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The Society of the Spectacle: Foreword

This essay was adapted from the foreword to my new English edition to Guy Debord's 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle. The Society of the Spectacle: Foreword

Readers of my site may have noticed the many references to Guy Debord in my writing over the years, and especially since 2016. This is largely because I’ve been writing a new edition of his 1967 book The Society of the Spectacle adapted for our present moment. This edition is out now on the web. A hardcover edition will be going on sale at my publisher, █ Unredacted Word and other book sellers later in April.


In this book, Debord describes and critiques the way we live. The power of these ideas lies in their ability to question, identify, and name the common assumptions of the present. Debord develops the concept of The Spectacle, which describes the gaze of contemporary society. From its publication just before the May 1968 revolt in Paris, and ultimately influencing Occupy Wall Street, this book continues to transform a wide range of progressive philosophical and political movements, most notably anti-capitalism, postmodernism, marxism, and anarchism.

Debord’s work is not an ivory-tower philosophical treatise, it is a cold analysis of the history and development that leads directly to our present moment. He critiques various attempts to change society by comparing their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, he makes it apparent that a way out is absurd, and points to only one path forward: a direct democratic movement of decentralized workers councils, a suggestion made only twice in the entire text. Most importantly, he emphasizes the importance of validating theory with practice, and as such, this book is a practical framework for revolutionaries who think and do.

The Society of the Spectacle, cover design
The Society of the Spectacle, book cover design

Debord’s text is concise, economical, poetic, provocative, and difficult. As Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri describe it in their notes to Empire as “delirious”1. His work contains many references to Hegel and Marx. He uses words and phrases defined in other Situationist texts, and expects the reader to be familiar with them. This is to be expected, as he demands much from the reader, and had written for a small audience of “fifty or sixty people”2 who were well versed in the history of the western philosophical tradition.

Debord was concerned that these ideas themselves would be recuperated by capitalism, so he wrote in a way to limit them to a small and curious audience. His concerns turned out to be warranted, when a few years later in the early 1970s, the French Socialist Party under François Mitterrand co-opted the Situationist phrase “Change Life” as his campaign slogan, and Situationism became the party’s unofficial ideology—much to the consternation of Debord. His ideas were difficult because they were abstract, but the abstraction meant that it continues to remain relevant, arguably even more relevant half a century later.

The very first time I read The Society of the Spectacle, I knew I’d need to re-read it, and possibly need to re-write it in my own words if I wanted to truly understand it. It was only once I had grasped the gist of the text, that I was then confronted with the task of understanding the philosophy behind it. Debord didn’t lay out his ideas using plain language, because his ideas are austere, terrifying, and extremely dangerous. He is the kind of philosopher whose ideas and observations of the world are so bleak that one fears these ideas reaching mass consciousness.

This book isn’t as much a straight translation as it is an elaboration, or ‘remix’ that attempts to reveal more under the text than existed in the original and its various translations. Debord hid some ideas. This is an attempt to contextualize and reveal abstract ideas by bringing in references and annotations in order to add relevance for our current time. I have added a few thoughts and examples to help elucidate difficult concepts.

Foreign languages are much like distant places, and the act of translation is to visit these places. We may recognize similarities, but these places are unique because they have distinct histories. With languages, words not only have semantic meaning, but attachments to the rich cultural narratives that tell their histories, and these words are attached to libraries of other texts within the same cultural milieu. When translating these words, the histories, narratives, and cultural aspects most relevant to the original text aren’t always translatable with words alone; words simply aren’t enough to capture the rich cultural depth that exists between the words. As such, I’ve tried to add notes where the text made implicit references. When translating, “plagiarism is necessary”, it demands embracing the author’s ideas, and making them semantically and culturally relevant, and if done well, it can create an entirely new work, a copy without an original. Foreign languages are much like distant places, and the act of translation is to visit these places. We may recognize similarities, but these places are unique because they have distinct histories. With languages, words not only have semantic meaning, but attachments to the rich cultural narratives that tell their histories, and these words are attached to libraries of other texts within the same cultural milieu. When translating these words, the histories, narratives, and cultural aspects most relevant to the original text aren’t always translatable with words alone; words simply aren’t enough to capture the rich cultural depth that exists between the words. As such, I’ve tried to add notes where the text made implicit references. When translating, “plagiarism is necessary”, it demands embracing the author’s ideas, and making them semantically and culturally relevant, and if done well, it can create an entirely new work, a copy without an original.

