“… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”
Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
The Spectacle Never Ends
So I’ve been on a bit of a philosophy binge as of late and it’s really shed some new light on some of the things I’ve enjoyed watching/playing over the last few years. The other thing I’ve been really enjoying is the latest series of Black Mirror on Netflix and boy is there a lot to talk about here. Black Mirror is an amazing TV show written by the ludicrously talented Charlie Brooker. It’s an anthology of stories set in a world that’s ever so slightly different from our own, the major changes coming in the form of technological advances.
The episode I’m going to be talking about here is ’15 Million Merits’ from the first series of Black Mirror. It is set in a world where humans work monotonous jobs cycling on the spot, generating power for their society. They earn a currency called “merits” that they use to buy stuff, which is usually new items/apps for their doppels (a digital avatar).
During the episode, the main character, Bing (played by Daniel Kaluuya), is going about his mundane existence when he hears a woman singing in the bathroom and he “feels something real” for the first time in years. He offers to buy her an entry ticket to the talent contest TV show Hot Shot (think X-Factor) in an attempt to woo her (I think…). She accepts the ticket and enters the show, singing a beautiful rendition of Anyone Who Knows What Love Is by Irma Thomas. While they judges are impressed they have a different idea for where they could use her talents: the porn industry.
She accepts the offer after being told her life will be changed forever and Bing is taken from the studio after trying to stop her from accepting the offer. He is distraught over what has happened but it reaches a tipping point when he sees an advert for the latest porn film starring his crush. He smashes the TV and hides a piece of the broken glass under his mattress to use later. He returns to his mundane job and grinds (literally) his way up to earning enough to buy himself a ticket onto the talent show.
When he gets onto the stage he begins his performance by dancing for a bit when he suddenly pulls out the shard of glass and holds it to his neck. With the threat of suicide he tells the judges he wants them to just listen to him and we get this impassioned speech.
I really advise you watch that clip, even if you’ve heard it before it’s still really powerful. If you can’t however you can read a transcript of it here.
There are a lot of things you can pick up on in that speech, the dangers of capitalism, the dangers of consumerism, inequality in society and plenty of other stuff. But the thing I want to talk about is “the Spectacle”.
The Spectacle is a concept written about by Guy Debord and what it basically boils down to is an idea called “commodity fetishism“. To sum it up as briefly as I can: It is an idea where the value of products isn’t just their monetary value but their social value, we don’t judge each other as people anymore but we judge people by their wealth. This (according to Karl Marx) was an inevitable issue with capitalism.
I can relate to this so much as when I was a kid and someone on our street got a satellite dish (meaning they had Sky TV) that is all that some people talked about for days if not weeks.
“Did you see Paul has a Sky dish now?” “I know, he must be on good money then” and other such judgements were commonplace. But do you see the problem there? Paul’s property has now become part of the Spectacle, what he owns is now how he’s seen. Commodity is no longer a product to be earned and consume, it is now part of our social image as well. As Bing says in that speech:
“All we know is fake fodder and buying shit. That’s how we speak to each other, how we express ourselves is buying shit. I have a dream? The peak of our dreams is a new hat for our doppel, a hat that doesn’t exist. It’s not even there, we buy shit that’s not even there.“
Bing – Black Mirror, ’15 Million Merits’
In a consumer society, social life is not about living, but about having.
Now where does “the Spectacle” come into all of this? Well if you haven’t guess then The Spectacle is the stage show that the world puts on to keep us consuming in this way.
Through mass media, the internet, aspirational TV, newspapers, social media etc we are constantly bombarded by one major message. Show the world what you are worth, usually expressed by what you own or do that is appealing. Your social appeal can easily now be the main factor in how people judge you.
Are you a “benefit scrounger” as depicted in poverty safari TV shows like Benefits Street or do you have a spare few hundreds of thousands of pounds to spend on doing up a house just to sell it on like any of the awful property shows that play endlessly. And if you don’t fall in to either of those categories, answer honestly, which one would you rather be?
All media that we consume tries to tell us what we should or shouldn’t have in life and for Debord, this has destroyed our relations to each other as people and it can be taken further.
We live in a country (UK) where 1 in 4 teenage girls have self harmed and one of the major contributors is body image. Are your tits the right size? Can you shake your hips the right way? Do you have enough abs? Do you fit a societal standard of beauty?
The Spectacle now doesn’t only tell you what to own/buy but what to look like, talk like, fuck like and pretty much everything else.
And perhaps the worst thing? The Spectacle, according to Debord, can’t be stopped. Just by me commenting on it I have made it stronger. Let’s look at some of the things I have advertised just by commenting on them:
- Linked to books you can go purchase
- Tried to say what is wrong with life/society and maybe influence you
- Linked to a newspaper site that shows adverts and asks for subscription money
- Advertised two TV shows by name and told you where you can watch them
- Promoted an actor and his body of work
- Advertised Sky TV
- Advertised a song you can go buy or listen to on Spotify etc
- I just advertised Spotify… Twice now
It is perhaps no wonder then that in the grips of depression and alcoholism, Guy Debord committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart.
But how does this link back to ’15 Million Merits’?
Well after giving his amazing, rebellious speech Bing is offered a TV show where he can talk like this regularly to which the crowd cheers. He goes on to do his “outlandish” TV show and it even co-stars the piece of glass held to his neck. That piece of glass is then sold to the public digitally as an accessory for their doppels. It seems that even rebelling against the system can be sold successfully as a commodity within the system. Fuck.
And if you think you are above all this then just ask yourself this. Do you put everything out there on social media or something similar? I know I don’t. I have talked on this site about various personal issues, but none of them are mentioned on my Twitter feed because that is somehow more public and it’s not the image I want to present there. The Spectacle tells me that I shouldn’t look too crazy on Twitter and I listened. We probably all do.
And on that depressing note I will say thanks for reading. Feel free to check out other things I find awesome (more advertising!). I’ll see you all next time, take care of yourselves. Peace.
The song from this episode… Which I’ve now advertised twice. IT NEVER ENDS