The Society of the Virtual Spectacle

Bill Brown

"The destiny of the theory of the spectacle belongs to those (...) who will individually and collectively retrieve the ideas of anti-hierarchy, coherence [and] global contestation." -- Jean-Francois Martos.[1]

"May we succeed in lending a hand to those who in our dear native land are called upon to speak with authority on these matters, that we may be their guide into this field of inquiry, and excite them to make a candid examination of the subject." -- Carl von Clausewitz.[2]


Part One

To begin at the roots: capitalism cannot be depended on to "correct" its own defects or fix the damage and destruction it has caused, nor can it be depended upon to collapse, on its own, due to its own internal contradictions and then leave a tabula rasa upon which one could build a new and truly human society. Capitalism cannot be fixed by piecemeal reforms, nor can revolution "fix" capitalism if that revolution is limited to the political, economic, technological, moral or indeed any particular sector. Only social revolution, which is total revolution, can both save humanity from capitalism's evils (war, pollution, poverty, ignorance and intolerance) and instaurate the kind of society in which humanity can truly flourish (peaceful co-existence, physical and mental health, self-fulfillment and pleasure).

Social revolutionaries must have a "working theory" of capitalist society: that is to say, what it really is, how it continues to exist despite its nearly fatal defects, and how it defends itself against both reformist and revolutionary actions. Here we distinguish ourselves from all those who do not believe that a theory of any kind is necessary, who believe that theory only keeps revolutionaries from acting, that "radical" action is the only theory that is needed, etc., and who form "organizations," and "federations" among these "organizations," most of which have programmatic statements that declare that their members are against a list of bad things (abstractions such as militarism, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy, racism, sexism, et al) and that they are in favor of a list of good things (abstractions such as self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid, freedom, justice, et al).

We believe that only theory allows our actions to be strategic rather than tactical, to be effective rather than ineffective, to be precise rather than approximate. "The first business of every theory is to clear up conceptions and ideas which have been jumbled together, and, we may say, entangled and confused; and only when a right understanding is established, as to names and conceptions, can we hope to progress with clearness and facility, and be certain that author and reader will always see things from the same point of view" (Clausewitz, On War). But we have no illusions about the completeness of theory. As Clausewitz notes, "nothing more than a limited theory can be obtained, which only suits circumstances such as they are presented in history. But this incompleteness is unavoidable, because in any case theory must either have deduced from, or have compared with, history what it advances with respect to things. Besides, this incompleteness in every case is more theoretical than real" (On War).

There are, of course, many theories of "modern" society: psychoanalytic (institutions are created by repressive sublimation); sociological (power is held by large groups, small elites or complex networks); etc. But none of these theories were conceived or elaborated so as to overthrow "modern" society. Many were in fact intended to justify that society's existence. As a result, they are not perceived as scandalous or unacceptable to it; such perceptions are among the hallmarks of a truly revolutionary theory.

There are at least two major sources of truly revolutionary theory: Marxism and anarchism. Both try to explain who (or what) holds power in society, and why or how they hold it: for the Marxists, the bourgeoisie holds power because it owns and controls the means of production; for the anarchists, the State holds power due to its monopoly over coercive force (the military and the police). Each theory is revolutionary because it envisions an end to this kind of society and its replacement by another, truly humane one: Marxism envisions proletarian revolution, which abolishes all class power; and anarchism envisions a political revolution after which voluntary association will replace coercion.

But both Marxism and anarchism have degenerated a great deal over the course of the last century. Some Marxists now prefer to call themselves "libertarian communists" and have completely abandoned the idea of revolution: "Our primary focus," say the people who run libcom.org, "is always on how best to act in the here and now to better our circumstances and protect the planet." Other Marxists (such as those who produce the journal called Aufheben) retain the idea and goal of revolution, but -- despite their announced intention to move with the times -- remain trapped in the worst aspects of "classical" Marxist theory, in particular, a fetishism of the proletariat and "proletarian theory." There are still handfuls of Leninist, Trotskyist and Maoist sects in existence; not surprisingly, all of them are hierarchically organized, rigid and terribly dull. Though some of these groups are "behind" several large organizations (including the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition), these "front groups" are not explicitly revolutionary and indeed simply channel revolutionary impulses back into the electoral system (typically, support for the Democratic Party).[3]

There are many small contemporary groups and movements that subscribe to "anarchism" and "anti-authoritarianism," but few of them are sources (or even readers) of revolutionary theory; mostly they eschew theory in favor of "radical" or "direct" action. For too many of them, "action" is taken against particular aspects of capitalist society: police brutality, the treatment of animals, biotechnology, racism, pollution, environmental degradation, the war on drugs, sexual violence against women, homophobia, neo-liberalism, etc etc. Very rarely is "action" taken against capitalist society or the State as a whole. The very idea of such action seems utopian, millenarian and even impossible. And, of course, some of these "anarchists" aren't anarchists at all, but Leftists or "citizenists" who have simply adopted the label because, in the aftermath of the Seattle 1999 riots, it became fashionable and won several people TV coverage and book contracts.[4]

There are exceptions: the "insurrectionary" anarchists, the green anarchists, the "primitivists," those who describe themselves as anti-technology and anti-civilization, etc. (there can be a great deal of overlap between these various currents of thought). Most of these folks certainly speak about revolution, but -- because they have come after a wave of extremism exemplified by the Situationist International (SI), but do not want to follow in its "Marxist" footsteps -- they feel themselves compelled to be even more extreme than those extremists. And so, while Marx and Engels were opposed to the bourgeoisie and capital's domination of labor, and while the Situationist International was opposed to work and the spectacle's domination of everyday life, the revolutionary anarchists declare themselves to be against virtually everything: "technology," industrial society, "progress," rationality, and civilization itself. Some of these hyper-extremists are even against revolution, because -- to them -- it is the ultimate manifestation of the ideology of progress.

At least in France, there is a great deal of friction between the anti-progress ("technophobic") anarchists and the situationist-inspired revolutionaries. (There is also some conflict between these two currents in America: see issue #24 of Green Anarchy,[5] as well as the exchange between John Filiss and Ken Knabb.) At issue in this conflict is determining the fundamental nature of the enemy: is it industrial society or is it capitalism? Which contains the toxic element: industrial production or the commodity? Because he was a member of the SI, Rene Riesel's opinion on these questions carries some weight, at least in France. In his "Preface" to On the progress of domestication (2000), Riesel claims that, among "the most backwards scoffers at anti-progressivist positions" are those who claim "the heritage and exclusive use that no one disputes them, this or that radical doxa" (the "orthodoxy" of situationist theory). Riesel refers to the "arguments to which diverse living fossils, issued from situationism [sic] or the ultra-Left, have recourse to refute the idea that one can find more advantage in designating this society as industrial society. They find it sufficient to continue to speak of capitalist society, of capitalized society, of the society of the spectacle." These "wax figures," Riesel says, "each being free to communicate as he understands," "have indeed found their adequate form: they expect their public on the Internet, the great libertarian media in which capital works hard to spoil the creativity of the masses." Riesel has been answered, among others, by Les Amis de Nemesis: "But if one conserves a minimal amount of seriousness, one must admit that those who are opposed to the notion of 'industrial society' never defend the reality that the technophobes have labeled in this way, and that their opposition to certain terms and to a certain analysis, which appear impoverished, only aim at maintaining a more fundamental opposition to the dominant society."[6]

We believe that Guy Debord's theory of the spectacle, which is a total theory that attempts to blend or at least reconcile the best aspects of Marxism and anarchism, is the most relevant and useful revolutionary theory available to us today. As Anselm Jappe remarked in 1998, "thirty years [after May 1968], now that Althusserianism, Maoism, workerism, and Freudo-Marxism have all disappeared into historical oblivion, it is clear that the Situationists were the only people at that time to develop a theory, and to a lesser extent a practice, whose interest is not merely historiographical but retains a potential relevance today."[7] But, unlike Jappe, who was content to reiterate and critique the theory of the spectacle (he did both quite well), we wish to go even further and bring this theory up to date. After "biding its time" for so long, perhaps this theory is finally ready to surpass the spectacle.

