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Book Review

Biding Spectacular Time

by Guy-Ernest Debord

Reviewed by:
a.h.s. boy

Anti-Copyright 1996 a.h.s. boy, all rights declined. This text may be used and shared at your discretion. Despite the vivid copyright notice on the version of this essay at PMC (my objections notwithstanding), I reserve no rights to this essay as property.

Review of:
Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Numbers between brackets refer to numbered theses in the book.

  1. For decades, Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle was only available in English in a so-called "pirate" edition published by Black & Red, and its informative -- perhaps essential -- critique of modern society languished in the sort of obscurity familiar to political radicals and the avant-garde. Originally published in France in 1967, it rarely receives more than passing mention in some of the fields most heavily influenced by its ideas -- media studies, social theory, economics, and political science. A new translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith issued by Zone Books last year, however, may finally bring about some well-deserved recognition to the recently-deceased Debord. Society of the Spectacle has been called "the Capital of the new generation," and the comparison bears investigation. Debord's intention was to provide a comprehensive critique of the social and political manifestations of modern forms of production, and the analysis he offered in 1967 is as authoritative now as it was then.

  2. Comprised of nine chapters broken into a total of 221 theses, Society of the Spectacle tends toward the succinct in its proclamations, favoring polemically poetic ambiguities over the vacuous detail of purely analytical discourse. There is, however, no shortage of justification for its radical claims. Hegel finds his place, Marx finds acclaim and criticism, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg add their contributions, and Debord's own insights are convincingly argued. It becomes evident quite quickly that Debord has done his homework -- Society of the Spectacle is no art manifesto in need of historical or theoretical basis. Debord's provocations are supported where others would have failed. The first chapter, "Separation Perfected," contains the fundamental assertions on which much of Debord's influence rests, and the very first thesis, that

    the whole of life of those societies in 
    which modern conditions of production prevail 
    presents itself as an immense accumulation of 
    spectacles. All that was once directly lived has 
    become mere representation.

    establishes Debord's judgment; the rest attempt to explain it, and to elaborate on the need for a practical and revolutionary resistance.

  3. By far Debord's most famous work, Society of the Spectacle lies somewhere between a provocative manifesto and a scholarly analysis of modern politics. It remains among those books which fall under the rubric of "oft quoted, rarely read" -- except that few can even quote from it. A few of the general concepts to be found in Society of the Spectacle, however, have filtered down into near-popular usage. For example, analyses of the Gulf War as "a spectacle" -- with the attendant visual implications of representation and the politics of diversion -- were commonplace during the conflict. The distorted duplication of reality found in theme parks is typically discussed with reference to its "spectacular nature," and we are now beginning to see attempts to explain how "cyberspace" fits into the framework of the situationist critique. (Cf. Span magazine, no. 2, published at the University of Toronto.) But this casual bandying about of vaguely situationist notions by journalists and coffee-house radicals masks the real profundity of Debord's historical analysis. Much more than a condemnation of the increasingly passive reception of political experiences and the role of television in contemporary ideological pursuits, Society of the Spectacle traces the development of the spectacle in all its contradictory glory, demonstrates its need for a sort of parasitic self-replication, and offers a glimpse of what may be the only hope of resistance to the spectacle's all-consuming power.

  4. Fully appreciating Society of the Spectacle requires a familiarity with the context of Debord's work. He was a founding member of the Situationist International, a group of social theorists, avant-garde artists and Left Bank intellectuals that arose from the remains of various European art movements. The Situationists and their predecessors built upon the project begun by Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism in the sense that they sought to blur the distinction between art and life, and called for a constant transformation of lived experience. The cohesion and persuasive political analysis brought forth by Debord, however, sets the Situationist International apart from the collective obscurity (if not irrelevance) of previous art movements. Society of the Spectacle represents that aspect of situationist theory that describes precisely how the social order imposed by the contemporary global economy maintains, perpetuates, and expands its influence through the manipulation of representations. No longer relying on force or scientific economics, the status quo of social relations is "mediated by images" [4]. The spectacle is both cause and result of these distinctively modern forms of social organization; it is "a Weltanschauung that has been actualized" [5].

