Attention and Memory in the Age of the Disciplinary Spectacle

A while ago, I wrote about what I took to be the convergence of the society of the spectacle and the disciplinary society, the convergence, that is, of the analysis offered by Debord and Foucault respectively. It was in some ways an odd suggestion given Foucault’s expressed hostility to spectacle theorizing, but it struck me that fusing these two critical strands would be useful because, as I saw it, the material apparatus of spectacle and disciplinary surveillance had merged with the advent of digital technology. You can read my initial musings on that score here: “Eight Theses Regarding the Society of the Disciplinary Spectacle.”

As it turns out someone had, not surprisingly, beaten me to the punch: Debord himself. I discovered this while reading a paper presented by Jonathan Crary in 1989 titled, “Spectacle, Attention, Counter-Memory.”  (h/t Nick Seaver). Here are some particularly interesting sections.

“It is easy to forget that in Society of the Spectacle Debord outlined two different models of the spectacle; one he called ‘concentrated’ and the other ‘diffused,’ preventing the word spectacle from simply being synonymous with consumer or late capitalism. Concentrated spectacle was what characterized Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China; the preeminent model of diffused spectacle was the United States: ‘Wherever the concentrated spectacle rules so does the police … it is accompanied by permanent violence. The imposed image of the good envelops in its spectacle the totality of what officially exists and is usually concentrated in one man who is the guarantee of totalitarian cohesion. Everyone must magically identify with this absolute celebrity — or disappear.’ The diffuse spectacle, on the other hand, accompanies the abundance of commodities.”


“I suspect that Foucault did not spend much time watching television or thinking about it, because it would not be difficult to make a case that television is a further perfecting of panoptic technology. In it surveillance and spectacle are not opposed terms, as he insists, but collapsed onto one another in a more effective disciplinary apparatus. Recent developments have confirmed literally this overlapping model: television sets that contain advanced image recognition technology in order to monitor and quantify the behavior, attentiveness, and eye movement of a spectator.”

Recall that Crary is writing in 1989. I was surprised by the claim in the last sentence. But in a footnote he cites an article in the Times from June of that year: “TV Viewers, Beware: Nielsen May Be Looking.” Happily, it’s available online so we can read about this then cutting edge technology. As an aside, here is an interesting excerpt from the Times piece:

“Nielsen and Sarnoff demonstrated a working model of the device at a news conference yesterday, at which Nielsen executives faced questions about the system’s similarities to the surveillance of Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’

But Nielsen executives argued that the system will not be an invasion of privacy. ‘I don’t think we’re talking about Big Brother here at all,’ said John A. Dimling, executive vice president of Nielsen. ‘We’re not scanning the room to find out what people are doing. We’re sensitive to the issue of privacy.’ Mr. Dimling said it will be at least three years before the system goes into service.”

“We’re sensitive to the issues of privacy.” Right. It’s useful to remember how long we have been hearing these rejoinders. Needless to say, the whole thing seems quaint in light of present realities.

It turns out that “in 1988 Debord sees his two original models of diffused and concentrated spectacle becoming indistinct, converging into what he calls ‘the integrated society of the spectacle.'” A more elegant formulation than what I came up with, naturally.

More from Crary:

“As much as any single feature, Debord sees the core of the spectacle as the annihilation of historical knowledge — in particular the destruction of the recent past. In its place there is the reign of a perpetual present. History, he writes, had always been the measure by which novelty was assessed, but whoever is in the business of selling novelty has an interest in destroying the means by which it could be judged. Thus there is a ceaseless appearance of the important, and almost immediately its annihilation and replacement: ‘That which the spectacle ceases to speak of for three days no longer exists.'”

This sort of thing always strikes me as susceptible to two very different readings. The one concludes something like this: “You see, back then they worried about technology in similar ways to how some people worry about technology today and we now know those concerns were silly. Everything turned out okay.” The other reading goes something like this: “We really do have an amazing capacity to apathetically acclimate to a gradually emerging dystopia.”

Crary concludes his paper with two responses to the society of the spectacle. The first was embodied in a 1924 essay by the French painter Fernand Leger titled, “The Spectacle.” Here is Crary’s assessment of his project (emphasis mine):

“… the confused program he comes up with in this text is an early instance of the ploys of all those — from Warhol to today’s so-called simulationist— who believe, or at least claim, they are outwitting the spectacle at its own game. Leger summarizes this kind of ambition: ‘Let’s push the system to the extreme,’ he states, and offers vague suggestions for polychroming the exterior of factories and apartment buildings, for using new materials and setting them in motion. But this ineffectual inclination to outdo the allure of the spectacle becomes complicit with its annihilation of the past and fetishization of the new.

This seems to me like a perennially useful judgment.

Against this project he opposes “what Walter Benjamin called the ‘anthropological’ dimension of surrealism.”

“It was a strategy of turning the spectacle of the city inside out through counter-memory and counter-itineraries. These would reveal the potency of outmoded objects excluded from its slick surfaces, and of derelict spaces off its main routes of circulation. The strategy incarnated a refusal of the imposed present, and in reclaiming fragments of a demolished past it was implicitly figuring an alternative future.”

However, Crary concludes on a cautious note and raises useful questions for us to consider thirty years later:

“Whether these practices have any vitality or even relevance today depends in large measure on what an archaeology of the present tells us. Are we still in the midst of a society that is organized as appearance? Or have we entered a nonspectacular global system arranged primarily around the control and flow of information, a system whose management and regulation of attention would demand wholly new forms of resistance and memory?”

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3 thoughts on “Attention and Memory in the Age of the Disciplinary Spectacle

  1. Thanks for digging this up and bringing it to our attention.

    With this in mind, I wonder about your thoughts on consuming (for lack of a better word) news. It might have been in Amusing Ourselves to Death that Neil Postman argued that we were better off ignoring most of the news, especially TV news, since, if we examine our actions, we find attending it changes nothing about our actual plans anyway. Is this still true in a world 30 years more connected?

    It’s certainly clear that news increasingly brings with it a lot of unhealthy….side effects, lets call them: it doesn’t qualify itself, it asks for a ceaseless claim on our attention, it contains undisclosed and subtle biases, it opens us up to manipulation, it warps and conditions us to see others in a tribal or adversarial way, and much more.

    Yet, most of us still feel some sense of civic responsibility toward the news, even as it becomes increasingly difficult to tell or remember what could actually constitute a more beneficial, balances and honest process.

    Sometime, if you have the opportunity and desire, I’d be interested to hear something from you on this (seemingly) tragic choice, your own habits, etc.

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