Posts By: Duncan

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.

Situationists Course (1/lots)

Back when I first started my PhD, I taught a course on the Situationist International at Cornerhouse in Manchester. I haven’t done very much with the material that I wrote for this, so I’ve decided to post it here in the hope that someone finds it useful.

Who were the Situationists?

The Situationist International were a small collective of artists, writers and filmmakers active in France between 1957 and 1972 whose legacy, if one can call it that, is still with us today. They have been cited as influences by a host of cultural and political figures including Malcolm McLaren, Tony Wilson, Banksy, and the anti-globalisation movement. What I want to do in this course is to reconnect their ideas to their roots in the European post-war avant-garde, and to emphasise the resolutely political and anti-capitalist character of their art and philosophy. I also hope in the process to engage in the sort of critical practice that informed their thought. Although inevitably a large part of the course will be in lecture form, I’m hoping that the classes will become a sort workshop for the exploration of Situationist ideas and tactics, and we will be reading texts, watching films, and, if you have a look over your course outlines, getting out into the city and exploring it, to use one of their phrases, psychogeographically.

This first session, however, is necessarily an overview of who the Situationists were and a sketch of some of their most important ideas, which we will be exploring in more depth later in the course. To start, therefore, I want to give you a quick history of the events which were probably the most important in the SI’s short existence: the political struggles that came to a head in France in May of 1968.

May 1968:

In May 1968, France was brought to a standstill by a series of wildcat strikes and riots that lasted for almost two months, and the ruling party of President Charles de Gaulle was nearly brought down in the process. Although initially a movement calling for students’ rights, the protests grew to involve all sectors of French society, and, at its height more than 10 million workers downed tools. What is extraordinary is that the group who claimed that the events were a vindication of their philosophy, and, in some ways claimed responsibility for them were a collective of self-declared avant-garde artists, filmmakers and writers calling themselves the Situationist International.

Arguably the event that sparked the troubles was the publication of a document entitled ‘On the Poverty of Student Life: Considered in its economic, political, psychological, sexual, and particularly intellectual aspects, and a modest proposal for its remedy’ by members of Strasbourg University Students’ Union (AFGES) in 1966. Produced in an edition of 10,000 using university money, this essay, as suggested by the title, is a diatribe against the way in which students lived and worked at the time of its publication, and pulls no punches. I’d like to quote a short passage:

He [the student] thinks he is avant-garde if he has seen the latest happening. He discovers “modernity” as fast as the market can produce its ersatz version of long outmoded (though once important) ideas; for him, every rehash is a cultural revolution. His principal concern is status, and he eagerly snaps up all the paperback editions of important and “difficult” texts with which mass culture has filled the bookstores. (If he had an atom of self-respect or lucidity, he would knock them off. But no: conspicuous consumers always pay!). Unfortunately, he cannot read, so he devours them with his gaze, and enjoys them vicariously through the gaze of his friends.[1]

The modern student, the text suggests, is in thrall to the machinations of capitalism, alienated from his own life and engages with it in only the most superficial fashion. The solution that the authors of the pamphlet suggest is a ‘total critique’ of the whole of everyday life. Throughout the text multiple references are made to something the authors term ‘the spectacle’, and an organisation called the Internationale Situationniste is mentioned more than once.

Following the distribution of the text, the students involved held a press conference to explain their actions, and to encourage further acts of disobedience on the part of their fellow students. Tensions increased between the university authorities and the student population increased until in December of the same year the AFGES was wound up by the courts. The judge’s summation is worth quoting in full:

The accused have never denied the charge of misusing the funds of the student union. Indeed, they openly admit to having made the union pay some F1500 for the printing and distribution of 10,000 pamphlets, not to mention the cost of other literature inspired by ‘Internationale Situationniste’. These publications express ideas and aspirations which, to put it mildly, have nothing to do with the aims of a student union. One has only to read what the accused have written, for it is obvious that these five students, scarcely more than adoloscents, lacking all experience of real life, their minds confused by ill-digested philosophical, social, political and economic theories, and perplexed by the drab monotony of their everyday life, make the empty, arrogant, and pathetic claim to pass definitive judgments, sinking to outright abuse, on their fellow-students, their teachers, God, religion, the clergy, the governments and political systems of the whole world. Rejecting all morality and restraint, these cynics do not hesitate to commend theft, the destruction of scholarship, the abolition of work, total subversion, and a world-wide proletarian revolution with “unlicensed pleasure” as its only goal.[2]

