What is happening today in the Middle East – and the strange, deer-in-the-headlights response of Western elites – seems in many ways to be a fulfillment of the predictions of French cultural theorist and political activist Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967).
Writing during the upheavals in America and Europe in the late 1960s, DeBord proclaimed:
“In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacle. . . . The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished.”
DeBord wrote at a time when Marshall McLuhan’s infamous dictum that “the medium is the message” was becoming both hip wisdom and futurist dogma, not to mention a first article of the catechism of the new field of communication theory.
“Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart,” DeBord further argued, anticipating Baudillard’s more famous notion of the hyperreal. “The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.”
DeBord, an exceptionally creative, revisionist Marxist, who is better known for his theory of street politics adopted by the Occupy movement than his trenchant analysis of how economic production and social relations are sublated into the fluff of pure signifiers under late capitalism, differed significantly from Baudrillard, the jaded and detached revolutionary manqué.
Following the tenets of the later Frankfurt School and its realization that the mediafication of modern industrial society fostered a mass hypnosis conflating freedom with voyeuristic pleasure (what Herbert Marcuse dubbed “repressive desublimation”), Debord sought to transform its theory into radical praxis.
The critical praxis of such theory is empowered by the “revolutionary” act of transgressing and transmuting the “spectacle”, so that is no longer merely “specular” – i.e., reflective of what Lacanian psychoanalysis would regard as an impossible object of desire.
It becomes instead a “spectacular” subversion of the norms and signifying relationships of media-dominated social relations through their active inversion, a method promoted by DeBord’s own cadres of grass roots revolutionaries named the Situationist International and given the name “culture jamming” by the Bay Area underground band Negativland in the 1970s.
Culture jamming, in essence, consists in the capture of the apparatus of image-production from the society of the spectacle and turning it against itself for the sake of cognitive shock, while using it as an instrument of political provocation and the wresting of tangible forms of power.
Moreover, culture jamming only succeeds when by the very magnitude of its originality and outrage it penetrates the narcissistic casing of the self-absorbed cultural consumer and manages to mobilize their newfound passion to act in a totally committed, if not necessarily critically conscious, manner.
Culture jamming reveals the emptiness of all commodified politics and religion, even though it runs the risk at the same time of alchemizing consumerist zombies into relentless and reckless zealots.
Although one does not easily admit to it, the current masters of culture jamming happen to be ISIS, the now all-too-familiar acronym for the appallingly ascendant band of ultra-nasty and über-ruthless jihadists that in a relatively short time frame have alternately referred to themselves as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL), and most recently simply the Islamic State (IS).
Compared with al-Qaeda, which has always tended to be secretive and abstruse in its messaging, perhaps in order to communicate to operatives while confounding intelligence specialists, ISIS has leveraged the global reach of social media to make its profile and presence stunningly inescapable.
And it has done so in a truly grisly and unspeakable manner. Videos broadcast on Twitter, the social media of choice for ISIS, have shown victims crucified and beheaded, mass executions of both soldiers and civilians forced to lie down in pits before they are mowed down by machine gun fire, and even severed heads in steaming pots.
Even the Nazis at the height of their genocidal mania or the Cambodian Khmer Rouge in the 1970s were not capable of such atrocities. Or, even if they were capable, these murderous maniacs of yesteryear preferred not to record their brutality for an incredulous global audience, as if there were little qualitative difference between scenes of wholesale torture and beheadings and posting pictures of your grandchildren with Mickey Mouse and Goofy at Disney World.
Individual jihadis have even gone so far as to intersperse their own smart phone versions of gore and mayhem with selfies glorifying half-naked, militant, muscular manhood, as though they were creating a new kind of reality show for international viewers, a monstrous hybrid perhaps of “American Horror Story” and “The Bachelor.”
One can of course denounce these unprecedented and seemingly insouciant horrors as crimes against humanity and as perhaps the Muslim version of an “abomination of desolation,” or simply as the darkest draught of digital narcissism the world has ever imbibed. But that is exactly the point ISIS is trying to make.
Al Qaeda, from which ISIS split, was in its own weird way a totally ingrown Islamist enterprise. Its focus was on fostering its own tight-knit “family business” that only went public at certain strategic times to rattle the West, while flouting the jihadist orthodoxy in place since the days of its founder Sayyid Qutb that Islamic fighters should concentrate on attacking the “near enemy” that was local secular regimes rather than the “far enemy,’ American financial and military might.
If one reads the writings of Osama bin Laden, readily available in English, one gets the strong impression that he was less interested in subverting the West than in scaring it off from its investments and military involvement in the Middle East.
The toppling of the twin towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 was most likely meant to cow the United States with the twin strategic aim of waking Americans out of their globalist neo-liberal slumber and disabusing them of the illusion that secular democracy was on the march everywhere and invincibly since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Of course, it had the opposite effect, something for which Bin Laden was routinely denounced by other jihadists.
