‘Debord, Time and Spectacle: Hegelian Marxism and Situationist Theory’ by Tom Bunyard reviewed by Anthony Paul Hayes

Reviewed by Anthony Paul Hayes

About the reviewer

Anthony Paul Hayes has a PhD in Philosophy from the Australian National University. He wrote his …

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It is fifty years since the Situationist International (SI) called it a day. Almost thirty years since Guy Debord suicided. For a group and an individual renowned for their supposed difficulty, the passage of time has not helped. What was once familiar in their historical present is obscured, and the convoluted paths of their reception become difficult to follow. For the first decade and more after 1972 the results of the situationist experiment were both fought over and extended by various ultra-leftist and anarchist individuals and sects, not always faithful to the inspiration. Even ex-situationists quarrelled over what constituted situationist activity – consider the conflict between Debord and his former comrade Raoul Vaneigem.

Perhaps even more confusing has been academic interest from the 1980s, in part the result of the definitive end of the post-1968 movements. The later attention has almost solely been the province of cultural critics who discovered the group by way of the distorting trumpet of post-structuralist theorists like Jean Baudrillard. This version still dominates the English-speaking reception of the group, reducing the SI’s once-living attempt to re-establish a revolutionary movement to largely one of mere cultural criticism, bogged down in questions of influence and reference. Such critics often refuse or are incapable of reckoning with the central role that Marx and especially Hegel played in situationist critique.

Given this refusal, Tom Bunyard’s Debord, Time and Spectacle is refreshing. Setting himself the task of fleshing out the philosophical basis of Debord’s theory, Bunyard aims at offering a coherent account of its overarching unity and process of emergence. Importantly, Bunyard does not ignore or downplay Debord’s early, more ‘artistic’ phase, but rather teases out both the continuity and differences with his mature critique of the society of the spectacle. This alone marks out Bunyard’s work from the bulk of secondary literature. Additionally, we find much-needed concern with the historical context of Debord’s critique and what this means for its ongoing relevance. Bunyard wisely presents a mostly chronological account. Much here is familiar to those who have traced the artistic and anti-artistic origins of the situationists among the Letterist and International Letterist inheritors of Dada and Surrealism’s creative destruction. However, and following Debord’s own Hegelian tendencies, Bunyard orients the chronology by way of the concept of spectacle and its full categorical and historical emergence in the mid-1960s.

Bunyard’s focus is primarily on intellectual interlocutors, leading to a comprehensive examination of the Marx inflected Hegelianism, mainly of France between the 1920s and 1960s. Familiar if controversial influences such as Henri Lefebvre and Georg Lukács are dealt with clearly. Bunyard’s attention to lesser-known influences like Jean Hyppolite and Kostas Papaïoannou breaks new ground in Debord scholarship. Refreshingly, Bunyard does not take sides regarding the manifold of Debord’s readings, appropriations and détournements. Rather, Bunyard does justice to the entirety of Debord’s oeuvre, including the artistic in his ‘holistic reading’ (9). In contrast to dominant interpretations – particularly those that reduce ‘spectacle’ to merely the explosion of mass media post-1940s – Bunyard stakes his claim for a theory of spectacle referring to ‘a state of separation from history itself’ (24). The subjects of history, by way of the hierarchical ordering of societies, are effectively separated from any meaningful control over the objective enabling conditions and results of this subjectivity. So too they necessarily lack any control over the potential forms of said subjectivity.

Such a focus allows a ‘broader perspective’ that takes in not only the specificity of the capitalist commodity-spectacle, but also the artistic aspects and origins of the theory of spectacle. A resulting longer, historical sense of spectacle makes Bunyard’s account illuminating and controversial. In marked opposition to Anselm Jappe, Robert Kurz and the Wertkritik current, Bunyard argues that Debord’s sense of spectacle cannot be understood solely from an examination of capitalist societies. Rather ‘modern’, commodity-producing society is just the most complete form of spectacular separation so far achieved: ‘separation perfected’ and ‘completed’ (la séparation achevée, the lapidary first words of the first chapter of The Society of the Spectacle). Bunyard thus distinguishes between Debord’s critique of this ‘modern’ ‘society of the spectacle’, and a broader, historically deeper ‘problematic’. Bunyard further contends that it is precisely the idea of the historical depth of the ‘spectacle’ that must lead one to consider that Debord was not merely appropriating Hegel in a similar fashion to Marx, but considered Hegel’s account of the travails of consciousness on its way to self-consciousness and absolute knowledge as an ‘inadvertent representation […] of the processual, self-determinate subject-object unity that would emerge through the supersession of contemporary society’s historical arrest’ (40). On this basis, Bunyard poses a clear analogy between Debord’s conception of the ‘praxis’ that will supplant this historical arrest in a post-capitalist society with Hegel’s conception of Absolute Knowledge – an analogy moreover that brings Debord closer to Lukács’ interpretation in History and Class Consciousness.

