An Introduction to ‘The Society of the Spectacle’

No course on the Situationists could be said to be such without delving into the book which in many respects defines their philosophy and goals: Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. As I mentioned in week one, it’s not an easy read. There’s not really any way that I could summarise the book, or to fully communicate it’s subtleties in the brief time that we’ve got here, so what I’d like to do instead is to try and offer you a reading of the book’s central concept: the spectacle. This is the most complex idea in the book, and I hope that by elucidating this I will begin to give you at once an insight into its core arguments, and also to give you an approach to the work as a whole which hopefully will make the prospect of reading it somewhat less daunting. I’m also going to structure this evening’s session a little differently – I’m going to break my talk up with opportunities for you to ask questions about what I’ve said. I’ll start, however, by giving you an idea of the context in which the book was published.

Society of the Spectacle was first published in Paris in November 1967 by Éditions Buchet-Chastel. Somewhat ironically, it was published with a ‘no copyright’ statement, but as soon as he realised that he could actually make money from it, Debord had this changed post-haste.[1] Debord later stated his intentions for the book as follows:

I wanted the Situationist International to have a book of theory. The SI was at this time the extremist group which had done the most to bring back revolutionary contestation to modern society; and it was easy to see that this group, having imposed its victory on the terrain of critical theory, and having skilfully followed it through on that of practical agitation, was then drawing near the culminating point of its historical action. So it was a question of such a book being present in the troubles that were soon to come, and which would pass it on after them to the vast subversive sequel that they could not fail to open up.[2]

Society of the Spectacle, in combination with Raoul Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life, were to be the definitive statements of the Situationist philosophy. One contemporary reviewer described the books as the ‘Capital and What is to be done? … of the new movement.’[3] Most reviews were not so favourable, however, with Le Monde comparing Debord and Vaneigem to Saint-Just, a crony of Robespierre who had become synonymous with the corruption of revolutionary ideals and their transformation into despotism.

As I suggested above, the book has gathered a somewhat formidable reputation, and is renowned for its obscurity and difficulty. This is in no small part due to the poor quality of the first English translation, published by Black and Red in 1977. However, subsequent editions have rectified this, with Donald Nicholson-Smith’s 1994 and Ken Knabb’s 2002 translations greatly improving the clarity of the work. All three translations are available online at http://situationist.cjb.net. The second factor contributing to the texts difficulty is its densely allusive style. Debord quotes, rewrites, and openly plagiarises a whole host of other sources, most of which, for example the sections from Hegel and Marx, are notoriously difficult in their own right. Debord’s intention in lifting from these sources ismuch in line with their use of détournement in their art: the history of philosophy was to be used for ‘partisan political purposes’.[4]

This presents the reader with a fairly weighty problem from the outset: one has to be familiar both with the original texts to fully understand the meaning that Debord is attempting to impart by rewriting them, quite apart from the new context that Debord places them in. In addition to all of this, Debord’s prose style is pretty dense, and he has a great fondness for somewhat infuriating dialectical inversions that seem, to the uninitiated, to be constructed to deliberately confuse. For example, take these shining examples of clarity:

In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.[5]

The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but unites it only in its separateness.[6]

The economy transforms the world, but it transforms it into a world of the economy.[7]

It’s unfair, I know, to quote these lines out of context, but it does give you an indication of Debord’s rhetorical style. The lines above make sense, but their jarring inversions take some digestion. I hope in the course of this session to make things a little clearer by giving you a grounding in the intellectual territory that Debord was writing from. However, before I start expounding the intricacies of Marx’s historical materialism and Hegel’s dialectical method, I do not think it entirely inappropriate to show once more the image from John Carpenter’s They Live that I used as an explanatory tool in the first session: The words on the billboards are all that capitalism had to offer Debord, and if one bears in mind that it is this boredom that he is contesting, the theological niceties and metaphysical subtleties of his argument become somewhat easier to comprehend.

They Live

What is the spectacle?

The key concept in The Society of the Spectacle, as suggested by the title, is the notion of the spectacle. Which of course leaves us with the question of what this actually might be. The image from ‘They Live’ is useful in giving an impression of what the spectacle is, or rather, what it hides, but is not entirely accurate: the spectacle is not just the mass media; the mass media is part of it but not all of it. Instead, it is not unhelpful to think of the mass media as the visual manifestation, the visible and tangible expression of something that has far deeper roots. These roots are in a phenomenon that Marx identified in his early writings as the defining characteristic of capitalism: alienation. The spectacle is the aggregated sum total, the visual medium through which a society completely dominated by the operations of capitalism sustains its own subjection and hence alienation.

