The Magical Spectacles of Revolution

they-live-billboards-messages-john-carpenter

We seem to be obsessed at the moment with the idea that The Truth is being hidden from us. The government of the world conspire to keep us in ignorance, or so the story goes, and the champions of truth are Wikileaks and the hackers that reveal what the ruling elites try to hide. This all seems very hard to stomach and a real backward step. The real problem is not that we don’t know how the ruling elites function or what they are up to – on the contrary we’ve amassed mountains of incriminating evidence over the last four decades. The problem is that we cannot, as yet, get our acts together to offer a singular alternative. Exposing the truth is not enough. In fact, if we start to think that it is all we can do as political action then we have confined political action to a mere exchange of information. Exposing the truth is a waste of time. Telling Truth to Power is about as effective as throwing a book by Noam Chomsky at a passing SCUD missile.

When I was a member of a revolutionary organization who planned to take over the world at their annual conference in Butlins, I used to pride myself in the fact that I knew about an American science fiction film written and directed by John Carpenter, called They Live.  The film is a crude but effective illustration of the concept of false consciousness and is an attempt through allegory to expose the ways in which American consumers are “programmed” by Capitalism. The film follows a protagonist (Nada) who decodes the world around him to find the hidden truth, which has been hidden from the entire population of the country save for a few vanguard rebels: the ruling class are in fact humanoid aliens who control human social affairs through the manipulation of TV broadcasts, news, and subliminal messages in advertising, magazines and products. Beneath the schlock-horror trope of an alien invasion this is a didactic film teaching the viewing public about the Marxist concepts of Hegemony, ideology, the manufacturing of mass consent and the covert nature of capitalist propaganda, hidden within everyday objects and stories. Ideology is everywhere and the hero, with the use of a pair of magical spectacles (rather like those used by the founding father of the Mormons) can see that beneath the superficial human appearance of the elite lurk horrific skull-like alien faces, and that beneath all images and signs the true messages are – CONFORM, OBEY, REPRODUCE, DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY.

This metaphor for decoding is, in more sophisticated terms, exactly what cultural studies, media studies and women’s studies have been doing since the 60s: ‘decoding the cultural and political hegemony’, ‘forming structuralist critique of dominant images’, ‘deconstructing patriarchal language’ and so on. Left wing academics and social theorists are the people with the magic spectacles who can see the aliens and their subliminal messages. Thinkers like Noam Chomsky, Naomi Wolf and Naomi Klein have made a life out of ideologically decoding the ‘manufactured consent’ and ‘false consciousness of the masses’ for us. This method even made it into high schools and into legislation with the politically correct idea that society could be transformed by changing the words that we use to describe it. Many of us Generation Xers have been wearing these decoding spectacles for decades, we prided ourselves in showing off the hidden political message behind everything and loathing the status quo. The entire post-modern project was little more than that – a way to deal with the collapse of alternatives to consumerism, a defeat turned a strategic retreat – we couldn’t demolish the buildings but we could at least critique the billboards.

The problem now is that we can’t actually take those magical spectacles off. They’re all that stand between us and being normal co-opted people, alienated members of the masses. The worst thing of all is that the magic spectacles don’t actually change anything. In They Live the hero runs round with a gun shooting the aliens and ends up starting a revolutionary organisation who jam the transmissions of the aliens, thus revealing the true horror hidden behind the façade of consumerism, the aliens are exposed, the people begin to riot, the revolution begins. This, in the real Western world of today, is not going to happen. And the main reason why is not that we don’t know, we are governed by power elites, it is that the alternatives seem unavailable and unimaginable.

The Problem is, once you remove the possibility of revolutionary social change, doesn’t all this decoding just amount to a whole lot of complaining, whining and disdain – to a cult of elitists who look down on the ignorant plebs?

they-live-ccstumeFrom experience I know it’s hard to give up on the sense of superiority that comes with being a leisure-time deconstructionist. It’s like having to rewire your entire brain; stepping off your pedestal. It’s more boosting for your ego to walk around judging others and accepting that the world is ‘fucked’. This way of being has gone from being a specialist, minority pursuit with Generation X to being the widespread hip attitude of the generation Y hipster. A kind of ‘things are only really cool, if they’re crap’ nonchalance which extends well beyond ironic 50s clothing, ironic sexist imagery and the fetishisation out of out date music formats and ‘cute’ retro cameras. This is the initial rebellious impulse subsumed by an overwhelming irony. But this is not, ultimately, a happy or productive way to live, and its not actually the fault of generation Y – we, the generation that came before them, showed them how to do this. For us Xers rebellion was turned into a ‘cultural choice’, not a set of political convictions or actions. Rebellion became ironic T-shirts with slogans like “YOUR LOGO HERE”. We showed Gen Y how it was done: how to be ironic about being a brain-dead apolitical consumer, while creating a display of passive-aggressive dissent. This was then emptied of all content by the time Gen Y ended up reprocessing the gesture en masse.

So recently we have seen a hipster interest in They Live by John Carpenter. They Live ironic retro products include OBEY, and CONSUME T-shirts and Alien-elite Halloween masks. The message is not what the baby boomers think – its not “hey everybody wake up, we’re ruled by a power elite.’ No the hipster message is two steps of irony beyond that, it says : ‘I know we’re ruled by a power elite and there’s nothing we can do about it so I’m going to laugh about it and at the same time signify to you that I KNOW we are all mindless consumers, so this in turn elevates me beyond a mindless consumer.’ That’s a lot of impotent semiotics going on in a choice of T-shirt.

The next, and one might hope final, stage in this hipster twist of sophisticated signification-of-superiority is being ironic about how irony is not ironic anymore. This semantic endgame is being played out right now, everywhere in popular culture. It is ultimately an existential statement about the pointlessness of your own endeavors, convictions and identity. Hipsters who hate hipsters are not anti-hipster but the best hipster of all because being a hipster is all about a display of apathetic self self-loathing. Gen Y are creating these empty gestures because they are floating in a political void. It’s actually a cry for help or at least a cry for ‘meaning’.

Having a T-shirt (bought from despair.com) that says “Ironic T-shirt” on it is just one step away from having a T shirt that has nothing on it; the step after that would be to have a slogan that you, heaven forbid, actually believe in. Or even better to stop thinking that T-shirts are an adequate means for expressing your political convictions and personal identity at all. Even hipsters are getting very tired of ironically laughing at the alienated masses and mocking other hipsters. Political impotence is no joke.

Imagine a society where everyone is wearing the decoding spectacles and rather than it causing a revolution, everyone just gets on with living under the control of the alien elite. A world in which we get used to knowing that all the subliminal messages are there, and we even take fun in demonstrating that we know about them, but we don’t do anything about them. The secret messages say OBEY, CONSUME and so we obey and consume, and rather than picking up a gun to kill the aliens all we do is wink and a nod at each other from behind our ironic retro sunglasses. This is pretty much where society is at just now. So what do we do about those magical spectacles that decode the world? Leave them on and get used to the horror. Pick up the gun and kill the aliens or smash our glasses, forget what we know and get on with life, as if the aliens don’t exist at all and everything is OK as it is.

Comments (9)

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  1. Neil McRae says:

    Such a great movie, with a real subversive punch – I didn’t know it was hip again! And it makes you think how much worse things have got since 1989.

  2. Pity, I thought you were going to have come up with some idea of an alternative reaction to it all, not just assure everyone of how clever you are by working it out…yawn

    1. emorrison says:

      The answer is to stop engaging in all this ‘freedom information’ hysteria and to quietly get on with doing local actions that are barely even noticed by the press and media. I say throw away the spectacles and start a local community garden.

  3. barakabe says:

    Haven’t seen the film but I tried to follow the analogy as long as I could and asked myself the following questions: Would killing the alien elites stop the messages that control us? Would we continue to respond to the messages even if they’re no longer there- like Pavlov’s dog?
    I think you’re wrong in assuming that ‘hipsters’ ( whatever that is or who they are) own a pair of these “decoding spectacles”, as this is not consistent with my experience, unfortunately.
    Would “smashing” the glasses make sense? Are the glasses useful in themselves- for example, what would happen if other elites started sending messages after we disposed of the aliens? We would need our specs again in such a situation.
    What if we do recognise the messages and yet refuse to respond or interact with them- would that not dispel the power of the messages?
    Would it not be better for us to keep the “decoding” specs on, whilst individually and collectively agreeing to use non-cooperation with the messages- after all the messages only acquire power through our agreeing to obey them.

  4. countess fi hong kong says:

    Great article, but sadly – we really are fucked, even if there’s a yes vote – we’re still going to be fucked for the generation after that as the butlins brigade roll in to take their places, and get found out.

    1. countess fi hong kong says:

      ps – a good start would be to boycott the scottish mortgage investment trust award.

      1. emorrison says:

        are you really fi hong kong?

  5. umbra13 says:

    Perhaps it is not a matter of Magical Spectacles, nor even of spectacle as Debordist alienation in modernity. Can people be expected to become the Effect for a Cause? Political rationality has long had the fond idea of an amplifying mechanics such that its just cause (whatever that might be) should translate into social effect.
    Even in the 1790s, Schiller complained that his was “an apathetic generation” failing to grasp a politics of freedom, for whom “the maxim of passive obedience passes for the supreme wisdom of life”.
    In our time, mainstream politicians feel unease at democratic deficits, of the empty seats for their party games. Non-engagement is the enigma for their gaggle of business-as-usual safe-pairs-of-hands, as it is for those who seek change. There is an argument that ironic silence is a strategic refusal. That may be an over-rationalisation in itself but at least it puts in question a form of political Reason of causes, effects, and catalysts acting on others. Discarding that maybe just leaves temporary alliances of the post-disillusioned, post-ironic, playing around a what-if naivety which may become something new. No big ideas, no big answers, but then maybe they were always wish-fulfillment.

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