Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Alienation; or: Some Notes on Debord’s Society of the Spectacle

First, I think it’s appropriate to begin w/ a quote from Hegel, as Debord himself does, albeit a different selection, one from Hegel’s Jena lectures 1805-6:

The human being is this Night, this empty nothing which contains everything in its simplicity–a wealth of infinitely many representations, images, none of which occur to it directly and none of which are not present…We see this Night when we look a human being in the eye, looking into a Night which turns terrifying. [For from his eyes] the night of the world hangs out toward us.


Why begin this way?  What does Hegel’s anthropological metaphysics have to do with Debord’s punchy book?  I think in large part it is Hegel’s treatment of identity and non-identity that Debord finds useful, and how they play into processes of identity-formation.  For Hegel, the human being (nor the “Spirit” which encompasses humans individually and collectively) is never exhaustively identical to the representations that it picks up and takes itself to be in experience.

In his Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel describes how the sense-certainty of consciousness leads one to affirm an existing reality or structuration of phenomena as it is currently presented to consciousness at a moment in time such that it is taken to be what is most real…but all of this is washed away very quickly as a new moment (and then another moment, and then another, ad infinitum, til death) comes along that is the transformation of the order of the preceding moment.  So while I sit here at this wooden desk in a 3rd story room looking out at the sunny Niemetzstraße while I type, it becomes quite natural when one has the question of what is most real, or most true, put to oneself to assume that it is the this that is what is really true, most real.  The reality of my current experience is the most certain I can be regarding what is by the sheer force of its presence.  But by the passing of time, I come to identify with–to take as most real, most what is–other phenomena that become salient, like the drinking of water and how that feels, or the hearing construction start outside, or the movement of my eyes towards the indoors of my room.  All of which begs the question: what am I, really?  For as soon as I seem to have an answer to that question, one forged in the certainty of a moment of presence, it seems to mutate into something else, another identity or set of identities.

What Hegel will later develop is a sort of negativity that is at work in these transformations, not only at the “level” of the sense-experience w/ which he starts, but also conceptually and regarding self-consciousness.  This negativity is the “Night” that he describes in the quote we start with–a “space” or “time” of non-identity that persists through any formation of identity, anything that we take ourselves to be.  In fact, non-identity is ø–as I explore in another post–, the zero that can only be conceptually understood as that which differs from itself, that which doesn’t take identity to be metaphysically primary to understand what is real or true, that which is real or true even as identities arise and crumble away.  The injection of (temporal/izing) process that will answer to the question “what am I?”: neither this, nor that, nor that, nor that, etc.  A continual non-self-coincidence that will never provide a sufficient answer to that question, since it is not an identity that can be expressed or pointed to or represented that has primacy, but that pure difference which always differs from itself, which is non-identical to itself: ø as the all-encompassing Night.  (Although I take an immunological Spinoza to be key here in showing how we regardless have individuality as third person reflexive pronouns, via his conatus doctrine, even if we cannot fix identity as such against zero’s process–in other words, something other than Hegel’s idealism is needed for the problem of individuation.)


Shifting to Debord:–why or how does this Hegelian metaphysical anthropology provide him w/ the conceptual tools he needs for his work?   In part, I take it to be b/c what Debord calls the spectacle strategically takes advantage of this process by which identity-formation necessarily occurs, and how its relationship to a self-differentiating processual ø churns out “a wealth of infinitely many representations, images,” and identities, but in a manner that limits this process in order to congeal it for long enough to commodify it, and to re-produce its own operations.  We as humans can’t help but identify with our experience or cognition or what is given to us, even if it is done negatively such that we say we are not like what we see, or whether a thing given as experience repels us.  And we never stop doing so.  Not only can this life-long process be successfully commodified b/c it is incessant, providing continuous opportunities for colonization by capital’s self-valorization, but also b/c we desire identity, we need it, we cannot do w/o it–no one lives the “empty nothing” of non-identity.  Our desire for identity is so strong that we can even be willing to identify with things of happenings that cut us off from greater capacities of activity, from more successfully developing the projects of freedom naturally sought out by our desires.  This is how it can be possible that there are women and Latino voters in the US choosing Trump as their candidate of choice, despite his xenophobic and misogynistic discourse.  (Spinoza’s why do people desire their servitude as if it were their freedom?)  Humans as renewable resources for the reproduction of the forces and relations of spectacular society.

But what is this spectacle, then?  I will start by making a list of the many definitions that Debord gives (referring to aphorism numbers, since my copy doesn’t have page numbers)…feel free to skip to the writing picking up at the end of the list:

2: The spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living.

4: The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.

6: The spectacle is also the permanent presence of this justification [the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals], since it occupies the main part of the time lived outside of modern production.

10: Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is affirmationof appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance.

11: But the spectacle is nothing other than the sense of the total practice of a social-economic formation, its use of time.  It is the historical movement in which we are caught.