Given our personal autonomy with respect to all of the existing groups and movements, we might be asked: "Why not simply start from scratch, with your own theory?" Clausewitz provides a good answer: "Theory is instituted so that each person in succession may not have to go through the same labor of clearing the ground and toiling through his subject, but may find the thing in order, and light admitted on it. It should educate the mind of the future leader (...), or rather guide him in his self-instruction, but not accompany him to the field of battle" (On War).


Part Two

"For it is hard to speak properly upon a subject where it is even difficult to convince your hearers that you are speaking the truth. On the one hand, the friend who is familiar with every fact of the story, may think that some point has not been set forth with that fulness which he wishes and knows it to deserve; on the other, he who is a stranger to the matter may be led by envy to suspect exaggeration if he hears anything above his own nature [...] Although I shall perhaps be no better believed than others have been when I speak upon the reality of the expedition, and although I know that those who either make or repeat statements thought not worthy of belief not only gain no converts, but are thought fools for their pains, I shall certainly not be frightened into holding my tongue when the state is in danger, and when I am persuaded that I can speak with more authority on the matter than other persons." -- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War.

Everyone, even the capitalists and their apologists, agree that spectacles are increasingly central to and typical of this society. (Note that we do not refer to "images": spectacles -- unusual, strange, remarkable or memorable sensory phenomena, especially visual phenomena -- are more compelling and attractive than mere images.) Spectacles fill up and dominate all aspects of capitalist society: war ("shock and awe"), politics (photo opportunities, televised conventions and debates, and TV commercials), culture (tabloid journalism, "breaking news"), sports ("extreme" competitions), consumerism ("spectacular" sales and events), art (body-centered "performance" art), architecture (especially of the "post-modern" type) and, of course, entire cities.

And so we must be clear that the concept of "spectacle" is not the same thing as the critical or revolutionary theory of "the spectacle." Unlike the theory, the concept of "spectacle" simply describes superficial phenomena, especially the omnipresence and "invasiveness" of television and the other "mass media." Typically, for those who elaborate the concept of "spectacle," it is something that has long or even always existed, and thus they give it no precise or localized historical existence, and no possible end. Nor do their denunciations of spectacularization (which are chiefly of a moralizing nature) displease or unnerve existing society: contemporary capitalist society has officially recognized itself as "spectacular," and "situationism" (everyone can or should play a role in the show) has become its official ideology. "That modern society is a society of spectacle now goes without saying," Le Monde said on 19 September 1987.[8]

The preface to Fran Shor's Bush-League Spectacles: Empire, Politics and Culture in Bush-Whacked America (2005) offers a more contemporary example. After quoting "Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle" -- who/which says "The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual deception produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized" -- the author proclaims,

Spectacles have played a significant part of empires and public life throughout history. From the circuses of Rome to the Nuremberg rallies of Nazi Germany, the staging of public events for mass mobilization has served the interests of the ruling elite. However, in this era of the society of the spectacle where images dominate beyond just the media environment, the spectacle is even more integral to the functioning of society. While there are obviously efforts to manipulate spectacles for partisan purposes, spectacles become the primary vehicle through which popular discourse and opinion are channeled.

By contrast, the central thesis of Debord's theory of the spectacle -- first enunciated in book form exactly forty years ago today, in the short but very thorough and dense book entitled La Societe du Spectacle[9] -- is that "the spectacle" is a stage in the history of capitalism or, rather, the freezing of history itself at a particular moment. That moment can be dated sometime between 1917 and 1939, and can be described as a two-fold development: 1) capitalist abundance (the abundance of mass-produced commodities and material wealth) crossed a certain threshold and entered superabundance, and 2) because superabundance made social revolution both desirable and possible, the ruling classes and bureaucracies of the world found it necessary to have this superabundance systematically dissimulated or denied outright. Instead of consuming its surpluses in what Georges Bataille has called "unproductive expenditures"[10] (feasts, festivals and games), modern society -- claiming that scarcity still existed -- reinvested them in new cycles of production. And so, "the economy" became autonomous from the rest of society, and developed for itself only. And so a one sentence definition of the spectacle would thus be this: the spectacle is a form by and in which social revolution is deferred. It is not simply a form of hyper-visibility (as in the concept of "spectacle"), but a form of invisibility, dissimulation or hiding: to the extent that the spectacle is organized, it is a conspiracy to hide, dissimulate and deny the reality of capitalism's obsolescence.

A handful of revolutionaries were able to detect these changes in society as they were happening. Some of their names are well-known: Bataille, Breton, Artaud, Benjamin, Korsch, and Lukacs. But precisely because of the continuing development of the capitalist economy since 1939, these changes -- as well as the desirability and possibility of social revolution -- have become both even more serious and easier to discern in the last few decades. Let us address them in the form of four questions.

1) What is obsolete and can be dispensed with? First and foremost, work, that is to say, the necessity of having to work for a living. There is in fact so much accumulated wealth that, if it were evenly distributed, no one would ever need to work ever again (a certain amount of labor might be socially necessary, but the institution of work could be abolished.) By the same token, poverty, hunger and homelessness could be eradicated all over the world. And since the institution of work under capitalism involves or is limited to the production, distribution and sales of commodities, there is in fact no more need for the market, advertising and the commodity itself. Yes, people still need to eat, shelter and clothe themselves, but these needs do not have to be met through the production of commodities.

2) What can be destroyed and reinvented in complete freedom? Above all, everything that used to be done while not "at work": leisure activities, vacations, and entertainment. Rather than being pursued as ways of resting or refreshing oneself so to be able to return to work, all these activities -- indeed, the very time in which they were accomplished -- could be enjoyed freely and independently. People need not simply "have fun" all the time (although they could, if they wanted to): all of the forms that merely speculated on the possibility of utopia -- philosophy, art in all its forms, and religion -- could now be pursued directly and fully. One would not go to school to study to become a good worker or a good consumer, but a good person. All forms of morality and ethics could be completely reinvented.

3) Who prevents these radical changes (this social revolution) from taking place? The owners of this world, of course, but they have a great deal of help: the people who position themselves as "representatives" and thus arbiters of who gets what (the politicians and union bosses); the people who design and construct the buildings, modes of transportation and cities that use separation and isolation to prevent the vast majority of the population from forming general assemblies or enjoying unproductive expenditures (the architects, urbanists and "developers"); the people who use deadly force to prevent wealth from being reappropriated (the police, private security firms, and the military); the people who continue to propagate the general myth of scarcity (the mass media), who hinder or suppress distribution so that scarcity seems to continue to exist (the various mafias), or who invent and impose new scarcities (the people in the businesses of security and safety); the people who specialize in the controlled and very limited expenditure of surpluses (the spectacular entertainers, stars and performers); and, last but not least, the suppressors of dreams and utopias (the priests, social workers and psychiatrists).

4) What happens because social revolution is continually deferred? In the words of the situationists, the autonomous capitalist economy -- "one of those fragments of social power which claim to represent a coherent totality, and tend to impose themselves as a total explanation and organization" (Critique of Urbanism) -- becomes more and more totalitarian. The autonomous economy becomes "the totalitarian dictatorship of the fragment" (Basic Banalities). Not surprisingly, its products become more and more noxious, to the point of toxicity, which was clearly reached with the invention and widespread use of nuclear power plants. Precisely because an autonomous economy is an economy deprived of reason, the increasing toxicity of capitalism itself and its various products seem "natural" or impossible to understand, and (in either case) unavoidable. Note well: even if the economy had not become autonomous, the commodity would still be noxious. Indeed, there were plenty of toxic products put on the market before the 1917-1939 period. The toxicity of the commodity is not accidental nor even controllable: it is part of its very structure as "value," that is to say, its internal split into use-value, which is useful by definition, into exchange-value, which is essentially indifferent, if not openly hostile to usefulness. This is precisely why revolutionaries, if they wish to live in a society without alienation, cannot simply return to the days before either capitalism or industrial society existed: the very same structure of alienation exists in the "value" of money, which is the commodity that has no use-value in itself, except for its ability to be exchanged for any other commodity, indeed, all other commodities.

