Hamlet Brutal Truth

.. pectacle is more than the brain-numbing flicker of images on the television set. The spectacle is something greater than the electronic devices to which we play the role of passive receptors; it is the totality of manipulations made upon history, time, class—in short, all of reality—that serve to preserve the influence of the spectacle itself. Much like Foucault’s discipline, the spectacle is an autonomous entity , no longer (if ever) serving a master, but an entity which selectively chooses its apparent beneficiaries, for its own ends, and for only as long as it needs them. Consequently, resistance is difficult and the struggle is demanding.

On the one hand, Debord faults Marxists for their rigid ideologizing, their absorption in an archaic understanding of use value, and their faith in the establishment of a socialist state to represent the proletariat. On the other hand, he criticizes the a narchists for their utopian immediatism and their ignorance of the need for a historically grounded transformational stage. Debord’s own offerings in Society of the Spectacle are generally vague, beginning with claims like Consciousness of desire and the desire for consciousness together and indissolubly constitute that project which in its negative form has as its goal the abolition of classes and the direct possession by the workers of every aspect of their activity. [53] In the chapter on ‘Negation and Consumption,’ Debord outlines the theoretical approach of the situationists, distinct from that of contemporary sociology, which he claims is ‘unable to grasp the true nature of its chosen object, because it cannot recogniz e the critique immanent to that object.’ The situationist, according to Debord, understands that critical theory is dialectical, a ‘style of negation’ [204] — and here we find the description of what has become perhaps the most well-known tactic of the s ituationists, dtournement. This strategy, at a theoretical level, is a manifestation of the reversal of established logic, the logic of the spectacle and the relationships it creates. At a practical level, dtournement has found its expression in comic s trips, whose speech bubbles are replaced by revolutionary slogans; utopian and apparently nonsensical graffiti; and the alteration of billboards.

This latter tactic, first introduced in Methods of Dtournement (1956), involves the radical subversion of th e language—both textual and graphic—of the modern spectacle. In its most common form, it involved taking comic strip speech bubbles or advertising copy and replacing them with revolutionary slogans or poetic witticisms. The point, according to Debord, is ‘to take effective possession of the community of dialogue, and the playful relationship to time, which the works of the poets and artists have heretofore merely represented’ [187]. This ‘unified theoretical critique,’ however, can do nothing without join ing forces with ‘a unified social practice,’ and this is where Debord’s scholarship fails him despite its veracity. The situationists were, after all, a group of intellectuals, and not factory workers—a fact which Debord himself did not hesitate to acknow ledge. He firmly believed, however, that ‘that class which is able to effect the dissolution of all classes’ was the only hope for a return to real life.

Despite their predominantly intellectual status, however, the Situationist International has had its share of practical influence. One of their members is credited with writing the bulk of On the Poverty of Student Life, the tract published by the student s of Strasbourg in 1966 and often cited as a catalyst for the events of May ‘68. The Situationists played a role in those events as well, seeing in them the first real possibility of a general strike—a modern Commune—in their time. But it may be Greil Mar cus, in his book Lipstick Traces, who has done the most in recent times to promote the visibility of the Situationists. Lipstick Traces follows the history of punk rock back to the tradition of Dada and situationist theory. Both Jamie Reid (creator of muc h of the graphic ‘look’ of punk) and Malcolm McClaren (self-styled ‘creator’ of the Sex Pistols) acknowledge the influence of the SI on their own work, and the legacy of punk rock may well be the last great youth movement which involved not only a musical revolution, but total social critique (with a soundtrack). Plagued by constant internal battles (in which Debord, in his best Andr Breton manner, irrevocably excluded virtually every member over the course of 15 years, in a hail of harsh criticism each time), and so determinedly revolutionary that it alienated m ost of its potential sympathizers, the SI finally disbanded in 1972.

It’s a bit ironic, in this light, that the latest translation of Society of the Spectacle is brought to us by Nicholson-Smith, who was himself excluded from the SI in 1967 along with his colleague Christopher Gray. Together, their translation efforts account for a large part of the major SI texts available in English—an admirable testament to their belief in the significance of situationist theory. This new translation addresses a number of awkward points in earlier translations, but is not without its own inconvenient or clumsy prose. Debord writes in a difficult manner; style is not his strongest point. But Nicholson-Smith sometimes forsakes fidelity in favor of his own sense of consis tency and clarity, even when these things were lacking in the original.

The result is a bit less awkward, but also a bit less Debord. When Debord released his Comments on Society of the Spectacle nearly 20 years after the original publication, he had several comments to make on the importance of recent events, but virtually no revisions to his original theses. His reflective judgment wa s not in error. The concise Society of the Spectacle remains an accurate depiction of modern conditions. Debord’s only addition to his original critique was, however, cynical and foreboding.

Whereas the spectacle in 1967 took on two basic forms—concentrat ed and diffuse, corresponding to the Eastern Block and American social structures, respectively—we have now reached the era of the integrated spectacle, which shows less hope and exercises greater control than ever before. The spectacle now pervades all o f reality, making every relationship manipulated and every critique spectacular. In this age of Disney, Baudrillard, the total recuperation of radical chic, and the dawn of virtual worlds, we need to familiarize ourselves with the situationist critique. T he recent hype surrounding the Internet and the regulation of digital affairs—not to mention the very structure of virtual relationships we are beginning to feel comfortable with—are perfect candidates for evaluation. The speed of life, the pace of the sp ectacle, is proportional to the speed of computers and communication.

True criticism is plodding, historically situated, and unwilling to accept the immediate fix of reformism. The challenge today is to recover the situationist critique from the abyss of the spectacle itself. Debord concluded Society of the Spectacle by stating that ‘a critique capable of surpassing the spectacle must know how to bide its time’ [220]. Not by waiting, but through the unification of theoretical critique and practical struggle of which ‘the desire for consciousness’ is only one element.