The Society of the Spectacle Reconsidered

  • Posted on: 29 May 2015
  • By: worker

From Fifth Estate - by John Clark

a review of The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
Newly translated & annotated by Ken Knabb,
Bureau of Public Secrets, 2014, 150 pages. $15.

For those interested in Situationist ideas, this is an auspicious time to reconsider Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, originally published in 1967. Ken Knabb’s recently revised translation is a valuable resource for the study of Debord and the Situationists.

Che with SpectaclesThe Situationist International lasted from 1957 to 1972 and had an effect far greater than its relatively small numbers (about 70 members) would suggest. Situationism (a term the Situationists rejected, preferring to be ists without an ism) had its roots in artistic and cultural movements such as Dada, Surrealism, and Lettrism, and political movements such as Marxism, anarchism, council-communism, and utopian socialism.

Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem were the best-known figures, and Debord’s book and Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life are the most famous and influential works. Knabb, known for his translations of Debord and other Situationists, calls Debord’s text, “the most important radical book of the 20th century.

Knabb has not only improved his already very competent and readable 2004 translation, but has also added extensive and useful notes. Debord was sometimes vague about his sources, so Knabb has tracked them down, often adding helpful comments on their significance. Furthermore, he has included extensive background and bibliographical information on radical and revolutionary history. He also cites other Situationist texts on various topics, which is extremely useful, since there is an unfortunate tendency to equate all Situationist ideas with those of Debord.

Situationism reached many impasses, yet made a huge contribution to the development of radical thought. It still has crucial lessons for the left, and anarchists in particular. If the Situationists had done nothing else, it would be enough that they showed the fecundity of the encounter between Marxism and anarchism, and the folly of being naïvely and reactively “against Marx” in the name of anarchism. They show us why we need to be for Marx for the sake of anarchism, and against Marx for the sake of Marx.

After almost a decade of theory and provocation, the Situationists moved to the center of the political stage in 1966, when Situationist-influenced students at France’s University of Strasbourg published Mustapha Khayati’s historic text, On the Poverty of Student Life. It had a radicalizing influence on the student movement and foreshadowed the major social convulsion about to come.

Two years later, the Situationists, in alliance with the radical student group, the Enragés, emerged as a major force in the May-June 1968 French General Strike that mobilized over ten million people and nearly toppled the Gaullist regime.

They achieved lasting fame through their role in street fighting and occupation of the Sorbonne, and especially for their slogans and posters that covered the walls of Paris. Ones such as, “The more I make love, the more I want to make revolution,” and, their most famous, “Be realistic, demand the impossible,” still echo today.

The Situationists introduced a number of concepts that revolutionized the left’s imaginary landscape. They took up Marx’s idea of social alienation and developed it into what they called “the critique of separation.” Inspired by utopians like Fourier and by surrealism, they focused on the need for the total destruction of repressive forces and for the liberation of desire.

Their central theme was the dominance of the commodity in capitalism. They updated Marx’s idea of the fetishism of commodities, arguing that not only does the commodity become an alien force that dominates the human, the whole system of commodities fuses into an overwhelmingly powerful imaginary reality called the Spectacle.

Against this Spectacle they proposed the creation of “situations” that would be the “radical negation of the element of competition and separation from everyday life,” and would prefigure “the future reign of freedom and play.”

But what they did more concretely was called détournement, which means “diversion,” or, perhaps more pertinently, “embezzlement.” The idea is to appropriate something in a subversive manner, which they did most notably with comics. They substituted revolutionary slogans or absurdist comments in the speech bubbles of comic characters–and the rest is radical history.

Another major Situationist concept is psychogeography, which gave birth in practice to the tactic of psychogeographical exploration of the city through the dérive, or drift. A dérive is “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” This quest for the strange and the marvelous was to have a major influence on radical and avant garde cultural tendencies.

A final key Situationist idea is récuperation, or cooptation. Debord’s depiction of the Spectacle’s seemingly infinite powers of cooptation implicitly predicted what would inevitably befall the Situationists’ own ideas. As these were absorbed into consumer culture and academia, we would ultimately see neo-Situationoids busily accumulating cultural capital by (in their terms) “detourning” and “recuperating,” rather than subverting and coopting.