To continue to develop the economy and yet to continue to defer social revolution, certain forms of government have been necessary, and their study was in fact Debord's central concern, not just in The Society of the Spectacle, but also in his Preface to the Fourth Italian Edition of "The Society of the Spectacle" (1979), and his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988).[11] Between 1967 and 1988, Debord identified three such forms: 1) the concentrated spectacle ("totalitarian" societies such as Nazi Germany and Communist Russia), 2) the diffuse spectacle ("democratic" societies such as the United States), and 3) the integrated spectacular, which resulted from the "historic compromise" between "Communism" (State bureaucratic capitalism) and "capitalism" (corporate bureaucratic capitalism) that began in the mid-1970s (in France and Italy), and culminated in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the dominant paradigm.

In many ways, the most important of these forms is the concentrated spectacle. Even though it arrived many decades after the Industrial Revolution, and arose as a spectacular alternative to free-market capitalism, the concentrated spectacle is the "first" spectacle: in its very totalitarianism, it is the closest to the essentially totalitarian nature of the commodity.[12] And, to the precise extent that it is the form taken by the capitalist State when it is in crisis, the concentrated spectacle will also be the final form it will take: "the destiny of the spectacle," Debord says near the very end of his Comments, "is certainly not to end in enlightened despotism."

There were and still are real differences between these three forms of the modern State: wars, both "hot" and "cold," have been fought. But what makes all three "spectacular" -- what makes "the spectacle" a truly global system of government -- are the facts that they have positioned themselves as balancing each other out (as in the "balance of terror") and that each one has striven to suppress working-class subversion within its borders. There have also been moments -- and these are quite instructive -- in which the apparently opposed or competing State-forms have collaborated on the suppression of working-class revolution: Spain in the 1930s, Hungary in the 1950s, and Italy in the 1970s.

It is indeed significant that precious little of what we have just mentioned appears in contemporary discussions of "the spectacle" and/or Guy Debord personally. Generally such discussions focus upon Debord's art (he was primarly a filmmaker, but also a writer, translator and book designer), or upon the early years of his involvement in the Situationist International (1957-1961) and its art-based theories of detournement, derive and psychogeography. Here's a good example, provided by the university professor and neo-anarchist David Graeber: "The Situationists, like many '60s radicals, wished to strike back through a strategy of direct action: creating 'situations' by creative acts of subversion that undermined the logic of the Spectacle and allowed actors to at least momentarily recapture their imaginative powers."[13] It is very infrequent that there are discussions of Debord's political theories or the middle years of the SI (1962-1968), when it was preoccupied with purely political subjects (the Watts riots in the USA, the Six Day War, the Vietnam War, the Algerian independence movement, the Czech Spring of 1968, and, of course, May 1968 in France). Furthermore, there is virtually no discussion of Debord's political activities after the SI dissolved itself in 1972: that is, no discussion of his efforts in and with revolutionaries from Italy (1973-1975), Portugal (1974-75), and Spain (1980-81).

And yet commentators of all types -- on both the Right and the Left -- feel compelled to speak of him. Why? "The extreme disaster in which spectacular democracy has plunged us, by confirming even more clumsily Guy Debord's conclusions, has in large part convinced the enemy of the truth of his judgments" (Jean-Francois Martos, Oil on Fire). If we now briefly focus on a recent article by Henry A. Giroux -- "Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism," which derives from his book, Beyond the Spectacle of Terrorism: Global Uncertainty and the Challenge of the New Media (2006) -- it is only because it is one of the very few to take Debord's political ideas (half-way) seriously and because it does so in such an inadequate fashion. In other words, it indicates just how empty the field is of serious discussion.

Following a pattern established in the 1970s by Michel Foucault[14] and Jean Baudrillard, Giroux only mentions Guy Debord and his "pioneering" theory of the society of the spectacle so as to say that, since the 1960s, the spectacle has changed so much that Debord's theory is no longer relevant. Debord and "older notions of the spectacle" could not possibly account for "the emergence of new media and image-based media technologies" such as "camcorders, cellular camera-phones, satellite television, digital recorders and the Internet" because none of it existed in 1967. Either these gadgets are so fundamentally different from radio, TV and the cinema, or the "new media" exist in such great quantities, that "a structural transformation of everyday life" has taken place: these media "have revolutionized the relationship between the specificity of an event and its public display." And while "neither the concept of the spectacle nor the practice of terrorism itself is new," there has been a new and completely unprecedented "merging of the spectacle, terrorism, war and politics." There is, in sum, "a new regime of the spectacle in which screen culture and visual politics create spectacular events just as much as they record them."

Lest we suspect that this "new" spectacle seems an awful lot like the "old" spectacle, and that is it not true that "critical discourses of the spectacle need to be revised so as to provide the theoretical tools required to fully understand how the spectacle has changed," Giroux contrasts "the terrorism of the spectacle" (the old, surpassed reality) with "the spectacle of terrorism" (the new one). While the former was based in "fascist culture and late capitalism's culture of commodification," the later is rooted in "a new notion of the subject forged in social relations largely constructed around fear and terror." And, while the former was dominated by "consensus," "a sense of unity," "solidarity," "illusion" and "depoliticization" (as if the Cold War never existed!), the later is dominated by "a theatrics of fear and shock," "politicization," and "the image added with the thrill of the real." The key idea is that "the spectacle of terrorism undercuts the primacy of consumerism, challenges state power and uses the image to construct a new type of politics organized around the modalities of death, hysteria, panic and violence" (emphasis added).

To dismiss Debord in this way requires two operations, neither of which is intellectually honest. First, Giroux must primarily rely upon summaries of Debord's The Society of the Spectacle produced by other academics, and not on a direct confrontation with the text itself. Not surprisingly, such summaries are completely inadequate and have an agenda that Giroux shares: "The image had replaced the commodity as the basic unit of capitalism; rather than arguing that commodities remained the sine qua non of domination, he insisted, as Eugene L. Arva points out, that in the current era, 'the system of mediation by representation (the world of the spectacle, if you wish) has come to bear more relevance than commodities themselves.'" Second, Giroux must pretend that Debord never wrote another word about the spectacle after 1967: "Debord could not have imagined either how the second media revolution would play out, with its multiple producers, distributors and consumers; or how a post-9/11 war on terrorism would shift, especially in the United States, from an emphasis on consumerism to an equally absorbing obsession with war and its politically regressive corollaries of fear, anxiety and insecurity." And so, for Giroux, neither the Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (and its remarks on computerized networks), nor the preface to the fourth Italian edition of The Society of the Spectacle (and its remarks on the spectacle of terrorism in Italy during the 1970s), ever existed.

With Guy Debord and his inconvenient insistence on the commodity out of the way, Giroux can get to where he wants to go (where he has always been?), which is a completely uncritical embrace of the "new" media and Leftist politics: "Radically new modes of communication and resistance based upon the new media are on full display [sic] in the global justice movements, in the emergence of bloggers holding corporate and government powers more accountable, and in the new kinds of cultural and political struggles waged by the Zapatistas, the Seattle protesters, and various new social movements held together through the informational networks provided by the Internet and the Web." Unlike Debord, obsessed as he was with social revolution, "theorists such as Thomas Keenan, Mark Poster, Douglas Kellner and Jacques Derrida are right in suggesting that new electronic technologies and media publics 'remove restrictions on the horizon of possible communications' and, in doing so, suggest new possibilities for engaging the media as a democratic force both for critique and for positive intervention and change."


Part Three

"It is the law as in art, so in politics, that improvements ever prevail; and though fixed usages may be best for undisturbed communities, constant necessities of action must be accompanied by the constant improvement of methods." -- Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War.

If we return to Debord's theory of the spectacle today, we do not do so to simply reiterate it or defend it. Good, even great as it is, the theory of the spectacle must be improved. And this is why we offer our readers the theory of the virtual spectacle, which is what the global spectacle becomes as or after the integration of Communism and capitalism becomes so complete that one no longer refers to "Communism," and "capitalism" is replaced by euphemisms such "free enterprise" or "the free market." The moment of its birth can be dated fairly precisely (the first American-led attack on Iraq), as can the beginning of its maturation (September 11th, 2001).

It is our hope that our proposed extensions and improvements will increase the theory's usefulness to today's struggles. Theory, Clausewitz says, "must always remain practical." For him, and for us, "All positive results of theoretical inquiry, all principles, rules, and methods, are all the more wanting in generality and positive truth the more they become positive doctrine. They exist to offer themselves for use as required, and it must always be left for judgment to decide whether they are suitable or not."

