Interview by Richard Marshall
3:16: You’re well known for the idea of the Society of the Spectacle. So let’s start there. What is this spectacle?
Guy Debord: The spectacle is a social relation between people that is mediated by an accumulation of images that serve to alienate us from a genuinely lived life. The image is thus an historical mutation of the form of commodity fetishism.It is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep.
The spectacle is the guardian of sleep. Spectacle is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. The spectacle represents the dominant model of life. It is the omnipresent affirmation of the choices that have already been made in the sphere of production and in the consumption implied by that production. In both form and content the spectacle serves
3:16: Is this then a way of understanding a specific stage of modernization, the post-industrial stage of rampant consumerism if you like?
GD: Just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing. In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation. The first stage of the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having — human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing — all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances. At the same time all individual reality has become social, in the sense that it is shaped by social forces and is directly dependent on them. Individual reality is allowed to appear only if it is not actually real.
3:16: How has this happened?
GD: The society whose modernisation has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterised by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalised secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present . . .
3:16: What has this done to us as individuals living in this kind of society? Is it the root cause of a modern kind of loneliness?
GD: There is nothing more natural than to consider everything as starting from oneself, chosen as the center of the world; one finds oneself thus capable of condemning the world without even wanting to hear its deceitful chatter. The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds. This society eliminates geographical distance only to produce a new internal separation.
Real adults — people who are masters of their own lives — are in fact nowhere to be found. And a youthful transformation of what exists is in no way characteristic of those who are now young; it is present solely in the economic system, in the dynamism of capitalism. It is things that rule and that are young, vying with each other and constantly replacing each other.
3:16: How does this happen?
GD: The more he identifies with the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own life and his own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. Separation is itself an integral part of the unity of this world, of a global social practice split into reality and image. The social practice confronted by an autonomous spectacle is at the same time the real totality which contains that spectacle. But the split within this totality mutilates it to the point that the spectacle seems to be its goal.
3:16: You see this as the root of the class system don’t you?
GD: Well, separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle. The institutionalization of the social division of labor, the formation of classes, had given rise to a first sacred contemplation, the mythical order with which every power shrouds itself from the beginning. The sacred has justified the cosmic and ontological order which corresponded to the interests of the masters; it has explained and embellished that which society could not do. Thus all separate power has been spectacular, but the adherence of all to an immobile image only signified the common acceptance of an imaginary prolongation of the poverty of real social activity, still largely felt as a unitary condition.
The modern spectacle, on the contrary, expresses what society can do, but in this expression the permitted is absolutely opposed to the possible. The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence. It is its own product, and it has made its own rules: it is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement in which the forces that could grow by separating are not yet reunited.
3:16: And what’s the role of technology in this isolation?
GD: 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.'
. . .'With the present means of long-distance mass communication, sprawling isolation has proved an even more effective method of keeping a population under control,' says Lewis Mumford in The City in History, describing 'henceforth a one-way world.' But the general movement of isolation, which is the reality of urbanism, must also include a controlled reintegration of workers depending on the needs of production and consumption that can be planned. Integration into the system requires that isolated individuals be recaptured and isolated together: factories and halls of culture, tourist resorts and housing developments are expressly organized to serve this pseudo-community that follows the isolated individual right into the family cell.
The widespread use of receivers of the spectacular message enables the individual to fill his isolation with the dominant images―images which derive their power precisely from this isolation.
3:16: Capitalism has a lot to do with this for you doesn’t it?
GD: Economic growth has liberated societies from the natural pressures that forced them into an immediate struggle for survival; but they have not yet been liberated from their liberator. The commodity’s independence has spread to the entire economy it now dominates. This economy has transformed the world, but it has merely transformed it into a world dominated by the economy. Whereas during the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation “political economy considers the proletarian only as a worker,” who only needs to be allotted the indispensable minimum for maintaining his labor power, and never considers him “in his leisure and humanity,” this ruling-class perspective is revised as soon as commodity abundance reaches a level that requires an additional collaboration from him. Once his workday is over, the worker is suddenly redeemed from the total contempt toward him that is so clearly implied by every aspect of the organization and surveillance of production, and finds himself seemingly treated like a grownup, with a great show of politeness, in his new role as a consumer.
