Hamlet Brutal Truth


For decades, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle was only available
in English in a so-called "pirate" edition published by Black & Red, and
its informative—perhaps essential—critique of modern society languished in
the sort of obscurity familiar to
political radicals and the avant-garde. Originally published in France in

1967, it rarely receives more than passing mention in some of the fields
most heavily influenced by its ideas—media studies, social theory,
economics, and political science. A new
translation by Donald Nicholson-Smith issued by Zone Books last year,
however, may finally bring about some well-deserved recognition to the
recently-deceased Debord. Society of the Spectacle has been called "the

Capital of the new generation," and the co
mparison bears investigation. Debord’s intention was to provide a
comprehensive critique of the social and political manifestations of
modern forms of production, and the analysis he offered in 1967 is as
authoritative now as it was then. Comprised of nin
e chapters broken into a total of 221 theses, Society of the Spectacle
tends toward the succinct in its proclamations, favoring polemically
poetic ambiguities over the vacuous detail of purely analytical discourse.

There is, however, no shortage of justif
ication for its radical claims. Hegel finds his place, Marx finds acclaim
and criticism, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg add their contributions, and

Debord’s own insights are convincingly argued. It becomes evident quite
quickly that Debord has done his homewor
k—Society of the Spectacle is no art manifesto in need of historical or
theoretical basis. Debord’s provocations are supported where others would
have failed. The first chapter, "Separation Perfected," contains the
fundamental assertions on which much of

Debord’s influence rests, and the very first thesis, that
the whole of life of those societies in which modern conditions of
production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of
spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere
representation. establishes Debord’s judgment; the rest attempt to explain
it, and to elaborate on the need for a practical and revolutionary

By far Debord’s most famous work, Society of the Spectacle lies somewhere
between a provocative manifesto and a scholarly analysis of modern
politics. It remains among those books which fall under the rubric of "oft
quoted, rarely read"—except that few ca
n even quote from it. A few of the general concepts to be found in Society
of the Spectacle, however, have filtered down into near-popular usage. For
example, analyses of the Gulf War as "a spectacle"—with the attendant
visual implications of representati
on and the politics of diversion—were commonplace during the conflict. The
distorted duplication of reality found in theme parks is typically
discussed with reference to its "spectacular nature," and we are now
beginning to see attempts to explain how "cy
berspace" fits into the framework of the situationist critique. (Cf. Span
magazine, no. 2, published at the University of Toronto.) But this casual
bandying about of vaguely situationist notions by journalists and
coffee-house radicals masks the real prof
undity of Debord’s historical analysis. Much more than a condemnation of
the increasingly passive reception of political experiences and the role
of television in contemporary ideological pursuits, Society of the

Spectacle traces the development of the sp
ectacle in all its contradictory glory, demonstrates its need for a sort
of parasitic self-replication, and offers a glimpse of what may be the
only hope of resistance to the spectacle’s all-consuming power.

Fully appreciating Society of the Spectacle requires a familiarity with
the context of Debord’s work. He was a founding member of the Situationist

International, a group of social theorists, avant-garde artists and Left

Bank intellectuals that arose from
the remains of various European art movements. The Situationists and their
predecessors built upon the project begun by Futurism, Dada, and

Surrealism in the sense that they sought to blur the distinction between
art and life, and called for a constant tr
ansformation of lived experience. The cohesion and persuasive political
analysis brought forth by Debord, however, sets the Situationist

International apart from the collective obscurity (if not irrelevance) of
previous art movements. Society of the Spect
acle represents that aspect of situationist theory that describes
precisely how the social order imposed by the contemporary global economy
maintains, perpetuates, and expands its influence through the manipulation
of representations. No longer relying on
force or scientific economics, the status quo of social relations is
"mediated by images" [4]. The spectacle is both cause and result of these
distinctively modern forms of social organization; it is "a Weltanschauung
that has been actualized" [5].

In the same manner that Marx wrote Capital to detail the complex and
subtle economic machinations of capitalism, Debord set out to describe the
intricacies of its modern incarnation, and the means by which it exerts
its totalizing