The modern psyche has been invaded. This is something we all know to some degree because it is our psyches which have been invaded. They have been invaded by electronic images. Images that coerce and compel, that titillate and distract, images that in many cases we have sought out ourselves. Few people today, especially young people, are willing to critique electronic images, but I think that the reasons for doing so, are clear enough if they are presented adequately. More importantly the reasons for abstaining from electronic distraction should become clear with some reflection on the topic.
My personal interest in this topic stems from a time when I was studying Buddhist philosophy and the practice of meditation. If any of you have read much Buddhist philosophy, whether it is the ancient sutras, or the newest book down in Boulder you will already understand where I am going with this. In all of these writings, there is a spiritual, or some would say a mental ideal that the meditator is aiming for. We may suffice it to say here that this ideal is one of a quiescent, luminous, and tamed mind. The Buddha statue is unmovable, just as we aim to be, and without moral impurities, as we may also aim to be. The eightfold path of right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation, is as you can imagine at odds with modern electronic media representations. In fact it is probably easier for us to understand what the eightfold path is by imagining all that electronic society is not.
Don’t mistake me. I am not a Buddhist, but I have at times been carried away by the philosophy and practice of Buddhism. This I can tell you for sure: if you wish to attain the mind of meditation and you participate in the spectacle, you are kidding yourself. They are mutually contradictory. The spectacle conditions the mind so that you are perpetually stuck on the surface of things. As you well know, Buddhist philosophy is quite practical and aims at describing the ways in which our minds and egos are convoluted, selfish, and impure, in order to change them. The spectacle is so distracting that it makes these deeper pursuits impossible; and if one pursues the Buddhist texts further they will find even deeper pursuits such as lucid dreaming, that require an established mental stability.
Let’s say a few words about what the term ‘spectacle’ means. The term spectacle is singular yet it may refer to all electronic, print, and performances that go on in modern societies –or at least the vast majority of them. For this very fact it is a concept that aims to unify these disparate phenomena and to understand them as a totality. We may say that the various spectacles, even though they seem to be of different origins and have different content, are actually unified as an ideological representation. This representation has several features: it has a manifest content, a latent content, and a form.
We may say that the manifest content of a newscast or television program is the storyline, or the most readily apparent happenings. This content may be judged in isolation, and even in isolation we will find the content of the spectacle incredibly lacking in depth, and aesthetic considerations, -in short we will find the content of the spectacle to be just plain garbage. The manifest content does not operate in isolation however, but is usually meant as a means to convey a latent or hidden content. Sometimes this ‘hidden’ content is not so much hidden as obscured, or moved to the back ground, but other times what is hidden is truly menacing. This is a process that is not as esoteric as it sounds, we all know that the youthful teens in coca cola commercials are not meant to teach us about youth or the story of their personal lives, but to get us to buy the product. We also know that the hot chicks in the shampoo commercials, make-up ads, deodorant skits, are there to communicate to us unconsciously that if we are to buy the product then we will possess them, or become them in some manner. It goes on and on, ad infinitum. This seems simple enough, and most adults know better than to take these things at face value, at least most of the time, but so far we have merely scratched the surface.
It still boggles my mind that people think the newscasts are any different than soda pop commercials. And yes, I am including NPR in this net of mine, but let’s pick a piece of fruit hanging from a lower branch first… when we watch Fox News, that satanic trumpet of electro-fascism, we will witness the soda-pop logic of American politics most clearly at work. Hot news cast babes, and graying fatherly figures are offering us the magical aura of political knowledge, and all we must do is internalize their demagogic debate tactics and bring them into the real world. They also try desperately to get us to magically identify our interests with the interests of the rich and elite, and to convince us that this or that suit with a Swiss bank account is one of us. I could go on… but shouldn’t it cause the gravest of suspicion for us that history rarely makes its appearance in these representations? and that in a baseball or football pregame show more statistics and factual information is presented than in these corporate newscasts?
We are too new in this world mediated by electronic images. We have not lived long enough to learn the commonsense lessons that the new medium requires. We are too prone to debasement, too prone to economic and political exploitation, and we too easily abandon ourselves to the succession of images. There have been previous times of such naiveté, times when not only did the new medium mediate the unconscious forces of the individual, but when the medium carried messages from a far greater and more menacing unconscious. These were times when latent social forces found their voice and found a people ready to listen. The rampant and vituperative pamphleteering during and preceding the wars of religion, the newspapers during the formation of nationalisms in Europe, the use of radio in interwar Germany, the television during the cold war, and the labyrinth of the internet.
