Not only are some contemporary artists (and art students too) finding Guy Debord more relevant today than Jean Baudrillard, but also Debord’s insights are actually revitalising alternative ways of perceiving what is going on around us. Giorgio Agamben has written very approvingly about Debord. The relevance of Agamben’s philosophical validation of Debord now serves to explain, with that authority behind it, the reality of images as it has unfolded and continued to unfold in the last four decades, since the 1960s economic boom. The advent of Web and Web2 in no way makes him obsolete, since what counts is the working principle of the spectacle, regardless of the technological advancements. These only confirm its pervasiveness.

Agamben’s works aren’t easy; they’re dense, but beautifully written. The concept of spectacle today refers to the alienation of individuals in the era of global capitalism, of the IMF and World Bank. (Many people have this condition, but don’t realise it, since they value gym shoes with a tick on them so much that they’ll pay three times the price to have them, but, alas, won’t be any happier than us). Agamben investigates what else there is apart from alienation, singling out from the multiplicity and chaos of everyday life, the catastrophic world of bare life, a world in which the long shadow of fascist injustice and reason at the service of violence lingers on in a society that, he argues, is still in many ways a post-concentration world, disfigured by what happened, but never really addressing it.

Agamben’s thoughts about bare life and the Shoah are extended to the notion of the (concentration) camp life in today’s society which, if you consider the way of life of many people, might sound incredible and even untrue. In Homo Sacer, first published in 1995, he considers the lager from a historical and legal perspective, in order to identify its logic and argue that that same logic extends to other situations. Think about it, who is that person with no rights which society allows to be exploited? How can it be acceptable for people to be mistreated by the state as a matter of course?

Agamben plucks from history an ancient Roman legal concept that defines the outline of a person you can kill, without fear of punishment; this person is like a slave, a homo sacer is not necessarily a slave. The life of the homo sacer is bare life, bare because it is alright for that person to be excluded from the social, and s/he can even be extinguished altogether. Agamben discovers that in pre-Nazi Germany, there was a legal precedent for justifying bare life that pre-existed the camps, called schutzhaft or preventive custody. This was applied at a time of a state of exception (and there’s actually another book by that name by Agamben) – when rights are denied and laws overturned, abolished or temporarily suspended (as in the case of Guantánamo or, to some extent, even European refugee centres where you can be detained without due process and the rule of law is waived because you are an alien, and your rights are thus alienated). In this state of exception, personal freedom is or can be legally denied for the duration (bearing in mind that the concept of ‘freedom’ includes more than not being incarcerated). (Incidentally, Rosemary Laing’s photographs of camps for illegal aliens in Australia, for example, Welcome to Australia (2004), exhibited at Documenta XII, address this, as do Jenny Holzer’s Abu Ghraib paintings based on freedom of information Photostats, exhibited at the 2007 Venice Biennale). These extract the truth from indexicality itself, through rotation, sheer scale of the work, and modernist allusion.

Well, Agamben found that in Germany, in the early twentieth century, the laws of the state of exception had been extended over time, beyond the exception itself, and became the norm. When that happened, the camp became the place in which the state of exception manifests itself. Significantly (something I missed when I skim-read him in a hurry), he extended the concept to the detention camps in Europe (but also of temporary detention centres such as airport cells and football stadiums in Chile, Argentina, but also the Velodrome in German-occupied France).

Just to give this an Irish twist, Agamben’s concepts could be applied to the pauper’s workhouse, all the religious institutional lagers distinguished by varying degrees of violence against women and the working poor, members of the class we no longer acknowledge as such. First, these working poor, like the Jews, lose their human rights, their personal freedom and their identity of course; then they are rejected and abused, yet subsumed into a system which exploits them and negates their family bonds, by denying access to their children. They too live in what is in many ways a camp. It has its harsh laws and legislation imposed and consented to by other parts of society which contributes to its continued existence and protection from prosecution. Everyone knows it is there but, because of prevailing views and other pressures, ends up condoning it. And even now, the state condones what happened, preferring empty consolation of a monument to real engagement and resolution by addressing once and for all the unfinished business of recent history, despite the fact that Ryan and Murphy reports document the fact that the Church chose to defend its temporal power rather than its spiritual and evangelical responsibility. Read the RTÉ News bulletin which rightly observes that “the report rubbished the view put forward by the Church that the abuse was hidden from view and somehow took Church authorities by surprise.” (“Pope shares ‘outrage, betrayal and shame’,” 11 December 2009 <http://www.rte.ie/news/2009/1211/abuse.html>)

