Last Night's Epiphany

While having a ridiculously good time at the Saul Williams show last night, I think for the first time I finally understood the Situationist movement.

I went more or less at random. An awesome, gorgeous co-worker is a huge fan of his, and had been pestering me for a few days to come with. All I knew of Saul's work was his early slam stuff like Coded Language, so it seemed like both a good opportunity to try out his new material and hang out with someone I'd been looking for more opportunities to hang out with (because don't we all want to surround ourselves with awesome, gorgeous people?)

So I went. It being a CMW event, I got there just about mid-card, which means I also caught the whole set of Spoek Mathambo, the act on before Saul, who was pretty damn tremendous. I love musicians that have fun transcending their influences, and while Spoek is clearly from the Fela Kuti school of party Afrofunk, little glimpses of stuff like Prince and the Ventures' Sleep Walk kept poking their heads out. He closed with a Joy Division cover by way of South Africa, and opened with what I could only describe as what Arcade Fire would sound like if they were fronted by Jeru the Damaja.

Saul himself was a fucking powerhouse. The band behind him killed it, he killed it. The new stuff is still lyrically intense but backed with a percussion and beat heavy sound that isn't so much hip hop as the heart beat of the universe. And a few times between songs he'd bust out his old slam stuff, including the 'in the name of' section from Coded Language is which he hilariously walked away from the mic and right up to the edge of the stage, which caused most of the crowd to go nuts and one sorry bastard behind me to desperately try to shush them so he could hear what Saul was saying (which he probably knew by heart anyway).

And in the middle of that sonic and lyric maelstrom, the penny finally dropped for me on what Guy Debord was hiding underneath all his academese and philosophical bafflegab.

Capitalism commodifies everything, right down to the iconic images of your heroes, and right down to your own experiences. That's what the Society of the Spectacle is about, at its core. When I plunked down my $30 to see Saul Williams, I'm not being sold entertainment. I'm the one engaged in and creating my own enjoyment of that show. The sad bastard shushing the crowd did not see the same show I did, dancing with at times total abandon alongside two awesome, gorgeous people (my co-worker was there with another friend) and getting my eyes and ears opened to the existence and power of two artists I was ignorant of until that moment.

No, what I'd been sold for my $30 was access. Privilege. The commodity, in this case, was the opportunity to engage in and create my enjoyment. If the show had been free, fundamentally, my experience would have been exactly the same.

In Situationist language, a spectacle is a commodified experience. A situation is a non-commodified experience. Dunno why it took so long for that simple distinction to clue in for me, but there it is.

Now that I understand it, though, I'm not sure that distinction is an entirely terrible thing in some cases.

Take pirated content, for instance. Sure, I can download a digital copy of a movie for free and watch it at home, but that's an entirely different experience from watching it in a darkened movie palace in 70 mm. Frankly, that's a privilege I am happy to pay for. Recorded music, on the other hand, there's no difference at all between buying a little CD or downloading the tracks for free. (Again, though, a lovely piece of vinyl with a great piece of art on the sleeve... different experience altogether. Which perhaps explains why vinyl didn't die when it was supposed to.)

Or take what I've always jokingly referred to as my two big Situationist events of the year, Nuit Blanche and TIFF. In both cases I can literally wander the streets and enjoy art or movies for "free" (never mind that someone is footing the bill for my participation somewhere along the way, and that I'm bombarded by advertisements in both. The fact is that I don't have to take money out of my wallet for the privilege.) Nuit Blanche, being just one evening long, is no problem. TIFF though, more and more I find that I simply can't live for 10 days straight in that mindset. It's not that I feel compelled to rush out and spend money on something. It's that 10 consecutive days of nothing but experience burns me out. I need time to process those experiences in some fashion, rather than just pile one on top of the other.

From this new perspective, I also realize that the one true Situationist joy in my life is my beloved karaoke addiction. I can wander into a bar, sing and be sung to, and never have to pay a dime to do it. (Of course, the expectation that you will buy food or booze or whatever is there, to keep the bar afloat, but it's not a requirement. It's a very PWYC kind of community.) But again, I couldn't do it 24/7.

The distinction between spectacle and situation is an important one, especially in a media-driven culture like ours, and it's one Hollywood would do well to understand and embrace as it watches its business model crumble around its ears. But unlike Guy Debord, I don't have enough Marxism in my blood to decry that distinction as an inherently evil one.

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