life. The market's necessity became the state's obsession. (Slowly, and in a sense against the state's better judgment, because always there existed a tension between the modern state's armoured other-directedness -- its raison d'etre as a war machine -- and capital's insistence that the state come to its aid in the great work of internal policing and packaging [...]) This world of images had long been a structural necessity of a capitalism oriented toward the overproduction of commodities, and therefore the constant manufacture of desire for them; but by the late twentieth century it had given rise to a specific polity. The modern state [...] has adjusted to its economic master's requirement for a thinned, unobstructed social texture, made up of loosely attached consumer subjects [...]

Alas, poor State, it has been led astray -- and, what's more, against its better judgment (!) -- by what RETORT elsewhere calls the "shady corporate world." And so, despite its announced impatience with "classical Marxist terms, proudly unreconstructed," RETORT presents and assumes its readers will accept the vulgar Marxist notion that the "superstructure" (the State) follows what goes on in the "substructure" (the economy). But Guy Debord never had any truck with this simplistic nonsense. As much an anarchist as a Marxist, he knew that the State -- long before there was such a thing as a globalized capitalist market -- had been deeply involved in surveillance, internal policing, spatial deconcentration and the "micro-management" of everyday life. [5]

gullibility, over-reach and wishful thinking

According to RETORT, the events of September 11 weren't a confirmation of the theory of the spectacle, but a demonstration of its limits. After quoting a few lines from Debord [6], the group says,

Too many times over the past twelve months [7] these sentences, in their anger and sorrow at the present form of politics, have echoed in our minds. But ultimately we dissent from their totalizing closure. Living after September 11, we are no longer sure -- and we do not believe that spectacular power is sure -- that [Debord was correct when he asserted that] "there is no danger of riposte [to the spectacle], in its own space or any other." For better or worse, the precision bombings were such a riposte. And their effect on the spectacular state has been profound: the state's reply to them, we are certain, has exceeded in its crassness and futility the martyr-pilots' wildest dreams.

Note well RETORT's insistence on what's happened since September 11. Situationist concepts "strike us as having purchase on key aspects of what happened since September 11, 2001," they write. RETORT asks, "Are we to understand the forms of assertion of American power since September 11 [...] as a step backwards, a historical regression [...] to a new/old era of gunboats and book-burning?" and "How, politically and strategically, has the US state responded to [September 11]?" To RETORT, September 11 was a "defeat" suffered by the American state, and the group states that "The spectacular state is obliged, we are saying, to devise an answer to the defeat of September 11."

RETORT never seems to imagine -- let alone think through any of the implications of the possibility -- that the attacks of September 11 weren't perpetrated by "organized enemies of the US Empire," but by the US Empire itself. Apparently believing everything that the spectacle has told them about the attacks, the members of RETORT go on and on about "Islamism," "the new terrorists," the "new breed of bombers," "regimes hostile to the new world order," and the "failed states" (presumably Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan) "from which the personnel and ideology of September 11 so unmistakably arose." For RETORT, it is "common knowledge" that the events of September 11 "were trained for in Jalalabad, [and] paid for in Riyadh."

RETORT's confidence in the truth of what the spectacle has told them is so complete that its members believe that they can tell what the "new terrorists" were thinking. Veritable mind-readers -- despite the thousands of miles that separate their native Berkeley from Osama bin Laden's training camps -- they write:

'You know our demands,' said the martyr-pilots (strictly to themselves). 'And we know you cannot accede to them. We know what you will do instead. We are certain your answer will be military. We anticipate your idiot leader blurting out the word crusade. What you will do will vindicate our analysis point by point, humiliation by humiliation, and confirm the world of Islamism in its despairing strength. And you will do it because there is no answer to our image-victory, yet you (because humiliation is something in which you have no schooling) have to pretend there is one.'

A few pages later, RETORT says:

The perpetrators knew full well that they lacked the means to spread out through the wider social fabric and bring ordinary doings to a halt. And they believed, rightly or wrongly, that in present circumstances they did not need to. What they did was designed to hold us indoors, to make us turn back and back to a moving image of capitalism screaming and exploding, to make us go on listening (in spite of ourselves) to the odious talking heads [on television] to put something, anything, in place of desolation.

This is precisely the point where RETORT's complete and total ignorance of the real value of situationist theory comes back to haunt them. [8] Had they read Gianfranco Sanguinetti's On Terrorism and the State [9], or Debord's 21 April 1978 letter to Sanguinetti concerning the kidnapping of Aldo Moro, or Debord's Preface to the 4th Italian Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle" or even his Considerations on the Assassination of Gerard Lebovici, the members of RETORT would have focused on what happened on September 11, not during its aftermath. [10]

RETORT never thinks about what preceded the attacks (the creation, training and arming of Al Qaeda by the CIA; the surprising strength and vehemence that the "anti-globalization" movement showed in Seattle and Genoa; and the theft of the 2000 US Presidential election), never tries to get inside the heads of those who are in charge of NATO, the Pentagon or the CIA [11], never asks the classic question, "Who benefited?" Instead, RETORT occupies itself with the "singularity" of "the present madness," [12], as if what happened at the Reichstag, or at the Bologna train station, could never happen here. But it can; indeed, it already has.

-- Bill Not Bored, 16 June 2004. An addendum was added on 25 March 2006.

