Monday, January 31, 2022

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Chapter 5, Part 1

Summary of Chapter 5: Discourse in Dostoevsky, part 1: Types of Prose Discourse. Discourse in Dostoevsky

This part of a four-part chapter is simply massive in terms of its theoretical content. Most importantly, Bakhtin lays out a three-part outline of different kinds of discourse (with multiple subtypes within the three). This is discussed throughout before being summarized in outline form on page 199 (it would have been easier to follow if the outline had appeared first). The three kinds are:

1) “Direct unmediated discourse directed exclusively toward its referential object”

2) “Objectified discourse (discourse of a represented person)”

3) “Discourse with an orientation toward someone else's discourse (double-voiced discourse)”

The third has three subcategories, and the list appears to be a more elaborated version of the 5-part list from “Discourse in the Novel.”

As he goes through this outline, numerous key concepts are elucidated. One is metalinguistics, Bakhtin’s project for a linguistics that goes beyond the textual limits of his day, to understand “discourse as concrete lived reality” (181). He talks about things like the speech characterizations of characters, to what extent these characters become more distinguished in speech, etc. from the voice of the author, which means they are more objectified (elsewhere he has called this “stylized,” though perhaps that means objectified with the voice of some particular group in society). (On second thought these might just be differing translations of the same word in Russian).

He brings up criticisms that have made of Dostoevsky, that his characters speak the same way he does (there is less “speech characterization); Bakhtin’s response is that this makes Dostoevsky less objectifying, and thus more dialogical, than other authors. This "speech characterization" I have seen, for instance, used to caricature passengers in (certain) taxi memoirs, and it distances and objectifies the voice and character of the passenger from that of the driver/narrator (though this is sometimes perhaps not itself so an intent at monologicality or orchestration, but rather shows a lack of ability or competence of the driver/author to represent or speak for (re-voice) the passenger). Also this seems a good place for a nod to Jack Vance, whose characters who all speak in the same stilted, witty manner as the author.

Dialogic relationships are the subject matter of metalinguistics; as Bakhtin is pointing out, these can also be found within texts, not just outside of texts. He gives examples of various "judgments," (statements), and how they can be or not be in dialogical relationships; this is a key point where his relationship to Volosinov and to Foucault can be elucidated. There seem to be at least four aspects of these dialogical relationships: they must be 1) discursive [they are not relationships per se, but relationships in discourse); 2) embodied (they are not just potential linguistic or articulatory positions, but they have to actually be taken and voiced; 3) they require a logical connection to a referential object; and 4) as utterance in discourse they need to receive an author [or subject position they are voiced by or attributed to]; this could be a real author (as in a speaker or writer of the utterance), or one to whom they are being attributed (such as a character in a story or in double-voiced speech) . [Presumably two judgments being expressed by the same character could be dialogic if the character is shifting positions in an internal debate. Anyway this whole approach seems contrary to Foucault's in the Archaeology of Knowledge.]

An example of a judgment: "Life is good." "Life is good." This is the same judgment repeated twice: the two are separate "verbal embodiments" [utterances] of the same judgment, and can also be placed into dialogic relation (e.g. as two characters agreeing].

The issue of the objectification of another's speech comes up, and this is explored through the different forms this takes in the different discourse types. He also discusses all these types as historical phenomena, making remarks about "epochs" (Classicism, Romanticism) in which different discursive possibilities were available to authors. Bakhtin's point is that the modernist idea of “access to one's own personal ‘ultimate’ word” (202) is a historical condition – in some epochs there is permitted "the ultimate semantic authority of the creator to be expressed without mediation in direct, unrefracted, unconditional authorial discourse" which presumably means modernism (Whitman comes to mind in this regard, as a representative of prose invading poetry). In other epochs, dominated by stylization, the author must speak through the words of others (he calls this “refraction”). However, the fact that Bakhtin's words above sound pertinent today – despite our prose and freedom from stylistic conformity, two aspects that Bakhtin sees as crucial for the modern authorial subject – indicates that for other reasons the independence of the author has become questioned, or culturally fraught as a concept; thus refraction seems more fitting than Bakhtin apparently felt it was (cf. all the communication done through “sharing” and “liking” today). Which leads to a second question: I think Bakhtin is setting up the concept of independent authorial discourse as a historical phenomenon here; this same authorial discourse is what he is in fact critical of, and wants to fight or undermine with polyphony. Yet if this sense of authorial independence has been weakened, is this a result of the polyphony Bakhtin celebrated? Or by something else, meaning the power of the author is less serious of a problem than he presumed?

Without naming them as such, he also discusses the concepts of citationality and orchestration.


Sunday, January 30, 2022

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 4: Characteristics of Genre and Plot Composition in Dostoevsky's Works

This lengthy chapter could possibly have been several chapters, as it travels from one subject to another. Several genres of the seriocomic are covered, in long lists of “aspects” which often seem they could have been combined into shorter lists. In the first part, Bakhtin discusses how Dostoevsky’s novels are similar and different from other novel forms of the day, including social and biographical novels, but also adventure and “boulevard” novels.

After this he starts talking about carnivalization, and goes back to the Menippean/seriocomic tradition of antiquity, in genres like Socratic dialogues, diatribes, etc. These are examples of ancient carnivalized literature and their influence on later ages is traced. He delineates the aspects of the seriocomic: 1) it is set in present as opposed to ancient or legendary time; 2) it relies on experience (the world around you) rather than legend/myth; 3) it is multi-styled and hetero-voiced.

He treats Socratic dialogue as a sub-genre of the above, with the following aspects:

1. an assumption of the dialogic nature of truth, which is something to be sought out through dialogue (an interesting connection to Detienne's thesis of the changing nature of truth at that time); an opposition to monologism

2. syncrisis (juxtaposition of views) and anacrisis (provocation, e.g. through plot or situation)

3 heroes as ideologists (meaning that the characters engage in explication of ideas)

4. (along with the above) idea is combined with a person, as the image of an idea.


The characteristics of Menippean satire, another seb-genre of the seriocomic:

1. more comic than Socratic dialogues, but this can take form of "reduced laughter"

2. fantastic plot/setting, which allows invention

3. the plot plays a role [as anacrisis?]

4. combination of the fantastic with "slum naturalism"

5. universal, ultimate questions

6. "three planed construction" of movement between earth, heaven, and hell, creating many "dialogues on the threshold"

7. "experimental fantasticality"

8. "moral-psychological experimentation"

9. "scandal scenes" and inappropriate behavior

10. contrasts, combinations, reversals, etc.

11. social utopias in dreams and journeys

12. "inserted genres" [probably akin to the relevance of reported speech in Volosinov]

13. multi-styled, multi-toned

14. concern with current and topical issues


Bakhtin distinguishes between the "objective memory" of genres as opposed to the "subjective memory" of individuals; this allows a tracing of the origins of the novel in carnivalization, whether or not the authors writing them are aware of these influences. However, these earlier genres do not fully develop polyphony: Dostoevsky's big improvement over these ancient sources will be his full use of polyphony, which they lack.

