B U R E A U O F P U B L I C S E C R E T S
Culture can be defined as the ensemble of means through which a society thinks of
itself and shows itself to itself, and thus decides on all aspects of the use of its
available surplus-value. That is to say, it is the organization of everything over and
beyond the immediate necessities of the societys reproduction.
All forms of capitalist society today are in the final analysis based on the generalized and (at the mass level) stable division between directors and executants: those who give orders and those who carry them out. Transposed onto the plane of culture, this means the separation between understanding and doing, the inability to organize (on the basis of permanent exploitation) the continually accelerating domination of nature toward any goal whatsoever.
For the capitalist class, dominating production requires monopolizing the understanding of productive activity, of work. To achieve this, work is on the one hand increasingly parcelized, i.e. rendered incomprehensible to those who do it; and on the other hand, it is reconstituted as a unity by specialized agencies. But these agencies are themselves subordinated to the real directorate, which alone possesses the theoretical comprehension of the whole since it dictates the direction of production in accordance with its general directives. However, this comprehension and these objectives are themselves subjected to a certain arbitrariness since they are cut off from practice and even from all realistic knowledge, which it is in no ones interest to transmit.
The total social activity is thus split into three levels: the workshop, the office and the directorate. Culture, in the sense of active and practical comprehension of society, is likewise cut apart into these three aspects. These aspects are reunited (partially and clandestinely) only by peoples constant transgression of the separate sectors in which they are regimented by the system.
The formative mechanism of culture thus amounts to a reification of human activities, a
reification which fixates the living, which models the transmission of experience from one
generation to another on the transmission of commodities, and which strives to ensure the
pasts domination over the future.
This cultural functioning enters into contradiction with capitalisms constant need to obtain peoples adherence and to enlist their creative activity, within the narrow limits within which it imprisons them. In short, the capitalist order can survive only by ceaselessly fabricating a new past for itself. This can be seen particularly clearly in the cultural sector proper, whose publicity is based on the periodic launching of pseudoinnovations.
Work thus tends to be reduced to pure execution and thereby made absurd. As technology
evolves, its application is trivialized; work is simplified and becomes more and more
But this absurdity also extends to the offices and laboratories: the ultimate determinations of their activity come from outside them, from the political sphere that runs the whole society.
On the other hand, as the activity of the offices and laboratories is integrated into the overall functioning of capitalism, the necessity to fully exploit this activity requires the introduction into it of the capitalist division of labor, that is, of parcelization and hierarchization. The logical problem of scientific synthesis then intersects with the social problem of centralization. The result of these changes is, contrary to appearances, a general lack of culture at all levels of knowledge: scientific synthesis is no longer carried out, science no longer comprehends itself. Science is no longer a real and practical clarification of peoples relation with the world; it has destroyed the old representations without being able to provide new ones. The world as unified totality becomes indecipherable; certain specialists are the only people who possess a few fragments of rationality fragments which they themselves are incapable of communicating, even to each other.
This state of things gives rise to a certain number of conflicts. The technical
advances that are a natural tendency of the development of material processes (and largely
even a natural tendency of the development of the sciences) often conflict with the
technologies that selectively apply those advances in strict accordance with the
requirements of exploiting the workers and thwarting their resistance. There is also a
conflict between capitalist imperatives and peoples elementary needs. Thus the
contradiction between present nuclear practices and a still generally prevalent taste for
living is echoed even in the moralizing protests of certain physicists. The alterations
that man can now bring about in his own nature (ranging from plastic surgery to controlled
genetic mutations) also demand an alteration of the society: its self-managed
transformation through the abolition of all specialized directors.
Everywhere the vastness of the new possibilities poses the urgent alternative: revolutionary solution or science-fiction barbarism. The compromise represented by the present society is contingent on the preservation of a status quo which is in fact everywhere constantly out of its control.
Present culture as a whole can be characterized as alienated in the sense that every activity, every moment of life, every idea, every type of behavior, has a meaning only outside itself, in an elsewhere which, being no longer in heaven, is only the more maddening to try and locate: a utopia, in the literal sense of the word,(1) dominates the life of the modern world.
Having from the workshop to the laboratory emptied productive activity of all meaning
for itself, capitalism strives to place the meaning of life in leisure activities and to
reorient productive activity on that basis. Since production is hell in the prevailing
moral schema, real life must be found in consumption, in the use of goods.
But for the most part these goods have no use except to satisfy a few private needs that have been pumped up to meet the requirements of the market. Capitalist consumption imposes a general reduction of desires by its regular satisfaction of artificial needs, which remain needs without ever having been desires authentic desires being constrained to remain unfulfilled (or compensated in the form of spectacles). The consumer is in reality morally and psychologically consumed by the market. But above all, these goods have no social use because the social horizon does not extend beyond the factory; outside the factory everything is organized as a desert (dormitory towns, freeways, parking lots...) the terrain of consumption.
However, the society constituted in the factory has the exclusive domination over this desert. The real use of the goods is simply as status symbols which, in accordance with an inevitable tendency of the industrial commodity, have at the same time become obligatory for everyone. The factory is symbolically reflected in leisure activities, though with enough room for individual variation to allow for the compensation of a few frustrations. The world of consumption is in reality the world of the mutual spectacularization of everyone, the world of everyones separation, estrangement and nonparticipation. The directorial sphere also strictly directs this spectacle, which is composed automatically and miserably in accordance with imperatives external to the society, imperatives to which absurd values are attributed. (The directors themselves, as living persons, can also be considered as victims of this automated directorial machine.)