  5. In the same manner that Marx wrote Capital to detail the complex and subtle economic machinations of capitalism, Debord set out to describe the intricacies of its modern incarnation, and the means by which it exerts its totalizing control over lived reality. The spectacle, he argues, is that phase of capitalism which "proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life . . . is mere appearance" but which remains, essentially, "a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself" [10]. In both subject and references, we see Debord tracing a path similar to Marcuse in Counter-Revolution and Revolt, in which Marcuse describes the motives and methods behind capitalism's "repressive tolerance" and its ability to subsume resistance, maintain power, and give the appearance of improving the quality of everyday living conditions. Debord's global cultural critique later finds an echo in the work of scholars like Johan Galtung, the Norwegian peace research theorist who established a similarly pervasive analysis of cultural imperialism. It is the situationist focus on the role of appearances and representation, however, that makes its contributions to political understanding both unique and perpetually relevant.

  6. The spectacle is the constantly changing, self-organizing and self-sustaining expression of the modern form of production, the "chief product of present-day society" [15]. An outgrowth of the alienating separation inherent in a capitalist social economy, the spectacle is a massive and complex apparatus which serves both the perpetuation of that separation and the false consciousness necessary to make it palatable -- even desirable -- to the general population. The bourgeois revolution which brought about the modern state is credited with founding "the sociopolitical basis of the modern spectacle" [87]. The longest chapter of the book, "The Proletariat as Subject and Representation," follows the development of the modern state in both its free-market and state capitalist forms, and attempts to describe how this development increasingly led to the supersession of real social relations by representations of social relations. Later chapters cover the dissemination of spectacular representations of history, time, environment, and culture. The scope of Debord's critique is sufficient to demonstrate that the spectacle is more than the brain-numbing flicker of images on the television set. The spectacle is something greater than the electronic devices to which we play the role of passive receptors; it is the totality of manipulations made upon history, time, class -- in short, all of reality -- that serve to preserve the influence of the spectacle itself. Much like Foucault's discipline, the spectacle is an autonomous entity, no longer (if ever) serving a master, but an entity which selectively chooses its apparent beneficiaries, for its own ends, and for only as long as it needs them. Consequently, resistance is difficult and the struggle is demanding.

  7. On the one hand, Debord faults Marxists for their rigid ideologizing, their absorption in an archaic understanding of use value, and their faith in the establishment of a socialist state to represent the proletariat. On the other hand, he criticizes the anarchists for their utopian immediatism and their ignorance of the need for a historically grounded transformational stage. Debord's own offerings in Society of the Spectacle are generally vague, beginning with claims like

    Consciousness of desire and the desire for 
    consciousness together and indissolubly 
    constitute that project which in its negative 
    form has as its goal the abolition of classes 
    and the direct possession by the workers of 
    every aspect of their activity. [53]

  8. In the chapter on "Negation and Consumption," Debord outlines the theoretical approach of the situationists, distinct from that of contemporary sociology, which he claims is "unable to grasp the true nature of its chosen object, because it cannot recognize the critique immanent to that object." The situationist, according to Debord, understands that critical theory is dialectical, a "style of negation" [204] -- and here we find the description of what has become perhaps the most well-known tactic of the situationists, détournement. This strategy, at a theoretical level, is a manifestation of the reversal of established logic, the logic of the spectacle and the relationships it creates. At a practical level, détournement has found its expression in comic strips, whose speech bubbles are replaced by revolutionary slogans; utopian and apparently nonsensical graffiti; and the alteration of billboards. This latter tactic, first introduced in Methods of Détournement (1956), involves the radical subversion of the language -- both textual and graphic -- of the modern spectacle. In its most common form, it involved taking comic strip speech bubbles or advertising copy and replacing them with revolutionary slogans or poetic witticisms. The point, according to Debord, is "to take effective possession of the community of dialogue, and the playful relationship to time, which the works of the poets and artists have heretofore merely represented" [187]. This "unified theoretical critique," however, can do nothing without joining forces with "a unified social practice," and this is where Debord's scholarship fails him despite its veracity. The situationists were, after all, a group of intellectuals, and not factory workers -- a fact which Debord himself did not hesitate to acknowledge. He firmly believed, however, that "that class which is able to effect the dissolution of all classes" was the only hope for a return to real life.