The story attracted the attention of the national press, and the term ‘Situationist’ began to become shorthand for a whole number of extremist groups operating within Europe at the time.[3]

Some months later in the newly built University of Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris, a similar ‘perfect storm’ of circumstances was developing. The students attending the university were housed in overcrowded dormitories and were prevented from associating with members of the opposite sex. The University was later described by one member of the Situationist International as ‘the urbanism of isolation [that] had grafted a university centre onto the high-rise flats and their complementary slums […] a microcosm of the general conditions of oppression, the spirit of a world without spirit.’[4] Over a period of some months, tensions had been growing between the student population and the university authorities. For example, a number of students crashed an opening ceremony of a new swimming pool on campus by the Minister of Youth and Sports. One of them, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, asked the minister ‘you’ve published a report on youth problems which is ridiculous. You don’t mention any of the real problems – for instance there’s not a single work on sexuality in it. What about that?’ The minister replied with ‘Young man, if you’ve got problems about that, may I suggest that you take a dip in the swimming pool.’ The audience were appalled by the minister’s response, and forced him to leave the ceremony.[5]

Increasing tensions lead to the disruption of the day-to-day running of the University, starting first with strikes and the disruption of lectures and, by January 1968, full scale clashes with the police. Plain clothes police officers were continually on campus, and there was an increasing sense of repression and barely contained violence. On 22nd March the administration buildings were occupied by a number of left-wing groups. One group, calling themselves Les Enragés, ‘The Angry Ones’, after a radical cadre active during the 1789 Revolution, demanded that ‘Stalinist’ members of the occupying students be expelled. Their demands were not met, and they left the building, but not without daubing the walls with slogans that would have been familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Situationist literature: “‘Take your desires for reality’; ‘Boredom is counter-revolutionary’; ‘Trade unions are brothels’”.[6] Again, the national press got wind of the Situationist involvement, and condemnation was swift from both left and right, with the French Communist Party describing them as a ‘handful of irresponsible elements’[7]

The Enragés were threatened with expulsion from the University, and a tribunal was to be held on 6th May. On the 3rd, the Union Nationale des Étudiants Français called a meeting at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris to discuss how to halt the threatened expulsions. The students armed themselves with clubs made from broken furniture, and following the arrest of a number of students, violence began to spread throughout the Parisian Latin Quarter. The Sorbonne was closed, and in protest the lecturers and students unions called for an immediate strike.[8] Arriving for their expulsion trial, the Enragés found the Sorbonne surrounded by riot police, extremists from both sides of the political spectrum and students. The demonstration progressed into a full-scale riot: cars were overturned and used as barricades, and the students were joined by workers and trade-union members, and defended themselves against the police with molotov cocktails and paving stones, as this particularly powerful poster from the time illustrates.

On 13th May a mass demonstration occurred in Paris, and a crowd of more that a million workers and students marched in solidarity with the arrested students. Some of the demonstrators, including the Enragés and members of the Situationist International, broke off from the main demonstration and occupied the Sorbonne. Situationist posters were hastily produced, and the groups met to discuss what their demands were. Calling themselves the Committee of the Enragés and the Situationist International, they issued a communique demanding nothing less than ‘the abolition of class society, wage labour, the spectacle, and survival’, for university reform was no longer enough, and ‘exams had been cancelled at the barricades.’[9] A call was put out for the formation of revolutionary workers’ councils, and factories and workplaces were to be occupied. Extraordinarily, workers across France agreed that the time for revolution had come, and did exactly that.

Within days of the occupation of the Sorbonne, workers at the Sud-Aviation plant in Nantes downed tools and occupied the factory. These were quickly followed by more wildcat strikes and occupations at NMPP-Paris, Renault-Billancourt, and a host of other factories and academic institutions. The Occupation Committee continued to express support for the striking workers, and a series of Situationist-inspired tracts were disseminated, including instruction manuals such as ‘Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organisations’ and ‘Slogans to be Spread by Every Means’, whose contents included such gems as ‘Humanity Won’t be happy ‘til the last bureaucrat in hung with the guts of the last capitalist’. These slogans appeared on walls throughout the duration of the strike, which at its height included over 10 million workers, two thirds of the total French workforce, and brought France to literal standstill for over a month. On 30 May, President De Gaulle made a television appearance which began to mark the end of the disturbances. Offering improved working conditions, a raise in the minimum wage, and a general election, the mood in the country began to change, and by 16 June the police had retaken the Sorbonne, and De Gaulle triumphed in a landslide election victory on the 23rd.

