Society of Spectacle: Formulating Situationism for the 21st Century

by Jones Irwin

‘to help create a non-dogmatic, non-religious, non-bullshit Marxism’ (Tariq Ali on Daniel Bensaid, 2013)

Introduction

1967. It was the year that Guy Debord published his infamous text Society of the Spectacle. This wasn’t exactly the beginning of the Situationist philosophy. Rather, the latter had emerged in disorderly fashion some ten years earlier in a remote north Italian tavern. This decadent origin put Marxism together with aesthetic Symbolism, joining politics and poetry to make a more hybrid revolution. As Henri Lefebvre had it, ‘Marx said “Change the world”, Rimbaud said “Change life”; for us, these two watchwords are one’.  This wouldn’t be the last time this vision would relocate from France to Italy and back again. Gianfranco Sanguinetti’s ‘The Real Report on the Last Chance to Save Capitalism’, an incendiary satire on Italian politics (influenced by Machiavelli) would see him deported from an unstable and Red Brigade Italy in the 1970s – to where? France of course.

Should we still be reading Guy Debord in August 2019 or encouraging others to read him politically for the first time in a contemporary context?  Our answer is a resounding YES. In the context of increasing economic inequality and social alienation, there are specific lessons which Debord’s philosophy of Situationism can teach us which can move our discussions onwards and upwards. Community-building, collective political action and workers’ unions are more vital than ever but how do we relate these spaces of transformation to the structures of money, time, and power which alter our daily lives? Debord and his comrades give us some polemical answers and some ongoing questions they could never resolve in their own turbulent lifetimes. These recalcitrant problems, the edgy crises of late capitalist economy and society, would take their toll. Debord’s personal labour for the Leftist dialectic would end in tragic suicide. If nothing else, it shows we can be sure he meant it. Situationism was no dilettantism (contra the suppositions of today’s Sunday supplements).  Sometimes unresolved dilemmas from previous radical thinkers and thought-systems are the most fruitful sources to mine for new ideas to address our current predicament.

One of the most pressing problems for Debord is whether the age old Marxist distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘ideology’ is any longer pertinent in late capitalistic, society of the spectacle. His proposed answer to this is typically ambiguous in sidestepping the direct question and relocating the problem  to the plane of what he refers to as emergent revolutionary ‘situations’. These enigmatic and surprising situations (which give the name to the concept and counter-cultural movement of Situationism per se) succeed in subverting the impasse in the more mainstream discussions on the Left of the science/ideology distinction. In this, Debord has also something to say to the current obsession with whether we are in a ‘post-truth’ era. The example of the late 1960s shows that this is hardly a new question and also that the problematic of ‘post-truth’ is not monopolised by Right wing politics. Rather the question of ‘post-truth’ has a venerable Leftist tradition and history too, however problematic and uneasy this might be for more orthodox interpretations.  Facing up to this fact might allow us better resources to properly understand and critique the emergence of the Alt-Right rather than simply hiding behind platitudinous and reductively dismissive accounts.   

If in sidestepping the epistemology question, however, Debord succeeds in a certain intra-Leftist coup it is still the case that the proposed new concept of the ‘situation’ brings its own vulnerabilities to the cause.  These new ‘situations’, we are told, are fragile and can become ‘recuperated’ and ‘commodified’ back into the oppressive system of dominant political power. Or to translate – beware of conceit, bad faith and the betrayal machine (especially amongst so-called colleagues or comrades). As well as being a true revolutionary, Debord was a true paranoiac.

Debord’s Development of Situationism

truth is considered profane and only illusion is sacred; sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness’ (Debord 1967: 6)

There is a thus difficult paradox at the heart of Situationism. On the one side, we must maintain the Marxist critique of ideology all the more in the Society of the Spectacle, in the contemporary spectacular epoch of postmodernity. But alongside this critique we must maintain a simultaneous (and all the more vigorous) suspicion of our very criticality. We must be vigilant against ourselves and our worst tendencies to complacency and revolutionary hubris.     

