Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Santiago Cucullu

Notes on Debord

 


 

 

 

Guy Debord

_Comments on the Society of the Spectacle_

Translated by Malcolm Imrie

London and New York: Verso, 1998

ISBN 1859841694

 

Though _Comments on the Society of the Spectacle_ is a short book, it is an elaborate one, almost labyrinthine. It has dead ends and walls of varying heights. Often credited as having been one of the founding members of the Situationist Internationale, Guy Debord was also the author of numerous books and films including _The Society of the Spectacle_ and a film bearing the same title. In 1984 allegations of his involvement in the death of his friend and dealer Gerard Lebovici, allegations which were contested and proved unfounded, led him to disallow the screening of his films in protest from 1984 until his suicide in 1994. This book is a barrage of statements regarding the state of things which Debord refers to as the 'spectacle', a concept which he began to outline in 1968 and further elaborated on in this book.

 

The introduction states that this book is to be appreciated by only a small few. Half of these people are agents working in support of the dominating spectacle and the other half are agents working to undermine the spectacle's dominance in modern society. Because of this, the overall meaning must be deciphered by an active reader willing to mine the various chapters. In the face of such obstacles, this book marks a gesture of the highest order. It is an urgent book. And it's presence in the world is inescapable. There is a sense of nostalgia that goes along with the book as well. But nostalgia is not an accurate term because it denotes a sort of longing for a world long gone or forgotten; in this case one cannot place the sense of lose. The book is often a list of violation upon violation on the human citizen. This veteran's message is in dire need of readers who will consider and incorporate it into quotidian life. As Debord outlines, ours is a time when world surveillance may exist, and the outlook for global domination by a sinister yet familiar other is looking up. Throughout the book, however, there is a tone of resistance, and I was reminded of many different people, ideas that emanate from them, and a thinking which they represent for me: Virilio, M. Mclaren, Gnrl. Custer, Aquinas, L. Blisset, Felix Guattari, J. L. Borges, Geronimo, Cmndnt. Marcos, Severino Di Giovanni . . . a procession of thinkers and fighters.

 

Writing can veil concepts, and to summarize or provide a subjective interpretation of _Comments on the Society of the Spectacle_ may be an injustice, however well intentioned. The prose is a mix of irony, dread, flamboyance, realism, and warning. There are few answers given, and many questions are voiced. Is it agreeable to have information constantly mediated and broken down in to bite-sized messages, easily digestible and inoffensive? Has the infiltration of the spectacle within an atrophied hierarchical system (where a McGyvered 'spectacular government' directly controls the viewer), in a scenario attuned to _Halloween 3_ [1] meets _1984_ become, not only believable, but acceptable? The reader's position is constantly challenged. These barricades are often symbolic and one may take heart from Debord's anticipatory preface. [2]

 

From the start the reader may sense that they are being disavowed. On the eighth page Guy Debord adds a theoretical detail to his earlier formulations. [3] He provides a third form to the notion of the spectacle introduced in _The Society of the Spectacle_. The 'integrated' spectacle appears as a result of what Debord says is a 'rational combination' of the two forms which he wrote about in 1967 (the 'concentrated' and the 'diffused'). These forms, which 'float above real society' and particularly the shown strength of the 'diffuse form' (what Debord cites as an 'Americanization'), have imposed a 'globally' integrated society of the spectacle, possibly paving the way for the annihilation of a democratic humanistic world. Property is part and parcel of the driving forces inherent in the society of the spectacle, furthering the relevance of this book in the very world that Debord rails against. Illustrative of the mechanics of a society which venerates the spectacular, the integrated spectacle 'introduces an all encompassing, decentralized, and interminable 'modernization' of contemporary society; which manifests itself through . . . *the combined effects of five principle features: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalized secrecy; unanswerable lies; and eternal present*.

 

The historical framework becomes destroyed and reconstructed instantaneously. Through the 'integrated spectacle' history is rewritten to include any possible dissent. This manipulation serves to construct and direct terrorism. Any state of being, short of being assimilated by the 'integrated spectacle' should be construed as suspicious.

 

Sometimes assimilation, however, can be a wonderful thing. Many have walked this road. It is no doubt a warm feeling; like wetting the bed. The formal Los Angeles County Hospital now houses a shining testimonial to the very paths leading toward assimilation into the spectacle. [4] The likes of Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley, and John Travolta have been forged by, and follow such a sign. In a sense they are residents of a village or township who have come to realize the limits of the physical self and readily sacrifice kinds of reactive spirits for the betterment of a community. [5]

 

Debord declares the spectacular society to be irrational and illogical. It must continually reinvent itself and relies on the unassuming consumer [6] to readily forget sanctioned inconsistencies; incongruencies in the mechanics of the state apparatus. A co-dependent relationship becomes solidified with every exchange. He contends that the decadence of contemporary thought evidently lies in the fact that spectacular discourse leaves no room for any reply. Next up on the spectacular chopping block is the notion of individual identity. An individuality consigned to a 'global village' quickly becomes eradicated. '*Villages unlike towns, have always been ruled by conformism, isolation, petty surveillance, boredom and repetitive malicious gossip about the same families.*' This book continually stresses the corroborating power of an economy based on anti-human ideals. Value has passed from the realm of need and ethos, to a scale founded on desire and seduction.

 

So, what is left? After such a hail opposing the current state of affairs and a seemingly irreparable course towards global destruction, one is left gasping for breath. Trying to keep the head and the trunk above water, clutching at the body as if it were the site of these jutting, sharp pains seemingly emanating from the spleen; the purpose of which is enigmatic.

 

Minneapolis College of Art and Design, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Also known as _Halloween 3: The Season of the Witch_; a commercial lures consumers into buying halloween masks that turn the user into a fiend.

 

2. 'However desperate the situation and circumstances, do not despair. When there is everything to fear, be unafraid. When surrounded by dangers, fear none of them. When without resources, depend on resourcefulness. When surprised, take the enemy itself by surprise.' Sun Tzu, _The Art of War_.

 

3. The element of the integrated spectacle for me becomes one of the most interesting points addressed by this book. Implicating the reader in the spectacle through ownership of the book avoids a direct critical attack on either Marxism or capitalism. At the same time _The Society of the Spectacle_ is revisited.

 

4. Not that being a scientologist is a bad thing, I just question the moneys involved in attaining 'clarity'.

 

5. I just couldn't resist a little irony. I can not of course do justice to Debord, but a key element is his sense of humor, e.g. 'Cervantes remarks that 'under a poor cloak you commonly find a good drinker.' Someone who knows his wine may often understand nothing about the rules of the nuclear industry; but spectacular power calculates that if one expert can make a fool of him with nuclear energy, another can easily do the same with wine. And it is well know, for example, that media meteorologists, forecasting temperature or rainfall for the next forty-eight hours, are severely limited in what they say by the obligation to maintain certain economic, touristic and regional balances, when so many people make so many journeys on so many roads, between so many equally desolate places: thus they can only try to make their name as entertainers.' (17)

 

6. An element of the 'diffused spectacle'.

 

___________________

 

Santiago Cucullu, 'Notes on Debord',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 4, January 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n4cucullu>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

 

 

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