[Notes] Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle

Before beginning on a summary of the book, these words from Simon Critichely’s Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity are worth a look:

HERE is a link to the film of Society of the Spectacle, fully available on youtube. And HERE’s a link to the writings of all Situationist International thinkers available, in full, on-line.

The Spectacle and the commodity

Th Spectacle is a social relation of false consciousness mediated by images. It is an objective material relation resulting from the dominant mode of production, yet it is real only in its unreality. For the citizens of this society all is not well: once was the case that fulfilment came through having but now it is through the appearance of having. What one has is commodities and commodities are what is possible. The Spectacle reinforces what is possible against that which is impossible.

The Spectacle separates the worker from the product through the division of labour and its abstraction. The worker only deals with a fragment of a completed thing and thus becomes detached from the commodity itself. The Spectacle is a machine for the proletarianization of the whole world, as everyone is alienated from the commodities produced, as all commodities are mediated by a relation to the universal abstraction of capital. The universalization of abstraction turns it into the concrete. This abstract concreteness is the possible dictated by the commodity and provides the vision of the society of the Spectacle (it is a process known as ‘real abstraction’). The real condition of the citizens of the society of the Spectacle is one of concrete alienation,  unhomeliness and detachment from the collective (as collectivity is managed under the strained conditions of capitalist efficiency and anxiety).

Capital is not a real relation but an abstraction and thus an image. Capital accumulates as images and these images become the followed figures and substance of the Spectacle. The citizen of the Spectacle is the consumer of Spectacle and is respected by the capitalist for being a consumer. Yet the citizen is also exploited by the capitalist and consumes to ease her anxiety from the exploitation. This paradox is the figure (respected) against the ground (exploited) relation that lights up the spectacle day after day.

The citizen consumes to survive, Therefore, a survival principle based around the fear of scarcity propels consumption and production. This ensures the all important creation of surplus value. The principle of the Spectacle is one of ‘never enough’. The result is a massive excess of unnecessary commodification in the name of protecting the society of the Spectacle from the horrors of scarcity. Production and consumption equals capital and capital is the universal abstraction of the Spectacle. The Spectacle is the capability of the society as a whole (as the total abstraction of the possible). Capital = image =  Spectacle = money as universal equivalent = the possible.

The Spectacle is diffused by commodity abundance, where each commodity separates itself out as something special, yet it justifies the whole of the Spectacle. However, access to commodities is always fragmented by access to the universal equivalent of the money form. The Spectacle is the image that you want but can never fully posses. Each commodity strives for its own survival in the Spectacle through its separation from other commodities as a novelty and need, where its contingent creation becomes retroactively constituted as a necessity. This ‘cunning of the commodity’ always fails in the end, but the commodity is part of a process of general commodification which continues towards its Absolutization.

The commodity acts as a religious fetish and produces habitual submission by the citizen to the Spectacle. Commodity abundance overpowers organic development of social needs with an unlimited artificiality of desires. The power of the commodity, as a fetish, dominates our living desires and falsifies all social life. Just as capitalism has disenchanted the world, fetishized objects become disenchanted by their built in obsolescence and fluctuating  status. Prestigious objects become mudanized by the Spectacle as soon as they are taken home, where each new perfect product is superseded by a yet newer more perfect product the next day (the lie that sold the product is revealed).

There is a quality in quantity, that is the principle of the super abundance of the Spectacle. Abundance contains the ideology of choice, where the unlimited range of alternatives and varieties is the Spectacular freedom of the citizen of the Spectacle. This pseudo freedom of the citizen and their right to choose is the form of freedom of capitalist society that locks the citizen into world of the possible, of real abstraction and punctuated banalization.

