I sat and watched the election results last night with a handful of liberal college students in a lounge area at yuppie university. One television was broadcasting CNN, another was broadcasting Comedy Central. In another part of the campus a television news crew from King 5 was airing students jumping up and down as the election results came in.
Before this the college students’ eyes were glued to Comedy Central. What is constantly in the back of my mind as I watch the Colbert Report is how we can be so amused by it, but at the same time castigate and argue against students who organized campaigns against racism or imperialism. The response to the Colbert Report – the show which exposes neo-conservative ideology by détournement – demonstrates to me that the liberal electorate is half-scared to exist, too embarrassed to give themselves away.
If you ask them they’ll probably pretend to agree with you about this or that particular issue, but they do not have an analysis of society. “…Stephen Colbert is so funny,” they say. But they do not identify with any ongoing struggle against racism, patriarchy or oppression, etc. – even when these critiques are often implicit in the Colbert Report. They do not recognize that the world really is upside down, even though the critique presented before them is a complete inversion of life. What effrontery!
“The task of the various branches of knowledge that are in the process of developing spectacular thought is the justify and unjustifiable society and to establish a general science of false consciousness. This thought is totally conditioned by the fact that it cannot recognize, and does not want to recognize, its own material dependence on the spectacular system.”
– Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
The point is not to write the sociology or psychology of the television set, the point is to watch. They knew almost every advertisement that aired during the election. I found that very disturbing. They discussed the ads obsequiously and uncritically. As long as the advertisement was funny, it didn’t matter what it was advertising. They could recite them, and did so out loud and sometimes in unison. If one of the students did not know the particular facts about popular culture or advertising, he or she had nothing to say to the group.
You cannot dissent. If you dissent then you’ve ruined the fun. You’ve crashed the party. You’ve made it no longer enjoyable. You’ve challenged someone to argue with you instead of just relaxing and soaking up the spectacle’s optimism in capitalism. Just relax!!!
In other news, last night thousands of people took to the streets of Seattle and celebrated Obama’s victory. They stopped traffic and created a bit of frenzy. I am glad to see people celebrating and injecting their voice into the public space; it is free expression and spontaneous. Being in the street in large numbers is subversive simply because you’re not supposed to do it without warning. It’s subversive and rebellious even though it’s not dissenting.
I particularly like the part in the video featuring the singing. Being in a public space to share your joy with the rest of the society is an empowering and participatory thing to do. I hope this is never taken away from people. But compare last night’s celebration to the “zero-tolerance” approach to dissidents. If these people were in fact dissenting, against Obama or dissenting in any other way, the street party would have been an “unlawful assembly” and there would have been a confrontation with the authorities.
Maybe! Maybe this is a sign that we can abolish all attacks on free speech activity and all the free speech “zones” – And! under an Obama presidency the streets will be owned by the people, gardens will spring up everywhere, people will fall in love with the revolution, and there will be massive direct action against the televisions, and a rainbow will form at dawn to greet every new day in peace and to celebrate this newfound creativity! Good times, good times. Don’t stop believing! Hold on to the feeling, streetlight people!