A Critic's Critic

Debord's Spectaclist Manifesto

Jonathan Lee


REVIEW:Debord, Guy.1983 (1967).Society of the Spectacle.Detroit: Black & Red.

In the mid-1950s, a group of European academics and artists gathered together to form the Situationist International, an organization grounded in cultural critique and the institutionalization of postmodern mayhem.At the center of this group was Guy Debord, whose Society of the Spectacle (first published in a 1967 French edition) became aconglomerate manifesto for the critical turns of the SI and its affiliates.Marxist and anarchist, postmodern and anti-modern, structured and without form - this text has become the basis for art movements as wide-ranging as Philip Glass' minimalism and Johnny Rotten's super-punk, and remains a primary source for those wishing to take issue with liberal democratic capitalism, whether your mindset is socialist or anarchist or, even itself, democratic capitalist.A fresh perspective on waxing cultural, Society of the Spectacle (SOS) offers the social educator an opportunity to rethink their perspective, turning the gears of critical thought that often sit rusting, unforeseen, for long spells at a time.

The text, itself, is brief and dense.One could skim it in an hour, and then spend the next week mulling over a single passage.Divided into nine chapters, SOS takes the form of 221 emotionally-charged stanzas (page numbers absent).Some short and some quite long (and rambling), these statements act as loose guidelines to steer the reader toward using their own examples and making their own connections.Debord specifically makes the point, as with the majority of Situationist writing, of claiming no copyright or reserved rights to the text; its words are fair game for all that wish to use them.Within the schooling arena, full advantage of this opportunity need be taken.

At the core, SOS takes issue with the nature of a society whose vision is based on quick, popular, and commodity-driven media images; images which seek to subjectify history to the point of transforming television sets to memory banks, newsrags to sensory organs, and movie theaters to halls of learning.Spectacle, itself, is defined not as a single event, but as a social relationship driven by the navigation and mediation of such images.Debord writes, "it is the heart of unrealism in the real society".Further, "in all of its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life".

The notion of domination looms darkly throughout the text.Like a chameleon, it jumps from Gramsci's suggestive hegemony to Marx's isolating social alienation to Foucault's violent panopticon.It is a domination that places power in the hands of the immediately powerful, with little regard for those standing in its place.This type of 'subjectified objectivity' - where simplified methods yield fast and self-serving gratification for the few at the cost of the many - is quite similar to the current debate surrounding high-stakes testing and the variety of political-economic uses for these examinations.Similarly, the society that Debord critiques likens itself with the HSTs in a tautological nature:"its means are simultaneously its ends".As "the main production of present-day society" (a spectaclist society), "the goal [of the spectacle] is nothing, [while its] development is everything".What exactly is being done with the results of these exams - other than refinement and regurgitation in the form of new exams?Nothing.The goals remain faceless - and yet the results are devastating.And somehow, neither the goals nor the results seem to ever overshadow the criticism of performance and the constant call for re-examination.

"The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image".Thus, in a liberal capitalist democracy, the spectacle becomes everything everywhere.Once set into place, the spectacle transforms itself into a condition of being always already present (excuse my Heidegger), creating a notion of commodity fetishism that pervades every corner of society.In such a society, as Marx rightfully predicted, there exists a distinct class base and overarching reality based on alienation and separation.According to Debord (and similar to Marx), the spectaclist society is divided into two types of individual.Those in power, those favoring a constant promotion of the spectacle, are the celebrities, the stars ("spectacular representations of a living human being").This class of individual is connected by "the presupposition of their excellence in everything".This is achieved by the simple manipulation of media - made even simpler by the condition and mindset of the lower class within this society:the spectator.Due to the permeation of the spectacle throughout society, and the absolute irreversible nature of spectacular control, the spectator exists in a permanent condition of homelessness in their lived environment.They become, essentially, diaspora in their own backyard.Unfortunately, Debord does not go into much detail regarding how one actually is transformed into being within one of these two classes - or the process of duality in which the two classes must simultaneously co-exist within spectaclist society.Still, for social educators, this illustration can be highly useful in detailing a modern version of Marxian society.

In terms of history (and time in general), SOS provides another alternative for historical critique, parallel to those set into motion by Zinn, James Loewen, and others.In another way, however, the text can serve as a harsh voice against these alternative movements - movements which often surround themselves with the very explosiveness and drama that Debord directly ties to the invocation of the financially-driven spectacle ("the spectacle is the other side of money; it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities").In other words, in selling history as exciting or brutal or dramatic, Debord would probably see Zinn and Loewen as almost going over to the other side - ignoring the goal of creating an alternative historical trajectory while concentrating solely on the various steps within.For as much as these 'historical alternates' proclaim the necessity of taking historical sources with a grain of salt and questioning all possibilities, they barely (if ever) add a disclaimer to do the same to their work.Simply put, they preach against established metanarratives - and then sell their own.

"History has always existed, but not always in a historical form."Debord's central statement on time and history is crucial to an absolute historical revisionism.By simply rewriting history as differential reactions to similar events, many alternative historians do very little to actually break free of a system from which they claim to separate themselves.Debord differentiates cyclical time from irreversible time ('true time' from 'spectaclist time') by critiquing all previous written chronicles of the past."With writing there appears a consciousness that is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living: an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society".Quoting Novalis, Debord writes: "writings are the thoughts of the State; archives are its memory".In this sense, historical writings in the form of chronicles are seen as manifestations of power, easily edited and transformed by editors and ghostwriters to co-exist perfectly with the spectacle (and within its society).

Essentially, what Debord calls for is something completely new in historical writing - something that he had not yet placed his finger on during the late 1960s.The point, then, is for the reader to go on a search - constantly evaluating, never settling, and without losing sight of whatever goals are desired by the project-at-hand.Taken as a work of philosophy, Society of the Spectacle has as much head-in-the-clouds umph as the most complex Confucian proverb.Taken as a text for social critique, each stanza can be read as a cog in a dense set of instructions with which to critique and avoid the pitfalls of modern society.And taken as a source for social education, Debord has written a useful tool for looking within even those things which we consider revolutionary, as a constant reminder for the importance of critical and reflective practice within the discipline.

A sidebar: I would direct you to reading Debord's follow-up to SOS, entitled simply (and unspectacularly), Comments on the Society of the Spectacle


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