Bakhtin then talks about carnival and carnivalization, very similar to his Rabelais book which he was apparently revising for publication at the time he was rewriting this book. Carnivalistic senses: (numbering not quite clear):

1. upside down/reversal

2. eccentricity

3. "mesalliances" (indiscrete or inappropriate mixing of opposites/contrasts, like laughing corpses)

4. profanation

Perhaps the most important thing about carnival is its revolutionary potential:

Carnival is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelationship between individuals, counterposed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of noncarnival life. (123)

Bakhtin next talks about the carnivalistic act of crowning/decrowning; the ambivalence of this is key. Ritual laughter is always aimed at that which is higher. The most important site of carnival is the public square; this appears in reduced or bourgeois forms as parlors, etc. He talks about the debasement of the sense of carnival in later ages, and its bourgeoisification (not in those precise words) or domestication as it becomes part of the novel etc.; then he goes back to Socratic dialogues and then again to Menippea. Finally he turns to a series of texts by Dostoevsky to discuss how they are menippean.

One important point Bakhtin makes is regarding catharsis: he supports a concept of this distinct from Aristotle's based on tragedy, what could be called an [ambivalent] catharsis, linked to ambivalent laughter; catharsis that implies that nothing is conclusive. [Arguably Bakhtin insists this is "catharsis" only because he believes in the "unity" of the work; it is catharsis by definition, and so Brechtian anti-catharsis could conceivably be called Bakhtinian catharsis.] He also includes notes on Dostoevsky as a responder to capitalist modernity, as his style of writing is designed for this and influenced by this context. Bakhtin ends the chapter with the observation that Dostoevsky is most important for bringing the polyphony, building something more out of the menippean tradition.


Saturday, January 29, 2022

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Chapter 3

Summary of Chapter 3: The Idea in Dostoevsky

This chapter concerns Dostoevsky's use of "ideas" in his novels, and how this differs from their treatment in monologic novels. Dostoevsky was interested in being an "artist of the idea" and always has some idea which is the central motivation for each novel; however, he does not impose this monologically on his novel, but instead sets it in conversation with other ideas, other voices; it is only in this way that an idea can become "full" or "fully realized" or something like that. Dostoevsky's heroes are also "ideologues" who engage in commentary and explication of ideas through their engagement with the world and other characters/voices. There is a link between this engagement and the "confessional discourse" and self-consciousness of the characters: this provides a link between dialogicity as articulation, and as subjectification. 

In the "monologic world" of a monologic text, thoughts can only be affirmed or denied. The dialogic approach does neither of these, but instead has a third way. Bakhtin traces the history of modern monologism with the growth of rationalism [and thus of the abstract subject]. A monologic author expresses directly their own view, but represents others (or perhaps does not even fully represent them; anyway “representation,” meaning a fixed image, is monologic not dialogic, and subordinates the ideas and voices of the others to the control of the author). In the dialogic novel, in contrast, there is an unfinalizability of characters, and a plurality of independent "voice-ideas" which the hero or the author is able to hear and interact with.

Another key concept is the "form-shaping ideology" or "form-shaping worldview" which governs how ideas and interactions work and are depicted in his novels. "Dostoevsky's form-shaping ideology lacks those two basic elements upon which any ideology is built: the separate thought, and a unified world of objects giving rise to a system of thoughts"(93). [So it both is, and isn’t, an “ideology?”] This is a fairly direct contrast to the way statements and discourses work in (for example) Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge, and in Deleuze's book about it. Bakhtin instead focuses on the "position of a personality," which could presumably be equated with subject position. [Perhaps it could be argued that this is more like the more bottom-up approach which Foucault subsequently took up after the archaeology of knowledge]. Actually it seems like Bakhtin is saying that Dostoevsky focuses on the "integral points of view" of integral personalities, rather than on statements/utterances (like both Foucault and Volosinov), so Bakhtin's point here might not be as radical as he thinks it is. 

Dostoevsky (or his heroes) "thinks in voices," and moves in a "labyrinth of voices." Bakhtin attacks aphorisms because they separate the word out from its actual context, treating it as self-complete, something that nothing is, according to Bakhtin (cf. Debord’s similar critique of quotations). Instead of a monologic "I" judging the world, there is the interrelationship of "cognizant and judging 'Is' to one another" (100).


Friday, January 28, 2022

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: The Hero, and the Position of the Author with Regard to the Hero, in Dostoevsky's Art

In this chapter Bakhtin lays out his theory of the polyphonic novel with regard to the relationship between the author and the hero. Essentially, they each have their own voice, and neither is superior; whereas in the monologic novel the author has a "surplus" of knowledge available, over and above all the characters, in the polyphonic novel the author has no surplus. [But I wonder what happens when the author/narrator is one of the characters? Despite the first-person Notes from Underground, Bakhtin dismisses first-person narration as a trick that does not really compromise the power of the author.] Dostoevsky depicts, not the reified image of a character (which would be monologic), but the self-consciousness of the character. (Although "chunks" of monologic style persist within the dialogic novel, this does not prevent the latter aspect from forming the most important part of it).

Characters also give voice to "double-voiced" speech (often imagining the words of others about themselves, and responding) in "microdialogues". This involves them enunciating potential statements that others could make, mostly about themselves – in other words, engaging in articulation, largely in relation to the process of interpellation. "Truth" also is shown to be relative to the speaker's subject position: the same statement voiced by a person within their own self-consciousness becomes a lie from the outside as a reification [this and related parts are strongly reminiscent of Volosinov]. The concepts of unfinaliizability (a character who is unfinishable, existing as more than the author or narrator can contain or represent), and dialogicity (statements existing in relation to other statements), are explored.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Chapter 1


Mikhail Bakhtin (1984 [1963]), Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, Translated and edited by Caryl Emerson. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Summary of Chapter 1: Dostoevsky's Polyphonic Novel and Its Treatment in Critical Literature

In this first chapter, Bakhtin mostly responds to various other authors who have written about Dostoevsky, pointing out what they have properly understood, or more typically misunderstood about Dostoevsky. Through this interaction Bakhtin gives some insights into the character of polyphony as he will describe it, and some other useful insights into the difference between dialogue and dialectics. Hopefully his actual explication of his reading of Dostoevsky will be given more and clearer detail in later chapters (for example, in this chapter he makes assertions about Dostoevsky without reference to specific passages).

One of the most interesting exchanges is with some other theorists who link Dostoevsky to capitalism and the capitalist [or modern, "all that is solid becomes air" etc.] perspective. This of course links Bakhtin's polyphony to a range of other arguments – from Latour's We Have Never Been Modern to Brand's discussion of the flaneur. In contrast to these other critics, Bakhtin insists that the polyphonic novel will outlive capitalism --- though it remains to be seen what he means by that, or whether he will give an account of just why he believes it to be revolutionary. He also notes that the polyphonic novel arises in an experience of crisis/contradiction [a la critique in Gramsci] and notes that Dostoevsky's main characters are social wanderers, déclassé intellectuals. There is also a line about how his characters could all be authors.


Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 5

Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Summary of Book 5:

Like a fireworks display that leaves many of the most impressive fireworks for the end, Boethius has left his most impressive arguments for this final chapter. Having ended the discussion of evil in the previous chapter, Boethius asks Lady Philosophy first whether chance exists (she replies with Aristotle's answer: chance does not exist as a cause of things, but it does exist in the sense of our perception of things happening unexpectedly or from an unforeseen mix of causes). Next he asks whether free will exists. She says yes; there is more free will though, the closer you are to god, because the more constrained or trapped in earthly desires you are, the less free will you have. She ends up by asserting that god looks out and sees all, like the sun (or like a better, higher, more all-seeing sun). (This in fact presages later aspects of the argument, though more immediately it sets up an objection by Boethius).

Boethius then raises his tough question: but if god can foresee everything, then everything must already be foreordained, and we can not truly have free will. This leads to all sorts of consequences: we know all happens according to providence, so with no free will, it is all caused by God. It is unjust to reward the good or punish the bad, because these are not their own decisions, their actions are not truly their own. There is thus no justice, and also no reason to pray to god. In fact all good, and all evil are both caused by god, so the belief that god is perfectly good is destroyed.

In addition to numerous interesting side arguments, many linking back to Aristotle, the ultimate argument Lady Philosophy makes in response is that God's knowledge is different from, and beyond the grasp of, human knowledge. The idea then that God's knowledge of the future causes or indicates a constraint on the present ("imposes a necessity") is false, based on the false model of our own understanding. Lady Philosophy points out that if we see or know something in the present, this does not make the existence of that thing dependent on our knowledge: if I see a man sitting, I see this because he is sitting; however, the reverse is not true: he is not sitting because I see him sitting. There is also a very interesting point where this is extended into the future with the concept of [apprehension or intimation]: the image of a charioteer seeing what is about to happen in a race, but this knowledge of the charioteer does not force what he foresees to happen (it is both not the cause of that thing happening, nor is it impossible for something else to happen). (Here the relevance of the earlier discussion of "chance," is revealed, as it sets up the limitation of human knowledge of how things work). So with apprehension or foresight of this nature, we can "see the future" but this does not make things happen, nor even ensure that they will happen. [Another example: if I see that a lamp is about to fall off a table; I then reach out and grab it. My foresight was true even though the thing foreseen did not end up happening. This means there can be both foresight and free will; though god’s foresight will of course be much more complex than that of individual humans.]

The biggest argument however, is when Lady Philosophy introduces the idea that things are not known on account of their own nature or power, but through the power of those knowing. Several statements of neo-Platonism are given to show how and why the ancient Stoics were wrong for imagining that knowledge is the “impress” of other bodies on our senses and minds; instead this is accompanied by an active intelligence which we are born with, and which seeks to recover its lost knowledge that it had from some previous or originary union with god. Back to our ways of knowing: Lady Philosophy points out that seeing and touching, as two different senses, give us distinct knowledge of an object. This is an interesting opening up to a relativist/phenomenological theory of knowledge; however, Boethius will subordinate this to a strictly hierarchical model. As in relativism, human knowledge is decentered; but in this case, it is placed in relationship to God's perfect knowledge. The hierarchy is (starting from the bottom): 1) senses; 2) imagination; 3) (human) reason and intelligence; 4) God's perfect intelligence/knowledge etc. Each of these up the scale knows what is known by previous levels, but add something more. Lady Philosophy dismisses the objection that there is something specific [aka concrete, material, etc.] known through the senses but lost in abstraction by reason; this is contradicted by the entire theory of knowledge in ancient times and neo-Platonism in particular, whereby reason gives you true knowledge against which any empiricist argument cannot hold a candle. So anyway, we misunderstand God's knowledge when we try to think of it on the model of human intelligence, just as the latter would be misconstrued if modeled on the senses [as the Stoics had, as a matter of fact].

This leads to the question of eternity, which God possesses but we do not. Eternity is not just an infinite amount of time, but is outside of and not subject to time, and is experienced simultaneously: thus to God, the present, future, and past are all present and visible. Recalling Plato, the visible world/universe we live in is just a flawed copy of the original which is God. God, not being stuck in time, naturally sees what we don't see and his vision of the future is not complicated by our freedom in the present. Thus, God's knowledge of the future does not contradict our possession of free will, nor does our possession of free will contradict the perfection of God's future knowledge. Therefore, (to counter at the very end Boethius's objections from the beginning), justice exists, and prayers are worthwhile. So be a good person!


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 4

Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Summary of Book 4

This chapter, on the problem of evil, is at the same time the most interesting so far, and also the most unsatisfying, because so much of the argument is based on the sort of "I told you so" tautological reasoning that started from assumptions about the qualities of goodness/oneness/happiness and the idea that opposites cannot mix. The forceful ridiculousness of Lady Philosophy's arguments here is frequently countenanced by Boethius, who breaks out into expressions of disbelief and amazement, but ultimately agrees to all because of the nomothetic argument (following from arguments which had been accepted before), and of course the ultimate goal of providing a comforting worldview in the face of great misfortune and disaster.

The most surprising arguments are those such as: there are no bad men (because they cease to be men; this is not really pursued consistently, however, and they are thereafter referred to as "bad men” anyway). Good and evil lead to just rewards because good people produce good (which is what they naturally want to do) while bad people produce evil (which is the opposite of the good which they naturally want to produce/achieve; therefore, they are unhappy). Humans fail to understand divine ways because they are blinded by emotions and their own circumstances; instead they should heed only that which is eternal. Both hatred and dissatisfaction with the world are examples of failures to understand God's plan.

Lady Philosophy makes an important distinction between Providence (god's will/reason) and Fate (the resultant ordering of things); it seems that although our bodies are subordinate to fate, our reason is not, because it can grasp the underlying providence. Her ultimate argument is that all is for the best, by default because God is perfect and rules the world, and because of the additional arguments that suffering or happiness are dealt out to different people as they need it for their own growth [e.g., though this is not explicitly stated, Boethius is suffering because it helps him become wiser, or to demonstrate his commitment to philosophy; this suffering is an opportunity for the wise man, as warfare is an opportunity for the general]. So in the end, all fortune is good fortune.

There is an interesting contrast between the role of grief and scarring by the world in Boethius, and in Benjamin (whom I am also reading). For Benjamin, it is good to be open to such scarring and to express it. Boethius in contrast sees his grief as a cause of forgetting: he states at the beginning of this chapter:

And though through grief for the injustices I suffer, I had forgotten them, yet you have not spoken of what I knew not at all before. (46)

In other words, Lady Philosophy is reminding him of truths he had already known, but had forgotten due to grief (and this is perhaps linked further to the underlying Platonic supposition that we already know things and just have to remember them). In any event one role of Lady Philosophy is to cure him of his grief and restore his oneness with philosophy or whatever.

