Guy Debord The Society of the Spectacle – notes and quotes that speak to me

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

4. The spectacle is not a collection of images; rather, it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images.

9. In a world that really has been turned on its head, truth is a moment of falsehood.

21. So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of modem society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish for sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep.

23. At the root of the spectacle lies that oldest of all social divisions of labor, the specialization of power. The specialized role played by the spectacle is that of spokesman for all other activities, a sort of diplomatic representative of hierarchical society at its own court, and the source of the only discourse which that society allows itself to hear. Thus the most modern aspect of the spectacle is also at bottom the most archaic.

26. The generalized separation of worker and product has spelled the end of any comprehensive view of the job done, as well as the end of direct personal communication between producers. As the accumulation of alienated products proceeds, and as the productive process gets more concentrated, consistency and communication become the exclusive assets of the system’s managers. The triumph of an economic system founded on separation leads to the proletarianization of the world.

28. The reigning economic system is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn; all goods proposed by the spectacular system, from cars to televisions, also serve as weapons for that system as it strives to reinforce the isolation of “the lonely crowd.” The spectacle is continually rediscovering its own basic assumptions and each time in a more concrete manner.

29. The origin of the spectacle lies in the world’s loss of unity, and its massive expansion in the modern period demonstrates how total this loss has been: the abstract nature of all individual work, as of production in general, finds perfect expression in the spectacle, whose very manner of being concrete is, precisely, abstraction. The spectacle divides the world into two parts, one of which is held up as a selfrepresentation to the world, and is superior to the world. The spectacle is simply the common language that bridges this division. Spectators are linked only by a oneway relationship to the very center that maintains their isolation from one another. The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites it only in its separateness.

Factory production vs craft

30. The spectator’s alienation from and submission to the contemplated object (which is the outcome of his unthinking activity) works like this: the more he contemplates, the less he lives; the more readily he recognizes his own needs in the images of need proposed by the dominant system, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The spectacle’s externality with respect to the acting subject is demonstrated by the fact that the individual’s own gestures are no longer his own, but rather those of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator feels at home nowhere, for the spectacle is everywhere.

32. The spectacle’s function in society is the concrete manufacture of alienation. Economic growth corresponds almost entirely to the growth of this particular sector of industrial production. If something grows along with the selfmovement of the economy, it can only be the alienation that has inhabited the core of the economic sphere from its inception.

34. The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.

36. Here we have the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by things whose qualities are “at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses.” This principle is absolutely fulfilled in the spectacle, where the perceptible world is replaced by a set of images that are superior to that world yet at the same time impose themselves as eminently perceptible.

72. The unreal unity the spectacle proclaims masks the class division on which the real unity of the capitalist mode of production is based. What obliges the producers to participate in the construction of the world is also what separates them from it. What brings together men liberated from local and national limitations is also what keeps them apart. What pushes for greater rationality is also what nourishes the irrationality of hierarchical exploitation and repression. What creates society’s abstract power also creates its concrete unfreedom.

106. The ideologicaltotalitarian class in power is the power of a world turned on its head: the stronger the class, the more forcefully it proclaims that it does not exist, and its strength serves first and foremost to assert its nonexistence. This is as far as its modesty goes, however, for its official nonexistence is supposed to coincide with the ne plus ultra of historical development, which is indeed owed to its infallible leadership. Though everywhere in evidence, the bureaucracy is obliged to be a class imperceptible to consciousness, thus making the whole of social life unfathomable and insane. The social organization of the absolute lie reposes on this fundamental contradiction.

117. Once embodied in the power of workers councils a power destined to supplant all other powers worldwide the proletarian movement becomes its own product; this product is the producer himself, and in his own eyes the producer has himself as his goal. Only in this context can the spectacle’s negation of life be negated in its turn.

124. Revolutionary theory is now the sworn enemy of all revolutionary ideology and it knows it.

136. Monotheistic religions were a compromise between myth and history, between the cyclical time which still dominated the sphere of production and the irreversible time which was the theater of conflicts and realignments between peoples. The religions that evolved out of Judaism were the abstract universal recognition of an irreversible time now democratized, open to all, yet still confined to the realm of illusion. Time remained entirely oriented toward a single final event: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” These religions had germinated and taken root in the soil of history; even here, however, they maintained a radical opposition to history. Semihistorical religion established qualitative starting points in time the birth of Christ, the flight of Muhammad yet its irreversible time, introducing an effective accumulation which would take the form of conquest in Islam and that of an increase in capital in the Christianity of the Reformation, was in fact inverted in religious thought, so as to become a sort of countdown: the wait, as time ran out, for the Last Judgment, for the moment of accession to the other, true world. Eternity emerged from cyclical time; it was that time’s beyond. Eternity was also what humbled time in its mere irreversible flow suppressing history as history continued by positioning itself beyond irreversible time, as a pure point which cyclical time would enter only to be abolished. As Bossuet could still say: “So, by way of the passing of time, we enter eternity, which does not pass.”