Debord and Marx

The Society of the Spectacle, more than anything else, is an attempt to re-read Marxism, and in response to the glaring failures of Stalinism, rehabilitate it. There can be no doubt whatsoever of the explicit links between Debord and Marx: it is obvious from the very first sentence of The Society of the Spectacle. I’m going to read you two passages, the first from Marx’s great work, Capital, and the second from The Society of the Spectacle:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’.[8]

The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.[9]

This second sentence is Debord’s statement of intent, explicitly connecting his thought within a long history of Marxist philosophy. In order to really get our heads round what Debord intends in Society of the Spectacle, we’re going to have to first address some Marxist basics, as in many respects, the ideas that Debord puts forward are an extension of concepts already present in Marx’s writing. Not least of these is Marx’s famous dictum that

The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.[10]

Alienated labour

There are a lot of misconceptions about Marxism, not least due to what have been termed its ‘catastrophic victories’[11] in the previous century. At base, however, Marx’s fundamental concern is one that is shared by almost all philosophy: what is the good life and how can one live it? His thought comes out of a very specific set of circumstances: firstly, the development of fully-fledged industrial scale capitalism, which was transforming Europe in ways unknown at any point in history; and secondly, the intellectual landscape of nineteenth century Germany, which at that time was dominated by the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel. It is in addressing and grappling with the problems raised by these factors that Marx comes to the conclusions that he does.

Writing at the time in which the Industrial Revolution was at the height of its world-transforming power, it was inevitable that these questions became bound for Marx with the nature of capitalism, which at this point was in its most transparently cruel and rapacious form. Frederic Engels was inspired to write The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 from his experiences of living and working here in Manchester, which was even more of an unhealthy place to live then than it is now: in 1840, the life expectancy for a working-class man in Manchester was 17.[12] Capital is full of extraordinary examples of the sort of level of Dickensian exploitation that went on in British factories in the 1800s. A Mr J. Ellis defends the practice of employing boys below the age of 14 for 12 hour night shifts in his steelworks, firstly because grown men wouldn’t do it and secondly because ‘the men could not work in the night sets only; it would ruin their health’.[13] When queried on the morality of similar practices, Mr. E. F. Sanderson, another steel manufacturer, stated that night shifts for teenage boys had to continue for ‘there would be the loss from so much expensive machinery, lying idle half the time’.[14]

These living examples, of which there are many throughout Capital, become illustrative for Marx, not just of the harshness with which capitalists can treat workers, but of the way in which the whole system of capitalism treats people and their capabilities as if they were objects. At the base of this problem is that which Debord terms ‘our old enemy’: the commodity.[15] Marx devotes an entire chapter to exploring exactly what commodities are – suffice it to say that they are not simple and straightforward. He defines a commodity as

In the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference.[16]

The commodity has a use value and an exchange value. The use value is the use to which the owner can put the commodity, the exchange value is the worth of the commodity expressed in terms of other commodities. However, the exchangeable aspect of the commodity obscures the fact that a commodity is the product of human labour. When one exchanges a commodity, one gains a material artefact and also the benefit of another person’s work. Whilst in pre-industrial times, the person to whom this benefit passes is the generally the person who has done the work, directly exchanging the products of his or her labour with another person, with the development of industry there arises a whole class of society, the bourgeoisie, who are specialists in extracting labour power from others and exchanging it for profit in commodity form. As a result, the labour power of a people becomes a commodity in itself, and the abstract equivalence between things extends not only between objects but between people. Time, as the saying goes, is money. Time and labour become commodities to be bought, sold and exchanged on the marketplace. The result of this is that, for Marx, in England

it is self-evident that the labourer is nothing else, his whole life through, than labour-power, that therefore all his disposable time is by nature and law labour-time, to be devoted to the self-expansion of capital. Time for education, for intellectual development, for the fulfilling of social functions and for social intercourse, for the free-play of his bodily and mental activity, even the rest time of Sunday (and that in a country of Sabbatarians!) — moonshine! But in its blind unrestrainable passion, its were-wolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labour-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory, and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the labourers’ period of repose. Capital cares nothing for the length of life of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power, that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the labourer’s life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.[17]

In Marx’s terminology, the worker is alienated from his own labour, the products that this labour produces, and by extension, other workers and nature. The concept of alienation is something that Marx derived from Hegel: alienation does not mean merely feeling bad or oppressed, but that an aspect of one’s own humanity has been externalised and turned into something perceived as separate from oneself. This concept is akin to Blake’s ‘mind-forged manacles’, and is succinctly defined by Frederick Beiser:

