Yeezus: Society and the Spectacle

A present take on Guy Debord's seminal text as it pertains to music and art

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For years, I have been fascinated with the concept of currency and celebrity (power and fame), the value we put behind it, and its ultimate effect on our moralistic values as human beings. At several stages in my life, the chase of said currency was thought of to be “the great eradicator” of both personal and societal ills. This same philosophical belief was not only the product of witnessing first-hand the struggle of our parents and the then current harsh economic conditions under Reaganomics of the 80’s, but also reinforced by mass media’s ad-culture and its various (and nefarious) forms of dissemination to their subjects, namely us. This aforementioned chase has caused many a comrade hardship beyond belief, imprisonment, loss of loved ones, and for others, their physical presence on earth. There is no doubt that the fundamentals of capitalism plays a substantial role in individuals being outside of their natural selves. These same rules relating to the positions of Spectator and Spectacle apply to us in the art world, whether we are creators/producers or observers/consumers. Celebrity, whether on a local or global level, create the ideal conditions for the Spectacle/Spectator ecosystem.

Guy Debord states in his text The Society of the Spectacle, verse 2:

The images detached from every aspect of life fuse in a common stream in which the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudoworld apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself. The spectacle on general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.

This concept is extremely pervasive in popular culture which gives birth to the aforementioned pseudoworld. Reality TV is nothing of the sort, and the irony of its title should not be lost on the reader’s psyche. Mainstream society (the spectators) tends to identify with the personality (the brand), then attach themselves to the personality and what they represent (the spectacle), as opposed to the reality. For example, we can cite several instances where the illusion of reality, or fragmented views of reality, regroup and morph into a new reality (pseudoworld) that can’t be experienced but only viewed. To understand whether or not it is a symbiotic partnership, or a parasite/host relationship, although somewhat predictable, it remains to be seen.

I look at Mr. Kanye West as an outstanding example of the Spectacle. Debord emphasizes, “The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.” The delusion of grandeur within Mr. West’s persona has punctured the membrane of reality where he not only believes himself, but others believe his reality. Furthermore, his resources has allowed him to create (or curate) an entire miniature universe with devotees worldwide. Although, Mr. West is a supremely talented and charismatic individual, his statements could be considered borderline blasphemous, and he seems to lean on this concept for the added effect of shock and value. Yeezy compares himself to the most heralded biblical prophets and asks:

Did Moses not part the water with the cane? Did strippers not make an ark when I made it rain? Did Yeezy not get signed by Hov and Dame? And went to Jacob and made the new Jesus chains?

Although Kanye has taken it to entirely new levels, the progenitor of the “god complex/spectacle” of hip-hop would be none other than Shawn Carter aka Jay-Z aka Hov aka Jay-Hova (Jehovah) the God. The Spectacle is in full command of his Spectators, and they enjoy every moment of it. It is very similar to the theoretical physics involved in explaining the God particle aka the Higgs Boson. So, for all intents and purposes, acquired celebrity could be compared to the Higgs Boson, or the God Particle of the Spectacle. Quickly explained, the Higgs Boson can be compared to a party where all of the guests are evenly spaced throughout the room (the Higgs field) and suddenly a celebrity (a particle of ordinary matter) enters the room. The guests notice the celebrity and rush in closer to be near them. As the celebrity moves through the room, the clump of guests (spectators) gains additional momentum. The clump is harder to stop than one guest alone would be so now the clump has acquired mass (pseudoworld).

To my brief observation, Andy Warhol has been a Spectator of his own Spectacle as well. He laments:

“Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there – I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. People sometimes say that the way things happen in movies is unreal, but actually it’s the way things happen in life that’s unreal. The movies make emotions look so strong and real, whereas when things really do happen to you, it’s like watching television – you don’t feel anything. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television. The channels switch, but it’s all television.”

Debord discusses a similar concept in verse 96 of his manifesto, “In a world that has really been turned upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” When art begin to imitate life, or you become a full subscriber to your own reality television network, even your true moments are false…and your false moments are real.

The Society of the Spectacle thoroughly explores the integral relationship between consumption of Western society, the degradation of moralistic fiber (or total lack thereof) where “goals are nothing and development is everything,” resulting in the reflection of the ruling economic order. Everything involving the Spectacle must include nothing but the image. An image that must drive the thought process of the Spectator. The Spectacle introduces the concept of “groupthink” which goes against just being or existing, but has graduated into the need to possess meaningless things (images). This concept is the exact representation of the ruling economic order of capitalism. The need for individuality and a complete separation from the need to possess images is one way to break from the Matrix-like conditions of our socio-economic ills. A monumental task that would take a cataclysmic change of thought. The God Particle has gained an unfathomable mass.

by J. Johari Palacio

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