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Regarding the Spectacle: Debord in Retrospect

After almost half a century it’s time for a serious reassessment of the place of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle in radical and revolutionary thought. We should therefore be grateful to Ken Knabb for his excellent new edition of this work in English translation.[1] His translation is very competent and readable, and the extensive notes he added are very helpful to the reader. In the original edition, Debord quoted or alluded to numerous sources without attribution, and Knabb has conscientiously tracked these down, and not only cited the sources, but often added useful information on their significance.

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This is particularly true in the case of Debord’s extensive references to Hegel and Marx. Knabb also presents helpful historical background on revolutions, revolutionary movements, and historical events and developments, when this information sheds light on Debord’s text. He also includes good bibliographical information on left, labor and revolutionary events, and citations from other Situationist texts that expand and clarify some of Debord’s ideas. This edition will be particularly useful to readers who come to the work without extensive theoretical and historical background, and will help them get into the required reading for anyone who wants to understand the work’s context in Western radical and revolutionary theory.

Whether or not Debord’s book is, as Knabb claims, “arguably the most important radical book of the twentieth century,” its author deserves credit for helping many catch up with the major transformations that had taken place in the system of domination. Specifically, he showed that the system had to shift its focus from a preoccupation with the repressive state and authoritarian ideology as the salient mechanisms of domination and focus more intently on the role of the commodity and the consumptionist imaginary. He was not alone in inspiring this shift in perspective. Foucault criticized the regressive nature of “the repressive hypothesis,” in which power is always seen as being classical authoritarian and imposed from above, and Marcuse and the Frankfurt School introduced the ideas of the capture of desire through cooptative “repressive desublimation” and of the key role of the “culture industry” in late capitalism.

Yet, it was Debord’s image of “the spectacle” that conveyed most compellingly the central role of commodity fetishism and the mass media in the contemporary system of domination. Debord’s tirade against the spectacle was very timely. The first generation that had been thoroughly socialized by electronic media was just coming of age, ready to break the disciplinary bonds of the obsolete industrial era and to usher in the dawning age of domination by digital media and drones. And just as the work appeared, the radical Left in the U.S. was in the process of self-destructing, even as it chanted in a self-absorbed zombie-like trance, “The Whole World is Watching.” The Situationists, and especially Debord, deserve recognition for their prophetic role at this turning point in world history.

Yet, as we look back at the role of the Situationists in this crucial historical moment, we find that that they were extremely weak in the area of socially transformative practice. This becomes clear if we look at the kind of practice that is described in Situationist texts, and even more so if we look at what it has meant in practice to be a Situationist (or a post-Situationist, or Situationist-influenced) over the past half-century. We find that its influence has been overwhelmingly in the area of cultural critique and détournement – image subversion, or what many would now call culture jamming. Admittedly, this is the movement’s greatest strength, and is an important one. It had a major impact historically in inspiring dissidents to break decisively with the dominant culture, to engage with that culture on the terrain of the imaginary, and in the process to create an oppositional milieu.

But the greatest weakness of the movement is related precisely to this strength. In many ways it became lost in its own negative moment of critical ironic distance, and thus opened itself up to marginalization, aestheticization, and self-absorbed adventurism. In the end, the desperately needed positive moment of engagement in processes of social and ecological regeneration was simply missing in any meaningful sense. The Situationists certainly made an important positive political contribution at on the theoretical level, but their contribution never entered significantly into the sphere of “ethical substantiality” – the embodiment of liberatory theoretical ideals in a growing and developing free community.

The Society of the Spectacle is in essence an attempt to explore the social imaginary in late, consumptionist capitalism through the conceptual grid of “the spectacle.” But while this conceptualization has been extremely valuable in directing attention to crucial aspects of this imaginary, it misleads in some ways by neglecting other aspects. For example, while Debord’s self-proclaimed project is to defend the embattled subject against the forces that crush it, the focus on a monstrous and monolithic “spectacle” rather than the larger, more complex, and in some ways highly self-contradictory social imaginary leads in very significant ways to a failure to give subjectivity its due. This is exhibited especially in Debord’s almost absolute reduction of the late modern subject to the status of passive spectator. He depicts the subject as almost entirely helpless in the face of the overwhelming power of the spectacle. Indeed, he states explicitly that the spectacle is a force that is “totally colonizing.”

