Home ASAN Index Discussion Contact

The spectacle's critique of the spectacle.

What is our interest in this humor? For at least thirty years, modern culture has mass-marketed the criticism of daily life as a consolation prize for its boredom. The most effective of these "critiques" sell themselves as presenting some vague threat to "the system" but still defend the real system.

The present "counter-culture" (or underground culture) is simply a permanent market for the banal critique of daily life. Life In Hell is one of the latest of it's "counter products". This syndicated weekly comic has as its constant themes parodies of standard marketing methods (Work-the game, Lonely Tyrant Magazine, "Are You An Unrecognized Genius", etc.). These pseudo-advertisements give the negative side of a product or present a banal part of daily life in a sarcastically "exciting" light. Through this repition, Life In Hell has become a permanent anti-advertising system that supplements the positive advertising for the system. Pushing its own T-shirts is its the next logical step.

Despite its predictable themes and repetitive images, this cartoon represents everyday rebellion to many students and young workers because it is willing to attack the more obvious boredom of work and school. In fact, this comic is one of the main selling point for many free "alternative" papers, such as the East Bay Express or the LA Reader.

Life in Hell likes to talk about it's "subversive" tendencies (and is even taken as such by the modernist "subversives" of Processed World). Since we claim to be revolutionaries, we are often asked if we care whether people read these "subversive cartoons." The answer is that we do not care. It is important to go into our exact reasoning for this.

There are those who argue that vaguely "subversive" information of any sort adds to an accumulated pot of subversive ideas in society, a pot that eventually "boils over." Life In Hell is assumed to be able to sneak subversion into social life without anyone even knowing that it's there. A few back-handed jabs at the boss today and we'll have his head on a stick tomorrow. By thinking of the media as the active part of social life, Life In Hell's boosters take the point of view of the specialists ruling this society. We can get a different conclusion if we look at Life In Hell as a part of total social reality.

The Situationists pointed out twenty years ago that the simple reversal of a symbol is the simplest but least effective form of detournement (see glossary). Life In Hell is todays most ham-handed recuperator of this method of detournement. More even than other "underground comics," it relies on its simple proven formulas. It shows how easily the system now maintains its formal negation within its universe of products.

Life In Hell's "subversiveness" only makes it one of the most advanced image/commodities in the total landscape of commodities. It performs its job well. It is funny (when you're bored enough). But what does this humor imply. The way that cultural "dissidents" manage to succeed on the same cultural field as main stream images shows that they, too, can become part of a system of conditioning. The spectacle, this means of conditioning, has as its decisive property the absence of dialogue. This absence of dialogue allows the critique of work to be advertised on the same field as cigarettes, night clubs or the newest fashions (all of which are advertised in the East Bay Express).


When these commodities stay within the "marginal" milieu, it is a clue about how important this milieu is for the entire show.

The increased poverty of the spectacle has forced all capitalist innovators into a desperate position; until journalists, artists, or fashion designers can achieve a large degree of success, they must subsist in the marginal working class (making it hard to get a job in a college book store unless you have a master's degree). The main effect is that the marginal milieu becomes more important for the whole structure of capitalist innovation and marketing. As an extra bonus, the marginal milieu also creates a stratum of mystified people who will never achieve a job in their field but feel privileged to work slavishly in near their milieu; "writers" spending their lives vacuuming books in a book store, "rock musicians" working in record stores who sneer at people who don't know music, poets pissing in Jack Kerouac Alley etc..

At the same time these cultural innovators act as the most despicable consumers, they maintain their positions as the owners of the possibility of change. Thus, while serving as the vanguard of consumerism, popularizing various underground commodities, such as drugs or punk rock music, the marginal artists must appear to be creating a kind of "oppositional culture".

