Abstract and Keywords
The introduction lays the philosophical foundations for the study by discussing Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” and relevant critiques. To reconstruct this theoretical approach, the Introduction also incorporates one of the first theorists of the spectacle – Walter Benjamin – and other more contemporary theorists that are essential for understanding the spectacle of consumption today, namely Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Justification for “an embodied assemblage” approach is provided, as a way to transcend previous shortcomings of theories of the spectacle. This overview is critical for understanding Trump and Trumpism today.
In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.
It is true that war kills, and hideously mutilates. But it is especially true after the State has appropriated the war machine. Above all, the State apparatus makes the mutilation, and even death, come first. It needs them preaccomplished, for the people to be born that way, crippled and zombielike.
(Deleuze and Guattari, 2013, p 495)
This book examines an element of Trumpism that has received little attention to date: the link between consumer culture and politics. What is this alleged link? Everything involved in the emergence of ‘post-truth’ society. While these linkages have been stewing intensely for several decades, the intrusion of Donald Trump’s post-truth spectacle into the formal political sphere at the highest level has caused massive disruption, fear and resistance. No theory is required to recognize the flourishing of this post-truth politics: headline news and tweets from President Trump will suffice. While previous politicians have used similar techniques in communication and performance to gain power, and while he is not the first (p.2) celebrity candidate, Trump’s presidency has taken post-truth into new territory, notable for its articulation with the far right. The alarms have sounded, and we scramble to respond and, for some more than others, to survive.
Where did post-truth society and its politics come from? Although theory is not required to recognize such trends, it can help understand them. Too many (myself included) were stunned by Trump’s victory in the US Electoral College in November 2016. With hindsight it is perhaps easy to ponder how progressives, and especially radicals, should have anticipated his candidacy and done more to ward off such a dangerous confluence of forces. Yes, we should have taken the politics of spectacle more seriously – the brazen outlandishness, the media- and attention-grabbing performances, the horrifying content, the conspiracy theories and lies, all of which culminated in the perceived unlikelihood of an electoral victory. In an era in which the president labels evidence-based journalism that he does not like as ‘fake news’, Guy Debord’s words (1995) resonate even more strongly: ‘In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood’ (p 14, thesis 9, emphasis in original).
This statement may seem exaggerated or overinflated, but it is not part of some clever thought experiment designed to confuse the reader. Instead, it is substantiated in a full-blown criticism of capitalism and capitalist society. For Debord and the Situationists (1957–73), there would be a logical explanation for a Donald Trump presidency (see Zaretsky, 2017), namely, that capitalism has always relied on post-truth reality and its head-spinning coordinates. Debord’s main problem is not just that we are surrounded by commodity spectacles of various kinds – films, TV, advertisements, a certain kind of city and so on – but that these had acquired new status in society at large, thereby causing a shift in the constitution of reality itself, a shift that naturalizes capitalist relations of power. It is the society part of the ‘society of the spectacle’ that matters most (Briziarelli and Armano, 2017; Rosati, 2017). As this (p.3) was gaining momentum in the post-Second World War era, the Situationists, perhaps counter-intuitively, lamented the destructive effect it was having: the erosion not only of non-capitalist spaces and possibilities, but of truth itself. Decades later, the politics of spectacle continues to dazzle, horrify and destabilize as much as to solidify and control the population in new ways.
Spectacle and Trumpism highlights how consumer culture paved the way for a political figure like Donald Trump. While Donald Trump is inseparable from the existence of a mass consumer culture under capitalism, few have elaborated on that aspect of his identity and rise to power. This is understandable, considering that Trumpism is driven by blatant white supremacism, nativism, sexism, xenophobia, misogyny and other authoritarian tendencies that require urgent attention, analysis and denunciation. Additionally, this book acknowledges a dispersed infrastructure of capitalist consumer culture – what Debord and others called the ‘society of the spectacle’ – which plays an important role in creating the conditions for the possibility of someone like Trump. In this way, Trumpism represents the horrifying potential of capitalist techniques of communication to fuse with and enable the far right. With Trumpism, the far right draws power from this key invention of capitalism itself. Fortunately for us, there is another modern theorist of spectacle who witnessed something similar take place before Debord’s time. Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was one of the first theorists of spectacle. Importantly for this project, he tracked a mysterious connection between consumer culture and the flourishing of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. As we shall see, Benjamin’s unusual style of thought is appropriate for the kind of contemporary approach sought here. Along with Benjamin and other more contemporary theorists, this book puts forward a new approach to thinking about spectacle that is important for understanding Trump and Trumpism, but also for how we understand consumption and consumerism more broadly. First, though, let us begin with (p.4) Debord’s (1995) influential statement and its philosophical origins before turning to the critiques and the requirements for reconstructing the concept of spectacle for today’s world.
What is spectacle?
