Friday, January 8, 2010

(Economic) Notes on Society of the Spectacle

So let's finish-up the first chapter, ね?

We got to §21 the other day. But I'd like to assert some things that I did not in that previous posting: Chapter 1 of Society of the Spectacle is an economic text.
  1. Debord here is announcing this new term he calls "the spectacle." This is important to keep in mind because the temptation is there to misconstrue the term. Thus we would read this text as Debord as making value judgements, something to the effect of him saying contemporary society is simply being spectacular and indulgent. What he seems to be doing in this first chapter is defining terms. Thus, when he states, in §21, "The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion." he is not describing either religion as illusory in a pejorative sense nor that the process that has led to this contemporary social arrangement that he earlier defined as "the spectacle" (in §4, "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images. Or also in §24, "the spectacle, taken in the limited sense of 'mass media' which are its most glaring superficial manifestation....")
  2. Debord seems to be building from the presupposition that the reader has also read Marx's Capital, vol. 1 at a minimum. Over and over again we get definitions and phrases lifted from Capital.
I think it's important to mention this because Marx's book was an attempt to analyze and explain a new social reality whose, though it has been developing over centuries, functioning continues to be mysterious.

In §7 we are reminded of the fundamental alienation that accompanies the mass production which capitalism requires.

With §11 we sense that Debord is attempting to unite Marx with Heidegger's Dasein, "the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time. It is the historical movement in which we are caught."[itals original] Or perhaps thrown?

This is a text that attempts to describe the fundamental nature of all human interactions in the late capitalist period, as such this text must discuss economics. Whereas Marx sought to explain the dialectical nature of commodity generation and defines capitalism as the movement of commodities as capitalism, Debord's spectacle (qualified in §1 by the statement, "Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.") is the, "autonomous movement of the non-living" (§2). What is the spectacle? "It is no more than the economy developing for itself." (§16) It is, "the main production of present-day society." (§15) Marx saw the commodification of the proletariat's labor and the commodification of money itself; Debord attempts something similar, "The society which rests on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist."

Debord gives us a brief genealogy of how we came to be in the spectaclist economy, and he does this by sketching a shift in social ontology:
The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life brought into the definition of all human realization the obvious degradation of being into having. The present phase of total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a generalized sliding of having into appearing, from which all actual "having" must draw its immediate prestige and its ultimate function. (§17)
What are the symptoms of this new arrangement of social relations? Not simply advertisements for the commodities of capitalism, but advertisements as something more than suggestions. Advertisements as rules:
I think that Žižek has spoken about this in several places, this injunction to, Enjoy!" Debord puts it this way in §25, "The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible." This echoes a theme in §6 where the we are told that the spectacle is "the affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corrolary consumption." For an elaboration on this affirmation of the choice already made, consider George Ritzer's McDonaldization of Society. Here's a great site for all your McDonaldization needs.

§26 provides a summation and reiteration of the alienation principle from Marx, but Debord extends this alienation, as nothing can escape this process, "The success of the economic system of separation is the proletariatization of the world."

