Wednesday 29 November 2006

The Society of the Spectacle

Dear Skywalker,

welcome to this evergreen, the beginning and the end of Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle, 1967.

This translation is based on an Italian version published by Agalev, Bologna (Italy), 1990.

Feedback is welcome, discussion encouraged, cross-referencing promoted, irresponsibility banned.

In lak'ech, a lak'en.

Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

I - Accomplished Separation

[Mick Jagger]
«And with no doubt our age [...] prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, the representation to the reality, the appearance to the being. [...] What to it is sacred is nothing but the illusion, while what is profane is the truth. Indeed, under its eyes the sacred increases as long as the truth diminishes and the illusion rises, so that to it the apex of illusion is also the apex of the sacred

-Feuerbach, Preface to the second edition of The Essence of Christianity


The whole life of societies in which modern conditions of production dominate appears as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was directly lived has receded into a representation.


The images, that have detached from every aspect of life, melt into a common course where the unity of life can no longer be re-established. Reality considered partially unfolds in its general unity as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world finds itself - realized - into the world of images that has made itself autonomous, where the untrue has lied to itself. The spectacle in general, as a concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.


The spectacle simultaneously presents as society itself, as a part of society, and as an instrument of unification. As a part of society, it is expressly the sector concentrating every eye and every conscience. For the very fact that it is separate, this sector is the domain of deceived vision and false conscience, and the unification it realizes is nothing but the official language of generalized separation.


The spectacle is not a collection of images, on the contrary, it is a social relation among people, mediated by images.


The spectacle cannot be comprehended as the abuse of the world of vision, the product of the techniques of mass diffusion of images. It is rather a Weltanschauung become concrete and operating, that is put into substance. It is a view of the world that has objectified.


Comprehended in its totality, the spectacle is at the same time the result and the plan of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, its added decoration. It is the heart of the unreality of real society. In all its particular forms, information or propaganda, advertising or direct consumption of amusements, the spectacle constitutes the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production, and its corollary consumption. Form and content of the spectacle are identically the total justification of the conditions and ends of the existing system. The spectacle is also the permanent presence of this justification, in that it occupies the major portion of the time spent outside of modern production.


Separation is itself part of the unity of the world, of the global social praxis that has split into reality and image. Social practice, in front of which stands the autonomous spectacle, is as well the actual totality containing the spectacle. But the scission inside this totality mutilates it to the point of making the spectacle appear as its end. The language of the spectacle is made of the signs of dominating production, which at the same time are the ultimate end of such production.


The spectacle cannot be abstractly contrasted to the actual social activity; this splitting is itself split. The spectacle which reverses the real gets really produced. At the same time real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and it assumes in itself the spectacular order, giving it a positive agreement. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each notion so fixed is only founded on the passage into its opposite: reality arises within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and sustainment of the existing society.


Within the world really reversed, truth is a moment of false.



IX - Materialized Ideology

[Action Comics]

«Self-conscience is in se and per se when and why it is in se and per se for another self-conscience; i.e., it is nothing but being recognized.»

-Hegel, Phenomenology of the Spirit


In the conflictual course of history, ideology is the basis of thought of a class society. Ideological facts have never been mere chimera, rather they are the deformed conscience of reality, and - as such - real factors exercising themselves a real deforming action. All the more so, the materialization of ideology carried together by the concrete success of automatized economic production - in the form of the spectacle - practically mistakes for social reality an ideology that was able to cut out all reality on its own model.


When ideology - which is the abstract will to universality, and its very delusion - gets legitimated by the universal abstraction and concrete dictatorship of delusion in modern society, it is no longer the willingly struggle of particularism, on the contrary, it is its triumph. As a consequence, the ideological pretension acquires a sort of flat positivistic exactness: it is no longer a historical choice but an evidence. Within this affirmation, the specific names of ideologies have disappeared. The very portion of specifically ideological work at the system's disposal is no longer conceived other than as a recognition of an "epistemological basis" intended beyond any ideological phenomena. The materialized ideology is itself nameless, as well as it lacks an enunciable historical programme. Which is the same as saying that the history of ideologies is over.


Ideology, whose entire internal logic led to "total ideology" - in Mannheim's sense of despotism of the fragment imposing itself as pseudo-knowledge of a frozen whole, totalitarian vision - is now accomplished in the immobilized spectacle of non-history. Its accomplishment is also its dissolution into society as a whole. Along with the practical dissolution of this society is to disappear ideology, the last unreasonableness that blocks access to historical life.