Although bin Laden called himself the “caliph,” the idea of re-inventing an actual territorial caliphate, as ISIS as done, did not seem to be a major priority. ISIS, on the other hand, by grabbing significant amount of territory that transcends national boundaries and proclaiming a visible caliphate has actually done something which few secular academic analysts of Islam recognize it for what it is.
The swift seizure of sufficient open land, cities, and town to make the notion of an actual transnational Islamic state plausible constitutes a symbolic coup with the very real potential to mobilize the global, eschatological aspirations of deracinated Muslims – especially young Muslims – around the world. Moral distinctions and niceties become irrelevant when what has always been most sacred to devout Muslims suddenly “reappears” in history.
The return of the caliphate, abolished by the defeated Turks in 1924, inspires much the same fervor for devout Muslims as the formation of the state of Israel did for Jews, not to mention Christian Zionists, in 1948.
Thus the present and future power of ISIS resides exactly in what DeBord foresaw as the solution for what he envisioned as a new Marxist internationale in the 1960s – the creation of a mobilizing spectacle for current revolutionaries by turning the previously inert, lifeless, and purely “specular” ideology behind the popular consumption of religious and political images upside down and forcing it to come to life by streaming its master signifiers in a dramatic, if not repugnant way, to a beguiled and bewitched planetary populace.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, is to the Al-Qaida organization what DeBord in his time was to the French Communist party. The leadership role of the Situationist International in manipulating and staging the now epic l’eventment (“the event”) of May 1968, when France was suddenly and unexpected turned upside down and seemed with its unexpected alliance of students and workers on the verge of its third, real revolution can be compared to what ISIS has done in recent weeks.
The difference is that in the end the events of May ’68 remained only a “spectacle.” Although it shook all of Europe and to a certain extent America, everything reverted immediately to the status quo. That is not likely to happen in Iraq.
The similarities between the new ISIS’ strategic thrust and situationism can be found in a significant document virtually unknown in the West and authored in the middle of the last decade by the new jihadists’ own “Debord”, a Saudi named Abu Bakr Naji.
Entitled The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, the monograph has been compared to popular Western texts in management philosophy and organizational theory. According to various sources in the intelligence community, it is most likely the most important book next to the Qur’an for ISIS’ generals.
But The Management of Savagery is not merely about how to make jihad more effective and efficient through a ruthlessness for which we have already seen profound evidence on the battlefields. It is also about what may be called a communications theory of global religious revolution.
One of the main theses of the work is that military power of the West and the “subservience” of Islamic believers to the ideals of secular democracy and nationalism is maintained through what it calls an illusory “media halo” that must be countered.
Abu Bakr Naji writes: “the first goal” of global jihad should be to “destroy a large part of the respect for America and spread confidence in the souls of Muslims by means of “reveal[ing] the deceptive media to be a power without force.”
The key is to turn the power of media (the “spectacle”) into a visible and victorious “revolutionary” force, although in the case of jihadism, as opposed to Marxist situationsim, it is not the force of history but the force of God.
The goal is to make this force visible in a manner that does not matter so much from a long-range, strategic military vantage point as from an immediate, highly motivating theatrical and convincing act of supreme symbolic value.
One could argue, though at this point it is merely conjecture, that ISIS’s seemingly mindless cruelty has been calculated to terrorize its armed adversaries (as it certainly did with Maliki’s troops) as well as its supporting populations into a quick victory with minimal resistance. Certainly that was the tactic of the Mongols when they swept across the Muslim world in what is remembered as the great “catastrophe” of the thirteenth century.
Unless America’s laser-guided bombs can eviscerate ISIS, which is most unlikely, what is now called the jihadist “terrorist army” is likely in the not-so-remote future to bring a similar “spectacle” to a theater near you. Indeed, the group’s own spokespersons are now promising precisely that.
DeBord’s Marxist situationism was aimed at creating a “humane” world revolution that would mobilize anew the “life instinct” of the masses toward flourishing in the form of what the young Marx in his Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts had termed their long-alienated (through expropriated labor) “species being.”
ISIS’s jihadism has sought to mobilize the death instinct in doing what it takes to conjure up a grisly spectacle before the eyes of the world of absolute and unassailable power under the name of “Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful” that is ironically manifested in the devastation of human existence, or what Giorgio Agamben has termed “bare life.”
Behind the Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr “new world order”, which most of us experience today as a byte-sized candy factory for self-proclamation and as instant messaging nirvana, lurks the shadow of a strange new “rough beast,” a slowly metastasizing “spectacular” politics that is distinctively religious in nature, and is “slouching”, as William Butler Yeats might say, toward both Jerusalem and Mecca.
DeBord was right. We are denizens of the (global) society of the spectacle, and it is becoming a grisly spectacle. As we come to realize that behind the spectacle lies what Morpheus in the movie The Matrix termed “the desert of the real,” the question presses upon us. Which desert do we choose to fight in?