The Spectacle and social production

The Spectacle is dogmatic but fluid. As Marx said “all that is solid melts into air” except, that is, for capitalism. The fluidity of values and commodities, as the possible, is produced by the abstraction of societies power and results in the citizens concrete lack of freedom. The Spectacle can also be in the name of communism, as Stalinism was Spectacle, as it did not change the world but used police state methods to transform peoples perceptions of the world. Ideology becomes an end in itself: the insane lie that obliterates reality is also a Spectacle. Stalinist bureaucracy was a Spectacle that we see today in our downsized and audited public and private institutions (see Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher). Just as the Spectacle of bureaucracy is everywhere and at all times, it is also invisible and given other names to hide its own Spectacular excess.

The global division of labour divides the world into spectacular tasks. These tasks are a concetization of a process of abstract labour. Thus the worker becomes alienated from their own labour capabilities into fix and monotonous tasks (whether teacher, banker, lawyer, or metal worker). Labour is turned from am meaningful task of exerting ones productive capabilities to one of banalization and pseudo gratification (‘yeah, one more sale!!’).

The family is the mechanism for the transference of class power. The family perpetuates models of social activity that becomes clichéd and prescribed social roles, even to the extent of becoming the rebellious and disenfranchised youth, who is splashed across the newspaper pages and commodified through films, music and art. Spectacular Rebelliousness is the flip side of of the same coin to Spectacular conformity, where the celebrity Stars promote their brand of idealized living (power, adventure, leisure, vacations, sexual promiscuity, sexual attractiveness and so on) to the lower classes that dream of becoming bourgeoisie in their image.

The Spectacle conceals the antagonistic ground of class struggle and exploitation. It does this through the visible figures of racism, and xenophobia, sport and elections, which stir archaic oppositions around nationalistic and territorial aggressions which don’t aim to change anything but gain a moment of highly intensive social affection without any structural change (as these sites of affective intensity are sites produced through the Spectacle itself). The real contradictions are repressed for the sake of the pleasure and entertainment of the Spectacle.

The Spectacle and revolutionary time

The problem with theories of the revolutionary subject is that they have separated thought from act. Unitary historical thought should in no way be distinct from the practical attitude to be adopted. It is the case that technical questions of organization are also social questions. The lack of thought concerning questions of organization is a lack of thought for the historical process as a whole (which is, as Lukacs said of Lenin, the thinking of genius).

There must be undertaken an internal critique of society: a comprehensive critique of all aspects of alienated social life is essential to understand the Spectacle. To do this, revolutionary theory must be put into practice. “Workers become dialecticians and put their thought into practice” (p,89). Revolutionary thought is not revolutionary by itself and must become a weapon. A revolutionary in action is a combatant, combatants are weapons in the struggle to make visible that which has always been the essential, but invisible ground of society. The revolutionary must think the historical ground of time that is suppressed by capitalism’s irreversible time.

History is the invisible ground of society and becomes temporalized by humanity. The world is governed by the Spectacle of time as irreversible time: the time of production and of commodities. This general time of society is the globally unified time that keeps the factory working ‘just in time’ day after day. This cut up identical world time is the time of production. It is a unified abstraction that operates and maintains the markets and maintains the possible Spectacle.

Perceptions of time change with the historical developments of civilizations. Time’s perception moves from the pure present to the negation of the passing of time through a mythological circular time. Circular time was part of the nomadic consciousness, as they encountered the periodic return of similar places. The settled society saw the repetition of activities and measured eternity by the passing of the day and the turning of the seasons framed through myths that guarantee the cosmic order of along the order established by the society. Circular mythical time was used by the rulers to make history their own private property, veiling the people to their place in in history’s events.

Time was appropriated through new modes of production where new class division meant the selling and capturing of time to create temporal surplus value: the time off the living. The rulers “extravagant festivities amounts to the squandering of historical time at the surface of society” (p.127). Historical time is the time of adventure and war for the rulers who are exposed and within real events, whereas those who are used for their temporal surplus value are locked within cyclical time of non-disruption and repetition, all without conflict.

The static society is one without conflict or change. It maintains itself through an equilibrium with the world by the constant maintenance of their institutions. These societies rely on total conformity to normalized social practises, where change is the impossible. Change is secured by the fear of the human and reverting back to animality. “The members of these societies remain human at the cost of always remaining the same” (130).