* * *

First, a note about the manner of our exposition. In The Society of the Spectacle, which was partly composed of "detourned" (altered and unattributed) quotations from Hegel, Marx and other famous sources, Debord explains why he chose this unusual form of communication.

Critical theory must be communicated in its own language. This is the language of contradiction, which must be dialectical in its form as in its content [...] In its very style, the exposition of dialectical theory is a scandal and an abomination according to the rules of the dominant language and for the tastes of those that it has educated because, in the positive use of existing concepts, this exposition includes both the intelligence of their retrieved fluidity and their necessary destruction [...] Detournement is the contrary of the quotation, of theoretical authority that is always falsified due to the sole fact that it has become quotation; a fragment torn from its context, its movement and finally from its era as a global reference and from the precise option that was inside this reference, exactly or erroneously recognized. Detournement is the fluid language of anti-ideology. It appears in communication that knows that it cannot claim to hold any guarantee in itself and definitively [...] What presents itself as detourned in its theoretical formulation -- by denying all durable autonomy to the sphere of what is theoretically expressed, that is, by (through this violence) bringing about the intervention of the action that disturbs and carries off the existing order -- recalls that the existence of the theoretical is nothing in itself and can only know historical action and the historical correction that is its real fidelity.

But, in the 1979 Preface and his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Debord abandoned detournement in favor of a "new" or at least different method of exposition. He says in the latter work,

This misfortune of the times thus compels me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally omitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Readers will encounter certain decoys, like the very hallmark of the era. As long as other pages are interpolated here and there, the overall meaning may appear just as secret clauses have very often been added to whatever treaties may openly stipulate, just as some chemical agents only reveal their hidden properties when they are combined with others.

To the extent that The Society of the Spectacle was an extended detournement of Marx's Capital (it was published almost exactly 100 years later), the abandonment of detournement as a form of exposition corresponded with an (apparent) abandonment of Marxism. Unlike Marx, who focused on the workers and their relationship to the means of production, Debord's focus in the Comments is on consumers and their relationship to the means of distribution. There are some who allege that this movement away from Marx either weakens or ruins the Comments, and transforms the theory of the spectacle into a kind of "conspiracy theory." These objections do not particularly trouble us.

In 1967, it was both surprising and disturbing that Debord had "returned" to Marx: the pre-war defeat of the workers' movement and the post-war birth of the "consumer society" seemed to render much of what Marx had written on the pauperization of the working class irrelevant. Furthermore, revolutionary groups such as Socialisme ou Barbarie had begun to abandon Marx as early as 1964 or 1965. (It was in fact to counter this abandonment that Debord wrote The Society of the Spectacle.)[15] But one must remember that Debord's connection to Marx was neither full nor direct: it proceeded through Georg Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness (1924), which was not available in French until 1960, and connected back to Marxian themes that were either marginal or relatively undeveloped at the time that Marx himself was alive (the chapter of Capital, Volume 1 that concerned commodity fetishism) or texts that weren't published until well after Marx's death (The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which were not published in any language until 1932).

But today, references to Marx trigger nearly automatic reactions of laughter and dismissal from both the capitalists, who either believe that the collapse of the Soviet Union marked the definitive "defeat" of Marxism or believe that Marxism was one of the best things to ever happen to capitalism (!), and hostility and resentment from the anarchists, who see Marxism as their enemy. And so, we see no reason not to let the whole thing go, provided, of course, that we retain the good things that Debord got from Marx via Lukacs and remove the bad things that Debord retained from them both.

On the positive side, Debord (through Lukacs) inherited Marx's insistence on theorizing the totality of capitalism, not just one aspect of it. "It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought," Lukacs wrote, "but the point of view of totality." The situationists echoed: "The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science" (Concerning Several Errors of Interpretation). This insistence on the totality prevented the situationists from focusing on and getting caught up in isolated facts or events, but allowed them to grasp the overarching process that included such moments. Unlike Marx, Debord was not a scientist: he did not maintain a linear view of history, nor did he put any faith in the "laws" of history. Struggle is everything, and the outcome of that struggle is neither determined nor known in advance. In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord declared:

What closely tied Marx's theory to scientific thought was the rational comprehension of the forces that were really active in society. But Marx's theory is fundamentally beyond scientific thought, which is only conserved by being surpassed: it is a comprehension of the struggle, and not at all the law. "We only know a single science: the science of history," says The German Ideology.

On the negative side, Debord retained a certain ambivalence, lack of certainty or self-contradiction concerning the economy. "There are in fact two competing views to be found in Marx," says Anselm Jappe, "the one envisaging liberation from the economy, the other liberation by means of the economy; nor may the two be simply assigned to different phases of this thought, as some would like to do." This shows up in Debord in his famous graffito "Never Work!" (which he claimed in 1963 to be the "Preliminary Program to the Situationist Movement"), on the one hand, and in his insistence in The Society of the Spectacle that "the finally discovered political form in which the economic emancipation of work can be realized" has "in this century taken a clear form in the revolutionary Workers Councils, concentrating in themselves all the functions of decision and execution, and federating themselves by the means of delegates who are responsible to the base and revocable at any moment" (Thesis 116). The problems, of course, are that those who never work will never form workers' councils, and workers' councils must eventually put the idea "never work" into practice, which thereby undermines the very basis of their own existence.

This split concerning emancipation can be closely associated with another. Is the proletariat ("the negative at work in this society" in the words of Thesis 114 of The Society of the Spectacle) inevitably constituted by capitalism itself? Is the proletariat potentially or virtually "revolutionary" because of its crucial place in the production process, its internal cohesion, its concentration in the cities and its exclusion from the "benefits" of bourgeois society? Or, rather, is a revolutionary proletarian anyone (student, housewife, mid-level manager) who has no power over his or her own life, who is condemned to an existence of executing the commands of others, knows it and is willing to act on that knowledge? Anselm Jappe makes a very good point: the urban proletariat of Marx's time "was in reality nothing but a pre-capitalist relic, an 'estate' in the feudal sense, and not a direct result of capitalist development at all." Precisely due to the maturation of capitalism -- that is to say, its post-1960s embrace of robotization, automation and computerization -- the "proletariat" of Marx's time has been dissolved or at least been displaced to "third-world countries." In the words of Les Amis de Nemesis: "the dominant system is no longer -- as in the Ancien Regime or the strong, national State -- a centralized system that possesses a "seat of power" against which the jacqueries must march, with pitchforks and scythes in hand; that there is no longer even a network of factories that the workers can blockade or appropriate, but a diffuse order of which the manifestations are everywhere, like the market values that constitute themselves through all of the moments of the economical cycle (through the production, circulation and consumption of commodities), and in which human beings vegetate without jobs and especially without income."[16]

And yet, as late as 30 June 1992, when he wrote his "Preface to the Third French Edition" of Spectacle, Debord believed that "everywhere gets posed the same frightening question, which has haunted the world for two centuries: how to get the poor to work, where illusion has been foiled and force has been defeated?" He does not take into consideration the people stuck in France's banlieus, where the poor are left completely alone, except of course, when they riot.[17] The very fact that his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle does not include a single word about "the proletariat" or "class struggle" does not show that Debord managed to overcome this self-contradiction, but that he was aware of it enough to try to suppress it.

* * *

To return to our main line of inquiry: Comments on the Society of the Spectacle is clearly an elaboration of the theory that Debord formulated in 1967. Early on in this book, he reminds his readers of the two essential features of the spectacle (that is to say, the essential features of the concentrated, diffuse and integrated spectacles): "incessant technological renewal" and "fusion of State and economy." Together, these two features match the original definition of the spectacle: it is the one-two punch that both creates and destroys the conditions for social revolution.

Debord then goes on to illustrate three new aspects of what, back in 1967, he theorized under the heading of decomposition, which we discussed in Part Two of this text under the heading, "What happens because social revolution is continually deferred?" He emphasizes three features:

Generalised secrecy stands behind the spectacle, as the decisive complement of all it displays and, in the last analysis, as its most important operation.

The simple fact of being without reply has given to the false an entirely new quality. At a stroke it is truth which has almost everywhere ceased to exist or, at best, has been reduced to the status of pure hypothesis that can never be demonstrated. The false without reply has succeeded in making public opinion disappear: first it found itself incapable of making itself heard and then very quickly dissolved altogether. This evidently has significant consequences for politics, the applied sciences, the justice system and artistic knowledge.