But Situationism is found today not only in the museum of cultural critique. It has also continued to shape radical politics. In France, it has had an important influence on the Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee groups and its mark is evident in their much debated texts like “The Call” and The Coming Insurrection.

In the U.S., the influential 2009 California student strike text, “Communiqué From an Absent Future,” echoes in some ways the radical critique of “The Poverty of Student life.” And CrimethInc, the American decentralized collective of autonomous cells, which has been a significant radicalizing force for many young anarchists, would be unthinkable without the Situationists.

The Society of the Spectacle remains a historic work for its highly advanced and sophisticated critique of both corporate and state capitalism. When the Situationists launched their critique of the Spectacle, both Marxist and anarchist thought were mired in obsolete analysis based on an earlier stage of historical development.

The Situationists were far ahead of the left in general, and the anarchists in particular, in shifting away from the one-sided focus on the repressive state, repressive productionist culture, and authoritarian ideology as the salient mechanisms of domination and instead highlighted the role of domination through commodity consumption and the consumptionist imaginary. Debord must also be given credit for his ferocious demolition of Leninism, which was only strengthened by his use of radicalized Marxian categories in his critique.

Debord gets good Marx for all this Debord also deserves credit for his position on the key issue of popular power. When one reads Debord, one learns, perhaps misleadingly, that the Situationists placed all their world-historical bets on something called “Worker Councils.” Despite the term “worker,” they recognized the importance of organizations in both the workplace and in the local community.

Moreover, they defined the term council not as an elected representative body, but rather as a democratic, participatory assembly of workers or local community members that remains the true locus of power. Long before Murray Bookchin made his “libertarian municipalism” a big and supposedly novel deal, the Situationists presented a strong defense of the communal assembly as the key popular institution.

Here, they were both prior and superior, in that they stressed the importance of both workplace and community general assemblies, while Bookchin lapsed into an abstract idealist fetishism of the municipality. On this point, Debord deserves credit for pointing the way toward the needed synthesis of the most radically democratic aspects of the anarcho-syndicalist and anarcho-communist traditions.

But, there were from the beginning serious flaws in Situationist thought and practice. There quickly developed a “real split” between the critical dimension and the creative, transformative side, and this proved historically disastrous.

The Situationists seemed to think that an aesthetic and intellectual elite could focus on theory, critique and subversive adventures, while the proletariat could somehow be counted on to revolt–eventually. As a result of this split, the Situationist legacy has been on one side an extreme aestheticization, a non-engaged ironicism, a vanguardist cultural elitism, a Left spectacularism, and a depoliticizing cooptation by a sterile oppositional culture and by hip academia.

On the other side has been an activist tendency toward insurrectionism, groupusculism, hypermarginalization, and organization “at a distance” from the real life of the community and the real direction of history.

What was always missing in the highly masculinist Situationist image of revolt were the dimensions of community and care, and the positive moment of engagement in processes of social and ecological regeneration.

The Situationists negated the historical agency of women and indigenous and traditional peoples in particular, but they also gave little recognition to the creativity of the masses of people who live under the existing system of domination, neglecting the dimensions of personal and communal life that the spectacle does not succeed in colonizing. They present an image of a humanity that seems almost helpless in the face of the overwhelming power of the Spectacle, left only with the hope for the miracle of a revolution somehow triggered by radical critique and marginal projects of provocation, creative vandalism, and insurrection.

Despite this problematical legacy, the Situationist and Situationist-influenced texts offer indispensable lessons. As resounding calls for radical negation and uncompromising critique, they possess an energy and imaginary force that most of the left can’t begin to aspire to. They have inestimable value for their capacity to traumatize, to destabilize, to shake the reader out of the paralysis of the everyday, and to inspire.

Problems arise with the lack of direction or the misdirection that comes after the inspiration. But without the inspiration, we remain nowhere (the preferred destination under capitalism).

The strengths of Situationism–its critical and visionary power–comes in large part from its ability to cross-fertilize the anarchist and Marxist traditions. An awareness of the failures of Marxist theories of the state, party and class should not obscure anarchists understanding of the significance of Marx as a philosopher of liberation.