Modern industry begins to dissolve the cyclical mythological time of the people and  replaces it with the linear time of power and events. The linearity is mapped to the new found technology of the written word: “writing is the rulers weapon” (131). With this new and impersonal form of communication, where an impersonal memory of the administration and it’s archives, a new consciousness is not transmitted directly among the living. It is for this reason that “examining history amounts to examine the nature of power” (134).

As more people were exposed to historical time and became to gather a language of historical communication where each was recognized as possessors of a unique present, Judaism, and the monotheistic religions that sprang there from, recognized irreversible linear time but was limited within a singular final event, “the kingdom of God is soon to come”, a count down to the Last judgement and the coming of the true world:

Eternity came out of cyclical time and is beyond it. Eternity is the element which holds back the irreversibility of time, suppressing history within history itself by placing itself on the other side of irreversible time as a pure punctual element to which cyclical time returned and abolished itself. Bossuet will still say: “And by means of the time that passes we enter into the eternity which does not pass.” (136).

If life is only seen through its completion from beyond, the pilgrim becomes the symbol of life. Life becomes a one way journey whose real meaning lies elsewhere. The mystical world of the middle ages was attached with a melancholy of the decaying fading world, as end of myth no longer meant the world retuned but perished. Peasants revolted and responded to this history, trying to imagine their own utopian heaven on earth, the immanent Kingdom of God. But Christianity denounced this dream: the kingdom of God was the church, all else was superstition.

Work as labour time transformed historical conditions forever. The bourgeoisie economy eradicating any pockets of cyclic time found usually in largely agrarian societies. Now history was for all and not just for elite ruling classes. The irreversible time of the bourgeois economy brought a general movement that discovered the importance of political economy, the previously hidden ground of history. The time of the bourgeois economy is the time of things, commodities and  the production of objects that fluctuate on the surface of history. History itself, once a rarity, is transformed into a consumable item, the objects of yesterday now fetishized as the prestigious antiques of today. Although historical time was now known, it was not used: the worker is estranged from history but demands to live the historical time he produces:

In the demand to live the historical time which it makes, the proletariat finds the simple unforgettable centre of its revolutionary project; and every attempt (thwarted until now) to realize this project marks a point of possible departure for new historical life (143).

Historical time is the time of freedom, not the economic time of freedom to trade. Irreversible time becomes globally unified as the time of the market, not historical time, which doesn’t cut time up into synchronous fragments, themselves commodities to be traded as the general time of society. “Time is everything and man is nothing; he is at most the carcass of time” (Marx). This time is time of nondevelopment, of consumable time, a pseudo-cyclical time infused with the commodified time of production, where blocks of time can be purchased as abstractions for pseudo-individualistic freedoms and decisions. The Spectacular commodity is a parcel of time containing an array of determined pleasures and guarantees: their vacuous consumption matches the vacuous credit they were purchased with.

Time saved by labour saving devices means more time in front of the TV or on vacation. These moments of real life are a retrieval of cyclical time, where their patterned repetition act as peaks and troughs of our life ‘enjoyment’ and feeling of ‘really’ living.

The epoch which displays its time to itself as essentially the sudden return of multiple festivities is also an epoch without festivals. What was, in cyclical time, the moment of a community’s participation in the luxurious expenditure of life is impossible for the society without community or luxury. When its vulgarized pseudo-festivals, parodies of the dialogue and the gift, incite a surplus of economic expenditure, they lead only to deception always compensated by the promise of a new deception. In the spectacle, the lower the use value of modern survival-time, the more highly it is exalted. The reality of time has been replaced by the advertisement of time.

