TOTW: Civilization, Spectacle, Anthropocene

Images taken from "Insurrection: Anarchist Magazine, Issue 5" (1988), chosen due to their similarity to some of the stills used in advertising the film "20-22" (2018), and due to the relevance of the articles in that issue, to this topic.

Recently, I thought of reviewing a movie to submit it to The Anvil Review. The film I had in mind, "20-22"(2018), was initially announced under the subtitle of "Society of the Spectacle", which later got re-titled 20-22 Alpha, and then Omega, with the tagline "A non-verbal cinematic symphony about the humans of the Anthropocene". It's a silent film, a series of images -shot in black & white cellulloid, "a dying medium"- meant to stand on their own, along with an accompanying symphonic soundtrack. It focuses on places with people on them, much like the film "Koyaanisqatsi" (1982), which means "life out of balance" in Hopi. After seeing the website and reading interview with the filmmaker, I felt the framing was already overbearing. I felt that it had spoiled any "fresh" perspective I could have upon watching it. It makes sense how he expressed in that interview that he wanted to maintain the rhetorical framing sparse by naming it "20-22": "Because the project is non-verbal, I thought how can I have a title that’s not too suggestive? If I call it “Apple,” if I call it “Anthropocene,” if I call it “Post-humanism,” it’s a little bit too on the nose, in my opinion. I wanted a title that would leave room for the imagination, just like a picture or an image can do."

I was the feeling that the framing was kind of trite and stale. I kinda felt cheated, being drawn-in by what seemed to be a fresh take on "The Society of the Spectacle" (1973), to then have the framing switched to "Anthropocene" at the last moment. Why is that? Years ago, I had greatly enjoyed Guy Debord's films. Particularly, "On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time" (1959), "Critique of Separation" (1961) and "In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni" (1978). The medium here is also film, but mostly re-appropriated footage, collage film détournement with Guy's voice narrating throughout most of the running time. The text versions stand on their own, the images and sparse soundtrack are almost superfluous. Is film the medium, and "film essay" the genre in both cases? In my mind, I see a tenuous line -in terms of style and content- connecting Debord's films, to films by Chris Marker and Adam Curtis, like "A Grin Without a Cat" (1977) and "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" (2011) respectively, which I also enjoyed. Similarly, I see threads going from Debord's writing, to certain strains of Anti-Civ thought.

Not wanting to rain over the saturated field of film analysis, theory and critique, reveling in its content. Stretching the narrative thread like thin filament, like how the contents of the human DNA are supposedly said to be able to stretch to the sun and back 61 times. There's nothing new under the sun. Staring at the sun can be as blinding as staring at bonfire, an incandescent light-bulb, or a variety of screens, flashing lights, for hours, for a lifetime. Narrative devices deployed in campfire stories, the telling and re-telling of monomyth, like the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100-1200 BC) etched on the Deluge clay tablet found in Mesopotamia, to palimpsest cities, to modern cities with their neat grids of roads, to networked conurbations of megalopolis connected by highways, power grids, the Internet... with its wi-fi enabled devices, smartphones, tablets...interconnected by relay antennas. People went from being the heroes of myth and legend, to myth-makers, to relays on a circuit. Alas, film is not my concern when bringing up this topic. I want to discuss the notions of "Spectacle" and critiques of "Civilization" which have seen widespread adoption, use and abuse -some would say recuperation- in mainstream culture.

Civilization is a much older topic than Spectacle. There are many ancient stories of the numerous instances of the rise and fall of civilization. There's always been plenty of conventional scholarship on the subject from different academic fields, from the Humanities to Social Science. I'm thinking of texts by sober academics like Lewis Mumford, particularly "Technics and Civilization" (1934), "The City in History" (1961), "The Myth of the Machine" (Vol.1 1967, Vol. 2 1970); and James C. Scott, particularly books like "Seeing Like a State: "How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed" (1998), "The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia" (2009), "Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States" (2017). Narratives of "Collapse" of our current "Civilization" seem to overlap with the concept of "Anthropocene".

