[written to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the LA riots, one of the most significant events in recent US history – r&d]


LOS ANGELES, March 3, 1991 – On the shoulder of the freeway, police are beating a man. Because we are in the US, and because the man is black, we will know that this is a routine event, an ordinary brutality, part of the very fabric of everyday life for non-whites. But something is exceptional this time. There is an observer, as there often is, but the observer holds in his hands an inhuman witness, a little device for producing images which are accepted as identical with the real. The images – grainy, shaking with the traces of the body behind them – enframe this event, defamiliarize it, make it appear in all its awfulness as both unimaginable singularity and example of a broader category of everyday violence.  The recorded beating of Rodney King marks, as many have noted, the beginning of one of the most significant episodes of US history. But few have examined this event in terms of the transformative effects it exerted upon contemporary spectacle and its would-be enemies. By spectacle, we mean here those social relations and activities which are mediated directly by the representations, whether visual or verbal, which capital has subsumed (that is, remade according to its own imperatives).

For us, the advent of the Rodney King video marks the first major shift in the political economy of spectacle, which we choose to describe as a passage from passive to active spectacle, from spectacle as pacifying object of passive consumption to spectacle as the active product of the consumer (whose leisures or recreations have long since become forms of work). In its classical form, spectacle creates a situation in which “spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other” (Debord.) But at a certain point in its development, spectacle dispenses with the need for centralization, finding that passive consumers can quite easily be recruited to the production of spectacle. The shift from unilateral toward multilateral relations does not promise an end to isolation, but rather its perfection. We might think of the distinction here as the difference between the television screen and the computer screen, but since we are talking about a set of social relations as much as technological apparatuses, we should be careful to avoid identifying such relations with any particular technologies. The video camera is merely one of many devices which assist in the transformation of administered life into self-administered life.

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