The construction of a present where fashion itself, from clothes to music, has come to a halt, which wants to forget the past and no longer seems to believe in a future, is achieved by the ceaseless circular passage of information, always returning to the same short list of trivialities, passionately proclaimed as major discoveries. Meanwhile news of what is genuinely important, of what is actually changing, comes rarely, and then in fits and starts. It always concerns this world's apparent condemnation of its own existence, the stages in its programmed self-destruction.

Each one of these features continues to be, shall we say, operational. Let us take them one-by-one.

Secrecy -- and here one doesn't simply mean keeping secrets, but also keeping quiet about things that should be discussed openly -- has grown immensely since 1988. Perhaps the biggest "secret" of the last 20 years is September 11th: what really happened on that day? Obviously "state secrets" (the role of the "secret services" in the attacks or their failure to detect and prevent them), "trade secrets" (were the towers that collapsed shoddily constructed?) and questions left unanswered by the official investigation (why did Building 7 at the World Trade Center collapse, even though it wasn't struck by an airplane?) are in play. And, of course, precisely because those attacks were used as the justification for launching "the war on terrorism," all of the secrets mentioned by Debord (who was accused of being paranoid) -- "the 'defense secrets' that today cover an immense domain of full extra-judicial liberty of the State," the "police and counter-espionage services, along with secret services, both State and para-State" that "each country, not to mention the numerous supranational alliances, currently possesses an undetermined number of," the "many private companies dealing in surveillance, security and investigation," and the services possessed by "the large multinationals" -- have become a "routine" part of everyday life.

Debord mentions a number of fakes in his Comments: art works, historical relics, and food, among them. But he also implicates revolutionary groups.

When, for example, the new conditions of the society of the integrated spectacular have forced its critique to remain really clandestine, not because it hides itself but because it is hidden by the heavy stage-management of the thought of diversion, those who are nonetheless charged with surveilling this critique and, if necessary, for denying it, can now employ traditional methods in the milieu of clandestinity: provocation, infiltrations, and various forms of elimination of authentic critique to the profit of a false one which will have been put in place for this purpose.

In our translator's footnote to this passage, which again might seem wildly paranoid, we remind the reader of the following example: "In the summer of 1968, an Italian neo-Nazi and agent provocateur named Mario Merlino succeded in infiltrating Roman anarchist circles by forming the 'XXII March Group,' whose name was a close echo of the '22d March Movement,' the French group from Nanterre that included Daniel Cohn-Bendit and several enrages who later joined the Situationist International. One of the first actions taken by the XXII March Group was the destruction of several cars after a demonstration in front of the French Embassy in Rome. The Italian press quickly blamed the violence on the Italian Communist Party." As another example of a "false flag" operation, we might also have cited the Red Brigades, which allegedly kidnapped and murdered Aldo Moro in 1978.[18] Of course, there are people who believe that September 11th was also a "false flag" operation.

Today, the creation of fake people is increasingly common in advertising. In "viral marketing," which induces consumers to voluntarily disseminate propaganda amongst themselves, an advertising agency will create several imaginary people, complete with full "profiles." These "people" (or, rather, their puppet masters) will contribute "blog" entries on particular Web sites about a commodity, politician or idea. (Note that these things need not be real either. In fact, it is "better" if they, too, are fakes.) These "blog" entries can either be positive or negative. Other imaginary "people" will post comments to these entries, thereby simulating dialogue. Still other "people" (or the original entry writers) will create hypertext links from these "blogs" to a Web site that promotes or slanders the commodity, politician or idea, thereby increasing the ranking given to this Web site by prominent search engines. In an effort to prove the truthfulness of the claims made, "people" will post supporting (but completely fake) "visual evidence" on popular "community" web sites such as Flickr, Photobucket or YouTube. A "blogger" (another imaginary person) who "reports" on "grassroots" stories for "news" sites such as DIGG, the Huffington Post and/or the Drudge Report will then "break the story" about the particular commodity, politician or idea.

It is at this point that the commodity's manufacturer, the politician's press secretary or the people who supposedly believe in the idea will speak, as if for the first time. Whoever or whatever they are, they will circulate press releases or other statements about themselves and their "values." They will either confirm or deny what the "grassroots" has been saying. The original "bloggers" and posters of comments will then respond, and the whole cycle of spectacular lies takes another turn. Inevitably -- or so it would appear -- "people" (hopefully real ones) will start protests that deny whatever has been asserted, be it praise or slander, which will once again gets the "news" cycle going again. Finally, whomever is intended to profit from this entire operation will reveal the hoax, that is to say, the actual nonexistence of the now-(in)famous commodity, politician or idea, and then will let it be known that the real thing (whatever it is) is spectacularly valuable, because, after all, he or she or it was smart and resourceful (and cynical?) enough to perpetrate such a successful hoax in the first place.

Since Debord mentions "clothes and music" in his discussion of the "perpetual present," we feel justified in reminding our readers that in, say John Lennon's peaceful "Imagine" or the Sex Pistols' apocalyptic "God Save the Queen," the denial of the future was a crucial element in the liberation of the present. But the perpetual present of the integrated spectacular is not liberated, nor is it an idyllic hippie dream. It is either a bland dream that has gone on for too long or a nightmare that we wish would end. But it doesn't: it keeps going and going and going, producing nothing more than exhaustion, which in turns strengthens the desire to sleep.

Today, almost 20 years after the publication of Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, "incessant technological renewal" has produced the "information economy," that is to say, the economy (a whole society) that is filled with and dominated by computers and data networks. It is here that the word "virtual" imposes itself. This word can mean three different things: 1) almost as described, but not completely or according to strict definition; 2) (Computing) not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so; and 3) (Optics) relating to the points at which rays would meet if projected backwards. And so, today one speaks of virtual images, virtual memory and virtual reality. Ironically, perhaps, none of these things are "strong" (as in the Latin word virtus) or possessed of "moral excellence" (as in the word virtue): the virtual itself is weak to the extent it really doesn't exist, and is a cheat to the extent that it is "almost" what it is defined as or what it attempts to duplicate. Thus, the "virtual spectacle" fits in nicely with the regression sketched out in Thesis 17 of The Society of the Spectacle:

The first phase of the domination of the economy over social life involved in the definition of all human realization an obvious degradation of being into having. The current phase of the total occupation of social life by the accumulated results of the economy leads to a general slide from having into appearing, from which all real "having" must draw its immediate prestige and final function.

In the third phase, appearing has slipped into seeming: even the image has lost its "being," its substance. Social life or "human realization" doesn't exist: it only seems to appear to exist.

Today, the State and the economy are fused into a single, autonomous institution by a shared interest in "terrorism": on the one hand, fighting the "global war on terrorism" (GWOT), which requires tremendous investments in and reaps equally large profits for the military-industrial complex; and, on the other hand, protecting both the State and the economy from "terrorist" acts committed by the same forces against which the GWOT is fought. Because the first was (or claims to be) a response to the second, and because the second is in fact a response to the first (and the foreign policies that the GWOT is intended to support, justify and protect), an extremely dangerous and profitable "vicious cycle" is guaranteed. To the precise extent to which "the terrorists" fight in a spectacularly "asymmetrical" fashion, the State and the economy can justify even further research into and development of "smart" (technologically renewed) weaponry, even deeper retreats into secrecy, and even further advances into "false flag" operations.

The society "modernized" to the stage of the virtual spectacle is characterized by the combined effects of five new or previously undiscussed features: sonorization, torture, speed, accidents and refugee camps.

It is not just sight that is spectacularized in the society of the virtual spectacle: so is sound. This is done in two ways: first by digitizing it, then by having computers "play" it everywhere, all the time. When CDs were first introduced, they were condemned by music lovers because -- during the process of transferring the music from analog to digital -- what the machines defined as "noise" was removed and replaced by "clean" silence. This ruined many recordings made prior to the introduction of advanced studio techniques in the 1960s: they sounded dry and brittle, and lacked the excitement and vividness of the originals. But then, after the introduction of even more "advanced" studio techniques, all new recordings were made by digital equipment. The problem was worsened: all recordings now lacked excitement and vividness. And yet, when played upon the new mini-computers (cellphones, iPods and the like), they sounded "spectacular": clean and dry, as if no human beings were involved in their production. And, of course, in music that relies (almost) completely on synthesizers, sequencers, drum machines and other micro-processors, few human beings are in fact involved.