The spectacle is ideology par excellence, because it exposes and manifests in its fullness the essence of any ideological system: the impoverishment, enslavement, and negation of real life. The spectacle is materially "the expression of the separation and estrangement between man and man". The "new power of reciprocal delusion" that has concentrated into the spectacle finds its base in this production, through which "along with the multitude of objects, grows... the reign of foreign beings to which man is enslaved". This is the supreme stage of an expansion that has retorted need against life. "The need for money is thus the real need produced by political economy, and the only one that it produces". (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). The spectacle extends to all social life what Hegel, in the Realphilosophie of Jena, conceives as the principle of money: it is "the life of - what is dead that moves within itself".


In opposition to the project summarized in the Theses on Feuerbach (the realization of philosophy into praxis, which overcomes the opposition between idealism and materialism), the spectacle preserves - and imposes within the pseudo-concrete of its universe - the ideological characteristics of both materialism and idealism. The contemplative side of old materialism which conceives the world as a representation, not an activity - finally idealizing matter - is fulfilled within the spectacle, where concrete things automatically become masters of social life. Reciprocally, the dreamed activity of idealism too is fulfilled within the spectacle, by means of the technical mediation of signs and signals - which finally materialize an abstract ideal.


The parallel that Gabel (The False Conscience) establishes between ideology and schizophrenia must be placed inside this economical process of materialization of ideology. What ideology already was, society has become. Deinsertion of praxis, and the false counter-dialectical conscience accompanying it, here is what is imposed at every moment of daily life subdued to the spectacle; and here is what must be comprehended as a systematic organization of the "absence of the faculty of encounter", and as its substitution with a hallucinatory social fact: the false conscience of encounter, the "illusion of encounter". In a society where nobody can anymore be recognized by others, each individual becomes incapable of recognizing his or her own reality. Ideology is by itself, separation has built its world.


"In clinical pictures of schizophrenia" says Gabel, "decline of the dialectic of totality (with dissociation as its extreme form), and decline of the dialectic of becoming (with catatonia as its extreme form), seem strictly connected". "The spectatorial conscience - prisoner of a flattened universe delimited by the screen of the spectacle, behind which its life has been deported - no longer recognizes but the fictitious interlocutors who unilaterally entertain it on their goods and on the politics of their goods". The spectacle, in its full extension, is its "mirror sign". Here is the self-staging of the false way out by a generalized autism.


The spectacle, which is the erasing of the boundaries between ego and world by means of the annihilation of the ego besieged by the presence-absence of the world, is also the erasing of the boundaries between true and false by means of the removal of any lived truth behind the real presence of the falsity that is guaranteed by the organization of appearance. S/he who passively undergoes his or her daily foreign fate is thus pushed towards an insanity that illusorily reacts to this fate by resorting to magical techniques. Recognition and consumption of goods are central to this pseudo-answer to a communication without answer. The need for imitation experienced by the consumer is exactly the infantile need, conditioned by all the aspects of its fundamental deprivation. In terms that Gabel applies to a completely different pathological level, "here the abnormal need for representation compensates for the tormenting feeling of being at the margins of existence".


If the logic of false conscience cannot truthfully know itself, the search for critical truth about the spectacle must as well be a true critique. It must practically fight amongst the irreconcilable enemies of the spectacle, and admit to be absent where they are absent. The laws of predominant thinking are the exclusive point of view of actuality, which recognizes the abstract will of immediate efficacy, when this casts itself to the compromises either of reformism or of common action by pseudo-revolutionary wrecks. This way delirium has re-established into the very position which claims to fight it. On the contrary, a critique that goes beyond the spectacle must know to wait.


To become emancipated from the material bases of reversed truth, here is what the self-emancipation of our age consists in. This "historical mission of establishing truth in the world", neither the isolated individual, nor the atomized crowd subdued to manipulation can accomplish, but still and ever the class that is capable of being the dissolution of all classes, by leading back all power to the dealienating form of realized democracy, the Council in which practical theory controls itself and sees its own action. Only where individuals are "directly tied to universal history"; only where dialog has armed itself to make its own conditions victorious.


We be-live within the absence.
-So, where are we?

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