Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Society of the Spectacle

[This post is a contribution to the Politics & Movies Blog-a-thon, running from November 4-9 at The Cooler.]

The arguments of the Situationist Guy Debord, as radical as they were at the time he first made them, might today seem somewhat familiar and even blasé, on their surface at least: culture is a distraction from material reality; it is in the interests of societal elites to keep the masses docile; workers are alienated from the results of their labor in industrial society. To some extent, these ideas have been thoroughly absorbed into radical and leftist thought in the 40 years since Debord first published his seminal 1967 tract Society of the Spectacle. And yet, there is a sense that the full implications of Debord's radical understanding of the conditions of reality has hardly been understood or acted upon. His dense, dialectical book, and the film of the same name that he made in 1973, posit an approach to cultural reality that can best be thought of as political science fiction. In examining the "spectacular" foundations of modern life, Debord acknowledges and discusses the usual meanings of "spectacle" — entertainment, advertising, consumer fetishism, the commodification of sexuality — but goes even further by suggesting that the visible world itself has become the spectacle that blinds us to the true state of things. Debord's spectacle is a politicized proto-Matrix vision in which invisible forces conspire to create an artificial reality that is utterly committed only to its own continuation. The society of the spectacle is the world itself and everything in it, a mass delusion in which virtually everyone is imprisoned, an endless cycle of repetitious labor and the empty ritual "pleasure" of vacations or weekends.

The book The Society of the Spectacle was first published in 1967 and a year later became a key text of the May 1968 student uprisings in France. It is a complex, dazzling polemic, with a distinctively French dialectical wit and a proclivity for punning language, reversals of meaning, and contradictory ideas. For Debord, contradiction is a holy grail: the spectacle that we all live is built upon a foundation of irreconcilable opposites, and to see these contradictions is to understand the absurdity of modern society. The film version, made six years later, is Debord's attempt to illustrate his text, further develop his ideas, and provide concrete visual examples of the kinds of things he wrote about. The film is also something of a valedictory for the events of May 1968, a celebration of the "formless" revolt that Debord sees as the first step in truly overthrowing the oppressive conditions of modern culture.

The film's presentation of Debord's ideas about the spectacle follows closely from the form of the original book, which consists of 221 numbered paragraphs that each present a fully formed idea. The book's structure is additive, the individual theses somewhat isolated from one another, and yet also building upon the precepts and concepts laid down in the book as a whole. The film compounds this fragmentary structure by excerpting liberally from the text, recontextualizing Debord's words as elements in the film's ever-present voiceover. This narration rarely goes silent, its rapid pace and profusion of contradictory ideas approximating the dense texture of Debord's prose, which insists on unerringly precise definitions. "The spectacle is not a collection of images," he says towards the beginning of both book and film, "rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images." These "is"/"is not" dialectics appear frequently; Debord defines his ideas by first limning their boundaries, declaring what they are not before tracing what they are. His precision can be exhausting, and it is hardly possible to exactly follow his argument at all times upon seeing the film for the first time, even with prior knowledge of the source text — one can only imagine the foundering of someone seeing the film without any sense of its context and origins. Debord's words work better in print than in film, available to extended study instead of flying by at a steady pace. To some extent he sacrifices the clarity of his writing by translating it to a different medium.

However, the film of Society of the Spectacle is hardly just a transposition of the book, and Debord's unique conception of the cinema creates a wholly new artwork from his source material. One would expect a writer with such a thoroughly developed ideology of images to think long and hard before creating his own images, lest he accidentally contribute to the spectacle he sought to undermine. Indeed, the structure of this film reflects a careful consideration of the way that text and images flow into one another, creating a commentary on images, representation, and the spectacle of culture. In this respect, it is instructive to compare Debord with another French veteran of May 1968 whose films reflect upon the relationships between images and reality: Jean-Luc Godard, of course. Godard and Debord were loose contemporaries, but they had little direct interaction, and to some extent they were opposed: Debord's Situationist International, always concerned with defining in-groups and out-groups, declared Godard to be an insufficiently radicalized reactionary. The reason for this denunciation might very well lie in the different approaches the two men took to treating images in their work.

Debord's concept of détournement — a word the Situationists coined to describe the recycling of artistic elements in a new context to express a different meaning than the original artist — is subtly different from Godard's approach to pastiche and genre homage. Whereas Godard incorporated references to literature and Hollywood film with a satirical or polemical edge, making them his own, Debord's cut-and-paste quotations are generally left whole, appropriated without authorial comment. Debord frequently inserts intertitles or on-screen text (a very Godardian touch) that either print material from his book or cite other works, sometimes with attribution (Marx, Toqueville) and sometimes without (a passage of Shakespeare's Richard III). At several points in the film, he excerpts at length from films by Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, and others, simply allowing these ragged chunks of other films to exist, if somewhat uncomfortably, within his own. There is rarely any satirical perspective in these insertions, or even any direct correspondence with the narration. The point is simply to co-opt the spectacle, to put its images in a context where the spectacle is continuously undermined, where the contrast between the spectacular and the non-spectacular can become clear. To a similar end, Debord appropriates fashion photography and bits of soft-porn sexual images, spectacular images whose function in society is obliquely described by the voiceover. When Godard would include sexual images in the work of his radical period — as he did most radically in the abrasive Numéro Deux — his presentation of sexuality often aggressively deconstructed and defused the expected reactions. This is not the case with Debord, who allows unaltered images of commercialized sexuality to exist within the fabric of his film, trusting in the contradiction between image and text to awaken thought instead of visceral reaction. It's not always a successful tactic, since the directness of sexual images makes them particularly resistant to such attempts at recontextualization, but it is also a logical outgrowth of Debord's fundamental principles. To do more than simply show images and speak about them would be to risk becoming spectacle.

