Tag Archives: science fiction spectacle

The science fiction spectacle (2)

fig. 1. “What isn’t surpassed rots, what rots incites supersession.” From a situationist ad for Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de savoir-vivre à l’usage des jeunes générations (1967).

When I first set out to write this blog post I intended to show off some of the science fictional motifs that appeared in the activity of the Situationist International (SI). For instance, the many détournements of science fiction comics that appear over several issues of their journal; and the science fictional qualities of some of their ideas and theories—most obviously ‘psychogeography’ and ‘unitary urbanism’. Broadly, the point was, and is, to demarcate the science fiction of the SI—the science fiction (SF) that appears in their work—from another related project I am also trying to chart: the ‘science fiction spectacle’. However, I am going to set aside looking at the SF of the SI for the time being to briefly return to the question of what exactly is the ‘science fiction spectacle’.

1.

In a previous post, when speaking of the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I was perhaps not as clear as some would have liked (including myself). There, I noted that the SI infamously claimed that their ‘theory is in people like fish are in water’.[1] Rather than being the megalomaniac claim some have accused them of (though the Situationists were not averse to megalomania), the point they were driving at was a simple one. In contrast to the pro-capitalist idea that revolutionary critique and contestation comes from without capitalism (where exactly… Mars…?), the situationists argued that their critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’ was merely one iteration—albeit a particularly coherent one—of a broader critique being generated within the then present capitalist society.

To be sure, the situationists were not simply arguing for the equivalence of these criticisms. Indeed, they were clear: their concept of ‘spectacle’ was presented in order to ‘unify and explain’ the apparent diversity of seeming unconnected phenomena—for instance, the various industrially produced news, propaganda, advertising, mass entertainments and commodities that were increasingly marking the ‘modern’ world of the 1950s and 60s (what some have called the ‘media landscape’ or ‘admass’).[2]

What is the ‘spectacle’? For now, I will note that Debord’s concept of spectacle is an amplification and development of Marx’s concepts of alienation, ideology and the commodity-fetish. What links these latter with the concept of spectacle is that they all pose that aspects of human practice have become objectified or externalised in such a way that they appear to be ‘autonomous’ of these practices. For Marx, the ‘fetishism of commodities’ was an attempt to describe this autonomy, in which the commodities produced by humans appeared to ‘live’ their ‘real’ life as repositories of ‘value’ amidst their circulation, marketing and sale, independent of their conditions of production:

The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. […] [T]he commodity-form […] [has] absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.

For Debord,

The fetishism of the commodity—the domination of society by “sensuous things which are at the same time supersensible”—attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a selection of images which exists projected above it, yet which at the same time succeeds in making itself regarded as the perceptible par excellence.

I will return to the question of what exactly is the ‘spectacle’ in more detail in a future post.

2.

By way of what I call the ‘science fiction spectacle’, I propose to illustrate the situationist critique of the ‘spectacle’ with reference to various examples of science fiction that dealt with the same object of criticism (the commodity-spectacle), and at the same time (the 1950s and 60s). I am not arguing that such science fictional ‘criticism’ proposed a theoretical critique of the ‘society of the spectacle’ in the same fashion as the SI, but rather that the criticisms that do appear in the SF of this era can reasonably be used to illustrate and even justify situationist claims.

Apart from a passing familiarity with the situationists, I have a longer interest in science fiction that stretches back through my childhood. More recently I have become fixated on Anglo-American science fiction from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In particular, it is short SF from this period I am most fascinated with—short stories, novelettes and novellas. In a brutally pragmatic fashion, it is easier to plough through a few hundred short stories than novels. However, there is more to my interest than this. Not unlike Orson Welles, I feel that short form SF is ‘better than the long ones’—and for similar reasons.[5]  The short form is perfect as modern fable, or rather an anti-fable in which contemporary morality is not so much the lesson as the object of criticism.

Elements of what the situationist proposed to cohere under the concept of ‘spectacle’ can be found in Anglo-American science fiction of the post-war period: specifically, between 1945 and 1970. Exemplars of such science fictional criticism can be found in the work of Frederick Pohl (e.g. The Midas Plague, 1954, and The Tunnel Under the World, 1955), and Philip K Dick’s (e.g. The Defenders, 1953, and The Mold of Yancy, 1954). However, the emergence of such ‘sociological science fiction’ was broader than these two better known authors. [6]

