Tuesday, 16 November 2010

GUY DEBORD: The Society Of The Spectacle (1967)

Published in 1967, this is Debord's most famous work and was dubbed the 'Situationist Manifesto'. Situationism emerged as a nouveau-Marxist ideology in the 50s in France, advocating a form of revolutionary praxis called d├ętournement: the staging of events or moments radically departing from the normal rhythm of reified life, designed purposely to subvert the omnipresent Spectacle in a way startling enough to dispell the pervasive illusion of its reality. The Spectacle is truly ahead of its time, anticipating globalisation and the mass media and other forms of advanced capitalism.


Life is no longer directly lived instead we live through a representation of life (images, particularly the 'autonomous image' = or self-image as a conceptual identity within the framework of the capitalist system of social relations).

This is the Spectacle. It pretends to offer unification but in reality it is only unified in that it has generalised separation creating an almost impenetrable false consciousness of human relations based on commodity fetishism and reification (see Lukacs History & Class Consciousness). Essentially the Spectacle functions like Foucault's panopticon: a non-human third-party presence that serves as intermediary and regulator of social relations. Our only relation is with this mechanism, not with other human beings. We are thus condemned to a life of utter loneliness and alienation.

This system is what keeps the elites in power making their possition unassailable. Like the film ‘the Matrix’ it is so effective because we are blind to its operation. Our very gestalt is the Spectacle so we cannot easily conceive of alternatives. By alienating unconsciously alienating ourselves from each other and the world. we are made into willing, compliant slaves to the capitalist system.

The Spectacle emerged out of the capitalist mode of production (the appropriation of human labour for surplus value, i.e profit) as a refined form of capitalism, penetrating all aspects of life through the powerful cultural force of consumerism. Now leisure as well as work could be controlled by the elite by incorporating the masses into the capitalist fetishism of commodities in which everything is valued quantitatively instead of qualititively. Life becomes empty and meaningless, a negation of life.

The Spectacle uses a particularly ingenious method to mask itself: internal struggles. These struggles create a semblance of ideological dissent but in reality they are two aspects of the Spectacle in a ‘sham battle’. The two varieties are concentrated spectacles (totalitarian bureaucracies in so-called ‘Communist’ countries) and diffuse spectacles (affluent, capitalistic societies). Additionally, celebrities and political leaders are employed as role models to create the illusion of freedom and individuality. In reality, however, stars and leaders have absolutely no originality and are the biggest slaves to the Spectacle having become famous by complying unquestioningly with its requisites. (eg Krushev’s rise to power through the machinery of the Soviet Union which subsequently deeply conditioned him, making him an even greater slave to that particular concentrated spectacle).

Revolution is only possible through the reclamation of history by the working classes through a mass understanding of dialectics that is unhindered by stultifying dogmas and inflexible ideologies. It must be based on a theory of praxis that is highly adapted to combatting, practically, not theoretically, the Spectacle.

The difficulties of achieving this are acute. The Spectacle has appropriated everything, even culture. Culture, once the seedbed of potential revolutionary change, has, since the end of Dadaism and surrealism, become just another commodity, art has ceased to be art and is now cynical speculation.

Debord suggests d├ętournements, negations of the system that serve to reveal the illusion and its falsehood, reinvigorating revolutionary culture through shock-deconditioning. (example, the situationists once invaded a Catholic mass and posing as priest and acolytes hosted an anti-mass defaming the Church).

The Spectacle maintains itself by holding an autonomy over historical time. As we are alienated from time due to its spatialisation we are unable to see beyond the current historical reality of the Spectacle (Fukuyama and ‘the end of history’) and thus unable to challenge it or provide alternatives. The conflation of time and space brings an end to notions of change, evolution, progress. Instead the current system is cleverly portrayed as being inert, complete, the end point of all human development. By diffusing this illusion of pseudo-cyclical time the spectacle keeps us compliant and unquestioning by forcefeeding us the notion that the Spectacle is all there is and the best state of affairs imaginable. This way we do not challenge it.

The Spectacle has extended its influence to all four corners of the world, homogenising human experience and bringing separation to all under its onus. (Debord’s foreshadowing of globalisation). It has also redefined the actual geography of the world by creating new towns and countrysides bereft of historical context and history. The only solution would be an environment based on autonomous, organic and highly accountable workers’ councils.

Revolutionary theory is the enemy of revolutionary ideology: i.e. when we become dogmatic in our theories we fail to adapt to prevailing conditions and our ideology no longer becomes an ideology fit for present purposed but a useless anachronism. Similarly when an ideology establishes itself becoming materially real its development ends. Debord suggests we should pursue an ideology based on ever adapting practice, an ideology that never dies but which continually develops, becoming more and adept at fighting the Spectacle. In other words, an ideology of constant dissent and dialogue. He does not elaborate how we would go about this, however.