The free papers such as The East Bay Express where Life in Hell appears, try to create the appearance of a bohemian, insurgent culture but are only the most open example of cycled rebellions, ideas and poses that were old yesterday but will be here as long as capitalism exists. Simply wearing black clothes is given the same "subversive" feeling but is the easiest kind of conformity (this is not to say that Life in Hell cannot be honestly seen as new, original and exciting. It contains "beauty in the service of the enemy" but much of that beauty is stolen).


The small and timid amount of "anti-establishment" culture that exists now is a measure of the exhaustion most people have from trying to believe anything, good, bad or indifferent the media has to say. The low level of real opposition can also be seen in the supposedly "dissident" magazine Processed World; those who consider themselves real dissidents are not able to muster any greater criticism than the pseudo critiques of Life in Hell, which appears openly as a commodity to sell T-shirts.

Opposition culture is still effective as a commodity but by default; the desire to escape boredom remains even after people have seen how boring everything is. From Prince and the "Revolution" to Max Headroom, the negation of the present society is still a quality that can get the mass of consumers interest without even trying hard.

To sell the newest negative commodities, a certain apparent freedom of manner has been preserved from the upheavals of the sixties. Entertainment permits you the luxury of criticizing everything as long as the criticism stays within the system. The new critics have learned indirectly from radical theory that wage labour is the basis of the misery of daily life but their criticisms still accept this misery. The lousy job you have is criticized but only in terms of another job.

The revolts of the sixties helped established the "underground" newspaper as a form of revolt. The institutionalization of these "revolts" forces any truly revolutionary movement to start where this kind of revolt stopped.

Our Humor

Although those with the "care-free" attitude of the uncritical consumer will say we have no sense of humor, seeing the pale humor of these incidents is less important than seeing that any unquestionable subject supports the general boredom of this life. Unquestionable humor remains the most humorless aspect of our society. Joke books, comedy clubs and situation comedies are one of the main ways people remain unconscious of daily life.

While, the stereotypes that are continually rediscovered in "ethnic jokes" serve only to justify all pettiness of daily life, for us, the humorous thing is seeing the hoarded banalities of this society from outside. We enjoy seeing ideas of this society from the vantage point of the next society, seeing them as play.

The spectacle barely disguises the contempt it feels toward its readers, taking a "light, humorous" tone that is directed at the plight of the "average" worker, viewed as a hapless fool. In fact an actual person usually finds themselves utterly superior to the work that is presented to them; the misery of their situation does not automatically them miserable, stupid people. The boredom of this life is not a function of individual misery but of society's organization. To create things that are not boring, you must be willing to speak of different ways of living. Jobs that are based on making, driving and repairing cars together wreck nature and make the street a hostile, alien environment.

The most beautiful incidents of society now have the quality of stumbling steps into a new world. In that sense we don't have time to dote over each of these still small efforts. Real humor requires a degree of violence that is incompatible with the standard concept of entertainment, with simply accepting what's handed to you. Within the standard market for humor we can single out certain scenes of Monty Python's Flying circus but these still do not have the direct attack on consumer society we can see in an incident when a sixth grade class attacked a mother who entered the class wearing a Care Bear costume.

All the humor of this society remains failed humor, efforts that can only come close to escaping the viewpoint of this society. We cannot spend our time thinking about how close these failures come to succeeding. When the control system is working normally, partial criticism of the system leads people into complete despair and final acceptance of the system. No amount of flair or lucidity can compensate for this.

"Subversives" have a more credible version of reality than the standard media only because the abysmal quality of daily life to makes them look good in comparison. Their version of reality is simply not good enough. Boredom remains counter-revolutionary even when it admits it is bored.

Processed World, for example, is jubilant to find various unfortunate working class "aspiring journalists" who confess how dull their lives are but defer to the experts of PW as to what to do about it. Do we really need to know about the boredom of jobs, subways, TV, insurance, school or shopping?

If we are not focusing solely on how boring work is, it is not because we don't know this. The boredom of working is the great "double think" of today. Constantly denied and constantly affirmed. Thus we can only talk about the boredom of work once we address the total system of falsification, including slavish humor.