Bunyard’s approach is partially derived from the oft-neglected fifth and sixth chapters of The Society of the Spectacle, where Debord gives a compelling account of the development of historical time. Here, Debord presents an account of the ‘temporalisation of humanity’ and the ‘humanisation of time’ that clearly reflects both the influence of Hegel and the young Marx. Debord argues that it is only with the rise to dominance of a ruling class based on a division of labour in the ancient world that we get ‘surplus time’ away from the production of subsistence. At first such a ‘surplus’ is dominated by the rulers. Nonetheless, it signifies a qualitative leap from a previous circular and seasonally based conception and lifeway. Here also emerges the first intimations of an ‘irreversible time,’ further refined by the Abrahamic religions, and ultimately by the bourgeoisie. This ‘irreversible time’ for Debord offers the true possibility of freedom. Unfortunately, it becomes bourgeois: ‘the time of things’, of commodities. Freedom is split, separated and alienated in private and commercial life. The more ancient forms of temporal circularity remain in what Debord calls ‘pseudo’ forms, as the circular imposition of work and consumption at odds with the otherwise ‘irreversible time.’

In effect, Debord adapts Hegel’s historical progression of spirit from the perspective of ‘surplus time’ in successive class societies. In the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx similarly posed the progressive development of forms of private property. Such a so-called ‘transhistorical’ dialectic has fallen out of favour in recent decades. Indeed, Marx himself seems to repudiate its teleological excesses in his mature work (see the introductory chapter of the Grundrisse and his letter and draft letters to Vera Zasulich in 1881). Nonetheless, Debord does avoid the naïve teleology of Marxist orthodoxy, and the latter’s inspiration to be found in ‘the journey of the Hegelian Spirit toward its eventual encounter with itself’ (Debord 2014: §80).

The concern with time is one of the threads that run through the entirety of Debord’s work. Bunyard makes it abundantly clear that the ‘historical separation’ is a temporal rather than a spatial question. The idea of the ‘constructed situation’ which lay at the heart of the early situationist project was pointedly concerned with the immediate possibility of organising the present moment or situation beyond alienation. This vision of the transformation of ‘chance into a source of controlled creativity and potential’ (361) reflected in part the surrealist influence, though without the latter’s cult of the unconscious. The situationists proposed the rigorous planning of the initial conditions of a constructed situation, in marked opposition to the planned chaos of the capitalist social relation. However, beyond such determinations lay the play of chance and spontaneity, albeit in the context of the rules of the game, no matter how fleeting.

Instead of Hegel’s late Owl of Minerva, doomed to always arrive at dusk, Debord maintained that only by overcoming the lag of theoretical reflection upon its object could the separation inherent in a spectacular social order be overcome. Debord had famously said, in the wake of May 1968 and the movements it spurred, that revolutionaries should turn to the work of a ‘theory of historical action’ that drew more upon strategic thinkers like ‘Thucydides—Machiavelli—Clausewitz’ than ‘Hegel, Marx and Lautréamont’ (355). Bunyard argues that Debord was not repudiating the latter so much as extending and augmenting them: ‘strategic theory was in fact a form of Hegelian Marxism’ (356). In doing so, Debord was up to something like Marx when the latter spoke of standing Hegel’s dialectic ‘on its head’.

Which is not to say that the elimination of such a lag is always to be desired. Rather, the constitutive split between theory and practice in the capitalist present has, as its condition, practices which speak of the more profound divisions of management and execution, production and consumption, rulers and ruled – in a phrase, ‘those who organize space-time (together with their direct agents) and those who are subjected to that organization’ (SI 2006: 142). The situationist wager is that these spectacular hierarchies can only be overcome if theory becomes timely, of the passing moment, not timeless or merely post festum – at least in terms of revolutionary praxis. To that end a strategic theory of the moment became for Debord the model of a dialectical thought recovered beyond Hegel’s overly reflective, philosophical dialectic. Indeed, Bunyard’s discussion of the relationship between strategy and dialectics is one of the most intriguing aspects of his work.

