Updated: Apr 30, 2021
Part III: The Reproduction of the Society of the Spectacle
Part I of this analysis explored the link between Cronenberg's Videodrome and Guy Debord's seminal The Society of the Spectacle, focusing on the most important scenes in that particular chain. Part II explored capitalism and religion - the potentiation of the former, and the appropriation of the latter - in both Debord's and Cronenberg's work. It is now time to end this series with an analysis of how the Society of the Spectacle reproduces in both mediums. I finish with some thoughts on how we can hope to subvert the Society of the Spectacle that's indistinguishable - barely - from our modern era.
On the perpetuation of The Society of the Spectacle
“The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender lonely crowds.”
- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
The Society of the Spectacle is a virus; in Videodrome, it's one that spreads and recruits into its cause through television and infected cassete tapes. Because any system must replicate and perpetuate itself so as not to become irrelevant, the Society of the Spectacle thus grows tumors, "the new flesh", as it is referenced in Videodrome, to enact the changes it requires on its host - society and the Human.
In the Spectacular Optics scene, Renn is given a technological, vaguely television-shaped helmet, construed as a way to gather and analyze his hallucinations in an effort to, perhaps, help him. For me, this is a heavy-handed metaphor on how he has now become the Television's proxy - another drone, infected and dominated, he is now part of the Society of the Spectacle, acting as a human-shaped amplification chamber for the Television (and mass media's) agenda. He's an echo chamber devoid of thought, that repeats what he is told with no thought or critical thinking; he is simultaneously a spectator and, via his spectating, becomes and is an agent of the system. This is especially obvious considering how after this scene, Renn is easily manipulated into doing exactly what the Videodrome producers want, inciting him to kill Bianca O'Blivion, the daugher of Professor O'blivion and the apparent last remaining bastion of people with the actual knowledge of what Videodrome is and how to stop it. How is this idea forced upon Renn? By insertion of a literal VHS tape into a cassete-shaped belly cavity he has; he is literally being installed a program that compels and moves him.
Max Renn, however, isn't just an amplification chamber for the cancer that is Videodrome and The Society of the Spectacle; he enacts it, materializes it, in the real world. In one scene, Renn tortures Nicki in the real world - in his real world of Videodrome-induced hallucinations - under the illusion of being on a quest to understand the growth and decay inside him. Nicki is actually inside a television set during this scene, and it's the television that Renn brutalizes. And thus the ultimate folly of television, its replacement of reality with a collective illusion; its weaponization of attempts to understand and destroy it. This is manifested in the severing of the ties of empathy that binds us. Renn, in trying to fight the cancer within him, is already a machine. He'll never win.
One of Videodrome's more iconic scenes, for me, is when Max Renn picks up a pistol - a pistol he had previously and quite horrifically inserted into his own cassete-shaped chest cavity. He isn't just holding it - at that point in the movie, the pistol holds Max Renn as well, merging with his hand and flesh via a painful handshake made of metal screws that penetrate his hand and arm. Both of them are now indistinguishable, indivisible. Videodrome, and the Society of the Spectacle, want the fulfillment of the mission, and if it's no longer enough to drive the world through mass hallucinations and metaphorical (and in the movie, real) tumors, then it will change whatever it has to change, and even enact a form of biological and technological revisionism that serves its interests. The mixing of flesh and weapon via this indivisible relationship is a testament to the success of the indoctrination process - Renn has now evolved, and "become tough", like Videodrome intended to.
This, I believe, can be construed as a sign that Max Renn no longer resides in the real world; rather, he has fully transitioned to the final reality of the Society of the Spectacle. He is its belonging now, and thus the Society of the Spectacle transforms him into whatever it pleases. In our current day and age, this could be anything from a streamer, to an influencer, to a supermodel, carrying with him the insurmountable ideals of beauty the Spectacle Society so desires so as to keep us in a permanently dissatisfied state.
A connection jumps straightforwardly between plastic surgery (for aesthetics purposes), serving a collectively construed vision of aesthetics and what ideal beauty is supposed to look like, and the ultimate biological alteration that we can currently conceive: the fusion of man and machine (in this case in particular, man and pistol). This happens today already, to some extent - most people from the newer generations are picking up technological devices such as tablets and smartphones and interacting with them from an early age. Most people nowadays in the 13-45 range can be found constantly checking their smartphones, either in social media, or consuming some sort of content on their pocketable television sets. And there is such a thing as "phone separation anxiety" (PSA, or nomophobia, from "no mobile") that people feel when they forget their smartphones somewhere, or when the battery is dying. A FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) on a world that's constantly accelerating and happening should they be absent for a minute - thus creating the famous "wall hugger" joke.
