Sunday, March 30, 2014

Letter on Rereading Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord
Thesis 1: In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.

. . .

Thesis 17: The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual "having" must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. At the same time all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it. It is allowed to appear only to the extent that it is not.

I've gotten much from a rereading of Guy Debord's 1967 work Society of the Spectacle. No bones about it: it's an amazingly precise and prescient description of how our late-capitalist culture works--how it feels and tastes, how it shapes daily life. Now in my 40s I'm much better equipped to grasp Debord's thinking than I was when I first took up the book in my early 20s. This is critique written with a scalpel.

The text was written as a series of short theses, 221 in all. Numbers 1-72 offer something like an anthropology of late capitalism as religion. Though written decades ago, it's an uncannily accurate map of sorts of the postmodern world.

Did I say religion? If our present society, with its hand-held devices and social media and "Likes", were a cake, Debord in the 1960s wrote the exact recipe for this cake. He described how it tastes, its odd pervasiveness, how it tends to make everything, even the experience of time, "cake-shaped". He did this when the cake was still just a collection of ingredients on the counter, before it had even gone into the oven. In short, the ways capitalist culture has developed since the sixties show there was someone then who knew exactly what that culture was up to.

Theses 84-90, depending on Debord's faithfulness to the data of the last two centuries (which I can't assess), give a plausible interpretation of what went wrong with Marx's "science of history" as it applied to revolution--how the left, in effect, got from Marx and Engels to the Soviets and Stalinism. Debord claims it was a failure of theory that was responsible for this trajectory.

Much of the book is devoted to analyses of the ways different social orders have shaped the experience of time, and to the alienated time we are forced to live in now. The possibilities for breaking into consciousness of our false situation and thus for breaking out of the capitalist order are assessed, along with the reasons the left has failed in its various attempts at revolution since 1917.

Debord is devastatingly straightforward in giving his prognosis. What is questionable is the degree to which his vision of "the patient cured" is valid. I consider it utopian in a general sense: i.e., I do not believe any social order could completely defeat alienation.

In any case, I suggest you read these two sections: theses 1-72 (devastating) and theses 84-90. The first 72 seem to me indispensable, regardless of whether Debord is right in what follows. Even as a Catholic myself, someone whose thinking on capitalism is informed by theology, Debord's insights have much to offer.

His opening section, for me, is the map of the territory. How I might use this map as navigator is a different question.

Check Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle at Amazon.

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