The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision, as a product of the techniques of mass dissemination of images. It is, rather, a Weltanschauung which has become actual, materially translated. It is a world vision which has become objectified. The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society. Capital is no longer the invisible center governing the production process; as it accumulates, it spreads to the ends of the earth in the form of tangible objects. The entire expanse of society is its portrait.
3:16: You boldly claim that our condition can be linked to the nomadic cyclical time of pre modernity. This seems counter-intuitive. What’s your thinking here?
GD: Cyclical time already dominates the experience of nomadic populations because they find the same conditions repeated at every moment of their journey: Hegel notes that “the wandering of nomads is only formal because it is limited to uniform spaces.” The society which, by fixing itself in place locally, gives space a content by arranging individualized places, thus finds itself enclosed inside this localization. The temporal return to similar places now becomes the pure return of time in the same place, the repetition of a series of gestures.
The transition from pastoral nomadism to sedentary agriculture is the end of the lazy liberty without content, the beginning of labor. The agrarian mode of production in general, dominated by the rhythm of the seasons, is the basis for fully constituted cyclical time. Eternity is internal to it; it is the return of the same here on earth. Myth is the unitary construction of the thought which guarantees the entire cosmic order surrounding the order which this society has in fact already realized within its frontiers.
I like to quote Baltasar Gracián: “We have nothing of our own except time, which even the homeless can experience.”
3:16: And you link this to the notion of psychogeography? What is this?
GD: The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle as a general term for the phenomena a few of us were investigating around the summer of 1953, is not too inappropriate. It does not contradict the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature. Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world.
Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The charmingly vague adjective psychogeographicalcan be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery. It has long been said that the desert is monotheistic. Is it illogical or devoid of interest to observe that the district in Paris between Place de la Contrescarpe and Rue de l’Arbalète conduces rather to atheism, to oblivion and to the disorientation of habitual reflexes?
3:16: So how do you understand power in this society?
GD: The dominion of the concentrated spectacle is a police state. When ideology has become total through its possession of total power, and has changed from partial truth to totalitarian falsehood, historical thought has been so totally annihilated that history itself, even at the level of the most empirical knowledge, can no longer exist. Totalitarian bureaucratic society lives in a perpetual present in which whatever has previously happened is determined solely by its police. The society of the spectacle began everywhere in coercion, deceit and blood, but it promised a happy path. It believed itself to be loved. Now it no longer says “What appears is good; what is good appears”; now it says simply “It is so”.
3:16: This links with the role of bureaucracy for you doesn’t it?
GD: When ideology has become total through its possession of total power, and has changed from partial truth to totalitarian falsehood, historical thought has been so totally annihilated that history itself, even at the level of the most empirical knowledge, can no longer exist. Totalitarian bureaucratic society lives in a perpetual present in which whatever has previously happened is determined solely by its police.The more powerful the class, the more it claims not to exist, and its power is employed above all to enforce this claim. It is modest only on this one point, however, because this officially nonexistent bureaucracy simultaneously attributes the crowning achievements of history to its own infallible leadership. Though its existence is everywhere in evidence, the bureaucracy must be invisible as a class. As a result, all social life becomes insane.
3:16: We’re all very used to our social media, our internet sites, Netflix and other entertainment platforms. We seem to be happy. Post modernists would say this is the fulfillment of the dream of the leisure society, or at least that we are progressing nicely towards it. Why are you so negative about all this?
GD: The more we identify with the dominant images of need, the less we understand our own life and our own desires. The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer her own. Reversing Hegel's famous maxim, I noted as long ago as 1967 that 'in a world that has really been turned upside down, truth is a moment of falsehood'. In the intervening years, this principle has encroached upon each specific domain, without exception.
Thus in an era when contemporary art can no longer exist, it becomes difficult to judge classical art. Here as elsewhere, ignorance is only created in order to be exploited. As the meanings of history and taste are lost, networks of falsification are organised. It is only necessary to control the experts and auctioneers, which is easy enough, to arrange everything, since in this kind of business - and at the end of the day in every other kind - it is the sale which authenticates the value.
