Debord's “Society of the Spectacle” (1967)
i recently read Guy Debord's 1967 work “The Society of the Spectacle”[a]. i found it dense, but ultimately comprehensible[b]. The following is a collection of quotes that particularly stood out to me, irrespective of whether or not i agree with them. (In particular, i found Debord's repeated invocations of “false consciousness” to be .... problematic.)
Chapter 1: “The Culmination of Separation”
The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing - all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances.
Since the spectacle's job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special preeminence once occupied by touch: the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present-day society.
The spectacle inherits the weakness of the Western philosophical project, which attempted to understand activity by means of the categories of _vision_
Religion justified the cosmic and ontological order that corresponded to the interests of the masters, expounding and embellishing everything their societies _could not deliver_.
The alienation of the spectator ... works like this: The more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires.
The spectacle is the map of this new world, a map that is identical to the the territory it represents.
The spectacle's social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation.
The closer their life comes to being their own creation, the more they are excluded from that life.
Chapter 2: “The Commodity as Spectacle”
This economy has transformed the world, but it has merely transformed it into a world dominated by the economy.
The spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonizing social life. Commodification is not only visible, we no longer see anything else
The spectacle is a permanent opium war designed to force people to equate goods with commodities
The technological developments that objectively tend to eliminate work must at the same time preserve labor as a commodity, because labor is the only creator of commodities. The only way to prevent automation (or any other less extreme method of increasing labor productivity) from reducing society's total necessary labor time is to create new jobs. To this end the reserve army of the unemployed is enlisted into the tertiary or “service” sector, reinforcing the troops responsible for distributing and glorifying the latest commodities
Usefulness has come to be seen purely in terms of exchange value, and is now completely at its mercy.
The economy's triumph as an independent power at the same time spells its own doom, because the forces it has unleashed have eliminated the economic necessity that was the unchanging basis of earlier societies. Replacing that necessity with a necessity for boundless economic development can only mean replacing the satisfaction of primary human needs (now scarcely met) with an incessant fabrication of pseudoneeds, all of which ultimately come down to the single pseudoneed of maintaining the reign of the autonomous economy.
Consciousness of desire and desire for consciousness are the same project, the project that in its negative form seeks the abolition of classes and thus the workers' direct possession of every aspect of their activity. The opposite of this project is the society of the spectacle, where the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making.
Chapter 3: “Unity and Division Within Appearances”
Complacent acceptance of the status quo may also coexist with purely spectacular rebelliousness - dissatisfaction itself becomes a commodity as soon as the economy of abundance develops the capacity to process that particular raw material.
As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations they actually live. The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner ... But the activities of these stars are not really free, and they offer no real choices.
Entering the spectacle as a model to be identified with, ... [the agent of the spectacle] renounces all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself with the general law of obedience to the succession of things.
The false choices offered by spectacular abundance ... develop into struggles between illusory qualities designed to generate fervent allegiance to quantitative trivialities.
The satisfaction that no longer comes from using the commodities produced in abundance is now sought through recognition of their value _as commodities_. Consumers are filled with religious fervour for the sovereign freedom of commodities whose use has become an end in itself. Waves of enthusiasm for particular products are propagated by the communications media.
The image of blissful social unification through consumption merely postpones the consumers awareness of the actual divisions until his next disillusionment with some particular commodity. Each new product is ceremoniously acclaimed as a unique creation offering a dramatic shortcut to the promised land of total consummation.
Chapter 4: “The Proletariat as Subject and Representation”
[Collectivist anarchism's] commitment to economic struggle has been channeled toward the mirage of a definitive solution that will supposedly be achieved by a single blow on this terrain, on the day of the general strike or the insurrection. The anarchists have saddled themselves with fulfilling an ideal ... Anarchism responds to each particular struggle by repeating and reapplying the same simple and all-embracing lesson, because this lesson has from the beginning been considered the be-all and end-all of the movement ... [Bakunin wrote that “]It's no longer the time for ideas, it's time for actions.” This perspective undoubtedly retains proletarian historical thought's recognition that ideas must be put into practice, but it abandons the historical terrain by assuming that the appropriate forms for this transition to practice have already been discovered and will never change.
The anarchists ... [provide] a terrain that facilitates the informal domination of each particular anarchist organization by propagandists and defenders of their ideology, specialists whose mediocre intellectual activity is largely limited to the constant regurgitation of a few eternal truths ... [T]he anarchists' refusal to take into account the great differences between the conditions of a minority banded together in present-day struggles and of a postrevolutionary society of free individuals has repeatedly led to the isolation of anarchists when the moment for collective decisionmaking actually arrives
The illusion more or less explicitly maintained by genuine [?!] anarchism is its constant belief that a revolution is just around the corner, and that the instantaneous accomplishment of this revolution will demonstrate the truth of anarchist ideology and of the form of practical organization that has developed in accordance with that ideology.
