Yesterday, I spoke about symbols and representations and how they have proliferated to the point where they control our perceptions of what it means to exist. I also asked you to think more deeply about why we see no problems with substituting symbols for what they represent.
Some of you might have interesting theories (and I invite you to share them with me), but here’s a seemingly outrageous take:
Reality does not matter anymore. At least not in the way that it used to.
All of us at Stoa swear by the maxim “Respect reality” and have oriented our entire pedagogy around it. My claim is by no means intended to detract from that message, but to add more nuance to it.
And that means we will need to get a little philosophical about things.
Behold the Spectacle
A lot of us take modern conveniences for granted, largely because they’ve been around for our entire lives. Electricity, plumbing, sanitation, mechanized transport, computers, all of these are technologies that were made democratic only in the last century.
These inventions did a lot more than just make life easier and more convenient. They formed the basis upon which we interact with the world, i.e., we live through these technologies. Modernity as a construct would not exist if it weren’t for these technologies.
But what we tend to overlook is that these technologies, which are so integral to our lives are, ultimately, manufactured. They do not occur naturally and no one who is born into this world is automatically entitled to these conveniences. They can only be experienced by participating in modern society.
Guy Debord, a key figure in the left-leaning French intelligentsia in the mid-1900s was one of the earliest to write about the impact of modern technologies on our lives. His seminal text, The Society of the Spectacle, opens with the following aphorism:
“In societies, where modern conditions of life prevail, all of life presents itself as an intense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
I would like you to focus on the word ‘spectacle’ here. Spectacle is derived from the Latin word spectaculum which loosely means ‘public show’. Read that aphorism again. It’s effectively conveying that life in the modern world is nothing more than a cornucopia of public shows.
I’m calling it a cornucopia because we all seem to love public shows, irrespective of how relevant or valuable they are.
Debord doesn’t stop there. He gives us a more specific definition of the ‘spectacle’. He defines it as “the moment when the commodity has achieved the total occupation of life.” To him, living in contemporary capitalistic societies meant that life inevitably becomes a game of symbols and representations, a parallel world that mirrors our own, but one that is ultimately, an abstraction of reality.
It is in this context that signals acquired a lot of power. Want to know how valuable something is? Look at the price tag. Want to know how competent a prospective employee is? Take a look at their alma mater.
These signals were not as strong at the time of their introduction. They merely existed alongside old-school methods of evaluation, a large part of which relied on actual, and not perceived performance.
That started changing as industrial processes began to benefit from automation and the internet spawned entirely new forms of work. Symbols began to take precedence over real, observable quantities and eventually superseded the real thing.
In other words, our attempts at conquering reality gave birth to the spectacle, and the spectacle has now invaded material reality to the point where they have merged into one cohesive thing. Exorbitant goods are high quality, elite degree-holders are competent, and the map is the territory.
What I am discussing is not new, it has been written about in length and has spawned multiple media that are predicated upon the idea of reality being largely irrelevant to our understanding of the modern world.
Jean Baudrillard’s path-breaking Simulacra and Simulation’s central thesis was built around the idea that reality is mutable. He argued that contemporary human society has been saturated with symbols to the point where all meaning has become meaningless by being infinitely mutable.You can see some of this play out in the way careers are made.
The hallowed title of ‘Product Manager’ is no longer a concrete, defined role that employers and candidates alike can immediately grasp. It has instead become a cheap way for employers to attract applications and for employees to beef up their resumés (not to mention their paycheques).
But all of this is armchair theorizing. Symbols and spectacles may dominate our perceptions of what it means to be alive, but the fact remains, we can always choose to look beyond the surface. Doing this would not only reinforce our understanding of first principles but also allow us to engage with symbols in more meaningful ways.
What this means is that we might still look at a high price tag and assume that it’s probably because it’s a high-quality good, but we would dig further and attempt to understand what makes it a high-quality good. If after all that digging, you’re unable to find anything, you’re likely being swindled.
The same goes for degrees. If you’re unsure of what an elite degree communicates (apart from prolific test-taking abilities and an ability to navigate the labyrinthine processes of higher education), then it might not be a good idea to rely on the strength of the signal, especially if you’re hiring.
Always choose to look beyond the surface. It’s not as fancy as it sounds and requires nothing but a relentless application of common sense, because that’s what being a good business operator is all about, applied common sense.