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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


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” [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 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” [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 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” [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 Debord?s 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, class?in short, all of reality?that serve to preserve

the influence of the spectacle itself. Much like Foucault?s 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. Debord?s 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, d?tournement. 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,

d?tournement 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 D?tournement (1956),

involves the radical subversion of th

e language?both textual and graphic?of 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 Debord?s

scholarship fails him despite its veracity. The situationists were, after

all, a group of intellectuals, and not factory workers?a 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 ?68. The Situationists played a role in those events as well, seeing

in them the first real possibility of a general strike?a modern Commune?in

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 Andr?

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. It?s

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 English?an 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. Debord?s only addition to his original

critique was, however, cynical and foreboding. Whereas the spectacle in

1967 took on two basic forms?concentrat

ed and diffuse, corresponding to the Eastern Block and American social

structures, respectively?we 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

affairs?not to mention the very structure of virtual relationships we are

beginning to feel comfortable with?are 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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