Notes on the Sumptuary Destruction of Leaders (1982)

“Notes on the Sumptuary Destruction of Leaders,” ZG (London, Eng.), no. 8 (1982), n.p.

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Notes on the Sumptuary Destruction of Leaders

The Surplus Value of Spectacle

A year after the assassination attempt on President Reagan, this wire-service story appeared in the newspaper:

U.S. copies White House to train agents
WASHINGTON (Reuter) - The Government will build a Hollywood-style set of the White House and other buildings for training Secret Service agents in protecting presidents, security officials said yesterday. Facades of the frontof the White House and the nearby Blair House, used forvisiting foreignleaders, as well as a parkacross the street, are to be built in nearby Marylandas part of a major expansion of training facilities, a Secret Service spokesman said. The $1.6-million project will also include a simulated shopping mall and a replica of a city street so that agents can focus on all aspects of security involved in protecting the President, his guests and the White House staff.

Secret Service recruits have been trained in presidential protection during the past 11 years by watching films of officials entering and leaving the White House and Blair House and practicising security measures in the Maryland suburb of Beltsville. Other training has been conducted in the vicinity of the White House itself, but opera­tions have become so complex that a new training centre with realistic facades has become necessary. Security officials said plans for the new training centre were drawn up before the at­tempt to assassinate President Reagan outside a Washington hotel last March 30.


Whether the plans were drawn up before or after, the Hollywood president was given his Hollywood set. But as much as special effects have replaced actors in recent movies, his starring role has been usurped,  whether as an object of behaviouristic surveillance in films of exiting and entering—symbolic gestures reduced to kinesic study, or as a signal within a real-time game simulation. More than a realistic set, this duplication is a massive simulation surrounding leadership. The Presi­dent's protection has become a spectacle.

Reagan came to power after a decade of so-called "crisis of democracy", pledged to restore American power, production and prestige. After this decade of political and economic disaster—Watergate, the OPEC oil embargo, defeat in Viet Nam, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of Detroit—Reagan's role was to set the image straight again, in talk as much as action. His message was for both internal and external consumption.

If periods of Imperialism coincide with crises in domestic democracies, then the rest of the world can expect to bear the effects of the crisis and revolution of American leadership . And as Imperialism is "the highest stage of capitalism", and culture the highest stage of Imperialism, then we can look for this conflict to be waged on the cultural ideological level as much as on the political and economic. And as world culture and global information generally become American possessions, we can expect America to set the agenda on heroism and leadership.

A crisis of leadership has already been enacted in films. A confident Hollywood is in advance of its politicians. In a long string of box-office triumphs, its imperial optimism is pursued with the vengeance of spectacle. Gone are the catastrophe films of the seventies. Now the industry boldly justifies American aggression in films that feed on Hollywood's past hegemony . As a tool for domestic and external propaganda, Hollywood is winning new markets for itself and America through the image.

Made at the same time as the creation of American rapid deployment forces and the insecurity of American industry over its free access to foreign natural resources, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) prepares Americans for their right to interna­tional intervention. A film composed from the past glories of Hollywood (thereby as contradicted as the America Reagan wanted to return to), Raiders glorifies American plundering. It is glorified, and the intervention prepared, under the guise of individual heroism and the disinterested defense of Western culture. Whereas in the film the Nazis wish to secure the Ark as a weapon, the academic hero wants it as a museum specimen. (America always presumes to speak for and represent the values of the West outside of any self interest. Compare a 1982 statement by a recent American Secretary of State: "By main­taining the military balance and sustaining deterrence, we pro­tect the essential values of Western civilisation ... and preserve the peace.") The recovery of the Ark of the Covenant, a found­ing text of Western civilisation/ideology, appropriately takes place in the oil-rich Middle East.

(The film opens with similar plundering in South America which has always been taken as a secure preserve of American Imperialism. The film, in fact, closely follows the details of a 1956 film, Lost Treasure of the Incas.) Economic and military issues are concealed in an object of culture (which is still given value as a rarity) and in the film's setting—within the signifiers of old movies and another time when the East was merely exotic and the Arabs were unconscious of oil as a political weapon. The Nazis, of course, are only surrogates for the other competing Imperial power of today, the Soviet Union, which the United States portrays as a threat to the region. It is an American prejudice, repeated in the film, that the Soviets cannot succeed technologically or militarily except through force, deceit or outright theft of American initiative. In the film, the agents of a fascist regime are defeated by the cunning and heroics of an individual, the idealist academic who can also fight.