One is reminded of the vehement critique of paternalism in Paulo Freire’s work and writings, which he often directs against himself (a sign of rare authenticity). It is an antidote against the pseudo-revolutionaries and the pseudo-philosophers whose empty words and actions push the effort for real change and transformation in society back each time they open their pontificating mouths. The universities are full of such people. Freire quotes a letter: ‘an excellent letter from a group of workers in São Paulo; “Paul” they said, “keep writing – but next time lay it on a little thicker when you come to those scholarly types that come to visit as if they had revolutionary truth by the tail. You know, the ones that come looking for us to teach us that we’re oppressed and exploited and to tell us what to do” ’ (Freire 1992).  Rancière declares a similar insight when he says that his books from the ‘70s (written in the crucible of acute guilt and recrimination attendant on the ’68 failures) declare war on the theory of the inequality of intelligences at the heart of supposed critiques of domination. Instead we are to hold that all revolutionary thought must be founded on the inverse presupposition, that of the capacity of the dominated. Hear hear!

This capacity is of course hard to decipher or recognise in a climate which seems everywhere dictated by Debord’s Spectacle. Debord even distinguished between three distinct and ever more fatalistic forms of the spectacular society, from the concentrated spectacle which functions through cult of personality, through dictatorship and totalitarianism; through brute and crude force (Germany/Russia) through to the diffuse spectacle which was more implicit or subterranean if all the more effective for it (USA).  These days the USA adopts more the first posture. What Debord called the integrated spectacle combined the two (Italy and France). As Thesis 42 has it, ‘The Spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonising social life’.

So far so systematic. But we should also remember that any such vision of an overarching or even coherent systematicity to Situationism is misleading. Their programme was epigrammatic not systematic, bequeathing only scraps and preliminary ideas, vague hypotheses and blurry vignettes. No completed or coherent body of work endures. This is also the joy of Debord, the anarchist slant of his vision.

Posters and Graffiti of May ’68

Despite the relentless self-critique (even self-derision) of the Situationists, many of Debord’s phrases and statements became part of the Posters and Graffiti of the May ’68 events and emergent social movements. In the figure below, however humorous or satirical, we see a reinforcement of the critique of ideology. On Vous Intoxique – You Are Being Poisoned !  This is the continuity with the Marxist tradition, the media spectacle of the ‘60s world being interpreted through the prism of ideology critique. You are being duped by television, radio, consumerism, capitalism. So far so linear.

Figure 1   On Vous Intoxique!

But the avowal of a critique of ideology also comes with a significant philosophical health warning from the Situationists and this is a self-satire that is also prominent in ’68 and again visible in the posters. ‘Participation – All the Better to Eat You With My Children!’ Oh how the dream of emancipation and the empowerment of the underclass (or ‘the children’ here as another example of infantilism) runs aground. Perhaps all this talk of increasing radicalisation and democratisation (‘we are so much more radical than you are nanananana’) is just another ruse to co-opt any potentially transformative action into complicity with the forces of power. This poster and this declaration also contains an angry and somewhat disillusioned question; what then would authentic participation in the revolution be, what would it look like? What could it possibly feel like in the real world beyond the spectacle? Is there even such a place?

Figure 2 – Participation – All the Better to Eat You With My Children!

The final poster and slogan we will look at here takes the discussion on one stage further. ‘Return to Normal’ – the failure of participation leads to the failure of the revolution leads to the reinforcement of the status quo. What’s worse – without the revolution, there would be no return to normal. It is precisely the pseudo-revolution that acts as a condition of possibility for the reinforcement and maintenance of power in the longer-term, primarily as it allows a certain ‘illusion’ of change to keep the previously restless population happy. We go back from figure 3 to figure 1. On Vous Intoxique. The Revolution is the Ideology; May ’68 itself becomes the propaganda. This is also then the vicious circle of Debord’s analysis and the overriding lesson of Situationism. The Spectacle is Everywhere! As Debord states in Thesis 42 – ‘The Spectacle is the stage at which the commodity has succeeded in totally colonising social life’.

Figure 3 – Return to Normal

Whither Goes The Situationist in the Contemporary Spectacle?

But all is not lost. Be wary of the all-seeing panoptical hermeneutics of philosophy. As Marx states in Thesis 11 of his Theses on Feuerbach) ‘Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it’.  Enough with cognitivism and brain work and hermeneutics.  It is time for practice, what Lacan called the passage to act. As commentators have noted, we can say surely that the text The Society of the Spectacle endures as Debord’s masterpiece, more broadly as the meisterwerk of the eclectic Situationist movement. It is a brilliant prose poem and Debord saw it as an act of demystification, an exposé of our everyday hypocrisy, including the hypocrisy of the radical Left (which Debord was most bitter and unforgiving about). He was enough of an avant-gardist to be able to call this hypocrisy – without fear.

