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The Society of the Spectacle By: Guy Debord
For decades, Guy DebordÕs The Society of the Spectacle was only available
in English in a so-called "pirate" edition published by Black & Red, and
its informativeÑperhaps essentialÑcritique 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 ideasÑmedia 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 co
mparison bears investigation. DebordÕs 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. Comprised of nin
e 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 justif
ication for its radical claims. Hegel finds his place, Marx finds acclaim
and criticism, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg add their contributions, and
DebordÕs own insights are convincingly argued. It becomes evident quite
quickly that Debord has done his homewor
kÑSociety of the Spectacle is no art manifesto in need of historical or
theoretical basis. DebordÕs provocations are supported where others would
have failed. The first chapter, "Separation Perfected," contains the
fundamental assertions on which much of
DebordÕs 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 DebordÕs judgment; the rest attempt to explain
it, and to elaborate on the need for a practical and revolutionary
By far DebordÕs 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"Ñexcept that few ca
n 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"Ñwith the attendant
visual implications of representati
on and the politics of diversionÑwere 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 "cy
berspace" 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 prof
undity of DebordÕs 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 sp
ectacle 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 spectacleÕs all-consuming power.
Fully appreciating Society of the Spectacle requires a familiarity with
the context of DebordÕs 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 tr
ansformation 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 Spect
acle 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].
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 reali
ty. 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 it
self" [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 capitalismÕs "repressive
tolerance" and its ability to subsume resistan
ce, maintain power, and give the appearance of improving the quality of
everyday living conditions. DebordÕs global cultural critique later finds
an echo in the work of scholars like Johan Galtung, the Norwegian peace
research theorist who established a s
imilarly 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.
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 palatableÑeven desirableÑto the general population. The bourgeois
revolution which brought about the mo
dern 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 c
apitalist 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, en
vironment, and culture. The scope of DebordÕs 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, classÑin short, all of realityÑthat serve to preserve
the influence of the spectacle itself. Much like FoucaultÕs 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.
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 a
narchists for their utopian immediatism and their ignorance of the need
for a historically grounded transformational stage. DebordÕs own offerings
in Society of the Spectacle are generally vague, beginning with claims
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] 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 recogniz
e 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 s
ituationists, dŽtournement. 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,
dŽtournement has found its expression in comic s
trips, 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 DŽtournement (1956),
involves the radical subversion of th
e languageÑboth textual and graphicÑof 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 join
ing forces with "a unified social practice," and this is where DebordÕs
scholarship fails him despite its veracity. The situationists were, after
all, a group of intellectuals, and not factory workersÑa fact which Debord
himself did not hesitate to acknow
ledge. 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.
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 student
s of Strasbourg in 1966 and often cited as a catalyst for the events of
May Ô68. The Situationists played a role in those events as well, seeing
in them the first real possibility of a general strikeÑa modern CommuneÑin
their time. But it may be Greil Mar
cus, 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 muc
h 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).
Plagued by constant internal battles (in which Debord, in his best AndrŽ
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 m
ost of its potential sympathizers, the SI finally disbanded in 1972. ItÕs
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 EnglishÑan 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 consis
tency and clarity, even when these things were lacking in the original.
The result is a bit less awkward, but also a bit less Debord.
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 wa
s not in error. The concise Society of the Spectacle remains an accurate
depiction of modern conditions. DebordÕs only addition to his original
critique was, however, cynical and foreboding. Whereas the spectacle in
1967 took on two basic formsÑconcentrat
ed and diffuse, corresponding to the Eastern Block and American social
structures, respectivelyÑwe 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 o
f 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. T
he recent hype surrounding the Internet and the regulation of digital
affairsÑnot to mention the very structure of virtual relationships we are
beginning to feel comfortable withÑare perfect candidates for evaluation.
The speed of life, the pace of the sp
ectacle, 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.
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