This edition isn’t merely a translation of words, but a translation of time. Since Debord wrote this book, society hasn’t changed in kind, but by degree, everything is exactly the same, only more. Advertising is no longer prominent, but dominant. Facebook and Google aren’t merely the tech companies driving the economy, but have captured the entire advertising industry, monopolized it, and built the foundations of a new form of capital on the back of data tracking, profiling, and machine learning: surveillance capitalism. Urban development has increased separation and inequality to public goods like education and transportation. Technology is now ubiquitous and we’re all glued to personalized screens all day, mediating nearly all interactions, even the ways we find love. For Debord, none of this would be new, only more.

The book before you is my attempt to participate in the development of his ideas. I’ve tried to ground some of his more abstract ideas upon the terrain of the recent economic development of surveillance capitalism. The emergence of commercial social media, particularly, is the confluence of a few concepts described by Debord: celebrity culture, the perpetual present, and mass media that work to automate the commodification of personal identity backed by machine learning.

If you’re looking for a translation that aims to stay faithful to Debord’s classical French prose, this book is not that. There are editions perfectly suited for that purpose, I would direct you to the translations by Ken Knabb, Donald Nicholson-Smith, or Fredy Perlman—all of which I referenced extensively during the preparation of this book. I’d especially like to point out how valuable Ken Knabb’s annotated translation has been as a resource for this edition. His work handed me many of these references, and was instrumental in pointing me in the right direction for many others. All of these editions can be found in the bibliography and are well worth reading.

I’ve arranged the notes along the margins rather than as endnotes because they’re meant to be read alongside the main text. If you’re reading this on a mobile device, the notes are laid out in-line with the text, and meant to be read as such. If you are reading this book for the first time, I would suggest reading it in a particular order, as the first few chapters can be discouraging. I agree with the preface to Ken Knabb’s 2014 translation, in which he suggests starting with chapter 4 and 5 because they provide relevant historical and revolutionary background that helps to contextualize the book. From there, read chapter 7 which covers the development of cities, urban development and social issues. Then move to chapter 8 which covers culture, the arts, and the history of artistic movements. Finally, read chapters 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9 which establishes his concept of The Spectacle and provides a comprehensive critique of contemporary society. Thus, my suggested chapter reading order is: 4, 5, 7, 8, then 1, 2, 3, 6, 9.

My hope is to make Debord’s ideas more accessible, and to show how much more relevant The Spectacle is today than when it was first written. I am optimistic that, together, we can make another world possible.

-ra
March 2021

Citations

Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2000). Empire. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. 0674251210.

Debord, G. & Imrie, M. (1998). Comments on the society of the spectacle. London New York: Verso. 9781844676729.

Footnotes

  1. Quoting Hardt & Negri: “…Debord recognized this spectacle as the destiny of triumphant capitalism. Despite their important differences, such authors offer us real anticipations of the path of capitalist development.” And continuting in their notes: “[The Spectacle], which is perhaps the best articulation, in its own delirious way, of the contemporary consciousness of the triumph of capital.” See Hardt, M. & Negri, A., 2000 (Pp. 188/444). 

  2. “fifty or sixty people”: In Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, he describes his audience in the first paragraph thus: “These comments are sure to be welcomed by fifty or sixty people; a large number given the times in which we live and the gravity of the matters under discussion. But then, of course, in some circles I am considered to be an authority. It must also be borne in mind that a good half of this interested elite will consist of people who devote themselves to maintaining the spectacular system of domination, and the other half of people who persist in doing quite the opposite. Having, then, to take account of readers who are both attentive and diversely influential, I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, I must take care not to give too much information to just anybody.” See Debord, G. & Imrie, M, 1998. Pp 1.