3:16: But if people find their pleasures in social media or whatever, what’s the problem?
GD: The pleasures of existence have recently been redefined in an authoritarian way - first in their priorities and then in their entire substance. And the authorities who redefined them could just as well decide at any moment, untroubled by other consideration, which modification might be most lucratively introduced into the techniques of their manufacture, entirely liberated from any need to play.
The spectacle erases the dividing line between self and world, in that the self- under siege by the presence/absence of the world, is eventually overwhelmed; it likewise erases the dividing line between true and false, repressing all directly lived truth beneath the real presence of the falsehood maintained by the organization of appearances. The individual, though condemned to the passive acceptance of an alien everyday reality, is thus driven into a form of madness in which, by resorting to magical devices, he entertains the illusion that he is reacting to this fate.
The illusory paradise that represented a total denial of earthly life is no longer projected into the heavens, it is embedded in earthly life itself. Imprisoned in a flattened universe bounded by the screen of the spectacle that has enthralled him, the spectator knows no one but the fictitious speakers who subject him to a one-way monologue about their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle as a whole serves as his looking glass. What he sees there are dramatizations of illusory escapes from a universal autism.
3:16: But the post modernist thinks that we are all playing, that it’s ok to be like this and that we’re not imprisoned as you put it. Why are they wrong?
GD: Those who wish to write quickly a piece about nothing that no one will read through even once, whether in a newspaper or a book, extol with much conviction the style of the spoken language, because they find it much more modern, direct, facile. They themselves do not know how to speak. Neither do their readers, the language actually spoken under modern conditions of life being socially reduced to its indirect representation through the suffrage of the media, and including around six or eight turns of phrase repeated at every moment and fewer than two hundred words, most of them neologisms, with the whole thing submitted to replacement by one third every six months. All this favours a certain rapid solidarity.
On the contrary, I for my part am going to write without affectation or fatigue, as if it were the most natural and easiest thing in the world, the language that I have learned and, in most circumstances, spoken. It’s not up to me to change it. The Gypsies rightly contend that one is never compelled to speak the truth except in one’s own language; in the enemy’s language, the lie must reign.
3:16: Why is that?
GD: Because the spectacle presents itself as a vast inaccessible reality that can never be questioned. Its sole message is: “What appears is good; what is good appears.” The passive acceptance it demands is already effectively imposed by its monopoly of appearances, its manner of appearing without allowing any reply.
3:16: You abhor the passivity?
GD: Of course: That and the false choices offered by spectacular abundance — choices based on the juxtaposition of competing yet mutually reinforcing spectacles and of distinct yet interconnected roles (signified and embodied primarily by objects) — that develop into struggles between illusory qualities designed to generate fervent allegiance to quantitative trivialities.The erasure of the personality is the fatal accompaniment to an existence which is concretely submissive to the spectacle’s rules, ever more removed from the possibility of authentic experience and thus from the discovery of individual preferences.
Paradoxically, permanent self-denial is the price the individual pays for the tiniest bit of social status. Such an existence demands a fluid fidelity, a succession of continually disappointing commitments to false products. It is a matter of running hard to keep up with the inflation of devalued signs of life. Drugs help one to come to terms with this state of affairs, while madness allows one to escape from it.
3:16: What do you mean when you say that the spectacle is always the instructor and the spectator always ignorant? Is this an antagonism built in to our condition?
GD: Not at all. The spectacle's instruction and the spectators' ignorance are wrongly seen as antagonistic factors when in fact they give birth to each other. In the same way, the computer's binary language is an irresistible inducement to the continual and unreserved acceptance of what has been programmed according to the wishes of someone else and passes for the timeless source of a superior, impartial and total logic. Such progress, such speed, such breadth of vocabulary! Political? Social? Make your choice. You cannot have both.
My own choice is inescapable. They are jeering at us, and we know whom these programs are for. Thus it is hardly surprising that children should enthusiastically start their education at an early age with the Absolute Knowledge of computer science; while they are still unable to read, for reading demands making judgements at every line; and is the only access to the wealth of pre-spectacular human experience. Conversation is almost dead, and soon so too will be those who knew how to speak.
