“The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep.”
― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Within my group of friends I’m known as the critic, that fancy hippie bemoaning the state of everything. I rant, I blog, I not so secretly judge you for watching too much reality TV. Anyone casually perusing my Facebook page might reasonably conclude that Kim Kardashian is to blame for all the world’s ills.
During one of our recent rabbit-hole debates regarding the merits of materialistic gangster rap (Ace Hood’s Bugatti) and high-stimuli product-placement action films (Michael Bay’s Transformers) I fulfilled my role as group contrarian and rhetorically wondered aloud if these apparently harmless pieces of pop culture could actually be connected to or even responsible for global climate change.
It was hyperbole, of course. A grandiose and satirical push-back against my more earnestly capitalist companions. But some way, somehow, I was also sorta serious.
Last week another major oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, off the coast of Louisiana. A leak from a Shell oil rig released approximately 90,000 gallons (over 340,000 liters) into the sea, creating a floating slick of oil the size of Manhattan. And I didn’t hear about until today.
In other recent news Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump and Kim Kardashian received the first Break the Internet award at Monday’s Webby Awards (I swear I didn’t plan this, I came across it while researching the spill). In her acceptance speech honoring her “unparalleled success online” the social media maven defiantly proclaimed “nude selfies ‘till I die” (seriously), assuring her 70.5 million Instagram followers that there would be no drop-off in the quality content they’ve come to expect.
I know. So easy. Nice and obvious targets for us to take aim at. But, could there really be a connection? Between the innocent banalities of popular culture and the big issues of our day? Between all the glares reflecting off Kim’s shimmering cheeks and the light unable to refract out of our overheated atmosphere? Between our incessant gaze at one and disregard of the other?
It seems like a reach, a looking-for-proof of a theory already decided on. But while researching this latest fossil fuel tragedy I discovered that Shell has recently agreed to start cleaning up 2 other major oil spills in Nigeria – 7 years after the disasters took place. Shockingly the oil giant had been delaying taking responsibility for these environmental calamities by tying up the case in court for years. Over 15,000 poor fishermen and their families have been suffering, unable to work. Not to mention the years of delayed cleanup. This was, from any rational perspective, an injustice worthy of our attention, but we had no idea it was going on because, you know, like, whatever.
Would Shell have stopped delaying compensation payments and cleanup if public pressure had been stronger? Could thousands of families have received financial relief sooner? Could we have saved the environment a few years of petroleum purgatory and got the cleanup starter earlier? Perhaps.
If only we’d known.
Last week there was a worldwide organized protest called “Break Free from Fossil Fuels”, over 30,000 protesters taking part in 20 simultaneous events on 6 continents. Did you support this cause? Did you share the link? Like their page? Even fucking know about it?
I didn’t. I didn’t hear about it until today.
But what if I had? What if I had seen something about the event instead of an endless loop of Donald Trump B-roll footage on every news channel? Could we have spread the word? Could thousands more have attended the rallies? Could we have made enough of a stink to force even one lawmaker to change their position, push one court case in the right direction, give one coastal family one less day of suffering?
Our world is a capitalist one, in more than just its economics. This supply and demand model not only drives our commerce but also spreads into our ethos, even dictating what we receive from our supposedly more altruistic fountainheads, influencing our cultural production and our news, deciding what gets made, seen, consumed. And the more you feed it the more you will get.
So it may have been outrageous to claim that perhaps songs like Ace Hood’s Bugatti could be somehow connected to our bigger societal problems. But then I go to the song’s YouTube page where the track, full of sick beats and fat bling and misogynist bravado, has been viewed over 142 million times. Now Mr. Hood’s flow and lyrical talents are clear, but man, 142 million views, for some dude rapping about 100K on his wrist. We have only so much time, so much attention; there should be a thought to scarcity, to allocation of our personal resources, to causality.
I’ve always been a silly dreamer, willing to wish another way. And so I can imagine an alternative, one where we are discerning consumers of culture, looking for fun of course, but with an eye towards those bits that enlighten as they entertain, to artists that help us see outwards instead of in — all those hundreds of millions of gazes slightly redirected, away from the spectacle, and so able to see something else, click somewhere else, feed ourselves to some other part of the machine.
Would things shift? Would it help? Even just a bit? I’d like to imagine that it would.