Although the word ‘spectacle’ has become familiar in colloquial language and in some areas of academic thought, this book pursues the more specific meaning given to the term by Debord (1995) and others who were interested in the power of commodities in social and cultural life. There are two pithy and important definitions provided by Debord (1995) that deserve attention. First, ‘The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ (p 12, thesis 4). Second, ‘The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image’ (p 24, thesis 34, emphasis in original). Like much of the book, these lines are provocative and defy easy explanation. However, in both we find the power of an image to hold together, or to crystallize, a set of social relations that are based on violence and exploitation. This powerful image is an advanced version of Karl Marx’s commodity, the figure that receives so much attention in the opening pages of the first volume of Capital. The commodity form conceals its geographical and socio-political origins and does so by replacing them with (1) a price tag (exchange value), and (2) more or less fictional accounts of what the commodity is and what it can do for you. Commodity fetishism happens when we believe these stories and allow them to shape our worlds, and ourselves, in intimate ways. The flow of commodities and capital relies on this existential operation. Spectacle, therefore, names an advanced socio-technical apparatus that makes this ever more present in our everyday lives, resulting in a kind of existential dispossession (Retort et al., 2005; Wark, 2013; Barile, 2017). One of Debord’s contributions was towards the spatialization of the spectacle in everyday life, insofar as we participate in (p.5) any number of consumer practices that link us with each other in perverse ways (atomization, namely) and with precarious labour worldwide; today we hasten to add the ongoing environmental catastrophes that result from mass industrialism and its consumer society, always eager to expand in new and contradictory ways around the globe.
Commodity fetishism obliterates the truth from consumer consciousness and replaces it with something else entirely, an alternative image of a commodity without context – a commodity without culpability. An innocent commodity, an innocent self. Herein lies the crucial link to post-truth society. While capitalism might have been focused on the labour process to begin with, its complexity and expansionism have caused it to focus increasingly on life outside the factory. As many 20th-century Marxists have observed, leisure time outside of work had also become the target of capitalist enterprise, insofar as firms were increasingly preoccupied with brand recognition, marketing and consumer science research, to ensure the production of a subject to purchase the goods coming out of the factories. Andy Merrifield (2002) points to a key moment in capitalism when, not satisfied only with extracting surplus value from the labour process itself, it began to survey the landscape for these opportunities. The young Marx, he points out, still saw a division between work and home, home being where the worker could still ‘feel himself’ (Merrifield, 2002, p 104). In Debord’s time, things were different:
Debord now adds that workers are no longer at home even when they’re not working; they’re no longer themselves at home, given that work and home, production and reproduction – the totality of daily life – has been subsumed, colonized, invaded, by the exchange value. ‘The spectacle,’ he notes, ‘is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life’ (Thesis 42).
(Merrifield, 2002, p 104)
(p.6) In this onslaught, the commodity form becomes ever more pervasive in society and comes to mediate everyday life and social relations. Eventually the power of things shifts from the things themselves to the ‘signs’ of things that circulate around them. This increasing power ‘representation’ is an important aspect of the spectacle that is often misinterpreted as a kind of one-dimensional hypnosis that washes over passive observers (Goss, 2004, 2006). What thinkers like Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007) would do with these insights was not insist that consumers were ‘duped’ in some way, but that life was now fully lived through commodities and simulated realities, through which we imagine ourselves in new ways. Our own becoming is now guided by film, television and other agents of the spectacle. Although Debord (1995) clearly resents the spectacle for what it takes away and for what it denies, this alternative interpretation opens the horizon towards potentially exhilarating and even dangerous dimensions of life. The spectacle does not negate life but redefines it as an ongoing (re)production that now includes embodied experiences of simulacra (Grace, 2000; Miller and Del Casino Jr., 2018). Reality is not obliterated but becomes what Baudrillard (1994) called “hyperreality” (p 1): a real, everyday, lived and embodied experience (see Plant, 1992, for more on the differences between Debord and Baudrillard).
While some progressives and radicals have found critical inspiration in this way of thinking and have indeed proposed a less monolithic and totalizing version of capitalism and the capitalist state, conservatives have also aggressively pursued spectacle for their own ends. In recent decades, some scholars have suggested that the political right has become better at deploying spectacle for political ends (Massumi, 2002; Stiegler, 2016; Connolly, 2017). By the mid-1980s, near the end of his life, Debord provided an update of how the society of the spectacle had been further entrenched (Debord, 1990). Some of the revolutionary energy of the 1960s was eventually recaptured by the corporate apparatus. The spectacle, it seems, is capable (p.7) of anticipating and re-routing subversive energies back into the capitalist machine (Frank, 1997; Taplin, 2017). Consumer culture itself took on many new forms amid the fragmenting logics of post-Fordist and post-industrial capitalism through the 1980s (Harvey, 1989; Zukin, 1993). In this transformation, political culture began increasingly to resemble the familiar forms of entertainment in popular consumer culture, a transformation with far reaching consequences (Gabler, 1998; Symons, 2019; Wright, 2019) – namely the rise of Trumpism in the United States, but also Brexit in the United Kingdom and other troubling events worldwide (Davis, 2018; Brabazon et al., 2019).