20: The spectacle is the material reconstruction of the religious illusion…The spectacle is the technical realization of the exile of human powers into a beyond; it is separation perfected within the interior of man.

23: The spectacle is thus a specialized activity which speaks for all the others.  It is the diplomatic representation of hierarchic society to itself, where all other expression is banned.

24: The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue.  It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence.

25: The spectacle is the preservation of unconsciousness within the practical change of the conditions of existence.  It is its own product, and it has made its own rules: it is a pseudo-sacred entity.  it shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market.

34: The spectacle is capital to such a degree of accumulation that it becomes an image.

42: The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life.

49: The spectacle is the other side of money: it is the general abstract equivalent of all commodities…The spectacle is the developed modern complement of money where the totality of the commodity world appears as a whole, as a general equivalence for what the entire society can be and can do.  The spectacle is the money which one only looks at, b/c in the spectacle the totality of use is already exchanged for the totality of abstract representation.  The spectacle is not only the servant of pseudo-use, it is already in itself the pseudo-use of life.

158: The spectacle, as the present social organization of the paralysis of history and memory, of the abandonment of history built on the foundation of historical time, is the false consciousness of time.

Whew!  So we can already see how complex the concept is in Debord’s work, despite its relatively short length and aphoristic form.  So perhaps we can reconstruct some of his argument and see where we go from there.  Following WWII, Western economies faced the beginning of what was to be something like a 30 year “golden era” of capitalism (Debord’s SotS, written in 1967, is w/in this timeframe), driven not only by a grand compromise between labor and capital (e.g. Keynesianism), but also by the destruction of capital in both world wars (Piketty’s thesis in Capital in the 21st Century).  There was an acceleration of rates of production and consumption (remember, this is for Western economies, specifically) facilitated by the increasing operational importance of technology and machines, higher wages to buy extra-survival goods, and new media to effectuate the continued expansion of capital’s self-valorization into newly created industries.  I take this to be what Debord means by the explosion of abundance, the commodity (although I’d think it more accurate to specify as value) accumulated to such a point via a historical-economic anomaly that it undergoes something like an (metaphoric?) “overflow” into new territories for the extraction of value.  So when we think of new technologies like television becoming commercialized and mass produced from the 40s and esp 50s onwards, what we see w/ Debord’s eyes is not merely the explosion of new forms of communication, manipulation, and experience, but also a commodity form so saturated that it “becomes an image.”  Capitalist economic development, aided by particular technologies, crosses a threshold that allows it to mass produce images much more quickly than newspaper before it, or the mass influence of sound and radio before it.  Capital colonizes the field of representations in conscious or targeted ways, sucking them into its machinery for its own reproduction–“the spectacle does not realize philosophy, it philosophizes reality.”  Rather than “have concern” (it’s problematic discussing capital in anthropomorphic terms, but let’s leave that aside for now) for the content of said representational images–sunny Hawaiian beaches, billboard advertisement for perfume, memezzzzz–what is most important is that they lubricate the processes of production, circulation, and consumption necessary for increasing profits and the production of unbounded capital.  Our desire for and our consumption of the images and representations is what counts, b/c that is what materially reproduces the capitalist system we live in, accompanying our movement and labor involved in these processes.


Here’s where we see Debord’s critical edge start sticking out.  B/c the spectacle is being used as the means and end for its own reproduction, and therefore the reproduction of the capitalist economic system that it is indissociably enmeshed within, it doesn’t concern itself with anything except the continuing self-valorization of capital.  Human emancipation, improving quality of life, the capacities to develop “species-being”…none of these are attended to b/c they don’t have to be attended to.  In fact, they can prove to be counter to the tendency of the spectacle (although as we’ll see as the time of the spectacle goes on, films like Mad Max with ostensibly revolutionary and feminist affect and progressive representations can still be used as a means towards the ends of successful expansion of value).

This, in part, accounts for the autonomy that Debord accords to it.  The image gains a character of sovereignty that it didn’t have before.  To understand this, we need to understand how Debord “upgrades” (at least for 1967) Marx’s concepts of alienationand commodity fetishism.  Although the image lords over us w/ its seductive power inviting us to join its fantasies, its magical transformations, its vacations from quotidian life, it is actually much closer to us than we originally imagine.  For what produces the spectacle and its representations, if not in large part our human labor?  We work to produce the spectacle as a particular configuration of materiality.  Specific metals and minerals for the tech and communication apparatuses, “creative” teams working to give it the allure needed to stoke our desires for it, and new forms of labor like technicians and designers…these all are instrumental for the creation and reproduction of the spectacle.  But what is so strange is that we could labor for a product that would be afterwards held against us in some way, vampirically incapacitating us.  Just as Marx describes laborers producing surplus value for capitalists, value which in turn gets re-purposed and ends up re-enforcing the economic status quo and facing laborers as obstacles to their freedom from the wage relationship and towards species-being, so we have a laboring humanity creating images that then, in turn, come to become stifling, oppressive, or perhaps least malignantly, like a “pseudo-life” that has much more to do w/ the pre-packaged configurations of desire that the images contain than the movements of our own desire as it wants greater activity and power.