To come back from the edge of an eternal rant… lets pick up on where we left off and tie the spectacle back more securely to lucid dreaming and meditation. The spectacle also possesses a form. In what has been said so far we have two levels, one of manifest content and one of latent content. One is the obvious communication and one the secret communication. When someone internalizes the message of the spectacle and cannot bridge this gap this gap between contents is the gap of false consciousness. When one has false consciousness one does not understand the contents of their own mind. However, when one puts an evil eye to the spectacle then this gap will appear as obfuscation. Beyond this level of form there is a deeper one. The spectacle conditions our experience as we consume it. This means that by consuming the spectacle the very structure of our minds are altered, which in turn means that when we endeavor to interpret the world the world itself is filtered through this altered mind. This may occur at many different levels. At the level of ideology we will identify Mexicans or other designated outsiders as beings which contaminate the body politic, when in reality it is oftentimes the case that such groups are really what make cheap commodities possible, and enrich the body politic. We may identify one party or another, and yes here I am damning republicans and democrats, as being entities that represent our interests when in fact they are the organized apologists of capital. But beyond this we will experience space and time differently. We may see ourselves as being in a sort of personal movie, we may walk around with our own personal soundtrack in our heads, or be lost in fantasies where are the hero, and we are winning, losing, etc. More importantly the pacing of the images of the spectacle becomes the pacing of our minds, and when we aren’t directly reliving its content, the happenings of our lives appear according to its tempo.
If all of this seems too extreme, then let me ask you this: what is more extreme than murder? Perhaps organized mass murder… this is what war is my friends, even if it is televised and has ample commentators and close ups of explosions. We have seen the products of war in our lifetimes, albeit mediated by a dizzying array of contorted images… war destroys people, communities, and ways of life. It is above all and most simply the industrial slaughter of strangers. Those talking heads on the spectacle box should not get a free pass. They agitate, convince, attempt to justify mass violence. The producers make millions off of creating news-entertainment-products. This is the last proof that the world of the spectacle is morally upside down. The most contemptible are elevated.
The modern psyche has been invaded. Can it be saved?
As much as I wish that this was the spearhead of a Communist-Buddhist mass movement, one in which meditation was only interrupted by the popcorn reading of history, critical theory, and collective labor, I must have my reservations.
How can the modern psyche be saved? The spectacle is totally hegemonic in our society, it is so pervasive that it has become the air we breathe, the ground we walk upon, and the adornments of our souls. We are riding the crest of the collision of natural history and human history. Every species, every people, every region of this earth has been taken up into this movement. And what is this movement? It is many things, and to comprehend it adequately would be to comprehend the course of civilization. Nevertheless, we may say that capitalism, and our current economic system cannot be separated from the origins of the world system over 500 years ago. It cannot be separated from the global capitalist mode of production that began to emerge out of the mercantile centralization of global trade. Our economic system cannot be separated from the mines in San Luis Potosi, from Incan Gold, from the potato and maize, from the clear cutting of the North East, or the furs of the North. The capital that began the movement of globalization was gained by the sweat of captured slaves, indentured servants, Indians on the encomiendas, and the serfs of old Europe. Today, at the far flung corners of the earth, the last regions that have not seen the resource extraction of capitalism are being weighed in the Faustian bargain of modernity. The populations that still possess some semblance of local autonomy or feudal protection are being expropriated and dislocated to produce commodities for a global market. Innumerable peoples, trade networks, and Edens have been annihilated in this five century experiment. And to what end? For whom was this great gamble made? Have any of us contemplated the stakes of such a mode of production?
The spectacle does not contemplate this mode; it is a paltry layer of apologetics upon a mountain of wreckage and human misery. Can the psyche be saved? What is certain is that the spectacle must be dispelled. Then we must ask: will the modern psyche wilt in the face of the nightmare of history? Can modern peoples reorganize themselves for a new mode of production before catastrophe strikes?
Can the modern psyche be saved?
The struggle over the modern spirit is the struggle over the future course of natural history and human history. All social projects of edification are now caught up in this movement: the project of the enlightenment, the project of international socialism, and finally the project of environmentalism. All the highest hopes now stand or fall with the modern spirit: The hope for a better society and enlightenment through reason, the hope that working peoples across the world need not kill each other for the economic interests of their masters, the hope that nature survives the coming decades…
Can the psyche be saved? Can we wake up to the nightmare of history?
-We must rise to the occasion or we will be nothing at all, the pieces will fall through our fingers and the future will mean a new barbarism, a new resource colonialism, a new electro-fascism, and the final eclipse of nature.