One of the few scholars to elaborate on the connections between consumer culture, spectacle and Trumpism is Douglas Kellner. For Kellner, the concept of ‘media spectacle’ encompasses basically any particular media story or event that becomes a sudden sensation and grips the attention of large masses of people at the same time. Kellner’s Media Spectacle (2000) explores the complex politics of meaning and representation found in the major cultural events of the 1990s, including the O. J. Simpson murder trial, Michael Jordan and Nike, McDonald’s fast food around the world and the television show The X-Files. A final chapter also provides a historical trajectory of political spectacle beginning with the John F. Kennedy presidency (1961–3) and ending with George W. Bush (2000). More recently, Kellner (2016) sees the logics of spectacle clearly operating in the rise of Trumpism:
Now in the 2016 election, obviously Donald Trump has emerged as a major form of media spectacle and has long been a celebrity and master of the spectacle with promotion of his buildings and casinos from the 1980s to the present, his reality-TV shows, self-aggrandizing events, and now his presidential campaign. Hence, Trump is empowered and enabled to run for the presidency in part because media spectacle has become a major (p.8) force in U.S. politics, helping to determine elections, government, and, more broadly, the ethos and nature of our culture and political sphere, and Trump is a successful creator and manipulator of the spectacle.
We now find ourselves living in a new kind of hyperreal state, one that is itself coming undone under the weight of the advancing disarray of the spectacle, or what Wark (2013) calls the ‘disintegrating spectacle’. With Trumpism, this is a state advancing white supremacy in predictable ways (Gökarıksel and Smith, 2016; Pulido et al., 2019), but also a state igniting its own dissolution as Trump regularly attacks the institutions of democratic governance. The abrupt intrusion of spectacle into the highest political office in the United States is also highly disruptive of the state itself in some ways. As such, understanding it requires theoretical materials beyond those articulated by Debord and others, who have updated the many ways in which states use spectacle to gain and hold power today (Koch, 2018, among others). In other words, theories of how the state uses spectacle as a ‘political technology’ (Koch, 2018) can take us only so far in understanding what is happening with the rise of Trumpism and its complex links to consumer culture. To follow through with Kellner’s (2016) observation that Trump rose to power on and through the rising power of the spectacle in cultural life, we need to borrow from a wider array of philosophical and theoretical resources that include but also go beyond Debord and his interlocutors.
Reconstructing the spectacle
While Debord’s (1995) theory includes the coordinates of post-truth politics, it is also clearly outdated. In recent decades much scholarship on consumer culture has moved away from (p.9) theories of commodity fetishism and its overly structuralist and deterministic overtones. As an arena of life with which everyone engages in some way, the everyday geographies and sociologies of consumption include much more attention to the politics of identity and difference more broadly (Mansvelt, 2005; Stillerman, 2015) and are not restricted to what at times seem like the class-based analytics of Debord. For every mega-mall that substantiates the theory of the spectacle (see Goss, 1993, among others), there are countless ‘tales of the unexpected’ at the car-boot sale (Crewe and Gregson, 1998; also see Gregson and Crewe, 1997), for example, or any other alternative space of consumption that does not easily fit into the conceptual ontology of spectacle. Moreover, Nicki Gregson (1995) warned that an excessive focus on hyperreal spectacle risks reinscribing the ‘masculine gaze’ (p 137), albeit in the language of neo-Marxism. More recently, Mott and Roberts (2014) provide a similar critique of ‘urban exploration’ research, another conceptual area linked to Debord and the Situationists. Feminist geographies of consumption and the city look very different from the grim view of Debord, as many scholars have explored how gender shapes and is shaped by consumption (de Grazia and Furlough, 1996; Roberts, 1998) and the sexual and gendered dynamics of social reproduction as a consumption-related process (Gibson-Graham, 1996; Marston, 2000; Domosh and Seager, 2001; Rose et al., 2010).
Even inside the highly manipulative spaces of the shopping centre, cultural studies scholars like Meaghan Morris (1993) insist that life is not as predictable or dreadful as theories of the spectacle might suggest. A greater sense of agency and spontaneity is required to understand these spaces and the potential for people to actively make meaning with them (see also Fiske, 2010). In these studies ‘consumers’ appear much more independent, creative and even autonomous or ‘sovereign’ in the ways they appropriate the materials of spectacle and convert them into unique ‘practices’ (often following Michel de Certeau). Compared to these approaches the spectacle appears (p.10) as only one possible way of interpreting the diverse landscapes of consumption. An ‘empirical turn’ (Goss, 2004, p 372) had emerged by the end of the 1990s which explored the complex lives of consumers (also see Jackson and Thrift, 1995), often with the implication that these practices supersede, or at least complicate, any instrumental logic that might be found lurking in the architecture, design and management of a consumer-oriented post-industrial landscape (such as commodity fetishism). Geographies of consumption today are about so much more than just exchange. As Juliana Mansvelt (2005) puts it, they ‘encompass a wide diversity of subjects: leisure, tourism, work, shopping, information technology, retailing, advertising; urban, rural, industrial and agricultural geographies; and studies of gender, ageing, ethnicity and sexuality’ (p 11).