In reality, the situation is considerably more complicated than this. Debord fails to delve deeply enough into the nature of “consuming desire.” He sometimes defines the problem as a domination of experience by “appearances,” so that core evil of the spectacle is that it is “an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances.” (10) But, in actual fact, all phenomena are appearances (that is in fact the meaning of the word “phenomenon”). The relevant issue is how these appearances or phenomena function in the psychical economy. According to Debord’s analysis, the subject is a being who “contemplates” these appearances, a formulation that reinforces the image of the passive subject.  But, in reality, the social (and “individual”) imagination operates through processes of projection, identification, and introjection (among others) that are far from “contemplative.” Furthermore, it is true as Debord says that the positive moment of these processes is the affirmation of the image or “appearance,” so that the spectacle is the realm of “the good.” But there is in this dialectic of the imaginary a simultaneous negative moment in which these ‘appearances” are necessarily rejected as inadequate, unacceptable, and unfulfilling.

The impasse of desire is not grounded in the nature of appearances as appearances, but rather in the false promises inherent in these consumptionist images. In the society of mass consumption, and to a large degree in capitalist and patriarchal societies in general, the promise of ego-activity is that the appropriation of the object will fill an ontological void, a structural lack in the subject. The problematic of “having the object” is inseparable from the fundamental fantasy of an ego that achieves full being through this such having. Debord reduces the object to “mere appearances” because he never fully recognizes the ways in which the consumptionist images that constitute the spectacle are not only impositions by the system of power, but extensions of processes of projection and identification that have been fundamental to the civilized (patriarchal) ego long before the emergence of the consumer society in late capitalism.

Furthermore, Debord’s idea of the spectacle as a totalizing power of commodification leads him to ignore social phenomena that escape its hegemony. On the one hand, he underestimates the significance of quite powerful forces that constitute a counter-spectacle based on nationalism, racism, patriarchy and religious fundamentalism. These forces have over the last half-century proven themselves to be more tenacious than Debord would have suspected. On the other hand, he also neglects the dimensions of personal and communal life that the spectacle does not succeed in colonizing. He thus overlooks much of what might constitute a material and spiritual basis for challenging the hegemony of the spectacle (as will be discussed further).

Most previous social theorists had badly neglected the role of the social imaginary, and Debord deserves recognition for correcting this deficiency. However, he tends to fall into the opposite error and to neglect the role in the system of domination of dimensions other than the imaginary. In his account, the spectacle tends to become a relatively autonomous power over society. However, in reality, the dominant social imaginary is dialectically co-determined by “spectacular” institutions, ideology and ethos, by which is meant, fundamentally, consumptionist institutions, ideology and ethos. The consumptionist universe is constituted in part by the institutional system of electronic media, including television, radio, film, and now, above all, the internet. It is constituted by the vast ideological system of advertising and marketing. It is constituted by a system of consumptionist spaces, including the mall, the department store, the boutique, the shopping center, the “plaza.”  And, as must not be underestimated, it is constituted by the performances of the consumers themselves, their consumptionist interactions, relationships, gestures, and acts. The ethos, the sphere of practice, is also deeply spectacularized. Furthermore, there is a constant dialectic between the consumptionist and productionist spheres of society, that is, a dialectic of both consumptionist and productionist institutional, ideological, imaginary, and ethotic (practical) structures. These productionist spheres of determination do not fit well into Debord’s analysis of the spectacular society.

Such complexities emerge to some degree in The Society of the Spectacle when Debord contrasts the “concentrated” and the “diffuse” spectacle. The former is “primarily associated with bureaucratic capitalism,” but may act as “a technique for reinforcing state power in more backward mixed economies or even adopted by advanced capitalism during certain moments of crisis” (64) The latter is “associated with commodity abundance, with the undisturbed development of modern capitalism.” (65)  Debord uses the word “spectacle” here to refer to two divergent forms of the social imaginary: the statist/nationalist imaginary which is largely a productionist phenomenon, and the consumptionist imaginary that is the topic of the vast majority of his analysis.  The two forms always coexist in late capitalist society, and though the consumptionist imaginary is increasingly dominant, the entire social sphere of consumption depends on the entire social sphere of production, so the productionist imaginary will always play an important social role.  The statist/nationalist imaginary is strongly resurgent in time of social crisis, above all as soon as war is declared (war is indeed “the health of the state,” and also of its ideology and imaginary). A grasp of this dialectic of spheres and sub-spheres is essential to understanding the dynamics of the system of domination; however, Debord, with his disproportionate focus on the consumptionist imaginary, is not of much help in comprehending this dialectic.