The elevation of socialist journalists and parliamentary representatives above the rest of the movements encouraged them to become habituated to a bourgeois lifestyle (most of them had in any case been recruited from the bourgeois intelligentsia). And even industrial workers who had been recruited out of struggles in the factories were transformed by the trade-union bureaucracy into brokers of labor-power, whose task was to make sure that that commodity was sold at a “fair” price.
[T]he Bolsheviks ended up becoming the sole practitioners of the _profession of totalitarian social domination_.
The historical moment when Bolshevism triumphed for itself in Russia and social democracy fought victoriously for the old world marks the inauguration of the state of affairs that is at the heart of the modern spectacle's domination: the representation of the working class has become an enemy of the working class.
The Russian bureaucracy then carried this consolidation of power to the next stage by subjecting the peasantry to a reign of terror, implementing the most brutal primitive accumulation of capital in history ... The hierarchical and statist framework for this crude remake of the capitalist ruling class was provided by the working-class party, which was itself modeled on the hierarchical separations of bourgeois organizations.
The totalitarian ideological pronouncement obliterates reality as well as purpose; nothing exists but what it says exists ... This particular materialization of ideology did not transform the world economically, as did advanced capitalism; it simply used police-state methods to transform people's perception of the world.
Although fascism rallies to the defense of the main icons of bourgeois ideology that has become conservative (family, private property, moral order, patriotism) ... it is not itself fundamentally ideological. It presents itself as what it is - a violent resurrection of myth calling for participation in a community defined by archaic pseudovalues: race, blood, leader. Fascism is a technologically equipped primitivism ... It is thus a significant factor in the formation of the modern spectacle, and its role in the destruction of the old working-class movement also makes it one of the founding forces of present-day society.
[The bureaucracy's] attempt to vie with the bourgeoisie in the production of commodity abundance is stymied by the fact that such abundance contains its own implicit ideology, and is generally accompanied by the freedom to choose from an unlimited range of spectacular pseudoalternatives
[W]hen the proletariat discovers that its own externalized power contributes to the constant reinforcement of capitalist society, ... it also discovers through concrete historical experience that it is the class that must totally oppose all rigidified externalizations and all specializations of power.
With the power of the [workers'] councils - a power that must internationally supplant all other forms of power - the proletarian movement becomes its own product. This product is nothing other than the producers themselves, whose goal has become nothing other than their own fulfillment. Only in this way can the spectacle's negation of life be negated in its turn.
A revolutionary organization that exists before the establishment of workers councils will discover its own appropriate form through struggle; but all these historical experiences have already made it clear that it cannot claim to represent the working class. Its task, rather is to embody a radical separation from _the world of separation_.
Revolutionary organization is the coherent expression of the theory of praxis entering into a two-way communication with practical struggles, in the process of becoming practical theory. Its own practice is to foster the communication and coherence of these struggles. At the revolutionary moment when social separations are dissolved, the organization must dissolve itself as a separate organization.
In the organization's struggle with class society, the combattants themselves are the fundamental weapons: a revolutionary organization are must thus see to it that the dominant society's conditions of separation and hierarchy are not reproduced within itself. It must constantly struggle against its deformation by the ruling spectacle.
Revolutionary theory is now the enemy of all revolutionary ideology, _and it knows it_.
Chapter 5: “Time and History”
Myth is the unitary mental construct which guarantees that the cosmic order conforms with the order that this society has in fact already established within its frontiers.
[T]his historical time flows independently above its own static community. This is the time of adventure and war, the time in which the masters of cyclical society pursue their personal histories ... History thus arises as something alien to people, as something they never sought and from which they had thought themselves protected.
With the emerge of political power ... [t]he succession of generations within a natural, purely cyclical time begins to be replaced by a linear succession of powers and events. This irreversible time is the time of those who rule, and the dynasty is its first unit of measurement.
The owners of history have given time a direction, a direction which is also a meaning ... The masters who used the protection of myth to make history their private property did so first of all in the realm of illusion ... [A]s the masters played the role of mythically guaranteeing the permanence of cyclical time (as in the seasonal rites performed by the Chinese emperors), they themselves achieved a relative liberation from cyclical time.
Examining history amounts to _examining the nature of power_.