The Situationists’ development of his ideas of alienation, commodity-fetishism, and reification within an anti-authoritarian context, and their ability to think in terms of dialectical contradiction and radical reversal, demonstrates this significance quite strikingly.

I love the irony of big corporations’ raving (in the name of profit) about the virtues of The Society of the Spectacle: There are now three translations of the work in print, and it has penetrated the intellectual popular culture to a certain degree.

You can now find ads all over the internet that mindlessly repeat the same clichés about the book. A long blurb begins by touting the book as “the Das Kapital of the 20th century.” The major purveyors all agree totalistically with every last word of the long spiel.

Even Knabb’s claim that it is “the most important radical book of the twentieth century,” is a rather grandiose claim. Nevertheless, The Society of the Spectacle is somewhere up there with the most influential works, and one might certainly wish that it had actually left Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, Mao’s Little Red Book, and Guevara’s Guerilla Warfare, in the dust.

John Clark is a writer, educator and communitarian anarchist activist in New Orleans, where his family has been for twelve generations. He teaches for Common Knowledge: The New Orleans Cooperative Education Exchange.

His most recent book is The Impossible Community: Realizing Communitarian Anarchism. He works on ecological restoration, permaculture and eco-communitarianism on an 83-acre land project on Bayou LaTerre, in the forests of coastal Mississippi. He is a member of the Education Workers’ Union of the IWW.


huh, good review and clark is obviously familiar with the material. so i'm left confused by this boilerplate criticism:

"The Situationists negated the historical agency of women and indigenous and traditional peoples in particular, but they also gave little recognition to the creativity of the masses of people who live under the existing system of domination, neglecting the dimensions of personal and communal life that the spectacle does not succeed in colonizing. They present an image of a humanity that seems almost helpless in the face of the overwhelming power of the Spectacle, left only with the hope for the miracle of a revolution somehow triggered by radical critique and marginal projects of provocation, creative vandalism, and insurrection."

The thing about women is pretty real, but the thing about indigenous people is seriously anachronistic - AIM didn't start gaining serious momentum till the very tail end of the SI's lifespan, and this reflects the chronology of various "4th World" struggles. In the totalizing wave of leftist national liberation ideology - exactly what the SI was combating - there wasn't much room for autonomous indigenous perspectives.

Likewise, as ecological struggles and concerns began coming to the fore, Debord and others recognized them - see the "Real Split." But the biggest, underlying misreading is about a "helpless humanity" in whom the situationists didn't find creativity or care. Clark has obviously read "Revolution of Everyday Life" and the whole book is a ridiculously positive reading of the current creativity of the masses and how it will elaborate itself as a process towards revolution. There is much about care and love as well. The analysis of current conditions (i.e. in 1966) in chapter 4 of "Society of the Spectacle" is more abstract but gives almost as much positive weight to the current living practice of the proletariat.

I'm not a situ, so my point isn't to defend them absolutely. But I do object to "critique-by-numbers" formulas especially when they don't even make sense. But perhaps there's an Oedipal reversal here? Clark must raise these issues in order to prove that while he's been seriously influenced by the situationists, he's not their progeny?

the organizing in a community can be seen three different ways (a) as intentionalist where the drive is deliberate and coming from internal principles as in 'fundamentalism', ... (b) as situationist where the social dynamic is outside-inwardly induced; e.g. by the glitz of commodities, including the commoditized people such as women as sex objects., ... and (c) as interactionist as with indigenous anarchism where one is in a relationship with the land and individual and collective social behaviour is orchestrated by the understanding that "the dynamics of the inhabitants are conditioning the dynamics of the habitat at the same time as the dynamics of the habitat are conditioning the dynamics of the inhabitants". this is like a commitment to co-constructing a nest which we hold and nurture oneself, one's family and the community.

all kinds of activist groups from the muslim brotherhood and al qaida to anarcho-primitives, eco-extremists and various religious fundamentalists react to the problem of 'situationism' where the social dynamic is inductively shaped by commoditization of material goods and people/labour. what is commonly seen as a solution is some or other form of intentionalism or fundamentalism where the society is driven by a set of principles.