Another serious problem is that Debord never seems to recognize, much less theorize, the patriarchal and gender aspects of commodification and spectacularization. His relative blindness, and even susceptibility, to patriarchal values and sensibility, prevents him from recognizing how central sexual exploitation is to the dominant imaginary. His masculinist and Promethean proclivities can also be seen strikingly in such assertions as that “the subject of history . . . can be nothing other than the self-production of the living — living people becoming masters and possessors of their own historical world.” (74)  Yes, we do have a problem of lacking agency in history, and this is in large part why revolutionary change is necessary (the bad news is that we are the Undead on the way to becoming the Dead). However, there is a very great difference between human beings overcoming alienation from “their own historical world” and their becoming its masters and possessors. In fact, the latter, an impossible goal that lies at the heart (or heartlessness) of the project of civilization, results in a necessary alienation from a historical and natural reality that, to the extent that it constitutes our social and material being, cannot ultimately be “mastered.”

This issue of Prometheanism relates to one of the most disquieting aspects of Debord’s analysis: the extent to which it is pervaded by Eurocentric and civilizationist ideology. For example, he claims that “economic necessity” was “the unchanging basis of earlier societies” (51) repeating the tired platitude that “pre-civilized” societies were preoccupied with mere “survival.”[2] Granted, he thinks this is a kind of compliment to these societies, in that their healthier concern for “satisfaction of primary human needs” is replaced by late capitalism’s insane obsession with “the incessant fabrication of pseudo-needs.” However, his analysis still perpetuates the tendency to attribute to pre-capitalist societies a poverty of needs, in that they are allegedly founded on a “basis” of primary ones. This is reductionist, in that it ignores the no less significant basis of these societies in a social imaginary in which “primary needs” are imagined in relation to a complex cosmology, a complex gift economy, and a complex system of kinship that encompasses both the human community and the natural world.

Similarly, Debord perpetuates the White Mythology of the unchanging Primitive Other. He contends that the “cyclical time” of indigenous societies “was the really lived time of unchanging illusions,” (155) thus, like Hegel, banishing such societies from World History, the realm of “where the action is.” However, in reality, one finds in primal societies a constant dialectic between natural realities and cultural realities, a dialectic in which both change and evolve. If in one sense it is true, as Marx said, that we still live in pre-history it is equally true in another sense, as Hegel, Marx and civilized thought in general have not comprehended, that no one ever lived in pre-history.

If Debord in some ways negates the historical agency of indigenous and traditional peoples, in other ways he denies the agency of the masses of people who live under the existing system of domination.  He claims that “the lack of general historical life also means that individual life as yet has no history,” and that as a result, the “individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable.” (157)  In such passages, Debord seems to take much too literally the old revolutionary motto “we are nothing, we will be all.” For him, the masses have no agency at all, while after the revolution, their agency will somehow expand to infinity.

The question of the meaning of this “somehow” is of course quite crucial to his project. One of the central preoccupations of The Society of the Spectacle is the seemingly eternal question of the nature of the “revolutionary subject” and the possibility of its emergence in the foreseeable future. It is unfortunate that this work has been so disproportionately influential among Situationist texts, since it gives a misleading impression of where the movement, and Debord himself, stood on this issue. If one reads it in isolation, one learns that that Debord and the Situationist placed all their world-historical bets on something called “Worker Councils.” But it is not at all clear from the text what Debord even means by such “councils.” The uninformed reader might be forgiven if he or she jumps to the conclusion that they are some kind of “councils” that are elected by and composed of “workers.” But this conclusion would be only half true concerning the “worker’ part and close to not true at all on the “council” part, if this word is interpreted conventionally.