[T]he shared power in the Greek communities was limited to the consumption of a social life whose production remained the separate and static domain of the servile class. The only people who lived where those who did not work.
The monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between the cyclical time that still governed the sphere of production and the irreversible time that was the theater of conflicts and regroupings among different peoples. The religions that evolved out of Judaism were abstract universal acknowledgements of an irreversible time that had become democratized and open to all, but only in the realm of illusion. Time is totally oriented towards a single final event: “The Kingdom of God is soon to come.” ... [T]heir irreversible time ... is inverted in religious thought and becomes a sort of countdown: waiting for time to run out before the Last Judgement and the advent of the other, true world. Eternity has emerged from cyclical time, as something beyond it ... [Eternity becomes] a pure point into which cyclical time returns and disappears.
The bourgeoisie has thus made irreversible historical time known and has imposed it on society, but it has prevented society from using it ... [and] must repress every other irreversible use of time because it is directly threatened by them all.
With the development of capitalism, irreversible time has become globally unified ... This unified irreversible time belongs to the global market, and thus also to the global spectacle.
The time officially recognized throughout the world as the general time of society actually only reflects the specialized interests that constitute it, and thus is _merely one particular type of time_.
Chapter 6: “Spectacular Time”
Consumable pseudocyclical time is spectacular time, both in the narrow sense as time spent consuming images and in the broader sense as image of the consumption of time ... [T]he time that modern society is constantly seeking to “save” by increasing transportation speeds or using packaged soups ends up being spent by the average American in watching television three to six hours a day. As for the social image of the consumption of time, it is exclusively dominated by leisure time and vacations - moments portrayed, like all spectacular commodities, at a distance and as desirable by definition. These commodified moments are explicitly presented as moments of real life whose cyclical return we are supposed to look forward to.
Although the present age presents itself as a series of frequently recurring festivities, it is an age that knows nothing of real festivals ... Its vulgarized pseudo-festivals are parodies of real dialogue and gift-giving; they may incite waves of excessive economic spending, but they lead to nothing but disillusionments, which can be compensated only by the promise of some new disillusion to come.
While the consumption of cyclical time in ancient societies was consistent with the real labor of those societies, the pseudocyclical consumption of developed economies contradicts the abstract irreversible time implicit in their system of production. Cyclical time was the really lived time of unchanging illusions. Spectacular time is the illusorily lived time of a constantly changing reality.
This individual experience of a disconnected everyday life remains without language, without concepts, and without critical access to its own past, which has nowhere been recorded. Uncommunicated, misunderstood and forgotten, it is smothered by the spectacle's false memory of the unmemorable.
The spectacle, considered as the reigning society's method for paralyzing history and memory and for suppressing any history based on historical time, represents a _false consciousness of time_.
[T]he promoters of the “American way of death” stress ... [the spectator's] capacity to preserve most of the appearances of life in his post-mortem state. On all the other fronts of advertising bombardment it is strictly forbidden to grow old.
Chapter 7: “Territorial Domination”
The free space of commodities is constantly being altered and redesigned in order to become ever more identical to itself, to get as close as possible to motionless monotony.
While eliminating geographical distance, this society produces a new internal distance in the form of spectacular separation.
Tourism - human circulation packaged for consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities - is the opportunity to go and see what has been banalized. The economic organization of travel to different places already guarantees their _equivalence_. The modernization that has eliminated the time involved in travel has simultaneously eliminated any real space from it.
Following its logical development toward total domination, capitalism now can and must refashion the totality of space into _its own particular decor_.
[U]rbanism ... is the very _technology of separation_.
Urbanism is the modern method for solving the ongoing problem of safeguarding class power by atomizing the workers who have been dangerously brought together by the conditions of urban production ... Describing what he terms “a one-way system,” Lewis Mumford points out that “with the present means of long-distance mass communication, sprawling isolation has proved an even more effective method of keeping a population under control” (_The City in History_) ... [T]he omnipresent receivers of spectacular messages fill the isolation with the ruling images - images that derive their full power precisely from that isolation.
As a result of the current paralysis of any historical development beyond the independent movement of the economy, the incipient disappearance of city and country does not represent a transcendence of their separation, but their simultaneous collapse.
As urbanism destroys the cities, it recreates a pseudocountryside devoid both of the natural relations of the traditional countryside and of the direct (and directly challenged) social relations of the historical city ... The neopeasantry produced by the increasing bureaucratization of the modern state differs from the old in that its apathy must now be historically manufactured and maintained; natural ignorance has been replaced by the organized spectacle of falsification.
Chapter 8: “Negation and Consumption Within Culture”
Culture is the terrain of the quest for lost unity.