what goes missing is the fact recognized by John Locke in 1690 ('Two Treatises on Government') that the combination of money and wage-labour 'unravelled' natural community where the direct relations amongst people (the relational social dynamic) is what constitutes natural community. The relational social matrix (the manner in which assertive competencies plug into relational need openings) IS 'community', ... natural community is NOT a collection of independent people that 'co-operate' in some or other 'intentionalist' fashion. in other words, 'natural community' is not 'intentional, principle-directed community', ... 'natural community is spontaneous rather than principle-driven. when a need opens up in the relational social dynamic, people rise to the occasion to fill it and in their need-filling activities, more needs open up and there is more rising to the occasion to fill them and people feel good about this and this means that their aesthetic needs are satisfied at the same time as their material needs are being satisfied. the situationists did recognize that the separating of 'art' (satisfying aesthetic or spiritual need) and 'labour' (satisfying material needs) was a trap, which wasn't part of natural community, but which came about through the combination of money and wage-labour as Locke had seen.

the difference between natural community and synthetic commodity acquisition based community is a 'bank', the buffer which breaks apart the direct social relations. As Chief Maquinna observed,without banks, the aesthetic and material needs are resolved as one dynamic, not two;

"“Once I was in Victoria, and I saw a very large house; they told me it was a bank and that the white men place their money there to take care of, and that by-and-by they got it back, with interest. We are Indians and have no such bank; but when we have plenty of money or blankets, we give them away to other chiefs and people, and by-and-by they return them, with interest, and our hearts feel good. Our potlatch is our bank.” [for the full letter and associated context (jailing of first nations people for continuing with the potlatch tradition) see ‘First People First Voices’, edited by Penny Petrone, University of Toronto Press, 1991]

the situationists were looking for an intentionalist solution and there are none (fundamentalism is intentionalist but it is not a solution). indigenous anarchism embraces 'interactionism' (building the relational web one is included in, as in Mach's principle) and the importance of this was evidently overlooked by the SI.

Undoubtedly DeBord's attitude is Post-Marxist, at a time when there were a plethora of Post-Marxist ideologues, but the context remains constant, Post-Marxist translated to Post-Lenin/Stalin/Maoist, these are the the first inklings of the realization of the totalitarian left/right duplicity, that fascism and communism were cousins, and this awareness was what was to evolve later into various forms of insurgence, detournement being the SI's most effective praxis, and aesthetically its most gracious.

In an epoch of Marxist smog. The sits were as good as they could be given their Marxian/Communist limitations. One wonders how good that discourse could have truly been if they represented the likes of Emile Armand and Renzo Novatore updated for inflation. One has to concede that they were captive and critics within a post ww1/2 structure which anarchism/libertarianism was largely dormant outside of poetic circles.

"The Situationists seemed to think that an aesthetic and intellectual elite could focus on theory, critique and subversive adventures, while the proletariat could somehow be counted on to revolt–eventually. As a result of this split, the Situationist legacy has been on one side an extreme aestheticization, a non-engaged ironicism, a vanguardist cultural elitism, a Left spectacularism, and a depoliticizing cooptation by a sterile oppositional culture and by hip academia."

‘Situationism’ in psychology points to a very basic problem in how people ‘see themselves’. This is at the core of what happened with ‘Situationists International’. The SI saw a problem in the social split between art and politics; i.e. between intuition and logic. Great, this was on the same track as Nietzsche’s critique of society as seeing itself as 'intentionalist'.

“The declared aim of the situationists was to transcend the division between art and politics.”

Coming into this from Nietzsche’s angle can give greater insight, in my opinion. Nietzsche claimed that ‘intention’, commonly used to characterize the animating source of the social dynamic, was bogus and coming from the intellectual noun-verb-predicate constructs of language-and-grammar which he called ‘a great stupidity’. This notion of ‘intention' being what we must ‘credit’ as the sourcing influence of everything that goes on is ‘where politics comes from’. Western society commonly sees man through the lenses of ‘intentionalism’ which ‘PORTRAYS’ man as an intention driven machine; i.e. a machine driven by its internal character traits.