  9. Despite their predominantly intellectual status, however, the Situationist International has had its share of practical influence. One of their members is credited with writing the bulk of On the Poverty of Student Life, the tract published by the students of Strasbourg in 1966 and often cited as a catalyst for the events of May '68. The Situationists played a role in those events as well, seeing in them the first real possibility of a general strike -- a modern Commune -- in their time. But it may be Greil Marcus, in his book Lipstick Traces, who has done the most in recent times to promote the visibility of the Situationists. Lipstick Traces follows the history of punk rock back to the tradition of Dada and situationist theory. Both Jamie Reid (creator of much of the graphic "look" of punk) and Malcolm McClaren (self-styled "creator" of the Sex Pistols) acknowledge the influence of the SI on their own work, and the legacy of punk rock may well be the last great youth movement which involved not only a musical revolution, but total social critique (with a soundtrack).

  10. Plagued by constant internal battles (in which Debord, in his best André Breton manner, irrevocably excluded virtually every member over the course of 15 years, in a hail of harsh criticism each time), and so determinedly revolutionary that it alienated most of its potential sympathizers, the SI finally disbanded in 1972. It's a bit ironic, in this light, that the latest translation of Society of the Spectacle is brought to us by Nicholson-Smith, who was himself excluded from the SI in 1967 along with his colleague Christopher Gray. Together, their translation efforts account for a large part of the major SI texts available in English -- an admirable testament to their belief in the significance of situationist theory. This new translation addresses a number of awkward points in earlier translations, but is not without its own inconvenient or clumsy prose. Debord writes in a difficult manner; style is not his strongest point. But Nicholson-Smith sometimes forsakes fidelity in favor of his own sense of consistency and clarity, even when these things were lacking in the original. The result is a bit less awkward, but also a bit less Debord.

  11. When Debord released his Comments on Society of the Spectacle nearly 20 years after the original publication, he had several comments to make on the importance of recent events, but virtually no revisions to his original theses. His reflective judgment was not in error. The concise Society of the Spectacle remains an accurate depiction of modern conditions. Debord's only addition to his original critique was, however, cynical and foreboding. Whereas the spectacle in 1967 took on two basic forms -- concentrated and diffuse, corresponding to the Eastern Block and American social structures, respectively -- we have now reached the era of the integrated spectacle, which shows less hope and exercises greater control than ever before. The spectacle now pervades all of reality, making every relationship manipulated and every critique spectacular. In this age of Disney, Baudrillard, the total recuperation of radical chic, and the dawn of virtual worlds, we need to familiarize ourselves with the situationist critique. The recent hype surrounding the Internet and the regulation of digital affairs -- not to mention the very structure of virtual relationships we are beginning to feel comfortable with -- are perfect candidates for evaluation. The speed of life, the pace of the spectacle, is proportional to the speed of computers and communication. True criticism is plodding, historically situated, and unwilling to accept the immediate fix of reformism. The challenge today is to recover the situationist critique from the abyss of the spectacle itself. Debord concluded Society of the Spectacle by stating that "a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle must know how to bide its time" [220]. Not by waiting, but through the unification of theoretical critique and practical struggle of which "the desire for consciousness" is only one element.

NOTE: The Situationist International published their works with an explicit anti-copyright notice which states that the writings may be "freely reproduced, translated, or adapted, without even indicating their origin."


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