Projected into the future, when the world is already American, Star Trek, Part 1 shows that technology as a form of knowledge is a tool for expanding power: knowledge and communications are not objective and value-free, but forms of the American will to power. When the space shuttle reveals itself in its military function; and ex-astronaut and present Democratic Senator John Glenn on its first launching calls for its support in order to ensure that any new knowledge remains "American" knowledge (for capitalist production); then we can hardly believe that the diplomacy and quest for understand­ing, the attempts at interpretation and the machines for coding and decoding in Star Trek are not ideological; that they are not conscious tools of American Imperialism.

Within that future, whatever nationality, we all have a place and function. Science fiction is political theory: it presents a highly designed and ordered, functional, techno­ logical society. Seemingly classless, there is a clear order and hierarchical chain of command: an unforeseen danger (the Other) demands that subservience for the better good of the mission/nation. One's function within that information hierar­chy corresponds to one's utility within a production process. (In the funkier and more fantastical Star Wars class has been hidden in the individualized (consumerized) relation of the rebels (the Americans) to their technology. But class distinc­tions are apparent in technology in the different types of robots and in the sub-human helpers who hold service jobs. They both reflect contemporary American society and the comic roles that blacks were given in earlier Hollywood movies.) With everything designed, there is no place for de­viancy or desire. But while authority is delegated in this hierar­chy, the leader must also be able to act as an individual in times of risk, often breaking the rules in the process—the human face in front of the technological and bureaucratic apparatus .

Through the acts and freedom of spectacle of the hero, we are restored to what our leaders see as our proper function: work. At the end of Tron (1982), when the computer cowboy­ bricoleur escapes the interior space of the computer where he has been abducted, the camera cuts from the computer­ generated light lines that create an abstract perspective of space to the fused lines of headlights in a Californian city made by time-lapse photography. In celebration of the hero's escape, through this conflation we are enjoined to work within the system, just as the Programs were freed from the evil Master Computer Program to go back to what they desired most—to serve their Users. (Here the class distinction is simple: User/Program .) Outside the theatre these days we are asked to sacrifice for the economy, to pay for industry's crisis of over­ production, while our leaders luxuriate in spectacle. The new form of class dominance is a surplus value of spectacle.

While the rest of the world is given notice of America's in­tentions, at the same time the American populace is allayed through fantasies of rescue (as well as given their cathect of ag­gression to compensate for the resentment they feel for the fall in their standard of living). Thus once again everything is left in the hands of the charismatic leaders. The simplest fantasy is solution by alien rescue: Close Encounters, E.T.; or rescue through super human power: Superman, the American police­ man acting for "truth, right and the American way"; and finally, technological rescue hidden behind the ingenuity of the individual hero.

Film is passive mass spectacle, but it is never a spectacle of the present. That present is occluded in the darkness of a theatre where we are projected into a past or future. Spectacle always takes the genre form of historical recreation/romance or science fiction; places where we cannot act.

Technology as Spectacle

Film is a technology of spectacle. Through new forms of special effects, modelling and computer generation, it strives towards the hyperreality of simulation—the completely con­structed, artificial spectacle. The effects of Apocalypse Now (1979), for instance, are achieved through its display of technology in action—a spectacle, to music, of war technology. By coincidence, it is also a film on American Imperialism and the crisis of leadership. But Apocalypse Now registers that crisis before its artificial resolution as the underside of leader­ship and technological rescue. Technology is out of control—a metaphor perhaps for executive power beyond its legal bounds. Technology itself becomes that issue, image and representation of leadership. Law, limits and leadership meet at the boundaries of technology.

Each of the moments of the narrative, marked by passage up the river, revolve on issues and types of leadership. Apocalypse Now seeks its resolution in collective ritual and spectacle in the symbolic murder of Kurtz at the same time as the tribe's sacrifice of a sacred cow at the mythic end of the film. Through this act of murder, the narrator, who serves the mythical warrior function, becomes the new non-violent god whose laying down of machete is imitated by Kurtz's followers. But this murder and iconoclasm remains an individual act, as much as his narrative voice returns us to the individualistic American detective in the corrupt west coast cities of film noir.

Before that passage into the mythical, the narrator reaches the outpost of the limit of the army's advance. With no com­manding officer present, the war apparatus seems to imple­ment itself randomly and anarchically through its own desire of forceful proliferation. The Other here is both nature and the Viet Cong "natives" (as in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the origin of the screenplay) and technology. It is in this deter­ritorializing war machine that the film finds its own image, not in the primitive ritual. And it is here that we see capitalism in its most violent effects that the representation of leadership stands in front of and disguises.

Iconoclasm: a Class War of Images

A few days before the White House story, this short news items appeared:

Icons bombed in cathedral
ATHENS (Reuter) -A home-made time bomb exploded in Athens Cathedral yesterday, causing extensive damage to icons.
An obscure organization calling itself Iconoclast Nihilists telephoned newspapers to claim responsibility for the blast .
Iconoclasts belonged to a religious sect which opposed the use of icons with images for religious worship in churches in the eighth and nineth centuries.

