The Spectacle of Russell Brand

Russell Brand is an interesting character. Whilst I was never particularly keen on his humor in Big Brother’s Big Mouth, though that may have been more the association with Big Brother, the more I see of him the more he appeals, and I have tried not to like him. I have never been interested in traditional trendyness, I have aspirations and associations with the ideals of my lifestyle, but the typical ‘Shoreditch Twat’ style, of which Russell Brand’s charicature of Danny from Withnail and I is, ostensibly, the epitome, has never particularly appealed.

But I find myself growing to respect him when I hear him speak. Whilst not engaged in the same way and perhaps to the same extent as many activists, the accumulation of his various statements and actions demonstrate an engagement that defies his stereotype. I saw him perform live at a charity gig for Campaign Against Arms Trade (or possibly Amnesty I can’t remember), which is not that impressive given that most comedians do charity gigs from time to time. Towards the end of his set he said “hmm so what else do I care about, oh yeah, Free Tibet!” which, again in-and-of-itself is not that much to write home about. Though if you know my history you will know that Tibet is an issue I care a lot about. Then there was his appearance at the G20 in London which was criticized on many fronts, though why it should differ from anyone else being there I am not sure. Russell Brand is an anti-capitalist, probably with a better understanding of what that means than a lot of people on that march (certainly than a lot of anti-capitalists and anarchists I have met). Most recently I saw this interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he speaks very intelligently on the subject of fame and celebrity culture. The whole way through waxing poetic about Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and the Situationists, a philosophy that is perhaps more relevant now than it was when Debord wrote it in the late 1960s. It was after watching that interview I was inspired to write this article. And with that I think I have spent enough time talking about what he is or isn’t, time to talk about what he said, because that is much more interesting and I know who Brand is significantly less than he does, which seems not a lot.

He starts by saying that he always wanted to be famous and ends by saying that now he has fame it is “…like ash in my mouth”. What he is referencing is an idea that cuts right to the heart and soul of some of the biggest issues and problems with modern society and consumer culture. Brand says that the initial appeal of fame was “glistening and visceral” in a “desolate and barren culture”. This is the idea that without something to make them so, our lives feel meaningless and that the aspiration of fame and celebrity will make us whole. When he says that fame has become “…like ash in my mouth” what he means is of course that fame does not make you whole, it does not make you feel truly meaningful. This is the root of many of the problems we face. That our ego prevents us from comprehending the meaninglessness of life and that over the eons of human existence many ideas have come up that have exploited this and told us to focus on a ‘higher purpose’. People put the ‘vulgarity and excess’ of modern society down to a lack of religion in life.

But all religion is, is another form of the same exploitation*.

Religion probably first came about as a way to explain why the sun comes up and why the rain falls based on primitive understanding of observations. The ritual associated with religion became a reason, other than pure survival, to do the things we do, to achieve and to progress (though Ben Goldacre’s argument that all of human endeavor is in pursuit of orgasm is another good point). With the Enlightenment leading to the Industrial Revolution, science began to disprove religion and mass communication was able to spread this disproof wider than ever before and so the role of religion in every-day life has inexorably declined but only to be replaced with the result of mass-production; mass consumption.

The decline of religion and the increasing ease of survival since the industrial revolution as meaning and purpose has left us with a great feeling of emptiness, of lack of understanding and more time. So to fill this void, like a Star Trek alien parasite in the body of a dying red-uniformed extra, we latched onto the next thing we were offered: consumerism.

Consumerism plays on the idea of aspirations; that we can be harder, better, faster, stronger, fitter, happier and more productive than we are now. And corporate mass communication sells us the idea that the ultimate achievement, the aspiration to work towards is fame. When those who achieve fame get there, they realise that there is nothing there, that they still have the same empty feeling, as Brand puts it “it’s like being presented with a great bounteous feast and when you take a bite you realise there is no taste”. So the quest then becomes to increase your status as a celebrity that creates the idea of A-list or Z-list celebrities; we judge their worth on how many times we’ve heard their name.

