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I'm going to be reading a few passages from this book everyday. The passages are pretty small so I'll transcribe a pertinent one or two on occasion at every stopping point I find myself at. I've read parts of this book before. It's changed my perspective significantly and anyone seeking to understand our modern condition should find value in it. It can be heady but I wouldn't call it "academic." Feel free to join me and discuss if you'd like. The choice of music is deliberate, be prepared for a foreboding dread.
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
Edit: I don't intend this whole thread to be doom and gloom. I'm going to open the floor to what reclaiming the commons might look at some point and how we may bring soulfulness back into our lives. Yet, we must wade through the bog before reaching the meadow.
The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered. Fragmented views of reality regroup themselves into a new unity as a separate pseudoworld that can only be looked at. The specialization of images of the world evolves into a world of autonomized images where even the deceivers are deceived. The spectacle is a concrete inversion of life, an autonomous movement of the nonliving.
Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the result and the project of the dominant mode of production. It is not a mere decoration added to the real world. It is the very heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations — news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment — 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 as a total justification of the conditions and goals of the existing system. The spectacle also represents the constant presence of this justification since it monopolizes the majority of the time spent outside the production process.
We spend our time engaged in the wage labor relation, or if our class is inclined the capital accumulation relation, or if we are deeply unfortunate nothing at all. Then we return to our homes, themselves mere images of real community to bring our attention to the commodity form directly, where the commodity form is itself an image of the real. We watch our favorite youtube personalities elucidate their thoughts instead of thinking ourselves. We play games of fantasy instead of living ourselves. We buy clothes that hold the image of status though they do not bring us prestige. We worry and woah over politicians who rule us, yet never rule ourselves. What are we?
I just learned that the Ken Knabb translation of Debord's Society of the Spectacle--the one the Anarchist Libary uses--is not copyrighted. Thanks to the Bureau of Public Secrets this thread will be truly complete. I'm going to post the omitted passages out of order. This continuity break will be for today only. Ideally forum goers will take interest in the book itself. But if not, it'll all be here.
The spectacle presents itself simultaneously as society itself, as a part of society, and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is the focal point of all vision and all consciousness. But due to the very fact that this sector is separate, it is in reality the domain of delusion and false consciousness: the unification it achieves is nothing but an official language of universal separation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media tech-nologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.
With that, I bid you till tomorrow when we won't be playing catch up.
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. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the dominant system of production — signs which are at the same time the ultimateend-products of that system.
The spectacle cannot be abstractly contrasted to concrete social activity. Each side of such a duality is itself divided. The spectacle that falsifies reality is nevertheless a real product of that reality. Conversely, real life is materially invaded by the contemplation of the spectacle, and ends up absorbing it and aligning itself with it. Objective reality is present on both sides. Each of these seemingly fixed concepts has no other basis than its transformation into its opposite: reality emerges within the spectacle, and the spectacle is real. This reciprocal alienation is the essence and support of the existing society.
In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.
The concept of “the spectacle” interrelates and explains a wide range of seemingly unconnected phenomena. The apparent diversities and contrasts of these phenomena stem from the social organization of appearances, whose essential nature must itself be recognized. Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances. But a critique that grasps the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life — a negation that has taken on a visible form.
Consider a small-time craftsmen in 19th century England whose enterprise is in the process of industrialization. He makes some product very well and is quite proud of his work. Importantly it is his work! He brings his product to life and reap its rewards. He understands every such step in its production and take to his craft with great care. Most of the time he makes enough money to care for himself and provide, house, food and opportunity for his immediate family while contributing to his common community and purchasing a rare luxury. Later in life he will take on multiple apprentices and pass on his tradition.
Unfortunately for our craftsmen an entrepreneur has brought some wonder machines from the capital to the local hamlets and intends to establish a factory which produces the craftsmen's product. Overtime it becomes increasingly clear that the craftsmen and others like him will be out of work before long and there's no where to run. This factory and a few others like produce enough product for nearly the whole of the country and any industry the craftsmen could reasonably transition into with his skillset is getting industrialized in kind by industrialists across the nation.
Eventually the craftsmen must yield. He closes up his shop and asks the factory boss for a job. A job which pays a pittance of a fraction of his old income and of which he has no agency over. As his savings run dry he and his family are forced to move from their family home into a cramped shoebox of a house under the oppressive smog of the cities many furnaces. Not just his time or livelihood have been stolen from him, but his very craft too. The factory though not modern enough to run an assembly line as we know them does practice some form of division of labor. Where before the craftsmen was a proud artisan he is now coerced into producing mere segments or parts of his former works. His grandchildren will be entirely alienated from the process, they will never know how the product was made in its whole to begin with.