Agamben goes on to think that the camp is actually a biopolitical space (in Foucault’s sense of biopolitics, in which the institutions take control over people’s bodies). In the camp there is biopolitics, such that the state and the individual’s body have nothing between them. Agamben means that there is no protection barrier, no sheath between individual and state. Nothing defends the individual in the biopolitical camp where s/he turns into a totally vulnerable being. This is where the state of exception materialises, here in the biopolitical camp.

Now, when you consider what has just happened in Ireland, you might agree that we have a state of exception in which certain universal principles are waived, put to one side, because underlying ideology dictates one particular course of action, claiming that it the only one that makes sense, concealing all the while its specific anti-Keynesian, free market liberalism, the brand of economics that stemmed from Friedrich Von Hayek (Hayek in his twilight years was as an adviser to Maggie Thatcher), nowadays justified by the principle of Tough Love, as it was phrased in Clinton’s era, based on the sociological principle of two-thirds societies (“Media commentators have expressed concern that Western countries are becoming ‘two-thirds societies’ in which two-thirds enjoy the benefits of affluence, while one-third are locked into poverty or near-poverty” (see Bruce Headey et al, ‘Long and short term poverty: Is Germany a two-thirds society?’, Social indicators journal, Vol. 31, (January 1994), pp 1 – 25). The idea is that poverty is now acceptable for the state, so that in effect it is fine for one part of society to stay poor and unemployed forever, and for no attempt to be made to boost employment or rescue people from poverty. The state of exception justifies inequity and the re-emergence of the homo sacer.

“Spreading the pain,” the medical soundbite repeated ad nauseam for the past weeks, is symptomatic. Actually, when we spread butter on a slice of bread, we don’t spread it on just a quarter of a slice, yet that is what government has done: 250,000 workers have been singled out as more deserving of the pain, of suffering than the rest, after months of spin, while the disadvantaged have been targeted for more disadvantage, to sink them further into Agamben’s bare life, into a life of need, necessity that cannot be met. The pseudo-parliamentarian democracy imposes, in the state of exception, its conditions.

Now we have just witnessed the spectacle of free market economists responsible for the ruins of today being interviewed to justify the government’s decisions in the 2010 Budget. We have watched the bizarre spectacle of a conservative government which admitted that it was making an unnecessary gift of €7billion to the banks, on top of salvaging Anglo Irish Bank, half of which will be closed down anyway. Almost double the figure the government is extracting from its taxpayers, in a programme of impoverishment of resources and infrastructure as well as aggressive New Labour politics targeting the state and those on middle to low incomes which clashes with the big ideas of a knowledge economy (given that since the 1970s, capital preferred sweat-shop manufacturing and exploitation from the majority World). A spectacle of avoidance of the fact that “Ireland’s total tax-take is one of the lowest in the developed world and continues to fall as a percentage of GDP” (Social Justice Ireland. <http://www.socialjustice.ie>) and that already 16% of Ireland’s population lives in poverty and in the face of 110 tax breaks identified by the Commission on Taxation which would have raised €850m. Of a budget that is: “anti-family, anti-poor and anti-children”; a spectacle of preferring cars and alcohol to children’s wellbeing, giving handouts to foreign car manufacturers (for the scrappage scheme) and reducing the cost of beer. Vincent Brown argues cogently that taxing the top earners would raise €3.2billion in taxes (equivalent to 43 percent of their income), in a country where tax consists in 32.5 percent of GDP, while France and Italy has 43.3 and Germany 40.8; all three, of course, being no less part of the same global capitalist system (see Vincent Brown, ‘How to fix a rich but unequal country’, The Irish Times, Wednesday, 25 November 2009 <http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2009/1125/1224259392546.html>).