Author's notes:

[1] As recently as 1997, T. J. Clark and another ex-situationist, Donald Nicholson-Smith, attacked New Left Review for totally ignoring, and then falsifying, the contributions of the Situationist International to modern revolutionary theory.

[2] RETORT says of Bush's war against Iraq:

We too take seriously the idea that factions within the US administration had long thought the impasse of 'sanctions' intolerable, had thirsted for oil, had dreamt of a new brridgehead in an increasingly anti-American region, and so on. But at the very least it can only be said that the manner in which these policies were finally acted upon -- they had been pipedreams of the ultra-Right in Washington for more than a decade -- has been a barely credible mixture of blunder, gullibility, over-reach, lip-smacking callousness (hardly bothering to disguise its lack of concern at the 'stuff happening' in the streets of Kandahar or Baghdad), unfathomable ignorance and wishful thinking, and constant entrapment in the day-to-day, hour-by-hour temporality of the sound bite and the suicide bomb.

Though the members of RETORT take "seriously" the idea that there were impatient "factions" within the US administration, they don't take seriously enough the idea that some of these factions might have conspired with, "tele-guided" or simulated Al Qaeda's operations.

[3] According to RETORT,

The silence of so-called 'popular culture' in the face of September 11 has been deafening. (It is as if the commercial music of America in the mid-twentieth century had nothing to say about war, or race, or the Depression, or the new world of goods and appliances. It had plenty -- partly because the adjective 'popular' still pointed to something real about its audiences and raw materials. That was long ago, of course: the present total obedience of the culture industry to the protocols of the war on terror -- its immediate ingestion and reproduction of the state's interdicts and paranoias -- is proof positive, if any were needed, of the snuffing out of the last traces of insurbordination in the studios of TimeWarner.)

Obviously the members of RETORT have never heard -- or have never heard of -- Bruce Springsteen's famous album The Rising, which was released in July 2002.

[4] It is true that the members of RETORT quote (in re-ordered fashion) a few sentences concerning "the media" from Debord's 1988 book, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, but they ignore the fact that its author was at pains to point out that,

Rather than talk of the spectacle, people often prefer to use the term 'media.' And by this they mean to describe a mere instrument, a kind of public service which with impartial 'professionalism' would facilitate the new wealth of mass communication through mass media -- a form of communication which has at last attained a unilateral purity, whereby decisions already taken are presented for passive admiration. For what is communicated are orders; and with perfect harmony, those who give them are also those who tell us what they think of them. Spectacular power, which is so fundamentally unitary, so concentrated by the very weight of things, and entirely despotic in spirit, frequently rails at the appearance in its realm of a spectacular politics, a spectacular justice, a spectacular medicine and all the other similarly surprising examples of 'media excess.' Thus the spectacle would be merely the excesses of the media, whose nature, unquestionably good since it facilitates communication, is sometimes driven to extremes.

In reality, Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle -- like his Preface to the 4th Italian Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle" (1979) and his Considerations on the Assassination of Gerard Lebovici (1985) -- are about the State and, to be more exact, its use of terrorism as a method of government.

[5] See the following passage from Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle: "In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx described the state's encroachment upon Second Empire France, then blessed with half a million bureaucrats: '[Everything was] made a subject for governmental activity, whether it was a bridge, a schoolhouse, the communal property of a village community, or the railways, the national wealth and the national universities of France.'"

[6] See footnote [4].

[7] It would appear that the body of "Afflicted Powers" was written in September or October 2002, and that footnotes were added as late as March 2004.

[8] As Debord writes Comments on the Society of the Spectacle: "We should expect, as a logical possibility, that the state's security services intend to use all the advantages they find in the realm of the spectacle, which has indeed been organized with that in mind for some considerable time: on the contrary, it is the difficulty of perceiving this that is astonishing, and rings false" (emphasis added).

[9] There is a strange echo of the convoluted beginning of Sanguinetti's On Terrorism in RETORT's ridiculous pronouncement that "Terror as a political instrument [...] is the property of the state (maybe the founding property of the state in its 'modern' manifestation), or of those thinking like a state." In his 23 February 1981 letter to Jaap Kloosterman, Debord denounces the "insolence" of Sanguinetti's attempt to "reduce to a ridiculous schemata [...] the historical and strategic question of armed struggle in general and the particular case of all terrorism as it has existed in many diverse forms throughout history."

[10] Note well that RETORT wants to keep "September 11" nice and simple: "The terror of September 11 had a handful of targets (our tendency to make it, in memory, simply 'the bombing of the Twin Towers' is not untrue to the logic of the event)." But what is "not untrue" in one "logic" is totally false in another. At least two of the events that also took place on that day -- the explosion at the Pentagon and the collapse of World Trade Center building #7, which wasn't attacked by the "martyr-pilots" -- are highly suspicious and suggestive of the perpetration of an "inside job."

[11] Once again, we counter RETORT with Debord's Comments: "But actually all established powers, despite certain genuine local rivalries, and without ever wanting to spell it out, never forgot what one of the rare German internationalists after the outbreak of the First World War managed to recall (on the side of subversion and without any great immediate success): 'The main enemy is within'."

[12] "It matters profoundly," RETORT says, "that the horrors of September 11 were designed to be visible, and that this visibility marked the bombings off from most previous campaigns of air terror, especially those sponsored by states. There were no cameras at Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima. The horror there had to be unseen." Quite true, but there were plenty of cameras present when Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald.

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