Alienation … refers to the stage of the development of spirit when it subconsciously externalizes, alienates, or objectifies some aspect of itself which it consciously sees as alien or hostile to itself. Alienation is the paradoxical phenomenon of self-enslavement, the problem posed by Rousseau’s famous dictum ‘man is born free; everywhere he is in chains’. The source of alienation lies in hypostasis or reification, i.e. seeing our own creations as if they were things independent of us and to which we must submit.[18]

Capitalism infects all aspects of life with this phenomenon: where previously in agrarian societies labour directly benefited the labourer and the community he or she served, in the factories that labour becomes a commodity. In the factories, the worker must sell his or her own labour to the factory owner. His or her time and labour power, which in previous times would have been expended in a manner which directly benefited the labourer and the community within which they were working, become abstracted for the purposes of the creation of profit. It is in this sense that the worker becomes alienated from labour. Marx, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, expands on this:

labour is external to the worker – i.e., does not belong to his essential being; that he, therefore, does not confirm himself in his work, but denies himself, feels miserable and not happy, does not develop free mental and physical energy, but mortifies his flesh and ruins his mind. Hence, the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and when he is working he is not at home.[19]

What Debord does in The Society of the Spectacle is to expand this critique further: alienation has spread so that the worker is no longer just ‘not at home’ at work, but no longer even at home in his own home. The commodity, as Marx states in the first sentence of Capital, embodies all of ‘the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails’.[20] When one reads Debord’s repurposing of Marx’s opening gambit, one can see that at the time he was writing, it is not just the wealth of those societies that is affected by capitalism, but the whole of life.

Alienated desires

What has occurred, in Debord’s analysis, is that the scope of capitalism has spread: the tendency that capitalism has to treat people like objects in the workplace has extended to treat them like objects in the home. All of the analyses that Marx brings to bear on the worker in the factory still hold true for Debord: the worker is still alienated from his or her labour and the products of that labour. What differs is that the worker, in order to keep the flow of capital moving, has been alienated from his or her own desires. This is a direct result as the increasing and unceasing development of the capitalist system, as Debord states:

The unceasing deployment of economic power in the shape of commodities has transfigured labor into labor-as-commodity, into wage-labor, and eventually given rise to abundance thanks to which the basic problem of survival, though solved, is solved in such a way that it is not disposed of, but is rather forever cropping up again and again at a higher level.[21]

For Debord, capitalism has by far and away excelled itself: the immense industrial capabilities that it can rally to its cause have transformed the world, and for those in the economically more developed west, the question of day-to-day survival have been solved. Very few people died of starvation in 1960s France. Debord’s analysis of the world that he was writing in is such that he can’t see why anyone need undergo the privations of alienated labour: science and technology have already shown us that humanity can be liberated from the battle for survival. He puts great faith in technical advances, stating that ‘automation’ provides the ‘technical infrastructure that is capable of abolishing labor’,[22] and it is crucial here to note that where much contemporary anti-capitalist thought is animated by ecological concerns, these are entirely absent from Debord’s. As a result of these advances, capitalism is therefore faced with a conundrum: if it has solved the problems of human survival, what is it for, and how can it continue its domination of society? Its answer is the creation of ‘pseudo’ needs and desires where before there were none. The worker, in previous incarnations of capitalism was valued by the capitalist only for his labour power. The latest incarnation of capitalism has recognised his value as a consumer. Again, to quote from Debord:

Whereas at the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation ‘political economy treats the proletarian as a mere worker’ who must receive only the minimum necessary to guarantee his labor-power, and never considers him ‘in his leisure, in his humanity,’ these ideas of the ruling class are revised as soon as so great an abundance of commodities begins to be produced that a surplus ‘collaboration’ is required of the workers. All of a sudden the workers in question suddenly discover that they are no longer invariably subject to the total contempt so clearly built into every aspect of the organization and management of production; instead they find that every day, once work is over, they are treated like grown-ups, with a great show of solicitude and politeness in their new role as consumers. The humanity of the commodity finally attends to the workers’ ‘leisure and humanity’ for the simple reason that political economy as such now can – and must – bring these spheres under its sway.[23]

As Sadie Plant puts it, ‘Leisure, culture, art, information, entertainment, knowledge, the most personal and radical of gestures, and every conceivable aspect of life is reproduced as a commodity: packaged, and sold back to the consumer.’[24] Debord expresses this as follows:

The spectacle corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life. It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see – commodities are now all there is to see; the world we see is the world of the commodity. The growth of the dictatorship of modern economic production is both extensive and intensive in character. In the least industrialized regions its presence is already felt in the form of imperialist domination by those areas that lead the world in productivity. In these advanced sectors themselves, social space is continually being blanketed by stratum after stratum of commodities. With the advent of the so-called second industrial revolution, alienated consumption is added to alienated production as an inescapable duty of the masses.[25]

The ultimate end result of this is that that humanity is kept in an artificial state of what Debord terms ‘augmented survival’.[26] Instead of being free to create a world in accordance with desire, as technological progress, for Debord, has proven could be the case, humanity is instead enslaved by a procession of commodities that fulfil invented desires and offer no real satisfaction, and where Marx identified that the worker is alienated from his or her work, Debord sees that now the worker is in addition alienated from his or her own natural desires as well.

