Sunday, March 29, 2015

Wark review

McKenzie Wark's The Spectacle of Disintegration seeks to explain the modern work of the Situationists to readers. Situationist International was a social, political, intellectual, and artistic movement from the late 1950s to the early 1970s comprised of what Wark lovingly refers to as "a small band of ingrates" (Wark, 9). The aim of the Situationist movement was to question and subvert the conventions of capitalist society. The manner in which Wark explains Situationist theory and participatory culture is richly descriptive and strongly connected to sources, but at times, inaccessible.

It would be simple enough to label Wark as being strongly in line with Marxist thought (particularly in an American cultural context where communist/socialist thought is often vilified), but if his overall "bias" were to be labeled as anything, it would be the propagation of critical consumption. Wark, of course, maintains the Situationist line of thought by demonstrating their critique of the American class system and consumerism as a whole, but then again, Situationists were critical of pretty much everything. This is an important notion because everything is worthy of critique. Every idea can be questioned, every counterargument has a rebuttal to fire back at it. A significant part of Situationism is remembering that there are no perfect ideas, or even perfect criticisms.

Perhaps that is one of the most frustrating things about this ideology. Yes, we all know that nothing is perfect, but in that case, what do you want? In Situationist culture, criticism and informed participation reign supreme. While in Situationist philosophy, it would be better to eliminate consumerism as a whole, if you must consume, it is best to consume critically. After all, it is almost impossible to avoid consumerism in Western capitalist civilization.

Now, all of these things considered, I have a great deal of issue with the manner in which this book is written. The chapters often begin with throwing the reader into an anecdote or situation for which there is no context. After a while, the reader begins to ascertain the thesis and purpose of the chapter, but it becomes exhausting to search for meaning and try to extrapolate that by applying the new found context to the history snippet that was just read. I have found this trend in other texts, such as Malcolm Gladwell's pop psychology books. I understand that this is an attempt to ease the reader into theory, but most of the stories at the beginning of the chapter are somewhat complicated to understand on their own that to try and wrestle with what is going on and then deal with the theory proves to be a frustrating exercise on the part of the reader.

Another issue I have with the book is the accessibility of it. Walking into this with almost no knowledge on what Situationism was like trying to ski on rollerskates. Yes, this book is in a language I know with concepts I can understand, but there is a certain amount of knowledge you need to already have on the subject of Situationism before reading. If you go into this book cold, you are going to be lost the majority of the time. In addition to needing to know about Situationsim, there is also this need to know a little bit about literary and cultural theory that I was just passingly familiar with. I might recommend this book as maybe the second or third book you ever read on Situationsim, but as a first, it was too much of a fight.

In terms of The Spectacle of Disintegration's utility for understanding participatory culture, I certainly did capture concepts here and there about what participatory culture is all about. Perhaps the best line of the whole book is the last, "No matter what happens here next day or next week, I just want to record the fact that this actually happened" (Wark, 204). I think that is what participatory culture is all about. We are part of this living record, and we must constantly participate in order to assure ourselves that this is all real, that this really happened. Though we think that we are making something meaningful or maybe even something that will sell, we are actually just trying to convince ourselves of our own relevance and reality in this world.

Work cited:
Wark, McKenzie. The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passages Out of the Twentieth Century. London, UK: Verso, 2013. Kindle e-book.

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