With the proliferation of both stationary and hand-held computers, spectacularized sound has also proliferated. Indeed, it isn't just in "unusual" places such as supermarkets and elevators that one is forced to listen to "muzak": pre-recorded computerized sounds, messages, prompts and "ringtones" are virtually everywhere. Like analog sound before it, silence itself is disappearing. Paul Virilio has called this development "sonorization."[19] We can think of no better illustration of it than the pre-recorded messages that are regularly delivered to the riders of the new computerized subway trains that run in New York City. Clearly audible -- no, loud and clear enough to intrude into or force the temporary suspension of conversation -- these messages never let up: "Ladies and gentlemen: not only is it unsafe, it is a violation of the rules to walk between subway cars when the train is in motion, except in an emergency and when directed by emergency personnel. For a complete list of subway rules, please visit mta.info"; "Ladies and gentlemen: please use trash receptacles that are provided for your use on subway platforms"; "Ladies and gentlemen: riding on the outside of subway cars is dangerous. Please remain inside subways cars at all times"; "Ladies and gentlemen: backpacks and large containers are subject to random search by the police"; and "Ladies and gentlemen: this is an important message from the New York City Police Department. Keep your eyes on your belongings at all times. Protect yourself. If you see a suspicious object or activity on the train or platform, do not keep it to yourself. Tell a police officer or a MTA employee. Remain alert and have a safe day."

There are obviously a handful of themes shared by these commands: there is danger; there might be an emergency; obey the rules; respect the authority of the police; and "have a safe day." Clearly the millions of people who ride the subways of this city are being psychologically prepared for the rapidly emerging national security state, for the time when temporary emergency measures become permanent. But the maddening repetition of these messages is more than just propaganda or even brainwashing: it is torture. What are the riders supposed to do, crack under the pressure and declare (aloud, of course) that they, too, love Big Brother?

Like assassination, torture used to be practiced -- secretly, illegally and with discrimination -- at both the very summits of spectacular power (CIA agents) and the very nadir of the "underworld" (mafia enforcers). But today, torture is now practiced openly, legally and indiscriminately. Rather than being practiced by professional sadists for the dubious results that it might produce -- the extraction of information or money from unwilling subjects -- torture is now practiced by amateur sadists as a form of punishment or retribution against large groups of people.

Take for example the U.S. military's use of loud rock 'n' roll music against Manuel Noriega in December 1989 or the Israeli Defense Force's use of pornography against the besieged people of Ramallah in April 2002. Note well that, in the first instance, it wasn't punk or another "marginal" form of pop music, and that in the second instance, it was not torture-themed pornography: in both cases, just run-of-the-mill commercial product. In the words of reporter Charles Paul Freund, "The idea, apparently, is to locate a cultural form that discomfits the target, and to subject that target to an unending stream of it."[20] Here "torture" is relative: what is intensely painful to Noriega or Muslim insurgents might be pleasurable to some. While I might find working in an office with no walls or cubicles -- just a big room in which we can all see and hear each other, all day -- to be torture, you might find it pleasurable. But what distinguishes the 1989 episode from the 2002 one is the presence of large numbers of innocent third-parties and unwilling witnesses. As Freund reported,

Replacing Palestinian news and other programming with such material also increases the stress and frustration of the populace. Remember, Ramallah's residents were unable to leave their homes, even to buy groceries. Their need for information was intense. Israeli forces had the option of taking the TV stations off the air entirely. Instead, they left them operating, but broadcasting "replacement" imagery. The pornography may well have been even more demoralizing than no programming at all.

Today, representations of pain and painful representations are everywhere: TV shows such as 24 and Law & Order Special Victims Unit; movies such as Wolf Creek and Hostel; advertising campaigns for "Razr" cellphones and "Mentitas" breath mints; etc etc. Not surprisingly, so is self-inflicted torture and passionate self-abasement: Fear Factor, Stelarc, "noise music," genital piercings, participation in "reality TV" shows and contests, etc etc. Is this not a generalized confirmation of the thesis of the "Stockholm Syndrome"? People who are kidnapped and held against their will eventually come to identify with their kidnappers. Only, today, "Stockholm" is the whole world.

Modern technologies -- and here we mean both digital and industrial technologies -- are technologies of speed: they all lessen the time necessary to accomplish tasks, deliver objects or messages, and travel through space. Profitability ("time is money") originally drove the "need" for speed, but with the invention of digital technologies and hyperspeeds, decreased time is now both expected and desired for its own sake. For example, people like to drive fast cars not to get anywhere, but simply enjoy the sensation of rapid transit.

But as the "speed of speed" has increased and approached the point of instantaneity, certain problems have emerged and worsened. Accidents that involve greater speeds tend to be more "serious," more destructive to all concerned. Decision-making becomes increasingly difficult and prone to error when the time in which to make decisions shrinks; indeed, instantaneity precludes all decisions that are not pre-programmed and machine-controlled. Space -- the sense of it and thus its importance -- becomes dismissible and even forgettable, which in turns leads to its homogenization or destruction. And, finally, time (the only "thing" that matters) becomes "spatialized," that is to say, frozen in place, frozen into a perpetual present.

None of these problems bother the spectacle, which is in fact strengthened by them. And yet, in some "places," speed is not allowed to accelerate any further or to approach or attain simultaneity. Indeed, in one "place" in particular, speed has been "reversed" or replaced by extreme slowness: the political arena. In the United States at least, the primary season has been greatly lengthened. It is now an entire year before the 2008 presidential election, and yet the candidates in both parties have been at it for several months. Surely such a slow pace -- a kind of torture, given the aggressive saber-rattling and warmongering of almost all of these people -- guarantees increased campaign donations. But it also guarantees over-exposure and the exhaustion of the voter's interest in any or all of these candidates. One is forced to wonder: is this an accident or precisely the intention?

Incessant technological renewal accidentally creates accidents on a large scale: the invention of the automobile was also the invention of the automobile crash; the invention of the airplane was also the invention of the airplane crash, etc. Because capitalism's technological renewal is deliberate, the accident becomes easily foreseeable, even predictable; and because such renewal is incessant, the scope of the accident becomes wider and deeper. The "vector" here is clear: spectacular accidents will take place globally: not just anywhere in the world, but all over the world at the same time. Thus, there is a certain symmetry or integration between the predictable technological accident and deliberate acts of terrorism, which can be defined as the interruption of everyday life by acts of war. It will become increasingly impossible to distinguish, say, an "accidental" explosion at a nuclear power plant and a deliberate act of sabotage at such an installation. In the society of the spectacle, terrorism and everyday life become indistinguishable.

Let us put forward an example. Many people have wondered how it was possible for both towers at the World Trade Center to collapse speedily and completely -- as if brought down by controlled demolitions -- after each building was struck by an airplane that was deliberately crashed into it. Some have simply believed the official explanation, which says that the crashes (and/or the heat released by the explosion and immolation of the planes' fuel) were sufficient to bring the buildings down in "pancake" fashion, while others have put forward the "conspiracy" theory that bombs were detonated in these buildings at the same time of the crashes and/or immediately after them. The first theory is scientifically (physically) impossible, while the "conspiracy" theory makes it necessary to believe that either the "outsiders" (the hijackers of the planes) and the "insiders" (the placers and detonators of the bombs) were working together, or that the "outsiders" were in fact "insiders." It is true that the second theory offers an explanation that seems to account for what actually happened, but it requires us to believe in a super-competency that none of the potential "insiders" (Bush/Cheney, the CIA, the Mossad/Bet Shin, etc.) demonstrated before September 11, 2001 or have been able to demonstrate since then.

Drawing upon -- or, rather, attempting to prove -- the hypothesis that terrorism and everyday life have become indistinguishable, we can envision the following situation: there were indeed "outsiders" (terrorists) who managed to hijack several airplanes on September 11, 2001 and fly two of them directly into the twins towers at the World Trade Center, but these terrorists did not know that both of these buildings (as well as WTC 7, which also completely collapsed on that day, though not struck by an airplane) had been slated for closure and evacuation due to their failure as commercial enterprises and -- because it was cheaper to do it well in advance -- had already been secretly wired for demolition by experts. In other words, the towers were "accidents" waiting to happen, and the "accident" that happened was a pre-planned terrorist attack.

