Reading Society of the Spectacle

I’m preparing for next Monday, when the Poncey-Highland(s) Reading Group is meeting to discuss Andre Breton’s (First) “Manifesto of Surrealism” (1924) as well as Chapter 1 from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967).

In my reading I am coming across some ideas that I want to put out to the internetz as well as keep me in the practice of daily writing:

In Debord’s watershed treatise we read, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.”(§1) Okay, so keep in mind that modern conditions of production must prevail in order for spectacles to exist. First and foremost we read this and have to recognize that Marx and Weber have offered authoritative analyses of the capitalist mode of production, which is the dominant mode of production over the past 400-500 years. The worker in the factory is doubly alienated: first, because the worker is no longer a craftsman (building an entire cabinet, say) but one worker on an assembly line and so makes only one section of a product – the worker is alienated from the very thing that is made all day at the factory; second, in order for the factory to operate it must attract workers from far away to come work there and so there is a rise in urban living (where, contrary to Cheers, nobody knows your name) rather than the previous mode of living in small towns where everyone knows everybody else. As Marx points out in Capital, vol.1, (Ben Fowkes translation, Penguin Classics, 280) the worker is doubly free as well: 1) he freely owns his body and so can enter labor contracts, and 2) he is free of control of the means of producing. He is free to slave-away at that factory.

Debord goes on to say, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” (§4) He further clarifies in the next section that the spectacle is a Weltanschauung, a comprehensive world view(ing). Leo Apostel has said that a world view should have seven elements (thanks, wikipedia!):

  1. ontology – a descriptive model of the world
  2. an explanation of the world
  3. a futurology – answering the question, “where are we going?”
  4. Values, answers to ethical quetions
  5. A theory of action, answering the question, “How do we attain our goals?”
  6. An epistemology – what is true/false
  7. An etiology – the building blocks that then answer the question, “What are our origins?”

Then, in section 7, he reiterates that the spectacle that he is defining in this text is not a decoration or a phantasm, it, “is the present model of socially dominant life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption….The spectacle is also the permanent presence…since it occupies the main part of the time lived outside modern production.” That is, since the mode of production today requires a long supply chain involving supplies and people from all over the globe interacting in a ballet that they are not even aware of on a daily basis (I don’t have any clue who is the exploited worker in the Hanes factory in Cambodia that made my hooded sweatshirt, or who drove the truck that delivered it to the Target store down the street, nor do I know the person that acted as the cashier when I bought it, let alone who is responsible for making sure that the debited amount comes from my bank account and not someone else’s).

This leads him to say that “Separation is itself part of the unity of the world…” (§7) Which is not too controversial a hypothesis today to say about the State since we’ve got Althusser discussing it at the same time as Debord in his “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses“, but shortly after Philip Abrams, in his essay “Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State” states it so:

It is first and foremost an exercise in legitimation – and what is being legitimated is, we may assume, something which if seen directly and as itself would be illegitimate, an unacceptable domination. Why else all the legitimation-work? The state, in sum, is a bid to elicit support for or tolerance of the insupportable and intolerable by presenting them as something other than themselves, namely, legitimate, disinterested domination. (1988) Journal of Historical Sociology. (1)1. 76.

It would seem fair to paraphrase Debord here such, “the spectacle is an ideological activity in the same sense that the State is.” But of course Debord is talking about something bigger than just the State and politics, he’s trying to put his hands around the whole magilla. “Lived reality is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle while simultaneously absorbing the spectacular order, giving it positive cohesiveness. Objective reality is present on both sides.” (§8) This is exactly how reality tv works, isn’t it? The people on the show are fully aware that they are being recorded, we are fully aware that they are aware.

We’ve come to see these last 10-20 years as an age of irony, but perhaps the real irony has escaped us, as Debord states, “This reciprocal alienation is the essence and the support of the existing society.” Thus, no matter how skeezy we might think the people on these shows are, we are complicit in maintaining and facilitating these conditions that produce these shows. “The spectacle presents itself as something… indisputable and inaccessible. […] The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact it already obtained by its manner of appearing without reply…” (§12) And then further still, “all individual reality has become social reality directly dependent on social power and shaped by it.” (§17)

This spectacular production that society has become is, again, all encompassing, including the overcoding of the religious. “The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion. Spectacular technology has not dispelled the religious clouds where men had placed their own powers detached from themselves; it has only tied them to an earthly base.” While this may not serve as proof of his theorizing, we certainly can’t help but nod when reading the science-fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law of Prediction, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Now imagine having an iPhone 40 years ago ans ask yourself if it wouldn’t seem to be, effectively, magic.

Now here’s what really got me writing today:

“To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.” (§21) This section has two items that got me excited: first is the phrasing of social necessity (because this is a key phrase in Marx’s Capital, vol.1) and, second because this seems to be a critique of Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism”:

[D]reams give every evidence of being continuous and show signs of organization. Memory alone arrogates to itself the right to excerpt from dreams, to ignore the transitions, and to depict for us rather a series of dreams than the dream itself. […] When will we have sleeping logicians, sleeping philosophers? I would like to sleep, in order to surrender myself to the dreamers[….] Can’t the dream also be used in solving the fundamental questions of life? (4)

Is Debord pointing-out that what Breton failed to appreciate in his revolutionary writing was a proper economic understanding? I’ve fixated on this social necessity phrasing because Marx claims that Value is the coming together of use-value and exchange-value in the form of socially-necessary labor time. It is in this way that commodities are at all possible. Without this socially-decided necessity commodities are only products, and without commodities there is no capitalism.

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