By giving you this potted history of the events of May 68, I want to give you a sense of the sort of role that the Situationists had in the troubles, and to give you an idea of the scale of the impact that the group had on French society. Whist I think that it would be fair to say that the events were likely to have happened without their intervention as political tensions were high in France at that point, the Situationists nonetheless viewed the events as vindication of their analysis of capitalism and the predictions that they had been making of revolution. So far, however, I have not given you much indication of who the group actually were, what their ideas were and why they considered the events of 1968 a fulfilment of prophecies that they had been making. Also, until recently, much of what has been written about the Situationist International has focussed on their political theory, and I would even go so far as to say that Ken Knabb’s Situationist International Anthology, whilst an extremely useful and comprehensive book, somewhat obscures their origins as an artistic movement. What follows, therefore, is a history of the SI, whilst in the final part of this lecture, I want to illustrate some of their key ideas, namely their conception of Capitalism as a ‘vast accumulation of spectacles[10]

Pre-Situationists:

The post-war period was marked by the slow dissolution of the artistic movements that had dominated the European cultural scene up until that point: Surrealism was becoming increasingly bourgeois, and was seen by many to be selling out on its radical roots. Out of this milieu, a number of smaller groups formed including Isidore Isou’s Lettriste movement. Inspired by early Dada, the Letterists explored the visual nature of the written word in their work, and achieved some notoriety in 1950 when one of their members, Michel Mourre, infiltrated Easter Mass at Notre-Dame dressed as a Dominican friar, and delivered the following sermon:

Verily I say unto you: God is dead. We vomit the agonising stupidity of your prayers, for your prayers have been the greasy smoke over the battlefields of Europe … Today is Easter day of the Holy Year. Here under the emblem of Notre-Dame of France, we proclaim the death of the Christ-god, so that man may live at last.[11]

The stunt nearly incited a riot, and left a particularly strong impression on a figure who was to become central in the formation of the Situationist International: Guy-Ernest Debord, then eighteen. Debord became friends with Isou, and in 1951 moved to Paris, enrolling as a law student at the Sorbonne. There, he became part of a group of like-minded individuals centred around the bars and cafés of the Boulevard Saint-Michel known as ‘the tribe’. Nihilistic in the extreme, they were united by their rejection of the society in which they found themselves, as indicated by the graffiti scrawled by Debord in 1953 on a wall on the rue de Seine:

The text reads ‘Never Work’. Debord was a somewhat colourful character even within this company, as illustrated by perhaps my favourite quote from his writing, in which he claims to ‘have written much less than most people who write; but [to] have drunk much more than most people who drink.’[12]

Debord became rapidly disillusioned with the Letterists, and, in 1952 secretly formed the Letterist International tendency with a number of fellow-conspirators, and shortly afterwards showed his first film, Heurlements en faveur du de Sade, or, Howls in favour of de Sade. I’ll spare you this, because it consists of alternating black and white screens for just over an hour, with fragmented and mainly nonsensical dialogue over the top. As Simon Ford states in his book The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, the audience at the first showing was split equally ‘between those that walked out and those that threatened to attack Debord and his friends.’[13]

The Letterist International finally split from the Letterists proper in December 1952, and published four issues of its newsletter, Interantional Letriste. This was replaced in 1954 by Potlatch: The Bulletin of Information of the French group of the Lettriste International. The name of the journal derives from a native American concept of ‘gift’. Ford describes it as ‘the enhancement of status through ceremonial gift-giving or festive destruction’.[14] It was in the pages of this journal that many of the ideas associated with the Situationist International were developed, including the dérive, détournement and pyschogeography, ideas that we’ll investigate in more depth later in the course.

In 1956 a Danish artist named Asger Jorn received a copy of Potlatch. Jorn was a member of a broadly Marxist collective called the International Movement for an Imagist Bauhaus. Recognising a similarity of intent in their work, Jorn got in contact with Debord and was soon in regular correspondence. One of the outcomes from this was the ‘First World Congress of Free Artists’, held in Alba, Italy, in which a number of artists, including members of the Lettriste International came to discuss the future of the avant-garde. Not least of the results of this conference was Jorn joining the board of the LI. The seeds for the development of the Situationist International were now sown.