The consumption of commodities is the repetition of the past expanded to include the commodified new. The vocabulary of which is ever expanding to create new territories of commodity desire and exchange. The historical past and everyday life remains without concepts and language as nowhere has it been recorded. It has been smothered by the Spectacles false memory that paralyses history through the Spectacle’s false consciousness of time. The Spectacle no longer has the drive towards the fulfilment of life or the recognition of death. Death is something to ‘plan’ for, with life insurance to make sure one goes out with a smooth monetary abstraction of ones value, the economy can profit from death and not create too much of a loss. Although death is not really seen, only Spectacularized by Hollywood, no one wants to grow old as they loose their ‘youth-capital’  as such there is no death and consequentially, little life,

Citizens of the Spectacle are estranged from the present through spatial alienation that separates them from their own time. What is needed is a federation of independent times all simultaneously present: the authentic temporal realization of authentic communism which “abolishes everything that exists independently of individuals” (163). This will liberate us from the extensive process of banalization that undermines the quality of places and spaces. Commodities are freer than people, as they can be spread with eagerness round the world in hours, where multilateral trade policies free trade zone allow the smooth passage of repeatable commodity space to become a frictionless plateaux on non-time and non-place.

Places become banalized when commodified into the Spectacle by the tourist industry. Anywhere in the world can be reached in a day, space has been lost and so has time. The development of transport media has exploded humanity around the world and imploded rural and urban areas into megalopolis centres of urban sprawl and rationalized ‘planned’ city spaces, where the Spectacle can self replicate through “peaceful coexistence within space” and outside time (170).Public spaces are squeezed until the streets themselves are suppressed, inducing isolation as a form of social control. Accommodation and family structures ensure antagonistic social relations are replicated across generations, while isolation of individuals in all areas of life (work and leisure) are to ensure pseudo-community prevails over genuine social solidarity.

Mass architecture meets mass transportation, with the dictatorship of the auto-mobile securing the necessity of road and motorway systems that de-distance the world and create greater dispersal. The city and country have nullified and paralysed each other by their inability to generate historical awareness. Consequentially, no historical movement based upon the recognition of the freedom of city has developed.  The history of the city under the tyranny of the administrative powers that castrate the city as a focal point of social power, while creating an apathetic and narrow minded parochial neopeasentry in the country, continues the repression of historical time with the forces of historical absence.

Proletarian revolution is the critique of human geography through which individuals and communities have to create places and events suitable for the appropriation, no longer just of their lobar, but of their total history (178).

We must become aware of a style of dialectical theory. Debord calls this ‘detournement’, which is the reradicalization of previous conclusions that have been made respectable and so now lies. Progress depends upon the use and improvement of ideas and styles through their plagiarization and re-articulation. The style must be an abomination of the prevailing standards of language. This creates a style that points beyond culture through its negation. A unified social critique demands unfed social practice.

Critique is to expose ideology that distorts consciousness, yet produces real effects as the materialization of an abstract ideology. The Spectacle needs both materialism and idealism to function. The material of pseudo-concretness is reified by the objects that control our social life. Idealism is the dreamed activity that mediates the Spectacle through signs and signals into abstract ideals. this induces hallucinates which dominate our social life, until we no longer encounter others but are bound to a screen of Spectacle of a unilateral fiction dictated by our relation to fictions concerning commodities. the reaction to this is madness and schizophrenia, where superstition and magical techniques creep into social practices to fill the void left by the lack of historical agency. But these problems shouldn’t cause us to rush into our own Spectacle of pseudo-revolutionary action, but to know how to wait and to link ourselves to the real truth of an emancipatory universal history.


2 Responses to “[Notes] Guy Debord: Society of the Spectacle”

  1. hirn Says:

    what the f*ck am i supposed to do? as one person- can someone tell me that!!

    • avoidingthevoid Says:

      Apply ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ to all of your actions and towards all beings and you’ll see through the spectacle. This understanding has changed my life quite considerably recently. As one person, you have the ability to change and to help those things that are suffering right in front of you. If we stop thinking about grand notions of change and start to look at small changes, the big changes will come. It’s quit simple, but it does and has worked for me.

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