The circumstance is pitiful, dehumanizing and a slew of other miserable words. The craftsmen and those like him know this. Many of them wage overt and covert wars against the people and infrastructure responsible for this. At the very least, if these factories must be made--and they really must--then the workers, many former farmers, peasants and craftsmen who are forced into them by economic conditions should reap the full benefit of their work. This is obvious to many of the people of the time and not worth questioning here. Histories many conflicts and wars speak enough to the effect. But this isn't meant to be a rail on industrialization, rather, the capitalist mode of production. And how does the spectacle tie into all of this?
Now, consider a modern grocery worker who has come to some similar conclusions as our former craftsmen. His co-workers and himself all are subservient to their boss. To many of the grocery workers this seems natural and to others it's simply, "the right thing to do," and "I should do this." The social norm is the subservient relationship itself wheras for the craftsmen such an abstracted form of slavery was obviously just that, slavery. Yet, the modern grocery worker is exposed to a media and cultural background that demonstrates this relationship as a given in 90%+ of its forms.
Even though the grocery worker in question understands his enslavement; he is utterly coerced under threat of starvation into participating in the social relationship. There's no reasonable hope for a way out since his peers are convinced of the social relation they partake in by the mass-produced images created by, and, to reinforce advanced capitalism. Whereas the craftsmen had common knowledge to his aid. Early capitalism had not yet mass-produced such images and reified its social relations as given reality.
Here the spectacle is clear. The grocery worker is in total defiance of the capitalist mode of production, yet, he is trapped within it and the false reality--the spectacle-- presented to him prevents any movement against it.
Why are the stars out of reach even though we can see them?
In order to describe the spectacle, its formation, its functions, and the forces that work against it, it is necessary to make some artificial distinctions. In analyzing the spectacle we are obliged to a certain extent to use the spectacle’s own language, in the sense that we have to operate on the methodological terrain of the society that expresses itself in the spectacle. For the spectacle is both the meaning and the agenda of our particular socio-economic formation. It is the historical moment in which we are caught.
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.
The tautological character of the spectacle stems from the fact that its means and ends are identical. It is the sun that never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the globe, endlessly basking in its own glory.
The society based on modern industry is not accidentally or superficially spectacular, it is fundamentally spectaclist. In the spectacle — the visual reflection of the ruling economic order — goals are nothing, development is everything. The spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.
As indispensable embellishment of currently produced objects, as general articulation of the system’s rationales, and as advanced economic sector that directly creates an ever-increasing mass of image-objects, the spectacle is the leading production of present-day society.
The spectacle is able to subject human beings to itself because the economy has already totally subjugated them. It is nothing other than the economy developing for itself. It is at once a faithful reflection of the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.
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.
The foresight from Debord here is uncanny. Consider the case of mass cultural proliferation of social media. How in our socio-ludic culture all events must be catalogued. All accomplishments and purchases shared. All clawing at the idea of being an individual from behind the torrent of likes, walls, profiles, reposts and countless other drivel. "Look at me!" The profile claims, "I am real, see, I'm doing things, look at me!" Nevermind the facade, that the socialite behind the screen isn't there. She isn't talking to you. She doesn't even know you and you'll never meet her. And this thing, this grotesque amorphous entity on the wall glaring at both of you demanding your attention. It doesn't know her either.
When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings — dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior. Since the spectacle’s job is to use various specialized mediations in order to show us a world that can no longer be directly grasped, it naturally elevates the sense of sight to the special preeminence once occupied by touch: the most abstract and easily deceived sense is the most readily adaptable to the generalized abstraction of present-day society. But the spectacle is not merely a matter of images, nor even of images plus sounds. It is whatever escapes people’s activity, whatever eludes their practical reconsideration and correction. It is the opposite of dialogue.Wherever representation becomes independent, the spectacle regenerates itself.
The spectacle inherits the weakness of the Western philosophical project, which attempted to understand activity by means of the categories of vision, and it is based on the relentless development of the particular technical rationality that grew out of that form of thought. The spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality, reducing everyone’s concrete life to a universe ofspeculation.
Philosophy — the power of separate thought and the thought of separate power — was never by itself able to supersede theology. The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion. Spectacular technology has not dispersed the religious mists into which human beings had projected their own alienated powers, it has merely brought those mists down to earth, to the point that even the most mundane aspects of life have become impenetrable and unbreathable. 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. The spectacle is the technological version of the exiling of human powers into a “world beyond”; the culmination of humanity’s internal separation.