“Where were the Humans?”

Posted by Gary Farnell on August 10, 2012 in Dr Gary Farnell, Guest Blog tagged with


‘Where Were the Humans?’

A film of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle would make an excellent Gothic science-fiction movie. The very notion of ‘spectacle’ as the accumulation of capital ‘to the point of image’ resonates with several motifs from the Gothic imagination. Think of the narrative movement into the Other’s space (with a voice-over intoning Debord’s line ‘All that was once directly lived has become mere representation’). Or think of the twists and turns in the plot occasioned by frenzied fighting over property possession, all amounting to a spectacle epitomizing society’s own prevalent model of itself. What a blockbuster that would be.

Or rather, that film has already been made, in the Gothic science-fiction mode. It was made last week. And it wasn’t the first time it had appeared. ‘The scenes were out of a disaster movie’ was a common response to the so-called ‘flash crash’ on Wall Street last Wednesday. Traders watched their screens in alarm. Chaos: a surge of activity, as if from the Outside, sent the prices of scores of companies into a crazy dance of soaring leaps and plummeting falls. ‘Black Boxes Blow Up Wall St’, ‘When Wall Street Robots Go Rogue’ were subsequent headlines. What had happened? Computer software, installed so as to facilitate high-frequency trading – algorithms execute huge trades in mere milliseconds – malfunctioned. In particular, Knight Capital, traced by regulators as the source of the torrent in trades (a ‘universe of speculation’: Debord), lost $440m in forty-five minutes, leaving it fighting for survival. ‘Where were the humans?’ demanded Patrick Healy, chief executive of the Issuer Advisory Group. He might well ask, as this was a ‘little flash crash’. The first ‘flash crash’ happened in May 2010, on a much larger scale, with a computer ‘glitch’ sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average into free-fall, losing $1 trillion of market value in thirty minutes (the share prices of some major multinationals plunged almost to zero).

Law of catastrophe

That there is a certain insistence of Gothic motifs in all this is clear. Familiar is the generalized claustrophobia of the high-tension interior spaces. Treacherous paranoid insularity – or, The Mysteries of Udolpho redux – is, throughout, the hallmark of the action. Such motifs as these are not then secondary, ‘decorative’ phenomena. Rather, in a primary sense, they represent the active structuring of reality itself due to the degree of their symbolic and ideological force. As Wall Street’s ‘flash crashes’ show, they manifest the fundamental fantasy of a society of the spectacle. ‘Every thing tends directly to the catastrophe’, as wrote Horace Walpole at the beginning of The Castle of Otranto, thereby articulating the law of catastrophe governing Gothic fiction. His masterstroke was to have Ricardo (the story’s First Usurper) utter a deep sigh and step out of his portrait, whilst it hung upon the wall. A key sign of the fantastic freakiness of the current universe, many of Walpole’s contemporaries thought it an outrageously ridiculous thing to do, too weird for words. But has it not proved to be a forebear, at the level of image, of the Wall Street computer screen inscribed with a software glitch that takes on a life of its own? To adapt a well-known Marxian saying: We always get the catastrophes we have first fantasized about.

The ideological co-ordinates of fantasizing about catastrophe (that is, the fantasmatics of such) were set for the current ‘computer’ age of modern technology by, among other things, the futuristic film 2001: A Space Odyssey of 1968. Subsequent, similarly ‘epochal’ configurations of high technology and horror include Alien (1979) and The Matrix (1999), where, often enough, the ‘computer is the star’. Alongside this the unimaginable Impossible happens when a gunman (‘I’m the Joker’) recreates the on-screen violence of a (Gothic) ‘catastrophe’ big-production like the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, directly in the cinema multiplex. Thus the cinema-computer screen which miniaturizes the spectacle reflects-constructs image-reality. Is it any wonder that Debord’s vision of the spectacle – ‘The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains’ – should reach for its inspiration back to the ‘industrial’ age and the diverse outcomes of its socio-economic conditions? Its own literature of terror is a fully signifying dimension of Debord’s discourse: it fuses therein with a Hegel-Feuerbach-Marx lineage of thought, articulating an extended critique of ‘spectacular’ alienation (capital’s ‘imaginology’).

The computer subject

What then of the aftermath of last week’s ‘flash crash’ on Wall Street? At a knock-down price, Knight Capital was rescued by a four-strong consortium of backers a few days after running up its terrific losses. Despite the loss of confidence in the markets’ infrastructure, the desire remains for high-frequency trading that grows exponentially faster, all in the absence of reliable circuit breakers, so that the risk of systemic shocks of still greater magnitude increases as well. ‘Technology breaks’, as Thomas Joyce, Knight Capital’s chairman and chief executive, was forced to admit last week. So the question of ‘where are the humans?’ becomes more acute.

The underlying problem is that of the tendency, on the markets as elsewhere, to think of the computer as a cogito, all as a reflex of modern society’s spectacular alienation. This fantasmic cogito, alias the Cartesian subject, is possessed of a unified intention and will: it can therefore ‘do’, at high speed, our mathematical calculations and digital functions. (Also, by extension, we say that ‘the markets’ can speak: they articulate economic forecasts, as well as giving verdicts on democratic elections, for example.) The equivalent of ‘Technology breaks’ in the theory of the subject which comes after René Descartes is that great Copernican revolution that is the notion of the decentred subject. Among other things, the literature of terror, in taking seriously the discourse of dreams, for instance, serves to cast doubt on the very unity of the self-propelling (computer) subject of intention and will: what do computers dream of?

Ironically, through giving priority, as indeed we might, to the conception of the newer decentred subject, we underline the importance, at the level of social relations, of good old-fashioned human beings, cognizant of their limitations. It is thus a way of resisting the temptation to project onto computers the fantasy of their superhuman powers. In short, it is means of traversing that particular fantasy by taking a step through the screen – whether cinematic or digital – that screens (in the double sense of the word) the society of the spectacle: the spectacle ‘unites what is separate,’ as Debord says, ‘but it unites it only in its separateness’.

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