The City Takes Central Stage - Sample Essay

As in Debord’s scenario, the individual is completely helpless when faced with such a massive and intricate deployment of the spectacle and his agency is paralyzed and made dysfunctional through the multiple tasks set for him by the “reality script”. The complex generative network of the spectacle is very well underlined by Jean Baudrillard, who stated that: “The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices and memory banks, models of control – and it can be produced in an indefinite number of times from these. It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself either against an ideal or negative instance”

These control matrices are epitomized in The Nova Express by the two gangs – the Nova Mob and the Nova Police. The latter are struggling to bring to the fore the artificial nature of the “reality script”, thus to foreground the spectacularity of the reality forged by the Nova Mob. The world presented in this book has many affinities with the structuralist definition of language and reality as an arbitrary system of signs – ultimately, the reality script itself appears as just one sign in this system whose expansion and existence has come to elude its very creators.

The metaphor of the stage set appears early in the novel, hinting to the connection between spectacle and reality: Well, we hit this town and right away I don’t like it. “Something here John – something wrong – I can feel it. ” But he says I have the copper jitters since the nova heat moved in – Besides we are cool, just rolling flops is all three thousand years in show business – So he sets his amphitheatre in a quarry and begins lining up the women clubs and poets and window dressers and organizes this “Culture Fest” he calls it and I am up in the cabin of a crane pumping air to him.

The parallel with the amphitheatre suggests participation and the people’s active implication in the show. Burroughs creates a world in which, due to massive infusion of hallucinogens, viruses and mind-controlling programs, it has become very difficult, if not impossible to distinguish reality from the spectacle. The writer foregrounds the artificial and produced feature of the landscape as well as the subtle and insidious ways in which master discourses can in fact superimpose on and eventually usurp the expression of individual identity.

In this society, man has become an automaton, with pre-established tasks and preferences, so engrossed in the carrying out of the functions prescribed by the “reality script” that he can no longer recognize his alternative status: puppet and spectator. Not incidentally, the city becomes the central stage for the deployment of the spectacle in Burroughs’ fiction. According to Frederic Jameson, postmodernist aesthetics distinguishes itself from modernism through its insistence on space rather than on time.

In this context, the space becomes highly significant, the sign or trace of multiple discourses and histories. But this space and especially the city is quite problematic if perceived in its function as arena for the development of social and political relations. From a political/ideological angle, the city was so constructed as to embody the ways in which mainstream culture and the leading classes wanted to be perceived by the masses. The postmodern city is the expression of a society which has exacerbated surfaces and appearances to such an extent that the city has become eroded as if by the varnish:

The exhilaration of these new surfaces is all the more paradoxical in that their essential content–the city itself–has deteriorated or disintegrated to a degree surely still inconceivable in the early years of the twentieth century, let alone in the previous era. How urban squalor can be a delight to the eyes when expressed in commodification, and how an unparalleled quantum leap in the alienation of daily life in the city can now be experienced in the form of a strange new hallucinatory exhilaration–these are some of the questions that confront us in this moment of our inquiry.

Nor should the human figure be exempted from investigation, although it seems clear that for the newer aesthetic the representation of space itself has come to be felt as incompatible with the representation of the body: a kind of aesthetic division of labor far more pronounced than in any of the earlier generic conceptions of landscape, and a most ominous symptom indeed. The privileged space of the newer art is radically antianthropomorphic, as in the empty bathrooms of Doug Bond’s work .