The chapter's final meter, with examples of the successes of Heracles and other heroes, ends with this:

 'Go forth then bravely whither leads the lofty path of high example. Why do ye sluggards turn your backs? When the earth is overcome, the stars are yours.' (60)

Written by a modern author, this would express the "we conquered the earth, now conquer the stars" vein of modernism; instead it means that if you conquer worldly confusion and desire, then you can achieve the peacefulness and order of the stars.

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 3

Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

 Summary of Book 3

Boethius is now ready for the more serious medicines that Lady Philosophy has promised. She discusses wealth, honor, power, fame, and pleasure as examples of false goods, and goes through each in turn to show how they are limited and only partial, when even good at all. The problem is that humans see only the partial and fail to understand that Good is actual unity.

The discourse becomes self-consciously Platonic as it is stated that humans (and all things) inherently remember the good and the one, but have forgotten or strayed, being misled by the senses and confusion of this world. In reality the happiness which all things seek is unity with God, who in turn is Oneness (as proven through the typical tautological argument starting and ending with the inherent qualities of a presumed concept, such as "oneness" which is typical of antiquity (so found also in both Plato and Aristotle, but even in the skeptic Sextus Empiricus).

Some interesting parallels with Norbert Wiener whom I am also reading: plants are compared to self-reproducing machines (in the Latin text: machinas), and all things seek to maintain unity (which is health, while disunity of the being is sickness and or death); however, in Boethius's universe the "helmsman" (kybernetes) is built-in (i.e., an all-powerful God), and the fear of overall entropy, that characterizes Wiener’s universe, does not exist). This has implications for the concept of “evil,” which in a secularized, physical form is so central to Wiener’s cyberneticism.

God is proven to be unity because nothing partial could have caused the universe; Lady Philosophy then asks if God, being perfectly good, could do evil; Boethius says no, and Lady Philosophy responds that therefore evil does not exist, because nothing is beyond the power of God. Boethius then objects that she is trapping him in a labyrinth and asks how she will get them out; Lady Philosophy responds with the myth of Orpheus, a warning not to be distracted by earthly desires. The problem of evil will be addressed in the next book.


Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 2


Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius
Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Summary of Book 2:

Their conversation continues. Boethius has let fortune fool him with her former flatteries. Lady Philosophy proposes healing draughts, presumably arguments for why one should not care about or heed things like fortune. Boethius's fortune has not actually changed, because Fortune is inherently changeable, that was always her nature. She brings both good and bad: 

You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess. To the eyes of others she is veiled in part: to you she has made herself wholly known. (17)

It is silly, Lady Philosophy points out, to try to control fortune or limit her change, because that is her nature, and to be upset about it is to be unreasonable.

The text is composed of alternating sections of “prose” (in which the discussion between Boethius and Philosophy take place), and “Metres,” in which Lady Philosophy expounds in poetic language upon the points made in the previous prose section. The translation I am using presents the alternating meters, and prose passages, similarly, as prose; presumably the alternation between the two styles was part of the desired effect, and it is worth wondering what significance or impact this might have had for readers (cf. Bakhtin's insistence that Boethius is in the Menippean tradition, in which such stylistic alternation is common). In Met. 1 of Book 2 (on page 18), Lady Philosophy has just invoked the "art of song" as her aid in convincing Boethius; although she earlier had driven the arts of poetry etc. away from him as worthless. Actually her "song" seems to begin over the last few paragraphs of the Prose 1, beginning with the metaphor "if you set your sails" etc.

Boethius responds that what she has said is pleasing for a moment, but then the memory and feeling of grief returns. Lady Philosophy says the present arguments are just soothing balms, the cure for his sickness will come later. Boethius pleads that 'sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things,' (20); he says that he is sadder for having previously been happy; she lists numerous reasons why he is still fortunate now, and should still be happy (his sons are alive, etc.). She lists people who are fortunate for one reason but unhappy for another.

So none is readily at peace with the lot his fortune sends him. For in each case there is that which is unknown to him who has not experienced it, and which brings horror to him who has experienced it. (21)

 She mentions people who would be happy to have even a part of Boethius's life share of good fortune.

Thus there is nothing wretched unless you think it to be so: and in like manner he who bears all with a calm mind finds his lot wholly blessed. Who is so happy but would wish to change his estate, if he yields to impatience of his lot?

A happy person must know that their happiness could end (which knowledge makes them sad as well as happy; if they do not know, they are ignorant (and therefore they are somehow unhappy by default or definition: this is typical neo-Platonism), and if they know it, this must always worry them (21-2).

She now embarks upon a stronger medicine. Lady Philosophy discusses wealth, which only has value when spent and given away, and not when hoarded; therefore there is the contradiction that spending makes you poorer, while accruing wealth makes others poorer (22). She asks why we rejoice in the beauty of nature, when it has nothing to do with us (it is not our fortune; presumably she is ironically mocking delight in fortune, rather than delight in nature) (23). She gives more examples of wealth that is not really yours; such as the desire to own beautiful landscapes that would still be beautiful if you did not own them. Humans alone of all animals are not satisfied with their intrinsic possessions, but think they can obtain “happiness” from the superficial and extrinsic:

Other classes of things are satisfied by their intrinsic possessions; but men, though made like God in understanding, seek to find among the lowest things adornment for their higher nature: and you do not understand that you do a great wrong thereby to your Creator. (23)

Humans make themselves lower than the beasts with this attitude. Nothing can be a good thing which harms its possessor; yet wealth often does just this (for instance, the wealthy are robbed or live in fear of being robbed). Political power and high office should not be seen as causes of honor or status, because in truth any good qualities of the people holding these offices were theirs before they took office, and have nothing to do with the offices themselves. She laughs at the ridiculousness of the supposed right, or even ability, of one person to exert power over another:

How can any exercise right upon any other except upon the body alone, or that which is below the body, whereby I mean the fortunes? Can you ever impose any law upon a free spirit? Can you ever disturb the peculiar restfulness which is the property of a mind that hangs together upon the firm basis of its reason?

She provides examples of the powerful who fell from power. She tells the story of Anaxagoras who bit off his own tongue to avoid speaking under torture, as an example of the true freedom of will, and why it is impossible to exert power over such a truly free person.

She relies frequently on that kind of reasoning from assumed principle, so common in ancient philosophy (even Aristotle); for instance, like is attracted to like, so anything experienced by bad people must be bad in itself:

Further, if there were any intrinsic good in the nature of honours and powers themselves, they could never crowd upon the basest men. For opposites will not be bound together. Nature refuses to allow contraries to be linked to each other. Wherefore, while it is undoubted that for the most part offices of honour are enjoyed by bad men, it is also manifest that those things are not by nature good, which allow themselves to cling to evil men. (25) 

She provides an interesting insight into the astronomical knowledge of the time: 

As you have learnt from astronomers' shewing, the whole circumference of the earth is but as a point compared with the size of the heavens. That is, if you compare the earth with the circle of the universe, it must be reckoned as of no size at all. And of this tiny portion of the universe there is but a fourth part, as you have learnt from the demonstration of Ptolemæus, which is inhabited by living beings known to us. (25)

Although good fortune is a deceiver, bad fortune is an educator; thus it is actually better to experience bad fortune, than only to have experienced good fortune. 

