Hamlet Brutal Truth Annonymous 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 co mparison 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. 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 Debord’s own insights are convincingly argued.
It becomes evident quite quickly that Debord has done his homewor k—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. 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 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’—with the attendant visual implications of representati on 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 ‘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 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 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 spectacle’s all-consuming power. 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 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’ .
The spectacle is both cause and result of these distinctively modern forms of social organization; it is ‘a Weltanschauung that has been actualized’ . 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’ . 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 resistan ce, 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 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’ . 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 mo dern state is credited with founding ‘the sociopolitical basis of the modern spectacle’ .
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 Debord’s critique is sufficient to demonstrate that the s …