Because celebrity is sold as the ultimate achievement, the thing to strive for, as well as being achievable without any real effort, we end up with two things: the use of celebrities to sell products; perpetuating consumerism and the lack of interest in working to achieve something; you just need to, as Brand puts it, “fit the narrative” to be famous. The path to achieving celebrity is manifested in the cycle of material consumption that is more familiar to most of us. We see Paris Hilton with an iPhone so we go out and buy an iPhone, but then we are not suddenly rich and happy like Paris so it must be something else, it must be the Prada handbag or the diamond necklace or whatever. We are told that the path to happiness lies in that which makes us unhappy, unfortunately the hair of the dog is not the cure.

We are also unhappy because we are isolated. We are an empathic civilisation, hardwired to live in communities and we do not cope well on our own. As our ability to communicate has increased, our communities have grown wider and we have become increasingly selective about who our communities are. We have let celebrity dominate how we identify ourselves and therefore who we identify as our community. By so doing, we have let corporations isolate us, making us more susceptible to the omnipresent message that consumption leads to community and happiness.

The ultimate manifestation of this corporate led isolation is social media. Something like 70% of internet users are on a social network and 50% of those are on Facebook. We are increasingly defining our communities through social networks and adjusting our lives and consumption accordingly – who needed a phone that could check Facebook before Facebook was ubiquitous? Through networks like Facebook and Twitter, we are positioned as mini-celebrities. On Twitter we can issue edicts to our multitude of ‘Followers’ and keep up-to-date with the minutiae of our friends lives and the lives of celebrities we ‘Follow’. This only serves to increase our egos and add more value to the underlying concept that there “must be some reason”.

To a large extent I am resentful of the popularisation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the theory of survival of the fittest (that predates Darwin). It positions nature as a dog-eat-dog world, out to get us and that we must look out for us and our own in order to survive when this is not the case. It makes us selfish creatures when we needn’t be and shouldn’t be. Perhaps we can dominate our selfishness and our fear. Realise that we have too little time to be to spend it wanting to be and as Brand puts it, “acquire something more valuable, more beautiful”.

Just some thoughts for a Saturday afternoon anyway. I was going to write about how crap NGOs are at using the media and social web but this was more enjoyable.

I am not anti-religion. Many people derive great satisfaction and happiness from the many religions of the world. They have inspired some of the greatest works of art and acts of kindness and compassion along with great acts of barbarity, cruelty, genocide and oppression. And that goes for ALL religions. Lets just try to look at this objectively.

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What went wrong with No Pressure

The No Pressure film lasted all of about 12 hours on the internet. The overwhelmingly negative response pressured 10:10 to remove it, but the damage was done someone captured it from Youtube and within minutes of it being blocked it was up again through a different account. I think the real epic fail here was the response from 10:10, not the film itself.

Initially, with the flood of negative comments that came from both the climate change movement and the right-wing deniers, this seemed like an unmitigated disaster. Certainly through the narrow perspective of Youtube and Twitter, it was nothing short of a catastrophe.

The video was offensive on a number of levels, both to those inside and to many people outside the climate change ‘movement’. One of the perpetual problems with the whole 10:10 campaign is the emphasis that if we all ‘do our bit’ we can solve climate change. I am by no means the first to say that this is bollocks, George Marshall said it better than I will ever be able to. The common response to this is to say “but industry and governments are signed up too! Even e.on are part of it!” and that kind of illustrates the problem with it. If it is easy for e.on to be part of and still aim to build coal fired power stations, then it is clearly missing the point. It’s like BP saying “from now on we are going to use biodiesel in the boats that drill the oil wells”. This video is essentially saying “if you don’t do your bit we’ll track you down and kill you”. So maybe we can take the killing bit with a pinch of salt but the point is the same, they are delibertately putting the emphasis on individual action rather than where it needs to be; on governments and industry.

But I think an even bigger fail was the way that 10:10 seem to have handled the controversy around the video. So far all that has happened is they took the video down and posted an apology about it’s offensiveness. This did, however, take them the best part of a day to put it up, not the quickest response, nor the most effective. Far better it would have been to get out on Twitter and on the blogs and join in the conversation. Had 10:10 refused to be defeated, had they stood their ground and said “we’re sorry if you were offended, but the point of the film was to say that we need to act now to stop climate change” then they would have come out a lot stronger and they would have been able to change what people were talking about; from the shockingness of the film, to the issue it was trying to address.