And do you think that this should be reckoned among the least benefits of this rough, unkind, and terrible ill fortune, that she has discovered to you the minds of your faithful friends? Fortune has distinguished for you your sure and your doubtful friends; her departure has taken away her friends and left you yours. At what price could you have bought this benefit if you had been untouched and, as you thought, fortunate? Cease then to seek the wealth you have lost. You have found your friends, and they are the most precious of all riches. (27)

 The last meter (VIII) of the chapter gives a view of the world ruled by love (vs strife) in a sort of non- sequitur.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 1

Boethius and Lady Philosophy
Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

I was teaching a philosophy class at our little art college in Tucson when the announcement was made that the school would close due to the pandemic. I wrote this little text about Boethius for the class:

Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius (AD 477 - 524) was a Roman senator and philosopher who lived at just about the worst time in history to be a Roman senator and philosopher – to wit, just after Rome had been sacked and conquered by German barbarians, who proceeded to battle each other over whatever was left. If Boethius were alive today, he would not be impressed by all of our complaints about 2020.

Boethius tried to do the best he could, so he became an advisor to the Ostrogothic king Theodoric. Boethius hoped that he could civilize Theodoric by example, rein in his more barbaric impulses, and at the very least, make life in Italy a little more peaceful and predictable. One day, when Theodoric was threatening to arrest another Roman on a false charge of treason, Boethius jumped up and said, "My King, this man is no more guilty of treason than I or any other man. If you arrest him, you should just as well arrest me." So Theodoric arrested Boethius, too. He was kept in prison for some time and eventually executed.

While he was in prison waiting to be executed, Boethius wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy. In the book, he is visited in prison by "Lady Philosophy," and they have spirited discussions about Free Will, Justice, and the existence of God. One consolation of philosophy is that, although he is imprisoned, his mind is still free. But even more, a philosophical point of view allows him to get past his current suffering, and see the bigger picture.

The most lasting idea by Boethius is the "Wheel of Fortune," which, always turning, brings people good and bad fortune in cycles, always changing, never lasting.

Some quotes:

"It's my belief that history is a wheel. 'Inconstancy is my very essence,' says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don't complain when you're cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it's also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away."

"Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it."

"All fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just."

"The good is the end towards which all things tend."

The truth is, when I wrote that, I had not read Boethius, but had only read what others had written about him. Now that I have, I realize most of the points reiterated above were from the first chapters of the book, as if my sources had not bothered to read the whole thing. Although the early part is interesting for its discussion of Fortune and the historical circumstances of Boethius’s imprisonment, it is really toward the end that more impressive feats of philosophical and theological argumentation come into play. I read a translation by W.V. Cooper, in the public domain and thus available freely online.

Summary of Book 1:

Boethius is in prison, or possibly house arrest in some part of Italy away from Rome; his surroundings are not described to any extent, except that they are much unlike the fine library in his home. He is bewailing his fate and writing poetry. Lady Philosophy appears and drives away the poetic muses which had been leaching off him and driving him to despair. She upbraids him for his miserable appearance and demeanor; he tells his story, detailing how good he has been and how he was betrayed and victimized. Lady Philosophy tells him to shape up, and pay attention as she will tell him what is what. Much of the metaphor of philosophy as a kind of cure or treatment for confused feelings and sickness, is used.

At one point Boethius points out, "Wherefore not without cause has one of your own followers asked, ‘If God is, whence come evil things? If He is not, whence come good?’" (12)

This was Epicurus; however, earlier on Boethius (as author, I mean; he is also a character) has had Lady Philosophy state that after the golden ages of Plato and Socrates, the Epicureans and Stoics had fought over her, with little or no understanding of philosophy. So perhaps, having criticized Epicurus (or at least Epicureans) earlier, Boethius cannot now admit that he is the one whose poignant and key question is being cited, and which will lead to one of the primary subjects of the book: the problem of evil.


Friday, January 21, 2022

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Part 3


Summary of final 11 theses:

The subject of the mafia, and how it exemplifies conditions under the integrated spectacle, continues. Secrecy, assassinations, hidden operatives, falsification undertaken not only by government, mafia, terrorists, etc. but by corporations and even state corporations, in pursuit of their own interests; "conspiracies" or "plots" in the defense of the established order. Debord captures in some ways the sense of the "post-truth" moment with his reference to this disabling discourse regarding conspiracies, and the lack of a revolutionary alternative, or at least a clearly recognizable one. He also discusses the role of "pacemakers," who would now be called “influencers.” Nevertheless his argument is that there is even more of a clear ruling class than before, who control the spectacle or at least society (they themselves are to some degree controlled by the spectacle was well.) The question is whether he overstates the "integration" and control by this faction. His vision contrasts with those of others, e.g. Foucault on the rise of neoliberalism, and Graham and Marvin as well on how neoliberalism takes down the "integrated ideal" – though perhaps Debord would agree with part of this, the point is that his state-centric or at least power-elite-centric explanation fails to provide as subtle or deep an analysis; he seems to be focusing on surface phenomena.

Debord's integrated spectacle seems to be derived primarily from Italy as his premier model. My first thought is that Debord has failed to make the insight Foucault had made over a decade earlier, about the impending growth in influence of neoliberalism. From this perspective, the integrated spectacle reads as an alternate potential path for late-20th century modernity, if it hadn't gone to neoliberalism; or perhaps instead, as an alternate competing form that existed at that time in states like Italy (Mexico and other semi-peripheral states come to mind as well). Then again, there is the history of the neoliberal form as something organized by think tanks in leading core states, imposed first on unwilling victims in the periphery and semi-periphery, and then imported back into the core; in this case the integrated spectacle is a competing form or perhaps related in some way as an effect. So either 1) Debord’s integrated spectacle identifies a variant and competing form of late modernity, or 2) it identifies an effect of neo-liberalism which Debord is failing to recognize as such, because he is distracted by the idea of the union of his "diffuse" and "consolidated" spectacles. THEN AGAIN something could be said of the idea of neoliberalism as not just an outgrowth of the diffuse spectacle, but as a union of it with the consolidated spectacle; this connects to my idea of neoliberalism as "artefact" and methinks might be hinted at in the name of the documentary series, Commanding Heights. I am also reminded of my own observations of Mexico City in relation to the theory by Graham and Marvin of the "integrated ideal," [here ironically the opposite of Debord's "integrated spectacle," or is it?] But anyway Debord's integrated spectacle reminds me of the dissolved, or only haphazardly applied integrated ideal I wrote about in regard to urban space in Mexico City.