While right-wing politicians in France and the United States use "the immigrant question" to frighten the general population and erect literal and figurative walls around "their" countries to prevent any more "illegals" from entering them -- all the while ignoring or worsening the destruction from within, from the summits of spectacular power, of what makes France "France" and America "America" (a revolutionary history and a tradition of liberty) -- there is another "question" that goes without being posed, not to mention answered. And that is the question of the refugee, the person who, "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country" (United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 1951).

According to a variety of estimates, there are at present between 15 and 20 million people who are refugees, that is, "temporary" inhabitants of refugee camps, in which -- while they wait to be granted asylum in another country -- they have no freedom of movement, no right to employment and no right to own property. They are simply "wards" of the UN and international humanitarian aid groups. All too often, they are not granted asylum, and simply live out their lives, such as they are, in these camps.

Unfortunately, the UN's definition of "refugee" does not cover the 20 to 30 million people who have been displaced (generally by civil war) within their own country, nor does it include the untold millions of people who have fled their own countries due to natural catastrophes, "man-made" accidents, market ("crop") failures, and invasions and occupations by foreign powers. And, of course, no one thinks to account for all the people who remain where they are, "undisplaced," and yet -- due to alienation, embittered disgust or "political opinion" -- are unwilling to avail themselves of the alleged protections of the countries of their respective nationalities. Together, are not all these people the majority of the world's population? And so we see that the vector of the virtual spectacle points to billions of "refugees," either held in huge and always-growing camps or walking around like ghosts, strangers in their own lands, exiles on Main Street. This is not a world turned upside-down, but a world turned inside-out.

No one -- certainly not the neo-anarchists, the citizenists, nor the Leftists, preoccupied as they are with multi-national corporations, neo-liberalism and strengthening ("democratizing") the State to keep these powers "honest" -- has adequately theorized this vector. Not even Guy Debord, whose response to the Vaux-en-Velin riots of 1990 was unexpectedly unsupportive and moralizing, and certainly at variance with his excellent 1985 text on the "immigrant question."[21] In refugee camps, the capitalist economy (work and the consumption of commodities purchased with money earned at work) is absent; and, to the extent that such camps operate under "states of exception," so is the State. Thus these camps are in great peril of being turned into concentration camps or even death camps.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are three "durable solutions": voluntary repatriation of the refugees to their respective countries of origin; local integration into the countries of intended (rejected) asylum; and resettlement to other countries. Quite obviously, none of these solutions is possible. Here as elsewhere (e.g., favela squatter developments in Rio de Janeiro, gecekondu homes in Istanbul, etc.), the only viable option is revolution and autonomous self-rule.


Part Four

"I might, it is true, have written to you something different and more agreeable than this, but nothing certainly more useful, if it is desirable for you to know the real state of things here before taking your measures. Besides I know that it is your nature to love to be told the best side of things, and then to blame the teller if the expectations which he has raised in your minds are not answered by the result; and I therefore thought it safest to declare to you the truth." -- Thucydides.

Let us now concentrate on practical or, rather, organizational matters. Revolutionaries must band together: the spectacle is predicated on isolation and separation; each revolutionary needs the support, encouragement, inspiration and friendship that only other revolutionaries can provide. But such bands must themselves be revolutionary, which means they must be constituted by equals and they cannot reproduce within themselves the conditions that exist in the spectacle, in particular, hierarchy, deception (of self and others), fragmentation and incoherence. In sum, revolutionary organizations cannot be collectives or, even less, federations of collectives: they must be groups of individuals, that is, groups that do not suppress or dissolve the individuality of their members, but retain and enrich them, and in turn are enriched by them.

Thus, we reject the concept of "multitudes" as it has been elaborated by Antonio Negri.[22] We are not philosophers, nor are we interested in establishing or elaborating ontological systems, which are better suited to academic "discussions" than revolutionary activity. Note well that, despite Negri's post-modern replacement of the word "individuals" with "singularities," his politics go no further than electoral politics and "radical" political parties. We also reject the text by the Situationist International entitled "Minimum Definition of Revolutionary Organizations," which rather dogmatically insists that any such organization "pursues with consequence the international realization of the absolute power of the Workers' Councils, such as it has been sketched out by the experience of the proletarian revolutions of this century." Oppressed workers but not members of a single "class," becoming ever-more conscious of our situation but in no need of "class consciousness," we seek our emancipation outside the economy, whether it be capitalist, socialist or communist.

It seems to us that all of the organizational tactics used by the situationists remain relevant and useful to today's struggles. Since the spectacle is a global system, revolutionary organizations must be international in composition and action, and must include members of as many countries as possible. But such members cannot be nationalists or "representatives" of their respective countries of origin: they must be internationalists. (Foreign language skills therefore are obligatory.) Since revolutionary organizations must be small, they cannot admit too many members; nor can they tolerate the presence within themselves of people who turn out to be fundamentally different from what they appeared to be before they joined. As a result, exclusions are regrettable but absolutely necessary, as are breaks with "outsiders" who are hostile to our existence, program or actions, or who continue to collaborate with third-parties with whom we have broken.

Revolutionary organizations must also be real communities that exist in face-to-face situations: they cannot exist "online," that is, in or on list-servs, posting boards or chat rooms. Such communities must strive to produce their own food, clothing and housing; otherwise they are part of the commodity system. Such communities must constantly strive to better their personal and interpersonal communication skills, which means that individuals must be "in touch" with their true feelings and desires, and must know how to express and act upon them; otherwise, deception, hierarchies and power structures are inevitable.

To be coherent, our political "programme" must return to and derive from our definition of the spectacle. That is to say, it must insist upon the super-concentration of wealth in this society, the poor or even lethal uses to which this wealth is put (the USA spends $3 billion per week on the GWOT), and the type of society that could be constructed if this society were overthrown and its wealth was put to truly human uses. The pleasures and "happiness" that this society offers must be mercilessly critiqued as insufficient. Our progamme must condemn the obsolescence and irrevelance of work, the commodity and the market; it and it must ceaselessly expose and undermine those institutions, people and forces that prevent these relics from being placed squarely in the trashcan of history.


Part Five

"Citizens who carry out some undertaking in republics either in favor of liberty or of tyranny should, then, consider the basic material of their society and should judge by that the difficulty of their undertakings, because it is as difficult and as dangerous to try to liberate a people that wishes to live in slavery as it is to try to enslave a people that wishes to live in freedom [...] Those cities used to living in servitude think nothing of changing their master frequently, indeed, many times they desire to do so." (Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy).

Despite the optimistic reports of self-congratulatory neo-anarchists such as David Graeber,[23] we face a very difficult situation today, indeed, one that is much worse than the situation faced by the SI in 1957. Never has the spectacle been so powerful: it has succeeded in raising yet another generation molded to its laws; it has been able to accomplish its lethal program, despite the objections, critique and protests of millions and millions of people; and it aims to accomplish even more. All this is due in part to the confidence or sense of invulnerability among its leaders: as Debord wrote at the very end of his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle,

We must conclude that a change is imminent and ineluctable in the co-opted cast who manage the domination and, notably, those who direct the protection of that domination. In such an affair, the novelty of course will never be displayed on the stage of the spectacle. It will only appear like lightning, which we know only when it strikes. This change, which will decisively complete the work of these spectacular times, will occur discreetly and, although it concerns those already installed in the sphere of power, conspiratorially. It will select those who will take part in it on this central requirement: that they clearly know what obstacles they have overcome, and of what they are capable.

The current success of the spectacle also derives from the failure of the various protest movements of the past decade (the anti-globalization movement and the anti-war movement, in particular) to correctly identify the roots of the problem and the best means of solving it; instead, they have wasted time, effort and good faith by focusing on symptoms and remaining solidly within the systems of workplace and political representation. We should also not discount the role played by the passivity and apathy of the large numbers of people who are not politically active or, in other words, the continued effectiveness of the spectacle in keeping the majority of the people from turning their anger and bitterness into a desire to be politically active. Either they "enjoy" (are tranquilized by) their beer and TV too much, or they doubt that anything meaningful can be done to change the way things are.