The Situationist International

The Situationist International was formed in 1957 from members of the Letterist International, the International Movement for an Imagist Bauhaus, and The London Psychogeographical Committee (who at the time had only one member). At the time of founding, the members were: Michèle Bernstein, Guy-Ernest Debord, Giuseppe Pinot Gallizio, Asger Jorn, Walter Olmo, Ralph Rumney, Piero Simondo and Elena Verrone.[15] The document that defined the group was the ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization of the International Situationist Tendency’, written by Debord. The aims of the organisation were as follows:

First, we believe that the world must be changed. We desire the most liberatory possible change of the society and the life in which we find ourselves confined. We know that such a change is possible by means of pertinent actions.

Our concern is precisely in the use of certain means of action, along with the discovery of new ones that may more easily be recognized in the sphere of culture and manners but will be implemented with a view to interaction with global revolutionary change.[16]

The method for effecting this change would be the construction of ‘situations’, moments of life in which one becomes self-aware of ones existence in a particular time and place, to revolutionary effect. Debord describes these as follows:

Our central purpose is the construction of situations, that is, the concrete construction of temporary settings of life and their transformation into a higher, passionate nature.[17]

These are contrasted to the normal state of affairs under capitalism, whose general principal, in this document is identified as theatre. Debord continues:

The construction of situations begins on the other side of the modern collapse of the idea of the theater. It is easy to see to what extent the very principal of the theater – nonintervention – is attached to the alienation of the old world [that is, the capitalist system]. Inversely, we see how the most valid of revolutionary cultural explorations have sought to break the spectator’s psychological identification with the hero, so as to incite this spectator into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life. The situation is thus made lived by its constructors. The role of the ‘public,’ if not passive at least a walk-on, must ever diminish, while the share of those who cannot be called actors but, in a new meaning of the term, ‘livers,’ will increase.

In short, the Situationists set out to change what they saw as the alienating effects of capitalism, that is, the estrangement of the individual from their own life through the theatre of adverts, meaningless and useless commodities, by the construction of situations in which the individual was able to see through that theatre, and begin to participate in their own lives in a more meaningful way.

The first issue of the journal of the organisation, International Situationniste, was published in June 1958. It was bound in metallic gold foil, and was produced in a run of only 200 copies. In all, 12 issues of the journal were produced, with the last being issued in September 1969. In the first, an article, helpfully entitled ‘Definitions’, set out some of the Situationist terms. Here are a selection:

Constructed situation: A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed by the collective organization of a unitary ambiance and a game of events.

Situationist: Having to do with the theory or practical activity of constructing situations. One who engages in the construction of situations. A member of the Situationist International.

Situationism: A meaningless term improperly derived from the above. There is no such thing as situationism, which would mean a doctrine of interpretation of existing facts. The notion of situationism is obviously devised by antisituationists.[18]

The journal existed as the mouthpiece for the organisation, and throughout its years of publication contained a mixture of critical articles and philosophy.

Throughout the existence of the organisation, the members continued to produce work in a variety of media. Although we will look at some of these works in more detail later in the course, I want to give you an idea of the sort of work that they made. The following are examples of Asger Jorn’s détourned paintings. These are cheap, bad paintings that Jorn bought, and then customised, changing their original intent and meaning into something else, or revealing what he viewed as their latent content.

The Dutch painter Constant Nieuwenhuys produced a series of works imagining the possibilities of post-revolutionary architecture entitled New Babylon. His drawings and models are extraordinary:

Guy Debord continued to produce films, Critique of Separation, On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time, and created a series of ‘psychogeographic’ maps of Paris – a topic to which we will return in session five.

The Spectacle and its alternatives

I will return to the history of the group and some of their ideas in greater depth later on in the course. What I want to emphasise now, however, is what I think is arguably the central point in their philosophy, and the reason why they are considered so important in the events of 1968. In 1967, in a volume entitled The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord published his most coherent account of his critique of capitalism. The seeds of his full philosophy can be seen in the ‘Report on the Construction of Situations’ from 1957, in which Debord identifies modern capitalism as having the character of Theatre. The Society of the Spectacle expands on this dramatically, and is infamous for its is dense, wide-ranging and somewhat aphoristic character. The book draws on a long tradition of European philosophy, including Marx, Hegel and the Marxist literary critic Georg Lucácks. Debord steals from many places, and in the process of reading the book the reader is likely to come across fragments that are strangely familiar, for example, the commodity form being described as ‘at first sight a very trivial thing, and easily understood, yet which is in reality a very queer thing, abounding with metaphysical subtleties’:[19] a direct lift from Marx.

