‘The society of the spectacle’ is a phrase that has passed, in France, and I suppose elsewhere, into common parlance. The recent death of Guy Debord has had a share in giving to his work of 1967, and to the Situationist trend of the sixties, a reputation as invaluable points of reference; some researchers, who are particularly interested in the history of images and representation, have seen a parallel between the works of Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord, or have thought that they fit into a logical sequence. When a friend recently wrote to me along these lines, I was led to answer him in order to clarify issues which seem to arise from a theoretical misunderstanding. It is these personal reflections that I propose to make available here. footnote1

Technology and religion, mechanization and spirituality: these are, it seems, the ‘rational core’ of our century, the decisive issue—and not ‘communism or capitalism’, ‘totalitarianism or freedom’, as our dominant intelligentsia have insisted for fifty years. In this respect, Walter Benjamin, as early as the thirties, was ahead of his time. Thirty years later, Debord was still stirring up our philosophical past—the froth rather than the substance. As one might expect, his German precursor adopted a less rhetorical tone, soberly focusing his analysis on the present and on various real objects: photography and panoramas, arcades and tramways, the museums and squares of Paris, and Biedermeier furniture. By contrast, the spokesman of the French arrièregardes took up a prophetic tone as the herald of a new age. What was truly radical in Benjamin’s approach was its changing of viewpoints and methods of observation; in the case of Debord, it was rather a formal effect, the form of the ‘Manifesto’, a remake of the posture of the Young Hegelians—the time is here, let us give back to man his own truth, our criticism will carry the revolution to its term.

The Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1967, should really bear the date 1841, the year of the first edition of The Essence of Christianity. This is true of both its syntax and vocabulary. Feuerbach provides not only an epigraph for Debord, but a ready-made structure for his argument. Recognition of this plagiarism is a generational matter, and I quite understand that it escapes the attention of the young. In the early sixties, graduate students and candidates for the agrégation who haunted the halls of the Sorbonne, we were all of us Feuerbachians, keen on the style of the ‘young Marx’. The disintegration of the old Marx has given his great elder, Feuerbach, an air of novelty. Today the ‘young Hegelian’ seems ‘postMarxist’ though, in conceptual terms, he is actually pre-Marxist. Let us excerpt at random two definitions: the life of societies as an ‘immense accumulation of spectacles’, and then, ‘the spectacle is not a set of images but a social relation between persons, mediated by images. . .’footnote2 For every two phrases in this cult book, one depends on a crib where it is placed opposite a translation of its own argument, but amnesia and the driving of Marx from later minds have erased the translation’s left column—with its original passages on money, capitalism, ideology and so on. . .lifted from the Manuscripts of 1844 and elsewhere, which everybody knew at the time.

The originality of The Society of the Spectacle was to bring together two banalities, overlaying the 1840s themes of alienation, absolutely unmodified, with 1960s objects—consumer society, culture, publicity. The encounter between the old stencil and the new artefact—or the shadow which it cast—doubtless produced the effect of reality, with existential resonances, but not an effect of real knowledge, bearing new insights. The plagiarism of the style, acknowledged in extremis—‘plagiarism is necessary’, says Debord in fragment 207—made it possible to hide from view the plagiarism of the thought, an old pharmaceutical technique.

What was it that The Essence of Christianity had to tell us? That the being of humanity had separated itself from its essence by projecting it onto God, the inverted mirror of actual humanity in which it venerates its own power turned against itself. Furthermore, that this generalized separation engendered religious illusion, an inverted profane content, a negation of the human wherein man affirms as other that which he denies in himself. But also that this illusion will come to an end once humanity, educated by criticism, rediscovers the truth inherent in its illusions, namely its own essence previously alienated in the fantastic form of God or ideology.

What does The Society of the Spectacle have to say? That market society has become separated from itself by alienating itself in spectacle, the inverted image of social reality, the ‘present model of life’ in which we venerate our own power turned against ourselves. That this generalized separation has engendered the all-inclusive spectacular, which is ‘the real world turned upside-down’ and the ‘visible negation of life’, a negation that, in its turn, subdues living persons for its own purposes. But also that this illusion will come to an end once the‘atomized crowd subjected to manipulations’ liberates itself by taking hold again of its own essence, which has been alienated in the fantastic form of spectacle or ideology.

Had nothing, then, taken place in history and philosophy between 1841 and 1967? Yes, sociology and the invention of electronic images. So one should write ‘society’ instead of ‘humanity’, and ‘spectacle’ instead of ‘ideology’. Except for this detail of phrasing, the ‘Situationist’ discourse follows word-for-word the tracks of Hegelianism: objectification, separation, negation, reversal, reversal of the reversal. Humanity’s liberation will come about through the reuniting of what was separated: the predicate and the subject. These stages are the scansion of a much-heralded odyssey that will see the exit from false consciousness and a return of the self to a tranquil joy, under the ‘concrete’ form of a democracy of workers’ councils: ‘the Council in which the theory of praxis regulates itself and beholds its own action’. Theory of practice: this appealing syntagma brushes aside trivial mediations—how a theory becomes practical is precisely the problem. This shrinking of contraries speaks of the faith one was able to maintain, ever since the time of that classical German pre-Marxist, in the virtues of strident declarative critical thinking. Practice for the Feuerbachians consisted in reading Feuerbach, who was finally going to deliver man—humanity in general—from his chains. As for Debord, it consisted of reading Debord, and the unrelenting excommunication of non-readers and bad readers, the conspirators of silence or distortion—for aside from a few of the elect, the rest of the world had taken up the call to gag the mouth of Truth. In both cases, it is only following a recognition, a reversal of the reversal, that men will be able to come back down to earth from heaven, overturning their love of God, of ideology, of the spectacle—these are equivalent terms—into a love of active and sentient humanity. In short, the tradition is safe.