The logical final step towards this disenfranchisement of the human body is the integration of digital mediums in the human brain (Elon Musks' Neuralink comes to mind). If the Society of the Spectactle as depicted in Videodrome can infect via visual waves through a television set, what then can it do when those images are projected directly onto our retinas? What can it do, then, when we can scroll Instagram and its (mostly) purely visual representation of reality in our minds, when we no longer even have a physical abstraction (a screen, so glossy and smooth) that grounds us in reality? No, what can it do when we no longer see images, but have our brains stimulated in such a way that images are generated directly in our minds? How do we escape the programming? What will it do to us as a society, and as individuals, if all our interactions are mediated by technology that appears to connect, but doesn't?
Subverting the Society of the Spectacle
And thus we come into what I believe to be one of the great lessons in Videodrome: that we all ultimately perish, should we singularly work towards its ending. Action must be concerted by a many, many parties for the Spectacle to feel a dent. Individual voices are easy to control and drown out in the storm, with recourse to things like Instagram's algorithms and the echo chambers that are organic results from network effects. In trying to kill Videodrome, Renn does so spectacularly, in executions that invade the public's mind eye with violence. Isn't he, after all, perpetuating Videodrome's intentions? The answer is that he is; and thus Videodrome presents us with an image of Renn entering a condemned, dillapidated vessel by the end of the movie, a sort of obvious metaphor to what Renn has become for Videodrome and The Spectacle Society: incapable of splitting up from what has become his very nature - his new flesh.
We do have to remember and understand that the Society of the Spectacle is a resilient one, and learns more from our errors in judgement than the opposite, using the antibodies generated by each successful attack to learn and adapt. And we have to remember that consumerism and acceleration are inextricably linked to the Spectacle, such that Videodrome's explorations of the matter have been somewhat superseded by technological and societal developments that occurred in the intervening time.
For one, today, the medium isn't so much television, but smartphones in particular and the digital media in general. These have been focused mostly on a single sense: vision and the (un)ethics of fast consumption. In a day and age where content is consumed as fast and as superficially as our fingers can run through the smoothness of our smartphone screens, where even page turns have become thumb flips, to slow down is an act of defiance. The Spectacle, and mass consumption, have thus become associated with dataism, with the ability to witness information (by scrolling our feeds; and I use witness because to watch isn't the same as to see) and to produce information ourselves (our own additions to the mass information paradigm).
The only option, it seems, is to fight the Society of the Spectacle with the same tools it uses to dominate us. Like secret, undercover agents who seemingly reinforce a given system's ideas and control mechanisms, we must take the Society of the Spectacle from the inside out, dressing up as the proverbial lamb - whilst keeping a wolfish attitude towards it.
The solution, it seems, is to weaponize its tools of dissemination and apparent interconnectedness, aiming to offer more than it does at its own game. We must offer the Spectacle Society's death by enabling our resistance to go viral. And while I don't have the mental acuity to develop this as much as I'd like (at least with what I know today), I propose one easy way to at least cause The Spectacle some damage.
Embrace yours and others' vulnerability
Embracing your vulnerability and that of others means a refusal of the narcissistic tendencies The Spectacle encourages; a refusal of the toxic individualism (and it's hard to sometimes separate it from humanism) that pervades us and makes oh so much sense in our minds. This means to believe and invest in those around us; to give more of our time to individuals, instead of to our social media feeds. There is a reason depression is the disease of the 21st century, and it has been shown that people who spend more time in social media are more prone to depression. I feel that most of us are being systematically disenfranchised by the velocity of the world around us, and words of encouragement can go a long way towards a crowd of individuals that are singularly suffering from depression, but that are anonymized in the crowd. People feel that something is wrong, but don't feel comfortable in sharing their fears, their burdens, and exposing their vulnerability in a world that works so hard to appear figured-out and decked-out in money, beauty, and projected images of perfection.
You'd be surprised how many people are willing to deeply share their vulnerabilities if they so much as imagine there's openness to hear from the other side. It takes time - but not as much as you imagine. It takes effort - but again, you're taking time from endlessly scrolling your feed. It's hard to empathize and absorb other people's problems, to be aware. But isn't that what makes us human? Isn't human vulnerability worthy of our attention and dissemination? Of achieving viral levels above those of someone dunking a bucket of ice on their heads, or performing the latest reel for their daily outfit?
I've failed, and I still fail sometimes in that regard. I too sometimes project what I wanted reality to be instead of what is - what I want to become instead of what I am. There is a thin line between aiming at an ideal and working towards it, and projecting an ideal without integrating it. It's not always easy. But we have to try.
This was the final piece on my three-part analysis of Cronenberg's Videodrome through the lens of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle. If you've reached this, congratulations; and please feel free to contribute with your opinion on this series. But after you do that, don't stay tuned. Make the world around you a better place instead.
This article features a photograph from the amazing davidaba (David Afonso). You can see "Internet wasn't designed to be vulnerable and other of his great work on his website, https://www.davidaba.com