Szplug's Reviews > Society of the Spectacle

Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
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Jan 10, 2012

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I never went to university—nor did the majority of my friends—and so never received any manner of guidance or instruction, or even bar table theoretical bullshitting, at the academic level to go along with my burgeoning interest in philosophy, politics, and culture. For better and for worse (and mostly the latter) I have carved my own path through the tangled thickets of critical genius and doctrinal snares, a haphazard sampling of great minds from across the ages, non-systematic and initially stemming from the tutelary prose of Bertrand Russell. For this reason, I found myself coming to the Marxist exponents without a solid grounding in the master's thought—and, thus, ofttimes ended up more confused and/or led down erroneous trails than I presumably would have been with a sounder grasp of the theoretical details. Or not: mayhaps a certain amount of ignorance, or naïveté, actually allowed me to penetrate the occlusions or obfuscations that ensnared more deeply immersed adepts. Who, apart from The Shadow, knows?

In any case, Society of the Spectacle was amongst my first forays into the labyrinthine philosophical-cultural terrain of the postwar twentieth-century. I found it a tantalizing and mysterious conundrum, with moments of a profound and shocking clarity but, overall, quite difficult, a serious challenge to follow, unpack, and comprehend. As Jimmy Cline nicely puts it: Even for a theoretical text written by an extreme leftist, in the late sixties, in Paris, this is a convoluted read. The saying goes that life's a circus, but Debord seems to be addressing what exactly must constitute a (post)modern society such that the triumphal late-capitalist incarnation of the circus—with its gaudily omnipresent cultural, political, and economic performers, venues, and effects—need be generated and configured in order to mold and maintain it as such.

I read this back in the late-nineties, and truth to tell I can hardly remember any clear-cut details. Unless the book really gripped me, my shelf life for reliable reading memory is about, oh, five years, max. I would love to have another go at it soon—perhaps after I have finally gotten around to ingesting my electronic copy of Sadie Plant's Situationist exposition—as I would (hopefully) have a better understanding of what exactly Debord was trying to say and why he was trying to say it; determining its relevance in the new century—in relation to such a springboard effort as, say, Heath and Potter's collaboration—should prove an interesting task, especially now that the spectacle can be both more and less circumscribed with the advent of a vast array of media mediums that operate 24/7. As for the prose itself—these piquant poetic puzzles and artful allusions, these polished arrangements of a bespectacled, chain-smoking, Gallic sphinx—I trust they have lost none of their Gordian charm to the abrasions of time.
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich I almost ordered this over the summer after Amazon directed me towards it from reading about The Captive Mind. It sounded intriguing, and I was especially interested in the idea of how culture shapes us after reading Milosz's chapter about his issues with American culture and aesthetics. I had forgotten all about this title until now, so thank you for reminding me! Good review, it definitely re-excited me about finding this book.

Jimmy Not one of my finest moments on this site, but I appreciate the shout-out. I still find Debord to be one of the more interesting examples of (some variety of) Marxist thought. Furthermore, I look fondly back upon this text as more of an art piece than a classic of critical theory. Have you seen the film?

Jimmy Also, his memoir, Panegyric is quite good. A while back there was a piece in Cabinet (that weird critical theory art quarterly) on Debord's fascination with military strategy board games. Interesting guy.

message 5: by Szplug (last edited Jan 10, 2012 04:49PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Szplug SP: Thanks, and I'm glad that it jostled your memory. In a way, I think Debord was attempting to explain a captive mind phenomenon that had permeated the West. And speaking of the great Miłosz, a few weeks ago I landed myself a copy of Emperor of the Earth, some of whose essays might be in the anthology you mentioned that you were reading.

Jimmy: I remembered that line of yours as a perfect descriptor of the book's difficulties. It was, nonetheless, a fascinating read, as you say, and its artistic quality is principally what has drawn me back into the idea of rereading it; that I've (on paper) a better understanding of the Marxist theory behind it only serves as a further impetus to do so.

I haven't seen the film, nor have I read the follow-up Commentary, though it would be worthwhile to do both. Did you ever get around to Plant's The Most Radical Gesture?

Oh, one more thing: are you now reading the entire seven-volume set of Rising Up, Rising Down? If so, the more power to you!

message 6: by Szplug (last edited Jan 10, 2012 04:46PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Szplug Thanks for the link, Jimmy. I've not read the bio, either—just SOTS over a decade ago (my Situationist cupboard is pretty bare). The plan was Plant and then Debord, and then to see where that leads (with the caveat that, nine times out of ten, my reading itineraries never get beyond the formulating stage).

Jimmy And no, I'm taking a break from Vollmann for awhile. I've enough time for this Oe novel entitled Somersault and Okakura's Book of Tea;most of my time is taken up with Japanese language these days. In other words, the Vollmann Project is being shelved in the meantime.

message 8: by Szplug (last edited Jan 10, 2012 05:53PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Szplug I see now that the Vollmann book in your currently-reading shelf was actually Europe Central; apparently some jam tart combined the latter with Rising Up, Rising Down such that all the reviews and statuses of both are now jumbled haphazardly together. Nice.

I've noticed your wide array of Japanese works and guides, presumably predating a move across the Pacific. You've shelved Vollmann, so perhaps I'll take the baby-steps of tackling either of the two books mentioned above.

Szplug Regarding Society of the Spectacle, I came across this blog post which was posted just yesterday.

message 10: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Thanks for the blog post, funny how a novel written so long ago pops up twice within two days time. What are your thoughts, as the blogger was quite opposed to Debord's ideas.

message 11: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Hm, I saw your response earlier and came back to comment but it seems to have disappeared. I read a bit about Debord and his idea's intrigue me, but as usual with a very Marxist approach, you have to take it with a grain of salt although I often want to jump up yelling 'Eureka! I totally agree!'

message 12: by Szplug (last edited Jan 13, 2012 07:39PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Szplug Yes, well, as I mentioned earlier to Esteban, I am a comment flincher/deleter extraordinaire. I was rushing out for lunch when I wrote that response, and it wasn't until after I posted it that I cottoned to the fact that what I had said was completely contradictory. I tried to fix it, but the boys were waiting and so...ZAPPO. I terminated that sloppy joe. Then I plumb forgot all about it by the time I had got back. Sorry about that, SP, and thanks for responding in the face of my rather rash and rude rug-yanking.

I find the Marxist writers to be great armchair philosophers, very stimulating in abstract theory and meta-ideas, but with less practicable usefulness the further into the actual, functioning world that one progresses. Actually, I have arrived at the point where I consider this to be a valuable marker for pretty much all of the ideology I have come across; the older I get, the more I find rigid dogma or unyielding doctrine or absolute positioning to be at the core of much of our civilization's problems. But, then again, I'm just a sad fucking loser posturing purblindly within the twenty-four/seven electronic mega-feedback loop and prone to painting myself into corners through inattentive and confutable thinking.

I'll get back to you with more thoughts on Debord after I've had a chance to work my way back into his work—the problem (as it always is with these hazy promises I proffer) is that there can never be any timeline attached to such an offering.


message 13: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu Argh, should've the taken the copy from my parents' house... I've been around this book for so many years... it's actually kind of remarkable that I haven't read it. Debord is prolix as fuck, but he says some (really) good things now and again. His Clausewitz-inspired war game is quite remarkable.

The first sentence of this review: wonderful. To be an autodidact (a true autodidact) is one of the more impressive things that I can think of. Maybe if I slept for a few hours I could make that a more elegant, musical sentence...

message 14: by Purple Berry (new)

Purple Berry For A Faerie you have such a good knack for using just the right words to describe things. beautiful :)

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