An Inexplicable Reference…

Doug Lain references a post I wrote a year ago in his latest video and I’m not sure why… He doesn’t seem to actually engage with it, which makes it kind of creepy and baity. A reference for reference’s sake.

Within the first few minutes, Lain misattributes a Mark Fisher quote to me. In an interview with Vice, Fisher says: “The point is always made that capitalism is efficient, people say ‘You might not like it, but it works.’ But Britain is not efficient. Instead it’s stuck in a form of frenzied stasis.” From here, Lain asks what I mean by “efficiency”, filling in some blanks that aren’t actually there, if he’d read a little further, all as a way to talk about the Situationist International.

It certainly works as a more in-depth introduction to my own post, but in going on about how we’re all bored in the society of the spectacle, it fails to engage with anything written after my post’s first few paragraphs…

Nevertheless, I’ll answer Doug’s question for him:

What Fisher is gesturing towards when he talks about the inefficiency of capitalism in British society is something like self-service checkouts — “sad robots” that don’t work as they’re supposed to. Those bleeping checkouts where you scan your own purchases, at least when they were first introduced, give the impression of a transition to an increasingly automated future. But all they really did was outsource a banal form of labour to the consumer. And since these stupid machines often don’t work how they’re supposed to anyway, you still have to have employees on hand to attend to them. It is inefficient because it doesn’t work as it is supposed to. In that sense, it’s dystopic — it is a sign that our drudgery is steadily increasing rather than being diminished — but we pay it little mind as this dystopian development is a far cry from the anarchic post-apocalyptic world Hollywood has convinced us to expect. It is in this sense that it is “boring”.

This is central to a lot of Fisher’s work, and it is an update on a lot of Situationist stuff for the 21st century — a world that is really quite different to the one Debord and others were theorising in the 1960s… Capitalist realism, for instance, works as an update to “the society of the spectacle”, with its allusions to manufactured consent and the disparity between technological advancements and ideological consistency under capitalism. (Something Lain sort of explains again here through Debord.) But Debord’s terms are arguably now unfit for purpose. We may continue to live in a society of the spectacle, in a general sense, but for Fisher it seems the phrase and the theory itself are misleading and easily misunderstood, because “the spectacle” today is anything but spectacular.

Lain extrapolates outwards from here, later alluding to Fisher again, to argue that the world is boring and we are all bored. But it’s another poor reading of Fisher’s work to add to the mountain of other ones he’s put out over the years. Contra Lain, Fisher insists that everything is boring but no one is bored (which I point to at the end of my old post).

Fisher’s sense of boredom is very different and more complicated than Lain’s geriatric Gen X version. He considers how capitalism’s unspectacular inefficiency now keeps us busy more than anything. And so it is a perspective that doesn’t really work with Lain’s reading of the spectacle at all, which certainly retains a fidelity to Debord but is effectively useless as a reading of the present. (And there’s little point of drawing on the Situationists if you aren’t capable of grasping the present situation.)

But whatever. It’s an innocuous video, if still one that would be improved by a proper engagement with the more contemporary figures it vaguely gestures to. Why Lain chose to reference me, I don’t know, but if anyone comes looking for more information as a result of his nod to me, let me point you towards some more interesting stuff:

Never mind Mark Fisher, if you want to know more about the Situationist International and how their work applies to the present, you’d be better off reading Sadie Plant’s The Most Radical Gesture — a book that is notably 30 years old next year but is still more relevant to now than Doug’s presentation of life as seen through an inert Situationist lens. On the topic of “the spectacle” in particular, skewering Doug’s own imprecise and ineffective deployment of the term, she writes:

The situationists had always been aware that the term ‘spectacle’ could easily be robbed of its critical force, recuperated as a descriptive concept and appropriated to serve the ends of spectacular society itself. “Without a doubt”, Debord had declared in The Society of the Spectacle, “the critical concept of the spectacle is susceptible of being turned into just another empty formula of sociologico-political rhetoric designed to explain and denounce everything in the abstract — so serving to buttress the spectacular system itself.” This has indeed been the fate of the situationist critique of the spectacle which, twenty years after its initial development, now appears in a spectacular form of its own: a context which precludes all critical appraisal and is content to describe and celebrate the ahistorical world of image, sign, and appearance.

Mackenzie Wark also has a fun book called The Spectacle of Disintegration, in which she leaves “the spectacle” behind, to an extent, as well. For her, it is also a less important and outdated concept, and so she instead focuses on détournement as a form of Situationist praxis that moves things forward, which Plant and Fisher arguably do very well by necessarily going beyond the Situationists’ own 1960s context, which Doug doesn’t really manage to do here with his heavy reliance of 20th century imagery that occasionally culminates in non sequiturs about Tinder.

Beyond that, though less explicitly concerned with SI, you could try Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick for a properly contemporary analysis of aesthetics and the ways capitalism tries to keep itself looking “interesting”, in order to hold our attention and eliminate boredom. Maybe Doug could look at them himself and make some proper references to contemporary theory for the benefit of his viewers. But as Fisher said, “if the contemporary form of capitalism has extirpated boredom, it has not vanquished the boring. On the contrary — you could argue that the boring is ubiquitous.” It’s for this reason that “we’ve given up any expectation of being surprised by culture”.

I know I’ve given up on being surprised by Lain.

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