Debord notes that in the past, one only “conspired” against established power; now conspiracy in favor of power is an established profession (74). This is admittedly a very broad use of "conspire," and yet it opens to what is perhaps Debord's key insight in this book, as far as it seems relevant to the present day, that the idea of just who is "conspiring" becomes something debated. Trumpists (for example) claim that covid, etc. is a conspiracy by the state against their "freedoms;" the reply is that obviously their whole conspiracy including the attack on DC is a conspiracy in the name of power, and certainly not revolutionary. Perhaps the loss of history as Debord puts it [the revolutionary ideal, what I have called the "eye of history"] has been marginalized enough that now all factions/movements can in fact be argued/seen as having powerful interests behind them, working in the name of the spectacle: both sides see the others as conspiracies in the name of power, because that is at once the only way things can be seen; and yet it still remains an insult or an undercutting to be named in that way. Nevertheless people still believe there is an alternative, because that is what they believe their own side to be.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Part 2

Summary of second 11 theses:

In this middle of the book, Debord sounds a lot at times like an angry, ranting conspiracy theorist. The primary point of argument is about "disinformation", which is not so much disinformation spread by the government, as the idea of disinformation, or the name, applied to any information or [articulation] that contradicts the happiness or inevitability of the spectacle. (Today, however, we can talk about “disinformation” in favor of the spectacle, as well). The concept of secrecy is repeatedly emphasized, that everything is secretly controlled [apparently a key aspect of the integrated spectacle.] Various experts are exposed as dupes, and so on. There is potentially some important insight or so in here regarding the present "post-truth" moment and the public sphere response to the loss of credibility of the state and scientific experts, although Debord would presumably deny that social media etc. (which he did not see coming so far as I can tell) counts as a "public sphere."

In a perhaps tongue-in-cheek moment he talks about conspiracy theory, as another concept used to delegitimize alternative explanations. In this he stands in a contrast with, e.g., Latour, who uses the existence of conspiracy theories to undermine the legitimacy of “critique” itself. Debord is probably right here – it is lazy and self-defeating to invoke the bugbear of the “conspiracy theorist,” but what is a better term, a better way of talking about the self-claimed “skepticism” of climate change “skeptics,” and so on? There is a temptation (which I succumbed to at the end of my previous post) to fall into the language of “real” vs. “fake,” but I’m wondering if Debord’s own insistence on clinging to an idea of the “true” which he opposes to the “falseness” of the spectacle – which seems all the weaker and outdated a strategy in the context of the integrated spectacle, and even moreso today – shows how insufficient such language is, or has become.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Part 1

With the Society of the Spectacle the question remains to what extent its ideas are useful or relevant today, and to what extent they are fixed in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century context they describe. Pursuing this line of thought, it makes sense to turn to Debord's own attempt to update his ideas in the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle. Of course, since these comments were themselves published in 1988, it is reasonable again to ask to what extent they, in turn, remain relevant. Added to this is a question of translation: I used Imrie's (1990) translation, having a pdf of it; I was most of the way through the book when I read a criticism of this translation (by Not Bored, who have their own translation) as overly blunt and apodictic, making Debord come across incorrectly as paranoid and defensive -- and this is telling, because I repeatedly call him paranoid and defensive in these summaries... Anyway the Comments take the form of 33 theses, which I broke into three parts for convenience.

Summary of first 11 theses:

Debord's revisit of his Society of the Spectacle text and the topic of the spectacle reads as more than a bit defensive. His major claim is about a new version of the spectacle, the integrated spectacle, (as opposed to the diffuse and the concentrated spectacles that he had identified in the first book), and a reasonable test of this book is to what extent this new version of the spectacle accurately or usefully describes the changes that have happened since the publication of the earlier book. Whereas Debord had modeled the "diffuse" spectacle off of the US, the integrated spectacle is modeled on the experiences of France and above all Italy in the 70s and 80s; these are now thought by Debord to be ahead of the US in regard to the development of the spectacle.

The integrated spectacle is "both concentrated and diffuse;” it is not clear if that means the state plays a more central role in regard to production and market (as a combination of aspects of the diffuse and of the concentrated spectacles).  In Thesis V he identifies five key aspects of the integrated spectacle: incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; generalised secrecy; unanswerable lies; an eternal present" (pages 11-2). Integration of state and economy, and generalised secrecy, are not strongly defended and seem the most irrelevant of these to what has actually happened. Technological change is obviously accurate; the "unanswerable lies" involves concepts similar to those of the postmodern condition and the "post-truth" condition as well.  [It is unclear just what is meant here by “unanswerable lies.” My first guess was, it was like the lies used by Trump etc., which dissolve the very answerability of "truth." Yet, when he says that public opinion becomes powerless and dissolves, this sounds like something more autocratic is meant, such as the statements made by a technocratic state.  Also problematic here is Debord's old and continuing reliance on the naive distinction between "true" and "false” (in which he speaks the “truth” to the “false” powers of the spectacle; this is just borrowing the language of the system he is opposing). Beyond this overly simplistic opposition of "truth" to "lies", what is more interesting is how these are constructed.

The "eternal present" has to do with a denial of the past, and an "end of history" presentism that is also linked to the end of modernist -isms. He posits how the post-historical "democracy" of the integrated spectacle relies on a contentless other, "terrorism" (this seems accurate). A new category of "social crime" is created to allow the punishment of what would previously have been termed "political criminals" (and thus ethically distinct and even challenging to the integrated spectacle; instead, no such challenge is to be allowed). Debord still makes claims about people being submissive and passively consuming images created by others – this is outdated and was always simplistic. Some of his observations regarding the death of dialogue, etc. could be salvaged by rethinking them in terms of the society of control and so on. He makes an interesting observation on page 29 which sounds a lot like QAnon, etc. cultists trying to gain authority, in an age when authority does not claim to be more than illogical (the spectacle has admitted itself to be spectacular, he said earlier); they thus ape this illogicality [a reasonably stated point, that though they claim the position of “skeptics,” they do not engage in critique in any real way].


Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 9


Chapter 9: Ideology Materialized


Debord ends the book with this somewhat perfunctory chapter on how the ideology is “materialized” in the form of, and by means of, the spectacle. His first point is that ideology has never been a mere “simple chimaera,” but is instead “deformed consciousness” (212). This must of course be because to have grip, to serve some purpose in people’s life as a belief system, it must have some relevance and appeal, and it has this because it is an outgrowth of the real, albeit transformed or “deformed.” Much of the earlier text was about this relation between “real” or actual conditions of production and existence, and the spectacle which takes their place. This is presumably also part of why détournement should work, because it reverses the deformation, or at least reveals the artificial process of materialization/reification, as discussed at the end of the previous chapter. Debord reiterates that aspect of the Spectacle which could be called the post-political or the “end of history” argument, to wit, that history has ended and liberal capitalism will be the only option henceforth. He talks again about an earlier theme, which is the spectacle’s connection to money or the “philosophy of money” as Simmel put it. He returns to his emphasis on praxis as the needed alternative to the spectacle. He spends a few paragraphs drawing out connections between the spectacle and forms of madness such as schizophrenia and autism. Returning to praxis in #220, he talks about the madness of wanting instant results—this in itself is a form of the insane consumerist mentality of the spectacle. “Conversely, the critique which goes beyond the spectacle must know how to wait” (220). “It must struggle in practice among the irreconcilable enemies of the spectacle and admit that it is absent where they are absent” (presumably a reference to a true revolutionary class, which is not that of the Situationist intellectuals themselves; thus, they cannot make the revolution, and must wait to align themselves with those who can). In his final paragraph he notes that neither the “isolated individual” nor the “atomized crowd subjected to manipulation” (a fitting term for the audience of social media) can make revolution; instead this will be “the class which is able to effect the dissolution of all classes” [i.e., the “dictatorship of the proletariat”], by bringing about “realized democracy” in the form of “the Council” (i.e., a system of federated, local worker’s councils).