Might the logics of spectacle intersect with all of these? Perhaps. When scholars moved past the spectacle as a theoretical device, though, they seem to have left it behind almost entirely (see Goss, 2004, pp 376–7), with some exceptions. To me, it is surprising how few have explored a more nuanced and complex version of how spectacle overlaps with these other geographies of difference and socio-technical entanglement. What worries me most is that today we are faced with a reality-TV president who excels in the deployment of spectacle, who propagates so many outrageous propositions with dangerous consequences. The spectacle, it seems, has snuck up on us. Our response should not be to rush back and blindly embrace Debord and others. Rather, we should stage this re-engagement with and through the more pluralist agenda set out by critical approaches to human geography and other fields, especially those that are explicitly anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist and radical in a more general orientation (Hughes, 2020; Kinkaid, 2020; Cockayne et al., 2020).
The challenge of understanding Trumpism, in fact, relies on this operation. How do the logics of spectacle correspond to and resonate with geographies of difference and power, including white supremacy, patriarchy and other authoritarian tendencies? Spectacle and Trumpism works towards an answer (p.11) by engaging with recent scholarship that has made some progress in updating theories of the spectacle. The spectacle continues to lurk in spaces of consumption, from urban festivals (Gotham, 2005) and architecture (Dyckhoff, 2017) to infrastructures of retail (Lee, 2015) and tourism (McIntyre, 2012). These contributions add insight into the ability of spectacle to shape a multitude of spaces (also see Clarke, 2003). When so-called market forces are free to survey and prowl the globe, the materials of spectacle can show up almost anywhere. Interestingly, others in addition to Kellner (2016, 2019) have elaborated on the (geo)politics of spectacle in recent years. Retort et al. (2005) look to Debord (1995) in delineating the linkages between spectacle and the never-ending US-led ‘War on Terror’ in the post-9/11 era. The power of images in the global politics of the spectacle now intertwines with the racialization of Western empire, which shapes global flows of weapons, oil, information and media, along with other material relations of desire and sexuality (see Puar, 2007).
More recently, in The Geopolitics of Spectacle (2018) the political geographer Natalie Koch argues for the continued importance of spectacle for understanding the politics of urban development today. Rather than speculate on what the spectacle is necessarily, Koch (2018) puts forward ‘a decidedly geographic approach’ (p 3) that considers how specific urban spectacles emerge from and reshape particular geographies of connection, power and socio-spatial inequality. Much in line with the empirical turn, Koch’s approach produces rich insights into the diverse uses and manifestations of spectacular urban spaces and imaginaries. An engagement with the theories of Michel Foucault leads to two insights that are important for conceptualizing spectacle today. One is that the spectacle often works through ‘seductive’ and ‘productive’ registers of experience, including ‘pleasure, aspiration, and ideals’ (pp 40–1; also see Allen, 2006; Bassetti et al., 2017; Briziarelli and Armano, 2017). There is no grim existential outcome that results from commodity fetishism as in Debord’s original (p.12) statement, for instance. Second, the spectacle produces effects far beyond its own materiality (Koch, 2018, p 43). This is an important way to formulate spectacle as a ‘political technology’ that allows us to consider all kinds of political relationships across space and territory, including with ‘unspectacular “Others”’ (Koch, 2018, pp 13, 4). For Koch, the spectacle appears as much more unpredictable and diversely populated than some of the previous interpretations.
Building on this work, spectacle can be still further reconstructed. Rather than focus on how Trump uses technologies of spectacle for political purposes, Spectacle and Trumpism attempts to map the embodied connections between consumer culture and the arrival of post-truth politics. How the state uses spectacle is only one aspect of the problem. Additionally, I am interested in what contemporary spectacle is and how it changes the way that politics operate. While Koch (2018) articulates an elegant geopolitics of spectacular urbanism, the spectacle itself is left unexamined, as it is admitted that the approach is ‘less concerned with the internal logic of spectacle and more with the geopolitics of how it has been adopted in certain parts of the world and with what effects’ (pp 12–13; also see p 151). While this is a fine methodological decision and appropriate for the field study sites chosen by Koch (illiberal, resource-rich regimes in Asia and the Arabian Peninsula), the rise of Trumpism calls for a different approach that reconsiders the spectacle itself and how its connections to politics reshape how the latter function. To grasp this, and indeed to follow Koch (2018) in some ways, we need to borrow from other more contemporary theories to reimagine the spectacle, not as a monolithic whole but as a socio-technical machine whose influence is never guaranteed but is always threaded through the embodied and material dimensions of life. As an embodied assemblage, the spectacle itself can be thought anew and, hopefully, with new scope and potential to articulate with other kinds of alternative and radical politics.
The spectacle is the key form of social control in present circumstances, but also a source of ongoing instability.