Anthropocene is a scientific sounding name in the style of a geological epoch, used to name the current version of Flood myth. It seems to want to replace the tired term "Late Capitalism" mostly concerned with waning or faltering Neo-Liberalism. It evokes the ongoing human-induced mass extinctions and climate change, as well as apocalyptic horizons. It feels at home in environmentalist discussions by liberals like Extinction Rebellion. Its continuity with a geological time-scale, provides perspective of how small a sliver of time humans have been around on Earth. It allows a glimpse at a time before and after humans. Yet, it also strokes their hubris by naming a whole era after themselves as an homage to their world-shaping power.

Guy Debord's conception of "Spectacle" also seems to make use of linear time stages or periodization. "The Society of the Spectacle"(1967) talks about leaving behind "Spectacular Time" (commodified time, consumable pseudocyclical time) and a return to "Historical Time" or even true "cyclical time". Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) mentions the emergence of and the progression from "Concentrated Spectacle", to a "Diffuse Spectacle" and finally giving way to a more totalizing and smoothly running "Integrated Spectacle" (could we also call it "Late Spectacle"?) that is even harder to contest. Both texts exhibit delusions of grandeur with the pretension of accurately describing totality and then confronting it with the stratagems of a paranoid loitering alcoholic. In hindsight, between workers councils and a random walk that ends with a shot to the heart, the later seems like the more estimable pursuit. Such fatal dérive is a turn of phrase which seems to aptly describe Guy Debord's life and death, as well as the stochastic attentats of nihilists.

Though seemingly more sober and level-headed in their approach, one could question the sanity and effectiveness of the insurrectionists who forgo merely biding their time and not intending to play the game, in favor of immediate straightforward attack on discrete systems. Indeed they have been known to address their tame words to the deranged on occasion. But today, I'm thinking in particular of "Insurrection: Anarchist Magazine, Issue 5" (1988) and of Negazine-1" (2017). In contrasting both publications, one can see evolution of a line of thought that concerns itself with attacking technology, where the driving desire remains the same, but the context, the analysis, the proposed point of contact and intervention, becomes more complicated, even if the time to act is always still now. Sabotage is still considered good for one’s health, being a question of night walks in the countryside. But there's also a sense that it might be already too late.

Out of the 3 terms in the title of this topic, "Spectacle" is the more slippery poetic one, but it also aims at something more particular. Earlier civilizations had not developed their theatrics of power into full-blown Spectacle, which is a much wider concept than the mass media that Marshall McLuhan wrote about in "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" (1964), and overlapping with the wider critiques of mass culture mentioned Adorno and Horkheimer's "Dialectic of Enlightenment" (1944) in, yet also pointing at other particularities with all the fuzzy logic and self-indulgent qualities of "theory". While "Spectacle" seems to be a term more inherently confrontational with society in its conception, in a way that Anti-Civ would later be, I was never satisfied with any of the proposed ways in and out of the situationist labyrinth by different authors. The "Spectacle" is the more overtly politically positioned term, ultra-left, while Civilization and Anthropocene are seemingly more objective and neutral terms. In mainstream culture "civilized" is often thought of as a compliment, while "Anthropocene" might have an aura of dread. In a way, these 3 terms seem to evoke the same awe and sympathy at "the folly of man". Peak anthropocentrism.

As climate anxiety generalizes and more frenzied panicked chatter effuses, meaning gets eroded and nothing makes sense. Busied with interpreting the content of these films, of these texts, of these terms, of culture in general... I remember, duh: the medium is the message. Is the medium/message civilization? Are all of these different siren songs of civilization structuring us in the same way? Lead astray by the beacon of a strange attractor, the alluring glow of the ignis fatuus of Enlightenment. These all-encompassing terms at immense scales kind of aid a feeling of learned helplessness in the face of things we can affect. With this macro-vision of mega-trends and mega-machines, what can be done? Is it dancing in the dark to the beat of your own heart? These 3 terms seem to demarcate a place and a moment for "Humanity" in "History". Fredy Perlman suggests in "Against His-story, Against Leviathan":

"It is a place where human beings, just to stay alive, have to jump, to dance, and by dancing revive the rhythms, recover cyclical time. An-archic and pantheistic dancers no longer sense the artifice and its His-story as All but as merely one cycle, one long night, a stormy night that left Earth wounded, but a night that ends, as all nights end, when the sun rises."

