Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Society of the Spectacle
Purchased at St. Mark's Books at some point in the early-to-mid-nineties.
I became aware of Guy Debord and Situationism reading Greil Marcus' book Lipstick Traces.
I can recall wandering around Paris in 1993 hoping I might find some surviving trace of graffiti left over from the student uprisings of May 1968. I managed to find a few postcards, but that was all.
When I think back on that period, I'm amazed at how difficult it was to find a book like this. After reading the Marcus book, I wanted to read all about Situationism and Dada and Surrealism and so forth. It was difficult to find a proper bibliography on any of these subjects without access to a university library, and then even if you did have access, there was no guarantee a library would have a book or that your local bookstore would have one either, and finding a used copy required a combination very hard work and happenstance.
I feel little nostalgia for that kind of scarcity.
I was convinced at some point that Debord was a kind of oracle and set about trying to decipher his Delphic pronouncements. My copies of Society of the Spectacle and Lipstick Traces are both filled with notes and drawings and so forth in which I was trying to make sense of what Debord was saying. I read SS long before I had read any kind of theory and so had absolutely no experience with that level of jargon.
I remember once being very excited because they were going to show Debord's film of the same title at the Anthology FIlm Archives. The screening was sponsored by an East Village anarchist collective that took itself very, very seriously. They put fliers on each chair in the theater that we were asked to read before the film was introduced. The fliers said things like -- "there is no humor in this film," "laughter is counter-revolutionary," "those who laugh reveal their lack of political commitment," and so forth.
The head of the collective, who was named John X. Doe or something clever like that, and who wore combat books and dark Ray-Ban sunglasses, introduced the film. Instead of speaking directly to the audience, he carried a boom box to the stage, set it on a stool, pressed 'play,' and stomped off. His intro was more or less a rehashing of what the fliers we had received beforehand said.
I guess it was performance art or political theater or something, but if it was, they never let on, and I think everyone in the audience felt assaulted. People started shouting things like, "Shut up and start the film." The performance would have been pretty funny except that it wasn't.
Thanks to ubuweb, you can now view the film online here.
You can also read the whole book here.
From Society of the Spectacle:
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — the spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process.
Separation is itself an integral part of the unity of this world, of a global social practice split into reality and image. The social practice confronted by an autonomous spectacle is at the same time the real totality which contains that spectacle. But the split within this totality mutilates it to the point that the spectacle seems to be its goal. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the dominant system of production — signs which are at the same time the ultimate end-products of that system.
The spectacle cannot be abstractly contrasted to concrete social activity. Each side of such a duality is itself divided. The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality. Conversely, real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each of these seemingly fixed concepts has no other basis than its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and support of the existing society.
In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.