(Retort et al., 2005, p 188)
Theories about consumption and society have also changed a lot since Debord’s time. In short, landscapes of spectacle today include much more than images and their dense politics of representation. Those same critical concerns are now threaded through a different kind of world, one that includes expansive and all-encompassing built environments with ‘smart’ urban infrastructures; affective architectures and the materiality and atmospherics of design; the somatic impact of hand-held electronics and the linkages between hardware, software and brain chemicals like dopamine; phantom sensations that we often don’t pay much attention to (affects) and fleeting emotions. Social theory today is less about the persistence of ideological hegemony and more about these embodied worlds, more-than-human connections and the affective and emotional dimensions of communication, discourse, ideology and everyday life. In short, diverse theories of ‘assemblages’ have pushed thinking past the over-reliance on representation since the ‘cultural turn’ and into new territories for thinking about how power operates today. The collaboration of Gilles Deleuze (1925–95) and Félix Guattari (1930–92) provides a cornerstone for this school of thought. They are appropriate guides for reconstructing the spectacle for a particular reason. In their eclectic body of work they provide a sophisticated theory of power that includes capitalist commercialization, an empirical and historical reality referenced specifically throughout their collaborative work, as well as in Guattari’s other work on ‘integrated world capitalism’ (2009, part V; Guattari, 1995, part 1, and Guattari, 2008; also see Saldanha, 2017, pp 70–82). Their thinking has also been productive for some queer and feminist theories of embodiment (p.14) (Puar, 2007; Colls, 2012) and other critical approaches to the politics of bodies, race and identity (Saldanha, 2007, 2010; Saldanha and Adams, 2012), thereby expanding the purview of their assemblage theory even further. Today, power flows through bodies, their environments and the intense embodied psychological spaces that emerge between them in formations of subjectivity. Assemblage theories point to these more-than-human coordinates of human life, as well as how affective phenomenon also shape political subjectivity today.
Conceptualizing the spectacle as an embodied assemblage, then, is one way of reconstructing the spectacle for today’s post-truth scenario. As an ‘assemblage’, its effectiveness is never guaranteed and it must always operate through a set of more-than-human connections, including technology and the physical, built environment, as well as any other element of the consumer infrastructure. As ‘embodied’, the spectacle aims at stimulating our emotional and affective experiences, in which ‘affect’ refers to bodily sensations (ones we contain but don’t always consciously acknowledge) and ‘emotion’ to the complex ways in which humans feel about the world (see Pile, 2010). As an embodied assemblage, the spectacle ceases to be a meta-concept that explains something and instead becomes the object of investigation itself that must be explained (see Latour, 2005; also see quotation of Gabriel Tarde in Deleuze and Guattari, 2013, p 255). Rather than asking about how the spectacle can be appropriated in many ways, this project re-examines what spectacle is and what it does in terms of impacting other areas of life, such as politics. There is no hypostasis here (Bauman, 1989), only action, dynamism, struggle and new frontiers constantly overturning and beginning anew, in a constant process of flows, blockages and complex interlinkages that include power relations of many kinds (Degen et al., 2010 and Woodward et al., 2012, among others).
Importantly, there is also a different kind of materiality to the spectacle that becomes possible with this approach. By re-examining spectacle in this way, we can better account (p.15) for the politics of affect and emotion, insofar as sensation and desire gain importance in a different way. These aspects of the spectacle have yet to be fully incorporated into our understanding of its geopolitical potential. As capitalism evolved through the 1970s and 1980s, Deleuze and Guattari (2013) were thinking of a similar, but at the same time very different, kind of political space as the one described by Debord and the Situationists (see Pyyry, 2019). While they report on an expanding capitalism and related state apparatuses, there is nothing of the deterministic universalism and sense of pessimism than some find in Debord (1990, 1995). Instead, the world sparkles in all its unpredictable constellations. Sometimes, and importantly for Spectacle and Trumpism, this sparkle is itself enrolled into new relations and modes of power. Following Culp (2016), there is a darker side to their theory that is important for understanding contemporary spectacle, one that goes beyond the common celebratory tone often found in literature on their work (also see Saldanha, 2017). This approach pushes forward that part of Koch’s (2018) approach to the spectacle that acknowledges its ‘productive’ elements and does so with more attention to the role of affect, emotion and materiality in that process. As such, it draws more from Deleuze and Guattari (2013) and from those who insist that an assemblage approach must include a politics of difference (Cockayne et al., 2017; Kinkaid, 2020).