Culture ... is the meaning of an insufficiently meaningful world.
[T]he accumulation of branches of fragmentary knowledge ... become unusable because approval of existing conditions ultimately requires renouncing one's own knowledge ... In the case of sensory representations, the critical self-destruction of society's former common language is opposed by its artificial reconstruction within the commodity spectacle, the illusory representation of nonlife.
Once society has lost its myth-based community, it loses all the reference points of truly common language until such time as the divisions within the inactive community can be overcome by the inauguration of a real historical community. When art, which was the common language of social inaction, develops into independent art in the modern sense, emerging from its original religious universe and becoming individual production of separate works, it too becomes subject to the movement governing the history of all separate culture. Its declaration of independence is the beginning of its end.
The point is to actually participate in the community of dialogue and the game with time that up till now have merely been represented by poetic and artistic works.
For the first time in history the arts of all ages and civilizations can be known and accepted together, and the fact that it has become possible to collect and recollect all these art-historical memories marks the _end of the world of art_. In this age of museums in which artistic communication is no longer possible, all the previous expressions of art can be accepted equally, because whatever particular communication problems they may have had are eclipsed the all the present-day obstacles to communication _in general_.
Dadaism and surrealism ... were contemporaries of the last great offensive of the revolutionary proletarian movements, and the defeat of that movement ... left them trapped within the very artistic sphere whose decrepitude they had denounced ... The critical position since developed by the situationists has shown that the abolition and realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single _transcendence of art_.
[The spectacle's] function is to _use culture to bury all historical memory_
[T]he most modern tendency of spectacular culture - which is also the one most closely linked to the repressive practice of the general organization of society - seeks by means of “collective projects” to construct complex neoartistic environments out of decomposed elements, as can be seen in urbanism's attempts to incorporate scraps of art of hybrid aesthetico-technical forms.
In all these areas the goal remains the same: to _restructure society without community_.
Boorstin concludes that the situation he describes is caused by an unfortunate but almost fortuitous encounter of an excessive technology of image-diffusion with an excessive appetite for sensationalism on the part of today's public. This amounts to blaming the spectacle on modern man's excessive inclination to be a spectator. Boorstin fails to see that the proliferation of the prefabricated “pseudo-events” he denounces flows from the simple fact that the overwhelming realities of present-day social existence prevent people from actually living events for themselves.
Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, one cannot judge or admire this particular society by assuming that the language it speaks to itself is true.
Structures are the progeny of established powers.
[S]tudying code in isolation from content is merely a reflection of a taken-for-granted society where communication takes the form of a cascade of hierarchical signals.
The critical concept of “the spectacle” can also undoubtedly be turned into one more hollow formula of sociologico-political rhetoric used to explain and denounce everything in the abstract, thus serving to reinforce the spectacular system. It is obvious that ideas alone cannot lead beyond the existing spectacle; at most, they can only lead beyond existing ideas about the spectacle. To actually destroy the society of the spectacle, people must set a practical force into motion.
[ Mainly including this quote about quoting so that it's in this collection of quotes. :-) ]
Détournement is the opposite of quotation, of appealing to a theoretical authority that is inevitably tainted by the very fact that it has become a quotation - a fragment torn from its own context and development, and ultimately from the general framework of its period and from the particular option (appropriate or erroneous) that it represented within that framework.
Chapter 9: “Ideology Materialized”
[T]he spectacle ... virtually identifies social reality with an ideology that has remolded all reality in its own image.
[T]he history of different ideologies is over.
[Ideology is] the final irrationality standing in the way of historical life.
The spectacle is the acme of ideology because it fully exposes and manifests the essence of all ideological systems: the impoverishment, enslavement and negation of real life.
The spectacle ... obliterates the boundaries between true and false by repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances.
By rushing into sordid reformist compromises or pseudorevolutionary collective actions, those driven by an abstract desire for immediate effectiveness are in reality obeying the ruling laws of thought, adopting a perspective that can see nothing but the _latest news_. A critique seeking to go beyond the spectacle must _know how to wait_.
The self-emancipation of our time is an emancipation from the material bases of inverted truth.
[b] In contrast to, say, my experiences of certain poststructural/postmodern sociopolitical analyses, particularly those rooted in psychoanalysis (e.g. the psychoanalysis of Lacan). Too often it's felt to me that the author(s) were more concerned with trying to sound Impressive and Important rather than trying to clearly convey their core ideas (assuming there was actually a ‘there’ there). This is a whole topic in itself, but one thing i'll mention is the book “Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science”, by physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont.