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Beyond the Spectacle of Neoliberal Violence in the Age of Terrorism

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Posted on Aug 29, 2014

Photo by jumpinjimmyjava (CC BY 2.0)

By Henry A. Giroux, CounterPunch

This piece first appeared at CounterPunch.

The spectacle of violence and terrorism looms large in the post 9/11 world. As the recent beheading of James Foley by Islamic extremists makes clear, mass-mediated terrorism is now joined with the spectacle of violence, torture, and beheadings so as to open up a new space in which politics is shaped by the regressive morality of ideological fundamentalism, willfully degenerating into pathology. As shocking as these events may be, they offer no guarantees politically or pedagogically because the substantive nature of crisis itself has become frail, subject to its colonization by Hollywood spectacles and a disimagination machine that thrives on representational excess and a surrender to the infantilism of apocalyptic despair. Violence and human suffering are now framed outside of the realm of historical memory, readily dissolving into the non-stop production of Hollywood movies and the endless search for instant gratification. In a society in which our inner worlds are made under the reign of the death-haunted dictates of casino capitalism with its endless series of environmental, political, financial, and social catastrophes, the Apocalypse is embraced as if it only existed in the realm of fiction and functioned exclusively as a form of entertainment, rather than provide a warning about the rise of militarism, the killing of civilians, and religious and political fundamentalisms.

The horrors of crisis that were met in the past with struggles and the power of the radical imagination have now dissolved into the paralyzing spectacle of the made-for-screen culture catastrophe, which limits the circle of moral conscience and devalues political reflection. Under such circumstances, the American public is no longer dealing with what can be called the category of crisis, which functions to produce a moral and political response. Instead, American culture is beset with what I want to call the spectacle of catastrophes, which move between the registers of transgressive excess and extreme violence, and in doing so exhaust their shock value, degenerating into escapist entertainment, while furthering a state of ethical and political paralysis given the widespread cynicism that has become the modus operandi of neoliberal machinery of misery and precarity. Catastrophe is rooted in resignation and an acceptance of the neoliberal notion that nothing can be done whereas, as Zygmunt Bauman argues, crisis speaks to the need to address what exactly needs to be done. If in the face of a crisis, such as the bombing of Hiroshima, the question emerged as what was to be done in the aftermath of such horror, catastrophe functions so as to be overwhelmed by precarity and “uncertainty so profound that the issue is no longer how do we address and rectify a crisis but how do we endure it.”

Amid the elevation of extreme violence and its degeneration into a cultural and pedagogical spectacle, historical, individual, and social modes of agency degenerate and pose a serious challenge to the very possibility of addressing diverse crises. Instead of responding to crises with the desire to correct a wrong and reimagine a different future, all that appears to be left in American culture is the desire to merely survive in the face of endless representations of state and non-state violence. The mass public indifference to the threat of human extinction, the use of state torture, the mass and indiscriminate killing of children, the shutting off of water to the poor in Detroit, the rise of debtor’s prisons, the war against women, the indifference to the nuclear war machine, the state violence against student non-violent protesters, and the brutality that fills youth detention centers are only a small indication of how the shadow of the apocalypse and the experience of actual suffering have moved out of the realm political and moral sensibility and responsibility into the black hole of a disimagination machine. The quest to merely survive is now legitimated through spectacles of violence that misdirect moral and political outrage into entertainment and the abyss of a moral coma. As violence becomes part of a disimagination machine that makes it difficult to imagine other modes of social behavior, resistance, if not a more just a democratic future, the spectacle of the apocalypse signals a society in which a collective sense of despair merges with the notion of a future that is no longer worth fighting for.

We live in an age in which violence and the logic of disposability mutually reinforce each other. For example, unarmed and with his hands raised, Michael Brown was not only shot by a white policeman, but his body was also left in the street for four hours, a reminder of the same treatment given to the low income inhabitants of Katrina whose bodies, rendered worthless and underserving of compassion, were also left in the streets after the hurricane swept through New Orleans. The disposable are the new living dead, invisible, and relegated to zones of terminal exclusion and impoverishment. The disposable are the unknowable, invisible, and powerless marginalized by class and race and forced into ghettoes that serve as dumping grounds for the poor, inhabited by armies of police dressed like soldiers inhabiting a war zone or what Joao Biehl calls “zones of social abandonment.” The disposable constitute a new form of underclass, an expanding group of the American population that extends from poor urban minorities and a collapsing middle class to the millions incarcerated in the Panopticon state, in addition to an entire generation of young people whose lives have been short-circuited by a rogue financial class that has robbed them of a future, who now live in a state of uncertainty and precarity. Voiceless and hence powerless, subjectivity becomes not just the locus of politics but part of the machinery of social and political death. In the age of the spectacle, memory is often lost making it easier for the logic of disposability to become the norm rather than the exception. As consumerism becomes the only obligation of agency, the pleasure quotient blunts any sense of moral responsibility, and the machinery of commodification rolls on in its efforts to promote a cleansing of historical memory along with any viable vestige of social and political irresponsibility, if not willful indifference. The apocalypse has come home and it has become a video game, effectively dethroning the political and smothering the never-ending task of history to witness and critique the horrors giving rise to what seems like endless crises. Any thought of changing the world is now left to the superheroes that populate comics, video games, and Hollywood films, all of which testifies to the ways in which the dominant cultural apparatuses of our time engage in forms of depoliticization by rendering as David Graeber points out, “any thought of changing the world seem [like] an idle fantasy.”

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