For instance, the parts of A Thousand Plateaus (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013) about the production of ‘zombielike’ people by the state apparatus are in line with the core critiques of spectacle. What do they mean when they suggest that the state apparatus makes the violence of war ‘come first’, when it ‘appropriates’ the so-called ‘war machine’? At the heart of their philosophy is a kind of vitality to life that never stops pushing things along and therefore becomes the focus of intense regulatory pressures. They have different names for this vitality: line of flight, war machine, smooth or molecular space, and deterritorialization (among others). These figures are locked in constant interplay (p.16) with other figures that seek to control them, what are called the apparatuses of capture, striated space or molar formations, and re-territorialization (also among others). In seeking to govern the population, capitalism and the modern capitalist state work to anticipate a constantly churning material world, attempting to break its inevitable unpredictability. A state of constant emergence is the field of attention and prioritization. When the ‘State appropriates the war machine’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013), for example, something happens that is very similar to what Debord (1995) says is going on in the society of the spectacle in terms of dispossession and neutralization. Once stimulated, the vitality of life is only then evacuated, leaving us eventually ‘crippled and zombielike’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013, p 495). Capitalism today seeks to intervene at the level of desire, thereby objectifying this intimate realm of humanity and bringing it into the sphere of commoditization (Paterson, 2005; Kingsbury, 2008). A politics of desire is at the core of their philosophy and is also what helps them explore the political violence of modernity, namely, the rise of fascism in early 20th-century Europe.
At the heart of Deleuze and Guattari’s (2013) theory is the sparkle of difference itself (Cockayne et al., 2017), as an always exterior spatiality that evades control. Aspects of this reality can be brought under control, but never completely and never forever. Lines of flight, as expressions of chance, wonder and novelty, may lead to positive new forms of life, but may also become destructive, oppositional or antagonistic – by forming into the ‘war machine’. For this project, the war machine is, in part, the potential for subversive flows that the consumer economy today feeds upon in the constant search for new sources of surplus value. While spectacle today continues to circulate via the images of marketing and social media, it has also expanded its toolbox in terms of how it engages the consumer to ensure such ends. In short, today’s technologies of spectacle intensify the embodied aspects of place and space as important supplements to the commodity. Rather than insist on a new (p.17) form of alienation produced by the ongoing machinations of the spectacle, emotions and affects are intensified in new ways, thereby drawing consumer subjectivity into infinite loops that eventually lose their allure, if only in the eventual and perhaps planned obsolescence of the commodity (Thill, 2015). Meaning, representation and ideology still matter, of course, but are now distributed in a broader landscape that is richer in opportunities for imagining power and resistance, structure and agency, and so on. As we shall see, these technologies of consumption can intersect with and enable a far right politics with its own violent prerogatives. Other, more hideous, war machines can also be activated in such circumstances. Through its exterior relations, the spectacle infects politics itself.
While the war machine signals a kind of potentially destructive vitality at an individual level, it can also become a collective political danger. Fascism, for instance, utilizes this embodied politics to galvanize divisive thoughts and feelings that demonize an ‘enemy other’ that allegedly threatens the ‘homeland’ or some other hegemonic formation or identity. In the wrong hands, the line of flight becomes a ‘line of death’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013, p 268); it becomes a fascist war machine capable of mass destruction and horrific abuse (pp 268–9). A Thousand Plateaus helps us to update the spectacle not only as an increasingly affective and emotional consumer technology, but as a likely source of political epistemology for the far right, primarily through the proliferation of post-truth reality.
While not intentional, Retort et al.’s (2005) line is helpful for this version of spectacle as embodied assemblage: ‘The spectacle is the key form of social control in present circumstances, but also a course of ongoing instability’ (p 188). This is what A Thousand Plateaus (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013) explores, a world where macro power relies on micropolitics of the smooth space, a world where new kinds of control emerge but also a world that can never be fully controlled (Read, 2003). Moreover, things and their assemblages have exterior relations, connecting with other assemblages in a generative process that (p.18) is impossible to predict or fully anticipate. Capitalism today is oriented towards these micro spaces of spectacle, from the affective impact of architecture and urban design to the sensation of electronics in our hands and on our bodies, including the neurology of software and its user interface design. As an embodied assemblage, spectacle is an invitation that is difficult to ignore or reject, thereby complicating our status as ‘subjects’ of consumption. It is not that we are entirely ‘duped’ or are entirely ‘sovereign’, but some complex reality in between (as argued in Miller, 2014, drawing on Zukin, 2004). Deleuze and Guattari provide the kind of vocabulary to explore such a space, as many of their key ideas involve multiple co-constitutive processes holding and producing space simultaneously (see my account of a shopping mall as an embodied assemblage in Miller, 2014). The power of consumption today calls for an updated version of subjectivity that transcends the ‘duped’ versus ‘sovereign’ dilemma. A different terrain becomes visible once we conceptualize the spectacle in such a way. Nevertheless, formal politics persists and as we shall see, puts the spectacle into action in disturbing ways.
Trumpism as fascist war machine
Don’t bring out the General in you!
(Deleuze and Guattari, 2013, p 26)
Spectacle as embodied assemblage also allows us to go beyond the formulation found in much recent use of the term ‘spectacle’. While Trump is a product of the spectacle and certainly uses technologies of spectacle in his politics, he also presents something of a disruption. Trumpian spectacle is one of capitalism’s lines of flight that destabilizes the normal functioning of the capitalist state as well as any number of long-standing geopolitical alliances (Page and Dittmer, 2016; Ingram, 2017). As a capitalist line of flight that is willing to question the coordinates of reality itself, sometimes in (p.19) absurdist ways, Trump has presented a nightmare scenario for the American state apparatus. ‘Will the Presidency Survive This President?’ asked New York Times contributors Posner and Bazelon in May 2017, when more than enough time had elapsed for Trump to make good on some of his most outrageous proposals during the campaign. When the spectacle forms a war machine that attacks the state from the inside, there may be no limit to what can be dismantled (Lebow, 2019). In this sense, the state apparatus is not appropriating the war machine, but is instead consumed by it.
