BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 14 NOV 05
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Issue 95

Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War

BY Julian Myers in Reviews | 14 NOV 05

For the Situationists ‘spectacle’ was a system of appearances so encompassing that often they regarded it with a despair equally absolute. The authors of Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, whose ranks include a former member of the Situationist International, hold out more hope. This hope is based on the turmoil in which our current image-politics has found itself, on the fact that spectacle no longer seems completely under the control of the unrelenting positivism of the market. Suddenly we are confronted with images of failure that the market of appearances cannot spin: 11 September 2001, Abu Ghraib, rats tearing at the bodies of the abandoned and dispossessed of New Orleans. This is not exactly a comforting development. As the authors note, ‘When a spectacle agonizes, the guns reappear at every margin of the image-array’. But it does hold out the possibility that the constellation of appearances may be doubled edged. The modern state lives by the image, and may die by it too.

RETORT’s book borrows its title from John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1677). Cast down from Heaven, Satan promises his vengeance and return: ‘And reassembling our afflicted powers,/Consult how we may henceforth most offend/Our Enemy, our own loss how repair.’ Here it is not the agonistic modern state speaking but RETORT themselves, which says something about their impression of the diminished position from which their Left now speak. Alongside historical excurses on ‘permanent war’ and the United States’ ‘Israel fetish’, the authors carefully dismantle several of the Left’s most cherished clichés, including its ‘Blood for Oil’ slogans and the vanguard ideal. (They criticize the Left, one suspects, not to subvert it but – pace Clement Greenberg – to ‘entrench it more firmly in its area of competence’. Most importantly, Afflicted Powers considers radical Islam’s new role as the most visible face of resistance to capital and its effective detournement of image-politics – the hideous telegenic achievement of 11 September being the most spectacular example.

Afflicted Powers’ style is characterized by its shuttling between ‘speculation on current forms of social control’ and brutal facts, ‘cold figures of profit, piled-up statistics of death and impoverishment’. This hybrid address is perhaps unavoidable, given its collective authorship. The shifts between modes are jarring, almost unbearable. Yet they describe not only a form of writing but a form of life for many disenfranchised people in the present, where unendurable privations exist alongside Internet access, where terrorist attacks are cued by email or a ringing mobile phone. Here is a world the Situationists never quite imagined.

Julian Myers is an art historian based in San Francisco. He is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.