Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle

issue #19, 1991

As late as 1979, Guy Debord could write about his 1967 book of theory, which is entitled The Society of the Spectacle: "There is no a word to be changed . . . . [Since 1967] the spectacle has done nothing but meet more exactly its concept. . . . In fact, it fell on spectacular society itself to add something of which this book, I think, had no need -- heavier and more convincing proofs and examples." But in 1988, Debord was forced to admit that,

in other circumstances, I think I could have considered myself altogether satisfied with my first work on this subject, and left others to consider future developments. But in the present situation, it seemed unlikely that anyone else would do it.

And so Debord, twenty one years later, wrote a second work: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (Verso, 1990; trans. Malcom Imrie). The pun in the title suggests that Debord's 1967 book and the society it discusses are virtually the same thing.

What changed between 1979 and 1988? What forced the writer's hand? Answer: the long-term spectacularization of the May 1968 revolution in France.

Except for Debord, every major "radical" thinker in the West continues to sing the praises of May 1968. Let us take as an example Felix Guattari & Antonio Negri, the authors of Communists Like Us (Semiotext[e] Foreign Agents Series; written in 1984 and translated in 1990). In this book, these writers say again and again, "The events of May 1968 mark the re-opening of a revolutionary cycle"; they say again and again "It is thus a world in the process of change that began its expansion in '68 and which, since then, through a process of continuous mutation, including all sorts of failures and successes, has struggled to weave a new network of alliances at the heart of the multiplicity of isolated singular components comprising it." For Guattari & Negri, who were active in the Italian struggles of the late 1970s, the revolution of 1968 was an "irreversible" success, and thus they can write about it in the present tense: 1968 is this and 1968 represents that.

But, for Debord, 1968 -- though it was indeed a modern revolution -- represents an exception to the rule of the society of the spectacle. "The disturbances of 1968, which in several countries lasted into the following years," he writes in his Comments,

having nowhere overthrown the existing organization of the society from which it springs apparently spontaneously, the spectacle has thus continued to gather strength; that is, to spread to the furthest limits on all sides, while increasing its density in the centre. It has even learned new defensive techniques, as powers under attack always do.

As Debord will explain, the spectacle has become "the integrated spectacle." There has been a qualitative change in its nature. But, for writers such as Guattari & Negri, there has been no such change. They write, "Capitalist and/or socialist restructuring in the '70s has stitched together the old modes of production, redistributing the functions of the players, and reorganizing on a world scale the division of exploitation." While Guattari & Negri suggest a global system of domination that is merely stitched together, Debord envisions one with an increasingly organic unity, in which "diffuse" and "concentrated" spectacles are integrated.

What are the new defensive techniques the spectacle has learned in the last two decades? In other words, what is the nature of the NEW situation in which we find ourselves today? "The society whose modernization has reached the stage of the integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal features," Debord tells us. They are 1). incessant technological renewal; 2). integration of state and economy; 3). generalized secrecy; 4). unanswerable lies; and 5). an eternal present.

The first two features have, in Debord's words, "proved to be highly favorable to the development of spectacular domination," while the other three features are "direct effects of this domination, in its integrated stage." The purpose of the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle is to look at the socio-psychological effects of the spectacle -- the political-economic causes having been addressed in 1967's Society of the Spectacle. Even more precisely: in his Comments, Debord has tried to 1). combat "generalized secrecy" by openly writing to and working upon the no more than the fifty or sixty people in his "network of influence" (Debord's own estimate); 2). combat "unanswerable lies" by filling his book with easily checkable truths; and 3). combat an "eternal present" by insisting that some things are definitely in the past, but especially "1968."

This is it, a thumbnail picture of the whole book:

Our unfortunate times thus compel me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally ommitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Readers will encounter certain decoys, like the very hallmark of the era. As long as certain pages are interpolated here and there, the overall meaning may appear; just as secret clauses have very often been added to whatever treaties may openly stipulate; just as some chemical agents only reveal their hidden properties when they are combined with others. However, in this brief work there will be only too many things that are, alas, easy to understand.

Debord's Comments is not a "book": it is a text, partly written in invisible words, that must be edited by the reader before it can read (for the second time). The secret clauses must be made to manifest themselves somehow; the chemical reaction must be begun. But what is the missing ingredient?



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