Sunday, 23 March 2014

Society of the Spectacle

Guy Debord Society of the Spectacle (1967)
This one has been on my mind for a few months now, but it was re-reading Lawrence Miles' This Town Will Never Let Us Go which brought it to the top of the pile, there being some major themes shared by the two.

This is the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by intangible as well as tangible things, which reaches its absolute fulfillment in the spectacle, where the tangible world is replaced by a selection of images which exist above it, and which simultaneously impose themselves as the tangible par excellence.

Which might be deemed to account for:

'I just think it's dangerous, that's all,' Valentine tried to explain, although he suspected he wasn't going to make much of an impression. 'You know there are kids now who grow up copying the TV ads? That's just, you know... how they see themselves. They don't want to be like people, they just want to be like the characters in the ad breaks. That's how they want to look and dress and... everything.'

Debord and the Situationist International came to my attention through a series of articles in Vague magazine, way back whenever the hell that was - not particularly engrossing articles, and Vague spent way too much time banging on about the sodding Sex Pistols Jubilee boat trip and Genesis P. Orrible, but I apparently absorbed enough for a few of the basic ideas to sink in; at least enough for connections to be made when The Apostles released their Smash the Spectacle EP - possibly the greatest punk rock record ever committed to vinyl - and when Will Self, Alan Moore, and Stewart Home all began dabbling in psychogeography.

Society of the Spectacle is, I suppose, an expansion of certain ideas generally associated with Karl Marx, although it could be argued that the Situationist International itself was as much about art as politics, or at least philosophy. Marx himself developed a fairly profound understanding of the mechanism by which society works to the point that ideology may seem a slightly limited term when applied to the larger body of his ideas. Marxist analysis might itself be deemed to go beyond politics, or at least party politics, and in many cases serves to explain the mechanism of society, and particularly capitalist society, and as such may as well be regarded as a soft science. Debord expands and refines Marxist analysis as it applies to the increasingly media-driven world of the 1960s and beyond; and for the most part it seems so well observed as to be alarming in so much as it's hardly a rosy picture which is painted; but then it is almost certainly better to understand a problem than not, particularly if we are ourselves a part of that problem.

Debord suggests that human society, with so few exceptions as to make no difference, must be viewed as spectacle, the spectacle being a representation of that society, specifically not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images - consensus reality, if you prefer, in which everything is defined as commodity. As consumers of commodity, we are separated by the spectacle, deprived the possibility of the common experience which would allow for contemplation of anything external to the spectacle. It's a fairly simple idea, and yet it's surprising how difficult it can be to truly express all of its subtleties. Debord did well, although Society of the Spectacle does require that one pay attention. I found some of the later points mystifying, although online testimonials seem to suggest this edition printed by Black & Red of Detroit might not be the best translation available.

The Situationist International could be viewed as an artistic response to the spectacle, a sort of derailing through acts falling somewhere between the Dadaist and the revolutionary which, distancing themselves from established and traditionally rational artistic narratives, defy commodification and strive to expose the spectacle for what it is, or summink. Debord's book is therefore a description of the territory, or even the canvas, and is as such an analytical rather than creative tool in respect to the more definably artistic currents of the movement.

The problem with all this is of course that the spectacle by its inherent nature reduces everything to commodity, including that which sets itself against the spectacle; and so the revolution is televised, and probably on pay-per-view, and thus rendered as sterile as that against which it was initially opposed:

Spectacular consumption which preserves congealed past culture, including the recuperated repetition of its negative manifestations, openly becomes in the cultural sector what it is implicitly in its totality: the communication of the incommunicable. The flagrant destruction of language is flatly acknowledged as an officially positive value because the point is to advertise reconciliation with the dominant state of affairs - and here all communication is joyously proclaimed absent. The critical truth of this destruction - the real life of modern poetry and art - is obviously hidden, since the spectacle, whose function is to make history forgotten within culture, applies, in the pseudo-novelty of its modernist means, the very strategy which constitutes its core. Thus a school of neo-literature, which simply admits that it contemplates the written word for its own sake, can present itself as something new.

It has been pointed out by its critics that the Situationist International is itself only a commodity and Situationism now amounts to flash mobs and hidden camera shows. This reduction of signal to noise can be seen in examples like that of psychochronography, the invention of a Doctor Who fan and self-published author who presumably decided that the Situationist concept of psychogeography held just the right sort of pseudo-intellectual weight to be applied to analysis of a children's television serial. Psychogeography being the deduction of narrative from physical space, the premise of psychochronography is therefore inherently absurd, purporting to deduce meaning from that which already exists exclusively as meaning, which not only leaves us with yet more overreaching spectacular juvenilia we really don't need, but serves to further clog up cultural bandwidth by the reduction of analysis itself to mere packaging.

None of this should make any difference to that which is observed in the Society of the Spectacle providing one is able to read without too much crosstalk of the kind described above; and I would suggest that as analysis it remains as relevant as ever; and whilst I see no value in placing Debord's book on a pedestal, it should be read, and it deserves better than to be remembered as a footnote to lesser works.

No comments:

Post a Comment