But where now? Perhaps the closest philosophical and social movement to Situationism in more recent times has been the movement of NonDogmatic Marxism in the Former Yugoslavia, associated especially with the Zagreb Praxis group. They began optimistically with the early Marx, with the humanist vision. This would eventually morph into the social and political work of Slavoj Žižek and the Ljubljana School, a form of dissident thinking on the Left that has had such a significant if iconoclastic impact on European philosophy well beyond Slovenia. This would certainly be less optimistic as well as less humanistic, but all the more resourceful in the contemporary age for these two disavowals of philosophical crutches. Did Diogenes of Sinope teach us nothing? – perhaps they were listening more intently in the former Yugoslavia.   Who would have thought that an esoteric hybrid of  Marxism and Lacanianism (what some call ‘erratic Marxism’) could have become so influential on the Leftist reformist movement which called for an end to the bureaucracy and corruption of state socialism? Moreover, it has also spawned an influential and significant aesthetic wing of artists and musicians, for example the idiosyncratic and satirical nationalism of Laibach.

These experiments with ideology, politics and truth can be risky. They display a disregard for convention and orthodoxy and in their interrogation of phenomena such as fascism, they can run into the accusation of complicity insofar as they refuse easy solutions.  This is also a scene of reading where their satires of identification (with Yugoslav or Slovene nationalism for example) can be interpreted literally. But this is a risk that must be run, whether aesthetically or politically. This is a revolutionary risk. It is precisely in this spirit that the heterodox amalgam of Marx and Lacan emerges in Slovenia in the first place in the ‘80s. It is also the same spirit that influences Rancière to turn away from the top-down science/ideology distinction in his mentor Althusser, for a far more risky embrace in a post-’68 context of the ‘capacity of the dominated’. The revolution must be bottom-up and no longer top-down. In this we can say that Debord was prescient. He foresaw very early in the 1960s that orthodoxy in the critique of ideology would lead the Left to a dead-end. This is the Rimbaud in Guy’s soul. It is this crucial insight of Debord which is taken up by Lyotard and allows him to similarly attack the institution of the university as having any possible role in the passage to action or revolution. Instead, and employing a specific Situationist concept of détourner, Lyotard sees that any genuine revolution must be more authentically thoroughgoing. ‘Our task will have to be that of displacing [détourner] the entire institution of the university as fully as possible from the functions to which it is restricted by both the ruling class and its own deeply internalised repressions, in order to turn it into a place for working out the means of the critical understanding and expression of reality’. 

These then, in terms of an urgent theme today, are the most paradigmatic examples we can draw from for a vision of revolution. If such a revolution is going to be authentic, if it is avoid the pitfalls of mere ruse and re-commodification, we should take heed of some of the lessons taught by this counter-cultural and heterodox Leftism from the none too distant past of ’68 and what Kristin Ross has called the ‘afterlives of ‘68’. Let us REVOLT then in the full awareness of our vulnerability and the fragility of the revolutionary ‘situation’.

REVOLT! No Return to Normal!

References

Debord, G (1990) Comments on the Society of the Spectacle London, Verso

Debord, G. (2000)  Society of the Spectacle London, Rebel Press

Freire,  P.  (1996) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, Continuum.

Freire, P. (1985). The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation. Mass., USA, Bergin and Garvey

Irwin, J. (2012) Paulo Freire’s Philosophy of Education: Origins, Developments, Impacts and Legacies London/ New York, Continuum/Bloomsbury.

Knabb, K. [ed.] (1989) Situationist International Anthology. Edited and translated by Ken Knabb. Berkeley, USA, Bureau of Public Secrets.

Lyotard, J.F. (1993)  Political Writings translated by Bill Readings and KP Geiman. Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press. 

Rancière, J. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford, Stanford University Press

Starr, P. (1995) Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory After May ‘68. Stanford, Stanford University Press

Vaneigem, R. (1984) The Book of Pleasures. London, Pending Press

Vermès, P.and Kugelberg, J. (2011) [eds]  La beauté est dans la rue. Beauty Is In The Street. A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising. London, Four Corners Books

Žižek, S. (1994) (ed.)  Mapping Ideology London, Verso


Jones Irwin is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Education at Dublin City University, Republic of Ireland and was Project Officer for a curriculum in art, values and religion with the Curriculum Unit (NCCA) in Ireland between 2014-2109. He has published widely in philosophy and aesthetics, including monographs on Jacques Derrida, Paulo Freire and psychoanalysis in Slovenia. He has also published fiction and poetry, including most recently in Poetry London and with SFC Journal of Culture, and his flash fiction has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize.

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