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  • Debord, Cybersituations, and the Interactive Spectacle
  • Steven Best and Douglas Kellner

"But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence,... illusion only is sacred, truth profane. Nay, sacredness is held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness."

Ludwig Feuerbach

The afterlife of the ideas of Guy Debord and the Situationist International is quite striking. Contemporary society and culture are still permeated with the sort of spectacle described in classical Situationist works, and the concept of "spectacle" has almost become normalized, emerging as part and parcel of both theoretical and popular media discourse. Moreover, Situationist texts are reaching new and ever-expanding audiences in the proliferation of 'zines and web sites, some of which embody Situationist practice. The past decade has been marked by a profusion of cultural activism that uses new communications technology to proliferate radical social critique and alternative culture. Many of these 'zines pay homage to Debord and the Situationists, as do a profusion of web sites that contain their texts and diverse commentary.1 Situationist ideas thus remain an important part of contemporary cultural theory and activism, and may continue to inspire cultural and political opposition as the "Society of the Spectacle" enters cyberspace and new realms of culture and experience emerge.

In this article, we will accordingly update Debord's ideas in formulating what we see as the advent of a new stage of the spectacle, requiring new technologies and forms of oppositional practice. We first delineate Debord's now classic theory of the spectacle, indicate how it is still relevant for analyzing contemporary society, and then distinguish between new forms of interactive spectacles and megaspectacles. We will contrast these to what we call "cybersituations" that have become possible with the Internet and new technologies, offering expanded opportunities for resistance and [End Page 129] democratization. At stake is formulating categories adequate for representing the transformations of contemporary society and devising a radical democratic politics relevant to its challenges and novelties.

The Situationists: Capitalism, Commodification, and Spectacle

The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole

—Georg Lukàcs

The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. The relation to the commodity is not only visible, but one no longer sees anything but it: the world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends its dictatorship extensively and intensively

—Guy Debord

In the shift from nineteenth-century competitive capitalism, organized around production, to a later form of capitalism organized around consumption, media, information, and technology, new forms of domination appear, greatly complicating social reality. While Lukàcs (1971 [1923]) saw the acceleration of commodification in contemporary capitalism, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin, and others associated with the Frankfurt school traced the gradual bureaucratization, rationalization, and commodification of social life in the media and consumer society. They described how the "culture industry" defused critical consciousness, providing a key means of distraction and stupefaction, and developed the first neo-Marxist theories of the media and consumer society (see Kellner 1989a).

We interpret the emergence of Guy Debord and the Situationist International as an attempt to update Marxian theory and practice in the French post-World War II conjuncture – a project that was also deeply influenced by French modernist avant garde movements. Debord and his friends were initially part of a French avant garde artist milieu that was shaped by Dada, Surrealism, lettrism, and other attempts to merge art and politics (see Marcus 1989; Plant 1992; and Wollen 1993). Unorthodox Marxists like Henri Lefebvre (himself at one time part of the Surrealist movement and producer of a "critique of everyday life") influenced Debord, as did groups like Socialism or Barbarism and Arguments, both of which attempted to create an up-to-date and emancipatory Marxist theory and practice. Rapid modernization in France after World War II and the introduction of the consumer society in the 1950s provoked much debate and contributed to generating...


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