The state of exception has revealed the true colours of a political system that is subservient to the lobbies of industry and its free-market ideology, even when the evidence shows that that way of thinking economics is a proven failure. A case in point of tough love imposing its two-thirds society: The Combat Poverty Agency (CPA), established in 1986, which has played an important role in tackling poverty and inequality, was scrapped by government in 2008, for no valid reason, unless you think of Agamben’s bare life and state of exception. Freedom of information documents on the decision to scrap the agency reveal the government’s logic when it stated that: “the policy submissions do not appear to have a formative effect on policy development by government departments” (see Vincent Brown, ‘A budget triumphant in masking culpability’, The Irish Times – Wednesday, December 9, 2009,

<http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2009/1209/1224260356250.html>).

Yet there was a choice between raising the €4bn through cuts of services and public sector pay or through fairer tax, but one which was rejected out of hand by the same economists who condoned the inflation and free-wheeling, and hedge funds of the 1990s and 2000s (see Social Justice Ireland’s Analysis and critique of Budget 2010, <http://www.socialjustice.ie/content/unfair-unjust-budget-fails-vulnerable-damages-economy>).

This Debordian spectacle reveals the polarised interests behind the threadbare rhetoric of respect of difference, pluralism, and the Other while the Same is lulled into acceptance by the mantra of TINA (There Is No Alternative). To think critically is to think alternatives. There are always alternatives.

NB. With these considerations in mind, in his introduction to the Italian edition of Debord’s Commentary on the society of the spectacle, Agamben attaches to Debord’s thought a philosophical validity which Debord had been denied by the typically postmodern reception of Greislas and Plant who like others, both painted a sensationalist portrait of Debord, casting him as protagonist, privileged auteur, artist and filmmaker, while disregarding the militant that he actually was; something which the 1999 October anthology and all the other texts available online clearly demonstrate. All you have to do is read the film transcript of the Society of the spectacle (1973) (available at ubuweb.com). This is clearer and a tightly edited version, by comparison with the published book (1967), which has many more threads, such as a detailed explanations of the concept of reification, inherited from Lukács.
The same postmodern treatment was reserved for that wonderful iconologist, Frida Kahlo, who had been forgotten right up to the late 1970s, when an exhibition drew attention to her work. Then films, books and more exhibitions made her into a late-twentieth-century icon and biographers began to refer to her simply as “Frida” as if they themselves had known her. By the 1990s she had become a cult in the US and reproductions of her self-portraits appeared in packaging, fashion magazines and advertising. The Frida look was born.
Published documents actually reveal a more complex person, with the intertwined figures of artist and militant bravely surviving the pathologised persona. To avoid the flack from the ethics brigade, my point is that her work cannot be entirely equated with the tragedies of accident and illness throughout her life. This is the treatment she gets from Hayden Herrera’s Frida Kahlo. The Paintings in which everything is reduced to the personal dimension of her life.
Like Debord, until recently Kahlo’s political aesthetics, in fact, her socialist outlook, has mostly been overlooked, despite even the evidence of works like My dress hangs there (1933) or Self-portrait on the border between Mexico and the United States (1932), both being an artist’s response to the recent 1929 Wall Street Crash. A photograph exists of Diego Rivera, Kahlo’s husband, painting a mural in Detroit, with Kahlo in the foreground also painting this very Self-portrait. While Diego’s towering figure is painting this monumental mural dripping with rhetoric, the minute Kahlo is making an easel painting which combines several strategies to produce multiple meanings on a small scale. Big ideas don’t need the scale of skyscrapers. Just think of what Klee achieved. Even that Hayward Gallery retrospective a few years back was tainted by the cliché of mistaking Klee’s small scale with a restricted view of the world. Beware of clichés.
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