For this proletariatization to be possible, the consummation of the process of rationalization must occur. Once every task had been made automated and efficiency achieved, the worker would be liberated from the workplace, free from toiling in exploitative environments. With no employees to exploit, the managers would be liberated as well. Lefebvre, in an excellent interview discussing the origins of the Situationists, states that his Critique of Everyday Life was inspired by a science-fiction story wherein all the humans have killed themselves because they have nothing to do after the robots took over their work, leaving dogs to exploit the robots. Debord finds this liberation from work suspect:
[T]his inactivity is in no way liberated from productive activity: it depends on productive activity and is an uneasy and admiring submission to the necessities and results of production; it is itself a product of its rationality. [...] Thus the present "liberation from
labor," the increase of leisure, is in no way a liberation within labor, nor a liberation from the world shaped by this labor. None of the activity lost in labor can be regained in the submission to its result. §27
§s29-34 reiterate, once more, the alienation inherent in capitalist production. But where Marx saw it as perverse, this freeing of the serfs to enter contracts, but free from the ability to control the means of production; Debord repeatedly emphasizes that today nobody is free from the spectaclist economy:
The economic system founded on isolation is a circular production of isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn. From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of "lonely crowds." The spectacle constantly rediscovers its own assumptions more concretely. §26
Further still, "The spectacle within society corresponds to a concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic expansion is mainly the expansion of this specific industrial production." §32 The chapter ends with simple statement, "The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image." §34 
(remember this show on A&E? Oh, yeah there was that show on Discovery also
Is this how we arrived at the current economic crisis? One of the principle causes of the current meltdown of global capital is that the American real estate market tanked. This, then meant that all that value that Wall Street had created in the last few years immediately evaporated. How? Value, as Marx stated in Capital (1867), is manifested socially-necessary labor-time. You get enough of these suburbanites buying these properties and mistaking the menu for the meal, and, poof....


  1. Hi. This is Ryland.

    I think this is OK.

    I think you should be careful injecting Heidegger into Debord, at least not 'dasein' Heidegger. Dasein has (at least) a double existence: his ontic situation (the 'going out to buy a ham sandwich on a Tuesday' reality) and his ontological situation (his total absorption into a preexistent economic system which precipitates and prioritizes certain possibilities). If a person is a 'having' rather than a 'being' as you suggest on another page, then the a person is fractalized further, made into a multiple self, defined by a multiplicity of products - (or as Baudrillard suggests, 'The System(s) of Objects). Debord, following surrealism as you suggest, wants to collapse the plural being into a more unified one. Debord is 'flatter' than Heidegger, if that makes sense. We might say this this is Debord's anti-Freudian impulse: to unify the reality principle and the pleasure principle so to create situationist happenings, art as life, etc. If we want to talk about Heidegger here, I think we might want to think more about Destruktion, which I think might be Heidegger's attempt at being 'Debordian', in that in Destruktion, Heidegger seems to move to unify the stratums of dasein's existence into a 'real' act, without having to ask questions about authenticity, alienation, and so on - terms which require at least a dual system to subsist. The dual system is the 'reality' system, which Debord et al want to undo enacting a world without double, a unified, singular 'surreality'.

    Another way to express the difference between Heideggarian ontology and Debordian situationism is to look how each thinker addresses the use of tools. For Heidegger, using a tool discloses Being, the underlying ontological situation subtending continuously beneath the ontic ‘reality’. Tools are particular things whose use in specific projects discloses a general, underlying equivalent in Being. Debord sees tools totally (the situationist city is a tool), generally, and equivocally, and understand their use as means to produce a singular, surrealist happening in the moment in the sense of a remainder that is not separate, like an orgasm that produces a fluid.

    For the above reasons, I feel like it’s not so awesome an idea to move directly to Zizek with the advertisement stuff from Debord – there are more stops on the way. Zizek understands advertizing in precisely the way you suggest, but it is not the particular advertisement that is the rule, but the underlying ‘reality’ that can be expressed as ideological. Zizek, in my opinion, is very much opposed to the Debordian project. He always argues for restraint. There is always a repressed Id on the verge of breaking loose, mad as Hell, not gonna take it any more (divine violence in ‘Violence), which must be bound in the snakegrass of a systemic, ideological matrix if we are to be conscious at all. Again, the situationist response to society is anti-psychological because it doesn’t ‘necessarily’ recognize the process of repression or the existence of the unconscious, meaning that though situationism must address the historical fact of the existence of the concept(s) of repression, id, superego, whatever, in the way we must accept structures (in the physical and mental sense) that are preexistent to us, the situationists reject any imperative that links conceptual structures necessarily to another, different, ‘real reality’ where such is actually the case.

    Also - Lefebvre's (Baudrillard's dissertation advisor's) answer to the 'problem' of liberation from work is excess. Party time. Everywhere. All the time

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