Spectacular Vancouver conquers itself

“The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” – Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord

After the Stanley Cup riot of 1994, a Georgia Straight article, titled “Stupidville” pondered: “[Vancouverites] had better decide what we want this community to be about, besides pretty vistas when it doesn’t rain. What shared tasks can we undertake whose achievement will fill us with civic pride? What conditions are needed to come to unconditionally love this place, not for where it is, but for what it is?” But after 15 years of more pretty vistas and nature fetishism, we have failed to produce “something nobler than a mob heading to Stupidville,” as the Straight hoped.

Many of tonight’s rioters were toddlers during the previous riot, so they cannot possibly be blamed for both. Although each fanatic must face their own responsibility for being swept up in the tide of jingoism, the system that produces Canuck fanatics goes back decades. It is important to analyze this system of fanatic production, in order that “something nobler” emerge one day.

First it is impossible to have fanatics without spectacle. Tonight, we had two spectacles: the spectacle of the Canucks, then the spectacle of the Rioters. Disappointed fanatics, unable to control the outcome of the hockey game, created a spectacle of their own. Meanwhile, sitting at home, you could consume representations of both, without having power over either.

It is often claimed that fanatics turn to hooliganism to compensate feelings of powerless when their team loses, and express their powerlessness through violence. There is truth to this, but there is more: they overcome their powerlessness through spectacle.

It helps to recall that our late-capitalist society is a “society of the spectacle,” where social life is increasingly mediated through representations – corporate media and advertising. We acquire collective experience, and even collective purpose, by gazing at these representations. And in Vancouver, the gaze has been professionally focused on ‘our boys’ fighting the enemy – the Boston Bruins.

In the lead up to tonight’s Stanley Cup final, the hockey hype was exceptional. It was necessary for a thinking person to ask: of all the things to hype, why hype NHL hockey, which is an exclusively macho and irrationally violent entertainment product? But even to ask the question “why this rather than something else” was a form of unsportsmanlike treason. Indeed, donning Canucks ware – a de facto-compulsory uniform – was not only fashionable and sexy, but an act of obedience to the State.

Even worse than going without uniform was to analyze the social meaning of the Vancouver’s hysterical hockey hype. Indeed, analysis became just another form of spoil-sport, and it certainly didn’t sell newspapers.

There was much talk of the “energy” in the city, but little public acknowledgement of its character. The energy was measured in units of sold merchandise. And though high policing costs were anticipated given the precedent of 1994, politicians proclaimed that the profits to be made from sales of alcohol and trinkets outweighed the costs of drunkenness and insatiable consumerism.

Fanatics’ energy was indeed directed toward consumption of capitalist trinkets (though it turns out many preferred to procure them for free). And throughout the last week, consumption of alcohol increased along with bar brawls, street fights, and sexual harassment.

But above all, the energy was jingoistic. Contrary to claims that hockey hype is non-political or post-political, the energy was a collective expression of politics, uncontaminated by principles of justice, equality, or even rationality.

As Carl Schmitt notes: “The specific political distinction is that between friend and enemy….The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger” or, Schmitt might add, a Bruins fan.

“The enemy is not merely any competitor or just any partner in conflict in general…An enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity.”

In the absence of any shared collective progressive principles, the BC elite longed for a new solidarity forged from of this “fighting collectivity” of Canucks fans. You could not find a politician that didn’t reinforce the jingoism, not the least with Premier Christy Clark speaking exclusively in hockey metaphors.

But grounding social solidarity in competitive spectacle is a risky wager, as the solidarity can be wiped away by a 0-4 tally. Spectacle is by its nature passive, the spectator powerless (without opportunity to attack the opposing “fighting collectivity”). The latent purely political violence cannot be directed at the enemy, and so Vancouver’s “fighting collectivity” turned on itself, individuals beating each other up on the streets (in place of the Bruin fans), attacking police (in place of Boston police), and looting Vancouver stores (in place of Boston stores). And so Vancouver had its war: it conquered itself.

Our “leaders” had reveled as young men and women over-consumed alcohol and representations of violence. And now those same leaders feign surprise, shame, and disgust as the cycle of consumption and powerlessness draws to its logical conclusion in tonight’s auto-conquest. Many sitting at home, their gazes fixed on the spectacle, do not like what they see reflected back at them. In denial, they construct mythologies, pretending that the rioters are exogenous, and few in number. The simple truth is that we all saw this coming. The reality is that the rioters were Vancouverites, and the spectacle they created accurately represented the values of a hedonistic Lotus Land, unchanged since 1994.