The System

Humor is presented as a diversion. What makes it worse is that it remains a harmless diversion. It is part of a larger and larger number of activities today, from riding BART (Subway in San Francisco) to TV, that are now set up as "harmless diversions", systems of spending your life so harmlessly that you have no life left to live. There is no reason for us to recreate the activities that tie us to a system of useless alternatives. We have no interest in trying to decide on school versus work, Coke versus Pepsi or one job versus another. We could name twenty or thirty things that are intolerable in this society without getting to the bottom of the question. But our position must be to look away from the misery produced by this life.

Jokes are merely one of the specialties that remain unquestionable in the routine of daily life; all of the cliches of this society defend each other at a basic level. The ability of the society to automate humor, to create unfunny jokes that always get a laugh, shows the general impoverishment of daily life. Laugh tracks, automatic betting, and swingers' bars are pathetic commodities that are only accepted because of the frightening reality of social isolation.

The most flexible types of social propagandists do not care how happy people are with this society. In fact, their best efforts go towards making any knowledge of an over-all system vanish. This can easily be done with a language of resignation, a language where the over-all system has no name. (Everyone has the right to complain, you just have to stand in line for hours to do it. Suppose you want to complain about waiting in line - well just get in line.) In the same way people are encouraged to compare one job against another but cannot question the total system of jobs, where people have no power, since they have no name for the system.

As this society loses the logic of history the "means of conditioning" of this society have come to resemble the plasticity of abstract images. Life In Hell, utilizing this society's lack of historical logic, represents the boundaries of the daily life of this society as the boundaries of reality. All propaganda now tends to extend the mystification reflected in the cliche "A picture is worth a thousand words"; the war in Vietnam, which did not even have a good imperialist justification, is explained now only by the image of soldiers grieving, America is seen as only an image of happy people getting along and boring work appears only as a image of people nashing their teeth.

The importance of images for selling commodities is that different ideas and objects can be made to coexist within them in a entirely abstract way, purely as things to look at, as commodities. Neither opposed nor identical, commodities simply float in a directionless map of the market-place. Advertising images and movie posters simultaneously sell a number of seemingly contradictory roles simply by presenting them in a spectacular landscape. A rock star, terrorist, sex kitten, and policeman come together to form nothing more than the "next big thing", an object to be automatically admired.

Submissive thinking of this sort sells itself with the breathless pace of modern society. A drowning man does not want to worry about the source of his water. The tense and harried workers of today might not worry about the source of their relief. The humorists of today take advantage of the massive passivity of the majority in the same way as do producers of antibiotics filled meat and styrofome cups. There is a willingness is to not look beyond a need that is satisfied in a minimal manner.

The critics create an image of "everyday subversion" in their writings even as they sell the despair that keeps the system going. The discussion of daily life has been abandoned to the servants of the current system. The symmetry of choices generated by the individualist viewpoint only reinforces the dominant ideas. The despair of being alone in a world that is created not to care about you is exactly the point of this humor; your car breaks down on the highway - HA HA HA.

The "soft-cops" of journalism, psychology or teaching complement the low-level managers of the system. The managers only care about strict obedience while the psychologists want a person to blow off steam to feel good ("well adjusted"). Their understanding of rebellion serves the system perfectly. Comedy, from I Love Lucy to Cheers, acts as a funnel, first extracting a confession that the reader has felt similar humiliations as the hero and then stating that the situation is helpless (Lucy buys some worthless commodity and then hides it from Ricky etc.).

The ideal recuperators imitate a thought process that goes on in people's minds when they are in a state of misery; they become aware of misery, they first think if there is something that they can do about it, and then decide they can only grumble and go back to work. The process is to show people despair before they experience it. The failure of revolt can appear before people even revolt.

If there is a difference between Life in Hell and earlier comedy, it is that the cartoon must project more hope by realistically portraying the everyday horror of work. It still repeats the cycle of despair, it merely occupies more of our minds with the most modern despair.


