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Sn 3 - Ep 6

A CRITIQUE OF SPECTACULAR CRITICISM
by
Douglas Spencer
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The term “spectacle” is supposed to be among the sharpest weapons in our armory of architectural critique. Through its invocation, “starchitects” are cut down to size. Their works are pilloried as “iconic,” lamented as signs indicating the depths to which architecture has sunk. “Spectacle” is itself, though, as one-dimensional as the architecture it targets. An impoverishment of theory captured in the magic circle of appearances it claims to see through, spectacle stands in the way of effectively accounting for architecture as an instrument of and for capital.

Though now well worn, the problem is not with the overuse or the corruption of a once radical term but with its very essence. Spectacle, the legacy of the Situationist International and Guy Debord’s 1967 The Society of the Spectacle, was conceived as an advance on Marx’s critique of the commodity and its fetishization. The opening line of Debord’s infamous work paraphrases that of Capital:

Marx: “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.” [1]

Debord: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.” [2]

Something significant happens in Debord’s second line. There is nothing like it in Marx. Marx knows the difference between how capitalism presents itself and what capitalism is. Capitalism is, among other things, the enclosure of the commons, the legislation against the poor, the exploitation of labor, the factory system of production, and, most of all, the relentless accumulation of wealth. An “immense accumulation of commodities” is only the outward appearance capitalism has chosen for itself. Life has not “moved away” into its mode of presentation for Marx. Yet it has for Debord: capitalism is spectacle. “The spectacle,” writes Debord, “is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.” [3] As a perspicacious Gilles Dauvé noted in 1977, Debord’s writing “gives the impression of a fundamental analysis, when in fact the method, and the subject being studied, remain always at the level of social appearances.” [4]

Architectural criticism will remain similarly stuck at the level of appearance so long as it continues to invoke “spectacle.” This is fine, of course, for a practice of liberal architectural criticism concerned with the discipline tarnishing its once honorable credentials in vulgar shows of display ­– or for those wanting to strike a readymade radical pose – but it is hardly the class critique once envisioned by Manfredo Tafuri. For that, the task is more demanding. It involves accounting for practices of resource extraction, financing, and procurement; recognizing the labor of architectural design and construction; and analyzing how its end product is designed to realize value, mobilize bodies, and shape mentalities. It involves the patient and persistent work of coming to terms with the relation between the image architecture presents of capital and that of how and what it produces for capital.

NOTES 🚘🏀🐤🍏🌎🍇

[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1976), 125.

[2] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (Detroit: Black & Red Books, 1977), 7.

[3] Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 17.
 
[4] Gilles Dauvé, “Critique of the Situationist International,” Red Eye, no. 1 (1979): 
https://libcom.org/library/critique-situationist-international-gilles-dauve.
 
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