Shocking films can work in campaigning, they definitely have their place but they have to be done right, NSPCC have had a few that have been very good. The problem is when the content becomes more shocking than the concept and that is what has happened in this case: the image of blowing children up is more disturbing than climate change.

It seems that this was an ill-conceived idea carried out poorly and to not have a plan for what to do if it all goes wrong is largely unjustifiable, given that this was a fairly predictable scenario. So I think it’s a fail for the film but an epic fail for the response.

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That No Pressure Film

Ok so 10:10 put out this film which even by now pretty much everyone must have either seen or heard about. If you haven’t you can watch it at the end of this post. It is gory.

**Spoiler Alert**

Basically the video shows groups of people that have signed to the 10:10 campaign discussing how they are going to achieve the goal of a 10% cut in CO2 emissions with only 3 months left. Those who dissent, who say they aren’t going to take part, are then blown-up by those who are. The message: “take action or we will die”? or perhaps “take action or we’ll kill you”? I am not sure, and neither are most poeple that see the video. The overwhelming majority of comments are negative:

  1. Peter Askew paskq

    Hey @1010 what’s going on? 6 minutes ago via Twitter for iPad

  2. PeopleProfitPlanet greenchampions

    I hope @1010 know that clips of #1010Boom are elsewhere on YouTube, and leading to very very negative reactions 9 minutes ago via web

  3. JammieWearingFool JammieWF

    @1010 Putting the ‘mental’ in environmental wackos 11 minutes ago via web in reply to 1010

  4. Ashley Roden-Bow AshleyRRB

    @1010 have scored an own goal with new campaign video. As events in Nigeria today show, blowing up people you don’t agree with isn’t funny.

But I have to wonder if this is as much of an epic fail as it first appears. On the one hand this looks like a fairly desperate attempt to create a ‘power of enforcement’ that this campaign is significantly lacking. On the other hand is has started a conversation about the urgency of climate change and the urgency of the deadline for 10:10.

There are many things wrong with the 10:10 campaign (emphasis on individuals not industry, no power of enforcement, no accounting for embedded emissions) and the lack of power to enforce the 10% cut is a big one. When the year is up how will they award those who achieve it? How is it audited/judged? So it seems that this is a sudden “oh fuck!” style realisation of this. I know it is not as I remember speaking to one of the 10:10 campaigners about this issue when it launched, but that is how it comes across. The strong message of “join us or die” is very likely to put people’s backs up, it is a very confrontational message. The shocking nature of this video is not the thing that people are annoyed about, but the combination of these two elements. The film Grandma that was entered into the 1 Minute to Save the World competition is just as shocking, I might even suggest more so, but it’s message is clearer and more relevant.

If 10:10 can manage this properly (early indications are that they can’t, but lets wait and see) then they can turn this into a very clever stunt that essentially is high-risk and low-risk at the same time.

By making it shocking it will create a stir and the reaction can go either of two ways:

  • Positive and they have the end result they are hoping for – people get the message and pull their socks up.
  • Negative and it creates an even bigger stir but it starts two conversations, one about what NGOs should/shouldn’t be doing and one about how little time we have to sort out climate change and how little time people signed up have to achieve their 10% cut.

Both of these conversations will continue regardless of the life of the video. Arguably there is a third conversation; a slight dig at celebrity involvement in NGOs but I think that will get largely over looked.

What 10:10 need to do now is to lead the conversation and make it about urgency not about the shockingness of the video. I also think there is a responsibility on those in the online climate change community to steer this conversation. As seen with the domination of the #climatecamp trend on Twitter, the right and climate deniers have a big presence on social networks. This could be a god-send for the deniers that, if they keep trolling it, will blow up into an even bigger mess for the wider climate movement. If the online climate movement can swallow their indignation and help to steer the conversation onto urgency, rather than slamming their collective doors in the face of 10:10 we might be able to not only salvage something from this but actually make the point that we don’t have time to mess about with climate change.