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Superconversations Day 38: Jose Rosales responds to Jon Rich, "ISIS and the CIA vie for the Claim to Divinity"


“…All The Better For Governing You”

A comparison between the original Life Magazine image and The Society of Spectacle book cover.

“So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of modem society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.”

– Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle

What role does The Spectacle play in the context of contemporary global ‘war’? This is the question the preoccupies Rich’s piece, which compares the geopolitical reputation of ISIS with those covert operations of the CIA. For Rich, one thing is certain: what constitutes the antagonistic struggle between ISIS and the CIA is both organization’s success at utilizing media outlets in order to frame the geopolitical narrative in their favor. However, as Rich notes, when war meets the spectacle, as in this case, geopolitical narratives become shaped primarily through the consequences of the use of certain images: most notably immolation and waterboarding.

While it is easy for individuals to envision what seems like the eternal pain of being burned alive, we find ourselves, says Rich, less capable of envisioning the repeated simulation of drowning. The difference, between the image of the immolated individual and the waterboarded prisoner, in terms of affecting popular imagination corresponds precisely to the methods and styles of exercising political power proper to ISIS and the CIA. While the former chooses the method of brutal displays of violence - with which it is all the better to instill fear into the hearts of the damned and recruit the disaffected and dispossessed - the CIA prefers this difficulty of imagining the experience of waterboarding. For the latter, power is best exercised when it is both invisible and unimaginable.

It is for this reason that ISIS and the CIA are specific forms of spectacular governance since each, in their own way, constitute the true definition of the spectacle: “The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.” And it is this management, control, and construction of social relations that both ISIS and the CIA are continuously and essentially engaged in.

For Rich, however, there is a crucial difference in these respective marriages of war and the spectacle. If television took cinema beyond what it was capable of effecting (the suspension of disbelief which keeps spectators in a state of relative complacency when faced with violence), its presentation of reality to an audience while still achieving the desired effect of disbelief and complacent acceptance was such that the marriage between war and spectacle for ISIS has been one of going beyond the very function of television itself. As Rich writes, “ISIS has superseded the technology that gave birth to it.” Here, Rich is referring to ISIS’ uploading of the Kasasbeh clip to YouTube despite the website’s best efforts to thwart its circulation on the internet.[1]

Given these competing modes of spectacular governance, we should remind ourselves of the oft-cited passage from Feuerbach which sheds light on how each political order is, in effect, competing for ‘divinity’:

But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence, this change, inasmuch as it does away with illusion, is an absolute annihilation, or at least a reckless profanation; for in these days illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness. Religion has disappeared, and for it has been substituted, even among Protestants, the appearance of religion – the Church – in order at least that “the faith” may be imparted to the ignorant and indiscriminating multitude . . .

[Ludwig Feuerbach, ‘Preface to the Second Edition’, Essence of Christianity.]

Thus, from Feuerbach to Rich, we see the utilization of the Spectacle as the means of ensuring a governable population (whose individuals are recruited to die on behalf of the State) and ensuring a specific vision of the future for global politics.[2] What marks this competition as one for ‘divinity’ is not simply the struggle between a ‘secular’ West and a caliphate vying for global dominance - both facts which are nothing but surface effects and require no analysis whatsoever. As Feuerbach notes, even if religion disappears there can remain various substitutes that fulfill its function.

Thus, these spectacular forms of governance are essentially religious because they require populations to be held in states of fear or hope - fear of some divine retribution/damnation, or the hope of a ‘democracy to come’ once the true enemy of the West has been exterminated through a strategy of ‘infinite justice.’ In either case, whether through fear or hope, a people exist only at the level of dreaming; where they dream for either salvation in another world or in the salvation promised by globally integrated capitalism, all the while having been stripped of the means by which to make those aspirations a reality. Thus, what spectacular governance ensures is the separation of individuals with a socialized skepticism of collective struggles for emancipation which supplants the latter with the prevailing belief that freedom is only made possible through whichever Leviathan suits individual opinion.

Jose Rosales is a PhD student at SUNY, Stony Brook.

[1] While it does not upset Rich’s argument too much, it is worth noting that Fox News was the only US media outlet to upload the Kasasbeh video in its entirety. This simple fact points to the relationship between ISIS and the US security state with its policies - namely, the spectacle of immolation of the former simply reinforces and acts as the justification for the unimaginable/invisible spectacle of the latter.
[2] Eugene Holland has created a useful concept regarding the role of the State in contemporary global capitalism: the Death-State. The ‘Death-State’ precisely maps onto the two main tendencies that characterize the functioning of the State today: one the one hand, the State is a mere relay point for capital circulation and accumulation and thus the curtailing of State intervention in the global economy, while on the other hand the State’s powers of security and military/policing capacities have seen an increase, by policy (e.g., Patriot Act) and material organization (e.g. increased militarization of the police). For more see Nomad Citizenship: Free-market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike (Minnesota University Press: Minneapolis, 2011).

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Actually Debord has this very interesting quote about the relationship of liberal democraies and terrorism in the Comments on The Society of The Spectacle:

This perfect democracy fabricates its own inconceivable enemy, terrorism. It wants, actually, to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results. The history of terrorism is written by the State and it is thus instructive. The spectating populations must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else seems rather acceptable, in any case more rational and democratic.

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