There is something amiss, however, in Bunyard’s discussion of this constitutive ‘separation’ of theory and practice. Early in his work Bunyard ponders if he has rendered Debord ‘rather too Hegelian’ (40). However, he begs the reader’s indulgence insofar as his reconstruction of Debord’s theory is a somewhat speculative affair. His focus on the Hegelian Debord has, in one instance, obscured the Marxian one. From around 1961 Debord and the SI began to frame their rejection of particular intellectual separations and alienations in terms of ‘ideology’, more often than not with the following rider: ‘in Marx’s sense of the term’. This caveat served a twofold purpose: on the one hand, it differentiated the situationist use of the term from that of Marxist orthodoxy that tended to speak of ‘ideologies’ only in the plural, and whose pejorative sense was reserved for ‘bourgeois ideology’ as opposed to ‘proletarian’. The situationists, in part from their reading of Marx, and his appropriation of Feuerbach by way of Max Stirner, saw a distinct similarity between Marx’s early use of the term and their own concept of spectacle. Debord makes explicit this connection in The Society of the Spectacle (cf. the final chapter).

So it is curious that Bunyard neglects the explicit relationship Debord made between ‘separation’ and the ‘spectacle’ and Marx’s early conception of ‘ideology’. This is not to argue that Bunyard ignores the explicit content of what counts as ‘ideological’ in the sense that Debord defines it: ‘the abstract will to universality’ (Debord 2014: §213). Nonetheless, there is little appreciation of this relationship to be found in his work. This lacuna informs what comes dangerously close to a ‘situationist aesthetic’ that was explicitly repudiated by the situationists.

Bunyard writes that, ‘Debord’s desire to realise art and poetry in lived time […] led to an aestheticisation of time and temporal experience’ (363). Bunyard is, nonetheless, aware of the problems of the label ‘aesthetic’: ‘this aestheticisation of temporality could not be expressed or experienced in any form other than lived activity’, thus, ‘[t]here is no way in which instantiations of this aesthetic could be placed on a gallery wall’ (366). It is clear that Bunyard recognises that such an ‘aesthetic’ is distinct from that which poses an ‘aesthetic ideal’ associated with the production of art in capitalist societies. And yet he seems to implicitly reject the situationist disavowal of any and all aesthetics as an ideology in the above sense, insofar as he names the aim of the situationist project – at least insofar as it refers to the ‘realisation of art’ – an ‘aesthetic’. But this is only to acknowledge one moment in the proposed dialectical sublation of art, pithily summarised by the situationists thus: ‘When our perspectives are realized, aesthetics (as well as its negation) will be superseded’ (SI 2006: 186).

Bunyard’s mistake seems to flow from a confusion over the ‘aesthetic’ elements that the SI proposed to use in their speculative ‘unitary urbanist’ experiments, with the ultimate aim of the situationist project. It is unquestionable that Debord aestheticized time, particularly in his calmly evocative film work (consider only the at times melancholic In Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Igni, to which Bunyard devotes considerable attention). But as Debord reminded those confused over just such a question, despite having made films, he had ‘never made a situationist film’ (SI 2006: 115). The point being that in contrast to the production of art, or for that matter any work that perforce could be recuperated into the circuits of the production and reproduction of the capitalist social relation, ‘the revolutionary project […] can in no case produce an aesthetics because it is already entirely beyond the domain of aesthetics’ (Ibid: 394).

Bunyard appears to be on firmer ground when he raises the question of a situationist ethics, though acknowledging that the latter could ‘be seen to contradict the SI’s inherently anti-dogmatic stance’ (65). Against this, he maintains that a situationist ethics is nonetheless implicit in their practice, insofar as the latter imply a collective practice. More important to Bunyard though is the question of what this collective practice must necessarily be aimed at: the potential reappearance of spectacle as ‘a continual threat’ (66) faced by all social orders (even what we might call pre-spectacular orders, such as those that existed prior to or in the absence of hierarchical classes and exclusive property). In effect, Bunyard maintains that this threat is implicit in such an ethics or practice insofar as it has as its aim a non-spectacular order. One of the unfortunate upshots of such an argument is the potential for posing ‘spectacle’ as a transhistorical phenomenon. More work needs to be done here regarding the historical nature of what Bunyard calls the ‘problematic of spectacle’ (6).

Nonetheless, these problems are relatively minor matters considered from the perspective of what Bunyard has achieved, and so should not be mentioned without also acknowledging the rewarding detail that comes with perusing his book. Bunyard’s Debord, Time and Spectacle is an impressive contribution to the project of understanding and reconstructing the intellectual context of Debord’s critique of ‘the society of the spectacle’. It joins a small yet growing collection of works whose authors are justly set upon disinterring the works of Debord and the situationists from the neglect and misapprehensions of a society they sought to overturn.

Thanks to Gerald Keaney for comments and suggestions.

14 July 2022

References

  • Debord, Guy 2014 The Society of the Spectacle ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets).
  • Situationist International 2016 Situationist International Anthology: Revised and Expanded Edition ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets).

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