(I will put the most important footnotes in the comments; they are numbered.)
“...everything goes on as usual, and yet there is no longer any one who believes in it. The invisible spiritual bond which gives it validity no longer exists, and so the whole age is at once comic and tragic -- tragic because it is perishing, comic because it goes on.”
-Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Journalists and academics always talk about how there is nothing that links the mass murderers of our age. In other words, there is no quality that can predict who will become the next killer: not race or class, not religion or philosophy, not intensity of his fanaticism or degree of her of apathy. If there is any defining predicate, it always attains a level of obscurity that renders it meaningless; for example, “they are almost always men.” Despite this, I believe there is one unambiguous trait that does link them all: each one felt that he was completely alone. In light of the recent wave of mass shootings, which has now finally been acknowledged not as a prolonged media dramatization but as a newly emerging phenomenon, the society in which we currently find ourselves must come to terms with its own desolation.
Someone’s lying in the middle of a concrete room, howling out for a savior. Windowless echoes provide a tricky riddle: will he escape? The helpless convalescent suddenly recognizes that he must live, he understands that he must fight. But that is all -- literally, that is all. That he must live, that he must fight proves nothing but his own refusal of meaning: there is certainly a “that,” but most certainly not a clear “why.” The shut-in’s present situation has finally revealed that, for his entire life, he has wanted one thing -- but he has no idea what it is.
There is no mass enervation, no public lassitude. Every individual is continuously proven to display the most extreme fervor under the right circumstances. It is not idleness that shatters minds, but the severe lack of outlets for the energy innate within people. This is the infamous “societal malaise” which is so often referenced. In fact, the word “malaise” does not simply imply depression, which is the common understanding, but instead an unexplained anxiety. Millions of people all across the world sit in their rooms every day endeavoring to spell out why they feel the way they do. Fists clench in frustration under bedsheets each night, and dreams of endless sprinting are interrupted by the sunrise earlier than expected. Malaise feels like a confused defeat, wherein even the supposed progressivism of the modern age displays itself more or less as a disguised indifference.
For this reason, the suicides that conclude most of these tragic shootings are not meant to leave an abstruse stench, as they normally do, but on the contrary to clear up any ambiguities. Individuals are currently so isolated from one another that even when they directly see the outcomes of the most extreme forms of loneliness, they nonetheless are unable to recognize them. All of these squeaky-clean news anchors, who daily pretend to rediscover what is already known, continue on with their muddled fictions as they ensure their viewers, at all costs, that everything is alright. Everything is alright in a general sense, on a broader level, which is really only to reduce it to a purely individual problem. Hence the problematic symptoms of mass isolation are monstrously covered up with the process of individualization: “He should have been medicated”; “How did he get access to a gun?”; “It was because he was overmedicated”; “He had deep personal problems”; “I just can’t understand it, why would someone do such a thing?”; “He’s nothing more than a psycho terrorist”; “We need tighter regulations on problem individuals.” In a society that has eradicated all forms of attachment, all moments of real intensity, the average person is left in a state of complete and utter nullity.
It is a significant fact that the philosophy of existentialism surfaced with the advent of the “public” -- that massive dispositif which, absurdly enough, most effectively severs the connections between bodies. But Kierkegaard has already analyzed the “Present Age.” In a way, his philosophy was a response to the nothingness which was already emerging as early as the 19th century:
“Only when the sense of association in society is no longer strong enough to give life to concrete realities is the Press able to create that abstraction, ‘the public,’ consisting of unreal individuals who never are and never can be united in an actual situation or organization -- and yet are held together as a whole.”
This, of course, is not to fetishize violence or to praise mass shooters as warped antiheroes. These events are tragedies, no doubt. On the other hand, some of the most execrable aspects of these incidents are not considered lamentable at all. The thought of a pile of bodies drenched in blood lying across the tables of a school cafeteria is indescribably terrifying, but it is equally as appalling that we each endure like zombies, ignoring each other’s solemn hints, denying the dull pain of our current existence, refusing to explore the possibilities of a radically different form of life, or of any form of life at all. And once someone has finally decided to give up their hellish solitude in favor of an empty nothingness, we feign bewilderment and await the next catastrophe. This is the public: that mass of indifferent individuals, empty solitudes crowded together into a colorless herd. The newscasters are therefore completely correct when they say that these killers have declared war on “the public.”
Part of thesis #29 of the Society of the Spectacle might elucidate the cause and origin of the public to which Kierkegaard refers, and therefore its immediate corollary, public isolation:
“In the spectacle, a part of the world represents itself to the world and is superior to it. The spectacle is simply the common language of this separation. Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other. The spectacle thus reunites the separated, but it reunites them only in their separateness.”
Better words could not have been chosen, but some degree of explanation is still necessary. It is helpful to imagine the wheel of a bike. If the spectacle is the very center of the wheel, then individuals in the society of the spectacle are the spokes. They are undeniably unified by the center, but are nonetheless separated from each other. In this way, the spokes are united in their separateness. This is exactly what Debord had in mind when he wrote this thesis. Now, Kierkegaard definitely believed that mass isolation was created by the peculiarities of the time he lived in, but he does not go into great depth in a genealogical sense. Nonetheless, there exists some supposedly neutral center that is required for something like the public, and therefore mass isolation, to emerge as an entity. The capitalist spectacle is therefore undeniably at least one part of this center which claims neutrality.