In our struggles, we must never forget that we are a minority within a minority: the vast majority of the contestatory movement is made up of paleo-Marxists, citizenists, Leftists and neo-anarchists. That is to say, the majority is not made up of revolutionaries, but radical reformers who are content to work on aspects of the problem, or to use the State ("democracy") to correct problems in the market. On the other hand, like the situationists in their day, we cannot expect much help from the artists, who tend to see themselves as mere questioners and habitually act unconcerned with what the answers might be: it is up to others to decide. It is crucial that we are just as persistent and merciless in our critique of these "radicals" as we are of the "conservatives" who are perfectly happy (or happy enough) with the way things are. Significantly, when they are critiqued, the artists respond quite differently from the activists: while the former do not respond or, after a single response, disappear, the latter become "defensive" or even go on the attack. They are indignant that anyone would dare to criticize them (this is especially true of activists who are actually academics), and proclaim that their "attackers" are damaging the movement itself through their "negativity" or "divisiveness." (Strangely enough, few activists will make these claims about the snitches and wannabe-COINTELPRO agents who are in their midsts.) Especially if they are part of a "collective" or any other individuality-suppressing group, and feel confident in their numbers ("everyone feels as I do"), they will try to shame their "attackers" into silence or retractions. We have seen this so many times that we feel confident in making the following claim: the very fact of individuality is what is shameful to these people, and so anyone who displays his or her own individuality (autonomy) must be shamed, must be made to feel shame. But we, who have nothing to defend in the spectacle, cannot be shamed. We are in fact shameless.

NOT BORED!
New York City
1 November 2007

 


Notes:

[1] From Oil on Fire, which was Martos' 1997 preface to his book Correspondance avec Guy Debord.

[2] On War (1832), translated from the German by Colonel J.J. Graham (Barnes & Noble, 2004).

[3] The presence of "Communist" groups in various American protest movements (against police brutality, against the war in Iraq, and against the on-going imprisonment of Mumia Abu-Jamal) is quite significant in the light of Guy Debord's comments on the roots of the "integrated spectacular."

[4] Our short text A critique of neo-anarchism (April 2007) denounces Leftists and other reformists who have cynically chosen to call themselves "anarchists." An anonymous text that we translated from the French called The Citizenist Impasse (April 2001) defines "citizenism" as "an ideology of which the principal traits are 1) the belief in democracy as something capable of opposing capitalism, 2) the project of reinforcing the State (the States) so as to put this politics in place, [and] 3) the citizen as the active basis for this politics." Many "citizenists" are active in the so-called anti-globalization and "global justice" movements.

[5] It seems significant to us that, despite its overall rejection of the theories and practice of the Situationist International (too Marxist, too enamored of technology), this issue contains a text by the ex-situationist Raoul Vaneigem entitled Lines of Flight: To Liberate the Earth of Celestial Illusions and Their Tyranny. It is a confirmation of our thesis (advanced in our July 2007 text On the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the Situationist International) that there is now a significant difference between situationist theory (which is "Vaneigemist" in nature) and Debord's theory of the spectacle.

[6] All quotes in this paragraph come from the March 2007 essay by Max Vincent entitled Du Temps que les situationnistes avaient raison.

[7] Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord (originally published in Italian in 1993; translated from the 1995 French version by Donald Nicholson-Smith in 1999).

[8] Quoted in Guy Debord's Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988).

[9] Originally published by Buchet-Castel, The Society of the Spectacle has been translated into English by three different translators: Fredy Perlman (Red & Black, 1977); Donald Nicholson-Smith (Zone Books, 1994); and Ken Knabb (Rebel Press, 2005). Here, as elsewhere in this text, we have preferred to translate all passages from Debord and the other situationists ourselves.

[10] Georges Bataille, "The Notion of Expenditure," originally published in French in 1933; translated by Allan Stoekl and published in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939 (University of Minnesota, 1985). Note that Bataille uses the word "spectacle," but in a way that completely differs from Debord's use. For Bataille, "spectacles," "spectacular collective expenditures" and "the spectacular function" refer to the traditional obligation of the wealthy to provide or make "unproductive social expenditures" for the excitation and orgiastic satisfaction of the entire society, but especially the poor. "In so-called civilized societies," Bataille notes, "the fundamental obligation of wealth disappeared only in a fairly recent period (...) Today the great and free forms of unproductive social expenditure have disappeared." But the thing that replaced "spectacle" in Bataille's sense is precisely what Debord, writing 40 years later, will call the society of the spectacle. Bataille writes: "As the class that possess the wealth -- having received with wealth the obligation of functional expenditure -- the modern bourgeoisie is characterized by the refusal in principle of this obligation. It has distinguished itself from the aristocracy through the fact that it has consented only to spend for itself, and within itself -- in other words, by hiding its expenditures as much as possible from the eyes of the other classes." Perhaps because he conceives of "war" as an unproductive expenditure, Bataille sees the revolution against the bourgeoisie as a "great night when their beautiful phrases will be drowned out by death screams in riots," which is "the bloody hope which, each day, is one with the existence of the people, and which sums up the insubordinate content of the class struggle." But Debord, seeing war as a means to an end, and not an end in itself, sees the revolution as the outbreak of a "festival": see the classic situationist text "Theses on the Paris Commune." In the words of Les Amis de Nemesis (On Politics: Letter to JLD 13 October 2001): "It is not at all a question of opposing a Dionysian irrationality to an Apollonian rationality, but rather surpassing this sterile opposition and surpassing the finding of the rational where, stupidly, one does not seek it."

[11] One of the primary differences between situationist theory and Debord's theory of the spectacle (see footnote #5) is that, unlike the former, the latter was updated and reiterated several times after its first formulation in the era prior to May 1968.

[12] It is worth recalling in this context that many ancient Greeks believed that Lydia was the birthplace of both the first commodity (coined money) and political tyranny. For example, in the legend of the ring of Gyges, tyranny begins after the king is deposed by a man who wields a special, inscribed ring that allows him to become invisible at will. See Marc Shell, The Economy of Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978).

[13] From the essay entitled "Revolution in Reverse," which was posted to a Web site called Infoshop News. People who follow the link we have provided will see that, in the "Comments" section, Bill Not Bored pointed out that Graeber used a falsified quote from Raoul Vaneigem in this essay. Graeber's (non)responses to this point are typical of the neo-anarchists (see Part Five of the current text).

[14] See our October-December 2004 essay entitled On the flaws of Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish.

[15] Debord was a member of Socialisme ou Barbarie from July 1960 to May 1961. On 5 May 1961, he addressed a very interesting letter of resignation to the participants in the national conference of Pouvoir Ouvrier. In a series of essays written between 1996 and 1999, we explored the relationship between Cornelius Castoriadis and Socialisme ou Barbarie, on the one hand, and Guy Debord and the Situationist International, on the other. For the role this relationship played in the writing of The Society of the Spectacle, see Debord's letter to Edouard Taube dated 17 October 1964.

[16] See the essay entitled From a Supper of Ashes to Embers of Satin (On the Riots of November 2005 in France).

[17] For good discussions of the November 2005 riots in the French banlieus, see the aforementioned text by Les Amis de Nemesis (footnote #15) and Max Vincent's Remarks on the Riots of Autumn 2005 in the French Banlieus.

[18] See Guy Debord's letter to Gianfranco Sanguinetti dated 21 April 1978.

[19] See our review of Virilio's 2003 book Art and Fear.

[20] Porn and Politics in Palestine, Reason Magazine Online, 3 April 2002.

[21] For Debord's reaction to the Vaux-en-Velin riots, see his letter to Jean-Francois Martos dated 26 December 1990. Debord's Notes on the "immigrant question" was written to help Mezioud Ouldamer, who was working on a book entitled The Immigrant Nightmare in the Decomposition of France.

[22] See Arianna Bove's translation of Negri's essay Approximations: Towards an Ontological Definition of the Multitude. For more on Negri, see our July 2001 text The Relevance of Antonio Negri to the Anti-Globalization Movement.

[23] From the essay entitled "The Shock Of Victory," which was posted to Infoshop News. People who follow the link we have provided will see that, in the "Comments" section, Bill Not Bored pointed out that "there is a big difference between optimism and self-congratulary self-deception." Graeber's (non)responses to this point were very revealing.

 

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