Situationism, in psychology, argues that man is firstly driven by the situation he finds himself in; i.e. he is a weasel and a chameleon and a snake-in-the-grass, and situationism experiments (Zimbardo, Milgram) and the Stockholm syndrome etc. have validated this. ‘Art’ is situationist; i.e. a creative facility that allows one to connect-the-ever-unfolding-dots in new ways, while politics is all about the hard, cold logic of ‘intention’ and ‘constructing a desired future’. The proverbial Western values of hard work and commitment to individual and/or collective goals and all of that stuff makes politics and labour a ‘dull boy’.

For example, the emergence of ‘the United States’ and the so-called ‘American people’ (not including the indigenous people) was SITUATIONAL FOR FUCK SAKE. To say that Americans intended to create America and Americans is a ‘great stupidity’. But Americans-the-concept, the popular iconic view that someone born and raised on Turtle Island is brainwashed to have of himself/herself, is based on internal character traits, having an inner core of ‘the right stuff’. Because Western people in general, thanks to the error of grammar in subject-verb-predicate intellectual constructs, think of themselves as intention-driven machines (independent beings that do good stuff due to their interior character traits), they lose their grasp on the reality that situationism AND NOT INTENTIONALISM is the primary author of ‘who one is’.

People come to America mostly because of being caught in more challenging ‘situations’ somewhere else. The people in the grassroots base are ‘situationists’ in their immigrant phase, and later, when they become fat and lazy, become ‘intentionalists’ in their mind; “oh yeah, I have always done things my way, ... I didn’t get to where I am today by not knowing what I wanted and being willing to back up my intentions with hard work”. The rhetoric of people who have ‘made it’ makes it sound as if ‘they have done it' (instead of the birdsnest-on-the-ground that they walked into); i.e. Western person's rhetoric makes it sound as if their life trajectory is intention-driven.

But the reality is that the situations that people are in shape their actions and in fact, ‘shape who they are’ and it is a myth to depict people as intention-driven machines who are fully and solely responsible for their own behaviours, which by the way, is the foundational assumption of moral judgement based retributive justice, which is a fucking ‘joke’.

The concept of ‘terrorism’ is ‘intentionalist’, but people are in fact ‘situationists’, weasels, chameleons, snakes-in-the-grass, forked tongue deceivers etc. Just look at the sovereign state governments’ ‘treaties’ with indigenous peoples. Money and addiction to commodities shape behaviours from the outside-in. That is ‘the Spectacle’. If you want to transform a virgin princess into a rich whore, money will do it. Pictures of geezers frolicking with beautiful young partners in affluent surroundings make a joke by putting a caption underneath; “can you guess which one has money?”

I am not making moral judgements, just pointing out the obvious that continues to be denied in the superficial rhetoric of an entire global society; i.e. ... that ‘situation’ comes before 'intention' as the driving force of social dynamics. Even where the generously endowed young beauty swears on her marriage bible, that it is her deep internal intention fuelled by her deep love for Tom that is authoring her action of marrying him, ... if she had an abundance of her own money, ... she would not be going there and ‘everybody knows’. Tom has promised her that she will not be subjected to washing toilets as she might otherwise be forced to do; i.e. now she can buy those 'services' on the commodity labour market and if those commodity-people are in a tight situation, they may lick her arse as well, for free. The young wife's otherwise-impoverished SITUATION is the real driver, which takes her in the direction of 'a better deal'. People are situationist, not intentionalist. Every self-declared ‘intentionalist’ is either a closet situationist or a great stupid; i.e. to regard ourselves as ‘intentionalist’ is, as Nietzsche says, ‘a great stupidity’.

This business [intellectual idealization] of 'intention' doesn't even have to come into it. My cynicism is only apparent and aims at this bullshit notion of 'intention' which only happens to people who see themselves as independent organism-machines ['intention' is what we have to invent to answer the question; "what is it that animates independent machine-people? ... why, it is, of course, their 'intention'". If they don't think of themselves as 'independent systems', then there is no need to invent the concept 'intention', but people do believe (a) that they are independent systems that reside, operate and interact in a habitat that is notionally 'independent' of the inhabitants that reside, operate and interact within it. this intellectual language-based depiction of relational forms such as humans that are situationally included in the relational activity continuum as INDEPENDENT SYSTEM forces the question; "what animates these independent systems" and, therefore, they also believe (b), the force that animates independent beings is 'intention' [Nietzsche].