Despite their cleverness, our position would be hopeless if we left our criticism at the level of Life in Hell or Processed World. We would remain at the level of the spectacle's critique of the spectacle. On a practical level the criticism of jobs these cartoons have is matched by their acceptance of work.

The assumption of many radicals, that placing the oppression of the system in a naturalistic light will cause people to rebel, is disproved by the efforts of this cartoon, which only aims to give people cold comfort in their daily lives while it still goes farther than the ostensibly radical Processed World, which only hints at disliking work.

The resignation of their "rebellions" is obvious once a real attack on the totality is made. Our method is to show the totality of oppression by showing the equivalence of each part of these "rebellious" images. We show how they are equivalent to each other and to the dominant images of this society

The same radicals who are specialists on defining the boundaries of the society are specialists at guarding the boundaries of the society. They are the possessors of hipness, of freedom, of criticism and smirking.

The critics of this society are the first unjokes of our anti-humor. They are the "controllers of imagination, the "guardians of freedom" and the "masters of slavery". They use their small advances to prevent people from going beyond them, to move people back to resignation to this society.

Humor is a reaction of people first feeling threatened by the system and then relaxing with the knowledge that the entire misery will not be revealed.

We intend to investigate the unconscious aspects of this society ruthlessly and systematically. Unlike today's cultural commodity, we go to the boundaries of this society only to leave it. Our efforts will be opposite of humor. We will make "unjokes", as part of anti-humor (named after the "anti-art" advocated by the SI). These will become funny only if they fail, if power can say "look, nothing to worry about really", applause...

Truth is very valuable for us. It allows the symmetry of choices of this society to be broken. It allows people to see a possibility of not standing alone. It allows the creator of isolation, the capitalist system, to be seen as a stage of human development, a way of living that began a short while ago and that will end fairly soon, since it is becoming more unsustainable each day. The simple wretchedness of life in America can be seen in either the business executives or the homeless as they mingle in downtown San Francisco.

The end of these pseudo-critiques will come with the end of the coercion of this society. Our anti-humor is intended to act as a detonator of rebellions by disrupting the "comforting" rhythms of this society. Many practical applications are possible. An archetypical effort would be seizing of a radio station broadcasting MUZAK for the purpose of broadcasting revolutionary propaganda.

Since standard humor is a distorted map of life, with all roads leading back to resignation, anti-humor will serve as a reliable map, showing the rhythm of daily life and the collective route to escape it. Since it must involve the totality, it has no need of the "realism" that presents every boring detail of daily life, instead it immediately exposes the universal methods of capital. The strikes that take place in Yugoslavia against worker-managed firms are an excellent example of a disruptive irony attacking world capital's image (although we don't pretend that they are consciously moving towards communism).

Anyone who intends to supersede this society must demand too much for the society to bear. It is natural for many people to react to this article as demanding too much or as not having a sense of humor and it is also necessary to write something that will provoke this reaction. We wish to continue the efforts of the SI, of "showing the contemptible to make it more contemptible", to reach a point where society can longer tolerate our critique.

We can only escape this society by escaping its logic. The proletariat's weapon must be a lack of respect for the banal. The Anti-humorous use of these cartoon fragments, treated as objects of derision, is the beginning of a new logic of creation, a logic that looks upon its own ideas as being decisive and sees all that came before it as dead labour, as resources that can be squandered for the now.

The present critiques offer only a mythical escape from work while actually preserving it. The lucidity of known misery is not enough to overcome it. Revolutionary ideas must give none of the standard compensation for work, none of the apparent escapes, in order to get to the level of actually escaping work. Desperation comes once a bad situation is obvious, understood and yet still not solved. We can see this revolutionary tendency in the Three Penny Opera. It that creates an explicitly artificial ending in order prevent the normal catharsis that accompanies drama.

In the first stage of revolt we will thus be encouraging a greater desperation. The concept of radicality thus has to be redefined to make it unacceptable to specialists. It will be "what scares the experts", what cannot be tolerated in any discipline.