What are your favorite or preferred takes on Civilization, Spectacle and the Anthropocene? What are the normie -even if academic- takes about Civilization, Spectacle and the Anthropocene that annoy you the most? How do these terms and nested notions envelop, overlap and contrast with each other? How does each inform your anarchist perspective? How do they clarify, confuse, distract, and overwhelm your anarchist practice? Or is this all absolute typhos to you?

There are 26 Comments

This notion that anarchist takes are the best takes is wearing thin at this point. Has the negative example of John Zerzan not taught us anything? Give me some well researched academic writing over pulled out of one's ass anarcho screed any day.

To be fair, though, reading Elements of Refusal in 1990 was the start of a long road of anti-civ etc readings for me.
It's just that now that I have read texts that are better researched & more faithful to their citations the limitations of non academic writing is clear.

As to how Spectacle, civilization and Anthropocene converge and diverge, well that would be a long essay or short book and beyond my capabilities, at least for now.
Which is not to say the prompt for this totw hasn't given me a lot to think about. Such as Anthropocene is not an uncontested term, starting from who is the anthro ? Who counts as Man, a man, a human? It is not all humans who brought us to this point. The discussions around when something called Anthropocene started are heated. Was it at the start of the transatlantic slave trade? Industrialization? Nuclear testing?

Check out – Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, ed. Anna Tsing.
And — A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, by Kathryn Yusoff, for non anarchist writing that puts a lot of this into perspective. I think at this point I've gone through the looking glass and instead of wanting other texts to inform my anarchism, I look widen my notion of anarchy by reading outside the anarchist canon.

not academic /= bad

jz has become a sad excuse for a writer, but autodidacts rule.

also, fuck school.

JZ an autodidact?? He has a masters from SFSU and all but finished his doctorate from USC. Also LOL @ Ziggy. You're not even in the same universe, pal.

neither non-academic nor academic writing has a lock on being good. The framing of non anarchist writing / authors in the purjorative as normie and annoying is what I was reacting to.

"This notion that anarchist takes are the best takes is wearing thin at this point."

This is especially true the last several years, as the inevitable Republican-president-pushes-anarchos-in-a-shitlib-direction happened. I rarely even read anarchist takes to understand current events anymore. So many have been terrible on COVID, Trump hysteria, etc.

But what about the totw prompt?

These readings look boringly liberal as fuck. And I'm also a spam target for

I'll wipe my butt or start a fire with your 50+ pages ofacademic sources that all are equally interesting as "theory"...

"Anthropocene is a scientific sounding name in the style of a geological epoch, used to name the current version of Flood myth. It seems to want to replace the tired term "Late Capitalism" mostly concerned with waning or faltering Neo-Liberalism. It evokes the ongoing human-induced mass extinctions and climate change, as well as apocalyptic horizons. It feels at home in environmentalist discussions by liberals like Extinction Rebellion. "

Consider this from A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None -

"If the Anthropocene proclaims a sudden concern with the exposures of environmental harm to white liberal communities, it does so in the wake of histories in which these harms have been knowingly exported to black and brown communities under the rubric of civilization, progress, modernization, and capitalism. The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence. The Anthropocene as a politically infused geology and scientific/ popular discourse is just now noticing the extinction it has chosen to continually overlook in the making of its modernity and freedom."

The end of the world has been happening for at least 600 years, over and over. A lot of people besides anarchists know this too, it might be worth it to engage with them.

But Krakatoa did more to disrupt the global climate than 100 years of human industry!

But Krakatoa didn't erupt in order to enslave other volcanic entities.

