“There remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry”
Guy Debord (1931-1994) was a philosopher and social critic, part of the Letterist and Situationist movements.
He and his comrades, such as Jaime Semprun, forged a deep-rooted critique of the industrial capitalist system, not merely in economic terms, but as a cultural and psychological prison.
This “spectacle” was “the superficial reign of images” (1) he wrote, where “the commodity contemplates itself in a world of its own making”. (2)
This modern world was inherently false and artificial, Debord said: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation”. (3)
It was not merely false, but presented its own falsity as an unchallengeable reality, he added: “What is false creates taste, and reinforces itself by knowingly eliminating any possible reference to the authentic”. (4)
Debord’s analysis in 1967’s La société du spectacle was strongly anti-industrial, stating:
“The society which rests on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist”. (5)
He condemned “the dictatorship of the automobile”, “the domination of the motorway” and “temples of frenzied consumption”. (6)
This industrial society was devoid of any real content, or intent, with its sole aim being its own meaningless perpetuation. It was a dead thing, “the concrete inversion of life”. (7)
“Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle”, (8) wrote Debord, and the system imposed its vertical domination on the population by denying them any horizontal connections.
Organic, authentic, society was made impossible by the crushing force of industrialism: “From the automobile to the television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for the constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of ‘lonely crowds'”. (9)
Debord made it clear time and time again that the spectacle was nothing less than the commercialisation of the world, the reduction of the world to the empty level of product and profit.
This commercialisation had gone deeper than the economic domain and destroyed the health of the human social organism itself.
“The spectacle is the other side of money”. (10) “The economy transforms the world, but transforms it only into a world of economy”. (11) “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has achieved the total occupation of social life”. (12)
Debord reported in his 1988 Commentaires sur la société du spectacle that the situation was now even worse than in the 1960s: “There remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry”. (13)
And where did this leave the individual who had been reared within the capitalist cage and had never known anything but the illusions of its artificial anti-society?
No matter how hard he might try to speak out against the system, he risked remaining trapped inside its basic mindset and assumptions.
“He will essentially follow the language of the spectacle, for it is the only one he is familiar with; the one in which he learned to speak. No doubt he would like to be regarded as an enemy of its rhetoric; but he will use its syntax. This is one of the most important aspects of spectacular domination’s success”. (14)
Debord was influenced by orgrad inspiration Georg Hegel, a key thinker in the Marxist tradition to which he owed so much, and also greatly admired the Romantic nature poet Novalis, Samuel Coleridge and Alfred de Musset. (15)
His critique of modernity was fuelled by an attraction to aspects of the past, whether traditional gypsy life, North American indigenous culture (from which the Situationists borrowed the idea of potlatch, a gift-giving feast) or the old, narrow streets of cities such as Paris, Florence or Arles through which he loved to drift.
Indeed, Patrick Marcolini identifies a “medieval inspiration” behind Debord and the Situationist movement as a whole. He writes: “All the types of gift-based sociality – friendship, love, hospitality, mutual aid and solidarity – were the relational forms which most faithfully prefigured the society which the Situationists wanted to reach by revolution. In this, medieval civilization offered them a real model”. (16)
After the dissolution of the Situationist International in 1972, Debord’s thinking took an increasingly anti-modern and anti-industrial direction.
Marcolini notes that in Debord’s 1978 film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni and then in Commentaires sur la société du spectacle, his “romantic critique of modernity” was particularly evident, along with “a secret nostalgia for bygone times”. (17)
In that latter book, Debord highlighted the role of the secret state and its involvement in imposing industrial capitalist thinking, even within ostensibly radical circles.
He warned that its highest ambition was “to turn secret agents into revolutionaries, and revolutionaries into secret agents” (18) and that it could use all its traditional techniques in an ideological context – “provocation, infiltration, and various forms of elimination of authentic critique in favour of a false one which will have been created for this purpose”. (19)
Terrorism, he wrote, was something constructed by the system itself because “its wish is to be judged by its enemies rather than by its results”. He explained: “The spectators must certainly never know everything about terrorism, but they must always know enough to convince them that, compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable”. (20)
1. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 152.
2. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 31.
3. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 3.
4. Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 56.
5. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 8.
6. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 133.
7. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 3.
8. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 13.
9. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 15.
10. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 29.
11. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 24.
12. Debord, La société du spectacle, p. 25.
13. Debord, Commentaires, p. 20.
14. Debord, Commentaires, p. 38.
15. Patrick Marcolini, Le mouvement situationiste: une histoire intellectuelle (Paris: L’Echappée, 2012), p. 182.
16. Marcolini, p. 186.
17. Marcolini, p. 202.
18. Debord, Commentaires, pp. 21-22.
19. Debord, Commentaires, p. 59.
20. Debord, Commentaires, pp. 32-33.