The years I propose—1945 to 1970—are not merely accidental. Even though the situationist development of the concept of ‘spectacle’ lay between 1957 and 1967, with the highpoint of its development between 1962 and 1967, Debord and others had been developing their critical practice from at least 1951. That there was ‘something in the air’ between 1945 and 1970 akin to the full-blown situationist critique of the 1960s is something I would like to explore. Additionally, the endpoint of 1970 is similarly non-accidental. The world changed after 1968–at the very least, became more cynical about the dominance of the ‘spectacle’. Debord would note, shortly after 1968, how the ‘negativity’ of the rebellions was already ‘invading’ the commodity-spectacle. As David Pringle and Peter Nicholls have noted, ‘[a]bout the end of the 1970s traditional sf about the media seemed to wither away almost overnight: during the 1980s harsh satires about the world of admen, once almost commonplace, became scarce’. I would hazard to argue that this was a result, a least in part, of two processes: on the one hand, the more general calling into question of what the situationists called the commodity-spectacle in the wake of 1968; and on the other hand, the utter triumph of the self-same commodity-spectacle through the ultimate defeat of the movement of 1968—not to mention the sheer brutal omnipresence of the once ‘new’ world of mass communications by the 1980s.

To be clear, I am not proposing that I am the first to note the critical content of science fiction from this period. Indeed, the literature on the critique of the ‘media landscape’ in science fiction—to name just one of the elements—is well advanced. Rather, I want to examine these stories not only as responses to the developments in capitalist society in the immediate post-war period, but further propose that we can draw upon these stories in the situationist style: détourn them for critical purposes.

Among other things, I will return to the idea of the ‘science fiction spectacle’ in upcoming posts.


FOOTNOTES

[1] Situationist International, ‘The role of the S.I. [1962]‘, trans. by Reuben Keehan. Translation modified.

[2] See, in particular, thesis 6 and 10 of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.

[3] Marx, Capital, volume 1, chapter 1, ‘The fetishism of the commodity and its secret’.

[4] The Society of the Spectacle, chapter 2, thesis 36, translation modified.

[5] Orson Welles, ‘Introduction’, in S.F: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Judith Merril, Dell Publishing: 1956, p. 8.

[6] Elsewhere I have begun to examine Russian science fiction from the same time. And I would hope that this project will lead to an examination of other iterations of SF around the globe of the mid-twentieth century.

The science fiction spectacle

fig. 1. ‘The Programmed People’, Ed Emshwiller, Amazing Stories cover, June 1963

It turns out that behind the so-called screen which is supposed to conceal the interior, there is nothing to be seen unless we go behind it ourselves, not only in order that we may see, but also that there may be something behind there that can be seen.”—Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, 1807[1]

The Situationist International (SI) infamously claimed that ‘situationist theory is in people like fish are in water’.[2] In making what some have considered an outrageously egomaniacal claim, the situationists were simply restating an argument that had been around since at least Marx. Considering that the task of proletarian self-emancipation is the project of the proletariat themselves, the understanding of such a modern condition—“proletarian”—is likewise the project of the proletariat themselves and not merely that of intellectual specialists, whether proletarian or bourgeois, revolutionary or academic.[3] As Marx put it some five years before the foundation of the First International, people become conscious of the contradictions of the social production of their existence by way of ‘the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms’. Consequently, in any struggle to overcome such contradictions one must ‘fight it out’ amidst such forms.[4] There is a relationship of entailment—an identity in the Hegelian sense—between these ‘forms’ of consciousness and the ‘material’ conditions of capitalist life. Indeed, the ideological forms are so much material of the social relation, whether more or less materialized; more or less ineffable: the dreams and conversations of an epoch.

To the end of illustrating the science fiction spectacle—a subgenre of capitalist ideology and its immanent contradictions—I am going to compare and contrast a text by the Situationist International and an excerpt from a science fiction story by John Jakes. The Ed Emshwiller cover illustration (above), provides a suitable visualisation of the coming ‘programmed people’ become literal punch cards of the computerized masters. Note that all of these pieces were published in 1963.

The SI text muses on the police like nature of academic sociology, and its relationship to the coming science fiction dystopia of computerized ‘modern information technologies’. John Jakes imagines a near future—early 21st century—in which the imperatives of the fashion industry of the early 1960s and the principles of planned obsolescence have been extended to the human personality.[5] Both texts expound, in their own way, upon what the SI derisively calls ‘sociological beauty’: the ‘mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement’.[6] Missing from both, tellingly given the year of composition, is a critical feminist perspective. Beauty simply is associated with a sort of implicitly timeless “femininity”, which remained, regrettably, unquestioned.

1963 is fairly late in the development of the science fiction spectacle. For instance, other authors were in advance of John Jakes speculations. Just as the Situationists noted that they did not invent the critique of this new commodified society, merely pointed out certain explosive consequences of such criticisms, so too Jakes was already working an exploited seam, a “new” fictional tradition extending back as far as Frederick Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth’s Gravy Planet/The Space Merchants (1952/53) and further. Indeed, so-called ‘sociological science fiction’ can be seen, in part, to be coterminous with the science fiction spectacle.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will offer more thoughts on the science fiction spectacle.


