The Society of the Spectacle
translated and annotated by Ken Knabb, Bureau of Public Secrets, Berkeley, 2014. 150pp., $15 pb
Reviewed by Eric-John Russell
Eric-John Russell is a MA student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, NY. He is currently residing in Frankfurt, Germany while applying for PhD positions.
As a book whose reputation tends to eclipse its actual content, The Society of the Spectacle has always, since its original 1967 publication, bitterly contended with its interpreters and the society that its two hundred and twenty-one short theses diagnose. Any chatter surrounding the work or its author, Guy Debord, bears uncoincidental pertinence to the book’s central protagonist – a society for which the public relations industry affirms a priori models of commensurable social discourse at odds with acccommodating perspectives decidely intent on its abolition. It is of little curiosity then why Debord’s writing has always proceeded with the caution and meticulous precision of a war strategist. For example, in introducing his 1988 amendment on the development of the spectacle, Debord forewarns his reader that,
I obviously cannot speak with complete freedom. Above all, I must take care not to give too much information to just anybody. Our unfortunate times thus compel me, once again, to write in a new way. Some elements will be intentionally omitted; and the plan will have to remain rather unclear. Reader will encounter certain decoys, like the very hallmark of the era. (Debord 1998 1-2)
One gets the sense that Debord almost doesn't trust any sentence immediately after it has been written. This puts the reviewer in the curious position of having to evaluate less a lucid argument on the development of Marx’s critique of the fetish character of the commodity social form, than something more closely resembling a riddle whose author provocatively flatters himself for ‘never engaging in any activity that could pass for socially honest’. (Debord 2010)
It is with Ken Knabb’s newest edition of The Society of the Spectacle however that Debord’s purportedly opaque critique of reified social life under postwar capitalism is potentially illuminated. Here, and through his own online publishing platform ‘Bureau of Public Secrets’, Knabb presents both an updated version of his own – what is a third – English translation of the book, as well as a featured set of annotations collecting together the theoretical and historical references and allusions implicitly or explicitly embedded within the text. (Knabb’s first print rendition sans annotations was published by Rebel Press in 2004.) The annotations consist, on the one hand, of additions by Knabb and others clarifying various contextual references, and on the other, of an incorporated list of all citations and appropriations Debord himself assembled in order to best equip translators of the book. (Unfortunately, the edition never specifies which annotations were collected by Debord, and which ones were editorially added over the years.)
With conscious neglect for any professional standards against plagiarism, both Debord and the Situationist International – whose ideas clamorously permeated the social upheaval of May 1968 – infamously utilized the cultural language of society in order to undermine its own apparent stability. Through this practice of détournement – whose predecessors are found in prewar avant-garde collage as much as within the movement of immanent criticism found in Hegel and Marx – the lies of a society are refuted by what it says about itself. If to quote is to lack the belief and daring of one’s own authority, détournement is to concede that one cannot help but speak the language of an alien authority and nonetheless attempt to unravel it from within.
There can be little doubt that Knabb’s newest version evokes these methodological aspects of Debord’s work. As an exercise somewhere between defilement and homage, Debord utilizes an array of philosophical, historical and literary sources to critically outline the extent to which the commodity economy has, through the twentieth century, developed its fetish character into a social form mediated by images. As Debord writes, the spectacle ‘is nothing other than the economy developing for itself. It is at once the faithful reflection of the production of things and a distorting objectification of the producers.’ (§16) Debord’s notion of a society of the spectacle nonetheless remains a largely misunderstood diagnosis of the phenomena of reification. Knabb’s annotated edition thereby assists in elucidating the book within a theoretical tradition that, if left at the surface of Debord’s allegedly cryptic formulations, is often buried by the disciplinary efforts of postmodernism, media or cultural studies, or simply as a step in the history of avant-garde movements. Instead, even a momentary glance at the annotations yields an unrelenting critical heritage for Debord that principally follows the intellectual line of Hegel, Marx, Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, and the twentieth century workers’ movement. Unyieldingly looming is the perspective of totality and the inextricable adherence the movement of history has with the self-conscious realization of human freedom. Indeed, beginning with the initial sentence of the book, it is Marx – with Hegel following close behind – that is Debord’s single most referenced source.
