Friday, February 09, 2007

Nuse (Nooze? Nooz? Noose?) 

In the society of the spectacle, as defined by Guy Debord, the managed interval between neutral material and quantified exchange value seems to have collapsed. The interval between material and value has always been necessary but artificial in capitalism: the actual materiality of the commodity (its reality, its Marxian "use value" and also its tangible presence and beauty) is denied when it is put on the universal monetary scale. So its materiality is reduced to the empty but necessary correlate of its numerical exchange value, its place in the system of transactions.

This false interval between matter and value is what allows the commodity to come into being as a function of exchange, rather than as an object with its own inherent worth and beauty. The false interval, premised on the denial of real substantive value, is also what allows the monetary or exchange value nearly infinite flexibility. Thus goods can be priced according to artificially produced demand, allowing surplus value to be extracted from commodities, independent of their actual worth and, always, in excess of the market value assigned to the labor that produced the commodities.

In the spectacular society, the interval between the matter and its price or exchange value seems to have collapsed. Thus the appearance of the commodity itself is its value. The only value is being seen, and being seen by many people, on television. This is the commodity--appearance on TV. What is sold is the privilege to look at what is seen. What is consumed is the image.

What the spectacle tends towards is the moment where there is no difference between the televised image and the money it makes. At the extreme limit, there are no longer objects proper--because everything becomes a version of the one image par excellence, the image of exchange of value as such: money. At the extreme limit, there is only money. Or, more accurately, there is neither money nor material objects--there is only the circulation and exhange of images which instantly present exchange value, instantly satisfying and thereby creating more consumptive desire.

This is where we are heading. But while the pure commodity form of the televised image seems to collapse the interval betwen materiality and exchange value, it does not. The authentic reconciliation of fact and value is, again, what Marx somewhat misleadingly and inaccurately called "use-value": the object appropriated according to its reality, which includes its concrete usefulness but also its beauty. Only if the object is seen for what is, and not as an image fixed to a point on the spuriously universal monetary scale, can the object be used appropriately.

The commodified image in the image-stream that is the spectacle does not truly fuse fact and value. It presents them both, simultaneously and coterminously, in the televised image. But they are still not the same. They are fused but somehow still separate at every point. The commodified image takes on the sick glow (the pseudo-aura) of an image that bodies forth not truth or beauty, but falsehood. The commodified image is perfectly infused with falsehood. It is rotten to the core. It announces its power, its undeniable presence in the stream of appearances--and appearance is now the only index of value. But at the same time the knowledge is inescapable that the image does not deserve to appear, that it does not deserve to make its claim on anyone's attention. It has been fixed in the image stream, and thus fixed with exchange value (much like factory-barons in the old days could arbitrarily fix prices independent of actual value or expenditure of labor). It presents itself to the eyes of the viewer and insists that it be seen and acknowledged (by the pause of the hand on the remote). But its very presence is wrong. Its appearance makes an insupportable and eventually intolerable claim for its value.

These dynamics are not new: they have long characterized the captivity of the mass-audience to the image of the movie star. Thus the attraction of Marilyn Monroe was that she was not what she seemed--that she was physically perfect but sick inside. The newness of the present situation--the grotesquerie of this new stage in spectacular evolution--can be gauged by the incessant comparisons of Anna Nicole Smith to Monroe. There was at least the semblance of drama in the life of Marilyn Monroe. Her "inner torment" was (perhaps) credible, and the nature of her demise remains shrouded in seductive mystery. But Anna Nicole Smith was dead from the start. She was a sick, dying person painted grotesquely in the colors of a movie-star. To look at her was to see someone whose exhange value as commodified image was undercut even as it announced itself.

This is the essence of reality television, of which Smith was a pioneer. The personage on reality televison does not belong there. The very appearance of the personage in the image stream is an insistence on its value. But the program promises that the commodity will be mutilated, that its rotten core will be exposed, before the show is over. (The viewer's pleasure: "Why is that asshole on television? He doesn't belong. At least I know enough to stay home and watch." In the end the viewer is rewarded with the humiliation of the reality TV "star.")

The pathology of the mourning/celebration of Smith's death is not the hysterical attachment to someone who did not deserve it. The pathology is in the self-deception involved in pretending that anyone was interested in Anna Nicole Smith for any reason at all beyond the inevitability of her death. Page 6 in the New York Post is nothing but a death-watch. Readers look hopefully each day for the announcement that one or another drug-addicted anorexic "star" has died in a car accident or drug overdose. As the stream of images that is the spectacle reaches warp speed, the only possible drama is the pseudo-revelation of the fact that all of the images are dead, paint over corpses.


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