Note that my method of inquiry and criticism is informed by the situationist practice of détournement, as opposed to the more conventional semiotic analysis that dominates much cultural criticism. In this way I am more interested in exploiting the critical insights that often sit uncomfortably alongside confused and bigoted themes in pop culture (for instance, in the story The Sellers of Dreams, which I use, below).

Check out this post of mine for more details.


fig. 2. ‘Sociological beauty’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963

Sociological beauty

This is an identikit drawing [Fr: portraitrobot] of the “ideal woman”, published in France-soir on 31 August 1962, and based on ten details taken from ten female celebrities considered the most beautiful in the world. This synthetic star furnishes an eloquent example of what can lead to the totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment, opposed here to the dialectical play of the face. This dream face of cybernetics is modeled on modern information technologies, which are truly effective as repression, control, classification and the maintenance of order—for instance, the identikit portrait has proved itself in police research. Obviously, the aims and methods of this information technology are opposed to the existence of knowledge, poetry and our possible appropriation of the world. Sociological beauty is the equivalent of industrial sociology or the sociology of urban life—and for the same reasons: it is a mystified and mystifying elevation of the partial that hides totalities and their movement. Inserted into the society of the spectacle without even wanting to think about it, the precise scientific moralism of sociology also indicates, along with beauty, its use: This new translation of Hic Rhodus hic salta can be read: “Here is beauty, here you consume!”[7]

—Situationist International, January 1963 [8]


The Sellers of Dreams

[pdf of the story in its original published format available here]

[A] crowd of distributors hurrying into the auditorium beneath a banner reading:

WELCOME
Things To Come Incorporated
World Distributors
“Last Year’s Woman Is
This Year’s Consumer”

[…]

“Gentlemen,” Krumm said, “first the bad news.”

At the unhappy grumble he held up his hand. “Next year—I promise!—TTIC will absolutely and without qualification be ready to introduce the concept of the obsolescent male personality, exactly as we did in the female market ten years ago. I can only emphasis again the tremendous physical problems confronting us, and point to the lag in male fashion obsolescence that was not finally overcome until the late twentieth century, by the sheer weight of promotion. Men, unlike women, accept new decorative concepts slowly. TTIC has a lucrative share of the semiannual male changeover, but we are years behind the female personality market. Next year we catch up.”

“May we see what you have for the girls, old chap?” someone asked. “Then we’ll decide whether we’re happy.”

“Very well.” Krumm began to read from a promotion script: “This year we steal a leaf from yesterday’s—uh—scented album.” The lights dimmed artfully. Perfume sprayed the chamber from hidden ducts. A stereo orchestra swelled. The curtains parted. […]

A nostalgic solido view of New York when it was once populated by people flashed on the screen. Violins throbbed thrillingly.

“Remember the sweet, charming girl of yesteryear? We capture her for you—warm, uncomplicated, reveling in—uh, let’s see—sunlight and outdoor sports.”

A series of solido slides, illustrating Krumm’s points with shots of nuclear ski lifts or the Seine, merged one into another.

“Gone is the exaggerated IQ of this year, gone the modish clothing. A return to softness. A simple mind, clinging, sweet. The stuff of everyman’s dream. Gentleman, I give you—”

Hidden kettledrums swelled. The name flashed on the screen:

DREAM DESIRE.

“Dream Desire! New Woman of the 2007-08 market year!”

—John Jakes, June 1963[9]

UPDATED 22 AUGUST 2020


Footnotes

[1] Thesis 165, Inwood translation (2018).

[2] Internationale situationniste, ‘Du rôle de l’I.S.’, internationale situationniste, no. 7, April 1962.

[3] See, founding document of the International Workingmen’s Association of 1864.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859.

[5] Much as the fashion industry of the US and other Western nations at that time dreamed of a ‘peacock revolution’ for the male industry, Jakes imagines the world on the verge of another one, though this time in terms of the entire personality as commodity.

[6] Internationale situationniste, ‘Beauté de la sociologie’, internationale situationniste, no. 8, January 1963. Note that an earlier version of this translation is available here.

[7] “Hic Rhodus, hic salta!” is Marx’s détournement—i.e., plagiarism and correction—of Hegel’s “Hic Rhodus, hic saltus”. For “jump” (saltus) Marx substitutes “dance” (salta). See this.

[8] From internationale situationniste no. 8, January 1963, p. 33.

[9] From ‘The Sellers of the Dream’, Galaxy Magazine, June 1963, pp. 161, 162-63.