3:16: If everything is changing then how can the spectacle be dogmatic?
GD: Ok, so, the things the spectacle presents as eternal are based on change, and must change as their foundations change. The spectacle is totally dogmatic, yet it is incapable of arriving at any really solid dogma. Nothing stands still for it. This instability is the spectacle’s natural condition, but it is completely contrary to its natural inclination.
3:16: The cult of personality, of fame, of the star, of the internet influencer and fascist leader is a phenomenon of this society you critique. How do you explain this phenomenon?
GD: The status of celebrity offers the promise of being showered with ‘all good things’ that capitalism has to offer. The grotesque display of celebrity lives (and deaths) is the contemporary form of the cult of personality; those ‘famous for being famous’ hold out the spectacular promise of the complete erosion of a autonomously lived life in return for an apotheosis as an image.Stars — spectacular representations of living human beings — project this general banality into images of permitted roles. As specialists of apparent life, stars serve as superficial objects that people can identify with in order to compensate for the fragmented productive specializations that they actually live.
The function of these celebrities is to act out various lifestyles or sociopolitical viewpoints in a full, totally free manner. They embody the inaccessible results of social labor by dramatizing the by-products of that labor which are magically projected above it as its ultimate goals: power and vacations — the decisionmaking and consumption that are at the beginning and the end of a process that is never questioned. On one hand, a governmental power may personalize itself as a pseudostar; on the other, a star of consumption may campaign for recognition as a pseudopower over life. But the activities of these stars are not really free, and they offer no real choices. On top of this, the need to imitate that the consumer experiences is truly an infantile need, one determined by every aspect of his fundamental disposession.
In terms used by Gabel to describe quite another level of pathology, "the abnormal need for representation here compensates for a torturing feeling of being at the margin of existence".
3:16: And what is death in our society?
GD: If you haven’t life than you haven’t death either. What I mean is this. Life insurance ads merely insinuate that he may be guilty of dying without having provided for the smooth continuation of the system following the resultant economic loss, while the promoters of the “American way of death” stress his capacity to preserve most of the appearances of life in his post-mortem state.
On all the other fronts of advertising bombardment it is strictly forbidden to grow old. Everybody is urged to economize on their “youth-capital,” though such capital, however carefully managed, has little prospect of attaining the durable and cumulative properties of economic capital. This social absence of death coincides with the social absence of life.
3:16: You find tourism emblematic of this condition too don’t you?
GD: Tourism, human circulation considered as consumption is fundamentally nothing more than the leisure of going to see what has become banal.
3:16: Why is terrorism interesting to you? Isn’t it just another spectacle?
GD: The story of terrorism is written by the state and it is therefore highly instructive… compared with terrorism, everything else must be acceptable, or in any case more rational and democratic.
3:16: What is philosophy in this society?
GD: The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality, reducing everyone’s concrete life to a universe of speculation.
3:16: If capitalism is so bad, should we become communists?
GD: The historical moment when Bolshevism triumphed for itself in Russia and social democracy fought victoriously for the old world marks the inauguration of the state of affairs that is at the heart of the modern spectacle’s domination: the representation of the working class has become an enemy of the working class.
3:16: So what is to be done?
GD: Never work. We must destroy the Spectacle itself, the whole apparatus of the commodity society... We must abolish the pseudo-needs and false desires which the system manufactures daily in order to preserve its power. Stop consuming. We still have some time to take advantage of the fact that radio and television stations, the internet and so forth, are not yet guarded by the army. Discover new passions. Plagiarism is necessary.
GD: Progress implies it. It embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.
3:16: And what do you do when not writing about this stuff?
GD: Drink. I have written much less than most people who write; I have drunk much more than most people who drink.
About Guy Debord
Guy Louis Debord (/dəˈbɔːr/; French: [gi dəbɔʁ]; 28 December 1931 – 30 November 1994) was a French Marxist theorist, philosopher, filmmaker, member of the Letterist International, founder of a Letterist faction, and founding member of the Situationist International. He was also briefly a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie.