Tuesday, May 14, 2013

the spectacular moments of commodity society

The Hungarian Postmodernist-Marxist philosopher György Lukács is credited as the author of the idea of reification.

For Lukács reification literally translates as the 'objectification' - of social life or social relationships and their subsequently re-expression as relationships between objects rather than people - as characterised by many aspects of what we would describe as 'consumer' culture.

'Objectification' has become a bit of a skunk word, the gobbledygook end of postmodernism have ran with it.

But, in simple terms, Lukács is describing a process by which the previously 'authentic' experience is transformed and then rendered 'inauthentic' by its incorporation into the totality (the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts) resulting in alienation.

One of the most quoted descriptions of contemporary consumer-culture alienation is in this passage from Don Delillo’s 1985 novel White Noise.

White Noise* is widely regarded as a case-in-point post-modern work, however we shall not hold that against it.

*In a detournement footnote, apparently DeLillo originally wanted to title the book Panasonic, but the Panasonic Corporation injuncted. Fact fans.

The characters, Jack and Babette Gladney return home from a trip to the supermarket:

'It seemed to me that Babette and I, in the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those crowded bags suggested, the weight and size and number, the familiar designs and vivid lettering, the giant sizes, the family bargain packs with Day-Glo sale stickers, in the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls – it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less, who plan their lives around lonely walks in the evening.'

The most striking contemporary example of this kind of reification is, of course, Facebook.
And in particular the the notion of Facebook 'friends'.

In which the idea of 'friendship' - an aspect of authentic social life and social relationships - that has, in effect, been 'objectified' and indeed commodified by Facebook.

Indeed, within Facebook we even refer of ourselves in the third person. Eaon shared person x's photo and so on.

The 'friend' product is, of course, core to Facebook's business model and monetisation strategy.

We will all be familiar by now with the point that, in the Facebook environment it is the user (or 'friend') that is the product for sale.

Facebook sells the product (and its data by-products) to advertisers, and then re-packages it up and then sells it back to us as the social experience.

The cycle is complete - and gets completely spectacular - when we understand that this idea of the Facebook friend is not only reduced to reified commodity but is also now increasingly becoming the way we understand the nature of authentic friendship, to a degree.

Where that fact might have been spectacular enough in 2011, today we can see other 'possibilities' around further objectification afforded by the next wave of mass media technologies.

In particular the likes of virtual and augmented reality technologies.

I've semi-referenced Debord's Society of The Spectacle in this note.

Among the many descriptions of the Spectacle the following is perhaps the most key to this discussion.

'The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification.
As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges.
Being isolated and precisely for that reason this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation'

The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.'

Obviously my novelty pseudo-academic intellectualism finds the synonym connecting The Spec-tacle and then Google Glass, the almost uber-mediator of social relationship by images, ironic and funny.

Let's read that again.

'The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification'.'

That Facebook/Spectacle analogy is developed further by journalist John Harris who also notes:

'[Debord] is talking about alienation, the commodification of almost every aspect of life and the profound social sea-change whereby any notion of the authentic becomes almost impossible'.

To end this note, perhaps the inevitability of Virtual and Augmented reality technologies as a mass media proposition (ie spectacle) - is one in which it usurps (or indeed incorporates) Facebook as 'the invasive force of the 'spectacle'.

There is the possibility that Google Glass actually takes the idea of the Spectacle as 'social relation between people mediated by images' to new levels of alienation in the guise of authentic social life.

Both Lukács and Debord would possibly note that these new social technologies that are presented and accepted as a social innovations that allow the users to better participate in the world, are just as easily described as reification mechanisms designed to reinforce the spectacle of pseudo-communication producing not connection but only further alienation.

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