Only those that want to feel better about themselves being in ‘the labour market’ that the artist-managers have set up for the mechanistic workers believe in ‘intentionalism’ and ‘the work ethic’ and all of that. No indigenous aboriginal buys into that ‘great stupidity’. the 'chief-indian' relation is not a manager-worker split and there is no sense of humans being 'independent systems' in indigenous anarchist society.

But this ersatz intellectual idealization emanating from subject-verb-predicate constructs called 'intention' is what politics is all about. The very definition of politics is strategic intentionalism, ... how to form an organic people-machine [the Western concept of 'organization'] that can engineer a desired future,... “you guys take up your position as the ‘parts’, while I will do the artistic stuff of sketching some engineering blue-prints that will define what you have to do”; i.e. “predicative logic is barren without being fertilized by artistic intuition” ... “let’s put the pyramid over here, ... grab a couple of hundred thousand proles to move some rock and let’s ‘get the show on the road’, ... let’s keep on rocking in the free world.

There is no such thing as ‘intention-driven achievement’, it is an artefact of subject-verb-predicate intellectual RE-presentation. IT DOES NOT EXIST in the physical reality of our natural experience. Meanwhile, INTENTION (though it does not even exist and is a 'great stupidity') clearly IS the foundation of politics. That just goes to prove that politics is .... a ‘great stupidity’.

The land is the ultimate ‘provider’ and people are ‘situationally included’ in the land. Western society didn’t manufacture the ‘labourer class’ out of just money and wages, the third ingredient was ‘great stupidity’, the stupidity of believing that you, yourself, are an intention-driven machine split apart from the land, ... a stupidity actualized by belief in 'the right to own land'. the PURPORTED INTENTION of man, so says Western 'science' (psychology and biology) is 'to survive' and thus ‘to acquire food, clothing and shelter’ to satisfy this 'intention to survive'. This is just intellectual contrivance. People who are situationally included in Nature’s diverse nurturing abundances are in a relationship with the habitat. humans are relational forms that gather in the transforming relational activity continuum who, because they are situationally included features in the continuum do not need 'intention'. intention is needed by people who think of themselves as 'independent systems' that are mutually exclusive of the habitat they are SITUATIONALLY included in. for such 'intentionalists', life is a 'struggle for survival'

Mother nature is a many-teated nurturer of the relational features that gather within her, called ‘humans'. Only Western man with his noun-verb-predicate intellectual RE-presentations, with which he formd a picture of himself as an intention-driven machine, ... could portray the inhabitant ‘man’ as split apart from the ‘habitat’, which in turn portray the habitat as a reservoir of resources, a kind of underfoot smorgasbord which he steps on and and ‘roams around on', ... driven by his ‘intention’ to acquire food, clothing and shelter.

Peoples with other [relations rather than 'being-based'] languages see themselves as ‘situationally included within the habitat’ in the manner of relational features within a transforming relational activity continuum. If you are part of it, then there is none of this dualist split which turns you into an intention drive parasite feeding on something that you deem to be mutually exclusive of your self.

Only those that see themselves as split apart from the land are condemned to have to ‘work’ to acquire food, clothing and shelter. The ‘great stupidity’ lies in people seeing themselves in the intentionalist terms of ‘independent beings’ that reside, operate and interact in a habitat that is notionally ‘independent’ of the inhabitants that reside, operate and interact within it. There is no such collection of inhabitants that are independent of the habitat they reside, operate and interact in, .. not in the physical reality of our natural experience [but as we know,the intellectual constructs of noun-verb-predicate language do not limit themselves to that which is real according to our natural experience, and in fact are incapable of capturing the physical reality of our natural experience]

"“We … should beware lest the intellectual machinery, employed in the representation of the world on the stage of thought, be regarded as the basis of the real world.” – Ernst Mach"

Fortunately, there is a place for all of us to go when we finally decide to drop out of our ‘great stupidity’ aka ‘politics’, and that place is called ‘reality’ [the physical reality of our natural relational experience] aka ‘anarchism’.

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