Monday, January 17, 2022

Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 8


Chapter 8: Negation and Consumption Within Culture


In this chapter Debord takes on "culture," by which he means "the general sphere of knowledge and of representations of the lived; ... the power of generalization existing apart, as division of intellectual labor and as intellectual labor of division." (180) Mostly he means art and the academic disciplines, which will be his primary focus as examples of "culture." Culture in this sense is not an eternal aspect of humanity, but something that came about, or came about as something with its own existence, only after the dissolution of the unifying power of myth. Culture appears to be the separate and partial representation of the unity of society, within the post-Myth society of the spectacle. It inherently fails in its intent to represent or create unity. It is characterized by a struggle between tradition and innovation, in which innovation always wins and is then superseded by a further innovation. In 182 he references the death of God as the "first condition of any critique," but this sets up the condition of a "critique without end." It seems that this critique without end is a good thing because it destabilizes the foundation of the knowledge about society created through this critique; unless he means to imply that critique without end is a bad thing, because it never leads anywhere and does not actually challenge the spectacle (later he calls this aspect the "spectacular critique of the spectacle"). (This later aspect of “critique without end,” is part of the target of postcritique).

One confusing aspect of this chapter is his repeated use of terms like "collapse," "negation," "disappearance" ... it is hard to know what he means (e.g., "In this search for unity, culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself." (180) My guess is that this is a use of dialectic terminology: culture becomes its own antithesis or negation. Or maybe some kind of consumption or using-up is implied, I have only a vague recollection of terms like "the enjoyment of pure negation" from Hegel. In either way there are two "ends" of culture: one as a dead object in the library/museum/archive/etc. of the society of the spectacle; the other is as the supersession of culture in "total history," i.e., revolution. So it is possible that all these instances of negation, disappearance, and collapse refer to this ambiguity, an end that is on the one hand a supersession, or possible supersession, and at the same time a death, an objectification into the spectacle.

 Debord sets up an opposition between fragmentary knowledges which uphold the spectacle, and the critique of the spectacle through praxis. 

He goes into a critique of art (starting c. 186), with the big break being the Baroque period, which is the first to depart from the society of myth and the mere communication of the ideology supporting the church and nobility. The Baroque brings in the everyday, choosing "life against eternity," it is the "art of the change" and allied with theater and festival [hints of Bakhtin] (189). Debord points out how the various attempts at classicism, as reactions against the Baroque, inevitably fail because of the ridiculousness of the bourgeois (even as revolutionaries) dressed up as Romans (the story of George Washington’s statue by Houdon fits well here). Instead, the later movements which "followed the general path" of the Baroque, (Romanticism, Cubism, presumably the other isms), ended up being an art of negation increasingly fracturing itself and its representation of the world, thus negating culture as such a representation. Inserting my own interpretation a bit, this must on the one hand be good as it leads to supersession/critique; but also bad in the way it ends as a dead object, indeed creating the possibility of art history, which looks at the art of all previous periods as collectibles, souvenirs, which can all be admitted and admired because they no longer have any power: "they no longer suffer from the loss of their specific conditions of communication in the current general loss of the conditions of communication." (189)

[Debord does not of course call this last observation the "postmodern condition" but I feel it is. I am immediately reminded of the ISIS soldiers defacing ancient Lamassu and the shock this generated in the West: in a limited sense, the destruction of the Lamassu was the first example of treating them with any respect in a long time -- the first time they were recognized as having power independent of the current system of collection and interpretation (i.e., the spectacle). (Of course this is only a partial sense, because ISIS were very much involved in the spectacle, and staged these destructions to trigger the west; they also looted and sold artifacts, and thus engaged in the art market).]

He notes what I call the paradox of the avant-garde, which is that the avant-garde seeks the supersession of culture (he calls it a "negative movement," which is a good thing for Debord). He criticizes Dada and the surrealists as being two partial critiques (one to suppress, the other to realize art). "The critical position later elaborated by the Situationists has shown that the suppression and the realization of art are inseparable aspects of a single supersession of art." (191) So maybe the two forms of the negation are united in the transcendence? Anyway art in the time of the spectacle is stuck with an impossible goal: "communication of the incommunicable" (192)

He takes on Clark Kerr, which is funny because I was just reading Braverman doing the same thing in his book from a few years later. He turns to the subject of the "science of false consciousness," that is, academic disciplines, of which sociology will be his primary target, followed by history. Sociology is the "spectacular critique of the subject," while structuralism (of all kinds), which he really hates, is the "apology for the spectacle" (195) because it posits eternal verities in the form of these eternal structures [he has moved on from Kerr here, but the points he makes are very reminiscent of Braverman's attack on the eternalism [and anti-historicism] of Kerr's sociology, as well as his criticism of the search for "formulae" for history.] From 197 he attacks the kind of labor condition sociology which Braverman also attacks. From 198 on he attacks an article by Boorstin in which a partial (conservative) critique of the spectacle is articulated; he points out its incompleteness, then turns from 201 to continue his attack on structuralism. 

In 203 he returns to his earlier theme of praxis (theory plus practice). The idea of the spectacle can be vulgarized--again, just like Braverman had complained of the vulgarization of the Marxist concept of "alienation" by bourgeois sociologists. The opposite of this sort of [vulgar or spectacular critique] is praxis: "no idea can lead beyond the existing spectacle, but only beyond the existing ideas of the spectacle" (203). Ideas need to be united with "practical force," with the "practical current of negation in society," (though it is only by uniting with the idea that such a force can learn "the secret of what this negation can be"). [This is Debord again articulating what he did before, and what Graeber has also stated, that the post-revolutionary society cannot actually be described by someone in the pre-revolutionary society, because (in this form of the argument) it takes more than ideas to make history.]  He then discusses "critical" and "dialectical" theory before going into an analysis of his own style of writing, in particular the form which has become more and more pronounced throughout this very chapter, of the "inversion of the genetive" [sic] (206), which he traces back to Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx. He starts mentioning this term, "diversion," which is presumably linked to (or is) detournement. He gives his shocking pronouncement that "Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it" (207) because this is part of taking words and ideas of the spectacle and diverting them, erasing the old ideas and creating them anew (indeed this is what he is doing with the word/concept "plagiarism" in this example). 

In 208, he opposes diversion to quotation: quotation is (obviously) the spectacular dead form that knowledge and words of the past take, in the spectacle (for instance, I have seen the above quote about plagiarism sitting by itself out of context; the subtle and more pointed meaning is completely lost). He is here very reminiscent of Volosinov in his insistence on the meaning of an utterance in the precise conditions under which it was spoken. In contrast to the reifying practice of quotation, diversion "has grounded its cause on nothing" -- another reference to Stirner. In 209, he expresses the idea of a [trojan horse]. "What openly presents itself as diverted" denies the autonomy of the sphere of culture or expression, and otherviews the entire existing order. This is linked also to the demand for praxis. This unification in praxis is what will allow the critique and practice of the Situationalists to be a "unified theoretical critique" that meets "unified social practice." (211)

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 7

 Chapter 7: The Organization of Territory


After two chapters on time, Debord now has a very short one on space. The theme is that under commodity capitalism, all space has become banalized. Places lose their unique meaning as part of becoming universally equivalent and interchangeable. In particular, the distinction between the city and the country has been eroded or overwritten [though he does not say this, perhaps because he is looking at France rather than the US, this could be called universal suburbanization.]  Tourism (168) relies on this universal equivalence and consumability of place. Debord talks about urbanism under capitalism as being an attempt by capital to remake space in its own image, by destroying or disabling the city, fighting against the threat posed by the workers having been brought together by the conditions of production . This involves mass architecture as housing for workers (173), and also "the suppression of the street" (172).

The city had been where universal history had come to life and remains the locus of history; capitalism and the spectacle work to keep this from coming to fruition. In 178-9 he talks about revolution, to be led by worker's councils, which will remake cities again, in their own image, instead of capitalism's.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 6


Chapter 6: Spectacular Time


After rehearsing his theory of the history of time in the previous chapter, Debord here turns to the role of time in today's spectacle. He begins by drawing an opposition between irreversible commodity time (apparently the time of labor-value), that is, universally equivalent clock-time; and consumable time, which is the reappearance of the cyclical but in a consumable form as "pseudo-cyclical time.” An interesting reversal is involved: whereas cyclical time in the past had been non-individualizing, but irreversible time had been the time of unique individuals; in today's reversed spectacle, it is the irreversible time of commodity production (through the expenditure of labor time) that is non-individualized (quantitative rather than qualitative), and pseudo-cyclical time which is the lived time of unique experience (of the consumer). 

He spends several paragraphs expanding on the role of pseudo-cyclical time in the spectacle. It has two aspects: as "the time of consumption of images," and as "the image of consumption of time;" that is, it is both the time of consumption (of the modern spectacle and commodities), but also the image and meaning of such consumption, the spectacle itself. The vacation replaces the festival as the focus of pseudo-cyclical time, and the vacation then becomes the image of "real life" which the rest of existence is merely the build-up to [cf. "working for the weekend," or Jack Vance's story of a society of people who are aristocrats one day a week, and servants the rest.] "Here this commodity is explicitly presented as the moment of real life, and the point is to wait for its cyclical return” (153).

"Vulgarized pseudo-festivals" take the place of ancient cyclical ones (154). Whereas ancient cyclical time was in tune with the labor and natural processes of reproduction, the new pseudo-cyclical time exists in a contradiction with the "abstract irreversible time" of production [and this is why it is "pseudo"] (155). 

Because everything that is real is seen to happen to other people (celebrities) or to yourself only when outside of your own life (on vacation), your real everyday lived life "has no history" (157). That is, the "general historical life," as it exists during the spectacle, leaves no room for, and denies, individual life. Your actual experience of your own life is "without language, without concept," because all meaning is recuperated by the spectacle. This private life of the unique individual is forgotten. This is all part of the "false consciousness of time" (158). Debord notes that this was all made possible because back at the beginning of the capitalist era there was a primitive accumulation of the time that had belonged to individual workers [an interesting interpretation of time as a means of production].

There is also a denial of the underlying biological aspect of life and labor. Death is something denied and/or not dealt with. Whereas Hegel had argued that time is a necessary alienation, whereby we become other to ourselves and thus realize ourselves, this is denied us in spectacular time. Also, the sequence of fashions, commodities, etc in pseudo-cyclical time obscures the "obvious and secret necessity of revolution" (162). The real point of history, and of generalized historical time, has been denied – that is, "the revolutionary project of realizing a classless society ... a withering away of the social measure of time, to the benefit of a playful model of irreversible time of individuals and groups, a model in which independent federated times are simultaneously present " (163). [i.e., as we called it in Yellow #5, "everybody doing their own shit at the same fucking time”]. Debord defines communism as that "which suppresses 'all that exists independently of individuals'" (163; according to the Bureau of Public Secrets, the line is from the German Ideology).

Debord makes an ending reference to dream, reminiscent of Benjamin: "The world already possesses the dream of a time whose consciousness it must now possess in order to actually live it" (164).

Friday, January 14, 2022

Society of the Spectacle, Chapter 5


Chapter 5, Time and History


Debord here outlines his theory of history, or rather his dialectical account of the history of time, that is, on the relationships between cyclical and "irreversible" (aka linear) times. He follows a standard framework in which the earliest societies are seen as purely cyclical. He discusses time in early nomadic and sedentary societies.


Debord links the emergence of "the social appropriation of time" to the emergence of hierarchy (#128). Irreversible/linear lived time emerges as "temporal surplus value" which is enjoyed by the elites in their named adventures and conflicts (the subject matter of ancient chronicles and epics), while the masses remain anonymous in the cyclical time that reproduces society. Irreversible time is "squandered" [echoes of Bataille], like a luxury good, it is not put to use reproducing society (but maybe myth, or some kind of elite ideology). "History then passes before men as an alien factor, as that which they never wanted and against which they thought themselves protected." (128) If you’re a peasant, you don’t want history coming to your village.


He details the emergence of writing as a tool of the ancient state; chronicles and epics tell the individual stories of the elites at the surface, and give no regard to the depth of everyday cyclical time (132). Ancient Greece and the Mediterranean are given as a time of a break in which historical consciousness emerges for a wider elite; this brings the "menace of forgetting” (133) (this is presumably derived from Plato’s thoughts on the effect of writing). But with the middle ages comes the return to cyclical time, though damaged; a compromise is made with religion which becomes "semi-historical," a compromise between myth and history, to sustain myth. Debord discusses the middle ages, the figures of the pilgrim and of millenarian movements, and their relationship to modern day revolutionary movements. "The millenarians had to lose because they could not recognize the revolution as their own operation" (138) (i.e., they thought it was the will of God). The return of historical life begins in the Renaissance. 


The bourgeoisie overthrow the old feudal order (140) and make irreversible time the time of labor (and labor time in factories) and of commodities (and their succession). Irreversible time is now democratized and becomes the engine of society, as opposed to cyclical time which decreases in power. This is the "time of things" (142). But there is also a move to reify history or declare the end of history, to prevent revolution and the thought of the possibility of revolution. A new compromise is made with Christianity. The globe is unified under the irreversible time of commodities.


In my 1989 notes I say that Debord's 2 chapters on time "tends to escape me." I add that, "Like Marx, Hegel, and Stirner, Debord feels compelled to place dialectical progression within historical progression. I don't feel this is necessary (and probably misleading) because dialectical progression is not tied in to experiential time; dialectical moments do not follow the chronological exclusion principle."