If one looks at discussions of this topic over a spectrum of Situationist texts (the collection in Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology is highly recommended[3]) one finds that it is a more revolutionary and a more realistic idea than it appears. First, despite the usual term “worker,” the Situationists recognized the importance of organizations in both the workplace and in the local community. Secondly, they define the “council” not as an elected representative body, but rather as a democratic, participatory assembly of workers or local community members. For example, in “The Beginning of an Era” they state that “the next revolution will recognize as councils only sovereign rank-and-file general assemblies, in the enterprises and the neighborhoods, whose delegates are answerable to those assemblies alone and always subject to recall by them.”[4] In “Preliminaries on Councils and Councilist Organization” the “council as permanent basic unit” is described as “the assembly in which all the workers of an enterprise (workshop and factory councils) and all the inhabitants of an urban district who have rallied to the revolution (street councils, neighborhood councils) must participate.”[5] I cite these texts to stress the ways in which Situationism is part of a living liberatory tradition that has continued to develop beyond the Situationist moment, and to correct the often marginalizing, disengaging effects of the Society of the Spectacle when read in isolation.

Unfortunately, Debord was not very helpful in opening up paths of development of this liberatory tradition. What was missing in his analysis was an appreciation of what is lost when society succumbs to the spectacle and to forms of domination in general, and of how it might be found again. What is the nature of the “Society of the Non-Spectacle?” What kind of life is it that can be “directly lived,” as Debord describes it in certain vague allusions? He neglects the question of what it is that human beings care most about most deeply, and which might lead us not only to rebel against the failures of the dominant order, but to begin creating a new one. We know that it is neither some godlike ability to create ourselves out of nothing, nor some Promethean power to “master” history or nature. Rather, it is the freedom of each person, of each community, and of all of life on earth to flourish. This has been the preoccupation of the communitarian anarchist tradition, especially as developed by theorists like Elisée Reclus and Gustav Landauer, and it is the central focus of the ethics and politics of care that has been most fully developed in ecofeminist thought. If only the Situationists dérives had taken them occasionally to pre-schools, to hospices, to community gardens, or to the wilderness! The most “directly lived” truths for beings who happen to inhabit the earth are the truths of being born, of living, of growing and flourishing, of giving birth, of creating and expressing, of declining and dying, of generation and regeneration.

But one finds no such ethics and politics of care in Debord, nor does one find a deep appreciation for the richness of local and regional cultures or bioregions. Perhaps even more surprisingly, there is little recognition of the subversive and emancipatory and utopian dimensions of historical or present-day popular culture. One would never guess from Debord’s account of the “totally colonized world” that there is such a long and living history of subversive folksongs, labor songs and political music, radical poetry, subversive language and slang, people’s history, radical and revolutionary stories and legends, dissident rituals, rites and celebrations. It is in such a culture (which is not merely “prefigurative” but “figurative”) that we find that the hoped-for world already exists as (in Durruti’s words) “a new world in our hearts.” Did the Situations have a new world in their hearts?

The main story for Debord is the dominance of the spectacle and passivity of the masses, while in the real world it is the story of the struggle between a rich popular imagination, grassroots creativity, love of the community, and dreams of freedom on the one hand, and the destructive processes of cooptation and commodification by the machine of domination on the other. The spectacle does not simply dominate from above. Vampire-like, it feeds on the creative blood of persons and communities. This is one reason why the predatory spectacle is far less stupid and in some ways even more insidiously voracious than it is in Debord’s depiction. The (painfully) good news is that as it drains the life blood from society it appears increasingly more alien to what is human and increasingly less capable of fulfilling the deepest needs and aspirations of human communities. Its vampire-nature becomes—what might we say?—a public secret.

Thus, at the same time that it becomes more powerful it becomes in other ways more fragile and vulnerable. Nevertheless, it can still not be dealt a fatal blow using the weapons favored by the Situationists, which in reality remain the “arms of critique,” the arms of détournement, of subversion of images. We are left with “je détourne bien—mais quand même.” What is necessary is a radical retournement, a turning-around in all the fundamental spheres of social determination—institutional , ideological imaginary, and ethotic. The ultimate challenge to the empire of illusion is the real of nature, life, and the human spirit as these are expressed in the unfolding powers of the free community.

 

 Notes

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014). Citations are included in the text, and refer to the 221 theses that make up the work.

[2] His book came out a year after Marshall Sahlins introduced his “original affluent societies” thesis in 1966.

[3] Ken Knabb, ed. Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets; 2007)

[4] http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.era2.htm.

[5] http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/12.councils.htm.

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