Indeed, this danger is explicitly acknowledged by Debord, in a prescient segment on the commodification of dissatisfaction. To illustrate this section, Debord chooses images of teen rock n' roll bands, their sexualized contortions and pseudo-violent spasms standing in for a more meaningful rebellion against the spectacle. Debord's basic point is that the spectacle is, at this point in history, the totality of life, and that anything can be co-opted or absorbed by this overwhelming force. In rock n' roll, youthful dissatisfaction with the conditions of life is packaged, given a concrete form and thus made salable. Revolution is channeled into loud music and sex idols, and the youth gather to witness a rock concert rather than to form a revolution. This is why Debord sees salvation in the formless, the literally unspeakable or inexpressible, that which cannot be commodified and sold to the masses. A counterpoint to youth rebellion as a commodity is proletarian revolution itself as a commodity, a reality that exists in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In one of the film's most devastating and dense scenes, Debord's voiceover describes the creation of the bourgeoisie spectacle in a nominally anti-bourgeoisie context, as footage of Stalin giving a speech plays out silently. For Debord, Stalinist oppression is quite possibly the epitome of the spectacular society, an absurd illusion in which Soviet officials must simultaneously inhabit contradictory identities: as proletarian revolutionaries and as totalitarian bureaucrats. This creates a paradoxical government whose representatives can never totally inhabit either of these opposite poles, instead vacillating between public statement of proletarian ideals and private membership in a governmental structure whose elite nature contradicts the aims of the proletariat.

This is a potent example of the illusions and disjunctions that exist at the heart of contemporary reality, and Debord's intellectual clarity and rigor help to unearth and explore these spectacular manifestations. One can assume, from the way he uses footage of Mao shaking hands with Nixon and Kissinger as an illustration of international interconnectedness, that Debord sees all the world's governments as equally culpable in holding this spectacular veil across the eyes of the masses. For Debord, to engage in more specific political critique would be to miss the point, since the world's problems are not limited by locale or government but are foundational, inscribed in the very makeup of our society. His film was radical and surprising when it was made, in 1973, and it remains today an eye-opening examination of global power, control, and oppression.


Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: I've read this twice, and having not read the book or seen the film, it's still hard for me to wrap my mind around "Spectacle". (That's a comment on the art itself, not your analysis.)

You write: "Debord's spectacle is a politicized proto-Matrix vision in which invisible forces conspire to create an artificial reality that is utterly committed only to its own continuation ... One would expect a writer with such a thoroughly developed ideology of images to think long and hard before creating his own images, lest he accidentally contribute to the spectacle he sought to undermine."

Again, having not seen "Spectacle" it seems almost impossible for Debord to work in the medium of film without contradicting his arguments. You suggest that it works ... it's just hard for me to imagine. Which is why it's fascinating.

You call the movie "radical," and that's certainly how it sounds. For all the times folks use that word too loosely, I think it's perfectly chosen here.

Well done. Thanks for going off the beaten path -- one of the things I appreciate about your blog!

James Yates said...

I definitely plan on seeing this film, especially after reading this post.

In response to Jason's comment, I'm also having a hard time understanding the basic definition of "spectacle" in regards to the film. I'm sure seeing it firsthand would make more sense, and when I do, I'll keep in mind the ideas of spectactle as well as "contradiction." These seem like two themes that will easily lend themselves to deep thought and analysis. I'm also really, really appreciating the lesser-known films that everyone has been writing about for this blog-a-thon. Great jobs all around!

Ed Howard said...

Jason and Jamie: Thanks for the responses. Debord's embrace of contradiction makes it exceedingly difficult to write about him without coming across as a little confused and/or confusing. His concept of the spectacle can perhaps best be described as a worldwide system that includes media, manufactured goods, social structures (school, family, business, etc), government, and virtually all the other bedrocks of society. Debord views society itself as a conspiracy to keep people docile and under control, to deny them knowledge of what's really going on and the capacity to do anything about it. For him, the key to overturning this amorphous system is to see and understand the contradictions that underpin it.

As I said, his ideas are a lot easier to get at in his writing, perhaps by necessity. The film functions by using images as representatives of the spectacle and revealing the contradictions inherent in these images through the voiceover. I would guess that Debord, with his fondness for contradiction, recognized that his films themselves risked becoming "spectacular," and felt that he avoided the trap by continually undermining and questioning every aspect of the images he chooses. In my opinion, he mostly succeeds.

Ed Howard said...

Also, I've added a second post on Society of the Spectacle, this time focusing on an update essay Debord wrote in 1988.

Anonymous said...

I, too, hope to see this film. It sounds very thought-provoking.

I think the term "bread and circuses" is a more familiar one to Americans that captures, at least in part, the idea of "spectacle." I certainly think a film can avoid being part of the spectacle if it adheres to a set of principles that will challenge the notion of "entertainment" or "propaganda" but overturning the rocks, looking beyond the facade. I don't think that's as hard as it seems.

Unknown said...

Great analysis! It definitely clarifies some of Debord's intentions, gives shape to understand some of the book and film's (at times, oblique)ideas. Many thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

His last film, whose title in English is loosely translated
as "We Spin In The Night Consumed
By The Fire" and released in 1978, is his "autobiographical" summation of his life and intellectual ideas, and is almost an otherworldly document of critique, alienation, and disassociation from the entire fabric of modern reality. In many ways, it's an even deeper experience than SOTS, since it also is a profound lamentation for the lost revolutionary fervor of the spring of 68.