Entendendo Debord dialeticamente
- Response to a lengthy series of questions about Debord and the situationists.
Your questions are rather long and involved. I hope you will excuse me for not trying to answer them all in detail, which would be rather time-consuming. Instead, I am going to take a little different angle and just try to make one very general point on your whole orientation.
It seems to me that your questions reflect what I consider to be a basic (and very common) misconception: namely, taking “the spectacle” (and various other concepts — e.g. “the subject,” “the commodity,” “capital”) as rigidly fixed logical categories. If you do this, you automatically run into all sorts of apparent dilemmas, or even paradoxes — Does Debord believe the spectator is totally dominated by the spectacle, or only partially? If totally, how can revolt ever happen? If only partially, how come he is always phrasing matters in such seemingly totalistic ways?
I believe that such problems lie in the way you are relating to the book. (For simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to “you,” but please don’t take it personally. Your questions and concerns are quite reasonable, and certainly more serious than most people’s half-baked reactions to situationist theory. The same criticisms would apply to virtually everyone who discusses Debord.)
In my opinion, Debord’s book — like Marx’s writings, and dialectical theory in general — is generally misunderstood when it is viewed “objectively,” as if it were an ordinary description of reality, using the ordinary categories of thought. Instead, I believe that it can be rightly understood only by being used. Not used in an imitative, rote way like a cookbook or a car repair manual, but used nonetheless in a practical way.
Consider the famous May ’68 graffiti, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
If you look at that phrase from an ordinary logical commonsense point of view, it seems like nonsense. By definition, the impossible can never happen, so how can it be realistic to demand it? Probably that was indeed how it seemed to many people who first saw it on a wall back in 1968. But many other people did understand it because they were then involved in practical-critical actions. Because of that involvement, they could then see that the usual, seemingly practical notion that one should limit oneself to striving for what is “realistically possible” was actually part of the problem, in that it presumed the existence of the system that actually needed to be fundamentally transformed. The things desired by the rebels were indeed impossible in the context of the present system, but they might become possible if one were to get beyond that system. And to a certain extent, even while the system persisted, the mere action of opposing the system already created a new mental space, liberating people’s imaginations so that they could envision things that would previously have seemed impossible. (The same point, with the same ironic playing with the apparent paradox, is made by Oscar Wilde in the epigram to Chapter 4 of “The Joy of Revolution”.)
Another similar graffiti from the same time: “In a society that has destroyed all adventure, the only possible adventure lies in the destruction of the society.”
Here again, if you take this too woodenly literally it seems like a self-contradiction (one adventure remains possible, so clearly “all” adventure has not been rendered impossible). But if you lighten up and take the slogan just a little more loosely, there’s no problem understanding what is being said.
These examples may be a bit simplistic, but I think that much the same applies to many misconceptions of the theses in Debord’s book, even if his points are usually more complex and subtle.
At one point you say: “It seems to me that the very nature of Debord’s descriptions of spectacle, subject and situation effectively rule out any kind of interaction between these two figures (spectacle and its opposition) that might allow the generation of something new.”
If that were really the case, Debord’s theory would be stupid and absurd and very few people would have paid any attention to it. In reality, Debord’s descriptions deal with scarcely anything but such interactions. They are precisely what is being examined and analyzed in so many different ways in all his works.
Again, you say: “If something is held up by the spectacle, is it not spectacle itself?”
The answer is that, looked at from one angle, it may be, but from another it may not be.
And again: “the spectacle and the subjects within it are effectively locked into a vicious circle.”
That may be so if you look at them purely schematically, as if it were a mathematical formula that said “A causes B, and B causes A.” But you must keep in mind that both the spectacle and the various subjects are “fuzzier” than that, more complicated, more variable and changeable and multidimensional. Thesis #3, for example, says that the spectacle presents itself both as the society itself and as a part of that society. Many other theses look at it from many other seemingly mutually contradictory angles. There is enough “continuity” that it makes sense to refer to “the spectacle” (so that instead of a chaotic collection of disparate phenomena it’s more a matter of analyzing various developments and mutations of a single, more or less coherent underlying social tendency), yet enough variables that you need to be aware that “the spectacle” is not one distinct, eternal “thing.”