The annotations allow a novice reader – unequivocally the edition’s most suitable recipient – to become privy not only to the intellectual prowess Debord brandishes for the tradition of modern dialectical thought and its corresponding battles within the First, Second and Third Internationals, but also for his attention to a range of other ventures in the social sciences and humanities. Facilitated by the annotations, the reader can move through the text and discern an eclectic composition of sociology, urbanism, historiography, psychoanalysis, political theory, philosophy, and literature, including the masterly stylists of the aphoristic tradition. Amid his panoramically chosen sources however, Debord finds only selective affinity, commandeering voices to serve his own purpose as a puppeteer might manipulate the wooden legs of an otherwise lifeless figure. Hegel’s fragments on love are used to articulate social isolation (§29), while the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid now lament the topsy-turvy world of commodities (§66); Machiavelli is employed to make explicit the implicit scientism of the utopian socialists (§83), while Heraclitus helps demonstrate the inability of petrified thought to grasp the antagonistic essence of its own society (§195). Such a method, now exposed through Knabb’s edition, acquires a particularly concentrated elucidation in Debord’s penultimate chapter wherein an uncredited verbatim passage from Lautréamont’s Poésies masquerades as its own thesis:
Ideas improve. The meaning of words plays a part in that improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress depends on it. It sticks close to an author’s phrasing, exploits his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one. (§207)
For Debord, who weighed his words more carefully than most, the technique of détournement carries the legacy of critical theory insofar as it speaks the language of contradiction by contradicting. By undermining and conflicting with the original meaning of his sources, Debord affirms, through his partisan analysis, the stimulus of negative thought unafraid at turning the gun on its own presumptions. The Society of the Spectacle’s own affinity to this tenet of dialectical thought is most clearly expressed in the following thesis, itself an appropriation of a passage from Marx’s Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital: ‘The very style of dialectical theory is a scandal and abomination to the prevailing standards of language and to the sensibilities molded by those standards, because while it makes concrete use of existing concepts it simultaneously recognizes their rediscovered fluidity and their inevitable destruction.’ (§205)
Aside from Debord’s prepared compilation of sources, Knabb’s added notations and commentary vary in both quality and merit. Most common are remarks that provide unmentioned allusions, such as §20 for which Knabb informs the unfamiliar reader of the overtones of Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Also worthwhile are the comments which offer, however abbreviated, explications on the concept of an individual thesis, for example in §3 whereby Knabb calls attention to a particular characterization of the spectacle as definably heterogeneous, or in §64 which briefly explains Debord’s use of the term ‘bureaucratic capitalism’. Another notable example concerns the epigraph of Chapter 3, an excerpt from the postwar journal of the Chinese Communist Party whose use Knabb clarifies in accordance with the theme of the chapter itself. On more than one occasion, the most fruitful aspects of Knabb’s commentary consist of listing Debord’s sourced material, some sober speculation on the meaning of its usage, an esoteric historical anecdote, general conceptual clarification, and references to other Situationist writing. Indeed, the references to additional Situationist material are probably the most invaluable components of Knabb’s additions.
Some of these commentaries nonetheless fall short, such as §104, which merely supplies a curt intuitive definition of ‘state capitalism’ and offers no further information on the concept’s history. Some referenced associations remain largely speculative as to whether or not Debord actually had such sources in mind, or whether or not they are merely editorial extrapolations. These commentaries often portray passages as alluding to common idioms or dictums that bear no real implication for the content of the book, while others appear wholly arbitrary. For example, when, in §134, Debord refers to ‘divisions among Greek communities’, Knabb feels inclined to mention Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War; or in §178, when a description of the inherent importance of journeying elicits from Knabb a passage from Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. Most regrettable however are Knabb’s overt and excessively didactic notations, which are on the cusp of resembling condensed Wikipedia entries. While some are more tolerable than others, such as explanations of the Fronde (§140), condottiere (§46), or the Lysenko fiasco (§108), some approach the swindle of a narrow edification, for example the biographical introductions to Marx and Engels (§78-79), a factory-standard narrative on the Spanish Civil War (§94), or a simplistically barren definition of urbanism (§169). Many notations simply list the years of birth and death of historical figures. Even if Knabb’s edition is most appropriate for readers utterly unaccustomed to Guy Debord, annotations explaining whom Stalin was seems to, perhaps justifiably, expect the worst from his readership. (§70) Deservedly or not, since Knabb’s English translation is generally thought to be more pedagogic than the two other English translations of the book (Fredy Perlman of Black & Red in 1970/1977 and Donald Nicholson-Smith for Zone Books in 1994), his annotations do little to change this opinion.
Additionally lamentable are Knabb’s missed opportunities for having a set of notations accompany The Society of the Spectacle. For example, Debord’s frequent description of alienation as the recession of activity into mere contemplation might have been best supplemented with notation on the strong role that the ‘contemplative stance’ plays for Lukács in History and Class Consciousness. Additionally, in §156, Debord utilizes Marx’s concept of dead and living labor for which Knabb in the notation oddly quotes the Communist Manifesto for its phrase, ‘the past dominates the present’ – instead of making the more explicit connection to Volume One of Capital and the role of surplus labor in the accumulation process. Finally, the last chapter examines a specific notion of ideology, and at one point, Debord compares it to Karl Mannheim’s concept of ‘total ideology’. Left unexamined are the exact differences between the two understandings of ideology.
On the whole, one cannot help but grasp a dramatically different tone in Knabb’s latest edition as compared with those that came before it. A principle of dissection reigns over the experience of uncovering what Debord’s thorny critique might afford. By the end, the annotations have submerged the subtlety of détournement simply into an aggregated pastiche. Since everything is listed in the back, one no longer stumbles upon an idea that, for instance, looks vaguely familiar and compels the reader to reflectively grapple with its meaning. Instead, the resonance of the ideas collapses against a disenchanted laundry list of proprietorship of who said what. One is prohibited from wandering through the edition and is incessantly tempted to jump to the end and prematurely spoil the identity of the killer. Ours is, without fail, an epoch without the strength to pause in the presence of an idea. As a tutorial to the theoretical work of the Situationist International and Debord, Knabb’s edition irrefutably excels. However, as a work that takes seriously the notion that there is peril in revealing too much all at once – and that perhaps revolutionary critique should be an impartial burden rather than easily adaptable to prevailing modes of discourse – Knabb’s edition is remiss to have forgotten that sometimes less is more.
12 January 2015