139. The Renaissance embodied the new form of possession of historical life. Seeking its heritage and its juridical basis in Antiquity, it was the bearer of a joyous break with eternity. The irreversible time of the Renaissance was that of an infinite accumulation of knowledge, while the historical consciousness generated by the experience of democratic communities, as of the effects of those forces that had brought on their ruin, was now, with Machiavelli, able to resume its reflection upon secular power, and say the unsayable about the State. In the exuberant life of the Italian cities, in the arts of festival, life came to recognize itself as the enjoyment of the passing of time. But this enjoyment of transience would turn out to be transient itself. The song of Lorenzo de’ Medici, which Burckhardt considered “the very spirit of the Renaissance,” is the eulogy delivered upon itself by this fragile historical feast: “Quant’ Š bella giovinezza / Che si fugge tuttavia.”

144. The irreversible time of a bourgeoisie that had just seized power was called by its own name, and assigned an absolute origin: Year One of the Republic. But the revolutionary ideology of generalized freedom that had served to overthrow the last relics of a mythbased ordering of values, along with all traditional forms of social organization, was already unable completely to conceal the real goal that it had thus draped in Roman costume namely, generalized freedom of trade. The society of the commodity, soon discovering that it must reinstate the passivity which it had to shake to its foundations in order to inaugurate its own unchallenged rule, now found that, for its purposes, “Christianity with its religious cult of man in the abstract was the most fitting form of religion” (Capital). So the bourgeoisie concluded a pact with this religion, an arrangement reflected in its presentation of time: the Revolutionary calendar was abandoned and irreversible time was returned to the straitjacket of a duly extended Christian Era.

145. The development of capitalism meant the unification of irreversible time on a world scale. Universal history became a reality because the entire globe was brought under the sway of this time’s progression. But a history that is thus the same everywhere at once has as yet amounted to nothing more than an intrahistorical refusal of history. What appears the world over as the same day is merely the time of economic production time cut up into equal abstract fragments. Unified irreversible time still belongs to the world market and, by extension, to the world spectacle.

147. The time of production, timeascommodity, is an infinite accumulation of equivalent intervals. It is irreversible time made abstract: each segment must demonstrate by the clock its purely quantitative equality with all other segments. This time manifests nothing in its effective reality aside from its exchangeability. It is under the rule of timeascommodity that “time is everything, man is nothing; he is at the most time’s carcass” (The Poverty of Philosophy). This is time devalued the complete inversion of time as “the sphere of human development.”

151. Pseudocyclical time is a time transformed by industry. The time founded on commodity production is itself a consumable commodity, recombining everything which, during the period of the old unitary society’s disintegration, had become distinct: private life, economic life, political life. The entirety of the consumable time of modern society ends up being treated as raw material for the production of a diversity of new products to be put on the market as socially controlled uses of time. “A product, though ready for immediate consumption, may nevertheless serve as raw material for a further product” ( Capital).

152. In its most advanced sectors, a highly concentrated capitalism has begun selling “fully equipped” blocks of time, each of which is a complete commodity combining a variety of other commodities. This is the logic behind the appearance, within an expanding economy of “services” and leisure activities, of the “allinclusive” purchase of spectacular forms of housing, of collective pseudotravel, of participation in cultural consumption and even of sociability itself, in the form of “exciting conversations,” “meetings with celebrities” and suchlike. Spectacular commodities of this type could obviously not exist were it not for the increasing impoverishment of the realities they parody. And, not surprisingly, they are also paradigmatic of modern sales techniques in that they may be bought on credit.

154. Our epoch, which presents its time to itself as essentially made up of many frequently recurring festivities, is actually an epoch without festival. Those moments when, under the reign of cyclical time, the community would participate in a luxurious expenditure of life, are strictly unavailable to a society where neither community nor luxury exists. Mass pseudofestivals, with their travesty of dialogue and their parody of the gift, may incite people to excessive spending, but they produce only a disillusion which is invariably in turn offset by further false promises. The selfapprobation of the time of modern survival can only be reinforced, in the spectacle, by reduction in its use value. The reality of time has been replaced by its publicity.