What exactly is the connection between the spectacle and Trumpism? To continue plumbing this connection we turn to an early theorist of the spectacle who came before Debord, Deleuze and Guattari, and who saw a similar geopolitical problem evolving along with capitalist consumer society. Walter Benjamin focused on the urban experiences of the 19th and early 20th centuries and their crash course with fascism. His unfinished magnum opus, The Arcades Project [Passagen-Werk] (1999) – nothing less than ‘the secret history of National Socialism’ (Polsky, 2010, p 79) – chronicled the materiality of an emerging urban consumer culture in the wake of the industrial revolution. This history was ‘secret’ because it consisted of a material that, at first glance, appears unrelated to the topic of fascism. In seeking to understand the rise of Nazism, what made Benjamin look to the atmospheric commercial arcades of 19th-century Paris and other cities in Europe? The answer is the dialectics of urban spectacle which produces new kinds of space and subjectivity. More precisely, Benjamin observed the emergence of spectacle as the rule of the commodity in everyday urban life and the socio-cultural values compromised therein.
Rather than extinguish the psychological drama of myth in the face of modern reason, Benjamin saw something else happening in the emerging marketplaces and in the colonization of everyday life in the arcades. According to Susan Buck-Morss (1989), whose seminal interpretation of The Arcades Project guides this book, these spaces and culture (p.20) industries instead nurtured the psychological terrain of myth that occupied the imagination and embodied experience of urban space. Needless to say, this was a very different kind of consumer subject position than that described by Debord, or in Benjamin’s time, by Horkheimer and Adorno, whom Benjamin relied upon but also clashed with philosophically. Benjamin’s theory was that society was coaxed into a ‘dream sleep’ by the new technologies and their mythic possibilities, but they could always wake up some day to the catastrophes that modernity was churning out. The arcades appear grand but are not to be admired. Rather, they have to be confronted, and Benjamin saw his work as instrumental in that revolutionary process. The issue became even more urgent in the 1930s as the Nazis consolidated power, pushing Benjamin’s theory and his life fatefully closer to geopolitics (Polsky, 2010).
In short, the same media technologies that were expanding with consumer capitalism could be used politically to direct mass populations in divisive ways. It is precisely the embodied dimensions of these media that make them dangerous. The population can be worked into a frenzy, often by focusing attention on a demonized ‘other’ and encouraging antagonistic and violent feelings and actions towards them. As Buck-Morss (1989) suggests, there was a homology between the mega-spaces of the arcade and the mega-spaces of fascism that Benjamin wanted to elucidate (also see Hagen and Ostergren, 2006). Although this project could very easily collapse into a kind of paralysis that some find in Debord (1995) and other Frankfurt School theorists, Benjamin maintained a radical faith in redemption that could never be extinguished, no matter how sophisticated the culture industries (see Goss, 1999).
Some scholars have commented on how these components of his thinking resonate well with Deleuze and Guattari (see Agamben, 2002; Polsky, 2010; and Miller, 2014, among others). If Trump is a capitalist line of flight barrelling forward against the state apparatus, it is a fascist line of flight that consolidates and multiplies the worst-case scenarios for humanity and for (p.21) human–environment relations. Moreover, Benjamin also had a creative method for conducting research into these mysterious connections. In this book, elements of his plan are reimagined as an interpretive mechanism for understanding the 2016 US presidential campaign and its aftermath. Specifically, the technique of montage – in this case blending critical theory and journalistic commentary – seeks to induce new insights into the conditions of possibility for the rise of Trumpism and the role of consumer culture therein.
Plan of the book
Spectacle and Trumpism is not exhaustive, in any way, of anything. It is an inventive experiment inspired by the principles of montage (also see Dittmer, 2010), bringing together three components: (1) critical theories of the spectacle, introduced previously; (2) journalistic coverage of the 2016 US presidential campaign and its aftermath; and (3) other journalistic commentary on popular cultures of consumption. Out of convenience for the author, the main source for the last two is The New York Times newspaper, usually its expanded Sunday Edition, which was advantageous for two reasons. First, it provided detailed coverage that at times paid attention to the emerging political logics of spectacle as they unfolded. One guest opinion piece in 2017, titled ‘Trump and the “Society of the Spectacle”’, even made this explicit (Zaretsky, 2017), while many others simply borrowed the word ‘spectacle’ to explain what was happening. Second, the newspaper also reports on socio-cultural and ‘business’ news related to popular consumption but not always directly linked to formal politics. Triangulated with theory and commentary, though, these can be brought together to produce new insights and new perceptions of spectacle as an embodied assemblage. This goal is similar to Benjamin’s, in which he sought to generate ‘dialectical images’ that held the fragments of the past and present together to illuminate their conditions of possibility. (p.22) On a much smaller scale, this project seeks to give readers an unusual reading of familiar topics, objects and spaces so as to encourage a new consideration of the consumer landscapes we inhabit and how they might be implicated in the rise of Trumpism in surprising ways.