With the attempt on the life of President Reagan, two attempts on the Pope, threats to the Queen and the assassination of An­war Sadat all within a year, these current attacks differ from the last major cycle—that of 1968 when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated and student leader Rudi Dutschke was wounded. Now it is the image of authority, with its accidental occupant (except in the case of Sadat), that is under attack. What we are seeing is an assault on the images of leadership, not on political personages of a leftist or reformist nature, but on figures of authority. ls there some relation bet­ween these incidents and the press story above? What is the relation between leadership, or rather images of leadership, and iconoclasm since a leader is both a figure and a representa­tion?

We can call iconoclasm the disinvestment of images. Destruction then may be actual or symbolic. Iconoclasm has two sides the prohibition of the making of images and their destruction. Historically, it has taken many forms: the pro­hibition of graven images in Mosaic law, the official religious iconoclasm of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Byzantine Empire and the iconoclastic riots of the Protestant era. In modern times it has transformed itself into the violence of critique: the critique of God, of the State and of money,  of value and representation.

Prohibition and destruction accompany one another uneasily. With the prohibition of images goes the power to legislate representations. Destructive iconoclasm then is the underside and positive popular reaction to the representations of authority. Law and authority side with prohibition. (Freud wrote that "in Egypt monotheism had grown—as far as we understand its growth—as an ancillary effect of imperialism; God was a reflection of a Pharaoh autocratically governing a great world empire"). Yet in contemporary consumer society, rather than the refusal of images, we find their proliferation and relay through capitalism and the law of the capitalist code. Refusal, i.e., iconoclasm, falls on the side of those against whom these images from advertising, television and movies are directed. Iconoclasm rests here in a class war of images. It will not be accomplished through individual acts of assassination, but in symbolic destructions and deflations of value.

Images of leadership appear in times of crisis - clearly in politics, disguised in other cultural forms. We can examine how they appear, by whom they are announced and by whom they are assumed or believed. Why, for example, should a class find its image in a single figure rather than in itself, especially when this single figure, or party, serves as a means to seize state power. This question has been asked historically and once again today: Why did the masses desire their own repression under Fascism? But instead of analysing fascist representations, crowds and the investment of images there, we should more urgently concentrate on the conditions of con­temporary representations and their disinvestment. These representations are not historical or sub-cultural but are found on contemporary economic conditions . Their disinvestment signals new social set-ups. For us, it is more a question of why we should find our image in terms of American capitalism, power and culture - in other words, in American leadership.

A leader and a state arise as images of a collective. But there is no stopping a collective representation becoming col­lective destruction through decathexis. A leader may become disfigured in the infigurability of the crowd. To find the image or images of this infigurability becomes a new research task. At this point destruction may not appear a representation, but crowds are the figure of a positive mass iconoclasm, the way to an activist representation.

As part of a sociology of language leading to a semantics of history, Jean Pierre Faye, in his Theorie du recit (Paris, 1972), suggested collecting all the verbal enunciations made during the October Russian Revolution which were registers and readings of the movement of actions and events. He pro­posed this to break away from our usual reliance on the deciphering of this mass of events through the interpretative code of one man (i.e., Lenin). An analogous study of the iconoclasm of crowds might be carried on through photographs of crowds in revolution, assassinations, riots, etc.

For a class to find its image in and for itself is not to have one handed down from above. How is this class to find its image when the means of production of the image are out of its hands? Images given to us are property relations. Who con­trols what and who is where in the process? The image of the leader also dictates the image of the masses. We know what that image is for us: namely work. While we might not be able to suggest or represent the positive forms of this image of a new class outside of itself, we have historical examples and we k now its negative images.

The negative image tends to fixate on the single image or symbol of the leader or state. An example is the press photograph taken from a counter-demonstration against an Iranian protest in Washington, D.C. in August 1980. At a time when Americans were driven mad for revenge (and drove the world to near war hysteria) with fifty-two American hostages held in Iran, this incident was a pure example of Rene Girard's theory of the contagious violence of imitative rivalry. In this photograph two leaders—Uncle Sam and the Ayatollah—confront each other, but one image has actually been assumed by a young man from the crowd. More positively, a photograph records the mass performance Toward a Worldwide Commune with its cast of four thousand on the steps of the Petrograd stock exchange in 1920. In the early twenties of agit-prop in Russia, crowds assumed positive representations in mass spec­tacle and re-enactments such as the Storming of the Winter Palace. Here the cliched "cast of thousands" was literal with its street audience in the tens of thousands.