Outside of work, the spectacle is the dominant mode through which people relate to each
other. It is only through the spectacle that people acquire a (falsified) knowledge of
certain general aspects of social life, from scientific or technological achievements to
prevailing types of conduct and orchestrated meetings of international political
celebrities. The relation between authors and spectators is only a transposition of the
fundamental relation between directors and executants. It answers perfectly to the needs
of a reified and alienated culture: 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.
This is why capitalist society, in order to streamline its own functioning, must above all continually refine its mechanism of spectacularization. This is obviously a complex mechanism, for if its main role is to propagate the capitalist order, it nevertheless must not appear to the public as a mere capitalistic delirium; it must involve the public by incorporating elements of representation that correspond in fragments to social rationality. It must sidetrack the desires whose satisfaction is forbidden by the ruling order. For example, modern mass tourism presents cities and landscapes not in order to satisfy authentic desires to live in such human or geographical milieus; it presents them as pure, rapid, superficial spectacles (spectacles from which one can gain prestige by reminiscing about them). Similarly, striptease is the most obvious form of the degradation of eroticism into a mere spectacle.
The evolution and the conservation of art have been governed by these lines of force. At one pole, art is purely and simply coopted by capitalism as a means of conditioning the population. At the other pole, capitalism grants art a perpetual privileged concession: that of pure creative activity an isolated creativity which serves as an alibi for the alienation of all other activities (and which thus also makes it the most expensive and prestigious status symbol). But at the same time, this sphere reserved for free creative activity is the only one in which the question of what we do with life and the question of communication are posed fully and practically. In this sense art can reflect the basic antagonisms between partisans and adversaries of the officially dictated reasons for living. The established meaninglessness and separation give rise to the general crisis of traditional artistic means a crisis linked to the experience of alternative ways of living or to the demand for such experience. Revolutionary artists are those who call for intervention, and who have themselves intervened in the spectacle in order to disrupt and destroy it.
The revolutionary movement can be nothing less than the struggle of the proletariat for
the actual domination and deliberate transformation of all aspects of social life
beginning with the management of production and work by the workers themselves, directly
deciding everything. Such a change would immediately imply a radical transformation of the
nature of work and the development of new technologies designed to ensure the
workers domination over the machines.
This radical transformation of the meaning of work will lead to a number of consequences, the main one of which is undoubtedly the shifting of the center of interest of life from passive leisure to the new type of productive activity. This does not mean that overnight all productive activities will become in themselves passionately interesting. But to work toward making them so, by a general and ongoing reconversion of the ends as well as the means of industrial work, will in any case be the minimum passion of a free society.
In such a society, all activities will tend to blend the life previously separated between leisure and work into a single but infinitely diversified flow. Production and consumption will merge and be superseded in the creative use of the goods of the society.
Such a program proposes to people no reason to live other than their own construction of their own lives. This presupposes not only that people be objectively freed from real needs (hunger, etc.), but above all that they begin to develop real desires in place of the present compensations; that they refuse all forms of behavior dictated by others and continually reinvent their own unique fulfillments; and that they no longer consider life to be the mere maintaining of a certain stability, but that they aspire to the unlimited enrichment of their acts.
Such demands today are not based on some sort of utopianism. They are based first of
all on the struggle of the proletariat at all levels, and on all the forms of explicit
refusal or profound indifference that the unstable ruling society constantly has to combat
with every means. They are also based on the lesson of the fundamental defeat of all
attempts at less radical changes. Finally, they are based on the extremist strivings and
actions appearing today among certain sectors of youth (despite all the efforts at
disciplining and repressing them) and in a few artistic milieus.
But this basis is indeed utopian in another sense of the word, in that it involves inventing and experimenting with solutions to current problems without being preoccupied with whether or not the conditions for their realization are immediately present. (It should be noted that this utopian type of experimentation now also plays a key role in modern science.) This temporary, historical utopianism is legitimate; and it is necessary because it serves to incubate the projection of desires without which free life would be empty of content. It is inseparable from the necessity to dissolve the present ideology of everyday life, and therefore the bonds of everyday oppression, so that the revolutionary class can disabusedly discover present and future possibilities of freedom.
Utopian practice makes sense, however, only if it is closely linked to the practice of revolutionary struggle. The latter, in its turn, cannot do without such utopianism without being condemned to sterility. Those seeking an experimental culture cannot hope to realize it without the triumph of the revolutionary movement, while the latter cannot itself establish authentic revolutionary conditions without resuming the efforts of the cultural avant-garde toward the critique of everyday life and its free reconstruction.
Revolutionary politics thus has as its content the totality of the problems of the society. It has as its form the experimental practice of a free life through organized struggle against the capitalist order. The revolutionary movement must thus itself become an experimental movement. Henceforth, wherever it exists, it must develop and resolve as profoundly as possible the problems of a revolutionary microsociety. This comprehensive politics culminates in the moment of revolutionary action, when the masses abruptly intervene to make history and discover their action as direct experience and as festival. At such moments they undertake a conscious and collective construction of everyday life which, one day, will no longer be stopped by anything.
PIERRE CANJUERS,(2) GUY DEBORD
20 July 1960
1. “Utopia” literally means “nowhere.”
2. Pierre Canjuers (pseudonym of Daniel Blanchard) was at this time a member of the Socialisme
ou Barbarie group. This text, written when Debord was participating in that
group’s activities, is described in Internationale Situationniste
#5 (p. 11) as a platform for discussion within the SI, and for its linkup with
revolutionary militants of the workers movement.
For more on the interconnections between culture and society, see Chapter 8 of The Society of the Spectacle.
Préliminaires pour une définition de lunité du programme révolutionnaire (Paris, 1960). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.
[Other Situationist Texts]
HOME INDEX SEARCH
Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA