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].


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