For clarity’s sake, it is important to note that there are a variety of phenomena that have allowed and encouraged the public to arise, but nonetheless do not attain the same power to compel that the spectacle does -- for example, early industrialization which transformed slaves and peasants into “human capital.” Human capital definitely emboldened the ascension of the public, as the economy now relied on a mass of workers and had some interest in keeping a large, unified workforce. Nonetheless, it would be dishonest to claim that something like the public, or even mass isolation, arose solely or fundamentally because of human capital theories. If some semblance of it did emerge, it was a primitive form, a prototype of sorts -- one that may have even been creeping along as early as the medieval era (1). A theory of human capital is perhaps necessary for the emergence of a public, but it is most likely not sufficient. The key difference here is that the spectacle creates a central show that draws in the attention of everyone, thereby creating a collective consciousness of sorts, or at least a consciousness of the process of unification. The advent of human capital alone is not able to create this same awareness in people: it does not in any way push individuals to imagine themselves as part of a “public.”
Religion is another tempting candidate but still lacks certain necessary qualities to single handedly maintain a public order. The idea of a God has always served as a sort of central link for isolated individuals. However, theology has never contained enough strength to consistently unify, and, because of religion’s continual disintegration, mass isolation ironically disappears. The religious wars in Europe show how easily a religious centerpoint can collapse. Almost every religion in the world has been fractured at some point in its history. These fractures are caused by a certain intensity of the relationships between different groups of people. In other words, the schisms are successful revolts against the public isolation that derives from the attempt at religious unification. The question is, if religion so easily reaches a central position in most cultures, why is it unable to maintain that position in the same way the spectacle does? It seems that it lacks a few key elements.
Firstly,even if religion can perhaps be considered a predecessor to the modern spectacle, the spectacle’s fundamental advantage is modern teletechnology. Its ability to instantly display certain images to hundreds of millions of people is an historical anomaly peculiar to our times alone. This has enabled an efficient and instant system for the suppression of schisms, by allowing them. That is, allowing them in a recuperated form, in a diminished state that allows them to be integrated into the whole. Guy Debord discusses this aspect of the spectacle in his followup work to Spectacle in The Comments, and Giorgio Agamben furthers the conversation in his “Marginal Notes on the Comments.” Religion lacks this quality and therefore should not itself be considered fundamental to the maintenance of a public.
More importantly though, religion, and even the spectacle, lack physical force (2). This is a weakness with which any neutral center, once taken entirely on its own, must contend. Even the spectacle, which would nonetheless last much longer than religion without the use of force, would inevitable collapse without the support of a government form. Carl Schmitt, in his work Political Theology, has already shown that every modern political concept is a secularized theological doctrine. The modern state absorbed all of the powerful qualities of religion -- and then amplified them dramatically with the use of an army. Thus the other fundamental half of the origin of the public was born: the modern, secularized state.
Rome was the first and only civilization to create an ancient prototype for the modern state, far ahead of its time. Hence we find the origin of the word “public” in the Latin language. In fact, the only reason Christianity -- that monolithic tyrant of Europe -- was able to spread so far and wide was because of the Roman state’s sudden support of the theology. The collapse of a unified Europe came shortly after, though (3), so a public order never fully emerged, although this was the closest attempt in ancient times. This period of history temporarily contained weakened forms of the two necessary preconditions for the creation of a public: a neutral, ubiquitous center, and a powerful, unified state. But even though senators discussed res publica, there was no actual public. The vast majority of those living under the empire had no true center through which they were unified, and local affiliations were consistently stronger, albeit not frequently revolutionary in nature. Nonetheless, this etymology shines light on how crucial a state apparatus can be in creating a public order.
The modern state facilitates the creation of a public, and then has the ability to continuously force that entity into existence by laughably declaring itself the protector of this very fiction. Specifically, no entity, such as a technological religion (4) or the spectacle, could survive as a neutral centerpoint without the support of a modern state. If the spectacle was not supported by such an immense apparatus, as it has been for the entirety of its existence, perhaps it would collapse, or perhaps it would create a state in its name that maintains it. Either way, physical force seems necessary in order to compel individuals to have unanimous faith in such an entity. Just as medieval christianity used the power of governments to at least prolong its fractured collapse, the spectacle uses the fear imposed by modern states to prevent the destruction of its glass citadels. In particular, the blatant lack of respect for commodities is what cops most often struggle to combat: theft accounts for millions of dollars worth of corporate losses every year. Since the state is to some extent defined by its monopoly on force, and since force seems to be required for the imposition of a neutral center, the state is a fundamental condition, once combined with an entity like the spectacle, for the creation of a public.
The modern state and the spectacle are both necessary in maintaining a public order. Now, even though I have hitherto described the state as upholding the power of a neutral center (i.e. the spectacle), the reverse also frequently holds true. That is, the spectacle works to support the legitimacy of the modern state, in obvious ways. Christianity engaged similarly with the medieval states, but, as mentioned in a previous footnote, it also came into conflict with those states. This is another reason why religion was never able to maintain its power: it did not share the same foundations as its states. It is therefore problematic to even separate the spectacular-political order into “spectacle” and “state,” or to claim that one causes and supports the other, as the two work together in a mutually symbiotic way, imposing the most excruciating unification, represented best by the all-too-familiar office building full of cubicles. In the final analysis, it is this spectacular-political order, this marriage between spectacle and state, which has begotten the public and its chronic emptiness.One genealogy of the public is now laid bare. With the progression of the modern state, and then the emergence of the spectacle, the public was born -- enforced by the state and unified in separation by the spectacle. Its history is a complicated one, but it undeniably fought against the tides of time and placed itself firmly at the core of our society. Thus is the West: that paradise of Prozac. The implications of this genealogy, then, are quite dramatic: an entirely personal battle against isolation is inseparable from the revolution against capitalism. Similarly, the fight against capitalism is indivisible from a purely social insurrection against any sort of notion of “the public” and its revolting individualization.