155. In ancient societies the consumption of cyclical time was consistent with the actual labor of those societies. By contrast, the consumption of pseudocyclical time in developed economies is at odds with the abstract irreversible time implicit in their system of production. Cyclical time was the time of a motionless illusion authentically experienced; spectacular time is the time of a real transformation experienced as illusion.

157. Another aspect of the lack of historical life in general is that the individual life is still not historical. The pseudoevents that vie for attention in the spectacle’s dramatizations have not been lived by those who are thus informed about them. In any case they are quickly forgotten, thanks to the precipitation with which the spectacle’s pulsing machinery replaces one by the next. At the same time, everything really lived has no relation to society’s official version of irreversible time, and is directly opposed to the pseudocyclical rhythm of that time’s consumable byproducts. Such individual lived experience of a cutoff everyday life remains bereft of language or concept, and it lacks any critical access to its own antecedents, which are nowhere recorded. It cannot be communicated. And it is misunderstood and forgotten to the benefit of the spectacle’s false memory of the unmemorable.

167. This society eliminates geographical distance only to reap distance internally in the form of spectacular separation.

169. A society that molds its entire surroundings has necessarily evolved its own techniques for working on the material basis of this set of tasks. That material basis is the society’s actual territory. Urbanism is the mode of appropriation of the natural and human environment by capitalism, which, true to its logical development toward absolute domination, can (and now must) refashion the totality of space into its own peculiar decor.

172. Urbanism is the modern way of tackling the ongoing need to safeguard class power by ensuring the atomization of workers dangerously massed together by the conditions of urban production. The unremitting struggle that has had to be waged against the possibility of workers coming together in whatever manner has found a perfect field of action in urbanism. The effort of all established powers, since the experience of the French Revolution, to augment their means of keeping order in the street has eventually culminated in the suppression of the street itself. Evoking a “civilization . . . moving along a oneway road,” Lewis Mumford, in The City in History, points out that with the advent of longdistance mass communications, the isolation of the population has become a much more effective means of control. But the general trend toward isolation, which is the essential reality of urbanism, must also embody a controlled reintegration of the workers based on the planned needs of production and consumption. Such an integration into the system must recapture isolated individuals as individuals isolated together. Factories and cultural centers, holiday camps and housing developments all are expressly oriented to the goals of a pseudocommunity of this kind. These imperatives pursue the isolated individual right into the family cell, where the generalized use of receivers of the spectacle’s message ensures that his isolation is filled with the dominant images images that indeed attain their full force only by virtue of this isolation.

204. Critical theory has to be communicated in its own language the language of contradiction, dialectical in form as well as in content: the language of the critique of the totality, of the critique of history. Not some “writing degree zero” just the opposite. Not a negation of style, but the style of negation.


2 thoughts on “Guy Debord The Society of the Spectacle – notes and quotes that speak to me

  1. Thirdly, I analyze the contradictions and reversals of the spectacle, whereas Debord has a fairly triumphant notion of the society of the spectacle, although he and his comrades sketched out various models of opposition and struggle and in fact inspired in part the rather spectacular May ’68 events in France. For an example of the reversal of the spectacle, or at least its contradictions and contestation, take McDonald’s. When I began my studies of media spectacle in the 1990s, McDonald’s was a figure for a triumphant global capitalism. McDonald’s was constantly expanding in the U.S. and globally; its profits were high; and it was taken as a paradigm of a successful American and then global capitalism. George Ritzer’s book The McDonaldization of Society (1993, 1996) used McDonald’s as a model to analyze contemporary production and consumption, while books like Golden Arches East (Watson et al 1997) valorized McDonald’s as bringing modernity itself to vast sectors of the world like Russia and China and McDonald’s was praised for its efficient production methods, its cleanliness and orderliness, and its bringing food value and fast, convenient food to the masses.


  2. With the development of capitalism, irreversible time is unified on a world scale. Universal history becomes a reality because the entire world is gathered under the development of this time. But this history, which is everywhere simultaneously the same, is still only the refusal within history of history itself. What appears the world over as the same day is the time of economic production cut up into equal abstract fragments. Unified irreversible time is the time of the world market and, as a corollary, of the world spectacle.


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