Anarchists are all "but muh precious bodily autonomy" until it comes to taking some responsibility for how that body has acted in real time.

Responsibility to whom and why?

All of nature, all of physics, all physiology enslaves humanity. Get over it.

Perps can be enslaved by an ethic because it forces them to behave within another system's mold.
Gravity enslaves perps, fire controls perps, diseases control perps etc.
Slavery is not just chains, whips and confinement, it has other physical and metaphysical forms invisible to most perps, including you I suspect. Perps are enslaved by the work ethic, or voluntary wage slavery etc.

There's a kind of psychosis outbreak nowadays, likely related to abusive consumption of hard drugs and/or the Covid State. I know the times they are rough, but keep your mind together and your feet on the ground, perp.

A lot of physical exercise can help, but also music and literature...

exercise is great, it's pretty much the closest thing you'll get to bath salts if you haven't reached that level of nihilism yet.

Also, they are enslaved by ---commodity fetishism---which I forgot to mention. This strangely links BB's --- The Abolition of Work --- to Marx's ---commodity fetishism--- and further confirms the indubitable continuity of ideas which form common threads of resistance against corporatism.

I would have liked to solve the questions this topic brings up but by the time I got to the end of reading it, global warming became unstoppable and my solar powered internet died.

yours, rick

that the thing Civilization, the Anthropocene and Spectacle have in common is that when used in specific ways in various theoretical discussions, all three suffer a definitional slipperiness. And having arguments over definitions is usually a real drag.

It may be that in the same way that this isn't a review of a movie, its content, or of film as a medium, hinting at how all film (and lightbulbs, and roads, etc) structure people in similar ways regardless of their content, the prompt does not so much intend to discuss the content of the terms in the title, but how they structure people when they use them in their analysis.

Viewing "theory" as media, the content is irrelevant, their medium/message is civilization. And that to contest civilization, it's more a matter of destroying the medium (be it print, film, internet, cities, infrastructure) more than critiquing the contents, whichever they may be. Which is why those insurrectionist text are mentioned. And if you're ultimately powerless to destroy civilization, which falls by itself regardless, then you might as well be unconcerned with the nitty-gritty of its functioning (an academic pursuit) and the task of its destruction (politics, martyrdom, sacrifice), which is somewhat along the lines of what's hinted in the Absolute Typhos text linked and the end and maybe also this zine

It alludes to other possible ways, besides sabotage, to contest being structured by media (which includes language, history, linear time) in mentioning dérive and dancing in the Perlman quote.

In my defense, the questions at the end of the prompt are at odds with the rest of the prompt, but now that I have read the Absolute Typhos essay it's all clear.
I think sitting in the egoist position of relating to the non-immediate as typhos is a goal. My pull toward engagement with typhos comes from my connection to real people in my life and their concerns for The World.

(as an aside, I wonder how typhos relates to maya).(crap, another rabbit hole).

Still, this bit here, where you say —

" And if you're ultimately powerless to destroy civilization, which falls by itself regardless, then you might as well be unconcerned with the nitty-gritty of its functioning (an academic pursuit) "

has me thinking about why I am, it seems, interested in the functioning of *waves hand around*. It is somewhat like this: if I can get a sense of how *this* was built, of how it fits together, of how it functions, how it might fall apart, (i imagine it in my thought experiment as a brutalist skyscraper), if i can understand that then maybe i can get out of the way when it falls. Maybe i can leave a note for those who come after — this is what was done, do something different.

that some scientist came out and said "we are living in the era of the Anthropocene", in reaction to the new dictator. I thought this was completely inappropriate for so many different reasons. It would make since if he/she was crying about the end of the anthropocene.

I also remember watching Guy Debords official society of the spectacle, and i felt like it was just his open display of contempt for those who are watching it. Very revolutionary.

anti-civ to be particularly helpful. To do the cheese thing: the present moment! Birds! Trees! Dogs! Now THAT is the kind of anti-civ i can get all slippery and nitty-gritty with.

Add new comment