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Monthly Archives: September 2008

I picked elderberries at Dave Humphrey’s place yesterday.  My eldest son came with me and picked a few berries as well before the mosquitoes became too much for him. After Dave was gracious enough to walk him back to the house, I spent an hour or so alone in the woods, following the elderberry bushes as they followed the stream.  Along with the berries, I managed to find a wild turkey feather and two nests for my son’s eclectic and ever-expanding nature collection.  The sun was lowering but not yet setting, and I finished just as it was casting through the big maple beside the lake.  It was the first evening that I could smell autumn.

Last night and much of today I spent picking the berries from the stems, a process so tedious that it is virtually impossible to buy elderberries commercially, despite how wonderful they taste.  Customers would simply never pay the real cost of pulling all those little berries from the stems with the gentleness required to keep the berries from bursting and the stems from coming with the berries.  I had something like half a bushel to pick, a matter of almost ten hours. This kind of labour can only be justified by a pie, or, to be more precise, by several pies and a substantial batch of jelly.

Tomorrow I will make jelly, bake pies, and fill the house with elderberryness.  It will hold the aroma of a passing summer and a ripening fall, the scattered light of a descending sun through a solitary and giant maple, and the stained fingers of ten hours of picking berries from stems.  There will never have been anything exactly like it before in the history of the world, and there will never be anything exactly like it until the end of time.  It will be entirely and irrevocably irreplaceable.

I sometimes have a moment when I first pick up a book, maybe just after I have heard someone describe it, maybe just after I have read the back cover, maybe just after I have scanned the first few pages of the introduction, and I have the sensation, clear and terrifying, that it will change me. I find myself looking at the thing in my hand, the lump of ink and glue and paper, horrified and elated, transfixed by the possibility that it might overturn me, that it might transform how I think or live. Jean Luc Marion’s God Without Being caused this in me. So too did Ivan Illich’s Rivers North of the Future. In a different way, a way I cannot quite qualify, so did George MacDonald’s Lilith. Of course, these sensations do not always prove true.  In this moment, however, with Michel de Certeau’s The Practise of Everyday Life beside me, I do not think that I will be disappointed. I feel an expectancy, an assurance that it holds for me a transformation. I take it up with a certain joy and a certain terror.

I promised some months ago that I would write a series of posts on Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as I reread it and took notes from it, but I have always seemed to have more pressing topics at hand, and I find myself having finished my second reading of the book without having posted about it at all. I am not entirely without consideration for those who may be reading this, so I will not now try to write in one post all the things that I should have written in several, but I will follow one series of ideas that impressed me with their relevance to the internet as a means of social interaction.

Debord argues that the dominant mode of production speaks a language of spectacle that comes to mediate social relationships, transforming the prevailing mode of social life so that it appears as spectacle itself and seems to justify the language, the conditions, the aims, and the products of the existing system. The society of the spectacle is thus a society where social life is mediated in such a way that it can be produced and consumed as a product, where social life becomes increasingly subject to an economy. The power of spectacle over the individual, therefore, is a function of the individual’s acceptance of the economization of social relationships, which means that resistance to the society of the spectacle will always take the form of a resistance to the economization of social relationships.

This argument, even in the reductive and inadequate way that I have summarized it, bears interestingly on the phenomenon of social media networks and other means of social interaction through the web. These technologies function in precisely the way that Debord describes. They impose themselves between people in order to mediate their relationships with a series of images and spectacles that are designed, explicitly, to reduce the elements of social interaction to forms of data that can be digitized, transferred, measured, economized, and controlled. Rather than having a series of complex and unique relationships, for example, these technologies reduce everyone to friends, to a number on the screen that can be counted and compared with others, to a collection that can be amassed like possessions and counted like currency. Rather than having my own complex identity, I am forced to choose my religion, relationship status, and everything else from options limited by drop-down menus. My life, the lives of my friends, and the relationships that we have between us become reduced to a spectacle, to a product for our consumption. Rather than living our social relationships, we consume them for our amusement, in the sense of amusement that I defined some time ago.

I do not mean to imply that that all social relationship conducted through these technologies is necessarily produced and and consumed as spectacle in support of the dominant modes of production, but I do mean to imply that this is indeed very often the function of these technologies when they are used uncritically. It is necessary, therefore, that we be actively looking for ways to use these technologies against themselves and to conduct ourselves through them in ways that contest their tendency to reduce social interaction to measurable data, to economy, to spectacle, to consumption. We need to approach these technologies, not in order to use them, but in order to misuse them, in order to abuse them, so that we can begin to resist their function as spectacle as far we are able.

This abuse and misuse would, of course, look different from person to person and from situation to situation, but it will be possible to develop, refine, annd share techniques for this kind of intervention, not just with web technologies, but with any of the technologies that have come to mediate human relationship.  In my own use of the web, for example, I habitually decline to use drop-down menus or, when I must, I select options that are clearly untrue of me.  I complete forms in ways for which they were not intended.  I use softare to block advertizements.  I write and read the web at length.  I try to do both critically.  I avoid the viral.  I revel in the idiosyncratic.  I try to use means of communication that permit greater flexibility and choice. None of these choices makes much of a difference to the web itself, but they do make a differance in the virtual place that I create for myself from the web.  They allow me to limit the mediating influence that these technologies might have on the relations that I conduct through the web.  I hope they are a place to start.