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 It is characterized by a struggle between tradition and innovation, in which innovation always wins and is then superseded by a further innovation.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)

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