Sketch of the Event-Commodity: Part One

I welcome comments on the below. It is a condensation of some ideas for my diss I have been playing with lately. Note this is not my diss! It is more a cut’n’pasted note to myself to enable me to think the argument for my diss. Some of the ideas catalysed in response to a question (from Tom O’Regan) I received at the CSAA conference on my paper. Some of the ideas I have been talking about for a long time…

Sketch of the Event-Commodity: Part One

The ‘event’ has become somewhat emblematic of late-20th Century and early-21st Century Western, post-industrial society. From media events to history events and tourism events to war events; everything has become figured as event. The tourism industry has embraced this popularist discourse of the event and the production of ‘events’. Event Management is a common industry in most developed nations. Interestingly, from the mid-20th Century on, there was something of a shift in philosophical discourse towards thinking the event, too. The ‘event’ of Event Management is not the same ‘event’ of philosophical or critical discourse. Event Management is a vocational field concerned with the production of spectacles for consumption by tourist populations. The event of philosophical discourse is a term used as a thinking-tool referring to a number of different conceptions of an ‘occurrence’ or ‘happening’ that can be broadly thought of as a state of being (Heideggerian, ‘a thing thinging’), its repetition as iteration (Derridean), the opposite as an irruption (of the ‘Real’) in the normative (Lacanian), or what happens ‘in-between’ (the ‘sensible’ states of being) as a process of becoming (Deleuzian).

The event of event management and the event of philosophical discourse can intersect at a precise disjunction around the concept of the ‘spectacle’. The ‘spectacle’ is a term developed by Guy Debord to refer to what he called the image-commodity. His purpose for developing the term came from his experience on the consumption-based society. Debord isolates a shift from what Walter Benjamin called the ‘aura’ of an art work to what the later postmodernists called the ‘simulacrum’ of commodity culture (Beller, 1994). The concept of the spectacle as image-commodity is useful for thinking about the event, because it captures how an event circulates and is consumed as commodity.

To understand this process it is necessary to separate the spectacle as image commodity into two temporalities, what Deleuze called the time of history (Chronos) and the time of the event (Aion). Historical time allows us to think the spectacle in a sensible fashion as something involving capitalist exchange; on the other hand the time of the event allows to think what is actually exchanged and that is the duration of the event (within historico-capitalist time) that occurs as the time of the event. In historical time the duration of the event begins not with the exchange of a commodity, but the desire to inhabit and connect with the world or ‘image’ of the commodity. The moment of exchange signals not that an event has begun, because the event has already begun, but that the transformation required to inhabit this world has shifted from being possible (‘if you buy this’ or ‘if you attend this event’) to probable. The probability of transformation is framed entirely in terms of the quality of the commodity. The quality of a commodity is not so much related to essences or material attributes, but the probability that a transformation will occur. This is why commercial reputation is touted as a selling point… At the moment of an exchange threshold there is a manifestation of a contingency, however ‘consumption’ has not yet occurred.

Maurizio Lazzarato’s short online essay on “Struggle, Media, Event” does not make this distinction in the duration of the image(-commodity) between what is possible and what is probable. Admittedly, progressive and revolutionary politics has seemingly concerned itself what is possible, while neo-liberal capitalist enterprises have concerned themselves with what is probable. The task of politics is convincing (or forcing in non-democratic contexts) others to turn what is possible into what is probable. The administration or bureaucracy turns what is probable into an eventuality (‘actualises’ it). The eventuality of an image-commodity is therefore a political manifestation. The logistics of the world herald by the image is on the material horizon of the commodity. If it were otherwise, the commodity (or user/consumer, as the case may be) would get a bad reputation for not being about to live up to reputation and would no longer circulate (or would be shamed). See the examples below.

The work of sociologists and cultural studies practioners who researched practices of consumption found that people were not ‘consumerist dupes’, as had been imagined by pessimistic researchers at the cusp of a mass-consumer society (the Frankfurt School), but interrogated commodities or media through tactical modes of consumption. The tactics of consumption is the work of the statistician in all of us. The guiding question is what event will be probable if I purchase this commodity? The image-commodity itself is not an event. The act of consumption is the event. However, what is exchanged as image-commodity is the probability that an event will occur.

The problem for Event Management is that they cannot foresee the future, and there is no way to guarantee consumers that a particular event will occur. This is a false problem (or it should be regarded as such). In sporting events, the event is not so much what happens on the sports ground, a ‘grand final’ or ‘World Cup qualifying game’, but the ‘becoming-together’ (as Brian Massumi calls it) of a diverse population that is distributed in time and space around a singularity, which in this case is the contingency of the sporting contest. The moniker ‘grand final’ is a quasi-transcendental signal or trigger from the future and what to expect. It operates in a similar fashion to a commercial reputation as both an increase in the probability that the ‘world’ herald by the image (as commodity) of a commodity (as advertisement) can be inhabited. ‘Grand final’ indicates a repeated finality involving an intense set of relations.

The affective tension experienced in the bodies of consumers of a commodity (attendance or spectatorship) and towards the future world which they already inhabit and desire to inhabit increases the closer in proximity one gets to the image-world, or, to put it another way, the closer the contingency comes to being played out and the probability is said to have exhausted itself. The finality is that one team will win, the contingency is who will win, the singularity is the contingency of the outcome. ‘Finality’ above is therefore only a partial finality. There is never any completion in sport only the exhaustion and reinvigoration of contingencies around which spectatorships organise. Another example may be the Evangelical Christian Right’s fascination with the ‘end of days’. However, the image-commodity is not that there will actually be a finality, but that the contingency will never exhaust itself, and therefore one can continue belonging to distributions around this contingency. Another example is of Marxist revolution and the ‘evangelical’ left, ie Zizek and his followers.

The world to be inhabited by a consumer of an image-commodity can be distributed into two main types of transformation that will be required for this world to be inhabited. Either the consumer can be transformed or the (localized) world to be inhabited can be transformed or, as often the case, both happen at the same time. The power of transformation or efficacy of the commodity is often a selling point. A good example is the SUV. What one consumes is not the possibility of ‘going off road’ or even the ability to do this (because as most people sensibly realize more skill is required than mere ownership of or access to appropriate equipment), but the potential for this to occur, that is, the capacity to become an off-roader. The contentious dimension to this beyond obvious problems of sustainability is the instrumentality of the transformation upon the ‘world’ if the SUV is only ‘deployed’ (I think a military term is suitable here) in an urban context. What constitutes the ‘world’ for an urban, SUV driver? Quite obviously it is street-based traffic, rather than ‘nature’-based ‘off-road’. To drive an SUV is to not dismiss one’s fellow road users, but to engage with them in a horrific automobilised war of attrition. It is to literally imagine that the world inhabited is one whereby the contingencies of traffic do not have to be negotiated through a shared sense of gesture, but through a brutal domination akin to the automobilised technologisation of nature (‘off-roading’). What an SUV owner purchases is the capacity to engage with the contingencies of traffic by domination, rather than negotiation. The related notion of technological performance (of cars, of computers, or any technology) is doubly abstract in this regard. What is exchanged in the image-commodity is the capacity for the capacity to engage with the contingencies in everyday (business, social, etc) life and is normally expressed as an excess of time represented by the technical efficiency of a technology. This is another issue…

[End Part One.]