Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso, 8.95)

Printed in Tribune, 4/1/1991

Guy Debord's book The Society of the Spectacle appeared in 1967. In that book Debord wrote that "the concrete life of everyone has become degraded into a speculative universe": the essential reality of modern society is the spectacle. "The sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity", the spectacle has affinities with ideas like "consumerism" and "media culture"; however, Debord's analysis goes both wider and deeper than that of an Ignatieff or a Seabrook. The spectacle defines not only the lived experience but also the material structure of society: it is "a social relation among people, mediated by images", on the basis of "capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image". Politics, of course, is just part of the show. "The struggle of powers constituted for the same socio-economic system is disseminated as the official contradiction but is in fact part of the real unity - on a world scale as well as within every nation". Ultimately "the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a socio-economic formation, its use of time".

Debord's ideas and those of his group, the Situationist International, were widely echoed (and borrowed). In May '68, so consistently portrayed as a kind of unusually boisterous Rag Week, something like the situationists' complete negation of the reigning society began to be put into practice. The situationist analysis was vindicated and defeated in the space of a month; the resulting cult status was not what the SI wanted, and the group dissolved in 1971. Since then the name of "situationist" has been used by a cast of idiots ranging from Malcolm McLaren to Tony Wilson; the thing itself has been less prominent. Debord's work since has included a film version of The Society of the Spectacle, a book on war-gaming and an article arguing that the kidnappers of Aldo Moro were under government control.

Then, in 1988, came these Comments. The book's main concern is the "integrated spectacle". In 1967 Debord distinguished between the bourgeois-democratic "diffuse spectacle" and the "concentrated spectacle" of centrally-planned societies. Since then, however, the integrated spectacle has arisen: both concentrated and diffuse, built on both market freedom and central control. The overt forms of control found in the concentrated spectacle have gone, along with the areas of real freedom found in the diffuse form. The result is, paradoxically, both more concentrated and more diffuse than its parents.

On the diffuse side, "the spectacle has never before put its mark to such a degree on almost the full range of socially produced behaviour and objects". There are no spectacle-free zones. There is no real opposition: "the only organised forces are those which want the spectacle". As a result "we have dispensed with that disturbing conception [...] in which a society was open to criticism or transformation, reform or revolution". History has ceased to exist, as "it is in the interests of those who sell novelty at any price to eradicate the means of measuring it". The spectacle is now not only capable of absorbing areas formerly dedicated to non-spectacular thought (art, science) but has no reason not to: "power believes that it no longer needs to think; and indeed can no longer think".

Somebody still has to run things, though: which is where the other side of the integrated spectacle comes in. "As regards concentration, the controlling centre has become occult: never to be occupied by a known leader, or clear ideology". Real politics takes place within the networks of the elite. Terrorism is crucial here. It is this society's validating myth: "compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic". At the same time the threat of terrorism makes it easier to adopt terrorist methods, either to combat terrorists ("or those considered as such") or more directly, as in the bombing of Bologna railway station "to ensure that Italy continued to be well governed". Not that there are any real threats any more: "conditions have never been so seriously revolutionary, but it is only governments who think so". "Surveillance spies on itself"; so that "under the rule of the integrated spectacle, we live and die at the confluence of innumerable mysteries".

This book is a much slighter work than the original, but it is still the most challenging and stimulating work of theory I have read in a long time - and by far the best written. Debord is an extraordinary writer, a radical in both theory and style: cryptic, poetic, and often terrifying. "The highest ambition of the integrated spectacle is still to turn secret agents into revolutionaries, and revolutionaries into secret agents". I wish I had said that...