Academic journal article Afterimage

"All That Is Solid Melts into Air": Notes on the Logic of the Global Spectacle. (Feature)

Academic journal article Afterimage

"All That Is Solid Melts into Air": Notes on the Logic of the Global Spectacle. (Feature)

Article excerpt

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

In his 1974 song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron sings of the ways that the dominant genres of television (the news, the soap opera, the commercial, the sitcom, etc.) prevent any oppositional political content from being represented there. In his view, the chief political function of television is to represent the interests of the white ruling class as natural and inevitable, while distracting us and turning us into passive consumers by "entertaining" us at the same time. The person whose structure of feeling is built around the experience of consumption, Scott-Heron suggests, is not the person who engages in radical political action: "The revolution will not go better with Coke/The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath." The song concludes with his insistence that the revolution will not be televised, it will not be a "re-run," it will be live."

In his insistence on liveness, on the necessity of revolution responding to and participating in reality itself, Scott-Heron updates a longstanding Marxist tradition anxious about our ability to represent and thus apprehend historical reality. Without a map of the historical situation in which we find ourselves, how can we possibly develop a plan for changing that reality? Our inability to map out our historical situation is frequently seen as the result of a stubborn melancholic intrusion of the lost past into the present. For example, in The 18th Brumaire Marx famously laments that: "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." Just when people seem ready to revolutionize themselves, they "anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service." Thus, they keep betraying themselves because they mis-recognize themselves, their real conditions of existence and their relations with each other. The revolutionary task is to be present to the present--to s ee the world as it is and act accordingly. I take this to be Lenin's suggestion when he remarks that," one can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself." We are always playing catch-up in relation to reality. There is a persistent time lag that we are always trying to close.

The difficulty of the task lies in the effort to determine what kind of a fluctuating "thing" reality is. This perpetual transformation is perhaps the one constant of modernity. In a phrase, which has since come to signify the ever-shifting, changeable and volatile character of modern life, Marx and Engels exclaimed in The Communist Manifesto that "all that is solid melts into air." (1) They referred first of all to the fact that capitalism by its nature is constantly expanding and therefore needs to constantly revolutionize itself in order to create new markets, leaving nothing solid or permanent in its wake, both destroying and conjuring into existence everything from cities to human populations along the way. They were also speaking of the way that capitalism reduces everything to the shadowy abstraction known as money. Both of these processes have accelerated and transformed themselves in the twentieth century. New technologies have greatly expanded the human capacity for both creation and destruction, an d the universality of money as a standard of value above all others has been supplemented by the (much discussed) process through which everything, if it is to be felt to exist at all, must also be able to be transformed into an image.

This is the situation of which Jean Baudrillard has written: "The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction. …

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