Again, you say: “I think that the theses like this one, which crop up throughout the book, show that the spectacle must penetrate the spectator. By ‘penetrate’ I mean to suggest something other than a totally resistant subject — a subject that is not invulnerable to the effect of the environment. The basis of a Situationist refusal of spectacle is the primacy of a subject that is in its essence absolutely distinct from the structure that constrains its possibilities.”
Why “absolutely” distinct? (Couldn’t it just be partially different?) Why does a subject have to be “totally” resistant? (Couldn’t it just be somewhat rebellious in certain circumstances and relatively subservient in others?) Don’t you see that you’re just painting yourself in a corner with these extreme statements about fantasized “pure” entities? Water can flood a “whole” country without necessarily turning that country into 100% water. People can resist the flooding, or try to stay above the water by swimming or getting in a boat, without necessarily being “totally resistant” to water. As a matter of fact, far from being “absolutely distinct” from water, people’s bodies are composed largely of water, and they would soon die if they were deprived of it. This may seem like a silly example — I don’t claim that the analogy is exact — but I’m trying to make you see that the problem lies largely in the way you’re posing it — this fantasy of pure, absolutely antagonistic entities.
That sort of manicheanism is inherited from religion and from political ideologies such as anarchism that unconsciously carry on the same rigid dualistic point of view. The idea, for example, that humanity is “inherently good” while something else (the devil, capitalism, the state, the spectacle) is totally evil. In reality things are usually much more blurry. “The spectacle” is not some totally evil entity, it is simply a social-historical process that happens to have gotten out of hand in recent centuries (or more precisely, it is a symptom of the extreme development of another such process: capitalism). There’s nothing inherently wrong with people passively looking at things (as if “active” was always good, and “looking” and “passive” were always bad). Debord — like Hegel and Marx before him — is simply using very trenchant terms/concepts to make clear, incisive points. He is not trying to construct a “philosophy” or to provide a “scientific” description of reality.
These remarks don’t answer your questions, they merely amount to saying that things are more complex than they may seem if you stick too rigidly to Debord’s words (treating them as a spectacle, in fact). But I hope they may help you to step back (and/or move “forward”) and get a little different perspective as you try to deal with those questions.
For example, it’s true that Debord in SOS [The Society of the Spectacle] is a bit more “optimistic” re the possibilities of revolution, and more pessimistic in his later Comments [Comments on the Society of the Spectacle]. But even in the latter book, if you read carefully you will see that he doesn’t see things quite so totalistically as it may appear at first sight. I think the passages you refer to that seem to indicate a “total” defeat are more a manner of speaking. In the broad context, there has indeed been a major defeat in that many possibilities open a few decades ago are now (more or less) closed (for the moment). But here and there in Comments there are hints that this defeat may not be definitive, that the system also still has its own serious contradictions. Even if the integrated spectacle “permeates all reality” that doesn’t mean it totally and permanently dominates everything or everyone.
The point, I think, is that this issue can best be debated in a looser, more open manner, bringing into consideration all sorts of data and experiences, rather than getting caught up in tedious academic-ideological debates over such vaguenesses as “the nature of the subject” or how Debord’s “position” on “the subject as a generative process” differs from Althusser’s, etc.
The same thing could be said about the “psychological” issues you mention. They are real issues, and you can find lots of fruitful insights in Vaneigem’s Revolution of Everyday Life and in Reich’s early works. Voyer’s brief text on Reich is interesting (though I don’t think much of Voyer’s other writings), and I discuss some related issues in Double-Reflection and the Case Study and in parts of The Joy of Revolution. But I suggest that you not take seemingly “opposed viewpoints” too seriously — e.g. fantasizing a split between the supposedly more Reichian-Vaneigemist King Mobbers and the supposedly more “rigid” or “dogmatic” Debordists. (As is often the case in such splits, the real issues were to a great extent more banal — see the SI’s account in I.S. #12: The Latest Exclusions.)