The essential core of his analysis is the identification of Capitalism as a force that detaches the individual from his own life. Everything that exists in a person’s life is sold back to him or her in the form of commodities, and in so doing, reduces that person to a spectator as opposed to a participant in his or her life. Modern Capitalism becomes the Spectacle. In the first pages of the book, Debord defines what he means by this:

1.The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.

4.The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

5.The spectacle cannot be understood as either a deliberate distortion of the visual world or as a product of the technology of the mass dissemination of images. It is far better viewed as a […] world view transformed into an objective force.

34.The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.

In Debord’s analysis, Capitalism is not bad simply because of the social inequalities that it creates and the injustices that it perpetrates upon the working class, it is bad because it is boring. Modern Capitalism presents the individual with a succession of needs and desires, but they are desires that are always created by the market. In order to illustrate this, slightly anachronistically, I think this image from John Carpenter’s 1988 sledgehammer-subtle anti-consumerist alien-invasion film They Live sums up Debord’s understanding of capitalism pretty well:

In the film, the central protagonist discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveals to him that the earth has been invaded by horrific aliens: they control the mass media, advertising, the police, all of the ruling class. They pacify the population through consumerism and subliminal messages in advertising. What has just happened in this frame is the main character has donned his sunglasses for the first time, allowing him to see the real messages that are on the billboards. If the Spectacle (no pun intended) is the messages on the advertising hoardings, the Situations that that Debord wanted to create are the sunglasses that will allow the individual to see through them.

You would be forgiven for wondering what all this has got to do with May 1968. To put it bluntly, the Situationists interpreted those events as the moment at which France as a nation put on its alien-detecting sunglasses. In an essay entitled ‘The Beginning of an Era’ in the final issue of International Situationniste, issued more than year after the end of the events of that turbulent month, the group made the following claims:

The largest general strike that ever stopped the economy of an advanced industrial country, and the first wildcat general strike in history; revolutionary occupations and first steps toward direct democracy; the increasingly complete withering of state power for nearly two weeks; the complete verification of the revolutionary theory of our time and even here and there the beginning of its partial realization; the most important experience of the modern proletarian movement that is in the process of constituting itself in its fully developed form in all countries, and the model it must now go beyond – this is what the French May 1968 movement was essentially, and this in itself is already its essential victory.[20]

The Situationists had always asserted that they were only saying what everyone was thinking already. May 1968 was therefore the point at which everybody acted on those thoughts.


[1] Mustapha Khayati, On The Poverty of Student Life, <http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/4>, 2007.

[2] Mustapha Khayati, On The Poverty of Student Life, <Situationists.http://library.nothingness.org/notes.php3?objectid=4&footnum=foot1#foot1> n.

[3] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), pp. 116 – 117.

[4] René Viénet, Enragés and situationists in the occupation movement, France May ’68, (New York: Autonomedia, 1992), p. 21, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 117.

[5] E. Williams, Historical Rhythms and Existential Blues, <http://leninistmontages.blogspot.com/2006/08/anatomy-of-change-may-1968.html>, 2007.

[6] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 118.

[7] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, (London: Black Dog, 2005), p. 119.

[8] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 120.

[9] Viénet, Enragés and Situationists, quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 122.

[10] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1994), p. 12.

[11] Quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 21.

[12] Quoted in Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 27.

[13] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 25.

[14] Simon Ford, The Situationist International: A User’s Guide, p. 33.

[15] Situationist International Online, <www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/chronology/1957.html>, 2007.

[16] Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency’, in Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, (London: The MIT Press, 2004), p. 29.

[17] Guy Debord, ‘Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency’, in Tom McDonough (ed.), Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents, p. 44.

[18] Anon., ‘Definitions’, in Ken Knabb, Situationist International Anthology, p. 45.

[19] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York: Zone Books, 1995), p. 26.

[20] Anon., ‘The Beginning of an Era’, in Ken Knabb (ed.), Situationist International Anthology, p. 225.