This is alienation.  Mis-recognizing our desire, and taking other identities less helpful for our tasks that an imposing freedom demands.  Buying too much into circulated identities and mis-recognizing ourselves in the process, becoming alien to ourselves and unconscious of what it is our desire really wants, which would be a necessary (if, in itself, insufficient) step in strategizing on how to get it, and how other humans are part of that process.  Semi-voluntarily–and sometimes, quite enthusiastically–participating in a ritualized consumption of spectacular identities that ends up modifying our self-conceptions, our relationships with each other, our understanding of suffering, justice, truth, beauty, and values.  Experiencing the plethora, when desire is so much more specific in its desiring.

We are beholden to these images, seek to be like them, to identify as and with them b/c of what they seem to promise us.  All of these representations, these images, these identities…they all come with their own expectations, implicit and explicit norms (including norms opting for the elaboration of normative minimalism), bits of secure territory upon which to operate and to enjoy ourselves (esp if we follow Marx and D&G in understanding that even suffering is a kind of enjoyment).  When Debord says that the spectacle is the philosophizing of reality, we can understand this as its commodification of the domain of Kantian and post-Kantian thought as the synthesis and production of experience and representations.  Transcendental philosophy, concerned w/ the conditions of possible or real experience, becomes transformed so that the spectacular image can condition experience by commodifying it and its desire to want in particular ways (something which can become even clearer when we see that Kant describes desire as a power or “faculty which, by means of its representations, is the cause of the actuality of the objects of those  representations”).  Our desire has thus, to varying degrees, been co-opted from the outside in, whereby it becomes a conscious site for contestation, a fragmentation of ourselves into multiplicities of identities that each seek some kind of representation in the activity of our life…and we have to deal w/ the clean-up.

This strategic activating of sought-after effects through the spectacle commodity transforms the way we understand causal relations and reality.  Debord, at the very end of his text, brings up schizophrenia and dissociation as responses that seem to share a correspondence w/ the spectacle in so far as we “lose touch with reality.”  I must say though: this language–as well as the truth/false distinction–seems to be highly problematic.  There seems to be a privileging of idealism at work, one that confuses the normative for the descriptive.  But it is clear that Marx’s commodity fetishism has been transformed once more: now we have the spectacular image that mystifies our understanding of how we as humans relate to each other, and how it is our labor that produces (and then is alienated from) these images in the first place.  What we lose is the ability to apply the principle of sufficient reason, such that we could see how we are alienated together, and pooling our desire not in any (human) collective that could work for alternatives, but for the sheer power of the spectacular images themselves and the enjoyment of identities that they bring.  We lose the ability to form “more adequate ideas,” a la Spinoza, that could investigate causality more extensively, and not only in its effects.  What we have is the affirmation of appearance, of these end-result effects, and the affirmation of human life as appearance, as being wholly contained within the consumption of images.  What is unseen is lost, out of sight, and apparently not valuable.  Curation of images, of appearances, a myriad of perspectives each seemingly just as true as the other.  The interpersonal human relationships one kind amongst many.  But as Debord notes, the society of the spectacle with all of its images is still too much like a “monologue.”  It still creates the parameters for what is acceptable for consumption, and will not tolerate what threatens its hegemonic staying power.  Its message advocating passive acceptance and obedience-through-consumption is this: “what appears is good, and what is good appears.”  Alternative appearances and greater goods remain out of the question.  The spectacle merely congratulates itself, and urges us to do the same.

There’s so much more that can be said, and I find myself incredibly frustrated that it took me hours to pump this out, hours that were so slow and non-productive.  For future stuff, I’d like to be able to think more about how Debord clings to the human and resists what will later be named by Nick Land as machinic desire.  This in turn will have us wondering whether Debord’s view of the human is salvageable, or if we require a conceptual and affective upgrading of a sort to happen so that the human as spinozistic “common notion” isn’t simply arrested in its development along an idealist hegelian understanding of what it is.  Is debordian resistance possible or desirable today?  only in bits and pieces?  What does he have to contribute to the continuation of the tradition’s thinking of non-identity?  What of the project should be carried forward, and what do we leave as belonging to a by-gone era, one almost 50 years ago and in such different contexts, requiring such different focuses and strategies?

4 responses to “Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Alienation; or: Some Notes on Debord’s Society of the Spectacle

  1. Pingback: Production, Circulation, and Consumption of Alienation; or: Some Notes on Debord’s Society of the Spectacle – SubSense·

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