By all means, in this examination do include close study of Debord’s writings. But I suggest that you take them just a bit more lightly than you seem to have been doing, bearing in mind that they were written by a real and very lively human being who assumed readers who were also lively, experiencing beings, and who therefore (even if he doesn’t always say so as explicitly as does Vaneigem) always assumes that life, revolt, etc. are always in play, despite surface appearances. His seemingly pessimistic statements are to some extent just jabs to arouse people about some issue or other. “Wake up! Get real! We lost in that battle over there, stop pretending we didn’t! Pull yourself together and let’s figure out where we go from here (taking into account the following factors . . .)!” That’s really what Debord’s writings are always doing, no matter how abstruse and complex they may seem to be.
- Response to a query about Debord and the situationists by an admirer of academic thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Luc Nancy.
I appreciate your apparently serious engagement with these questions, so although I don’t have time to answer you in detail, I am going to try to respond to a few of your points.
- Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a very “absolutist” tendency in these [situationist] perspectives, insofar as any spectacle is bad no matter what. Every spectacle is to be abandoned. This, precisely, is what Nancy points out is impossible (this is how he questions the Situationists’ adherence to a metaphysics of deeper truths and unveiling authenticity, at the expense of thinking through “appearances” as such).
The situationists do not have the absolutist perspective you are attributing to them. They do not think that every spectacle is “bad” or “to be abandoned.” The fact that Nancy thinks they do only indicates his ignorance about them. Quoting out of context a few lyrical phrases from situationist works does not demonstrate anything about their fantasized “metaphysics.” You have to look at such phrases in their context, which in most cases is quite concrete.
- It’s a question of really understanding what practical revolutionary action means when every attempt is reduced to spectacles (I think this is what Debord is intuiting when he writes of “the constantly recurring possibilities of alienation arising within the very struggle against alienation” and thus the need to tackle this dialectically).
Debord does not say that “every attempt is reduced to spectacles” but that the system tends to do this. This does not mean that all such attempts are doomed to defeat, but rather that we need to examine the numerous ways in which the system has defeated or perverted such attempts, so as to discover methods that will be more effective. I.e., as you say, we need to tackle these questions dialectically. The Society of the Spectacle is concerned with nothing other than doing this.
- Again, isn’t the most efficient “situation” that Debord constructed the ones in the form of his written work and the archive of movie footage and scripts — and the philosophical roots that underlie them?
No. The most significant situation that Debord constructed (in collaboration, of course, with countless other people in various ways and to various degrees) was the May 1968 revolt. Incidentally, during that same period, Baudrillard, far from having any idea of what was going on, was a Maoist (i.e. a Stalinist), and Adorno proved totally clueless (shocked and upset at that notion that people might actually attempt to put into practice all those insightful ideas of his, he called the police).
- My biggest question is where you might point me specifically as to the “strategies” that would be contrasted to “philosophies” — so far all I see is a severe chastising of the society, an attempt to “prove” that commuting time, popular movies, etc. are all “evil.”
The articles in the SI Anthology are filled with concrete examples. To take just one, look at Our Goals and Methods in the Strasbourg Scandal. Where is the “philosophy” in that article? It is a concrete examination of a very concrete and very successful attempt to undermine the institution in which people like Adorno, Baudrillard and Nancy are so comfortably ensconced. “We want ideas to become dangerous again. We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards.”
- I’m asking myself what real “intervention” would be — because I agree that there are modes of inauthenticity that can be changed, modes of consumption/leisure that can be liberated into more creative/transformative spheres.
It is good that you are asking this question. But to find the answer, you’re going to have to go further and start experimenting with such interventions. To do so, you will have to step outside your usual notions and usual habits. And you will have to have the courage to risk making a fool of yourself. It’s the only way you will really learn what all this stuff means.
That, at any rate, has been my experience. (See How I Became a Situationist.)