Debord's "Spectacle" as the concept that condenses the insights of Marx on commodity fetishism and the Frankfurt school on the culture industry

Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle (1967) develops a theory of the spetacle out of the Marxist concept of commodity fetishism and Horkheimer and Adorno's analysis of the culture industry.
Web resources are particularly rich for study of Guy Debord and the leftist group he formed, the Situationalists International.

The argument: If the fetishims of the commodity abstract social relation of human work into a spontaneous relation between things, and the culture industry extends control by Capital over leisure, then advanced capitalism (after the triumph of television) brings about a new level of abstraction:

  • now, according to Debord, the ultimate commodity is the Spectacle---those images, fictions, and discourses of information, propaganda, advertising and entertgainment which promote the commodity's purchase.
  • By Debord's account, new technologies of representation have so increased the quantity, scope, and force of spectacle, that the spectacle changes quality: · saturating the world it become the informing media of cultural formation.
  • The spectacle appears self-sufficient and complete
  • It overcomes all reserves of spectator skepticism by borrowing from itself (e.g. Lucas's Star Wars to the "Star Wars" of Reagan and Bush)
  • By drawing upon a traditional Western connection between knowing and seeing, this spectacle claims to represent all, truly and totally. [CBS logo; Cronkite's "That's the way it is."
  • Although the spectacle is relentlessly affirmative and unifying, because spectators are kept remote from the origin of the spectacle, and because communication is unilateral, dialogue impossible, and criticism difficult to make consequential,
  • …modern spectacle perfects the separation of the spectacle that encloses and engulfs its spectators.

Debord's bleak 1988 retropect on The society of the spectacle.

Interrupting the Spectacle

In imitation of Adre Breton's leadership of an early art and theory movement (Surrealism), Guy Debord starts a group called "the Situationist International." The group develops several social-aesthetic practices for interrupting the cultural systems of advanced capitalism:

  • the "derive": (literally, to 'derive'; "A trip with no destination, diverted arbitrarily en route. ") By taking random tour from unknown subway stations, the Situationists sought to inhabit geography in ways unimagined by their designers and planners. Another example of this sort of tactical subvertion of original purposes: using public sites for graffiti art and propaganda. )
  • the "detournment": (literally 'detouring'; we would say "repurposing" parts of the spectacle to expose its internal logic). Debord made films by splicing together : in both cases, what the Situationists do is a) acknowledge the enormous strategic superiority of the system, but b) then venture a tactical intervention ("on the ground of the other"). This way of responding to the idea of the totalizing power of the Spectacle can be followed through DeCerteau's critique of Foucault, and the former's development of what he calls "the practice of everyday life."
  • the art of the aphorism: If the preferred technique of the society of the spectacle is engulfment--total immersion of the spectator in a spectacle which is hurled at the eye and ear at a speed as fast as thought, cutting and morphing, at once absorptive and distracting, a tide of alluring candy for the eye and ear, and projected before us by a media apparatus others control--then, how does one slow down this media machine, and create the space for genuine critique? Debord's answer in The Society of the Spectacle is the aphorism. Most probably indebted to Nietzsche, Debord's aphorism offer short, abrupt, disconnected statements about the spectacle within advanced capitalism. Suggestive and difficult, they require a reader who is patient, active, and in dialogue with the text; harsh in tone and sweeping in their scope, each of these aphorisms seems designed to provoke and challenge the reader.

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