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The Society of the Spectacle

by Guy-Ernest Debord


Chapter 7 "The Organization of Territory"

And he who becomes master of a city used to being free and does not destroy her can expect to be destroyed by her, because always she has as pretext in rebellion the name of liberty and her old customs, which never through either length of time or benefits are forgotten, and in spite of anything that can be done or foreseen, unless citizens are disunited or dispersed, they do not forget that name and those institutions....

Machiavelli, The Prince


165

Capitalist production has unified space, which is no longer bounded by external societies. This unification is at the same time an extensive and intensive process of banalization. The accumulation of commodities produced in mass for the abstract space of the market, which had to break down all regional and legal barriers and all the corporative restrictions of the Middle Ages that preserved the quality of craft production, also had to destroy the autonomy and quality of places. This power of homogenization is the heavy artillery which brought down all Chinese walls.

166

In order to become ever more identical to itself, to get as close as possible to motionless monotony, the free space of the commodity is henceforth constantly modified and reconstructed.

167

This society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation.

168

Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities, is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal. The economic organization of visits to different places is already in itself the guarantee of their equivalence. The same modernization that removed time from the voyage also removed from it the reality of space.

169

The society that molds all of its surroundings has developed a special technique for shaping its very territory, the solid ground of this collection of tasks. Urbanism is capitalism's seizure of the natural and human environment; developing logically into absolute domination, capitalism can and must now remake the totality of space into its own setting.

170

The capitalist need which is satisfied by urbanism in the form of a visible freezing of life can be expressed in Hegelian terms as the absolute predominance of "the peaceful coexistence of space" over "the restless becoming in the passage of time."

171

If all the technical forces of capitalism must be understood as tools for the making of separations, in the case of urbanism we are dealing with the equipment at the basis of these technical forces, with the treatment of the ground that suits their deployment, with the very technique of separation.

172

Urbanism is the modern fulfillment of the uninterrupted task which safeguards class power: the preservation of the atomization of workers who had been dangerously brought together by urban conditions of production. The constant struggle that had to be waged against every possible form of their coming together discovers its favored field in urbanism. After the experiences of the French Revolution, the efforts of all established powers to increase the means of maintaining order in the streets finally culminates in the suppression of the street. "With the present means of long-distance mass communication, sprawling isolation has proved an even more effective method of keeping a population under control," says Lewis Mumford in The City in History, describing "henceforth a one-way world." But the general movement of isolation, which is the reality of urbanism, must also include a controlled reintegration of workers depending on the needs of production and consumption that can be planned. Integration into the system requires that isolated individuals be recaptured and isolated together: factories and halls of culture, tourist resorts and housing developments are expressly organized to serve this pseudo-community that follows the isolated individual right into the family cell. The widespread use of receivers of the spectacular message enables the individual to fill his isolation with the dominant images--images which derive their power precisely from this isolation.

173

For the first time a new architecture, which in all previous epochs had been reserved for the satisfaction of the ruling classes, is directly aimed at the poor. The formal poverty and the gigantic spread of this new living experience both come from its mass character, which is implicit in its purpose and in modern conditions of construction. Authoritarian decision, which abstractly organizes territory into territory of abstraction, is obviously at the heart of these modern conditions of construction. The same architecture appears in all industrializing countries that are backward in this respect, as a suitable terrain for the new type of social existence which is to be implanted there. The threshold crossed by the growth of society's material power alongside the lag in the conscious domination of this power, are displayed as clearly by urbanism as by problems of thermonuclear armament or of birth control (where the possibility of manipulating heredity has already been reached).

174

The present is already the time of the self-destruction of the urban milieu. The explosion of cities which cover the countryside with "formless masses of urban residues" (Lewis Mumford) is directly regulated by the imperatives of consumption. The dictatorship of the automobile, pilot-product of the first phase of commodity abundance, has been stamped into the environment with the domination of the freeway, which dislocates old urban centers and requires an ever-larger dispersion. At the same time, stages of incomplete reorganization of the urban fabric polarize temporarily around "distribution factories," enormous shopping centers built on the bare ground of parking lots; and these temples of frenzied consumption, after bringing about a partial rearrangement of congestion, themselves flee within the centrifugal movement which rejects them as soon as they in turn become overburdened secondary centers. But the technical organization of consumption is only the first element of the general dissolution which has led the city to the point of consuming itself.

175

Economic history, which developed entirely around the opposition between town and country, has reached a level of success which simultaneously cancels out both terms. The current paralysis of total historical development for the sake of the mere continuation of the economy's independent movement makes the moment when town and country begin to disappear, not the supersession of their cleavage, but their simultaneous collapse. The reciprocal erosion of town and country, product of the failure of the historical movement through which existing urban reality should have been surmounted, is visible in the eclectic melange of their decayed elements which cover the most industrially advanced zones.

176

Universal history was born in cities and reached maturity at the moment of the decisive victory of city over country. To Marx, one of the greatest revolutionary merits of the bourgeoisie was "the subjection of the country to the city" whose very air emancipates. But if the history of the city is the history of freedom, it is also the history of tyranny, of state administration that controls the countryside and the city itself. The city could as yet only struggle for historical freedom, but not possess it. The city is the locus of history because it is conscious of the past and also concentrates the social power that makes the historical undertaking possible. The present tendency to liquidate the city is thus merely another expression of the delay in the subordination of the economy to historical consciousness and in the unification of society reassuming the powers that were detached from it.

177

"The countryside shows the exact opposite: isolation and separation" (German Ideology). Urbanism destroys cities and reestablishes a pseudo-countryside which lacks the natural relations of the old countryside as well as the direct social relations which were directly challenged by the historical city. A new artificial peasantry is recreated by the conditions of housing and spectacular control in today's "organized territory": the geographic dispersal and narrowmindedness that always kept the peasantry from undertaking independent action and from affirming itself as a creative historical force again today become characteristics of the producers--the movement of a world which they themselves produce remaining as completely beyond their reach as the natural rhythm of tasks was for the agrarian society. But when this peasantry, which was the unshakable foundation of "Oriental despotism" and whose very fragmentation called for bureaucratic centralization reemerges as a product of the conditions of growth of modern state bureaucracy, its apathy must now be historically manufactured and maintained; natural ignorance has been replaced by the organized spectacle of error. The "new towns" of the technological pseudo-peasantry clearly inscribe on the landscape their rupture with the historical time on which they are built; their motto could be: "On this spot nothing will ever happen, and nothing ever has." It is obviously because history, which must be liberated in the cities, has not yet been liberated, that the forces of historical absence begin to compose their own exclusive landscape.

178

History, which threatens this twilight world, is also the force which could subject space to lived time. Proletarian revolution is the critique of human geography through which individuals and communities have to create places and events suitable for the appropriation, no longer just of their labor, but of their total history. In this game's changing space, and in the freely chosen variations in the game's rules, the autonomy of place can be rediscovered without the reintroduction of an exclusive attachment to the land, thus bringing back the reality of the voyage and of life understood as a voyage which contains its entire meaning within itself.

179

The greatest revolutionary idea concerning urbanism is not itself urbanistic, technological or esthetic. It is the decision to reconstruct the entire environment in accordance with the needs of the power of the Workers' Councils, of the anti-statist dictatorship of the proletariat, of enforceable dialogue. And the power of the Councils which can be effective only if it transforms existing conditions in their entirety, cannot assign itself a smaller task if it wants to be recognized and to recognize itself in its world.

 

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