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You’ve Lived the Life — Now See the Movie!


“The Society of the Spectacle”


90 minutes. French videocopy with English subtitles by Keith Sanborn.

If we ever get out of this mess, future generations will look back on Guy Debord as the person who contributed to that liberation more than anyone else in this century.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) was the most influential figure in the Situationist International, a small experimental group that played a key role in catalyzing the May 1968 revolt in France. The Society of the Spectacle (1973) is Debord’s film adaptation of his own 1967 book. As passages from the book are read in voiceover the text is illuminated, via direct illustration or various types of ironic contrast, by clips from Russian and Hollywood features (Potemkin, Ten Days That Shook the World, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Shanghai Gesture, Johnny Guitar, Mr. Arkadin, etc.), TV commercials, publicity shots, softcore porn, street scenes, and news and documentary footage, including glimpses of Spain 1936, Hungary ’56, Watts ’65, France ’68, and other revolts of the past. Intertitle quotes from Marx, Machiavelli, Clausewitz or Tocqueville occasionally break the flow.

Leaving aside the question of aesthetic merit (in which regard Debord’s films are incidentally among the most brilliantly innovative works in the history of the cinema), The Society of the Spectacle is certainly the most important radical film ever made. Not just because it is based on the most important radical book of the twentieth century, but because it unfortunately has no real cinematic competition. Many films have provided a few insights into this or that aspect of modern society, but Debord’s is the only one that presents a consistent critique of the whole global system. Many radical filmmakers have given lip service to Brecht’s notion of encouraging spectators to think and act for themselves rather than sucking them into passive identification with hero or plot, but Debord is virtually the only one who has actually realized this goal. Aside from a few Debord-influenced works (notably Viénet’s Can Dialectics Break Bricks? and Cronin and Seltzer’s Call It Sleep), his films are the only ones that have made a coherent use of the situationist tactic of détournement: the diversion of already existing cultural elements to new subversive purposes. Détournement has been widely imitated, but usually without real understanding. It does not mean merely randomly juxtaposing incongruous elements, but (1) creating out of those elements a new coherent whole that (2) criticizes both the existing world and its own relation to that world. Some artists, filmmakers, and even ad designers have used superficially similar juxtapositions, but most are far from fulfilling (1), much less (2).

The Society of the Spectacle is neither an ivory tower “philosophical” discourse nor a helplessly impulsive “protest,” but a ruthlessly lucid examination of the most fundamental tendencies and contradictions of the society we live in. This means that it needs to be reread (and reseen) many times, but it also means that it remains as pertinent as ever while countless radical and intellectual fads have come and gone. As Debord noted in his later Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988), in the intervening decades the spectacle has become more all-pervading than ever, to the point of repressing virtually any awareness of pre-spectacle history or anti-spectacle possibilities: “Spectacular domination has succeeded in raising an entire generation molded to its laws.”

May 1996


[Flip side of the above leaflet]


Undermining the Society of the Spectacle

“So many things we wanted have not been attained; or only partially and not like we thought. What communication have we desired, or experienced, or only simulated? What true project has been lost? . . . Whether dramatic or documentary, the cinema functions to present a false, isolated coherence as a substitute for a communication and an activity that are absent.”

* * *

“Official news is elsewhere. The society sends back to itself its own historical image as a merely superficial and static history of its rulers. . . . All existing equilibrium, however, is brought back into question each time unknown people try to live differently. But it’s always far away. We learn of it through the papers and newscasts. We remain outside it, confronted with just another spectacle. We are separated from it by our own nonintervention.”

* * *

“The very principle of the spectacle — nonintervention — is linked to the alienation of the old world. Conversely, the most pertinent revolutionary experiments in culture have sought to break the spectator’s psychological identification with the hero so as to draw him into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life.”

* * *

“The relation between authors and spectators is only a transposition of the fundamental relation between those who give orders and those who carry them out. . . . The spectacle-spectator relation is in itself a staunch bearer of the capitalist order. The ambiguity of all ‘revolutionary art’ lies in the fact that the revolutionary aspect of any particular spectacle is always contradicted and offset by the reactionary element present in all spectacles.”

* * *

“Revolution is not ‘showing’ life to people, but bringing them to life. A revolutionary organization must always remember that its aim is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation. The cinematic spectacle is one of the forms of pseudo-communication (developed, in lieu of other possibilities, by the present class technology) in which this aim is radically unfeasible. . . . In appearance a film-club discussion is an attempt at dialogue, at social encounter, at a time when individuals are increasingly isolated by the urban environment. But it is in fact the negation of such dialogue since the people have not come together to decide on anything.”

* * *

“The spontaneous acts we can see everywhere forming against power and its spectacle must be warned of all the obstacles in their path and must find a tactic taking into account the enemy’s strength and means of cooption. This tactic, which we are going to popularize, is détournement.

* * *

“Détournement: the reuse of already existing artistic elements in a new ensemble. . . . The two fundamental laws of détournement are the loss of importance of each detourned autonomous element — which may go so far as to completely lose its original sense — and at the same time the organization of another meaningful ensemble that confers on each element its new scope and effect. Détournement has a peculiar power which obviously stems from the double meaning, from the enrichment of most of the terms by the coexistence within them of their old and new senses. It’s practical because it’s so easy to use and because of its inexhaustible potential for reuse.”

* * *

“The only interesting venture is the liberation of everyday life, not only in the perspectives of history but for ourselves and right away. This entails the withering away of alienated forms of communication. The cinema, too, has to be destroyed.”

(Excerpts from Debord articles and filmscripts
in the Situationist International Anthology)


Leaflet circulated at a showing of Debords film. Reprinted from Public Secrets: Collected Skirmishes of Ken Knabb.

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