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  • Biding Spectacular Time
  • A.H.S. Boy
“Guy Debord.” The Society of the Spectacle. trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. New York: Zone Books, 1994.

Numbers between brackets refer to numbered theses in the book.

For decades, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was only available in English in a so-called “pirate” edition published by Black & Red, and its informative — perhaps essential — critique of modern society languished in the sort of obscurity familiar to political radicals and the avant-garde. Originally published in France in 1967, it rarely receives more than passing mention in some of the fields most heavily influenced by its ideas — media studies, social theory, economics, and political science. A new translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith issued by Zone Books last year, however, may finally bring about some well-deserved recognition to the recently-deceased Debord. Society of the Spectacle has been called “the Capital of the new generation,” and the comparison bears investigation. Debord’s intention was to provide a comprehensive critique of the social and political manifestations of modern forms of production, and the analysis he offered in 1967 is as authoritative now as it was then.

Comprised of nine chapters broken into a total of 221 theses, Society of the Spectacle tends toward the succinct in its proclamations, favoring polemically poetic ambiguities over the vacuous detail of purely analytical discourse. There is, however, no shortage of justification for its radical claims. Hegel finds his place, Marx finds acclaim and criticism, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg add their contributions, and Debord’s own insights are convincingly argued. It becomes evident quite quickly that Debord has done his homework — Society of the Spectacle is no art manifesto in need of historical or theoretical basis. Debord’s provocations are supported where others would have failed. The first chapter, “Separation Perfected,” contains the fundamental assertions on which much of Debord’s influence rests, and the very first thesis, that

the whole of life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.

establishes Debord’s judgment; the rest attempt to explain it, and to elaborate on the need for a practical and revolutionary resistance.

By far Debord’s most famous work, Society of the Spectacle lies somewhere between a provocative manifesto and a scholarly analysis of modern politics. It remains among those books which fall under the rubric of “oft quoted, rarely read” — except that few can even quote from it. A few of the general concepts to be found in Society of the Spectacle, however, have filtered down into near-popular usage. For example, analyses of the Gulf War as “a spectacle” — with the attendant visual implications of representation and the politics of diversion — were commonplace during the conflict. The distorted duplication of reality found in theme parks is typically discussed with reference to its “spectacular nature,” and we are now beginning to see attempts to explain how “cyberspace” fits into the framework of the situationist critique. (Cf. Span magazine, no. 2, published at the University of Toronto.) But this casual bandying about of vaguely situationist notions by journalists and coffee-house radicals masks the real profundity of Debord’s historical analysis. Much more than a condemnation of the increasingly passive reception of political experiences and the role of television in contemporary ideological pursuits, Society of the Spectacle traces the development of the spectacle in all its contradictory glory, demonstrates its need for a sort of parasitic self-replication, and offers a glimpse of what may be the only hope of resistance to the spectacle’s all-consuming power.

Fully appreciating Society of the Spectacle requires a familiarity with the context of Debord’s work. He was a founding member of the Situationist International, a group of social theorists, avant-garde artists and Left Bank intellectuals that arose from the remains of various European art movements. The Situationists and their predecessors built upon the project begun by Futurism, Dada, and Surrealism in the sense that they sought to blur the distinction between art and life, and called for a constant transformation of lived experience. The cohesion and persuasive...

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