The spectacle

The answer to the question, ‘what is the spectacle’, therefore, is that it is at once the whole system of a society whose entire operation has been dominated by the commodity form, and simultaneously the aggregate of all of the mediated images that reflect this state of affairs. The circulation of commodities throughout all of contemporary society suggests that the only way the world could be organised is through this system, and the only desires that can be realised are those that can be packaged into commodity form. Advertising, the mass media, are the visual representation of these alienated social relationships, the tip of the iceberg or the whole mass of alienated and reified social relationships created by contemporary capitalism. As Debord states, ‘the spectacle is not a collection of images; rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.’[27] Advertising is therefore not only propaganda for a particular product, but propaganda for the whole system of spectacular consumption, perpetuating the continual and meaningless consumption of the pseudo-needs presented in the commodity.

Each new commodity arrives on the scene, and contributes to the whole which is the spectacle, gains its meaning in the totality of the spectacle as the next big thing, the answer to all of one’s problems. This wouldn’t be so bad for Debord if the commodity wasn’t in itself so inherently unfulfilling. The only desires that contemporary capitalism permits are those which can be packaged and sold, but once bought, they immediately lose the very lustre that enticed us to buy them in the first place:

Each and every new product is supposed to offer a dramatic shortcut to the long awaited promised land of total consumption. As such it is ceremoniously presented as the unique and ultimate product … The sole real status attaching to a mediocre object of this kind is to have been placed, however briefly, at the very center of social life and hailed as the revelation of the goal of the production processes. But even this spectacular prestige evaporates into vulgarity as soon as the object is taken home by the consumer – and hence by all other consumers too. At this point its essential poverty, the natural outcome of the poverty of its production, stands revealed – too late. For by this time another product will have been assigned to supply the system with its justification, and will in turn be demanding its moment of acclaim.[28]

This is, of course, entirely deliberate. Presented with the continual procession of commodities, each of which fails to fulfil the promises that it makes, the individual becomes driven by a continual pull to consume more and more, to fill the gaps that the spectacle assures that it can fill. This, for Debord, is the ultimate effect of the domination of society by commodity relations: the spectacle permits only the role of the consumer, and the individual is reduced to the status of a spectator in his or her own life.

[1] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 102n.

[2] Guy Debord, Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of The Society of the Spectacle, (London: Chronos, 1979), pp. 8-9.

[3] TLS, cited in Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, pp. 101-102.

[4] Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, ‘Methods of Detournement’, in Ken Knabb, trans. and ed., Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1995), p. 9.

[5] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, (New York: Zone Books, 1994), p. 14.

[6] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 22.

[7] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 28.

[8] Karl Marx, Capital, p. 13.

[9] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 12.

[10] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm>, 2007.

[11] Christopher Hitchens, ‘Marshall Berman’s Love Affair with Marx’, The Village Voice, November 1999, <http://www.villagevoice.com/books/9946,hitchens,10070,10.html>, 2007.

[12] ‘Live Expectancy’, <http://web.ukonline.co.uk/thursday.handleigh/demography/life-death/life.htm>, 2007.

[13] Karl Marx, Capital, <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm>, 2007.

[14] Karl Marx, Capital, <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm>, 2007.

[15] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 26.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 13.

[17] Karl Marx, Capital, pp. 162-163.

[18] Frederick Beiser, Hegel, (London: Routledge, 2005), pp. 315-316.

[19] Karl Marx, Economic and Political Manuscripts of 1844, <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm>, 2007. Translation modified.

[20] Karl Marx, Capital, p. 13.

[21] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, pp. 27-28.

[22] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 31.

[23] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 30.

[24] Sadie Plant, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 11.

[25] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 29.

[26] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 28.

[27] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 12.

[28] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, p. 45.

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    My name is Duncan Hay and I'm a writer and researcher living and working in London. I recently received my doctorate in English Literature from the University of Manchester, and I write about the poet, essayist, and filmmaker Iain Sinclair, the Situationist International and Walter Benjamin. I'm currently writing a book about Manchester and psychogeography for Manchester University Press.

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