In his new book The Beach Beneath the Street, McKenzie Wark makes a strong case for the “contemporary resonance” of situationism, in particularly the theoretical writings of the Frenchman Guy Debord. In his masterpiece The Society of Spectacle (1967), Debord wrote the following: “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.”
Two pieces in today’s Guardian provide melancholy evidence for the claim that the commodity has indeed achieved “total occupation of social life” in this country.
Exhibit 1: under the headline “Welcome to London 2012. But first take a walk through the shopping centre”, Esther Addley reports from Stratford in east London, where work on the Olympic stadium and adjoining mega-mall is going on around the clock:
No matter which sport you are going to see when the third London Olympics begin, a visit to 2012 park will mean one thing – walking though a very large shopping centre first.The high-speed Javelin train from King’s Cross – set to deliver 25,000 spectators an hour to Stratford International – exits to a busy row of shops and restaurants, constructed by the Westfield Group. Crowds arriving at Stratford’s tube and mainline station can exit either via a concourse leading directly into Westfield’s complex or walk across an elegant rusted steel bridge – again built by Westfield, again delivering sports fans into the heart of the retail development.
Years ago there was a now notorious advertising campaign for the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, in which posters carried the strapline “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”. You might say that the “Olympic Park” in Stratford is an “ace mall with quite a nice stadium attached”.
Exhibit 2: the intellectual historian Stefan Collini unpicks the dismal, economistic logic of the higher education white paper, which encourages the students currently scrambling for university places to “think of themselves as narrowly focused consumers, searching for ‘value for money’ among different forms of employment-directed training”. This government understands very well the logic of Lord Browne’s crudely utilitarian, unabashedly economistic review of higher education that was published in the autumn. As Collini puts it:
Whatever view you take of this government’s macroeconomic policy, the truth is that the new higher education system will not reduce public expenditure in the short or even the medium term. Indeed, the reason why the white paper now proposes a more centrally controlled system than at present – in terms of determining how many students with particular A-level results universities will be able to take – is because the government has belatedly realised that the new fees will otherwise increase public expenditure in the short term. In fact, the independent Higher Education Policy Institute, which published its analysis of the proposals this week, thinks the government is still underestimating the cost to the public purse of the new system. The measures are clearly being introduced for political reasons, to install the simulacrum of a market and to make universities serve the economy more directly.