Conceptualizing spectacle as an embodied assemblage does not require us to imagine consumers as ‘duped’ or ‘tricked’ in any way. In cultural studies and the empirical turn in geography, theories of the spectacle were largely rejected, in part, because of this misinterpretation, one that installs a false binary in the field of consumption between a deterministic model of control and its polar opposite, the consumer as sovereign and capable of creative practice. Theories of embodied assemblages help resolve this problem, as the idea is to conceptualize consumer subjectivity as emerging through complex relationships with the objects, spaces and indeed practices of consumption. As an embodied assemblage, spectacle can also be seen as unfolding in more specific and even intersectional ways, insofar as capitalist technologies overlap with other political technologies of colonial modernity, namely racism and patriarchy. Trump becomes a political possibility as a result of how these meta-overlaps express themselves in three more specific assemblages of power that have characterized the spectacle and its development in recent decades, and which are the focus of this book: (1) the affects of celebrity brand; (2) the emerging techno-digital landscape of the internet; and (3) the enduring built environments of architecture and design. Each chapter details activities in these often overlapping domains. The sets of connections detailed in this book help explain the emergence of Trump as one frightening possibility.
First, Trump’s political identity builds on his status as a celebrity and as a brand. Trump has long used media technologies of spectacle to enhance his brand identity. As a commercial assemblage, Trump’s business model has been to combine the affective dimensions of celebrity and brand in a way that facilitates the flows of capital and finance his business (p.23) enterprise requires. The first chapter provides the context for how we have been socialized by these technologies of post-truth reality and how they came to infect political culture. Trump was gaining celebrity status in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan was putting similar techniques to work in the White House, providing an early model for Trump to later reinvent.
The second chapter considers the impact of new socio-technical worlds, which have transformed society, especially in the last two decades. A new environment of information, social media and digital interfaces has inaugurated new political connections that have transformed the landscape. Rather than ruminate over the ways in which Trump uses Twitter and other technologies to communicate in sometimes bizarre and dangerous ways, this chapter discusses how the spectacle itself has gone digital and how this has produced a kind of hyper-techno-consumer. There is an uneasy resemblance between the narcissism that this technology is capable of producing and the personality of Trump himself.
Third, despite the spectacle going digital, the physical, built environment of cities, infrastructure and everyday space continues to exist, at least for the time being. It is worth emphasizing that the Trump enterprise perfected its post-truth capabilities through the production of spectacular spaces such as hotels, resorts, casinos, shopping centres and other spaces of leisure. Again, the spectacle as an embodied assemblage enrols us in a series of activities that bring us into uneasy proximity with the consumer world promoted by the Trump family business itself.
This version of spectacle, it should be clear, looks different from what has previously been offered. Spectacle is an affective, emotional and more-than-human assemblage that has serious implications for political culture. As such, this version of spectacle goes beyond the mere enumeration and description of the many particular techniques of spectacle used by the modern state to control its population today. Something else is happening, in which the spectacle presents a challenge to the state itself. All the while, the utopian hope driving the project (p.24) is that these reflections on the macro-level actors in politics and society will be imagined as running through the micro spaces of everyday life that will be familiar to many readers. While Trump needs to be denounced, this book draws the reader into a familiar landscape in which we may all be differentially implicated in the situation we face today. I’m hoping that the reader will be able to imagine their own lives under the spectacle and to add their own imaginative twist to or make their own psychic interventions in it. The scenes of everyday consumer society presented here are not meant as ‘proof’ of any necessary and direct connections between consumption and political identity or behaviour, but as partial and open scenarios that the reader can reflect on in this time of epistemological and political crisis. Benjamin had the same hope, that the images provided in The Arcades Project would be incorporated into innumerable subjects of consumption who reimagine how they are living in the spectacle and what its intensity really means for them and their lives. Susan Buck-Morss (1989) wrote that
On their own, the nineteenth-century facts collected by Benjamin are flat, bordering indeed on ‘positivism’, as Adorno complained. It is because they are only half the text. The reader of Benjamin’s generation was to provide the other half of the picture from the fleeting images of his or her lived experience. (p 292)
In any case, Spectacle and Trumpism strives to offer a new version of spectacle that includes the crux of what Benjamin, Debord, Deleuze and Guattari were getting at – that something is deeply wrong with a society so obsessively organized around consumer culture and the inequalities that flow through and around it. What difference does it make that our own embodied pleasures are now the target and justification for such a system? How can these same embodied experiences be enrolled into dangerous political formations such as fascism? What happens next?